Thai Cucumber Relish/Thai Cucumber Salad

cucrelish2pAfter buying David Thompson’s inspiring Thai Food I became more serious about Thai cooking. I visit sometimes three shops to make sure I have all the necessary fresh herbs and seasoning, I discover flavours I had never dreamt of and, most of all, I make now all the curry pastes from the scratch. This change was the biggest breakthrough, since curries is what I appreciate most in Thai cuisine. With all the efforts I put into their preparation, a quick and versatile side-dish was what I seriously lacked. The recipe had to be made with the products I usually stock or can buy downstairs and I found the perfect solution in Thai Street Food, another book by David Thompson. This delicious cucumber relish/salad has an obvious Thai touch, but contains ingredients I almost constantly keep in my kitchen (and, I guess, many of those of you who cook Asian food), but, most of ll, it is perfect with every single curry I’ve made.

I found three very similar versions of cucumber relish in Thai Street Food and chose to present you the one with the shortest ingredients list. It is supposed to go with pork satay, but I’ve paired it successfully with other meats and seafood too. I have kept all the ingredients from David Thompson’s recipe, but instead of Thai vinegar, I used Japanese vinegar, slightly changed the amounts and cut down on sugar content because the brine was simply too sweet for me. Check the original recipe in David Thompson’s Thai Street Food, a fascinating and inspiring cookery book.

Preparation: about 15 minutes

Ingredients (serves two if it’s the only side-dish):

1/2 long cucumber

3 Asian shallots (I have used two European shallots instead)

1/4 fresh long red chilli

1 tablespoon chopped coriander leaves

Brine:

4 tablespoons white vinegar

2 tablespoons white sugar

salt (to taste; the author advises 1/2 teaspoon)

several tablespoons water

First prepare the brine. Combine the ingredients and bring to a boil.

Put aside and let cool.

In the meantime slice the shallots, chop finely the chilli.

Cut the cucumber in four lengthwise and then slice it.

When the brine is completely cool, combine it with the remaining ingredients and serve.

 

Mock Spanakopita Rolls with Wild Garlic (Filo Rolls with Feta and Wild Garlic)

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Greek spinach or spinach and feta pie is one of the rare vegetarian dishes I am truly fond of. I have recently discovered it tastes even better if made with baby spinach. Since its season corresponds to wild garlic’s, I simply changed the leaves and made a mock garlicky spanakopita (or rather mock spanakotiropita, as I learnt from Katerina). I don’t know if wild garlic is popular in Greece and whether my Greek visitors would approve of such a modification, but for a garlic fan like me these strong-flavoured snacks were a sensational discovery. Wild garlic and feta proved to be perfect companions and the flavours were so complex, no one would ever believe the filling includes only four ingredients with ground pepper as the sole seasoning.

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If you have never heard about wild garlic (Allium ursinum), also called ramsons, ramps or bear’s garlic, it’s a plant growing in the forest or nearby with long wide leaves (see above, but Wikipedia should have better photographs), which are unfortunately similar to toxic lily of the valley leaves. An olfactory test is however a  very easy method avoiding confusion: wild garlic smells of… garlic and the aroma is really strong. In Europe wild garlic’s season lasts at least from April to May (sometimes it stretches, depending on the temperature and the region), so it’s quite short. I don’t know if it can be grown, but I have never heard about cultivated plants, so consumers are limited to this very short  period.

Wild garlic grows in many European countries, but strangely it’s not popular everywhere (unfortunately there are countries where it’s a protected plant and picking is forbidden, so check your country’s regulations before foraging). It is usually used in warm dishes (cooked, fried, baked, etc.) or mixed (such as in the below pesto I posted). I have never tried freezing it, but it dries very well and keeps its wonderful aroma. The dried form can be used as seasoning in many dishes; for example in Switzerland, where wild garlic is very popular, a supermarket chain has recently started to sell sausages seasoned with dried wild garlic and I find it an excellent idea.

I have adapted here the fresh and unique spanakopita recipe from Katerina’s Culinary Flavours, a beautifully written blog, full of inspiring dishes and featuring not only Greek cuisine. The process of squashing spinach instead of cooking it is an extremely ingenious idea I discovered at Katerina’s blog. As well ass adding cracked wheat to absorb humidity. I have been using both with real spanakopita and I have also practiced it here with wild garlic (obviously with equally satisfactory results).

If you get hold of fresh wild garlic and wonder what to do with it, here are some suggestions:

Chicken with Wild Garlic and Cashew Nuts

Chicken with Wild Garlic and Cashew Nuts

Wild Garlic Pillows

Wild Garlic Pillows

Wild Garlic Pesto

Wild Garlic Pesto

TIP: Most of you have eaten feta many times, but have you ever had feta made with both sheep and goat milk? (Most of feta is made with sheep’s milk). According to Wikipedia such a cheese can still bear “feta” name and the Greek sheep & goat milk feta I buy is the best I have ever had. I strongly encourage you to taste such a variety of feta if you find it.

Preparation: about 1 hour

Ingredients (makes 6 rolls):

6 sheets of filo pastry

200 g feta cheese, crumbled

1 egg

2 big handfuls of chopped wild garlic leaves (with or without stalks)

1 flat tablespoon cracked wheat (you can use semolina instead, but I prefer cracked wheat)

black pepper

Preheat the oven to 180°C.

Put the chopped wild garlic leaves into a bowl and squash them with your hands until the volume is reduced. Crumble the drained feta into a bowl. Add the chopped wild garlic, cracked wheat and some ground black pepper, stir well and with a spoon divide into 6 equal portions (this will make the filo sheets filling process much easier).

Spread one filo sheet on a big chopping board.

Place horizontally, about 2,5 cm/1 in. from the filo sheet’s shorter edge which is closest to you, a portion of feta and wild garlic mixture.

Roll tightly but delicately, starting from the edge which is closest to you, folding the two lateral edges into the roll, so that the filling doesn’t leak during the baking process (I have folded here about 3 cm/about 1,2 inch on each side).

Proceed in the same way with the remaining rolls.

Brush the top of the rolls with some oil or melted butter, place on a baking tray or baking paper and bake in the oven until slightly golden (about 30 minutes in mine). Watch them often as they tend to burn quite quickly.

 

Madras Fish Curry

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With this curry you needn’t worry about fat content, calories or a – typically Indian – neverending list of ingredients. The recipe is so simple, I was surprised the short cooking process turned my rather bland fish fillets into a fantastic, beautifully scented Indian treat.

Having tested already several dishes from Rick Stein’s India. In Search of the Perfect Curry, I should have known that, like always, I wouldn’t be disappointed this time. His book has completely changed my – apparently false – idea of the place this category of products occupies in Indian cuisine and encouraged to explore more from this fascinating, well developped chapter. His Squid Curry (posted here) was and still is one of the most delicious Indian and in general seafood dishes I have ever had. Contrary to squid, fish curry is something easily found on restaurants’ menu, but it has always seemed the most neglected dish. Nominated by the author as his favourite curry, this tangy dish proves that not only a fish Indian dish can be genuinely exciting, but it can also become a staple light and quick weekday meal.

As usually, I have slightly modified the recipe, so check Rick Stein’s book to read the original.

TIPS: Fresh curry leaves can be difficult to obtain for many of you, but if you have a possibility to buy them, do not hesitate: their powerful pungent aroma makes this curry unforgettable. At worst you can use dried or frozen leaves, but do not expect a similar strength. I don’t think there is a substitute for curry leaves, so if you cannot get them, just skip them.

While curry leaves are sold in Indian or Pakistani grocery shops, tamarind paste can be find in Chinese/Vietnamese shops too and, in general, it should be much more easier to obtain.

Keep on tasting the dish and adjust the acidity: I found myself adding much more tamarind paste than advised because somehow tangy sauce went better with this fish.

Tamarind is sold in three forms (from what I have noticed): fresh (I have never used), plastic-wrapped blocks, which are diluted in hot water and then strained to obtain a “juice” or ready-to-use pastes (jam consistency) in jars. I prefer blocks because they keep for years and are tangier. (See below how to use them.) Tamarind pastes/jams are ready to use but since I stopped using them a long time ago I have no idea which amount corresponds to the below tamarind “juice”, so if you use this form, keep on tasting and adjust to your preferences.

Preparation: about 30 minutes

Ingredients (serves 4 if served only with rice and a vegetable side-dish):

700 g (about 1,5 oz) firm fish fillets or whole fish chunks, cut into big pieces (the author suggests oily fish as the best, but my lean fish fillets were also delicious)

a 4 cm square of tamarind block

3 tablespoons oil

1 big onion

3 big garlic cloves, crushed or grated

1 tablespoon yellow mustard seeds

1 tablespoon Kashmiri chilli powder (or any chilli powder you have)

1 tablespoon powdered coriander

1 tablespoon turmeric

30 fresh curry leaves

400 g (about 14 oz) canned tomatoes or fresh chopped tomatoes or chunky tomato sauce

2 very hot green chillies or 4 medium hot

salt to taste

Put the tamarind block square into a glass or bowl and pour about 150 ml boiling water over it. Stir well until it dissolves more or less and put aside. (If you have tamarind paste/jam, start with one tablespoon and then adjust the taste; I have no idea how much of this product should be used).

Chop the onion.

Salt slightly the fish fillets or chunks.

Cut the small chillies lengthwise into thin strips or if they are bigger, into diagonal slices.

Give the tamarind liquid a good stir and strain, pressing to a fine strainer.

Heat the oil in a pan and fry the mustard seeds for 30 seconds.

Add the onion and stir fry for about 5 minutes.

Add the garlic and stir fry until the onion becomes light golden (make sure none of them burns).

Add the ground spices (chilli powder, coriander, turmeric) and the curry leaves.

Stir fry for about 1 or 2 minutes (you might need to add some oil here if the spices stick too much).

Add the strained 100 ml of tamarind “juice”, the tomatoes, the chillies and season with salt.

Let the sauce simmer for 10 more minutes.

Adjust the flavours (adding more tamarind juice if needed).

Place the fish delicately on top. Cover and cook until the fish is ready (5-10 minutes).

Serve.

 

Spicy Korean Mung Bean Sprout Salad

ssproutsaladI would have immensely enjoyed sharing with you my very recent memories of the fantastic lamb roast I made during Easter holidays… Unfortunately, no matter how much I tried, there was no way I could make it look less disgusting, not to mention attractive, so maybe some other day… In the meantime, I would like to talk about one of the most delicious things I have ever made with mung bean sprouts. This salad might not look like the most exciting dish in the world, but at least it bears some resemblance to its main ingredient, the thing I couldn’t have said about my poor roast…

I like and eat mung bean sprouts for several reasons. First of all  they are one of those products always grown indoors and, as such, have no real season, so I can enjoy them throughout the year. Moreover, they are one of my favourite light and healthy “fillers” in spring rolls, filo rolls, stir fries, noodles and various mixed salads. I have recently discovered thanks to Hi Soo Shin Hepinstall’s mild sprout salad they are also delicious as the main ingredient of a cold side-dish. This fiery, but otherwise very similar salad also comes from Hi Soo Shin Hepinstall’s Growing Up in A Korean Kitchen, a fascinating and very personal cookery book.

As usually, I have proceeded to some modifications. First of all, this recipe is designed for soybean sprouts, which are much more difficult to find for me, but luckily quite similar in texture to mung bean sprouts. Unlike the author, I didn’t boil the sprouts for two minutes, but only blanched them for about 30 seconds because I wanted them to remain more crisp. I have also slightly modified the amounts and the way of using spring onion, so check Growing Up in a Korean Kitchen to read the original recipe.

TIPS:

Do not forget to wash thoroughly mung bean or soybean sprouts before eating, just like you would proceed with any other vegetable. Apparently, recent serious intoxications some of you have probably read about might have been avoided by a simple thorough washing process, but many people considered this clean-looking product not worth the effort…

If you have never used sesame oil, I advise buying it in a Japanese or Korean shop (or maybe simply Asian). The only time I bought a bottle of good quality, cold-pressed organic sesame oil made in Europe I discovered something I dislike so much I still wonder how to use it (and it wasn’t rancid). I think Asian sesame oil is made from roasted, not raw, sesame seeds.

This salad is apparently served both at room temperature and very cold. I prefer it cold, so I have quickly rinsed the blanched sprouts in very cold water. If you want to serve it at room temperature, skip this step.

I would define Korean chilli powder as medium hot (it is not as hot as for example the powder used in Indian cuisine). It is slightly sweet in taste and its texture is flaky, so it’s often called “chilli flakes” instead of “powder”. If you use very hot chilli powder, cut it with mild chilli powder.

The author suggests either chilli threads or chilli powder here. Since I only had the latter, I have no idea what the taste difference will be, but chilli threads will certainly be more beautiful.

Preparation: about 20 minutes

Ingredients (serves two):

150 g soybean or mung bean sprouts

2 teaspoons low-sodium soy sauce

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1 small clove garlic, grated or crushed

freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds

1 teaspoon Korean chilli powder (flakes)

1 green onion stalk, chopped and separated into the white part and green part (you can also use chives if you don’t have spring onions)

You don’t need to do this, but try trimming the ends of sprouts. It does make a difference.

Wash the sprouts thoroughly.

Blanch them in boiling water for 30 seconds and then immediately rinse them with very cold water. Drain.

Combine the sprouts, the sesame oil, the garlic, the black pepper, the white part of the green onion and the soy sauce.

Put into a serving bowl.

Sprinkle with sesame seeds, the chilli powder and green part of the spring onion.

Baby Spinach Salad with Sesame Seeds

spinachsalad_Recently I have been leafing through my old recipe notebook I had used for long years before the existence of this blog. I was surprised – and even shocked – to see so many fantastic but forgotten recipes. This simple salad of Asian inspiration is one of the many dishes I regret not having made for such a long time. I have no idea when and where I found this recipe, but I remember I used to prepare it already ten years ago. At the time raw spinach leaves were a completely novelty to me and most people I knew, not to mention toasted sesame seeds or the presence of soy sauce in the vinaigrette. All this made such a salad appear utterly exotic. Nowadays, raw young spinach leaves seem as natural as a lettuce, while sesame seeds and soy sauce have become a staple in my kitchen, but I’m glad I dug out this old recipe because I still enjoy the mixture of flavours as much as I did ten years ago.

TIPS:

When I prepared this salad ten years ago I certainly didn’t have rice vinegar or sesame oil, but since now I use both products regularly, I wanted to see if they would improve the taste. And they did. If you don’t have either of them, use any oil you like and any vinegar you have.

It is very important to toast the sesame seeds just before sprinkling them onto spinach leaves. It improves the flavours greatly and adds a lovely toasted aroma “old” toasted seeds no longer give.

The ratio of the vinaigrette’s ingredients is the one I prefer. Taste it and adjust to your own preferences (obviously, if using normal soy sauce, you might prefer to use a smaller amount).

Preparation: 15 minutes

Ingredients (serves two):

2 big handfuls of young (baby) spinach leaves

1 tablespoon (or more) white sesame seeds (not toasted)

Sesame vinaigrette:

low sodium soy sauce+sesame oil+rice vinegar in 1:1:1 ratio

freshly ground black pepper

Wash and dry the spinach leaves.

Place the sesame seeds at the bottom of a clean pan.

Warm the pan at low heat and when the seeds start to pop, cover the pan, wait ten more seconds and put aside.

Place the spinach leaves in a big bowl.

Pour the vinaigrette on them and stir delicately, coating all the leaves.

Transfer to a serving bowl.

Sprinkle with freshly toasted sesame seeds and serve.