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Monday, 28 May 2012

Bold and Daring....(Who Me?)

So summer is here and I’m craving cucumbers and oranges.

No. Not together.

That would be too much even for my strange and woodsie mind.

But you know what I mean. Summer fare. Cool, breezy, refreshing stuff. Which is, like I said, cucumbers and oranges. And tomatoes. And watermelon and mint and carrots and iceberg. And so on.

I’m thinking of each of these individually, but you can totally combine them if you like.

In fact some of the said items go swimmingly well together.

Because good food, after all, is about intelligent combinations.

Of course, combining two foods which don’t sound like they should go together, but which, in fact do go together, is hardly peculiar anymore. Indeed, the art of seemingly unpairable food pairing has become, of late, less the juxtaposition and more the rave.

Think hard enough, and I’m sure you’ve all experienced it, somewhere or the other.

Ice-cream is a particularly good candidate for experimenting with eccentric combos. For example, Freggo in Mayfair does a scrummy Malbec and Berries ice cream, while Geluopo in Soho does a mean Ricotta and Sour Cherry. San Francisco’s Humphry Slocombe is the ultimate authority in bizarre mixes. I’ve had (and loved) their Bourbon and Cornflakes (or what they call “Secret Breakfast”) as well as the Strawberry and Jalapeno, and Beetroot and Saffron. I have to admit, they were all fantastic.

It works with savouries too. Yottam Ottolenghi  (who in my mind should be sainted) has managed to come up with a long and lip smacking list of creative combination fare such as shakshuka peppers with cumin, saffron and eggs or halibut and harissa stew with lemon ricotta. Both of which I must make for you. You will be laughing, it’ll be so good.

Closer to home, my local pub serves a rare Tuna steak with a cool, refreshing and first-time-pairing for me – papaya and tomato salsa.

And of course, culinary master, Heston Blumenthal’s panache for dreaming up daring flavour combinations (white chocolate and caviar, salmon poached in liquorice et al) is probably at the heart of the Fat Duck’s runaway success.

Sometimes it’s about perception. Seemingly odd combinations don’t seem so odd anymore if you hear of them often enough. Think eel and avocado. Bizarre, very bizarre, if it wasn’t a staple on sushi menus. But since it is, you don’t even think about it twice.

So, for obsessive food geeks such as myself, I’ve discovered a book called The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit. It’s not new (it was published in 2010) – I’m just behind. But better late, as they say.

Anyhow, in the book, Signet takes 99 normal kitchen ingredients and combines them into 900 pairings (out of a possible 4,851) (impressed by my Maths?) (Don’t be. I asked Sid) and then explains why she thinks they work. She separates, quite distinctly, flavour from taste – the former being much broader, encompassing sight and smell and sound and memory and touch – and then creates a “flavour wheel,” which looks like a multi-coloured wheel of fortune, in which she groups common foods into flavour categories such as grassy or earthy or meaty or marine.

It’s all pretty scientific (and therefore aptly called a thesaurus) but there’s enough lyrical language, personal anecdotes and humour in her writing to make it all quite compelling as a book.

You might think it’s geeky. But since I love books almost as much as I love food, I think it’s rather brilliant.


Here’s where I lose the plot. And begin to confuse the heck out of you.

I don’t know which camp I’m in.

I’m torn between tradition and innovation.

It’s a hard nut to crack, this. And I’m as confused as a baby in a Meissen shop.

See, here’s the problem.

As a foodie, I feel my desire for new tastes is bottomless.

It’s an addictive little game, food – the more radical you get, the more radical you need.  Like diving, I suppose, or surfing or any adventure or endurance sport. You try something at first – it’s tentative, all nerves and self-doubt. And then, if it works for you, you get bolder. And then (if you’re like me) you get unstoppable.

You start looking for that incrementally greater excitement each time. Deeper, darker, more dangerous. Let’s see how far I can go, you think.

It becomes about discovery. And anticipation. And pushing boundaries.

And so it is with food and me.

My palette is always hungry for fresh flavours.

I’m constantly searching for that something new, for that something unexpected.
I’m constantly looking to be surprised.

That’s on the one hand.
On the other – and this is huge – in my own kitchen, I like tradition.

I am hesitant to get too experimental in my own kitchen.

And so I have double standards.

I like to cook the stuff I grew up with. I love recreating childhood tastes, reliving the memories that come with it.

And I feel the need – the obligation almost – to carry forward my grandmothers cooking, and then my mum’s after her. That is, after all, my food. It’s part of me.

So, I like vanilla yogurt. I like rice and daal. I like grilled fish.

And discounting my silly sentimentality, I think there is actually some real logic in cooking what I know best, isn’t it? Wouldn’t this – the culinary equivalent of Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand – make the world a better place?

Then there’s the little matter of professionalism. I do love to cook, but I don’t think I’m professional enough. I don’t know if I have the confidence.

I mean, it’s not that I don’t add my own little quirky twists to things when I cook. I mess with enough stuff – some successes, some utter disasters – but it is predictable messing. I’ll add sharp cheese to a Nimki recipe, because in my mind, I’m thinking – cheese and crackers, how wrong can it go? Or I’ll substitute yogurt for sour cream in a cucumber salad...after all both yogurt and sour cream have the same cool, creamy, acidity that I’m after. Or I’ll top my cumin roasted potatoes with pomegranate seeds for that burst of colour, for the contrast in the texture, for the balance between spice and sweet. And with this and other things, it’s worked for me.

But I’m too amateur to dream up the truly unpairable.

Prosciutto with passion fruit? Courgette with goat cheese? Green apple with balsamic vinegar? (all of which are sublime, by the way)

I appreciate them (very, very much) but never in a million years could I think those up.

It’s the difference between the scientist who created laughing gas, and the one clever boy in class who could always identify what it was, right way.

Heston’s the scientist. I’m the boy. (Metaphorically speaking that is. Non-metaphorically speaking, I’m very much a girl.)

And I mean with food, not Chemistry.

With Chemistry, I was hopeless. I couldn’t tell one thing from another. Everything smelled and tasted exactly the same to me.  And I never ever got those flame-colour experiments right. You know the ones where you grab a piece of “substance” in tongs and hold it in a flame and you’re supposed to identify what the substance is from the colour of the flame?

So, the flame should turn brick red with calcium and golden yellow with sodium. Or vice versa, I don’t know. Either way, mine never did.

That one clever boy in class would get it right away. And he’d go “ooh” loudly or grin widely or something.  And furiously scribble away at his note pad.  While I would just stand there and stare at my flame and think – Hmmm...golden yellow or brick red? Or lilac? Lilac, I think. No. Most definitely, lilac.

And I’d be wrong of course. I was always wrong. I was rubbish at Chemistry.

But thankfully I’m slightly better with food.

When I interned at the Dum Pukht Kitchens, Senior Master Chef, K.M Srinivasu would make me taste everything before it left the kitchen. “What’s in this?” He’d quiz me, literally shoving a piece of kakori kabab into my mouth. “You need to be able to identify everything that went into it. Quickly, quickly, we don’t have all day – it needs to get plated!”

And I’d rattle off – cumin, coriander, minced garlic, ginger, raw papaya...

He wouldn’t say a word – he was sparing with his praise, but his look would say everything I needed to know. I was a slip of a girl. But I knew my food.

Sigh. Everyone’s good at something.

So, after much back and forth and many sleepless nights mulling over this weighty matter, and assessing my own risk appetite (excuse the pun) on how open I am to the possibility of things going terribly, terribly wrong – it is my considered opinion that I should get a little bolder in my kitchen.

It might just be SO worth it.

And even if I like tradition (and I do), there’s no harm in a bit of playfulness, is there? After all, my grandmother’s genius lay in her ability to take the rules out of cooking, and just rely purely on her senses. She’d throw cardamom into Shepherd’s pie (for aroma, dear) and scatter turmeric onto poached fish (it’s healthy, dear) and stir fry ginger with green peas (for flavour, dear)

Shall I give it a go? What do you think?

I think I just might.  So, as a warm welcome to summer, and in the spirit of being bold and daring (by my standards) I give you:

Chargrilled watermelon salad with spinach, broad beans, cucumber, mint and pine nuts

And before you tell me that this sounds like a mighty strange cast of characters, just think about how brilliantly it plays with colours and textures and tastes. Just trust me – the result is utterly fantastic.

Here’ what you need:

- 1/4 (about 1.2kg) sweet, ripe watermelon, rind & seeds removed, cut into 1cm-thick wedges

- 125g Baby Spinach leaves, washed
- 1 Cucumber, cubed (I like the peel on)
- 200g Broad Beans, cooked & cooled
- 2 tbsp Mint, chopped
- 3 Tbsp Olive Oil
- 2 Tbsp Balsamic Vinegar
- Freshly Ground Black Pepper

Here's how you do it:

Preheat a chargrill or barbecue grill on high. Put the watermelon on and cook for 1 minute each side or until charred.

Meanwhile, toast the pine nuts in a small pan until golden brown. Remove from the pan and set aside until ready to serve. At this point, resist the urge, if you will, to go through the whole blessed lot...

Now, toss the spinach, broad beans, cucumber and mint in a large bowl with pepper, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Lay the watermelon pieces on top and toss gently using your hands, enough so that the watermelon chunks get coated with the dressing, but not enough to break the pieces. Top with roasted pine nuts.

I do enjoy a good surprise.
Especially, when I end up surprising myself.


  1. Your writing is amongst the best I've read - and I've read a lot. Pity people get to read this stuff for free!

  2. Ohmy, why, thank you, J - that's got to be one of the nicest things anyone's ever said! Cheers for that! Ami