I love giving personalised gifts of food; I love exploring for atypical flavours or decadent ingredients; I love presenting smells that socialise attractively in the basket; I love the wafts of ideas as a heap of newness comes together and I smile-sigh harmoniously as I love that each of them is recommended by me and will give lasting memory. I love the surprised expressions that unravel the edible delights and I love that I have conjured up inspiration in the receiver.
Of course it’s not all totally altruistic, I am always beamingly proud with my assembly of treasures and I always like the sharing of food and travel stories that I know will ensue. And hopefully they will cook up some meals for me too, check out the gift hamper.
Black Garlic; Black garlic surprises with a fruity, molasses flavour that enhances the familiar taste of garlic. Confused? You have to try it to believe it. The garlicky taste is not nearly as strong as raw garlic - black garlic is fermented and gives a dried fruit like twist. In fact, the texture is a bit jelly like as well.
I like black garlic tossed into some pasta with fresh herbs and cheese. I just heat some olive oil, add soft slithers ofblack garlic and chili and just toss it together, no need to cook it down. Throw in the pasta, herbs and some lovely hard cheese (I use a vegetarian parmesan style cheese) and eat.
I also like black garlic with some broad beans, whizzed together as a dip. I add a kick of chili (I have to, maybe that’s the Indian in me?) and even on a pizza (but small pieces).
Pomegranate Molasses; It feels as though this syrupy ingredient is quite trendy at the moment. Increasingly popularised, pomegranate molasses have a sweet, sexy flavour and a little of this flirty and fragrant stuff goes a long way. In Indian cooking, I often use tamarind. Nowadays I have been using this sticky and tangy pomegranate molasses in some dishes to keep it interesting and add a Middle Eastern flavour.
I sometimes use pomegranate molasses to spruce up a stew or a bake. Just a little. Recently I did a bean stew with north African spices and I added a little of this molasses before topping it with crushed new potato, spring onion and ricotta stuffed baby sweet peppers, which I then put in the oven. My goodness the sensual smells…
Orange Blossom Water; This is used in African and Middle Eastern cooking and has a distinctive fragrant orange flavour from the distilled orange blossom, but it’s also floral and sweet smelling. As with many good things, there is no need to pour this in. Use it to flavour some cream or yogurt to accompany your dessert, or toss some salad through it. You could add to your favourite hot drink, yes, even coffee. I use a few drops in shrikhand, which is a thickened and sweetened yogurt dessert or even in a vegetable stew, just at the end of cooking. Sometimes, I marinade some tofu in it before quickly shallow frying.
Ral-el-Hanout; Recently I’ve been having a real love-affair with North African spices. Musky and punchy, they’re balanced with a gentle floral touch that makes for mysterious fun when using this wonderful spice mix. I love the stuff, it’s not strong enough to become bitter when used raw, and at the same time aromatic enough to really bring seemingly humble ingredients to life.
Roasted Garlic Infused Oil; Yes it is lazy, but it does taste good. Dip some nice warm and fresh bread in it, or spike it with chili and dip delicious Indian rice-flour dough (khichi) in it. Drizzle it on mezze, make a dip from roasted aubergine flesh and yogurt. I’m sure you’ll find many more uses for this aromatic oil.
Stuffed Vine or stuffed Cabbage leaves;
Dolmades are moist and lip-smackingly gorgeous little greek delights. My favourite vegetarian variety is when stuffed with rice, lots of herbs, black olives and sundried tomatoes. They really get me in a holiday mood and are actually quite filling. I love them with mezze and lashings of hoummos. Plum Chutney; Now this I would rather see in my hamper than biscuits, for sure. Wonderful with a melted hunk of goats cheese, or in a sandwich. Or even, layered with vegetables and wrapped in some pastry. I must admit I have been known to steal spoonfuls of the stuff, but it’s no surprise really.
Chaat Masala; Don’t smell it before you buy it, just trust me on this one. The association with flatulence is limited only to the smell! Chaat masala is a great example of odd smelling things tasting incredible. It’s a blend of dried mango powder, cumin, black salt, coriander, dried ginger, salt, black pepper asafoetida and chili powder. Chaat is street food in India and very much bar-snack food in Indian restaurants in the UK. Crunchy rice puffs and puri’s set against potatoes and chickpea sponginess, with tamarind and chili chutney zing – and often soothing yogurt all combine like a sensory cocktail, punching up a cornucopia of flavours like a fruit machine. That’s the point of a chaat for me. Chaat masala gives a chaat it’s distinctive accent of salt-and-pepper-ness.
Boil some potatoes, add the contents of a can of chickpeas, add some onion (my particular favourite is red onions), something crispy like Indian rice puffs and then add some mung-bean shoots or mixed sprouts and some freshly chopped coriander. Sprinkle in the chaat masala to your taste. It’s great as a side salad.
Lavender Sugar; Well for one, little jars of the stuff do look very pretty. And when you open the jar, it’s like summer just spilling into the room. Are you smiling already? Good, well that’s definitely part of the point of a gift and this looks very cute, traditional, attractive and I really like the taste of it when sprinkled on freshly baked biscuits (even when they have chocolate in them, or better still pistachio!) You could even warm some berries up, and run some of this perfumed sugar through.
Chick-pea Spaghetti; I remember that when I first tasted chickpea spaghetti, I expected it to taste more like spaghetti and less chickpea than it later transpired to be. Ah. It needs to be cooked in a rich, flavoursome, bulky vegetable and tomato, curry-style Indian base. This sort of base really compliments the depth of chick-pea spaghetti and really helps to infiltrate it with juiciness.
I really like this sort of food at this time of year because it’s warming, filling and deep but not stodgy and heavy. I feel less bad about curling up on the sofa with my blanket for a couple of hours when I’m eating a scrumptious bowl of this funky and colourful spaghetti. Word of caution for those who like to suck up their spaghetti though – doesn’t work so well with this variety!
Star anise; I am still surprised at the number of star anise-virgins amongst us. Not only does it look beautiful in all it’s flower/star shaped glory, but it has a sweet aniseed flavour that permeates fruits, stews and curries beautifully. Stick it in a pear and bake it, simmer down summer berries with star anise inside, or in a curry.
Most of these ingredients are available in good food halls and supermarkets or even on the web!