Smart as a carrot

Carrot Halwa seved with Ice Cream

My dad is the sweetest man, kind to his bones, but like lots of northern men of his generation, he can be a little short on the compliments (‘Don’t be daft.’) So it’s rather marvellous when your appearance garners his greatest accolade ‘smart as a carrot’. I’ve no idea where this phrase comes from, though I’ve never heard it outside of my native north east. What I do know, with absolute certainty, is that you don’t want to be its antithesis: ‘a bag of tripe’. When I was a kid, my dad’s Saturday afternoon treat while he listened to the football results was a bowl of tripe with vinegar. I used to think it looked like a crumpled heap of greying laundry. This isn’t usually what I’m aiming for when I leave the house.

Today’s smart as a carrot dish comes from Karuna, who works with Séan. When I’m testing recipes, a church fête’s worth of cakes, biscuits and tarts can come out of the Lickedspoon kitchen. It would be impossible for us to eat them all, so I take some of them to the park and the rest Séan takes with him to the office. They are a very good tasting panel. I get notes: too sweet, not sweet enough, too many nuts, or too few, love the coconut, hate it. I’m grateful for the feedback, but I’m thrilled to get my hands on this recipe. Several of you commented on the White Chocolate Cake saying you love cardamom, so I hope this appeals to you too.

Next week, tripe… Maybe.

Recipe all written out Karuna’s recipe, such neat writing, such a messy fridge.

Carrot Halwa

Served with gold-leaf!

I didn’t have jaggery (and, shamefully, couldn’t peel myself out of the kitchen, walk around the corner and buy some) so I used molasses sugar. It meant my halwa ended up quite dark. I also got a bit distracted and let it simmer a little too long, so it was very thick and intensely fudgy. No matter, I just sprinkled on a little gold leaf and it was delicious with the ice cream. But, note to self, next time jaggery and pay attention.

Serves 6-8

450g carrots, peeled and sliced
280ml semi skimmed or whole milk
280ml double cream
4tbsp shelled, unsalted pistachios
225g jaggery, raw sugar or molasses sugar
55g granulated sugar
10-15 cardamom seeds
½ tsp fennel seeds
200g ground almonds
4 tbsp ghee or clarified butter
4 tbsp almond pins

The ingredients

Put the carrots, milk and cream in a saucepan. Bring to the boil and stir well. Reduce the heat to a simmer and simmer for an hour, stirring occasionally, until the mixture has reduced to half the volume and has become thick and heavy.

Carrots away Carrots boiled in cream.

Molasses in Adding the molasses sugar.

While the carrots are cooking, roast the pistachios in the oven at 180˚C/350˚F/Gas mark 4 until just fragrant, about 8 minutes.

Put both sugars into the carrot mixture, stir to dissolve and simmer for 10 minutes.

With a small, sharp knife, halve the cardamom pods and remove the seeds. Discard the shells. Grind the cardamom and fennel seeds in a pestle and mortar, or in a bowl with the end of a rolling pin, until fine.

Reduce the heat under the carrot mixture and add the ground almonds and ghee or clarified butter. Stir for about 10 minutes until the halva starts to pull together into a solid mixture. Stir in the ground cardamom and fennel.

Serve in dishes at room temperature, or straight from the hob, with cream, ice cream or kulfi. Garnish with the toasted pistachios and almond pins.

Flipping snow the bird

Ready to eat

Look, I’m not even going to mention the ‘s’ word. It’s not so much the snow (oh, how quickly those January resolutions vanish) I mind, nor the cold, nor the wet, but now, after the first few postcard-y weeks, it’s the absence of colour that’s doing me in. I’m enveloped in a gloomy new palette that runs the gamut from smoke, to mouse, lead pipe and speculum (A lifetime ago when I worked for an interiors magazine, I ordered two litres of emulsion for a shoot in a stylish grey, called ‘speculum’ on the paint chart. I kid you not. Very Dead Ringers). It requires a more subtle level of connoisseurship than I posses to appreciate.

Colourful spices

So I retreat to the comfort of my kitchen Crayola box, more specifically to my spice drawer, and its soul-feeding riot of reds, yellows and rich ochres. I had a brace of pheasant that needed using up and combining the bounty from a chilly Scottish moor with the heat of far away spice markets seemed like the perfect two finger salute to slush, ice and grimy, gritty pavements.

Pheasant chitarnee

Pheasant chitarnee

This recipe is from The Game Cookbook  by Johnny Scott and the entirely life-enhancing, gloom-banishing Clarissa Dickson Wright, only very slightly adapted by me (I had no fresh ginger so used dried, and I added some mustard seeds and saffron, just for the sunniness of it). I’m sure it would be delicious with chicken too.

6 onions, finely chopped
3 tbsps olive oil
3 cloves garlic, sliced
1 tbsp ground ginger
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp mustard seeds
2 tbsps fresh coriander, chopped
6 green cardamom pods
1-2 red chillies, finely chopped
Pinch of saffron
2 pheasants, cut into serving portions
1x400g tin of chopped tomatoes
2 tbsp white wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

To serve: basmati rice, yoghurt, more coriander

Warm the oil over a medium-low heat in a large saucepan. Cook the onions gently in the oil until they are golden. Add the garlic, ginger, turmeric, mustard seeds, coriander, cardamom, chillies and saffron and cook for a further couple of minutes.

Add the pieces of pheasant to the pan and sauté, turning occasionally for about 20 minutes. Add the tomatoes and vinegar and cook for 30 minutes until the pheasant is well coated with the thickened sauce. If the dish is a little too sharp, add a pinch of sugar. Serve with basmati rice with yoghurt and coriander over the top.

Get stuffed…

Mini aubergines

One of the most joyful things about being a cook is that the smallest discoveries delight you. A special find can make your day. And these days that’s just as well, with our glorious Mother of Parliaments looking like crack whore, spewing out less than Honourable Members hell bent on venally redefining shamelessness in a way that makes Katie Price look like a particularly devout Amish sister.

As I walked past the little Indian green grocers on our high street, I was thrilled to see a crate of gorgeous, fat baby aubergines. So pretty and tempting, I couldn’t resist picking up a few handfuls, along with a bundle of perky curry leaves. When I went inside to pay, the gently smiling woman at the till explained to me how she stuffed them and baked them and it sounded delicious. Just the thing for dinner.

To be honest, our sharing of this recipe was largely done in the international language of mime and point. And I was delayed in writing it down as my short trip home became rather protracted due to it taking me 30 minutes to pay a cheque into the bank. (HSBC Stoke Newington High Street – one working teller and a seemingly permanently broken paying-in machine at 3.15pm, are you sure? No, I don’t want to buy travel insurance in Turkish, investigate an ISA, arrange to purchase a house within the framework of Shariah law, stock up on travellers’ cheques – I just want to GIVE. YOU. MY. MONEY. PLEASE. I’ve stood in shorter, more cheerful queues when I lived in Soviet Russia.)

So I hope I remembered it accurately. I probably didn’t, but it was good. And – note to Members of Parliament everywhere – I paid for it all myself. You should try it sometime.

Stuffed aubergines

Stuffed aubergines

Gosh, I sound a bit cross today. I’m probably just hungry…

I didn’t have any chillies – an uncharacteristic oversight on my part – and they would have been good in this dish. But given my present state of mind, I probably don’t need the extra heat.

Serves 4 as a main course

3 tbsps groundnut oil
A dozen or so small aubergines
1 tsp mustard seeds
2 onions, halved and finely sliced
2-3 curry leaves
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1 mild, green chilli, deseeded and chopped (optional, depending on your state of mind)
A small ‘thumb’ of ginger, peeled and finely grated or minced
3-4 fat cloves of garlic, peeled and finely grated or minced
About a small teacupful of desiccated, unsweetened coconut
3-4 large, juicy tomatoes, grated (see TIP)
A small handful of coriander leaves, roughly chopped, plus a few more for garnishing


Spices Cumin, cardamom and mustard seeds

Poppadoms Poppadommmmmmmm

Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas mark 6.

Cut the aubergines from their bases to their tips and cut them again crossways, being careful not to cut all the way through the skin – you want a cross-shaped cut which allows you to open them up a bit. Warm 2tbsps of the oil over a medium heat in a large saucepan and sauté the aubergines for five minutes or so until they soften and browned a little. Put to one side to cool while you prepare the stuffing.

Add the remaining tablespoon of oil to the pan and fry the mustard seeds for a minute or so until they start to pop. Add the onions and sauté them until they soften and turn a rich, golden brown. (Unlike most European dishes, where we cook onions until they’re soft, sweet and translucent, lots of the flavour in Indian dishes comes from caramelising the onions.) Stir in the curry leaves, cumin, ground coriander, chilli (if you’re not as cross as me and you can take the heat), ginger and garlic and a good pinch of salt. Stir and cook for a few minutes until all of the onions are well coated. Add the coconut and tomatoes and stir until thickened a bit, then stir in the chopped coriander. Taste, and add a bit more salt if it needs it. Stuff each of the aubergines with a couple of spoonfuls of the filling and line them up in an ovenproof dish. Cover tightly with foil or a lid and bake for 50-60 minutes. We ate ours with basmati rice, minty raita and black pepper poppadoms. I feel more cheerful just typing that.

10, 9, 8, 7......My little flotilla of aubergines, about to be launched into the oven

Look, I spend very few unhappy moments in the kitchen, but almost all of them have involved skinning tomatoes. Chopping onions? Mincing chillies? Gutting fish? No problem. Pile ‘em up. But tomatoes. All that cutting of crosses, boiling of water and preparing of ice baths seems a bit too like some kind of arcane pagan ritual to me. I mean, I just want to eat them, not sacrifice them on the altar of gastronomy. These days, I mostly grate them unless I’m doing something very refined. Just press a ripe tomato against the coarse side of a box grater and grate away – you get all of the pulpy flesh and, as you press, the skin is left at the end all ready for you to discard. And what’s a few seeds between friends, particularly on a week night?