Yoghurt

We’re now being told by scientists what our ancestors have known for thousands of years: namely, that live natural yoghurt is really good for you. It doesn’t really matter if you spell it yoghurt, yogurt, yoghourt or even joghurt, it’s healthy, tasty and we should eat more of it. The best bit is that you can make it at home for a fraction of the shop price with almost no effort at all. Once you have the base natural yoghurt you can flavour anyway you wish.

Yoghurt

To make 1.5 litres of natural yoghurt you need to start with 2 litres of milk and a 150g pot of live yoghurt. You can pick any brand you like as long as it contains live cultures. Since the resulting yoghurt will resemble the taste of the starter pot, it makes sense to pick one you like the flavour of. The beauty of making your own yoghurt is that the last 150g of the current batch can serve as the starter for the next. You can keep doing this until you find the flavour changing or experience difficulties getting the yoghurt to set. Low-fat milk is OK if you want but the results are better with normal milk. Some people even add cream!

Take the starter pot out of the fridge. Pour the milk into a large saucepan. The pan should not be more than one third full, in order to avoid the milk spilling all over the stove when it boils. Putting enough water to cover the bottom of the pan in first seems to help keep the milk from catching, but unless the pan is teflon-coated, you’ll still have a little scrubbing to do afterwards. Bring the milk to a boil and immediately reduce the heat very low, so that the milk barely simmers. Let the volume reduce to about 1.5 litres, which should take about 1 hour. Skim any thick skin that forms according to your own preferences: some cultures actually prize the bits of skin in the yoghurt. Transfer to a clean ceramic or glass bowl and let cool, again removing any thick skin.

Sterilise 2 750ml jars in a lowish (about 125°C) for 20 minutes of so. Leave to cool so that you can handle them. Judging when the milk has cooled sufficiently is the only tricky part of making yoghurt. If it’s still too warm it will kill the yoghurt culture and if it’s too cold, the yoghurt will take forever to set. Generally a little over body temperature is a good target. If you hold the bowl in your hands and it feels only barely warm, then that’s good. Other people say that once they can comfortably hold their finger in the milk for 10 seconds then it’s at the right temperature. You can even consult the literature and measure the perfect temperature using a thermometer! Anyway, I find that it takes about an hour at room temperature.

Add the starter yoghurt and stir well. Pour into the jars, wrap these up snug in a warm place for about 8 hours or overnight. The airing cupboard or hot press is suitable and an old sleeping bag works well for keeping the heat in. Next morning transfer the jars to the fridge. You can leave the yoghurt longer if you prefer a tarter taste. The yoghurt will keep for around 2 weeks.

Crème fraîche

The tangy taste of crème fraîche makes it very versatile in the kitchen. If you can’t get your hands on some, it is possible to make a pretty good substitute in a similar manner to yoghurt. Bring 250ml of whipping cream (about 40% fat) to a boil and let bubble for a 30 seconds or so. Let it cool to just over body temperature and add about 30g of live yoghurt. Stir well and transfer to a sterilised jar. Place in a warm place for 24 hours and then keep in the fridge. It is not quite as thick or tangy as real crème fraîche but it’s still a good substitute and will keep for around 2 weeks.

Broccoli Stalk Soup

Ever wondered what to do with those leftover broccoli stalks when your recipe only calls for the florets? Well, as befits the times we are currently experiencing, this simple soup gives you a delicious means of doing so. Despite the humble ingredients, the soup is rich tasting and sophisticated enough to serve at any dinner party. One supermarket chain near us gives customers a small hacksaw to chop the stalks from broccoli crowns. It’s a bit like people only wanting chicken breasts and discarding the legs and wings. So far, I haven’t plucked up the courage the ask the shop if I could take stalks off their hands.

I’ve left the type of stock up to yourself. If you want a vegetarian version, use a vegetable stock: otherwise use a nice chicken stock. If you can’t get crème fraîche, you can use sour cream. I have specified white pepper, but this is mainly for aesthetic reasons, as this does not leave specks in the finished soup but don’t worry too much if you’ve only got black pepper: the flavour won’t be affected.

Note: You can also make a similar soup from cauliflower or asparagus stalks.

Summary

Makes: 4 generous portions
Preparation: 5 mins
Cooking: 20 mins

Ingredients

4
1 litre
25g
Broccoli stalks (about 500g)
Stock
Butter
Salt
Fresh white pepper
Crème fraîche
Chives to garnish

Method

Trim the dry ends and cut the stalks into small chunks. Place in a medium saucepan with the stock and add the butter. Crack a little white pepper into the pan. If you know that your stock is not salty you can add a little salt now, but it’s better to leave the main seasoning until the end.

Cover the pan and bring to the boil. Then turn down the heat and simmer gently until the broccoli is soft (about 20 mins). Liquidise the soup and adjust the seasoning. A tablespoon of white wine vinegar can also be added to give more depth. Put back on the heat to bring up the temperature for serving.

Serve in warmed bowls with a blob of crème fraîche, which helps to cut the richness, and garnish with chopped chives.

Here’s a link to a delicious chilled version for the summer.

Penne Arriabbiata

Classic southern Italian dish. Rich and fiery. It’s quick to make and tastes so much better than the stuff from the jar. Note also that despite what non-Italians seem to think, there is no cream in this dish. It’s rich enough with the oil and garlic. Although the quantities of these seem large, they really make the sauce and if you cut down, you only have a wishy-washy tomato sauce. You’ll notice that there seems to be very little sauce for the quantity of pasta but this is typical of Italian pasta sauces: the idea is to generously coat the pasta, not have the pasta swimming in a pool of sauce. This recipe scales easily but be careful with the bird’s eye chillies: they vary in heat and their effect is not always proportional to their amount. You can always adjust the amount next time if you don’t have enough heat, but your dinner guests may never forgive you if you burn the mouth out of them!

Note: You can make a non-vegetarian variation by adding some fried bacon strips or similar at the very end.

Summary

Makes: 4 mains, 6 starters
Preparation: 10 mins
Cooking: about 30 mins

Ingredients

500g
1
6 cloves
5
75ml
500g
Tomato passata
Medium onion
Garlic
Bird’s eye chillies (!!!)
Good olive oil
Penne rigate

Method

Chop the onions finely. Chop the garlic very finely or use a garlic crusher. Break up the chillies.

Pour the olive oil into a medium saucepan and place over a medium heat. There should be enough oil to comfortably cover the bottom of the pan. Don’t be tempted into using too small a pan as the sauce can spit a bit later. Generally, the saucepan should not get more than a quarter full when making the sauce.

When the oil starts to get hot, which you can tell by the fact that it becomes fragrant, add the onions and chillies, followed a minute or so later by the garlic. Fry until the onions are soft but not brown, about 5 minutes. Add the passata, mix and bring to the point of boiling. Then turn down the heat very low and let the sauce simmer gently uncovered, stirring occasionally.

Place a large pot containing 5 litres of salted water onto a high heat. When boiling add the penne. Reduce the heat a little but ensure that the pot is still boiling. The time depends on the pasta and you should refer to the instructions with the pack, but 10 minutes is a good guideline to start testing for dried pasta and about 4 minutes for fresh pasta.

When the pasta is done al dente, drain and return to the pot. Add the sauce, which by now should be lovely and thick, since most of the water will have evaporated, and mix well.

Serve immediately in warmed shallow bowls. Pasta doesn’t wait!

Tomato & Walnut Salad with Pomegranate Dressing

I came across this Turkish salad in the excellent Moro cookbook. Walnuts feature a lot in Turkish cuisine, as does pomegranate molasses, although this is even more common in Persian dishes. The dish is simple to prepare: just make sure the tomatoes are ripe, in any case riper than those in the photo. Pomegranate molasses can be found in most Middle Eastern food shops: the Iranian 1 & 1 brand is very good. You can substitute ingredients in many dishes but I haven’t come across anything else quite like pomegranate molasses. It’s worth looking for and a bottle keeps for ages.

Summary

Preparation: 10mins
Serves: 4

Ingredients

500g
100g
4 tbsp
1 tbsp
2 tbsp
4 tbsp
1
Pinch
Ripe cherry tomatoes
Walnut halves
Flat leaved parsley
Water
Pomegranate molasses
Good olive oil
Small clove of garlic crushed
Cinnamon
Salt and pepper to taste


Method

Wash the cherry tomatoes, halve and transfer to a bowl. Unless you are lucky enough to be able to get fresh walnuts, it’s best to blanch them in boiling water for a minute or so to remove any trace of bitterness, then rinse under the cold tap to bring back to room temperature. Put in the bowl with the tomato halves. Chop the parsley and add to the bowl too.

Next prepare the dressing by combining the water, pomegranate molasses, olive oil, garlic, cinnamon, salt and pepper with a whisk or similar until well blended. Add to the bowl with the tomatoes and mix gently until everything is nicely coated.

Serve immediately with some bread to mop up the dressing.

Piquillo Pepper, Preserved Lemon and Caper Salad

Piquillo Pepper, Preserved Lemon and Caper Salad

This great salad is based on a North-African recipe presented by Claudia Roden in her book Arabesque. Her version used plain roasted red peppers but I find the flavour of the Piquillo peppers adds a new dimension to the dish. These peppers come from northern Spain and after roasting over a wood fire are peeled and preserved in cans. They have a complex slightly smoky and very slightly spicy flavour. You won’t find them in the supermarket but you should be able to source them from Spanish delis or other specialist food shops. As mentioned above, if you can’t find them, don’t panic, just substitute roasted red peppers. Preserved lemons are used extensively in North-African cuisine and have a very distinctive, but non-lemony, flavour. Try to use capers preserved in salt as these tend to have a better texture than those in brine or vinegar.

Summary

Preparation: 10mins

Ingredients (per person)

4
1
1tsp
Piquillo peppers
Preserved lemon
Capers
Good olive oil
Flat-leaved parsley Pepper

Method

Open out the piquillo peppers flat and cut into four or so strips. You can save a bit of time by cutting them while they are still whole, but just be careful to remove any rogue seeds. Make sure to keep any juice that is present. Place the peppers along with any captured juice into a bowl. Quarter the preserved lemons and remove the flesh. Cut the remaining skins into small squares. Place the preserved lemon, along with the capers into a sieve and rinse under the cold tap to remove excess salt. Transfer the lemon and capers to the bowl with the peppers.

Add a little olive oil, to ensure the ingredients are nicely coated. The amount will depend on how much juice you got from the peppers, but keep it to the minimum. Season with freshly-ground pepper. You won’t need any salt due the the saltiness of the lemons and capers.

Serve sprinkled with freshly-chopped parsley.