My Star ingredients

In season:: Jerusalem artichokes

Friday, November 12th, 2010

Time to try something new this weekend! Have a go at cooking lovely Jerusalem artichokes, which have appeared on the vegetable stalls this month. Despite its name the Jerusalem artichoke is confusingly neither a type of artichoke nor connected to Jerusalem as its name would suggest. It originally hails from North America and its white flesh has a deliciously sweet and nutty mild flavour. Its taste has been likened to that of a globe artichoke, which is likely to be responsible for this part of its name. TheJerusalem part is thought to be derived from girasole, the Italian for sunflower to which they are related. In appearance the knobbly root looks more like a ginger root than an artichoke. Because Jerusalem artichokes are hardy and grow readily in cold climates they are available in abundance between November and March. Jerusalem artichokes are packed with vitamin C, phosphorous, potassium and are an excellent source of thiamine, niacin and iron. They also contain probiotic properties so are excellent for intestinal health. Although beware, these health benefits do come at a price as too much of the food can cause some embarrassing excess wind!
With a similar consistency to potatoes and parsnips the artichoke can be cooked in a variety of ways, including roasting (try roasting them wrapped in bacon!), sautéing or steaming. Unlike potatoes though it can also be eaten raw, finely sliced or shredded in salads. The carbohydrates present in the tuber give the artichoke a tendency to become soft and mushy when boiled so steaming is a better option to retain their texture.
When buying, look for roots which are pale brown without any dark or soft patches. The artichoke should be firm and fresh. Knobbles and unevenness are unavoidable but choosing the smoother, rounder ones makes preparation easier. A good scrub or rub will remove enough of the skin. For very knobbly roots it is easier to peel them once cooked, although the skin is edible and packed with nutritional benefits. It is also important to remember that if cutting or removing the skin the artichoke flesh will darken when exposed to air so they need to stored in acidulated water. Jerusalem artichokes are not renowned for their long shelf-life, however they should keep for a couple of weeks in the fridge or a cool, dark place. Fabulous Jerusalem artichoke recipes include:
Jerusalem artichoke velouté with curry and a touch of honey
Glazed Turbot fillet with jerusalem artichokes purée and crunchy grapes

In season: Pumpkin

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

As an untravelled French teenager, pumpkins were to me no more than a telegenic prop in scary American movies. When I later moved to the US, I was swirled into the inescapable Halloween tradition and the beauty of Autumnal farmers markets laden with great piles of pumpkins in all sizes and shapes. The British pumpkin season matches that of the US and runs from October to December. A delicately sweet and juicy winter squash, the pumpkin is a member of the Cucurbitaceae family which also includes gourds and other squashes such as the butternut squash and gem squash. Typically pumpkins are orange, however different varieties can be yellow, dark-green, white, red and grey. Their outer shell is usually thick and ribbed,with seeds and pulp on the inside. Once harvested they can keep for several months if stored properly in a cool, dark and airy place. When buying a pumpkin make sure there are no cuts or rips in the flesh as this might let bacteria in, and that it is firm and sounds hollow when tapped. Unless you are after a good sized pumpkin to carve for Halloween, go for smaller ones which tend to have better flavour and are easier to handle. As with all brightly coloured vegetables, pumpkins are packed full of nutrients - the main ones being lutein and alpha and beta carotene. The body converts the latter into Vitamin A, good for your eyes, bones and an effective guard against infections. Vitamin A is a great anti-wrinkle agent so ladies, do make full use of the season and go on a pumpkin diet - it is much cheaper than face cream and will have the same unverified effects! Don't forget the seeds too, which are a good source of magnesium, manganese, phosphorus and phytosterols and make a delicious addition to salads when lightly toasted. On the culinary side, pumpkins absorb flavours easily so are very versatile to cook. Because of their sweet taste they work equally well in savoury and sweet dishes. Slightly more fibrous and juicy than other squashes, they are delicious simply roasted with sea salt, make warming and flavourful soups and are an ideal ingredient for stuffing, stews, risottos, sweet tarts and cakes. Your taste buds will love them with nutmeg, all spice or cinnamon and in marriages with cheeses such as goat's cheese, blue cheese or feta. Tasty Diaries pumpkin recipes include:
Pumpkin gnocchi with chorizo and a sage and goats cheese cream
Pumpkin, orange and apple soup with roast chestnuts
Oxtail stew with butternut squash and cinnamon
Pumpkin pancakes with hot smoked salmon, feta and parsley

In season now: Parsnips

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

With a distinctively whitish skin and flesh, parsnip looks like an untanned carrot and is the vegetable I identify the most with on my first day at the beach. It belongs to the umbelliferae family which also includes carrots, chervil, parsley, fennel and celeriac, and is in season from October through to February. Cultivated for over 2,000 year, parsnip has been a staple food throughout Europe until falling out of favour to the potato. It would be a shame to give a miss to its deliciously soft and sweet flesh though, which becomes sweeter as the season advances and frost turns more of its starches to sugar. Parsnips also have the advantage of cooking rather quickly (faster than carrots or turnips) and so are a great friend to hungry and busy home cooks. If the above has not convincd you to give them a try yet, know that parsnips provide a bounty of goodness too. They are a very good source of Potassium, Dietary Fibre, Vitamin C, Folate and Manganese.

When buying, don't pick them too big or they may feel woody in the middle. Go for 25 cm length or less and look for a nice, even colour as discolouration can indicate freeze-burn or rot. Parnisp will keep for up to 2 weeks if stored in the vegetable drawer of your fridge, wrapped in a paper towel and in a plastic bag. Prepare them as you would with carrots, i.e. peel larger ones and only scrub some of the tender skin off baby ones. To cook, think of roasting them with spices and a bit of olive oil (they love curry), adding them to soups and stews, and try some delicious TD recipes:
Carrot, parsnip, coriander and rice noodle stir-fry
Roasted parsnip and sweet potato chips with express turkey
Slow roast goose with roasted vegetables and potatoes
Stuffed turkey with honey roasted parsnips, carrots and sprouts

In season: butternut squash

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

Heralding a change in the seasons and a return to the heartier, warming dishes that Autumn brings, sweet and warming butternut squash is now on offer to colour our soups, risottos, pastas, curries and stews (photo by Ilva Beretta).

Butternut squash belongs to the Curcurbita species which also includes pumpkin, cucumber and courgette. While courgettes and cucumbers are harvested in the Summer when still young and with a soft skin, the butternut squash and pumpkin, members of the Winter squash family, are only harvested at full maturity in Autumn.

Butternut squash has an instantly recognisable shape with beige, tough skin and a vivid orange flesh inside. It shares with pumpkin a sweet and nutty flavour and likewise grows on a vine. As it ripens it becomes sweeter and richer in flavour, so when selecting a butternut squash be sure to avoid any with green colourings as this indicates it is not fully mature. Pick it heavy too – lightness would indicate it is old and beginning to dry out. In terms of nutrients butternut squash provides a good source of fibre, vitamin C, magnesium, manganese and potassium, as well as high levels of vitamin A and beta-carotene – great for our sight and skin.

Butternut squash will keep for a long time. They are best stored whole in a cool, dry environment, where they will happily stay for a couple of months. Alternatively they can remain in the fridge for up to a week if chopped into pieces and wrapped in clingfilm.

To prepare the butternut squash simply cut it in half lengthways and remove the seeds and fibrous strands. The halves can be either kept whole, cut into chunks or thinly sliced depending on the dish and cooking method. The versatility of butternut squash means it can be cooked in a variety of ways from roasting and steaming to braising, pureeing and even barbecuing. Baking whole halves, although more time-consuming, is an excellent way to intensify the flavour of the flesh. Combined with a topping such as walnuts and blue cheese, these can make a simple yet delicious dish. Its smooth sweetness is also perfectly complemented by cinnamon, goats’ cheese, balsamic vinegar and chilli to name a few. Although many people dispose of the skin and seeds these can in fact be eaten. Seeds are edible raw or toasted, while the skin softens during cooking. Enjoy your squash with TD, and try some of these recipes!

Oxtail, butternut squash and cinnamon stew

Butternut squash soup with smoked bacon cream

Eat now: peaches

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

Rare are those of us who can resist the aromatic, soft and juicy appeal of peaches so let's all rejoice, peach season has started and will last until September! Originated in China, peaches are a member of the rose family which also includes almonds and apricots. Because a lot of Summer heat is required to mature the crop, peach cultivation is not suitable to the British climate so most of the fruits reaching our stalls come from Mediterranean countries (Spain, Italy, Greece, and to a lesser extent France). Peaches provide good sources of carotenes (which transforms into vitamin A in the body), potassium, flavonoids and natural sugars. They are great for the skin and their alkaline content promotes good digestion. A significant share of a peach nutrients are located in the skin so don't peel it before eating it, just brush it lightly under water to remove dirt, pesticide residue and the peach fuzzy hair, which can irritate the digestive tract of some people. Depending on the cultivar, peaches come with either velvety or smooth skin (nectarines - often erroneously believed to be a cross between peaches and plums), with yellow or white flesh, in a round or flat shape (donut peaches), and klingstone or freestone. White fleshed peaches are simply sweet while yellow-fleshed ones (my favourites) couple sweetness with a bit of tanginess. Peaches bruise easily so make sure you carry them in a separate bag or on top of your shopping when buying them. Peaches don't get sweeter once they have been picked from the tree but they will get softer and juicier. This process occurs quite quickly at room temperature, and can be delayed by storing the peaches in the fridge. Make sure to keep enough peaches out for your daily consumption though as they are so much tastier than eaten straight from the fridge. Peaches are wonderful eaten whole but are also a great ingredient for tarts and fruit salads, They are lovely lightly cooked in compote and make great companions in savoury dishes to duck or pork. Try some of Tasty Diaries delicious peach recipes:
Duck fillets with sautéed peaches and thyme
Lightly spiced PĂŞche Melba
Late Summer Peach, Blueberry, and Thyme Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting

Eat now: Sweet peppers

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

Although sweet peppers are available all year round thanks to polytunnel cultivation and imports, the European harvest season is between July (starting with Spanish, Italian and French ones) and September, with the smaller British crop starting late August. Sweet pepper is a fruit and the only member of the capsicum family, which also includes chilli and cayenne peppers, that does not contain capsaicin - the compound responsible for the strong burning sensation you get when eating chillies. Peppers come originally from South and Central America and were introduced into Europe through Spain at the beginning of the 16th century. Only at the beginning of the 20th century did intensive breeding trials result in the development of the mild, large-fruited varieties we have today. Among the important producing countries are the US, Italy, Spain, France, Greece, and Israel, as well as a great many African, Asian, and Latin American countries. Sweet peppers are very high in vitamin C, containing about three times as much as that found in an orange. Green peppers contain less than the red, but still are a good source. Sweet red peppers are also an excellent source of vitamin A, having ten times more than that found in sweet green peppers. Both the red and green are good sources of dietary fiber, folate, and potassium, as well as flavonoids and phytochemicals. The various varieties of sweet pepper differ greatly in color, shape and size. They are most commonly found green, red or yellow but also come in various shades of orange, white, purple or black. Green and red sweet peppers are in fact of one and the same variety, the difference in color arising simply from different harvest times. All unripe peppers start off green and taste a little bitter; but as the ripening goes on, not only does the colour change, but so does the flavour, becoming sweeter and less bitter. With its season and growing conditions matching those of warm climate loving aubergines and courgettes, it is no surprise sweet peppers are so prominent in Mediterranean dishes mixing those three ingredients. Sweet peppers can be eaten raw chopped in salads, fried, roasted, or preserved. Their empty core and pump shape also makes them ideal for stuffing. TD has pelnty of sweet pepper recipes, try some of them:
The Beckham's roasted red peppers and tomato soup
Red peppers stuffed with spiced lamb and rice
Provençal tian
Grilled snapper on poêlée of red peppers and balsamic vinegar

Eat now: raspberries

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

Velvety, juicy, gorgeously sweet and with a delicious hint of tartness, raspberries are not only a delightful fruit, they are also pretty as a jewel and packed with goodness. The British raspberry season lasts until October but the main picking month is July so start enjoying them now. The UK is the ninth largest raspberry producer in the world and in season, British raspberries (many grown in Scotland's "fruit belt") dominate the UK market. A member of the rose family and a bramble fruit like the blackberry, raspberries are delicately structured with a hollow core. This makes them very fragile and highly perishable so handle them carefully. Pick the squashed ones out of the box before storing them in your fridge and rinse them delicately under a trickle of water before eating. Like strawberries, raspberries are most flavourful when eaten at room temperature so take them out of the fridge 30 min before eating if you can. Raspberries are great for your health too. Low in calories, they possess almost 50% higher antioxidant activity (with potential cancer prevention properties) than strawberries, three times that of kiwis, and ten times the antioxidant activity of tomatoes. They are high in Vitamin C, B and manganese. And good news, freezing and storing raspberries does not significantly affect their antioxidant activity, although their concentration in vitamin C is halved by the freezing process. Raspberries are a splendid companion to chocolate (from white to dark), vanilla, nuts and almonds, making them one of the best fruit friends for a sweet-toothed gourmet. You can serve them whole with cakes or ice cream, or make a quick coulis by crushing them with a fork with a drizzle of lemon juice and a bit of icing sugar . Raspberries also work well in savoury dishes, toss a couple in a salad with fatty fish or crush some in a marinade to add a bit of tanginess. Tasty Diaries has lots of gorgeous raspberry recipes, check them out:
Luscious raspberry and almond cake
White chocolate mousse with fresh mint and raspberries
Hot smoked trout, raspberry and hazelnut salad
Vanilla and raspberry vacherin
Lightly spiced PĂŞche Melba
Unforgettable warm chocolate fondant

Eat now: gooseberries

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

The British gooseberry season has now just started with the tart, green variety already on the stalls, soon to be followed by its sweeter, red sister. Related to blackcurrants and redcurrants, gooseberries are grown and eaten in cooler climates across the globe, the British weather being ideally suited to bring the gooseberry to perfection. Historical records show the fruit was already consumed in the UK in the sixteen's century, its cooling, acidic juice being prized for the treatment of fever. To use the berries, remove the stems and tops with scissors before eating. Blanching them a couple of minutes in boiling water will make them sweeter. British green gooseberries are juicy and sweet enough to be consumed raw, added to fruit salads or savoury dishes (see lentil, goat's cheese and gooseberry salad). Traditionally used in fools, both green and red gooseberries are also a happy addition to sweet tarts (watch out for my wonderful gooseberry and meringue tart recipe, coming soon!), or cooked in a compote or sauce with a bit of sugar and elderflower cordial. The compote can be used with fatty fish such as mackerel or pork (use the green variety for this), or simply poured over yogurt for a nice dessert (green or red varieties will do as long as you sweeten to taste). Lastly, try crushing gooseberries with a bit of olive oil, soy sauce, honey and lemon juice for a lovely fatty fish, lamb, or pork marinade.

Eat now: courgettes

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

A member of the squash family, the courgette has a tender flesh and seeds and soft edible skin. Courgette is botanically a fruit (the swollen ovary of the female courgette flower) but is mostly cooked as a vegetable. Its peculiar taste and texture divide diners between fans and foes but my conviction is that cooked well, courgette will seduce and convert its greatest adversaries. So even if you are not a fan, try the lovely courgette recipes in TD (listed below), they will hopefully change your mind on this fabulous fruit-vegetable. Courgettes range in size from about 6 cm to 15 cm, with smaller ones having a sweeter flavour. As well as the familiar green type, attractive bright yellow courgettes are also available. When buying, look for small (larger courgettes tend to have tougher skins), firm courgettes with smooth unblemished skins and a bright colour. Courgettes can be eaten raw or cooked, peel some of their skin off if you don't like their slight bitterness which comes from the skin. Finely chopped or grated raw courgettes and carrots can be mixed together and drizzled with vinaigrette to make a simple salad. They can also be steamed or fried and served with lemon juice or cumin as a mouthwatering side dish. Include them in tarts, risottos, pasta sauces or baked into a bread similar to banana bread. Courgette is also a main ingredient in the classic Mediterranean vegetable dish, la ratatouille, which mixes summer fruits and vegetables cooked over low heat for a long period of time (interestingly this vegetable was not consumed in the UK until the 1950s when British cooks discovered Mediterranean cooking thanks to the writings of Elizabeth David). Courgette flowers can also be eaten, they are a rich yellow colour and can be coated in batter and deep fried or stuffed and steamed or baked. TD has lots of delicious courgette recipes, so it you are not a fan yet, try these and you will be converted!:
Courgette and Gorgonzola veloute
Salmon with minty pesto crumble and courgette fondue
Parmesan and spring onions crusted chicken with courgette carpaccio
Quiche Lorraine sans pâte with grated courgettes

Eat now: tomatoes

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

Isn't this season wonderful? There are so many new fruits and vegetables on the stalls that I get stuck as to which to pick each week for this newsletter. This week it had to be fruity tomatoes, just because I found the sweetest yellow variety on my favourite vegs stall. According to the British Tomato Growers Association, we eat on average two tomatoes per week and a quarter of the tomatoes sold in the UK are British. This share is rising to a half during the British season, starting now and lasting through to October. Most of our imported tomatoes come from Spain, the Canary Islands (in the Winter), and Morocco. In season we can enjoy them at their best, freshly picked, deep coloured and full of sun goodness and sweet juices. As importantly, this also means we can enjoy lots of flavourful varieties that can't handle long travels as opposed to the standard commercially grown hybrid sort available throughout the Winter, with tomatoes picked unripe for a longer shelf life. Only now can we find tomatoes allowed to ripen fully on their wine before being picked and heirloom (or open-pollinated) varieties, which come in a huge range of sizes and colours from green to yellow, red or purple. Like most brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, tomatoes are a great health ally. They are a good source of Vitamins A, C and E, the natural plant pigments known as carotenoids. Of particular interest is their high concentration in lycopene and flavonoids, linked in a growing number of studies to a reduction in the onset of several chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease and some cancers (prostate, colon and digestive track). Cooking tomatoes increases their concentration in lycopene and makes it more readily absorbed into the bloodstream, especially when they are cooked with olive oil. This association is very common in the Mediterranean diet, possibly providing part of the explanation as to why it is associated with a longer life. Flavour-packed sun blushed and sun dried tomatoes also have high lycopene contents, but beware of their higher fat and salt contents. When buying fresh tomatoes, choose them deep red and smell them. No smell means no taste. They should also give just a little when you squeeze them. Refrigerated tomatoes won't ripen so just set them on the window sill and use them as you need them. If they start to get too ripe, you can pop them in the fridge and they will last longer. Enjoy them raw with a drizzle of olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a few salt cristals, or slow roast them for a fabulously sweet flavour, stuff them, cook them in sauces, the possibilities are dizzying!! Check out these few gorgeous tomato recipes on TD:
Slow roasted cherry tomatoes
La Trompette’s secret ingredient gazpacho
Creamy parmesan polenta with cherry tomato salsa
South African tomato bredie
Cherry tomato, goat’s cheese and tapenade tatin
Pasta shells with cherry tomatoes, tapenade and roast chicken
Super fast stuffed tomatoes with parma ham, basil and mozzarella