Sea Bass in Acqua Pazza

Life has a habit of getting in the way, as I have been reminded these past few weeks. Much of my cooking has been quick and simple, and I haven’t found the time to write about it.

Just because you’re short on time doesn’t mean that you can’t eat well, as this simple, quick and elegant dish illustrates.

Acqua Pazza translates as crazy water, the fresh and zingy poaching liquid which perfectly complements, and enhances, the soft white flesh of sea bass. You can make this with small whole fish (as the recipe below), a larger single fish, or fillets. Only the cooking time will change, just keep an eye on the fish and serve it as soon as the thickest part of the fish begins to flake.

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RECIPE serves 4 

4 small whole seabass, gutted, cleaned and scaled

75ml olive oil

2 thick garlic cloves, peeled and finely sliced

1 red chilli, finely chopped

500g cherry tomatoes, halved

120ml dry vermouth

a small handful of capers, rinsed

a small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, chopped

a small handful of basil leaves, torn


METHOD

In a very large, high-sided pan (preferably one with a lid, if not you can use foil) heat the olive oil with the garlic, chilli and a pinch of salt over a medium heat and lay the fish in it side by side.

After four minutes, gently turn the fish over and add the tomatoes. Cook for another four minutes then add the vermouth and capers. Cover, simmer for a further four minutes or until the fish is just cooked.

Lay the fish onto warmed plates, add the parsley and basil to the pan, turn the heat up for a couple of minutes to reduce the sauce to a syrupy consistency, then spoon over the fish.

Serve with some steamed rice and a simple lemon-dressed rocket salad.

Pasta in Parchment with tuna, tomatoes and potatoes

Quite often, the deciding factor in my cooking a recipe I haven’t tried before is that it is in some way unusual, therefore offering a chance for me to learn something new. I spotted this recipe in Ursula Ferrigno’s ‘Truly, Madly, Pasta’ and the idea of cooking pasta in a paper bag was too intriguing to ignore.

You can’t really go wrong with Italian food, it is largely based on simplicity, using fresh ingredients and flavourful aromatic combinations. Pack all that into a paper bag, so all the flavours and aromas are locked in… well, how could it go wrong? Even if I did manage to somehow get it wrong, I would have a salvageable basis for another meal at the end of it.

My only real concern was the pasta. It is part-cooked before going into the paper, and once in the paper there is no way to test if it is done until you serve it, so I was totally reliant on the recipe-writer getting her timings right.

I needn’t have worried, the pasta was cooked perfectly, the only amendment I made to the original recipe was putting the tuna steaks in raw (Ursula Ferrigno pre-cooks those as well). As it stands now, this is a delicious, versatile, quick and easy midweek pasta recipe that also has the ‘wow!’ factor when you bring it to the table.

You can leave the potatoes out if you wish, they are primarily there to add textural interest, but with them left in this is a hearty dish indeed.

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RECIPE serves 4 

250g tuna steak, chopped into 2cm cubes

150ml dry vermouth

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

grated zest of one lemon

2 sprigs of rosemary, broken into pieces

8 new potatoes, peeled (or scrubbed) and cut into small dice

12 ripe plum tomatoes, deseeded and roughly chopped

handful of flat-leaf parsley, chopped, plus more to serve

350g spaghetti

2 tbsp olive oil


METHOD

Place the tuna in a bowl with the vermouth, garlic, lemon zest, rosemary and some seasoning. Leave to marinate for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 200C/ 180C fan/ Gas 6.

Towards the end of the marinating time, cook the diced potatoes in boiling salted water for approximately six minutes, until tender, and drain. Combine with the tomatoes and parsley.

At the same time, half-cook the spaghetti. Use just over half the time suggested on the packet, the brand I use is al dente in ten minutes, so I cooked it for six. Drain and set aside.

Also at the same as you cook the pasta, in a large frying pan, heat the oil until hot, remove the tuna from the marinade and set aside, and fry the marinade and its aromatic ingredients for a couple of minutes to burn off the alcohol and reduce slightly. Combine this sauce with the spaghetti, the raw marinated tuna, tomatoes and potato. Toss well.

Prepare four parcels with parchment paper, add one-quarter of the mixture to each and fold up loosely like an envelope. Fold in the edges and then fold over the top carefully to seal completely.

Place in the pre-heated oven for seven minutes. Serve at once, tearing open the bags at the table (while inhaling deeply!) and sprinkling with more chopped parsley.

Sweet Potato Saag Aloo

Saag aloo is usually made with regular potatoes but this sweet potato version from The Hairy Bikers is particularly luscious. The great thing about sweet potatoes is that they are richer in nutrients – particularly vitamin C – than white potatoes and lower in starch. They count towards your five a day too, while regular potatoes don’t.

This is a great meal if you are dieting, coming in at only 200 calories per serving and making you feel comfortably full. That means you can have a serving of rice and a couple of rotis with it, without bursting your waistband.

The secret to great flavour here is to use your own fresh curry powder mix. It’s not hard to make and my recipe is here.

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RECIPE serves 4 

1 tbsp vegetable oil

1 onion, thinly sliced

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

20g fresh root ginger, grated

2 tbsp curry powder

2 medium sweet potatoes, diced

1 large ripe tomato, diced

300ml vegetable stock

a small bunch of coriander, stalks only, chopped

200g bag of baby spinach, picked over and thoroughly washed

To serve:

the zest and juice of a lemon

a few green chillies, sliced

a small bunch of coriander leaves, chopped


METHOD

Heat the oil in a large flameproof casserole dish or a deep frying pan. Add the onion and cook it quite briskly until it’s softened and very lightly browned. Add the garlic, ginger and curry powder and stir until combined.

Add the sweet potatoes to the pan and stir to coat them with the garlic, ginger and spices, then add the tomato and the vegetable stock. Season with salt and pepper. Bring the stock to the boil, then turn down the heat, cover the pan and simmer very gently until the sweet potato is just cooked. This should take no longer than 10 minutes, but check regularly from 5 minutes as you don’t want the sweet potato to go mushy – it should still have a little bite to it. Loosen the sauce with a little more stock or water if necessary.

Add the spinach and chopped coriander stalks to the pan and cover the pan again until the spinach has wilted down. Stir very carefully to combine without breaking up the sweet potatoes.

At this point you can turn the heat off and leave it for for a few hours or overnight, the flavours will only get better. If you are going to eat it immediately, garnish with the lemon zest and juice and a sprinkling of finely sliced green chillies and chopped coriander leaves.

Serve with basmati rice and roti.

Sri Lankan Coconut Dhal

We are a diverse family, encompassing unrepentant meat-eaters, pescatarians, vegetarians and vegans. When any combination of us gets together it can be tricky to come up with meals that will satisfy everyone’s needs while also being satisfying.

What that really means is that I need a good stock of vegan recipes, a thought that would drive my grandfather into a rant about lentils. Well, this is a vegan dish, and its made from lentils, and even my grandfather would approve. He always appreciates luscious food, and this has lusciousness in spades. It’s quick too, so if you walk in the door after a long hard day and don’t fancy a big work-up in the kitchen, this will feed everybody and anybody.

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RECIPE serves 4 

2 tsp sunflower oil

250g red split lentils, rinsed thoroughly

1 banana shallot, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

a small handful of dried curry leaves

a small cinnamon stick

1 green chilli, finely chopped

4 tsp curry powder

1 400ml tin of coconut milk

a small bunch of coriander, leaves and stalks

the zest and juice of a lemon


METHOD

Gently fry the shallots, garlic, curry leaves, cinnamon stick and chilli in the oil, for around 5 minutes until softened and aromatic.

Mix a little water into the curry powder – please use either my own recipe for curry powder, or (if you really must) a top quality, fresh off the shelf supermarket version – to make a paste, and add it to the pan. Cook the spices out for a few minutes, then add 400ml of water, the coconut milk and the lentils.

Simmer for around 20 minutes until the lentils are soft and plump. Finely chop the coriander stalks and add them to the dhal, stir them in thoroughly.

At this point you can turn the heat off and leave it for for a few hours or overnight, the flavours will only get better. If you are going to eat it immediately, garlish with the lemon zest and juice and sprinkling of chopped coriander leaves.

Serve with basmati rice and roti.

Red Lentil and Harissa Soup

I hate ‘punish-yourself-January’. So many people eschewing alcohol and meat, going on diets that will never succeed and buying gym memberships they will never use. Here’s my highly opinionated tip: if you’re going to change anything about anything, then you need to make changes that will be permanent. Permanent means life-long, so you’d better make sure that you love the changes that you do make.

It doesn’t have to be hard, and it doesn’t have to be punishing. With people like The Hairy Bikers around, low-fat, no-sugar, delicious food is easy to make. This gorgeous soup of their devising takes a mere ten minutes or so to put together, from what are likely to be store-cupboard ingredients. It is also vegan, so whatever you are putting yourself through this January, this dish ticks every box.

The ‘gremolata’ lifts this from the everyday lovely to the out-of-this-world, so don’t leave it out. Frightened of raw garlic? Don’t go and breathe on people afterward; that’s all I can say.

Don’t be thinking that this is a dish suitable only for January, you can eat this as a summer supper, meaning you can make those lifestyle changes permanent.

If serving 6 (this is a filling dish), the calories come in at 166 per portion. If serving 4 it is 249 per portion, and you’ll be full.

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RECIPE serves 4 – 6 

1 tbsp olive oil

2 large onion, finely chopped

3 fat garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped

a small bunch of finely-chopped fresh coriander stalks

2 tbsp harissa paste

200g red lentils, rinsed

1 litre vegetable stock

1 400g tin of chopped tomatoes

the juice of half a lemon

‘Gremolata’

the finely grated zest of a lemon

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

a small bunch of finely-chopped fresh coriander leaves


METHOD

Heat the oil in a large pan over a medium heat, add the onions with a pinch of salt and cook gently for five to ten minutes until softened. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for a further minute, then add the coriander stalks and harissa paste. Stir thoroughly then add the lentils, stir thoroughly again until everything is coated in the harissa, then add the stock and bring to the boil.

Reduce to a simmer for ten minutes, then add the tomatoes and simmer for a further ten minutes. The lentils should be soft by this time, so test and adjust the seasoning, and add lemon juice to thin the soup and add liveliness.

To make the ‘gremolata’ (a real gremolata uses parsley, but the coriander used here is splendid) chop the ingredients together and spoon over each serving once it has been put into bowls.

Microwave-Steamed Sponge Pudding

For every ten times that I fancy a steamed pudding, I probably act on it once. It’s just such a colossal faff, all that wrapping, and string, and steam, and forgetting to top up the water…

The results are always worth it, but sometimes life is just too busy. Imagine my delight then when I spotted Rose Elliot’s foolproof method for cooking a steamed pudding in a microwave. I have made this successfully with golden syrup and maple syrup, but the method lends itself to experimenting with all kinds of steamed puddings – including Christmas pudding. We have missed the boat on that one, but this year I’ll be testing it in the run-up to Christmas.

In general, it is a truth that in life every shortcut has a cost. Not this time; this shortcut saves hours of time and a load of energy, and the results are exactly the same as if you had done it the long, traditional way.

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RECIPE 

175g unsalted butter, room temperature

175g golden caster sugar

175g self-raising flour

100ml whole milk

1 1/2 tsp baking powder

3 medium hens eggs, or 2 duck eggs

5 tbsp (approx) syrup


METHOD

Put the butter, sugar, flour, milk, baking powder, eggs and 1 tbsp of the syrup into a mixing bowl and beat together until light, fluffy and creamy. If you don’t have a mixer you can achieve great results with a wooden spoon and elbow-grease.

Pour the remaining syrup into the bottom of a lightly-greased plastic or Pyrex microwaveable pudding bowl, then spoon the sponge batter carefully on top.

Put the bowl in to the microwave, uncovered, and cook on full power until the sponge has risen and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. The time it takes will vary, depending on the power of your microwave. Anything between 10 minutes for a 600W machine, down to around 5 minutes for an 850W machine. There’s no need to worry, you can cook it for a few minutes, have a look, cook it a bit longer and have another look and continue until it is ready. It won’t ruin it.

Allow the pudding to stand for a few minutes then turn it out onto a warmed serving plate so that the syrupy top is uppermost. You can add a little more syrup if you want to be really indulgent.

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.

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.

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.

Roasted Chick Pea Wraps

Quick, easy, filling, low-calorie (around 500 kcals per serving) and utterly, utterly delicious. All food should be able to be described this way.

This recipe originally appeared in BBC Good Food magazine, and has only been slightly changed. To make it vegan just omit the feta.

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RECIPE – Serves 4 

2 x 400g tins of chick peas

2 tsp olive oil

2 heaped tsp ground cumin

2 tsp smoked paprika

2 avocados, stoned, peeled and chopped

the zest and juice of a lime

a small bunch of coriander, leaves only, chopped

8 soft corn tortillas

1 small iceberg lettuce, shredded

150g feta cheese, cubed

480g jar of roasted red peppers, chopped


METHOD

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

Drain the chick peas and put into a large bowl with the olive oil, cumin and paprika. Toss well until the chick peas are fully coated, then spread in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking tray. Roast for between 15 and 25 minutes, until they have the ‘bite’, crunch and texture you like. Check frequently as they can dry out just a little too much, very quickly. Shake the tray occasionally to ensure they roast evenly. Remove from the oven and season lightly, to taste.

Meanwhile, toss the chopped avocados with the lime juice and zest, and the coriander leaves.

Warm the tortillas according to the pack instructions and set the table with dishes and bowls of roasted chickpeas, avocado, lettuce, feta and roasted red peppers. Pile in and smile!