Small wonders

They rarely grab the limelight, but grains and pulses are larder essentials with endless potential, says Mark Hix
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Indy Lifestyle Online

I seem to have turned my larder into a grain hoard. The reason I squirrel away jars, packets and bags of the stuff for a rainy day is because I like to go with the grains and small pulses when I'm creating and discovering new dishes. As the mood to experiment can strike at any time - and whatever the weather - it's essential to have a cupboard full of all sorts of long-lasting ingredients. I often find myself rummaging in the cupboard, checking out spices and grains for inspiration, rather like wandering around a market doing a spontaneous food shop.

I seem to have turned my larder into a grain hoard. The reason I squirrel away jars, packets and bags of the stuff for a rainy day is because I like to go with the grains and small pulses when I'm creating and discovering new dishes. As the mood to experiment can strike at any time - and whatever the weather - it's essential to have a cupboard full of all sorts of long-lasting ingredients. I often find myself rummaging in the cupboard, checking out spices and grains for inspiration, rather like wandering around a market doing a spontaneous food shop.

I know I keep far too many ingredients in my larder but I just hate throwing anything away. The hoarding instinct must come from my gran who used to keep packets of sugar in the bedroom drawers because she had heard that there was going to be a shortage. But I also can't resist visiting unusual food shops at home or abroad and buying attractive and intriguing packets. My mate Jason Lowe, who takes the lovely photographs for these pages, is just the same, giving in to his addiction to collect weird and wonderful types of food from his travels. We should probably set up a stall together at a car-boot sale to clear our cupboards every now and then.

My stash of small grains and pulses includes pearl barley, tiny white risina beans the size of grains of rice and only grown by Lake Trasemino in Italy, and several of those miniature pasta shapes from alphabetti to rice-shaped orzo that I can't resist buying when I'm in I Camisa in Soho. Any of these can give a clear soup a bit of substance or form the basis of a salad. Just mix with some chopped vegetables, herbs and olive oil. Grains are good. Ain't that the truth.

Spring vegetable and bulgar salad with fried halloumi

Serves 4-6

This is rather a good vegetarian main or starter dish, and can be served as part of a spring or summer buffet. You can add pretty much any spring vegetable you like that's available. I've added some Italian monk's beard, but you could easily use samphire, shredded runner beans and asparagus tips when they are in season.

Halloumi, a sheep's milk cheese originally from Cyprus, seems to be readily available in most delis and supermarkets these days. It's best cooked on a lightly oiled grill, or fried, and although its saltiness makes it an acquired taste, it certainly livens up a salad like this.

100g bulgar wheat
200g shelled weight of broad beans
200g shelled weight of peas
1tsp sugar
4 spring onions, finely chopped
4-5tbsp chopped parsley
Juice of 1 lemon
3-4tbsp olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
200g or 1 packet of halloumi cheese, cut into 1/2cm slices

Cover the bulgar wheat with about 3 times its volume of warm water and leave soaking for about 2 hours until it has softened. Drain.

Cook the broad beans in boiling salted water for about 5-6 minutes until tender then remove with a slotted spoon and refresh in a strainer under cold water. Add the peas to the same water with a teaspoon of sugar and cook for 6-8 minutes or until tender then drain and refresh under cold water.

Mix the peas, broad beans, spring onion and any other vegetables available with the bulgar wheat. Then mix in the parsley, lemon juice and most of the olive oil and season to taste.

Heat a frying pan, preferably non-stick, rub it with a little olive oil and cook the halloumi for about a minute on each side on a medium heat, until lightly coloured. Serve the golden slices of cheese on top of the salad.

Chicken, leek and pearl barley soup

Serves 4-6

At the point where winter gives way to spring, it's good to hedge your bets with a soup that's not too thick. There's something comforting about a chicken broth made with spring leeks and a chicken carcass, boiling fowl or simply some chicken legs, as I've used here. If you have a chicken carcass left from a roast then that's perfect for turning into your next meal and if there is not enough meat left on it, it won't break the bank to buy a couple of chicken legs. If you can get your hands on a boiling fowl, just simmer it according to the recipe, and use the leg meat for the soup and the breasts for sandwiches or a salad.

I always keep some pearl barley in a jar in the larder as it's a handy and not too stodgy addition to a soup or stew.

2 chicken legs, or a boiling fowl
2 leeks, one roughly chopped and washed, the other cut into rough 1cm squares and washed for the garnish
2 onions, peeled and roughly chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled
A few sprigs of thyme
1 bay leaf
10 peppercorns
2 litres of chicken stock or a couple of stock cubes dissolved in that amount of water
50g pearl barley soaked in cold water overnight
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Put the chicken legs or boiling fowl into a large saucepan with the roughly chopped leek, onions, garlic, thyme, bay leaf and peppercorns. Pour over the stock and some water if the chicken isn't covered. Bring to the boil and simmer gently for 1 1/2 hours, skimming every so often. Remove the chicken and leave to cool; strain the stock through a fine meshed sieve. Meanwhile simmer the pearl barley in salted water for 20-30 minutes until tender then drain.

Check the strength of the chicken stock and re-simmer for a little longer if it needs strengthening. Add the other chopped leek and pearl barley, season if necessary and continue to simmer until the leek is tender. Meanwhile remove the meat from the chicken, discard the skin (or crisp it up in hot fat for a salad or snack) and cut the meat into chunks and add to the soup.

Tapioca with mango

Serves 4-6

A thing of the past is tapioca, well at least in European kitchens. Those of us who predate junk-food school dinners may remember badly made tapioca milk pudding. We shouldn't write off this interesting ingredient just because of these bad memories. How many of us know what tapioca really is and how good it can be? When turned into a dessert with Asian flavours - the way it's eaten in other parts of the world - tapioca and sago are a whole different story.

To put you in the picture, tapioca is made from cassava, the starchy root used mostly in Asia and Africa. Cassava flour is treated in such a way it forms what are called flakes, seeds and pearls of tapioca. Sago, which also got a bad reputation from school puddings, is similar, but made from palm. For once my kitchen cupboard let me down and I had to go looking for tapioca and discovered that it's so out of favour it's hard to find unless you know where to look. I had no luck in West End health-food shops and supermarkets but after wasting an hour searching, it suddenly dawned upon me that the Chinese use it. Lo and behold there was loads of tapioca flour, tapioca pearls and sago on my doorstep in Chinatown. I came up with an Asian recipe using Alfonso mangoes, which I bought in the Taj stores in Brick Lane, east London. They have an unusual and irresistible fragrance, unlike any other mango. If you can't find Alfonsos just choose ripe and juicy normal mangoes. This classic combination should banish forever any lingering, old-fashioned associations.

100g tapioca
2 lime leaves
2 stems of lemongrass
2 litres milk
75g sugar
2 mangoes

Smash the bulbous end of the lemon grass with the back of a knife or rolling pin, then add to the milk with the lime leaves and sugar. Bring to the boil, add the tapioca and simmer gently for 1 hour, stirring every so often. Leave to cool but not to go completely cold.

Meanwhile peel the mangoes with a sharp knife and cut either side of the stone to remove the flesh then cut it into rough 1cm cubes. Trim any excess mango flesh you've missed from around the stone and blend with a little water in to a smooth purée. Mix the purée with the diced flesh.

Spoon the tapioca into serving dishes and spoon the mango on top.

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