Lentils for breakfast- welcome

Here is your invitation to sample beautiful recipes that are good for you, good for the planet and good to eat. They mainly feature plants, because that's what I try to eat the most. I am not a fancy cook, but I believe that food is one of our greatest pleasures and deserves to be celebrated. Real food, whole food, kind food. Welcome to the feast!

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

How I failed the world's best date cake

I love the Guardian's online site (oops, almost misspelled it in best Grauniad tradition). I have the tab open all day and I visit in-between tasks at work for a little welcome refreshment.

So unsurprisingly I came across this recipe on the site. It's by the Guardian baking contributor, Dan Leppard. His recipes all sound mind-blowingly delicious and read as if they're really simple to make. I especially liked the sound of this Tamarind Date Cake because it contains tamarind.

I bought a jar of tamarind concentrate to make Neil Perry's lentils. I now realise I have about 100 years worth of tamarind, since most recipes only ever call for a teaspoon. And this recipe would unload another teaspoon. Every bit counts. Tamarind and dates? Intriguing possibility . . .

I don't bake very often, but the cake proceeded smoothly. The tamarind bit was straightforward. It all smelled gorgeous in the oven. I was pleased with myself.

The bit that failed? The icing.

The failed icing

I bought some organic icing sugar because I hoped it would be slightly less refined than powdery 'normal' icing sugar which I vaguely remember from the last time I made icing. When I was 12.

The recipe called for my entire packet of ridiculously overpriced icing sugar and the juice of half a lemon. So, I emptied the contents of the packet into a bowl and poured the juice over it. The aim is to make a thick lemony paste. I was concerned that the lemon would be insufficient liquid and I'd have to add water which would dilute the flavour.

Much to my amazement, the icing sugar promptly dissolved leaving me with this runny sauce. Dan says to spread the icing on top and let it drizzle down the side. Mine poured in a torrent down the side. It wouldn't sit on top. It looked awful, not at all snowy and enticing like it did in Colin Campbell's picture on the website.

I put the cake in a shallow bowl, and spooned the 'icing' from where it collected around the bottom and tried pressing it in the top. That kind of worked, but not really.

Later when I told my mother my sorry tale, she chuckled. Oh no, you have to add the liquid slowly to icing sugar. Apparently this is a well-known fact.

Dan Lepard's world's best tamarind date cake 

200 g chopped dates (impossible to stop pilfering bits of date while chopping)
50 g tamarind paste (I used 1 tsp tamarind concentrate)
250 g unsalted butter
150 g dark brown sugar (I used feather palm sugar)
2 large eggs
275 g plain flour
2 tsp bicarb
175 g walnuts, roughly chopped (ditto with the dates)
150 g icing sugar
juice of half a lemon
seeds from 6-8 cardamom pods, ground in a mortar & pestle (skipped this bit)

Line the base and sides of an 18 cm cake tin with non-stick baking paper. Heat oven to 180 degrees.

Put the dates, tamarind paste and 300 ml water in a pan and bring to the boil. Boil for a minute, remove from the heat, add the butter and set aside for 10 mins to cool.

Add the brown sugar, stir, then beat in the eggs until smooth. Beat in the flour and bicarb, then stir in the walnuts.

Spoon the cake mixture into the tin and bake for about 1 hour, or until a skewer poked into the centre comes out clean. Remove and leave to cool.

When cold, make a thick, smooth icing with the icing sugar, cardamom (if you can be bothered), juice and a little water (which you probably won't need). Spoon over the cake so it dribbles down the sides. If you're lucky.

The verdict

You know that Italian expression Brutti ma Buoni? Ugly but good? That was my cake.

Dense, rich, buttery and not too sweet. The icing that I managed to squash in added a caramel syrup dimension that was delicious. I think I could have been bolder with the tamarind. And there was no hint of lemon, which also would have lent a balancing tang.

I'm sure if I tried again I'd be more successful. But the trouble with having cake around is the guilt - guilt about wasting food if I don't eat it and guilt about consuming more than I need if I do eat it. Might have to make a salad next time.

In the meantime, do check out Dan Lepard. His recipes are delectable. And he's running sourdough courses in Little Portland Street in Feb, if you're interested. Sounds like heaven to me.

And tell me your baking disasters. How good are you at making icing? Whip it up, never think twice - or floundering in foreign waters? I'd love to hear your stories.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

The easiest show-off food to make at home: labneh

One evening recently, my husband, daughter & I went to see Michael Pollan in conversation at the Sydney Opera House.

I love Michael Pollan. I read every word of his I find and his writing has profoundly shaped my own views. And I met him in my publishing days. He's a gentleman, as you'd expect.

So, I had a contented time listening to one of my heroes, but the family were less entranced. Not that they were not impressed by what he had to say, his easy but persuasive conversational style or the weightiness of the topics . . . but they were hungry.

Labneh with dinner

It was cold & rainy, mid-week. We went to El-Phoenician at Walsh Bay, around the harbour from the Opera House under the giant shadow of the Bridge. It was deserted in the black streets and only one other table was taken in the restaurant.

The food was beautiful. It was so comforting to come in from the cold, order some wine, go to the loo, and then eat well-prepared dishes that happen happily to be vegetarian. I'm sure Michael would have had a lovely time with us, talking about his talk.

I was besotted with the labneh. Thick, creamy, salty. I slathered it on everything. I asked the waiter if it was made by the kitchen. He seemed puzzled by my interest, but kindly brought me a container of more luscious labneh to take home.

Yoghurt + muslin = homemade labneh

Then I remembered that I have a recipe for it in Wholefood for the Whole Family by another of my heroes, Jude Blereau. And it calls for muslin, which - thanks to my attempts at poaching a quince - I now possess.

Whenever I looked at that recipe in the past, it always struck me as the kind of thing serious, confident cooks would make. But looking at it anew with enthusiastic eyes (and as a proud muslin-owner) it all seemed achievable. What if I could concoct that gorgeous creation for myself . . .


A pinch of sea salt
500 ml jar of plain, full-cream, non-homogenised yoghurt
A handful of fresh herbs (we used parsley and coriander, but thyme would be insane)

Line a seive with 4 layers of muslin. Set it over a bowl to catch the whey.

Mix the salt into the yoghurt, then spoon the youghurt into the muslin-lined seive. Leave in the fridge for 24 hours. The cheese will be soft, but still dense.

If you want a firmer cheese, fold the muslin corners over the yoghurt and weigh it down with something heavy. We placed a small plate on the muslin and a can of beans on the plate. Then walk away. It's all done for now.

When the cheese is your desired consistency, finely chop the herbs and place in a shallow bowl or on a plate. Roll the labneh mixture into small balls, then gently roll in the herb mix to coat.

Gently place in a dish and serve. Or place in a clean jar or bowl with 1-2 sliced garlic cloves and a generous grind of black pepper. Add enough olive oil to cover the labneh (loads: about 400 ml), then cover and refrigerate.

The verdict

I kept sneaking a peak at the yoghurt when it was transitioning to labneh with an increasing sense of excitement. It's working!

And I was inordinately proud of the result. Five sweet little green & white balls, with a beautiful mild creamy flavour. However, my husband actually did the rolling-in-herbs, covering-with-oil stage - so all I did was line the sieve and spoon the yoghurt.

But it was still a tremendous thrill to make this recipe. It wasn't quite as lush as El-Phoenician's but still di-vine on toast with gravlax the next morning.

Later in the week I had it with a roasted vegetable ratatouille for lunch at work. Mmmm. And the oil was gorgeous to drizzle on just about everything afterwards.

And you? What's your most show-off-y creation? Do you love labneh, or have you always been put off by the notion of 'yoghurt cheese'? Let me know what you think in the comments.

More Michael

And if you'd like a little taste of Michael, as it were:

Unhappy Meals
This was an influential story in the NY Times and an excellent introduction to his thought.

Food Rules
You probably know the 'Eat food. Mainly plants. Not too much' dictum. Here's where it started.

Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch
This article was published around the release of 'Julie & Julia'. It made me laugh.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Sunshine on toast: homemade sunflower seed butter

This recipe's full title is cinnamon vanilla sunflower butter. I found it on 101 Cookbooksthe beautiful blog of Heidi Middleton, the 1st food blogger I started to follow.

Heidi's photos are so gorgeous and so exquisite that I want to sob with envy when I gaze upon them.  Her palate is white and ethereal and the lines are clean and modern, while the styling features much-loved old or found objects that suggest reverence for cooking past and gone.

Heidi's blog does a wonderful thing: suggesting a lovely life, glimpsed softly through lace curtains.

But I have had a couple of epic fails with her recipes. One was a dal that produced a kind of pale yellow gruel that I threw out in disgust and frustration (but later wished I'd kept to use as as stock for another batch). The other was a chocolate-y, salty, banana confection. Intriguing . . . but odd and ultimately uneaten.

I've never cooked anything else. I just sigh over the beauty of each post and marvel at the number of comments she receives and the ads she runs and the archives she has accumulated and the cookbooks she has published.

Talented cooks are not like everyone else

I have this theory that talented cooks have their idiosyncratic signature. What they make tastes delicious in their unique way. But it doesn't necessarily translate when you try to capture it in that imperfect communication device: the recipe. Just because it has been bound into a set of instructions and measurements does not mean you too can cook it like the angels.

My husband's salad dressing is the ultimate union of oil and acid. But mine tastes nothing like his, even when he's standing next to me telling me what to do. He has a gift for cooking and his food always tastes wonderful. It just does. And I'm sure Heidi's partner would say the same thing. Whereas me . . . I plod through recipes, making mistakes.

And that's the other thing. If I try to follow a recipe properly and not go off at my uninformed tangents and it doesn't work, I always assume it's my basic incompetence. So, my failed attempts at following Heidi's recipes are quite likely to be the result of my lack of skill and absence of that instinctive kitchen alchemy that separates the plodders from the angels.

Sunflower butter

Which brings us to cinnamon vanilla sunflower butter.

Do you love nut butters? I do, particularly macadamia nut, which I would eat direct from the jar in a frenzy if I wasn't so preoccupied with my soft little tummy. I also love big fat artisinal loaves of bread. Nut butter on a fresh loaf of Iggy's sourdough? Ecstasy.

When I read this recipe I thought of that perfect moment of biting into a slice of bread. And that's when I decided to try it.

Cinnamon Vanilla Sunflower Butter

225 g raw sunflower seeds
60 ml oil (I used macadamia because I had some; Heidi suggests sunflower, which makes sense!)
1/2 tsp sea salt
2 tbsp vanilla bean paste (I used the award-winning Heilala Vanilla)
3 tsp ground cinnamon
zest of 1/2 a lemon

Heat the oven to 165 C. Toast the seeds on a rimmed baking sheet until fragrant and golden. Stir a couple of times to make sure they toast evenly. Cool for 10 mins.

Puree the seeds in the food processor with a generous spoonful of oil and the salt. As the motor runs, drizzle in another 2 spoonfuls. Scrape the mixture down the sides once or twice along the way. The aim is an even, smooth consistency, so take your time.

Once the mixture starts to look smooth, add the vanilla paste and cinnamon. Pulse to incorporate.

Evaluate the consistency. Add more oil if it is on the thick, pastey side. Add more salt if you want and the lemon zest. Pulse again and voila. Store in a jar in a cupboard.

The result

My butter was far too thick to start with. Sticking-to-the-top-of-your-mouth thick.

Heidi lists 60 ml of oil in her ingredient list, but suggest using just 3 tablespoons of oil in her method. That wasn't enough. A day after I'd made my butter, I remixed it again drizzling in more oil to make it creamier and easier to eat. So, I would say keep assessing how your mixture is coming together and use as much oil as it seems to need.

How does it taste? Not overly sweet, certainly nutty and dark and spicy.  It would be particularly delicious on fresh apple because it tastes to me as if it needs something sweeter to complement it.

Are you a nut butter fan? What's your favourite? What do you most love to spread on bread? Hard one to answer, there is so much that I love to spread on bread! Let me know what you think in the comments.

Bread + butter

I watched this hilarious video recently: David Mitchell ranting about the Atkins Diet in the Guardian. He has some sensible points to make about those reliable foods that keep soldiering on and that we love for a lifetime, like bread and butter. His view that there is no better food than bread and butter illustrates brilliantly how Paleo is unlikely to ever go mainstream. If you have 4 mins, it will cheer you up. Unless you're a Paleo, in which case prepare for some eye-rolling.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Spice up your lentils with this secret ingredient

People often give me a knowing smile when I say I've made a lentil dish. Oh yes, you're the lentil lady. You really love your lentils don't you?

You know when you acquire a reputation for something, and then you're not bothered about that original thing any more but everyone only ever associates you with it?  Well, that's me and lentils.

I haven't had lentils for breakfast for months, neither have I even cooked them for ages. Enough with the lentils, people!

But when I  saw this Neil Perry recipe I was smitten. Why? Well, it looked rich and satisfying and nourishing. And nicely portable for lunch. Plus it contained a new mystery ingredient: tamarind.

What is tamarind?

Glad you asked. It's a lovely word, isn't it - which is why, when you Google it, you are presented with links to a great many restaurants called Tamarind.

It's an ancient fruit, indigenous to tropical Africa. The early Arabic name was romanised to tamar hind: Indian date. Aptly named. It lends its particular sweet-and-sourness largely to the cuisines of south Asia and Mexico.

I didn't think I was familiar with the taste, but tamarind is a key flavour note in Worcestershire sauce and HP sauce. I ate bucket-loads of those when I was a youngster. That's what made them so devilishly delectable!

Tamarind water & paste

Neil's recipe calls for tamarind water, and he says it is readily available in Asian grocery stores.

There is an Indian grocery in Neutral Bay, so I went in and confidently asked the young Indian who was serving if I could buy some. He didn't have a clue what I was asking for. Never heard of it. But he showed me tamarind paste, which seemed to lend itself to making tamarind water, so that's what I came home with.

I riffed on Neil's recipe in the end because he uses canned lentils and their water. Ewww. Not only do I not like canned lentils (purist, sorry), I hate that canned water. It's thick and dark and sludgey.

And I wanted to test his flavours on the toor dal I had impulsively purchased earlier in said Indian supermarket. I don't come across too many recipes for toor dal, so maybe this was their time to shine.

Here is Neil's recipe, if you're interested in the maestro's version: Lentils with tamarind sauce 

Read on for mine.

Toor dal with tamarind sauce

1 cup toor dal (or red lentils or channa dal, you get the picture)
water, 1 sliced garlic clove
1 tsp tumeric
olive oil
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 minced garlic clove
1 tsp each turmeric & paprika
1 tsp tamarind paste melted in enough boiling water to bring it to a rich concentrate
approx 300 g tomato passatta
a scant half cup of stock (or boullion or water)
1 tsp each garam masala & cumin

For the dal: rinse and put in a pan with enough water to cover, plus the sliced garlic clove and 1 tsp of turmeric. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and cook gently for about 1 hour. Keep checking the water level. They stick to the bottom of the pan if you're not watchful!

When the dal is tender and the liquid has been absorbed, give it a whisk for a smooth, creamy consistency.

Slice the onion and fry in a heavy based pan over a medium heat. Stir frequently to avoid sticking and burning. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Then add the turmeric and paprika and stir around for another minute. Smelling pretty fragrant by this time.

Add the tamarind concentrate and the passatta. Simmer, covered, for 20 minutes.

Add the dal and top up with stock if the mixture seems too thick. Add enough until you are happy with the consistency. Heat through. Last of all, add the garam masala and cumin and season with salt and pepper to taste.

The sharp sweetness of the tamarind balances the astringency of the lentils and provides a satisfying depth of flavour. Gorgeous with a big fat dollop of natural yogurt.

And how do you like to cook with tamarind? Pulp or concentrate? And if you have tamarind water, where did you get it?! Spill in the comments.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Stephanie Alexander's poached and pot-roasted quince

Until recently I had never eaten quince. Not deliberately, I simply had never considered trying them - or even noticed them. Then I read a recipe by Stefano Manfredi in which he talked about how their aroma fills the kitchen. Intrigued, I decided to take a voyage of discovery.

I only purchased one quince because I didn't expect my husband or daughter to share my sudden enthusiasm. At home I consulted the recipe again - and learned that the cooking time was 8 hours. Really?!

Now, if you're a quince sophisticate, you would know this. But I was astonished. I've never cooked anything for that length of time before. I consulted other quince authorities for verification and finally decided to try Stephanie Alexander's poached quince recipe. She said at least 4 and up to 8 hours. Seemed a little more manageable.

Exotic ingredient alert: muslin
That was until I read that the core is cooked in a muslin bag with the quince. Where would I find muslin in suburban Neutral Bay?! In the healthfood shop, as it happens. The ever excellent Herbie's offer a length of muslin in their spice range. I chatted quinces with the nice lady. Oh yes, they like to take ages, she said. The longer the better.

Home with my muslin to embark on project quince - but the cast-iron pot that goes in the oven was full of my husband's weekend soup stock. It isn't often in such high demand.

The following day I tried again. I made the light sugar syrup that is the first step in Stephanie's recipe, thinking that things were getting ever more complicated. I made it with rapadura sugar as that is what we use, and it made a terribly dark sugar syrup. Hmmm.

Nothing daunted, I proceeded, cutting up the quince, taking out the core and tying it up with muslin (Herbie thoughtfully provides some string). Such is my inexperience I had 2 goes to get it right.

Then I realised that I couldn't put the pot in the oven for the rest of the afternoon - I need to roast some root vegetables for a frittata. My quince with its inexpertly tied core was oxidising in the dark sugar syrup  . . .  Do something. 

Stephanie also provides a recipe for pot-roasted quinces, courtesy of Maggie Beer. So I decided to do that instead. It required boiling the quince vigorously for 30 minutes and then simmering it for 5 hours. After some number of hours, I honestly couldn't say how many exactly, we were cooking dinner and needed the stove. So the cast-iron pot went into a slow oven for another aeon. Poor little quince.

Stephanie's poached quince
6 quinces, washed and peeled
2.25 L light sugar syrup
1 vanilla bean
juice of 1 lemon
lots of time

To make the light sugar syrup, heat 2 parts water to 1 part sugar and stir until the sugar has dissolved.

Preheat oven to 150 degrees C. Cut quinces into quarters or sixths. Cut out cores and tie loosely in a piece of muslin (trust me, you need a large square, especially for 6 quinces).

Put sugar syrup in a cast-iron pot with vanilla bean, lemon juice and muslin bag, then add quince. Cover tightly and bake in oven for at least 4 (and up to 8) hours until quince is deep red. Do not stir or the quince may break up. Cool and serve. Split the vanilla bean and scrape seeds into the gooey syrup.

The miracle of quinces is that they go from pale, citrusy yellow to deep carmine over all these hours. I was pretty impressed with my effort, and the rich, thick syrup that remained. How does it taste? Like quince paste. It's exceedingly rich, but not overly sweet and you need only the tiniest amount. And it's delicious on vanilla yoghurt.

Apparently the thing to do is to poach them overnight. In the meantime, I'll stick to stewing apples and pears. Ready in 8 mins. Not a full working day.

What about you, you cosmopolitan quince lover, you? What's your favourite recipe for this chameleon of the fruit world? How long does it take? If you need any muslin, I have loads. Talk to me in the comments.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Surprisingly substantial breakfast smoothie

I'm not a fan of smoothies for breakfast. I am never confident that a liquid breakfast could ever be substantial enough to last until 9.30, let alone lunch.

Smoothies are, of course, incredibly delectable and a great way of using up bananas. But whenever I make one, I always have to make a piece of toast as well. Just in case. Wouldn't want to starve now, would we.

Recently, however, my daughter showed me a recipe from Martha Rose Shulman on her iPhone. I was astonished that she was sitting there reading the NY Times, but she's downloaded the app. 'It makes me feel smart.'

It's a lovely recipe for Seeded Banana Frappe, a smoothie given extra muscle with nuts and seeds. It sounded as if it would make a solid, delicious, protein-rich, low-carb start to the working day, so I thought I'd give it a whirl.

Shopping and prepping
It took some organising. First of all, shopping. I had to buy the nuts and seeds and I decided also to use this as an opportunity to try almond milk. The affordable Soygood product in the supermarket lists cane sugar as its 2nd ingredient, ewww. Instead I purchased a sugar-free, organic almond milk in the healthfood shop - for $8.50.

Martha Rose says to peel bananas that are ripening faster than you can eat them and freeze them to use in the smoothie. Great tip! But ripe bananas are not that easy to come by, so there was much scrutiny of yellowing skins before I had 4 good specimens.

The first day I planned to frappe, I had forgotten to soak my seeds the night before. Probably because I do not normally do this, but Martha Rose is a recent convert to soaking and recommended it for the recipe. As with grains, it is to break down the phytic acid and protease inhibitors that block enzyme function and prevent the absorption of minerals.

A day later, I was ready: bananas frozen (hey, it works!), seeds soaked and all other ingredients assembled. It was a fiddly operation, but the result was appetisingly thick and rich and not over sweet. Martha Rose suggests adding 2 teaspoons of almond or peanut butter for extra heft, and the second time I made the frappe, I added 2 teaspoons of macadamia nut butter (because that's what I had in the cupboard). It did thicken the texture nicely and added a delicate flavour note. Highly recommended step.

Seeded Banana Frappe
Serves 1
6 almonds
1 tbs sunflower seeds, soaked overnight and drained
1 tbs pumpkin seeds (ditto)
1 tps toasted flaxseeds or sesame seeds (ditto; but I used a tps flaxseed oil)
1 ripe banana, frozen if poss
1 cup imported, fancy-schmancy almond milk (or cow's or rice, whatever your budget runs to)
1/4 tps vanilla extract
1 tps honey
1/8 tps turmeric (had enough of all the fiddly teaspoons yet?!)
2 ice cubes
2 tps nut butter of your choice
Freshly grated nutmeg for garnish (so didn't bother with this)

Place all of the ingredients in a blender and blend at high speed for a full, noisy minute. Pour into a glass and enjoy while you madly finish packing your bag, making the bed, straightening your hair and trying not to be late again. Particularly recommended for organised morning types.

Didn't feel like that piece of toast. That might have something to do with the number of calories listed on the nutritional info: 388.

What's your favourite breakfast smoothie? Does it keep you satisfied all morning? Ever frozen a banana, you thrifty thing? Speak to me in the comments, folks!

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Velvety smooth pearl barley broth

It's been raining for an endless number of days. Or so it seems. Definitely the weather for what Hugh calls a hefty soup.

I never cook with barley, so I'm not sure why this recipe caught my eye. It also calls for mace, a stranger to my spice cupboard. But I'm willing to try new tastes at the moment, so I purchased 2 large packets of 2 unfamiliar ingredients this week. Methinks there will be a few barley meals to come before the rainy weather clears.

To soak or not to soak
I didn't. Soak, that is, although Jude recommends doing so with hardier grains such as barley. This is to allow lactobaccilli bacteria to break down the phytic acids contained in grains, beans and legumes that interfere with the absorption of minerals such as calcium, magnesium and zinc. It also improves digestibility and reduces cooking times.

Her method is to soak grains and beans at room temperature overnight in a large bowl with a couple of teaspoons of yoghurt stirred through.

I'll be more barley-savvy next time, but in this recipe I just rinsed it and chucked it in all free and easy like. It still softened up beautifully.

Velvety texture
Hugh recommends pureeing a couple of ladles of the broth in for a thicker texture. I heartily recommend this step, despite the palaver of setting up and washing up the blender. It makes the soup silky smooth and creamy. A most luxurious mouthfeel.

And the mace? Left to my own devices I would have added oregano or sage instead of nutmeg and mace, but they added a delicate sweet flavour that seems characteristically English. Glad to meet you, mace. Pleased to make your acquaintance.

Pearl barley broth
15 g butter
2 large onions (I used one: 2 seemed like a lot)
1 bay leaf
A few sprigs of thyme, leaves only, chopped (fiddly)
1 small celery stalk, finely chopped
1 small carrot, finely chopped
1 small parsnip, finely chopped
1/4 tsp ground coriander
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg (or a few gratings of fresh, if you're all fixed up with a grater)
A good pinch of cayenne pepper
A good pinch of ground mace
100 g pearl barley, rinsed
1.5 L vegetable stock
Small handful of fresh parsley
Salt and black pepper

Heat the butter in a large saucepan over a medium-low heat and gently sweat the onions with the bay leaf and thyme for about 15 mins until soft and translucent. Add the celery, carrot and parsnip and saute for a further 5 mins. Stir in the spices.

Add the barley, pour in the stock and add some salt and pepper.  Simmer gently for 25-30 mins until the barley is soft. Remove the bay leaf.

You can serve as is or scoop out a couple of ladlefuls and puree them in a blender of food processor. Or whizz away with your stick blender. (I could never use mine without ending up with soup on the ceiling.) Return to the pot and warm through. Stir in the parsley and adjust the seasoning if nec.

Hugh serves his barley broth with big fat croutons. sizzled in olive oil. This would be a sublime addition if you were serving it immediately. As I'm taking mine to work, I'm adding some pre-steamed ribbons of kale and keeping my carb count low as befits my sedentary day.

I'd love to hear from you. What's your favourite use for mace? Do you soak? Spill the beans in the comments.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

The spiciest pumpkin soup ever

Late afternoon autumn sunshine on the
frangipani tree outside the kitchen
The other night I was cooking pumpkin and chickpea tagine for dinner. The one that takes me about 1 hour of prep. As I wouldn't be home until 7.30 to start cooking, I did something I've never done before.

I bought a pack of pre-peeled, pre-chopped pumpkin.

Once home, I tossed it in 1 tbsp olive oil and some salt and pepper and threw it in the faithful roasting pan with a couple of carrots. 'Too easy', I thought.

Yep, too easy. 20 mins later I checked their progress, and the pumpkin had steamed into an ugly browny-orangey mess.

So, I scooped it out and left the carrots to do their thing in peace. I decided to use the pumpkin mess to make soup. And to accept that peeling and chopping are usually unavoidable when you cook from scratch.

Pumpkin soup: the upside
Pumpkin soup is easy to make and it's versatile. You can cook it with Indian, North African, Japanese, Thai or French-inspired flavours. You can add cubes of tofu, paneer or tempeh for protein. You can bulk it up with chickpeas or brown rice. You can garnish with chives, parsley, coriander, tamari, creme fraiche, sour cream or natural yoghurt. You can serve with warm flat bread or sourdough toast.

Well, don't know about you, but these are all things I do with pumpkin soup.

Pumpkin soup: the downside
It can be like thick, gloopy baby food. It can have a mono-flavour, resulting in severe boredom half-way through the bowl. It can be messy and fiddly to prepare if you decide to puree it in the blender.

But, it's been months since my last dose - and I have me a packet of whole dried habenero chillis I've been dying to crack open. Time to unleash pumpkin soup el diabolo.

Habenero chillis
I love the distinctive smokey aroma conferred by chipotle chilli, and I've been keen to try other Mexican chillis. They are not easy to come by on the lower North Shore, but Herbie's Spices reliably take us to exotic lands - in those few stockists that carry them.

Roasted red onion, swede and parsnips
My husband and daughter do not share my enthusiasm for chilli, so if I can only crank up the heat in dishes I'm making for myself. I had kept a torn-out recipe by Karen Martini for a Mexican-type pumpkin soup, and used it for inspiration. But what I made is entirely my own creation.

I roasted extra root vegetables for bulk and complexity of flavour. I didn't know how much chilli to use, so I chopped up  a whole one and added a couple of pinches of the flakes. Plenty.

Pumpkin soup el diabolo

1 red onion
half a pumpkin (I prefer butternut)
2 parsnips
1 swede
1 tsp Herbie's Mexican Spice Blend
half a dried habanero chilli, de-seeded and chopped finely
fresh coriander (stalk and leaves)

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees.
Toss all the vegetables in 2 tbs of olive oil (at most). Add salt. I added 1 tsp of chipotle chilli here as well.
Roast for 30 mins to 40 mins until caramelised and soft.
Heat some butter in a wide-bottomed pan. Add the roast onions, Mexican spice mix and chilli and cook for 3 mins.
Add the remaining vegetables, fresh coriander and enough stock to cover.
Heat through gently for at least 20 mins.
Puree the soup in batches in a blender or food processor. Add extra stock or water if nec to make sure the consistency doesn't become too much like baby food.
Serve with sour cream and a generous squeeze of lime juice.

The verdict
The chilli added a punch, if not the heavenly fragrance as described on the Herbie's website. The soup makes for a filling and delicious lunch, full of flavour and low in calories. I made an enormous batch, so after 4 straight days of pumpkin soup for lunch I had had my fill. But for something that started as a disaster, it was a delectable success.
Pumpkin soup with tempeh, natural yoghurt and lemon juice
ready for lunch, bathed in the early morning autumn sunshine

And I still have 4 chillis to go. Any suggestions, amigos?! Let me know in the comments. Or tell me about your favourite pumpkin soup recipe. Everybody has one.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Veg Every Day shows how to make Brussels sprouts super tasty

Hugh with a haircut
My latest kitchen hero is Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. His name is a mouthful, but his latest book, Veg Every Day, is a garden of delights.

Hugh appeared on the scene in the mid-1990s. He's an alumnus of the River Cafe, as is Jamie Oliver. At the time I had started to do some cookbook publishing and was keeping a close eye on the market. He was clearly original and eccentric - scruffy, oddly a bit posh and outspoken. Personally I wasn't interested in his style of carnivorous cooking, although I grudgingly admired his 'nose-to-tail' philosophy. A vegetarian's meat-eater.

Gradually, however, I became aware of him as an engaging TV personality who is devoted to organic husbandry, embraces a back-to-basics philosophy and rocks delicious, real food. And when this latest book arrived, I realised I was keen to discover Hugh's charms for myself.

He's had a haircut recently and on the cover looks like a scrubbed up boy who's having a school photo taken. He is quintessentially English. I can imagine him so clearly at an ancient public school: in the dorm, on the cricket pitch, shouting traditional school jokes in Latin, feeling a bit homesick on the train going back to school after half-term. And as it turns out, he did have a blue-blooded education: Eton and St Peters College, Oxford.

But while his views on food are unconventional and he is a campaigner, he is kind and agreeable and draws people in.  His approach to food is open-hearted, ethical without seeming ideological.

But, of course, simple food grown naturally is terribly complicated and out-of-reach for most people. Watching Hugh, the bucolic beauty of his teeming garden seems so achievable - but try buying fresh baby peas or ethically reared pork in the supermarket.

Veg every day
The book is beautiful designed and the lovely pics have been lovingly styled (photography and styling by Simon Wheeler).  I would be immensely proud if I had published this book!

Hugh states that he has not written a vegetarian cookbook (not a cube of tofu to be found within its pages), but his objective is to persuade us to eat more vegetables - 'perhaps even to make veg the mainstay of your daily cooking'.

Hear, hear. And the recipes are so enticing you're eager to get started.

Brussels sprouts
Which brings me to Brussels sprouts. The world's most unloved vegetable. Difficult to cook. Smelly. But extremely nutritious, rich in vitamins and minerals, and respectable if handled well. I bought a bag at the markets last week in a burst of Hugh-style veg enthusiasm. A week later, they're still there.

In The Cook's CompanionStephanie Alexander suggests that the best way to savour them is to boil them and serve hot with butter. Yum.

But that sounds like the accompaniment to a piece of roast meat. I need something I can keep in the fridge and heat up at work.

 As I have become a convert to roast cauliflower, I thought I'd try roast Brussels sprouts - and Hugh has kindly supplied a recipe. He describes it is a dish 'to convert sprout shirkers'. See what you think.

Roasted Brussels sprouts with shallots

400 g Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved (or whole if small, should you ever chance upon such a rarity)
350 g shallots or small onions, peeled, halved or quartered
3 tbs oil (I used extra virgin olive oil; Hugh always recommends rapeseed oil)
several sprigs of thyme (he's fond of thyme)
a squeeze of lemon juice
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 190 degrees C.

Put the sprouts and shallots in a large roasting dish. Trickle over the oil, season with salt and pepper and toss to coat. Tuck in the thyme sprigs.

Roast for about 35 mins, giving them a good stir about half-way through, until everything is a bit crispy, brown and caramalised.

Squeeze some lemon juice over the roasted sprouts, along with another sprinkling of fresh thyme if you like.

The verdict?  Well, even though I just eaten lunch, I wanted to scoff the whole lot when I plated them up for the photo and squeezed lemon juice over them. Sweet, earthy, simple.

Giving Brussels sprouts a little vegetable love

Incidentally, in the intro to the show (love the show!), Hugh mentions his 'vegetable love'. This is a reference to a famous poem by Andrew Marvell, To His Coy Mistress:

My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than Empires, and more slow

It's another one of the touchpoints that seem so English boarding-school to me. It is an incongruous construction that has to be explained to English Lit students today. I find it easy to imagine 12 year-old Hugh sitting in a centuries-old classroom in a school that teaches Elizabethan poetry -- and being tickled by it.

Are you a sprouts shirker? Could Hugh entice you to sample more of the goodness of the garden? Tell me your favourite sprouts recipe, or your favourite eccentric English, poetry-declaiming cook in the comments.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Delicious date loaf for a healthy treat

The legendary Merle with the peach
blossom cake that was a hit on MasterChef.
Merle Parrish's first attempt at baking was a batch of Anzac biscuits in 1940 when she was 7 years old. She quickly discovered she was better at baking than most people because she won her first competition for her biscuits in that same year.

This gorgeous book is a celebration of home baking and the traditions of the Country Women's Association. Merle has been a member of the CWA for 58 years and one of its champion bakers throughout that time. She grew up when there were always biscuits in the tin, a cake ready to be sliced and pudding with dinner -- all home baked.

Lucky me, I was asked to write the intro for the book, for which I had several interviews with Merle. I loved finding out about her life. I was struck by the simplicity of the recipes. Most are made with flour, butter, eggs and sugar ('ingredients any housewife will have in the pantry', according to Merle) and all were in her head. If she wants some scones, she goes into the kitchen and makes some. I would have to purchase ingredients and consult a book, furrowed brow, at every step.

When the book arrived, I was surprised by my husband's enthusiasm. 'These are just the sort of things Mum used to make,' he said. He was particularly taken with memories of Date and Walnut Loaf and asked me to make Merle's. Except he can't eat nuts, so it would have to be a Date Loaf. I think the walnuts are a crucial ingredient for adding texture and a welcome bitter flavour note, but never mind. Here we go.

Lovely, sludgy cake mix, just like when you were a kid!
 Date (and Walnut) Loaf

1 cup chopped dates
3/4 cup warm water
125 g butter, at room temperature
1 tsp sugar (I used rapadura)
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla essence
90 g chopped walnuts (if you're using them)
1.5 cups plain flour (I used spelt)
1.25 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt

Preheat the oven to moderately slow (160 degrees). Grease a loaf tin and line with baking paper, hanging over the 2 long sides. Soak the dates in the warm water while you prepare the other ingredients.

Use electric beaters (had to dig mine out) to cream the butter and sugar until white and fluffy (hey, it worked!). Add the egg and vanilla, and beat until combined.

Fold in the dates and the soaking water. Add the walnuts here if you're using them. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt over, and fold in until combined. Spoon into the tin, and smooth the surface. Bake for 45 mins to 1 hour until springy to a gentle touch. Stand in the tin for 5 mins to cool slightly, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool.

The smell was wonderful. Who needs walnuts?!

The verdict? Beautifully rich with all that extra sweetness from the dates. Extra fructose to all you sugar-phobes, but extra fibre and phytonutrients as well. My husband was pleased and for a whole week there was home-baked dessert ready to go. We served it with a dollop of yoghurt, but don't tell Merle. It's really meant to be served warm with butter for afternoon tea, as in Steve Brown's lovely pic.

Lashings of butter and honey on warm loaf.
Steve has more enticing photographs on his website. They were styled by Janelle Bloom, with delicious colours and dainty accessories.

Merle's Kitchen would make a lovely mother's day gift. It's impossible not to look through it and feel inspired to tie on your best pink apron. And because the recipes come from a home cook (admittedly, a supremely talented one who has won dozens of awards for decades), they are all practical, straightforward and welcoming. Simple pleasures are the stuff of everyday happiness.

What's your favourite cake to make at home? Do you know where your electric beaters are? Tell me in the comments!

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Roasted summer vegetables with basil

Summer vegetables ready for roasting on a bed of basil leaves. 

I had planned to make insalata di farro con verdure al forno today. It's an appealing-looking recipe from Jamie Oliver's hugely successful title, Jamie's Italy.

Decided I was ready to try farro, even though it's a dreaded grain. I have 2 perfectly good boxes of quinoa in the cupboard that would work as well in the recipe, but I don't like quinoa. It tastes mineral-y. But I've always loved the pic by of Jamie's grainy insalata (by David Loftus or Chris Terry) and thought it would work very well as a take-to-work lunch.

I bought all the ingredients this morning . . . but the health food shop didn't come to the party - no farro. So, that was the end of that idea for today. I stomped home feeling very cross, while trying to think of a good alternative with the vegetables I had purchased.

And this is it. It's from my faithful old standby, Jude Blereau's Wholefood. I've always meant to try it. The page is flagged, in fact - so this is what I did.

1 eggplant, cut into slices approx 2 cm thick
olive oil for brushing
handful fresh basil, roughly torn
1 red pepper
2 medium zucchinis, cut into chunks approx 5 cm thick
2 roma tomatoes, cut in half lengthways
1 garlic clove, skin left on, wrapped in baking paper  (twist to seal) with a little salt & pepper
salt & pepper to taste

Grill the red pepper and set aside.

If the eggplant is old and large (I decided mine was, to be on the safe side), lay the slices on the draining board next to the sink and sprinkle liberally with salt. Leave for 30 mins to draw out the bitter juices. Then rinse and pat dry.

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees.

Brush the bottom of a roasting tin with olive oil and add the roughly torn basil. Arrange all the vegetables on the basil and brush lightly with olive oil. Jude makes the point that, as these vegetables have a higher moisture content than root vegetables, they require less oil. Sprinkle with salt & pepper. Add the garlic clove in its twisted wrap and bake.

After 20 mins, check if the garlic clove is nice and soft. Remove from the oven and return the vegetables for another 30 mins or so - until they are cooked and lightly coloured.

Peel and slice the red pepper and add to the vegetables with the squished garlic flesh.

The basil leaves imprinted themselves in the eggplant! Sweet, soft summer vegetables just roasted.

Jude calls this dish 'the harvest celebrated', and the bright, sweet, basil-y aroma is summery and enticing. The colours are gorgeous and fresh. She suggests eating it with good bread, good cheese, pesto and organic wine (she's specific about the organic bit, but it's possible that the non-organic kind would be just as enjoyable).

It would be a welcome addition to omelettes, sandwiches or pasta as well. A kind of multi-purpose ratatouille-lite.

I'm going to reheat it tomorrow for lunch with some cannellini beans and spinach. Serendipitous, in the end, not being able to buy farro today.

Late afternoon sunshine casting shadows. Fresh, light tastes for the last days of summer.

And you, have you ever discovered a really wonderful recipe because you couldn't make the one you planned? Do you find it easy to switch direction, or do you have to have a little sulk first? Leave me a comment and tell me your recipe U-turns.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Simple summer lentils with grilled onion and red pepper

Market fresh red onions, with the gorgeous pic by Toby Glanville of allotment grilled onions behind them.

This recipe comes from Moro East, a beautiful book by Sam & Sam Cook, the husband-&-wife team who own Moro restaurant in Exmouth Market in London.

 The food at Moro is inspired by a cuisine that has its roots in Spain and the Muslim Mediterranean, which they describe as Moorish. Two great culinary traditions drawn together in the marriage of saffron and cinnamon. Doesn't that sound ancient, mysterious and exotic? I'm quoting the website, which is worth a peek.

The inspiration for the recipes in this sophisticated collection comes from a little closer to home for Sam and Sam.

For 7 years they grew vegetables and herbs in an allotment in Victoria Park, 'high over the river, looking across to a bank of wild plums, elderflower and blackberries'. There they met a diverse group of allotment gardeners, Cypriots, Kurds and Turks, who taught them new things about cooking from old traditions.

(The exquisite photography by Toby Glanville adds atmosphere and a wonderful sense of place. Wish I could treat you to one here.)

There is something about the idea of the allotment that is as appealing as the Moorish influence. Growing my own fresh vegetables and herbs is one of my perennial fantasies, especially when there's no coriander or nice lettuces left at the not-terribly-good fruit and veg shop near work that I only go to when I'm desperate.

But happily yesterday we went to the farmers markets and came home with a stash of allotment-worthy produce, newly picked and smelling heavenly. I decided to make this inviting salad (even though I've been on a lentil hiatus recently) as it will work well as a take-to-work salad.

And I can transport myself to foreign places when I eat it!

1 cup Puy lentils
handful of young, red onions
1 red pepper
generous handful of parsley leaves, roughly chopped (I used about 10 sprigs)

4 tbs extra virgin olive oil
1 tbs red wine vinegar + 1 tsp sugar (but the Clarks recommend sherry or Pedro Ximenez vinegar instead, which would add a special rich sweetness that lentils love)
small garlic clove, crushed to a paste with a pinch of salt

Whisk all the dressing ingredients together and season to taste with salt & pepper.

Put the lentils in a saucepan and cover generously with water. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat to a gentle simmer  and cook for 15-20 mins until lentils are just cooked but still firm. Remove from heat, season with a little salt and set aside.

Grill the onions and pepper. I did this under the grill, but you could grill them whole on the barbecue or directly on the naked flame of a gas hob (never been brave enough to try this method). The pepper takes about 8 minutes, but I left the onions charring away for about 15 mins until the flesh was very soft.

When cool enough to handle, pick off the blackened skins and slice or tear into strips. Put the vegetables and parsley into a bowl. Drain the warm lentils, reserving 3 to 4 tbs of liquid. Add to the bowl with the reserved liquid and the dressing. Toss well and check for seasoning.

The grilled vegetables are very soft and sweet, and adding the dressing while the lentils are warm means the flavours are well combined. The dressing softens the texture of the lentils. There is something about the addition of fat that makes pulses and legumes so much more palatable!

I expect the salad to last well for 2 to 3 days, with additions of extra vegetables every day for variety and interest. And, of course, it would also be a delicious accompaniment served warm and just-made with some fish or chicken. Will certainly be having more Moro.

Flecks of parsley, sweet onion and peppers, rich dressing. Nature's harvest!

Do you find the idea of growing your own produce on an allotment terribly romantic and back-to-nature? Let me know your pastoral fantasies! Please leave a comment if you try this recipe, or if you even make a note to try it sometime. You'll find that Moorish is very more-ish.


Tuesday, 14 February 2012

The most perfect recipe for olives ever

Glistening, rich and fruity, just begging to be picked up carefully between finger and thumb

Olives add a beautiful flavour note to many dishes. Pungent, earthy, salty . . . And the fat gives a solid, satisfying mouthfeel.

We add olives to many of our recipes, but we always bake them in a hot oven with oil and garlic first. This intensifies the flavour immensely and makes it sing. I don't really like olives any other way now.

We found the recipe in Something Italian by the uber-cool Maurizio Terzini. Lovely book, stylish illustrations and sophisticated design. But the recipes proved too chef-y for us plain folk and the book now moulders away in the storeroom, with oh, so many others. However, this olive recipe lives on in our kitchen every week.

It's easy to make a whole jar and keep in the fridge, Tamar Adler style. And we use Sandhurst kalamata olives that are available in the supermarket. Easy-peasy.

Incidentally, I'm using the royal 'we' here because this is a family recipe, and the 3 of us make it.

The smell when they're baking is heady and aromatic and gives you that happy feeling when you know good food is on the way. I usually pinch one when they're hot and fresh out of the oven, and burn my fingers. It's part of the olive tradition.

I jar black, pitted olives
4 tbs olive oil
4 tbs wine
2 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
2 bay leaves
rosemary, sprinkle of chilli, salt & pepper

Heat the oven to 180 degrees.

Drain the olives and tip into a baking dish. Spoon the olive oil and wine over them, add all the seasonings and stir.

Stick in the oven for 20 mins and let the flavours concentrate in the most delicious way.

The end.

We use olives to give a little kick in:

  • pasta sauces
  • home-made pizza
  • salade nicoise
  • haloumi salad
  • most other salads we're making!
  • braised cannellini beans with tomato
  • braised potatoes with leek
  • Neil Perry's sweet potato salad

Just having a bowl ready in the fridge invites their use. This delightfully simple recipe is a wonderful way of creating delicatessen-style olives from a supermarket product. Wholesome and divine kitchen alchemy. Perfecto.

Pumpkin, roast cauliflower and olive salad with coriander dressing, ready for work.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Why I love chickpeas again

Add a dollop of yoghurt to chickpea tagine. Yum.

I stopped eating chickpeas for several months last year when I was attempting to live la vida slow-carb.

Why? Well, in his dietary prescriptions the mighty Tim refers to them as 'domino foods' and as such to be avoided: "eating one portion often creates a domino effect of over-snacking."

Just like that, chickpeas were off the menu. Which is silly because I wasn't following the diet properly. The chickpeas would not have made one bit of difference to my total lack of weight loss. General non-compliance did that.

So, I've welcomed them back. And while I often sneak 1 or 2 (OK, 8 or 10) while they are draining in the colander, I don't oversnack.

Cans or dried?
We buy loads of cans of beans each week: chickpeas, canellinni, pinto and black beans, sometimes refried beans (my husband makes beautiful bean burgers with these). Often I have perfectionist stabs of guilt about not buying dried beans and soaking them overnight. Much cheaper, greener and probably tastier.

But cans are so convenient. And there are plenty of organic brands available in cans not lined with BPA. Goes some way to assuage the guilt.

But, if you do want to soak them, then I suggest you add a teaspoon of yoghurt to the soaking water. This adds bacteria that break down the phytic acid.

Why does this matter? Phytic acid is the naturally occurring compound that binds the minerals in the legumes and makes them less bioavailable to our digestive enzymes. Adding vitamin C to beans (tomatoes, for example) also helps to improve bioavailability by breaking down the phytic acid.

What's great about chickpeas?
They are probably the most versatile little member of the legume family. They work so well in various cuisine styles: Italian, Indian, North African, Middle Eastern. And a good humus is definitely a more-ish domino food!

Nutritionally they're heavy lifters:

  • plant protein
  • soluble fibre
  • several vitamins
  • minerals, including folate, iron and zinc

So, unless you're a serious slow-carber who's following the diet properly, or a Paleo who doesn't eat anything discovered as recently as 20,000 years ago, I'd recommend having a can on hand.

You could give this a whirl, for example.

Those shrivelled looking things were some leftover mushrooms that I roasted with the sweet potato. They were swell for breakfast on sourdough toast with a boiled egg.
Morocan chickpea tagine
This is a recipe I made up myself. Go me. As Tamar Adler says, cooking is at heart instinctive, and most of us know more about creating recipes than we think.

Typically, I've found a way to make it so it takes ages, a good hour. But it's really hearty, it's fragrant and inviting and it can accommodate whatever vegies you have on hand. Here's what I made the other night.

1 onion & 1 or 2 cloves of garlic
olive oil
1 sweet potato (or half a butternut pumpkin)
1 or 2 cans of chickpeas
tomato passata (we use Bio-Organic)
Herbie's tagine spice mix (or 1 tsp each cumin, cinnamon, coriander, paprika)
green vegetable (spinach, green beans, peas, silver beet)
1 potato and/or 2 carrots
1 block of tofu
fresh coriander
one-quarter preserved lemon or fresh lemon juice

First of all, put on some music. I love cooking to Laura Marling at the moment.

Heat the oven to 180 degrees. Peel the sweet potato (or pumpkin), toss in 1 tbs oil, season with salt and paper (and some paprika, if you like it) and roast. If I'm using carrots, I like to roast them as well.

Chop the onion and garlic and heat in 1 tbs of oil until soft and sizzling. If I'm using a potato, I'll add it now. Rinse the chickpeas, nibble a few absent-mindedly while they're draining, then add to the potatoes and onions.

Add the spice mix and coat the vegetables. Then add the passata. I usually use about half a bottle that contains 690 g, and then add water or stock as the tagine cooks to obtain a lovely consistency. Leave to simmer away.

Prepare and steam the green vegetable you've selected.

Cut up the tofu into chunks and fry in olive oil. It takes a while to fry each side of the cubes, but does give a good, firm result. A resident teenager for this job is handy. They are useful occasionally.

Add the tofu, roasted vegetables and steamed vegetables to the chickpea mixture. Adjust the liquid. Add the coriander and lemon and you're finally done.

Fragrant with lemon and Moroccan spices. 

Serve with yoghurt. My husband and daughter eat this with flat bread, but a meal of tofu, pumpkin and chickpeas is enough carbohydrate for my waistline.

If I have steamed and roasted vegetables already pre-prepared, then this is a quick meal. But making the vegetables separately does add time and effort to the procedure. Of course, you could add the sweet potato and carrot to the onion mix, and then the green vegetable after the  passata and leave it all to stew in the tomato sauce.

However, I think it improves depth of flavour to roast pumpkin or sweet potato and this adds richness to the finished dish. And steaming green vegetables means they retain a bright green colour. That boiled green look? Not so appealing.

And tagine keeps beautifully for subsequent meals. Like breakfast, slow-carbers.

What's your favourite chickpea recipe? Have you ever stopped eating something because you read it in a book? Leave me a comment and let me know!

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Lunch to take to work: summer honey pumpkin salad

That's 2 hours work, sitting on my kitchen bench. I'll be glad for the effort at lunchtime tomorrow.

My daughter tagged this recipe (old school, with a Post-It on the page of a book).  It's from Wholefood by Jude Blereu, my go-to cookbook.

My daughter became a fully fledged vegetarian the night we went to see the hypnotic Jonathan Safran Foer talk about his book, Eating Animals, at the Sydney Opera House. Totally predictable.

Anyway, I fret about her protein intake, and the quality of her diet in general (when she's not at home, of course). So, she went through Wholefood and flagged the recipes that most appealed to her. The idea is she cooks them herself, introduces new recipes into the family repertoire and takes full responsibility for her vegetarianism.

But I can't wait for that and decided to try this one today.

Most salads taste best freshly made with fresh ingredients, which makes them tricky as make-ahead, lunch-in-the-office options. So, I've prepared the various components and will assemble them in the morning, and add the fragrant dressing at lunch time.

It's really promising at this pre-construction stage. Sweet and rich, with a clean splash from lime and a hint of danger from fresh chilli. Vegan, grain-free, nourishing and slow-carb. And, most of all, delicious.

But it took me a good couple of hours to make. Set aside some time and play some good music!

half a pumpkin, cut into chunks
1 tbs oil
2 tps honey
1 red pepper
I tbs oil
half a block of tempeh, sliced

1/4 cup sesame oil
3 tsp brown rice vinegar
3 tsp lime juice
1 tsp grated ginger (was flagging a bit by the peeling and grating ginger stage!)
generous handful coriander (leaves from about 10 sprigs)
1.5 tbs pear or apple juice concentrate
8 small mint leaves
1 small chilli

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. Mix the pumpkin in a bowl with the oil (I used olive) and honey, then throw into a roasting tray and bake until soft. I tossed in some Dutch carrots because I had some left, and thought they would take well to the honey.

Heat the oil (I used sesame) in a fry-pan and fry the tempeh until lightly brown. Drain on kitchen paper. Dice into small cubes.

Grill the red pepper until the skin is black.

(I do this by laying some tin foil on the grilling tray and placing the pepper in quarters on top and sliding under the grill. Then, when the pepper is nicely charred, I wrap it up (carefully, with tongs) in the foil. Once the pieces are cool enough to handle, I peel off the skin. There are dozens of ways of doing this, so ignore me if you have your own method. Particularly if it's more efficient.)

Mix the dressing ingredients together until well combined and smelling divine. Pour into a glass jar for storage.

Jude makes this salad with avocado, rocket and marinated artichoke quarters. I'll add those ingredients on Monday morning when I put everything together in a container. Except the rocket. I couldn't find any, so I've steamed a huge bunch of cavalo nero to use instead.

And Jude suggests adding 1 tsp of roasted sesame oil and 3 kaffir lime leaves to the dressing. That sounds lovely, but I didn't want to buy some expensive ingredients that I don't usually use this time.

I love tempeh and eat it several times a week. I prefer it to tofu because it has a more hearty texture courtesy of whole soya beans. As they are retained (unlike tofu, which is more processed) tempeh contains all their nutrients. And that characteristic taste comes from the fact those beans are fermented.

We don't generally eat many fermented foods, but they are excellent for gut health as they introduce probiotics into the large intestine. This subject is worthy of an entire blog, so if you're interested I suggest you read what the ever-intelligent Mark from The Daily Apple has to say. He follows a Paleo diet and is highly respected within that community, but it does mean he offers a . . . particular perspective. Just saying.

 I doubt he approves of tempeh, but I think it's a handy, versatile and tasty source of plant protein. Jude suggests marinating it and then baking it to fully develop the flavour. I've tried this, but found it made it too rich for my taste. It can be overwhelming, but in this salad it's likely to be nutty and satisfying.

Yummy lunch tomorrow!

Tuna, chickpeas and broccoli salad with yoghurt dressing

The other salad I am going to enjoy at my desk this week is this beauty from Martha Rose Shulman at the NY Times. Sigh. Deeply envious of the food photography.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

2 beautiful summer recipes for happy slow-carbing

Sweet potato salad

Wish my photo could do justice to this gorgeous dish!

I spotted this promising recipe on Neil Perry's page in the Good Weekend magazine recently. I think his food has a reputation for being a bit chef-y and difficult, but this looked really inviting. So, later that day I gave it a whirl.

1 large sweet potato
sea salt
1 brown onion, chopped
1/2 tsp each ground cumin/paprika/chili powder
juice of half a lemon
flat-leaf parsley

Heat the oven to 180 degrees. Peel the sweet potato, chop into chunks and toss with 1 tbs olive oil and salt. Roast until soft.

Heat 1 tbs olive oil in a frying pan. Saute the onion until soft, then add the spices and a little salt. Toss to incorporate. Add another 1 tbs (or less) of oil, lemon juice, olives and parsley and toss again until evenly mixed. Done.

True to form, I did not follow Neil's recipe exactly, but improvised slightly according to my own preferences. Here is the maestro's original, complete with mouthwatering pic!

But the result was ooh la, la, divine. We served it with a small piece of baked chicken each, served on spinach sauteed with garlic. We greedily scoffed every mouthful of the large bowl of sweet potato because it was so delectable.

Think it would work equally well with roasted pumpkin and carrots. And Neil's recipe is served with white fish, which I'd also love to try.

Black bean ful

1 can of beans made 2 slow-carb lunches
Feel like I've been in a lentil rut recently. Then suddenly into my head popped this lovely recipe from an earlier cooking era, those benighted days of risotto-and-bread-for-dinner.

It's an Egyptian dish and comes from a book we had long relegated to a box in the storeroom: Sundays at Moosewood by the Moosewood Collective. It has now been dusted off and restored to the kitchen, where it belongs.

Moosewood Inc is a collective of 19 people who opened a restaurant of natural foods in 1973 and have taken it to be a thriving business over 38 years. As they say on their website, the Moosewood restaurant and cookbooks have been a driving force in creative vegetarian cooking. Hear, hear.

Anyway, I always loved this fresh, lemony, garlicky dish, which we served then with couscous and flat bread (!!), yoghurt and boiled egg. This week I had it twice for a healthy lunch with extra steamed green beans stirred through, and the egg. Most enjoyable. The beans, lemon and garlic complement each other beautifully. Beauti-ful.

Once again, I have freely adapted the original recipe.

1 can black beans (can't get enough black beans)
olive oil
3-4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
half a cup lemon juice
2-3 tomatoes, peeled and seeded
generous amount of chopped parsley

Heat 1 tbs oil on a low heat and add the garlic for a gentle minute. Add the tomatoes and continue to heat gently as they release their juice. Add the beans and warm through, then add another 1 tbs of oil, salt, parsley and lemon juice. The beans absorb the flavours, but taste and adjust until the dish is as smooth, lemony and garlicky as you like. I kept it on the heat for 30 mins to allow the flavours to develop.

Let me know your favourite summer slow-carb recipes. Always looking for fresh ideas to freely adapt!

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Surprisingly simple way to make wholefoods easier

Roasted cauliflower was a revelation. Meltingly soft and sweet . .
I have never considered roasting cauliflower.

I've always associated cauliflower with water. It's also always seemed a bit fiddly. And as I'm the only one in our household who likes it, I've always been put off by the fact that they are only available as whole or half cauliflowers, and that means cooking up more than I can eat in one sitting.

Similarly, I've never really liked the notion of boiling vegetables. Steaming is OK, but the word boiling is redolent of the smell of cabbage wafting down hallways at my boarding school. Boiling the crap out of vegetables was part of the British character in those days.

Tamar Adler
Well, both those notions were pleasantly tested this week when I read this wonderful article in the Well section of the NY Times. It's about a book called An Everlasting Meal from Tamar Adler whose approach to better food and cooking starts with setting a pot of water on to boil.

Tamar started her career as an editor (at Harpers: impressive) and then moved into cooking at several noteworthy restaurants, including Chez Panisse. She clearly embraces a slow cooking style where little is wasted and the uncomplicated dishes are the result of an intuitive response to fresh ingredients.

How Tamar prepares vegetables
Tamar's suggestions for preparing vegetables were an epiphany for me.

She returns to her stylish kitchen with bags of fresh produce, and proceeds to make the lot straightaway. A good many are roasted, including cauliflower. Others are sauteed or boiled.

Then she spoons them into glass jars and stores them in the fridge for later use. As Tara Parker-Pope notes in her article, this essentially turns vegetables into convenience food. Tamar shows you how she 'strides ahead' as she puts it in the elegant videos on her website.

A solution to the lunch dilemma
Ever since I started making my lentils for breakfast I have been all too conscious of the time required to make each recipe I've tried. Peeling, chopping, roasting, steaming, simmering and then washing up, packing and unpacking the dishwasher . . . And, as I have written before, I haven't been successful in preparing a lunch dish ahead as well.

This week, I drew inspiration from Tamar.

I made a batch of vegetables on Saturday - cavalo nero, sweet potato, green beans (and some exquisite poached peaches). It was a lovely, peaceful way to spend a couple of hours.

On Sunday, I roasted cauliflower and carrots and made the lentils. Now I have a bountiful supply of ingredients to combine for breakfast and lunch in the days ahead. Much less stressful, and so sensible that it seems madness not to have thought of doing this before.

Lentilicious helps to make it easy
I saved loads of time by making a packet of Coconut Fusion lentils from Lentilicious, sent to me by the fantastic Sharna and Anthea (thanks again, girls!). It is a beautiful, aromatic combination, irresistible even. I mixed in the revelatory roasted cauliflower for extra texture and flavour and the result is divine.

Coconut fusion lentils with roasted cauliflower. Tastes better than you might think from the pic! Roasted carrots drying off.

Good food is simple food
Tamar's view is that many people these days are intimidated by cooking. The 'convenience food generation' have not had the experience of seeing their mothers cook each day and, paradoxically, all those cooking shows and gorgeous recipe books make everyday cooking less accessible.

But we can discover cooking with a pot of salted, boiled water for vegetables or pasta or a chicken . . . good, nourishing food can be simply prepared and making it can be an enjoyable part of the day.

I read through some of the comments accompanying the article. One of them stated that cooking has become like sewing - a pursuit for the enthusiast, not a general activity that everyone engages in. Just recently I had lunch with a friend who has returned from New York. She said native New Yorkers thought she was eccentric for buying food and making it at home, instead of ordering in or going out.

I hope Tamar is a young harbinger of a shift in that world view. I can't wait to read the book.

What do you think? Can you imagine yourself in the kitchen preparing a week's worth of vegetables at once? Would it help your cooking if you did? Don't you think Tamar is an unusual name?!