Roasted Vegetable and Chick Pea Tagine

I put this delicious vegan stew together last week, for one of my 5:2 diet days, but because it is similar to other recipes that I have written in the past I wasn’t going to put it up here. That plan didn’t last long; those who had tasted it demanded that I share the recipe with them, and who am I to argue?

A single serving of this comes in at a mere 210 calories, so indulge yourself and eat as much as your belly will hold!

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RECIPE – Serves 4 

200g dried chickpeas (or one 440g tin)

1 tbsp plain flour

1 tbsp fine sea salt

1 tsp of bicarbonate of soda

1 bay leaf

2 cinnamon sticks

1 tbsp olive oil

300g of mixed butternut squash, celeriac and carrots, peeled and cut into bite-sized chunks

2 banana shallots, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

1 tsp chilli flakes

1 large thumb-sized knob of ginger, finely chopped

1 heaped tsp cumin

1 heaped tsp cinnamon

1 heaped tsp ras al hanout

100g very ripe tomatoes, chopped

1 tbsp runny honey

1/2 tsp balsamic vinegar

a small bunch of coriander, stalks only, finely chopped

To garnish:

the zest and juice of a lime

1 tsp za’atar

a small bunch of coriander, leaves only, chopped

a small bunch of fresh mint, leaves only, chopped


METHOD

The evening before, soak the dried chick peas in plenty of water (they will absorb a lot) with 1 tbsp flour, 1 tbsp fine sea salt and 1 tsp of bicarbonate of soda, stir well and set aside.

The next day, rinse the chick peas well, there should be no salt left on them. Put into plenty of water with the bay leaf and cinnamon sticks and bring to the boil, then simmer for 60-90 minutes until they are soft and tender, skimming off any scum if necessary. You may need to add more water as it evaporates. If you have a pressure cooker it will save you a lot of time, cook as per the instructions for your device (mine takes around 25 minutes).

Drain and set aside, removing the bay leaf and cinnamon sticks.

If you are using tinned chickpeas, use one tin; you won’t need the flour, salt, bicarbonate of soda, bay leaf or cinnamon sticks.

Preheat the oven to 220C/ fan 200C/ gas 7.

Place the chopped butternut squash, celeriac and carrots in a large bag with the olive oil, seal and work the vegetables around the bag until every piece is finely coated with the oil. Tip onto a large baking tray in a single layer, make sure there is a little room between each piece otherwise the vegetables will steam rather than roast. Season lightly with coarse sea salt and roast for around 30 minutes until the vegetables are golden and starting to caramelise at the edges. Set aside for now.

Heat a large pan over a medium heat, add the chopped shallots with the garlic, chilli flakes and ginger, a couple of tablespoons of water and a pinch of salt and steam gently under a lid for around 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, put the cumin, cinnamon and ras al hanout into a small bowl and add sufficient water to mix to a stiff paste.

Add the chopped tomatoes and the spice paste, stir well, turn the heat up to medium and cook out for a minute or so until deeply aromatic. Add 125ml water and the chick peas, honey and balsamic vinegar. Mix well and bring to the boil. Turn down to a gentle simmer for ten minutes to allow the sauce to thicken. Season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

At this point you can set the stew aside for minutes or hours, to allow the flavours to develop, deepen and mellow. Or you can just move straight on…

Five minutes before serving, add the coriander stalks, stir well and keep at a gentle simmer until ready to serve.

Just before serving, give it a final stir, remove from the heat then sprinkle the zest of the lime over the top of the soup, followed by all the juice. Do not stir!

Scatter the za’atar evenly over the top, and then scatter the coriander and mint leaves over that. Once again, do not stir, the garnish will sit on top and retain its vivacity. Even when you serve, dip your ladle down to the bottom of the pan and come up underneath the soup to retain the garnish layer. It might sound like a nuisance, but your taste buds will love you for it.

Serve alongside steamed couscous, also garnished with coriander and mint leaves.

Parmesan, Leek and Thyme Tart

There are some foods I go back to again and again: a rich, creamy lasagne for comfort; a creamy Thai curry for its unctuousness; bangers ‘n’ mash for its echoes of childhood and, in spring, a soft, rich tart with a crumbly, almost biscuity pastry because, well, there are few things more enjoyable than lunch in the garden on a sunny spring day.

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RECIPE – Serves 6, generously, for lunch 

a quantity of shortcrust wholemeal pastry

75g unsalted butter

6 small leeks, finely sliced

1/2 tsp fine sea salt

the picked leaves of 5 thyme sprigs

50ml vermouth

300ml double cream

1 whole egg

3 egg yolks

50g Parmesan cheese, finely grated, and a little more to grate over the top


METHOD

Heat the oven to 200C/ 180C fan/ gas 6.

Make the shortcrust wholemeal pastry, lightly flour the base of a 23cm loose-bottomed tart tin and line the tin with the pastry. Use a little surplus pastry to gently push the pastry into the corners and flutes of the tin so there are no air pockets, trim round the edges of the tart tin to remove the surplus pastry (keep this in case you need to make any small repairs) prick all over the base with a fork and chill the pastry case for 30 minutes.

Cut a piece of baking parchment large enough to completely cover the base and sides of the tart. Scrunch it up, then flatten it and place it in the pastry case, then fill with ceramic baking beans if you have them, rice or dried beans if you don’t. Now blind-bake the pastry case for 20 minutes; after this time remove the baking beans and parchment and return to the oven for a further 5-10 minutes until your pastry is golden and cooked through. Remove from the oven and set aside to rest for a few minutes.

*Tip: The best bit of baking wisdom I ever received was this: blind-baking is not part-cooking, it is pre-cooking. In other words, your blind-baked pastry case should be fully cooked when it comes out. That’s the 100% guaranteed way to ensure that you never suffer the baker’s nightmare of a soggy bottom. Some authorities suggest sealing the base of your pastry case with a thin layer of egg white; don’t bother, it doesn’t belong there and you will be able to detect it.

While the pastry is baking, prepare the filling: melt the butter in a very large pan then add the leeks, salt and thyme leaves. Stir thoroughly, turn the heat right down, cover the pan and sweat the leeks for 20 minutes until very soft. By the end of this time, your pastry should be out of the oven.

While your cooked pastry case is resting, turn your oven down to 180C / 160C fan / gas 4 and continue to make your filling:

Add the vermouth to the leek mixture, turn the heat up and bubble the liquid for 5 minutes or so, uncovered, until the liquid has nearly all evaporated.

Lightly whisk the egg, egg yolks and cream together, then season with salt and pepper, add the grated Parmesan then whisk again. Add to the leek mixture, stir thoroughly then pour the mixture into the tart case and shake gently to level it off.

Finely grate some Parmesan over the top, this will give it a deliciously cheesy taste and aroma. Put the tart back into the oven and bake for 35-40 minutes until golden and set.

Cool on a wire rack, in the tin, for twenty minutes then carefully remove from the tin and cut into slices. This is delicious warm, or at room temperature.

This tart goes perfectly with a simple green salad dressed with a quick mustard vinaigrette:

3 tsp extra-virgin olive oil

1 tsp balsamic vinegar

a small pinch of sea salt

1 1/2 tsp of dijon mustard


Whisk it all together in the bottom of your salad bowl, drop the salad over it, and when you are ready to eat just toss everything together.

Here’s another quick tip: refresh your salad vegetables and leaves and make them extra crunchy by sitting them in iced water for 30 minutes, then pat them dry before dressing them.

Moroccan Chick Pea Soup

Sadly, I have no idea where I first found this recipe. It’s a shame because it is absolutely delicious, very filling, quick to make and ridiculously low in calories. Somebody deserves credit for this dish, and though I have tweaked it over the years that somebody isn’t me.

You can vary the amount of chilli you put in depending on your own taste, but if you put in just one regular chilli, with the seeds, it will give you a background hum without being overpowering.  Don’t be afraid of using a good heaped teaspoon each of cumin, cinnamon and ras al hanout though, they provide the depth of flavour that makes this dish so good, and none of them are ‘hot’ spices.

Don’t overlook the final garnish of lime juice, za’atar and coriander. It raises the dish from the delicious to the spectacular. Diet food isn’t supposed to be this good!

Total calories per portion are 224 if you divide it among four people. If you are spectacularly hungry then you can eat half of it all by yourself  – that’s a challenge – and still have eaten less than 500 calories. That makes it ideal for anyone following the 5:2 diet.

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RECIPE – Serves 4 

200g dried chickpeas (or one 440g tin)

1 tbsp plain flour

1 tbsp fine sea salt

1 tsp of bicarbonate of soda

1 bay leaf

2 cinnamon sticks

1 tbsp olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

1 red chilli, seeds in, finely chopped

1 tsp chilli flakes

1 large thumb-sized knob of ginger, finely chopped

1 heaped tsp cumin

1 heaped tsp cinnamon

1 heaped tsp ras al hanout

200g roasted red peppers (from a jar is fine), finely chopped

2 tins of chopped tomatoes

400ml light vegetable stock

1 preserved lemon, pulp discarded, rind finely chopped

1 tbsp runny honey

50g couscous

a small bunch of coriander, stalks only, finely chopped

To garnish:

the zest and juice of a lime

1 tsp za’atar

a small bunch of coriander, leaves only, chopped


METHOD

The evening before, soak the dried chick peas in plenty of water (they will absorb a lot) with 1 tbsp flour, 1 tbsp fine sea salt and 1 tsp of bicarbonate of soda, stir well and set aside.

The next day, rinse the chick peas well, there should be no salt left on them. Put into plenty of water with the bay leaf and cinnamon sticks and bring to the boil, then simmer for 60-90 minutes until they are soft and tender, skimming off any scum if necessary. You may need to add more water as it evaporates. If you have a pressure cooker it will save you a lot of time, cook as per the instructions for your device (mine takes around 25 minutes).

Drain and set aside, removing the bay leaf and cinnamon sticks.

If you are using tinned chickpeas, use one tin; you won’t need the flour, salt, bicarbonate of soda, bay leaf or cinnamon sticks.

Heat the olive oil in a large pan, then gently cook the chopped onion under a lid for around 5 minutes, over a low heat.

Meanwhile, put the cumin, cinnamon and ras al hanout into a small bowl and add sufficient water to mix to a stiff paste.

Add the garlic, chopped chilli and chilli flakes, ginger and the spice paste, stir well, turn the heat up to medium and cook out for a minute or so until deeply aromatic.

Add the roasted red peppers, tomatoes and stock, mix well and bring to the boil. Turn down to a gentle simmer and cover with a lid for ten minutes.

Stir in the chick peas, preserved lemon rind and honey, stir well and season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Tastes good doesn’t it? Just wait, there’s more…

At this point you can set the soup aside for minutes or hours, to allow the flavours to develop, deepen and mellow. Or you can just move straight on…

Five minutes before serving, add the couscous and coriander stalks, stir well and keep at a gentle simmer until ready to serve.

Just before serving, give it a final stir, remove from the heat then sprinkle the zest of the lime over the top of the soup, followed by all the juice. Do not stir!

Scatter the za’atar evenly over the top, and then scatter the coriander leaves over that. Once again, do not stir, the garnish will sit on top and retain its vivacity. Even when you serve, dip your ladle down to the bottom of the pan and come up underneath the soup to retain the garnish layer. It might sound like a nuisance, but your taste buds will love you for it.

Quick Cod and Prawn Gratin

A few years ago Si King and Dave Myers – aka The Hairy Bikers – released a series of diet books that completely transformed my outlook on dieting. I’ve always kept myself fit and healthy, but creeping age and a slowing metabolism meant that the pounds crept on over the years. Sound familiar?

Dieting though? Everybody I have ever known who has been on a traditional diet – one that is based on denying yourself treats and cutting down your food intake – has lost loads of weight, only to put it all back on again, and a little more, once they return to ‘normal’ eating. There are complex metabolic (and mental) reasons why this happens, so, it struck me that the way to lose weight and keep it off isn’t by denying yourself but by finding other ways to satisfy yourself. The way to do that is by eating food that is low in calories but delicious, filling and satisfying. That way you don’t feel like you’re doing some kind of penance. Coupling that outlook with cycling through the 5:2 diet a few times a year, I changed the way I view treats and I have kept the weight off as I approach my mid-fifties.

Those Hairy Bikers books contain recipes that could be tailor-made for a 5:2 eating plan: low-calorie, healthy and absolutely delicious. I’m not a diet guru, but if you’re struggling with your diet then try this recipe, try it even if you’re not. My wife is one of those lucky people who will probably be slender forever, but when I am not on the 5:2 diet she still asks me to make stuff like this, just because she loves it.

Total calories per portion are 287. Yep, just 287 – that means you can have a fat boy portion if you want but not turn out to be a fat boy!

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RECIPE – Serves 4 

100g raw, peeled king prawns

400g white fish fillets (cod, hake, pollock etc)

150g undyed smoked haddock

400ml semi-skimmed milk

2 bay leaves

1/2 small onion, or 1 banana shallot, peeled and finely chopped

3 tbsp cornflour

3 tbsp water

100g frozen peas

2 tbsp vermouth

40g coarse breadcrumbs

25g cheddar, grated

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


METHOD

Cut the fish into 3cm chunks.

Gently heat the milk in a large pan, with the onion and bay leaves. Bring it to scalding point (where the milk at the edges of the pan just starts to foam) and keep it there.

Add the water to the cornflour to make a smooth paste, then add to the milk, stirring constantly over low heat for 5 minutes until the sauce is thick, rich and glossy.

Meanwhile, heat your grill to high.

Season the sauce, then add the vermouth and peas, cook for a minute or so then add the fish, stirring gently a couple of times and cook for two minutes. Add the prawns and again stir gently a couple of times for a further two minutes.

Transfer to a large warmed oven dish or, if you are serving individually, to whatever number of heatproof serving dishes you require. Combine the breadcrumbs and cheese, scatter over the top and grill for 2-3 minutes until the cheese has melted and the crumbs are lightly browned.

Serve alongside green vegetables, broccoli and/or cauliflower are excellent low-calorie and filling accompaniments.

Lighter Butter Chicken

I picked out Bill Granger’s book ‘Easy’ a few weeks ago, intending to cook just one dish, but I ended up making twenty and I could have cooked the entire book. The first and most important consideration whenever I cook is flavour, and Bill’s recipes deliver flavour in spades.

This dish is one that I have cooked a couple of times for lunch, though it is hearty enough to make an excellent dinner, and is definitely elegant enough to serve to guests. It’s quick and simple to make as well.

Traditional butter chicken is made with lashings of butter and cream, all that fat is what delivers the sumptuous flavour. Here, Bill has used cashew nuts and Greek yogurt to deliver the unctuousness. The man is a genius.

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RECIPE – Serves 4 

2 tbsp ghee (or groundnut oil)

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 tbsp masala paste

750g boneless chicken thighs, chopped into bite-sized chunks

1 tin of chopped tomatoes

125ml chicken stock

100g cashew nuts, ground into a fine powder

125g Greek yogurt

1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 tbsp caster sugar

To serve:

Basmati rice

naan bread

To garnish:

coriander leaves, chopped

Finely chopped onion

Lime wedges


METHOD

Heat the ghee in a large pan, then saute the onion over a medium-high heat for 6-8 minutes until soft and just starting to colour.

Add the masala paste. While stirring constantly, cook it out for a couple of minutes until aromatic, then add the chicken pieces and stir thoroughly so each piece is well-coated in the masala paste, then cook for a couple of minutes, stirring often.

Add the tinned tomatoes and chicken stock, stir to combine and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer gently for around  10-15 minutes until the chicken pieces are just cooked.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t already done so, blitz the cashews in a food processor (or bash down in a mortar and pestle) until they are a fine powder. Add to the simmering sauce and cook for at least 5 minutes; the sauce will thicken.

When you are ready to serve, remove from the heat and stir in the lemon juice, yogurt and sugar.

Garnish with finely chopped onion, chopped coriander leaves and lime wedges, and serve alongside Basmati rice and naan bread.

Ricotta and Parmesan Lasagna

I love lasagna; I love to eat it, I love to cook it, but a traditional lasagna does take a fair amount of time to put together. Making a great tomato sauce, then making that into ragu, creating a lovely silky bechamel to layer into it… it can take a few hours, which is always time well-spent, assuming you have the time.

This deliciously cheesy lasagna provides all the comfort of a traditional lasagna without taking an age to create. Actually, it is at heart just a twist on macaroni cheese – so it is two of my favourite dishes in one. What’s not to love?

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RECIPE – Serves 4 generously

80g unsalted butter

1 shallot, very finely chopped

75g plain flour

1 litre skimmed milk

2 bay leaves

500g ricotta cheese (or soft cream cheese)

lasagne sheets

50g grated Parmesan


METHOD

Heat the oven to 200C/ 180C fan/ gas 6. Lightly grease a roasting tin with butter or olive oil.

First, make the cheese sauce: melt the butter in a large pan and gently saute the shallot until soft but not coloured. Take off the heat and, while whisking constantly, add the flour to make a roux. Return to a gentle heat and whisk for 30 seconds or so until you have a smooth paste with no visible flour.

Now start adding milk, a little at a time, while whisking constantly. The milk will be absorbed into the roux, do not add more milk until the paste has fully absorbed what is already in the pan. When you have added around a third of the milk you can start to add it in greater quantities until it has all been added. Once the milk has all been added, lightly crush the bay leaves in your hand and add to the sauce. Turn the heat up to high and keep on whisking until the milk is at a simmer and the sauce is glossy, thick and smooth.

Remove from the heat, discard the bay leaves and stir in the ricotta, season carefully.

Spoon a quarter of the cheese sauce into the roasting tin, top with a layer of lasagne sheets. Repeat twice more, finishing with a layer of cheese sauce. Top with the grated Parmesan, then bake, uncovered in the middle of the oven, for 35-40 minutes.

Leave to rest for 5-10 minutes once it has been baked, then serve.

This goes fantastically well with apple and celery salad; the bitter leaves and citrus cut through the rich sauce, while the celery, apple and walnuts provide texture.