Squash and Sage Honeycomb Cannelloni

There is a reason that Italian families like to get together and feast: they get to eat food like this. It takes a little time and effort to make (though not too much) but it will comfortably serve six people until they burst, with a little left over as well!

It’s a similar idea to a lasagne, though with a very different – and impressive – look, and like lasagne it is deeply comforting. Be careful though, this isn’t diet food so you shouldn’t make it every day, or even every week, but as an occasional celebration meal this ticks every box.

To cut through the richness of all the cheese, the perfect accompaniment is a simple salad of segmented oranges tossed through a big bowl of rocket leaves.

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RECIPE serves 6

1kg of butternut squash – 400g diced into 1cm chunks, 600g cut into bigger chunks

4 tbsp olive oil

2 large onions, finely chopped

15 large sage leaves, finely chopped, plus a few extra (roughly shredded) for sprinkling

4 garlic cloves, crushed

500g ricotta

a pinch of sugar

a small handful of walnuts, chopped, plus a few halves for sprinkling

500g mascarpone

300ml full-fat milk

1/2 tsp of grated fresh nutmeg

100g grated parmesan, plus a little extra for sprinkling

500g dried cannelloni tubes

100g Gorgonzola, diced


METHOD

Heat the oven to 200C/ 180C fan/ gas 6. Toss the 1cm diced squash on a baking tray with 2 tbsp of the oil and a little seasoning. Roast in the oven for 20-25 mins until the squash is tender and browning.

Meanwhile, put the bigger chunks in a microwave-proof bowl with about 200ml water. Cover with cling film, pierce a couple of times, and microwave on high, in several 4 minute bursts (with a few minutes rest between each burst) until really soft. Drain off the water and leave to cool for a little while.

While you’re doing this, put the remaining 2 tbsp oil in a large frying pan over a moderate heat with the onions, sage and garlic and cook gently until softened. Set aside to cool.

Now prepare the pasta: bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil. Add six or seven cannelloni tubes at a time and boil for 2 mins, stirring occasionally so they don’t stick together. Lift out with a slotted spoon and drop into a basin of cold water so you can handle them. Use scissors to snip each tube in half, but don’t worry if the results are jagged because uneven bits that stick up out of the sauce add visual interest as well as charring and browning to add variety of texture and taste.

Mash the microwaved squash, or blitz in a blender, then mix with the ricotta until smooth. Season well and taste – it may need a little sugar to bring out the sweetness of the squash. Stir in the onion mixture and the walnuts, then gently stir in the roasted squash, being careful not to break it up.

Whisk the mascarpone with the milk, nutmeg, Parmesan and generous seasoning until smooth. Spread just over half the sauce into a big ovenproof dish.

Stand the halved cannelloni tubes upright on their smooth ends, snuggled together as tightly as possible, in the sauce in the dish. You can try piping the squash and ricotta mixture into the tubes, but really, life is too short. It is much easier just to take a teaspoon and roughly spread the mixture over the top of a few tubes at a time, pushing the mixture down into the tubes, and the gaps between them.

When all the filling is used up, dot the top of the cannelloni with diced gorgonzola, a few walnut halves and some shredded sage leaves, and drizzle the remainder of the mascarpone sauce over everything. Finish with a generous grating of Parmesan over the top, then bake, uncovered, in a 200C/ 180C fan/ gas 6 oven for around 30 mins until the top is crisp, the sauce is bubbling and the pasta is softened.

Leave to rest for ten minutes and serve alongside a simple salad of segmented oranges tossed through a big bowl of rocket leaves.

Sage and Gorgonzola Risotto

This time of year is just perfect for the stodgy, warming comfort of a risotto. The sour tang of Gorgonzola is perfect for risotto, but if you find the flavour a little too strong you can substitute Dolcelatte, which is the same cheese but around 6 months younger.

To cut through the richness of the risotto, the perfect accompaniment is three segmented oranges tossed through a big bowl of rocket leaves. As my wife put it, this simple salad is an absolute triumph.

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RECIPE serves 4

1.2 litres chicken or vegetable stock

1 medium onion, very finely chopped

1/2 tsp dried sage

100g unsalted butter

400g risotto rice (I prefer carnaroli, but arborio is fine)

125ml dry white vermouth

150g Gorgonzola cheese, diced

2 tbsp single cream

4 fresh sage leaves, very finely chopped

a few fried sage leaves to garnish

a few crumbs of Gorgonzola to garnish

a little freshly grated Parmesan, as a seasoning


METHOD

Heat the stock to simmering point before you start, and keep it at a gentle simmer throughout the cooking time.

Heat a risotto pan, or large frying pan, over a medium high heat and melt 50g of the butter with a splash of olive oil (to prevent the butter from burning). Add the onions and dried sage and fry gently for around five minutes until the onion is meltingly soft but not browned.

Add all of the rice, turn the heat up and stir everything together so that each grain of rice is coated, and the grains are really hot. ‘Toasting’ the grains this way improves the final risotto, but take care not to brown or burn anything, constant stirring is essential.

Add the vermouth to the hot pan, the alcohol will sizzle off within 30 seconds, after which time you can begin to add the hot stock, one ladleful at a time, stirring constantly and only adding more stock when the previous liquid has all been absorbed.

When two-thirds of the stock has been added, stir in the Gorgonzola and melt it through the rice. Continue to add stock until the risotto is smooth and velvety and the grains are soft but still retain a little bite, this will take around twenty minutes and you must never leave the pan alone or your risotto will catch.

Remove from the heat and add the remaining butter, the cream and the chopped fresh sage. Stir it thoroughly and adjust the seasoning. The Gorgonzola is quite salty so you may not need to add any salt at all, though a generous grind of freshly-ground black pepper is a must. Cover the pan and set aside for a couple of minutes while you gently fry a few fresh sage leaves for the garnish.

Turn the risotto out onto a warm platter, garnish with the fried sage leaves and some small pieces of Gorgonzola that will slowly melt in. Grate a little Parmesan over each bowl to act as a final seasoning and serve alongside a rocket and orange salad.

Steak and Ale Pie

It’s not often I get to make something properly meaty. Being married to a vegetarian and having several vegans in the family means that my diet is 90% vegetarian as well, so when my dad comes to visit it’s always a good excuse to make something seriously meaty, and seriously delicious. Eating steak once a year, as I do, also means that I appreciate it when I do have it.

A quick internet search for steak and ale pie brings up 14 million results so, as you can imagine, selecting just one recipe can be a lottery so why would you choose to make this one? Personally, I always look at a recipe as a starting point, modifying it, enhancing it (or trying to) and making it as good as I possibly can. I made this yesterday and everybody gushed so my advice would be, make it my way, then modify it and make it your way, and you will also end up with a pie that your family will love.

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RECIPE serves 8

For the filling:

10g dried porcini or mixed wild mushrooms

2 tbsp vegetable oil

1kg chuck steak (it may be sold as braising or stewing steak)

2 large onions, roughly chopped

4 large carrots, chopped into 5mm thick slices

2 tsp golden caster sugar

4 tbsp plain flour

300ml dark ale (I use Guinness)

400ml beef stock, or two beef stock cubes in boiling water

a small bunch thyme, bay leaf and parsley, tied together as a bouquet garni

200g smoked bacon lardons

200g chestnut mushrooms, halved

For the pastry:

650g plain flour

1 1/2 tsp English mustard powder

125g fridge cold butter

125g fridge cold lard or vegetable shortening

1 egg, beaten, to glaze


METHOD

Cover the dried mushrooms with boiling water and soak for 20 mins, then squeeze them out but keep the soaking water. Chop the chuck steak into large chunks.

Heat the oven to 160C/ 140C fan/ gas 3.

Heat 1 tbsp of the oil in a large casserole dish then brown the meat really well, in batches, then set aside. Add the onions and carrots to the pan, adding a drizzle more oil, then cook on a low heat for 5 mins until coloured and just starting to soften. Chop the soaked mushrooms small, then add and cook for a minute more, then scatter over the sugar and flour, stirring until the flour turns brown. Tip the meat and the released juices back into the pan and give it all a good stir. Pour over the ale and stock, and strain the mushroom soaking liquid through muslin or a J cloth into the broth, this will catch any grit released from the dried mushrooms. Season lightly, add the bouquet garni and bring to the boil. Cover with a lid and place in the oven for about 2 hrs, until the meat is really tender.

Chuck steak contains a lot of connective tissue, including collagen, which partially melts during cooking, thickening the broth as it does so. It will be tough and chewy for a long time but eventually, when the connective tissue has all broken down, it will be melt-in-the-mouth tender.

While the stew is cooking, heat 1 tbsp more oil in a frying pan and cook the bacon lardons for 3 minutes until starting to brown, then turn the heat to high, add the mushrooms and cook for another 4 minutes until golden. Remove from the heat and, when the stew is cooked, stir them through it.

Remove the bouquet garni and leave everything to cool completely. You can make this up to 2 days before you eat it and keep it in the fridge for the flavours to mingle and improve.

Cube the butter and lard and add to a food processor with the flour and mustard powder, and a generous pinch of sea salt. Pulse until completely combined, then gradually add up to 200ml of ice-cold water, pulsing it to make a soft dough. Tip it out onto a lightly-floured surface and bring the dough together with your hands, being careful not to over-knead it, then wrap it in cling film and leave to rest in the fridge for at least 1 hr. The pastry can also be made up to 2 days ahead.

When you make the pie, heat the oven to 180C/ 160C fan/ gas 4 and place a flat baking tray in the oven.

Heavily grease a large pie dish and dust it well with flour. Cut a third off the pastry and set aside. Roll out the remainder of the pastry to a size that will easily line the pie dish with a little overhang, then line the dish. Prick the bottom of the pastry with a fork then put the lined pie dish in the oven for 20-25 minutes until the pastry is dry and biscuity. This will give you a lovely crunchy base to the pie.

Turn the oven up to 220C/200C fan/gas 7 .  Add the cold stew to the dish using a slotted spoon. leaving the vast majority of the gravy behind, you don’t want too much gravy in the pie. The filling should be slightly higher than the rim of the dish. Add sufficient gravy to cover the bottom of the dish, and keep everything moist while the pie cooks. Put the rest of the gravy aside for now.

Roll out the remaining pastry so it is just big enough to cover the dish. Brush the edges of the pastry in the dish with beaten egg, then cover with the pastry lid. Trim the edges, crimp the pastry, then re-roll your trimmings to make a decoration if you wish.

Brush the top with egg and make a few little slits in the centre of the pie, place back on to the hot baking tray and bake for 40 mins until golden. After twenty minutes re-brush the top of the pie with whatever beaten egg is left, this will make the top deeply golden.

Leave the pie to rest for 10 mins.  Meanwhile, heat up the remaining gravy and serve in a jug alongside piles of buttery mashed potato and vegetables of your choice.

French Onion Soup

I have recently been doing a LOT of experimenting with French onion soup. There are so many recipe variations out there, and so many claim to be the definitive version. Of course, there’s only one real way to decide which of them is best, and that is to make them. It has taken me three years to get to the point where my recipe delivers exactly what we in my family all love.

It has been a fascinating pastime: taking ideas from here and there, making small variations in the process and ingredients; it is surprising just how much of a difference a tiny change can make in a recipe. I’m sure that a few years down the line I will be making this slightly differently but that’s the beauty of any recipe, it is just a place on a journey.

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RECIPE serves 4

50g butter

1kg brown onions, peeled, halved and sliced 3mm thick

1 tsp caster sugar

1 heaped tbsp plain flour

3 tbsp dry sherry

2 tbsp picked thyme leaves

1.2 litres dark vegetable stock

1 French baguette, sliced on an angle

150g Gruyere cheese, grated


METHOD

Thinly slicing a large quantity of onions can be a real drag, but I use a mandolin for the job which makes it quick and easy.

In a large, heavy bottomed pan, melt the butter over a high heat then add the onions. Stir and toss thoroughly, and add the sugar. Keep your eye on the onions and stir every couple of minutes because you need to use a high heat, so you don’t want them to catch and burn. Using a lower heat significantly extends the cooking time (I have spent almost two hours caramelising onions in the past, it didn’t make any difference in the taste). The sugar aids the caramelisation process.

The onions will first turn translucent, then they will spend a long time not doing very much. Then, after maybe 20 minutes, they will start to turn golden and then caramelise; when this starts it can progress quite quickly. You will notice that the bottom and sides of your pan will blacken as the sugars are transformed, this is good because it is a storehouse of flavour… as long as it doesn’t actually burn! If it burns then your soup will be bitter, and probably inedible, so manage your heat and stirring carefully as you approach the end of the caramelisation stage.

When the onions have turned a deep, dark brown, add the flour and stir vigorously for a minute or so until the flour has been absorbed, then add the sherry to the pan along with the thyme leaves and again stir vigorously. The alcohol will burn off, and the liquid will de-glaze the bottom and sides of the pan, bringing all those sugars back into action. Add the stock, bring to the boil and simmer for ten minutes. The stock is an important, but not crucial, element. It is always best to use a good quality, preferably homemade stock, but if you resort to using bouillon powder it won’t make a massive difference – it is the onions which are the star of the show here. Test and correct the seasoning.

Meanwhile, heat a large grill to high, and toast both sides of the baguette slices. At this point you can ladle the soup into flameproof bowls, float a couple of baguette slices on top and sprinkle with the cheese before putting back under the grill so it all melts together. If you prefer, you can simply sprinkle the cheese on to the baguette slices and grill it like cheese on toast, before transferring the slices to the soup bowls.

If you prefer you can do a bit of both, everyone loves seconds after all, so it’s a good idea to have an extra plate full of toasted cheesy baguette slices on hand.

Sausages, Apples and Onions

This is something my mum used to make when I was seven, so it’s an old, old idea, but it is no less delicious for that.  The sausages are the focal point here so use the best quality pork sausages you can find – handmade from your local butcher if possible.

Paired with buttery, creamy mashed potato, this dish makes for the best bangers ‘n’ mash ever. It’s also great with a crisp-skinned baked potato; there’s no need to melt butter into the potato, the pan juices do a much better job.

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RECIPE serves 4

3 tbsp olive oil

12 pork sausages

2 tsp mustard seeds

2 red onions, peeled, root left on and cut into thin wedges

4 eating apples, skin on, cored and cut into wedges

a few sprigs of fresh thyme

flaked sea salt


METHOD

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

Put the oil into a large, ovenproof frying pan (or roasting tray), and sear the sausages over a high heat for 5 minutes, turning every minute or so, to get some colour on the skins.

Add the mustard seeds, red onion and apple, shake the pan well to coat everything, then lay the thyme sprigs deep into the pan, under the other ingredients. Season with a couple of pinches of flaked sea salt.

Cook in the oven for 45-60 minutes until the sausages are well-coloured and cooked through, the apples are meltingly soft and the onions are starting to caramelise.

Serve immediately, and make sure you’re not the last one to the table otherwise it might be all gone…

Spiced Monkfish with Crushed Potatoes, Peppers and Olives

Monkfish used to be regarded as a bit of a delicacy, quite hard to find, and quite expensive. Now it seems to be everywhere, even some smaller supermarkets are stocking it. It still costs more than your average cod loin, but the small extra expense is well worth it, because that ‘delicacy’ tag still fits extremely well.

It is a firm, meaty, lean white fish which stands up to, and is enhanced by, bold flavours. It’s perfect in this Gordon Ramsay recipe, though if you don’t manage to get your hands on monkfish then hake or haddock are equally excellent – just cut the cooking time down by at least half.

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RECIPE serves 4

For the crushed potatoes:

750g new or baby potatoes

flaky sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

a squeeze of lemon juice

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

100g pitted olives, black or green, or a mixture of both

a small handful of shredded basil leaves

For the fish:

4 monkfish tail fillets, skinned, any grey membrane removed

2 tsp Chinese five-spice powder

1 heaped tsp sweet smoked paprika

1 tsp fine sea salt

2 tbsp olive oil

a handful of flat-leaf parsley, chopped

lemon wedges, to serve


METHOD

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

Bring a large pan of well-salted water to the boil and carefully add the potatoes. Boil for 15-20 minutes until the potatoes are tender.

Meanwhile, mix the five-spice powder, paprika and salt together in a shallow dish. Roll the monkfish in the mixture, coating evenly.

Heat the olive oil in an oven-proof frying pan until hot; sear the fish fillets for 1-2 minutes on each side until golden brown. Transfer the frying pan to the oven and cook for a further 5 minutes. Keep your eye on the fish fillets so you don’t overcook them, start checking after 4 minutes and be aware that it may take anything up to 8 minutes to get them so they are just cooked through. When they are ready, carefully remove the hot pan from the oven, transfer the fish to a warm plate, cover with foil and leave to rest for 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, when the potatoes are ready, drain them and return them to the pan. Lightly crush them with the back of a fork or a potato masher, then mix in the extra-virgin olive oil, lemon juice and season to taste. Stir in the chopped peppers, olives and basil, check and adjust the seasoning again.

Cut the monkfish into thick slices, spoon the crushed potatoes onto warmed plates and arrange the monkfish on top. Scatter with the chopped parsley and serve at once alongside wilted spinach or steamed broccoli, and lemon wedges.