Fig Salad

Ottolenghi Fig Salad

The past few weeks I have been cooking non-stop from Plenty More, Ottolenghi’s new cookbook. It is the sequel to Plenty, his first vegetarian cookbook which has also been well used over the past years. As figs are at their most luscious at the moment I could not resist this salad which appears in the chapter entitled ‘Tossed’. It made a lovely lunch dish, colourful and very tasty too. I have adapted it slightly here.

For 4 people:

A large red onion, cut in half and then into wedges
2 tablespoons olive oil
50g hazelnuts
A handful or two of red lettuce – the recipe calls for radicchio but it wasn’t available
A handful or two of watercress
40g basil leaves
6 large, ripe figs, quartered
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar – use a good one
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
Fresh black pepper

Preheat the oven to 220 C

Prepare the onions, mix gently with ½ tablespoon of olive oil and a grinding of black pepper, place in an ovenproof dish and roast for about ½ hour. Turn a couple of times – I forgot to turn mine and no harm was done. Remove and allow to cool before separating the onion layers into smaller pieces if you like

Reduce the oven to 160 C and roast the hazelnuts on an oven tray for 20 minutes. Remove, allow to cool and then chop roughly.

Place the red lettuce – or radicchio if to hand – on a large platter and mix in the basil and watercress leaves. Place the fig quarters and the roasted onion on top.

Whisk together the remaining olive oil with the balsamic, the cinnamon and some fresh black pepper. Dress the salad and scatter over the hazelnuts.

Seeing Is Believing – 15 October 2014

For months I have been imploring my teenager to take a bit of exercise. Although most of our health problems set in around middle age, establishing good practice early on in life pays good dividends later on. Mind you, I was a keen jogger and played lots of sport when I was a teenager and yet I now face raised cholesterol and a constant battle to get my weight into shape. But perhaps the situation might have been worse had I not had those years of good cardiovascular workouts. In truth, I think the rot set in once I went to university and ate my body weight in macaroni cheese which was all I could afford in the canteen and all any of my housemates knew how to cook in the evenings. That and dodgy genes.

My exercise suggestions have fallen on deaf teenage ears as most requests to this age group tend to do. So imagine my surprise when I was informed that regular jogging would be taking place from my front door. What had inspired this sudden change of heart? An out of shape friend had visited, bemoaned his struggle with his weight and high cholesterol, and reminisced about his teenage years when he could eat anything he liked and retain a normal weight. The penny suddenly dropped. My teenager, not wanting to end up looking like a middle aged man, got his trainers on and went for a run. And another the following day.

It struck me that while my months of moaning bore no fruit, one look at the outcome of lack of exercise provided immediate incentive. I was reminded of a tv programme I watched recently in which a recovered heroin addict was working in the slums of Mumbai to encourage drug-addled teenagers to find their way to a rehab facility he worked in. I am sure that coming into daily contact with the ravages of drug addiction strengthened the resolve of the erstwhile addict to live his life without succumbing to any residual cravings he may have.

I know that trying to frighten people into healthier habits is unlikely to achieve long term change, yet there is something to be said for it. Taking smokers to meet emphysema patients might deter some from lighting up. I guess one has to have some level of motivation to begin with, a level of motivation that needs constant encouragement. That is certainly how I feel about myself.

This week I came across a photograph of Andrew Marr at a celebrity do of one sort or another. He was flanked by the great and the good and stood, smiling at the camera, with a glass of bubbly in hand. What leapt out at me was the walking stick dangling from his champagne-holding arm, the other arm, disabled by his stroke, tucked discreetly into his trouser pocket. It was just the reminder I needed. I got my shoes on and went for a brisk walk.

Freekeh, Puy Lentils and Preserved Lemon

Freekeh, Puy Lentils and Preserved Lemon

For months I have been pestering my Turkish grocer to restock his shelf with freekeh, a grain I adore. If you haven’t tried it before please do so – even if you need to pester someone to get hold of it. Freekeh is a green wheat that has a smoky flavour from the husks being burned off over wood fires. It is used extensively in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. This week my regular reminders paid off and I found bags of freekeh on the shelf. I was so obviously delighted that the grocer smiled. A happy customer!

Although this dish is not a looker, it is very tasty and so comforting. The only problem is trying not to eat the whole panful.

If you can’t get hold of freekeh you could use another grain and add a chipotle chilli to the stock which will add some smokiness to the dish.

For 4 people:

1 red onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Olive oil spray
200g freekeh
900 ml vegetable stock – I use Marigold bouillon
100g Puy lentils
1 garlic clove
2-4 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves picked
1 tablespoon sumac
3 preserved lemons, flesh discarded, peel chopped
3 tablespoons 0% Greek yoghurt
1 tablespoon low fat milk
1 small clove garlic, crushed

Begin by cooking the lentils. Place in a pot and cover with three times the volume of water. Add a garlic clove to the cooking water. Bring to the boil, cover and reduce heat. After about ½ hour the lentils should be cooked. Drain and set aside.

Chop the red onion and sauté in a few sprays of olive oil. Cover the pan with a lid and allow to cook slowly on a low heat. After 10 – 15 minutes add the chopped garlic and cook for a further 5 minutes.
Add the freekeh and stir well to combine with the onions and garlic. Then add the vegetable stock. Bring to the boil and then cover the pan and reduce heat to a simmer. The freekeh should be cooked within 30 -40 minutes. I prefer it to retain a bite as you would expect with a risotto.

Add the drained lentils and stir gently to combine. Add the sumac and 2 of the chopped preserved lemons, followed by the thyme leaves.

In a small bowl, mix the yoghurt and the milk until smooth and then add the crushed garlic.

To serve, garnish with dollops of the garlic yoghurt, a final sprinkle of sumac and the third preserved lemon peel.

A fresh green salad would be a good accompaniment.

Pilates? Please! – 8 October 2014

The warm dry autumn has suddenly given way to pouring rain. Good for gardens but decidedly dodgy for those trying to re-enthuse themselves about those 5 times a week walks. In fairness, I did manage to get the walks done last week but if this rain continues my exercise will not.

Talking of exercise, I have had to face my Pilates instructor with the shamefaced truth that I did not manage to swivel my pelvis even once this week. I did intend to practice, practice, practice but my instructions to self fell on ears as deaf as my children’s when I beseech them to practice – their music, I mean. I wonder if Elvis had to practice his pelvic swivels or whether he could spontaneously locate his whatever-it’s-called muscle while breathing out and rolling his knee slowly outwards.

I am clearly not a natural at this whole malarkey and am feeling decidedly uninspired. Having paid up a considerable amount for a series of one-to-one sessions, I feel obliged to turn up. There is nowhere to hide when it is just me and the trim, fit and encouraging instructor. My problem is one of personality rather than lack of enthusiasm for my posture and core. I am one of those big picture types, with little patience for small print and detail. It is why I love to cook but don’t have the temperament for baking. In the act of cooking I can get the gist of a recipe and then make it my own, creating something new along the way if the mood takes me. With baking, one has to follow the rules, carefully measuring ingredients in particular order. It reminds me of science classes at school – a subject I was sadly poor at. My hand always shot up when the teacher asked ‘does anyone not understand?’

Rules of any sort have always rather annoyed me, rebel without a pause. Listening to tales of my adolescence, my teenager remarked that I sounded quite immature when I was his age. It made me laugh but no doubt he is quite correct. Such immaturity is clearly coming back to haunt me now when having been advised to practise my exercises I find myself resisting such instruction. The whole notion of ‘the core’ makes me want to ask annoying questions. Core values? Core assets? Apple core?

Such an attitude to life is clearly unproductive.

A friend has been doing Pilates for 18 months and swears by its value. I envy the time she has already put in and the benefit derived. I should be inspired to follow suit. So I must drag myself out today to face the music – or the silence of the Pilates studio – and mend my wayward ways. Even if it is pouring with rain.

Watercress, Lentil and Avocado Salad

Watercress, Lentil and Avocado Salad

This simple salad is so tasty that I ate it two days in a row this week. The cinnamon in the dressing may seem a strange addition but it lifts the flavour very well. Do give it a try.

For 4 people:

100g Puy lentils
1 garlic clove
1 bay leaf
4 handfuls watercress, washed and dried
4 handfuls baby spinach leaves
2 handfuls rocket leaves
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 ripe avocado, sliced
4 tablespoons cottage cheese
Fresh black pepper

Begin by boiling the lentils. Add a garlic clove and bay leaf to the cooking water. The lentils should be cooked within ½ hour depending on their age. Drain and set aside.

Put the watercress, spinach and rocket leaves into a roomy bowl and pour over the olive oil and lemon juice. Sprinkle over the ground cinnamon and mix well.

Divide the leaves between 4 plates. Add two spoons of lentils to each plate. Next add a tablespoon of cottage cheese and ¼ of the avocado slices to each plate.

Finish with a good grinding of black pepper.

Eat with a slice of crusty wholemeal bread for a light and healthy lunch.

Core Blimey – 1 October 2014

This week I began Pilates. Already I am hurting in places I never knew I had, that have names I cannot recall. My friendly instructor talked me through an hour of making tiny movements with my pelvis, naming muscles I need to google translate. So tiny and hidden are some of these muscles that I have only now become acquainted with them, despite the fact that they have been hard at work for over 50 years.

The point of Pilates is to strengthen my core to quote my doctor who recommended this form of self improvement some months ago. Having been too busy over the summer with undoing all of the effects of any previous self improvement, I am only getting round to this now. It is quite the opposite of putting on my walking shoes, striding out at as fast a pace I can manage while clearing my mind of all thoughts. This tends to bring on a sense of wellbeing, partly endorphin driven and in part due to the knowledge that I am doing something good for my heart health.

Pilates seems quite the opposite. I take off my shoes, lie down indoors making small movements that require a great deal of concentration. The instructor sits alongside with her hands gently rotating my pelvic bones and her fingers searching out that band of muscles that is supposed to be engaged while I rock slowly from side to side. It sounds more pleasurable than it is!

I have returned home tasked with practising these movements daily. Somehow it seems counter intuitive to build up one’s strength by making such small muscular movements but I must trust that in time I will feel some benefit. After the freebie that is walking outdoors – once the orthotics and shoes are paid for – it is sobering to hand over wads of dosh for learning to locate places I seem to have got by without well enough.

I guess it is all part of the ageing process, having to look after the body with a different mindset. My back is stiff every morning, my muscles ache more easily and who knows what state my arteries are in. Trying to stave off osteoporosis – for which I am genetically primed – requires some action now. So soon my Pilates workout will advance to some strange looking equipment involving straps and pulleys as well as dumbbells. Hopefully I will begin to notice an improvement before my enthusiasm for this new skill wears thin.

The warm autumnal weather has been a boost to getting back into my stride exercise wise. I reckon I should get as many walks done while the temperature is good and the sun is out. One habit to break is returning home to a sunny afternoon garden, pulling up a chair, brewing a pot of tea and cutting a slice or two of cake. That’s the problem with autumn – so many apples and plums to use up, it would be silly not to make something lovely to eat. Making hay while the sun shines as they say.

Fennel and Green Olive Tagine with Brown Rice and Red Quinoa

Fennel and Green Olive Tagine

I am the happy recipient of a parcel filled with boxes and bottles from the Clearspring company. This is exactly my idea of a great gift as the boxes are grains of various sorts while the bottles are of Tamari soy sauce (which I noticed has just won a Good Taste Award) and a Flax Oil Blend which gives me a good ration of Omega 3, 6 and 9.
Inspired by all these goodies I set about cooking dinner. It is not quite yet soup weather when the pulses and grains will be making their way into a warm pot with vegetables. A tagine seemed just the business, especially as I had rather a lot of fennel in the fridge left over from another meal.

I love tagines of all descriptions and realised that they don’t have to contain animal protein in order to taste really good. So popular was this dish at my table that the very last drops were spooned out by my kids.

Although I usually serve couscous with tagines, I found that the Clearsrping Long Grain Brown Rice and Red Quinoa mix made a delicious change and mopped up the juices perfectly. I cooked the grains in a light vegetable stock and when it was ready, added sumac, chopped coriander, preserved lemon and pomegranate seeds.

For 4 people:

250g Clearspring Quick Cook Organic Long Grain Brown Rice and Red
1 teaspoon Marigold vegetable bouillon
1 tablespoon sumac
1 handful coriander, roughly chopped
1 preserved lemon, pulp removed skin chopped
½ pomegranate, seeds removed

For tagine:

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 ball stem ginger, chopped
1 preserved lemon, pulp removed, skin chopped
2 large fennel, each cut into 8 wedges
1l vegetable stock, I use Marigold bouillon
½ teaspoon tumeric
1 handful coriander, roughly chopped
12 pitted, green olives, halved

To made the fennel and olive tagine, gently heat the olive oil in a generous sized pot. Add the chopped onion and allow to sweat gently until the onion is softened. Add the chopped garlic, ginger and preserved lemon peel. Stir to combine and allow to cook gently for a couple of minutes.

Add the fennel wedges and then pour over the vegetable stock into which you have mixed the turmeric. Bring to the boil and then reduce heat and allow to bubble away for about half an hour until the fennel is cooked through.
Add the coriander and green olives.

While the tagine is cooking you can prepare the rice and quinoa. As this brand is a quick cook product, it only needs 10 minutes in boiling water. Drain and then add the sumac, coriander, lemon peel and pomegranate seeds.

Serve the tagine with a bowl of harissa which adds a wonderfully spicy note to the dish. Each diner gets to decide how much heat they want.

The No Campaign – 24 September 2014

What a week it has been! For someone who hardly ever turns on the tv, I have been glued to late night commentary about the Scottish referendum. Naturally I found the political spectacle as fascinating as the next person. I have also been relieved that I didn’t have a vote to cast as I suspect that my head and my heart might have pulled in opposite directions.

The idea of Better Together made me wonder about the future of shortbread, oats and haggis. Would these become foreign foods, imported goods sold in specialist shops? Not that I often eat a haggis, and I try to avoid shortbread, but don’t mess about with my oats please. As I struggle – I mean really, really struggle – to get back onto even a vaguely healthy track since my summer holiday, I realise that at least I have remained faithful to my oats for breakfast. But the Scottish referendum has wrecked even that resolve this week.

As usual, I experience life through the needs of my stomach or at least the ingredients in my fridge. The Scottish referendum has been no different. Some weeks ago, my son took a bet with a family friend about the outcome of this week’s vote. His conviction about his position as a ‘no’ man has turned out to be profitable, his having already won £10 from a friend, a disappointed yes-man. The bet with the family friend was more culinary than pecuniary. The agreement was that if the Yes campaign triumphed, my son would cook a breakfast that she would attend. If the No vote triumphed, I was to cook! Quite how I became inveigled in this situation I was never informed.

As I did support the No campaign – easy for me as a citizen of England – I thought I would put my money where my mouth is and get on with the breakfast shift without complaint. Unfortunately for my arteries, my son’s victory meal did not include the Scottish oats with which he was so keen to share the Union. No, my orders were sausage, bacon, blueberry pancakes and maple syrup.

As the bet was made one morning in a restaurant on Cape Cod while my men were hidden behind stacks of blueberry pancakes, it was agreed that a recreation of this breakfast would be the winner’s prize. These were not pancakes as we know them, nor the low fat version I have previously featured on this blog. These were what we dubbed ‘mancakes’. Large as plates. Impossible to finish a pile of these I assumed, but never underestimate the appetite of my men.

So on Sunday morning I made a huge volume of batter, grilled the bacon, poured the maple syrup and enjoyed a thoroughly wonderful brunch. We reminisced about the marvelous holiday we had shared and the meals we had enjoyed. Sadly for me, the holiday is not just a memory but is hanging around my waist, a daily reminder of too much of a good time.

Grilled Chicken with Figs and Papaya

Grilled Chicken with Figs and Papaya

With figs bursting from their ripe skins at the moment I have been enjoying this gorgeous fruit – even if it carries a few airmiles from Turkey. I have such strong attachment to figs from my childhood when we had a huge tree, that I can never resist a really ripe fig.

In this recipe I griddled my figs on my griddle pan along with a chicken breast. Spotting a ripe papaya in the fruit bowl, I thought I would pop some in the pan too. It tasted really good.

In minutes you have a healthy salad of protein and fruit. A wholemeal flatbread alongside would balance out the meal.

For 4 people:

4 chicken breasts
1 lemon
1 teaspoon olive oil
4 ripe figs
1 papaya
Salad leaves
Black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil

Begin by marinating the chicken breasts in the juice of the lemon and the olive oil. You can get ahead and do this in advance in which case put the breasts in the fridge.

When you are ready to cook, heat a griddle pan, spray lightly with a few spritzes of olive oil. Add the figs, skin side down and grill carefully. After a few minutes, turn the fruit cut side down for a minute or two. Set aside.

Peel the papaya and cut into chunks. Pop onto the griddle pan for a couple of minutes. Don’t overcook or the papaya will become mushy. Set aside

Remove the chicken breasts from the marinade and place on the hot griddle pan. Leave to grill for about 4 minutes on each side – this will depend on the thickness of the chicken pieces. You can check they are cooked by making a cut in the centre, it there is no pink meat then your chicken is ready. By this time you will have lovely grilled stripes on your chicken pieces.

On each of 4 plates place a handful of salad leaves and then divide out the chicken breasts, figs and papaya pieces.

Finish with a grinding of black pepper, a squeeze of lemon juice and a final sprinkle of extra virgin olive oil.

Indian Summer – 17 September 2014

This weekend I finally got to see The 100 Foot Journey. This delightful, feel-good movie is one of those productions that looks as good as it tastes. Anything that combines the beauty of a stunning French rural town with visits to Paris and Michelin stars raining down on magnificent plates of food has me happy. The viewer is spoilt for choice between French haut cuisine on the one hand and beautifully spiced Indian food on the other.

Emerging hungry when the credits rolled, however, there was only one option. One is hardly in the mood for Italian or Greek after a film like this. There being no Michelin starred restaurant on my doorstep that left the Indian. Fortunately we have several good outlets to choose from so no need to repeat last week’s takeaway, delicious as that was.

‘Fancy a samosa?’ I suggested tentatively on the way to the car, hoping my husband would not remind me of my healthy eating intentions. Might I add that we had already eaten an unhealthy lunch out as part of my research for an article I am writing. Since we were then in walking distance of a tearoom that serves divine cakes, we agreed we could squeeze in a slice between us. And then, two doors down from tea was one of those chocolate emporiums that imports organic beans from who knows where and handcrafts misshapen chocolates with daft names and ridiculous prices. But who can resist?

So a nocturnal Indian takeout was unnecessary to say the least, but how could I sleep without sating my appetite for a delicately spiced dish? More to the point was how could I sleep after having eaten spicy food late at night. I repented by tossing and turning for hours with indigestion, a surprise really as those curried yam leaves and the dish of baby aubergines in tamarind sauce were really gorgeous. Maybe I ate too many parathas.

Of course I blame the children. They have become so independent that we barely see them on Saturday nights any longer and my husband and I are left to our own devices. With no kids home to eat the evening meal – a healthy dish around the dinner table – we are cast adrift on the weekends, filling the time between calls for our taxi services. We can usually fit in a movie but there is no time for a proper meal and eating takeout feels somewhat subversive. Sad, I know.

Walking in the park at the weekend I was struck by the number of young parents with small kids whooping along on their bicycles or squealing on the swings. I felt a mixture of nostalgia and longing. I brightened up thinking I would hasten home to cook my brood one of those healthy meals, but when I arrived I discovered they had made themselves omelettes and cheese toasties and were not hungry. ‘I’ll make stir fry for dinner’ I suggested. ‘Yeah, whatever.’