Vietnamese Prawn Noodle Salad

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It’s the same old story, or at least it is for me: I come home from a holiday, all sun-tanned, rested and full of good intentions, and declare that I only want to eat the cuisine of the country I just arrived home from. If you go right to the back of my food cupboards, you could probably find enough evidence to guess everywhere I’ve been on holiday in the past five years.

Cooking these dishes at home is easy enough, especially when you live in London and have access to speciality food shops for almost every country in the world, but eating out is a little trickier. Mainly it requires research: if you’ve just arrived home from a holiday exploring the ruins of Chichen Itza, walking into the first Mexican restaurant you find back home is unlikely to recreate your holiday gastronomic experience, because, let’s face it, a lot of restaurants in the UK offering ‘foreign’ cuisines are crap. That being said, if you do your homework, the more authentic places can easily be found (incidentally usually away from the tourist spots.) When I came home from a trip to Vietnam in 2009, I went straight to the Kingsland Road in, what was then a far shabbier, Hoxton to find the best place to satisfy my new-found love for Vietnamese food. Almost everybody I know has a favourite restaurant on the Kingsland Road, and most are fiercely loyal to theirs. I actually have three that I always go to: Mien Tay for pho, Song Que for grilled meats and the Tay Do Café for their tofu with chilli and lemongrass, which is, hands down, the best tofu dish in London.

If south-east Asian food is your thing, it is easy to be satisfied in London; with noodle bars and bahn mi stands in most neighbourhoods. Most are cheap and authentic, and many let you bring your own booze. The one thing that I have to say here, though, and my only real sticking point: the salads are never hot enough.

South-east Asian salads are typically shredded vegetables, and occasionally green mangoes, with a soy-lime-fish sauce dressing, some roasted nuts and a lot of chilli. It is easy to be fooled into thinking that they are completely innocuous, for they look like nothing, but they often pack more of a punch than most of the stir fries and noodle dishes. Once, I watched open-mouthed as a street food vendor threw a handful of chopped red birds-eye chillies into my comparatively small salad, seeds and all. In UK restaurants, the salads are far, far tamer. All of the elements are present and correct, but they will add considerably fewer chillies, presumably to better suit a western palate. I mean, they’re not wrong, for I have many friends who start panting on eating the tiniest bit of sriracha; but I do find myself underwhelmed by most of the salads I’ve had in London. The best one, for me, was the pomelo salad at Smoking Goat on Denmark Street, which was probably the closest to anything I ate in Asia.

This recipe is one that I developed some time ago. The vermicelli noodles makes it part south-east Asian salad and part summer roll filling, but I’ve come to like it very much. The dressing follows the main principle of south-east Asian food: balancing the sweet, salty, sour and spicy flavours. I almost typed ‘perfectly’ on to the end of that sentence and then realised that the perfection in this balance is found in your own personal taste. As you will have already gathered, I like a lot of heat in my salads, so have added five birds-eye chillies: two in the dressing and three in the salad . Do scale this down if the mere thought of it is making steam come out of your ears. Similarly, if you are a braver person than I (or you’re cooking dinner for my husband,) then add in one more. I tend to remove the seeds but, again, do keep them in if you wish. If you don’t like prawns, sub in any other leftover cooked fish or meats, or leave it out altogether.

My inlaws came to visit recently and we had this as a side dish alongside some bream baked with ginger and spring onion. And a lot of sriracha.

Vietnamese Prawn Noodle Salad

For the dressing:
2 tbsp dark brown sugar
2 tbsp fish sauce
90ml lime juice
2 birds eye chillies, deseeded and finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely grated

250g fresh vermicelli noodles
75g beansprouts
1 large carrot, cut into thin batons
1 cucumber, deseeded and cut into thin batons
3 birds-eye chillies, deseeded and finely chopped
300g cooked small prawns
2 tbsp basil, finely chopped
2 tbsp mint, finely chopped
2 tbsp coriander, finely chopped

Combine all of the dressing ingredients in a bowl, whisk to dissolve the sugar and set aside.

Stir fry the noodles according to packet instructions, along with the beansprouts, and transfer to a large bowl. Add the carrot, cucumber, chillies, prawns, basil, mint and coriander. Pour over the dressing and toss to combine.

Serves two as a main, or four as a side dish.

Spiced Lentils and Tomatoes with Kale and Baked Eggs

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I hate to begin writing anything with a bunch of excuses, but I’ve just been too busy to write lately. It’s always this time of year that my schedule becomes inexplicably hectic, my diary gets booked up, my inbox spirals out of control and I find myself eating chiller cabinet pizza for dinner twice in the same week. The shame, the shame.

I realise it’s been two weeks, but I have managed to do a little bit of cooking in amongst my frenzied attempts to grab food where I can. Although I am now on first name terms with the entire staff of the Great Portland Street branch of Pret, who may or may not have witnessed me having a complete meltdown over the phone, I have also got to spend time eating nice things: Like last week I finally got to go to Asma Khan’s wonderful Darjeeling Express residency at The Sun and 13 Cantons for a sublimely happy dinner with my best friend where no work was discussed at all. Also, Honey and Co. is within sneaking off-distance from my desk, so I’ve been hiding in there with coffee and cake. A lot.

I wish I could come back to you, lovely readers, all excited about a new recipe that I devised last week; but I really need to get started on the backlog. The recipes that I have been itching to share for a while now but haven’t managed to get down in type. The pieces of oil-splatted notepaper with odd scribbles on that are littered across my desk and threatening to overwhelm me.

This baked eggs and lentils dish was from a few weeks back, and I absolutely loved it. It was driven by my need to use up some old kale I had in the fridge after a Sunday lunch, and inspired by a recipe I found on the Serious Eats website. It is reminiscent of shakshuka, and its many variants, which I will often cook for breakfast at the weekend, but made more substantial with the addition of puy lentils. I have a bit of a thing for lentils and eggs, somehow the yolk just adds to the brilliance of lentil dishes. Especially if you have good bread handy.

Spiced Lentils and Tomatoes with Kale and Baked Eggs

Olive oil
½ onion, finely diced
1 mild red chilli
Sea salt and black pepper
1 x 400g tin chopped tomatoes
350ml vegetable stock
200g dried puy lentils
150g kale, shredded
4 or 6 eggs
Finely chopped parsley for garnish

Preheat the oven to 180°c.

Heat the olive oil in a large ovenproof frying pan, or chef’s pan, over a medium heat and gently cook the onion and chilli, with a little salt, until soft, about five minutes. Add the tomatoes and stock and bring to a simmer.

Add the lentils and cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally for about 30 minutes until soft. Stir in the kale during the last couple of minutes of cooking and check the seasoning, adding more salt and pepper if required.

Remove from the heat and make wells in the mixture for the eggs. Crack the eggs into the wells and carefully transfer the pan to the oven. Bake until the eggs are cooked to your liking, checking them after five minutes and then every couple of minutes thereafter. Garnish with parsley to serve.

Serves 2-3. Adapted from a recipe from Serious Eats.

Chicken and Broccoli

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If you grew up in the nineties and routinely ordered from a certain kind of Chinese restaurant, you could be forgiven for thinking it was all MSG-laden bright orange sugary sauces and mystery meat. Even now, and even in London, those places still exist and I avoid them as much as possible; but there is the other side of Chinese food that I adore: the side with Xinjiang lamb and cumin skewers, with Sichuan peppercorn-spiked twice cooked pork and fluffy bao with sticky pork belly and loads of chilli.

I’m also a sucker for those dishes whose names give little away about what they actually are. For example, who knew that Silk Road‘s ‘home style aubergine’ would be the best aubergine dish I’ve ever eaten? Slippery sweet aubergine flavoured with a little bit of chilli and a lot of garlic. Being the unfussy eater as I am, taking a punt on a dish that has no real description is part of the fun of eating out. I even once ordered ‘saliva chicken’ to the tune of some rather appalled looks from my fellow diners, only to discover that the translation is that it is mouth-watering, rather than containing spit, and was, naturally, delicious.

Even though seeing ‘chicken and broccoli’ on a page will leave you under no illusions about what the dish contains, it seems somewhat simplistic as it really is so much more than that. It’s not really a common dish in the UK, although I have seen it on menus once or twice, but it was in America that I first fell in love with it. It may have been because it came in one of those cardboard boxes with a ton of noodles and some red chopsticks, and I ate it on the street, ticking another one of my American food cliché boxes, who knows, but since I have been back I have made it many times. According to my husband, it is the most comforting food ever and he always asks me to make it for him when he is ill, of course in his favourite noodle bowl with the extra hot sriracha on the side.

Whilst being far from an expert on the vast subject of Chinese cookery, this dish always seems like an anomaly amongst Chinese stir-fry dishes as the flavour is pure savoury, without any sweetness or spiciness at all; which is why my husband, a chilli fiend, always adds the sriracha. Yes, it may be somewhat inauthentic, and it’s origins could be more Chinatown than China, but there is something about its simplicity that keeps me going back to it again and again. When it comes to choosing between this dish and ringing for a takeaway, this wins every time. It takes about half the time that a delivery does and there is no bright orange sauce anywhere to be seen.

Chicken and Broccoli

3 chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch pieces
3 tbsp vegetable oil
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp granulated sugar
2 tsp cornflour
1 tbsp dark soy sauce
1 large broccoli, cut into florets
75ml light soy sauce
2 tbsp dark brown sugar
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tbsp plain flour
1 tbsp rice vinegar
Sesame seeds

Place the chicken breasts in a large shallow bowl.  In a separate bowl, mix together 2 tbsp of the vegetable oil, bicarbonate of soda, granulated sugar, cornflour, dark soy sauce and 1 tbsp water, and pour over the chicken. Leave to marinate for half an hour.

Steam the broccoli for three minutes and set aside. Meanwhile, mix together the light soy sauce, dark brown sugar, garlic cloves, plain flour, rice vinegar and 2 tbsp water to make a sauce.

Heat the remaining oil in a wok and add the chicken with its marinade and a quarter of the sauce. Saute until the chicken is golden and cooked through. Add the remaining sauce and stir in the broccoli. Cook for another couple of minutes.

Top with sesame seeds and serve with rice or noodles.

Butternut Squash Falafel

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There are a number of kitchen breakthroughs that have made me ecstatically happy in the past: finally mastering a soft-centered chocolate fondant, for example, or finding the perfect pizza dough, but none so much as finding an oven-baked falafel recipe that actually works. Of course, as you can tell from both the picture and the description, it is not traditional falafel; but it isn’t little balls of chickpea-flavoured sand either, so you win some, you lose some.

I have an ongoing disagreement with my husband about whether to get a deep-fat fryer. I assert that I need one for doughnuts and such; he is concerned that I will spend my whole time cooking fried chicken and nothing much else. I’m sure that eventually he will cave, but until then there is very little deep fat frying going on around here. (I know that you can do this without a fryer, but my neighbours had a chip fan fire when I was a kid and I think of it every time I start pouring oil into a saucepan and freak out a little.)

This means that I don’t tend to make falafel very often, and instead use it as an excuse to visit my favourite falafel joint in town (Mr Falafel in Shepherd’s Bush, if you’re interested.) There is a reason that all of these places fry their falafel: because it makes the best kind, soft and slightly creamy in the middle with a very crisp crumb. I have made falafel in the oven before, but there is no real way to get the same results. Usually mine just has a crumbly consistency all the way through and saps all of the moisture out of your mouth in the way a dry Weetabix would (don’t pretend you don’t know.) I’m sure that somebody out there has found a way of making good oven-baked falafel, but they are a far more talented cook than I.

I was about to give up entirely when I found a recipe for sweet potato falafel in a very old Leon cookbook by Allegra McAveedy. I vaguely remember the days when they use to sell these in their restaurants, before the more traditional variety they sell now, and how much I liked them. Purists might argue that these are not really falafel, for they don’t contain any chickpeas, but the addition of gram flour gives a little bit of chickpea flavour to them. They are simple to make, with mashed roasted sweet potatoes, gram flour, herbs and spices and some lemon juice. I swapped out the sweet potato with a butternut squash, simply because I had a spare one in the fridge after buying ingredients for the same dinner twice during a particularly busy and stressful day, which worked just as well.

Again, before I get picked up by the falafel police, these are a different beast altogether, but ‘little butternut squash morsels’ didn’t quite have the same ring to it. The best way to eat them is exactly as you would: flatbread, hummus, a little chilli sauce, some raw shredded vegetables and a couple of pickled things. My favourite wrap from Mr Falafel also contains a little bit of crumbled feta, an excellent addition if you aren’t too worried about these being vegan.

Butternut Squash Falafel

1 butternut squash, deseeded, peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces
Olive oil
1½ tsp ground cumin
1½ tsp ground coriander
2 garlic cloves, crushed
30g fresh coriander, leaves and stalks, finely chopped
Juice of ½ lemon
140g gram flour
Sea salt and black pepper
1 tbsp sesame seeds (I used a mixture of black and white)

Preheat the oven to 200°c. Scatter the butternut squash pieces on a large baking tray, drizzle with olive oil and toss to coat. Bake in the oven for around 20 minutes until tender. Set aside to cool for a few minutes.

Mash the squash in a large bowl until smooth, then add the cumin, ground coriander, garlic, fresh coriander, lemon juice, gram flour and a pinch of salt and pepper and beat to combine. It should be a smooth, sticky mixture. If it is too wet, add a little more gram flour. Place the mixture in the fridge for half an hour to firm up a little.

When ready to bake, preheat the oven again to 200°c. Spoon mounds of the falafel mixture on to an oiled baking tray, using your hands to shape them a little if you wish, and sprinkle with the sesame seeds.  Bake in the oven for about 15 minutes until browned.

Serves four. Adapted from a recipe from Leon: Ingredients and Recipes.

Roasted Butternut Squash and Chickpea Salad with Tahini-Lemon Dressing

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For six weeks at the end of last year we were without an oven. One Wednesday morning my husband got up to make some whisky-soaked fruit scones for his colleagues and, suddenly, the oven let out an enormous bang and promptly died. Not only were the scones ruined, but so too were any thoughts of cooking with an oven before the end of the year, for all of our disposable income had been eaten up by Christmas shopping.  Fortunately, we still had the hob and a slow cooker (no microwave as we got rid of it to make space for the espresso machine – priorities,) and so I set about perfecting the art of curries, stir-fries and slow cooked stews.

I had always assumed that the worst thing about not having an oven would be not being able to bake, but it turns out the worst thing was something far more specific: not being able to roast root vegetables. Have you ever tried steamed butternut squash? I’m sure there are people who choose to steam it, I mean, my preferred method of drizzling it liberally with olive oil and sprinkling it with a load of salt before roasting it in the oven is hardly healthy; but what makes it really worth it is the little charred edges and the caramelised sweetness. Also, try living without roast potatoes. Impossible.

Of all the many ways I eat pumpkin and winter squash, this is the one that really showcases it at its very best. Don’t let the word ‘salad’ put you off, for it is actually a pretty substantial meal. I found it on the Orangette blog a couple of years ago and have made it a number of times since. Whilst it is vegan, it never really occurred to me that it was until I was looking for recipes for Veganuary. Do feel free to add in other vegetables if you wish; for example once I threw in some leftover tenderstem broccoli and it was delicious; but try, if you can, not to mess with the dressing. It’s as close to perfection as a salad dressing can be.

Roasted Butternut Squash and Chickpea Salad with Tahini-Lemon Dressing

1 butternut squash, peeled, deseeded and cut into 1 inch pieces
1 garlic clove, finely grated
¾ tsp ground allspice
Very generous pinch salt
Olive oil
400g tin chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 tbsp finely chopped red onion
Handful finely chopped coriander leaves

For the dressing
1 garlic clove, finely grated
3 tbsp lemon juice
3 tbsp tahini
2½ tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp water
Large pinch salt

Preheat the oven to 220°c.

Combine the butternut squash, garlic, allspice and salt in a large bowl. Drizzle over the olive oil and mix with your hands to coat the mixture. Spread out on a large baking sheet and roast in the oven for about 20 minutes until the squash is tender and starting to char at the edges. Set aside to cool a little.

Meanwhile, combine the chickpeas, red onion and all but a tablespoon of the coriander leaves in a large bowl. When the squash has cooled a little, stir it into the mixture.

To make the dressing, whisk together all of the ingredients in a bowl. Stir a little through the squash mixture and garnish with the remaining coriander. Put the rest of the dressing aside to be added to individual servings.

Serves four. Adapted from a recipe by Orangette.

Homemade Vegan Baked Beans

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Let me just start by saying this: I absolutely detest baked beans from a tin. I think I might have talked about this a few times before, so apologies for being a stuck record, but I’ll be quick. It’s not a snobbery about tinned food, nor a symptom of being a picky eater (I will eat pretty much anything else, except peanuts as I’m allergic), I just cannot stand them.

Their mere existence makes breakfast a bit of a stressful experience. I am partial to a proper London ‘caff’ now and again. You know the kind: formica tables, the smell of fried bread that permeates through everything and the mugs of tea served with the tea bag still in, floating in the milk on top. The problem is that everything comes with beans, and you therefore find yourself stressing ‘no beans’ so ardently through your order, that you come across as a little obsessive. Despite this, your plate may occasionally appear with beans on, and you can’t just scrape them off as the buggers get everywhere.

A while ago, my husband and I went for breakfast at Roast in Borough Market, where his beans came to the table in a little earthenware pot on the side of his breakfast. It was then that I noticed something unusual; these weren’t the usual lurid orange kind, they were butter beans, cooked in a dark tomato sauce with flecks of onion and pancetta and a few fresh herbs. It was with a little trepidation that I tried them, but they were delicious, and kicked off my love of homemade baked beans.

It seems somewhat contradictory, I know.

Since then, I have developed two baked beans recipes: one that takes no time at all, and one that takes forever. Naturally, I prefer the latter one, but I am often short on time, so make the former more frequently. I use tinned beans and tinned tomatoes and make them on the stovetop. The result is not as luxurious as the slow-cooked kind, but sadly I’m not always organised enough to plan ahead (but I will try soon so as not to deprive you of the recipe.) They still win over any kind of canned variety. Hands down.

Homemade Vegan Baked Beans

1 small red onion, finely chopped
1 small clove garlic, finely chopped
250g chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp brown sugar
2 tbsp cider vinegar
400g tin cannellini beans, drained

Heat some oil in a frying pan, or chef’s pan, over a medium heat. Cook the onion until soft and translucent, but not browned, about five minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another couple of minutes.

Stir in the chopped tomatoes, 250ml water, the brown sugar and cider vinegar. Add the beans, stir and bring to the boil. Simmer on a low heat for 25-30 minutes until the sauce has thickened. Season to taste.

Based on this recipe. Serves two.

Warm Pearl Barley Squash Salad with Balsamic-Dijon Dressing

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Being one of those people who never thinks I’ll be full from a plate of vegetables alone, grains are my saviour when it comes to vegan salads. Also, it’s eight days into Veganuary and I still haven’t plucked up the courage to try vegan cheese, so we aren’t even going to go there as a solution to the problem.

It seems somewhat pretentious to quote Aristotle in reference to a salad, but this really is one where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (I’m sorry, please feel free to delete me from all your social media feeds immediately.) I love all of the components: pearl barley, butternut squash, tenderstem broccoli, pine nuts, sundried tomatoes, mustard and an eye-popping amount of balsamic vinegar; but in this dish they come together to create something more magic than I could have imagined. Being grain-based, it is filling enough to have as a supper, but also packs up into a Tupperware for the next day’s lunch. I’m going to stop bigging it up after this, I promise, but it’s also ridiculously easy to make.

Still here? Good. The original recipe came from the BBC Good Food website, and has been adapted over the years a little. In an ideal world I would have roasted the butternut squash but as I have been without an oven since mid-December (which is a story for another day) steaming it was the only option. What I like about it best is that you can swap out any of the ingredients, depending on what’s available or in season, and it will still be an excellent salad. I always made it with pumpkin seeds, as per the original, until one day I came home to find that I didn’t have any, so substituted in half a bag of pine nuts and never used seeds again.

The recipe below yields about six large-ish servings; or eight lunch boxes. You can eke it out among more people if you serve it as a side dish. I once served it up as a vegetarian option at a BBQ, for example, and it went around about 15 people.

Warm Pearl Barley Squash Salad with Balasmic-Dijon Dressing

1 butternut squash, peeled, deseeded and cut into 1-inch pieces
250g pearl barley
250g tenderstem broccoli, cut into pieces
100g sundried tomatoes
1 small red onion, diced
50g pine nuts
1 tbsp capers, rinsed
Handful chopped basil, plus extra leaves for garnish
90ml olive oil
75ml balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
1 garlic clove, finely grated

[Note: I only steamed the squash as I am currently without an oven, I have previously roasted it and preferred the result. If you wish to do this, preheat the oven to 200ºc, toss the squash pieces in oil and a little sea salt and spread out on a baking tray. Roast for approximately 30 minutes until the squash is tender and a little browned at the edges.]

Steam the squash until tender. Meanwhile, cook the barley in a pan of salted water until soft; this will take approximately 25 minutes.  When the squash is cooked, remove to a plate and steam the broccoli until cooked to your liking – I like mine a little al dente.

In a large bowl, combine the cooked squash, barley, broccoli, sundried tomatoes, onions, pine nuts, capers and basil. Give it a good grind of pepper if you wish, but you will probably not need any salt due to the capers.

In a smaller bowl, whisk together the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, Dijon mustard and garlic. Pour over the salad and stir evenly to coat. Garnish with the additional basil.

Adapted from a recipe by BBC Good Food.