H is for…

It might be Halloween but you won’t find a pumpkin on my porch. I’ve never been one for arts and crafts. For me, it’s too fiddly and anyone who knows me would readily agree that (Im)Patience should be my middle name. Anyway, a glowing jack-o-lantern only encourages trick or treaters and according to a Waitrose survey, 46% of us turn off the lights and pretend no one’s home to avoid the little buggers. I prefer my pumpkin in a pie – or anything that’ll cheer me up when it’s cold and dark outside.

Now that the clocks have gone back, I feel that it’s time to embrace another ‘h’: hygge. I thought that everyone had heard of this (relatively) new buzzword but when I mentioned it to some friends at the pub last night, they thought I was talking about picking up younger men (the correct way to pronounce this Danish word is so that it rhymes with cougar). Hygge, in a nutshell, is the Scandinavian art of making your home cosy and comfortable in a bid to banish the winter blues. You can listen to a really interesting discussion about hygge, the home and what it means to us in this episode of Late Night Woman’s Hour.

Pumpkins are plentiful at this time of year (and cheap too) so I’ve stocked up on them to make warming winter soups, stews and salads – oh, and cake. This weekend, I cooked up a storm in the kitchen (I’m not kidding, there were pumpkin seeds everywhere) and made pumpkin soup and smoky squash houmous. These are, of course, great for a little Halloween supper but will also fare well for Bonfire Night next weekend. The houmous will be lovely dolloped onto a steaming baked potato and a thermos of soup will warm your hands when they’re not holding sparklers. Just remember to wear gloves, kids.

Punchy pumpkin soup

This works just as well with butternut squash, although you’ll probably need to use two of them – if it’s easier, buy the pre-chopped stuff in bags. The split peas make this quite a hearty soup (in fact, it has an almost dhal-like consistency) and they have a robust, almost chewy texture, so use red lentils if you prefer. You don’t have to blend it but doing so will give you a smoother soup. Oh, and you can peel the carrot and potato but a lot of their nutrients are in the skin so a quick scrub should suffice.

pumpkin-soup
Punchy pumpkin soup

Serves 4

Ingredients

1 large pumpkin (about 500g), roasted and cut into small cubes

150g yellow split peas or red lentils

1 onion, peeled and diced

1 carrot, scrubbed and diced

1 small sweet potato, scrubbed and diced

1 litre vegetable stock

2 inches fresh ginger

2 inches fresh turmeric (or 2 teaspoons turmeric powder)

1 red chilli

1 tsp cumin powder

1 orange (zest and juice)

Olive oil

Salt and pepper, to season

 

Method

Preheat the oven to 200C (gas mark 6). Slice the pumpkin or squash into wedges (it’s easier to peel and deseed once it’s cooked) and spread across two baking sheets. Drizzle each batch with 1-2 tablespoons of olive and a tablespoon of water. Place on the top shelf of the oven and cook for about 35 minutes, or until soft.

Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large pan. Add the onion, carrot, sweet potato, cumin and salt and pepper, and cook for 5 minutes. Then, add the lentils and the stock, plus the ginger, chilli and turmeric and stir. Place a lid on the pan and simmer on a low heat for about 30 minutes.

When the pumpkin is cooked, allow to cool, remove the skin and seeds, and chop into small chunks. Stir through the soup mixture, along with the orange zest and juice and cook for another 30 minutes. Let the soup cool and then blend in batches. You can use a hand-held blender for this but it’ll require more elbow grease. Once blended, return the mixture to the pan and add 500ml of boiling water (more if you’d like a less thick consistency), stir through until warm, and serve.

 

Smoky squash houmous

This houmous combines sweet and spicy flavours thanks to the addition of ras el hanout (if you don’t have any, use one teaspoon of cinnamon and one teaspoon of cumin) and my secret weapon: maple syrup. Tahini makes it creamier but don’t worry if you can’t get hold of it.

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Slicely done…

Makes one big bowlful

Ingredients

 100g squash, peeled and deseeded and chopped into small pieces

1 can chickpeas, rinsed and drained

2 tablespoons tahini

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons ras el hanout (or one teaspoon of cinnamon and one of cumin)

2 tablespoons maple syrup

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 clove garlic, peeled

Salt and pepper, to season

Method

Slice the pumpkin or squash into wedges (it’s easier to peel and deseed once it’s cooked) and place in an oven-proof dish with 2 tablespoons of water. Cook for about 30 minutes, and once cooled, peel and remove seeds. Place in a blender with the chickpeas, garlic, tahini, ras el hanout, cinnamon, olive oil, and maple syrup, and blend. Add a tablespoon of water if you think it’s too thick but it should have quite a chunky texture. Season with salt and pepper and serve on toast, baked potatoes or in salads.

Smoky squash houmous.jpg
Doesn’t look like much but this is good stuff…

If you can’t be bothered to cook, check out my Wriggle Cardiff feature which is all about vegan and vegetarian comfort food.

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Trick or treat

I’m a big scaredy cat. I can barely watch five minutes of a horror film before running behind the sofa and Strange but True? with Michael Aspel scared the living daylights out of me when I was younger. I’m still quite fond of Halloween in a nostalgic kind of way though.

It’s odd that what is essentially a day to celebrate the dead has turned into a national holiday. We have those pesky Americans to thank for that, but hey, isn’t it fun? Who doesn’t love an opportunity to dress up, demand sweets from strangers and play with fire?

Pumpkins are the kings of the cucurbita family, which includes squashes and courgettes, and the real symbol of Halloween. You’ll see jack-o’-lanterns in windowsills on every street at the moment and it’s worth remembering that these golden globes have substance as well as style. Pumpkins and squashes are great in winter stews, soups and salads but as proven by the prevailing popularity of the pumpkin spice latte, they can also satisfy a sweet tooth.

This week, I’ve used pumpkin in a zesty and subtly spiced cake that is both trick (yup, apple sauce really can substitute egg) and treat.

I actually picked up an onion squash from M&S which I used in this recipe but you could scoop out the flesh (sounds creepy, doesn’t it?) from a normal pumpkin before the kids carve into it. You can also use the pre-chopped packs of butternut squash if you’re short of time.

These moreish morsels are pretty easy to make and as it’s half term, it’s also a good way to entertain your little monsters.

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Spiced pumpkin tray bake

Makes 16 squares

Ingredients

300g plain flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

100g brown or demerara sugar

1 small pumpkin or squash (about 200g cubed)

1 ripe banana, mashed

120ml plant milk

3 tablespoons maple syrup or golden syrup

50 ml sunflower oil

1 teaspoon cider vinegar

2 teaspoons apple sauce

½ orange, zest and juice

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped finely

A grating of nutmeg

 

Method

Preheat the oven to 200C (gas mark 6). Slice the pumpkin or squash into wedges (it’s easier to peel and deseed once it’s cooked) and place in an oven-proof dish with 50ml of water. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of cinnamon powder and cook for about 30 minutes, turning halfway through.

Meanwhile, sieve the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda into a bowl and stir together with the sugar. In a separate bowl, mix the banana, plant milk, oil, apple sauce, orange zest and juice, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cider vinegar and 1 tablespoon of water.

When the pumpkin or squash is cooked, remove from the oven and leave to cool for 5 minutes. Lower the oven temperature to 170C (gas mark 3). When cooled, remove the peel and seeds and cut into smallish chunks and stir into the banana mixture.

Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients and pour in the contents of the other bowl. Mix together.

Grease an 8×8 inch tin and pour in the mixture, making sure to spread it evenly. Bake on the top shelf of the oven for about 50 minutes. Leave to cool for at least 10 minutes before removing from the tin, then slice into squares. If stored in an airtight container, it will last for five days.

Baby, it’s cold outside

Autumn has turned on us. After sun-dappled days and crisp evenings, the rot (or rather, the rain) has set in. We’re faced with grey skies, damp leaves and darkness, and the clocks haven’t even gone back yet.

But enough. This is a beautiful time of year as illustrated by many an Instagram account (mine included) and a bit of autumnal adjustment is all that’s needed to warm us up. I’m well and truly in hibernation mode and am cosying up with big jumpers and big bowls of stews and soups.

‘Tis the season for squashes, marrows and, of course, pumpkins – not just for Halloween, remember. Cooking with these golden globes of goodness (they’re full of vitamins and antioxidants) might seem a bit daunting at first and there is a fair bit of peeling and chopping involved but it’s worth it for their sweet, buttery flavour.

You’re best off using a mini pumpkin rather than the larger ones which are best left for carving into jack-o’-lanterns. You can pick up the smaller variety from larger supermarkets and most greengrocers.

The beautiful thing about pumpkins and squashes (in addition to their orange glow) is that they’re really versatile. Chuck them in curries, chillis and stews, whizz them up into soup, put them in a pie or make cake.

I’ve used pumpkin here as the star ingredient in this seasonal salad.  The warmth of the pumpkin acts as a base for the woody mushrooms, sweet apples, tangy red cabbage and earthy kale. This is hearty but healthy comfort food for cold days and nights. It’s pretty filling as a main dish but you could serve a smaller amount as a side to sausages, pie or casserole.

This recipe requires a bit of chopping (the pumpkin’s the real bugger) but you can use pre-chopped butternut squash (available from most supermarkets – and some even sell bags of it frozen), canned lentils and microwave rice if you’re short of time.

Any leftovers will make a lovely lunch and doesn’t even need to be heated up. In fact, you could double the quantities and make a big batch on a weekend for the week ahead.

autumn-salad
Autumn in a bowl

Autumn salad with pumpkin, red cabbage and apple

Serves 4

Ingredients

1 small pumpkin or butternut squash (or 200g), cubed

200g green or brown lentils

100g brown rice

Half a head of red cabbage

4-5 whole kale leaves (or half a bagful if using pre-prepared)

6 mushrooms, sliced

1 apple, diced

2-3 sprigs of thyme

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

1 tablespoon olive oil

1-2 tablespoons sesame oil

Handful of walnuts (optional)

 

Method

Prepare the pumpkin or squash by peeling it and chopping into cubes. Set aside. Rinse and drain the lentils and add to a pan of salted water. Do the same with the rice and add to a separate pan of salted water and cook both on a medium heat for about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the sesame oil in a large pan or wok and cook the pumpkin or squash on a medium heat for about 10 minutes. While this is cooking, chop the kale and cabbage roughly and dice the apple and place in a large bowl. Add the cider vinegar and olive oil and stir through. Once the pumpkin is cooked, remove from the pan and set aside. Heat a tiny bit of oil in the pan and add the sliced mushrooms and thyme (remove the leaves from the sprigs) and cook for 2-3 minutes. Remove the mushrooms and set aside. Now, add the cabbage, kale and apple mixture to the pan and cook on a high heat for 4-5 minutes, then add the pumpkin and mushrooms and cook for a further 2-3 minutes. By now, the rice and lentils should be ready, so drain thoroughly, add to the pan and stir through. Cook for another 1-2 minutes and serve. Sprinkle over the crushed walnuts if using.

PS I’ve put together a little playlist of music inspired by the autumn. It’s quite nice to play when cooking, enjoying a glass of red or reading on a chilly night. You can have a listen here.

scarf-and-boots

Comfort food: part three

I think I’m coming down with a cold. It’s that time of year when everyone at the office is snuffling and sneezing and now I’m feeling a bit under the weather.

They say that chicken soup is good for the soul but even when I ate meat, I hated the stuff. No, in times of trouble I’ve always turned to Heinz tomato soup. Now I’m vegan I can’t eat it so I make my own. Sure, I could buy shop-bought versions but they’re usually packed full of sugar and salt and besides, homemade costs a fraction of the price.

This recipe takes no time at all to make, is s(o)uper easy and uses just three ingredients: tomatoes, onions and olive oil. The best bit is that there is minimal chopping and you can even use tinned tomatoes if you’re really rushed for time.

I’ve added a bit of spice to ward away the germs but if you’re not a chilli fiend, try fresh or dried basil or oregano. Some crushed fennel seeds would work too if you want a sharper flavour – as with chilli, you should go easy with this. If you want to add a bit of bite to the soup, chuck in a can of cannellini beans right at the end.

Back in the day, I’d eat my soup with cheese on toast. I’m not a huge fan of vegan ‘cheese’ (and no, I haven’t tried the ‘Gary’ that Sainsbury’s is now selling by the shedload) so I’ll normally have a bit of houmous with bread. As a change, I’ve made a chunky butterbean spread which is nicely creamy with a hint of heat. You could make this with chickpeas or cannellini beans if you prefer. Give it a whirl. I’ve used ras el hanout, a mixture of spices, which is often used in Middle Eastern cooking but try cumin, paprika or chilli powder if you can’t get your hands on it. I got mine in M&S for a mere three quid.

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Tomato soup with butter bean spread on toast

Tomato soup

Serves 4

Ingredients

1.4kg of tomatoes (that’s 12-13 big ‘uns), cut into quarters – make sure to remove the hard bit at the top – or 2 tins of chopped or plum tomatoes

2 onion (red or white), peeled and cut into four

2-3 tablespoons of olive oil

1 chilli (optional), finely chopped

1 teaspoon of salt

5-6 mugs of water

 

Method

Heat the oil over a medium heat in a large pan or saucepan. Add the onion wedges, water, tomatoes, the salt, and chilli if you’re using it. Bring to a simmer. Cook, uncovered, for about 40 minutes. Stir occasionally and add additional salt as needed.

Turn off the heat and leave to cool for 5-10 minutes. Now blend the soup using a hand-held blender or a regular one. If you’re using the latter, it’s best to blend in batches and not fill the blender as much as you usually would since the soup is so hot. Return to the pan and reheat. Serve with bread or on its own.

Chunky butter bean spread

Serves 2

Ingredients

1 tin of butterbeans, rinsed and drained

The juice and pulp of one lemon

2 tablespoons of tahini

2-3 tablespoons of olive oil

1 teaspoon of ras el hanout

Salt and pepper

 

Method

In a bowl, mash the butter beans with a potato masher or a fork. Do this slowly, but thoroughly and add the oil and the lemon juice and pulp, and the oil gradually. Add the tahini and whichever spices you’re using and mix well. Serve on toast or crackers.

Comfort food: part two

What a difference a day makes. Yesterday, I was snoozing in the Spanish sun. Today, I’ve listened to the rain and drunk a lot of tea.

I’ve just come back from a long weekend in Malaga, where I joined my gal pals to soak up the sun, a bit of culture – and an awful lot of red wine. Coming back hasn’t been the hangover I was expecting though. A sunny soujourn with three wonderful women was just the tonic I needed. It was my final fling with summer and now I’m ready to embrace autumn which after a few false starts, is actually here.

The season of mists and mellow fruitfulness (cheers, Keats) calls for warm and nourishing comfort food. Richly coloured peppers, courgettes and tomatoes are still in season so it makes perfect sense to make ratatouille, which is delicious at any time of year but particularly pleasing as it starts to get colder. Besides its mellifluous name, what I love most about this Mediterranean dish is its simplicity. Chop some veg, chuck it in a pan and leave it to cook. I hesitate to use the words of Jamie Oliver, a brilliant if slightly annoying man whose recipe I’ve adapted below, but this really is a case of bish, bash, bosh.

Ratatouille is incredibly versatile. Eat it with bread, pasta, rice, couscous, vegetables – or just on its own – and if you want to bulk it up, serve with some chickpeas or lentils on the side.

Ratatouille 1.jpg
Serve with green beans and bread…

Ratatouille

Serves 4

Ingredients

2 red or white onions

2 cloves of garlic

1 large aubergine

2 large courgettes

3 red or yellow peppers

6 ripe tomatoes

½ a bunch of fresh basil

Olive oil

A few sprigs of fresh thyme

2 x 400 g tins of plum tomatoes

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

Method

  1. Peel and cut the onions into wedges, then peel and finely slice the garlic. Trim the aubergines and courgettes, deseed the peppers and chop into 2.5cm chunks. Roughly chop the tomatoes.
  2. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large casserole pan or saucepan over a medium heat, add the chopped aubergines, courgettes and peppers (you may need to do this in batches) and fry for around 5 minutes, or until golden and softened, but not cooked through. Spoon the cooked veg into a large bowl.
  3. To the pan, add the onion, garlic, basil stalks and thyme leaves with another drizzle of oil, if needed. Fry for 10 to 15 minutes, or until softened and golden.
  4. Return the cooked veg to the pan and stir in the fresh and tinned tomatoes, the balsamic (plus a splash of red wine if you have some going spare) and a good pinch of sea salt and black pepper.
  5. Mix well, breaking up the tomatoes with the back of a spoon. Cover the pan and simmer over a low heat for 30 to 35 minutes, or until reduced, sticky and sweet.
  6. Tear in the basil leaves and adjust the seasoning, if needed.
Ratatouille 2.jpg
…or with lentils, capers and wilted greens

Comfort food: part one

Well, October so far has been a month of highs and lows. Yesterday, I had the Friday feeling and I had it bad. I thought I could take on the world but come the evening I ended up in bed, binge-watching Orange is the New Black and eating soup from a can. Netflix and chill is not so exciting when you’re flying solo.

Today’s a new day as they say and I’ve made a big bowl of that old reliable comfort blanket in food form: porridge. Perfect to warm me up before a big old stomp in some autumn leaves at the park later on.

The carrots in this balance the sweetness of the pear and the ginger and cinnamon will certainly put some fire in your belly.

Try these super speedy oats after a weekend lie-in when you can’t be bothered to make a full-on brunch, or cook up a big batch on a Sunday and you’ll have sorted your breakfasts for the week ahead. Just portion them up and heat in the microwave before you go to work or when you get to the office.

The measurements for this aren’t very precise (and people can be veeery particular about their porridge) but you generally want a ratio of 1/3 liquid to 2/3 oats.

Porridge.jpg
Porridge is the new black?

Pear porridge with carrot, ginger and cinnamon

This makes enough for one so just double, triple, quadruple (you get the idea) the quantities depending on how much you want. If you don’t have pears, try grated apple, and walnuts are a good substitute for the almonds. This would also taste really nice with a handful of raisins chucked in.

Ingredients

3-4 tablespoons oats

Half a mugful oat milk

1 small pear, diced

Half a small carrot, grated

Teaspoon fresh ginger, grated

Teaspoon cinnamon powder

Handful of flaked almonds (optional)

Method

Simply place all the ingredients in a saucepan and cook on a low heat for 3-4 minutes, stirring continuously. You may need to add more liquid depending on how you like your porridge. Serve in a bowl and top with the flaked almonds, a touch more cinnamon, and a sprinkling of brown sugar or maple syrup.

Spaghetti for the soul

It’s here. The long days have gone and the heating is on. I could prattle on about my adoration for autumn (reader, I will) but the arrival of a new season always leaves me a bit out of sorts. Nature is a celebration of being alive, so just as the changing colours bring me joy, they also make me sad. Autumn is the most melancholy time of year, a cruel mistress who leads you in with her beauty but eventually leaves you cold – literally.

I’ve talked to friends and I know I’m not the only one feeling a bit down in the dumps. Maybe it’s the sudden flurry of activity. The back to school season is a welcome wake-up call after somnolent summer days but it’s a shock to the system, like the sharpness of early morning frost.

All we can do is to be kind to ourselves and to others. Talk, listen, spend time alone. Go for walks or sweat it out at the gym, get some sunlight, and when it’s dark, hunker down with books and boxsets. The Danes might be on to something with that hygge stuff.

And eat well. I haven’t really had the time or inclination to cook recently but you don’t have to slave away in the kitchen to make a comforting and nourishing bowl of something. This is where spaghetti comes into its own and when I (politely) tell the pasta police to jog on. This is not the time of year for diets. If Eat Pray Love, a film I have actively avoided until recently (the yoga and the AWOL commas did it for me), has taught me anything it’s that enjoying your food really is a lot more fun than counting calories. Mind you, the scene in which two skinny women try to ‘squeeze’ into jeans is mildly irritating.

Anyway, if you’re feeling a bit lost, the film might cheer you up a bit – much like these spaghetti dishes which will be ready in under ten minutes. They can be made for a solo supper or to feed a family of four and you can use as much or as little of the ingredients as you want. I recommend that you always serve generous portions.

I’ve been using wholemeal spelt spaghetti because it feels a bit healthier but any version will do. If you’re hungry and want a heartier meal, add a tin of lentils or chickpeas or some crushed nuts.

Spaghetti #1

For this, I used some home-grown tomatoes (thanks to Sarah and Nick for trusting me to keep a plant alive – and to Helen who actually kept it alive) but there are loads of sumptuous seasonal varieties in greengrocers and supermarkets right now.

Bring a pan of water to the boil (add salt if desired). Take as much spaghetti as you need and cook for 8-10 minutes, depending on how al dente you like your pasta. Meanwhile, heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a pan then add some cherry tomatoes and gently squash down into the pan. Add a sprig of thyme and half a sliced chilli and cook for a few minutes. Drain the spaghetti, add to the pan, stir, and serve with a big squeeze of lemon juice, torn basil leaves and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.

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Red wine optional

Spaghetti #2

I love the freshness of this. The lemon gives zing to the woodiness of the mushrooms and the chilli adds extra fire to the peppery watercress. If you want a life-affirming dish, this is it.

Bring a pan of water to the boil (add salt if desired). Take as much spaghetti as you need and cook for 8-10 minutes, depending on how al dente you like your pasta. Meanwhile, heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a pan then add sliced mushrooms and cook for a couple of minutes. Squeeze over a bit of lemon juice, then add half a sliced chilli, some black olives and capers (you can add a bit of the water or brine from the jar too) and some flaked almonds. Cook for another couple of minutes, then add the watercress and stir in. Drain the spaghetti, add to the pan, stir, and serve with another squeeze of lemon juice, torn basil leaves and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.

spaghetti-2
Not the tastiest looking, but trust me, it’s heavenly…