Category Archives: Vegetarian

In praise of the humble chickpea – and goodbye to a very special dog

It’s been a strange and sad few weeks: I returned from a much-needed post-op holiday in the Austrian mountains at the end of February to unprecedented high temperatures in the South-East of England and a very sick dog. I’ve written her story on my other blog, so I won’t go into it again here; suffice it to say that I had to say my farewells to her soon after arriving back from the airport and the house has been indescribably sad and quiet without her ever since. RIP, Poppy – we’ll miss you enormously… and Leo will miss his partner in crime.

Poppy and Leo something's up

Inevitably, life must go on, and although I’ve managed to immerse myself in piles of work since getting home, I hadn’t had time to go to the allotment. I’m still not supposed to walk on rough ground after my ACL operation at Christmas, and am restricted to pavement walking. However, I figured that, since it’s been dry recently, and if I was very careful, I could walk Leo down to the allotment on Sunday afternoon and just see what was growing. Imagine my surprise to see everything doing very well indeed: purple-sprouting broccoli busting out all over, the first spindly pink sticks of rhubarb already up to a foot tall, and fresh spinach and kale in abundance, plus the usual late winter / early spring suspects of leeks and parsley.

Allotment haul Mid-March 2019

After the excesses of Austria – far too much Kaffee und Kuchen in the afternoon and a five-course dinner every evening – I’ve been yearning for salads since I arrived home. Not doing my usual quota of exercise and activities, and a relatively sedentary lifestyle since Christmas, have also meant I’m having to be much more conscious of what I eat for the first time ever. Ho hum – I’m definitely cutting down on cake and desserts for the time being, although I did experiment with a healthy banana & date flapjack at the start of the week as an alternative snack. I tweaked the recipe (see link above) with maple syrup instead of honey and added 75g dates, but although they were tasty the first day, the flavour seems to diminish on subsequent days and they just taste rather worthy! This recipe for fridge fruit & nut bars is a tasty sugar-free treat in the meantime – and I’ll report back when I eventually find a healthy flapjack that really hits the spot. A friend also posted a recipe for vegan tiffin, which sounds worth a try, but certainly isn’t low-calorie or sugar-free if that’s what you’re after.

Salads, on the other hand, are easier to get right. I wrote about delicious winter salads a few weeks ago, and another I’ve made a couple of times recently is a Sarah Raven recipe from the Christmas issue of Good Housekeeping. It was intended as a vegetarian alternative for the Christmas feast, but I’ve tweaked and experimented with it a couple of times since and found it to be a fantastic and filling main course salad for any time of the year. Chickpeas and lentils are such comforting ingredients, and mixed with a spicy dressing, nuts, dried fruit and peppers, they really fit the brief. The original recipe served 6, and I’ve cut it down considerably for one, but still find it makes about three meals – always a bonus to have leftovers for lunch!

Warm Puy Lentil & Chickpea Salad

Chickpea & lentil salad
2 tbsp sultanas, soaked in 2 tbsp dry sherry or white wine
50g Puy lentils
1 bay leaf
1 clove garlic
1/2 can chick peas, drained
Olive oil
1/2 butternut squash, peeled and cut into bitesize chunks
1 large red onion, peeled and cut into eighths
1 sprig rosemary, woody stem removed, chopped
1 red pepper, cut into chunks
Handful of cherry tomatoes
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1″ piece of root ginger, grated
1 red chilli, finely chopped
2 tbsp dried cranberries
50g cashews, toasted
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tsp wholegrain mustard
1/2 tsp sugar
Handful of kale or cavolo nero leaves, thick stems removed, shredded (young calabrese or purple-sprouting broccoli leaves work just as well)
50g feta cheese, diced
Seasoning
Handful of fresh coriander or parsley to serve

Pre-heat oven to 180°C (fan)/gas 5. Put the squash, onions and garlic in a roasting tray with the rosemary leaves, drizzle with olive oil, season and cook in the oven for about 20 minutes. Then add the chunks of red pepper, chillis, root ginger and cherry tomatoes, toss everything together, and cook for a further 20-30 minutes until nicely soft and roasted.

Meanwhile cook the Puy lentils, bay leaf and 1 clove garlic in just enough water to cover for about 20-25 minutes. Drain off any excess water and remove the bay leaf and garlic. Place in a large salad bowl with the drained chickpeas and season.

Stir in the sultanas and sherry, add the contents of the roasting tin and the toasted cashews and dried cranberries. Make a dressing to taste using three parts olive oil to lemon juice, plus 1 tsp sugar, 1 tsp wholegrain mustard and seasoning. Stir into the salad. Finally add the chopped kale or cavolo nero leaves and sprinkle with diced feta, then garnish with chopped coriander.

Good served warm, but equally delicious served cold the next day. You can also add cooked chicken for extra protein if you feel so inclined, or throw some chorizo into the roasting tin for the last 20 minutes or so – it’s an extremely flexible dish.

Of course, this recipe leaves you with half a tin of chickpeas, not that this is in any way a hardship! I like to use them in a tomato & chickpea pasta sauce with or without spicy chorizo and paprika, but last Tuesday, which just happened to be Pancake Day, I used a variation on the sauce as a tasty filling for pancakes. Extremely good it was too. If you’re only making enough pancakes for one or two, keep back half the sauce to serve with pasta for another day, with added feta and coriander, or just with the traditional Parmesan.

Tomato and chickpea pasta

Tomato, Chickpea & Fennel Pancakes – serves 4

Pancakes:
125g plain flour
pinch of salt
1 egg
300ml milk
Butter for frying

Sauce:
I onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
Glug of olive oil
1 fennel bulb, chopped
1 red pepper, chopped
1 red chilli, finely chopped
1 tsp fennel seeds, crushed
1 can chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato purée
1 tbsp paprika
1/2 can chickpeas, drained
75g chorizo or bacon lardons (optional)
Red wine (to taste – or use water if you prefer)

To assemble:
200ml natural yogurt
1 egg, beaten
Seasoning
Cheddar cheese (or Parmesan) grated

Chickpea, tomato and fennel pancakes

First make the pancakes in the usual way by sifting the flour and salt into a roomy bowl. Break the egg into the centre, then gradually beat in the milk and incorporate the flout until all mixed and little bubbles start to form on the surface. Leave to stand for 30 minutes or so if you can, but it’s not critical if you can’t. This mixture should make at least 8 pancakes in an 18cm frying pan. Stack the finished pancakes on a plate as you make them and set aside until you’ve made the sauce.

Cook the chopped onion, garlic and chilli in olive oil in a frying pan until starting to soften and turn golden, than add the chopped fennel, red pepper and chorizo (or bacon), if using, and cook for another 5-10 mins. Stir in the tomato purée, canned tomatoes, fennel seeds, chickpeas and seasoning and simmer for 30-45 minutes until nicely reduced. If it starts to reduce too much, you can add some red wine or water to stop it drying out.

Assemble the pancakes by putting a generous spoonful of the sauce on one edge of each, rolling up and placing in a rectangular ovenproof dish. Then mix the natural yogurt and the beaten egg and spoon over the top of the pancakes. Sprinkle over grated cheese and cook in a hot oven 200°C (fan)/gas 6 for about 25 minutes until nicely browned.

Serve with a green salad and enjoy!

Poppy sad

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Winter salads – definitely not a contradiction in terms

Salmon en croute and salads

Salads in winter? As the snow begins to fall outside, you might be forgiven for thinking that a salad is the last thing you’d want on a cold winter’s day, but I beg to differ. Grain or pulse-based salads can be surprisingly good in dreary weather – and of course they’re packed full of goodness too, with plenty of potential vegetable variations and tasty dressings. I often serve them just warm too, which makes them even more tempting – although, like most things, they’re usually even better left overnight in the fridge for the flavours to mature. Inspired by the ‘salades tièdes’ you find in France, you can add cooked chicken or duck, or any meat of your choice, but vegetarian options are excellent too. Mediterranean Chicken salad is one of my all-time favourites, although definitely better in summer when the tomatoes and basil are at their peak.

This weekend I hosted another family gathering as a belated Welcome Home party for my younger son and daughter-in-law, and a chance for some of the wider family to say their farewells before they disappear off to the States in February. We’ve been eating a lot of meat recently, so I opted for a Salmon en Croute (with kale pesto) as our main dish, but prepared a couple of substantial salads to accompany it: one with Puy lentil and squash, and the other based on quinoa, with nuts, seeds and herbs. Both delicious and very well received, especially by my student niece who said it was just what she fancied for student lunches on campus rather than the boring sandwiches usually on offer. As my son commented, also great to make ahead at the weekend and take for packed lunches to work, saving a fortune on equivalent bought offerings on the high street – and twice as nice!

Leo in snow garden Jan 2019

Puy Lentil & Roast Butternut Squash Salad – serves 8-10

250g Puy lentils
1 bay leaf
1 clove garlic
sprig of parsley
sprigs of thyme
1 tsp wholegrain mustard
1 tsp sugar
juice of half a lemon
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 butternut squash
1 yellow pepper
2 red onions
2 cloves garlic
sprigs of thyme
sage leaves
seasoning
handful pumpkin seeds, lightly toasted in the oven or in a pan
100g feta cheese, diced

Peel the butternut squash, remove the seeds (if you have time, you can wash and dry the seeds, coat in oil, season, then put them on a tray in the oven at 200°C/gas 6 for 5 minutes until they start popping, then add to the finished salad below), cut the flesh into large chunks and place in a roasting tin with the quartered onions, 2 roughly chopped garlic cloves and chunky slices of yellow pepper, plus a handful of sage leaves and the leaves from the sprigs of thyme, then add a generous glug of olive oil and turn to coat thoroughly. Season well. Roast for 45 minutes – 1 hour or until the vegetables are soft and starting to brown at the edges. Remove from the oven.

Meanwhile put the lentils in a pan, cover with plenty of water, bring to the boil, simmer for just one minute, then drain. Return to the pan and just cover with more water or vegetable stock if you have it. Add the bay leaf, sprigs of thyme, garlic and parsley. Bring back to a simmer and cook gently for about 20 minutes, until just tender. Drain the lentils, and discard the herbs and garlic. Make a dressing with 5 tbsp olive oil and the juice of half a lemon juice, then add 1 tsp wholegrain mustard, 1 clove garlic (crushed) and 1 tsp sugar, whisk (or shake if using a jar) and season. Taste to check acidity and adjust if necessary. Pour over the warm lentils and place in a large bowl.

Add the roasted vegetables to the lentils, draining off any excess oil, and stir gently to mix. Stir in the pumpkin seeds (your own, prepared as above, or bought seeds) and finally sprinkle with the diced feta cheese. Good served warm or chilled.

Herby Tomato, Rocket & Quinoa Salad – serves 8-10

300g quinoa (I used red and white quinoa with added bulgar wheat from Waitrose)
Vegetable stock (or water)
Olive oil
Juice of half a lemon
Seasoning
1 tsp wholegrain mustard
1 tsp sugar
1 clove garlic, crushed
200g cherry tomatoes, halved
Good handful of cavolo nero leaves, stems removed and finely sliced
Bunch of spring onions, finely chopped (or lightly cook some sliced leeks, if you prefer)
Bunch of coriander, roughly chopped
Handful of cashew nuts, toasted
Handful of pine kernels, toasted
100g dried cranberries
1 small bag of fresh rocket

Cook the quinoa according to the packet instructions: mine suggested rinsing first, then cooking in boiling water or vegetable stock for 12 minutes and draining. Place in a large bowl.

Make a dressing with 5 tbsp olive oil and the juice of half a lemon juice, then add 1 tsp wholegrain mustard, 1 clove garlic (crushed) and 1 tsp sugar, whisk (or shake if using a jar) and season. Taste to check acidity and adjust if necessary. This is exactly the same dressing as the previous recipe, so if making both salads, it’s much easier to double the quantities and make it all at once. I find the jar method the easiest: simply add all the ingredients to a large jar and shake to mix. Any left over can be left in the fridge for a week or so.

Add the chopped tomatoes, finely sliced kale, coriander, rocket, dried cranberries, chopped spring onions (or leeks) and toasted cashews and pine kernels to the quinoa and mix well. Season to taste, pour over the dressing and mix well. As before, serve warm or chilled.

Poppy and Leo snow Jan 2019

Apples aplenty – and cavalcades of kale

Cox apples_landscape

‘Tis definitely apple season in all its joyous abundance – the ground beneath my orchard trees is covered with windfalls, some just slightly peck-marked, others victim to brown rot or insect damage from within. The plums were a martyr to moth damage earlier this year too, with a poor harvest in any case, but very few that were actually edible, as most had maggots in – yuk! Now’s the time to put greasebands round the trees to stop the moths sheltering overwinter – and next spring I’ll try and remember to hang pheromone traps to catch the other kinds of moths that cause so much damage to plums.

In the meantime, what to do with all these apples? The obligatory and delicious apple pies and crumbles, of course, plus apple juices and compotes for the freezer or to eat with my breakfast muesli. I like to use them in soup too, not only my favourite tomato, apple & celery, but with other strong-tasting vegetables to add an undernote of sweetness and some body. I’ve currently got an excellent crop of spinach and Swiss chard from both my spring and September sowings, so spinach soup was calling to me. I usually make spinach & pea soup with frozen peas, but had no peas in the freezer as I tend to use fresh veg through the summer months. Inspiration descended with the notion of combining spinach and apples in a soup, with a smattering of bulb fennel for good luck, since I’ve managed to grow it successfully for the first time – very good it was too!

Spinach, Apple & Fennel Soup – serves 6

Spinach, apple and fennel soup

500g spinach, washed, thick stalks removed, and roughly chopped
2 large eating apples, peeled, cored and diced – I used a Cox type
50g butter (or olive oil if you prefer)
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 sticks celery, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 bulb fennel, chopped, plus a handful of the feathery fronds to add at the end
Few sprigs of thyme, leaves removed
Grated rind of 1 lemon
1 bay leaf
1 litre chicken (or vegetable) stock
Handful of red lentils (optional)
Seasoning

Melt the butter or olive oil in large pan and gently fry the diced onion, fennel, celery and garlic until soft and golden – about 10 minutes. Then add the diced apple, thyme leaves and bay leaf and stir for a couple of minutes. Add the chopped spinach leaves – it will look like a huge pile, but they soon wilt down. Finally, add the stock, a handful of red lentils (to thicken – leave out if you prefer) and seasoning, bring to the boil and cook for 20-25 minutes until nicely tender. Leave to cool, then blend in a liquidizer.

Serve with a swirl of cream or crème fraiche and homemade rolls straight from the oven.

Another revelation in the apple stakes was that apple juice with kale and fennel isn’t bitter at all, but rather delicious. Kale is another crop that just keeps on giving this year – strictly speaking, I grow cavolo nero for its beautiful dark green, crinkly leaves. It is so good for us, it’s a shame not to use it in as many ways as possible. I don’t get my juicer out as often as I should, but having experienced a sublime Green Goddess juice on my recent trip to the States, I thought I’d experiment. Cue 4 or 5 Cox-type apples, chopped kale (stalks removed), a quarter of a lime, a quarter of a fennel bulb and a knob of ginger. I say Cox-type as I sadly have no idea which variety mine is – it was in the allotment when I took it over, resembles a Cox (but without the scab problems that can afflict Cox apples proper), and is always extremely prolific, juicy and tasty. It stores quite well in the garage too. And the juice? – Divine! Do try it and see.

Apple and kale juice

Another apple creation was inspired by a recipe I read in the Waitrose Kitchen magazine on my flight to Chicago. Conveniently, I knew I’d be able to track the recipe down online when I got home, but rather more impressively, I actually remembered to do so after a couple of weeks away! I’m always on the lookout for new ice cream recipes, so this one was extra-tempting: who could resist the prospect of toffee apple ice cream?! The original recipe used bought ice cream (the horror!), but I made my own and swirled it all together rather than layering – truly reminiscent of those brittle toffee apples of our childhood, but without the associated dental challenges!

Toffee Apple Ice Cream

Toffee apple ice cream

125g granulated sugar
5 tbsp water
600ml whipping cream
1 tsp vanilla extract

50g light brown soft sugar
50g wholemeal flour (I used self-raising as that’s what I had, but plain would be fine)
½ tsp ground cinnamon
70g butter, cubed
Salt to taste
100g caster sugar
70ml double cream
3 eating apples, peeled, cored and diced
juice of half lemon

First, make the vanilla ice cream by placing 125g granulated sugar and 4 tbsp water in a small pan, allow the sugar to melt, then continue to cook over a gentle heat for 5 mins until syrupy. Allow to cool completely. Whip 600ml whipping cream with the cold syrup and vanilla extract until it thickens and just begins to hold its shape. Pour into an ice-cream maker (mine is a basic Magimix Glacier model where you have to freeze the bowl in the freezer overnight beforehand: simple but effective). It should take about 30-40 minutes to churn, and while that’s doing you can get on with the rest.

Preheat the oven to 150˚C, gas 3. Line a medium baking tray with baking parchment. For the crumble, put the brown sugar, flour and cinnamon in a bowl, then rub in 30g cubed butter and a pinch of salt, until the mixture resembles fine, gritty sand. Spread out on the tray and bake for 10 minutes, stirring halfway through, until pale golden and crisp. Set aside to cool.

Put the caster sugar in a large frying pan with 2 tbsp water. Heat gently, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Then without stirring, bring to the boil over a medium-high heat and simmer briskly for about 4 minutes, until a dark golden caramel forms. If it colours unevenly, swirl the pan. Remove the pan from the heat; stir in the cream and a pinch more salt. Add the remaining 40g butter and stir until a smooth caramel forms. Pour into a heatproof bowl. Return the unwashed pan to the heat and add the diced apples (sprinkled with lemon juice to prevent browning). Cook, stirring, for 10 minutes, until softened and golden. Add to the caramel bowl and allow to cool.

If the ice cream is ready before the remaining ingredients are cool, just transfer it to a large freezer container and freeze until everything is cool. When you’re ready, gently fold in the crumble chunks and caramel apples until just mixed and return to the freezer to finish freezing. Remove from the freezer 20-30 minutes before serving – and enjoy!

My final offering today is hardly a recipe, more an assembly of garden produce that, combined, make a wonderfully refreshing autumn kale salad. It was inspired by a delicious cabbage and kale salad I had at one of my daughter-in-law’s friend’s houses in Ohio. She’d used a bagged salad from Costco (costing in excess of $5!), which even included raw Brussels sprouts (and I, a confirmed sprout hater, liked them – perhaps raw is the way to go!). I used vegetables from the allotment, with finely chopped raw kale, calabrese leaves, red lettuce, sliced fennel, toasted sunflower, pumpkin seeds and peanuts, dried cranberries, served with herb-roasted carrots, beetroot, red onion and potatoes, topped with a smattering of griddled halloumi (you could use feta or goat’s cheese too), and dressed with a lime, olive oil and pomegranate molasses dressing – so good! (And all the better for mostly being home-grown 😊).

Kale and roasted root salad

Bean Feast

Bean feast

I can’t quite believe that I haven’t included any French (or runner) bean recipes on my blog in the nearly five years I’ve been writing. What an oversight! It’s not as if I don’t grow enough of them: every year I usually have more beans than I know what to do with, although I often start off with slow germination, or growth setbacks of one sort or another, and worry that I won’t have enough. They always come good in the end, leaving me overrun – and this year is no exception.

I stopped growing the coarser runner beans a few years back, when my sons had left home and I was essentially just cooking for one. I’ve always preferred the finer, tastier French beans, and the fact that they are less hardy than the runners really isn’t a problem now I’m living in the milder South East of England. In Scotland we used to start them off in the unheated greenhouse in late spring, but down here I’ve found they do better planted direct in the soil in early to late June, even as late as early July if the first sowing doesn’t come to anything like this year. Planted so late, they follow on neatly from the broad beans and peas, and don’t compete with the heady courgette rush in mid-summer. By late July/early August, when they start to form those long, elegant pods, we’re just about ready for a new summer crop – perfect timing. And they keep on going well into September, or even October in a good year.

This year I had a mixed pack of bean seeds, containing three different varieties: yellow (Monte Gusto), purple (Carminat) and green (Monte Cristo). I’m favourably impressed so far, although the yellow seem to be by far the most prolific (and easiest to see and harvest).

So how come I haven’t written any recipes for them before? I have no idea! I can only think it’s because this is such a busy time of year in the garden that I’m too busy cooking, harvesting and freezing to write. Definitely time to put that right and jot down a few of my favourite ways of using all those beautiful beans….

My first suggestion is a recipe I’ve been cooking for over 30 years, originally from my home economist friend Bridget in Cheshire. It makes an extremely flavourful vegetarian lasagne, or you can use the bean filling as a pasta sauce without layering and oven-baking if you prefer. I used to make this with runner beans, but French work just as well, if not better.

French Bean & Nut Lasagne – serves 4-6

Bean and nut lasagne

1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 red (or green) pepper, chopped
3 sticks celery, chopped
250g French or runner beans, chopped into 2cm long pieces
1 large can chopped tomatoes (or 450g fresh, peeled and chopped if you have them)
2 tbsp tomato purée
Handful of basil or oregano
2 tbsp pesto
150ml red wine
50g walnuts, chopped
Seasoning

45g butter
45g plain flour
500ml milk
125g Cheddar cheese
1 tsp mustard
Grated fresh nutmeg

175-200g dried lasagne

For the bean sauce, cook the onion and garlic in the olive oil for 4-5 mins until starting to soften. Add the pepper, celery and beans, stir well and cook for a further 5 mins. Stir in the tomatoes, tomato purée, basil or oregano, pesto, wine and walnuts, season well and simmer uncovered for 30-40 mins.

Make the cheese sauce as usual by melting the butter, stirring in the flour, cooking for 1 minute then gradually adding the milk, stirring until it thickens and is smooth. Season, add half the cheese and the grated nutmeg and set aside.

Soften the lasagne sheets in a bowl of boiling water, or follow the instructions on your packet (this is a very old recipe!). Assemble the layers in a lasagne dish, starting with the bean sauce, then lasagne, then cheese sauce, ending with cheese sauce. Sprinkle with remaining cheese and cook at 180°C / Gas 4 for 25-30 mins. Serve with a mixed salad.

Next up is another recipe adapted from my old favourite Dairy Cookbook from the early 1980s. Patched, chewed (puppy!) and bespattered it may be, but I still have certain recipes that I turn to now and again, and this is one of them: a comforting pancake dish with a delectable bean, apple and ham filling, finished off with a hint of wholegrain mustard and a velvety cheese sauce. True comfort food for those early autumn days… You can use chopped bacon in this dish, but I usually make it with chopped cooked ham from a weekend gammon joint, which marries perfectly with the melting tenderness of the apples and onions. It’s not unlike an English take on cannelloni, but using pancakes rather than pasta.

Bean, Ham & Apple Pancakes – serves 4

French bean, ham and apple pancakes

Pancakes:
125g plain flour
pinch of salt
1 egg
300ml milk
Butter for frying

Filling:
25g butter (or 1 tbsp olive oil if you prefer)
2 medium onions, chopped (or leeks if you prefer)
175g chopped bacon or home-cooked gammon or ham if you have it
225g apple (cooking or eating), peeled, cored and chopped
225g French or runner beans, chopped into 2cm lengths
1 tbsp French mustard
Chopped parsley or thyme leaves

Sauce:
25g butter
2 level tbsp plain flour
300ml milk
125g Cheddar cheese, grated
Seasoning
Freshly grated nutmeg

First make the pancakes in the usual way by sifting the flour and salt into a roomy bowl. Break the egg into the centre, then gradually beat in the milk and incorporate the flout until all mixed and little bubbles start to form on the surface. Leave to stand for 30 minutes or so if you can, but it’s not critical if you can’t! This mixture should make at least 8 pancakes in an 18cm frying pan. Stack the finished pancakes on a plate as you make them and set aside until you’ve made the filling.

For the filling, melt the butter in a large frying pan, then fry the onion until softened. Steam or microwave the beans for 4 -5 minutes until just tender, then drain off any liquid. Stir the ham, apple and beans into the pan and cook for a further 4-5 minutes (if using uncooked bacon, you might need to add it with the onion at the start). Stir in the mustard, seasoning and chopped parsley or thyme leaves. Set aside to cool slightly while you make the cheese sauce.

Melt the butter in a saucepan, then stir in the flour and cook gently for 1 minute, stirring. Gradually stir in the milk, then bring to the boil and cook until it thickens, stirring constantly. Add grated nutmeg and seasoning, then finally 75g grated cheese.

To assemble, fill each pancake with a generous spoonful of the bean and apple mixture, and either roll up or fold carefully into quarters. Place side by side in a rectangular ovenproof dish, pour over the cheese sauce, sprinkle over the remaining cheese and bake at 180°C / Gas 5 for 25 – 30 minutes. Serve with a green salad.

Both of these recipes are rather heavy on the washing-up, with several stages and pans, but well worth the effort – and the cooking time in the oven means you have enough time to wash up while the dish is cooking if you don’t have a willing sous-chef on hand to clear up as you go along 🙂

One last recipe, which only uses one pan and makes a super-tasty side dish for sausages, chops, or even a roast, was inspired by a recipe in an Italian cookbook I’ve long since lost. I think it originally went under the name of Fagiolini di Sant’Anna, but I’ve tweaked it over the years, as usual. Although the beans are cooked for much longer than if you steamed or boiled them, they remain deliciously tender and take up all the flavours of the cooking liquid. Try it and see. Just don’t drop the salt grinder in it as happened to me this weekend……

Italian French Beans with Tomatoes – serves 2

French beans in tomato sauce

Glug of olive oil
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
200g French beans, chopped
2-3 tomatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
Chopped basil
Dash of white wine
Boiling water
Seasoning

Heat the oil in a small frying pan, then add the garlic and cook gently for 1 minute. Add the chopped tomatoes and cook for a further 3-4 minutes, then add the beans and toss in the sauce for a minute or so. Add a dash of white wine and the chopped basil, then just cover the beans with boiling water. Bring back to the boil, then simmer gently, without a lid, for 25 – 30 minutes, or until the liquid has reduced. You may need to turn up the heat or cover the pan depending on your hob. Season to taste and serve with the meat of your choice.

Basket of produce

A mixed bag for February

A mixed bag of a weekend, and one in which I’ve been up to London to a delicious wedding food tasting, bought part of my wedding outfit (hurrah!), had a frustrating time on the ‘phone to Apple to try to resolve my quick-draining phone battery, squeezed in some shopping (20% off at the local garden centre!) and household chores, and finally managed to catch up in the garden before next week’s forecast big freeze.

Seed potatoes

Part of my garden shopping haul included some seed potatoes for chitting: I’ve been looking for a few weeks, but most of the local garden centres only seemed to have the same old varieties, and as I now only grow one bed with 10 plants of 2 varieties, I do like to trial different ones each year. These were Colleen, a first early, and Bonnie. a second early, both with good disease/pest resistance and sounding promising. I’ve also discovered one of the nicest potato varieties I’ve ever grown down here in the South-East at an online nursery in Doncaster, so intend to order those too to see if they are as good as I remember. The variety is Ulster Sceptre and I haven’t been able to find them since trialling them from T&M some years ago. It transpires that these used to be widely grown in Cheshire, which probably explains why I liked them so much – they reminded me of the potatoes of my childhood. My mum always said you couldn’t beat new Cheshire potatoes (sorry, Jersey!), although I suspect the good loamy soil has a lot to do with it too. Not entirely sure where I’ll put them, but they come in 5s, so too good to miss….

It’s been a particularly beautiful, cold but sunny weekend, so all the more galling that I wasn’t able to do quite as much gardening today as I’d anticipated. Still, it would have been even more annoying if I’d tried to sort my ‘phone out on a work day, I suppose. No matter, I eventually (by dint of eking out the very last hours of daylight until the sun finally disappeared beyond the horizon and the final rose-orange rays of the stunning sunset faded away), did what I’d set out to achieve: cutting down the autumn raspberries at the allotment, and pruning the late-flowering clematis to a foot above the ground, plus finishing cutting back the perennial grasses and Michaelmas daisies at home. All of which took a surprisingly long time, probably because I allowed myself to become rather side-tracked pruning roses (intermingled with the clematis) and pyracantha (likewise).

Wonky arch

Mission accomplished in the end, though – and another task set up for next weekend: I’ve been aware for a while that my rose arch near the front gate has been leaning at an increasingly drunken angle. Closer inspection as I clipped the roses yesterday showed that the wood has simply rotted in the ground and the whole thing will have to come down. It’s been in situ some 10 or 11 years, so I suppose I can’t complain – and if it’s going to go, far better to happen now, rather than later in the season when everything is in full bloom. New metal arch duly ordered, but the task of unravelling the existing climbing roses and removing the old arch will have to wait until another time – here’s hoping this week’s predicted snow doesn’t do the job for me!

After a busy and successful day in London on Saturday, and lots of delicious food to sample at lunchtime, I only fancied a light meal when I got back home. I hadn’t anything planned, but a small Harlequin squash in the storage basket in the conservatory was just asking to be used. Cue one of my favourite simple suppers: an oven-baked frittata with squash, leeks, feta and sultanas, served with cherry tomatoes quickly roasted in the oven with rosemary, garlic and thyme at the same time. So tasty.

Squash, Leek & Feta Frittata – serves 2

Squash and leek frittata_cropped

1 small round or butternut squash, peeled and deseeded
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 leek, washed and sliced
olive oil
knob of butter
salt and black pepper
few sprigs fresh thyme
1 tbsp sultanas
1 tbsp pine nuts, toasted
50g feta cheese, crumbled
4 eggs, beaten

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C/Gas 5. Chop the squash into chunks and place in a small baking dish. Sprinkle over the thyme leaves and chopped garlic, then season with salt and black pepper. Roast in the hot oven until golden – about 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, sauté the sliced leeks gently in the butter until softened. Stir in the sultanas and toasted pine nuts. Beat the eggs in a separate bowl and season. Stir in the leek mixture and crumbled feta. When the squash is cooked, drain off any excess oil, and combine the squash with the egg mixture. Return to the roasting dish, distribute everything evenly and return to the oven for 10-12 minutes or until set and golden-brown. Cut into squares or triangles to serve warm with a green salad or with roast tomatoes. Also excellent cold (or reheated) the next day for lunch.

I’d made a similar dish, although probably more akin to a Spanish tortilla, last weekend, this time with potatoes, caramelised onions, thyme and cheddar. Served just warm, at a barn dance at the local school where we’d all been invited to bring a dish, it went down a treat. And proves that simple vegetarian food often hits the spot too.

Potato, Onion, Mushroom and Thyme Tortilla – serves 4-6

3-4 potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
2-3 large onions, peeled and sliced
150g mushrooms, sliced
pinch of sugar
large knob of butter
seasoning
few sprigs of thyme
6 eggs (or to taste!)
100g mature Cheddar cheese, grated

Sauté the sliced onions gently in a frying pan until very soft and tender – about 10-30 minutes. The longer you cook them, the more caramelised they become. Add the mushrooms for the last 10 minutes and a pinch of sugar towards the end.

Meanwhile, place the potatoes in boiling salted water and cook for 10-15 minutes, or until just tender. Drain and leave to cool slightly.

Pre-heat the oven to 200180°C/Gas 5. Whisk the eggs in a separate large bowl, season and stir in the grated cheese, thyme leaves, caramelised onions and mushrooms, and the cooked potatoes. Mix well to combine and pour the mixture into a greased 24cm round ovenproof dish (or you can use a rectangular dish if you prefer). Add more beaten eggs at this stage if you’re using a bigger dish or it doesn’t look enough! Make sure that everything is distributed evenly, then cook in the oven for 15-20 minutes.

Best eaten lukewarm, but you can eat it immediately or leave until cold. The Spanish often take their tortilla on picnics, cold, where the flavours really shine through. I hasten to add that this is by no means a traditional Spanish recipe, merely my take on a combination I adore 🙂

Poppy at Tapsells in frost

 

 

The darkest root

Carrot harvest

I usually grow at least one whole bed of root vegetables at the allotment. Carrots, parsnips and beetroot are my staples, but I have toyed with swedes, celeriac and turnips, although with limited success, so always return to the first three. Carrots haven’t always been good on the heavy local clay, but a fellow plotholder who always has superb rows of huge carrots suggested incorporating some sand in the soil and that appears to have made all the difference! This year’s carrot crop is a great improvement and I’m actually in a position to store some for the winter. Even the slugs have steered clear this season: whether they’re averse to the gritty sand on their slimy skins or have been attracted elsewhere, I’m not sure – but I’m certainly not complaining! Even the dreaded carrot root fly haven’t made an appearance this year. Admittedly, some of the carrots were the resistant Flyaway variety, but by no means all. Homegrown carrots have such a superb taste, it’s so satisfying when they do well.

Parsnips usually do extremely well for me, but this year I’ve had a complete crop failure. They take so long to germinate, that by the time you realise they haven’t appeared, it’s often too late to do anything about it. I used fresh seed, so have no idea what went wrong this time. It happens….

Beetroot on the other hand, always do well – and this year was no exception. I love beetroot simply roasted individually, wrapped in foil, in a hot oven at 200°C / 400°F / Gas 6, then served warm or cold with a salad. I often cook a batch, sprinkle with balsamic vinegar, and store in the fridge for a good week or so. Recently, I was inspired to find a recipe for beetroot risotto, as much for its dark and sultry looks as anything else. After much researching, I couldn’t find exactly what I had in mind, so resorted to adapting a Diana Henry recipe that looked promising. The result was divine – a deep red plateful topped with creamy white cheese. So good.

Beetroot Risotto – serves 1

Beetroot risotto

25ml butter
1 small red onion, chopped
1 leek, finely sliced
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
50g Arborio rice
100g fresh beetroot, grated
450 ml fresh vegetable stock (or use chicken if you prefer), hot
75 ml Martini Rosso (or use red wine)
few sprigs fresh thyme
2 tbsp Pecorino cheese (or Parmesan), grated
50g Lancashire cheese (or Wensleydale, feta or goat’s cheese!)
Dill to garnish

Heat the butter in a frying pan and cook the chopped red onion, leek and garlic gently until tender, but not brown – about 10 minutes. Add the rice and thyme leaves, then stir to coat thoroughly. Add the grated beetroot (use disposable gloves to grate, or peel and use a food processor!) and cook for another few minutes. Pour in the Martini Rosso or red wine and allow it to bubble up and reduce slightly. Then start adding the hot stock, one ladle at a time, waiting for it to be absorbed each time before adding the next. Stir constantly and start testing the rice after 20 minutes or so to see if it is tender, but with a slight bite. Add the grated Pecorino, chopped dill and season to taste. Serve in bowls garnished with crumbled or grated Lancashire cheese (or the cheese of your choice – a chalky white cheese is the best foil for the dark earthiness of the beetroot) and more dill, if you have it. Enjoy!

This serves just one, but you can multiply according to how many you’re serving. You could also add cubes of roasted beetroot to garnish for maximum effect.

Another favourite beetroot concoction involves throwing together a Puy lentil salad with beetroot and feta or goat’s cheese. The sweet earthiness of the beetroot is the ideal complement to the smoky lentils and the chalky cheese sets both off to perfection. Sometimes I add carrots or squash too to provide an orange contrast, and even a few cooked green beans if I have any. I like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s way of cooking the lentils, although I find they don’t take quite as long to cook as he suggests.

Beetroot & Puy Lentil Salad with Feta – serves 4-6

Beetroot and lentil salad

250g Puy lentils
Vegetable stock or water
1 bay leaf
Few sprigs thyme
2 garlic cloves, crushed
Parsley sprigs
Juice of a lemon
Seasoning
4-6 beetroot
4 carrots (optional)
100g butternut squash (optional)
Olive oil
Balsamic vinegar
100g goat’s cheese or feta
Dill to garnish

Wash the beetroots, cutting off the top and tail, then wrap individually in foil, before roasting in a hot oven at 200°C / 400°F / Gas 6. If serving squash and/or carrot as well, cut into chunky cubes or barrel shapes, sprinkle with olive oil, chopped garlic, seasoning and thyme leaves, then roast in an open dish at the same time as the beetroot, although they will probably only need 30-40 minutes. When tender, remove from the oven and cool. The beetroot skins should come off easily when cool, and the beetroot can then be cubed.

Meanwhile put the lentils in a pan, cover with plenty of water, bring to the boil, simmer for just one minute, then drain. Return to the pan and just cover with more water or vegetable stock if you have it. Add the bay leaf, sprigs of thyme, garlic and parsley. Bring back to a simmer and cook gently for about 20 minutes, until just tender. Drain the lentils, and discard the herbs. Dress with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice, then season.

Serve the lentils lukewarm or cold with the roasted vegetables, more olive oil if required and a dash of balsamic vinegar. Garnish with dill and cubes of goat’s cheese or feta. The flavour gets even better as it sits, so don’t worry if you have leftovers for the next day…

An Abundance of Aubergines

Leo over the fence Aug 2017

Apologies for the long absence: as some of you may know, it was my son’s wedding at the end of July and life was rather put on hold in the run-up. After a fabulous weekend of celebrations, it’s taken me quite some time to come back down to Earth and catch up with myself…

Needless to say, the garden and allotment have continued apace throughout, but I’m gradually starting to restore order, even if the grass isn’t as neatly mowed as it could be. Cropwise, it’s been a fantastic summer so far, with even my carrots putting on a good show and the pumpkins looking promising for autumn. In the conservatory, my aubergines are flourishing, as ever, and maturing faster than I can cook them. Such a satisfying problem to have! Last night I made the walnut-stuffed aubergine dish from my Spanish yoga holiday at Las Chimeneas – still delicious, and equally good heated up for lunch today. Earlier in the week I made Nigel Slater’s scrumptious baba ganoush, a heavenly, yet oh-so-simple take on an aubergine dip, and tonight I’ve made an old favourite from my ancient Sainsbury’s wholefood cookbook, lentil moussaka. Meat really does fade into insignificance in my summer diet.

Baba ganoush – serves 2

Baba ganoush

I large aubergine
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 tbsp tahini paste
1 – 1 1/2 tbsp olive oil
Seasoning

Prick the aubergine with a fork, then bake in the oven at 200°C/Gas 6 until the skin is charred and the insides are soft – about 40-45 minutes. Leave to cool, then scrape out the flesh with a spoon into a bowl. Mash with a potato masher, then beat in the lemon juice, crushed garlic, tahini, and olive oil until you get the right consistency. Season and serve with good bread (I used courgette, lemon and sultana bread, lightly toasted, which went beautifully) for a middle-Eastern-inspired lunch or as a decadent starter.

As for the moussaka, well, this is a delicious vegetarian twist on a classic Greek dish that I first tried in a Greek restaurant in Bolton, of all places, in the late 70s, way before I ever travelled to Greece and sampled the real thing. I seem to remember it was pretty good then too, and my mum, never a particularly adventurous cook, even included it in her repertoire: very avant garde in those days! These days, I grill the aubergine slices rather than frying them beforehand, as the original recipe suggests, but which uses up gallons of olive oil. In fact, my mum says she now cooks her oil-drizzled aubergine slices in the oven, as suggested by Mary Berry, for 20-25 minutes at 180°C/Gas 5. Now that’s definitely worth a try as the grilling method still requires you to stand over them, getting hot and bothered, even if they don’t take up anywhere near as much oil as frying.

Lentil Moussaka – serves 4-6

Lentil moussaka

2 large aubergines, sliced crosswise (you can salt them beforehand if you like, but I don’t think it’s necessary these days)
Olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 celery sticks, chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 can chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato purée
250g green lentils
Fresh thyme (or basil), finely chopped (optional)
2 tbsp soy sauce
Black pepper
900ml water
2 eggs, beaten
150ml fromage frais
100g Cheddar cheese, grated (or use Parmesan if you prefer)

Heat a glug of olive oil in a large pan and cook the chopped onion until softened, then add the garlic and celery. Cook for a further 5 minutes, then add the tomatoes and their liquid, tomato purée, green lentils, soy sauce, herbs if using, black pepper to taste and water. Bring to the boil and simmer, covered, for 50 minutes, removing the lid towards the end if it still looks very liquid.

Meanwhile, arrange the aubergine slices on a grill pan (or baking trays if you’re trying the oven method), brush with olive oil and either grill on both sides until starting to brown and soften, or bake in the oven at 180°C for 20-25 minutes. (You may need to do this in two stages if using the grill, whereas you can cook two trays at once in the oven – I must try it!) Either way, you will need to turn them halfway through. When cooked, drain on kitchen paper.

When the lentil mixture is ready, spoon half into a rectangular ovenproof dish and arrange a layer of aubergines on top. Repeat with the other half of the lentils and the rest of the aubergines. Mix the eggs and fromage frais for the topping, season and pour on top of the aubergines. Sprinkle with cheese and cook in a hot oven at 200°C/Gas 6 for about 30 minutes.

Serve with a green salad and be instantly transported to the Mediterranean…

This also freezes beautifully – sometimes I think the flavours meld together even better once it has stood for a while, which chimes with the way such dishes are served in Greece: cooked in the morning to be served just warm at lunchtime. Yum!

Oh and the wedding? It was amazing, such a joyful day. I can’t resist leaving you with a picture of the happy couple. Have a fabulous bank holiday weekend!

Happy couple