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.

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.

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.

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.

Sea Bass with Mint, Tomatoes and Red Onions

I have a mini herb garden in my kitchen, pots of basil, coriander, lovage, mint and others, all lined up on the window sills. The mint is a problem: it grows like a weed and tends to smother the others, so every now and again I will search for a recipe that uses mint, just so I can prune it without feeling guilty.

This recipe comes from Skye Gyngell’s ‘My Favourite Ingredients’, one of those books that, no matter which random page you open it at, you want to eat what you see. This one, for example, tastes even better than it looks.

As usual, using the very freshest, perfectly ripe ingredients allows it to sing. If you don’t have sea bass, this would work equally well with the freshest mackerel, or meaty tuna steaks. I served it alongside fennel chips, the flavour of the fennel seeds echoing the crushed fennel in the sauce, but I think it would also be delicious with simple steamed rice.

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RECIPE – Serves 2 

2 sea bass fillets, skin on

100ml extra virgin olive oil

3 sweet red onions, peeled and finely sliced

1 tsp fennel seeds

1 tsp dried red chilli

sea salt

freshly ground black pepper

a handful of flat leaf parsley, coarsely chopped, leaves only

a small bunch mint, coarsely chopped, leaves only

4 ripe, sweet, juicy tomatoes, roughly chopped

1 tbsp sherry vinegar

1 tbsp olive oil, for frying


METHOD

Set the sea bass fillets aside on a covered plate to allow them to come to room temperature.

Place a pan over a low heat, pour in the extra virgin olive oil and, when the oil is warm, add the onions. Cook very gently for about 30 minutes, to bring out the gentle sweetness of the onions. Meanwhile, toast the fennel seeds in a dry frying pan to release their flavour, then grind using a pestle and mortar.

Add the ground fennel seeds to the onions, crumble in the chilli and season with a little salt. Cook for a further 10 minutes, still over a very low heat. Add half the parsley and mint, stir well, then add the tomatoes and sherry vinegar. Turn up the heat a little and cook for 10 minutes. This sauce should taste very clean, so don’t cook the tomatoes for too long.

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Season the fish well, especially on the skin side. This will draw out the moisture in the skin, allowing the skin to go crisp and crunchy when cooked and adding both flavour and texture to the finished dish.

Place a non-stick ovenproof frying pan over a high heat. Pour in a little olive oil and when hot, lay the fish skin side down in the pan. Cook for 2–3 minutes until the skin is golden brown. Immediately transfer the pan to the oven to finish cooking without turning the fish. This should take no more than a further 2–3 minutes.

To serve, taste the sauce for seasoning and adjust if necessary, then add the rest of the parsley and mint. Spoon into warm shallow bowls and lay the fish fillets on top. Serve at once.

Prawn Risotto

I reintroduced myself to the simple, calming pleasure of stirring a risotto yesterday evening. Admittedly, spending 25 minutes or so watching over and stirring rice isn’t everybody’s idea of pleasure, but after a hectic day rushing around from pillar to post it made me stop, and allowed me to reset and relax. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the results were divine, but by the time it got to the table I was in exactly the right frame of mind to enjoy it.

There are a few essentials in making a great risotto: the rice you use is crucial, Carnaroli is best I think, though Arborio is fine. Also, the finer you chop your shallots and celery the better; I try and ensure that each piece is no larger than a grain of rice so they release all their flavour then disappear. The quality of your stock is also crucial: chicken stock gives the best flavour, fish stock comes a close second, or you can use a light vegetable stock. If you absolutely must use a stock cube then the results will also be great, but with something as simple as this you get out what you put in. It is essential that you keep your stock at a gentle simmer so that you never interrupt the cooking of the rice as you add it.

Serve alongside an apple and celery salad, the perfect accompaniment.

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RECIPE – Serves 2 

2 tbsp olive oil

2 or 3 banana shallots, very finely chopped

2 fat garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

1 celery stick, trimmed and very finely chopped

200g carnaroli risotto rice

100ml dry vermouth

approx 800ml hot stock (chicken, fish or vegetable)

220g raw peeled king prawns

140g peas

1 spring onion, white and green parts, very finely sliced on the diagonal

finely grated zest of half a lemon

1 1/2 tsp finely chopped mint

a swirl of extra-virgin olive oil to finish


METHOD

Get your stock bubbling at a very gentle simmer, and keep it at this temperature throughout the cooking.

Heat the oil in a wide, deep, heavy-bottomed risotto pan or saucepan over a low-medium heat. Gently fry the shallots, garlic and celery for around ten minutes until softened. Turn the heat up to medium, add the rice and stir thoroughly to ensure that every grain is coated. Cook on for a minute or so, then add the vermouth and turn the heat up. Bubble the vermouth for a couple of minutes until the alcohol has evaporated.

Turn the heat down to low-medium again, then add a ladleful of stock. Stir with a wooden spoon until the rice has absorbed the stock and is just at the point of sticking to the pan (don’t let it actually stick though!). Continue to add the stock, a ladle at a time, stirring very frequently while it is absorbed. Keeping it at a low temperature ensures that the rice takes up the stock and its flavour, rather than it evaporating off. This will take 20-25 minutes.

When the rice grains are plump and tender, yet still retaining a little ‘bite’, season generously and add the prawns and peas. Cook for 2 minutes, then cover and cook for a further 2 minutes until the prawns are only just cooked through.

Stir through the spring onion, most of the lemon zest and 1 tsp of the mint. Top with a swirl of extra-virgin olive oil, remove from the heat, cover and allow to sit for a couple of minutes.

Check the seasoning, garnish with the remaining mint and lemon zest, and serve.

Salmon and Prawn Burgers with Chilli Mayo

Get them right and there are few things better than a well-made fish cake. The trouble is, every recipe that I have for fish cakes involves quite a lot of work, time and effort. I don’t mind that at all, the results are always worth it, but sometimes the craving arrives on a day that I am pushed for time. To my joy, I spotted this recipe in a BBC Good Food magazine, and it delivers on every front: it’s quick to make (on the table within 30 minutes), requires no skill at all, and it tastes absolutely divine.

It is infinitely flexible as well. This recipe calls for a simple salad as an accompaniment but you can add onions, gherkins, capers, chillies… anything you fancy. You can also substitute the chilli mayo for tartar sauce. At around 500 calories per burger (including the bun) it is also low-calorie and rich in omega-3 oil, so it’s guilt-free.

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RECIPE – Serves 4 

180g peeled raw prawns, roughly chopped

4 skinless salmon fillets, chopped into small chunks

3 spring onions, roughly chopped

1 lemon, zested and juiced

small pack coriander, stalks and leaves

60g mayonnaise or Greek yogurt

4 tsp chilli sauce

2 Little Gem lettuces, shredded

1 cucumber, peeled into ribbons

1 tbsp olive oil

4 seeded burger buns, toasted, to serve


METHOD

Briefly blitz half the salmon, the coriander stalks, spring onions and lemon zest in a food processor until it forms a coarse paste. Tip into a bowl, stir in the rest of the salmon and the prawns, season well and shape into four burgers. Chill for at least 10 mins.

Mix the mayo and chilli sauce together in a small bowl, season and add some lemon juice to taste. Mix the lettuce with the cucumber, dress with a little of the remaining lemon juice and 1 tsp olive oil, then set aside.

Heat the remaining oil in a large frying pan and fry the burgers for 3-4 mins each side or until they have a nice crust and the fish is cooked through. Alternatively, you can make it even lighter by placing the burgers on a piece of parchment on a baking sheet in a 180C oven (160 fan, gas 4) for approximately 15 minutes until just cooked through – the burger will cook on slightly so don’t worry that the centre is a little pink, as long as it is hot.

Serve with the salad on the side in toasted burger buns, with a good dollop of the chilli mayo.

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!