I love using pickle brine in dressings as it adds gently spiced acidity and some sweetness. Here, it finds a way into all the frilly, charred leaves of the cabbage, their bitter edges a pleasant contrast. Plump prawns make this feel special, and I’d definitely add some potatoes or buttered brown bread to bulk it out, if in the mood.

Charred Sweetheart Cabbage with Prawns and a Pickle Brine Dressing

1 sweetheart cabbage, quartered
350g raw, shell-on prawns (around 12 prawns)
Generous sprinkle of Urfa chilli
A wedge of lemon

Pickle Brine Dressing

2 tablespoons dill pickle juice from a jar (I used Mrs Elswood)
1 tablespoon strained pickling spices from the jar
½ shallot, very finely chopped
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
Light a barbecue for direct cooking.

Combine all the dressing ingredients in a clean lidded jar or bowl and shake or whisk to combine.

Rub the cabbage with a little neutral oil and season with salt. Grill over direct heat for 6-8 minutes on each side, or until nicely charred. You can take this quite far, as the inside leaves will stay soft and tender.

Coat the prawns in oil too, then grill for a minute on each side, or until fully pink and cooked through.

Separate the charred cabbage leaves, remove the root and arrange them on a plate. Add the prawns, dressing, Urfa chilli and a big squeeze of lemon juice. Serve.

Those of you who follow me on Instagram will know I was in Belize in Central America a couple of weeks ago. I can’t write much about that trip now because it will all be published in a magazine later this year but I came back feeling very inspired by the food, and I wanted to create something which incorporated Caribbean ingredients. Longtime followers will know that the food of the Caribbean has always attracted me and I learnt lots in Belize, where the cuisine combines many culinary influences.

I’ve used achiote in this soup – an earthy flavouring made from ground annatto seeds, also popular as a colouring agent. I was already familiar with it as an ingredient in Mexican pork pibil recipes but using it to flavour soups and stews was new to me. I added it to a base of homemade fish stock with pierced scotch bonnet chilli and some cassava – a total revelation. To be honest, I’d always dismissed cassava as a boring starchy root but it has a really interesting nutty flavour and the texture of a very waxy potato.

I used cod cheeks because they’re really good value and hold their bouncy texture well in soup, and splashed out on some massive, meaty prawns. On the side, I made fry jacks, which are deep-fried dough dumplings served with pretty much anything in Belize – eggs, refried beans and cheese are all popular toppings. I’ve added wild garlic to mine, which brings me just about to the end of the bin bag of wild garlic I’ve been working through for the past week.

This is a stunner of a recipe (even if I do say so myself) with deep flavour from the fish stock but a lightness, too. The corn brings pops of sweetness and the scotch bonnet a background buzz of tropical heat. The jacks were a perfect accompaniment while still warm – crisp on the outside, fluffy and garlicky inside and ready to soak up that soup. Heaven.

Belizean Inspired Fish Soup with Wild Garlic Fry Jacks Recipe

Serves 4

For the fish stock

1kg fish heads and scraps
1.5 litres water
Small bunch parsley stalks
1 sprig thyme
1 large onion, peeled and roughly chopped
Large knob of butter

For the soup

600g cod cheeks
8 raw, shell-on king prawns (you could shell these if you want to make the eating easier but I like to get messy and suck the heads once cooked)
2 scotch bonnet chillies, pierced and left whole
300g cassava, peeled, woody core removed and diced
1 teaspoon achiote powder
Handful wild garlic leaves washed and sliced
2 corn cobs, kernels sliced off (or you could use a tin)
Handful coriander

For the fry jacks

250g plain flour
30g butter
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
50g wild garlic leaves washed and finely chopped
Oil for deep frying

First, make the fish stock. Melt the butter in a large saucepan and fry the onion for a few minutes. Add the fish heads and scraps and fry a few minutes longer. Add the water, herbs and a pinch of salt and bring to the boil, skimming off the scum. Reduce to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes, then strain. This is the base of your soup.

Make the dough for your fry jacks by mixing the flour, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Add the butter and mix with your fingers until it resembles crumbs. Add the wild garlic and milk and mix to a dough. Knead 30 seconds until smooth, then separate into 8 balls.

Add the stock to a large saucepan. Mix a tablespoon or so of the stock with the achiote powder until you have a red paste. Add this back to the soup with the cassava chunks and allow to simmer while you make your fry jacks.

Heat a couple of inches of oil to 180C in a heavy cast iron skillet or another suitable pan. Roll each ball out into a circle on a lightly floured surface and cut each circle in half. Make a slit in the centre of each (see photo to see what I mean). Deep fry each piece for a couple of minutes, then carefully flip over. They’re ready when puffed and golden. Drain on kitchen paper.

Once the jacks are done, finish the soup by dropping in the corn, wild garlic, cod cheeks and prawns and cooking gently for 4-5 minutes. Season. Finish with the coriander and serve with the jacks.

 

Sometimes I have a conversation with people at the gym, which starts when they say something like, “why don’t you try x diet?” or “why don’t you cut carbs?” or “why don’t you reduce your intake of this?” and all the time I say, “I can’t” and they look at me like I’m making an excuse. It’s very hard to explain what I do, my love of food and the emotional significance of it, to people who are able to eliminate food groups, or drastically reduce calories. I can’t communicate how it goes against the very fibre of my being (literally) to restrict my intake of food in that way.

What I do is about more than describing what I eat, it is about how it makes me feel. It is the comfort of steam rising from a stew plopping gently on the hob, the dumplings warm and heavy on top. It’s about the sticky bun with builder’s tea when you’re frantic about the state of the world, or the slippery flick of buttered spaghetti, eaten in bed, with a hangover. It’s not even just about the joy of fat and carbs either – in January I crave bright, green vegetal things which bring freshness and vitality to a sad sack month.

I’ve often heard the phrase ‘don’t be an emotional eater’, meaning don’t comfort or reward yourself with food, and I think, ‘is there any other way?’ What is it like to look at ingredients and see calories instead of flavours? To stab letters into an app that passes judgement on what you’re about to consume, reducing it to numbers? Numbers are the worst. There is the very real problem of obesity, of course, and everything that comes with it, but that is why I bust my ass at the gym five times a week. To see food purely as fuel is such an alien concept.

This is not an anti-clean eating rant, although goodness knows I have plenty of those within me, it’s just an observation now that I’m in contact with people from another world – lovely, intelligent, fun people but with attitudes to food that are light years away from my own. I think of these conversations every time I make something I know they wouldn’t touch with a spiralizer, which brings me nicely onto this recipe for prawn toast. I live with a prawn toast obsessive – never an opportunity missed to order one of those white paper bags from the takeaway, his eager paw rustling in and out until all that’s left is grease spots.

The homemade version is obviously much nicer, and we played with the mixture a bit, ramping up the prawn flavour with some shrimp paste (so good), adding garlic, spring onions and soy. It’s fantastic with scrambled egg for a really OTT brunch, and the chilli oil is crucial for counteracting all that richness. That’s right, guys, extra fat on top.

Prawn Toast with Scrambled Eggs and Chilli Oil

This makes 4 rounds and so serves 4 people (4 pieces is enough with the eggs).

250g prawns
2 cloves garlic
4 spring onions
1/2 teaspoon shrimp paste (I used a Thai one)
1 dash light soy
1 egg
4 slices cheap white bread
Oil, for frying (veg or groundnut)
Sesame seeds
Chilli oil, to serve

For the eggs

6 eggs (I used Burford Browns, hence the amazing colour)
Large chunk of butter (LARGE)

To make the prawn toast, put everything in a blender except the bread and process to a paste. Heat a frying pan and fry a tiny bit of the mixture to check for seasoning – add salt if you like. To assemble, divide the mixture between four pieces of bread, spreading in a thick layer on top. Cut the crusts off. Divide each into four triangles.

Spread sesame seeds on a plate and use them to coat the top of the toast. I found it easiest to sprinkle these on rather than dunk.

Heat oil to a depth of a couple of cm in a heavy based pan and fry each piece until golden (a couple of mins each side should do it). Set aside on a plate covered with kitchen paper. You could keep them warm in a low oven if you like.

To make the eggs, whisk them in a bowl and season. Melt the butter in a pan and add the eggs, moving them around gently until they are nearly cooked. Take them off the heat before you think they are fully done. Don’t over stir.

Serve alongside prawn toast, chilli oil on top.

Po Boy

I have a major soft spot for classic American sandwiches (no surprises there) and recently I’ve been focused on tracking down one of the all time greats – the po’ boy – in London. It’s been a fruitless endeavour, a particular low point being my recent experience at The Diner, in Soho. I left feeling queasy, cheated and strongly convinced I should try making one at home. A

A po’ boy, in case you’re not familiar, is a sandwich originating from Louisiana, so called because it was once the staple food of labourers – the poor boys. There are many variations but the most common fillings seem to be roast beef, fried shrimp or fried oysters. A ‘dressed’ po’ boy (like this one) comes loaded with lettuce, tomato, a piquant mayo, pickles, onion and hot sauce. Gimme.

As always when one delves into these things, I found that the question of what makes an authentic po’ boy is a sensitive one. The bread should, apparently, be a New Orleans French style baguette but I had a lot of trouble finding a good-looking recipe and there seems to be controversy around the idea of the perfect crust and interior texture. Some argue that it’s impossible for home cooks to ever replicate an authentic New Orleans bread outside the area, as it’s the high humidity and unique climate in general (partly below sea level) that make the bread just so, while others say it’s the unique properties of the water. It was at this point I gave up (I’m sure you understand) and decided that a nice soft sub roll wouldn’t be the end of the world and in fact would work nicely against the crunch of fried prawns. After a failed attempt with a duff recipe, I played around and came up with a roll I was happy with – soft and sweet with a decent sturdy crust.

I bought some fat, fresh prawns and seasoned them with a mixture of polenta/cornmeal (no sweet ‘n sour chicken ball-esque batter this time, The Diner) and a fantastic New Orleans spice blend I was sent by Richard Myers, a Louisiana native. It’s a mixture of Red Sea salt; garlic; onion; spices, including paprika; white, black and red peppers; citrus; thyme; oregano and rosemary. Phew. It’s incredibly intense and seriously tasty.

I loaded the subs with a bed of shredded lettuce followed by the crisp, spicy fried prawns and plenty of  home-made mayo mixed with chopped pickles, onion, mustard and parsley, thinned and soured with pickle juice and lemon. As per the videos of famous po’ boy vendors I watched on YouTube, I finished the sandwich with an extra splash of hot sauce. Wow. The Americans really have invented some incredible sandwiches. This was a world apart from that grim recreation I suffered weeks earlier; it winds me up, the way people take a beautiful idea and make it as cheaply and with as little love as possible. I’ve never been to Louisiana, and this recipe may not be entirely authentic, but I can promise you that it was made, and eaten, with a Whole Lotta Love.

Shrimp Po’ Boys

For the subs (makes 4)

1 packet fast action dried yeast
20g caster sugar
225ml warm water
25 butter, melted and cooled
1 teaspoon salt
375g plain flour
1 egg white
Sesame seeds

Dissolve the sugar in the water, add the yeast and leave to activate. Melt the butter and allow to cool almost completely. In the mixing bowl of an electric mixer with a dough hook (or of course you could mix by hand), combine the flour, yeast mixture, butter and salt.

Knead really well, then cover with cling film and allow to rise until doubled in size. After this time, lightly dust 2 greased baking trays with polenta/cornmeal then split the dough into four and shape into long sub-shapes. Slash each several times with a knife, brush over egg white then sprinkle with sesame seeds. Let double in size again.

Bake at 200C for about 18-20 minutes or until golden brown all over.

For the prawns

6 raw king prawns per person, shelled and de-veined
Polenta/cornmeal
New Orleans seasoning, available from Richard Myers (e-mail to purchase)
Beaten egg

Spread a plate with a mixture of 3 tablespoons polenta to 2 scant tablespoons New Orleans seasoning. Dip each prawn in the egg, followed by the seasoning mix.

Deep fry the prawns for 2-4 minutes, depending on size. You can also shallow fry them, but make sure you have a couple of cm of oil in the pan and turn them over halfway through. Drain on kitchen paper.

For the mayo

2 egg yolks
Oil (vegetable or groundnut are both good but don’t use olive oil, certainly not extra virgin)
2 chopped sweet dill pickles
1 teaspoon American mustard
1/2 finely chopped red onion
Juice of 1/2- 1 whole lemon
1 teaspoon juice from the pickle jar
Chopped parsley
Salt and pepper

Put the egg yolks in a clean bowl and whisk them together. Whisk in the oil, adding a few drops at a time and making sure each bit of oil is fully incorporated before adding the next. As you whisk in more oil and the mayo starts to thicken, you can start adding it in very slightly larger quantities until you are steadily adding it in a thin stream. The key with mayo is to be cautious with the oil until you get a feel for making it. If you add too much at once, it will split. If this happens, don’t despair. Take a fresh egg yolk in a clean bowl and begin adding the split mixture into it, very slowly, just as if it were the oil. This should bring it back.

Add all the other ingredients, adjusting to taste (e.g. you may want a little more lemon juice, a little more salt)

To dress the po’ boy

Split and toast the sub, then load with shredded lettuce (I used little gem), the prawns, the mayo and a dribble of (mild) hot sauce. It’s traditional to use tomatoes I believe, but I just couldn’t face it when there was snow on the ground. DEVOUR!

Healthy Prawn Curry

There’s only so much brisket, spaghetti, ribs and wings a woman can eat before she gets fat. I know it’s getting cold and all but I’m not so cool with the idea of an extra layer of blubber on top of the existing layers that I’ve spent the last few years nurturing to maturity. It’s impossible to stay thin in the food game, unless you’ve got great genes or you can find the time and energy to exercise 7 days a week.

When I start having a panic, I turn to trusty old recipes like this, which I’ve been cooking since I was a teenager. It’s adapted from a Madhur Jaffrey recipe (in her classic ‘Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery’ – donated by my mum) and it’s grown with me over the years as I’ve tinkered with the ingredients; every so often I turn to the tattered old notebook, to a familiar page covered in splodges, scribbles and crispy old bits of coriander that fall out like confetti.

I love the recipe because the flavours remain very fresh and distinct and it’s quite cardamom heavy; Madhur uses 6 pods and I chuck in one of the big black smoky variety too because I’m well rock’ n roll like that. I don’t even remove the cardamom pods at the end in fact, as I love the burst of flavour when you bite into one; all softened and bloated with sauce.

The final result is wonderfully fragrant, it’s fast and simple to make and you feel virtuous yet satisfied. Tick, tick and tick.

Fast and Healthy Prawn Curry

(adapted from Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery; serves 4)

1 large white onion
5 cloves garlic
1 inch cube ginger
2 red chillies
1 cinnamon stick
6 regular cardamom pods
1 large black cardamom pod
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
5 tablespoons natural yoghurt
1 tin chopped tomatoes
A pinch of sugar
450g large prawns (raw or cooked is up to you)
Vegetable or groundnut oil

Fresh coriander
1/4 teaspoon garam masala

Put the onion, garlic, ginger and chillies in a blender with 3 tablespoons of water and blend to a paste. Put the coriander and cumin seeds in a dry pan on a low heat and heat them, moving them around, until they start to smell fragrant. Tip them into a pestle and mortar or spice grinder and grind to a paste (you can use ready ground if you like but the results will not be as delicious).

Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a pan and add the cinnamon stick, bay leaves and cardamom pods. Stir for about 30 seconds and add the paste from the blender. Cook, stirring often for about 5 minutes, until the liquid has cooked off. Add the cumin and coriander and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds or so. Add the chopped tomatoes. Stir and keep cooking until you have a reddish-brown paste. This takes a while – around 10-15 minutes.

Take the pan off the heat and add the yoghurt, 1 tablespoon at a time until it is all incorporated. Add the turmeric, cayenne and sugar along with half a pint of water. Bring to the boil then simmer vigorously until thickened. Taste, then season with salt and pepper. Add the prawns – if you are using raw prawns, cook until they have turned completely pink. If using pre-cooked prawns, add them for a few minutes only, just to warm through.

Stir in the garam masala then serve, sprinkled with fresh coriander.

Adipoli Parathas

The tava is still my favourite new toy. For a while, I didn’t even put it away but just let it sit on the worktop so I could look at it more, like a new pair of shoes that you just can’t put in the cupboard. I started basic with chapatis and then felt ready to move on to parathas. It was supposed to be a gentle learning curve until I spotted this gorgeous stuffed version; it had to be done.

This is from the brilliant ‘Indian’ by Das Sreedharan; hopefully I won’t get into trouble for publishing another of his recipes. I can’t understand why the book isn’t more popular to be honest. I found mine for a stupidly low price and quite a few others have told me how they found it in a bargain bin. Das is from Kerala and it’s packed full of South Indian recipes; coconut, curry leaves and mustard seeds are predominant flavours throughout.

Apparently, this recipe is based on “the popular Ceylonese tradition of flat, thin bread dough stuffed with…seafood masala.” You make the paratha dough (wholemeal flour and oil) and then slap it on the hot tava before smearing with the mix of  prawns, egg, onion, chilli and spices. This cooks briefly and then you flip so that the coating sears and sizzles instantly on the tava. You flip again and then roll it all up.

They are dangerously moreish. Crisp paratha and soft, spiced stuffing, fragrant with the essential curry leaf; every now and then a succulent prawn. It’s really tempting to re-make and pack ’em to bursting but this is one of those times to resist – knowing when to stop and all that. They look weird while you’re cooking them (a bit like someone sicked up on a paratha – there’s no denying it), but once rolled, we’re talking high quality stuffed carb here – we ate four each in one sitting and yearned for more.

I suggest you make a steaming great heap of them. There’s nothing else for it. You won’t need any accompaniments except perhaps something to dunk them into – they’re a meal in themselves.

Adipoli Parathas (from Indian by Das Sreedharan)
(makes eight)

225g wholemeal flour
4 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus extra for brushing

For the filling

8 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds
2.5 cm piece ginger, peeled and grated
2 onions, peeled and finely chopped
1 green chilli, chopped
10 curry leaves
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
150g raw prawns, peeled
2 eggs, beaten (I used 3)
salt

To make the paratha dough, put the flour in a bowl and gradually stir in the oil and about 150ml water to make a soft, pliable dough. Knead for 3-4 minutes, then return to the bowl, cover and set aside for an hour.

To make the filling, heat the oil in a frying pan. Add the mustard seeds and when the start to pop, add the ginger, onions, chilli and curry leaves. Cook over medium to low heat for 5 minutes, stirring every now and then until soft. Add turmeric and salt and cook for 1 minute then add the prawns until pink and cooked through. Remove the mix from the pan and set aside.

Divide the dough into 8 equal portions. Roll one into a ball before rolling out into a circle as thinly as possible. It should be paper thin and about 8-9 inches in diameter.

Heat a tava, griddle or frying pan and brush with oil. When hot, slap on a circle of dough (the heat should be medium). Cook until it starts to turn golden. Stir the eggs into the prawn mix, lower the heat and then spread 3 scant tablespoons onto the paratha. Leave until the egg is pretty much cooked and then flip, searing the mix onto the paratha. Wait until it is stuck well on there before you flip again and cook briefly. You want it nicely golden underneath.

You now just roll it up. I kept mine warm in a very low oven while I made the rest. I served them cut into two or three pieces each with a yoghurty dipping sauce which had some coriander, chilli and lemon juice stirred through (I think). A dusting of chilli powder on the parathas is really good.