My Star ingredients

Eat now: Strawberries

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

Isn't it great? we can now FINALLY buy strawberries with a lovely taste when you bite into them. You know what this means: one, Summer is around the corner and two, British strawberry season has started! I heard on Radio 4 that the UK has optimum climatic conditions for strawberry growing, the longer days and mild temperatures apparently yielding perfectly sweet, firm and juicy fruits. We will be able to enjoy this gorgeous fruit at its best until August, although the season can now be somewhat stretched on either end with the use of polytunnels. In season, the vast majority of strawberries sold in the UK are local crops, while during the rest of the year strawberries are imported, picked slightly under-ripe to ensure they don't turn into mush during transportation. Since strawberries do not ripen after being picked, imported strawberries are often hard and have an undeveloped flavour. Although there are other varieties of strawberry, by far the best known and most popular in the UK is Elsanta. It has good flavour, a long shelf life and is an attractive glossy berry, which makes it a firm favourite with commercial growers. Nearly 80% of the fruit found in supermarkets during the main British season will be the Elsanta variety. If you are looking to sample the pletora of other varieties available, buy them at a farmers market near you or go to a pick-your-own farm. In addition to their universally loved taste, strawberries are good for you. Low in calories and sugar, they contain more vitamin C than oranges, are high in fibre, a good source of folic acid and manganese, and contain antioxidant flavonoids (linked with protecting against heart disease, stroke and cancers). When buying, look for berries that are unblemished and bright red with fresh-looking green hulls. The fruit should be not too firm and not too soft. The scent is an indicator of quality and smaller strawberries often have more flavour. Strawberries absorb water readily and so are best served just rinsed under running water with their hulls still on. Take them out of the fridge 30 minutes before eating as the cold reduces their flavour. Best, allow them to warm up under the sun, they will thank you with extraordinary flavour and juiciness. Strawberries are wonderful eaten on their own or, of course, with cream watching a tennis game at Wimbledon. Also try adding drizzles of balsamic vinegar reduced with a bit of sugar, eat them decadently dipped in melted chocolate, or try Tasty Diaries' mouth-watering strawberry recipes:
Strawberry tart the French way
Strawberry and balsamic vinegar soup with crisp almond tuiles
No-churn rhubarb, strawberry and mascarpone ice cream

Eat now: Cherries

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

Finally, shiny, fleshy, deep red cherries are stylishly starting to grace our stalls... and I am already eating my June food budget trying to keep up with my children's addiction to those sweet and juicy scarlet fruits. Adele loves them so much I actually felt compelled to use her cute little hands for this week's picture. The majority of eating cherries are derived from either Prunus avium, the wild cherry (sometimes called the sweet cherry), or from Prunus cerasus, the sour cherry. They are an expensive fruit because of their high cost of production linked to high irrigation requirements, high labour costs and high losses from rain and hail. Around 40% of world production originates in Europe with Turkey, the US, and Iran being the largest producing countries. Closer to us, Italy, Spain and Greece have large commercial orchards. The UK is also a cherry producing country but its production has dwindled over the past 50 years. Today, around 95% of cherries consumed in the UK are imported. A campaign to save the British cherry called CherryAid was launched last year by prominent food writer Henrietta Green. If you ant to do your bit, buy British cherries at farmers market or best, go to an orchard to pick your own. Cherries are best eaten warm, just picked from a tree. When buying them make sure their skin is plump and shiny without brown marks or wrinkled spots. Store them at room temperature and be quick to eat them, they will keep for a couple of days. Cherries have many heath benefits. They are packed with powerful antioxidants with sour cherries containing more of the potent antioxidant anthocyanin than any other fruit. Cherries also contain important nutrients such as beta caroten (19 times more than blueberries and strawberries), melatonin (which helps regulate biorhythm and natural sleep patterns) vitamin C (although less than strawberries), potassium, magnesium, iron, fiber and folate. Emerging evidence links cherries to many important health benefits ‚Äď from helping to ease the pain of arthritis and gout, to reducing risk factors for heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers. A 2008 study also found that a cherry-enriched diet lowered total weight, body fat (especially the all-important ‚Äúbelly‚ÄĚ fat!), inflammation and cholesterol-all risk factors associated with heart disease. The highly annoying part though is that sour cherries have higher concentrations of most of these health-promoting nutrients, the sweet variety on the other end having a caloric content double that of strawberries. The conclusion is that we need to eat both, gorgeous on their own or in pies, clafoutis, or jelly. Enjoy them while they last, they will be gone in July!

Eat now: broad beans

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

Broad beans are at their best from the end of May through to mid-July, when the pods are pale green and soft and the beans are still small. Originating in the Mediterranean region, broad beans are quite hardy to grow. There is a good British production, plus imports from Portugal, Italy and Spain. Very young pods can be cooked and eaten whole but most commonly the beans are removed from their pod before being cooked. Larger beans must be double podded, which also makes them more digestible. After they have been podded, blanch them for 3 minutes in boiling water and rinse under cold water. This loosens their white skin, which must then be removed by popping each bean out of it, revealing a vibrant green and tender flesh. Broad beans are a valuable source of protein. They also contain fiber, copper, iron, niacin, folate and vitamin C. There is of course more of these nutrients, especially vitamin C, in fresh beans than dried. There have also been claims that these beans can be used as a natural alternative to drugs like viagra, as their high content in L-dopa could stimulate the human libido... Buy them now at their best in fresh and crisp pods, and keep them in the bottom drawer of your fridge for 2-3 days at most for maximum flavour. The best way to prepare them is to briefly steam or boil them, or sauté them in olive oil with a bit of rock salt and a squeeze of lemon juice. Eat them as a side to a meat or fish, added to a stew or pasta dish, in a salad, or mashed up with olive oil, garlic and lemon and spread on a slice of bread. TD recipes with broad beans include:
Isreali couscous, broad bean and red bean salad
Fusilli with broad beans, parmesan and mint

Eat Now: Mint

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

A nous les Pimm's, Mohito's and barbecues, mint has arrived! Mint is a perennial that grows pretty much without care in almost all conditions. This makes it a great plant to have in your garden or on kitchen windowsills. It will become your best friend as the weather gets warmer, so handy for adding refreshing touches to your dishes and drinks. Its leaves, which grow from May through to late September, are a delight to both the nose and tastebuds. Just crush a leaf between your fingers and already you feel quenched, with the sun warming your neck and your woolly jumper magically turning into a crisp white linen shirt. The two most commonly found members of the large mint family are peppermint and spearmint (which is what you find on the market stalls), the latter being extensively used in cuisines all over the world. Other less common but great fun varieties include pineapple flavoured, apple, orange, banana, or even chocolate mints. Mint has remarkable medicinal properties. Packed with anti-oxydants, its freshening and germicidal properties have made it a key ally in oral health. Its strong aroma also helps opening up congested noses, lungs and throat, giving some relief in colds and respiratory disorders. Mint is well known for its ability to promote digestion, soothe stomach aches and help with irritable bowel syndrome. If you ate too much or feel a bit quizzy, make yourself a fresh mint tea by pouring hot but not boiling water over a bunch of fresh leaves. Cover the pot while the tea is seeping to prevent the valuable volatile oils from evaporating, and drink it warm. You will feel instantly refreshed and with a lighter stomach. When buying mint chose it with fresh, green leaves without stains or yellow leaves. Keep it in your fridge for up to a week with the stems dipped in a glass full of water (as with flowers) and the leaves covered with a pierced plastic bag. Mint freezes well also, so if you don't use all your bunch within a week, freeze the leaves spread on a flat surface then store them in a sealed bag. You can also chop them and freeze them in water in an ice cube tray. These are perfect for adding a fresh twist to your soups or stews and whipping up a quick post-work Pimm's without premeditation!

Eat now: Aubergines

Thursday, May 6th, 2010

Native to India, fleshy aubergines have a smooth and shiny skin and are most commonly found in deep, rich shades of burgundy (some less usual varieties also come with white, yellow or green skins, or with various colour gradients). The top aubergine cultivating countries are China and India, although the UK is also one of the top 10 world growers and the second largest European producer after Italy. Aubergines have high fiber contents and their skins are full of antioxydants, so do not peel them before eating. Oddly enough they have also been shown to contain nicotine - but nothing to worry here, you would have to stuff yourself with 9 kgs (20 lbg) of aubergines to ingest about the same amount of nicotine as with a cigarette. Aubergine has a soft, sweet and mild tasting flesh that picks up the taste of the other ingredients it is cooked with. Its fribrous flesh tends to absorb a lot of fat so before cooking sliced or cubed aubergine, sprinkle it with coarse salt and let it rest for 30 mins in a colander to draw out some of its water. Rinse well and dry, this will reduce the amount of fat needed for cooking. Aubergine is lovely eaten sliced and grilled on the barbecue, rubbed with a bit of garlic, thyme and olive oil. It is also delicious steamed, roasted, sautéed, puréed, or baked in gratins, and of course, it is a critical ingredient in ratatouille! Buy it with a smooth, plump skin and store it in the bottom drawer of your fridge. Aubergine doesn't like the cold so much so eat it as soon as possible. Tasty Diaries has featured a few recipes with aubergine, and more are to come:
- Chicken with aubergine and garlic sauce, served with polenta and rosemary coated roast potatoes
- Caramelized monkfish curry with aubergine and banana purée
- Roasted lamb with miso and garlic glazed aubergines, spinach and candied olives
- Grilled sea bream with aubergine and apple caviar
- Egg with HP sauce and quick ratatouille

Star of the week: Radishes

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

Radishes are available all year round in supermarkets with often a disappointingly insipid flavour. We are now in luck, the British season for red, crisp, peppery, pungent, juicy and refreshing summer radishes has just started and will last all summer long (you guessed right, I am not insensitive to these round little beauties). The most commonly eaten part of radishes is their cute bulb, although the tops can also be used as a¬†leaf vegetable (recipe ideas below). Radishes are typically eaten raw whole or sliced in salads, their bity flavour giving punch to the dullest dishes. Most of the peppery taste is concentrated in the skin so if the ones you bought are too pungent for your taste, peel them to reduce their strength. In France we also enjoy them whole ‚Äúa la croque au sel‚ÄĚ, dipped into a small bowl of coarse salt and eaten with a thick slice of buttered bread. Yum! For a more unusual dish, try steaming them for 15 minutes, then glaze them in a frying pan with butter and orange juice. Serve them sprinkled with orange zest as a delicious side dish to a roast. Do not throw away the rough radish leaves, which are¬†delicious and nutritious. You can braise them with other greens, or include in stir-fries, soups and pesto. In addition to their peculiar taste, radishes are packed with vitamin C and dietary fiber, making them a great friend if you are on a diet or have a propensity to err... not do as often what you ought to do on a daily basis. They are also a member of the cruciferous family, which includes broccoli and cauliflower, giving them anti-cancer properties. When choosing radishes, look for bright green leaves, which indicate freshness and promise a crunchy texture and peppery flavour.¬†Chop the leaves off before storing to prevent nutrients and water from being drawn into the green ends. Store the bulbs and the leaves separately in the fridge in the bottom drawer or in water (bulbs only) for up to 5 days. Many radish varieties germinate in 3‚Äď7 days and reach maturity in three to four weeks, so they are a great choice for children's gardens. Last, try this fun experiment to dress plates that will impress your guests and have fun with your children: cut a deep cross three quarters of the way down into a few radishes and soak them in cold water. Store in the fridge for a few hours and check out the results: a beautiful flower has bloomed!!!
Recipes with radishes:
- Thai lime and garlic chicken skewers with peppery Spring salad (featured in this issue)
- Nordic rollmop salad
- Chorizo, grapefruit, radish and bulgur salad

The veal issue

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

Unlike lamb, veal is not consumed as much in the UK as in the rest of Europe, mostly due to the justified bad press cruel veal rearing practices on the continent have received in this country since the 1990s. Distinctions must be made though between various rearing practices, with British veal, endorsed by high profile chefs such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Rick Stein and Gordon Ramsay, respecting the most stringent rules of animal welfare. Veal is the meat produced from 6 to 8 month old cattle - most commonly male calves from dairy herds, of little use to dairy farmers and not considered to make good beef. The largest veal producers are the Netherlands, where many British-born calves are still being exported today. After enduring stressful and long journeys away from their mother, a premium on white veal means the calves are then reared in the dark in isolated cells in concrete buildings and fed exclusively on milk, yielding sick and anaemic animals. This horrible treatment is forbidden in the UK, which has established higher animal welfare standards (although Dutch veal import is allowed). British farming requirements mean calves must be reared in accordance with the UK RSPCA's Freedom Food programme. They are either reared in herds in farms with minimum space requirements and access to straw bedding, natural light and food, or free-raised outdoors in the pasture with unlimited access to their mother’s milk and pasture grasses. For these reasons, you will recognise British veal from its rich pink colour. A national campaign aiming to encourage consumers to eat high-standard British veal was started in 2006, backed by high-profile chefs and Compassion in World Farming. Supermarkets caught on the bandwagon and most now sell clearly labelled rosé British veal alongside Dutch veal. Despite this, UK veal consumption remains low. This lack of demand means most calves born on UK dairy farms are either slaughtered at one or two days old, or exported to a terrible fate. If choosing the right product, eating veal, rather than abstaining, is a great way to encourage the development of good rearing practice. And its taste too, is delicious.

Star of the week: Asparagus

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

The official British asparagus website, which is full of interesting information on its title vegetable, says that the asparagus season lasts from 24th April to 21st June. So here I am, bright and early, trumpeting the official opening of the British season! I just could not wait any longer, already snapping all the early bunches at my favourite local vegetable stall. You guessed it, I have an uncontrollable lust for those green, slender, tender things, with a preference for the fat ones... In addition to their lovely and delicate taste, asparagus are great for your health. They are packed with folic acid, vitamin A and fibre, all believed to play an important role in the fight against cancer. Their fibre and high potassium contents also make them a powerful ally for heart disease prevention, with other properties including indigestion relief and immune system boosting. Additionally, asparagus could enhance sex drive, but then this claim was made by a writer of erotic works in the 16th Century, according to whom a daily dish of asparagus, first boiled, then fried in fat with egg yolks and condiments, had ‚Äėgreat erotic effects.‚Äô¬†(sorry, couldn't find more recent or reliable sources on this seriously hot topic ‚Äď looks like my research skills are getting a tad rusty). While the vast majority of British asparagus is green, it also comes in purple, white or somewhere in-between. The white variety (grown in France and other European countries) is grown in the dark to stop any colour developing and has a milder taste, while very purple asparagus can be a bit bitter. Asparagus is tastiest and most tender when freshly picked so buy it British grown at your local farmers market, the bunches will likely have the shortest field-to-stall time lag. When buying asparagus, pick firm, green spears with tight, crisp tips and store them in the dark in the salad drawer of the fridge. Before cooking, trim any white ends and tough, fibrous roots and peel their base with a vegetable peeler if the skin appears to be thick. Another (but less reliable) way to trim off the fibrous parts is to bend each stalk until it snaps, which defines the point where acceptable texture meets tough.¬†When cooking, boil for 5 to 6 minutes or saut√© in olive oil for 7 to 8 minutes. You can also serve them raw, finely sliced in salads. Slices will also cook in seconds in soups, risottos or stir fries. The possibilities are endless, so be prepared to see quite a few tested by this newsletter's smitten cook!

Star of the week: oranges

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

Although oranges are available all year, their season lasts from Winter to end of Spring depending on the orange varieties and it is during that season you will getthe sweetest and juiciest oranges. The stalls currently have plenty to offer, with gorgeous late season varieties in full glut. This includes striking blood oranges and ultra sweet Spanish Murcia and Valencia varieties, which are great for juicing. Spanish Navel oranges (with a belly button-like protrusion on one end ) are sweet, seedless and great for eating. Oranges have a well known high content in vitamin C and eating one will meet your vitamin C needs for the day. This vitamin is very sensitive to light, heat and air so if you like orange juice, try to juice your oranges at the last minute or keep your juice in a dark, sealed container in the fridge to preserve its vitamin content. Oranges also contain important flavanones, which have been shown to lower high blood pressure as well as cholesterol in animal studies, and to have strong anti-inflammatory properties. Annoyingly most of this phytonutrient is found in the peel and inner white pulp of the orange so this beneficial compound is removed by the processing of oranges into juice. In order to get their full benefits,buy unwaxed varieties when you can and use their delicious zest in your recipes! When buying oranges, weigh them, the heavier the juicier. Oranges do not necessarily have to have a bright orange color to be good. In fact, the uniform color of non-organic oranges may be due to injection of an artificial dye into their skins, a very common practice. Maybe counter-intuitively, larger oranges and those with a very textured skin are likely to be spongier and less juicy, so steer away from these in favour of smaller, smooth-skinned one. Oh and be green and do check the origin of the oranges you buy. Although the US, Brazil and Mexico are the largest orange producers globally, Europe is also blessed with large producers including Spain, Italy, Cyprus and Turkey. Lastly, a few tips: oranges can be kept at room temperature, and will release more juice if juiced warm. Rolling the orange under the palm of your hand on a flat surface will also help to extract more juice. Enjoy this gorgeous fruit!

Star of the week: Lindt 70% dark chocolate with roasted almonds slivers

Thursday, March 18th, 2010

I decided to start featuring at times branded products I come across and like. I was not paid to feature this chocolate nor was I bribed with free goodies (although a big ex-post thank you present from Lindt people wouldn't hurt - no flowers please, just send the stuff - in large quantities if you can). I spotted this new Lindt chocolate bar in my local supermarket. The promise on the packaging was appealing: 70% cocoa dark chocolate with roasted almond slivers. I tore it open barely bought (or maybe before paying? My kids were not with me so I probably did). Oh! Ah! the chocolate melted and then these thin, barely crunchy almonds! An upmarket Viennetta effect, so much better than whole almonds in chocolate!! What a coup for a mass-produced chocolate bar, I am quite impressed. I would have preferred a slightly higher almond concentration but still, a great product. It is currently priced at £1.59 for 100g, the same price as the regular dark chocolate bar. Given that I went back to pretty much buy the whole stock and I plan to return soon, expect it to rise ....