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, 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.