Pinch, punch, first of the month

It might be the first of September, but like most of us sun-spoiled Brits, I’m hoping for an Indian summer. I adore the autumn, which for me, is the season of new starts, but I’m feeling rather ill-prepared for it this year.

I don’t feel ready to get back into the swing of things because I never got off in the first place. My freelancing has been more feast than fast recently, which is no bad thing, but it does mean that I didn’t get to enjoy as many long and lazy summer days as I’d have liked.

Perhaps I need follow the example of our Gallic neighbours. If you’ve ever been to Paris during August, you’ll know that everything shuts down. The French love their holidays, but in September, after a well-deserved break, it’s ‘à la rentrée’, and life returns to normal.

School starts next week and so does the beginning of a busy month for me, and many others. The nights are already drawing in and I’m not relishing the return of colder, darker days. I really don’t want to say sayonara to the summer so in typical rebellious fashion, I plan to stay bare-legged, go out without a coat and eat summer berries for as long as I possibly can.

Speaking of which, summer strawberries are still on the shelves, but only just, so in homage to the sunny season, here’s a sweet bake to brighten up those grey skies. You can find tahini in most larger supermarkets and world food shops, but peanut butter works well, too. When strawberries disappear, you can try it with autumn apples or blackberries.

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Strawberry and tahini loaf

Ingredients

1 punnet (about 400g) strawberries, hulled

200g plain or rice flour

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

2 tsp baking powder

100g caster sugar

250ml plant milk

75ml rapeseed oil, plus extra for greasing

3 tbsp tahini

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp vanilla extract

Heat the oven to 200C. Take half the strawberries and chop into small pieces. Add to a pan with a little water and a tablespoon of caster sugar and warm over a low heat for 5 minutes. Leave to cool.

Sieve the flour, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda into a large mixing bowl. Add the sugar and stir thoroughly. Add the milk and stir through and then the oil, and stir again. Now add the tahini, cinnamon and vanilla extract and stir again. Finally, add the strawberries, making sure to include the juice and stir through the mixture.

Pour into a greased loaf tin and place on the top shelf of the oven. Bake for 25 mins or until fully risen and a skewer inserted into the middle of the cakes comes out clean.

When the cake has cooled, slice the remainder of the strawberries and layer over the top of the cake. This will keep for a day or two in an airtight container.

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Home sweet home

It’s the tail-end of August, and like Cher, I’d be rather pleased if I could turn back time. What’s often a quiet month has, for me, been unusually busy. I had intended to spend the month taking stock of my first year as a freelancer and sorting out my tax return, but it’s gone by in a blur of work and a family holiday. I guess it’s true that life happens when you’re busy making other plans, but I feel even more disorganised than ever. I don’t feel particularly rested after our trip away and I feel like I have a million and one things to do so that I can play catch up.

Holidays are good for the soul, I know, and I’m the biggest advocate for them, but I feel well and truly out of kilter and I’m struggling to get back into a routine. We were sunkissed under the blue skies of Paris, but back in the UK it looks like the heatwave is going, going, gone. As I write this, bundled up under a blanket on the sofa, the grey skies are telling me to stay put even though I need to leave the flat, if only for my own sanity.

On Mondays I rarely talk to a soul until my other half gets back from his day at the office. Working from home can be a lonely business and I sometimes wonder if I’ve forgotten how to socialise, so I’m sure that starting at a new co-working space will change that. September and its shiny new school term always kicks me back into shape.

I’m looking forward to getting back in the kitchen, too, as the past few weeks have been a binge of eating out, oven dinners and of course, holiday food, which in Paris (and Disneyland) is très mal when you’re catering for a vegan and a pair of fussy vegetarians. If I never see another bread roll, I’ll be pleased.

Food aside, we had a lovely time, even if it did prove that my A Level French is woefully rusty. And I can’t complain as I’ve just come back from a flying visit to London where I soaked up some culture (if you like photography, you must catch the Dorothea Lange and Vanessa Winship exhibition at The Barbican before it ends next weekend), saw some dear friends and spent a lot of money on eating and drinking.

The payback of all this is that I’m now broke and busy with work so home cooking will be very necessary for the next few weeks. Here’s a one-pot pasta recipe that I made earlier this summer with runner beans and peas, which are still (but only just) in season. Use whatever green vegetables you have to hand though – courgettes would work pretty well with this, too.

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Pea and runner bean pasta with pesto

Pea and runner bean pasta with pesto

Serves 3-4

 

Ingredients

100g peas, fresh or frozen

100g runner beans, diagonally sliced

200g fusilli or penne pasta

1 x 400g can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained

The juice of 1 lemon

Salt and pepper

 

For the pesto

50g nuts of your choice

4-5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

The juice of 1 lemon

5-6 basil leaves, torn and stalks removed, plus extra for garnishing

5-6 mint leaves torn and stalks removed, plus extra for garnishing

2 garlic cloves, peeled and cut finely or grated

2 large handfuls spinach

A dash of plant milk

Salt and pepper

Place the pasta into a large pan and pour over 500ml boiling water, then add the lemon juice and season. Cover with a lid and bring to the boil. Remove the lid and cook on a high heat for 5 minutes, then add the runner beans and after 2 minutes, add the peas and cook for another 3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and drain any away any residual water from the pasta and return to the pan.

Meanwhile, quickly make the pesto by placing all the ingredients in a food processor and pulsing on a high setting for a minute or two. Add the cannellini beans to the pan and stir through with the pesto. Scatter over the leftover mint and basil leaves and serve.

Freekeh Friday

I can’t sleep. I suppose I’d better join the club, as it can’t be easy for any of us during this hot, hot heatwave, but in my case, I don’t think the heat is to blame.

I’ve always been a light sleeper and the slightest sound or movement can jerk me awake, and sometimes I struggle to nod off again. I can’t take naps, I’ve never been able to fall asleep on trains, planes or buses (perhaps I’m too highly strung) and it often takes me a long time to fall asleep even though my other half is out like a light as soon as his head hits the pillow. As he snores, I lie awake, worrying about things that I haven’t done or thinking about food – yes, I even dream about it, too.

I wouldn’t mind the late nights, but the early morning sunshine streams through our blinds and wakes me up, so no lie-ins for me. Inspired by Dani Dyer, whose Love Island puppy love with Jack the stationer is warming the nation’s hearts, I’ve turned to an eye mask. While Dani looks cute in hers, I look like I’m nursing a heavy hangover, but hey, it works.

So that problem’s solved, but no, there’s noise, too. I can’t sleep unless there’s complete silence (diva, me?) which means no radio, TV or music in bed – and the sound of traffic, wind or rain, or snoring puts me on edge, too. Unsurprisingly, ear plugs have been a godsend for some time now, but they don’t block out everything.

For the past couple of years, I’ve heard a low, vibrating sound, a bit like a car engine. It’s usually at night, but sometimes during the day, and I hear it more often than not. It drives me mad. My boyfriend can’t hear it and thinks that I have tinnitus but I swear to God: it’s there. Has anyone else experienced this?

What’s a woman to do? Should I resign myself to the fact that I’ll forever be sleepless in Swansea? Sadly, I’m not nearly as winsome as Meg Ryan pre-surgery (yes, I know it was Tom Hanks’ character who lived in Seattle because God, I love that film), especially with my lack of beauty sleep, but I’ll survive and anyway, I’ve always loved coffee.

Moving onto food (because why else are you reading this?), I’m very much into my salads at the moment, mainly due to said heatwave. On Monday, I had a lovely afternoon making, eating and taking photos of salads with food photographer extraordinaire, Manon Houston. I’m in love with summer strawberries and they’re delicious paired with avocado and mint, and I made the most of seasonal asparagus by teaming it with giant couscous and pistachios. It was a very good day.

While I was in Beanfreaks in Cardiff, I picked up some freekeh, something I’ve been meaning to cook with for a while. This ‘ancient grain’ (whatever that means) seems almost too good to be true: it’s full of fibre, protein and high in magnesium, potassium, calcium and iron. A 200g packet is just over two quid and it tastes good, too. I made a salad with it using asparagus (again), sweet nectarines and salty green olives. This is light enough for sultry summer evenings but won’t leave you hungry either. Enjoy with a crisp glass of white wine or an ice cold beer.

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Freekeh salad with asparagus, nectarine and green olives

Freekeh salad with asparagus, nectarine and green olives

 Serves 2

Ingredients

For the salad

100g freekeh

Pinch of sea salt

1 tbsp olive oil

8 asparagus spears, sliced lengthways

2 nectarines, thinly sliced

Half a 340g jar pitted green olives

3-4 handfuls spinach leaves

2 handfuls unsalted almonds (optional)

 

For the dressing

The juice of 1 and ½ lemons

1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 tsp dried mint (or oregano)

½ tsp chilli flakes

½ tsp sea salt

Place the freekeh and 500ml of water in a saucepan, add the oil and salt, if using, and bring to the boil. Cook for 15-20 minutes until tender, then drain and return to the pan. Pour over the dressing and stir. Meanwhile, bring a pan of salted water to the boil and cook the asparagus for 5 minutes or until tender. Divide the freekeh onto two plates and add the spinach, asparagus, nectarine and green olives and scatter over the almonds.

Inner stew

Although summer’s in full swing, the days are slowly getting shorter, and as many people jet off on their summer holidays, I feel that I need the opposite of a break.

It’s a traditionally quiet time for freelancers, which is not all bad when the weather’s this beautiful, but I’m getting itchy feet. I’ve been lulling the lull with Love Island, but I don’t think it’s helping. This bunch of homogenised honeys might be nice to look at but it all gets a bit repetitive after a while. There are only so many times I can tut as I see Alex turn redder and redder (he’s a doctor for God’s sake; where’s his sun cream?) or watch as Adam snakes his way over to every new woman who arrives at the villa.

A much better way to feng shui my funk is to do something about it, so next week I’m going to make a plan and stick to it. Part of that plan involves me trying very hard not to beat myself up for not ‘achieving’ much this month. I know that I will though, because my inner voice can be a bitch sometimes. Ah, impostor syndrome, the frenemy of women everywhere. A friend who’s also freelance shares my pain and suggested that I start a ‘joy journal’, where I write down my wins, no matter how small, so that I can see where I’m doing well and where I need to improve. I think she’s on to something there.

Anyway, my one constant is cooking and I’ve been road testing some new recipes with summer vegetables. I love making (and eating) stew and although it’s normally a dish associated with chilly nights, a few little tweaks can transform it into a summer staple. This stew is sustaining but it’s also light and zesty. Fresh peas are just in season but if you can’t be bothered to shell them, use frozen instead.

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Summer stew with courgettes, asparagus and peas

Summer stew

Serves 4

Ingredients

2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed

2 shallots, peeled and diced

500ml hot stock

100ml oat milk

1-2 tsp white miso paste

400g Jersey royals or new potatoes, quartered

100g asparagus, chopped

150g courgettes, diced

100g peas (podded weight), fresh or frozen

1 x 400g can cannellini beans

The juice of 2 lemons

2 bay leaves

1 tbsp olive oil

A handful of fresh mint, chopped

A handful of fresh parsley, chopped

Salt and pepper

 

In a large heatproof casserole or pan, heat the oil at a low temperature. Add the shallots and garlic and fry for 3-4 minutes, until translucent. Add half the stock, the miso, the bay leaves and the potatoes and bring to the boil. Cover with a lid and cook for 10 minutes. Add the asparagus, courgette and the rest of the stock and cook for 5 minutes, then add the cannellini beans and lemon juice and season. Reduce the heat and simmer for 2-3 minutes, then add the peas and oat milk and cook for another 3 minutes. Just before serving remove the bay leaves and stir through the chopped mint and parsley.

 

 

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.

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.