Vegetable lasagna: chargrilled courgettes with a multitude of greens.

I’m actually on deadline for two pieces as I start on this. But what the hell. I see it as a warm up.

Every day I look for healthy things to make my family. And if the quest for healthy things is satisfied, my children will invariably not be impressed. The reaction to this was “but where is the pasta” followed by “it isn’t actually half bad”. My youngest – the harshest critic and who would, like her nonno, live off bread and Parma ham if she were able to – ate some. I can’t say she was a fan.

But I thought this was delicious and satisfies that urge for something healthy but tasty. And it has almost a kilo of green leafy stuff in it.

It’s adapted slightly from a Donna Hay recipe. I just love Donna.

Ingredients

About six courgettes, sliced lengthways. Not too thick, not too thin. You’re going to chargrill them.

Lots of extra virgin olive oil but not that super expensive stuff

An onion, chopped up so tears stream down your face

2 x clove of garlic, chopped small (I can’t bear to crush them)

A small bunch of oregano chopped up

Salt and pepper

500g kale, trimmed of the big thick stems in the middle – rinsed

About 300-400g spinach – rinsed

500g or thereabouts of ricotta

15g fresh parsley finely chopped (either sort)

Rind of an unwaxed lemon

About 100g of grated mozzarella

90g of grated parmesan

(quantities of cheese don’t have to be super exact but don’t veer off too much. Don’t sweat it if you only have 80g of each, say).

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Before the oven

 

What you do

I do love a recipe you can make in stages and this is one such. First you oil each side of the courgette slices and chargrill them.

[I use a griddle pan which I bought years ago. It’s a Le Creuset one and it’s big and rectangular shaped and you lay it across two rings. I use it for so many things: not just veg but also making toasted sarnies. I also have a griddle ‘press’ that I used to press things down on. I just looked and my Le Creuset griddle costs £160 now! But I bought it nearly 20 years ago and it’s still going strong so it is worth it on a per use basis. The press I have is something like this.]

So griddle the slices until they are marked and a bit cooked through. Put to one side. If you plan to make this later you can just put it in a lidded Pyrex and put in the fridge, otherwise just keep on a plate until you are ready to assemble.

Then you chop the one onion with the two cloves of garlic and gently saute with the handful of oregano and a little olive oil. I add the seasoning at this point:  a good pinch of sea salt and some black pepper which I always angrily grind over food, as if in a fury. When the onion is translucent set the mixture to one side. Or put it in the fridge until needed.

Now you blanch the spinach and kale and you will think “how can we eat all this green veg?” but you can because it will reduce down. What I do is blanch it, drain as best I can, then I whizz the lot up (in batches unless your food processor is ginormous) in a food processor, and then I sit it over a fine sieve atop a bowl and press down with a potato masher. Because I make this in stages, and not in a great rush, I sit it over a bowl and over an hour or so. You don’t have to whizz it up, it’s perfectly fine as it is, but you will need to carefully drain it in some way. You could sandwich it between two tea towels you don’t much care about.

At some point you introduce to each other, via a fork: the ricotta and the lemon rind and the parsley.

So you now have essentially three things: courgettes, ricotta mix and onion mix which you can assemble now or store for later.

It’s hard to say what size dish to use. Within reason you can use a normal family-supper sized dish. But I favour a square one that is about 25/26cm. Lightly oil the bottom, then when you are ready to cook you preheat oven to 220C.

Start with a third of the courgettes. On top of this put a half the ricotta, then half the greens, then sprinkle on a third of the cheeses.  Repeat and end with a layer of  courgettes and the last of the cheese. Mine was crammed to the top so I put it on a baking sheet in case it erupted (it didn’t). Cook for about 12-15 mins until golden and bubbling and crisp on the top. I didn’t taste it during making it and honestly expected something pretty healthy but bland. Well, no. It was really delicious. I served it with a crisp green salad made with a sharp dressing. Half of it fed four of us, but I suspect for people with larger appetites it won’t go so far.

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A cross section

Sticky date and ginger toffee pudding cake

My friend Lucy throws amazing bonfire night parties and at one, a couple of years ago, she made this. Now, I don’t like sticky toffee pudding or any sort of steamed pudding or treacle tart or anything like that. They all make me feel ‘claustrophobic in my mouth’ is the only way I can describe it. So when my partner said “have you tried this sticky toffee pudding” I said “er no, I hate that sort of thing.”

But he persisted and it was so good I ate his portion and then immediately asked Lucy for the recipe. It comes from a book called Friends at My Table by Alice Hart, which seems to be out of print now. And I wanted the original recipe so badly that I actually tracked it down and bought it second hand.

I’ve made this a few times, although nothing comes close to what I remember Lucy’s being like. It makes quite a lot but I’m pleased to report it freezes beautifully – (see note at the bottom).

It’s best made either the day before you want to serve it, or a few hours before and then reheat it before serving (as said, I do it piece by piece in the microwave but you could do the whole cake – or as much as you know you want to serve – in a 120C oven for about ten mins, you just want to revive it). This is in order to let the sauce soak in. But honestly if you serve it all immediately it’s just not the end of the world. But if you want to make the whole thing way in advance and freeze it, it works amazingly that way too – see note at the bottom.

The cakey pudding

250g medjool dates, stoned, chopped

100g dark brown sugar

150 unsalted butter, soft

4 little balls of that stem ginger you get in syrup, in jars – finely chop it (don’t throw away the syrup)

2 room temperature eggs

250g plain flour

1.5 teaspoons of baking powder

1 rounded teaspoon of ground ginger

a pinch of salt

60g finely chopped pecans (or walnuts will do but pecans better)

The toffee sauce

300ml of double cream

200g dark brown sugar

pinch salt

3 tablespoons of syrup from the ginger jar

a pinch of ground ginger

This is what you do

Oven to 180C. Line a 20cm x 30cm tin with baking parchment.

Cover the dates with 150ml boiling water and set aside for 20 mins or until you remember them (don’t throw away the liquid they’re in).

Beat together the sugar and butter either by hand or in a food mixer with the whisk attachment. Add three tablespoons of the syrup from the jar (this is separate to the 3 tablespoons you need for the sauce).

Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Now add the flour, baking powder, ground ginger and salt. You can either fold these in gently or just add them to the processor bowl on a slow whisking speed. I am lazy and often do the latter. Add half the nuts, the chopped ginger and all the dates and their soaking water.

Pour into the tin and cook for about 45 mins. I have to check mine after 30 mins as my oven is capricious and does what the hell it wants.

Whilst that’s cooking, and when it’s about 20 mins from being ready, make the sauce as you’ll need to pour it on whilst the cake is warm, but the sauce is warm-but cooled slightly. Nothing is easy in good pudding making.

So to make the sauce you put all the sauce ingredients into the pan and simmer whilst stirring until they are all one beautiful sauce.

When the cake is baked and out of the oven, and the sauce is still warm you prick the cake all over with a skewer and pour over half the sauce (retain the other half for serving with the cake, later). This takes time and if the sauce has gone too cold then warm it up again. It needs to soak in. I don’t always get this right and I often end up with a cake that’s just got sauce on top. Lucy’s was wonderfully unctuous. It’s still nice but not really gooey.

It’s best if you cover and leave it over night, but see above.

To serve, sprinkle over the rest of the nuts and serve with the rest of the sauce (warmed through) and ice cream or cream.

Freezing note: This freezes amazingly well. Just cover with any remaining sauce/nuts and put in an air-tight box. If you wanted to make this way in advance, for a really easy pudding on the day, you could freeze the whole lot: just put all the sauce on the cake and all the nuts and freeze it. If you really wanted to you could then make extra sauce for pouring over on the day but really you don’t need to.

Defrost it for 24hours in the fridge and then either heat up the whole lot in the oven – I would probably do it at 160C for 20 mins for the whole cake but in truth have never done it so see how you go. What I do with left overs is microwave it piece by beautiful piece and then serve with cream.

 

 

 

Speedy, but slow, sausage and pearl barley with spinach, done in the slow cooker when you come home late and need something on the table in five minutes.

Catchy title isn’t it? This is less a recipe than an idea.

I’ve been flying solo a bit lately. That, coupled with long days, pick ups cross country and getting into the house, late, when it’s dark and cold outside and in need of nourishment fast, has meant I’ve had to resort to that sexiest of regimes: menu planning.

Last night I knew we’d not get in before 7.30 and I knew I’d be out from 3pm.  I have become a bit obsessed with pearl barley recently, we had some fine sausages in the freezer.

So this is what I did: I chopped up an onion which I sauted in a big slug of some rather fine olive oil in the slow cooker (mine has this function). To this I added six chopped up (defrosted) sausages for a bit. Then I slung in a jar (680g) of passata and 120g of pearl barley (which I had previously rinsed). I added a bit of water (I rinsed out the passata jar with it), then I set the slow cooker for seven hours. That’s it, no herbs, no salt, nothing else.

I put some spinach to soak, separately, in cold water.

When I came home I rinsed out and spun dried some of the spinach and slung some of it into the slow cooker and stirred it through and voila. Mangiare pronto!

I was just hoping for something edible, tbh, but it was one of the best things I’ve eaten in a long time. My youngest said “Mummy this is amazing!”

(Cooking meat in passata like this really flavours the tomato sauce and you could also omit the pearl barley and add the sauce/sausages to pasta if you have time to cook some up, but I knew even that would be beyond me last night.)

Unlike many slow cooker things it was fairly thick (the pearl barley sucks up all the moisture) but I loved it for that. It doesn’t take a good picture but you know what? On a cold January night no-one cares about that.

Home made hobnobs

In an attempt to get my mum (who taught me so much about home cooking) to eat more home made biscuits, I made her these. But it was literally just 24hrs before she was back to having her regulation “two biscuits witha mya coffee” (two Rich Tea Biscuits. I had looked up how to make Rich Tea but the general consensus seems to be it’s impossible).

Unlike so many, I don’t particularly like Hobnobs. But these are a good little recipe to have in. People love home made biscuits, it shows love and these aren’t difficult to make. They keep well and you may well have all the ingredients.

You will need:

140g softened unsalted butter

140g granulated sugar

1 tablespoon of milk

1 teaspoon of golden syrup

1 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda

140g self raising flour

110g rolled oats

 

What you do:

Preheat the oven to 150C. Line a baking tray with baking parchment. You will need to do these in batches.

Cream the 140g of butter and 140g granulated sugar together, then beat in the one tablespoon of milk and one teaspoon of golden syrup. Then mix in the 140g of self raising flour, one teaspoon of bicarb and finally the 110g of rolled oats. You can form the ‘dough’ together for the final bit with your hands.

Then take off walnuts sized pieces, roll between your palms to make a ball and place on the tray. On my tray, I can fit six in as these do spread. Flatten gently with your hand and place in oven for about 15 mins. But check after 10 and you may need to go up to 20mins if you make them bigger/smaller or your oven is different to mine. They are done when they are golden.

Leave on the baking parchment for a few moments before sliding the biscuits/parchment onto a cooling rack. I have another piece of baking parchment ready for the next batch to allow them to cool as, for the first few minutes, these biscuits, fresh out of the oven, are quite frangible.

When totally cool put in a nice tin ready for teatime.

Spiced carrot and lentil soup

This is one of those soups that is so much more than a sum of its parts.  (A bit like this chorizo and red lentil soup one is, too.) It’s also perfect for this time of year when you’ve been in elasticated waistbands for the last two weeks and dread structured clothing. And yet you can’t stop eating, as if hiding evidence.

It’s so easy to make. I chuck it all into the slow cooker at about 2pm, not that it needs slow cooking, but it just makes it even easier. Put it on low and then we eat it at about six  o’clock after a quick whizz up with the stick blender. No need to grate the carrot, I just chop mine into pieces.

The recipe is here on the BBC Good Food site.

Dog biscuits

I saw these being made two years ago on Kirstie Allsopp’s Handmade Christmas. They are a great, very easy thing to make for your dog, or as present for someone who has a dog. We don’t have a dog, but I’ve made these many times for my sister’s dog and he loves them. If you are usually a bit nervous of making biscuits these need hold no fear as even if you overwork them, it doesn’t matter because the doggy won’t mind.

This is what you need:

350g plain flour

120ml of hot water (plus extra later)

A low-salt chicken stock cube

One egg

Two tablespoons of dried parsley (for fresh canine breath)

This is what you do:

Dissolve the stock cube in the hot water, then pour into a bowl and mix in all the other ingredients, adding more water if necessary, to make a soft dough.

Roll out on a floured surface until quite thin (about half a cm) and cut out (I use bone cutters of course). Place on a baking tray with baking parchment and bake at 200C for 20-30 mins. Mine take about 22 mins.

Let cool and give to a lucky doggy!

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Peanut butter and date protein bars (with a bit of chocolate on top)

These came about after a desire to find something in the supermarket that was, basically, just dates and a nut butter. Because that is something I crave post-workout. I also wanted something which was as delicious as the protein bars that my ex-trainer used to get me which used to be so tasty I daren’t look at the ingredients, but they were also so filling that, with a glass of water (you should always drink a glass of water with protein bars) they’d often see me onto the next meal.

Then one day, I saw that Donna Hay published a recipe for something called peanut butter choco-coconut protein bars and I adapted them. I now make these regularly and eat them post work out, or if I haven’t got time for a meal (which is rare but does sometimes happen) or if I just fancy a little treat during the week when I try to really watch what I eat (one has to be realistic and these hit the I need a treat button without making me feel like I’ve fallen into the abyss of unhealthy eating). They also don’t make me crash, blood sugar wise and I would now, honestly, have these over pretty much any chocolate bar.

You can experiment with the amount of protein powder you put in – I did and I put more in than Hay originally suggested. But if you do that, I recommend you do so in 10g increments.

This is what you need:

260g fresh Medjool dates. You can use others but these really do make the best bars. If you use dried dates, rehydrate them in boiling water for half an hour before use, then drain them.

25g raw cacao powder

100g salted peanuts and 40g of unsalted, raw, cashews (or use half and half, depends on how big you want the salted peanut hit to be). You can of course use 140g of any nut you want, roasted or raw. A few extra nuts if you want to chop and sprinkle on top

Two tablespoons of peanut butter (or any nut butter)

50g desiccated coconut

35g unflavoured protein powder (I use an organic whey protein powder)

1 teaspoon of vanilla extract

45g cacao nibs

150g dark chocolate, melted

What you need

You can make this in a round cake tin – about 8/9″ would be ideal. I make it in my square cake tin which is 20cm. You might prefer the bars thicker but I like them like this. 20cm square is about as big as you want to go, any bigger and you’ll struggle to have enough chocolate to coat all the top – it just covers it as it is, but is still plenty, if you see what I mean.

Whatever tin you use, line with baking parchment.

Place everything except the cacao nibs and the dark chocolate (which you need to melt, for the topping) in a food processor and blitz til it’s all amalgamated – about one or two minutes. Right at the end, add the cacao nibs and blitz a couple more times.

Press this mixture into your prepared cake tin. Put it in the fridge for at least 30 mins.

Then you melt the chocolate either in the microwave or in a bain marie arrangement, and spread over the top. Add some chopped peanuts (or whatever nuts you are using) on the top if you like. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. As I said, in my 20cm square tin it’s just enough to cover. You don’t really want to up the chocolate, as then it becomes all about the chocolate and turns this from an interesting, not totally nutritionally devoid treat into something else…

Refrigerate until you need them, which will be soon. Cut into whatever shape you like. I do long thin bars, little squares or if I want to pack it in my bag for a meal replacement (which I would only do in emergencies) or a good snack later, I cut it into a bar shape and take it in my bag wrapped in foil and then eat it feeling really smug and happy.

They keep for at least a week in my house and have never been around longer than that.