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Mixing it Up

September 1, 2012

When you’re cupboard surprising, it usually pays to take a flexible approach to putting ingredients together. I know I’m not the only one who regularly eats pasta with soup, or having run out of kidney beans ends up putting baked beans in a chilli.

In fact I have become quite fascinated with the versatility of baked beans in general. They add an interesting sweetness (and extra protein) to tomato based pasta sauces, if you rinse off the sauce you can use them to make tasty beanburgers, and as I discovered to my parents’ disgust when I was younger, they go surprisingly well with egg fried rice and noodles. I also like to stir things into them before eating them on toast – houmous is a favourite, but peanut butter works too – especially the crunchy stuff.

My Mum used to pour a packet of crisps on top of macaroni cheese before adding the final layer of cheese – which I’ve always seen as a stroke of genius. Actually, you could probably put baked beans in macaroni cheese too. Cous cous can substitute breadcrumbs or crumble topping on anything – even sweet crumbles. And whilst a sandwich made with leftover bolognese is probably the messiest thing you will ever eat in your life (you need to develop a special way of sitting at the table to minimise spillage – or eat reclining on the floor like a Roman) it is also delicious and a good way to use up leftovers without having to boil a fresh load of pasta.

Of course, there are some more traditional but still bizarre combinations for foods. Chilli and chocolate cake is lush – I’m not at all surprised it’s becoming so popular. Black pepper on strawberries, which I sceptically tried recently, is pretty amazing.

There’s something very English about that taste for sweetness mixed with intense spiciness – I have a cookbook full of 700 year old English recipes (yes, I am a total food geek) that’s full of those kind of combinations. Fruit with ginger, hot spiced meats with almonds, and lots and lots of cinnamon. And of course there’s the slightly 1970’s habit of putting apple and raisins in curry, and serving it cold – which personally I think is a bit revolting in the same way mustard coloured lace-up shoes and wallpaper with flowers that look like fried eggs are revolting. You could say the 70’s were the decade taste forgot in more ways than one.

Then there’s battered Mars bars. I know that in the eyes of some, such things are an abomination punishable by death, but I think they’re rather nice. A bit  like a doughnut with a tasty heart attack in the middle.

I’m always trying to come up with some kind of fail safe formula for judging which foods will taste good together and which will make me vomit.  I haven’t quite managed it yet – instinct usually serves me well enough, but it’d be interesting to develop a concrete theory.

I always thought that sweet and savoury was something that didn’t work for me. I don’t like the fruity English curries mentioned above. I still think pineapple on pizza is a bit insane. And it drives me mad that people keep ruining perfectly good salads by putting sultanas and walnuts in them. No. Kindly sod off with your dried fruit.

But then I figured that, actually, cheese and pineapple on sticks tastes fine – it’s mostly the juicy tomato on the pizza that clashes with the very different juiciness of the pineapple. Coconut and almonds in curry are sweet but lovely – especially if the curry also has a really zingy flavour (like lemon or fresh chilli) cutting through the creamy softness of the nuts. From this I deduced that combining a “soft, smooth” flavour (like cream, sweet potato, artichokes, or coconut, or ground nuts, or banana) with a hot, zingy flavour (like chilli, or citrus) usually works out well, regardless of how sweet or savoury those ingredients might be. Because pumpkin somehow combines both of these qualities, it therefore goes with absolutely anything. Seriously, I give you this challenge: find me something tasty in its own right that does not go with pumpkin. I have even eaten pumpkin ice cream and found it lovely.

In all my experiments I have also discovered that there are many combinations that do not work and are revolting. Tomatoes do not go with jam, for example. Putting milk in the soda stream to make it fizzy does not work. Avocado and raspberry smoothies taste fine but you have to drink them with your eyes closed because they have the exact appearance and texture of infected snot. Onions do not go with jam, unless you’re at a posh farmers’ market and it’s onion jam, in which case it’s a bit redundant anyway. Lettuce does not go with jam. Houmous does not go with jam. In fact, maybe jam is the food equivalent of those turquoise shoes I bought once – beautiful in their own right, seemed worth the money, but just didn’t go with anything else I owned so sat in the wardrobe untouched for years until they finally got damp and went mouldy and I had to throw them out.

Perhaps don’t take my advice too much to heart though: I still can’t understand for the life of me why people put milk in tea. They are so clearly two incompatible flavours. Coffee with milk I understand, but I can no more stomach the idea of tea and milk than I can Ribena and milk. Just seems ridiculous. Yet people of Britain persist with this strange practice, and I’m beginning to accept that maybe I’m just a bit of an oddball.

Today’s recipe is what I cooked Tuesday night and it was a real risk for me, because there’s a whole lot of sweet stuff there. Stuff I would never normally put in there – the pineapple juice with garlic and paprika made me really nervous – but I think the coconut cream helped to bring everything together and it ended up lovely. It’s based on moqueca – a Brazilian curry that’s usually made with seafood or chicken – but this is a vegetarian version. The plantain are worth it if you can get them (if you can get to a Caribbean grocer they should have them, but Morrisons also stock them regularly, and they sometimes pop up at the market or general grocers), if not, and you’re feeling really brave you could try using not-too-ripe bananas or mango, but I probably wouldn’t cook them as long.

In the meantime, if anyone has any amazing unusual food combos to tell me about, or disgusting ones to warn me about, please do.

Crazy Combo Curry


Olive oil

Paprika (smoked, if you have it)

3-4 cloves of garlic, crushed or finely chopped

Teaspoon of brown sugar

A tin of tomatoes (whole or chopped, it doesn’t matter)

A large sweet potato (or two small ones) chopped into small cubes

A couple of handfuls of green beans, washed, topped and tailed.

2 Plantains

Fresh coriander (or use the frozen stuff you can get now, but definetly not dried)

A cup of fresh pineapple juice (ideally not from concentrate)

A 250ml carton of soft coconut cream. Or a can of coconut milk if you prefer.

Juice of a lemon or lime

Salt and black pepper.

Rice (to serve – if you add some lemon zest, a few fresh mint leaves, and plenty of salt and pepper to the cooked rice it goes really well with this)

–          Heat the oil in a big wok, then add the garlic, sugar and paprika. Cook for a few minutes, stirring regularly. It should smell really nice.

–          Add the cubes of sweet potato and stir to coat them in the oil. Turn the heat down slightly and cook for about 5-6 minutes.

–          Now add the tin of tomatoes. Half refill the can with water and add that too. Let everything cook for a few minutes more.

–          Meanwhile, deal with the plantains. I think the best way to peel them is to cut them in half, and then use a sharp knife to (carefully) cut the peel off in chunks. Chop the peeled plantain into disks about a centimetre thick and then add to the pan along with the green beans and the pineapple juice. Stir well to mix everything up.

–          Let the mixture simmer for 15-20 minutes until the potatoes and plantain are both tender enough to slip a fork through easily – add more liquid if you think it’s drying out. Cook the rice whilst you’re waiting.

–          Turn the heat right down low – then add the coconut cream and stir in. Add the lemon or lime juice, as much coriander as you like (in my case, lots), and salt and pepper to taste. Give it just a couple more minutes on low heat.

–          Serve with the rice.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Vicky permalink
    September 2, 2012 00:15


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