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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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.

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.

 

 

The Swigg

Well, haven’t we had a strange start to March? Sub-zero temperatures and snow-covered cars aren’t quite what one expects as spring approaches but there we go. As much as I pretend to hate the white stuff, I was more than a little disappointed that it didn’t stick around in Swansea. Apparently, it never snows here. The rest of the country, however, was a different story, and Cardiff was covered in the stuff. Instagram was full of friends and their frosty frolics, giving me a serious case of FOMO and a proper hiraeth for my home city.

But anyway, Swansea’s getting more familiar by the day and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the food scene, and especially what’s on offer for us vegans. One of my favourite places is The Swigg, a cwtchy but cool café bar that’s right on the marina and serves up small plates inspired by the flavours of Wales and faraway places. It won ‘Welsh Eatery of the Year 2017’ in the Welsh Independent Retail Awards and all the ingredients are sourced as locally as possible.

While there’s plenty of meat and fish on the menu, there are also some delicious dishes for veggies and vegans: think Glamorgan sausages, quinoa sushi and houmous with roasted garlic and lemon.

There’s also a monthly vegan night where you can feast on six small plates for the bargain price of £25 per person and last week I was invited to pop over and try the menu. It may have been cold outside but it was all cosy and twinkly inside and I soon warmed up with a glass of red. The other half arrived a little late, snow swept and a little flustered. He’d walked all the way the way into town in the snow despite a heavy cold; what a wise man he is.

Anyway, let’s talk about the food. First up was the tomato and courgette ‘pizza’, a bite-sized feast of fresh flavours. This was followed by the Port Eynon sea salt baked celeriac with Gower cabbage and a smattering of pomegranate seeds. It was the night before St David’s Day so there was bit of a Welsh theme to the menu and this was sweetly salty and sumptuous, rather unlike our patron saint I’d imagine. Did you know that he was a vegetarian, though?

Next up was the three bean chilli which was on the just the right side of spicy and served with wild rice, a drizzle of vegan yogurt and a wedge of lime. After all those big flavours, it was time for a palate cleanser and the carrot, parsley and lemon salad did the job, but was still pleasantly fragrant.

Time for the star of the show. The miso tofu, mushroom and laverbread was next level umami and the small portion meant that this luxurious little number wasn’t too overpowering for the taste buds. We ended the meal with a the most perfect of puddings: a quince, apple and nut crumble.

It was a great way to try tasty but unpretentious food in a warm and friendly atmosphere and we’ll definitely be back. Apologies for my less than impressive photographs, but you I think you’ll agree that these are some good looking plates of food.

 

 

 

The Swigg holds its next vegan-themed night on Thursday 29 March.Visit the website for more details.

The Swigg

Swansea Marina, SA1 3RD

http://www.theswigg.net

Heartburn

The days might be getting longer but it’s still coat and gloves weather – for me, anyway. In our house, I’m the only one who feels the cold, whereas he often goes out without a jacket. So yes, we’ve argued about the central heating.

Apparently, the heating is still switched on when the flat reaches its ‘optimum temperature’ and the radiators stop being warm and go cold, as do I. Where’s the bloody sense in that?

The course of true love never did run smooth, but I know I’m lucky to have him – and my oversized house cardigan, which is one of the better investments I’ve made in recent years. He’s a good egg, really: he calms my kitchen crises, patiently waits while I Instagram our meals and brings me coffee in bed every morning, so I can’t complain.

And there’s always stew. It’s warm and comforting and the longer you leave it to cook, the richer it gets – like any great love affair. Speaking of which, Dolly Alderton’s superlatively brilliant Everything I Know About Love is the new book on the block and proper comfort food for your brain and I devoured it in just a few days. Her ode to female friendship is especially heartwarming.

Back to food. Here are two simple stews to warm your cockles. One’s rich and handsome; the other sweet but suave.

Pearl barley, butterbean and cauliflower stew

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Pearl barley, butterbean and cauliflower stew

The miso paste really adds depth to this but if you don’t have it, use 2-3 tablespoons of soy sauce instead. I used frozen spinach as it was languishing in the freezer, but fresh will work just as well.

Serves 3-4

Ingredients

1 small cauliflower, broken into florets

1 onion, peeled and diced

1 clove of garlic, peeled and finely chopped

1 tsp caraway seeds

2 bay leaves

1-2 tbsp rapeseed oil

2 tsp miso paste

1 x 400g can of tomatoes, chopped or plum

1 x 400g can of butterbeans, drained

2 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped

150g pearl barley

150g frozen spinach – or about 8 ‘bunches’

Salt and pepper

 

Heat the oil over a medium heat in a large pan or heat-proof casserole dish, then fry the onion and garlic for 2-3 minutes. Add the carrot and cauliflower and fry for another 3 minutes, then tip in the tomatoes (fill the empty can with water and add that too) and the pearl barley, caraway seeds, bay leaves and miso paste. Season with salt and pepper.

Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat, add a lid to the pan and cook for 15 minutes. Add the spinach and butterbeans and cook for another 10-15 (again, with the lid on).

Remove the bay leaves and serve with bread or green vegetables.

 

Chickpea stew with beetroot, fennel and orange

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Chickpea stew with beetroot, fennel and orange

A fierce fusion of flavours. Mellow beetroot (use the vacuum-packed kind if you can’t get hold of fresh) turns this a pretty shade of purple and balances the sharp but sweet fennel and orange. If you can’t find fennel, try celery instead.

Serves 3-4

Ingredients

3-4 medium sweet potatoes (r around 200g), peeled and diced

4-5 fresh beetroot, peeled and diced

1 fennel bulb, stalks and fronds removed, and diced

1 x 400g can of tomatoes, chopped or plum

1 x 400g can of chickpeas, drained

1 orange, juice only

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp smoked paprika

Salt and pepper

1 tbsp rapeseed oil

 

Heat the oil over a medium heat in a large pan or heat-proof casserole dish, add the sweet potato and fry for 5 minutes, then add the beetroot, the tomatoes (fill the empty can with water and pour this into the pan), and the spices and season.

Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and place a lid on the pan. After 10 minutes, add the fennel and cook for another 10 minutes. After this, add the chickpeas and the orange juice and cook for 5-10 minutes. Serve with green vegetables or on its own.

Milgi

This January has been exceptionally grey and gloomy and on these dark, dark nights we seek comfort in food and a perhaps a cup of cheer, too. Luckily for me, I’ve eaten very well this month and when I was invited to try Milgi’s new menu, I pencilled the date in my diary (I don’t do digital) with great excitement.

Milgi is Cardiff’s cool as a cucumber café, restaurant and bar, and sisters Gabrielle and Rebecca have been feeding the city’s veggies and vegans for nearly 12 years. During this time, it’s been perennially popular and has notched up lots of awards for its food and commitment to sustainability. It was one of the runners-up in the Best Ethical Food Project in last year’s Observer Food Magazine Awards and nominated in the South Wales Echo Food and Drink Awards 2016-17.

It’s obviously a bit of a plant lovers’ paradise but the healthy but hearty dishes here will please even the most die-hard of carnivores, too. The kitchen cooks up pretty platefuls of food and everything is seasonal and organic. There’s a real flair for flavour and not a mushroom risotto in sight, although you can enjoy traditional favourites with a twist: think battered halloumi and chips and nut roast with vegan cauliflower cheese and all the trimmings.

I’ve been coming to Milgi for a long time because the food and drink is so good and because it fits the bill for every occasion. During the day, it’s bright and airy and I guarantee you that a Milgi breakfast will ease even the hardiest of hangovers.  After dark, everything is cosy and intimate so it’s great for a romantic meal or some cocktails with the gang.

We visited on a windy Thursday evening with tired heads and rumbling tummies but all that was forgotten as we were ushered to our table by our friendly waitress. After she’d talked us through the new menu and taken our drinks orders, we sat back and soaked up the atmosphere. There’s an open kitchen and crates of fruit and vegetables dotted around the place so it’s nice to know that what you see is what you get.  They make their own sauerkraut and kombucha on site, too.

Everything on the menu looks seriously good, especially the vegan seafood platter, which I’ll definitely be trying next time I visit, so it took us a while to decide what to have. Once we ordered though, our food arrived pretty quickly.

I had the green burger, which is indeed a vibrantly verdant hue thanks to its combination of butter beans, spinach, coriander, parsley and a special spice blend. This comes with a fresh and zingy salad and chunky sweet potato fries, and because they’d run out of wholemeal buns, I had the baked polenta which made a nice change and also happens to be the gluten free option. This is probably the healthiest ‘burger and chips’ I’ve ever had and I enjoyed every bite.

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The green burger

My other half is a big halloumi fan so naturally he plumped for the masala battered halloumi and triple-cooked chips with a pleasingly tart nigella seed chutney.

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Masala battered halloumi and chips

For pudding, we shared the cinnamon doughnuts with apple compote and vegan ice cream (not for the faint hearted!) and the ‘mostly raw’ cacoa and berry cheesecake with vanilla yogurt. Both were sweet without being sickly and the perfect end to the meal.

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Doughnuts

 

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Raw cheesecake

We washed everything down with a margarita and a glass of red wine (for me) and a couple of beers (for him) and left feeling warm and just nicely fuzzy. If you need some light during these cold winter months, get yourself down to Milgi.

You can find Milgi at 213 City Road, Cardiff CF24 3JD.

https://milgicardiff.com