I created this recipe for a quick midweek dinner when I was in the mood for something spicy but not too hot. I used Ras-el-Hanout which is a wonderful Moroccan blend used in tagines. It contains a very long list of spices including ginger, cardamom, nigella, cayenne, allspice, lavender, cinnamon, coriander, mace, nutmeg and cloves! Mine had dried rose petals in it which, to my mind, is the height of romance in a spice mix. Many supermarkets now sell it or you can find it in Middle Eastern grocery shops.
Any tagine benefits from a night in the fridge before being eaten. In this case there was no time for such delayed gratification. I did, however, eat the cold leftovers as a side dish the following day and it tasted pretty good that way too.
For 4 people:
2 large aubergines, thickly sliced in rounds
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium sized onions, chopped
2 -3 cloves garlic, chopped
3 teaspoons Ras – el – Hanout
1 tin chopped tomatoes
1 tin chickpeas, rinsed and drained
½ l vegetable stock – I use Marigold bouillon
8 dried apricots, quartered
2 preserved lemons
A handful of roasted almonds, chopped
A handful of fresh mint, leaves picked off and thinly shredded
Start off by salting your aubergine slices and leave to ‘sweat for half an hour. Then rinse and pat dry with kitchen towel. I always salt my aubergines because I once read that it draws out any bitterness. More importantly, it apparently decreases the amount of oil the aubergine absorbs when cooking.
To reduce further any need for oil, I baked the aubergine slices first before adding them to the pot.
While your aubergine is being salted, heat your oven to 180C / 350F and roast your almonds. This really does concentrate the flavour and enhances the taste of the nuts enormously. Simply place the almonds on a baking tray and roast in the oven for 10 minutes. Keep a very careful eye on them so that they don’t burn.
When the aubergine is ready to cook, lay the slices in one layer on a baking tray lined with a non-stick mat. You can spray them very lightly with an olive oil spray or just put them straight into the oven. They should be ready in 15 minutes depending on the thickness of the slices. At this point they should be slightly brown and soft to the touch. Remove and set aside.
While the aubergine is baking, heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a saucepan. Gently sauté the onions. When they have softened add the garlic and continue cooking for a couple of minutes. Now add the Ras-el-Hanout and stir to combine.
Cut the aubergine slices in half or quarters and add to the pot. Stir to combine. Now add the chopped tomatoes and chickpeas as well as the stock. Finally, add the dried apricots. At this point you can leave the vegetables to simmer for half an hour.
Prepare the garnishes. Wash the preserved lemons well and discard the flesh. Chop up the skins and set aside. Roughly chop the cooled roasted almonds and set aside. Pick the mint leaves off their stalks and shred finely.
When you serve up the tagine, add a bit of each garnish to each helping.
Serve with wholemeal couscous. You can add the seeds of a pomegranate to the couscous along with some more chopped mint if you have.
Having a ragingly hungry teenager in the house, along with a pre-teen who is fast heading in the same direction, I am finding myself at a bit of a loss as to how to keep them filled up. When I gave birth to two sons, I knew that at some stage my filling the freezer with ice cubes of pureed vegetables would seem like a distant memory. That one day I would be shopping several times a week to keep the fridge full and the cupboards stocked. That time has come. What I did not know was that I would also be trying to keep my cholesterol down and hence keep the stores low fat and healthy. Healthy food works for my boys but low fat does not. They prowl the kitchen day and night. The fridge door might not survive their adolescence so often is it opened and slammed shut in disappointment. Minutes later it is opened again, a triumph of hope over experience, as if somehow what they are looking for has magicked onto the shelves filled with no-fat yoghurt, bags of almonds, seeds and fruit. My kind of food, in other words.
The tired complaint ‘there is never anything to eat in this house’, followed by ‘I’m hungry and there is nothing to eat’, or ‘I don’t want another sandwich’ has led me to scratch my head in confusion. Having passed through adolescence as a girl, I have no recollection of this constant hunger. I do remember though that my brother took to frying fish fingers or burgers at odd times of the night to sate his nocturnal appetite. At one point he turned to popcorn and the house would smell like a cinema foyer before the late show.
In desperation I asked my sons to draw up a list of foods they wanted to eat since they seemed to take offence at what I had on offer. They began to argue about whether granola bars were worth eating and so the list was abandoned.
I know what I would like them to eat – lots of fruit, healthy sandwiches and so on. And they do. But then minutes later they are back for more and variety is called for. Clearly I need to visit some of the supermarket aisles I studiously avoid, but I am not prepared to start filling them up with crisps, biscuits and junk. What they eat now affects what their cholesterol level is going to look like when they are my age. I have already potentially given them my cholesterol genes, so the least I can do is to encourage healthy eating.
Having now done my shopping with the boys in mind, I have returned with crackers, a range of breads and bagels, fudge yoghurt – a very strange combo my boys love, chocolate brownies and more. The fridge is full of foods I am trying to avoid, the cupboards heaving with goodies no cholesterol lowering mother should eat. I have temptations in my kitchen which previously felt like a safe space. My own challenge just got harder. Let’s hope my arteries don’t.
This recipe came about in one of those ‘what can I make for supper?’ moments. I had some salmon in the fridge but felt in need of a change. I also had some leftover soup I had made the day before which had tasted too lemony. ‘What this needs is a bit of fish in it’ I thought and so I put the salmon into the left over soup and the whole was more than the sum of its parts as they say.
Freekeh is a product I have only recently begun to use. It is a green wheat used extensively in Palestine, Lebanon and Syria. I have often noticed it in my local Turkish shop where I buy a lot of herbs and spices. It’s one of those amazing places that while small, seems to sell anything you could ever need. I finally bought a bag of freekeh and put it away, not really knowing what to do with it, although I recall that Ottolenghi uses it. Recently I was given a copy of The Gaza Kitchen cookbook and found a soup made with freekeh. I tried it, but the traditional way of making this soup is a bit of a lengthy process for a quick dinner, so I have adapted it and used it as a base for a salmon soup. I was surprised by the smoky flavour of the wheat which I had not tasted before. It is an interesting flavour so do try it.
If you like you can make the soup the day before and then poach the fish in the soup when you warm it up. This way dinner is on the table in no time at all. For a vegetarian version, you can omit the salmon. If you make a vegetarian version, add the lemon juice slowly and taste as you do so as it can otherwise taste a bit too lemony.
For 4 people:
1 onion, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
1 stick celery, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large tomato, chopped
1 cup freekeh, rinsed
1.5 l vegetable stock – eg Marigold bouilllon
Juice of ½ lemon
Flat leaf Parsley, chopped
250g shiitake mushrooms, stalks removed, rest of mushroom thinly sliced
4 salmon fillets
In a medium sized pot heat the olive oil and gently sauté the onion, carrot and celery until the vegetables begin to soften.
In the meantime, rinse the freekeh in a bowl of cold water. Drain it and add it to the softening vegetables. Cook for a couple of minutes and then add the tomato and the vegetable stock. Bring the soup to the boil and then reduce to simmer for about 20 minutes. You want the freekeh to be al dente – a bit like brown rice which is good to eat with a bit of bite. Keep a check on your liquid level as you may need to add a bit more stock to keep the consistency soupy. When the soup is ready add the lemon juice and a handful of chopped parsley.
When you are ready to eat, add the shiitakes to the soup as you heat it. Cut each salmon fillet into 4 pieces. Place the fish pieces on top of the soup and put on a lid. The fish will now steam/poach in the soup. After 5 minutes the fish should be cooked through.
Sometimes I feel sorry for my kids growing up in a household of wholemeal and wholesome foods. I know as well as anyone that occasionally one just craves a plate of chips or a Parisian patisserie or a tub of Green and Black’s chocolate ice cream. Without sharing. Or caring.
So when my youngest asked repeatedly for Toad In The Hole I bought two packs of pork and leek sausage, some eggs for the batter and left my health concerns aside for once. I told him what we were having for dinner and he punched the air triumphantly, whooped happily and rushed off to football training to spend an hour chasing a ball around a field. I mused about the simplicity of happiness where sport and sausages can make a man feel really content. No wonder women often feel misunderstood.
The aroma of caramelising sausages and onions filled my kitchen while I stirred my batter until it was smooth. I remembered how good it felt as a child to have one’s favourite dinner to look forward to and anticipated a happy face at the table. I even wondered whether I might forego my cholesterol –lowering grub for once and take part in the general bonhomie brought on by sausage and batter. Neither of which are my kinds of food I hasten to add, but I sometimes feel isolated eating something different from the rest of the family.
It was then that my attention was attracted to an interview on the radio playing in the background. A woman was talking about the effects on her life of her husband’s stroke. She spoke about how fit and healthy he had been, about how they had planned for their retirement when they would enjoy long haul travel and lots of hiking. She recommended seeing the funny side of things such as when she had nearly tipped her husband out of his wheelchair. She was amazingly upbeat. I suddenly felt miserable, thinking about a life cut down in an instant. I thought about the word ‘stroke’ and wondered how the term was coined. Certainly not a stroke of good luck. Or a stroke of genius. Nor a swimming stroke. It seemed inappropriate, even cruel, as if mocking the other uses of the term.
I realised, not for the first time, that my programme of eating well and exercising regularly needs to be long term. Yes the odd tub of gelato and two weeks of patisserie eating now and then must be permitted to make life fun, but toad in the hole may not be one of those moments.
When my son burst hungrily through the door, I proudly presented my Toad in the Hole which had risen to a puffy crispness. He looked at it closely and said ‘Mum, don’t you think it looks a bit like poo?’ Suddenly the sausages poking out of the batter did look rather suspect. It was just what I needed to help me resist, for Turd in the Hole is not what I fancied for my dinner.
It being springtime, the shops are filled with baby vegetables. This week I picked up a bunch of the thinnest, young leeks. I was instantly transported back to my student days when I was invited to a dinner party with some older friends. As a starter we had leeks vinaigrette, a dish I had not encountered before. I was most impressed. Up until that point vegetables were things that were either raw or overcooked, certainly not served cold with a piquant dressing.
In this recipe I poached the leeks gently in a vegetable stock and then grated over a hardboiled egg. This is a well-known recipe for asparagus but it tasted good with leeks too. I added a teaspoon of capers for some extra flavour.
For 4 people:
1 bunch baby leeks – about a dozen
1 egg, hardboiled
1 teaspoon capers, rinsed
A pinch of sea salt
Ground black pepper
Bring the stock to the boil and then reduce to a simmer. Add the leeks and poach for about 20 minutes. You want the leeks to be soft but not falling apart. At this stage they are so delicious it is hard not to just eat them from the pot. Try to resist and lay the leeks out on a platter.
Grate your hardboiled egg over the leeks and add the capers. A pinch of sea salt and a grinding of black pepper finish off nicely.
If you prefer to egg your leeks egg free, you could make a vinaigrette and spoon a couple of spoons over the leeks.
The blossoms are finally out, my neighbourhood ablaze with pinks, yellows and reds, a veritable catwalk of trees showing off their spring wardrobe. Blossoms so delicate and ethereal, they take my breath away – the little I have left while puffing my way around the local streets. Mind you, these days I don’t puff so much, unlike one of my walking companions who told me this week that she wasn’t enjoying herself. Not my company, she quickly reassured me. The thought hadn’t crossed my mind! Why would she not enjoy a brisk walk with yours truly pontificating on everything from margarine to menopause? It was the puffing she was not finding pleasant. Although I walk briskly, it is hardly the sort of power walking I observe some of my fellow exercisers engaging in.
The truth is, that to really start to enjoy walking you need to do it regularly. A year ago I hated it. Oh the struggle to get my trainers on, the burning in my chest as I walked up the gentle hill in the woods. Then, all of a sudden, it eased off and I began to feel less strain. Of course I should have then upped the pressure, got more of a workout, but I wisely (for me) kept to my half hour because I knew that if I did any longer, I would give it all up. I am no exercise junkie, someone who craves more and more. A small dose of endorphins is enough for me. I am more akin to the granny who likes one small sherry each evening than a boozer who requires increasing amounts of alcohol to feel the buzz.
I heard a programme on the radio this week about the ideal pulse rate one should aim for while exercising. It was all too scientific for me. I had a talking pedometer once. It began to malfunction and kept announcing how many steps I had taken that day. The more outlandish its claims became, the more I found myself arguing loudly with this device strapped to my arm. I was turning from care free to care in the community. So I binned it along with my concern for measuring my progress in beats per minute.
Now I judge my progress by how tired I feel on returning how and how tight my trousers are. For in truth, I want to exercise my heart muscle so that it feels encouraged to go on beating, not so that I end up running marathons. My ambition is not for sporting prowess but to live to see as many spring-time blossomings as my heart desires.
My 10 tips for keeping your walks regular:
1. Take a friend – chatting passes the time wonderfully quickly.
2. Take a partner – I do this on weekends which not only gives us some one-to-one time, but also encourages me out when I would rather be reading the weekend papers and eating biscuits.
3. Just do it – no deliberating.
4. Remind yourself how good you will feel afterwards.
5. Think about your health if you don’t go.
6. Think about the cup of tea you will enjoy on your return.
7. Download a programme to listen to while you walk.
8. ½ an hour passes quickly – it’s 15 minutes outbound and 15 minutes home.
9. Walk with a purpose – I find that walking home from work puts the wind behind me.
10. Think of all those ill people who would give anything to be well enough to walk – then put on your trainers and get out the door – just because you can.
Having totally indulged in Parisian patisserie for two weeks, I needed to get straight back on track when I returned home. I set about making healthy lunches and made this quick salad with a leftover roasted beetroot and a smoked trout fillet that I found in my fridge. I know these are not the sort of ingredients that are usually just hanging about in the fridge so you may need to do a bit of shopping for this recipe. I really liked the combination of flavours – the earthy, sweet beetroot contrasted well with the smoky fish, the tart quark and the aniseedy flavour of the tarragon. Lovely layers of taste.
This is enough for one person. You can adjust the ingredients if you have more mouths to feed.
1 beetroot roasted
1 smoked trout fillet
1 teaspoon capers, rinsed
2 tablespoons quark
Handful chopped tarragon leaves
Roast the beetroot in its skin for about 45 – 60 minutes depending on the size of your beetroot. Allow to cool and peel off the skin. Cut into dice. Arrange on a plate. Add a trout fillet, flaked.
In a small bowl mix the quark and the tarragon leaves. Pour this dressing over the beetroot and trout. Now add a teaspoon of capers and a few pinches of sumac.
Returning home from a walk this week I noticed a home-made poster attached to a tree in my street. Usually these notices contain a fuzzy picture of a cat accompanied by a forlorn message about a much-loved and missing feline. These tales of woe, sad children separated from their pets probably don’t have a happy ending judging by how long those notices stay up, their print running down the page from the rain that gets inside the flimsy plastic covers. Once I saw one with a photograph of a dog that had been stolen from a vehicle. Aren’t we always warned not to leave our valuables in our cars?
This notice was rather more upbeat and invited the neighbourhood to a street party. I had a distinct sense of déjà vu for was it not almost exactly a year to the day that I attended the Jubilee street party and struggled to avoid the jellies, the cupcakes and the hotdogs?
I realised that 12 months have passed during which I have been mending my ways and I recalled how hard it had all felt back then. A year on, I am not quite as militant. I no longer decline foods left, right and centre and have perhaps mellowed into someone who is on good eating behaviour enough of the time. Or so I like to think.
I am recently back from a two week trip to Paris where I eased into my new decade in style. For 14 days I tried out a variety of pastries from three different patisseries in the street below our apartment. One is the oldest patisserie in Paris so it would have been churlish to turn my back on the shop that created the rhum baba. I fell in love – or perhaps it was lust – with a creation called Opera which was a sort of tiramisu and so addictive that I couldn’t bear to pass the store window without purchasing one.
Not wanting the other patisseries to feel I was displaying any favouritism, I had to sample their wares too. That was my undoing as I fell hard for the finanaciers In Kaysers. These little (ok not so little) moist almond cakes came in four flavours – chocolate, vanilla, pistachio and raspberry. Unable to decide which I liked most, I fell into the habit of buying one of each so that I could adjudicate. All I need say is that by the time I left Paris I had not yet made up my mind, but my arteries were creaking.
I do not care to calculate just how many pastries I consumed over my two week sojourn but, if I want to make it through this decade and out the other side, it is just as well that I returned home. As luck would have it I opened a weekend magazine and out fell a supplement on French patisserie. One of the recipes was for raspberry financiers. Instantly I realised that this had always been my favourite and I was transported back to Paris on wings of desire. So far I have resisted getting out my baking trays.
This morning one of the street party organisers knocked on my door to ask if we were planning to attend. Yes indeed, I replied and congratulated him on keeping the community spirit alive in our neighbourhood. Will you be bringing anything to add to the tea table, he enquired? How about some raspberry financiers, I suggested. I felt my heart skip a beat. Is it love or arrhythmia?
This recipe is the one used by my son to create a delicious bread we like to eat with lunch. It goes well with a bowl of soup or a piece of cheese (not that we should be eating too much cheese but your guests might). I found the recipe years ago in a weekend magazine and it is written by Matthew Fort, a food writer I greatly admire.
For one good sized loaf:
2 x 284ml pots of buttermilk
420g wholemeal flour – I use the strong wholemeal flour designed for bread making
4 tablespoons sunflower seeds
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
2 tablespoons linseed
150g oats – I use rolled oats
1 teaspoon muscovado sugar – I use this kind but imagine most sugars will do the trick
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
Heat your oven to 190 C/ 375 F.
Using a large mixing bowl, pour in one pot of buttermilk. Now add 250g of the flour and all the seeds. Now add the second pot of buttermilk and then the remaining flour as well as the oats, salt, sugar and bicarbonate of soda.
Now get stuck in with a wooden spoon. I find that the mixture needs a fair amount of mixing in order to incorporate all the wholemeal flour into the buttermilk. I usually give a few initial stirs with the spoon and then, when the mixture is beginning to come together, I use my hands to integrate all the flour and to bring the dough into a ball.
The original recipe calls for a loaf tin to be used but I prefer to make the loaf into a round shape with the traditional cross on top. Take a baking sheet and line it with baking paper. Take your ball of dough and place it in the centre of the baking sheet and neaten it up so that it has a nice round dome. Now using a knife, cut a cross into the top about 2cm down.
Bake for an hour and then switch off the oven and leave the bread to rest for 10 minutes.
In the photograph you will notice that the breads have been baked as mini loaves. My son did this for a lunch we were having, but in general he would keep things simple and make one large rustic loaf.
Readers of my blog will know by now that my older son likes to bake. Although his preference is for cake – he recently tried his hand at a Victoria Sponge that was indecently buttery – he does occasionally also make bread. On request. My request usually. Years ago we came across a recipe for Irish Soda Bread that looked so easy that even a child could make it. And he did, several times, to general acclaim around the lunch table. The years have sped by during which the recipe has not had an airing.
This is possibly due to the bread machine that the boys gave to my husband for Father’s Day many years ago. Behind every great gift for Dad is a Mum with a mission. I was shocked to discover how much salt commercial bread contained and therefore how high was the sodium content of my children’s packed lunch (cheese sandwich). The bread machine was aimed at reducing the salt in their diet and my husband took to it as only a man can to a gadget. Little did I know how the thudding and clanking sounds it made would become part of the background noise of my household as it produced our daily loaf.
As long term relationships evolve, pillow talk tends to turn from the erotic to the banal. Many a night my closing question ‘ did you remember to make bread?’ is met with a groan, followed by light swearing, grunting and plodding downstairs to throw the ingredients into the machine. Then the clunking and thudding continues through the night while the dough goes through its 5 hour cycle. Being a light sleeper myself, I frequently wake to the faintly nauseating smell of yeast wafting through the house, getting me up to check whether we have a gas leak. My neurotic olfactory nerve confuses the two odours.
By morning we have freshly baked bread if we are lucky. While he is an enthusiastic baker, my husband is not a details man and sometimes omits one or other ingredient. The boys and I have learnt to expect the unexpected as the loaves can rise majestically or not at all, have a dry crumb or the consistency of clay. Occasionally not even we can eat it and the misshapen attempt has to be binned.
But on a good day this healthy bread is my go-to wholemeal loaf, the bread I eat for lunch with avocado, or cottage cheese and salad, or smoked salmon and low fat cream cheese – anything with some flavour that fills me up tastily while remaining low fat.
This week I put in a request for my son’s Irish soda bread which is somewhat fool proof. It contains so many good oils from the seeds – sesame, linseed and sunflower – has loads of wholemeal flour and just a little sugar and salt. It is very moreish which is perhaps its only drawback, as too much of a good thing has a habit of turning into a bad thing. Do give it a go.