The art of being Azzedine Alaia, darling decorator of fashion insiders

A stunning indicate at the Design Museum presents the master couturiers own vision although sadly he wont see it. By Kate Finnigan

When Azzedine Alaia, the Tunisian master couturier, succumbed of a heart attack in Paris last November, aged 82, the Design Museum in London was seven months into preparing a big show dedicated to his run. It was to be the first fashion exhibition in the museum’s new building in Kensington and the choice of Alaia had been carefully built.” The museum has very special architecture ,” says Alice Black, co-director.” What Azzedine Alaia created over his career is also striking sculpture. We felt that his work against the backdrop of the museum would be amazing .”

Black had come to know the tiny and charismatic designer over the previous few months. The team had collaborated closely with Alaia himself, a human known for his perfectionism and hands-on approach.” Azzedine was the heart and soul of his label. For a while I wondered if the exhibition could still go ahead ,” says Black.” But because he had really wanted it, everyone took it on themselves to make it happen. It was his idea, his idea, so we hadn’t been left to second guess .”

Azzedine Alaia: The Couturier, curated by Alaia’s long-term collaborator and friend, Mark Wilson of the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands, opens this Thursday. The museum has defied the temptation to turn it into a retrospective and has stayed with the designer’s original vision for it to be a study of technique and craft, with more than 60 examples of couture pieces. It is the first-ever UK show dedicated to Alaia, who is less well known here than in his adopted France. But those who know way revere Alaia almost like no other. The industry loves a secret and there has been a cult surrounding Alaia for five decades, inspired not only by his unique- although much-imitated- style but by his desire for perfectionism( a dress could take five weeks or five years ), his refusal to be dictated to by commercialism and his personal style of business, largely conducted in his atelier-cum-apartment in the Marais around a kitchen table, where Alaia served guests with his own cuisine.

Turning
Turning heads: Azzedine Alaia with Tina Turner, Paris, 1989. Photo:( c) Peter Lindbergh( Courtesy Peter Lindbergh, Paris)

The Alaia aesthetic is so powerful that, to those who know it, merely uttering the name will summon up a vision- a living, breathing girl, her form enhanced by textiles that sculpt and mould, clinch and cling.” He’s the master of cut and fit, a sculptor,” says Wilson.” He didn’t do describes that somebody else translated. He designed everything immediately on to the body. That’s how he made things .” In both his couture and ready-to-wear collectings his materials were Lycra bandages, smooth velvet, stretching wool and leather- lots of it, moulded or cut like lace by laser or riveted with silver eyelets. Wilson is showing the couture garments, opted with Alaia, in themed clusters- velvet, African-inspired, bandage attires.” You get to see everything in 360 degrees and the groupings mean the viewer gets a better understanding of the craft and the technique ,” tells Wilson, who has now curated six Alaia indicates.” If you looked at these pieces separately, you would watch less how each of them is very special “in ones own” route. You can really consider the cuts and seaming and building, which in other exhibitions you might not be able to appreciate .”

Alaia considered the exhibition as an installation and asked artists to stimulate screens as a backdrop to his work.” I came up with the idea and Azzedine selected the artists, who include Marc Newson, Tatiana Trouve and the Bouroullec brethren. Wrapping around the walls is a series of scenes taken by Richard Wentworth, who spent two years documenting Maison Alaia.

” I attain clothes; girls stimulate style ,” the designer told. For Black, the sorcery of the Alaia look is that it is timeless.” They are garments that you look fantastic in today, much as you would have done 20 years ago, or will do in 20 years’ period ,” she tells.” It’s that craftsmanship, the perfection. In the exhibition you do assure patterns and garbs that he’s been working on and reworking throughout his career, but in parallel you see very interesting fluctuations of textile. He’s always bringing innovation in there- the laser-cutting or working with a glass powder that gives fabric an iridescence. There’s innovation as well as a respect of a certain tradition .”

When Michael Jackson built the 1992 video for In the Closet– directed by Herb Ritts, co-starring Naomi Campbell and with a voiceover by Princess Stephanie of Monaco- Alaia provided Campbell’s barely there clothes, white harvest top and flippy skirt. This was the glitzy stratosphere he occupied. The designer was stimulated more famous by a line in the 1995 cinema Clueless when Alicia Silverstone’s fashion-obsessed Cher is robbed at gunpoint and refuses to get to the ground with the immortal terms:” You don’t understand, this is an Alaia !”

But Alaia himself was not a flashy person. The word most used about him is “humble”. He was kind and empathetic, a friend and guide to many people, including Mark Wilson who knew him for 22 years.” Oh, he was a sweetheart. I loved him ,” tells Wilson.” We were household. He was my favourite artist and he also opened his home to me .” He was a father figure for Naomi Campbell, who knew him as Papa, and moved into his apartment in Paris when she was 16. The model made a compassionate speech about him at the British Fashion Awards after his death last year:” Back in the working day, our fridges weren’t stuffed with food: we bought what we consume on a daily basis and if there was one egg left in his fridge, Papa would offer it to me to make an omelette .”

Born in Tunis, the child of wheat farmers, he studied sculpture before transferring, self-taught, to manner. He moved to Paris in 1957 and got a job at Christian Dior, but was rejected after five days for not having the correct papers. After working with Guy Laroche and Thierry Mugler he set up on his own, but it wasn’t until 1979 that he opened his own atelier, where he garmented Greta Garbo and Marie-Helene de Rothschild.

He is perhaps most recognised for dressing the supermodels who bestride the 1980 s and 90 s- Elle Macpherson, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell- as well as the awesome frames of Grace Jones and Stephanie Seymour. The high levels of these women and his lack of it often proved irresistible to photographers; images of the 5ft 3in Alaia, towered over by some 6ft super-beauty, possess something of the fairytale. But his clothes were not only for Amazons. The Kardashian sisters, with their curves and gloss, look like they were conceived to wear Alaia and are devotees. So, too, is his friend the gallerist Carla Sozzani, as was her late sister Franca, who was editor-in-chief of Italian Vogue . Pale blonde Italian waifs, they slipped their slim frames into wide-tiered skirts with flat black shoes so that the architecture of the garments sway around them like kinetic sculpture.

” He was at the service of women ,” says Black.” Some have been his couture clients for a lifetime- once you start wearing Alaia you only never stop. But even with his ready-to-wear he put so much attention into the structure. They don’t crumples and don’t fall the wrong way. A lot of the women we’ve talked to mention this feeling of empowerment they have while wearing his clothes. When you feel so beautiful, you feel confident and you can go out and take over the world .”

The museum will exhibit a few garments in the public foyer, alongside photography, as a taster for a wider audience. With a new flagship three-storey Alaia store recently opened on London’s New Bond Street, this is perhaps the biggest year ever for the once tiny label. Alaia may have left us, but his legend will endure.

Azzedine Alaia: The Couturier is at The Design Museum from 10 May to 7 October ( designmuseum.org )

Read more: www.theguardian.com

The weekend cook: Thomasina Miers’ summer fruit recipes

Sharp and sweet gooseberries are great in savoury dishes, too

Sadly, the two gooseberry bushes we planted in the smaller flowerbed at the front of our house havent liked their position: one has given up the ghost totally, while the other is sickly and barely hanging on. My parents goosegogs, meanwhile, which were inherited from my grandparents, have survived rubble, two lots of builders and many more indignities, yet they still bear fruit year after year after year. Lifes simply not fair sometimes.

I adore gooseberries in a creamy fool who doesnt? but they do a good savoury turn, too. Not simply with fish, either: their sharp flavour melds beautifully with herby pork chops, too.

For pudding, more fruit in the shape of an old-fashioned cobbler stimulated with khorasan flour, an ancient and wonderfully nutty variety of wheat thats gentler on the digestive system than modern cultivated ones. Ive utilized fresh peaches, though I dare say my grandmother would have been able to attained it with tinned in her day, and baked them until just soft and bubbling hot. Theyre just made to be eaten with mass of vanilla ice-cream or double cream.

Herby pork chops with warm gooseberry sauce

Use a good free-range or organic chop, if you can it makes a huge change to the savor and texture, and will, hopefully, be antibiotic-free. Serves four.

1 cleave garlic, peeled
1 small bunch fresh sage, leaves picked
A few sprigs fresh thyme, leaves picked
1 sprig fresh rosemary, leaves picked
2 bay foliages
Zest of 1 lemon
1 tbsp fennel seeds, roughly crushed
2 tbsp olive oil
2-4 pork bone-in chops, depending on their size
50 g butter
250 g gooseberries, topped and tailed
3 tbsp sugar

Heat the oven to 200 C/ 390 F/ gas mark 6. Roughly chop the garlic and the herbs together, then transfer to a bowl and stir in the lemon zest and crushed fennel seeds.

Heat the oil in a large frying pan over a medium-high flame and lightly season the chops. Once the oil is hot, fry the chops for two to three minutes on both sides, until golden( if you cant fit all four chops into the pan at the same period, cook them in two batches ).

Take the pan off the heat and transfer the chops to an oven tray. Add the butter to the still-hot frying pan and, as it meltings, scrape up the golden, tasty bits stuck to the base of the pan. Once the butter has melted, add the chopped herb mix to the pan, so it sizzles briefly in the hot butter, then tip-off this over the chops, building sure each one gets an equal encompas. Roast the chops for eight to 10 minutes( depending on the thickness of your chops ), until the pork is merely cooked through.

While the chops are in the oven, put the gooseberries, sugar and a splash of water in a saucepan and put one across a high hot. Cook briskly for four to five minutes, until the gooseberries have just deflated but still keep their shape. Savour, add more sugar if the gooseberries are still sour you dont want a sweet sauce, but you dont want it too unpleasantly sharp, either.

Once the chops are cooked through, take them out of the oven and leave to rest for five minutes, then serve with a good dollop of gooseberries and the herby, buttery cook juices spooned over the top. Delicious with mashed or simmered, buttery potatoes and a sharp rocket salad.

Peach, hazelnut and khorasan cobbler

Thomasina
Thomasina Miers peach, hazelnut and khorasan cobbler. Photo: Louise Hagger for the Guardian. Food styling: Emily Kydd. Prop styling: Jennifer Kay

Khorasan flour is widely available from supermarkets under the Kamut brand, but if you cant discovery any, use spelt flour instead; plain flour will work here, too. Serves four.

75 g unsalted butter, cubed, plus extra for greasing
8 ripe peaches, peeled, halved and stoned
Zest of 1 lemon
tsp cornflour
25 g demerara sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
200 g khorasan flour
2 tsp baking powder
tsp penalty salt
60 g golden caster sugar
250 ml yoghurt
tsp vanilla bean paste
1 medium egg yolk
30 g hazelnuts

Heat the oven to 180 C/ 350 F/ gas mark 4 and grease a one-litre ovenproof dish with butter.

Toss the peaches with the lemon zest, cornflour and demerara, then lay over the base of the dish.

Whisk together the flour, cooking powder, salt and sugar, then rub in the remaining butter with your fingertips. Stir in the yoghurt, vanilla and egg yolk, to make a dough, then tear off pieces of the dough and roll into balls. Flatten each ball a little, and dot all over the top of the peaches( unlike a pie or crumble, the peaches dont need to be completely are covered under dough for a cobbler ).

Roughly crush the hazelnuts in a pestle, then combining with a heaped tablespoon of demerara sugar. Sprinkle the nut mixture all over the top of the cobbler, then cook on the middle shelf of the oven for 30 -4 0 minutes, until the top is golden and the peaches are soft and bubbling. Remove, leave to cool slightly, then serve with ice-cream or double cream.

And for the rest of the week

Tart gooseberries have a natural affinity with the heady, haunting flavour of vanilla: I love to poach them with a split pod, some brown sugar, lemon zest and Pernod, and eat them with yoghurt for breakfast or whipped into cream for a traditional buffoon. The savoury gooseberry sauce is great with oily fish such as mackerel; you could also cook it down a bit more, turning into a sort of chutney for serving with cheese. The cobbler topping works on any fruit, really: add some raspberries to the peaches, for a melba; apricots with a splashing of muscat are wonderful, too.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

A letter to … Identical twins, who truly know what it’s like to be one of a pair

The letter you always wanted to write

You know what its like, dont you? The double-takes as you walk along the street together, the teachers who could never remember which was which, the strangers who wave and smile, and you just wave and smile back because you know its a example of mistaken identity, and its not their fault.

Isnt being an identical twin only the best thing ?! one said to me a while back, and how could I not concur? Its like having a best friend and sibling all rolled into one, someone who entirely gets you.

Does yours live close by? I jealousy you. Mine lives hundreds of miles away, but I insured her recently on a visit to the twins unit at St Thomas hospital in London. Weve been part of its research programme for years and its a win-win thing for everyone: they get guinea pig to help them examine the link between genes, the environment and common illness; we get a kind of MOT, everything from blood tests to bone-density scans, 3D x-rays to ECGs.

First finding: twins are competitive. Of course we are, we get compared from childhood on, dont we? Would you, like me, be mentioning that while she weighs( a bit !) less than me, my lungs( drum roll) are those of someone 11 years younger? Or that I came up with more names of animals in a minute than she did? We were as one, though, on terms beginning with p wed been asked to list: Did my sister tell pterodactyl? shed asked, and yes, I had.( A household gag from when her own twins were small .)

At lunch, we sat with a fellow twin whose other half was coming on a different day. Oh yes, were identical, she told, before adding conspiratorially, Identical twins are the only real twins, arent they?

Hers, she added, was the bad twin, her hypothesi being that, from an early age, twins are forced into good/ bad roles from which many find it hard to escape. Does that ring true for you? It certainly did for us. No, Im not going to tell you which is which, only that it wasnt yours truly climbing out of the window and running away to the saloon when we were 17.

Did I mention other halves? Our companion had an interesting take on that, too: her matrimony, she told, had fallen apart because her husband couldnt handle her closeness to her twin. I supposed guiltily about a recent exchange with my partner.

Were going to see Frank Turner! Id told him, excitedly.

Are we? hed told. When? At which phase I was forced to admit that the we that is him and me was not the we Id meant.

I asked him what he thought about living with a twin. Its like Princess Diana told, he replied. There are three people in this relationship.

Is that how it is for you, too? Can it seem at times as if your significant other is not the one who shares your bed? My twin and a boyfriend of mine once almost did just that, when he muddled up bedrooms in the dark and didnt place his mistake until her boyfriend tried to climb in, too. Such larks are apparently endlessly fascinating for non-twins. At a school reunion, decades after wed left, the first thing our erstwhile history teacher asked a question was not what Id been doing with myself in the intervening years but whether, as teens, my sister and I had ever played tricks on our dates. It had been, he told, much discussed in the staffroom. For the record, Mr Miles, Mr Thomas, Mr Noble, et al , no, we didnt.

We did once go to a fancy dress party as Bill and Ben the uncannily similar flowerpot men. And we do look back at photos of ourselves as children and wonder which is which. Was it her who fell in the pond at Hampton Court, or me? Me who swallowed the medication in the kitchen cabinet, or her? It didnt matter on that occasion: we both had to have our stomachs pumped, just in case.

Not that such mix-ups always ended in tears. One of us once dodged a bath when our doting nana dunked the same twin twice. That was me, wasnt it? No, hang on a minute

To find out more about the twins research division, go to twinsuk.ac.uk

Read more: www.theguardian.com

Rosie Sykes’ recipes for Christmas cocktails and canapes | Cocktails and canapes

Cocktails and canapes: Rosie Sykes cleverly pairs edible treats with a perfect festive pick-me-up

Some days demand a stiff drink and a bite to eat, whether it’s a cosy night on the sofa, or the bright lights of Christmas. In this extract from her new book, Rosie Sykes cleverly pairs each edible treat with a perfect festive pick-me-up …

Terrazzo…

Cooling like marble, almost flinty and savoury. Decorated with diced lime, lemon, orange and a zigzag of bay foliage to create a jazzy terrazzo impact, this fizzy aperitivo employs Cocchi Americano- a bitter Italian aperitif wine with citrus and herbal flavours- stimulating it the perfect start to any party.

Terrazzo Terrazzo with anchovy-stuffed eggs. Photograph: Patricia_Niven/ Patricia Niven/ Quadrille

Makes 1
Crushed ice
Small segments of lime, lemon, orange
1 part gin
2 proportions Cocchi Americano
4 parts sparkling wine
Paper drinking straw
Bay leaf

1 Half fill a highball or other tall glass with ice, adding small segments of lime, lemon and orange as you go.

2 Pour in the gin, Cocchi Americano and sparkling wine and stir well.

3 Top up with ice and citrus segments. Add a newspaper straw. Finish with a bay foliage garnish, decoratively cut with a pair of scissors to a design of your choice- we ordinarily go for a zig-zag.

… with anchovy-stuffed eggs

A throwback dish of unassuming style, stuffed eggs give immense sums of pleasure. My dear friend Peter and I once met in a bar in Manhattan to drink martinis and share a couple of plates of their famous devilled eggs, bringing to mind this quote from Pulitzer-prizewinning journalist Herb Caen:” Martinis are like breasts: one isn’t enough and three is too many .” In my book, it’s a sentiment that applies equally to stuffed eggs. The most delicious stuffed eggs I have feed in recent memory- and the inspiration for this recipe- were at a supper cooked by the amazing chef James Ferguson.

Makes 1
2 eggs
2 tbsp tinned anchovies, finely chopped
1 tsp olive oil
Finely grated zest and juice of 1/4 lemon
1/ 2 tsp dijon mustard
A generous pinch of smoked paprika
2 tbsp mayonnaise
A small handful of parsley, finely chopped
Cornichons or small pickled onions, to serve

1 Put the eggs into a saucepan of cold water. Bring to the boil, then lower the hot so the water is just simmer. Cook for 12 minutes. Meanwhile, set the anchovies in a bowl with the petroleum and mash to a paste, then add the lemon zest, mustard, paprika and mayonnaise and mixture until smooth. Stir in the parsley.

2 Lift out the eggs and cool entirely in cold water until totally cold- this will take a good few minutes. Then carefully peel the eggs and cut them in half lengthways. Scoop out the yolks and add them to the anchovy mixture, then mash softly together- I like a little bit of texture. Savor the stuffing concoction; season with lemon, salt and pepper to taste.

3 Depending on how many cocktails you are planning to have, it might be worth taking a tiny slice from the bottom of each egg-white “boat” so they sit steadily on the plate. Spoonful or, if you’re feeling super-fancy, tube the stuffing back into the egg-white boats, then serve at room temperature with a few cornichons or little pickled onions.

Light-emitting diode…

A variant of a whiskey sour that nearly incandescences in the dark that they are able to alleviate any excesses of dinner and have you jumping around in no time.

Light-emitting Light-emitting diode with a squash and truffle brandade. Photo: Patricia_Niven/ Patricia Niven/ Quadrille

Makes 1
3 components rye whiskey or bourbon
1 part simple syrup, ideally infused with orange or grapefruit zest
1 part lemon juice
A dash of Pernod- or pastis or ouzo, if that’s all you can get your hands on
2 tsp egg white
Ice cubes
Frond of fennel or dill

1 Combine the whiskey, syrup, lemon juice, Pernod and egg white in a shaker, or a jar with a eyelid and add plenty of ice.

2 Shake vigorously until well chilled and the egg white is foaming.

3 Strain into a cocktail glass, ideally a stemmed one, using a mesh strainer or sieve – you may wish to spoon some of the egg-white foam from the shaker on to your drink if too much gets left behind.

4 Delicately garnish with a frond of fennel or dill- a little bit of green foliage sitting atop the frothy head of this drink is most appealing. Sip and perform a backwards somersault.

… with a squash and truffle brandade

Strictly speaking, brandade is a Provencal dish of salt cod pureed with garlic, olive oil and sometimes potato, but I have use ithere because the texture of the end result is similar. We’re so spoilt these days with the wide range of squash and pumpkins available to us. In their many guises, they make such aIf you’re feeling extra-decadent, you can grate over a little parmesan as well.

Makes 6
1 small squash- about 680 g
Salt and black pepper
A small grating of nutmeg
2 tsp olive oil
60g( 4 tbsp) unsalted butter
1 tbsp truffle oil
3 pitta breads or flatbreads
A few shavings of fresh truffle( optional)

1 Preheat the oven to 180 C/ 350 F/ gas 4. Cut the squash in half and scoop out the seeds of both halves with a spoonful. Season the flesh side liberally with salt and pepper, then grate over a little nutmeg.

2 Put each half on to a large sheet of oiled foil, skin-side down, then splash over the rest of the olive oil and a good handful of water. Wrap up the squash halves to form two parcels and cook for 50-60 minutes or until wholly soft, but not brown. Scrape all the flesh out. If it seems waterlogged, tip into a sieve set over a saucepan and drainage for about half an hour, or until the squash seems dry. Then set the pan over a medium heat and let the liquid simmer and reduce until syrupy.

3 Meanwhile, mash the squash. When the liquid has reduced, add the squash to the pan to warm through. Now gradually beat in the butter, bit by bit, until you have a lovely rich and glossy mixture. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then stir in three-quarters of the truffle oil.

4 Put the pitta breads or flatbreads under a hot grill to warm through, then cut into bite-sized strips.

5 Scrape the squash brandade into a warm bowl and sprinkle with the rest of the truffle oil( now is the time for a few shavings of truffle, if you have one tucked away somewhere ), then surround with the strips of bread.

Trainwreck…

This will either cause an incident or resuscitate those at the scene. For this drinking, crushed ice is best, as it helps to cool the ingredients quickly and melts in such a way as to soften the harshness of the alcohol. But if you don’t have an ice-crusher or a powerful blender, ice cubes will do.

A A’ trainwreck’ is the perfect day for a croquette, tells Rosie. Photo: Patricia_Niven/ Patricia Niven/ Quadrille

Makes 1
Crushed ice
2 components rye whiskey or bourbon
1 part Campari
1 part simple syrup, ideally infused with orange or grapefruit zest
2 proportions orange juice- or, if in season, blood orange juice
Orange slice, for decoration
Paper drinking straw

1 Half-fill a small metal Julep cup or short tumbler with ice. Pour in the rye whiskey or bourbon, the Campari, syrup and orange juice and stir well.

2 Top up with enough ice to give your drink a bountiful appearance. Garnish with half-moon-shaped slicings of orange and add a paper straw.

… with white bean croquettes with herby mayonnaise

A few stints of living in the south of Spain have induced me a croquette aficionado. I like this type for home cooking, because it doesn’t involve making a bechamel sauce, so it’s relatively simple and very tasty.

Makes 8
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 medium red onion, finely sliced
1 small sprig rosemary, leaves stripped and finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
120g baby spinach leaves
400g tin of cannellini beans, drained
100g panko or other breadcrumbs
1 tbsp mint, finely chopped
1 tbsp parsley, finely chopped
A generous pinch of chilli flakes
75g mayonnaise
1 egg
6 tbsp illuminated olive oil

1 Heat the extra virgin olive oil in a saucepan over a low heat and add the onion and rosemary. Cook very gently until soft and sweet, then add the garlic and stir about for a minute.

2 Add the spinach and mix well, stirring until it wilts. Add the beans and warm through.

3 Transfer the contents of the pan to a food processor and whizz to a smooth paste. Add 20 g of breadcrumbs. Pulse to combine. The mixture should be quite stiff- if it seems too wet, add more breadcrumbs. Scrape into a bowl and transfer to the fridge for an hour or so. Meanwhile, stir the mint, parsley and chilli snowflakes into the mayonnaise.

4 Lightly beat the egg in a shallow bowl. Set the remaining breadcrumbs into another. Scoop out tablespoonfuls of the croquette concoction, roll into balls and then flattened into pucks. Dip the croquettes in beaten egg and then breadcrumbs, shaking off any excess. Double-dip the croquettes to give them an extra-crisp shell, if you like.

5 Heat the light olive oil in a small frying pan and, when hot, fry the croquettes in batches of three to keep the petroleum hot. Keep turning them until the objective is golden all over, then drain on kitchen paper. Eat while hot, dipped in, or drizzled with, the herby mayo.

Rosie Sykes is a freelance chef and menu consultant. She is the author of The Sunday Night Book( Quadrille) and co-author of the Kitchen Revolution( Ebury) This is an extract from Rosie’s latest book, The Sunday Night Book- Short Recipes to Attain the Weekend Feel Longer( Quadrille, 10.99) out now

Nigel Slater’s lemongrass recipes

Its one of the most subtle and delicious aromatics, says Nigel Slater. Use it in soup, and save some for pudding, too

At the bottom of the refrigerator is a little plastic box of aromatics: a hand of ginger, an assortment of red and orange chillies, a tuber of galangal and a tight bundle of lemongrass stalks. This is the box of tricks that comes out when I make pho or any kind of coconut milk curry or soup( the lemongrass neatly cuts the fattiness of the coconut ). Today it comes out for a classic and a curiosity.

I buy lemongrass from Chinatown if I’m passing through, because the husks are more plump there, the layers of tightly packed leaves softer and greener. They are also cheaper than elsewhere. But what really matters is the freshness of the stubbles. So many around are dry and absence the highly aromatic quality that builds them worth buying. The bottled ones, by the way, are as good as useless.

Lemon verbena, a herb I use for tea and that grows abundantly if your plant is protected against the frost, is a better substitute for lemongrass than lemon. It has something of the effervescence of the stems. Lemongrass, like lime foliages, suffers from freeze, bottling and drying. The basic citrus flavor remains, but the real magic, the addictive essence- its heart and soul if you like- is lost.

The idea of flavouring creme caramel with vanilla or coconut is easy to get to grips with, but I have always had doubts concerning flavouring the milk itself. But an infusion of lemongrass worked superbly this week, producing a mildly citrus note that is flattered rather than overpowered by the thin layer of caramel that lies on top. The herb added a refreshing note that appealed at the end of dinner, though I should probably admit to scoffing one at breakfast, too, in lieu of my usual yogurt. But then, what kind of a world is it when we can’t have pudding for breakfast?

Prawn and lemongrass soup

Serves 4
prawns 16, large and raw
shallots 400 g, small
groundnut oil 4 tbsp
lemongrass husks 3
ginger 50 g
water 1.5 litres
carrots 150 g
sugar snap peas 150 g
coriander a handful
nam pla( fish sauce) 1 tbsp

Peel the prawns, defining the shells to one side. Return the prawns to the fridge. Peel half the shallots then approximately chop them. Warm half the oil in a deep pan then add the shallots and fry them until they are soft and pale gold.

Split the stalks of lemongrass lengthways, discarding the tough, outer leaves, then bash them hard with a heavy weight, such as a rolled pin, to splinter them. Add the shattered stalks to the shallots. Peel the ginger, cut it into coins about as thick as a PS2 piece, and add them to the shallots. Continue cooking over a low heat.

Add the reserved prawn shells to the pot. Pour the water into the pan and bring to the boil. Lower the heat, then leave to simmer for 30 minutes.

Peel the remaining shallots, cut them in half, then open into individual layers. Peel the carrots, cut into thin slice then into short matchsticks. Warm the remaining part groundnut oil in a large pan, then cook the shallots until golden.

Cut the sugar snap peas into thin strips. Add the reserved prawns and cook them for 3 minutes on both sides. Strain the broth through a sieve into the shallots and prawns. Add the carrots and sugar snaps and season with the fish sauce, then cook for a minute or two before tearing the coriander leaves and adding them to the soup.

Lemongrass creme caramel

Mellow
Mellow yellow: lemongrass creme caramel. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin for the Observer

Shred the lemongrass finely, into paper-thin discs, this is why it dedicates up as much flavour as is practicable to the milk. The custards are cooked when the mixture is softly firm but will still quiver when shaken. Makes 4.

For the caramel:
caster sugar 125 g

For the custard:
creamy milk 500 ml
lemongrass 3 large stalks
egg yolks 4
eggs 2
caster sugar 80 g

Pour the milk into a saucepan. Finely slice the lemongrass then add to the milk and bring to the boil. Remove from the heat, covering with a lid and set aside for 20 minutes to infuse.

Make the caramel by putting the sugar into a small pan then pouring over enough water to only cover it. Place the pan over a moderate hot and leave to simmer, watching carefully, until walnut brown.

Set the oven at 150 C/ gas mark 2. Pour the caramel into 4 china ramekins, twisting each one from side to side until the base of the dish is covered with a fine layer.

Put the kettle on to simmer. Attain the custard: beat together the egg yolks, eggs and 80 g of caster sugar. Strain the infused milk through a sieve into a large jug to remove the pieces of lemongrass. Pour the milk over the eggs and sugar and stir together. Pour or ladle the concoction into the caramel-lined dishes. Lower them into a cook tin then place on the middle shelf of the oven. Pour enough boiling water from the kettle to arrive halfway up the sides of the dishes.

Bake the custards for 40 minutes until they are just defined. They should quiver when gently shaken. Remove and leave to cool, then chill for at the least 2 hours. To turn out, operate a palette knife around the edge, place a small plate on top and turn the plate and ramekin over. Shake firmly and let the custard slide out.

Email Nigel at nigel.slater @observer. co.uk or follow him on Twitter @NigelSlater

Read more: www.theguardian.com

20 best Middle Eastern recipes: portion 4

Lebanese falafel, Turkish stuffed mussels and Honey& amp; Cos signature pudding, feta and honey cheesecake, finish our collecting of the best Middle Eastern dishes to cook at home

Anissa Helou’s stuffed mussels- midye dolmasi

If there were one street food I could take with me to a desert island, it would have to be stuffed mussels. I remember the first time I visited Istanbul in the mid 1970 s, I bided at the Pera Palace, still in its faded glory, expending my mornings in mosques and museums and my afternoons and early evenings in the bazaars.

I was on a mission to find the ultimate stuffed mussels. I had never eaten them before and had fallen in love with this elaborate delicacy that was sold so cheaply on the street when it could have been on the menu of a Michelin-starred restaurant.

My hotel was just down the road from Cicek Passaji( Flower Passage ), a lovely small marketplace leading into a maze of narrow streets full of charming restaurants. Every afternoon, I walked up to the market to sample stuffed mussels. At that time, there were many stallings selling them, while today only one remains. I ran from one vendor to the next, tasting the mussels. If they were good, I would linger, gesturing to the vendor to give me one more, then another and the other until I had feed half a dozen extra mussels. Fortunately the last remaining stuffed-mussels vendor is one of the best in town.

It is not that easy to find mussels that are large enough for stuffing. If you can’t find any, simply change the dish to a pilaf by preparing 2-3 days the amount of rice stuffing and cooking it totally. Steam the mussels separately and arrange them, on the half shell, on top of the cooked rice.

Serves 4
extra-virgin olive oil 4 tbsp
pine nuts 1 tbsp
onions 2 small, peeled and finely chopped
paella rice 110 g, or other white short-grain rice( bomba, Calasparra or Egyptian ), soaked in warm water
raisins 1 tbsp
tomato paste 11/2 tbsp
ground cinnamon 1/4 tsp
ground allspice 1/4 tsp
paprika 1/4 tsp
cayenne pepper a pinch
ground cloves a pinch
ocean salt
finely ground black pepper
mussels about 40 medium-to-large, in their shells
flat-leaf parsley 1 tbsp, chopped
dill 1 tbsp, minced
lemon wedges to serve

Put the olive oil, pine nuts and onions in a saucepan and saute, stirring regularly, until lightly golden. Drain the rice and add to the pan. Add the raisins, tomato paste and spices, and some salt and pepper, then pour in just enough water to cover- about 250 ml. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered with a lid, for 8-10 minutes or until the water is absorb and the rice barely done. Take off the hot, wrap the lid in a clean tea towel and place back over the pan before setting it aside to cool down.

Preparing the mussels is a lengthy and rather difficult process, so allow time and be patient. First pull off and dispose the beards, if there are any, and rinse the mussels under cold water- don’t let them soak or they will die. Lay one mussel on a tea towel on your work surface and insert the tip of a small sharp knife in between the two shells at the slanted aim. Slide the knife downward and all around the shell until you cut into the muscle- the mussel will open easily with the two halves remaining attached. Prepare the rest of the mussels in the same route. Take your time and don’t rushing this part of the preparation or you will either transgress the shells or hurt yourself with the knife.

Once you have opened all the mussels, stir the fresh herbs into the rice and fill each mussel with a teaspoon or more of the rice concoction, depending on how big it is. Close both halves of the shell together, wipe away any rice grains sticking to the outside and arrange in 2-3 layers in the top part of a steamer. Weigh down the filled mussels with a plate and steam for 20 -2 5 minutes. Remove the steamer section and let the mussels cool. Serve at room temperature with the lemon wedges.
From Levant by Anissa Helou( Harper Collins, PS20 )

Georgina al Bayeh’s falafel

Falafel.
Falafel. Photo: Martin Poole for the Observer

This is a recipe of my father, who has a small falafel shop in the village of Kfar Dlekos in north Lebanon.

Serves 6
dried chickpeas 1kg
pepper 1 tsp
salt 1/2 tsp
falafel pepper spice 2 tbsp( see below)
bicarbonate of soda 1/2 tsp
plain white flour 2 tbsp
vegetable oil about 100 ml

For the falafel pepper mix
black pepper, allspice, coriander, cumin and nutmeg mix together the same amount of these ground spices

Put the chickpeas in a large bowl and add enough cold water to encompass them by at least 5cm. Leave to soak overnight.

Place the drained chickpeas into a food processor. Add the salt and pepper, and the falafel pepper mix.

Process the chickpeas until the government had broken down and formed a mush, but not a puree. If it’s too thick, add a little bit of water to make it a bit runnier.

Next add the bicarbonate of soda and a little of the flour. Pulse, and slowly add the flour till the dough is no longer sticky and can be easily shaped into a ball- like a soft bread dough.

Transfer the dough from the food processor and into a bowl. Encompass the bowl and refrigerate for a couple of hours.

After a couple of hours, remove the chickpeas from the refrigerator and start forming the falafels. Roll the chickpeas into balls, approximately the size of ping pong balls, flatten the balls a bit so they cook evenly when fried.

Heat a few inches of petroleum in a deep frying pan. Fry the falafels in batches, for a few minutes on both sides. When the objective is golden brown, remove from the pan and drain on paper.

Serve the falafels in Arabic bread or pitta bread, with salad, tahini and pickled vegetables.
Georgina Al Bayeh is a cook at Tawlet in Lebanon;
soukeltayeb.com/ tawlet

Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich’s feta and honey cheesecake on a kadaif pastry base

Feta
Feta and honey cheesecake on a kadaif tart base. Photo: Patricia Niven

This dessert has become our signature dish. It is quite complex, with a few different components, and is quite ambitious for home preparation- not because the stages are difficult, but because there are a few of them. You can use a generic supermarket feta, but for a finish that is smooth and salty, buy one of the tinned smooth fetas sold in Middle east delis.

Kadaif is the most amazing tart; it is made out of tiny thin noodles that you bake with butter and sugar. The best thing to do is to buy it ready-made in a Middle Eastern grocery store; use what you need for this recipe and keep the rest in the freezer for next time. However, if you can’t find kadaif, use filo pastry and shred it as finely as you can with a knife or a pair of scissors.

The advantage of this dish is that each part can be made in advance and assembled just before you are going to eat- just as we do at Honey& Co. So it is good for stress-free entertaining( though not so much for stress-free preparation ). You could simply attain the cheesecake cream and place it in a large bowl, sprinkling with some nuts and drizzling with honey; not quite the same, but still tasty.

Makes a generous 4 portions
For the kadaif base
melted butter 25 g
kadaif pastry 50 g( or shredded filo)
caster sugar 1 tbsp

For the cheesecake cream
full-fat cream cheese 160 g( we use Philadelphia)
extra thick doubled cream 160 ml
icing sugar 40 g
honey 40 g of your choice( a grainy one works best, in my opinion)
feta 50 g, smooth and creamy
vanilla pod seeds from 1/2( or 1 tsp vanilla essence)

For the honey syrup
honey 50 ml
water 50 ml

For the garnish
fresh oregano or marjoram leaves a few
whole roasted almonds a handful, roughly chopped
some mellow-flavoured seasonal fruit white peaches or blueberries are best( raspberries or apricots are also good)

Preheat the oven to 180 C/ gas mark 4.

Mix the melted butter with the pastry and sugar in a bowl. Fluff the pastry by pulling it and loosening the shreds with your hands till it gets an even coating of sugar and butter. Divide into four equal quantities, pulling each clump of pastry out of the mass like a little ball of yarn. Place these on a baking tray lined with parchment paper. They should resemble four flat birds’ nests, each about the size of a drinkings coaster.

Bake for about 12 -1 five minutes or until golden. Permit to cool and keep in an airtight container until ready to serve. The tart nests will maintain for 2-3 days, so you can prepare them well in advance.

Place all the cheesecake cream ingredients in a large bowl and blend with a spatula or a big spoon, use circular folding motions until the concoction thickens and starts to hold the swirl. Don’t use a whisk: it’s vital not to add air to the concoction as the secret is in the texture. Check that it is sufficiently thick by scooping some onto a spoon and turning it upside-down: it should stay where it is. If it is still too soft, mix it some more.( If you are increasing the quantities in this recipe to feed lots of people, I indicate utilizing a paddle on a mixer for this, but you’ll need to watch it like a hawk so it doesn’t be transformed into butter .) You can prepare the cheesecake cream in advance( up to 48 hours before serving) and keep it contained within the fridge until it is time to assemble the dessert.

Put the honey and water for the syrup in a small pan and boil together for 1 minute, skimming off any foam or impurities that come to the top. Remove from the hob and leave to cool, then store contained within the refrigerator until you are ready to serve.

When you come to assemble the dessert, place a tart nest on each plate and top with a generous scoop of the cheesecake mix. Sprinkle over the herb leaves and chopped nuts, add a few blueberries or a couple of slice of peach, and drizzle a tablespoon of the honey syrup over everything. If you want to be super-luxurious, drizzle with some raw honey as well.
From
Honey& Co: Food from the Middle East by Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich( Hodder& Stoughton, PS25 )

Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich’s chocolate sandwich cookies filled with tahini cream

Chocolate
Chocolate sandwich cookies filled with tahini cream. Photograph: Patricia Niven

Even if you are a hopeless baker like I( Itamar) am, you need to have one or two killer desserts in your repertoire. This one is mine. I determined the chocolate cookie recipe in a magazine and followed it religiously. I was very impressed with research results, Sarit less so. She went on to change the recipe completely and add the tahini cream. No matter. These are good enough( and rich enough) to serve as dessert on their own and are dead easy to attain. Do not be seduced to over-bake them; their greatness lies in their gooey centre.

Makes 7 sandwiches( or 14 cookies)
For the dough
unsalted butter 40 g
70% dark chocolate 250 g
eggs 2
light brown soft sugar 150 g
cocoa powder 20 g
70% dark chocolate 50 g, chopped

For the filling
tahini paste 40 g
full fat cream cheese 50 g
double cream 50 g/ ml
icing sugar 25 g

Preheat the oven to 200 C/ gas mark 6 and line two trays with cooking parchment. Melt the butter and chocolate together in the microwave or over a double steamer.

Whisk the eggs and sugar to a really fluffy, white, peaky sabayon. Fold the melted chocolate mixture into the sabayon. Add the cocoa powder and chocolate chunks and fold to combine.

Use a piping pouch or two spoons to make about 14 heaps of cookie dough( each about 30 -3 5g) on the baking trays.

Allow plenty of space( at least 5cm) between each one as they spread quite a bit during baking.

Bake for 9 minutes until they have formed a crust but are still actually soft. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely on the tray before filling.

Combine all the fill ingredients in a mixer with a paddle attachment, running the mixture at a really slow speed until smooth, creamy and able to hold its shape. Alternatively, you could whisk the ingredients together by hand, but be very careful not to over-whisk.

Pair the cookies and flip them base-upwards. Place a spoonful of filling in the centre of half the upturned cookies, then use the other cookie in each pair to close the sandwich, pressing gently until the filling reaches the edges. You can eat these straight away or keep them in the fridge for a few days, if you can defy for that long.
From
Honey& Co: The Baking Book by Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich( Hodder& Stoughton, PS25 )

Anissa Helou’s fig ice cream- boozat teen

Read more: www.theguardian.com

Anna Jones’s homemade ricotta recipe and three things to cook with it | The modern cook

Its easy to construct your own ricotta from scratch. Its ideal for a gentle herb and citrus dip, as the main attraction on a tray of honey-baked figs, or stirred through a plate of spicy spaghetti with chard, garlic and herbs

There is so much to love about ricotta. First up, its clean, fresh cloud-like milkiness many of us think of it as a spring-time thing, but in fact, it works brilliantly as a very much partner for the roots and roasteds and punchier flavours well be feeing for the next few months. Next, its versatility in baking and desserts; to fill ravioli or spoon over warm vegetables. Best of all, though, is that its made from something that would otherwise be wasted. The ricotta that you buy in the shops is a byproduct of the cheesemaking process. Whey that has been drained off the cheese curds is reheated to build ricotta hence its Italian name, which means recooked.

My recipe involves gently heating whole milk, then adding vinegar to foster little curds to form, which are then gathered and strained to form the softest and most gentle of the cheeses. Ive tried lemon juice, but vinegar somehow makes more ricotta. The sum of vinegar is key, too little and the curds wont form properly; too much and the end result will taste like a chip store. Because this recipe is so simple there is nowhere to hide, so use the best milk that you can afford( the best ricotta Ive tasted was attained in Italy using raw, unpasteurised milk, but thats not as widely available in the UK ).

Some recipes need a certain type of ricotta. The form you can buy in most supermarkets can be very soft, more mascarpone-like in texture than the firmer, strained ricotta I got used to working with when I cooked in Italy. Thats why I started attaining my own and Id urge you to try too its not as difficult as you might think. If thats a step too far though, you can induce the recipes below with supermarket ricotta. If you do, then leave it in a sieve to drain excess liquid for a few hours, or ideally overnight, so its a little firmer. If youre luck enough to live near an Italian deli, most sell a good strained ricotta.

As well as a recipe for homemade ricotta, I have included three of my favourite simple ways to eat it. Aside from these almost any pasta would benefit from a little ricotta stirred through it, any flapjack or waffle will sit happily next to a spoonful, and most fruit will team up well with a clean white helping drizzled with a little honey.

straining The type of ricotta available in most supermarkets can be very soft. Strained ricotta is firmer, and much closer to what is available in Italy. Photograph: Matt Russell for the Guardian

Homemade ricotta

How long you hang your ricotta for will be dependent on how you want to use it. To cook your ricotta whole or to use it to fill pasta you want something firm, so no moisture seeps out during cooking. For other recipes, such as the pasta or the whipped ricotta below, you could get away with a less firm texture, so hanging it for just a few hours would suffice.

Makes about 300 g
2 litres whole milk
A pinch of sea salt
40ml distilled white vinegar

1 Pour the milk into a large pan, add a pinch of ocean salt and put over a medium heat. Allow the milk to heat up slowly, stirring from time to time.

2 When it is almost coming to the simmer when steam and small bubbles begin to appear on the surface( if you have a kitchen thermometer it should be 82 C-8 5C) remove from the hot, add the vinegar and stir gently. You will see curds starting to form. Continue to stir for 1 minute or so.

3 Cover with a clean cloth and allow it to sit for a couple of hours. Once the ricotta has rested, line a colander with a large piece of damp muslin and put this over a larger bowl or pan.

4 Spoon the ricotta into the colander and allow it to drain for an hour or so, or overnight depending on your desired firmness( see note above ). To test whether the cheese is ready, gently lift the muslin up by the corners and twisting lightly the liquid should be somewhat milky in colour. The ricotta is now ready. Transfer to a container, seal and store in the fridge and use within 3 days.

Whipped herb and lemon ricotta

Quick and super-light, this blend of herbs and ricotta is ideal for dipping. I use baby veggies, but thumbs of good toast or crackers would work too.

Serves 4
450g fresh ricotta
Salt and black pepper
1 garlic clove, crushed or grated
2 tbsp flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1 tbsp mint foliages, finely chopped
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon, plus a good squeeze of lemon juice
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus more to serve

To serve
Baby carrots, beetroots and radishes, cut into sticks

1 Put your ricotta into a bowl with a good pinch of salt and pepper, then beat it with a wooden spoon until light and fluffy. You can do this with an electric mixer if you want it genuinely cloud-like.

2 Now stir in the garlic, herbs, zest and olive oil. Taste for balance and adjust the seasoning, if necessary, adding a squeeze of lemon juice and a bit more of whatever you think it needs.

3 Serve in the middle of the table with your choice of veg or toast for dipping.

4 Drizzle with some olive oil and serve.

Honey ricotta with baked figs

This is a faintly sweet take over ricotta that could be served as a dessert or a quick lunch, piled on top of toasted bread with some bitter foliages to counter the very slight sweetness.

Honey Any leftovers can be spread on warm toast the next day. Photo: Matt Russell for the Guardian

Serves 4-6
250g ricotta
1 tbsp of runny honey
Seeds from 1 vanilla pod
1 orange, zested, juice reserved
6 figs
50g almonds

1 Preheat your oven to 180 C/ 350 F/ gas mark 4. Line a baking tray with a sheet of greaseproof paper.

2 Turn the ricotta out of its packet on to the lined tray, then drizzle it with honey. Grate over the orange zest and scatter the vanilla seeds on top.

3 Halve the figs and arrange them around the ricotta. Squeeze over the juice of the orange and a bit more honey then put into the oven to cook for 20 minutes.

4 Meanwhile, roughly chop the almonds. Scatter them over the baking tray and roast for the last 5 minutes.

5 Serve straight from the oven in the middle of the table.

Spaghetti with chard, garlic, chilli and ricotta

One of the fastest pastas I know( the sauce is cooked in the time it takes for the pasta to turning al dente) and for my money one of the nicest.

Serves 4
400g spaghetti
Extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely sliced
12 red chillies, deseeded and finely chopped
1 sprig of fresh rosemary, leaves picked
400g chard, rinsed foliages shredded and stems finely sliced
Grated zest and juice of 1 big unwaxed lemon( plus an extra lemon for juice, if needed)
Salt and black pepper
150g of ricotta
Parmesan or pecorino( optional)

1 Put a large pan of simmering water on to simmer and add a couple of generous pinches of salt. Once the water is at a rolling simmer, add your pasta and cook in agreement with the packet instructions or until only al dente.

2 Meanwhile, hot a good drizzle of olive oil in a large frying pan and add the garlic, chilli and rosemary. Fry for a minute or so, until the garlic is starting to colour, then add the chard stalks and sizzle for 1-2 minutes. Add the leaves. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 34 minutes, or until the leaves have wilted a little.

3 Drain the pasta, reserving a mugful of cooking water. Add a splash of the pasta water to the greens and mixture well. Grate over the zest of the lemon and squeeze over the juice. Take off the hot and taste for seasoning. Crumble over the ricotta and stir it though. Serve topped with a drizzle of olive oil and, if you like, a wispy grating of parmesan or pecorino.

Anna Jones is a chef, novelist and writer of A Modern Way to Eatand
A Modern Way to Cook( Fourth Estate ); annajones.co.uk; @we_are_food

Anna Jones’ spring herb and yoghurt soup recipe | The modern cook

The modern cook: Wake up sleepy palates with this fresh herb soup or a crisp salad fortified with sorrel, roasted radish and lentil

The daffodils have been( and are almost gone) and the branches are heavy with flower: spring is here. In the kitchen, signs of winter are fading, although the greener things that spring will bring are still some style away. For render, its a no men land the hungry gap, as its often called.

Right now, soft herbs, wispy and green, fill my kitchen. From savoury flat-leaf parsley to the green tartness of the first sorrel, these first-of-the-year soft herbs, Im sure, are here to wake up our palates, lifting us out of the rhythm of wintertime cook and readying us for the fresh flavours and simple dishes that lie ahead.

I buy herbs once a week or so when they look good at the stores, and keep them alongside the milk bottles in the door of my fridge, standing in glasses with some cold water at the bottom like cut blooms. This doubles their lifespan( theyll maintain for about a week ), and their grassy fragrance is wafted around the room each time I open the fridge a casual reminder of their presence, which means they make their way into more of my cook than they might otherwise …

Herbs have been peppering everything I cook over the past few weeks: topping bright springtime stew, taking centre stage in soft herb omelettes, crowning gently spiced pilaf, and in pestos that sit under a golden slick of petroleum in the fridge.

Ive been buying bunches of sorrel an underused herb, likely because it can be hard to get hold of. If you can search it out, its lemony liveliness constructs your mouth water like no other food I know: if there was ever a herb to get us “re ready for” springtime, this is it. I love it in salads, cooked under eggs and wilted on toast. This week, I use it with lentils and radishes to make a pretty salad with some crispy-edged lentils.

Four soft, green herbs make an appearance in todays herb soup dill, tarragon, coriander and parsley but genuinely any combining of your favourites would work. This soup bridges the gap so perfectly: sunlight and optimistic in flavour with lemon and herbs, but backed up with butterbeans and yoghurt.

All herbs get their flavours from the essential petroleums within them, but fundamentally differ from each other in strength and structure. Softer herbs like coriander or basil often add more flavour when added at the end of a dish, whereas more traditional British herbs rosemary, sage, thyme, bay add more when theyre used during the cook. Whether or not you follow one of todays recipes, keep this in mind if and when you decide to infuse a meal with herbal notes. Springtimes soft herbs need little( or nothing) by way of cooking to do their very best in a meal.

Spring herb and yoghurt soup( main picture)

Just about the perfect bowlful for this space between winter and spring. You can use any soft herbs here only make sure you balance a more neutral herb, such as parsley, with a stronger one such as tarragon( the most powerful the flavour the less of that herb you will need ). You require quite a gentle stock for this: if you are using cubes or powder then a cube or 1 tsp of powder will be plenty in 1 litre of water.

Serves 4
Olive oil, for frying
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 sticks celery, finely sliced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely sliced
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp fennel seeds
small bunch of dill, fronds and stubbles separated
small bunch of tarragon, foliages and stubbles separated
1 bunch coriander, leaves and stalks separated
1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, leaves and stubbles divided
400g tin butter beans, drained
1 litre vegetable stock( see note above)
4 tbsp plain yoghurt
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and black pepper
Sumac, to serve

1 Heat 1 tbsp petroleum in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Add the onion and celery and fry for about five minutes, stirring from time to time, or until the onion is soft and translucent. Add the garlic and spices, then cook for a further 2-3 minutes, or until the pan reeks aromatic.

2 Roughly chop the herb stalks, then add them to the pan along with the butterbeans and the stock. Bring to a simmer and cook for five minutes, or until the husks have softened.

3 Allow to cool a little, then whizz with a stick blender in the pan until you have a smooth soup. Add the yoghurt, most of the herb leaves( reserving a few for the top of the soup) and whizz again, until smooth.

4 Add the lemon juice and taste, adjusting the seasoning with more salt or pepper. Ladle the soup into bowl and top with a sprinkling of sumac and a few herb leaves.

Sorrel, roasted radish and crispy lentil salad

If you cant get hold of sorrel, scrunch a couple of handful of spinach along with the juice of a lemon, then approximately shred it and scatter over the top in place of the sorrel. It wont be quite as fairly, but it will still savor great.

Sorrel, Sorrels lemony liveliness builds your mouth water like no other food I know, tells Anna Jones. Photo: Issy Croker for the Guardian

Serves 4
400g radishes, washed
400g new potatoes, washed
3 tbsp olive oil
1 lemon, juiced and zested
1 tbsp honey
800g tinned puy lentils, drained in a sieve and dried on kitchen newspaper
50ml yoghurt
2 handfuls of sorrel foliages, rinsed and dried well( see above for an alternative)
Salt and black pepper

1 Set the oven to 200 C/ 400 F/ gas mark 6. Halve the radishes and potatoes. Tumble them on to a roasting tray with 1 tbsp of olive oil, half the lemon juice, some salt and the honey.

2 In a separate roasting tray, mix the lentils with a generous pinch of sea salt, another 1 tbsp of olive oil and the zest from the lemon.

3 Put the tray with the radishes and potatoes into the oven for 30 minutes, dedicating a shake once or twice during the course of its cook time. With 15 minutes to run, put the tray with the lentils into the oven. Roast until they are crisp and beginning to blister; the radishes and potatoes should be soft and golden brown at the edges.

4 Meanwhile, stimulate the dressing by whisking the yoghurt with a little squeeze of the lemon and the olive oil. Season well with salt and black pepper, savour and add more lemon, if you like, then set aside.

5 Once the lentils and radishes are cooked, remove from the oven and mixture everything in rough layers on a large platter with the sorrel. Drizzle with the yoghurt dressing.

Anna Jones is a chef, novelist and author of A Modern Way to Eatand A Modern Way to Cook( Fourth Estate ); annajones.co.uk; @we_are_food

Nigel Slater’s peppers recipes

Its easy to build peppers the centre of your supper. But the real starring of the show is always their cook juices, says Nigel Slater

I like peppers best when they are deep red or orange, and roasted until their flesh is sweet. Even more when they are soft enough to fall apart as you carefully remove their charred skin. Come to think of it, that is pretty much the only route I like them.

They are good to stuff( with basmati rice and vine fruit; feta and olives or garlic-spiked pork ragu flecked with lemon and juniper ). Their capability is generous, which is more than you can say for a courgette, where most of your stuffing falls into the cooking dish.

A dish of roast peppers is a useful thing to have in the fridge, kept luscious with a drizzle of olive oil and clingfilm. You can stuff them into soft pillows of focaccia and taleggio; fill them with goats cheese and folds of Iberico ham, or spread them with artichoke or olive paste and shredded basil, and roll them up.

At their best, they come with their cook juices. This is the treasure that must never be wasted: the mixture of olive oil, pepper juice and seasoning( salt, pepper, thyme, garlic, perhaps rosemary) that collects for the purposes of the peppers as they roast. It is simply gorgeous, as sweet as caramel with a deep, fruity note. Mix it with red wine or sherry vinegar to make it go further. Percolate it, like the precious balm it is, over your cooked peppers and anything you might serve with them.

Roast peppers, toasted almond pesto

Simply
Simply red: roasted peppers and toasted almond pesto. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin for the Observer

Dont be seduced to skip the toasting of the almonds, it deepens their flavour immeasurably. The pesto will keep for three or four days in the fridge. If it solidifies, then let it come up to cool room temperature before serving. It makes a rather fine sandwich filling, too.

red pepper 3
garlic 4 cloves
olive oil 1 tbsp

For the pesto:
scalped almonds 100 g
garlic 1 small clove
basil 50 g
lemon juice 1 tbsp
white wine vinegar 1 tbsp
olive oil 75 ml, plus a little extra
parmesan 60 g, grated

Set the oven at 200 C/ gas mark 6. Wipe the peppers, cut them in half lengthways and remove any white cores. Place the peppers cut side down in a cook tin, together with the whole, unpeeled garlic, trickle with olive oil, then bake for a good 40 minutes, until they have softened and wrinkled. If their skins have blackened then all to the good.

Make the pesto: set the almonds in a shallow pan and softly brown them over a moderate hot, flinging them around the pan from time to time until they are golden and toasted. Dont let anything confuse you almonds can burn in seconds.

Put the nuts into the bowl of a food processor, then add the peeled clove of garlic and the basil leaves and their stalks. Process to a coarse paste, add the lemon juice and white wine vinegar, then blend in the olive oil, taking care not to reduce the mixture to a smooth paste.

Stir in the grated parmesan and set the paste aside, covered, in a cool place.

Remove the peppers from the oven and let them relax for a few minutes until cool enough to handle. Peel off and dispose the scalps( they should come away easily ). Squeeze the garlic from its scalp. Place the skinned peppers on a serving dish, dot with the roasted garlic.

Pour a little more oil into the roasting tin. Stir to mix with the roast juices, scraping up any deliciousness from the pan, then trickle over the peppers. Serve at room temperature, with a bowl of the toasted almond pesto, stirred at the last minute.

Lentils, peppers and gorgonzola

Serves 3-4
romano peppers 6
olive oil 2 tbsp
red onion 1, medium-sized
white wine vinegar 3 tbsp
lentils small and dark green, such as le Puy1 50 g
parsley a small bunch( 20 g)
gorgonzola 200 g

For the dressing:
basil 25 g
parsley 15 g
red chilli small and mild
shelled walnuts 50 g
olive oil 6 tbsp
lemon juice 3 tbsp

Heat the oven to 200 C/ gas mark 6. Place the whole peppers in a roast tin, add the olive oil and 2 tbsp of water and bake for 30 -4 0 minutes until they have collapsed and the skin is black in patches. Remove them from the oven.

Peel and finely slice the onion, set it in a small mixing bowl then cover with the vinegar and set aside for at least 40 minutes. Turn the onion over in the vinegar from time to time to ensure it is evenly marinated.

Boil the lentils in a pan of deep, lightly salted water for 20 -2 5 minutes until tender but with a little bite in their own homes. Drain them in a sieve, put in a bowl then add the drained onion to them.

Peel the skins off the peppers, reserving their roasting juices. Tear the peppers into long, wide strips and place on a serve plate. Add the juices to the lentils. Transgress the gorgonzola into bite-sized pieces and add to the lentils.

Roughly chop the parsley. If the foliages are small, I like to leave them whole. Stimulate the herb dres by putting the basil leaves and stems and parsley foliages into a food processor or blender, with the chilli( halved and seeds removed ), shelled walnuts, olive oil and a pinch of ocean salt, and processing to a coarse green paste. Taste the paste for seasoning and add salt and lemon juice as necessary.

Spoon the lentils and cheese on to the peppers, percolating over any garmenting from the bottom of the bowl. Place a spoonful of the herb garmenting on top.

Email Nigel at nigel.slater @observer. co.uk or follow him on Twitter @NigelSlater

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Herb Alpert: ‘If someone needed my father’s help, he was always there for them’

The trumpeter talks about growing up in a musical family, why his first marriage went wrong, and being a grandfather

I grew up in central Los Angeles. My father was born in Russia. He was a survivor. He had come to the US in 1915, when he was 16, not speaking a word of English, on his own, at the insistence of his family. He landed in Ellis Island and made a life for himself. My mother was from the Lower East Side of New York. She was a secretary, she was good with numbers and played the violin, but not professionally.

One of my earliest memories is from when I was eight. In school, in a music appreciation class, there was a table filled with instruments and I happened to pick up a trumpet. It had a profound effect on my life. At home, Id be playing it, and the neighbours would yell, Shut the window! while my mother yelled back at them. My brother played drums; we were a musical family. My father could play the mandolin, although he didnt read music.

As my fathers fortunes improved, he brought the rest of his family from Russia to live near us. My grandfather stayed there. I remember my paternal grandmother, but she only spoke Yiddish so communication was an issue. My mother wasnt close to her own parents so we didnt see much of them. I had an elder brother, David, who was five years my senior. We used to play outside or in the street, but I was super-shy and followed him around, but he wasnt so interested in hanging out with me.

I guess we were middle class. My dad earned a reasonable living manufacturing womens suits and clothing as a business; we didnt struggle and had a vacation now and then.

I didnt have a strong idea about what career I wanted. I knew I liked playing the trumpet. My brother and I played together at parties and events. At high school, I was in a little group, with piano, bass, drums and trumpet. We entered a TV talent contest that pitted groups from local high schools against each other. Even though few people had TV sets in the 1950s, we won the show for eight consecutive weeks and that made us a name, so we got gigs around the city on the back of that.

I got married when I was 21. At the time, Id been drafted and was playing with the Sixth Army band in San Franciscos Presidio. I was also working part-time in a gym, and tried my hand at acting for a while, but that didnt work out. I was too young to get married, as evidenced by my getting divorced. I probably didnt understand what was expected of me at that age. Then I got famous and started touring the world, so I wasnt around much.

When I got married the second time, I felt very lucky. Lani is my dream girl. We have been married for 42 years now and had a child together.

Im not sure what my parents taught me. My father didnt articulate much, but led by example. He was generous to his family and very open-hearted. If someone needed his help, he was always right there for them, and I saw how people responded to his generosity.

Im now a grandfather a few times over. My youngest is two-and-a-half years old. I love the experience and we see family as much as we can. They are scattered across the state, but we have Skype so that helps us stay connected.

Family is the part of my life that gives me comfort. I am very aware of, and sensitive to, my familys needs and Ill always be there for them, but family is not something I totally live for. You get one chance to do your thing in this life and I am doing my thing. My creativity drives me I dont have any control over it. I know I have made a lot of people happy with my music, and that gives me an enormous energy and pleasure.

Herb Alperts new album, Human Nature, is out now, along with 24 of his albums remastered: herbalpert.com

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