Monday 22 August 2011

Floral treats

I’ve always know that courgette flowers were edible but never been quite sure what to do with them. However, following the success of the artichoke fritters (link), and an allotment full of flowering squash, I thought it was high time to make more use of more of the plants. Sifting through various recipe sources, a few golden rules became clear. A stuffing for the flowers shouldn’t be overpowering in flavour, and also needs to cook through quickly – the flowers themselves will deep-fry in one to two minutes. The flowers shouldn’t be overstuffed – they’re fragile and you don’t want them bursting open in the pan. In the end I decided on a herby ricotta mixture and added lemon zest for fragrance. With a delicate combination for the flowers themselves I thought the dish could take a more punchy accompaniment and chopped up a fresh salsa with mint leaves added.

The batter used to coat the stuffed flowers varied quite a bit but all of them leaned towards a tempura-style batter so I decided to use my default tempura batter mix.

The resulting dish was pronounced delicious by everyone. It’s particularly pleasing for the cook as it has that indefinable air of showiness about it, as though you’ve done something very clever. Yet it’s simplicity itself and also given that the flowers are picked more as a by-product of the courgette plants, I get the satisfying feeling that somehow it is food for free.

Deep-fried courgette flowers with fresh minty salsa
Serves 4

8 courgette or squash flowers
Vegetable oil for deep frying

For the stuffing:
250g ricotta
Zest of two lemons
1 tbsp marjoram leaves
2 teasps thyme leaves

For the batter:
125g self-raising flour
100g cornflour
1 teasp vegetable oil
Chilled (ie, from the fridge) sparkling mineral water

For the salsa:
2 large tomatoes
1 sweet Spanish onion
½ teasp salt
Handful mint leaves, chopped fine
Lime juice to taste

Pick flowers that have fully opened and are in perfect condition. You also want to use them as fresh as possible, ideally straight after picking, but they can be stored in the fridge in a sealed container for a day or so.
Carefully clip out the stamens in the centre of the flower (I use a pair of manicure scissors with slightly curved blades) and trim the stalk to about an inch or so.
To make the salsa, chop the tomatoes into evenly sized dice. Chop the onion finely. Toss in a bowl with the sweet onion, and mint add the salt and lime juice to taste. Leave for half an hour for the flavours to mingle.
To make the stuffing, finely grate the zest from two lemons and add to the ricotta in a bowl. Strip the thyme leaves from their stalks. Chop the marjoram leaves finely and add both herbs to the ricotta. Mash the ricotta, lemon and herb until it’s smooth and creamy and add a little salt and pepper to taste.
Spoon about a dessertspoon of stuffing into each courgette flower. The amount will vary according to the size of each flower, but you don’t want to overstuff them or they will burst. Gently close the petals over the ricotta mix to make a little parcel out of each one.
To make the batter, put the flour into a large bowl, add a generous pinch of  salt and the vegetable oil, then pour a little sparkling water in a whisk lightly with a fork. Keep pouring and whisking until the batter has the consistency of double cream (not the extra thick kind). At a guess it’s about 200ml of sparkling water. It doesn’t matter if there are a few floury lumps in the mixture.
Pour the vegetable oil into a deep-sided pan and heat to 180 degrees Celsius – ideally using a thermometer. When the right temperature is reached, turn the heat down, and holding the courgette flowers by the stalk, dip and twirl them in the batter one at a time. Then drop into the pan and deep fry each one for about 2-3 minutes until the batter begins to turn golden at the edges. Lift out of the oil with tongs or a slotted spoon and rest on kitchen paper to drain off any excess oil. It’s easiest to fry on batches.
Serve two deep-fried courgette flowers per person, along with the salsa.

Sunday 14 August 2011

Beans, blue cheese and cider

Home from Asturias, that enclave of Spain known, improbably enough, for beans, blue cheese and cider, all to be eaten and drunk to a backdrop of mountains and forests of fig, eucalyptus and sweet chestnut. This is Spain's north-facing coast, the Costa Verde, named for its lush vegetation, since it rains pretty consistently between October and April. In between times, the locals hope the sun shines, because when it does, this is heaven on earth.

It has over 200 beaches nearly all of which are either spectacular and/or delightful. With clear water, pretty little coves nestle under cliffs alternate with long sands over which the surf rolls relentlessly in. It’s reminiscent of Cornwall, until you turn your gaze inland to the mighty backdrop of the 6,000ft Picos de Europa. Even the foothills are dramatic enough.
The Picos, which straddle Asturias, Cantabria to the east and the northern edge of Castilla y Leon, are the reason the Moors never made it into Asturias: the principality is Celtic in heritage and tradition.

So while you can enjoy a glass or two of wine from nearby Rioja, or neighbouring Galicia (the flowery white Alborino in particular slips down beautifully at sundown after a day on the beach), the locals drink cider. Sidrerias – cider houses – are everywhere, serving the local sidra by the bottle, and usually complete with a special machine for pouring it. This cider is flat, like scrumpy, and your glass should only be filled with about an inch of sidra   at a time, poured from a great height in order to aerate the drink and give it a bit of a fizz. Pouring can be done by a skilled waiter – to tell just how skilled, see if he is looking at the target glass while he pours (beginner), or whether he is carrying on his conversation over one shoulder while looking the other way (expert). In many establishments you’ll be treated to this high-pouring floorshow for your first taste and then left with your bottle of cider attached to a little machine which will aerate the drink for you.

Sidrerias tend to be good places to eat too, and to go with your cider, Spanish bread is always good. Rick Stein was spot on about that when he visited the area for his TV show. The seafood is always superb, sparkling fresh from the day’s catch. Particularly worth looking for on the menu are plain steamed mussels (mejillones), grilled razor clams (navajas), large juicy prawns (gambas), and anything to do with crab (centollos, or the little blue crabs called necoras, or the magnificently named buey del mar - the ox of the sea). If you like calamares, try smalled squid grilled whole (chipirones), or the larger cuttlefish (sepia). If you’re keen on whitebait, there are a wealth of small fish available to eat whole such as parrochas – which are more sardine sized) or boquerones (anchovies, often marinated).

Away from seafood, every establishment serving food will offer fabada Asturiana. For Asturians, this is a thrifty stew of the local beans (fabes, often denoted with the town of origin), flavoured with morcilla (a herby, aromatic half-sibling of black pudding), and ham hock or salted pork belly. The fabada is itself a distant cousin of the cassoulet of south-west France. However, no two fabadas are ever quite the same. Some will contain hunks of breads soaked in the broth, some are distinctly soupy, others more oily. Whichever way, the beans and the liquor should be intensely savoury from the slow-cooked meats and usually from saffron and smoked paprika. Crush the meat pieces into the stew if the dish hasn’t already been served this way and enjoy.

The fabes turn up in other dishes too, such as beans and clams (fabes con almejas), a dish which can be sublimely creamy, flavoursome and delicately aromatic ... or as dull as ditchwater and much the same colour.

Other regional specialities include kid stew (cabrito guisado), and escalopines al Cabrales, where veal is flattened into an escalope, coated in breadcrumbs and served with a sauce made from another great regional speciality, the incredibly stinky Cabrales cheese. Matured in caves, Cabrales should be moist, creamy and very strong-tasting. You will also be able to find it offered dotted on to crisp corn tortillas and drizzled with honey, a powerhouse combo of sweet, and intensely savoury. 

Many dishes can be sampled as tapas: look out for chorizo cooked in cider, which is meltingly soft and tangy. Also pulpo - octopus tentacles cooked, sprinkled with paprika and always, always, served with a boiled potato in the middle of the dish to mop up the juices. From neighbouring Galicia come pimientos de Padron, the nuttily bitter little peppers fried in olive oil and sprinkled in salt. Eating Padron peppers is a sort of gastronomic Russian roulette - although generally mild, around one in ten peppers will pack a chilli-hot punch, although on our visit this year, we were regularly assured that all the peppers would be mild. 

At the more expensive end of the scale is the jamon Iberico, a plate of which will set you back about €12-€15 depending on the establishment (several places will cure their own meats and they are well worth seeking out), but which should be sampled at least once during a visit. Thinly sliced and arranged on a large platter with no further adornment, the wafer-fine slices of cured ham will melt in your mouth, sweet and nutty at the same time.
This isn't haute cuisine: it's hearty, rustic cooking. It's always unapologetically full of flavour, simply cooked and accompanied and it's designed to fill you up. After a bottle of sidra, some jamon, followed by seafood and maybe an Asturian rice pudding to finish, I always feel as though I won't need to eat again for days.