Those of you who follow me on social media will know that I entered a competition a few months ago, run by Belazu Ingredient Company for Leiths students. They challenged us to come up with a dish that showed off the quality of one of three ingredients they supplied for us: Early Harvest Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Balsamic Vinegar di Modena, and Cracked Freekeh. Don’t worry, I had no idea what Freekeh (or ‘Freaky’ as my mum calls it) was either.
But I was seriously impressed by the outstanding quality of the Olive Oil and Balsmic vinegar.
Firstly, if you’re a balsamic fan,(which I am, as a result of my parents feeding me ridiculous foods such as Roquefort and aged Balsamic as a child in an attempt to make me a non-fussy eater, instead they just crippled me with expensive taste. More fool them. Cherry Pie from Browns in Oxford was my first solid food actually.) you have to try this vinegar, as I promise you it will be one the best you have ever tasted. A delicate balance of complex, fruity sweet-sourness, it is rich, thick and syrupy and aromatic.
Olive oil is something that divides people. As somebody who is an advocate of buying British, rapeseed oil is my go-to. Brilliant orange in colour, a high flash-point for cooking with, better for you than sunflower and vegetable oils, and mellow in flavour, the fact it is largely produced in the UK is a huge selling point too.
But on some occasions you just cant beat a good Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Drizzled over a warm pasta salad, loaded with piccolo tomatoes, fresh basil, and torn off chunks of fine mozzarella, it really comes into its own. But on its own, I have often found the oil to be bitter, too strong and powerful in flavour for my own tastes. This Early Harvest version from Belazu we tasted was none of these things. We learnt that the bitterness is found more in Italian Olive Oils, and this one was produced from early harvest olives from Catalonia, Spain. The olives are picked young, which produces a lower yield, and then cold crushed with granite stones, to produce an olive oil full of character, with young, fresh, grassy notes, and a clean banana and citrus finish. Creamier and less peppery than the Extra Virgin Olive Oil you might be used to, I strongly recommend you give this one a try.
So I was sold. Two brilliant ingredients, and another competition. (I love competitions, and happen to have a pretty good track record at them too)
I picked up the bottles and jars from Leiths the following week and began recipe testing. At first I was convinced a dessert was the way forward. The Balsamic was so full of complex sweetness that to not put it with other sweet things seemed a crime! I set about producing a Balsamic Chocolate Fondant. It worked- a perfectly melting liquid middle and a light cake exterior, but the whole thing was distinctly vinegary, the subtle sweetness of the Balsamic overpowered by the rich flavours of dark chocolate, butter and sugar.
Back to the drawing board. A few weeks passed without inspiration, and the Freekeh gathered dust in my cupboard. Until one night we were eating the leftovers of our fridge into an Ottolenghi-style salad, and with no other pasta or rice to speak of, the Freekeh made it into a saucepan, with stock and lemon zest, and emerged as a fluffy, nutty, flavoursome grain that soon became a staple in our household.
I ate the Balsamic and Olive oil a few more times with deliciously nutty wholemeal bread, vine roasted tomatoes, and drizzled into pasta and salads, and began to realise that these ingredients demanded a savoury dish in order for them to speak for themselves. I decided the rich nuttiness of the Freekeh would be perfectly offset by the sweetness and acidity of the Balsamic, and after reading that the grain could be used to make risotto, I was sold. Arancini it was. Amazingly, the first test went well, just lacking a hint of freshness, and having been hooked on reading Nigel Slater for the past few months, I had an utterly romantic vision of carefully hand chopping, and blending herbs, anchovies, capers and olive oil together to form a perfect salsa verde- so it was lovingly whipped up, swooshed onto plates with the earthy, crispy shelled Arancini, stuffed with sweet balsamic chicken, and finished with a quenelle of mascarpone, just lifted with the heat of a crack of black pepper. Done.
With just a few days to spare, I scribbled down the recipe, sent it off to Belazu, and was thrilled to find out they had chosen my Arancini, amongst 2 other dishes to be cooked at their Pembury kitchen for the final!
I had a lovely day at the final. The kitchen they have is the most fantastic kitchen to cook in- so well equipped, on the ground floor of an enormous industrial unit that houses their extensive offices, with enormous high ceilings, and an entire wall of different plates (this was probably the highlight. Plates are a cool thing to get excited about, ok!?).
I recreated the Arancini in a few hours, the other two finalists having gone before me and made a delicious Freekeh loaf, and an Olive oil cake with Balsamic caramel. I laid my finished dish down on the enormous industrial style table in the middle of the room, went to have a coffee with the other girls, and was called back half an hour later, welcomed with a glass of champagne and given the news that I had won the competition, and would be jetting off to Catalonia in the autumn to visit the Olive Groves there during harvest time!
I received a parcel of amazing Belazu products in the post a few weeks later and will be trying plenty of them out this Bank Holiday weekend.
Anyway, I had so much fun at the competition, and really couldn’t recommend Belazu products enough, (So many top chefs use them too- If its good enough for Heston, its good enough for you!) so I thought I would post my winning recipe on here to give you a bit of inspiration, and a gentle push to buy that first pot of Freekeh, you won’t regret it!
You can purchase all Belazu Ingredients online here: Belazu Ingredient Company
Needless to say, despite the fact she loved the dish in the end, mum will not let me forget that I made ‘Freaky Balls’ and won a competition with them. Cheers mum, for being endlessly inappropriate. I love you for it.
Love and Freaky hugs, foodies,
Wild Mushroom Freekeh Arancini, stuffed with Balsamic Pulled Chicken, Served with Early Harvest Salsa Verde and Black Pepper Mascarpone