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.

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.

Simple Roti

These simple, unleavened flat breads have no business being as delicious as they are. They are extraordinarily filling as well.

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RECIPE – Makes 10

300g plain flour

4 tbsp vegetable oil

1 tbsp fine sea salt

150ml water


METHOD

Combine all the ingredients in a large mixing bowl to form a soft dough. You may need to add a little more water, or a little more flour; the dough should be pillowy and slightly (but not excessively) sticky.

Leave it to rest in a lightly oiled bowl, covered with a damp cloth, for 30 minutes.

Divide the dough into ten equal balls, and on a lightly-floured surface press the balls into rounds as thin as you can make them.

Cook them, one at a time, on an extremely hot skillet very lightly brushed with oil, for 1 minute each side.

Keep warm, wrapped in a tea towel, in a very low oven until they are all cooked and you are ready to serve.

Spiralised Sweet Potato Fries

I seem to spend a lot of time trying to figure out what to eat. The main element generally isn’t a problem; I might like a pie, or some pasta, some fish or whatever, or I might have something in the fridge that needs to be eaten before it goes off. No, the problem that I often have is figuring out what to have alongside the main element, something interesting, different and, most importantly, complementary.

A few nights ago I had the reverse problem, there was a lonely sweet potato sitting there needing to be eaten. Now, there are a lot of things I can do with sweet potato, but if I am going to be feeding more than one person then I need more than one. As usual I hit the books for inspiration and found this idea in a few places, a little tinkering with the various interpretations led me to this: the perfect side dish for fish (particularly tuna steaks) or chicken, and you can also treat them like (crunchy) noodles and serve alongside Asian flavours. It also allowed me the rare use of my spiraliser, one of the few ‘gadgets’ I allow in my kitchen.

A few tips: use the largest size of spiraliser blade that you have, otherwise they can become dry and bitter rather than sweet and crunchy. Use 2 tbsp of cornflour per medium-sized potato because they can be quite moist and the cornflour encourages them to go crispy and, perhaps most importantly, leave them for a good quarter of an hour before you eat them because it takes that long for the crunch to fully develop once they are out of the oven.

If you don’t have a spiralizer, you can julienne the potatoes to get the same effect.

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RECIPE  

1 tbsp rapeseed oil

1 medium sweet potato, peeled and spiralised

2 tbsp cornflour

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


METHOD

Preheat the oven to 200C/ 180C fan/ gas 6, and line a baking sheet with parchment.

Thickly spiralise the sweet potato, or cut into thin strips. In a large bowl, toss the sweet potato with the cornflour then add the oil and toss again until everything is coated.

Spread the sweet potato on the parchment, ensuring that as much as possible it sits in a single layer otherwise it will tend to steam and won’t get as crispy.

Bake for 20 minutes, tossing halfway through to ensure even cooking, and leave to sit for 15 minutes before eating – you can eat them immediately, they just won’t be as crispy as they could be.

Sliced Roasted Potatoes with Tomato, Oregano and Basil

My kitchen smelt like Italy yesterday evening, as this delicious gratin released its sumptuous aromas into the atmosphere. It reminds me: I must renew the seals on my oven.

I originally found this recipe in Gennaro Contaldo and Antonio Carluccio’s ‘Two Greedy Italians’, made it. loved it, then promptly forgot about it as I got busy cooking other dishes. What an error; this should have been flagged in my notebook as something to enjoy at least once a week.

The flavours are simple, but marry together exceptionally well. The trick here is to use lots of cherry tomatoes, and to ensure that at least half of them have been de-seeded, otherwise it’s just a little too wet. Cooked this way it has a delicious crunchy topping with layers of soft but firm potato and onion waiting for you underneath.

It is perfect alongside seared tuna or salmon, and with a simple salsa it only requires a few good handfuls of rocket to make you smile.

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RECIPE – Serves 4 

100ml olive oil

700g thinly sliced potatoes

approx 2 tsp dried oregano

flaked sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

a large handful of roughly-torn basil leaves

400g red onions, peeled and thinly sliced

600g cherry, or baby-plum tomatoes, halved. Half of them de-seeded

1 tbsp dry vermouth

For the salsa:

1 tsp fennel seeds, lightly crushed

2 tbsp white wine vinegar

1 banana shallot, finely sliced

2 medium tomatoes, de-seeded and diced

a handful of basil leaves, shredded, set aside a couple of small sprigs for garnish

a small handful of pitted black olives, quartered


METHOD

Preheat the oven to 180C/ 160C fan /Gas 4. Slice the potatoes; use a mandolin if you have one, it will make the job much faster and more precise. Otherwise, slice them – very carefully – as thinly as you can. Also prepare the tomatoes and onion.

In a large, oven-proof dish, drizzle 3 tbsp of the olive oil over the base and then place a thin layer of sliced potato. Sprinkle 1/3 of the oregano over the top and season lightly.  Scatter a thin layer of basil leaves, then a single layer of sliced onion followed by a mixture of tomatoes, some de-seeded and some with seeds in. Drizzle with a little more oil, then repeat the layers twice more: potato; oregano; a little seasoning; basil; onion, then tomatoes. Drizzle with a little oil to finish, with the vermouth.

Cover with foil and bake in the middle of the oven for 45 minutes, then remove the foil and gently loosen the bottom layer of potatoes. Put back into the oven, uncovered, for a further 25-30 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the salsa: combine the lightly crushed fennel seeds, shallot and vinegar in a bowl and set aside while you de-seed and chop the tomatoes; then add the tomatoes, basil and olives. Combine well, season lightly and set aside for now.

Allow the potatoes to rest while you cook your fish, then serve on warmed plates with the salsa and a simple rocket salad.

Indian Spiced Potatoes with a Crispy Fried Egg

Eggs and potatoes, yum. Eggs and curry, yum. Eggs and potatoes and curry, yum yum yum!

I made this for the first time last Sunday for lunch, then again on Monday, and yet again last night (Tuesday) as a side dish with a curry feast. I think it’s fair to say that I love it, that my family loves it, and I bet you will too.

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RECIPE – Serves 4

800g floury potatoes (Maris Piper, Roosters etc) peeled and diced into 1cm cubes

6 tbsp rapeseed oil

1 tsp black mustard seeds

2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped

a fat thumb of ginger, finely chopped

1 tbsp curry powder

1/2 tsp turmeric

25g unsalted butter

6 spring onions, trimmed and finely chopped

1 long green chilli, finely chopped

1/2 tsp coarse sea salt

1 tsp nigella seeds

4 large eggs

a small handful of curry leaves


METHOD

First, prepare the potatoes: bring a large pan of salted water to the boil, add the diced potatoes and simmer gently for 13 mins or until just soft. Drain in a colander and set aside while you prepare the spice base.

Mix the curry powder and turmeric with a little water to make a paste. This will prevent the spices from sticking and burning when added to the pan.

Heat 2 tbsp of the oil in a large frying pan then add the mustard seeds. Cook over a medium heat until they just start to pop then add the garlic, ginger and curry powder/turmeric paste. Cook for 30 seconds or so, stirring constantly until aromatic, then add the butter.

When the butter has melted, add another tablespoon of oil and the potatoes. Fry for 5 mins, turning often and taking care not to allow the potatoes to disintegrate.

Add the spring onion, chilli and salt top the pan, stir and toss together for a minute or so then scatter the nigella seeds over the top, mix and transfer to warmed plates while you cook the eggs.

Line the base of a large frying pan with baking parchment, as you would if you were lining the base of a cake tin. Drizzle 2 tablespoons of oil over the top of the parchment, heat the pan, break the eggs on top and fry for a couple of minutes until thoroughly cooked and the bottom of the eggs are starting to crisp. This is a great way to cook a fried egg under any circumstances.

Place an egg on top of each mound of spiced potato, heat a tablespoon of oil in the frying pan and add the curry leaves. Fry for a minute or two until dark and glossy, drain on kitchen paper and serve on top of the eggs.

Oven-Dried Tomatoes

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The first thing I consider whenever I cook something is: where is the flavour coming from? If it is a risotto the quality of the stock is crucial; if I am making a curry then the spices in the curry paste are the most important elements for flavour, and when making a tomato sauce the quality of the aromatics (not to mention the tomatoes) is key. Get that first consideration wrong, and it won’t matter what else you do, your dish won’t be as delicious as it could possibly be.

I long ago got into the habit of using fish sauce as a way of delivering ‘umami’, and if that isn’t appropriate then an anchovy fillet or two cooked in oil until it all-but dissolves will do the job. If you are making a dish for a vegan though, neither of these methods is appropriate, so I started using commercial sun-dried tomatoes to intensify flavours.

Anyone who knows me knows that I shy away from anything commercially processed, so will know what came next: of course, I started to dry my own tomatoes. It is a simple process, and delivers such intensity to any tomato-based sauce that you will never need to add tomato puree to anything ever again. I now use oven-dried tomatoes in all my tomato sauces, using one or two per tin of chopped tomatoes – so if a recipe calls for two tins of chopped tomatoes, I will augment it with two or four chopped dried tomatoes, depending on the intensity that I require.

They are also lovely spread on toasted bruschetta, with a little goat’s cheese as an antipasti.

To make oven-dried tomatoes:

Heat your oven to 140C/ gas 1.

Cut ripe tomatoes in half and scoop out the seeds, toss the tomato flesh in a little olive oil (I put a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a large freezer bag, add a kilo of seeded tomatoes and work the tomatoes around the bag so they are fully coated) then lay the tomatoes in a single layer on a rack, set over a baking tray.

Just pop them in the oven and leave them for 2 to 3 hours, until they are reduced in size by about a third. At this point they will still be quite plump, you can go even further and leave them in the oven for up to eight hours so they are fully dried out and leathery. Cooked this way they can be stored almost indefinitely in the fridge.

Pack a kilner jar (or similar) with the dried tomatoes, cover completely with olive oil and store them in the fridge. I have had a jar of plump-dried tomatoes in my fridge for months and they are still perfect, so I have no idea how long they will actually last – long enough, that’s for sure.

If you completely dry your tomatoes then in most cases they can be stored dry, but will need to be re-hydrated in water overnight before use.

The Most Incredible Sweet Potato Mash EVER!

I can be a bit of a snob in the kitchen; for example, in my house the microwave gets used to reheat leftover curry and that’s about it. The concept of actually cooking with it is entirely alien to me. So, when I spotted this recipe for microwaved sweet potato mash in the current issue of BBC Good Food magazine I was dubious that I would get the results that I wanted.

What swayed me toward making the mash in the microwave, rather than roasting the sweet potatoes then scooping out and mashing the flesh as I normally would, was the tantalising prospect of what the limes in the recipe would do when they were microwaved with the sweet potato.

What happened next was very exciting indeed: this is without doubt THE most perfect sweet potato mash I have ever tasted. The magic is what happens when the limes release their juice into the sweet potato, and sesame oil turns out to be the perfect seasoning for sweet potato.

It is one of those side dishes that not only tastes wonderful but is low-calorie while being filling – so it is perfect for those following the 5:2 diet, or any diet at all – it is completely dairy-free yet deliciously creamy so it is perfect for vegans. It will work alongside a whole host of dishes, for all tastes and from many cuisines. This has gone straight to the top of the ‘must make again, and soon’ list, I shall be experimenting like crazy…

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RECIPE – serves 2 as a side dish

2 large sweet potatoes, scrubbed and cut into wedges

1 lime, cut into wedges

1 tbsp sesame oil

1 red chilli, de-seeded and thinly sliced

a pinch of sea salt


METHOD

Scrub the sweet potatoes clean and cut away any rough bits, otherwise leave the skin on. Cut each potato into eight wedges, and the lime also into eight wedges. Put the sweet potato and lime wedges into a large glass bowl and cover with cling film.

Microwave on high power for three minutes. Leave to stand for a couple of minutes then microwave for three more minutes. Repeat this process until the sweet potato is completely soft; it took me a total of 11 minutes of cooking – I judged that the last blast in the microwave should only be two minutes.

Remove from the microwave and take out the lime wedges. You should see a puddle of hot lime juice in the bottom of the bowl, leave that there and roughly mash the sweet potatoes with the lime juice, using a fork. Add the chilli and sesame oil with a small pinch of salt, then mash until fairly smooth. Check the seasoning and serve.

Rainbow Bhajis

Oh my goodness.

I love onion bhajis, especially home-made, so when I spotted these variations in an old BBC Good Food magazine I just had to try them. I say again: Oh my goodness.

Subtly spiced, gorgeously colourful, easy to make and great as a starter or party snack, these little beauties have become a must-make alongside any and every curry I ever make.

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RECIPE – feeds 6 as a starter/side dish

For the batter:

4 tbsp curry powder

250g gram flour

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp cumin seeds

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp ground coriander

1 tsp garam masala

¼ tsp hot chilli powder

2 medium onions, thinly sliced

For the bhajis:

140g carrot, grated

2 tsp nigella seeds

100g parsnip, grated

2 tbsp desiccated coconut

small pack coriander, stalks only, finely chopped (use the leaves to garnish)

140g beetroot, grated

2 tsp fresh ginger, grated

1l sunflower oil, for frying

lemon wedges, to serve

lime wedges, to serve


METHOD

First make the batter, stir the curry powder into a little cold water to make a paste, then top up to a total of 250ml of cold water. Mix the flour, baking powder and spices in a mixing bowl, make a well in the centre, then pour in the curry water and gradually stir together to a smooth batter. Stir in the onions, then divide the batter evenly between three bowls. Leave the batter to relax for 30 minutes or so.

Stir the carrot and nigella seeds into one batch of batter, the parsnip, coconut and chopped coriander stalks into another, and the beetroot and ginger into the third.

Heat the oil in a fryer, a deep pan or a non-stick wok to 180C, or until a piece of bread browns in 20 secs. Starting with the parsnip and ending with the beetroot, add spoonfuls of the mixture to the oil, a few at a time, and cook for a few mins, turning occasionally until evenly browned and crispy. This will take about 4 mins. Lift out onto kitchen paper with a slotted spoon, sprinkle with a little salt and keep warm in a low oven while you cook the rest.

Serve the hot bhajis scattered with coriander leaves alongside lemon and lime wedges for squeezing over.