Tag Archives: Delicious

Decadent cakes

Sticky toffee wedding cake

The cakes I make in winter tend to be different from the lighter, airier confections of summer. Winter (and spring equinox or not, the current weather still feels very much like winter!) cakes need the warming, stick-to-your-ribs qualities of chocolate, toffee and caramel. Ginger and treacle do it for me too, whereas ethereal Victoria sponges belong much more to the spring and summer months. Think chocolate brownies, sticky ginger or marmalade cake, and marbled energy bars to name just a few…

So when, a few months back, my younger son and his fiancée twisted my arm to make the wedding cake for their July wedding this year, it was no surprise when they mooted the idea of a sticky toffee layer. Despite feeling that it might be too heavy for a summer wedding, I agreed to give it a go for a trial two-tier birthday cake for two family birthdays in February. I already make a sons’ favourite sticky toffee pudding, which is cooked as a square cake, served warm with lashings of sticky toffee sauce, but it wasn’t quite the effect I had in my mind for a celebration cake. My daughter-in-law has offered to make the top layer of the wedding cake and decided to make a gluten-free lemon sponge for the top of this birthday cake, all to be topped with butter cream, so I just needed to track down a suitable toffee version.

Searches online brought up a few contenders, but it was this recipe, by Miranda Gore-Browne, for a gloriously sticky toffee cake, that caught my eye and formed the basis for the bottom layer of my tiered creation. I basically followed Miranda’s recipe for the sponge, but made it in a deep 25cm cake tin, cooked for longer and at a lower heat of course, and sliced it in two after cooking and cooling. I found I had to adapt the frosting, though, adding much more icing sugar than suggested! I was very worried that it would be far too sweet, but actually it tasted divine with the sweet, treacly earthiness of the date cake. My advice is to keep tasting as you make it, and stop adding the icing sugar when it’s sweet enough for you, but the consistency is thick enough to spread, yet not too gloopy. I also added orange zest, which cut through the sweetness beautifully – but you could use orange blossom water/pure orange extract if you don’t want to see the bits of zest in the finished frosting.

Sticky Toffee Cake – serves 12-16

sticky toffee cake slice

375g dates
250ml water
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
4 large eggs
250g light muscovado sugar
2 tbsp golden syrup
200g butter, melted
2 tsp vanilla extract
350g self-raising flour
pinch of salt

Sticky Toffee Frosting

250g butter
up to 1kg icing sugar (!)
4 tbsp Nestlé Caramel (or use dulce di leche)
grated rind of 1 orange (or use 1 tsp orange blossom water/pure orange extract)

Grease and base line a large 25cm cake tin and pre-heat the oven to 150°C / Gas 3.

Place the chopped dates in a pan, cover with the water and bring to the boil. Add the bicarbonate of soda, stir, remove from the heat and leave to cool, then whizz in a food processor until smooth.

Whisk the eggs, sugar and syrup in a large bowl until pale and fluffy, then whisk in the melted butter, vanilla extract and cooled date mixture. Fold in the sieved flour and salt until combined, then transfer to the prepared tin. Cook in the pre-heated oven for 1 hr to 1 hr 5 mins: it should feel just springy to the touch and a skewer inserted in the centre should come out clean. Leave in the tin to cool.

To make the icing, whisk the butter until soft and fluffy, then gradually whisk in the sifted icing sugar – this is where I am very happy to have a pouring shield on my Kitchen Aid as it keeps the clouds of icing sugar to a minimum. (I was surprised to learn that these don’t come as standard with all Kitchen Aids, so do check if you’re tempted to invest in one of these kitchen classics.) Add the caramel and grated orange rind or orange extract. Keep tasting as you add the final quantities of icing sugar and stop when you’re happy with the taste/consistency. This can be prepared ahead and left in the fridge before using.

When you’re ready to assemble the cake, slice carefully into two. I used this fantastic device from Amazon that a colleague had shared on the Foodie Translators group on Facebook – it makes wonky cutting a thing of the past!

cake slicer

Sandwich the cake together with some of the frosting, then spread a thin “crumb” layer over the rest and leave to set so that you don’t get crumbs in the top layer afterwards.

If you’re making a tiered cake, this is where you carefully measure and cut the dowels to size, before placing the top tier carefully on top, on a cake board exactly the same size as the top tier. Cover the entire cake with a generous layer of frosting and decorate as you wish. Breathe a huge sigh of relief and enjoy!

Much as we enjoyed the sticky toffee cake, we were all agreed that this was probably not ideal for a summer wedding, and will revert to variations on the Victoria sponge theme – watch this space!

However, for Mother’s Day last week, I continued with the decadent approach, using the remains of my last huge Crown Prince squash to make a divine chocolate & squash cake: squidgy, dark and delicious! The original recipe is by Billy and Jack in a recent edition of Sainsbury’s magazine. I’ve adapted it slightly as usual, using far less baking powder than they suggested. The chocolate frosting with squash purée is a revelation! It’s also gluten-free to boot, so perfect when you’re trying to ring the changes for gluten-intolerant or coeliac guests.

Chocolate & Squash Cake – serves 12

Chocolate and squash cake

about 400g peeled and chopped squash – I used a large slice of a huge Crown Prince squash, but I imagine you’d need at least one decent-sized butternut squash
75g dark chocolate, chopped
100g butter
200g caster sugar
3 large eggs, beaten
1 heaped tsp gluten-free baking powder
300g ground almonds
1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1 tsp ground cinnamon
pinch of salt

For the salted chocolate and squash frosting:
150g dark chocolate
100g butter
250g icing sugar, sifted
pinch sea salt
(reserved squash purée – see above)

First make the squash purée. Place the prepared squash, chopped into 2 cm cubes, in a pan of boiling water and cook for 20-25 minutes until tender. Drain off the liquid (I save this for vegetable stock – too good to waste!) and mash the squash with a potato masher until smooth. You should have at least 300g. Set to one side to cool. Melt the chocolate in a bowl set over a pan of simmering water and leave to cool slightly.

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C / Gas 5. Grease and base-line 2 x 20cm sandwich tins. Cream the butter and sugar in a large bowl until light and fluffy, then gradually whisk in the beaten eggs. Gently stir in 250g of the squash purée. In a separate bowl, mix together the ground almonds, baking powder, salt and spices, then fold into the wet mixture. Finally fold in the cooled melted chocolate and make sure it is all combined. Transfer into the prepared tins and bake for 25-30 minutes until just firm to the touch and a skewer comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tins.

For the frosting, melt the second lot of chocolate as above and set aside to cool. Beat the butter until creamy, then add 50g of the squash purée and continue beating. Gradually add the sifted icing sugar until blended, then finally add the melted chocolate and a pinch of salt, and beat until light and fluffy.

Turn out the cakes when cool and sandwich together with a good third of the frosting. Use the rest to decorate the top in luxurious swirls, then grate over some white chocolate and decorate with blueberries or whatever you have to hand! I can imagine chocolate mini eggs going down a treat at Easter….

Keeps really well in a tin. The height of decadence – while surely providing at least one of your five a day 😉 Enjoy!


Winter warmers

Front garden

This week’s unexpected late snowfall brought the deepest snow to the village that we’ve had in 6 or 7 years. Leo the labrador was a puppy last time we had snow on this scale and consequently very overexcited to see all this lovely white stuff last week! Poppy likes it too, but at 12 1/2, she sometimes finds it a bit cold on her paws, and especially dislikes the patches of salt on the roads.

While I’m extremely glad I work from home at times like this, so don’t need to venture out in the car, I do find that snow brings out all my survival instincts. Despite having a freezer full of soup and casseroles, I have the urge to make more! There’s nothing like a big pan full of simmering soup to warm you up when you get back from a snowy dog walk in the winter wonderland… The suspension of my usual evening activities means I have more time to cook in the evening too, so warming hotpots are definitely the order of the day. The freezer casseroles can wait for another day; the aroma of slow-cooked vegetables and meat is just heavenly on those days where the thermometer is well below zero all day long…

Last week’s soups included old favourites such as tomato & lentil (a good store cupboard standby if you have beef stock in the freezer, as it really only needs red lentils, a tin of tomatoes, a chilli, onion and celery – so good!), and Scottish Country Soup, a true winter warmer chock-full of vegetables with barley flakes and milk for extra nutrients.

Scottish Country Soup – serves 6

Scottish country soup

25g butter or 1 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
3-4 carrots, diced
2 sticks celery, sliced
1 leek, sliced
Handful kale or Savoy cabbage, shredded (I use Cavolo Nero from the allotment)
125g frozen peas
50g barley flakes
sprigs fresh thyme, leaves only
1 bay leaf
500ml chicken or vegetable stock
500ml semi-skimmed milk

Melt the butter (or oil) in a pan, then gently fry the onions, celery and carrots for 10 minutes, until golden. Add the leeks, peas and cabbage (or kale) and cook for a further 2-3 minutes. Stir in the thyme, bay leaf, barley flakes, stock and milk, then bring to the boil, turn down to a simmer and cover. Cook for 30 40 minutes until the vegetables are tender. Remove the bay leaf and serve.

Hotpots are proper winter fare, especially to a Northern lass like me. My tried and trusted recipe is my mum’s and she in turn had it from her mum. I suppose it’s a variation on Lancashire hotpot (although without the sliced potato topping, and always with beef not lamb in my book) or even lobscouse, that traditional Liverpool stew. I’ve always known it simply as hotpot, preferably with a delicious flaky crust and made with skirt steak if you can find it. Traditional butchers should have it and it’s well worth hunting down – it has a flavour and texture all of is own, but you can use shin of beef instead if that’s all you can find). The aroma of a hotpot in the oven, slowly building over the afternoon, takes me right back to my childhood and is just what I fancy on a cold winter’s night….

Hotpot – serves 6

350-450g skirt steak (or shin if you can’t find skirt), diced
4 onions, chopped
3-4 carrots, diced
2 sticks celery, sliced
1/2 swede, diced
4 large potatoes, chopped into 2cm chunks
handful of pearl barley (or red lentils)
1-2 shakes of crushed, dried chillis (or omit if you prefer)
1l hot beef stock (using 2 stock cubes is fine)

125g self-raising flour
40g lard

Place the diced meat into a large casserole or traditional ceramic hotpot dish. Add the rest of the vegetables, pearl barley, chilli and seasoning, then pour over the hot stock until everything is covered with liquid. Stir well, and place in the oven at 140-150°C. Cook for 4-5 hours, stirring after one hour, and check towards the end that there is still enough liquid. The idea is for everything to become incredibly tender and to “fall”.

Half an hour or so before you’re ready to eat, turn the oven up to 200°C. Make the crust by rubbing the lard into the flour, then adding water until a soft dough forms. Handle as little as possible, but quickly roll out into a rough circle the size of your pot and place on top of the cooked hotpot. Slash two cuts in the top to allow the steam to escape, then return to the oven for 20 minutes, or until just starting to turn pale golden. Serve in ladlefuls with red cabbage, peas, beetroot or winter relish. The taste of home, for me at any rate 🙂

A variation on the hotpot theme from Jamie Oliver’s “Jamie’s Dinners” uses a more newfangled range of ingredients, including squash and red wine (unheard of for cooking in my grandmother’s day!), but leads to a similar comforting result. Jamie calls this Jools’ Favourite Beef Stew, but I call it posh hotpot. The basic recipe is very similar, and like my family recipe can be cooked without browning the ingredients before cooking, which makes it very simple to prepare once you’ve done all the chopping. I remember my mum dashing home from work in her lunchtime to prepare the ingredients for a hotpot and put it in the oven for later that evening. I don’t suppose we had timers on ovens in those days! You can use any root vegetables you like in this, mixing and matching to suit what you have in the fridge/vegetable rack. Our local Coop’s shelves were bare when I made this last week, so I used carrots, squash, celery, potato and sweet potatoes as that’s what I had – it isn’t a fussy dish. Jamie’s recipe browns the vegetables (but not the meat), but I really don’t think it’s necessary, By all means do if you prefer.

I broached the last of my Crown Prince squashes from last autumn for this, and a veritable monster it was too! I used barely a sixth of it in the hotpot, but it should keep well in the fridge while I work out what to do with the rest..

Jamie’s Posh Hotpot – serves 4-6

4-500g diced stewing steak (I like to use skirt again, but shin or just stewing beef is fine)
2 onions, chopped
3-4 carrots, peeled and diced
2 sticks celery, sliced
250g squash, diced into chunks
2 parsnips, peeled and chopped (or sweet potatoes or swede)
1 potato, peeled and diced
1 leek, chopped
handful sage leaves, chopped
2 bay leaves
800ml – 1l hot beef or vegetable stock (again, use cubes if that’s what you have)
1/2 bottle red wine
1 tbsp tomato purée
salt and pepper
grated zest 1 lemon
few sprigs of rosemary , leaves only
1 clove garlic, crushed

Pre-heat the oven to 140-150°C. Place the diced meat and all the chopped veg in a large casserole or hotpot dish with the bay leaves and chopped sage. Pour over the hot stock, seasoning and tomato purée, then add the red wine and stir well. Place in the oven and cook for 4 hours or until tender. Check the liquid carefully towards the end and top up with more water, stock (or wine!) if necessary.

Just before serving, mix the grated lemon zest, chopped rosemary and crushed garlic together and stir into the hotpot for a hint of je ne sais quoi. Serve with crusty bread, or you could make a pastry crust again (see above) or even herby dumplings.

Jamie's hotpot
The snow has all but gone now, as I write, and we’re coping with the aftermath in the form of no water (or in my case, barely a trickle) as water leaks spring up all over the village as part of the big thaw. Ho hum. It was nice while it lasted.

The next morning

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
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



December comforts

Crown Prince open

It may be cold out there and there’s certainly not much doing in the garden or down at the allotment, but it’s a lovely excuse to turn to good old proper comfort food to warm you from the inside out. I love old-fashioned hotpots and casseroles to warm the cockles of your heart, but rice dishes often fit the bill too. Last night, after a brief foray to the plot to finally cut down my frosted dahlia stems and harvest calabrese side shoots, parsley, rocket and the ubiquitous (and no less welcome!) leeks, I turned to an old favourite, baked leek and butternut squash risotto. To me, this is the epitome of comfort eating – oven-baked, creamy and with a delicious combination of fresh seasonal vegetables, white wine, stock and the unctuous addition of Parmesan cheese. Perfection.

Another rice dish that I’ve been meaning to jot down here is equally warming and just as acceptable on a cold winter’s day. I always make it after I’ve cooked a gammon joint, as it’s best made with the lovely chunky stock. I should perhaps apologise to purists of Italian food before I proceed any further, as this bears minimal resemblance to a true risotto, but bear with me – it’s still extremely good.

The original idea for my ham & vegetable risotto came from an ancient cookery book of my ex-husband’s. I suspect he may even have had it at university in the late 1970s/early 80s, and I think it was by Marguerite Patten – but as I no longer have it, I can’t be sure! In any event, I no longer use a recipe, just throw together what I have to hand, but good stock, good chunky ham (cut from a gammon joint, not the sliced, processed stuff) and plenty of vegetables are a must.

I usually cook my gammon joint in my slow cooker by soaking overnight (if necessary – some are saltier than others. I find Sainsbury’s joints need a lot of soaking, whereas with Waitrose joints you can get away without). You can make this recipe with good vegetable (or chicken) stock but you won’t have the richness of using the real thing. I’ll share my gammon recipe here too, though again it’s barely a recipe as such. It makes for a lovely moist ham and plenty of that delicious stock – with the added bonus that you can put it in the slow cooker in the morning and go out for the rest of the day knowing your main meal is done. I usually make the risotto with the leftover ham and stock over the next few days – using up leftover food is always extremely satisfying and especially so in this case. (See Waste Not, Want Not for more ideas for using up leftovers.)

Slow-cooked Gammon Joint

1 gammon joint (size depends how many you’re feeding!)
1 tbsp oil
1 onion, chopped
2 sticks celery, sliced
1 large cooking apple, peeled, cored and chopped
Apple juice or cider, 500 ml
Generous tbsp fresh sage, finely chopped
Black pepper

Soak the gammon joint in a large pan of cold water overnight if necessary (if you’re not sure, always best to soak!). Bring the gammon joint to the boil in a pan of fresh water, drain, pat dry with kitchen towel, then brown in a glug of oil a frying pan and transfer to the slow cooker. Add chopped onion, celery and apple to the frying pan and brown slightly, then stir in chopped fresh sage and black pepper (no salt as the ham may still be salty). When starting to soften and turn golden brown, add the apple juice or cider (you can even use white wine if that’s what you have!) and bring to the boil. Then pour over the gammon in the slow cooker, cover and cook on Low for at least 8 hours. Remove the gammon from the cooking juices 20 minutes before serving, and save the stock for the risotto. You can add the cooking water from any vegetables you may have cooked to accompany the gammon to the stock too.

Ham & Vegetable Risotto – serves 2-3

Ham risotto

Ham stock (I leave the cooked onion, apple and celery in as these add to the overall dish) – about 500 ml
Chopped ham (as little or as much as you have! – I’d use a handful for 2-3)
1 onion, chopped
1 red pepper, chopped
1 leek, sliced
2 carrots, peeled and grated
125g risotto rice (I use Arborio)
250g fresh tomatoes, peeled and chopped (or 1/2 thin chopped tomatoes)
50g frozen peas
125g Cheddar cheese, grated
Fresh parsley, chopped
Black pepper

Begin by gently frying the onion and red pepper until softened and golden brown. Add the leek and cook for a few minutes, then stir in the risotto rice and the grated carrot. Stir in the chopped tomatoes and stir constantly until the liquid has evaporated off, then start adding the stock, stirring all the time, adding the next ladleful as the previous one gets absorbed. It’s impossible to say how much you’ll need, but you can always top up with water if you finish the stock before the rice is ready. I would expect the stirring process to take at least 20 minutes, but keep checking the rice until it reaches the right consistency for you – just tender, in my case. Add the frozen peas and shredded ham about halfway through. You should end up with a lovely creamy risotto mixture. At this stage, stir in the Cheddar cheese (I did say it wasn’t authentic, but the Cheddar goes beautifully with the ham and the earthiness of the carrots! You an use Parmesan if you prefer…). Sprinkle with chopped fresh parsley and serve in generous bowlfuls. This isn’t the prettiest dish, but the taste more than makes up for it 🙂

If, by any chance, you’ve still got stock left over – say if you’ve added lots of vegetable cooking water – another winter-warming way of using it up (assuming it’s not too salty of course), is to turn it into ham and lentil soup. This was inspired originally by one of my favourite soup cookbooks, from the Covent Garden Soup Company (where it appears as Mrs Kendall’s Lentil Soup), but I’ve added to it over the years, use a completely different method and just throw in what I have available! It’s very forgiving and oh so tasty, nonetheless. I don’t actually add ham pieces to the soup, but it does taste very hammy with all that stock, hence the title – you wouldn’t want to forget and serve it to vegetarians by mistake…

Ham & Lentil Soup – serves 6-8

1.5 litres ham stock
(or use whatever ham stock you have left and add vegetable cooking water/stock)
2 tbsp olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
2-3 carrots, diced
2 sticks celery, sliced
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 medium potato, peeled and diced
125g red lentils
1 tbsp tomato purée
1 bay leaf
Few sprigs fresh thyme, leaves only
Black pepper
Fresh parsley to serve

Heat the oil and gently fry the chopped onions, carrots, celery and garlic until starting to soften and turn golden-brown. Stir in the diced potato and cook for another few minutes. Stir in the red lentils, tomato purée, thyme leaves and bay leaf, then add the stock (you can leave in the vegetable chunks if you’re using the stock from the gammon joint). Bring to the boil and cook for 30-40 minutes until the vegetables are tender. Turn off the heat and leave to cool for 15 minutes or so, then remove the bay leaf and blend in a liquidizer in batches (or use a stick blender if you don’t mind a more chunky texture). Return to the pan to reheat and serve with finely chopped fresh parsley. If the consistency is too thick at this stage, you can always add milk (or water) to adjust. Enjoy!

Quizzical Leo II

The Great Autumn Clearout

Cotinus Grace

Newly returned from a work trip to Spain, I’ve realised yet again that there are very few good times for a gardener to go away. Poor weather and pressures of work before I left meant that the allotment grass didn’t get cut and I managed very little tidying of the beds other than general harvesting. It was a similar tale at home. Two weeks later, both garden and allotment are looking very sorry for themselves with overlong grass, weeds aplenty and dead foliage everywhere you look. On the up side, there were still dahlias for the picking, but the calabrese and caulifower have gone just too far and will need to be converted to soup pronto! Much as I love homegrown calabrese, it is a problem in that it all comes at once – and there’s a limit to how much one person can eat. I’d already given lots away to family and friends before I went, but the remaining three heads should really have been harvested a week earlier. Never mind, with any luck there will be lots of delicious side shoots from the main stem if the weather remains mild over the next few weeks.

Broccoli and Stilton soup with scones

Broccoli & Stilton soup was the obvious choice, accompanied on this occasion by Stilton & apple scones to use up the rest of the Stilton, which I tend not to eat by itself, although I adore its savoury taste in cooking. I adapted my usual cheese & apple scone recipe by replacing Cheddar with Stilton, and added chopped sage instead of thyme – yum! The cauliflower too will go into Cauliflower cheese soup before the week is out.

Also in the fridge on my return and in need of using up fairly quickly were the peppers I’d harvested before I left, and a bag full of beetroot and carrots, not quite so urgent, as they keep, but still ripe for using. I had a yearning for a mixed vegetable stew of some kind and remembered a favourite Nigella Lawson recipe from her Feast book for a Moroccan vegetable stew with aromatic lamb meatballs. This makes huge quantities of the vegetable stew and is ideal for stocking up the freezer – very useful given that my son was dog-sitting for part of my absence and had worked his way through the contents of the freezer! That’s precisely what it’s there for, but it’s always nice to stock it up again with fresh produce before the winter. Nigella’s original recipe uses swede and parsnip, neither of which I have this year, but I figured that it would work equally well with beetroot, squash and peppers – which I had in abundance.

Moroccan Vegetable Stew with Aromatic Lamb Meatballs – serves 8-10

3 red onions
3 sticks celery
4 carrots
3-4 beetroot
3 cloves garlic
Olive oil
1 butternut squash, peeled and seeds removed
2-3 red peppers
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground ginger
100g dried apricots
2 cans chopped tomatoes
750ml vegetable stock
2 tsp rose harissa (or use normal harissa and add a couple of drops of rose water)
1 fresh pomegranate
Fresh parsley (or coriander) to serve

For the Lamb Meatballs:
500g minced lamb
1 leek
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground allspice
3 tbsp semolina
1 egg
Oil to fry

Couscous to serve

For the vegetable stew: peel and roughly chop 2 of the onions, 2 of the carrots and 2 of the beetroot (use gloves unless you want to look as though you’ve been in a massacre!), then put in a food processor with the chopped garlic. Process to a fine mush, making sure you scrape down the sides so nothing is missed. Alternatively, chop finely by hand, but this is quite a large volume!

Grated veg for Moroccan stew

Heat a generous glug of olive oil in a large casserole dish (I use my trusty Le Creuset) and tip in the finely chopped vegetables to soften gently. Meanwhile, peel the remaining carrots, beetroot, squash and peppers and cut into small chunks. (The original recipe uses swede and parsnip here, so you can improvise with whatever you have/like.) Add these to the pan and continue cooking to soften, adding the turmeric, cumin and coriander as you go. Snip the apricots into halves or quarters with scissors and add to the pan. Stir in the chopped tomatoes, stock, seasoning and harissa (plus rose water if using separately), then bring to the boil. Once it comes to the boil, turn down the heat and simmer for an hour or so, stirring occasionally to check that it’s not sticking.

While the stew is simmering, make the meatballs: put the minced lamb into a food processor (you don’t need to wash the bowl after processing the veg, as a bit of beetroot just adds to the effect), add the chopped leek, spices, seasoning, semolina and the egg, then process until thoroughly blended and the leek is finely chopped. Transfer to a bowl, cover and refrigerate for half an hour to firm up. After chilling, line a baking sheet with clingfilm and roll the mixture into small balls (about a teaspoon or so in each, like a large marble) with damp hands. You should end up with 70-75 meatballs.

Raw meatballs

Heat more oil in a frying pan, then add the meat balls in two batches. Fry until golden brown on all sides, then transfer to another baking sheet lined with kitchen towel to absorb any excess oil.

Moroccan stew cooking

When the stew has cooked for an hour, add the meatballs and continue cooking to heat through. Meanwhile, prepare couscous to serve ( I use 60g couscous and 100 ml boiling water per person, with added couscous spice (or use individual spices of your choice) and a dash of olive oil. Add the water to the couscous with the spice and oil, stir, cover and leave for 10-15 minutes, then fluff up with a fork and serve.)

Cut the pomegranate in half and hit firmly with a wooden spoon over the pan to make the jewel-like seeds fall out. You may need to scrape out the last few, but this is usually quite effective – and satisfying! Pick out any white membrane that may have fallen into the dish too. Sprinkle the stew with chopped parsley or coriander and serve.

Freezes beautifully too.

Moroccan veg stew with meatballs

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
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…

A peck of peppers, anyone?

Pepper and chilli harvest

The weather has been unremittingly awful this September so far, so much so that it feels as though it’s a good month later! Whereas normally I’d be taking my pepper and chilli plants out of the conservatory in October, I found myself emptying them today as they were covered in whitefly and the atmosphere is so damp, they were starting to cause mould growth on the windowledges and windows – yuk! I experienced this once before when I went away on holiday in late September and forgot to leave the window vents open: damp + plants breathing meant my window ledges were green by the time I got home! Nothing that a spot of bleach couldn’t cure, but still – not very nice.

Time to take out those plants that have finished (aubergines, sadly – although they’ve been super-productive this year, so I can’t complain), harvest any ripe fruit on the chillis and peppers, and spray the rest of the plants with soft soap outdoors. I had intended bringing them back in having washed all the surfaces down, but in the end, they got so wet in today’s torrential rain that I’ve left them out; it’s unlikely to freeze, I think, and I really don’t want the same problem again. This is the issue with using a conservatory for cropping plants: when they’re in full flow, it’s fine, but as they start to go yellow and die back, you really don’t want to look at them any more. Fortunately, the basil plants are still looking good and should continue for another month or so.

So what to do with all those peppers? The chillis will be dried and stored in a basket for autumn/winter use, but the peppers won’t keep for long. In the end, I decided on a roast pepper & tomato soup that I’ve been meaning to try for a while from the Covent Garden Soup Book, an old favourite of mine.

Roasted Red Pepper & Tomato Soup – served 5-6

Roast pepper and tomato soup

6 red peppers, halved and seeds removed
8 tomatoes, skinned and halved
glug of olive oil
handful of basil leaves
1 tsp sugar
1 fat garlic clove, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 litre vegetable stock
dash of balsamic vinegar to taste

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C/Gas 5. Place the red peppers skin side up in a large roasting tin. Add the skinned tomatoes (I usually place them in a bowl and add boiling water, leave for a couple of minutes, then drain off the water, after which the skins should peel off easily), cut-side up and sprinkle with sugar, chopped garlic, chopped basil leaves, a glug of olive oil and seasoning. Roast for 50 minutes to 1 hour until nicely charred around the edges.

Meanwhile, cook the onion in a large pan with more olive oil until softened (15 minutes or so). Add the roast vegetables, then the stock and bring to the boil. Cook for 5-20 minutes to allow the flavours to meld, then cool in the pan. Liquidize in two batches and add a dash of balsamic vinegar to taste.

Another absolute classic I try to make every year when I harvest my own fruit is Delia Smith’s classic Piedmont peppers – if you haven’t experienced them, I can only recommend you to try – so good! It turns out that this is originally an Elizabeth David recipe, so has a fine pedigree. When you taste them, you’ll realise why….

Delia’s Piedmont Peppers – serves 4 as a starter
(but scale up or down as you require!)

Piedmont peppers

4 red peppers
4 medium tomatoes
8 tinned anchovy fillets
2 cloves garlic, chopped
handful of basil leaves
black pepper
olive oil

Halve the peppers lengthways, keeping the stalk on. Place skin side down in a large roasting tray. Skin the tomatoes (I don’t always bother, I must admit, but if the skin bothers you, please do!), quarter and place two quarters in each pepper half. Snip the anchovy fillets into small pieces and distribute between the peppers. Add the chopped basil and garlic, season with pepper and drizzle with olive oil (the original recipe suggests 1 dsp per pepper half, but I just pour by eye). Roast in the oven at 160°C/Gas 4 for 50 minutes to 1 hour, until starting to char round the edges.

Serve as a starter or a summer salad, with plenty of good bread to mop up the divine juices.