Kale, how did I miss you?

Kale with Pasta Chilli and GarlicThere are some ingredients that I genuinely get excited about cooking and eating. When I considered the packet of kale I had bought earlier on Friday and pondered how I might prepare it I was clear that this was not one of them.

My introduction to kale as a child was not a good one. In fact, you could liken it to a head-on collision as an appetiser to the thrills of car travel. It was not at home (my Mum bears no blame whatsoever) and to this day I’m not quite sure what had taken place between the point it left the greengrocers and when it arrived on my plate. What I can be sure of is that I did not enjoy the result.

You may well be asking why on earth did I go and buy some now? I was asking myself much the same question right up to the point we sat down to eat. But, what I tasted was nothing like my memories of childhood. The bitter taste was replaced by something quite sweet, the khaki hue replaced with vibrant green. How on earth had I spent the last 25 years missing one of the very best vegetables I’ve ever tasted?

Whatever the reason, the fact remains that kale and I have some catching up to do, and the combining it with pasta and some spice is a really quick and easy way to do it. This recipe for kale with pasta, garlic and chilli is incredibly versatile and can be adjusted to taste and whatever you have to hand. We used penne, but I reckon it would work just as well with tagliatelle or even gnocchi. Adding the kale to the pasta water for the last couple of minutes of cooking saves on washing up, but we will probably steam it above, or in a separate pan next time we cook the dish as it preserves the nutrients better.

Ingredients (serves 4)
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion finely sliced
300g dried penne pasta
200g kale, shredded and rinsed
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tsp chilli flakes
Parmesan cheese and black pepper to serve

Method
1. Heat the oil in a large frying pan and fry the onion on a low heat until it’s soft and translucent. Then add the garlic and chilli flakes and cook for a while longer so the onion starts to caramelise.
2. Meanwhile cook the pasta according to the instructions on the packet. Either add the kale for the last couple of minutes (we liked it with some bite but you could give it longer) or steam it for 3-4 mins.
3. When the pasta and kale have finished cooking, take the pan with the onions off the heat then stir in the pasta and kale to spread the flavours evenly. Season to taste if it needs it.
4. Sprinkle generously with parmesan cheese (or an equivalent) and black pepper to serve.

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Courgette stuffed with camargue rice

stuffed courgetteLast night’s dinner was something of an experiment that turned out surprisingly well. I was using a new ingredient, Camargue rice, which I’ve never tried before but had caught my eye in a wholefood shop earlier in the day. Camargue rice is a reddish coloured grain with a firm, nutty texture similar to wild rice. I liked the idea of the texture and also the interest the colour would bring (I’m not normally that poncy about the look of a dish) so I thought I would give it a try.

Most recipes I can find that use Camargue rice are for rice salads, where I guess it’s robust texture and flavour holds well when served cold. But we had a couple of large courgettes that I wanted to use, and fancied stuffing them with something a little different.

We had some leeks in the fridge to use, and food writer Nigel Slater suggests that courgette and Parmesan cheese (or in our case Grana Padan0) go together well. So we had our main ingredients – all that was needed was to figure out how to put them together.

Hollowing out raw courgettes in order to stuff them takes some care and some patience. I use a round-ended sharp knife so that I’m less likely to puncture the skin if I go too far. Start by cutting the courgette in half lengthways. Then run the knife round the edge of the inside of each half. Don’t cut too close to the skin as you’ll run the risk of going through it (although it’s not the end of the world if you do) and too thinner shell will lose all shape. Holding the knife at a diagonal towards the base of the courgette will enable you to get as close to the bottom as possible. Continuing to work on the ‘inside’ of the courgette, make several cuts across the surface at a diagonal to the edge, then turn and make another set of cuts to make a set of small diamond shapes in the exposed flesh. Now you should be able to scoop the seeds and flesh out with a spoon taking care not to split it. Continue to use a knife if you need to. You should end up with a hollowed out ‘boat’ shape and some roughly broken up courgette flesh that can be combined with the other stuffing ingredients.

Ingredients
100ml Camargue rice
200ml cold vegetable stock (if using a cube, just use half. Don’t worry if it doesn’t dissolve straight way, it will as the rice cooks)
2 large courgettes
1½ tbsp olive oil
1 leek
1 clove of garlic
1/2 tsp mace
1 tsp sugar
2 tbsp finely grated Parmesan cheese (or Grana Padano, as we used)
salt & pepper to taste

Method
1. Rinse the rice thoroughly then tip into a smallish pan with the vegetable stock. Bring to the boil then simmer with the lid on for around 30-35 minutes, or until the liquid has been absorbed by the rice and it’s ‘al dente’ (has a slight ‘bite’ to it). Stir occasionally so it doesn’t stick to the base of the pan, and add a little more water if it needs it before being cooked.
2. Preheat the oven to 190c (Gas mark 5).
3. Halve and hollow out the courgettes, chopping the flesh finely then setting aside.
4. Place the courgettes into a foil-lined oven-proof dish face-down. Drizzle with 1 tbsp of the olive oil then bake for around 15 minutes or until the courgette skins have softened. I find that using a dish where the skins snugly fit the width helps them to hold their shape.
5. Top and tail then slice the leek finely and rinse well to remove any grit that may be lurking between the layers.
6. Pour the remaining olive oil into a large frying pan and bring to a medium heat. Add the courgette flesh, chopped leek, crushed garlic and mace to the pan and cook gently for around 10-15 minutes. The goal is to cook off the water in the courgette flesh and leek so it’s soft but not browned.
7. Drain any remaining fluid from the rice and stir it into the pan with the courgette flesh and leek then remove from the heat.Stir in the grated Parmesan and season with salt and pepper to taste. The amount of cheese is approximate – so you can adjust it to taste.
8. When the courgette skins are done turn them over hollow-side up, keeping them on the foil, and divide the courgette, leek, rice and cheese mix evenly between them. Don’t worry if there’s a bit too much and it spills over, this isn’t Masterchef!
9. Sprinkle with some more grated cheese then put the stuffed courgette skins back into the oven for another 15 minutes until the edge of the skins are beginning to colour. We prefer ours to have a bit of ‘crunch’ – bake for longer if you want a softer result.

Very lazy evening – jazzing up a supermarket margherita

You’ve probably guessed that if you’re looking for gourmet cuisine you’re unlikely to find it here. This was the product of a late night in the office and the poor choice of  vegetarian options. I just didn’t  want to cook and couldn’t afford a take-away, but still wanted to be a bit creative.

supermarket pizzaSo I bought a couple of margherita pizzas and a jar of cheap green pesto (yes, I could of made it but I really couldn’t be bothered). I had some cherry tomatoes and a red onion so I halved thee tomatoes and chopped then onion finely. To ‘assemble’ the dish I spooned a few dollops of pesto over the pizza then scattered the onion and tomato across the top. I then lightly drizzled some extra virgin olive oil onto it and bunged it in a preheated oven using the time and temperature from the packet.

The result was that the basic cheese and tomato pizza was a whole load more interesting and packed with flavour – definitely worth the few pennies more it cost and the extra five minutes or so it took to prepare.

 

Butternut squash and red pepper soup

Butternut squash and red pepper soupThis soup is a seasonal winter warmer that’s really quick to make. The butternut squash gives it a thick and smooth texture that just leaves you wanting more!

We like it spicy, so we use a fair bit of chilli. However. the quantity shown will give you a mild kick. We use a hand-blender directly into the pan for this recipe. If you’re using a conventional blender it will be safer to let the soup cool a little first, then reheat after blending.

Ingredients (serves 4 generously or 6 as a starter portion)
1 tbps extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, crushed
1½ tsp ground coriander
1 medium to large butternut squash, peeled, seeded and diced
1 red pepper, seeded and chopped
1 pint heated vegetable stock (it’s quite ok to use a cube)
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp chilli powder

Method
1. Heat the oil gently in a large heavy-based saucepan
2. Add the crushed garlic and coriander and heat in the oil for a minute
3. Add the squash and peppers and coat in the oil / spice mix then sweat for another 2 minutes
4. Add the vegetable stock, cinnamon and chilli powder then bring to the boil
5. Simmer for around 15-20 minutes, or until the squash is soft
6. Blend to a smooth consistency and serve.
7. We generally serve sprinkled with some chilli flakes, or as in the picture with a drizzle of chilli oil.

Carrot, peanut butter and marmalade sandwich filling

Quick one this. I’ve found sandwich fillings to be one of the biggest challenges I’ve found to eating meat-free. Now I enjoy cheese, but it’s not to healthy to rely on that every day. I love Marmite, but again it can feel repetitive.

While looking for inspiration I saw an idea that sounds really odd and thought I’d give it a go. I grated a carrot, mixed it with a tablespoon of peanut butter and a teaspoon of marmalade – hey presto I had a sandwich filling!

It’s got some room for improvement, for example next time I’ll use crunchy peanut butter (we only had smooth) and a thick marmalade for a sharper taste. I’m also wondering about adding some cumin, or perhaps some fresh coriander.

Have you tried an unusual combination that really works?

Simple Vegetable Stock

Some people seem to find it enjoyable to munch on a stick of celery, or dip it into their houmous. I’m afraid I find it difficult to share their enthusiasm for eating it raw, but when it comes to incorporating that unique flavour with other ingredients it’s a different story.

Celery is one of the ‘holy trinity’ of  vegetables used to make stock. When used together with carrots and onions, celery adds a depth of flavour to soups, casseroles and other dishes that is hard to obtain any other way. Granted, stock cubes or boullion mixes are indispensable when time is tight. But I find  there is nothing to match a bit of culinary love, and a home-made stock rarely disappoints.

The basic idea of making stock is to get as much flavour as possible  from the vegetables  into a quantity of water. This can then be used straightaway as the base for a dish, or set aside for later. Stock freezes well and is therefore a great way of using vegetables that are a little past their best. The recipe below is really a base, but there’s nothing to stop you adding other vegetables as they are available. For example, fennel is a really aromatic vegetable that adds an aniseedy note to the flavour, some people add some tomatoes etc…

I’ve gone for store-cupboard herbs here, but if you have fresh herbs then so much the better. Parsley and basil are favourites, or you may prefer to use a couple of sprigs of thyme. There are no hard-and-fast rules here, it’s all about what you have available and works for you.

Ingredients (for around 1 litre of stock)
2 tsp olive oil
1 large or 1½ small onions (or you can use half onion, half leek)
2 carrots, peeled
2 sticks celery
2 bay leaves
1 tsp dried mixed herbs (We use ‘Herbs de Provence’ mix, available in Asda, Sainsburys etc.)
1-2 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly crushed (optional)

Method
1. Chop the vegetables as finely as possible. I use a food processor to grate or shred the vegetables as this reduces the cooking time, and ensures you get the most flavour.
2. Spoon the olive oil into a large, heavy based pan and place on a medium heat for a minute or so.
3. Add the vegetables and stir for 2-3 minutes to sweat.
4. Add enough water to cover the vegetables comfortably, at least a litre, and bring to the boil.
5. Turn the heat down and add the garlic and herbs.
6. Cover with a lid slightly ajar then simmer for 20 minutes.
7. Carefully strain the stock through a fine sieve and discard the cooked vegetables and herbs.
8. Your stock is now ready to be used, or alternatively to be cooled completely before placing in the fridge for a couple of days or frozen in batches.
9. To make a more concentrated stock you can reduce the liquid further by boiling until you reach the desired quantity.

Jacket Potatoes

Baked Potato

Image courtesy of lovepotatoes.co.uk

On a cold winters day there is something very satisfying about an oven-baked Jacket Potato, even before it’s smothered in butter and cheese, or any other filling that takes your fancy.

Potatoes are really healthy for you. Not only do they contain healthy levels vitamin C, but they are also a great source of iron, calcium, vitamin B6, and potassium. The skin is a great source of fibre and also contains antioxidants which can help to prevent heart disease and cancer.

When it comes to cooking a jacket potato I can’t really tell you better than the Potato Council, so you can find their recipe at lovepotatoes.co.uk.

Once you have cooked your potato you have a canvas for all manner of deliciousness. A helping of baked beans topped with cheese is a personal favourite, but why stop there?

Leek and potato make a great combination. Finely slice a leek then rinse to get rid of the grit that tends to accumulate between the layers then fry gently in a little olive oil or butter until they are soft and translucent , but not browned. Then spoon into your potato with a little creme fraiche.

Sweetcorn also goes really well. You can use tinned or frozen, just cook it as if you were going to serve it on the side. Spoon into the potato with a little mayonnaise.

If you have a favourite filling, why not share it by adding a comment below?

Roasted vegetable pasta sauce

This is a simple and delicious sauce to serve over pasta and a great way to get veg into children who are less than keen on the idea! You can vary the vegetables you use according to what’s available, and its also a great way of using vegetables that are slightly past their best. This recipe makes a generous portion for 4 or you can make extra and freeze.

Ingredients
1 Aubergine
1 Courgette
1 Carrot, peeled
1 Red pepper
3 Cloves of garlic
2 tbsp Olive oil
2 400g packets of Passata (or you can use cans of chopped tomatoes)
Fresh basil or oregano (optional)

Method
1. Preheat your oven to 180 degrees C (gas mark 4)
2. Slice the aubergine, courgette and carrot into pieces that are around half a centimetre thick. We peel the aubergine and courgette first as one of our children is very sensitive to textures and this makes a smoother sauce.
3. Slice the pepper, discarding the stalk and the seeds. Do not peel the garlic cloves.
4. In a large bowl toss the vegetables and garlic in the olive oil making sure they are covered. The aubergine is greedy, absorbing oil very easily so its best to do it last. (For a healthier version you can use less oil and spray it onto the veg).
5. Spread the veg and garlic over a couple of baking trays and place in the oven for around 25-30 mins. The aubergine will go dark brown but mustn’t burn.
6. Squeeze the softened flesh of the roasted garlic cloves from the skin and add to the passata, followed by the vegetables. At this point you may wish to add some herbs such as fresh basil or oregano for additional flavour.
7. Blend everything together to a consistency that suits you. For smoothest results do it in batches using a blender, but you can also use a food processor or hand blender.
8. Heat the combined sauce through in a saucepan and serve over pasta, seasoned to taste.

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