Autumn is finally here, though the days still vary wildly from one another. Crazy-making wind, knocking over my pots of herbs one day; hot, sweltering days and nights the next. Unpredictability is something I have learned to expect of
Thankfully, regardless of the weather, Indian is always right.
Indian food does all the right things for me. Being traditionally vegetarian is a huge positive, but it’s the spice that I keep coming back for and the myriad of flavours that spices can create, both alone and in combination with one another that excites my palate.
Looking at the recipes below, it’s become blindingly obvious that I love two things. Spice and fat. Admittedly, fat is used judiciously most of the time in our kitchen. Well, maybe my idea of ‘judiciously’ isn’t quite yours, but bear with me. These potatoes are well worth it. The combination of turmeric (I used this one from Herbies), fennel seeds and ghee was breathtaking. Neither of us could speak for some time.
So the ‘chips’ part of the meal uses what initially seems a huge amount (4 tablespoons) of ghee – please don’t try to compromise, just go for a walk afterwards if you are inclined to worry about such things. Personally, I’d rather not worry and just enjoy this sort of cooking as the weekly treat that it is (and should be). After all, Ayurvedic practitioners have been cooking with ghee for centuries and I remember reading in Madhur Jaffrey’s beautiful memoir ‘Climbing the Mango Trees’ that sickly Punjabi children are fed spoonfuls of the stuff to strengthen their prana. That’s good enough for me.
Following the Indian theme, these spicy fishcakes are a great accompaniment to the potatoes being both light and succulent, akin to those beautiful, if not a little ubiquitous tiny Thai ones. That was the starting point at least. These were actually very successful. Was very pleased.
The fish: For 2 (makes about 10)
I used flathead fillets, but use any white fish fillets that you like.
In a food processor, blitz 1 peeled and finely chopped shallot, 1 peeled and roughly chopped clove of garlic, 10 roughly chopped fresh curry leaves and a tiny piece of fresh chilli. Or pound to a paste in a mortar and pestle (much less washing up and so deeply satisfying after a crappy day).
Add ½ teaspoon of garam masala, ½ teaspoon of mustard seeds and ½ teaspoon of ground cumin and mix well. Take 250g or thereabouts of flathead fillets and chop them really finely, mincing them to a paste. Or pulse to a paste in a food processor. In a bowl, combine the spice paste with the fish, mix well and shape into small patties. Lightly coat in a little flour, dusting any excess off and set aside for about 30 minutes in the fridge on a lightly floured plate. Shallow fry them in a little oil until golden on both sides.
All this spice needed a sauce to go with it and the best one I know for a spicy meal is a bit of thick, plain yoghurt mixed with a bunch of finely chopped fresh mint leaves, or coriander leaves if you prefer. I used to think that people preferred mint over coriander, but the times, it would seem, they are a changing.
The potatoes: Serves 2
Sookhe Aloo sounds so much better than Dry Potatoes with Ginger and Garlic, though that is a more accurate description. Adapted from Madhur Jaffrey.
500g of waxy potatoes
Thumb-sized piece of ginger
3 cloves of garlic, peeled
1 teaspoon of ground turmeric
4 tablespoons of ghee (or a light olive or macadamia oil)
1 teaspoon of fennel seeds
Scrub the potatoes well and place them in a saucepan of cold water. Add a good pinch of salt, bring to the boil then simmer until just tender at knife point (anywhere between 10 and 25 minutes depending on the size of your spuds). Drain and cool. Peel, then dice the potatoes into 3 cm pieces and set aside.
Peel and roughly chop the ginger and the garlic. Using a mortar and pestle, pound the ginger, garlic, turmeric and 1 teaspoon of sea salt to a paste. Alternatively, use a food processor, adding 3 tablespoons of water while the motor runs - the water isn't really neccessary if your pounding the mixture by hand.
Warm the ghee or oil in a frying pan over a medium heat. When hot, drop in the fennel seeds and let them sizzle for a second or two. Stand back (it will sputter) and add the ginger-garlic paste, reduce the heat a little and stir fry for 2 minutes.
Chuck in the diced potatoes, turn the heat up to medium and keep the potatoes moving about in the pan often for about 10 minutes. Madhur’s recipe suggests that the potatoes should end up with an even, crispy coating. Mine were delightfully half-mushy, sticking to the base of the pan and those crusty bits, scraped as I stirred, made all the difference.
The shelves in the kitchen groan under their collective weight. There are way too many, a legacy of my years of bookselling and a chronic inability to say no when it comes to books. They are a hindrance, I know, to a better way of cooking, one where I learn to trust my own instinct. But they are also the most gentle and forgiving of teachers, friends in the kitchen if you will. I think I cook well. I most certainly enjoy it. But am I ready to cook completely without the books? Will it make me a better cook?
Increasingly the books are becoming redundant in a way, mere lists of ingredients to be played with, things subtracted and added according to my taste; the instructions are glanced at quickly to get a general idea and are adapted along the way. This makes me happy – very happy – but I’m not sure that I can justify buying still more books (and I say this knowing full well that a second-hand copy of Paula Wolfert’s Eastern Mediterranean book is making it’s way to my letter box as I write and the re-issue, blissfully written in metric, of Deborah Madison’s Greens Cookbook is due at the shop next month).
Can you ever have too many cookbooks? I’m inclined to think that the answer may indeed be a resounding yes. I say that with my head, but in my heart, I love them all.
If I could only choose five to keep, what would they be? Why?
The Cook’s Companion by Stephanie Alexander
Possibly the only book you’ll ever need, so encyclopedic is its scope. Simply written, elegant, successful meals from a life devoted to cooking.
Leith's Vegetarian Bible by Polly Tyrer
I agonised over whether or not to buy this rather expensive book for some time. If only I had known what its pages held. Every single thing in here is wonderful, works every time and is unexpectedly good.
Enjoy by Nadine Abensur
With a French-Moroccan-Jewish background, this is Abensur’s take on Australian food. Favourite food writer above all others for her ability to create exquisite meals from vegetables and elevate vegetarian food to new heights. And she hardly ever uses the word ‘vegetarian’, much to my delight.
The Thirty Minute Cook by Nigel Slater
Bloody great. That’s all you need to know.
That’s my top five and although it’s bound to change, probably by this afternoon knowing me, these are the ones that make me hungry now.
So, which ones would you keep? Which ones were a waste of time?
Spent too much time working at the bookshop this past week. Too much time dealing with the general public, cranky and ungrateful buggers that they are. “I’d love to work in a bookshop. You must get to sit around reading all day”, they say. Never, not even once in my fifteen years of flogging books in various full time roles have I ever been able to stop for even a millisecond to actually read a book on the shop floor. Obviously my recent freedom from such duties, resulting in only one blissfully quiet day per week there now, is about all I (and the public) can take.
So by the time Friday came around, I was ready to cook something comforting.
If the pages of this blog are to represent the sort of food I cook on a regular basis, there was bound to be some coconut milk creeping in at some stage. What started out as a spoonful added here and there to enhance a stir fry, to deepen the flavour of a vegetable curry, has developed into a full-blown addiction to the full-fat stuff. No, none of that ‘light’ coconut milk for me thank you. On it’s own, coconut milk is fairly bland but, introduce it the fresh tastes of
With the remainder of a side of ocean trout in the freezer, enough for the two of us, I wanted something sharp, fresh and clean from the fish part of the meal. The potatoes, as always, were the starting point. They would be creamy and comforting, but with a depth of flavour from lemongrass and kaffir lime leaf. As it turned out these two meals, delicious as they are on their own, are perfect together.
No, let me rephrase that. They are incredibly, seductively sexy together.
The fish: Simple. For 2.
The potatoes: I was left wanting some for lunch on Saturday, so beautiful are these and I urge you make the full amount. You’ll be glad you did.
South East Asian crushed coconut potatoes – serves 4
675g of waxy potatoes, scrubbed Salt 2 stalks of lemongrass, tender white part only, finely chopped 400ml tin of coconut milk (full fat – go on, it’s so much better) 3 kaffir lime leaves, finely shredded A large handful of fresh coriander, roughly chopped Fish sauce A grating of palm sugar (or a pinch of brown) Half a lime
Cut the potatoes into quarters. Place in a large saucepan of cold water, salt it well, and bring to the boil. Toss in half of the lemongrass and reduce to a simmer, cooking for 20-25 minutes or until they are just beginning to break up. Drain very well when ready and return to the saucepan.
Meanwhile, warm the coconut milk in a small saucepan. Add the remaining lemongrass, the lime leaves and half of the coriander (use the roots too if you’ve been lucky enough to buy it root-end attached). Bring to a simmer then turn off the heat. Leave to infuse while the potatoes cook.
Strain the infused milk over the drained potatoes. Add a little fish sauce, tasting as you go. I love it so will happily add a rather generous splash or two, but suggest you start small – a teaspoon should be a good starting point. Grate a little palm sugar (or add a pinch of brown sugar) into the saucepan, squeeze in half a lime and stir it well. Gently reheat the whole lot, adding the remaining coriander just before serving.