Friday, November 30, 2007



I am not a bread maker. I am a pastry maker (oh, wait until you try my pastry), I am a cake maker, I am an improvisator. But bread, no. It always goes wrong - the yeast doesn't fluff or the dough doesn't rise or the freezer destroys it completely. (Yes, who is foolish enough to put amateur dough in the freezer?)

But I have a machine. Such a clever, trusty machine: I weigh, it kneads, warms, and bakes to perfection. So now I can have the baking-bread smell without so much as a minute of hard work. I do love domestic rewards, and all the more when I've hardly lifted a finger.

This is my recipe for wholewheat walnut bread. I don't do anything special except throw everything at the clever machine, and push a couple of buttons. It's extremely delicious with soup. And isn't this just the weather for it?

WHOLEWHEAT WALNUT BREAD

1.5tsp instant yeast (I use Hovis)
1.5 cups strong white flour (Dove's organic)
1.5 cups wholewheat bread flour (actually you can use any interesting brown flour here, including soft grain and other country rye-type blends. The proportions mean that the white lightens the load.)
1.5tsp salt
3tbsp walnut oil
2tbsp honey or maple syrup
1 cup warm water

... and that's kind of it. Throw everything in the machine (in this order), select the wholewheat option (not rapid, please) and wait for the scent of bakeries to tell you it's ready.

When I got my first garden five years ago, I knew what I wanted to grow in it – and that vegetables should have just as big a part as flowers. Baby corn turned the patio into a jungle, spinach grew into unwatched trees beside the paths, and carrots twisted grumpily in their miniature, growth-preventing tubs. Space was always my trouble: too little for my dreams. I knew I should, but I could not resist the curly tendrils of runner beans, the glamour of dressed corn sheaves, the ruby-red strawberry. In they went. Meanwhile roses, sunflowers, tulips and sweet peas proliferated in the gaps – so that my home could smell delicious and look fabulous, all the time.

It’s this susceptibility to pretty things that leads me towards certain vegetables. Every autumn I’ll buy armfuls of winter squashes, their mud-dusted emerald and amber hues brightening the kitchen (and this year, the living room too). This has meant that the squash has come under my culinary scrutiny more often than it might like. When I’d stretched the limits of pumpkin soup (although we can never get enough of the coconut-chilli version) I thought up new ways to get the squashes off the shelf and into the pan. Risotto, curries and tortillas followed… but oh, when you discover roasting, you don’t look back.

Visitors to our house know that they'll get cooked some unusual things. But when I told our guests one night we would be eating pumpkin pasta, they wondered whether to nip home for a snack. Unlike the butternut, pumpkin isn’t trendy, it isn’t gourmet, and most people prefer to bin it than eat it, but this recipe became a firm favourite in my kitchen and theirs. I make it every autumn, and I think that you should, too.

PARMESAN-ROASTED PUMPKIN WITH ROCKET PESTO & TAGLIATELLE
Serves 2
Pumpkin – roasted to the pinnacle of tender, crusty-edged beauty, then turned in fine Parmesan for extra crunch – is the star of this show. The main thing to remember is to move the pieces politely and gently from the tin - don’t throw them straight into the pasta pan and bash them into smithereens. Once you’ve roasted the pumpkin, you’re bound to find new ways with it: perhaps roast it in a slick of chilli oil and serve on a pile of salad leaves. Or roast it in two halves, filling the seed cavity with some sautéed leek and fresh goat’s cheese in the last five minutes. We are just picking the very last of the rocket from the garden - it's bitter as it gets old (hee hee), so pesto is the best thing for it.

800g pumpkin, skinned and chopped
1tbsp olive oil
Black pepper
2tbsp parmesan, finely grated
50g fresh rocket
1tbsp pumpkin seeds
2tbsp olive oil
¼ tsp white wine vinegar
1tbsp grated parmesan
Dried tagliatelle pasta
100g soft, mild goat’s cheese

Spread the pumpkin on a large roasting tray, and sprinkle with olive oil and pepper. Roast at 180°C for around 40 minutes. Remove it from the oven and very carefully toss the pieces in the grated Parmesan, before returning to the oven for another 15 minutes (slide in the dinner plates after 10).

To finish: put the seeds, rocket, vinegar and olive oil in a blender, adding more oil to achieve a drizzlable puree; then stir in the parmesan. Cook the tagliatelle, drain, and toss it with a little pesto in the warm pan. Dish up: top the green pasta with crumbled goat’s cheese, the pumpkin, and a drizzle of rocket puree.

Friday, November 23, 2007

PHOTOGRAPH SHORTAGE...

I have dozens of gorgeous pictures on the camera, but no lead to transfer them! Eek. I've been photographing chestnuts, Christmas cakes, dried lavender, fresh holly and pumpkins, sprouting broad beans, my new kitchen, autumn in Devon, and all sorts of other lovely things. And I am desperate to share some of these with you... so please bear with me (you might want to make yourself a cup of tea) while I rummage in attic and shoe-cupboard, and come back soon for new recipes - with pics!

PS If you're taking a coffee break (good work), you could do worse than checking out some of my favourite food blogs - new addition on the right. See? >>

Monday, November 19, 2007

Cooking spree...

I have had an unusually productive weekend, trying to organise as much as possible for Christmas... our next few weekends are tied up, so I have been feeling a bit stressed. My mental 'to do' list gets longer and longer. The cure is work: and lots of it. So I worked super-hard on Saturday. As well as freezing some cute puffs (below) I managed to make a huge pan of soup for the week and even wrote for a couple of hours and cleaned the house. (I was on my own - husband was called in to the hospital - and I am always more efficient when it's just me!)

Then - after a trip to the farm shop on Sunday - I even got our Christmas cake baked and stored. I used Nigella's Chocolate Fruit Cake recipe, which turned out really beautifully - rich and full of that gorgeous Christmas-baking scent. I am going to try making a delicately vanilla-flavoured marzipan to go on top, and if I find time to order metallic gold lustre... all will be perfect!

It has made me feel a bit too smug and complacent this morning, though. I am trying to kick-start the day but I still have this all-wrapped-up feeling. And I have soooo much left to do, and everything is soooooo not all-wrapped-up. Not in the slightest.

We did have a yummy butternut squash and spinach tart on Saturday, which I might write up, but, I mainly wanted to post this really lovely soup recipe. Will be eating it with seedy brown bread later tonight. It's not very strongly flavoured, but quite simple and warming. Also a great source of protein and see-in-the-dark vitamins!

SPICY CARROT AND RED LENTIL SOUP

400g carrots, washed and chopped
2 onions, chopped
4oz (4 heaped tbsp) red lentils
1tbsp curry paste (from a jar)
2 cloves garlic, chopped

1" ginger, chopped, if available
1-2 pints Marigold vegetable stock

Gently soften the onions, ginger and garlic in the curry paste, with a lid on, in a large casserole. After about 5 minutes add the carrots, without stirring, and replace the lid. Leave to sweat for another 10 minutes, then stir well. Finally tip in the lentils (no need to rinse) and stock, season gently, and replace the lid (leaving a gap). Simmer for at least 20 minutes, then put the lid on properly and leave to cool slowly in the pan. When you're ready, blend thoroughly, and serve with a sprinkle of chopped coriander - or toasted almonds - and warm bread.
SPINACH PUFFS

This is adapted from a Claudia Roden recipe: I made her Lebanese Spinach Pies on Saturday, then decided they would be even nicer rolled in egg and parmesan. I've also added pine nuts and garlic to the basic mixture.

We didn't eat these (okay, so I baked and tested one) - they were frozen on a tray (managed to find an inch of space in the runner-bean-stuffed freezer), then bagged up and tied. Ready to be thawed, brushed, rolled and baked for Christmas holidays - they will be perfect snacks to serve with drinks. I am busy collecting cocktail recipes too!

200g flaky or puff pastry
300g spinach or chard, washed
1 small onion, chopped finely
1tbsp olive oil
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 small handful pine nuts
Juice of 1/2 a lemon
Salt and pepper

Parmesan and 1 egg

Pack the spinach into a saucepan, and set over a gentle heat, turning until it's all wilted. Press into a sieve with a fork, and then your hands, to remove water. Remove to a chopping board, and chop finely.

Heat the oil in the pan, and add the onion. Turn the heat to low and allow the onion to slowly turn golden, adding the garlic and pine nuts after about 10 minutes. When the nuts are toasted, take off the heat, and stir in the lemon juice, seasoning, and spinach. If there is any liquid, return the pan to the heat to evaporate it. Now let the filling cool.

Roll the pastry as thinly as you dare and cut out 10cm circles with a fluted cutter. Brush the edges of each one with beaten egg, then put a teaspoon of filling in the centre of each one, and bring over one side like a miniature Cornish pasty.

To cook: brush the thawed puffs generously with beaten egg. Make a pile of finely-grated Parmesan on a chopping board, and roll each puff in it, to give a generous coating. Bake for 15-20 minutes in a preheated oven and cool for at least 5 minutes before serving.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

WHITE BEAN SOUP WITH TRUFFLE OIL

On a recent visit to London to see my lovely brother and his lovely wife, we had lunch at Carluccio's on Putney riverfront. After platters of olives, peppers, Italian-style greens and aubergine caponata, we were distracted by the shop. Okay... it was me. I was distracted by the shop. I managed to avoid the temptations of the fresh and bakery counter, since we still had to travel home. But the array of cupboard goodies was too much to resist... and I picked up a few things that I knew I'd seen in recipes somewhere... or that I knew I could make something delicious from... so, rose-scented chocolate... Italian Limoncello... and white truffle oil. Well, a few months later, we happened to be served a white bean and truffle soup in a local restaurant. It was one of those mini-courses, you know, they arrive between starter and mains, and they're almost always way too small and leave you wishing you'd ordered a whole dish and nothing else. (Actually, this day, our mains were even better than the tiny espresso-cup of white soup, so we left happy.)

So I finally had an excuse to pop open the truffle oil. I licked a bit that dribbled out as I poured, and it knocked my socks off. This is one of those ingredients that just takes over any dish, I think. It's a luscious flavour of mushroomy, earthy, garlicky, richness, for simple dishes, and you only need a drop - maybe a tablespoon for a four-person soup (in proper bowls). I added a bit at the beginning but all it needed was a splash at the end. Now I'm off to hunt for more truffle recipes to try out,... I have my eye on a brie and truffle tarlet...

WHITE BEAN AND TRUFFLE SOUP
1 slender leek, finely sliced (discard the green)
1tbsp butter
3 cups cooked butter beans, shelled
1-2 cups Marigold vegetable stock
1 bay leaf
Seasoning
1tbsp white truffle oil
Snipped chives, to garnish

Soften the leek in the butter ever so gently, with a lid on, for at least ten minutes. Stir in the butter beans to coat and turn up the heat, then add the stock and bay leaf, and bring to a gentle simmer. Simmer for 15 minutes, then cool. Season generously before liquidising, making sure the soup is nice and smooth (and not too thick) before adding the truffle oil and whizzing briefly to combine. Serve topped with the chives and if you like, hand around the oil to drizzle.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Baked Butter Beans in Two Sauces

2 cups dried butter beans, soaked overnight

1 onion, finely chopped
1/2 head celery, finely chopped
1 head fennel, finely chopped
4 medium tomatoes, chopped
1tbsp sundried tomato puree
1 cup vegetable stock
1 slice brown bread, grated into breadcrumbs
2tbsp finely-grated parmesan

1tsp cornflour
1/2 pint milk
1/2 tsp wholegrain mustard
1tbsp parsley, finely chopped
Salt and pepper

Bring the butter beans to the boil, and skim off froth. Reduce heat and simmer for an hour or more, until tender. Drain and refresh, then set to one side.

For the fennel and tomato sauce: Saute all the chopped vegetables in a large casserole over a low heat. Add tomatoes and turn up the heat; when it starts to sizzle, stir for a couple of minutes, then tip in the stock and puree. Transfer to an oven at 140 deg C for an hour. Remove and cool.

For the parsley and mustard sauce: Warm the milk in a pan, and add a paste made from cornflour and a splash of milk. Stir it in and continue stirring until the milk thickens. Remove from the heat, add mustard and, after it's cooled, stir in the very finely-chopped parsley.

To assemble: use two shallow baking dishes. Put half the beans in each; top one with the parsley sauce and the other with the tomato sauce, stirring well. Cover the tomato dish (and the parsley, if you like) with breadcrumbs and parmesan. Bake both at 140 deg C for 20-30 minutes, cool 5 minutes, and serve (with veggie kievs, potato dauphinoise, or baked ham).

Monday, August 20, 2007

LENTIL & PORCINI SOUP

This is really a thick, rich mushroom stew - the lentils and onion providing a complex savoury background to woodland porcini. You would want to eat this on an autumn day after conkering - or a bleak August day blackberrying, as I've just done! It was a recipe that, upon reading and even upon sniffing the simmering pan, I doubted would come together so well as it did. Lentils and mushrooms just make sense, in theory, but this didn't really come together until the very last stages.

I should also say that I have adapted this from a recipe in 'Fagioli'; Judith Barrett's version does not feature ordinary mushrooms. I am serving this with farmhouse bread (picture to follow) and spiced plum crumble. Having soup is a great excuse to eat pudding! This serves two at dinner or four as a starter.

1/2 cup lentils verde, washed and checked over
1 onion, finely chopped
2tbsp olive oil
2 large bay leaves
1 large tomato, chopped
1/2 cup porcini mushrooms, soaked in hot water for 10 minutes
1 cup finely-diced chestnut (ordinary) mushrooms
3 cups hot water

First soak the porcini and set aside. In a soup pan, warm the olive oil and add the onion and bay leaves; stir to soften and sizzle. After a couple of minutes - or when it's ready - add the chopped tomato and mushrooms. Continue to stir until most of the liquid has gone and the vegetables are soft. Drain and finely-chop the porcini and add it to the pan with the green lentils and 4 cups of warm water. Bring to a fierce boil, lid off, and set the timer for 10 minutes. After that, turn the heat down to a gentle putter, and cook for another 35 minutes. You may want to add a little more water to reach the right consistency.

Make sure it's hot, remove the bay leaves and, if you like, garnish with a swirl of cream - it's rich enough to take the dilution - and chopped chives. Or a swirl of truffle oil and chopped rosemary... or whatever you have to hand... if you haven't already started eating!

Thursday, August 02, 2007


SPICY RED PEPPER HUMMUS

The super-sweet red pepper brings something special to hummus, with a throaty kick at the very end. Serve it with raw carrot and toasted pitta, cut into strips. Or you could serve a big dollop with a plate of roasted vegetables - squash, aubergine, tomato - as a simple dinner.

1 can chickpeas, drained (equivalent to 200g cooked chickpeas)
2 heaped dessertspoons Tahini (sesame seed paste, from supermarket)
Juice of 1 small lemon
3 cloves garlic, peeled
3 "Peppadew" peppers (from a jar)
2tbsp olive oil
1tsp salt
1tsp pepper

Using a food processor, blend the lemon juice, tahini and garlic with a few of the chickpeas, ensuring the garlic is finely pureed before continuing. Add the olive oil and most of the chickpeas, and blend to a smooth puree. Now add the seasoning, and the rest of the chickpeas, and the peppers, and pulse-chop until you get a textured hummus. Taste to see if it needs more lemon juice or seasoning. If it's too thick, add extra olive oil or a bit of warm water, and pulse to combine.

RED WINE & SAUSAGE PENNE

An oven-simmered tomato sauce, enriched with red wine, stirred into fresh penne and sliced sausages - just the thing for an autumnal sort of summer day. Eat with fresh bread.

1 punnet plum tomatoes (about 500g)
1 onion, sliced
1tsp olive oil
175ml red wine (a rich one like Shiraz)
175ml vegetable stock
4 vegetarian sausages - I like Cauldron's Lincolnshire
2 handfuls penne
Parmesan and fresh bread, to serve

Start a few hours before tea, or the night before. In an ovenproof casserole, soften the onion in the oil very slowly, until translucent. Add the tomatoes, crush with a wooden spoon, then add the lid and leave on a low heat for a few more minutes. Finally tip in the wine and stock, bring to a bubble, then replace the lid. Now you can either leave it on the hob on the lowest heat, or put the casserole into the oven at about 120 deg for anything up to two hours. Either way, keep checking: you want to slowly achieve a thick, reduced sauce with onion pieces that melt into the goo.
You can keep this aside now - until ready to eat. At which point, grill the sausages, then slice roughly, and add to the pan, returning it to a gentle heat. Bring another pan of water to the boil and throw in the penne, then cook for 10 minutes. Finally combine the drained pasta with the sauce, stir well, and serve onto warm plates.

Garnish generously with freshly grated parmesan.

Monday, July 23, 2007


Homemade beansprout slaw

For serving with those veggie beanburgers, in homemade floury baps, to show those carnivores what they're missing... and being far, far healthier too. We ate this with guests on the weekend and they thoroughly enjoyed it. Beansprouts are small and inoffensive - a really great way to add vitamins and protein to any vegetarian meal. Add them to sandwiches, stir-fries, salads, even hummus.

1 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp mustard powder
2 egg yolks
8-10floz olive oil
1-2 tsp white wine vinegar
1 carrot
1 box beansprouts

In a pestle and mortar, crush the salt and mustard powder until yellow and refined. Beat in the egg yolks. You might want to transfer to a larger bowl now. Using an electronic whisk or a wooden spoon (harder work, more reward), beat the eggs again. Add a drop of oil and beat. It's very boring but you have to be patient and add a couple of drops at a time, beating thoroughly. (I don't know why.)

After your hand starts to feel like it will never move again, the mixture will be a bit thicker, and now - hurray! - you can speed up a bit, and tip in a bit more oil. I get bored and start pushing my luck, rashly tipping in oil (it doesn't curdle quite as easily as others may have you believe). You can add 1tsp vinegar now, too. At the 8floz mark, or even sooner, when it starts to look like mayonnaise - thicker than helmann's - you should taste and add more vinegar if you like. Probably no need to add 10floz oil. To thin it out a little, add a small splash of water, and beat it all together again. Put it into a clean jar and it will keep for a week.

For my super-slaw, grate one large carrot into a bowl, and fill with beansprouts. Add mayonnaise - a little more than you first think - until the slaw will drop off a spoon.

Friday, July 20, 2007

FENNEL AND TOMATO GRATIN

At the farmer's market last week, as he was packing my bag of fennel, the farmer asked: "What will you DO with this much fennel?"
"Put it in a casserole, or braise it, or roast it," I told him.
"Oh!" (not convinced). "I never know what to do with it!"

Fennel is one of those strange vegetables that most people despise or don't know what to do with, I think. I am always frustrated when we receive just one bulb in our vegetable box. What are you supposed to do with just one? Roast it with peppers and onions and it kind of fades into the background. I want to taste the fennel in whatever-it-is, and it deserves to be the star. So here it is. We gobbled this up and now I'll have to make a quick trip to the market for more.

3 large bulbs fennel, sliced
1 clove garlic, sliced
2 large tomatoes, sliced
1 tbsp olive oil
1 cup vegetable stock
1 slice fresh white bread
1tbsp finely grated parmesan

Warm up the oil in a large pan, over a gentle heat, and then arrange the fennel so it fits neatly in one layer, if possible. Put the lid on, leave the heat low, and allow it to start to soften and brown slowly. After about 10 minutes add the garlic, stir a couple of times, then add the tomatoes in one layer on top. Season with plenty of pepper and a little salt, then pour on the stock. Cover tightly, turn the heat to its lowest, and leave to bubble gently for another 15 minutes. Remove from the heat, and set aside to cool. There should only be a little liquid left.

Tip the whole lot into a small baking dish, then chop the bread into crumbs, mix it with the parmesan, and sprinkle over the top. Bake at 160 degrees C for about 20 minutes, or until piping hot and crusty on top.

Serve with roasted red potatoes and red onions, and salad
if you like a bit of green.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Baked Butter Beans, Baked Gigantes Beans, Ful Medames...

.... oh, they have my heart. Ever since I discovered Odysea's Baked Gigantes there's only been one bean for me. Fortunately, they're available in Sainsbury's; unfortunately, they cost £3.49 for a jar that contains about five minutes' worth of urgent, fridge-side gobbling.
So I have tried to recreate them at home. How I've tried... with tomatoes (chopped and real), dried herbs and fresh ones, dill and parsley, olive oil and vegetable stock. According to my web research these babes should be oven-cooked slowly in a mass of tomato and olive oil. Matthew Fort, another addict, generously gave his recipe to the Guardian - that's my next test. But reading his ingredients doesn't make my heart pound. Celery? Onion? I fear he's no closer to the Real Thing than I am.
In my hopeless mission I have just bought a new book on Lebanese cookery. yes, yes, I know they're Greek not Lebanese, but there is a Middle-Eastern version being touted by trendy mid-east restaurants - Ful Medames - that is suspiciously similar.

Unfortunately, the book's recipe for Ful Medames has no tomato (damn you). Mind you, I am quite distracted now by the wonders of lentils-dill-and-rice, stuffed chard, aubergine in sesame sauce, and a lovely herby potato salad. We had dinner in a Lebanese restaurant once and it was incredible. Good place for a vegetarian holiday, I think.

Continuing my quest, I looked up Fagioli - Italian for beans - wondering if they have a similar recipe. They do. Hundreds. It will take me months to try them all. (Sigh). However, now you're looking at it, this is a very delicious book indeed. It has lots of variations on the Roman speciality pasta e cecci (pasta and beans) plus bean-centred bruschetta, a potato and chickpea whip, and some of those gorgeous Tuscan oven-baked bean stews. All of which will, I think, be very scrumptious. But....
...... they're not baked gigantes. (Sigh.......) The bean goes on.
SPICY BEANBURGERS

I am quite happy to admit that when it comes to burgers, vegetarians are left on the sidelines, chewing a bit of cardboard. There's not a bean in the world that could tempt a carnivore to pick up a beanburger at a barbeque. Apart from the texture, it's very difficult to get a good, intense flavour that can stand up to barbequing, followed by the onslaught of floury baps and puddles of ketchup. Most veggie-burgers sort of morph into a vaguely vegetably slodge, if they haven't already collapsed over the barbeque grill. Shop-bought burgers are fine, although they're basically chopped vegetables in breadcrumbs, and don't you know it when you bite into that bun. How are we supposed to compete with a generous beef-burger, oozing its own fatty juices, that actually gains in flavour sitting on the barbie?

And don't give me vegetable kebabs or pretend-meat burgers. I want good, honest flavour, and lots of it. So, although I know nobody wants it, here's my best beanburger recipe. I've done a pretty good job of selling myself out. But if you're a vegetarian, and you fancy slapping some homemade burgers on the barbeque next time you're entertaining al fresco, perhaps you'll enjoy these. Add as much seasoning as you like, and pile the bap high with extra goodies.

SPICY BEANBURGERS
(makes 6)

1 red pepper, finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped
1tbsp sunflower oil

Saute the vegetables in the oil until soft, then add:

¾ cup red lentils
1 cup vegetable stock

Simmer for 10 minutes, on a very low heat, lid on.

In a bowl combine:
1 cup cooked/tinned kidney beans
1slice bread, chopped finely into breadcrumbs
1 beaten egg
1tsp paprika
1tsp chilli powder or Tabasco
1-2 tsp soy sauce
2 heaped tsp tomato puree

Add the mushy lentil mixture and then put into the fridge for at least 30 minutes. Flour your hands generously and shape into burgers (it will be sticky but firm).


Fry in a little oil, sear on a hot-plate, or bake in a medium oven for 25 minutes (they will be drier if you bake them).

Serve with different toppings – be imaginative, and pack in extra flavour. Try home-made mayonnaise, onion rings, rocket, and beansprouts!

Thursday, July 05, 2007

BROAD BEAN BRUSCHETTA

They do look weird, but these slices of green-smudged toast are much-beloved of the River Cafe chefs, Nigella, and Mr Slater. With all those admirers, they're definitely worth a try...

Here's my version, but the basic blueprint - shelled beans, herbs, grated cheese and olive oil - translates into a whole platter of delicious variations.

SERVES 2

1 French stick, sliced diagonally into 1" slices
500g broad beans, podded
25g basil
25g grated parmesan
Good slug of olive oil

Drop the beans (in their grey skins) into boiling water and simmer for 1 minute. Drain in a colander over the sink and run cold water over them until cool enough to handle. Slip the skin off each bean, revealing a luminous green bean inside. Drop the skinned beans straight into a large bowl.

Finely grate the pamesan into the bowl and then shred the basil and add this. Use a fork to mush and slightly amalgamate the beans with the basil and parmesan - they'll probably be warm enough to melt it just slightly. Drizzle in enough olive oil to give a good, bright green mush. I make this on the rustic side with pieces of bean, but you can also whiz it in the processor for a finer puree (like hummus).

On a griddle brushed with olive oil, toast the slices of bread. Whip quickly onto a plate and top with the green beans. Drizzle with extra oil, if you like ("It's what they do in Italy!" insists husband, pouring spoonfuls over his). Serve straight away or at room temp.

VARIATIONS: Exchange the pamesan for feta; swap the basil for mint, or use a mixture of both. Puree in a processor for a smoother paste. Top with garlic or pea sprouts.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

SPANOKOPITA
Greek spinach and feta pie

It might not be warm but it's summer, and the Mediterranean chefs know how to use these seasonal vegetables better than we ever did. I mean, what did the British ever do with courgettes and spinach before gratefully borrowing Ratatouille and Spanokopita? I don't mean to sound unpatriotic - it just seems to be the case that we eat more British food in the winter, and Mediterranean food in the summer. Probably because they know all about fresh alfresco-style dinners.

I've adapted this from a recipe by Sophie Grigson, whose book (Vegetables) I would highly recommend.

1 pack Filo pastry, defrosted
1 large bag spinach - around 500g raw
200g feta cheese
1tbsp olive oil
1/2 bunch of spring onions, finely sliced
2tbsp fresh dill, chopped
2 eggs

Serves 4

Preheat the oven to 180 deg C.

Wash the spinach and remove the big stems - a boring job, but worth it to rid the spinach of the characteristic bitterness. Put it straight into a large saucepan, cover and steam gently for about 5 minutes - until the spinach has collapsed in a sorry heap at the bottom of the pan and you wonder if you have cooked enough.

Drain the spinach in a colander, pressing it hard against the sides with a spoon to get rid of moisture. Slide it onto a chopping board and shred finely. Return it to the pan with the tablespoon of olive oil, dill, and the spring onions, and soften very gently for a couple of minutes. Take off the heat and allow to cool while you start layering pastry.

Take 1/3 sheet of filo and lay it on a 10cm tartlet tin (or you could make one 30x20cm pie). Using a brush and a cup containing a scant tsp of olive oil, keep brushing and layering pastry and oil, building up perhaps 8-10 layers. There should be plenty of overhang on each one. (And don't worry, the pastry is fat-free, so the olive oil is the only thing to worry about, and you can brush very scantly). Do this for 4 tins.

To the saucepan, which is now cool, add the feta, and beat it in with a spoon. Finally add the eggs and beat it all together well. Use this to fill the pie(s). Now you can gather up the overhanging pastry and crumple it prettily over the filling, covering it completely. Brush with a few more dabs of oil, and whisk into the oven for 20-30 minutes. Serve with green salad and roasted cherry tomatoes.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Chickaleekie soup

People should eat more pulses, I think! They're so cheap (especially if you buy dried ones) and nutritious, a good source of protein and vitamins, not to mention fat-free.

They are though, I think, still avoided by people - they're not trendy, TV cooks don't use them often, and they're associated with old-fashioned farmhouse cookery even now. But they're so yummy and easy to use. Start with easy beans like chickpeas (delicious stir-fried with green beans, tomato, cumin, coriander and garlic - or blended with tahini to make hummus) and haricot beans (brilliant in a cassoulet in the oven - just add chopped vegetables, tomatoes, red wine, rosemary and bay leaves. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs and cheese in the last ten minutes for a crusty topping). Kidney beans make a fantastic chilli pasta bake: combine with a jar of salsa, a mug of good stock, a chopped pepper, and a couple of handfuls dried pasta - bake in an oven topped with 1 carton creme fraiche, 2 eggs and 1 handful cheddar (whisked together). I could go on, but I won't.

No potatoes in the house, and some leeks to use up, plus I have a tummy bug and want something good and easily digestible. So, on this midsummer day, I have a pot of soup simmering. Chickpeas make a good potato substitute here - higher in protein and lower in hip-unfriendly carbohydrate. If I had the bread I'd add some crunchy brown croutons to this soup at the end - and, maybe, just a sprinkling of freshly grated parmesan.

Italians have a lot of recipes for pulse-based soups; thick and stewy, with green vegetables and a final dousing of olive oil. The River Cafe and Jamie Oliver have recipes for this type of soup, which sometimes also has small pasta shapes in it. This is my version.

2 leeks, washed and chopped roughly
1tsp (generous) butter
1 tin chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1tsp Marigold Veg Bouillon
2 bay leaves
Salt and pepper

Soften the leeks in the butter until transparent (not brown). Add the chickpeas, bouillon, and bay leaves; cover with hot water and simmer 20 mins. Puree in a blender - cover your ears and leave it running for as long as you can bear! Return to the pan, season to taste, and serve hot from a mug.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


RHUBARB JAM AND RAINY DAYS

The sudden rainstorm has brought unexpectedly welcome hot food, pasta bakes and mash potatoes, and being stuck inside always sends me back to the kitchen. It's some kind of nesting instinct, I think. In my continuing mission to turn into a country grandma before my time, I had my first go at jam-making on Monday night. I washed and chopped strawberries and rhubarb (half and half), added 2/3 of their weight in sugar, a good squeeze of orange and lemon juice (1 of each), and boiled the whole lot in my biggest pan. (To test for set, you just put a saucer in the freezer, then remove and drop a teaspoon of jam in the middle. You can see the set once it cools a little.) It took around 20 minutes (and more lemon juice) to set, softly, and made four jars. I'm not going to post the recipe yet. I think I need another try, with less sugar, and perhaps adding some extra strawberries near the end, so that they stay whole.

We ate my ruby-glowing jam with scones (Delia's decades-old recipe works wonderfully, despite modern versions with fancy-pants buttermilk) and clotted cream. It's a good way to shake off a grumpy mood, and there seem to have been a few of those in our house lately.

We're cooking for our friends tomorrow night - I think I'll try out the jam on them, even though they don't like rhubarb; Steve is going to cook his Quorn Stroganoff, which takes him all of about fifteen minutes. To add to the table (and fend off hungriness - I always worry that guests will be hungry at the end of the evening) I think I might also make some feta and sundried tomato bread, depending on how organised I feel tomorrow afternoon. In the meantime, I'm drinking my low-cal hot chocolate, and watching the rain...

Monday, June 11, 2007

PENNE WITH BROAD BEANS AND PESTO

1lb broad beans, podded
1 large bunch basil
1tbsp pine kernels
1tbsp parmesan, finely grated
1tbsp olive oil
Fresh pepper
Penne (enough for two)
1tbsp single cream
Extra parmesan to shave over the top

Put the broad beans into a pan of hot water and bring to the boil. When they reach simmering point, leave for about 20 seconds, then switch off. Tip the beans into a colander over the sink and leave to cool.

Make the pesto: you can use a food processor, but this is how it's traditionally done. (Make sure the basil is really, really fresh and fragrant - if the scent doesn't waft out of the bag, put it to use decorating a different pasta dish*, or shred it into an Italian salad.) Pound half the pine kernels with half the basil in a pestle and mortar, then remove to a plate. Pound the remaining basil and kernels, and put the first batch back into the bowl. Add fresh pepper, a good slug of olive oil, and the finely grated parmesan, and stir until it looks like pesto.

Drop the penne into boiling water and simmer as per packet. While it's cooking, shell the broad beans, pinching off the greyish-green skin, and dropping them into the pesto. As soon as it's just cooked, drain the pasta, and return it to the pan. Stir in the cream, then add the pesto and broad beans, and mix gently. Serve with extra parmesan for those who want it.

*Steve's easy penne is good - roast a punnet of cherry tomatoes, halved. Boil penne and add a splash of balsamic vinegar, a splash of cream, the tomatoes, the shredded basil, and plenty of salt and pepper.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

A quick bit of gnocchi...

Just to get us back into the garden more quickly...

Drop 1 packet Sainsbury's fresh gnocchi into boiling water for a couple of minutes, and drain. Warm 1tsp olive oil and add 1 punnet cherry tomatoes, halved. Fry until they begin to come apart. Meanwhile, crush 25g fresh basil in a pestle and mortar with 1 handful pine kernels and 1tsp salt. To the pan add 1tsp balsamic vinegar, 1dsstp single cream, and then tip in the rustic pesto (crushed basil). Add the gnocchi and heat through; serve with grated parmesan.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Fresher, Brighter and Lighter: Risotto and Smoothies

All this sunshine is rousing the earth and lightening the step. I'm becoming impatient for full-blown summer: I want to eat freshly podded peas, wickedly bitter rocket and cheery tomatoes - outdoors, with a cold glass of wine. Eating with the seasons feels natural: right now I'm yearning for light dishes and fruit smoothies, while in winter it's perfectly instinctive to tuck into a big bowl of mashed celeriac. Just one of the reasons I love our vegetable box.

Last Friday our box brought the last of the pears with Spanish oranges (they do sneak in a few imports now and again) and mangoes. Smoothies are so brilliant, I don't know why we don't make them every day. It's utterly rewarding to drink a glass packed full of fruit and nothing else.

MANGO, ORANGE AND PEAR SMOOTHIE

2 oranges
1 large, ripe mango
1 eating pear
Ice cubes

Lazily peel the pear and mango, and chop both roughly. (No need to labour over it.) In an empty blender jug, juice the oranges, getting every last bit of juice out. Plop in the chopped fruit, then whiz until smooth (if too thick, add a little apple juice or the juice from another orange, if you have one). Add a couple of ice-cubes and whiz briefly to break them up a little. Drink in the sunshine!

NO-STIR RISOTTO PRIMAVERA

Primavera, "first green" in Italian, is the name used to describe a whole rainbow of spring pasta and rice dishes. Think of it as a celebration of spring; Primavera always contains plenty of fresh vegetables, like asparagus, wild garlic, fresh peas, broad beans, artichokes and other lovely new greens. Ideally made in May with baby asparagus spears, it should always be abundantly green with a good splash of white wine: fresh, light, and a delicious way to celebrate the season. I use Delia's oven-bake method for this risotto.

SERVES TWO

1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 courgette, roughly chopped
1 handful peas
1tsp butter
200ml carnaroli rice
200ml white wine
400ml vegetable stock
2tbsp finely grated parmesan
1 large handful wild garlic, washed and shredded

Set the oven to 150 deg C.

Saute the onion in the butter until translucent, then add the courgette and continue to soften for about 5-10 minutes. Add the peas halfway through. Now stir in the rice and mix thoroughly, heating it so it glistens. Add the wine and stock, bring to a simmer, then put the whole lot into a warmed oven dish and slide into the oven.

After about 15-20 minutes (when the rice will be almost cooked), remove from the oven and stir in the sliced wild garlic and the parmesan. Return to the oven for another 5-10 minutes, checking, then serve with crusty bread and mixed salad leaves.

If you make a note of the cooking times for this in your particular oven, it will be even less demanding next time.

Friday, March 09, 2007



CANNELLINI CASSOULET
with leek and butternut squash

The traditional French cassoulet contains pork or sausages, combined with white haricot beans and baked for a long time in the oven. It's easy to adapt this recipe - a splash of red wine, some tomatoes and vegetables, cannellini instead of Haricot - and it always tastes fantastic. Eat with traditional French bread (what else?!). Dried cannellini, by the way, are really easy to cook - as long as you remember to soak them overnight - they take just 40 minutes boiling with a tsp of bicarb. (You can still use them if you forgot to soak: put them into cold water and bring to the boil, then take off the heat and leave for a few hours before cooking.)

1 leek, finely shredded
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
250g slice butternut squash, peeled, deseeded and chopped
200g cooked cannellini beans (100g dried)
1 tin chopped tomatoes
1tsp dried sage
1tsp red wine vinegar
1tbsp sundried tomato puree
0.5tsp brown sugar
1 slice old white bread, chopped into breadcrumbs
1tbsp parmesan

Preheat the oven to about 14o deg C.

Saute the leek and squash in 1tbsp olive oil, warmed in a large casserole dish. Add the garlic and stir for a minute before adding the beans, tomatoes, sage, vinegar, puree and sugar. Stir everything together, cover, and bring slowly to a simmer. Add the cooked cannellini beans, and put into the oven for 40 minutes.

Remove from the oven, take off the lid, stir, and add a splash more water if necessary (you want a thick stew here). Sprinkle the breadcrumbs and then the parmesan over the top and return to the oven for 20 minutes. Stand for 10 minutes before dishing up - and serve with crusty bread.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Cooking for St David...
Happy St David's day! Here are some favourite ways with leeks, goat's cheese, lamb and cake... stalwarts of Welsh eating...

Leek & Goat's Cheese Quiche
Make up a batch of wholemeal pastry (Weigh out 4oz wholemeal flour, 4oz plain flour, and a pinch of salt; rub in 2oz butter, 2oz vegetable fat, and add iced water to mix) and pop into the fridge while you prepare the quiche. Soften 2 leeks (washed and chopped) in a frying pan with a dab of butter, then season, and set aside to cool. In a jug, whisk 2 eggs with 2tbsp grated cheddar or parmesan, 100ml double cream and 100ml milk, seasoning generously and adding chives if you like. Now assemble the quiche: roll out the pastry to fit a 20cm flan tin, and scatter the leeks over the bottom. Carefully pour on the egg mixture, scatter 100g crumbled Welsh Goat's Cheese over the top, and slide into a moderate oven. Bake for about 40 minutes, then rest before serving.

Roast Squash with Leeks and Pine Nuts
The squash is an easy all-in-one dinner: just cut in half, then scoop out and discard the seeds, and also cut out some of the golden flesh - cube it and set aside. Put the squash shells on a roasting tray, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle on some salt and pepper. Roast for around 30-4o minutes, until tender and golden. Meanwhile prepare the filling: saute the cubes of flesh with 1 chopped leek, stir in 1tbsp Parmesan, and continue to fry until toasty. Cram the filling into the cooked squashes, scatter pine nuts and extra Parmesan over the top, and return to the oven for 10 minutes to get gold and crunchy on top. Straight from God's land to the fork!

Rustic Goat's Cheese Bread with Thyme
I have this baking in the machine as I type! I can't wait to eat it this evening with the roasted squash (above). Delia offers a hand-baking recipe for goat's cheese bread with thyme which is already a favourite in our house (with the addition of potato - it's bliss!), but I'm afraid work demands a less time-demanding recipe at the moment!

So - this comes from sumptuous book 'Traditional Breads for your Breadmaker'. In a breadmaker, combine 1.5tsp instant yeast with 2 cups white flour, 1 cup country grain flour, 1tsp salt, 1tbsp sugar, 2tbsp sunflower oil, 50g crumbled goat's cheese, 1tsp fresh thyme, and 1 cup warm water. Set to the 'white' programme... (recipe by Karen Saunders)

If it's cold or rainy and you want some comfort food, try traditional lamb stew - cawl (quick popty-ping version here) and Welsh cakes!


Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Five-Step Korma
The easiest vegetable curry on record...


ONE: In a large frying pan (choose one which has a lid), warm 1tbsp groundnut oil, and soften 1 onion (diced) with 1 red chilli (deseeded and finely chopped).





TWO: Using a pestle and mortar, pound a 1" piece of peeled ginger with 2tsp of flaked or blanched almonds and 1 generous tsp of sea salt.










THREE: To the pan add half a head of cauliflower (broken into florets), one potato (peeled and cubed) and one courgette (chopped into 2cm chunks), then stir in the ginger mixture and 1 loaded tablespoon of Patak's Korma Paste.






FOUR: Pour in one can of low-fat Coconut Milk (available in the oriental section of supermarket), cover the pan, and leave to simmer gently for 20-30 minutes.
FIVE: Serve!

ROASTED PUMPKIN HUMMOUS


Roasting is my favourite way to treat a pumpkin; the edges turn gold and crusty and the interior loses its watery lacklustre. You get intense flavours and an interesting texture - I can eat this stuff cold, on toast, with goats' cheese, or... ooh, any which way.

Okay, so this is one to try if you're a hummous addict like me. I make this chickpea dip in some guise every week, sometimes adding chopped roast pepper, lime or coriander, but always stuffing it into pittas with mixed leaves and chutney or pesto for my favourite lunch in the world. This is a bit of a weird way to perk up hummous but it worked beautifully, and makes a cracking sandwich with some rocket and pumpkin seeds on top.

8 pieces roast pumpkin (1" cubes)
75g dried chickpeas, cooked (soak overnight, then boil for 1.5-2hours)
2 cloves garlic
1tbsp tahini (sesame seed paste)
Juice of half a lemon
2tsp salt
About 150ml warm water

The pumpkin wants to be cubed and roasted in olive oil for about 40 minutes (put it in the oven while you're cooking something else). Put the pumpkin, garlic, lemon juice and a little water into a blender or processor and whiz until smooth. Now add the salt, tahini, and about half the chickpeas; now whiz until grainy, adding water to help the process. Finally add the remaining chickpeas and give the briefest of whizzes, to maintain some nice chunks. Add water to get the right consistency (if the peas or pumpkin were warm, then the hummous will firm up a bit more as it cools).

Sprinkle with toasted pumpkin seeds and cayenne pepper to serve.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Hitipitiiiiiii
Greek red pepper and feta dip

This isn't a recipe of mine - it's from the brilliant 'Vegetables' by Sophie Grigson - but we ate it for lunch yesterday - with fresh focaccia and pumpkin hummous (recipe and piccy to follow) - and it was just sublime. We were actually fighting for the last scoop of the dish.

In fact, this is the first time I have cooked with feta cheese, and I plan to find a lot of new ways with it! If you get a red pepper in your veg box, if you like cheese (even a little bit), if you have a penchant for salt, if you love bread - do try this dip. If no bread in the house, cut up carrots or cucumber - whatever you need to do...

1 large red pepper
100g feta cheese, crumbled
2tbsp olive oil
0.5tsp paprika
Juice of 0.3 lemon

First, you need to roast the pepper - take off the top and the seeds, and roast in a moderate oven for about 30 minutes or until starting to blacken. Sophie says to remove the skins, but I didn't as I like the added smokiness. Tip into a blender and add the cheese, oil, lemon juice and paprika. Whiz to a grainy puree and spoon into a serving dish, scatter with extra paprika, and serve. Heaven in a bowl!

Monday, February 12, 2007

PORCINI RISOTTO WITH LEEK AND ARTICHOKE
Serves 2

Getting frisked at customs for smuggling over these dried Porcini from Italy was totally worth it.

This risotto is oven-baked, so it's really easy - put some garlic bread or focaccia in at the same time, and all you need is salad on the side. Carnaroli rice makes a better-textured risotto (firmer, more distinct grains) than Arborio (squidgey, rice-pudding grains).

1tbsp butter
1 large leek, finely chopped
0.5 oz dried porcini mushrooms
6oz jerusalem artichokes (unpeeled weight)
200ml carnaroli rice
150ml white wine
2oz grated parmesan
Salt and pepper

To finish:
1 tbsp butter

Turn on the oven - about 300 deg F, 180 deg C - and put in an ovenproof dish.

Melt the butter in a wide pan over a gentle heat, and add the leeks. Put the dried mushrooms in a jug and pour over 1 pint of boiling water, then leave to soak. Now peel and chop the artichokes very, very finely, tipping into the pan quickly so they don't discolour. Keep stirring the pan, allowing the vegetables to sweat gently and soften.

After half an hour's soaking, remove the dried mushrooms (saving the liquid) from the jug - soft and juicy now - and chop them finely. Scrape them, and the juice, into the pan with the leeks. Now add the rice and stir it well until buttery. Pour in the white wine, add a good old grind of black pepper, and a teaspoon of salt. Add the liquid from the mushrooms and turn up the heat to bring the whole lot to simmering point.

Pour it all into your ovenproof dish, and slide into the oven for about 20 minutes. After that, take it out, stir it well, and sprinkle in the Parmesan, stirring it through. Dot the butter all over the top and return the dish to the oven for another 5 minutes, with two dinner plates.

Dish up and serve immediately.

Friday, February 02, 2007

WHITE CHOCOLATE CHEESECAKE

I was pleasantly surprised by this cheesecake, which I invented for a dinner party last week. Because I let the food processor whiz and whiz and whiz the cheese mixture (while I mucked about doing something else), the filling turned out exceptionally light and airy. It's not a rich cheesecake, instead divinely light and whipped-creamy, so next time I'll experiment with the topping - perhaps a sharp, puce, raspberry puree, or some dark chocolate drizzled over the top as it cools.

12oz Philadelphia Light (2 packets)
2 eggs
3floz double cream
2tbsp caster sugar
6oz white chocolate
1tsp vanilla extract
2/3 packet digestives
1tbsp cocoa
2tbsp butter

Preheat the oven to 150 deg C / 250 deg F.

Start with the base. Melt the butter in a small pan while you whiz the biscuits in a processor to a fine crumb (or, like my mum does, put them into a plastic bag and attack with a rolling pin). Add the cocoa and whiz/mix to blend. Now pour in the melted butter and stir together. Press this mixture very firmly into an 8" round tin, applying enough pressure to pack it very tightly. Put the tin into the freezer for the crust to firm up.

Next, break up the white chocolate and put it into the pan you used for the butter. Add the double cream and set over a low heat to melt.

Now for the cheese: put the Philly, eggs, sugar and vanilla extract into the food processor and whiz plentifully - let it become smooth and thicken slightly.

The white chocolate should melt fast - stir until it's a smooth, creamy mixture, then scrape the whole lot into the processor. Whiz again until the mixture is quite thick and smooth. Remove the tin from the freezer and pour the cheese mixture on top. Slide carefully into the oven (middle shelf) and leave for 45 minutes. Then turn off the oven and let the cheesecake cool inside the oven.

Top with whipped double cream, coulis, fresh raspberries, dark chocolate, etc (see above).

Friday, January 26, 2007



WELSH HOMITY PIE

I'm not really obsessed with leeks and potatoes, it's just that they're all we're getting in the box right now. Well, those plus cabbage and broccoli. And carrots. I like carrots, but they're not very inspiring when it comes to recipes. Although the New Covent Garden Soup Company has a great recipe for carrot and cardamom soup. And I don't mind a carrot risotto with garden thyme, either.

I'm hungry, in case you didn't notice. I am about to go and whip up a pumpkin lasagne using yesterday's goat's cheese and some leftover spinach pesto (from Sainsbury's). Well, it won't be whipping-up so much as hacking-up, I suppose, which is why I'm not desperately keen to start. I do love pumpinks (interesting spelling) but they're not for ladies to chop up, are they? Sigh.

You're probably hungry too. Here's the pie. Ordinary Homity Pie is made with onion, potato and cheese; my Welsh version uses the symbol of God's land - the Leek. Just like everything else, the Homity pie is better in Welsh.

PASTRY

4oz wholemeal flour
4oz plain white flour
Pinch salt
2oz Trex
2oz butter
Iced water

Weigh out the butter and Trex, dice them, and put in the freezer for twenty minutes or so. Weight out the flour, and rub in the cold fats. Then add a pinch of salt and enough iced water to bind the pastry. Wrap in cling-film and put in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

WELSH HOMITY PIE

2 small leeks, sliced
4 medium potatoes, sliced thinly
1dstsp butter
1tbsp plain flour
0.4 pint milk
0.5tsp mustard powder
2 large handfuls (about 2oz) grated mature cheddar
Plenty of ground pepper

Preheat the oven to about 180 deg C.

First slice up the leeks and put into a little hot water, then bring to the boil briefly. While this is happening, slice the potatoes as finely as you can. Drain the leeks and then put the sliced potatoes on to simmer for about 10 minutes, just until tender to the point of a knife (watch to make sure they don't fall apart).

Set aside the vegetables to cool a little. Make the cheese sauce: melt the butter, take the pan off the heat and stir in the flour and mustard powder with a wooden spoon, to a yellow paste. Add a little milk and return to a gentle heat, then continue to add the milk, a splash at a time. You're aiming for a very thick white sauce, so stop when it reaches a thick, sloppy stage. Add the cheddar and allow it to melt. Set the sauce aside to cool a bit.

Now roll out the pastry to fit an 8-10" tart tin, leaving plenty of overhang. Prick the base with a fork. Pop this into the preheated oven for 10 minutes to dry out a little.

Press the leeks with kitchen paper to get rid of excess moisture and then spoon them into the pastry case to cover the bottom. Add a spoonful of cheese sauce. Now arrange the potato slices prettily on top in two layers, adding ground pepper and cheese sauce in between. Finish with the remaining cheese sauce, or as much as you can pour into the gaps.

Bake for about 30 minutes until golden brown, and serve with steamed broccoli.

Monday, January 22, 2007




HOLLY'S FAVOURITE

Lots of good things go into these dog biscuits, and you can add all kinds of extra ingredients. Home-made chicken stock is a good idea (if available), and I've seen recipes recommending the addition of peanut butter, bananas or cheese. These biscuits are a lot cheaper than those in ready-made packets, which always seem to have ash or scarily vague 'meat derivatives' in them. Okay, I'm a bit precious, but Holly adores these. And they have a lovely, fresh-baked smell, which even a vegetarian can appreciate! No wonder she'll sit patiently in the kitchen, watching as I make, roll and cut them out. She'll follow me out to the kitchen to check on their progress in the oven, and then she'll wait longingly for them to cool so she can have one. Just to test it, you understand.

HOLLY'S DOG BISCUITS

3 cups bread flour (white or a combination of brown and white)
1tsp dried yeast
1tsp caster sugar
0.5tsp salt
2tbsp skimmed milk powder
2tbsp olive oil or bacon fat
1 egg, beaten
1 cup (200ml) chicken stock

Dissolve yeast and sugar in the warm stock (which has come to hand temperature), and let it rest until bubbles are starting to form. Stir in the olive oil and the beaten egg. Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl, and add the wet ingredients. Knead well for 10 minutes, then leave to rest for about an hour or until doubled in size. Knock the dough back, roll out to about 0.5cm thick, and cut into biscuit shapes. (Holly's are heart-shaped.)

Bake in the oven at 160 degrees C for about 20 minutes - they should be golden and crisp. Allow to cool before tasting! (This part is very important, Holly!)

These keep for a month in an airtight container.

QUICK GNOCCHI GRATIN WITH CHARDONNAY

Sounded fairly unpromising: a packet of Sainsbury's fresh gnocchi, a handful of Jerusalem artichokes, and a leek... but thirty minutes later, this scrumptious English-Italian hybrid was on the table. Served with cold chardonnay and hot garlic bread, it's a sophisticated, lazy-Saturday marvel.

QUICK GNOCCHI GRATIN WITH CHARDONNAY
500g Jerusalem Artichokes, peeled and sliced
2 leeks, washed and sliced
1tsp butter
125ml chardonnay
250ml stock from 1tsp Marigold bouillon
100ml single cream
1 packet fresh gnocchi
2tbsp grated parmesan

Saute the leeks and artichokes in the butter gently for 5 minutes. Add the wine and allow the alcohol to evaporate a little bit, then stir in the stock and let the whole lot simmer for about 15 minutes. Strain the liquid into a bowl, and put the vegetables into a jug.

Return the liquid to the saucepan, bring to a simmer, add the gnocchi, and poach for 2 minutes. Remove the gnocchi straight into an ovenproof baking dish. Continue to simmer the stock until it's halved in volume. The little flour left behind by the gnocchi will make the stock become slightly syrupy.
Add the cream to the saucepan and pour the sauce over the gnocchi in the dish. Sprinkle with grated parmesan, and put under a hot grill until golden.

Serve with garlic bread and/or salad.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

BEST-YET CHOCOLATE CAKE
Under commission to research and write about "making the perfect chocolate cake", I've been living, dreaming and perspiring chocolate cake for the last fortnight. After hours poring over recipes and making a shortlist, at the weekend I managed to make my two finalists for the title of Perfect Chocolate Cake.
Finalist no1 (above) was a recipe belonging to a friend of the family, using a combination of yoghurt and sunflower oil. Having made Nigella's sour cream chocolate cake last year, I was hoping this new recipe would produce a slightly lighter, less intense cake. I swapped the yoghurt for half-fat creme fraiche (which I had leftover from chilli, in any case). After two trips to the shop (forgot the cocoa the first time), I blended everything in the food processor, and put it in the oven. An hour and a half? I was dubious, and checked after thirty minutes. The cake was black on top. Much cursing and oven-fanning later, the middle was cooked, and the edges were blackened. I took a knife to it on the wire rack, and sawed off the black.

It came out okay. In fact, a lot better than okay. The texture was heavy and moist, and the chocolate flavour was excellent. Two things could improve it: one, being spiked and drizzled with a thin coffee syrup as it came out of the oven (like my fabulous lemon cake), and two, being smeared with a milk chocolate ganache. The dark chocolate ganache I chose (an addict to the core, me) was a little bitter.

Finalist no2 fared better. I decided to do a traditional cocoa-flavoured sponge. I inspected recipes by Delia, Mary Berry and Sophie Grigson. Then I decided to make up my own. Basing it on the wonderful lemon cake that always turns out fluffy, I whizzed cocoa, flour, eggs, marg and milk in a food processor and threw it into the oven. It took me 10 minutes. 30 minutes later, the cake was cooked and cooling. I warmed 4floz of cream in a saucepan and melted 4oz of Galaxy chocolate in it. Then I put this into the fridge, and waited impatiently to assemble. Instead of waiting for the ganache to cool properly, I poured it over the cake until it was dripping onto the plate.

Despite the drippy ganache, the result was heavenly. I'd only made one half, since we'd already eaten enough chocolate cake to feed a large family, and nextdoor had received groaning platefuls. Next time I need a chocolate cake, this is the one I'll be making. Medium fat, light and fluffy, relatively easy on the waistline. Perfect!

PERFECT CHOCOLATE CAKE

8oz self-raising flour
3tbsp cocoa
2tsp baking powder
8oz margarine
8oz caster sugar
4 eggs, beaten
10tbsp milk

Method:
Sieve the first three ingredients into a bowl (or processor bowl), then add the margarine, caster sugar, beaten eggs, and milk, and beat until combined. Tip into two well-greased 8” round baking tins, and bake at 160 degrees C for about 50 minutes. Test with a skewer – when it comes out of the cake clean, the cake is done. Cool on a wire rack, and finish with icing of your choice.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

d Bleeding Heart Shortbreads d



Okay, so I'm not really a cynic, not when it comes to love, anyway. But what other name do you give to jam-filled hearts? These biscuits were the result of three factors: one, I was given some heart-shaped cutters for Christmas (and everything, from eggs to dog biscuits, has since been heart-shaped). Two, I was given the lovely Apples for Jam for Christmas, which has a recipe for jammy shortbread inside. Three, January makes me feel depressed. These gorgeous, romantic and sugar-dusted biscuits are just the thing to see off the Mean Reds! (If you get the Mean Reds, you'll know what I mean.)

BLEEDING HEARTS (makes 6-8)

2oz butter, softened

2oz caster sugar

4oz plain flour with a dash of baking powder

Merest pinch of salt

Half a beaten egg

Plenty of raspberry jam

Beat the butter and sugar til pale and creamy. Fold in the sifted flour, salt and baking powder, then add the egg and combine carefully. Wrap in cellophane and put into the fridge for half an hour. Preheat the oven to 160 deg C. Roll the dough on a floured board, cutting out hearts and re-rolling the scraps.

Bake for about 10 minutes, watching carefully!

Remove to a wire rack, and sandwich the hearts together with plenty of jam while still warm. Press together, leave to cool, and dust with icing sugar.




MIXED BEAN CHILLI


Having been on a life-long quest to perfect my vegetarian chilli, I admit I am a bit obsessive about this. For perfection, I will usually soak and cook the beans before turning them into this rich, thick and spicy chilli. When it comes to spiciness, hotter is always better - cooling down is what the lime-scented creme fraiche is for!

Madhur Jaffrey offers a (hopefully authentic) Texan Chilli recipe in World Vegetarian. It's good, but lentilly. I like lots of different shaped beans in this, dotted with bright green and red pepper chunks. Linda McCartney's recipe is good, but I think the addition of Tabasco and paprika makes mine shout louder. Oh, but the great thing Linda McCartney taught me is how to serve bean chilli. Ladle it onto hot, deep plates, surrounded by rice or nachos (preferably both), sprinkle with good grated cheese, and zap under a hot grill. Another great idea from Linda is to sprinkle roasted chunks of sweet potato (or even squash) over the chilli, before the cheese. You can adapt this and serve bowls of chilli with platters of squash wedges, nachos, wild rice and creme fraiche on the table. A feast fit for a carnivore.

BEAN CHILLI

2 onions, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1.5tsp paprika
1tsp dried or fresh thyme
1 red pepper, diced
1 green pepper, diced
1 tin tomatoes
2tsp tomato ketchup or puree
A good splash of Tabasco sauce
Sprinkle (0.5tsp) chilli flakes
200g cooked kidney beans (or 1 tin)
200g cooked chick peas (or 1 tin)

1tsp cornflour dissolved in cold water (optional)

Saute the onion, garlic, paprika and thyme very gently; add the peppers and allow to soften without browning. Add the remaining ingredients, and let the whole lot simmer for a good, long time. Taste for seasoning. It may need a pinch of sugar, a squeeze of lime juice, or extra Tabasco.

Serve with LIME & CORIANDER CREME FRAICHE: Tip a tub of creme fraiche into a pretty serving bowl. Beat it with the juice of half a lime, a pinch of salt, and a good tablespoon of finely-chopped coriander.

Dish up the chilli into bowls, sprinkle more coriander over the top, and serve with nachos, wild rice, guacamole, and creme fraiche. Or just bread. Who cares when the chilli's this good?!