Stir-fried King Prawns with Chinese Spinach and Garlic

Browsing in my local supermarket the other day, I spotted a living salad tray that contained Chinese spinach. It’s not something I have ever encountered before, and in truth it’s not actually that different from the ‘regular’ spinach you find on supermarket shelves, though it does release a deliciously earthy liquor when it is wilted down. This makes it an ideal choice for a stir-fry, where all that flavour can be used to enhance the sauce.

If you can’t find Chinese spinach, use ordinary spinach, or substitute it for pak choi.

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RECIPE serves 2 as a main, or 4 as a starter

2 tbsp groundnut oil

3 fat garlic cloves, finely sliced

4 birds-eye chillies, finely sliced

200g Chinese spinach (or pak choi) roughly chopped

16 large, raw king prawns, tails on

2 tbsp light soy sauce

1 tsp rice wine vinegar

2 whole dried red chillies, crumbled

1 spring onion, finely chopped

2 tsp toasted sesame oil


METHOD

Prepare all the ingredients before you begin to cook. Things happen quickly when you stir-fry so you need to be organised.

Put the oil in a cold wok with the garlic, and heat it up over a high heat – this will flavour the oil and protect the garlic from burning while it releases its flavour. When the garlic is golden, add the birds-eye chillies and spinach (or pak choi) and cook for about a minute, keeping things moving all the time.

Now add the prawns, soy sauce and rice wine vinegar and cook for a further 3 or 4 minutes, keeping it all moving, until the prawns are just cooked.

Remove from the heat and sprinkle over the dried chilli flakes, spring onion and sesame oil, toss together and serve immediately accompanied by steamed Basmati rice or your choice of noodles.

Apple Pie

I hadn’t made a standard apple pie in years, until this afternoon. I guess I’ve been so busy jazzing it up with blackberries, swapping apples for pears, and generally messing around with it that I forgot just how delicious a simply-made, straightforward apple pie can be.

This one ticks all the boxes: a simple, sweet pastry; a luscious, jammy interior and just the right mix of firm and melting apples. It’s easy to make, is great for introducing children to the delights of baking, and it tastes really, really lovely.

This is delicious served with cream or custard… mmm, custard, there’s something else I haven’t made in a long time.

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RECIPE serves 6 

For the filling:

3 Bramley cooking apples

4 eating apples (I like to use Braeburn)

3 tablespoons light muscovado sugar

the zest and juice of a lemon

1 tsp ground ginger

2 tsp cinnamon

a handful of raisins or sultanas

a splash of water

For the pastry:

225g plain flour

140g fridge-cold butter, cubed

85g caster sugar

the finely-grated zest of a lemon

a pinch of salt

2 egg yolks

1 tbsp cold water

Plus:

1 egg, beaten, for egg-washing the pastry


METHOD

First, make the filling. Do this first because it needs time to cool completely before putting under pastry.

Peel and core the apples, then cut the Bramleys into large chunks, and the eating apples into eighths. Toss the apples in a large pan with all the other filling ingredients and cook gently under a lid for ten minutes until the eating apples are just softening – the cooking apples may already be mushy. Remove from the heat and allow to cool completely.

While the filling is cooling, make the pastry. Put the flour, butter, caster sugar, lemon zest and salt in a food processor and pulse briefly until it resembles breadcrumbs, then add the egg yolks and water and pulse again to bring the mixture together. Turn out onto a lightly-floured surface and mould into a ball. Try not to handle the pastry too much or it will become tough as the gluten in the flour becomes activated. Wrap in cling film and chill for 30 minutes.

Heat the oven to 180C/ 160C fan/ gas 4.

Butter an 8 inch metal pie dish, take 2/3 of the pastry and roll it out on a lightly floured surface until it is 5mm thick. Line the inside of the pie dish with the pastry.

Tip the cooled filling into the pie dish, then egg-wash the edges of the pastry. Roll out the remaining pastry until it is just big enough to form a lid, drape over the top and pinch the pastry together. Trim off any excess and use it to patch any tears in the pastry – it doesn’t matter if the pastry doesn’t look perfect, apple pies are at their best when they are rustic.

Egg wash the top of the pie, cut a couple of slits in the top and bake in the centre of the oven for around 50 minutes. Remove when the filling is perfectly soft and the pastry is golden brown.

If you wish, you can dust the hot pastry with a little caster sugar.

Five-Spice Butternut Soup

The winter soup season is upon us at last. I secretly yearn for cold winter evenings just so I have an excuse to make stuff like this.

This soup takes only slightly more effort to make than opening a tin of soup, and not too much longer either. It is well worth that little bit of effort in order to wrap yourself in the rich, velvety sweetness of spiced butternut squash.

It may only be a simple soup, but it is easily elevated to dinner party-worthy fare just by being clever with your garnishes. Rather than throwing the seeds from the squash away, just scrub them, toss them in a little oil and lightly toast them for a few minutes before scattering over the top, with a drizzle of pumpkin oil and a swirl of cream, and finished with the lightest dusting of five-spice powder.

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RECIPE serves 4

1 butternut squash, peeled, deseeded and chopped into 1 cm cubes

4 fat garlic cloves, roughly chopped

3 tsp Chinese five-spice powder

1 tbsp caster sugar

500ml chicken or vegetable stock

100ml double cream

flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

To garnish:

toasted squash/pumpkin seeds

pumpkin oil

double cream

Chinese five-spice powder


METHOD

It doesn’t get much easier than this: in a large pan, put the squash, garlic, five-spice powder and sugar in with the stock and a little seasoning. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 20-25 minutes until the squash is soft.

Allow to cool for a few minutes, then transfer to a blender (or use a stick blender) and blitz until smooth. Add the cream and blitz for a few seconds more. Transfer back to the pan, warm gently until it is just below boiling point, check the seasoning and serve with the garnish(es) of your choice.

Luxurious Fish Pie

This is deeply, deeply satisfying. It is also ridiculously moreish, so make sure you are wearing your loosest jeans when you sit down to eat.

There are, of course, almost as many fish pie recipes as there are fish in the sea. The very best of them are separated from the rest by the quality of the white sauce, nail that and it doesn’t matter which fish you use. Here it is kept simple, just a few of the freshest ingredients, cooked and seasoned carefully.

I like to use a mixture of fish fillets: smoked haddock, salmon and hake, and a good handful of prawns. The result is a vivid display of colour, and a tango on your taste buds. You could go further and posh it up by adding langoustines, monkfish and scallops.

Now, where are my baggy trousers?

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RECIPE serves 4

250ml fish stock

3 bay leaves

250ml double cream

1kg mixed fish fillets (salmon, smoked haddock, hake, cod etc)

a good handful of peeled raw prawns

50g unsalted butter

2 medium leeks, washed and trimmed, use only the white and light green parts, finely sliced

4 tbsp plain flour

100ml dry vermouth

salt and pepper

2 handfuls of chopped flat-leaf parsley

For the topping:

1.25kg floury potatoes

100g unsalted butter

100g strong cheddar, grated

flaky sea salt

25g Parmesan, very finely grated

olive oil

freshly ground black pepper


METHOD

Put the stock and bay leaves into a large saucepan with the cream, add the fish fillets and over a medium heat bring it to just below the boil, ensuring the fish is submerged. Simmer gently for 6 minutes, then turn the heat off and leave it to sit for a few minutes.

Using a slotted spoon, remove the fish fillets and place in a large gratin dish (23cm square, or similar), leaving the fish pieces as large as possible. Remove any skin and bones from the fish, and reserve the cooking liquid for later use.

In a large saucepan, melt the butter with a glug of olive oil (to prevent the butter from burning) and add the leeks with a good pinch of salt. Stir thoroughly, cover and cook over a gentle heat for around ten minutes until the leeks are soft but not coloured.

Meanwhile, peel the potatoes and chop them into large chunks, then place into cold water and bring to the boil. Keeping the water at a vigorous simmer, cook the potatoes until they are tender.

Heat the oven to 190C/ fan 170C/ gas 5.

Sprinkle the flour over the leeks and stir in for a couple of minutes until the flour is invisible and there are no lumps. When the mixture is bubbling and smooth, add the vermouth and keep on stirring for another couple of minutes to make a smooth paste. Now remove the bay leaves from the fish cooking liquid, then add the liquid to the leeks a ladleful at a time, stirring frequently. Bring to a gentle simmer, cook uncovered for 15 minutes, then correct the seasoning.

Drain the potatoes, then mash with 100g of butter, using either a masher or ricer. When smooth, add the cheddar and stir through with a fork until fully incorporated. Season generously.

If you can, don’t add any liquid to the mash. It needs to be fairly stiff when it is spread over the top of the fish mixture.

Sprinkle the chopped parsley over the top of the sauce, and gently stir it in, along with the prawns. Now pour the sauce over the top of the fish in the gratin dish.

Carefully, starting from the edges of the dish and working toward the middle, lay the mashed potato over the top of the sauce. Ensure there are lots of peaks and troughs in the mash, so they will catch and brown in the oven. Sprinkle the Parmesan over the mash, followed by a drizzle of olive oil and a good grinding of black pepper.

Bake in the centre of the oven for 45 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and the filling is bubbling through. Allow to stand for around ten minutes, then serve with peas, green beans or a simple green salad.

Pan-Fried Salmon with Roasted Apricots and Couscous

Everybody I know who has ever tried dieting, has failed. Actually, that’s not strictly true; in general they have lost some weight, but then gone back to eating how they used to eat and put the weight back on again. The key to losing weight and keeping it off is, of course, to permanently change the way you eat.

The trouble is, it’s all a bit of a trial isn’t it? All that denial, no treats, and the food is so unappealing…

It doesn’t have to be that way. I’m probably preaching to the converted, but if you can cook, then rustling up delicious healthy meals is very easy. With a little practice and a stock of good recipes you can make food that you would be happy to pay for in a restaurant. This is one of those meals: it’s quick and easy, packed full of interesting and delicious flavours, it’s attractive and it is, of course, extremely healthy.

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RECIPE serves 4

250g couscous

310ml light vegetable stock

2 pinches of saffron

25g unsalted butter

8 apricots, halved and stoned (fresh or dried)

1 tbsp caster sugar

1/4 tsp ground cumin

4 spring onions, finely sliced

3 tbsp pistachios, roughly chopped (or flaked almonds)

4 250g salmon fillets, skin on

coriander leaves, roughly chopped, to garnish

lemon or lime wedges, to garnish


METHOD

If you are using dried apricots, soak them overnight to rehydrate them, and keep the liquid that is left.

Dry the salmon fillets thoroughly on kitchen paper, set aside.

Put the couscous into a large bowl. If you have the soaking liquid from rehydrating dried apricots, add the stock to it to make it up to 310ml. add the saffron and a pinch of salt and, in a pan, bring it to the boil and turn the heat off. Add the butter, stir until it is melted, then pour the stock over the couscous, stir well, cover and set aside for ten minutes.

Place the apricots, cut-side up, on a grill tray and sprinkle with the sugar, cumin, salt and pepper. Grill under a high heat until they are bubbling and golden. Chop into smaller pieces, then fluff up the couscous with a fork. Stir the apricots and spring onions through the couscous, check the seasoning and scatter the pistachios over the top.

Season the salmon on both sides with a little salt, then fry in a little oil over a medium high heat for 3 minutes, skin-side down. Flip over and cook for a further minute, the flesh should still be bright pink and just cooked.

Serve alongside the couscous and lemon or lime wedges, garnished with coriander leaves. Apple and celery salad is a fantastic accompaniment to this dish, adding more flavour and texture.

Chicken and Sweet Leek Pie

There are times when only a pie will do…

Family gatherings are when this crowd-pleaser normally comes out, the filling can be made the day before so you can spend your time with your family, rather than closeted away in the kitchen.

This delight comes courtesy of Jamie Oliver, the not-so-secret ingredient being the balls of sausage meat. The burst of savoury flavour as you hit one of those little delights is just one of the things that makes this a real treat to eat.

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RECIPE serves 6-8

a good lug of olive oil

50g unsalted butter

1kg boneless chicken thighs, chopped into medium chunks

2 medium leeks, sliced into 1cm rounds

2 medium carrots, thinly sliced

3 sticks of celery, finely sliced

2 tsp dried thyme

2 tbsp plain flour

125ml dry vermouth

250ml whole milk

flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

250g pork sausages

500g all-butter puff pastry

1 egg, beaten


METHOD

In a large casserole dish over a medium high heat, add the olive oil and butter and, when melted, add the chopped chicken. Brown for a few minutes, then add the leeks, carrots, celery and thyme. Cook, uncovered, on the hob at a gentle heat for fifteen minutes.

Turn the heat up to high, then add the plain flour and stir into the liquid that has been released. Keep on stirring for a few minutes until it is all cooked in, then add the vermouth and cook for a couple of minutes more.

Now add the milk and a wineglass (125ml) of water, season with salt and pepper and bring to the boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover with a lid and cook gently for 30 minutes, then remove the lid and cook uncovered for ten minutes more. The sauce should be thick and creamy.

Squeeze the sausage meat out of the skins and roll into small balls. Brown the balls in a separate frying pan with a little oil, then add to the chicken mixture. Now transfer all of the mixture into an appropriately-sized pie dish, check the seasoning and allow to cool completely. If the mixture is still warm when you apply the pastry, the heat will melt the butter in the pastry and it will be ruined.

When you are ready to cook the pie, heat the oven to 220C/ 200C fan/ gas 7.

Roll the pastry out to approximately 5mm thickness, to a size and shape that will comfortably drape over the edge of the pie dish with minimal wastage.

Brush the edges of the pie dish with the beaten egg, then drape the pastry over it, sealing the edges firmly with your fingers. Trim off any excess pastry. There is no need to cut any holes in the pastry for steam to escape – remember, the filling is cold at this point.

Wash the top of the pie with beaten egg, and decorate the pie with the pastry trimmings, any way you like.

Bake in the centre of the oven for 30-40 minutes until the top is golden brown and risen, and the pie is piping hot.

I like to serve this with piles of buttery mash, and peas.

Blackberry and Apple Crumble

If you’ve ever seen Game of Thrones, you will be familiar with the walk of shame. My wife put me through it yesterday, ringing a bell and crying Shame! at me, all around the kitchen. My crime? I bought a punnet of blackberries, rather than taking off to the woods to pick my own. I know, I know, but it was a busy day…

She changed her tune when this came out of the oven though; who can resist the meltingly soft, sweet and sharp tang of apples and blackberries, set against the rich, buttery crunch of a crumble topping? Not me, and it’s why I love every time of the year – there is always something coming into season that is a joy to eat.

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RECIPE 

For the filling:

3 medium eating apples, peeled, cored and quartered

3 Bramley cooking apples, peeled, cored and quartered

2 tsp cinnamon

100g Demerara sugar

300g blackberries

a small pinch of fine sea salt

For the topping:

175g plain flour

1 tsp cinnamon

140g soft brown sugar

35g porridge oats

180g cold unsalted butter, cubed


METHOD

Heat the oven to 170C/ gas 3.

Prepare the apples, keep them quartered even if the pieces seem a bit large.

In a separate bowl, mix the cinnamon with the Demerara sugar.

In a baking dish, place half the apples (a mixture of both types) in a single layer on the bottom. Sprinkle with one-third of the sugar/cinnamon mix. Now add all of the blackberries on top, again in a single layer, and sprinkle another one-third of the sugar/cinnamon mix on top. Now place the remainder of the apples on top of the blackberries and finish with the final one-third of the sugar/cinnamon mix.

Take a small pinch of fine sea salt and scatter evenly over the fruit. You only require a small pinch, but it gives the final flavour an immense lift.

In a large bowl, mix together the dry topping ingredients. Add the cold, cubed butter and using your fingers gently rub the dry ingredients into the butter until you end up with a mixture that looks like breadcrumbs. It doesn’t have to be evenly sized, and if you have a variety of sizes of lumps of butter that will just make your crumble better. If you struggle with rubbing-in, you can put everything into a food processor and pulse it carefully, just be careful not to over-process it.

Scatter the crumble topping over the top of the fruit, ensuring that everything is covered.

Bake, uncovered, in the middle of the oven for 45-60 minutes. Keep an eye on it, the last thing you want is a burnt topping. When it is ready, the topping should be golden and crunchy, and the fruit should be soft with the moisture from the apples and blackberries bubbling through.

Seeded Crispbreads for Cheese

These crispy flatbreads tick all the boxes: they’re easy to make, they’re great fun for making with children, they keep really well (in an airtight container), they’re endlessly variable (experiment with different kinds of seeds: poppy, hemp, mustard, fennel, coriander… anything!) and, most importantly, they’re deliciously moreish. They are suitable for everyone as well, being vegan and gluten-free.

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RECIPE – Makes about 30

200g fine polenta

40g milled flaxseed or linseed

40g whole flaxseed or linseed

40g sesame seeds

75g sunflower seeds

75g pumpkin seeds

flaked sea salt

80ml olive oil

450ml just-boiled water


METHOD

Heat the oven to 150C/ gas 2. You will need 2 large baking sheets and some baking parchment.

Mix the polenta and all the seeds together in a large bowl. Add a generous pinch of sea salt and the olive oil, mix well, then add the just-boiled water and stir with a wooden spoon until it all comes together as a sticky dough.

Divide the mixture in two, on two large sheets of baking parchment (large enough to cover your baking sheets). Place another sheet of baking parchment on top of each half of the mixture, press and roll the dough out between the parchment sheets until it is nice and thin. Remove the top sheet of parchment and place the bottom parchment, with the rolled out dough on it, onto a baking sheet. Score lines into the rolled-out mixture to enable you to easily snap it into even, individual flatbreads once it is cooked. Season lightly with a little more sea salt.

Bake in the oven for approximately 45 minutes until it is golden and crisp. Transfer to a wire rack and allow it to cool completely before breaking it up into individual pieces.

Satchini Pomme D’Amour

My big discovery of the summer has been Mauritian cooking. I have been steadily working my way through ‘Sunshine on a Plate’ by 2012 UK Masterchef winner Shelina Permalloo (shelinacooks.com). It is one of those glorious books where you want to cook absolutely every recipe.

This is a simple, refreshing chutney that seems to be a constant presence on Mauritian tables. It works particularly well alongside Shelina’s butter bean curry, making a delicious dish even more delicious!

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RECIPE – Serves 4 as a side dish

4 ripe tomatoes

1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed

2 red birds-eye chillies, seeds in, finely chopped

approx 3 tbsp of finely chopped fresh coriander stalk

1 tbsp vegetable oil

flaky sea salt, to taste

finely shredded coriander leaves


METHOD

This chutney works best when it has a fine texture, so either chop the tomatoes finely by hand, or carefully pulse them in a food processor until they are the size you want (having gone a little too far with the food processor on one occasion, ending up with a smooth tomato paste, I found that this also makes a delicious ketchup!)

Combine the rest of the ingredients with the finely chopped tomatoes, season carefully and serve immediately.

Mauritian Butter Bean Curry

I’ve been away for a while, enjoying the summer, but I haven’t been idle. I’ve been living in a camper van for most of the last two months so I have been experimenting with cooking with limited resources, as well as over coals (when the weather permitted). The break from the norm has led to some new ideas, some new discoveries, and has definitely made me a better cook.

My big discovery of the summer has been Mauritian cooking, courtesy of Shelina Permalloo (shelinacooks.com), winner of UK Masterchef in 2012, and her wonderful book ‘Sunshine on a Plate’. As she puts it: “Mauritius is a melting pot of cultures and [the] food reflects that, encompassing Creole, French, Indian, African, British and Chinese influences.” It’s also delicious!

I first made this curry eight weeks ago, and since then I have made it at least another dozen times. Everybody who tastes it, swoons. The difference is in the spicing, rather than use an Indian curry powder blend, the Mauritian version of curry powder is subtly but discernibly different. I have included a recipe for it, just click here.

It’s quick to make (though it does benefit from being left all afternoon to steep, or overnight if you can manage it), low calorie and filling. Did I mention that it’s delicious? It’s delicious!

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RECIPE – Serves 4

2 tbsp ghee (or rapeseed oil)

1 large onion, finely chopped

3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

a fat, 3cm thumb of fresh ginger, grated

5-10 curry leaves

3 tbsp Mauritian curry powder

2 red birds-eye chillies, seeds in, chopped

2 medium, ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped

2 tbsp tomato puree

400ml chicken stock (or vegetable stock)

1 tin of butter beans, including the water from the tin, OR 200ml dried butter beans

flaky sea salt

the stalks from a bunch of coriander, finely chopped

the leaves from a bunch of coriander, to garnish


METHOD

If you are using dried butter beans, soak them overnight then cook them before doing anything else, they take a lot of time. To cook: place the beans in a large pan covered with 2cm of water. Bring to the boil over a medium heat, then reduce the heat and simmer until the beans are tender and creamy, checking after 1 hour and adding more water as necessary to keep beans submerged. They should be cooked within 1.5 hours.

Personally, I use a pressure cooker, which cooks them perfectly in around 20 minutes. However you do it, retain the cooking water to use in the dish itself.

To make the curry: melt the ghee in a large, heavy-bottomed pan over a medium heat then gently fry the onion until it is translucent.

Meanwhile, add some water to the Mauritian curry powder to make a loose paste. This will stop the powder from burning when it is added to the pan.

When the onions are ready, add the garlic, ginger and curry leaves and saute for a further 3 minutes.

*Tip: It seems that every time I read a recipe that calls for finely chopped or grated ginger it tells you to peel the ginger first. That is a huge waste of flavour. All I do is cut off any rough and dry bits on the outside and make sure that it is clean, then chop or grate it finely, skin ‘n’all.

Now add the curry paste, chillies, tomatoes and tomato puree, and cook for a further five minutes, stirring frequently.

Add the chicken (or vegetable) stock, and the butter beans together with their water. Simmer, uncovered, for a further 15 minutes until the sauce has thickened.

Now begin to season the curry with flaky sea salt. Do this properly and it will be transformed from excellent to mind-blowing. Add a small pinch of salt at a time, stir thoroughly and cook in for a minute or so. Taste, and repeat, until the flavours are jumping in your mouth. Turn off the heat and add the finely chopped coriander stalks.

If you can now leave it to steep for a few hours, or overnight, it will be even better. You can serve it immediately though, if you wish.

Garnish with the coriander leaves, alongside Basmati rice and a few simple roti.

To make this suitable for a vegetarian or vegan, use rapeseed oil instead of ghee, and vegan vegetable stock instead of chicken stock.