Checking your pulse(s): lentils

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Dried pulses, and especially lentils, are an essential part of my store cupboard and really come into their own in the winter months, when fresh vegetables aren’t quite as vibrant or plentiful. I love lentil soups, such as Tomato & Lentil, or Carrot & Lentil, and often throw a handful of lentils into chicken broth or good old vegetable soup for extra body and protein. They’re pretty cheap too – a pack of dried red lentils or beans lasts for ages and is very reasonably-priced. The more exotic Puy lentils are even more delicious, holding their shape better when cooked to a slurry with herbs and lemony flavourings as an accompaniment to smoked fish or as part of a rich and wholesome sausage casserole – perfect winter comfort food! Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s take on Sausage and Puy lentil casserole is particularly scrumptious, although I prefer it with dried apricots rather than prunes (shades of school dinners…).

One of my favourites is a lentil curry I came across in my first ever (Tower) slow cooker manual, over 30 years ago now. I still have the book (taped together!), but I’ve adapted the recipe to suit our growing taste for spices and added extra vegetables over the years. I still make it in my slow cooker (not quite the same one; I managed to drop the earthenware bowl and ended up buying a whole new slow cooker), but it must be 25 years old now and still going strong – and as useful as ever! Such a lovely feeling to put it on in the morning when you know you’re going out all day, then return home to a lovely hot meal and the knowledge that you don’t have to cook (much as I love it usually!). Brilliant for chilli con carne, sublime for brisket of beef or a slow-braised ham joint with cider, apples and celery…. or equally good for mulled wine, steamed puddings (especially Christmas pudding!) and crème caramel! And of course, I always use it to make my stock with the cooked chicken carcass, onion, celery, chilli, herbs, vegetable cooking water and seasoning, left over night – perfect! A friend says she pre-cooks her pulses in the slow cooker after soaking them – I haven’t tried that, I must admit, but it sounds like a great idea.

Anyway, about that lentil curry. You can adjust the chilli content to suit your own taste: the first time I served this to one of my sons’ schoolfriends when he came to dinner soon after we moved south, he maintained it was REALLY hot, yet we find it quite mild using 3 or 4 home-grown Apache chillis (seeds included). If you know you’re averse to hot spices, or you think your chillis may be very hot, adjust accordingly. It’s hard to take them out after the event!

Lentil Curry – serves 6-8

Lentil curry

Olive oil

2 onions, chopped

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

3-4 red chillis, chopped, removing seeds if you prefer (or to taste!)

1 tsp turmeric

1 tsp ground coriander

1 tsp ground cumin

8-10 cardamom pods, seed removed and crushed

4 carrots, diced

3 sticks celery, chopped

1 red pepper, chopped

1 large apple, peeled and chopped

1 leek, sliced

12oz red lentils

2 tsp lemon juice

1 tbsp tomato purée

1 litre vegetable stock (either homemade or use a stock cube or bouillon powder in water)

Seasoning

1 handful sultanas

Heat a good glug of oil in a pan and cook the onion and garlic for about 10 mins until softened. Add chopped carrots, celery, pepper, apple and leek, then add chopped chilli, spices and stir for a few mins until well coated. Add lentils and cook for another few minutes. Add tomato purée and stock, then season well. Bring back to the boil and cook for 10 minutes before adding a handful of sultanas. Transfer to the slow cooker for 7-10 hours on Auto/Low (3-4 hours on High). Serve with chopped coriander If you have it! Otherwise parsley or baby spinach work well…) and natural yogurt with rice or Naan. Freezes beautifully!

Party Frock and snowdrops Jan 2016

 

 

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Season for Soup

The wet weather continues into the New Year: hail, constant rain, thunder, gloom…. it’s enough to make you not want to venture out at all. Thank goodness for dogs, or I probably wouldn’t! Definitely not the time for gardening, or for the allotment for that matter – my sole forays down there are to harvest the few crops that can withstand the onslaught: cavolo nero, leeks, parsnips, rocket and herbs. Even the raised beds are waterlogged, if that’s not a contradiction in terms, and taking cars into the entrance turning circle is a definite no-no because of the inevitable mud bath that would result. I did manage to pick my first purple-sprouting broccoli, though, this weekend, so the mild weather does have some benefits; delicious it was too, with a beautiful piece of baked cod from the fish van in the village, topped with homemade tartare sauce.

This is the weather for comfort food, and soup has to be right up there with the best. The first long week back at work after the Christmas holidays is notorious for colds and sniffles, as well as a marked disinclination to revert to normality. A warming bowl of soup is often just what you fancy to soothe scratchy throats, clear aching heads and generally warm the cockles of your heart. At this time of year, I’ve often finished the stocks of frozen soup I squirrelled away in the summer and autumn months of plentiful produce, so any soup I can conjure up with my own vegetables is a bonus. Leek and potato soup is one stalwart, using the leeks that always do so well for me and my potatoes stored in hessian sacks in the garage. Minestrone is another favourite, using leeks, fresh winter herbs and cavolo nero to top up store cupboard staples. The final winter standby is yet another variation on tomato soup, but this time using tinned tomatoes. As long as you use good stock, the lack of fresh produce needn’t be a problem; a few minutes chopping and hey presto, you can bring instant cheer to a dull day!

Leek & Potato Soup – serves 4-6

Leek & Potato Soup

1 tbsp butter

1 tbsp olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

3 large leeks, washed and chopped

350g potatoes, peeled and diced into 5mm cubes

1 litre homemade stock ( I use chicken, but vegetable is fine too)

Salt and pepper

1 bay leaf

2 tbsp parsley, finely chopped

Heat the oil and butter in a large pan and gently fry the onion for 5 minutes. Add the chopped leeks and potatoes and cook for a few minutes until well coated in the oil and butter. Pour in the stock, season to taste and add the bay leaf. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer for about 20 minutes until the vegetables are tender. Finally stir in the parsley and serve piping hot with fresh bread or cheese scones. Freezes well too.

Cheese scones

You can liquidize this if you prefer, but I prefer the chunky, broth-like texture. There’s such a high potato content in this soup that it can go a little glutinous if blended.

Minestrone Soup – serves 6

Good glug of olive oil

2-3 rashers streaky bacon, snipped into small pieces (or omit for vegetarian soup)

1 large onion, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, chopped

2-3 celery stalks, chopped

3 carrots, diced

1 small red pepper, diced

1 small red chilli, seeds and all, finely chopped

1 tin chopped tomatoes

2 leeks, chopped

150g cavolo nero (or cabbage), hard stems removed and shredded

1 bay leaf

1 tsp dried oregano (or use fresh rosemary or thyme, or even basil in the autumn)

1.5 litre good homemade chicken stock (or vegetable if you prefer)

50g dried macaroni

1 tbsp tomato purée

Seasoning

2 tbsp parsley, chopped

Heat the oil, then gently cook the bacon, onion, celery and garlic for a few minutes until starting to soften. Add the diced carrots, pepper, chilli and leeks and cook for another 5 minutes or so. Add the tinned tomatoes, swilling out the can with a little water to extract all the juice. Add the tomato purée, bay leaf, oregano (or herbs of your choice), season and cook gently for another 5-10 minutes. Add the stock, bring back to the boil, then cover and simmer gently for an hour or so. Then add the cavolo nero (or cabbage) and the macaroni and cook for a further 30 minutes. Stir in the chopped parsley just before serving.

Good served with chunky fresh bread or toast and cheese. A real meal in a bowl! All these winter soups really seem to intensify in flavour after freezing, so making these large quantities is a real bonus, even if you’re just cooking for one or two.

Tomato & Lentil Soup – serves 4-5

4 rashers streaky bacon, snipped into pieces

Glug of olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

2 sticks celery, chopped

1 red chilli, finely chopped (optional)

125g red lentils

1 tin chopped tomatoes

1 tbsp tomato purée

Few sprigs fresh thyme, leaves removed

Salt and pepper

1 bay leaf

1 litre chicken or beef stock (or vegetable if you prefer)

Gently fry the bacon, onion, celery and garlic in the oil until golden. Add lentils and cook for a few minutes, then add the tinned tomatoes, tomato purée, thyme leaves, bay leaf, red chilli (if using) and seasoning. Bring back to the boil and cook for 30-45 minutes until vegetables are tender and lentils are cooked. Allow to cool slightly, then liquidize. Adjust consistency by adding more stock, milk or water if necessary and reheat to serve.

I should perhaps issue a disclaimer here: once you’ve started making your own soup and realised how easy it is and how much tastier (and cheaper!) than bought soup, it’s really hard to go back. You have been warned! I started making soup when I first got married, over 30 years ago and haven’t looked back since. The freezer is usually well-stocked with soup and stock and that’s just how I like it!

Clivia miniata - a welcome shot of colour in the conservatory
Clivia miniata – a welcome shot of colour in the conservatory

After the storm – healthy ways with leftovers

Pre-Christmas walk at Bewl

These early days in January, after the social whirl of Christmas and the New Year festivities, can be a bit of an anticlimax, especially if the weather persists in being wet and miserable, as it has in this little corner of Sussex – and I suspect across the country. I’m full of a cold too, doubtless not helped by the constant walks in sodden clothing through waterlogged fields and woods. At least we haven’t been flooded here, unlike wide swathes of the UK, but it certainly hasn’t been a time for sorting out the allotment, as I’d hoped.

After the torrent of visitors and social activities, it’s actually quite nice to get back to normal. I’ve taken the Christmas tree down today, early, I know, but I wanted to start the first working week of the New Year with cleared decks tomorrow – and the house feels much less cluttered and calmer as a result. The fridge, too, is slowly returning to normal after all the festive richness, lovely as it was. I’ve been enjoying the remains of a beautiful gammon joint the last few days in a spicy tomato and ham pasta sauce, a mellow squash, leek and ham risotto, homemade pizza and a delicious vegetable and ham gratin with a gluten-free Béchamel sauce made with rice flour and with crumbled oatcakes as a crunchy topping. Oh and my son and his fiancée took a chunk of the huge joint (thanks, Mr Waitrose!) home with them too.

Other leftovers clamouring to be used included a bag of cranberries and some smoked salmon. The cranberries have been turned into Bacon and Cranberry Pancakes (yum!) for a late breakfast on New Year’s Day and Cranberry Eton Mess for dessert tonight. The last of the smoked salmon, however, went into a refreshingly different pasta dish for last night’s supper; I didn’t fancy a creamy sauce after the excesses of the previous week, and so concocted this brassica-based dish from the contents of my fridge / allotment as a healthy antidote to all the rich food of the season. See what you think!

Kale, Smoked Salmon & Pine Nut Linguine – serves 1 Kale and salmon pasta

150g cavolo nero or kale

1 red onion, finely sliced

1 clove garlic, chopped

Handful pine nuts

50g smoked salmon, chopped

Olive oil

1 tsp sesame seeds

Sesame oil to finish

50-75g linguine (or pasta of your choice)

Seasoning

Grated Parmesan to garnish

Cook the sliced onion and chopped garlic in a slug of olive oil until starting to soften. Meanwhile, put the linguine on to cook as usual. Remove and discard any hard central stems from the kale or cavolo nero and finely chop the rest. Add to the pan with the pine nuts and cook for a further few minutes. Towards the end of the cooking time, sprinkle in the sesame seeds and chopped smoked salmon, then add a swirl of sesame oil if the mixture looks remotely dry – this will ensure it blends unctuously with the pasta.

Drain the pasta and add to the pan. Serve topped with grated Parmesan and enjoy!

After thoroughly relishing this, I went on to read in two separate articles, one in yesterday’s Times, and the other in the February edition of Good Housekeeping, that kale is one of a number of super “sirtfoods” that contain sirtuins, helping to promote the so-called skinny gene and encourage a healthy diet, encouraging natural weight loss if that’s what takes your fancy. Others include virgin olive oil and red onions, so I had unknowingly created a super-healthy supper – no wonder it tasted so good! Coffee, dark chocolate and red wine are also sirtfoods – fascinating! While it may well turn out to be yet another food fad, anything so delicious has to be worth a try.

Now on to my cranberry extravaganza (not on the list of sirtfoods, unfortunately, but cranberries are up there with blueberries for their antioxidant properties). I love dried cranberries in cookies, tray bakes and in salads, for a different dimension, but I rarely use the fresh variety for anything other than Cranberry Relish. A friend, before Christmas, added them to an apple crumble along with mincemeat, where they gave a lovely zingy tang. These pancakes, from a cutting unearthed in my ancient recipe scrapbook, are quite a revelation too:

Bacon and Cranberry Pancakes – makes 16 Bacon and cranberry pancakes

4 rashers streaky bacon (or chopped ham if you have leftovers!)

175g plain flour

1 heaped tsp baking powder

Pinch of salt

2 large eggs

150ml crème fraiche or soured cream

100ml milk

50-75g cranberries

Rapeseed oil to cook

Maple syrup or icing sugar to serve

Chop the bacon into small pieces (I use scissors) and fry in its own fat until golden and crispy.

Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into a mixing bowl. Whisk the eggs in another bowl with the crème fraiche or sour cream and milk, then stir into the dry ingredients and whisk with an electric whisk until you have a smooth batter. Stir the bacon and cranberries into the batter.

Heat the oil in the same frying pan and add small ladlefuls of the batter, four at a time, cooking for 2-3 mins each side until golden brown.

Keep warm whilst you make the rest.

Serve warm with maple syrup or butter and icing sugar.

Vegetarians can omit the bacon and just make cranberry pancakes, of course.

Any left-over (kept in the fridge if you use bacon or ham) are delicious toasted and served as above.

My final leftover recipe isn’t particularly healthy per se, because of the cream and sugar content, but my motto has always been “everything in moderation” – and this uses up the last of the cranberries nicely.

Cranberry Eton Mess cranberry eton mess

150ml double cream

150ml natural yogurt

200g cranberries

1 orange, zest and juice

3-4 tbsp Demerara sugar

Crumbled meringues

Cook the cranberries gently in the orange juice, zest and sugar until tender – 5-10 minutes. Set aside to cool completely. Whip the double cream until soft peaks form, then fold in the natural yogurt, followed by the roughly broken meringues – I use homemade (left-over from a Christmas Pavlova), so hard to specify a quantity: just until there’s a fair proportion of meringue rubble compared to cream and yogurt! Finally gently fold in the cranberry compote to create a rippled effect. Chill before serving.

Happy New Year!

Caterpillar vase blooms December 2015

I always like to keep a record of what’s flowering in the garden over this Christmas and New Year period and there is no shortage of suspects this time round, with the weather being so mild. There’s even a solitary daffodil valiantly trying to flower! I was given the beautiful caterpillar vase pictured above for Christmas and it makes a superb showcase for these unseasonal blooms: hellebores, daphne, viburnum, heather, primroses and even a daisy (Anthemis)! Brilliant blue pansies and cyclamen are putting on a great display in my outdoor pots, and the ornamental quince, Chaenomeles Crimson and Gold, is covered in plump, red buds. I only hope that when the bad weather arrives, as it surely must, these blooms aren’t damaged, but go into suspended animation to continue at a more appropriate time….

Party Frock in flower Dec 2015
Hellebore Party Frock

Today, gloom and drizzle notwithstanding, I managed to escape into the garden for a spot of fresh air and recuperative snipping, cutting back the tired and drooping foliage of some of last year’s perennials: the scruffy stems of helenium, anemones, centranthus, geraniums, peonies and some asters and chrysanthemums were adding nothing to the garden scene and had to go. The hellebores too can lose their leaves at this time of year, all the better to see the emerging flowers and prevent the spread of hellebore leaf spot, which can debilitate the whole plant if you let it take hold.

Double white hellebore Dec 2015
Double white hellebore, grown from seed

Affected leaves need to be put in the garden waste bin or burned, rather than composted, to prevent the spread of this fungal disease in future years. The species hellebores don’t seem to be afflicted, for some reason.

Helleborus foetidus Dec 2015
Helleborus foetidus (or stinking hellebore!)

I also cut down my English roses by half to prevent wind rock – although given the gales we’ve experienced recently, that’s probably shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted… Even my tall Daphne bholua Jacqueline Postill, source of the heavenly scent pervading the back garden at present, received a haircut. I usually trim its new top growth in late spring, after flowering, now it’s reached its desired height of 7 ft, but it has continued to grow in the warm, damp weather and was threatening to overpower its neighbours (and mine!).

Daphne JP flowering Dec 2015
Daphne bholua Jacqueline Postill

In the front garden, Daphne aureomarginata provides the fragrance that assails your nose the minute you step through the gate. It was planted as a small bush between the fence and apple ‘Katy’, but evidently loves its sheltered, if rather dry position, and has grown to a substantial bush some 6 feet across and 4 feet tall –  I’m even thinking of trimming the lower branches of the apple to give it more room!

Daphne aureomarginata Dec 2015
Daphne aureomarginata

Viburnum bodnantense Charles Lamont provides another shot of winter colour on the opposite side of the garden path. Unfortunately, it’s nowhere near as scented as the daphnes, nor even as other bodnantense varieties I’ve had in previous gardens, such as Dawn, but it’s a showy shrub nonetheless with lovely bronze young growth and pale pink clusters of blooms through the winter months.

Viburnum Charles Lamont Dec 2015
Viburnum bodnantense Charles Lamont

It was so good to actually get out in the garden at long last after weeks of constant wet or lack of time due to the hectic pace of work and a busy social life. I’ve still not finished the winter cutback; the grasses will need to be chopped back hard in February/March, but for now I’m still hoping for some proper winter weather to show them off in all their hoar-frosted glory.

Happy New Year to you all! I, for one, am looking forward to the return of the gardening season.