Cool as a …

Cool as a …

In this hot weather cucumber soup is an easy, cheap, delicious and cooling lunch or starter. You can control the calorie count easily by adjusting the cream or yoghurt quotient as you serve it. Cucumber on its own produces a pale green soup but if you want the colour to be a bit more vibrant add some raw baby spinach leaves at the blending stage. The more spinach you add the better from a nutritional point of view since it is chock full of vitamins and minerals. You can use cooked spinach but it won’t give you that lovely bright green. This is a painless way for the non-spinach eater to get the benefits of eating spinach! And remember that making your own food from scratch is super nutritious for your self-esteem as well.

Cucumber Soup

2 x medium to large green cucumbers

1 x large onion

handful of baby spinach leaves or more (optional)

single cream or yoghurt to taste (optional)

1 litre Marigold vegetable stock or home-made vegetable or chicken stock

 

Chop up your cucumbers and onion – this doesn’t have to be a work of art because it’s all going in the blender – and sweat in a tablespoonful of olive oil in a heavy pan with a lid.

Be careful not to let the onions catch as it will affect the colour of the soup, turning it brown.

When the onions are transparent add the stock and bring to the boil.

Turn down and simmer for 20 minutes.

Allow to cool and the liquidise completely adding the raw baby spinach leaves if you have them.

Chill for six hours and then taste for seasoning. Add salt and/or pepper as needed.

At this stage you can freeze the soup or put in back in the fridge until needed. When you come to serving you can add a whole carton of cream or just a splash, or a spoonful of yoghurt in each dish and the beauty of it is each person can have it how they need it. For those of us watching the calories and feeding others this is a great boon.

A few thin slices of cucumber as a garnish and some fabulous bowls can make this a dinner party soup you can prepare two to four days in advance.

Beetroot – great tidings of comfort and joy!

My first day at school introduced me to two things I immediately fell in love with. My Kindergarten teacher Mrs Heilbron who smelled of Yardley’s Apple Blossom was the first object of my adoration. Unlike my precarious relationship with my mother, she was predictable and easy to please. Sadly Mrs Heilbron with her exciting name and her delicate beige shoes for difficult feet of a certain age passed out of my life at the end of the year when I moved up to Transition. (Enter Miss Mainwaring, another name that fascinated me but not an easy woman to fall in love with which sadly, may be why she remained grey-haired but unmarried.)

What mysteries and surprises it brings, one’s first adventures away from home. There was another girl called ‘Elizabeth’ for starters! And then there were the biscuits. My mother’s kitchen ran to fig rolls (my mother’s favourites), Nice biscuits with their coating of sparkling sugar crystals, custard creams, malted milk and (high days and holidays) Huntley and Palmers milk and honey which were exotically oval and had not only a dab of cream like the custard creams but a window in the top filled with honey.  At four and a half I thought I had biscuits covered. But no! When break time came we all headed for the little cloth pockets on the wall with our names on where we put our biscuits on arrival. Bourbons, digestives, biscuits in foil wrappers, pink wafers, chocolate fingers emerged from other children’s pockets – a whole world of biscuits I had never seen.

 

 

But what about the beetroot? Get to the point, woman. Thank you, I’m coming to that, as advertised, never fear. Now I cannot share with you the kindness of Mrs Heilbron but the second revelation of that long-ago day was beetroot. In my school lunch I tasted my first beetroot in tiny delicious cubes and was bowled over by the fabulous new taste and the memorable colour. Since then I have of course encountered beetroot in other places but it’s never tasted the same as I remembered. I will draw a kindly veil over the mistake that is beetroot in vinegar. I mean, really. Vacuum packed, pre-cooked beetroot was okay but very messy and unexciting in taste. Once transported to a kitchen of my own complete with recipe books and the choice of what to eat I tried beetroot again. This time I fell prey to cooks who recommend baking beetroot in the oven and then ‘sloughing off the skin with a paper towel’. LOL. Great way to burn your fingers and stain everything within reach. The beetroot tasted okay but it simply isn’t worth it. I resigned myself to a beetroot-free life.

Step up Nadine Redzepi once more. (Yes, you’re sick of hearing about her but I’m not done yet.)  Her recipe for sweet potato cakes with cumin beetroot and salted yoghurt revealed to me that you can perfectly well eat beetroot raw and it tastes the way I remember it all those years ago.  It’s probably even better for you as well and oh boy, you won’y believe how good for you it is. You can add the cumin and olive oil and lemon juice that the recipe requires – or not. It’s delicious either way and now I discover it has its own website AND its benefits include the following :

  1. Lowering blood pressure
  2. Preventing or slowing the progress of dementia by increasing blood flow to the brain
  3. It contains a powerful antioxidant and antioxidants prevent against heart disease and stroke, slow the growth of cataracts, slow ageing and generally turn you into a bionic human being
  4. antioxidants are anti-inflammatory so good for infections and all kinds of inflammation
  5. It acts as a natural viagra by increasing blood flow to the genitals
  6. It actually makes you run quicker

I mean what more do you need? It’s not even expensive and you don’t have to buy it online from specialists. Finally this is how you prepare it without staining your hands. Peel with a potato peeler and grate or chop wearing, Ta-Da! disposable gloves. These are also invaluable for peeling and grating raw turmeric, celeriac, stoning damsons and anything else that stains.

51yIGK8N0kL.jpg

 

So I shall be introducing beetroot into every week’s menu and trying out the Beetroot and Chocolate Cake recipe on the beetroot website. I shall report back, natch. I am a great fan of things that taste great and do me good and I’m adding raw beetroot to the precious hoard.

 

 

 

Pasta with Broccoli and Gorgonzola

IMG_0835This is a nice simple recipe and totally delicious, suitable for vegetarians and adaptable if you are counting calories – what more can you want?

 

Ingredients

100g of your favourite pasta per person

1 large head of broccoli (trimmed and broken into florets) for 2-4 people (see below)

2 oz Dolcelatte or Gorgonzola per person

1 onion, finely chopped

olive oil

 

Method

  1. Sweat your finely chopped onion in a pan with a glug of olive oil.
  2. When the onion is cooked, boil a large pan of water for your pasta and briefly cook the broccoli heads in it.
  3. Scoop them out with a slotted spoon and add them to the pan with the onion.
  4. Cook your pasta in boiling water according to the instructions on the packet – usually 8-10 minutes. Drain.
  5. During the last few minutes of the pasta cooking time add the cheese cut into large cubes to the broccoli and the onion and put a very low heat under it. Be warned, you just want to melt the cheese very gently. If you give it too much heat the cheese will completely disappear.
  6. Add the broccoli etc to the pasta and spoon into dishes.
  7. Add a handful of toasted pine nuts or hazelnuts or walnuts to each dish.

 

Calories

Ordinarily, pasta is heavy on the calories but you can easily reduce the carbs in this dish by increasing the broccoli and reducing the pasta for those who are watching their weight.

Gut Feeling

Do you ever wake up feeling like a bad person, full of nameless dread and no idea why? If this happens to you and you are of an enquiring sort, interested in your body and the meaning of life, you may mull over what these feelings mean and get nowhere. If, God help you, you are of a psychological bent, you can spend a lot of time on this and still find out nothing much. Imagine my delight then to read the following passage in a very jolly book by Dr Giulia Enders called Gut, the inside story of our body’s most under-rated organ.

‘It is now generally accepted in scientific circles that people with certain digestive problems often suffer from nervous disorders of the gut. Their gut then sends signals to the part of the brain that processes negative feelings, although they have done nothing bad. Such patients feel uneasy but have no idea why.’

So, let’s take it slowly. This doctor is telling us that our brain cannot distinguish between bad feelings that come from malfunctioning digestion and bad feelings that come from having done something we consider morally bad. Signals of uneasiness, the urge to make amends, even the terrible urge we seem to have to punish ourselves, may be a consequence of indigestion! Now you are aware of that, maybe you, like me, can ignore those feelings when they arise. Just say to yourself, ‘I probably ate too much‘ or ‘That midnight cheese sandwich was a mistake‘ and give it no more thought. You may need to take better care of your gut and what you put into it. (Are you drinking enough water? Do fresh fruit and vegetables figure prominently enough etc etc.) But you don’t need me to tell you what is good to eat because every magazine, newspaper and TV programme seems to be full of it. You may need help disentangling the confusion which links what kind of person you are with what you eat and what you look like. You see gut feelings can be very misleading!

Guts

Giulia Enders book was brought to my attention by a friend suffering from diverticulitis (ouch!) and it proves to be extremely entertaining with cartoons drawn by her sister and a determined attempt to demystify the gut and to do away with embarrassment about poo that gets in the way of our health. She tackles insensitivities and allergies and draws attention to the far reaching effects of ignoring your digestion. It’s a great read.

But now we come to Sunday Tomato Eggs which I found in the Financial Times Weekend magazine some months ago and which is attributed to Marcus Samuelsson. It’s a killer when you have weekend guests or when you just want to pamper yourself with a different kind of Sunday lunch/brunch. You can nearly make it with the contents of your store cupboard if your store cupboard contains that minced or chopped chorizo you can buy in airtight packets and which lasts for months in the fridge. Don’t worry about the celery if you have the other ingredients. You will hardly miss it but it is nice if you are shopping specially for this recipe.

Sunday Tomato Eggs

serves 4

115g cooking chorizo chopped

1 onion finely chopped

2 tbs celery finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, chopped

400g passata or tinned chopped tomatoes which you have simmered for 10 minutes with some olive oil, salt and pepper

1 tbsp capers

5 black olives chopped

1 chipotle finely chopped or chilli flakes to taste (I recommend 1 level tbsp)

60ml water

1.5 tbsp horseradish (freshly grated or out of a jar)

8 large eggs

 

To serve: 4 slices country bread toasted, formal frais or burrata, basil leave

Saute the chorizo, celery, onion and garlic in olive oil in a large pan until the onion softens. Add the water passata, chilli, olives and capers and bring to a simmer for about 5 minutes until the sauce is quite thick. Stir in the horseradish and season to taste with salt and pepper. Adjust the chilli. You can now leave this mixture until you need it.

When you’re ready to eat just heat it up and crack your eggs into it. Cook over a medium heat with a lid on until the eggs are set how you like them, then serve on the toast and add a spoonful of burrata or fromage frais or thick yoghurt to each dish and a few torn basil leaves.

If you don’t eat meat you can add avocado to the toast before you put the burrata on. Surely this will make you feel good to your core.

 

Sorrel

So at last I get home to find that the pathetic little sorrel plant I shoved in before I went away in July, the one that looked as though it might not survive the weekend, has taken over the world. Or at least my herb garden.  I have a great nostalgia for sorrel. Some time before the Flood you used to see it on French menus but now, not so much. As a student  I used to feel very French buying small, expensive bunches of sorrel in M & S on Kensington High Street but I don’t think I have seen it on sale these many years. In my mind it has taken on a mythical status and its taste has been elevated in memory to something near divine. Have you tried it? It’s lemony and refreshing and delicious with fish. So it is a delightful surprise to come home to sorrel with ambitions to march on Moscow which has started by annexing all available space in the zinc manger that is my herb garden. It is a divided affair, the manger, otherwise both sides would have fallen to the sorrel. I’m secretly delighted with this occupying force although I do wonder what has happened to the horseradish that went in at the same time.

herb garden

So what am I going to do with it? Interestingly recipes for things containing sorrel are only in my oldest cookbooks. Nigel Slater’s volumes on his garden produce do not mention it and a cursory glance at Diana Henry also draws a blank. A quick scroll though google, however, confirms what I remember. Sorrel dissolves even better than spinach with butter over a little heat. It lacks that blood and gravel taste of iron that people who don’t like spinach don’t like. With seasoning and an egg yolk or some cream or stock it is a ready made sauce. No blender to wash up! I can see it is going to be my mystery ingredient for the Autumn entertaining that is on the horizon.

It will also be keeping some pretty grand company as I am proud to tell you I have in my freezer, direct from the French field it grew up in, a poulet de Bresse. Such a song and dance has been made over this chicken (not least by Alistair Little) that when we passed a sign on the French motorway advertising Bresse as the next exit I brought the full force of my charm to bear (and a little hysteria) to persuade the driver to turn off so that we could buy one. I don’t know how it is in your car but in ours it doesn’t matter which of us is driving the power goes straight to our heads. Coffee stops, loo breaks and even medical emergencies simply cut no ice with the one behind the wheel, especially when abroad. If you want to stop do not begin your sentence ‘Shall we …?’ or ‘We could …’ or ‘Oh, look …’  Deaf and head down, the driver’s instinct is to Keep Going at all costs. The inviting lay-by, service station or out-of-the-way country restaurant is merely a cloud of dust behind you before you finish. Rather, shout ‘STOP!’ in such a way that obedience is instinctive but not so that the driver has a heart attack.  (I suggest you practise before setting off.) To maintain the effectiveness of this technique I recommend limiting it to once every five hundred miles or so. Anyway when I tell you I came home holding aloft a poulet de Bresse as though I had won Wimbledon and did a victory lap of the kitchen, you will appreciate why.

I will keep you posted when we eat it but it will be cooked with love, I promise, not shoved into a cold oven I meant to put on half an hour earlier and then heated to spontaneous combustion temperature because we’re all hungry. Perhaps some boiled potatoes with a sorrel sauce? Meanwhile I am planning a sorrel risotto with or without a few prawns. Here I am rerunning the risotto recipe that I gave some months ago to which you add your sorrel at the end. But first you need to plant your sorrel and there is no problem buying a plant online from a website like this. Make sure you give it some decent soil in a pot as big as you have room for. Like most plants it likes plenty of sunshine and plenty of rain but if we are lucky with the rest of September there is time to get one established before Winter. Here is the monster that was planted in July.

sorrel 1

In cooking sorrel disappears much like spinach so although it is lovely to have a few leaves in a salad, it is best kept for soups and sauces unless you’re going to give it the run of your borders.

Sorrel Risotto

500 g risotto rice (Replace 250g of the rice with finely diced vegetables (carrots, celery, courgettes) if you are watching the calories.

50 g butter

50 g olive oil

1 onion or leek finely chopped

2 litres of beef or Marigold vegetable stock (hot)

2 glasses of white wine

an egg yolk beaten with half a cup of double cream

as much sorrel as you can muster

  1. Saute the onion unbelievably slowly until it is translucent.
  2. While the onion is softening wash and chop the sorrel and melt it in some butter over a low heat. When it is like a puree, turn off the heat.
  3. Add the rice and saute for a minute or two before adding the wine.
  4. Stir until the wine is completely evaporated and the rice is dry again.
  5. Add the stock one ladleful at a time until it is all absorbed. This should take 20 minutes but I find it takes longer, so be patient.
  6. Turn off the heat and add the pre-cooked sorrel, salt and pepper, the egg yolk and cream. Check the seasoning again.
  7. Leave to ‘mantecare’ (to cream) for 3 minutes and then serve.

This risotto is great with grilled white fish on top or a few sautéed prawns. It goes equally well with ripe and mild Dolcelatte but to my mind Parmesan overwhelms the sorrel. You could leave out the egg yolk and cream and put a dollop of burrata into each portion before serving.

Quickie breakfast to set you up for your work-out.

I’ve been reading for years that breakfast should be the big meal of the day and that has never suited me. (I read some research recently which suggests they got that wrong anyway!) My favourite breakfasts are leisurely affairs with boiled eggs, home made granola, bread and jam, lots of coffee. After that delicious and satisfying feast with the Sunday papers and Radio Four I’m also certain to be hungry again by lunchtime. Breakfast of any dimension seems to give my digestion a signal to wake up early and start kicking off.

So normally I stick to fruit salad but some days that just doesn’t cut it so I wanted to share this zippy addition to make your fruit salad a bit different for days when you need some protein first thing but you don’t want to go the whole hog. (LOL)

fruit and cheese

Here is the secret : adding some cheese (primo sale with rocket). Primo sale is a very mild fresh cheese and this version is squeaky so I’m hoping it is also low in fat. Anyway it’s delicious and you could use any cheese you like to the same end. (Roquefort is very satisfying.) Whatever you do you will be saving a ton of calories by not diving into the breakfast cereal. I’ve read that people who live with breakfast cereal visible on the kitchen counter weigh lots more than people with biscuits on show. In fact breakfast cereal bars and so on are often mistaken for health foods because they’re full of oats and fruit and the like. Yes, they’re full of good stuff if you’re about to run a half marathon but if you’re just dragging yourself to the office, think again.

This colourful plate gave me the energy for my work-out with Chalene this morning. Oh, you don’t know about Chalene! I am away from my regular classes which I love, so I have brought with me piyo DVDs which feature the awesome Chalene Johnson who invented piyo. She is gorgeous to look at and chock full of astonishing American enthusiasm and encouragement. By the time she is done with me I feel awesome too! Click on the link to see her in action and you may also be tempted to add her to your arsenal of tools to stay healthy.

 

Wedding Breakfast

Last week was a week of weddings and in addition the sun shone pretty much non-stop. In the face of these dual causes for celebration I completely forgot about eating kindly and consciously. My beautifully regulated digestion system, my quiet start to the day meditating in the open air, my attention to the quality and quantity of what I put in my mouth – all out the window! Too much wine, too much cake, not enough sleep, not a fruit or vegetable as far as the eye can see and here I am back in an uncomfortable place I know. Body uncomfortable. Shaming demons dancing in triumph. But just a minute …

Two good things about this disaster. First it is completely reversible. (The demons sit down, nonplussed.) Secondly I get a reminder of why I changed things. Overdoing it is no fun, turns out. (Demons scratching their heads.) I remember, after the event, why it is kind to say ‘not for me’ now and again. Even when it’s pink Champagne. Finally my body demands my attention and I have the awareness to give it. I am grateful for that. (Demons regretfully push off.)  So if this happens to you, don’t let the shaming demons in. Just enjoy your awareness as it returns with its cornucopia of blessings and notice that the time lapse between forgettings gets longer. Tip : gratitude is death to the shaming demons.

 

images.jpeg

Weddings, eh? Whether it is your septuagenarian aunt marrying her Facebook beau or your fresh-faced offspring romping up the aisle, there is that heart-stopping moment when the couple look at each other and make their vows. Suddenly all present understand the depth, the sacredness of what is happening. We understand it in our cells despite our minds. It is this depth, this presence that can be cultivated by the sensing practice. It is this depth, this presence which keeps me close to myself and which enables me to take care of myself. It is itself strong drink and I have a theory that it is because we cannot bear too much of it that our sacred occasions give way immediately to carousing and strong drink of a different sort.

This morning the sun is shy and the garden soaks up the sprinkling of rain that has refreshed the plants. The very last of the broad beans need picking and the first artichokes I have ever grown. I also have a yen to make pasta amatriciana with some very splendid looking rigatoni that a kind soul brought me from Spoleto.

rigatoni

It so happens that Amatrice is not far from Spoleto in Lazio, Italy, so the sauce and the big pasta will be soul mates. So here we go.

Rigatoni Amatriciana with Baby Artichokes for Two

First cut your baby artichokes from the plant and soak them to do away with wildlife. For this recipe the artichokes need to be small enough not yet to have developed the choke so no bigger than six or seven cubic centimetres. Now cut off about a centimetre nearest the stalk and start to peel off the outer leaves until you reach less tough ones.
Finally cut off the very tough tips of the leaves and cut each artichoke in half before poaching in water until tender – about ten minutes.

artichokes

You could grill them with goats’ cheese and put them on top of a salad or use them as a vegetable alongside others. I’m going to pop them on top of my pasta when it’s ready.

For the amatriciana sauce you should use 200g guanciale or diced cured pigs’ cheek but, pig cheek not being so popular in Oxfordshire,  I am making do with some dry cured smoked bacon lardons from good old Waitrose. Start by heating them gently in a heavy pan (no oil) until the fat is rendered and they begin to colour (10 minutes or so). Add half a finely chopped onion. (And if you don’t know how to chop an onion it really is worth learning which you can do from no less a figure than Gordon Ramsay right here.) Sweat the onion for ten minutes with the bacon and the lid on until soft and then add a tin of chopped tomatoes, a half teaspoon of chilli flakes and a pinch of salt. Let it just bubble for ten minutes and then set aside until you are ready to cook the pasta. Ideally you will have to hand a good handful of Pecorino sheep’ s cheese, you guessed, also from Lazio. Tonight I will be making do with some very old Grana or poor man’s Parmesan but then, it’s a poor (Ro)man’s dish.IMG_0604.JPGTo make this dish vegetarian is simple. You can add more chilli if you wish or finely chop some black olives, capers (and anchovy if you eat anchovy). This makes it more of a puttanesca and none the worse for being invented by Neapolitan prostitutes as a quick supper between clients.

When the pasta is cooked lift it out with tongs and put it into the sauce with a dash of pasta water. Mix well and serve with the cheese and a salad.rigatoni.JPG