21 March sees the end of Pisces and the start of Aries, the Ram.
The Taster provides a frank, occasionally rude, outline of Aries’s relationship with food, cookery, hospitality and digestion. Sorry (see disclaimer below). For specific predictions, subscribe to the mag (still only £6 for four issues) – our current Spring issue reveals this season’s culinary future in no-nonsense terms for Pisces, Aries and Taurus. We hope you enjoy the below insights.
ARIES: THE RAM Chef rating: 2/10 to 8/10 depending on whether the fire engines arrive in time Favourite foods: steak tartare
If you are a Ram
Cooking is not something Rams are immediately drawn to, but it is actually an excellent hobby for you, if you can submit to the tedium of prepping and the oppression of having to follow a recipe. Plus, it’s a solitary occupation – great news for your browbeaten family and friends. If you can channel what you think of as your extreme creativity and sensitivity into your cooking, you will make an intelligent chef.
If you know a Ram
For God’s sake keep them well fed and watered. Hunger can transform Rams’ habitual low-grade levels of rattiness to actual psychosis. Think of feeding a bad-tempered child – go for colourful, varied, exciting foodstuffs, such as bright-coloured fruits, juicy rare meat, hot spices and exotica. Rams will try anything if it looks thrilling. Ensure plenty of snacks are available at all times, but nothing dangerous. Unsoaked lentils, kidney beans, yams etc are no-nos – your typical Ram is quite capable of poisoning themselves through not bothering to read the labels. And whatever you do, if a Ram is cooking, don’t offer advice (or, as they see it, interference) – not even when they start loading tin cans into the microwave. In their case, being a fire sign means the kitchen WILL explode at some point; just stay the hell out of it.
We’ll be building up our tough-talking horrorscope series throughout 2015. Click here for Aquarius and Pisces and come back to us in future for other star signs. Check back on 20 April for a discussion of Taurus in the kitchen.
NOTES Φ Eggs have long symbolised spring and rebirth. The ancient Egyptians ate hardboiled eggs at festivals
Φ The Oxford Companion describes eggs as ‘The acme of food packaging:’ they are excellent sources of nutrients and even include Vitamin D in a form we can utilise without sunlight (useful in winter).
Φ Despite this, eggs have often suffered from an oddly negative image. In the Middle Ages, they were classified as wet and cold — as opposed to more healthful dry and warm foodstuffs — to such an extent that the whites were sometimes held to be practically poisonous, and only fit for the bin. More recently, Edwina Currie resigned from her post of Health Minister in 1988 after making an erroneous warning about salmonella in British eggs.
Φ The World Egg Throwing Championships are due on 26 June in Lincolnshire. See website
Φ Eggs make you a nicer person. Researchers in the Netherlands have apparently found that eggs make you more generous, by increasing your levels of serotonin, the ‘feel-good’ hormone. Consequently, volunteers dosed with tryptophan (an amino acid found in eggs, which is important in serotonin production) gave twice as much money to charity as those dosed with a placebo.
Φ Finally, one for the pedants: albumin is a class of proteins; albumen is egg white.
Without going as far as the commentator who advocated buying eggs only ‘from a known hen,’ we do recommend organic or free-range eggs. They contain more omega-3s, antioxidants and much better karma than caged eggs.
Enhance egg dishes with parsley, chives, paprika or salt. If serving cold hardboiled eggs, stop the yolks turning green by plunging them into cold water immediately after cooking.
* Easy starters
1. Take an egg. Halve it lengthways and cut a tiny slice off the bottom of each half to give them a flat base to sit on (to stop them sliding or rolling onto their sides). Place large side up. Top with mayonnaise, one anchovy fillet & paprika.
2. Scotch woodcock: mix scrambled eggs with anchovy, spread on hot buttered toast, and cut into fingers.
3. Serve boiled eggs with good-quality mayonnaise and salad leaves. To perk up any shop-bought mayo: take out a couple of dollops and mix with one raw egg yolk and a few drops of lemon juice. Also, sprinkle a touch of paprika over the finished dish, just for interest and colour 4. Serve whole boiled quail eggs with celery salt. These dishes also make good canapés.
* Raw egg-yolk dishes
Serve a raw egg yolk, possibly cradled in half an eggshell, atop pasta carbonara, creamed spinach, steak tartare (chopped fillet & seasonings — give it a try), Scandinavian Fågelbo, or as a dip for asparagus spears. See the cartoon above for a Scandi-style tartare. NB pregnant women are advised to avoid eating raw egg
* Egg-white dishes
Use up egg whites by making meringues, floating islands, macaroons or omelettes. Make romantic rose-coloured meringues with a few drops of food colouring, or miniature multicoloured meringues for children’s treats. The other great user-up of egg whites is macaroons and Angel Food cake. Macaroons take a bit of work to make, but the still-warm, slightly sticky, fresh macaroon is totally worth it compared to the dry brittle shop-bought offering. Angel Food cake (an American speciality) depends on egg whites for its famously light-as-air quality. If you’re not a baker, whisk up egg whites and fold into omelette (made normally) mixture before cooking for extra-fluffy omelette
* Omelette/scrambled eggs
Recipes abound involving dairy products; we recommend crème fraîche; it has more bite and interest than milk or cream. For the fluffiest omelettes, whisk egg whites separately before adding to the main mix.
Good ingredients for omelettes (or scrambled egg) include: ♦ Prawns ♦ Shellfish ♦ Salmon ♦ Ham ♦ Cheddar ♦ Mushrooms ♦ Truffles ♦ Bacon ♦ Chorizo ♦ Green peas ♦ As recommended by De Pomiane, ‘little pieces of bread fried in butter’ ♦ Dumas suggests a pudding of strawberry omelette with vanilla sugar, served floating on fresh strawberry purée
Adapt the omelette suggestions to sandwiches. Chopped hardboiled egg & cress, bound with mayo, is delicious. Try it with watercress, too
* Eggs Benedict or Florentine
Your classic dish consists of soft-poached eggs & ham — that is, some form of bacon, ham, Parma ham or prosciutto — on a hot buttered muffin, lavished with warm Hollandaise sauce. For the Florentine version, replace the ham with spinach (either wilted, or raw baby leaves).
Try adding chives, parsley, watercress or bacon into the mix; rumours also abound of tiger bread or pancakes being substituted for the muffin (although to what end, we know not) Smoked salmon, asparagus or avocado are popular accompaniments to these dishes, either on the side or perched aloft
* Two Salads
1. Place a soft-poached egg in a salad of lardons or gésiers (gizzards), frilly endive lettuce & red wine vinegar. This can be absolutely delicious but, because of the small number of ingredients, the lettuce must be as fresh as humanly possible for it to fulfil its potential. Try a farmer’s market or farmshop and make it the same day, or buy a ‘growing lettuce.’ If all else fails, reach for the back of the lettuce racks to get the most recent arrivals. (If anyone should look questioningly at you while you scrabble around, give them a good glare, then tear off a leaf and defiantly eat it at them — that usually sees them off)
2. Mix hardboiled eggs with tomato, cucumber, cooked cold green beans, green peppers, onion, anchovy or tuna, garlic & black olives for a salade Niçoise. According to the french cooking bible Larousse, this salad does not include potato. This makes it a salad that is not only delicious, but also one you can use to intimidate any would-be food experts
* Scotch eggs
One for confident cooks! (Actually, not so much — some recipes are easier than others.) A great way to make the most of sausagemeat. Try this BBC recipe (click here)
* Anglesey eggs
Mix mashed potatoes with chopped cooked leeks, butter, salt & pepper, and place in a dish. Top with halved boiled eggs (cut side down) and pour over a simple cheese sauce (butter & flour, made into a roux, with milk and grated cheese). Grill till golden-brown
* Egg nog
Aka egg flip. Eggs with cream, sugar, spices, and brandy or rum; the ultimate winter hot toddy. Lady Macbeth drugged King Duncan’s hapless guards with something like this, only she called it a posset. “I have drugged their egg flips, that Death and Nature do contend about them,” etc, probably wouldn’t have sounded the same. (Macbeth, as we know, sneaked in and killed the king; as an afterthought, he also knocked off the guards just in case they’d witnessed anything.)
* Further dishes
Advanced cooks may like to search online for the following and choose according to what’s in the cupboard: eggs poached in red wine; bobotie; kedgeree; eggs en cocotte (baked); eggs in aspic; real custard; stracciatella; piperade; avgolémono; pain perdu or eggy toast; devilled eggs (a delicious retro starter)
WINE MATCH Our wine buff, Richard J Smith of the Wine School of Cheshire says: Eggs are perhaps challenging — but think an indulgent brunch, and think fizz! Ridgeview Grosvenor 2011, from Surrey, is a heavenly match. Made from 100% Chardonnay (often referred to as blanc de blancs), this superb sparkling wine is low on acid and high on bubbles. Its full flavour works with the creaminess of eggs Benedict. With smoked salmon instead of ham, it is sublime.
Egg mayonnaise needs a lighter wine. Picpoul de Pinet works to perfection. Pinet is a tiny French appellation and, at around 2000 years old, one of the oldest grape varieties. (Editor’s note: since Picpoul is also one of our favourites for seafood, we’re thinking prawn omelette & Picpoul would attain a true pinnacle of perfection.)
The Taster hopes this page has given you a few ideas and useful links for eggs. For more ingredients, click HERE.
Rhubarb stalks (petioles) should be rigid — snappable, not bendy — and as deep a pink-red colour as possible. Thick, woody stalks need more sugar and/or time stewing than thinner, more tender stalks (which forced rhubarb naturally is). If you do get bendy stalks, cut off the ends and put them in a vase of water to firm up. You can freeze rhubarb stalks whole, but stewed rhubarb takes up less space.
Raw rhubarb is the last word in sharpness and sourness. Dip the end of a raw stalk in a bowl of sugar, bite it off, chew — and feel yourself close one eye while the other bugs out, cartoon-style, and your face contorts in the manner of one sucking a particularly vicious Acid Drop. Only sugar, fat, and cooking, can mellow the intense astringency, so most rhubarb recipes involve a bit of stewing. Rhubarb is most often used in puddings but its tartness can also ‘cut’ the fat in savoury dishes, for example as a sauce with fatty fish, to achieve a pleasing balance. Niki Segnit (The Flavour Thesaurus) pairs it with black pudding on this basis. Some claim that a pinch of bicarbonate of soda reduces the amount of sugar needed.
Peel, chop and simmer rhubarb stalks in water & sugar (icing sugar dissolves quickest, but some prefer dark treacly muscovado sugar). After 15 minutes or so the stalks soften and mellow. Don’t chop the stalks smaller than 10cm pieces — there is much pleasure in swirling long strands of stewed rhubarb around a bowl, lifting them with a fork like a sweet vegetable spaghetti. Serve stewed rhubarb with cream, icecream, or — inevitably — custard. The best icecreams for this are vanilla, strawberry or ginger.
Stir a little rosewater into stewed rhubarb for a delicate scented version (use icing sugar; rosewater will not survive any contest with muscovado). Serve cold or warm
Alternatively, vanilla essence adds a stronger note
RHUBARB & CUSTARD
Never fear to serve the old nursery treat, made with Bird’s Custard Powder — it’s lovely. But for a clever trick (confuse and amaze your friends!) serve rosewater rhubarb with vanilla-infused crème anglaise; it’s a completely different experience
Chop a stalk of rhubarb into little chunks, then mix it into whatever cake mixture you like before baking. Fill the cake with custard cream (custard thickened with butter & sugar) for a Rhubarb & Custard Cake!
Orange juice or zest, with rhubarb, produces a high level of zing. This makes a good amuse-bouche or palate-cleanser between courses. Or, try rhubarb served with whipped cream flavoured with orange liqueur (eg Grand Marnier or Courvoisier)
Purée stewed rhubarb in a blender, and drizzle over other puddings — ginger cake is good. Or, serve it beside pork (like apple sauce) or salmon or mackerel (trust us). Alternate layers of pink purée and white cream, visible in a large wineglass, make a very pretty pud. Purée is good for those with issues about getting rhubarb strands caught between their teeth
Mix the purée with yoghurt, or cream, or a combination of the two
TARTS & PIES
Search online for a recipe that suits you. Strawberries are a traditional addition, either whole (eg to decorate the top of a tart), or as strawberry jam (in cake fillings). Strawberries and rhubarb together create a special flavour, reminiscent of pineapple
JAM & COMPOTE
The Silver Spoon (the Italian ‘bible,’ equivalent to the French Larousse) recommends rhubarb & strawberry compôte. Include some orange rind in rhubarb jam
Rhubarb on its own really can be overpowering. Stew rhubarb and apples together for a risk-free crumble. Try incorporating ginger biscuit crumbs into the crumble mix
*Rhubarb is high in vitamins, and may speed up the metabolism. You can point out to superfood fans that it is a member of the buckwheat (the new superfood) family.
*It can be used to make wine, but opinion is divided on its quality.
*Early records of rhubarb cuisine go back to 2700BC, when the roots were used in China as a laxative.
*Americans call it a ‘pie plant’ (you can guess what they mostly use it for).
*Because of its toe-curling acidity, rhubarb didn’t really become popular until sugar prices dropped, and people could stew the acidity out, in around the 18th century.
*Rhubarb leaves are toxic, but a human would have to eat about 5kg of bitter leaves to reach a lethal dose. It poses more of a threat to the vegetable patch than to humans: left untended, rhubarb dies back to nothing over winter, then pounces in spring, throwing out massive leaves to drown lesser plants in darkness. On the plus side, rhubarb requires little help from the gardener (other than the occasional attack with a flamethrower).
*See our EVENTS calendar for details of the annual Rhubarb Festival held in Wakefield (Yorkshire) every February; the festival website is HERE (but currently not updated — March 2015) or try the FACEBOOK page.
Yesterday (2 March 2015), The Taster had a crack at Sri Lankan rice parcels, which is handfuls of spiced rice bundled up in banana leaves.
Our efforts were inspired by the discovery that leek leaves are a good substitute for banana leaves. The principle is also not so far from Greek dolmades (rice wrapped in vine leaves) or a favourite dish of The Taster’s mother: sausagemeat wrapped in thin cabbage leaf and gently braised in a light broth. (We’ll get the recipe off her one of these days.)
The cooking techniques were straightforward frying and baking. The main hurdle was ingredients. Fresh coconut and rampa were substituted by tinned coconut milk and bay leaf. We could have fiddled around making ghee, but decided ordinary butter would do. (An element of impatience took over after the trek to town for coconut milk.) Also, curry leaves aren’t always the easiest thing to source in a tiny Welsh market town, but luckily Spice Kitchen had just sent us a packet (lovely company; take a look).
So: red onions and spices in the frying pan, joined later by rice, stock and further spices, with cardamom seeds added at the end. The combination of cardamom, lemongrass, cinnamon, bay, cloves and black pepper was significantly different from Indian or Thai spice mixes; particularly the absence of chilli and ginger. And then coconut milk: not too much – just brushed on the leek leaves.
There was a bit of a moment when we realised that, having carefully crumbled dry, spiky bay leaves into the mix, we then had to remove them all with tweezers. (Presumably fresh rampa is less spiky than dried bay.) And then – oh dear – some fool had crumbled up the cinnamon and lemongrass sticks, too. Back with the tweezers.
There was a second bit of a moment when the rice refused to stay put on the leek leaves, but several spearings with cocktail sticks got it in the end.
The final, porridgy-textured dish was warmed in the oven for 20 minutes. It came out steaming, fragrant and delicately flavoured: the absence of citrus, chilli or ginger allowed the lighter, sweeter flavours of lemongrass and cardamom to blossom. The leek leaves, kept sweetly moist by the milky rice, were very pleasant. Rather than have it as a side dish (where other flavours might overpower it), we’d recommend it as a starter, possibly with some crisp lettuce or cucumber to add a bit of crunch.
COOKBOOK We took our recipe from Manel Ratnatunga’s book, Step-by-Step Sri Lankan Cookery (reviewed in our summer 2015 issue). If you want to try it yourself, it’s on Gazelle Books for £5.99 (use their search options to find the title). It’s an uncompromisingly authentic cookbook, but it’s been reprinted every year since it was first published 13 years ago and it contains many cool hipster cookery terms to amaze & astound your friends (siyambala is tamarind; cadjunut is cashew). It’ll keep any enthusiastic cook happily occupied in the kitchen for hours — and, should success strike, impart a wonderful sense of satisfaction at having produced a genuinely novel dish.
Melt some butter in a frying pan.
Take a large, ripe banana. Halve it lengthways. Place it in the frying pan and cook, turning over once, until it turns dark gold, sticky and almost disintegrating (5 to 10 minutes).
Sprinkle it at some point – during or after cooking – with dark brown sugar or maple syrup
For adults, try the above but include some sweet dark rum in the frying pan — delicious.
Lift it carefully out of the pan and serve with cream, icecream or chocolate sauce. Don’t be afraid to spoon any melted butter still in the pan over the top
Scatter with hundreds & thousands or similar for children.
This is a short entry (there are longer ones), as we haven’t written a full article on bananas yet, but The Taster hopes this page has given you a few ideas. We do update as we go along, so check back any time. For more ingredients, click HERE.
1 March is St David’s day. In honour of the patron saint, we offer a few words about leeks (the national emblem of Wales) plus which to choose, and a few recipe suggestions we hope will provide inspiration for a lovely Sunday lunch or two. Leeks
Around 30AD, the Roman Apicius compiled arguably the world’s first most snobbish cookbook, De re coquinaria. Cabbage was beneath his notice, which may explain why he was forced to use leeks so often. The crazed emperor Nero, incidentally, was nicknamed Porrophagus, meaning ‘leek-eater,’ for his habit of munching leeks in order to improve his singing voice (he was quite mad).
Around 550AD, St David allegedly told the ancient Britons (Welsh) to wear leeks in their caps while battling Saxon invaders. The Saxons lost; soldiers in the Welsh regiments still eat a raw leek on St David’s Day. (Some say daffodills were only chosen to be the second national emblem of Wales, in 1911, because large modern leeks look a bit odd in buttonholes.)
In Medieval days, leeks were categorised as dry and warm (as opposed to wet and cold) and so quite healthful. They have never fallen out of fashion since, largely because they have never quite been in it.
Leeks are related to lilies and a good source of Vitamin C, iron & folic acid.
Pick obviously healthy plants — dark green tops, clear white bottoms, firm leaves. Leeks are very good at resisting pesticidal residues so, if you want to eat organic but money is tight, save your pennies for more susceptible veg such as tomatoes or carrots (see PAN-UKfor more info, and lists of veg, on this topic).
The white part of leeks can stand in for onions. To keep leeks bright green, rinse in cold water immediately after cooking. The below are just a few suggestions we hope will serve as a starting point to search for more detailed recipes (more confident cooks may prefer to make it up as they go along, of course!)
The Taster recommends making leek & potato soup (hot) or Vichyssoise (cold) with mirepoix*, curry spices, chicken stock, cream & lemon juice. ‘Cock-a-leekie’ is just chicken & leek soup, plus rice, barley and prunes. A dash of sherry won’t hurt. Or try five-onion-soup: onion, spring onion, shallots, leeks & garlic, finished with Gruyère croutons. (*Mirepoix: one of the single most useful things a novice cook can learn to make. Sauté chopped onion, carrot and celery, plus mixed herbs and maybe garlic. Use in many, many dishes)
In cream or cheese sauce
Leeks and dairy match well. Try wrapping leeks, parsley, nutmeg and butter in slices of ham; lay them in a tin and bake; then pour on cream and grated cheese, and grill until bubbling
Pies & pastries
The trio of leeks, bacon and cheese is good in pasties, quiches, pies or tartlets. (For bacon, read ham, prosciutto etc; the best cheeses are Caerphilly, goat’s, cream, or blue.) Make veggie samosas out of leeks, cheese & curry spices
Make a plain Cheddar cheese soufflé, mixing in bacon bits and sautéd chopped leeks before baking. Easy to make but sounds mightily impressive
Glamorgan (veggie) sausages
Make ‘sausages’ out of breadcrumbs, leeks, Caerphilly cheese, parsley and seasoning, bound with egg. They do taste spookily like meat sausages
Blend chopped raw leeks with pine nuts, olive oil and garlic until smooth. Salt, pepper & lemon juice to taste. Put on pasta or with salmon or trout
In her 1954 Food in England, Dorothy Hartley says, ‘a single folded leek leaf holds a trout very neatly for grilling’ — the same way palm or banana leaves are used to cradle exotic dishes. Richard Llewellyn noted something similar in How Green Was My Valley. Try it out when cooking Thai, Vietnamese or anything involving lemongrass
We hope this page has provided some inspiration. For more ideas, click back to COOK
March is right in the middle of the hunger gap: winter crops are ending, but new crops aren’t yet producing; the game season is over; as is that of the mushroom and other fungi. Those observing Lent face further deprivations. To cook with March seasonal foods, imagination is needed! However – we do have spring lamb, some fish and seafood (including oysters), and various exotic fruits:
Banana, blood orange, kiwi fruit, lemon, orange, passion fruit, pineapple & pomegranate Click to check which are worth buying organic (ie retain pesticide residues)
Broccoli (purple), cauliflower, celeriac, chicory, leek, spring onion & rhubarb Click to check which are worth buying organic (ie retain pesticide residues)
SEAFOOD Cockle, cod, hake, john dory, lemon sole, mussel, oyster & salmon Click to check sustainability
Try this for Sunday lunch: lightly spiced leek & potato soup, spring lamb in cockle broth, and then ice cream drizzled with passion fruit seeds. (Actually, you can drizzle a lot of things with passion fruit seeds — brandy snaps & whipped cream, meringues & cream, any fruit salad or fruity mousse, cheesecake, zabaglione etc). And see our next blog for lots of ideas about leeks.
See our Recipes & Notes which are building up from the Seasonal Notes series in our printed magazine. If you can’t find the ingredient you want, or if you have a fave recipe you’d like to share, send us a tweet, email or leave a comment on facebook and we’ll add it to our Big List. Good luck with Sunday lunch!