Seeing red

I’m an impatient bugger. It’s mid-September and there’s still no sign of those ravishingly red leaves. Get a move on, autumn; these grey skies are making me grumpy. Admittedly, I’m not too excited about the approaching drop in temperature (I’ve been told that the heating doesn’t come on until October – we’ll see about that…) but I do hope those colours come out soon. If not, an Indian summer would suit me just fine but this in-between stage is rather getting on my nerves.

Luckily, I don’t have that much time to be distracted by the weather. Work is picking up and I have the not so small task of writing a cookery book – when I’m not testing recipes, that is. It’s a good thing I’ve joined a gym because at the moment, I feel like I’m eating for two (sometimes three or four), minus the pregnancy bit. When I’m not making cauliflower cheese, crumble, and tofish and chips (heavenly on the lips and the hips) I’m rusting up some healthy but hearty meals – just for a bit of balance, you know?

This sweet little salad is light but warming and the orange and tomato (British toms are still around so grab ‘em while you can) are a match made in heaven. I’ve used white kale, which I found at Swansea Market, but any sort of green leaves will do. When it gets colder (or if you’re really hungry) you can bulk it up with autumnal squash or pumpkin – or sweet potato. It would also be nice with rice.

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Indian summer salad

Serves 2

 

Ingredients

Head of cauliflower, broken into florets

1 leek or two spring onions, finely sliced

1 punnet cherry or plum tomatoes, whole

2 tbsp olive oil

3 big handfuls of kale or spinach, roughly chopped

1 tsp ground cumin

1 orange, peeled and in segments

Juice from 1 lemon

2 tsp capers

2 tbsp ground almonds

Flatleaf parsley or coriander to garnish (optional)

 

Method

Heat the oil in a large pan over a medium heat. Add the leeks, cauliflower, cumin and lemon juice and cook for five minutes, stirring frequently. Stir through the kale and tomatoes and cook for two minutes then add the orange segments and the capers, plus a little of brine from the jar, if you like. Season with salt and pepper and cook for another two minutes.

Serve with the almonds scattered over, plus the parsley or coriander if using.

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Autumn almanac

September’s crept up on me this year. Perhaps it’s because I’ve recently moved to a new city (an ugly, lovely town, said Dylan Thomas, and I’m not going to disagree) but I’m not really digging autumn just yet. I’m sure that’ll change soon enough – after all, this is my favourite time of year. I’ll never understand why people try to ‘reinvent’ themselves in joyless January when September with its back-to-school freshness and kaleidoscope of colours is a much easier time to do it – armed with a shiny new pencil case, of course.

Now that the long summer days are over, I’m looking forward to getting my teeth into some new projects and I have something very exciting up my sleeve. If you follow me on Instagram, you may have noticed that I’ve been posting more food photos than usual (if that’s even possible) and that’s because I’m testing recipes for my book. Yes, I’m writing my first cookery book! I still can’t quite believe that it’s happening (it definitely is as I’ve signed the contract) and I can’t wait to share some of my favourite recipes with you when the book’s published in March.

I’ve neglected the blog a bit because of the book stuff so I’m going to make it up to you with a recipe for this magnificent muhammarra.  According to the internet, this Middle Eastern dip is overtaking houmous in the popularity stakes. I’ll take this with a generous pinch of salt (it may be a thing in London but I haven’t seen it in Cardiff, let alone Swansea) but one thing’s for sure: it’s absolutely delicious – and pretty easy to make as well.

This stuff is pretty versatile, too. You can spoon it onto pasta, bread (obviously), baked potatoes and salads, and it’s a great addition to brunch – it goes really well with tomatoes and avocado, and I hear that it’s excellent with eggs.

Brunch is ooooon. #nofilter

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The traditional recipe for muhammara uses Aleppo pepper but chilli flakes (or even powder) is just fine – and if you can’t find pomegranate molasses, you can substitute it with maple syrup and balsamic vinegar. Lots of people remove the skins from the peppers but I don’t think you really need to.

One final tip: if you’re trying to save money (and who isn’t?) buy your walnuts from a pound shop or discount store – the same goes for other nuts, seeds, quinoa, sundried tomatoes and more – as they’re significantly cheaper than at the supermarket.

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Muhammarra

Serves 2-3

 

Ingredients

3 red peppers, cut into half and seeds removed

60g walnuts

1 tbsp pomegranate molasses (or 1 tsp maple syrup and 2 tsps balsamic vinegar)

1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

½ tsp chilli flakes

1 tsp ground cumin

½ tsp salt

The juice of 1 lemon

1 clove garlic, peeled

1 tsp tomato puree

 

Method

Preheat the oven to 200C and roast the peppers for 35-40 minutes. Remove from the oven and leave to cool. While the peppers are cooking, take a dry pan and gently roast the walnuts for a few minutes, being careful not to let them burn. Once they’re cool, blitz in a food processor until they have a coarse consistency and then add the peppers and all the other ingredients and whizz until you have a smooth paste.

Serve with an extra drizzle of olive oil and pomegranate molasses, if you like.

 

 

Chard times

I’m a sucker for a stir-fry and it’s often my go-to when I’m tired, busy or just feeling lazy. Sometimes, though, I get a bit bored of my usual broccoli, ginger and soy sauce combo. Variety is the spice of life, non? This stir-fry is zippy and zesty and features the most vibrant of all the vegetables: rainbow chard. These lively leaves are available all year round but are at their best between July and November. They’re a good source of fibre, iron, calcium and vitamins A, C, K. Best of all, chard is easy to cook and is delicious with lemon and garlic.

On Sunday evening, I was flagging after a family day out (the Dr Who Experience sure is confusing when you’ve never really watched the TV show) and couldn’t be bothered to do a full-on roast dinner. I guess this is a quicker, less heavy version of that Sunday staple – and it goes very well with a glass of red. It’s lovely and lemony and the thyme adds a subtle woodiness.

I’m a recent convert to jarred chickpeas (Nigella’s right when she says that they’re superior) and you can buy them in most supermarkets and world food shops. If you can’t find them, you can just use the canned variety.

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More charred than chard, but hey ho…

 

Stir-fry with rainbow chard, chickpeas and baby new potatoes

Ingredients

200g rainbow chard, washed and roughly sliced

1 jar (540g) chickpeas

200g baby new potatoes, halved

1 courgette, cut into strips

2 cloves smoked garlic

1 lemon

1 tsp fresh thyme leaves – or dried thyme

Salt and pepper

1 tbsp olive oil

 

Method

In a large wok, heat the olive oil on a high heat then add the potatoes, the juice of half a lemon and some salt and pepper. Fry for five minutes, stirring frequently. Add a little water so that the potatoes don’t burn. Turn the heat down to medium, add the chickpeas –including the brine – courgette, garlic and thyme to the pan and squeeze over the juice of another half lemon. After a couple of minutes, add the chard and a little more water then cook for another ten minutes, or until the potatoes are soft. Serve in bowls, squeeze over some more lemon juice and season with salt and pepper, if you like.

 

You had me at halloumi

Boy, have I eaten well over the last few days. Steak, chicken, cheese, ham, chocolate doughnuts – I could go on. Before you ask, I haven’t fallen off the wagon; it’s all as fake as Donald Trump’s newsfeed. Yup, plant-based eating has moved on a lot in the two years that I’ve been vegan.

When I first ditched the meat, eggs and dairy two years ago I would never have dreamed of eating substitutes. I kind of fell into the trap of ‘clean eating’ (bleeurgh) and although it was just a phase, I still turned my nose up at processed foods, even if they were vegan. Eventually though, curiosity (and Instagram) got the better of me and in the last six months, I’ve relaxed a bit and eaten a lot of vegan ‘junk’ food. When I’m not scoffing fishless fingers and ‘chicken’ nuggets (thank you, Quorn), you’ll find me in the biscuit aisle – damn you, Oreos. Sure, my jeans are tighter, but it’s nice that I no longer feel like I’m missing out.

And so I move on to the subject of vegan halloumi – yes, you read that correctly. Demand for plant-based cheeses is higher than ever and Violife has a new range, which includes a Wensleydale-type cheese with cranberries or blueberries – and a much-hyped halloumi.

I dabble in a bit of dairy-free cheese now and then but it’s halloumi, in all its salty squeakiness, that I really crave. I’m not going to lie to you: this doesn’t taste like the real thing. It’s tasty and keeps its shape when fried or grilled but it’s more sticky than squeaky and needs a good bit of seasoning to really sing. I’d eat it again though.

Whether you’re trying the Violife version or just eating the regular stuff, halloumi goes really, really well with fruit. In this salad, I’ve paired it with watermelon but nectarine or blueberries would work just as well. I used D’aucy lentils (one of the best canned version around in my opinion) but own-brand green or brown ones will do. Obviously, you can cook them from scratch but using canned saves a bit of time.

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Halloumi, lentil and watermelon salad

Serves 2

Takes 15-20 minutes to make

 

Ingredients

1 packet halloumi (vegan or dairy), cut into long slices

1 can (400g) lentils, drained

2 small courgettes, cut into wedges

1 bag watercress

As much watermelon as you like

1 large handful pine nuts

1 large lemon

2 tbsp olive oil

1 tbsp balsamic vinegar

1 handful flat leaf parsley, roughly chopped

Salt and pepper

 

Method

Place two large pans on a medium heat and add a tablespoon of olive oil to each one. In one pan, add the courgettes and a good squeeze of lemon juice and cook for five minutes until brown, then remove from the pan and set aside. In the other pan, fry the halloumi slices with a squeeze of lemon for around ten minutes, turning frequently – they’ll be ready when they’re brown on both sides. Meanwhile, add the drained lentils and watercress to the other pan with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and warm for five minutes. Return the cooked courgettes to the pan and heat for another minute. Remove the halloumi from the pan and lightly toast the pine nuts for a minute or so. Serve the lentils with the halloumi and watermelon and scatter over the pine nuts and parsley with a squeeze of lemon and some salt and pepper.

Let’s get ready to crumble

Hello autumn, my old friend. Summer’s on its way out and my favourite time of the year is fast approaching. This season of mists and mellow fruitfulness* is a delicious dalliance of chilly skies and warm and toasty glows – carpets of copper-coloured leaves, bonfires burning bright and sunny squashes.

I’m getting a bit carried away, I know. It’s not here just yet, and in some ways, I’m quite glad as this autumn I need to get fit. In October, for the first time in four years, I’m running a half marathon and I’m not looking forward to it. I’m such a fair-weather runner (actually, I hate running come rain or shine) that I only put on my trainers when I have a race coming up. This means that I’m pretty out of shape and have just over six weeks to train. Help. It could be worse, I guess. On the radio this morning, John Humphreys told listeners that he runs with his eyes closed. At four o’clock in the morning.

When I’m not putting my legs and lungs to the test, I’ll be in the kitchen cooking or eating. Cold and dark nights call for comfort food and nothing quite beats a crumble. This one’s dead easy to make and is a nice way to enjoy summer fruits while they’re still in season. I used rhubarb, strawberries and blackcurrants, but raspberries, blueberries and peaches or nectarines would work a treat, too – or even a bag of the summer berries you can find in the freezer aisle of most supermarkets.

*Keats describes this season better than anyone in the sublime To Autumn.

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Summer fruits crumble

Ingredients

For the fruit filling

400g summer fruits

1 tsp ground ginger

50g light brown sugar

 

For the crumble topping

150g flour

50g porridge oats

100g vegan margarine, cold from the fridge

 

Method

Preheat the oven to 180C (gas mark 4). Stew the rhubarb with a little water and sugar for about ten minutes, then add the strawberries and blackcurrants and heat for a further five minutes.

To make the crumble topping, sieve the flour into a bowl, then stir through the oats and rub the margarine into the dry ingredients until your mixture resembles breadcrumbs.

Place the fruit mixture in a large ovenproof dish the scatter the crumble topping over and bake for 40 minutes. Serve with vegan ice cream, custard, cream or on its own.

 

 

Summer spice

Long time, no blog post. I’ve been busy working, moving house and going on holiday – not necessarily in that order.

Last week I went to Manchester for a few days and fell back in love with this ravishing red-bricked city. I don’t know what it is, but it’s a place that pulls me back time and time again. Maybe I’m a northerner at heart.

One of the best things about Manchester, for me, is the food, and vegans are spoiled for choice. I enjoyed my fair share of rainbow salads and also an amazing jackfruit curry, a breakfast roll with veggie sausage, beans, hash browns and peanut butter and the closest thing I’ve got to heaven (in burger form, anyway) at V-Rev Vegan Diner. This place is world famous and it’s not hard to see why.

The rumours are true: @vrevmcr is AMAZING Very full bellies after this filthy feast.

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After gorging myself silly, I’m now taking it easy on the treats and trying to train for a half marathon – I hate running and having a goal is the only way to make me exercise. The weather’s been a bit grey this week so I’m making the most of summer vegetables while they’re still in season. Cue this colourful curry which is tasty, healthy and filling and takes under half an hour to make. Use whatever veg you can get your hands – the list below is just what I had in the fridge. Oh, and go easy on the curry paste if you’re not a spice girl like me.

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Summer vegetable curry

Serves 3–4

Ingredients

1 head cauliflower broken into florets, plus its outer leaves

150g green beans, topped and tailed

100g runner beans, topped and tailed and sliced thinly

1 small courgette, diced

1 punnet cherry tomatoes or 4–5 tomatoes, quartered (or a tin of plum tomatoes)

8­–10 radishes

A thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger root, peeled and grated

1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed, grated or finely chopped

1 small onion, finely chopped

2–3 tbsp curry paste

300g spinach

100ml coconut or other plant milk

70g flaked almonds (optional)

1 tbsp olive or coconut oil

Method

Heat the oil in a large pan on a medium heat. Add the onions and let them cook for 2–3 minutes until soft. Add the cauliflower florets and green beans with the ginger, garlic and curry paste, and half the plant milk and stir. After a couple of minutes, add the runner beans, courgette and radishes and the cherry tomatoes to the pan, plus the rest of the plant milk. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring regularly, then add the spinach. Cook for another five minutes then serve with rice and some flaked almonds.

Just do it

I’ve started running again. What this actually means, for me, anyway, is a sweaty shuffle which causes me to become a. incredibly out of breath and b. alarmingly red in the face. On Tuesday, I managed a whole five kilometres, although in the interest of full disclosure, I stopped a fair few times. That’s OK, though. For someone who hasn’t run properly since the 2013 Cardiff Half Marathon, I’m pretty pleased with that. When it comes to running, or anything else that I’m mildly anxious about, I try to think like Nike and ‘just to do it’.

Immediately after running, I have no appetite, but I usually need food and lots of it in no time at all. Regular readers will know that I’ve never been one to shun carbs (take away my bread and you’ll be sorry) and after my victorious lap around the Liberty Stadium, I needed starch and I needed it bad. When I need a quick, easy dinner, it has to be spaghetti.

This recipe uses only a few ingredients so you can really taste the flavours. Broad beans are a great way to up your protein quota and if you use wholewheat or spelt spaghetti, you’ll have an even healthier meal in your belly.

The real secret to simple cooking is using good quality ingredients. That doesn’t mean you have to spend lots of money but it’s worth investing in a decent bottle of extra virgin olive oil. A word to the wise about oil: save that deliciously fruity XV stuff for sauces, salads and dressings and use the ordinary kind for frying.

I found some smoked garlic at my local supermarket and it worked so well with the lemon juice and salt but if you don’t have it, add a pinch of smoked paprika instead. Once you’ve dealt with the broad beans (use frozen, if you’re pressed for time), this one pot wonder will take about ten minutes to cook.

Broad beans
You can blame the lighting for this photo, but trust me, it tastes really, really good.

Spaghetti with broad beans, lemon and garlic

Serves 2

Ingredients

200g broad beans, podded

200g spaghetti

1 clove garlic, chopped finely

1 lemon, juiced

1 tbsp olive oil

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper

70g flaked almonds (optional)

 

Method

Double pod your broad beans – basically remove them from the pods and then remove their outer skins. Now bring a pan of salted water to the boil and add the spaghetti. After 4 minutes, add the broad beans and boil for another 6 minutes. Drain and set to one side. Using the same pan, heat the oil, then fry the garlic for a minute. Add the almonds, half the lemon juice and a generous sprinkling of salt and cook for another minute, stirring all the time. Return the spaghetti and broad beans to the pan and mix together with the other ingredients. Pour over the rest of the lemon juice, a generous glug of the extra virgin olive oil and season with more salt and pepper, then serve.

Too hot to handle

Blimey, it’s warm. It’s not quite heatwave hot but I’m not built for this weather. Pale-skinned English rose that I am, I’ve long learned to shun the sun. It’s not that I dislike it but I prefer it in small doses, as does my colouring. Extreme temperatures do me no good (I’m useless in the winter, too) so it’s no wonder that I prefer the milder months of the spring and autumn. I’ve just finished reading Maggie O’Farrell’s unputdownable Instructions for a Heatwave (timely, eh?), which is set in the summer of 1976, the hottest on record for more than 350 years. It’s hard to imagine that, for two weeks, temperatures reached 32 degrees Celsius and the government had to appoint a Minister for Drought. Take note, climate change deniers.

In the novel, people do odd things, things that they normally wouldn’t. Heat gets to us in ways that we can’t explain and can make us act completely out of character. That’s what some people must be thinking about Nigella Lawson, who was criticised last week for posting a recipe of sliced tomatoes topped with homemade salad cream. Leave the poor woman alone. Sometimes the simplest things are the most delicious. And it’s far too hot to think properly at the moment. No one wants to be cooking, do they?

In that vein, I’m sharing my ‘recipe’ for a very simple salad which is light enough for a warm summer evening but also full of flavour. I made it one lunchtime last month when I was gripped by what I call freelancer fear – yeah, that’s a thing. It didn’t completely quell my anxiety but I think it did me some good. This salad’s colourful, crunchy and quick to make, and the dressing’s pretty dreamy, too. You can always add rice, quinoa or boiled new potatoes if you want a heartier meal.

Too hot to handle

Cheerful chickpea salad with nectarine and avocado

Serves 2

Ingredients

For the salad

1 can of chickpeas (400g), rinsed and drained

2 carrots, peeled and sliced into thin strips

2 small nectarines, sliced

1 large avocado, sliced

Half a cucumber, halved and cut into thin slices

For the dressing

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 lemon (juice)

1 tsp maple syrup

½ tsp cumin powder

A few leaves of fresh mint, finely slice

A pinch of salt

 

Method

This is so simple you could almost make it with your eyes shut – please don’t. Once you’ve sliced all the fruit and vegetables, assemble them on a plate. Make the dressing by mixing all the ingredients together in a bowl, mug or glass. Put the chickpeas in a bowl and mix through half of the dressing, then add to the rest of the salad. Pour over the remainder of the dressing and serve.

Mango tango

Hello there, British summer; it’s nice to have you back. After we moaned and groaned about the hottest heatwave since 1976, the skies are once again a shade of grey, making this Monday even more meh than usual. Thankfully I’m no longer working nine to five, but it’s still hard to get my act together after the weekend.

Now that I’m freelance, regular mealtimes have gone out of the window. It’s not that I’d ever forget to eat (as if) but sometimes after a late breakfast, I’ll get so engrossed in a piece of work that it gets to three o’clock and I’ll wonder why I’m so grouchy. A handful of nuts and dark chocolate and several strong coffees do not maketh a sustainable lunch.

This is where a tin of pulses and some veggies some in handy as you can use them to make a meal in mere minutes. You can knock up this stir fry faster than Theresa May running through a field of wheat.

I like to mix things up in the kitchen (I’m mad, me) so added a mango that was languishing in the fruit bowl. Use whatever needs using up but a bit of fruit adds a nice bit of sweetness to it. You can add rice (use the microwave type if you’re really starved of time) or noodles if you’re extra hungry.

speedy stir fry
Speedy stir fry with mango and avocado and a lime, chili and mint dressing

Speedy stir fry with mango and avocado and a lime, chili and mint dressing

Serves 2

Ingredients

For the stir fry

1 head of cauliflower or broccoli, broken into florets

1 ripe avocado, peeled and sliced

1 ripe mango, peeled and sliced

2 spring onions, finely sliced

1 tin of green or brown lentils, rinsed and drained

Large handful spinach

1 tbsp sesame oil

1 tbsp soy sauce

For the dressing

1 lime, juiced

1 red chili, finely chopped

A few fresh mint leaves, finely chopped

 

Method

Heat a large wok then add the sesame oil. After a minute, add the cauliflower or broccoli, spring onion and soy sauce and cook for 2 minutes. Add the lentils and the spinach and cook for another 2 minutes. To make the dressing, quickly mix together the lime juice, chilli and mint. Serve the stir fry in bowls and drizzle over the dressing.

Instructions for a heatwave

You know what they say about the sun – mad dogs and Englishmen and all that. Well, it’s true. I’m sure I’m not the only one whose brain is a bit addled by the current heatwave. I’m so glad that I no longer work in an office or worse still, have to face a hot and sweaty commute to work. Still, it’s hard going. Without wanting to sound like one of those people, it’s a bit too hot, isn’t it?

Anyway, ‘tis the season to eat salad (or sorbet, if you’re a vegan with a sweet tooth) and it’s pretty much all I want at the moment. I fell in love with a little lunch pot I bought from Marks and Spencer at the weekend and decided to try to recreate it.

The flavours in this salad verge on the sublime, thanks mainly to a creamy lemon and parsley dressing, and it’s a good way to use courgettes which are just in season. The peas (also in season if you use fresh) and chickpeas are full of protein so it’s a sustaining salad, too. Instead of fregola, I’ve used orzo, which looks like rice but is actually a type of pasta but much lighter – ideal if your appetite isn’t up to much in this weather. You can buy it in most large supermarkets but if you can’t find it, quinoa, couscous or brown rice will work just as well – just adjust your cooking times.

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Orzo with courgettes and peas and a lemon and parsley dressing

Serves 2-3

Ingredients

For the salad

100g orzo pasta

200g peas (fresh or frozen)

1 large courgette, diced

1 can of chickpeas (400g), rinsed and drained

2-3 handfuls spinach

Juice of 1 lemon

1 tbsp olive oil

Salt and pepper

 

For the dressing

Juice and zest of 1 unwaxed lemon (if you can’t get unwaxed, use the juice only)

½ tsp mustard seeds (black or yellow) or 1 tsp wholegrain mustard

1 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 handful of parsley, finely chopped

1 tsp maple syrup

Salt and pepper

 

Method

Add the orzo to a pan of salted boiling water and cook for 6-7 minutes, then drain and set aside. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large pan, then add the peas (shell them first if you’re using fresh) and courgette and squeeze over the lemon juice. Cook for 5-6 minutes, then add the chickpeas and the spinach and cook for another 2 minutes. Stir through the orzo then quickly make the dressing. If using mustard seeds, grind them using a pestle mortar or the base of a large mug, then mix together with the other ingredients – you can do this in a bowl by with a whisk or a fork or you can pop everything into a jar and give it a good shake.

Stir the dressing into the salad and serve. This goes particularly well with a cool glass of crisp white wine. Enjoy.