It’s really all too easy to let food become humdrum, to go through the motions day after day, week after week. No one is immune to this, myself included.
Sometimes when I’m busy I just don’t have the headspace to think of imaginative food combinations or the time to prepare them. I still want to eat something to remind me that food is a pleasure and not just fuel. And it’s at times like this that a trawl through the jars in my fridge and store cupboard can generally be relied upon to rustle up the ingredients for a miracle working salsa.
So long as I’m not too zealous about authenticity I’m never more than a hand blending whizz from a salsa verde to perk up a plain dish of baked fish and potatoes, or a rosy salsa romesco to add life to some grilled pork. Or even a hasty olive tapenade to relieve the dullness of my fourth cheese sandwich of the week.
Ask any chef, Italian or otherwise for their salsa verde recipe and you’re likely to get a different answer. Broadly there is agreement about the basic ingredients of this pungent sauce: olive oil, vinegar or lemon juice, capers, anchovies, garlic and parsley. But there are no hard and fast rules.
I always abide by olive oil, vinegar or lemon juice and capers but otherwise I just make it up according to what I have in jars, what herbs are knocking about and whether I’m in a garlicky mood. I often use gherkins in place of anchovies because I don’t want to open a whole tin of anchovies just to use one or two.
The important thing with this type of non-recipe is to get the proportions right. The Sarah Raven recipe below is a good place to start; once you’ve made it a few times you’ll be familiar enough to substitute ingredients according to what you have kicking about.
Large bunch of flat leaf parsley
Small bunch winter/summer savory, thyme, tarragon, oregano or basil (or even just parsley)
250ml olive oil
Juice of ½ a lemon or a similar splash of white wine vinegar
Whizz all the ingredients together in a food processor, or use a hand blender. Add a little black pepper. It probably won’t need any salt as the capers are fairly salty. And that’s it.
You can chop everything by hand for a rougher, more rustic texture.
One of my standard mid-week dishes is to thinly slice and parboil some potatoes. Bung them in the oven for 10-15mins on high. Throw in some sea bas fillets, lightly seasoned and brushed with olive oil for another 10-15mins. Then serve with a green salad and salsa verde.
This rich Catalan sauce is another sure-fire winner and foodie rescue remedy. Again it appears at table in various guises, sometimes made with almonds or sometimes with bread. Tomatoes, garlic and peppers are always present.
Strictly speaking the peppers should be dried but remember we’re talking emergency cooking here and dried noras peppers are not that easy to come by. Much easier to dive in the store cupboard for a tin of smoked paprika which brings instant warmth and smokey, bacon-like depth to any dish.
My recipe, such as it is, follows Claudia Roden’s Romesco guidelines. The key here is not to get too hung up on the steps, just do what you can – if the skin isn’t perfectly off your tomatoes and they haven’t been under for the full 20 minutes does it really matter if you blend them up with a little skin?
2 dried ñora peppers, or 2 teaspoons sweet smoked paprika
½ head of garlic, just chop right through the whole head, leave the skin on,
6 tomatoes (about 500g)
60g blanched almonds or hazelnuts, or 30g of each
2-3 tsp red or white wine vinegar,
4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil,
If using the ñora peppers cut them open and remove the seeds and stems, then put them in a bowl, pour on boiling water and leave them to soak for at least 30 minutes, until soft.
Meantime smear a little olive oil on the exposed flesh of the garlic and grill along with the whole tomatoes. Don’t set the grill too fierce or allow the garlic to burn. The garlic will take about 10mins. Leave the tomatoes for another 10-15mins. Once both have cooled peel the garlic and tomatoes from their skin.
Toast the almonds or hazelnuts, without oil, in a small frying pan over a medium heat, stirring and shaking the pan until they are lightly coloured. This shouldn’t take more than a few minutes so don’t leave the pan.
Blend all the ingredients, including the drained dried ñoras peppers, or smoked sweet paprika in a food processor or use a hand blender. Add salt to taste.
I think Romesco goes particularly well with pork and often serve with a chargrilled loin chop and a warm new potato salad tossed with French beans, lemon juice and rocket.
There aren’t many black foods out there and I think this is probably the only one I get cravings for. Black truffles may well be the exception but having only had them once they’re not really on my radar sufficiently to prompt cravings. As for caviar – tummty tum….if you’re serving it, I’ll eat it, but beyond that – no cravings.
Those of you who haven’t had tapenade, or even those of you who have, may well wonder what it’s for as you walk past small jars in the deli or supermarket. The truth is you can use it exactly as you please – so long as you’re not within earshot of food snobs.
I like tapenade as a nibble type dip, or on the side with cold roast chicken, I find it too strong for all but the meatiest fish (maybe swordfish) but my favourite thing to do with tapenade is to use it as a sandwich spread. A bit like the way my Mum used Shipam’s paste in the 70s. I even have it with supermarket cheddar and cucumber on baguette – which is probably quite shocking.
200g whole black olives, preferably niçoise or kalamata
3 tbsp capers,
2 anchovies, (disregard what I said above about opening a tin to use just 2 fillets, this recipe MUST use anchovies)
1 clove of garlic,
2 tsp fresh thyme, chopped
Juice of ½ lemon
5 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
If you can, avoid using the standard rubbery black olives it really is worth up-grading to a better olive for a fuller flavour. De-stone the olives if not already done. Put in a food processor or use a hand blender to whizz the capers, anchovies, garlic and thyme to make a rough puree. Squeeze in the lemon juice and add the oil.
The exception to the fish rule is canned tuna. Tapenade on baguette with canned tuna, hard-boiled egg and soft lettuce is a sort of lazy Pan Bagnat. Delicious and super easy for a hasty informal bite if a chum pops round.
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