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.

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.

Leek and mushroom risotto

risottoThe Italian dish Risotto is a real favourite in our house. I’m not going to pretend that Risotto is quick to cook, some packet mixes can be put together in about 20 minutes, but the real thing takes more like an hour. However, the result is ample reward for a little patience. This recipe uses leek and mushroom, but once you’ve got the hang of it you can use all manner of combinations. Roasted squash is particularly tasty.

Risotto is prepared using Arborio rice. This is essential because, unlike long grain or basmati rice, Arborio has a very high starch content and it’s the starch that gives Risotto it’s wonderful creamy texture.

I make Risotto with a ratio of rice to cooking liquid (stock) of 1:4. So, per person I measure out 100ml of rice (note this is by volume rather than weight) which will require 400ml of stock. This means that for 4 people you will need 1.6 litres of stock which sounds far too much, but Arborio rice absorbs a huge amount of liquid while cooking. Because of this you need to ensure you use a large enough pan, preferably with a thick base to aid even heat distribution as you don’t want hotspots where your rice will stick and burn.

One particular ingredient that I’ve found to have a huge impact on flavour is a good slug of wine, and for risotto I’ve found white is best. As an aside, we tend to use fortified wine for cooking as it keeps well and doesn’t have to be finished off once its open. We are currently using Japanese rice wine, Sake, because we happened to have a bottle, tried it and it worked. Sake is not widely available, so when the bottles empty it’s likely to get replaced with Vermouth.

Risotto is cooked by adding the cooking stock gradually, waiting for each quantity to be absorbed by the rice before adding the next. This is what takes the time, and why the optional beer is on the ingredients list. If you don’t work out what to do with it then you won’t be needing it.

You can make this with just fresh mushrooms (in which case add a couple more), but the dried mushrooms add a real depth of flavour. A 50g packet of dried porcini mushrooms costs up to £3 but you don’t need many and they last for ages when stored in a sealed bag or container.

Ingredients (serves 2)
1 leek
1 tbps olive oil (or 15g butter and 1tps olive oil)
50ml white wine
200ml Arborio rice
800ml vegetable stock
A few dried mushrooms (around 7g in weight)
330ml bottle of beer (optional)
4 large mushrooms (we use chestnut mushrooms)
Salt & pepper
Parmesan cheese or similar (optional)
Rocket (optional)

Method
1. Top and tail the leek (remove the hard tip and tougher leaves from the other end) then slice thinly and rinse well as leek often accumulates grit between the leaves.
2. Pour the oil or oil and butter into a large non-stick frying pan, place on a medium heat then saute the leeks until soft but not browned.
3. If you are using stock cubes, then make up with boiling water and leave in a jug or a pan. If you are using fresh stock this needs to be brought to a boil before taking it off the heat.
4. Add the dried mushrooms to the stock to re-hydrate. This will also transfer some of their flavour to the liquid.
5. Roughly chop the fresh mushrooms and set aside.
6. Add the rice to the pan and stir into the leeks. Increase the heat slightly, then after around 30 seconds add the wine and stir into the rice. The liquid should bubble off quickly, but don’t worry about this as it’s the flavour we’re after. Turn the heat back down to a low simmer.
7. Add the stock to the pan around 50ml at a time and stir in (leave the dried mushrooms in the stock for as long as possible). The rice will gradually absorb the liquid and start to swell.
8. Once each quantity of stock has been absorbed add the next 50ml, and so on. This process will take around 30-40 minutes so be patient.
9. Once you’ve used 3/4 of the stock add the fresh and dried mushrooms to the pan and stir in. The dried mushrooms should be quite soft by now.
10. From now on test the consistency of the rice before adding more stock in case it is cooked. The texture should be ‘Al dente’, which means it will be soft but have a little ‘bite’ to it.
11. When the rice is cooked, season with salt and pepper to taste
12. Serve with shavings of Parmesan cheese and rocket leaves.

Smoky Bean Soup

I wanted to try some more recipes with beans and, not having too much time to develop my own, I decided to take a look online to find some inspiration. There are so many people blogging about food that it’s more of a problem choosing from the thousands of results you get rather than finding something.

The whole point of this blog is to share our experience and ideas we have tried, not to come up with ‘original’ recipes (except when we try something and it works). So, as a rule, we’ll only share someone elses recipe once we’ve actually tried it and for the recipe itself we’ll link to their site. As with this recipe, where we’ve adjusted ingredients or quantities we’ll include them too.

Smokey Bean SoupWe made Smoky Refried Bean Soup for lunch today, but with a few extras it could easily form the basis of a filling meal. It’s from an American blog called Fatfree Vegan Kitchen, and the author has compiled a whole library of really interesting vegan recipes. Being American, the measurements are based around cup measurements and ounces. A number of the recipes we use are from America and Australia so I’m going to include some conversions on this blog to help you adjust. We do have some cup measures though, which are really useful. 1 cup is approx 250ml if you don’t have a measure to hand.

Adjustments we made
Refried beans – the refried beans mentioned in the recipe are expensive if you buy them ready made. Fortunately you can replace these with a large can of Pinto beans blitzed in a food processor and this works just fine, we bought 2 small cans in Asda and used them both.
Black beans – we used a packet of ready-cooked beans from Sainsburys. If you use dried you need to make sure they are cooked first.
Chopped tomatoes – We used a large can of plum tomatoes and pulsed them in the food processor (it was already out – I felt lazy).
Chipotle powder – Chipotle chillis are jalapenos that have been smoked. I’ve not managed to find powder over here, so I used 1tsp standaard chilli powder then upped the Smoked Paprika to 2tsp.
Smoked Paprika – this is important as it really gives the dish it’s flavour so standard Paprika won’t cut it. You can buy smoked paprika in Asda or Sainsburys.
Hot Sauce – we didn’t want our soup too hot so we skipped this
Mexican oregano – we just used some dried mixed herbs

p.s. Don’t be put off by the photo here – this tastes so much better than it looks!!

 

 

 

 

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.

Valentine wine

wineIt’s really a little late to be sharing a recipe for Valentine’s Day, but it does give me a chance to suggest a couple of very reasonable wine choices that won’t disappoint if you’re on a tight budget. (Apologies to our International friends – these selections are UK only but if you have any suggestions that you enjoy please comment away!)

I enjoy a glass of wine, or perhaps two. I don’t enjoy being taken for a ride by cheap wines with fancy labels, inflated in price then reduced heavily so you think you’re getting a bargain. This seems to be the way of things now, but there are still some honest ‘bargains’ to be found. Here is a couple, one red and the other white:

Co-operative Fairtrade Torrontes Chardonnay is not your average Chardonnay. If you’re looking for the slightly buttery taste of an oaked vintage look elsewhere as this one is fresh, dry and packed with fruit. It’s one of our favourite whites and costs £4.99. Serve well chilled.

If you don’t have a Co-op nearby, or perhaps prefer something a little crisper then Sainsburys House Muscadet (also £4.99) is a great alternative.

Aldi Toscana Rosso is an Italian red that is robust but not too heavy. It has a touch of oak, but it’s not overpowering and really does compare with wines well above its £3.99 price tag. Best opened at least half an hour before drinking otherwise it can taste a little harsh. Serve at room temperature.

If you prefer something a little lighter then Co-operative Cotes du Rhone is very easy drinking and goes down well at £4.19 a bottle.

Cheers!

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?

Fed up with horse? Eat more veg instead

This time it’s lasagne. Another nightmare for the food industry’s PR teams as black beauty one again makes it into the nations dinner plates.
There was a time, not so long ago, when we could go into our local butchers shop and buy minced beef with total confidence about what it contained. We knew because that mince had arrived in the shop as cuts of chuck steak or flank (which made a cheaper and slightly less dry mince than steak) and was minced in the shop buy the guy who served us. Sadly the shop has now gone and our choice is the supermarket or a trek to a butchers in the next town where the more expensive steak mince is our only option.
The root of the issue for us, and for Findus, is cost. It’s no longer possible to guarantee quality at a price many people are able or prepared to pay so something has to give. Unfortunately the casualty in all this is the value sector because selling chicken nuggets for 99p or a lasagne for £1.50 is, quite frankly, asking the impossible.
The truth is that while housing costs have rocketed over the last 20 years the proportion of our wages we spend on food has fallen. This perhaps gives us a clue to our predicament and explains why so many independent retailers have thrown in the towel. So we are faced with some difficult choices. If we demand traceability in our food and guarantees over the ingredients then we will have to pay more for it – simple as that.
In my mind the only practical solution is to examine what we eat, and in particular our dependence on meat as the cornerstone of our diets. We don’t have to drop it completely, but we can eat less. And if we eat less of it we can afford to be a little more choosy about what we buy when we do. When I buy a pack of mushrooms in the supermarket I can be pretty certain what they are and I can be confident they contain no cauliflower whatsoever!

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