What to do with a glut of courgettes / zucchinis

When they arrive, they come by the bucketload. Courgettes (zucchinis if you’re American) are now abundant. In England last week they were generally as thick as your thumb, whereas in Spain this week they’re more like the size of a forearm.

Anyone who grows courgettes will want to be well stocked with things to do with them. You can grill courgettes on a ridged grill pan or barbecue, and combine them with other vegetables, or with chickpeas for a big dish to share. Or when they’re big, split them in half lengthways, grill over charcoal until the outside is blackened, and then leave to cool a little, slice off the blackened skin and drizzle the soft flesh with olive oil and lemon juice, and add some chopped mint.

I’m making an effort to eat more eggs, which is a challenge as I don’t really like the taste of eggs. The answer is an omelette laden with vegetables, herbs and cheese. The one pictured above was made by sautéing three handfuls of chopped courgettes in olive oil until they took some colour, and then adding four beaten eggs. When the omelette is brown underneath and firm on top, add sliced cheese and put under an overhead grill (broiler) until the cheese is golden. With a green salad on the side it was a perfect summer supper for two people.

Courgettes work well with the trinity of anchovy, chilli and garlic – as in this pasta dish which uses a neat trick of grating the courgettes first.

One of the classic ways of using up courgettes is to make ratatouille. A good ratatouille takes a bit of time, as each ingredient is cooked separately, and then only combined to serve the dish. 

This is a sort of cheat’s version of it using just courgettes, onions, garlic and tomatoes. Sauté two onions until translucent, add four handfuls of sliced courgettes and stir occasionally until they are just starting to take on some colour. Add three cloves of crushed garlic at this point, and stir for one minute more. Throw in three handfuls of tomatoes cut into halves or quarters (with the little green stalk cut out). Give the pan a shake but don’t stir it. Turn the heat to low, and cook, shaking every now and then but never stirring, until the liquid from the tomatoes has all but evaporated. 

This can be served straightaway, or allowed to cool to room temperature. Serve it as a side dish to grilled meat or fish, or add some cheese, crusty bread and a salad for a summer lunch.

Two Samphire Salads – Crab / Smoked Mackerel and Gooseberries

Samphire is a crunchy vegetable that grows wild by the sea. It’s in season right now (and will be for a couple of months), and it goes brilliantly with fish and shellfish.

Samphire requires picking over, nipping off any spiky ends, and any thick woody roots – much like you do with asparagus. After this give it a good rinse, and if it is looking a bit limp, let it sit in some ice cold water for a few minutes to get its crunch back.

You can eat it raw, or lightly cook it.

The first of the salads above uses raw samphire and pairs it with smoked mackerel and lightly pickled gooseberries. To make these, top and tail the gooseberries, and bring a saucepan with 200ml of white wine vinegar and two tablespoons of sugar to a light boil. Add the gooseberries for two minutes, take out and drain, and leave to cool.

Combine the samphire with flaked smoked mackerel and the gooseberries. Be careful with any extra seasoning as the samphire itself is naturally salty.

The second salad lightly cooks the samphire. Pick it over as before and then while still wet put it in a small pan with a small amount of butter and turn it in the butter until warmed through.

Add it to the plate, and top with picked white crab meat, and finish with black pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice.

It’s a simple as that. You’ll find samphire at fishmongers or markets for the next couple of months, or you could even try foraging for it yourself.

Gooseberry Fool

The early warmth is giving us a great gooseberry season and I bought four punnets at the market last week. The tartness of gooseberries makes them a good match for strong flavoured meat and fish – classically with mackerel, but also good with duck or pork.

Gooseberries do need to be “top and tailed” before cooking – which means removing the hard little stalk, and the brown dried bit at the bottom. You can pinch these out if your nails are long enough, but I find a small sharp knife to be easier.

With a big bowl of gooseberries, I wanted to use some straightaway, and put some in the freezer, so I cooked them in a pan with a splash of water and no sugar. About half a litre of the resulting puree was kept, and the rest frozen. To make this fool, I added a tablespoon or so of sugar (you want it to be sweet-sharp) and let it cool. This puree was then folded with a half litre of fromage frais / cream. You can use pretty much any combination of cream, creme fraiche, yoghurt, greek yoghurt and fromage frais, adjusting the combinations and adding more sugar if you want to, until it tastes just right.

How to Grill Fish – Hake with Bay and Lemon

Grilling fish on the barbecue can be a tricky business – once it’s perfectly cooked it will naturally start to fall apart, and fish skin seems to stick like glue to the bars of my barbecue. It also takes quite a bit of practice and a fair amount of luck to get the temperature just right. Unlike grilling meat, you’re not going for that caramelised Maillard reaction on the outside of the fish like you are with meat, and even with many vegetables.

This trick, which I originally picked up from a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall article, makes it much easier. You create a bed of bay leaves directly on the bars of the grill. I then like to add a layer of thinly sliced lemons, and then you grill the fish on top of this. It slows the cooking of the fish which keeps it really juicy, and as it cooks the bay leaves will create clouds of aromatic smoke. Then the lemon will start cooking too, adding its flavour to the fish.

The picture above shows two hake fillets – but this would work with fillets of most fish, or even with whole fish. The cooking time will depend on the thickness of the fish. These took about 7-8 minutes per side to cook right through, with the heat on medium. I started them skin side up so the flesh can absorb some of the fresh lemon, and then flipped them when the bed of leaves and lemon was really starting to char. 

Once you turn them, season the flesh side with a little olive oil and some salt. We served these with some grilled asparagus and a salad.

Tacos Rule – and my Taco Rules

It was a particularly miserable takeout order of tacos one lunchtime that compelled me to act.

As I bit into the overfilled taco, the pappy tasteless corn tortilla split apart to send another dribble of liquid running down my arm. Tacos are better than this – indeed a good taco is right up there as one of my favourite foods. Although London now has a few decent Mexican options, it can’t touch New York or California, let alone Mexico itself. So it was into the kitchen to make tacos – and to try making tortillas from scratch.

Tacos in the UK are so badly done in most cases, that it’s high time some rules were set down:

  • Unless you live close to a factory churning out good tortillas, make your own.
  • It’s easier to make good wheat flour tacos than good corn ones at home.
  • Go for simple fillings – one filling with a herb, or a sour cream sauce, or some crumbled cheese. But don’t pile everything on top.
  • Make it possible to pick up and eat without liquid dribbling down your arm – 5” or 12cm diameter is perfect. Don’t overfill them, and ensure that your fillings don’t have any liquid in them.

Making the tortillas is surprisingly easy following the method given by Richard Whittington in one of my favourite books “Cutting Edge: A Cook’s Californian Inspiration”.

For 12 tortillas of the size above: 345g of flour, 2 tablespoons of lard, 3 tablespoons of sunflower oil, 1 teaspoon of salt, 175ml of hand-warm water. 

Mix everything together by hand or in a food processor until you have a smooth, even dough that is a little bit springy when pressed. Divide into twelve pieces, roll each piece into a ball, and cover with cling film. Rest for at least 45 minutes (put it in the fridge if you’re keeping it longer).

When you’re ready, heat a heavy pan (I use a big non-stick frying pan) or flat griddle. You need this to be hot enough that the tacos start to bubble in seconds when you cook them. Roll out the dough to a circle (I find a rolling pin is fine, but you can pick up hand-cranked tortilla presses fairly cheaply) and trim to a circle (I used a soup bowl with the perfect diameter to cut them out). Place onto the hot pan and cook for 30-45 seconds (until there are brown blisters underneath), flip and cook for 30-45 seconds. Flip back for a few more seconds, and you’re ready. It’s one of those tasks that takes a bit of practice to know when they’re cooked, but not to cook for so long that they become too crisp. You can cook a pile and keep them warm in a thick cloth, but I like to cook one round at a time, enjoy those and then cook the next batch – it makes the evening more relaxed, and you get to each each one while it’s hot.

Four ideas for fillings:

Fish TacosA good fish taco takes some beating, and they are easy to do if you keep it simple. Cut a firm fleshed white fish into strips, dust it with flour and fry it in butter.

This version is topped with a smoky chipotle sour cream made by soaking one chipotle chilli and then blitzing it with 200ml of sour cream. A little coriander and some lime wedges served alongside to squeeze on top complete the dish.

I’ve also done fish tacos with guacamole on top:

In this case the tortillas were wholewheat tortillas – which works but they’re not quite as delicious as the normal wheat ones, and they are not as flexible when cooked.

Broad Bean: this is perfect for this time of year when the broad beans are at their delicious best. Shallots were finely chopped and sautéed until soft, with a splash of white wine added and reduced down until there was no liquid left. Broad beans were podded, blanched, peeled and then chopped and added to the shallot.

The tacos were finished off with crumbly sharp cheese (I used a Wensleydale) and some pea shoots. A squeeze of lime or lemon finishes these perfectly.

Roasted Cauliflower and Red Onions: Red onions are slowly sautéed until sweet and meltingly soft, and then combined with roasted cauliflower

These were finished with a small scatter of parsley and chipotle cream.

Sweet Potato and Chorizo: The smoky flavour of chorizo combines brilliantly with sweet potato and red onion.

Cubes of chorizo were slowly cooked until the fat starts running, and then removed with a slotted spoon. A red onion and diced sweet potato were then slowly cooked until soft and a bit brown around the edges. The chorizo was added back in and stirred. These tacos were finished with a little parsley and sour cream and a squeeze of lime.

Very Easy Strawberry Parfait

The last post featured a milk ice cream that requires making ice cream base with egg yolks, and an ice cream maker to churn it. This requires nothing more than some cling film, a plastic tub, and a freezer.

You can play around with all sorts of combinations but the basic principal is this: decide which tub you want to make it in, fill it with water to within 1cm of the top, and then pour that water into a measuring jug to work out the overall quantity. Divide this into three – so if the quantity is one litre, one third will be 330ml.

That’s the complicated bit. The rest is easy. You want one third fruit, and the other two thirds can be a mix of cream, yoghurt or creme fraiche. For this I used about 60% greek yoghurt and 40% cream.

The strawberries were mashed with a little icing sugar. You want the puree to be a bit too sweet, so that it will balance down when you stir in the cream and yoghurt. If you want a really refined version, you can sieve the puree, but I didn’t bother.

Fold in the yoghurt and cream, and check the sweetness. Line your tub with cling film, making sure you push right into the corners. It doesn’t matter if the film overlaps itself as long as the tub is fully lined, with the cling film hanging over the sides. Pour in the mixture and freeze. A one litre tub in my freezer took about 10 hours to get fully frozen.

When you’re ready to serve, turn the tub upside down on a plate and squeeze gently, and it should slide out. Remove the cling film, and cut into slices and you’re ready to serve.

A Lighter Ice: Milk Ice Cream with Rhubarb

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It’s a while since I last made ice cream here – and that was the luxurious and exotic strawberry, black pepper and orchid spice ripple. This is a much lighter ice, perfect for early summer and a tangle of brilliantly ruby red rhubarb. It ups the number of egg yolks, but uses milk rather than cream. You want it to have some fat content, so use full fat milk for this.

For about a litre of ice cream: six egg yolks, a vanilla pod, a litre of full fat milk, three tablespoons of sugar.

Split the vanilla pod in half lengthways, scrape out the seeds and put these and the pod in a very clean saucepan and add the milk. Slowly bring to a warm temperature, turn off and leave to infuse. Strain out the pod and return to the pan. It should have thousands of little black specs in it – these are the vanilla seeds.

Warm the milk again, and while you wait, whisk the egg yolks with the sugar until pale and creamy. Pour on the milk, whisking all the time, return to the pan, and whisk over a very low heat. You want it to come up to 82°C, or until it really coats the back of a spoon.

As this ice has less fat content and more water content than regular ice cream, it works best if you have an ice cream maker – either the kind that churns and freezes, or the kind where you pre-freeze the bowl.

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Churn until smooth, and then transfer to the freezer until you need it. The flavour of ice cream does dull over time, so it will be at its best if you eat it within the month.

The rhubarb was cut into lengths and cooked over a low heat with a splash of water and a drizzle of honey. Cover the pan, and when the rhubarb starts breaking down, turn off the heat. If you leave it to cool in the pan you’ll be able to lift out whole sections, and this will help you arrange it attractively when you come to serve it.

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Rowley Leigh’s Pasta with Broad Beans

The first broad beans are appearing. At this time of year you can pod them and eat them raw, skin included, but no matter how you eat them, I think it’s always worth the extra effort of double podding. Usually the second podding (removing them from the greyish skin that surrounds each individual bean) is done after cooking, allowing you to make fabulous dishes like broad beans with sherry and garlic, or broad bean and dill pilaff, but at this time of year, when the beans are at their sweetest, peeling the beans when raw makes  them shine in this beautifully simple recipe from Rowley Leigh in the FT.

For two people you will need: a good quality dried spaghetti, four handfuls of broad beans, butter and parmesan. The broad beans should be podded and then peeled raw. Nicking the skin with a thumbnail is the easiest way to peel the beans – it will take you a little while, but follow the time honoured advice of pouring yourself a glass of something first and the time will pass quickly enough.

As the pasta is cooking, melt a generous slab of butter and add the raw, chopped beans. Stew them over a lowish heat, taking care not to let the butter burn. When the pasta is done, lift it from the water and add to the beans, stirring everything to mix well. Add a handful of parmesan, and a ladleful of the pasta water, and stir it briskly, still over a low heat, until you have a luscious sauce coating each strand of pasta. Season with salt and pepper and serve, perhaps with a little extra parmesan on the side.

This tops even pasta primavera and pasta with peas as the finest early summer pasta dish you will eat.

Lobster salad with asparagus, new potatoes and chervil butter

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Years ago after a tradeshow in Cannes, a couple of friends and I decided to drive along the Corniche. In the historic little village of Gassin overlooking St Tropez, I had a lobster salad that I can remember to this day – and this thing I remember was that it was studded with little chervil leaves, giving a perfect hint of aniseed flavour to the dish.

The warm weather has made my kitchen herb container burst into life in the last few weeks, with chervil one of the herbs doing well in amongst the thyme and two types of basil.

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So when I spotted a big lobster claw on Seafayre’s stall at the Marylebone Farmers Market, it seemed like the time to create something with that same combination of lobster and chervil.

The claw was from a beast of a lobster, and provided a really generous amount of meat.

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For two people: one giant lobster claw, or a cooked lobster, 6-8 new potatoes (preferably Jersey Royals), eight spears of asparagus, a lemon, two tablespoons of butter (at room temperature), a handful of chervil and a tiny dash of white wine or white vermouth.

First crack your lobster and remove and shred the meat, and set aside. Boil or steam your potatoes and while you’re doing this, juice the lemon, add the same amount of wine or vermouth and reduce this by half in a small pan. Turn off the heat and set aside. When the potatoes are nearly done, steam the asparagus. 

Assemble the dish with sliced, warm new potatoes, sliced asparagus, and the lobster meat on top. When it’s all ready, finish the sauce by warming the lemon/wine reduction and whisking in the butter until you have a sauce the consistency of double cream. Add the chervil, adjust the seasoning and then pour all over the salad.

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Poached Chicken and Leeks with Herbs

A woodland walk in Lincolnshire last weekend showed that the wild garlic is far from over in parts of the country, although even here it was starting to go to flower. The flowers of wild garlic have a delicate garlic taste and make a pretty, edible garnish on this dish. 

For four people: a medium sized free-range chicken, two leeks, an onion, a carrot or two and a couple of sticks of celery, a handful of herbs: in my case wild garlic, parsley, chervil and thyme.

Brown the chicken in a little olive oil, and then throw in the onion (roughly chopped), celery and carrot, and top up with enough water to bring it three quarters of the way up the bird. Bring to the gentlest boil, with bubbles just breaking the surface, put a lid on it and cook for 70-90 minutes until done.

Remove the chicken, take off the skin and pull the meat from the bones and set aside. Separately, drain the cooking liquor, let it settle and skim any fat off the surface, and then reduce it to about half its quantity by simmering it with the lid off. At this point, throw in a glass of white wine and the sliced leeks. Cook for a further ten minutes, adjust the seasoning, and then add the chicken meat. Allow it to warm up, and finally stir in the herbs. 

Serve in wide shallow bowls, with plenty of good bread to soak up the juices.