Saturday, December 27, 2014

Very easy carrot and cream cheese pâté

So Christmas rolls into New Year, and the socialising and merry-making continues. I found this quick carrot pâté/ spread/ dip useful over the Christmas period, and if you want to offer a healthier alternative to your guests over the next few days, you might too. It only takes 15 minutes to make, from ingredients that you might well have in your fridge or cupboard anyway. It can be served with crudités for a blast of goodness, or spread on bread, toast or crispbreads. It's full of healthy vegetables, but you'd hardly know they're there.

Monday, December 8, 2014

On Persian food

Until recently I'd barely eaten any Iranian food - or Persian, if you are of a more historical bent. It's definitely a cuisine on the up in London. There are increasing numbers of Iranian restaurants in West London to new street food purveyors and supper clubs.

I learned a lot at an event run by Iran Heritage Foundation last week, which put the latest trends in a historical perspective.

Saffron rice cakes
Saffron rice cakes   Photo: Adedotun Adesanya, Gitane

Sunday, November 30, 2014

How to prepare fresh chestnuts, and a chestnut risotto recipe

Wild chestnuts can be one of the most frustrating wild crops to forage, yet are one of the most rewarding. The most challenging part is finding a tree with decent-sized nuts. Some years in the UK they just never seem to get big enough to be worth eating. This year I happened across lots of trees which only yielded tiny nuts, including in several Central London parks. But then a walk out in Kent, when chestnuts were the last thing on my mind, put lots of plump nuts in my path.

The challenges continue with the prickles (wear gloves, or restrict yourself to the ones that have fallen out of the spiny cases). And finally, peeling them is a rather time-consuming process which leaves me with painful bits of chestnut case under my fingernail.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Green tomato burritos and a green tomato salsa

My enthusiasm for green tomatoes is undimmed. I've now discovered they make a great salsa - no need for lime juice, as the tomatoes have their own tartness built in.

The green tomatoes get a double billing here, adding depth to the smoky lentil filling as well as in the lively, fresh salsa to go on top.

There are almost endless variations on these burritos. If you don't have green tomatoes, they'll be delicious, if a little different, with red tomatoes too. You could make a quicker version using tinned black beans instead of the lentils. It's fun to play around with different toppings - guacamole or sliced avocado, grated cheese and chilli sauce are all options. Sour cream would be delicious too, but I rather like natural yogurt as a lighter alternative. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Spiced lentils with green tomatoes

As you'll know if you read my last post, I had a bit of a glut of unripe tomatoes. After cooking them Italian-style turned out better than I expected, I decided to try an Indian-influenced approach. I thought about making a fairly dry curry with just green tomatoes, onions and spices. But I wanted something that I could scoop up with Indian breads - and this dish was perfect.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Tomatoes three ways: a quick and easy pasta sauce

Those of you who don't grow tomatoes may never have had cause to consider what to do with green tomatoes. It's not something I'd ever thought much about in the past. But the tomato plants in our office balcony garden were being chopped down, and were still covered in green tomatoes that had never got the chance to ripen. It seemed a shame to let them get thrown away.

I'd heard of green tomato chutney, and of course the Southern dish of fried green tomatoes (as in the 1991 film of the same name). I'm sure they're lovely, but they're not really a meal in themselves. Often when I think of tomatoes I think of pasta, so I decided to see what a pasta sauce might be like with green tomatoes.

Monday, October 27, 2014

From humble beginnings: pasta with carrot sauce

This dish was a bit of a revelation to me. In my kitchen carrots are the most humble of vegetables, good for adding bulk to stews or a background flavour note to soup. Occasionally they might come to the fore in a soup, but only if paired with something punchy like coriander, or perhaps orange.

Who knew that they could also be the main ingredient of a delicious pasta sauce?

This is a budget-friendly dinner (especially if your soft cheese is an own-brand supermarket version). Oh, and did I mention that it's low in fat too?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Still pretending it's summer: pasta with fresh tomatoes, green beans and herbs

This pasta dish was made to celebrate the unseasonably warm weather, and the fact that I found some vine tomatoes really cheaply in the shops.

Very soon there won't be enough sunshine for even imported tomatoes to taste of anything much, and I'll stop buying fresh tomatoes for a few months. But for now, here's a quick pasta dish that is equally good hot, or cold as a pasta salad.

You can make this in the time it takes to cook the pasta - who needs ready meals?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Nuts and roots: a deep purple salad recipe

With earthy beetroot, the crunch of some nuts and some substantial grains, this is a salad to soothe the soul and keep you going all day.

It's a dish that can take five minutes or 50, depending mainly on whether you want to cook the beetroot yourself.  You can also use couscous, which cooks in moments, or quinoa, which takes about 20. (I took the middle ground here, and used brown bulghur wheat - this cooks in less than five minutes and is, I think, far more interesting in flavour than couscous, and more nutritious too.)

Either way, it's brilliantly purple, and with interesting textural contrasts.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Roasted vegetable lasagne with goats' cheese

It's harvest time - or at least, so the Fortnum and Mason shop window tells me (I was walking past, not doing my shopping there, I hasten to add). Living in a city, you can feel disconnected from these landmarks in the food year, these rural rituals. But even I can spot all the cheap courgettes in the market, and if you have an allotment or vegetable garden, you're probably rushing to use them before they turn into marrows.

A roasted vegetable lasagne feels like a fittingly celebratory dish, stuffed full with shiny plump vegetables - not just courgettes but aubergines, onions, peppers and tomatoes. I've been making it for years. Actually, it was probably one of the first proper dishes I made without a recipe, and I've loved it ever since.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Portuguese wine

I don't usually write about wine, but a few days ago I went to a wine tasting at a slightly unusual venue - a library. I haven't been to many Lambeth Heritage Festival events, but they cover an impressive range of topics. (There's one coming up very soon, on the evening of September 23, on London in the First World War with Professor Jerry White, an award-winning social historian).

I have to admit I previously knew very little about Portuguese wine, but this event certainly opened my eyes.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Two late summer salads

Picnic opportunities are fast running out, but I am planning to squeeze in one or two more. This weekend I enjoyed two easy dishes which celebrate vegetables, using strong flavourings to add punch to main ingredients which might seem rather pedestrian - cucumber and carrots. The winner to my mind was spiced carrots teamed with feta cheese, the spices helping to bring out the sweetness which was balanced by the salty feta. But I will certainly be making the garlicky smashed cucumber again too.

Personally, if I had these two dishes on a picnic I wouldn't need much else, though I might be tempted by the idea of some fresh bread and some home-made hummus. But it rather depends how lavish your idea of a picnic is. And if you're not picnicking, never fear - either or both of these will work well indoors, perhaps as a light lunch or side dish.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The ten best things to do with blackberries

It's been a great year for blackberries. They seem to be everywhere - not just on country lanes and in fields but in London parks and alongside railway lines, anywhere in fact, urban or rural, where they can find a foothold.

A few days spent camping in Wales recently gave me the opportunity for lots of blackberry-picking - although coastal walks became rather slow and protracted when I kept getting distracted by new patches of shiny, juicy fruit.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Potato salad with attitude

As I write, there's a disconcerting chill in the air. This evening I've pulled on a jumper for the first time in a while. But I've not quite done with summer eating yet.

I hope that the sun will find its way out again soon. Either way, here's a potato salad that will add some excitement to even the dullest day. I like potato salad but all too often they can be bland, mushy and greasy. This one is light, low in fat and full of lively flavours.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Griddled courgettes with goats' cheese, couscous and beans

I confess to a slight love affair with griddled courgettes at the moment. Courgettes seem to be around in abundance, and griddling them in long strips gives them both sweetness and interesting charred notes.

With the help of some frozen vegetables, this easy dish took me less than 20 minutes to put together - ideal for a quick dinner after work.

Monday, August 4, 2014

The best chocolate mousse in the world

Usually I try to post recipes that are vegetable-centric, and healthy where possible. But we all need indulgences sometimes. On this occasion we were having people round to dinner and a dessert was required. In fact, a dairy-free dessert was required. But this dish is so rich and indulgent that it wouldn't strike you as free-from anything.

Chocolate mousse might sound complicated to make, but as long as you can separate eggs and have an electric whisk, it's not at all. The only slightly tricky part is mixing in the egg whites without knocking all the air out of them, but with patience and a gentle hand you should get there in the end. (It strikes me that this could equally be advice for bringing up children.)

Friday, July 25, 2014

Bruschetta of courgettes and mozzarella

The best thing about Italian food is its simplicity, its willingness to put just a few good ingredients centre stage and do as little as possible to them.

I'm not sure whether an Italian would recognise this dish, but it feels very Italian to me in both ingredients and spirit.

This dish was inspired by some excellent bread (bought at Herne Hill farmers' market). The toppings are deliberately chosen to let the taste of the bread show through - I didn't want any flavours that would dominate, like roasted tomatoes or olives or garlic. I was using a walnut sourdough bread, and courgettes also go really well with walnuts, but you could make this dish with any quality loaf.

Courgettes are in abundance at this time of year. This dish seems just right for a summer's day or evening - as a starter, a light lunch, or even a more substantial meal if you have a couple of slices and maybe a salad on the side.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Cauliflower couscous

Cauliflower. It's never been a favourite of mine. But I'm really feeling the love for it at the moment. Maybe my taste buds have changed (matured or faded?) as I've got a little older. Maybe it's just trying some interesting new dishes - see also the cauliflower based "pizza" from last week. Not so long ago my cauliflower repertoire didn't extend much beyond cauliflower cheese, cauliflower soup, and cauliflower curry, so I've really enjoyed trying some new dishes.

One of the great things about cauliflower is that British-grown cauliflower is available almost all year round. Prices vary, but it's usually a good-value veg. I take great delight in buying two large caulis for a pound at Brixton farmers' market on a Sunday, and always pick the heftiest specimens I can find. Two large cauliflowers does tend to mean I spend most of the following week eating cauliflower - so don't be surprised to see some more cauliflower recipes on here soon.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Amazing gluten-free pizza with a secret ingredient

No-one could have been more surprised than me that this recipe turned out so well. Gluten-free pizza? Sounds a slightly strange dish to make gluten-free. Gluten-free pizza where the base is actually made from vegetables? It sounds like some kind of crazy health freak dish. But it's actually incredibly delicious.

The vegetable in question is cauliflower. Not even one of my favourite vegetables. But I'd challenge you to realise that it's cauliflower you're eating if you didn't already know. I'm not saying you'll never spot the difference from your usual favourite pizza - the texture and flavour of the base are a bit different from normal. But still delicious.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

A historical picnic

Last week I found myself at the London College of Fashion - not a venue I've visited before, but this opportunity was opened up to me by the wonderful London Festival of Architecture.

The event was a "panoramic picnic" with a view of London's rooftops, celebrating the launch of the college's roof terrace and also commemorating historical themes in architecture.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The last asparagus dish: with eggs and healthier "hollandaise"

So sadly, it's the end of the English asparagus season. The traditional last day of picking is the longest day of the year, which was yesterday. So you might still find it in shops and markets for the next day or two.

I made this kind of celebratory brunch as a farewell to English asparagus, and just because it tastes good. It's a bit more effort than I usually go to in the morning, but I decided it was worth it. Plus, I had some of the "hollandaise" left over for another meal.

There's no reason why you need to restrict this to a morning dish. You could swap the toast or muffins for a bed of couscous, or maybe some crushed new potatoes, and you'd have an elegant lunch or dinner.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Heat and fire: Griddled asparagus with roasted cherry tomatoes

One of the things that still fascinates me about food is the way that applying some heat can change the flavour so much. And different types of heat change the flavour in different ways.

I never get bored of steamed asparagus - and there's a lot to be said for this simple treatment that allows the vegetable to speak simply of itself. But griddled asparagus expresses itself just as eloquently, but with charred notes that bring an extra hit of umami, that sixth, intensely savoury taste. And because the asparagus hasn't been cooked in water, it keeps every bit of flavour. And then it's robust enough to marry with strong tastes like tomato, olives and goats' cheese.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

A vegetarian barbecue

It looks like it's going to be a lovely weekend, and I thought some of you might be looking for a vegetarian dish for the barbecue.

Here's something to celebrate the sunshine and the fact that it's still the English asparagus season. And it's delicious enough to please carnivores and vegetarians alike.

If you don't have the weather or the opportunity to get the barbecue going, well, it works just as well if you cook the vegetables on a ridged griddle pan. Failing that, cooking them under the grill or in the oven will do.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Spring greens

Here's a super-healthy vegetable dish that only takes about ten minutes to make. It can be a vibrant, spring-like side dish; a topping for bruschetta; a mixture to stir into a risotto; or even a meal in its own right, topped with a poached egg and perhaps with some fresh bread on the side.

Frozen vegetables are the key to making this super-speedy, but feel free to use fresh broad beans and/or beans if you prefer.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Springtime on a plate: asparagus and peas with eggs and bulgur wheat

I can hardly believe it's the beginning of June and I haven't posted any asparagus recipes yet. I always try to make the most of the English asparagus season, which basically involves cooking it as often as possible for the seven or eight weeks that it's around. A lot of my favourite asparagus recipes are pasta-based, but sometimes it's nice to have something a bit different (and possibly providing more of my 5 - or 7? - a day).

This is a really interesting dish that works just as well hot for dinner or cold as a packed lunch the next day. I love the mix of different textures (the peas, the asparagus, the soft bulghur wheat and the crunch of the walnuts) and with the wholegrains, vegetables, egg and nuts, it feels nutritionally balanced too.

I know asparagus isn't the cheapest ingredient, but it's only around briefly - and you can pick up small bunches in a certain German supermarket for about £1.09. I've found good multi-buy offers at farmers' markets in the past, too.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Shakshouka - a kind of Egyptian omelette

Shakshouka is a dish found in several parts of the Middle East and Africa. I had thought of it as primarily Tunisian, but in my recent visit to Egypt found it popular there too. Previously, though, I have always seen it as a dish of eggs poached or baked in a spicy sauce of tomatoes or other vegetables (which is indeed delicious).

But in Egypt - specifically Luxor - the eggs were mixed in with the vegetables to give an effect which sometimes was more like a baked omelette or tortilla and other times more like spicy scrambled eggs.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Healthier brownies with a secret ingredient

A good brownie is a wonderful thing, but they can so easily be as disappointing as a broken promise. A dry, crumbly texture or stinginess with the chocolate are the most common failings. A brownie needs to be rich, with a big 'hit' of chocolate, and soft - perhaps even verging on gooey - in the middle.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Salad of peaches and cheese

I've recently been on a trip to Egypt. The food was simple but good - things like smokey baba ghanoush (or baba ghanoug as the Egyptians have it), and falafel (spicy and bright green inside due to being made from broad beans, rather than chick peas as is more common in other countries).

Flat Egyptian breads, slightly similar to pitta but round and usually made with a mixture of white and wholemeal flour, are consumed at every opportunity and are bought by the carrier bag full.

I was struck by the fruit, piled up in abundance at roadside stalls, in shops, on donkey carts, even on pavements.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Leek, mushroom and blue cheese pie

This is one of those dishes that you throw together from what's in the fridge - a few leeks, half a packet of filo pastry, some blue cheese - and it turns out to be unexpectedly delicious.

Like my previous recipe, leeks are the star of the show. I think these two dishes show what a versatile vegetable leeks are - from a light and elegant salad to rich and hearty pie.

Filo pastry is much lower in fat than other types of  pastry, so you can enjoy this pie, perhaps with some more vegetables on the side, and feel relatively virtuous at the same time.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Warm salad of leeks and tomatoes

I often use leeks in pies and risottos, but here's a more summery, Mediterranean way with leeks. This fairly humble vegetable pairs really well with the more bright and glamorous flavours of tomatoes and olives. Use cherry tomatoes if you can - I couldn't get hold of any on the day I made this dish.

This makes a nice side dish, or perhaps a light lunch with some crusty bread. Adding some new potatoes will make it more substantial.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

How to get your 5-a-day in one go plus 5 ways to vary it

I'm trying hard to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables (especially the vegetables). This is partly because I prefer a positive approach to healthy eating - ie eat lots of good stuff, rather than obsessing about cutting out the bad stuff. Plus, as I mentioned recently, there's good evidence that eating vegetables and fruit is linked to a longer life - and that seven portions is better than five (five is the current UK official recommendation, based on the World Health Organisation.)

Friday, April 11, 2014

Very green pie

This is, as the title says, a very green pie. No wonder when it's filled with punchy wild garlic leaves, earthy spinach which adds some mellowness, and sweet peas to balance out the other flavours. And of course, some feta cheese, which isn't green but adds a salty, creamy tang.

Apologies if any of you are getting bored of my springtime wild garlic dishes - but fear not, you can use extra spinach if you don't have any wild garlic.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Four good things on a plate: eggs, cheese, garlic and rice

A year or two ago Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall published a recipe book called Three Good Things. His premise is that "three good things on a plate" is a kind of magic formula for good food, where the whole is more than the sum of its parts (as long as you get the combinations right, of course). I don't entirely disagree, but I find that for a complete main course, four is more often the minimum number for an interesting, sustaining plate of food.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Risotto for spring

Another weekend's walking - this time in the Kent countryside - has taken me through some more fragrant patches of wild garlic. The flowers are not out yet, but the leaves are so bright and green and vivid, it feels somehow joyful - and almost a shame at the same time - to eat them.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Celebrating spring: wild garlic and pea lasagne

Yesterday was the perfect spring day - boundless sunshine, daffodils blooming and, finally, some real warmth in the air. Just being out in the countryside on a day like that is enough to bring joy to the soul. The previous day I had seen a pond full of frogs doing what frogs do in spring time, so all in all it definitely felt like nature was bursting into life.

I gained even more joy by discovering some wild garlic already looking lush and green in the Surrey Hills. I hadn't expected it to be ready for a few weeks yet - it's amazing how much earlier everything seems to be happening this year.

Here's the dish I created to celebrate springtime and the first of the wild garlic. Lasagne is often served with garlic bread, but I've put the garlic in the lasagne instead.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Risotto with peas and thyme

I think I've lost count of the number of times that a packet of frozen peas has saved the day. Versatile, cheap, almost as good as fresh, and there in the freezer when you need them  - what more could you ask for?

Last night I had very little in the fridge and even less inspiration. Peas and rice saved the day. Turning half the peas into a puree adds body to the rice and means that every grain of rice comes with the fresh, sweet flavour of peas. And my pot of lemon thyme on the windowsill turned it from a slightly pedestrian dish into something a bit more sophisticated. If you don't have lemon thyme, normal thyme will do, and you might want to add a bit of lemon zest. Or ring the changes with other herbs you have around - parsley, basil, chives...

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Chunky minestrone-style stew

Here's a warming, comforting bowl of food which is fairly quick, healthy and is based mainly on store-cupboard ingredients (well, as long as you have some green veg in the freezer).

You could cook the pasta in together with the stew to save energy and washing-up, but I find that cooking it separately makes it easier to get the pasta and the stew cooked just how you want them.

Any leftovers will be just as tasty when reheated the next day, although be aware that it will probably absorb more of the liquid and become thicker.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Chick pea and spinach curry with cucumber raita

Here's a quick, healthy and cheap recipe - what more could you ask for? I've used curry powder to speed things up, but you could use a curry paste instead, or mix your own spices. I find the best approach with curry powder is to try a few brands and find one you are happy with.

This curry might be a good way to use the rest of the chick peas you have cooked for this previous recipe. Or you can use the tinned kind.

The cucumber raita is not essential, but the creaminess works really well in contrast to the curry, and it's cool and refreshing too.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Risotto with leeks, soft cheese and herbs

This was my Valentine's night dinner. You might not think it the most romantic meal imaginable, but I like its creamy texture, and the way the softened leeks give the dish a bit of oomph, but not too much. And then there's the cheese. You can use standard Brie or Camembert, or you can ring the changes.

Today I was admiring the cheeses at Partridges food market on the Duke of York Square, near Sloane Square. The Bath Soft (from the eponymous Bath Soft Cheese Co) is one of my favourites and is a cracking cheese to use in this risotto. Another stall featured Wildes cheeses, which were new to me but are made in Tottenham. They do a soft, mould-coated cheese which I think is probably called Londonshire, and I reckon that would work a treat here too.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Carrot pilaf

This dish takes humble ingredients and turns them into something remarkably tasty. Carrots and onions are cheap and good for you, even if they're not as trendy as kale or spirulina. Plus, they tend to be grown in this country. Add in some wholegrain rice, chick peas and spices, and you have a dish to nourish body and soul.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Rice 'n' spice: lentil 'risotto' with roasted spiced veg

I hesitate to use the word risotto here: it's certainly not a dish an Italian would recognise. Anyway, lentils and rice are great together, so I thought I'd try to find a different way of cooking them. The result is almost a savoury porridge, with some brightly-coloured spiced vegetables on top. But if you prefer, you could just cook the rice in a separate pan and have the lentils like a daal alongside.

Feel free to vary the vegetables according to what takes your fancy and what you have around.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Nutty stuffed onions

It's not often that I can be bothered to stuff vegetables, but this simple stuffing turns onions (not, let's face it, the most glamorous vegetable) into the star of a meal.

This dish is based mainly on store-cupboard ingredients and is quite handy for using up odds and ends - like the half-used packet of nuts that's been hanging around for a little while and risks turning rancid if it's not used up soon. I've suggested hazelnuts but you could definitely use walnuts or pecans, or some other kind of nut if you fancy it. Similarly, if you've got a little bit of leftover rice, bulghur wheat or couscous, or some stale bread that can be turned into breadcrumbs - here's a dish that can use it up.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

A healthy feast for January: lentils and winter veg with baked mushroom and poached egg

Lentils are a very under-rated food, I think. Healthy, filling, full of protein - they are just the thing for January when you are trying to undo the effects of Christmas excess. They soak up other flavours and there's something comforting about them. A lentil-based meal doesn't feel like self-denial in the way that a salad might.

Puy lentils are definitely the most chic and the ones you tend to see in salads and other recipes where you want the lentils to keep their shape. But actually, brown lentils do a very similar job and are much cheaper (especially if you buy them in large bags from an ethnic grocer).

This is a dish full of earthy, wintry flavours. There are a few different elements to this, but none of it is difficult and it really doesn't take too long. It's well worth spending a couple of minutes on making the marinade for the mushrooms, as the rewards in terms of flavour are enormous.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Apple, cheese and onion crumble

Apple, cheese and onion is one of those combinations that sounds weird but works surprisingly well.

To be honest, even though I’ve made this a few times now, when I made it this week for the first time in a while I was a bit doubtful about putting apples in a savoury dish. I know you have pork with apple sauce, or maybe pork and apple sausage, but making apple the centre of a meal does seem a little strange. But I urge you to try it, as it’s much better than you might think.