Thursday, 23 September 2010

Heat without the Meat

The spice of chilli is the one thing to polarise the public. You may pretend it doesn't exist but there are definitely chilli people and non-chilli people. With Come Dine With Me contestants reaching for the 5 score-cards because 'the curry was far too hot, not what I am used to' to another eating Birds Eyes until tears are pouring down their flaming cheeks, you must admit the relationship with chilli differs from person to person. I am in the pro-chilli camp for sure. Actually, you might even call it an addiction.

But the big question is can you learn to love chilli? Can the ability to handle spice evolve with the amount you eat? Who knows? Recently I ate some noodles with four Birds Eyes, seeds and all, and could only detect a smidgen of heat. Panicking that I had become immune I shoved half a jar of dried chilli into the next nights pasta and nearly blew my face off. We live and learn. Actually we don't as I have a feeling that fresh chillies of late have been very temperamental in their heat. I am now more reliant on dried because at least I know where I am at with them, unless I'm panicking that I have suddenly lost my chilli taste buds. Probably burnt them off.

Anyway the reason that I am rabbiting on about chillies is that I have recently encountered Meat Free Mondays. I know its being going on for ages and that I'm totally behind the times but the Observer Food Monthly (all hail OFM!) was edited by the McCartney's in July and they banged on about it. A lot. And do you know what? It actually makes quite a bit of sense. Basically the world is doomed but we can make it last longer by combating global warming. According to the UK's Food Climate Research Network livestock is accountable for 20-30% of global green house gas emissions, a figure set to rise as more and more meat is produced to cope with demand. From farm to fork meat takes a lot of energy to produce.

Meat Free Mondays doesn't mean that we have to completely change our eating habits, it just means we don't eat (or buy) meat for one day a week. It also has a lot of benefits for us too, meat is expensive so save the pennies, embrace the world of vegetables because they are delicious and learn to be a bit more creative in the kitchen. You might even being doing it without noticing anyway, I was. You can sign up to Meat Free Mondays here and they have a few more facts, recipes, celebrity testimonials - if you like that sort of thing. Also it doesn't need to be a Monday, good for alliteration but not so good for the Sunday roast leftovers. I went for Thursdays because the man's away so mince is off the menu.

So back to chillies, (feel like this is a bit of a Billy Connally story that never really reaches a point), Asian food is meat-free heaven and the best Asian food is laced with fiery heat. Strong fragrant flavours, filling but healthy, and quick and easy to make. When I'm feeling a bit sluggish and bored the only thing to perk me up is spicy noodles or a decent homemade curry. Something that gives you a shake as well as a hug.

My Noodles

I make this dish at least once a week, I can crave it all day.  Most of the ingredients are in my store cupboard and the recipe is never set in stone so whatever is in the fridge will do. There is something about all the chopping that is so relaxing and the finished dish is exciting as well as comforting.  You eat it out of a bowl, you can't get more comforting than that.  Oh and please eat it with chop sticks - just not the same with a fork.

selection of vegetables, stir-fry types like brocoli, peppers, courgette, mushrooms
coconut milk, half a can
1 large chilli
1 clove of garlic
fresh root ginger, thumb-sized piece
fresh coriander
stock (vegetable on Meat Free days but chicken normally)
noodles (your choice but I have a preference of flat egg noodles)
1 teaspoon of Green Curry paste
splash of Fish Sauce
Small handful of peanuts

Chop all your vegetables into similar sized pieces.  Mince the garlic and ginger and slice the chillies - deseed if you like.  Put a pan of boiling water on for your noodles and set a large wok on the heat.  To the wok add the stock until it reaches a couple of inches, basically you want the stock to cover all your vegetables.  Add the ginger, garlic, curry paste and fish sauce into the stock.  I refrain from adding the chillies at this point because they tend to lose their heat if cooked too much - if you would like it milder add them now. 

Put the vegetables into the stock, the ones that take the longest to cook first and so on.  Remember that soggy vegetables are horrible so please only cook them for the minimum amount of time.  At the same time put your noodles on to cook.  Once the vegetables are nearly cooked add the coconut milk and chillies.  As soon as the noodles are ready, drain and add them to the wok.  Chop the coriander and add this too.

Now this is where I differ from the regular noodle broth.  I hate that broth sauce barely coats the vegetables and noodles so at this point I get a slotted spoon I remove everything apart from the sauce and place it in the bowl I will be eating from.  I then return the wok to the heat and reduce the fragrant sauce right down so it is thick enough to cling to the vegetables.  Once its ready (it only takes a minute or two) pour the sauce over everything else.  Chop up some peanuts, sprinkle over the top and Bob's your uncle!

Oh and I really, really must give you the recipe for a delicious Thai dipping sauce that is exactly like the one we have in our favourite Thai restaurant (The Wilawan which has been lovingly nicknamed The Willy). Great with tempura or anything similarly crispy and hot.  I made it recently when my mum, my brother and his girlfriend were over, served it with Bill Granger's Prawn Cakes - ridiculously yummy.

Cucumber Dipping Sauce

1 small cucumber, finely chopped
1 1/2 tbsp of finely chopped red onion
1 small red chilli, seeded and finely chopped
85ml white vinegar
65g caster sugar
2 garlic cloves
2-3 slices of fresh ginger
splash of fish sauce
peanuts and fresh coriander for the topping

Place the cucumber, red onion and chilli in a small bowl. In a small saucepan, place everything else and simmer it all for 2-3 minutes until the liquid has become thicker. Remove from the heat and cool.

Once cool strain into the small bowl over the cucumber etc. Top with chopped peanuts and fresh coriander if desired.

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