Fresh Basil Pesto – Pesto Genoese (vegetarian and vegan options)
Fresh basil: aniseedy, aromatic, tempting and prolific. If you can find the right spot for it, in a warm corner of the garden away from slugs, it grows perfectly in a pot. All you have to do is buy one of those supermarket pots of forced basil, for which I always feel very sorry, and take each little plantlet out, carefully separating them each from their too-close mates, and plant them in your pot in rich compost. Basil likes sun, warmth, lots of food and water, and it will reward you with the most amazing vibrant harvest. Keep taking the tops off the plants to avoid them going to seed and you will get beautiful big juicy leaves all the way into September. Even if you don’t grow it yourself, you can often get big bags of leafy basil from grocers which are very good value.
Home made pesto is by far and away better and different from the shop-supplied stuff. Bought pesto is perfectly good but try making your own and you won’t look back. You can adjust the garlic and lemon to your exact taste too, but there’s something about the freshness of the basil coming through. It’s quick to make and keeps in the fridge for weeks so you can keep a fresh pot going from July onwards and have enough to give away too.
Vegetarian parmesan is available which seems to taste fine, so that’s a good alternative if you prefer to avoid parmesan. For a vegan version you can leave out the cheese altogether and add a teaspoon of nutritional yeast for the umami feel.
Pesto is so versatile; it deserves a superlative. Here are just a few uses for it
Pine nuts are not cheap but they are worth it. You don’t need a lot, and if you buy a pack you can always use up the rest on a salad for lunch, they are wonderful lightly fried and salted.
Makes 2 small jars or one marmite jar, enough for about 8 portions of pasta or to marinade 8 chicken breasts Timings: 20 minutes
Put everything together in a large straight container and process with a stick blender until smooth and creamy. Add a little more salt and lemon juice to taste, and a grind of black pepper if you like. Test the texture, the end of season basil has more structure than the early leaves so you might need a bit more olive oil and lemon juice in your last batches of the year.
Spoon into your clean small jars and then dribble a layer of olive oil on top, which helps keep it fresh.
Keeps in the fridge for at least 2 weeks, if you replace the olive oil when you take a spoonful out.
Chicken Scrunchers with Gochujang Dipping Sauce
A family favourite, deservedly so. Easy to do either in a frying pan or in the air fryer if you have one. I have recently acquired one and I love it for the substitution of deep frying with healthier lighter air frying. You can whip this up for an easy kids’ lunch in 20 minutes.
I have written previously about my son’s fondness for Korean spicy flavours and his Mother’s Day gift of a tub of gochujang paste. We’ve used the spicy salty paste a lot and it’s still in the fridge and going strong. A little goes a long way. You can tone down the spices as suits your own family’s taste but this combination of sweet, salt and spice is a winner. I think we based the sauce recipe on Joshua Weissman’s (joshuaweissman.com) sauce for wings, but you can use it on any crunchy finger-type food.
Serve with a platter of vegetable batons alongside the chicken for extra dipping and you have a great healthy meal.
Serves 4 for a light meal Timings: 30 minutes
Vegetables for dipping: red or yellow pepper, carrots, celery etc. Whatever’s fresh and to your taste.
Dip the chicken strips into the beaten egg and then into the breadcrumbs to coat and leave them on a baking tray in the fridge to set the coating.
In a small saucepan, warm the oils together and briefly fry half the garlic and all the ginger until sizzling, but don’t brown them. Add in the soy, vinegar, rice wine, sugar and gochujang paste. Stir and simmer to blend. In a cup, mix the cornflour with 2 tablespoons water, then dip up a spoonful of the simmering sauce, mix into the cup, then tip the whole cupful back into the saucepan. Stir and bring to a simmer as it thickens. Let it cool a bit but keep warm.
Fry the chicken pieces either in a frying pan with a small amount of oil or in the air fryer until cooked through and the coating is browned and crisp.
Prepare the vegetable batons.
Serve the chicken, vegetables, and the sauce together and allow everyone to dip to their heart’s content.
Puff Pastry Cheesy Bites
So extremely more-ish you probably have to make two batches. And if you’re serving them as a starter then don’t blame your guests for not having much appetite for the main course.
You can use puff pastry to wrap up all sorts of things: anchovies with parmesan, parma ham, plain ham with mustard, whatever. I find that this combination of salty tangy cheese and the spice hit of cayenne pepper is the best but do try whatever suits your own tastes. The cheese melts out in a delicious crispy way and the cayenne just perks your appetite for another bite.
They’d also be good for a quick school holiday lunch, served with a green salad and a chopped tomato salsa.
Makes 26 rounds Timings: 40 minutes
Pre heat your oven to 190°C fan or 200°C circulation.
Have ready three flat oven trays lined with greaseproof paper.
Unroll the pastry on its own paper wrapping. Sprinkle the cheese evenly all over the surface and sprinkle the cayenne pepper on top. Roll the pastry up again and cut it into rounds about ½ cm thick. Place the slices on the trays, leaving enough space to expand – you can get about 8 on a tray.
Place in the oven for about 20 minutes until the cheese has melted and the pastry is puffed and golden. Slide them onto a wire rack to cool a bit and sprinkle with sea salt crystals.
Eat them while still warm.
Chipotle Griddled Corn on the Cob
A juicy spicy accompaniment to a main meal or a lunch time snack in themselves. Kids tend to love this, as with all meals they can eat with their fingers while running round the garden but who can resist getting stuck into a corn cob, getting the bits between your teeth and the butter down your chin? At this time of year you can buy them fresh from the greengrocer, or ready peeled in the supermarket. As with all vegetables, the fresher the better, so if you can get some at your local farmers market or from a farm shop where they grow and pick them, you’ll taste the difference.
Amp it up a bit by using a chipotle spicy butter and griddling the cobs to complete the cooking with a delicious charred overtone. You can do these on the barbeque or use a griddle pan with ridges. I’ve not tried them under a normal oven grill and I’m not sure that would work very well as I think you need the contact with the hot grid to get the charred effect. You can use any spice you like in your butter but chipotles have an affinity with the corn – maybe because they’re from the same part of the world originally or just because the smoky spice of the chipotles sets off the sweet corn so well.
Serves 4 Timings: 40 minutes
Bring a large pan of water (not salted as that hardens the corn) to the boil and add a teaspoon of sugar. Drop the corn cobs into the pan and simmer for 5-10 minutes depending on how fresh they are.
Pre heat your oven to 180°C, and get some kitchen foil ready.
While the corn is boiling, blend the butter with the chipotle, sauce and lime juice. A stick blender does this very well. Taste and add pepper and salt if needed.
Drain the cobs, run cold water on them and leave them to cool down a bit.
Heat up your griddle pan or fire up the barbeque.
Rub just a little butter on the cobs and grill them for a few minutes, turning so that the hot grill comes in contact with all sides of the cobs and chars them in attractive stripes. If the barbeque is really hot, this won’t take more than a couple of minutes per side so you have to keep your attention on the grill and keep turning the cobs. When you’ve got the charred stripes, place each piece of corn in a wrap of kitchen foil with a teaspoon of butter on the top of the corn. Wrap up the foil and put the plate of wrapped cobs into the oven for 20 minutes. The corn finishes cooking in the spicy butter and ends up tender, smoky and sweet.
Let them cool a little before serving. You’ll need napkins to mop the butter off your chin!
An indispensable part of any tapas selection, and a joyous addition to any party spread, sharing table or al fresco meal. We all love finger food, especially outside with our friends and family, and anything that makes life easier for the cook is a winner with me.
The fun thing about these peppers is that although they are mainly mild tasting, one in 10 has a spicy kick to it, and you can’t tell which ones by looking. So you’re adding a little risky gamble to your snacking, which gives you a very pleasant frisson of anticipation. The variety of peppers is so special that it has been awarded a PDO protected status by the EU. I like the feeling of almost eating a national monument – similar to the UK’s Stilton cheese or Italy’s Prosciutto Toscano ham.
Serve as part of a sharing table, or as a starter with a glass of Spanish red wine. You could pack them into a sealed container and take them along as a different vegetable for a picnic or put them in a lunchbox for your child to show off at school.
Serves 4 as part of a mixed starter Timings: 15 minutes
Make sure the peppers are dry or they’ll spit as they hit the hot oil.
Heat the oil in a heavy based frying pan – you are not deep frying but you need more than a slick of oil. Place the peppers in the hot oil and turn them as the skins puff and char. Fry for a few minutes, making sure all sides are cooked.
Turn them onto a plate and sprinkle generously with the flaky sea salt.
Serve warm or room temperature, and you will need a napkin to wipe your oily hands.
Grilled Feta Baguettes (vegetarian)
In Cologne Christmas market the spicy, salty smell of the Sheep’s Cheese Baguettes demands your attention.
The cheese is marinated in barrels of olive oil with whole cloves of garlic, chillies, herbs and other spices. The vendor hauls dripping chunks out of the barrel, scrapes off the crust of herbs and flaked chillies, smacks it expertly into white shards and throws them on to halved baguettes, which are then flashed under a hot grill until seared and starting to brown. You eagerly, biting through the crust to find the melting garlicky cheese, oozing gently into bread.
These slices of goodness are just as at home at a summer garden party and are easy to prepare and serve. They're from my Summer of Six set of recipes, designed for small group outdoor parties, appropriate for this summer and autumn gatherings. Have a look at the pages (link above) for lots of ideas to make your entertaining easy and tasty. They'd be good for a school holiday lunch too.
Serves 6 Timings: marinate the feta for at least 2 days; can be much longer. Final preparation, 20 minutes.
Several days before eating, marinate your cheese. Mix the oils with the chilli, garlic, bay, and dried herbs and spices in a leak proof fridge container. Take the cheese out of its packet and cut in half across and then cut each piece across its equator, to make thinner pieces. Put these into the container and turn to cover with oil. Put all the cheese into the container, fix the lid, turn it back and forth a couple of times to distribute the oil and then leave in the fridge for a few days. Turn it again a few times a day, whenever you’ve got the fridge open.
Pre-heat your grill to a high setting. Cut the baguette into 3 slices and then halve each piece, so you have 6 long half-pieces. Grill these lightly – 2-3 minutes max - just to toast the top surface.
Drizzle some of the oil from the container over the toasts, especially at the edges, and then cover the slices with the cheese pieces. Drizzle a bit more oil over, adding any pieces of marinated chilli you find. Grill for a few minutes until the cheese just starts to brown - it won’t melt like cheddar.
To Serve: eat hot, with maybe a few rocket leaves scattered artistically on the cheese, or some chopped chillies and coriander.
Mushroom Croquetas (vegetarian)
In February I gave a recipe for ham and smoked cod croquetas, as you might find in Spain if you are tapas-cruising in Malaga or Bilbao. Now I tried a similar recipe for mushroom croquetas, which have a very intense flavour and a lovely interesting black colouring. They are a perfect dish for a vegetarian lunch along with a side salad, or as part of a Spanish themed spread. They are a bit of a faff to make as the bechamel is soft and tends to stick to your hands, but you can do most of the work ahead of time and they are so satisfying to eat I can forgive them the slight hassle.
Makes 25 croquetas - which is enough for a party, as they are quite filling. Timings – 60 minutes on Day 1, 90 minutes on Day 2.
Fry the fresh mushrooms in a pan with some vegetable oil and butter – the liquid will start to come out. Keep cooking on a low heat. Put your dried mushrooms in a bowl and cover with boiling water. After 5 minutes take out the rehydrated mushrooms, cut up finely and add to the pan with the other mushrooms. Keep the soaking water. When the liquid has evaporated from the pan, chop or blend up the mushrooms to give quite a solid paste. Use 100ml of the soaking liquid (which will be dark brown and smell strongly of fungi) the bechamel but make sure there isn’t any grit in it.
Make the bechamel in a fairly heavy bottomed saucepan. Melt the butter and the oil together, add the flour and stir over a gentle heat, cooking the flour without letting it burn. Add the liquid and keep stirring. It will thicken as you stir. Keep adding the liquid to make a very thick bechamel sauce. You need to keep stirring and cooking for a while to make sure any flouriness is cooked out, and the sauce is creamy. Add the pureed mushrooms and taste for seasoning. A sprinkling of salt and a generous grinding of pepper lifts the flavour. It will be an interesting sooty black colour.
Line a container with cling film – I try to avoid using cling film these days but I have tried other things and the sauce sticks and you waste a lot, so I do use cling film for this. Pour the cooled flavoured bechamel into your container and wrap the cling film over the top to stop a hard skin forming. Place in the fridge for 24 hours to chill thoroughly and set firm.
Next day, prepare a flat bowl with beaten egg and another one with breadcrumbs. Working on a floured baking tray, take a dessert spoonful of the set bechamel mixture and roll it in the flour, using flour to stop your hands sticking too. Form it into a cylinder about as long as your thumb and a bit thicker. Then drop two at a time into the egg mixture, then into the breadcrumbs, firmly pressing the breadcrumbs onto the eggy surface. They should stick and make a firm dry coating. Put the completed croquetas on a plate to set again.
It is fiddly, and it takes a while – it might be easier if you have a production line of helpers assisting you with this.
When the croquetas have had a few minutes to set, heat 2cm of oil in a heavy pan, or fire up your deep fat fryer or your air fryer. Fry the croquetas quite briefly in medium hot oil – the filling is already cooked, so you just want to warm it up and brown the breadcrumbs. Remove from the hot oil or from the air fryer and serve as soon as you can – they do keep warm in the oven quite nicely but are best straight from the pan.
Serve with a little pot of mayonnaise mixed with crushed garlic and a simple green salad.
Packs a punch, Gazpacho does. It doesn’t leave you in the dark as to its intentions. It wants to jump up and shout, and make you do the same. It’s a cold soup, made from raw vegetables, and you can feel it doing you good, as well as waking up your tastebuds. I used to make this quite often in the summer and take it to work in a chilled thermos flask for my lunch. Apart from the aroma of garlic making it obvious what I was eating, the little moans of pleasure from my desk caused much merriment in the office. Never mind, anything that makes you feel that good at work should be encouraged.
Do make it a day ahead so the flavours can meld, and serve it as chilled as you can, as that suits it. You can adjust the proportions to your own tastes – I quite like the sharp vinegary tang, but you can reduce the amount of vinegar if you want a gentler approach.
If you have fresh parsley to hand, it’s lovely to add some towards the end of the blend so you get it rather roughly chopped, but it’s not part of the classic recipe.
For a dinner party, you can serve little chopped vegetables as a topping and let everyone choose their own, but it’s not necessary for a family lunch.
Serves 4 Timings: 30 minutes and then at least 2 hours to chill
Put the whole lot into the bowl of your blender and add about 200ml cold water, some salt and pepper. Blend until fairly smooth. Add the parsley at this time if using.
Blend again, and taste for seasoning and acidity. You can add a teaspoon of sugar to balance the acidity, a little more salt or a little more oil.
Blend and chill until needed.
The soup will keep at least 2 days in the fridge.
Chicken Yuk Sung - lettuce leaf wraps
Light, fresh and tasty, these are ideal for a make-it-yourself starter (always the most relaxed way to begin a meal) and even for a light low-carb lunch. Yuk Sung comes from the Chinese word for “fluffy meat” and describes the almost shredded texture of a dried meat you can buy which is used for topping a rice porridge or tofu dish. This recipe has moved a long way from there, and the only fluffy thing about it is the crispy rice vermicelli, which impart a fabulous crunch to the mouthful.
I have used preserved Chinese vegetable in the recipe, which gives a deep sour salty background and a slightly squeaky texture. You buy this in packs from a Chinese grocery or on line, and you can use it in a lot of Chinese food. If you can’t get it, substitute some well chopped firm fresh white cabbage, and soak it in salted water for 10 minutes.
I have based the filling on a recipe from the always reliable Kwoklyn Wan, (kwoklynwan.com) with a few additions from other sources. It went down a treat with my family and we made it into a main course and served rice alongside too.
Serves 4 Timings: 60 minutes – which is mostly vegetable chopping, the cooking only takes 10 minutes
Wash the lettuce well and separate the leaves but keep them whole. You can leave the lettuce in cold water to crisp up while you fry.
Combine the sauce ingredients and set aside in a small bowl.
Put about 2cm of oil in your wok, heat up well and deep fry the vermicelli a few at a time. They will puff up instantly and turn brown nearly as quickly, so scoop them out and put them on kitchen towel to drain. You can salt them lightly.
Remove most of the oil from the wok and start to stir fry.
Fry the ginger, garlic and chilli for 30 seconds to release the aromas, then add the chicken. Stir fry for 5 minutes or more until the chicken is cooked through and the juices have evaporated and concentrated back into the meat. Set aside on a plate.
Fry the onions, carrot, pepper, water chestnuts and preserved vegetable briefly to soften them. Add the sauce to the wok and cook for a couple of minutes to start to concentrate it. Add the chicken mixture back in, stir and cook. There shouldn’t be liquid in the bottom of the wok, you are looking for a fairly dry mix.
Remove the wok from the heat and let cool a couple of minutes while you drain and spin the lettuce and get the vermicelli on the table.
Let everyone make their own parcels of delicious delight, wrapping the filling of spicy chicken and vegetables and a pinch of crunchy vermicelli in the tender lettuce.
Swedish Stuffed Eggs
Eggs and fish are a classic Scandinavian combination. Add some fresh herbs and a spritz of lemon or a fizz of horseradish and you have a thing of beauty.
Stuffed eggs are a staple of any Scandinavian buffet. They are the perfect party food, easy to prepare ahead, pass round and let your guests eat with their hands as they wander through the garden.
Often, in a stuffed eggs recipe (see my own recipe for Devilled Eggs) the yolk of the hard boiled egg is combined with a variety of other ingredients and then used to stuff the egg cavity. In this recipe, the smoked salmon mousse is just piped on top of the whole egg, leaving the yolk in place for an even richer combination. Top with a strip of smoked salmon or even a little sprinkle of salmon roe if the budget runs to it.
Serves 6 Timings: 40 minutes
Reserve one slice of smoked salmon for decoration, snip it into lengths and leave aside. Reserve some fronds of dill for decoration too.
Wash the lettuce thoroughly, separating the leaves but keeping them whole, and leave in cold water to crisp up.
Make the mousse by blending the smoked salmon, cream cheese, chives, dill, sour cream, horseradish and lemon juice. I like to use a hand blender for a smooth result. Taste and adjust the seasoning – you might need a little salt and pepper to bring up the flavours.
Scoop the mousse into a piping bag with a wide star nozzle. Halve the eggs, and you might need to take a sliver off the bottom of the white to stabilise them. Pipe the mousse on top of the eggs and chill in the fridge until ready to serve.
To serve just place each egg on a lettuce leaf and add a strip of smoked salmon and a frill of dill.
A Hug from the Kitchen
Healthy, hearty, happy food, for good times and bad. Cheer yourself up, or spread the cheer around your family and friends.