Light at the end of the tunnel

We’re almost halfway through February, a short but (bitter)sweet month. It’s always been a happy time for me because it’s when I celebrate my birthday and it’s one step closer to the beginning of spring. By the end of February, it’ll be almost six o’clock before it gets dark, and just a month later, the clocks go forward and we’ll say hello to British Summer Time.

It might be a small and dark month, but its fruits (and vegetable) are handsome; ‘tis the season of blood oranges, purple sprouting broccoli and Jerusalem artichokes.

I’m pretty passionate about eating seasonally when possible because it’s tastier, better for the environment, and it’s often cheaper as well. Head to your local market (or even supermarket) and you’ll find local home-grown fruit and veg at a very reasonable price.

Back to those Jersusalem artichokes. These knobbly brown roots might not look very jolly, but they’re sweetly mellow and incredibly versatile. They’re not actually artichokes, but a type of sunflower, hence the name which is derived from girasole, the Italian word for those sunny shoots.

Jerusalem artichokes contain vitamin C, phosphorus and potassium, and are a good source of iron. They’re also very rich in inulin, a carbohydrate linked with good intestinal health due to its prebiotic properties.

You can eat them raw in a salad (try pairing them with apple or beetroot) or roast them like potatoes. Last week, I roasted them and made them into a light but velvety soup. The lemon adds a lovely bit of zing and you could add spinach if you wanted a bit of extra vitamin C.

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Roasted Jerusalem artichoke and lemon soup

 

Roasted Jerusalem artichoke and lemon soup

 

Serves 2

Ingredients

400-500g Jerusalem artichokes, peeled and roughly sliced

2 unwaxed lemons

1 medium onion, peeled and finely diced

500ml hot vegetable stock

Salt and pepper

Fresh basil leaves, roughly torn

Olive oil

 

Preheat the oven to 200C. Put the sliced artichokes into a large oven dish and pour over a generous glug of olive oil. Squeeze over the juice from the lemon halves then add them to the dish, and season. Place the dish on the top shelf of the oven and roast for about 45-50 minutes.

When cooked, remove from the oven and set aside. Heat some oil in a large pan and fry the onion for 5 minutes. Pour in the roasted artichokes and lemons (use a little boiling water to loosen the juices from the dish and use these as well) and cook for another 5 minutes. Pour over the hot stock, season, and bring to the boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover with a lid and then cook for another 10 minutes. Turn off the heat, remove the lemon halves from the pan and add the basil leaves, then blend with a hand blender. Serve with bread and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

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Recipes for Bonfire Night

And so it’s November, the quiet spell before the festive fervour begins – and when it really starts to get cold.

It’s also World Vegan Month (Thursday was World Vegan Day) and a recent survey has revealed that one in eight Brits are vegan or vegetarian, while 21% of us follow a flexitarian diet. It seems that ditching the meat, dairy and eggs – or eating less of it – is now the norm.

Things have changed a lot in the three and a half years since I went vegan, back when it was assumed that switching to a plantbased way of eating meant sacrificing any form of flavour. Well, my tastebuds aren’t (and never have been) for turning and I’ve been trying to explain that to the naysayers for a long time. Now there are dairy-free Magnums, a sure sign that veganism has gone mainstream.

On Thursday, I went onto Prynhawn Da (you can watch me here – and there are subtitles if you don’t speak Welsh) to show the huge selection of vegan convenience foods that are now at supermarkets.  From pizza, burgers and fishless fingers, to Christmas cake, mince pies and Wensleydale with cranberry, it’s clear that eating vegan is easier than ever before. And while these goodies can be a little pricier, like the non-vegan versions, they should perhaps be seen as an occasional treat. After all, the bulk of a vegan diet (fruits, veggies, grains and pulses) are some of the cheapest things you can buy.

But while these are handy meals to bung in the oven or microwave when you’re tired or busy (the vegan life doesn’t have to consist of kale and cacoa), I’m actually really keen to cook at the moment. I’ve had a few weeks of not eating particularly well, thanks to working, commuting and generally being busy, so I’m looking forward to healthy, hearty soups and stews, and perhaps the odd cake, too.

It’s Bonfire Night on Monday, one of my favourite times of the year. It marks the turning point in the calendar, just after Halloween, when it’s just about acceptable to start thinking about Christmas.

This year, I’ll be staying in with baby Bobbie, our five-month-old kitten, who no doubt will be a bit afraid of the bangs and screeches, which are even louder than mine during a bad case of PMT.

It’s an evening for food to warm the cockles, so here are two easy recipes for you to try.

We had a load of pumpkins and apples left over from our Halloween party (which Bobbie and I just about survived – a gaggle of tweenage girls is terrifying whether you’re cat or human) so I’ve put them to good use in a simple but sustaining pumpkin soup and a sticky and sweet apple cake.

 

Pumpkin and red lentil soup with apple and sage

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Pumpkin and red lentil soup with apple and sage

Ingredients

1 medium pumpkin (or 400g) pumpkin or squash, peeled, roughly chopped and seeds and flesh removed

2 apples, cored and diced

2 small onions, finely diced

5-6 sage leaves

200g red lentils, rinsed and drained

1 tsp cumin

1 tsp allspice

1 red chilli, finely chopped

1.5 litres vegetable stock

A glug of rapeseed or olive oil

Salt and pepper

 

To garnish (optional)

Sage leaves

Pumpkin seeds

 

In a large pan, heat the oil over a medium temperature. Add the onion and sage leaves and fry for 2-3 minutes then add the pumpkin and apple and cook for another 5-6 minutes. Add the chilli and spices and fry for a minute, then add the lentils and the stock and season. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat, place a lid on the pan and simmer for 15-20 minutes. Turn off the heat and blend with a stick blender.

Serve in bowls with crusty bread. If you like, fry the pumpkin seeds and sage leaves in a little oil for a few minutes, or until crispy, and scatter over the soup.

 

Toffee apple traybake

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Toffee apple traybake

 

Ingredients

200g dates, roughly chopped

400ml milk

100ml rapeseed, vegetable or sunflower oil, plus extra for greasing

250g self-raising flour

100g light soft brown sugar

½ tsp baking powder

2 tbsp mixed spice

2 tsp vanilla extract

4 apples, grated

 

For the topping (optional)

1 apple, thinly sliced

A little brown sugar

 

Heat the oven to 180C. Grease and line a 20 x 30cm baking tray with baking parchment. Put the dates and 200ml of the milk in a small pan and simmer gently for 10-15 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.

Whizz the date mixture to a smooth purée in a food processor or blender, then scrape into a large mixing bowl. Tip in the oil, the flour, brown sugar, baking powder, mixed spice, vanilla extract and the rest of the milk,  and mix together well. Fold in the grated apple.

Pour the mixture into the tray and spread out evenly. Place the tray on the top shelf of the oven and bake for 45 minutes until a skewer poked into the centre of the cake comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tray then cut into slices.

If you’d like to add the topping, remove the cake from the oven after 35 minutes, arrange the apple slices on top and sprinkle over the brown sugar. Return to the oven and bake for another 10 minutes.

Tis the season to be sniffly

Magical it may be, but the lead-up to Christmas and its non-stop carousel of shopping lists and office dos means that it’s also the season to get the sniffles. It’s no wonder, really, that if you add large amounts of fizz and frivolity you end up feeling a bit feverish. We’ve all been under the weather at our house this week so I’ve made lots of this soup. It’s light on the tummy and packed with nourishing root veg – and even if it doesn’t make you better, it’ll certainly lift your spirits.

If you can, slip into your PJs and eat this under a blanket while watching a sickly sweet Christmas film on Channel 5 or Netflix. I hear that The Christmas Prince is so bad it’s good – perfect comfort viewing.

I’ve got two parties this week (one for grown-ups, then a slightly more sober affair: a kids’ birthday bash) so I’m loading up on the vitamins. Until then, you’ll find me on the sofa.

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Soup for the soul. That’s vegan cheese, if you’re wondering.

A soup for sickness

Ingredients

Half a swede, peeled and diced

3 large potatoes, peeled and diced

1 large parsnip, peeled and diced

2 large carrots, peeled and diced

2-3 stalks celery, ends removed and diced

200g red lentils

1 tsp chopped fresh ginger

Half a red chili, thinly sliced

1.5 litres vegetable stock

1 tbsp olive oil

Salt and pepper

 

Heat the oil over a low heat in a large pan, then add the potatoes, parsnips, swede and carrots and fry for 2-3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the celery, ginger, chili and lentils and fry for another 2 minutes, then add the stock, season with salt and pepper and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat, cover with a lid and simmer for 20-25 minutes, or until the vegetables are all cooked, stirring occasionally.

Serve with crusty bread.