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.

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Scary spice

October has crept past me and all of a sudden, the clocks have gone back and it’s Halloween. The past four weeks have been a bit of a blur after a short stint of working nine to five in Cardiff. While I enjoyed it (I met some great people, the work was interesting and it gave me a reason to get out of my pyjamas), it was quite a shock to the system after the freedom and flexibility of freelancing. It got me out of the house andI was always paid on time (take note, other companies), but gosh, I was tired. I really don’t miss leaving the house while it was still dark and getting home at 7.30pm. I realise how lucky I am to do what I do.

Although commuting by train from Swansea to Cardiff took up a considerable chunk of the day (thank you, delays), it did mean that, when I wasn’t working, I could sit and watch the world from my window, or just read. I never finish books. Although I’ve always been a bookworm and own piles and piles of paperbacks, it’s rare for me to finish one before starting on another. Call it a short attention span or perhaps it harks back to my English degree when I always had about three books on the go, but I just can’t commit to one.

Well, finally, I’ve settled on one book and I’ve devoured its pages like The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I’m re-reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt, which is my all-time favourite novel. There’s a reason why it’s a cult classic and I’ve loved it ever since I first read it aged 18. For a novel in which the central plot is about a murder, it’s an oddly comforting read (in fact, at uni, I studied it as part of a module called ‘Danger, Domesticity and American Literature’) and the protagonist’s descriptions of fall in New England make me feel all warm and cosy. If you haven’t discovered it yet, you’re in for a treat.

It’s been good for me to slow down my brain, and reading really helps me switch off. While life has been busy, I haven’t had much time to cook, so I’ve been relying on ready meals and batch cooking at the weekends. I’ve always been a fan of one pot meals but they’ve proved especially useful in the past month. This warming curry is another way to use pumpkin and squash this scary season, and it’s pretty easy to make, too. I like the hint of a kick provided by the cardamom – if you’re using the pods, make sure that you remove these before cooking, although you can buy the ground version if it’s easier.

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Pumpkin, lentil and spinach curry with coconut milk and cardamom

Pumpkin, lentil and spinach curry with coconut milk and cardamom

Serves 3-4

Ingredients

1 medium (around 300g) pumpkin or squash, peeled, diced and seeds removed

200g red lentils, rinsed and drained

2 x 400ml cans coconut milk

1 bag (about 250g), fresh spinach (or use frozen)

1 onion, peeled and finely diced

1 heaped teaspoon coconut oil

1 tsp ground turmeric

1 tsp coriander seeds, ground

1 tsp cardamom seeds, ground

2 inches of ginger, peeled and finely chopped or grated

1 clove of garlic, peeled and finely chopped or grated

 

Prepare the pumpkin then in a large pot or saucepan, heat the oil over a low temperature, then add the onion, garlic and spaces and fry for 2 minutes. Add the pumpkin and cook for another 5 minutes. Pour in the coconut milk with the lentils and bring to the boil.

Reduce the heat, cover with a lid and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the spinach, stir through, and cook for another 2 minutes – or a bit longer if using frozen. Serve with brown rice.