I guess most of us will be making New Year resolutions right now in an attempt to start afresh and turn over a new leaf. For some it will be to live a healthier way of life. I honestly believe that the secret to a healthier lifestyle lies in the kitchen, and if you’re really serious about maintaining a healthier outlook in 2020, the real answer is to get in the kitchen and become a better cook. Cooking at home allows you to use fresh ingredients, cook with produce that is seasonal and foods that are free from artificial flavourings and preservatives.
So get in the kitchen, treat yourself to a new cookbook, or rediscover one that you already have and get inspired. Experiment and try cooking with a few ingredients you’ve never used before. Here are some of my favourite, essential ingredients for 2020. Happy cooking and have a truly delicious New Year.
This recipe is inspired by the Caponata served at The River café in London. Awesome!
- 2 aubergines, cut into 1.5cm cubes
- 1 medium red onion, chopped
- 4 celery stalks, including leaves, chopped
- 3 plum tomatoes, diced
- 1 garlic clove, peeled & crushed
- 1 large red chili, finely chopped
- 1tbsp salted capers
- 20 black olives, stoned
- 1tbsp red wine vinegar
- 1tspn tomato puree
- 2tbsp pine nuts, lightly toasted
- 10 mint leaves
- Salt and pepper
Heat a little olive oil in a large frying pan, add the aubergine cubes and fry until brown and tender (don’t over crowd the pan; you will probably have to cook them in batches). Place the warm aubergines in a bowl. Blanche the celery in lightly salted water for a few minutes, then drain well and add to the aubergines.
Slowly cook the onions and garlic in a little olive oil until they soften without colour. Add the chopped tomatoes, tomato puree, chillies and red wine vinegar. Stir well, then cover and cook for about 15 minutes, removing the lid of the pan towards the end of cooking to remove excess moisture. Add the aubergines and celery to the pan and stir in the capers and black olives. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Scatter with fresh mint leaves, toasted pine nuts and serve warm or at room temper ature with burrata.
If you have never tried cooking with Sumac, a decorative bush that grows wild throughout the Middle East and parts of Italy, you should seek it out and give it a try. I must admit that I love it and the dark purple-red berries are sold dried or ground and have a fruity, astringent taste. Sumac is used in the cooking of Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and Iran. Ground sumac is rubbed into meats for grilling and is good with potatoes, beetroot, and in mixed bean salads. It can also be added to marinades, salad dressings, sauces and yogurt.
Za’atar is another incredibly versatile middle eastern spice blend and a fantastic ingredient to have kicking around your kitchen. It is made by grinding hyssop leaves to a coarse, aromatic, brownish green powder then mixing the powder with olive oil, toasted sesame seeds and sumac. If you can’t get hyssop, substitute with thyme or oregano. I find za’atar a welcome counterpoint to the sweetness of deeply roasted pumpkin and its ideal sprinkled generously over salads, omelettes and other egg dishes.
Super creamy and utterly delicious, Burrata cheese is one of our favourite ingredients. Burrata takes the mozzarella one step further — it’s a type of mozzarella that’s formed into a pouch and then filled with soft, stringy curd and cream. It’s the perfect foil for the classic Caponata salad. Just drizzle with virgin olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt!
Preserving lemons is very easy to do, although it does take at least three to four weeks before the lemons are ready to use. On the other hand, they keep practically forever. So if you can just make up your mind one afternoon to spend the 20 minutes it takes to cut, salt and jar them, afterwards you can pretty much forget about them for as long as you like, or until you happen to pick up a middle eastern cookery book and get inspired to cook a tagine!
Start by sterilising a 500ml glass jar and once the jar is cool enough to handle, or on its way there, wash and dry the fruit, remove any stems, and slice the lemons almost in separate quarters lengthwise, stopping just short of the stem end. The aim is to leave four pieces that are still joined over a centimetre or two. Rub the lemons in course salt and pack then tightly in to the Jar. Bring to the boil the 500ml of water mixed with 300g of salt and remove from the heat.. Pour salt water over the lemons and leave chill. Cover with a tight fitting lid. Once you’ve made your preserved lemons, put the jar somewhere cool and dark for at least three weeks, upending it occasionally to redistribute the loose salt, and topping up the juice if the lemons become exposed. Once your peel is soft and ready to use, move the jar to the fridge, where the contents can be keep for around a year or more.
Once they are in your fridge, don’t just forget them. Chop them finely to flavour anything from chickpeas to quinoa, bulgur and couscous. Add them to salad dressings, sauces and dips. A really simple pasta dish with good olive oil, some garlic, and slices of preserved lemons is a beautiful thing and any time you’d normally add some lemon zest or a squeeze of juice, just swap it for preserved lemons to really give your recipes a twist.
Kalamata is a region in Greece, famous for its production of olives and olive oils. Kalamata olives can be eaten plain or chopped up to be used in a dish. Kalamata olives are also marinated in olive oil or vinegar and are widely available in grocery stores. While Kalamata olives are high in sodium, they are also rich in healthy fats and contain a natural antioxidant. They also have a wonderful texture and taste.