As a cookery writer it is easy to get caught up in the avalanche of food trends, exotic ingredients and new gadgets rushing at me from me via social media. Whilst I am normally complicit with the wonder that is our digital world; there are times when I look to step back and bask in the warmth of simplicity. Tonight was such a time.
A heathens arrabiatta
Crush two cloves of garlic. Chop fresh chilli, chorizo and any spare courgette/aubergine/mushrooms knocking about in the fridge. Fry in good quality olive oil.
Tip over a tin of chopped tomatoes, a sprinkling of sugar and whichever herbs you wish. I had wild oregano and bay to hand. Simmer until thick and unctuous. Boil your pasta.
When the pasta is almost ready take a few spoonfuls of the cooking water and use it to slacken your sauce to the desired consistency. Toss with the pasta and enjoy in the last of the days sunshine.
There is nothing new except that which is forgotten
I have chosen a History Girls favourite to launch this series combining modern food trends with historical recipes. The demand for reduced sugar, healthy snacks continues to rise; as does the use of dried fruits, nuts and seeds within the diet and exercise industry. In the vein that nothing is new, let me introduce you to the original energy snack.
Ancient Egyptian Tiger Nuts
Consisting of a mix of dried fruits, almonds, honey and sometimes sesame seeds, Tiger Nuts date back to 1400 BC. They are named after the edible tuber of Cyperus grass, a commonly used plant native to ancient Egypt. The ingredients can be found engraved into stone tablets of the era and are referenced in the Old Testament story of Joseph and his eleven brothers. Many components of this simple recipe were expensive food stuffs at the time; with honey revered as a food of the Gods and only available to the extremely wealthy.
A few food facts
Dates are high in dietary fibre, iron, potassium and contain good levels of vitamin A.
Figs contain soluble fibre, potassium, magnesium, iron and are excellent sources of vitamins A, E and K.
Almonds are rich in mono-unsaturated fatty acids – which can be helpful in lowering bad cholesterol levels – and supply you with healthy Vitamin E and B-Complex vitamins.
The secret of these goodness packed little mouthfuls is their simplicity. The ingredients are not cheap but you can make quite a lot in one batch and store them almost indefinitely in an air tight container. They never last long in our house though!
250g dried dates
100g ready to eat figs
75g sliced or chopped almonds
Honey to bind
Toasted sesame seeds to coat (optional)
Rough chop the dates and figs and combine with the almonds in a large bowl. Squeeze in a small amount of honey and use your hands to bring all of the ingredients together. Add more honey as you need to but try not to make the mixture overly sticky. Form small amounts into balls about the size of a walnut, pressing together with your fingers and rolling between the palms of your hands as you go.
Lay out onto a baking tray and leave to air dry overnight. Pack away and store in a cool, dry place.
Cinnamon, cumin, coriander or aniseed can be added by those who wish to spice things up and they are also quite delicious rolled in toasted sesame seeds.
In addition to an abundance of soft fruit, July also heralds the verdant arrival of fresh herbs. A far cry from the dry, sawdust filled jars of my childhood, modern home cooks can now add a plethora of bright flavours to their dishes.
Beyond the ubiquitous basil of an Italian pasta or spicy coriander in a handmade curry, many cooks still report a lack of confidence when utilising herbs in their repertoire. On top of adding depth and complexity to an otherwise simple dish, herbs are often packed with numerous vitamins and minerals required for a healthy diet. This month’s ‘In Focus’ thread concentrates on how to get the best out of this powerhouse ingredient.
Herby Mixed Grain Salad
The mixed grains give a nuttier texture to this salad and many combinations are available in supermarkets or health food stores. Mine contained emmer, barley, durum wheat and buckwheat as well as red and black rice. You can replace the mixed grains with extra 85g of couscous if feels easier. Delicious served warm with steamed fish or cool to room temperature and add the watercress and radish for a satisfying vegetarian lunch.
90g quick cook mixed grains
Half a chicken stock cube
Small handful of green beans
A good handful each of flat leaf parsley, mint and dill
One small courgette
Peel and juice of 1 lemon
Slug of cold pressed rapeseed oil
Salt and pepper to taste
80 – 100g bunch of watercress (optional)
8 – 12 chopped radishes (optional)
Put the quick cook mixed grains and half a stock cube in a pan and cover with boiling water. Cook according to pack instructions.
Top and the tail the green beans. Add to the pan around 7-8 minutes before the grains are due to be cooked.
Finely chop the herbs and dice the raw courgette. Put to one side. Pour your couscous into a heat proof dish and season with a pinch of salt and pepper. Add the zest of half a lemon and a good slug of the rapeseed oil. Combine well.
Once the grains are cooked and the green beans al dente, drain and keep the cooking water.
Take your heatproof bowl and just cover the couscous with the reserved water from earlier. Top up with hot water from your kettle if required. Leave until the water is fully absorbed and you can fluff the couscous up with a fork.
Prepare to assemble the salad. In a large dish combine the grains, green beans, couscous, herbs and diced courgette. If serving at room temperature toss with the watercress and scatter on the crunchy radishes before serving.
Tips for buying and using herbs
Buy what you need and no more if you can. Most summer herbs don’t keep well in the fridge. If you use a particular herb on a regular basis then you can find a great selection of healthy plants at your local garden centre.
Look to other cultures for herb based inspiration. Dill can be found running through Ukrainian and Norwegian recipes, whilst the combination of parsley, mint, garlic and lemon is the linchpin of Middle Eastern salads.
Don’t be scared of big flavours. Experiment. What’s the worse that can happen?