Mexicans love to char food, be that roasting chillies, tomatoes and garlic in dry frying pans (for fresh but robust table salsas), or toasting dried chillies and spices (for more complex sauces, or moles). In fact, it’s what gives Mexican food much of its distinctive taste. I feel a peculiar sense of pride that charring is all the rage over here, too, because I’m sure the trend stems from the huge interest in real Mexican cooking the world over. Viva Mexico!
Grilled cauliflower with charred tomato chilli dressing
If there is one thing you cook this month, let this be it. It’s a fabulous side for grilled fish, or for barbecued chicken or pork chops, or just as it is in a meze spread. Serves four.
125g puy lentils
1 bay leaf
2 garlic cloves, smashed
3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cauliflowers, leaves removed
2 tbsp olive oil
1 handful parsley leaves, roughly chopped
For the tomato dressing
1 scotch bonnet chilli
2 plum tomatoes
½ clove garlic, peeled
2 tbsp sherry vinegar
1 pinch brown sugar
130ml olive oil
Put the lentils in a saucepan with the bay leaf and garlic. Cover with water, bring to a simmer and cook gently for 25-30 minutes, until the lentils are just tender but still holding their shape. Drain, and reserve two tablespoons of the cooking liquid; discard the rest, and the garlic and bay. Stir the oil into the lentils and season to taste.
Meanwhile, put your oldest, most knackered heavy-based pan on a high heat. Once hot, add the chilli and tomatoes for the dressing, and dry-roast until blackened all over, about 10 minutes: the blacker they are, the more flavour will come through in the dressing. Put the charred tomatoes in a blender. Cut open the chilli lengthways and scrape away the seeds and membrane – try not to touch either, or you will have very spicy fingers for several hours. Add the chilli and garlic to the blender, and blitz to a thick puree. Add the vinegar and sugar, season generously and, with the motor running, add the oil in a slow, steady stream until the dressing is emulsified. Season to taste – it can take quite a bit of salt.
Put a griddle pan on a high heat. Cut the cauliflower vertically into 1cm-wide slabs (keep any florets that fall off for a salad, say). Rub the slices in oil and season. Grill in batches for eight to 10 minutes, turning halfway, until lightly toasted and tender in the middle; adjust the flame if they seem to be burning. Transfer to a warm place and repeat with the remaining cauliflower.
Lay the cauli on plates, spoon over the lentils and drizzle on dressing. Scatter on the parsley and serve.
Warm red peppers with tarragon, caper and egg dressing
This simple side is perfect for picnics, and a great first course, too. Serves four.
4 large red peppers
A few slices rustic bread (or sourdough)
1 large knob butter
1-2 garlic cloves (to taste –I like mine garlicky), peeled and chopped very fine
For the dressing
2 medium free-range eggs
2 tsp Dijon mustard
150ml extra-virgin olive oil
2 tsp red-wine vinegar
1 tbsp cornichons (or 1 small pickled gherkin)
1 heaped tsp capers, rinsed and roughly chopped
1 handful tarragon leaves, finely chopped
1 handful parsley leaves, finely chopped
Turn on a gas flame (or, if using an electric hob, heat up an old frying pan instead) and roast the peppers directly over the flame – put them on a wire rack, if need be – for eight to 12 minutes (longer if roasting in a pan on an electric ring), turning regularly, until black and blistered all over. Transfer to a bowl, cover with clingfilm and leave to sweat for 10 minutes (this makes them easier to peel).
Meanwhile, bring a pan of water to a boil, cook the eggs for 10 minutes, drain and plunge into cold water. Peel the eggs and separate the yolks from the whites. In a large bowl, mash the yolks with the mustard, then dribble in the oil in a thin trickle, whisking as you go, as if you’re making mayonnaise. (If you add the oil too quickly, the sauce will split, but don’t worry too much, because it may well come back together; it won’t affect the taste.) Once all the oil is combined, stir in the vinegar.
Chop the egg white and cornichons into small dice, then add to the sauce with the capers. Stir in the tarragon, half the parsley and a splash of water, then add more vinegar, mustard or salt to taste, and set aside.
Blitz the bread into crumbs in a food processor. Melt the butter in a frying pan, add the garlic and fry for a few minutes, until golden. Stir in the crumbs and fry until golden, about 10 minutes. Peel the peppers, discarding the stems and as many seeds as you can, and tear into quarters. Drape over a pretty plate, drizzle with the dressing, then sprinkle with the rest of the parsley and the golden crumbs.
And for the rest of the week…
The charred tomato dressing transforms everything from fried eggs on toast to toasted goat’s cheese salad and grilled mackerel. It’s so versatile, I might even try it with vanilla ice-cream next. The egg and caper dressing is a classic sauce gribiche, which is delicious on grilled leeks or grilled baby gems, or as a straight dip. Roast extra peppers – they keep well under a film of oil – for adding to sandwiches and wraps, or for blitzing with garlic and oil to make a mouth-watering puree that goes particularly well with fish.