Food: UNRAVELLING A NEW AGE OF CHOICE

Sophie Grigson's `Taste of the Times' is an ideal guide to the exotic food that has made its way on to our supermarket shelves, says Michael Bateman
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The Independent Culture
Ten years ago many of us hadn't heard of kaffir lime leaves. Or lemon-grass. Or Szechuan pepper; spelt flour, wild rice or sherry vinegar.

In fact, creme fraiche and fromage frais only began to tickle our collective unconscious a shortish time ago. (Do you still have to think which is which? The first is soured cream high in calories, the second is low calorie.)

It was not so long ago that we had to master the social distinctions between the Italian trio of mozzarella, ricotta and mascarpone (melting or salad cheese, crumbly cheesecake cheeses and cheesey cream). Our grandparents didn't have to know their way round Puy lentils or capers, pecans and pine-nuts, cranberries and blueberries, let alone dried cherries and hunza apricots.

Asked what was meant by fish sauce they would unhesitatingly reply that it was parsley sauce for cod. Wrong. We all now know it for what it is, a clear salty liquid made from fermented fish used in Thai and Vietnamese cooking, nam pla and nuoc mam respectively.

Where is it all going? What new ingredients will be on everyone's lips in 10 year's time? Of course, new ingredients they are not. Most of them have stood the test of time for thousands of years. Spelt (or emmer wheat) was known to the Egyptians 5,000 years ago.

It is the nature of modern food retailing that it can respond to whims and fashions so quickly. That, and the explosion of the British restaurant scene which has lifted London into the position of being one of the world's major restaurant destinations.

We've become so voracious in our hunger for new tastes and sensations; we've plundered France and Italy, and we're busily sweeping up the rest of the Mediterranean. We continue to hoover up treasures from India and the Far East, and we're not averse to stealing from the New World, stocking up on their dried and fresh chillies.

Fine for restaurants, you might think. But can an ambitious home cook keep up? Ask Sophie Grigson. She knows, if anyone does, that anything goes.

Sophie is the daughter of the late Jane Grigson, the scholar and cookery writer who bestrode the cookery scene for 20 years. Sophie inherits her mother's missionary zeal to inform and entertain. Last month she concluded a six part television series, Taste of the Times, designed to illustrate some of the new ingredients which have imposed themselves on our lives.

This enjoyable series (which covered some 18 ingredients) represented the merest tip of the iceberg of the vast number begging to be included. Now in her new book, Sophie Grigson's Taste of the Times, on which the series was based, it's possible for us to home in on around 80 of the key modern kitchen ingredients. And explore their uses, since they are supported by a generous helping of recipes.

The book, Sophie explains, is directed towards the many people who find themselves confronted with unfamiliar ingredients on a supermarket shelf while doing their weekly shop. "It may be a jar of sun-dried tomatoes, a bunch of lemon grass hanging around with the more common herbs, a tub of creme fraiche loitering in the dairy cabinet." To buy or not to buy, we wonder?

"It happens all the time," she says. "I've watched people as they hesitate, then pass on. In a split second, they quash curiosity and temptation and move to the next comfortingly day-to-day product." Lack of knowledge is a definite stumbling block. Why is plain de luxe chocolate so expensive? Is it worth splashing out on balsamic vinegar, and how do you choose a good one?" Taste of the Times addresses these questions. It's both a bible of information and, if not actually a prayer book, an answer to our prayers, with 170 thoroughly modern recipes.

The book breaks down into a dozen sections so you can easily explore herbs such as coriander, lemon grass, lovage, kaffir lime leaves; spices (Szechuan peppers, star anise, saffron); starchy staples (wild rice, spelt, polenta); fruit (quinces, papaya and passion fruit); vegetables (celeriac, salsify and fennel); preserved fish and meat including salt cod, anchovies and air-dried ham; oil and vinegars; savoury preserves (sun-dried tomatoes, capers, olives); pulses and nuts and sweet things such as maple syrup and hunza apricots.

Below is a taste of the dairy section - including two tasty modern desserts, the first using mascarpone in a custard tart and the second creme fraiche in an easy baked mango gratin. The final recipe is for a delicious savoury starter with mozzarella, capers and lemon.

! To order your copy of `Sophie Grigson's Taste of the Times' published by BBC Books, for pounds 18.99 postage and package included, please call 01624 675 137

RICH MASCARPONE CUSTARD TART

Serves 6-8

For the pastry:

125g/4oz unsalted butter, softened

50g/2oz castor sugar

1 large egg

250g/8oz plain flour

pinch of salt

For the filling:

300ml/10fl oz single cream

1 vanilla pod, slit open

5 egg yolks

100g/312oz castor sugar

100g/312oz mascarpone

finely grated zest of 1 lime and 1 tablespoon juice

ground cinnamon or icing sugar to serve

To make the pastry, cream the butter and sugar in a food processor until light and fluffy. Add the egg and process until mixed. Sift the flour with a pinch of salt. Add to processor. Mix until smooth then gather into a ball. Wrap in clingfilm and allow to rest in the fridge for half an hour.

Pre-heat the oven to 350F/180C/Gas 4. Line a deep 20cm (8in) tart tin with the pastry and then leave it to relax again in the fridge for half an hour.

Prick the pastry base with a fork, line it with greaseproof paper or cooking foil, weight it down with baking beans and bake blind for 20 minutes.

Remove the beans and paper and then return the pastry case to the oven for another five to 10 minutes to dry out without letting it brown. Reduce the oven temperature to 325F/170C/Gas 3.

To make the filling, put the cream into a pan, with the vanilla pod and bring it gently to the boil. Turn the heat down as low as possible, cover and leave to infuse for 15 minutes.

Beat the egg yolks with the sugar until mousse-like. Gradually add the hot cream, stirring constantly. Strain a little of the mixture on to the mascarpone and beat in to slacken it. Strain the remainder into the mascarpone, add the lime zest and juice and mix thoroughly but don't overwork. Pour the custard into the pastry case and bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until the custard is set but still has a hint of a wobble in the centre. This is best eaten warm. Dust with a little cinnamon or icing sugar before serving.

MANGO AND CARDAMOM GRATIN

Serves 4-6

2 medium-sized mangoes

4 green cardamom pods

75g/212oz castor sugar

250ml/8fl oz creme fraiche

Pre-heat the oven to 350F/180C/Gas 4. Using a sharp knife, slice the unpeeled mangoes, cutting down towards the stones and easing off the slices, gradually working your way along and around the stones. Trim the skin off and put the slices in a bowl. Slit open the cardamom pods and extract the black seeds. Crush to a powder with a little of the sugar. Sprinkle over the mango slices with about two-thirds of the remaining sugar. Leave to marinate for a few minutes, or up to an hour. Lay the slices snugly in an oval gratin dish. Beat the cream with the egg and pour over. Let it settle and sprinkle with remaining sugar. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until lightly browned.

MARINATED PARMESAN AND MOZZARELLA WITH GARLIC, CAPERS AND LEMON

A sensational first course which is delicious served with ciabatta bread

Serves 4-6

1 buffalo-milk mozzarella

150-200g/5-7oz Parmesan

For the dressing:

5 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon lemon juice

finely grated zest of 1 lemon

1 garlic clove, crushed

2 tablespoons small capers

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley

salt and pepper

Slice the mozzarella and Parmesan and arrange alternately on a serving dish.

To make the dressing, whisk the oil into the lemon juice slowly. Stir in the remaining ingredients. Put into a screw-capped jar, seal and shake to mix, taste, and adjust seasoning. Spoon over the cheeses, cover and leave for at least an hour before serving.

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