Sweet Squash and Goats Cheese Melt…

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A sumptuous simple starter to grace any table any time…especially in the throes of Autumn!

Autumn. Browns and golds speckle every roadside. Seasonal magic weaves its way into every household. Oranges and burnt umbers cascade form hedgerows. Seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness descend upon each culinary heart.

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So it is that tonight after a simple carpaccio starter, I turn to a dish that one could use happily as a starter or a nourishing, warming main dish. Tis up to you. Tonight, this and the carpaccio were a marriage made in heaven. Enough with a fine bottle of shiraz to accompany it all.

I wanted to capture the season in a starter, a first course that yelled Autumn.

For 4 as a starter or 2 as a main dish

1 decent sized sweet potato

1 butternut squash

Olive oil

Fresh bunch of flat leaf parsley finely chopped

Black pepper and a little rock salt

2 slices of soft goats cheese per person

Ok, nothing complicated here. Peel both the sweet potato and the squash. Halve the squash and deseed thoroughly. Halve again each half and slice into pound coin rounds. Then quarter the sweet potato and do likewise.

Pop all the slices into a large dish and drizzle a goodly amount of olive oil over. Add the parsley. Grind over the mix some black pepper and rock salt. Stir and leave for about half an hour. 

Heat your oven to 180c for a fan oven or 200c for any other type. Add the potato and squash slices to a roasting tin, but one that they fit into happily without overlapping.

Roast in the oven for around 40 minutes until browning and a sharp knife will easily cut into them.

Remove from the oven and add the goat cheese rounds. Pop back into the oven for about 5 to 8 inures until you can see the cheese beginning to brown and melt.

Remove from the oven and serve on platters with warm crusty bread, and more olive oil if desired. 

This is a fabulous dish and one you could play about with, experimenting with different types of squash or cheese.

Keats would have loved this, I know!

RED PEPPERS WITH GORGONZOLA

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PERFECT PEPPERS 

FOR 6

3 large red peppers, halved and deseeded

1 tbsp olive oil

200 gm gorgonzola cut into cubes – roughly 2 per pepper half (if poss. get the dolce not the piccante gorgonzola..

To dress

Juice of 1 lemon

1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed

1 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped

Small bunch of flat leaf parsley chopped

3 tbsps olive oil

Balsamic to drizzle over – I use crema di balsamico – a balsamic glaze

Heat a large frying pan – brush the pepper halves with olive oil inside and out. Pop them in the hot pan cut side down for 5 minutes or so. Turn them over and add 2 pieces of cheese to each one. Leave to cook for a further 10 minutes. Pop the pan then under a hot grill to finish off melting the cheese for about 2 minutes – keep an eye on them!

For the dressing – combine all the ingredients well in a bowl. Arrange the peppers in bowls – drizzle over a little of the dressing and then finish off with a squiggle of the balsamic glaze.

This is a fabulously simple Italian starter from the pages of Gino D’acampo – only tinkered with slightly! You could also use taleggio cheese like Gino…though I have to say the walnuts in the dressing combine mellifluously with the gorgonzola.

It is a surprisingly filling dish too when served with a slice or two of a good rustic bread to mop up the juices. It would be a great lunch dish on its own.

Padrón Peppers Pack a punch…well, now and then…

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These beauties known as pimientos de Padrón in Spanish are one of my favourite tapas. They are so simple to prepare and have a wonderful fresh earthy flavour and, now and then, – they say 1 in 30 – one has quite a chilli kick! Whether a given pepper ends up being hot or mild apparently depends on the amount of water and sunlight it receives during its growth. They are fun to eat and my family looks on it as a kind of tapas roulette – who will get the fiery pepper!

They originate from Galicia in North West Spain, in actual fact from Padrón near La Coruna – hence the name. The peppers are picked while their size is still small, starting as soon as mid-May. Traditionally, they were sold in the period going from late May until late October or, on occasion, even early November. However, the introduction of greenhouse plantations has made them available throughout the year. e get ours from a local market but Waitrose often sell them too. You can order them on line as well.

All you need to do is take your peppers and wash and dry them. I reckon about 8 each is a good number for a tapas – but it is up to you! Pop some olive oil in a frying pan and get it hot. Add the peppers to the pan and fry gently until they start to blister and brown slightly. About three minutes or so usually.

Sprinkle them with rock salt and serve immediately – great with a nice glass of ice cold beer, a cold dry sherry or a cold crisp dry white wine. Eat it all down to the stalk!

A friend of ours calls these ‘Pardon me peppers’ – if you eat too many – you will no doubt discover why !!

It’s all about how you like to dress…

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Greek Salad with Feta and Mint

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Lunch today was one of my favourites. The mint is magical in this combo of flavours.

For 4

6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

2 tbsp fresh lemon juice

1 garlic clove crushed

Good pinch of sugar

Salt and pepper

200 gm feta cheese

1/2 head of iceberg lettuce shredded

6 San Marzano tomatoes quartered

1/2 cucumber thinly sliced

12 or so black olives pitted

Good bunch of fresh mint and a sprinkle of dried oregano

Make a dressing by whisking together the oil, lemon juice, garlic, sugar salt & pepper in a small bowl. Set aside. Rinse the block of feta under cold running water. Then cube it into about 1 inch squares. (Some Greek tavernas leave it whole smothered in oregano for you to break up at your leisure.)

Put the lettuce, tomatoes and cucumber in a salad bowl. Scatter over the cheese. Just before serving whisk the dressing, pour over the salad leaves and toss together. Scatter over the olives, oregano and the mint!

A really wholesome and filling light lunch.

Aubergine Caviar

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Aubergine Caviar

I have revelled in the sun today and in between having a hack at various bushes I sat in the garden and looked for inspiration for some snacks and nibbles to make and squirrel away for the coming week. I came across this recipe in a marvellous French cook book and gave it a go. The result – I have nibbled already – is stunning. Simplicity itself and it will keep in the jar in the fridge for at least a week – I doubt it will survive so long.

As for the photography – well, the sun was pouring in through the blinds and I am not sure if it has added or detracted from the aubergines – but hey, I felt like I was in Le Midi so it is as it is!

You will need –

3 aubergines – halved lengthways
90 ml olive oil plus a splash or two extra
6 garlic cloves, unpeeled but bashed sightly to release the aroma
6 thyme sprigs – you could equally use rosemary
Sea salt and black pepper

Get your oven to 180c. Score the flesh of the aubergine halves with a sharp knife in a criss-cross pattern. Place then on a baking tray flesh side up. Drizzle with the olive oil and season each one. Pop a clove of garlic and a sprig of thyme on each half. Cover with a sheet of foil.

Bake in the oven on the middle shelf for an hour or so until the flesh is really soft. Remove from the oven. Throw the thyme sprigs away. Take the garlic cloves, peel them and place on a chopping board. Next, scoop the flesh from each half onto the chopping board with the garlic. Get rid of the skins. Chop the flesh and garlic finely and mix together. Spoon it into a jar, add a splash of oil and seasoning. Stir well. Press it down and cover the surface with a little more olive oil. Close the lid!

Once it has cooled place in your fridge or larder. You can enjoy it as an aperitif with crusty bread or crackers.

Parfait!

Lentil Bolognaise

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Lentil Bolognaise

It was Nigel Slater’s birthday yesterday and I wanted to cook one of his newer dishes to mark the occasion. His writing, his cookery programmes and his approach to all things food is so encouraging and inspiring to writers like myself. The way he creates dishes like this one has given me so much confidence in creating my own recipes.

Hey, ok, enough of the eulogising!

This is a really tasty dish and a fab way to eat lentils.

For 4

2 carrots finely diced
1 onion finely sliced
3 tbsps of olive oil
230 gm Puy lentils (or any green ones will do if you cannot get Puy)
1 litre of chicken stock or veg stock
400 gm pappardelle or tagliatelle pasta
2 tbsps crème fraîche
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
50 gm lardons – you could leave these out if you wish – esp. vegetarians!

Heat the oil in a pan – I used a non stick wok – and fry the onion and carrot until both are soft and the carrot lightly browned.

Rinse the lentils then add to the pan. Stir and add the stock

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Lower the heat and simmer for around 35 – 40 minute until the lentils are just soft. Season with a little salt. Cook the pasta. Whilst this is happening remove half the lentil mixture, including liquid and add to a blender. Blizt to a puree. Return it to the pan. Stir it in along with the crème fraîche and the balsamic vinegar. I then pan fried the lardons separately and added them also.

This is a really cheap and satisfying dish. It tastes, as Nigel Slater says, wonderfully ‘earthy’ and I cannot tell you how amazing the flavour is considering how basic the ingredients are – it is a marvellous example of the the alchemy of food!

Please, please make this!

Asparagus with Parsley Vinaigrette

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Asparagus with Parsley Vinaigrette

This is a new painting by Bonnie Lalley  (blalley.wordpress.com) and it reminded me instantly of a wonderful Spring starter that I came across in Daniel Galmiche’s excellent tome, ‘The French Brasserie Cookbook.’ Asparagus is without doubt one of my very favourite veg. Asparagus is a curious plant – from the lily family – and it has almost no leaves. Most unusual. The name itself can be traced back to a Persian word asparag, meaning a sprout. The word ‘sperage‘ was in use in the 16th and 17th centuries, but was displaced by ‘sparagus‘ and by the rather cute name of ‘sparrow grass.’ Pliny the Elder described asparagus spears grown at Ravenna in heavily manured soil as being ‘three to the pound’. rather larger clearly than modern asparagus! It had surfaced in France by 1470 and England by 1538. It was not grown in America on a large scale until the latter half of the 19th century.

It is expensive in the main due to the odd way it is grown. For the first two years after sowing it is unproductive. In the third year the shoots are thick enough to be marketed and the bed will continue to yield good specimens for 2 or 3 seasons. At any given time, a grower has half his or her land in an unproductive state. The French, Belgians and Germans tend to prefer their asparagus white. In this case the beds are earthed up to keep the shoots from going green. I like both but prefer, I have to say, the green variety.

Steamed and served al dente with a swirl of olive oil and a swoosh of lemon juice, it is possibly one of the most tactile and vibrant of starters.

This dish, however, sees the asparagus served cold. It is very, very tasty and fills you with a sense, like Bonnie’s painting, that Miss Spring cannot be far away – possibly hiding in the barn or chasing foxes through the woods. This dish will hurry her up for sure.

Asperges à la vinaigrette persil

500 gm asparagus, woody ends cut off and discarded
1 tsp of sea salt

For the vinaigrette:

2 tbsp of white wine vinegar
1 room temperature egg
2 tsp of Dijon mustard
100 ml of sunflower or olive oil
Small handful of chopped parsley
Sea salt and black pepper

Bring a small pan of water to the boil. Add a dash of vinegar. Lower the egg gently into the water to avoid cracking. Cook for 8-9 minutes. Drain and place under cold running water. When cool, peel and chop roughly.

Into a medium sized pan of boiling and salted water, place the bunch of asparagus tied loosely with string,, tips all facing the same way. Cook on a gentle simmer for 6-10 minutes – you want to keep a ‘bite’ to them.

Meanwhile, prepare a bowl of ice cold water and set aside. Put the mustard and vinegar in a bowl , season and mix well. Slowly whisk in the oil, then stir in the chopped egg and parsley.

Once the asparagus is cooked, remove the bundle and plunge it into the ice cold water bowl. Drain it, untie and arrange on a flat dish.

A stunningly simple starter, or snack. Great to eat with friends…. and with your fingers! I am eating it tonight…I cannot wait!

Right, just off to pour a sharp glass of Verdicchio…and maybe one for Miss Spring!

Colcannon…a classic….

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Colcannon…a classic….

“Did you ever eat Colcannon, made from lovely pickled cream?
With the greens and scallions mingled like a picture in a dream.
Did you ever make a hole on top to hold the melting flake
Of the creamy, flavoured butter that your mother used to make?

Yes you did, so you did, so did he and so did I.
And the more I think about it sure the nearer I’m to cry.
Oh, wasn’t it the happy days when troubles we had not,
And our mothers made Colcannon in the little skillet pot.”

So goes the traditional Irish song about this wonderful potato dish – there cannot be many food stuffs that have their own song ! – and I guess there are many takes on this classic potato and cabbage dish. Its Irish name is cál ceannann, meaning “white-headed cabbage”, and it is a traditional dish mainly consisting of mashed potatoes with kale or cabbage.

It is similar to the Irish dish Champ which is a dish of mashed potatoes, moistened with milk and butter and flavoured with chopped onions or scallions or even nettle tops (much underused veg! See my Nettle Frittata).

The earliest reference i can find to it is by one William Bulkely from Anglesey who in his diary of 31st October 1735 made two journeys to Dublin and recorded that he:

‘Dined and supped upon a shoulder of mutton roasted and what they call Coel Callan, which is cabbage boiled, potatoes, and parsnips, all this mixed together. They eat well enough and this is a dish always had on this kingdom on this night.’

Apparently, colcannon was used on All Hallow’s Eve for marriage divination. Charms hidden in the bowls of colcannon were portents of a marriage proposal should a lucky unmarried girl find one. One other marvellously bizarre tradition was for a young girl to stuff a sock with colcannon and hang it on the handle of their front door. They believed that the first man through the door would become their husband. Could have led to some interesting situations and possible intermarriages….also must have ruined the socks!

The dish came over to English shores in the 18th century and oddly became a favourite of the upper classes. In time the English version morphed into bubble and squeak, which is more of a fry up of left overs rather than this purpose built spud dish.

It is a very hearty and warming dish and you can twiddle with it to your hearts content – but this is a version I particularly like – I had it the other night with a honey and mustard glazed hock of ham and it brought out the Irish in me! (My great grandparents were form Derry). I am sure you must have tried this or something like it but if not, give it a whirl. It is a delicious way to eat potatoes and greens.

And versatile… and it can accompany all sorts – and ’tis just as gorgeous on its lonesome!

1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 onion, finely sliced
250g mashed potato (I used about 6 to 8 potatoes so play it by ear)
50g unsalted butter
30ml double cream
250g Savoy cabbage, blanched and sliced (or you can used greens or kale)
1 tbsp wholegrain mustard
Salt and ground black pepper

Heat the oil in a frying pan over a medium heat. Add the onion and fry for 8-10 minutes, or until softened and golden-brown.
In a large bowl, mix together the mashed potato, butter, cream, blanched cabbage and mustard until well combined and season, to taste, with salt and black pepper.
Transfer the potato mixture to the frying pan with the onions in and press down to form a large potato ‘cake’. Fry for 4-5 minutes, or until crisp and golden-brown on one side. Turn over, using a plate if necessary to help you, and fry on the other side for a further 4-5 minutes, or until crisp and golden-brown on both sides. (This last bit is tricky – in the end if it does break up, it will taste just as good even if it doesn’t look as pretty!)

As I said before I used it to accompany a hock of ham- and i also made a taleggio cheese sauce which really, really went well with the ham and colcannon. I just popped 450 ml of double cream and a clove of garlic into a small pan with a bay leaf. I brought it to a simmer then added a 100 gm slice of taleggio and let it melt. A stunning sauce to go with a stunning and simple potato dish!

Up the Irish!

Tasty aperitif – Squash and ricotta crostini

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Squash and ricotta crostini..

Butternut Squash and Ricotta Crostini

An easy and remarkably satisfying snack for when you have friends round and want to serve something that goes well with that first glass or two of champagne!

Quarter and peel a butternut squash, cut into slices and smear with olive oil and cumin seeds and a little rock salt. Roast in a hot oven for around an hour until you can pop a knife easily into the flesh. Let it cool  – then spread onto warm slices of ciabatta or good farmhouse bread – top with a spoonful of ricotta, a little black pepper and a leaf or two of fresh mint – you could also use basil leaves if you fancy…but mint is marvellous.