Saturday 12 January 2013

Moroccan-Spiced Carrot and Chickpea Salad with Mint & Almonds

I think carrots are both underrated and neglected.  How many classic dishes of world cuisine feature carrots as the starring ingredient? You can count them on one hand: Carrots Vichy, Moroccan carrot salads, spicy Indian carrot pickles, carrot cake and... um... that's four fingers... can someone help me out here?

Moroccan-Spiced Carrot and Chickpea Salad with Mint & Almonds
A flavour-packed vegetarian salad featuring carrots
 in a starring role. 
Truth is, the humble carrot is not a particularly versatile veggie.

Sure, when small and snappy and sweet, it's lovely raw, or lightly cooked in plenty of salty butter. But the minute a carrot reaches the length of a pencil, it tends to be booted like an elderly aunt into stocks, stews and soups, or julienned into coleslaws, or grated and mixed with fresh orange juice and raisins to create the vilest salad known to mankind.

Well, I think we all ought to eat more carrots. They're inexpensive, they're packed with healthy nutrients and fibre, and they have a lovely subtle flavour.

The trick to getting the best out of a carrot is figuring out how to achieve a Goldilocks texture: not too crisp,  not too mushy, but somewhere in between.

Part of the attraction of a good young carrot is its texture (most kids, for example, love slim sticks of raw carrot) but the truth is that you can only eat so many uncooked carrots without feeling as though you're munching  your way through a plateful of twigs.

In the same way, a  bowl of cooked-to-mush carrots can quickly bring on a case of the dry-heaves in children, possibly putting them off this nourishing vegetable for life.

Moroccan-Spiced Carrot and Chickpea Salad with Mint & Almonds
This salad keeps very well in the fridge.
How do you avoid this 'yuck' factor? Here is my solution: cook them to a perfect state of tender-crispness, lightly season them with some North African-inspired spices, and combine them with toasted almonds, chickpeas, parsley, mint, garlic and olive oil.

This salad's dressing may seem pungently flavoured, but when everything has had a chance to mingle over an hour or two, its flavours are quite delicate, and you can still taste earthy carrots below the spices.

This dish improves with keeping, and the carrots will retain their tender-crisp bite for several days in the fridge. It's good on its own, and excellent with hot spicy roast chicken, or shredded chicken from the left-overs of a roast.

Please see my Cook's Notes at the end of the recipe for some variations on this salad.

Moroccan-Spiced Carrot and Chickpea Salad with Mint & Almonds 

For the salad:

1.2 kg carrots (about 14 medium-sized carrots)
1 tin (410 g) chickpeas, well drained
4 Tbsp (60 ml) sultanas
150 g (about two 'wheels') feta cheese
½ cup (125 ml) finely chopped fresh parsley
6 Tbsp (90 ml) finely chopped fresh mint
2 tsp (10 ml) poppy seeds [optional]
6 Tbsp (90 ml) flaked almonds, lightly toasted in a dry frying pan (see Cook's Notes)
extra small fresh mint leaves, for garnish
salt and milled black pepper

For the dressing:

2 tsp (10 ml) finely grated fresh ginger
2 fat cloves garlic, peeled and finely grated
1½ tsp (7.5 ml) cumin
1 tsp (5 ml) good fresh paprika (see Cook's Notes)
½ tsp (2.5 ml) powdered ginger
½ tsp (2.5 ml) cinnamon
the juice of a large juicy orange
the juice of two big lemons
½ cup (125 ml) olive oil
salt and milled black pepper

First make the dressing. Whisk together all the dressing ingredients in a small bowl and set to one side.

Top and tail the carrots and lightly peel them using a sharp potato peeler. Slice the carrots into discs about 3 mm thick. The quickest way to do this is to use a food processor fitted with a metal slicing disc, or a stout-bladed mandolin. If you have neither of these, sit down at a table, turn up the music and patiently slice the carrots by hand.

Bring a pot of salted water to a rapid rolling boil.  Drop in the carrot slices, cover the pot and immediately set a timer to 5 minutes.  When the timer goes, fish out a carrot disc and bite into it. It should be just tender, but with some resistance and snap.  If it feels feels hard and crisp between your teeth, give the slices another minute or two.  Drain the carrots in a colander and then put them in a mixing bowl. Immediately pour the prepared dressing over the hot carrots - their residual heat will take the bite out of the raw garlic and ginger.  Mix in the sultanas and chickpeas, cover with clingfilm and set aside at room temperature for an hour or two, or in the fridge if you are planning to serve this the next day.

Just before you serve the salad, stir in the chopped parsley, mint and (optional) poppy seeds. Pile the salad onto a large pretty platter and crumble the feta cheese on top.  Drizzle over a little more olive oil and scatter the flaked toasted almonds on top. Garnish the salad with some small fresh mint leaves, and season to taste with salt and milled black pepper.

Serves 6 as a main course salad; 8-10 as a side salad. 

Cook's Notes

  • Chopped fresh coriander is a lovely accompaniment to carrots, but it does have a domineering flavour which stomps all over the delicate spicing of this dish.
  • In place of the flaked toasted almonds, you can use toasted pumpkin or sunflower seeds. 
  • If you have a jar of preserved lemons to hand, add some of them, finely chopped, to the salad for a wonderful salty zing. 

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Monday 7 January 2013

Leaping Poached Trout with Cucumber Scales

This lovely and most delicate dish, a retrolicious reminder of decades gone past, makes a show-stopping centrepiece for a cold buffet. It may look finicky, and I admit that it takes some time to prepare, but it's a lot easier to make than it looks, and once the applause from your guests dies down you will resolve to make this for every future special occasion.

Leaping Poached Trout with Cucumber Scales
A show-stopper of a buffet dish, and very easy to make, if you have
 time and patience. Platter by David Walters
There are only two things that might present a challenge to you. One: you need to lay your hands on a very fresh, very beautiful whole trout or, failing that, a whole salmon of similar spanking freshness. Two: you will need a mandolin or a similar slicing device to cut paper-thin, even slices of cucumber. With a lot of patience and perseverance you could, I suppose, cut these using a very sharp knife, but I definitely wouldn't attempt this without the aid of a mandolin.

I bought this beautiful trout from the Salmon Bar in Franschhoek, a restaurant that stocks as a sideline a range of locally produced smoked fish and charcuterie. I hadn't meant to buy a fish, but I popped into the restaurant to buy some of their warm bread while I was staying with my mum over Christmas, and there on the shelves was a gleaming stack of trout so fresh they were practically still flapping. I presume that this beauty came from the esteemed Three Streams Smokehouse, famed for its superlative, sustainable smoked trout, reared in the Lesotho highlands, but as you are unlikely to find their fish outside of the Western Cape I suggest you ask your fishmonger to order you a top quality trout or - at great expense to yourself - a whole salmon from Norway or Scotland.

Another minor aggravation may be finding agar agar (also known as isinglass), a seaweed-based gelling agent.  I buy mine from my favourite spice shop where it is sold as 'China Grass'; you should be able to find it at a good speciality deli.  If you can't find it, you can use ordinary powdered gelatine, in exactly the same quantity given in my recipe below.

Leaping Poached Trout with Cucumber Scales
Carefully press the wafer-thin cucumber slices onto the surface
of the poached trout. 
Start this recipe the day before, and you cannot go wrong.  And when your guests are finished tucking into the beautifully tender coral-pink flakes of fish, tip any leftovers into a lidded container and use them the next day to make a delicate fish pâté (see Cook's Notes at the end of this post).

I have put the word 'leaping' in the title of this recipe because the finished fish looks as if it is jumping upstream over rock and boulder.  (There is no artistic intent. The truth is that I don't have a fish kettle, and couldn't find a roasting dish big enough to accommodate it. So I firmly pressed the fish into a tight curve in a big ceramic lasagne dish, and I suggest you do the same with whatever suitable dish you have to hand.)

I served this with thick home-made mayonnaise flavoured with horseradish, a jab of good Dijon mustard and  a whisper of garlic, but I would have used fresh dill to flavour the mayo if I'd been able to find it.

Leaping Poached Trout with Cucumber Scales

a large fresh whole trout or salmon (mine was 1.6 kg)
a thin slice of lemon, skin on
2 leeks washed, trimmed and thickly sliced, or a few slices of onion
a few stalks of parsley or celery, or both
10 whole peppercorns, or 10 generous grindings of black pepper
½ cup (125 ml) dry white wine
a big pinch of salt
1 tsp (5 ml) agar-agar, or powdered gelatine
a little lemon juice (see recipe)
a whole English cucumber, washed

Heat the oven to 160 ºC. Wipe and scale the fish, but don't trim it or remove fins, head or tail. Lightly oil a large, high-sided roasting pan or rectangular ceramic lasagne dish, and lay the fish in it, as described above.  Add the lemon slice, leeks (or onion), parsley, celery, peppercorns, wine and salt.  Now pour in just enough cold water to bring the level of liquid in the pan to 15 mm (1.5 cm) deep.  Tightly cover the whole tray or pan with two layers of heavy-duty tin foil and place it in the oven.  Cook the fish until it is just cooked through to the bone.

(How long this will take depends on the size and shape of your fish, and you will need to use your instincts here.  Open the oven after about 30 minutes and place your fingertips on the foil. It should be exceedingly hot to the touch, and the flesh should willingly yield when you press down on it.  If you're not certain that the fish is cooked, peel away the tin foil and gently lift away the skin -  starting at the belly -  from the thickest part of the fish.  Gently push the tines of a fork into the fish: if it is beginning to fall into flakes, and has loosened from the back bone, it's ready.)

Take the dish out of the oven and leave it to cool, still covered with tin foil, for 30 minutes.  Remove the tin foil and very carefully peel the skin off the top of the fish, starting by making a cut just above the tail.  It will peel off easily, although you might need to use the tip of a sharp knife to ease it free along the length of the top edge of the fish.  Cut the skin neatly away just above the gills. You must do this while the fish is still slightly warm, or you won't be able to get the skin off in one go.  Now very gently slide a metal spatula under the fish to detach any skin that is sticking to the bottom of the pan.  Using a large spoon, drizzle the warm poaching liquid all over the exposed fish flesh.  Cover with foil again and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, use a soup ladle to spoon the cooking liquid - which will have jellied slightly, if you are lucky - into a saucepan.  Discard the flavourings.  Warm the stock over a gentle heat until it is just liquid, then measure out one cup (250 ml) into a small bowl. Sprinkle over 1 tsp (5 ml) of agar agar (or gelatine) and set aside for 10 minutes.

In the meantime, trim the fish.  Neatly slice away any brown or fatty bits along the belly line of the fish, and gently pull off all the fins. Now lift the whole fish out of its pan and put it onto a large platter. You will probably need an extra pair of hands and several spatulas to do this.  If you'd like to take the skin off the bottom of the fish, you can do this by very gently sliding a metal spatula between the flesh and the skin, and then loosening it and pulling it away, as if you are whipping out a sheet out from under a duvet!

Set the stock/agar agar mixture over a gentle heat and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for 10 minutes, skimming off any foam as it rises. If you are using gelatine, gently warm the mixture until the gelatine has melted and the liquid is clear.  Strain the liquid through a sieve lined with a close-woven clean material, such as a laundered napkin or a brand-new kitchen cloth.

Taste the strained liquid, and adjust the seasoning by adding a few drops of lemon juice to sharpen it up, plus some salt and pepper if necessary. Set aside to cool (see below).

Cut the cucumber into very fine slices using a mandolin or similar device. The slices should be transluscent and so thin they are floppy, or they will not bend neatly to the shape of the fish.  Starting with the smallest slices from the thinnest end of the cucumber, and at the tail-end of the trout, neatly press the 'scales' in overlapping rows onto the surface of the fish.  The cucumber slices will adhere easily, and your only challenge will be to place them evenly and neatly across the curved surface, starting at the spine edge and end at the belly, and adding extra slices to each row as you progress from thinner tail end to the thicker middle portion.

Leaping Poached Trout with Cucumber Scales
Paint the lukewarm gel all over the 'scales', using a pastry brush. 
When you've covered the whole fish with cucumber scales, use a pastry brush to paint the luke-warm stock mixture all over the 'scales', head and tail of the fish.  The liquid - if you have used agar agar - must be runny and warm when you paint it on, or it will congeal into cloudy globules.  You'll find that it sets quickly into a shining gel as you paint it over the surface of the cucumber slices.  If it has started to set, reheat it very gently on the hob, or until liquefies.

Once the whole fish is neatly coated with its glaze, place it in the fridge to chill.  If you think your guests might be frightened by the popping eyeball of the fish, scoop it out and replace it with half a pimento-stuffed green olive.

To serve, take the whole fish to the table with a bowl of mayonnaise.  Slide a metal spatula between the top fillet and the backbone of the fish and lift  out the top fillet.  Pull the flesh into big chevrons and invite everyone to tuck in. Do warn them of bones, however.

Cook's Notes

To make a trout pâté with the leftovers: flake the fish and, using your fingertips, painstakingly sift through the pieces to remove any small bones.  Place the fish in a large bowl and, to every cup of flakes, add 2 Tbsp (30 ml) softened butter, 2 Tbsp (30 ml) cream, sour cream or crème fraîche and ½ tsp (2.5 ml) of finely grated lemon rind.  Beat until soft and combined (or blitz in a food processor) and season to taste with salt and pepper.  Serve with hot toast.

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