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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I don’t care if Monday’s blue…

Today (21 January) is Blue Monday, which is apparently the bleakest day of the year. It’s something to do with the post-Christmas slump, failed new year’s resolutions, gloomy weather and being broke until pay day. It’s true that January can be pretty joyless, but it can also be a quiet, contempalative and even quite consoling time of year – if you’re kind to yourself, that is. A lot of us put so much pressure on ourselves to be perfect – to lose weight, kick those goals and be a ‘better’ person – that it’s no wonder that we feel rubbish. Maybe it’s best to hunker down, eat up those leftover mince pies and ride it out until spring – and finally, the days are getting ever so slightly longer.

There’ll be none of that ‘new year, new me’ nonsense for me. In the past, I’ve given up on too many resolutions, so this year I didn’t make any. I’m just going to keep going and that’s enough, because I’m enough.

That said, I’m trying to head to the gym regularly, not because I’m on a health kick – although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to tone up a bit – but because of how it makes me feel. As a fairweather runner (during my twenties, I somehow managed to do three half marathons), I know all about the power of post-exercise endorphins, and although I’m much less fit these days, I still feel high after the gym. I feel more upbeat, less anxious and I usually sleep better as well. It seems that this is one spot of ‘self-improvement’ that might actually work.

I haven’t cooked much recently as I’m busy with work (no bad thing for a freelancer who’s about to pay her first tax return), but I did make an easy stew the other week. This brightly hued one pot features the stars of winter veg, beetroot and celeriac and is guaranteed to brighten up the chilliest of evenings. It’s also a good way to use up leftover chestnuts, although you can use chickpeas or lentils if you don’t eat nuts. If you have brown bananas wallowing in the fruit bowl, take one and mash it up and use instead of the tomato puree for a richer and slightly sweeter sauce.

This is lovely served with mashed swede and steamed red cabbage – and if you’re not doing Dry January (I’m certainly not), a glass of red.

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Beetroot, celeriac and chestnut casserole

Beetroot, celeriac and chestnut casserole

 

Serves 2-3

 

Ingredients

1 tbsp olive, coconut or rapeseed oil

1 clove garlic, peeled and chopped finely or grated

2 shallots, peeled and diced

200g celeriac, peeled and cut into small chunks

250g beetroot, peeled and cut into small chunks

180g cooked chestnut, roughly chopped

1 x 400g can chopped or plum tomatoes

2 tsp tomato puree

½ tsp fresh or dried thyme leaves

2 tbsp cider apple vinegar

Salt and pepper

Heat the oil in a pan at a medium temperature, then fry the shallots and garlic for 2-3 minutes. Add the beetroot, celeriac, thyme and vinegar, and season. Cook for 5 minutes, then add the tomatoes (fill the empty can with water and pour that in, too) and tomato puree, cover with a lid and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the chestnuts, cover with the lid, and cook for another 10-15 minutes.

 

 

 

All I want for Christmas…

The Beach Boys once sang, ‘Christmas comes this time each year’, and if you ask me, it gets more tiresome every time. I’m not completely ‘bah humbug’,  but I’m feeling more flat than festive at the moment even though I started the month feeling pretty jolly about the holiday season. Then my hormones went haywire and my pep petered out. So far, I’ve managed to avoid the pitfalls of party season (I don’t have an office do and I have few friends in Swansea), so I’m waiting for the Christmas spirit to kick in by watching films under a blanket and buying presents online.

It’s really, really cold at the moment, and all I want this Christmas is to hibernate. Obviously, that involves food and drink, so I set about making my own Christmas cake, as there aren’t many vegan versions in the shops and the ones I’ve tried are synthetically sweet.

This one’s easy to make and should keep for a couple of weeks. As well as being vegan, it’s free from and nuts, which means that everyone can enjoy a slice.

With all that fruit, I don’t think there’s really any need to add marzipan and icing (plus, I’m lazy), but you can buy vegan versions if you’d like to top the cake. Although the alcohol in the brandy’s burned off in the baking, you can use 150ml of tea (try Chai or Earl Grey for a fruitier taste) instead, but be aware that it will only last for a few days if you do this.

Use whatever dried fruit you like and of course, you can bake with plain flour, if you like.

Merry Christmas!

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Christmas cake

Christmas cake

Ingredients

250g sultanas

250g raisins

125g glacé cherries, roughly chopped

100g, dried apricots, roughly chopped

100ml brandy

350g rice (or gluten free) flour

1 tsp baking powder

150g light brown sugar

50ml rapeseed, olive or vegetable oil, plus extra for greasing

250ml plant milk

The juice of 1 orange

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp allspice

 

First of all, place all the dried fruit in a large mixing bowl, pour over the brandy and orange juice and give it a good stir. Cover with a clean tea towel and leave to soak overnight or for at least a couple of hours.

When you’re ready to make the cake, preheat the oven to 160C. Sift the flour, baking powder and spices over the soaked fruit and combine with a wooden spoon, then add the sugar and mix again. Add the oil and stir, then add the milk and stir again. You’ll need to use a bit of elbow grease to make sure that the flour is fully mixed in with the rest of the ingredients.

Line a 9-inch springform (loose-based) tin with greaseproof paper or use a little oil, then pour the cake batter into the tin and smooth out evenly. Place on the top shelf of the oven and bake for an hour, then, without opening the oven, turn the temperature down to 150C and bake for another 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and test with a skewer – if it comes out clean, it’s cooked. Transfer to a cooling rack and allow to cool.

Store in an airtight container for up to two weeks.

 

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.

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.

Season’s eatings

January is far too dark and cold a month to go on a restrictive diet, but I am trying to be a bit more mindful of what and how I eat – and how it makes me feel. Although I didn’t really overindulge over Christmas, my lifestyle changed quite a bit during 2017 and I don’t feel as bien dans ma peau as I did this time last year.

It’s not surprising that I can’t do my up my jeans because writing a cookery book takes no prisoners and I’ve tested a lot of recipes. I want to do something about it so that that means lots of walking (even in this grey weather, getting some daylight is a godsend for my mental wellbeing), the occasional trip to the gym and lots of veggies, pulses and grains. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy a little indulgence once in a while (if you haven’t tried Greazy Vegan yet, you simply must) but I’m choosing my treats more wisely.

There’s more:  I think I might have a food intolerance.  As someone who loves food and writes about it, giving up the gluten seems somewhat sacrilegious, but let’s just say that it’s not really agreeing with me. I’m going to cut back on the bread and biscuits for a while to see if it makes a difference (we’ll see how long I last with that one) so I’ll keep you posted.

Anyway, gluten-free or not, eating well doesn’t have to be time-consuming, bland – or expensive – as you’ll see with my recipes for a simple seasonal salad and a fast and filling curry with cauliflower rice.

 

Jump for joy salad

Let me introduce you to January’s finest: sweet but mellow russet apples, ravishing Romanesco cauliflower, and my favourite, the humble sprout. One of the cheapest ways to get this winter’s veg is at your local market, although you can use any variety depending on what you can find. The sumac in adds a lovely hit of zesty heat but use ground cumin if you don’t have any. Using tinned lentils makes this a really quick and easy dish (I’m lazy, so sue me) but boil up some dried ones if you prefer.

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Serves 2

Ingredients

For the salad

1 head of Romanesco cauliflower, broken into small florets (keep the leaves for cooking, so roughly chop these, too)

12 sprouts, ends and outer leaves removed and chopped finely

4 large handfuls of kale or spinach, roughly chopped

1 russet apple, cut into thin slices

1 x 400g can brown or green lentils, rinsed and drained

2 large handfuls of parsley, chopped

The juice of half a lemon

Salt and pepper

For the dressing

1 ½ tsp sumac

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 tbsp white wine vinegar

Put the cauliflower, sprouts and kale in a large bowl then mix the ingredients for the dressing on a glass or jar. Pour over the vegetables and massage with your hands, then season with salt and pepper.

Heat a large frying pan or wok over a high heat, then stir fry the vegetables for 3-4 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the lentils and cook for another minute. Remove the pan from the heat and tip everything back into the bowl. Add the apple and parsley and stir though, squeeze over the lemon, then serve.

 

Pea and aubergine curry with cauliflower rice

This quick curry is more fragrant than spicy and ready in about 20 minutes. You can find galangal in larger supermarkets but if you come away empty-handed, just leave it out. I’m not suggesting for one second that carbs are bad but if you fancy something a bit lighter – or you just fancy something different – cauliflower rice is rather nice, especially with the tiniest bit of almond extract. I’ve started cooking with rapeseed oil as it contains good cholesterol and omega fats but use any kind you have in the cupboard – although not extra virgin olive oil!

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Serves 3-4

Ingredients

For the curry

1 medium aubergine, cut into small chunks

200g frozen peas

4 large handfuls of kale, roughly chopped into small pieces

1 tsp chopped or grated fresh ginger

1 tsp chopped or grated galangal, fresh or dried

1 tsp ground cumin

½ tsp salt

2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped

1 x 400g can tomatoes, chopped or plum

1 tbsp peanut butter

1 tbsp rapeseed oil

1 small lime, cut into wedges

For the cauliflower rice

1 large cauliflower

1 tsp coconut oil

1 tsp chopped or grated fresh ginger

A drop of almond essence (optional)

Heat the rapeseed in a large pan over a high heat. Add the chopped aubergine and pour over the salt, then fry for five minutes, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned. Turn down the heat and add the shallots, ginger, galangal and cumin, then fry for another five minutes. Now, add the tomatoes plus a little water and bring to the boil. Tip in the peas and the kale and add the peanut butter. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover the pan with a lid and cook for 5-10 minutes.

Make the ‘rice’ by grating the cauliflower using a box grater – you can use a food processor but I find that a grater takes less washing up. Heat the oil in a pan over a medium heat, then add the cauliflower and the ginger and cook for 4-5 minutes, stirring frequently, until lightly browned. Add a drop of almond essence if using.

Serve with the curry and a squeeze of lime

Viva la Veganuary

Happy new year! The Yuletide season is almost over and on Saturday, we must all take down our trees and tinsel. After feeling decidedly curmudgeonly about Christmas, I finally got into the spirit of things and had a jolly good time.

Now, it’s January, which despite being dark and more than a little depressing after all the festivities, is actually not that awful a month. Ever the optimist (no, really), I think of these first few days of January as an opportunity to take stock and think of the year ahead. Not that I’m one for making resolutions – and I’m definitely not going on a health kick, detox, cleanse or anything else that sounds remotely like a torture method.

That’s why I don’t understand all the slack that Veganuary has received this year. The annual month-long vegan challenge has been accused of promoting itself as just another January diet. That’s not fair. Just because the campaign endorses the health benefits of eating less animal produce and more fruit and veg doesn’t mean it’s a trigger for eating disorders. Yes, we need to be careful about the language we use and no, changing the way we eat doesn’t work for everyone, but listen up, folks: green eating ain’t clean eating. As Veganuary actively promotes on its website and social media, there’s a whole load of cruelty-free junk food out there to be enjoyed.

In the last couple of days, I’ve heard some tired tropes (and frankly, a lot of bull) about eating vegan, so for the record, here are some truths about veganism, Veganuary and anything else that encourages people to treat animals and the environment with love and respect.

It’s not a diet

OK, veganism is a diet in the literal sense of the word: it’s a way of eating. But it’s not a ‘diet’ of deprivation just because it doesn’t include meat, dairy or eggs. Eating more pulses, grains, fruits and vegetables is good for you but most people, although not everyone, choose to eat no (or less) animal produce for ethical reasons. I understand that some people use veganism as a way to control their diet (and that this can potentially be very dangerous) but why is the media criticising Veganuary, which promotes a balanced approach to eating, and not Weight Watchers or Slimming World, organisations that actively encourage its members to obsess over calories and ‘points’ in order to lose weight?

It’s not expensive

Look at the price of meat and dairy and then compare that to how little you need to spend on pulses, grains, fruits and vegetables. It’s hardly rocket science, is it? Yes, some vegan substitutes, like ‘chocolate’ and ‘cheese’ can cost a little extra but these shouldn’t make up the bulk of what you eat so save them for a treat.

It’s not elitist or classist

See my point above.

It’s not difficult

I’ll admit that changing the way you eat may at first be a challenge (been there, done that) but cooking without meat and dairy is actually a hell of a lot easier. For a start, you’ll almost certainly never give anyone food poisoning. There’s so much support and advice about cooking, eating out, nutrition and everything else you need to know about being vegan.

It’s not boring

I can’t believe that I still have to tell people that vegan food isn’t bland. Any meal prepared badly will taste terrible whatever it contains. Taking meat and dairy out of cooking means that you need to be more creative and experiment with flavours and textures. Look at all the amazing stuff that Avant-Garde Vegan makes – is that boring? While we’re at it, if you’re eating out, most places will be lovely and accommodating and will try their best to give you something tasty to eat (it’s always worth phoning up in advance), but beware the ‘chef’ who offers you an undressed plate of leaves and charges you a tenner for it. Don’t stand for it. Everyone deserves a decent meal at a restaurant – yes, I’m looking at you, Giles Coren.

It’s not self-obsessed

Thanks for that one, Richard Littlejohn. How is reducing your impact on the environment and saving animals from a life of misery a bad thing? Why shouldn’t we celebrate eating tasty and (mostly) healthy food? What’s wrong with sharing that on Instagram so that we can inspire others to enjoy this kind of food, too?

It’s not bullying

This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard about veganism this week. One journalist criticised PETA for an advert that showed a dog’s head served on a platter and asked if you wouldn’t eat your dog, why eat a turkey?’. Apparently, this campaign was ‘bullying’. Graphic, yes, but let’s just take a minute to think about how turkeys (and all the other animals killed for their meat) are treated – who do you feel sorry for? If you can’t face the unpleasant truth about the meat, dairy and poultry industry, you’re welcome to turn a blind eye and tuck into another bacon sandwich. It’s your decision. Contrary to popular belief, we’re not trying to convert you.

 

So, three cheers to Veganuary for doing a fantastic job this year. Over 140,000 people have signed up to try it in 2018 compared to 5,900 in 2017 and 1,500 when it launched in 2014. It’s friendly, welcoming and fun and gives you all the help you need if you’re a bit stuck.  Just remember, no one is forcing you to become vegan. Just try it, see if you like it and if it works for you, bravo. If it doesn’t, you’ll hopefully decide that you want to stick to eating veggie or vegan a couple of times a week.

I’ll just leave this here…

 

It wouldn’t be a blog post without a recipe so here’s my version of that comforting classic, spaghetti carbonara. Proof that veganised meals aren’t fiddly, faddy or flavourless – and they don’t have to rely on expensive substitutes. Cauliflower and sprouts are cheap and plentiful at this time of year and are a good way to disguise veggies if you’re cooking for fussy people – big or small. I like to use oat milk (which is £1.25 a litre in Morrisons) because it makes a really creamy sauce but any plant milk is fine. Nutritional yeast is a genius product as it gives dishes a deliciously cheesy flavour and you can buy it from most health food shops. If you can’t find it, though, you can use a few tablespoons of soy sauce or a little Marmite instead.

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Spaghetti carbonara

Serves 2

Ingredients

1 small cauliflower (around 300g), broken into small florets

200g sprouts, outer leaves and stalks removed and cut into half

100g mushrooms, roughly sliced

2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped

1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped

1 tbsp olive oil

400ml oat milk

The juice of half a lemon

3-4 tbsp nutritional yeast

1 tsp miso paste

A liberal grating of nutmeg

Salt and pepper

150g spaghetti

 

Bring a large pan of water to the boil, then add the cauliflower florets and sprouts and boil for 7-8 minutes. Drain and set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, over a medium heat, fry the shallots and mushrooms in the oil for 5 minutes, then add the garlic and fry for another 2 minutes. Set aside.

Bring another large pan (if you want to save on washing up, use the same one as before) to the boil and add a pinch of salt. Cook the spaghetti for 8-10 minutes.

While the spaghetti is cooking, put the cauliflower and sprouts in a food processor with half the oat milk and and pulse until smooth. Pour the mixture into a pan and add the rest of the pat milk, the nutritional yeast, lemon juice, miso paste and a grating of nutmeg. Stir together and heat on a low heat for 2-3 minutes, stirring frequently.

Drain the spaghetti (keeping a little of the pasta water) and return to the pan. Pour over the carbonara sauce, then stir in the mushrooms and shallots and the little bit of pasta water. Stir together and serve.

 

Scrooged

Bah humbug. It’s three days until Christmas and I’m not feeling at all festive. I’ve done all the things you’re supposed to do at this time of year: I’ve put up the tree, had a go at making mince pies and I’ve been out for the ‘office’ do. Yes, they were jolly but I’m still feeling decidedly Scrooge-like.

I’ve been to see festive films at the cinema – ones that, in a couple of years, will be Boxing Day staples. I fell in love with Paddington 2 (well, who wouldn’t?) and the newest adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is a reliably good yarn, although Kenneth Brannagh’s Poirot is distractingly identical to Fred, the maître d’ from the First Dates restaurant. Even reading Nigel Slater’s The Christmas Chronicles (a bounty of beautifully written anecdotes and recipes for the winter months) hasn’t helped and neither did watching Nigella’s Christmas.

Am I doomed to be a misery guts this Christmas? I’m sure that once the presents are wrapped under the tree and I pop on some carols, I’ll get into the spirit. I know how lucky I am to be spending the holidays with the people I love because Christmas is a really difficult time for many of us. This year, I’m giving money to Crisis and The Huggard Centre, excellent organisations that are doing their best to look after homeless people this Christmas. If you, like me, are feeling a little lacklustre and jaded, helping someone else is never a bad thing to do.

As Buddy the Elf says: ‘the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear’. My Christmas cheer for you is this festive alternative to nut roast. I call it a higgledy piggledy pie because it’s a bit messy but it’s surprisingly easy to make (you can obviously use ready-made pastry if you’re short of time) and tastes just lovely thanks to the combination of chestnuts, mushrooms and apple. Of course, you could add cranberries to this but it’s not always a crowd-pleaser, and I live with fussy eaters so I should know. My secret ingredient for this is marmalade (guess what I’ve been watching?) but a squeeze of orange juice works just as well.

Whatever you eat on the big day, I hope you have a very merry Christmas.

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This is no humble pie

Higgledy piggledy pie

Serves 6-8

Ingredients

For the pie filling

150g green lentils, dried or tinned

1 packet (150g) of vacuum-packed chestnuts, sliced in half

100g mushrooms, roughly sliced

2 shallots, peeled and diced

2 cloves of garlic, peeled and grated or finely chopped

2 apples, cored and roughly chopped into small chunks

1 tbsp olive oil

2 heaped tbsp. tomato puree

2 tbsp marmalade

A few sprigs of fresh thyme (or ½ tsp dried)

2 tbsp balsamic vinegar

1 tbsp maple syrup

Salt and pepper

 

For the pastry

350 g plain flour

1 tsp baking powder

100 g vegan margarine or vegetable fat

175 ml water

1 tsp salt

Some plant milk or vegan margarine for glazing

 

First of all, rinse the lentils in a sieve and drain, then add to a pan of cold water, bring to the boil and cook for 20-25 minutes or until tender. Drain and set aside. If you’re using canned lentils, you can skip this step. Meanwhile, add the oil to a pan over a medium heat and fry the shallots and mushrooms for 2-3 minutes, then add the chestnuts and apples and fry for another 2-3 minutes. Add the balsamic vinegar, the thyme, tomato puree and half a mugful of water, then season with salt and pepper and simmer on a low heat for 10 minutes. Now stir through the lentils and add the maple syrup and marmalade plus some extra water if you think the mixture is a little dry. Simmer for 5 minutes then turn of the heat and allow to cool slightly while you make the pastry.

To make the pastry, sieve the flour, baking powder and salt into a large bowl and mix. In a pan, heat the vegetable fat and water until it comes to the boil, then pour into the flour mixture and mix. When it has cooled, form the mixture into a large dough ball (if you think it’s a bit dry, add a few drops of water, but no more or it will become tacky) and divide in half. Take one half, roll onto a floured surface and place at the base of a greased springform cake tin or pie dish – use one that’s about 10 inches in diameter. On top of this, spoon over the pie filling.

Now, roll out the rest of the pastry, making it a bit bigger than the pastry base so that it can fold over the top and use this to cover the pie filling. Try to do it as neatly as possible and make sure that there are no gaps or holes for the filling to come through. Use your fingers to seal the pastry then brush over a little milk or margarine and place on the top shelf of the oven and bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown.

Serve with roast potatoes and parsnips, green vegetables (sprouts are my favourite) and red cabbage.

 

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.

The calm before the storm

It’s a tired cliché, I know, but I’ll repeat what everyone else is saying: where did 2017 go? The last couple of months have really whizzed by. I guess (humble brag alert) that’s what happens when you write a book. I’ve been cosseted in a warm blanket of food, writing, photoshoots and (God forbid) my mangled thoughts but now the manuscript is with my publisher and it’s time to re-emerge.

So here is December and all its expectant joy. It’s dark and bleak outside and we’re set to have the coldest winter in years, but the bright lights of Christmas are here until the last box of mince pies lies, half-eaten – usually the day after Boxing Day when everyone’s too full to eat any more.

It’s a funny time of year, isn’t it? Most of us are very lucky that we can eat, drink and be merry for a few days but boy, is the build-up a bit of a palaver. Just this morning, I popped to the supermarket to get some bread and it was heaving with shoppers who were panic buying Christmas puddings and sprouts like they were going out of fashion.

I like to take a more relaxed approach to the festive season, and I won’t be buying presents or tucking into festive fare for a while yet. In fact, after cooking (and eating) my way through an entire cookbook, I want more of the same ­– food that’s simple, wholesome and full of flavour. It also needs warmth and a pinch of punchiness to brighten up these long and dark evenings so this week, I’ll turn to this pearl barley risotto which features in the book.

Pearl barley is full of fibre and has a nuttier texture and taste than risotto rice, plus it’s much cheaper. The mushrooms are reassuringly soft and velvety and the lemon and thyme add a nice bit of zing. This won’t take you long to cook and the occasional stirring can be rather meditative, especially after a taxing day at work – or even worse, Christmas shopping.

You’ll notice that this risotto looks exceptionally nice, which is thanks to Manon Houston who took all the photos for the book. Manon’s a fantastic food photographer and stylist and she’s super lovely, too. You can check out her website here.

Mushroom risotto 2
Pearl barley risotto with mushrooms and thyme

Pearl barley risotto with mushrooms and thyme

Serves 4

30 minutes

 

Ingredients

200g pearl barley

100g mushrooms, sliced

100ml white wine

500ml vegetable stock

2 shallots, peeled and diced

2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped

1 small carrot, peeled and diced

1 celery stalk, ends removed and diced

5-6 sprigs of thyme

The juice of 1 lemon

1 tbsp olive oil

50g pine nuts

Black pepper

 

Heat the oil in a large pan, then add the shallots, carrot and celery and sauté for 3 minutes. Add the garlic and thyme and cook for a further 2 minutes. Add the pearl barley to the pan with the white wine. Mix well, coating each grain in oil – add a little extra if necessary. Add the mushrooms and cook the mixture for another 2-3 minutes. Add a ladleful of the hot stock to the pearl barley and stir well. Bring to a simmer as the liquid is absorbed by the rice.  Continue adding more stock, a ladleful at a time, letting the pearl barley absorb it gradually; do this for about 15-20 minutes, until the pearl barley is soft.

Add the lemon juice, black pepper and pine nuts and serve with green vegetables or on its own. Squeeze over some more lemon juice and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, if you like.