Friday, 11 October 2013

You old Prune !


Recently I have tried a couple of recipes that use prunes (dried plums). I was interested to read that prune sales in the UK are on the increase (up by 10% in the last year) and Britain has imported an extra half a million tonnes from California. Some say it is due to the fact that Heston Blumenthal has used them in several of his recipes including his Christmas cake recipe for Waitrose. Shelves were empty of them shortly after. In the past prunes have had a bit of a bad reputation in the UK manly because they were seen as having a laxative effect, but this is in fact a myth.  One of the amazing health benefits of prunes is they help in the prevention of osteoporosis (a condition that thins and weakens the bones). This is because they are one of the best sources of vitamin K which is vital for bone health.  Studies have shown that eating prunes as opposed to other dried fruits such as apricots, figs or sultanas appears to suppress the breakdown of bones which tends to speed as people age (and especially in post menopausal women).  So not only do they taste good in these recipes below they will keep you fit and strong until a ripe old age.

Chicken and Prune Stew
Serves 4

1 teaspoon of olive oil
1 onion peeled and chopped
1 clove of garlic finely chopped
1 teaspoon of turmeric
1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon, coriander and ginger
4 chicken breasts cut into chunks
300ml of chicken stock (150ml if cooking in a slow cooker)
2 tablespoons of tomato puree
200g of ready to eat prunes, halved

Heat the oil in a large shallow pan
Add the onion and cook for five minutes until softened
Add the garlic and spices and cook for another minute
Add the chicken strips and cook for 4-5 minutes until browned (you can also add a splash of water if it is a bit dry)
Add the stock, tomato puree and prunes.

Cook on the hob for 15-20 minutes or in the slow cooker for about 2-3 hours on high or 3-4 on low.
Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve with cous cous and vegetables

Chocolate and prune Mousse

Serves 4-6

100g dark chocolate broken into small pieces
6oz ready to eat prunes
2 tablespoons of brandy (optional)
3 egg whites
1 tablespoon of castor sugar

Break up the chocolate and place in a heatproof bowl over a pan of hot water. Leave until melted then stir and leave to cool slightly
Place the prunes in a small saucepan and barely cover with 150ml of water
Simmer very gently until soft
Transfer the prunes and liquid to a small blender, add the brandy and whiz to a puree
Beat the egg whites in a clean bowl until stiff.
Whisk in half the sugar, then stir in the remaining half
Stir the melted chocolate into the prune puree and beat together
Stir in a spoonful of the egg whites to loosen the mixture then carefully fold in the rest of the egg white
Spoon into small expresso cups or ramekin dishes and chill until required

Friday, 27 September 2013

Real food for Little People

Recently we spent a week on holiday in Cornwall as a family. We stayed in a lovely stone cottage between St Ives and Lands End. We had a great week of hilly cycling as well as enjoying the beautiful beaches and stunning coastline.

One of the things we also enjoy whilst on holiday is going out to a restaurant for a meal. Now that our son is getting a little bit older it is nice for him to be able to enjoy the food on the menu too. He has always been a good eater ever since he started solids at 6 months. I have tried to cook all his meals from scratch and introduce him to as wide variety of foods as possible. Now at nearly 3 he has a very diverse palette. He loves fruit of any kind, will eat most vegetables and is very keen on fish, especially salmon. He really isn't fussy at all which as a mum is a real blessing. It also makes it a lot easier when we go out for a meal as it means he is happy to eat what we are having. Whilst on holiday we found a local pub and all had a delicious piece of smoked haddock with pesto mash, spinach and a poached egg. Our son really enjoyed it and they were happy to give us a child size portion at half the price. They had offered us the children's menu but it was the usual chicken nuggets and chips, sausages and chips and pasta. Why do a lot of pubs and restaurants assume that all children want to eat only fast foods? At what age do they progress to the adult menu and more varied tastes? Do they simply then move onto the burger and chips from the adult menu? I really want to encourage our son to try a variety of foods as he grows up and to be keen to try different tastes and flavours. I also really want restaurants to not take the easy choice and just serve burger and chips. If you have good food on the menu why not offer it to children? I was impressed with the other two places we chose to eat later in the week. The Cornish Deli in St Ives said that children could have a smaller portion of most of the foods on the main menu. We chose a haddock and leek chowder (a fish soup) for our son which came with freshly made bread. They said on their menu that they believed that 'little people should eat as well as big people'. I agree. On our final night we went to the Cornish Range in Mousehole. We have been there a couple of times before and the food is excellent and very refined. I really love the fact that they have a childrens menu that is just as good as the adults. It had salmon fillet, lemon sole goujons, risotto and even steak on offer. They all came with new potatoes and vegetables. I was happy for my son to choose any of those and he went for the risotto (which does happen to be his favourite!). He loved it so here are a couple of the great recipes he enjoyed that are suitable for both children and adults.

Haddock Chowder
3 Adult servings (or 2 adults and 2 children).

1 teaspoon of vegetable oil
1 large leek trimmed and finely sliced
1 medium potato cut into small cubes
400ml of whole milk
350g of smoked haddock, skin removed and cut into small pieces
1 tablespoon of finely chopped chives
Freshly ground pepper

Heat the oil in a saucepan over a medium heat
Add the leek and sweat for 5-10 minutes until soft
Add the potato and milk
Bring to the boil then cover and simmer for 15 minutes until the potato is tender (stir regularly)
 Add the fish and cook gently for a furthur 3-4 minutes until the fish is cooked
Stir in the chives and add pepper to taste

Parmesan and Pea risotto
Serves 3 adults or 2 adults and 2 children

1 teaspoon of vegetable oil
1 onion peeled and finely chopped
1 garlic clove peeled and crushed
225g of risotto rice
750ml of vegetable stock
30g parmesan cheese
Knob of butter
125g of frozen peas defrosted

Heat the oil in a medium pan
Add the onion and sweat for 5-10 minutes until softened but not golden
Add the garlic and rice and cook for another minute
Start adding the stock a ladle at a time. Bring to the boil  then reduce the heat and simmer stirring regularly
Keep the rest of the stock in a small saucepan on the hob so it stays on the boil
Continue adding the stock until the rice is cooked (tender but with a slight bite in the middle)
Stir in the peas and cook for a few more minutes
Stir in the knob of butter and parmesan
Season with black pepper

Another good risotto is mushroom, pea and parmesan.  After sweating the onion add 15g of dried porcini mushrooms that have been soaked in warm water for 30 minutes, along with 100g of fresh mushroomn (such as chestnut or button). Add the liquid from the soaked mushrooms after adding the rice.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

A Quick Guide to Slow Cooking

This week I was talking to a friend who told me she had just got a slow cooker. She was asking me what my favourite recipes were that I cooked in it. So I thought I would share two of my favourites here. We were given our slow cooker as a wedding present 7 years ago and I have probably used it at least once a week for those seven years. I will even take it on holiday if we are self catering. It is great to be able to put something like a stew or curry in it in the morning, go out for the day (or the morning) and come back to the delicious aroma of something warm and filling. It means that tea can be on the table within 15 minutes once the vegetables are done. 

Slow cooking means you can cook cheap cuts of meat such as braising or stewing steak. These meats which can be quite tough end up being tender and full of flavour. I also use it for chicken and turkey but these obviously need less cooking time.  I do have a slow cooker cookbook but have found that a lot of my favourite recipes have been dishes that are adapted from ones that are originally cooked on the hob or slow cooked in the oven (these two recipes below are). The main thing to remember if you do this is to reduce the amount of stock or water in the original recipe by half in the slow cooker.This is because the juice in meats and vegetables are retained more in slow cooking. It is a good idea to brown the meat first as this seals the juices in the meat and makes it more tender. It also caramelises the meat and improves the flavour of the finished dish. 

Beef and Apricot Stew.
Serves 4

1 teaspoon of vegetable oil
500g of lean stewing steak or braising steak cut into chunks
1 onion peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic peeled and crushed
100g of dried apricots chopped
50g of sundried tomatoes
400g tin of chopped tomatoes
250ml of stock
1 tablespoon of tomato puree

Heat the vegetable oil in a medium frying pan and brown the meat in two batches. Remove and place in the slow cooker
Add the onion  and garlic to the pan and cook for a few minutes until softened. 
Place into the slow cooker along with the apricots, sundried tomatoes, stock and tomato puree
Cook on high for 3-4 hours or low for 5-6 hours

Turkey Stew
Serves 4

1 teaspoon of vegetable oil
500g of turkey steak cut into chunks
1 onion peeled and chopped
1 clove of garlic peeled and crushed
1 tablespoon of garam masala
400g tin of chopped tomatoes
1 red pepper deseeded and chopped
1 tablespoon of tomato puree
250ml of chicken stock

Heat the oil in a medium frying pan, add the turkey and cook until browned
Add to the slow cooker
Add a little more oil to the pan and cook the onion for 5 minutes until softened 
Add the garlic and garam masala and cook for a furthur minute
Add to the slow cooker along with the tinned tomatoes, tomato puree, pepper and stock
Cook on high for 2-3 hours or low for 3-4 hours 

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Spinach - not just for Popeye!


As a young child I enjoyed watching the cartoon Popeye the Sailor Man. One of the things I really remember about this character Popeye is that he used to guzzle down cans of spinach in most episodes. These were what gave him his superhuman strength and it was also a way of encouraging children to eat this vegetable. Apparantly it did work and two spinach growing towns in America have Popeye the Sailor man statues as a way of honouring him for boosting sales.

Spinach is a very nutritious vegetable. It is high in iron, calcium, potassium, folic acid and Vitamins A,C,E. These nutrients help boost eye, bone and neural health, the production of red blood cells and lower blood pressure. I was interested to read though that when the cartoon Popeye was first written (in the late 1920's) it was stated that spinach had ten times more iron than it actually had. This misprint was not fully publicised until 1981 in the British Medical Journal.

Spinach is a very versatile vegetable to use in cooking. It can be used raw in salads. It can be steamed (although it does shrink a lot) or stir fried. However my favourite way of using it is in curries. It can be quite a bland and bitter vegetable on its own so I find the spices in a curry enhance its flavour. Here are two of my favourite - Chickpea and spinach curry (which is really nice served with flatbreads), and Thai beef curry with spinach and new potatoes.

Chickepea and Spinach Curry
Serves 2
1 teaspoon Vegetable oil
1 onion peeled and finely chopped
1 garlic clove peeled and finely chopped
2 small to medium potatoes cut into 1cm dice
1/2 teaspoon ground cinammon
1/2 teaspoon of ground paprika
1/2 teaspoon of ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon of ground cumin
1 240g tin of cooked chickpeas, rinsed and drained
200g tin of chopped tomatoes or 3 fresh tomatoes chopped
1 tablespoon of tomato puree
6 pitted dates chopped
150ml of veg stock or water
125g spinach or swiss chard (tough stalks removed) chopped
1 tablespoon of chopped fresh coriander

Heat the oil in a large pan
Add the onion and fry over a medium heat for 5-10 minutes
Add the potato and garlic and fry for a couple more minutes
Add the spices and fry for 1 minute
Add the chickpeas, tomatoes, tomato puree, stock and 4 of the dates
Cover and simmer for 10-15 minutes until the potatoes are tender
Add the spinach or chard and simmer for a couple of minutes until wilted
Sprinkle with the coriander and the 2 remaining dates
Serve with warm flatbreads and some natural yogurt

Thai Beef with Spinach
Serves 2
225g of sirloin steak
1 tablespoon of soy sauce
1 tablespoon of thai fish sauce
1 teaspoon of vegetable oil
1/2 tablespoon of black peppercorns
1 garlic clove chopped
1/2 tablespoon of soft light brown sugar
200g of potatoes diced
1/4 pint of water
3-4 spring onions chopped
100g of baby spinach

Cut the beef into thick strips and place in a shallow dish
Put the soy sauce, thai fish sauce, peppercorns, garlic and sugar in a food processor and process to a thick paste
Pour over the beef and stir to coat
Cover with clingfilm and marinade in the fridge for at least 3 hours or overnight
Heat the oil in a wok or large shallow pan
Lift the beef out of the marinade and fry for 3-4 minutes until browned
Add the reserved marinade, potatoes and water
Bring to the boil and simmer for 6-8 minutes or until the potatoes are tender
Add the spinach and spring onions
Cook until the spinach has wilted
Serve with basmati rice

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Anyone for Strawberries!

Summer has arrived at last in the UK! Temperatures in the next few days are set to hit the mid twenties. That's good news for all those watching or playing tennis at Wimbledon this weekend. I don't really watch much of the tennis but when I think of Wimbledon I think of strawberries and cream. Did you know that 28000kgs of strawberries along with 7000 litres of cream are consumed over the two week tournament? They are UK Grade one strawberries that are picked one day then delivered the next day to Wimbledon at 5.30am where they are inspected, hulled and served. A pot of strawberries and cream will only cost you £2.50. I thought it would be a lot more.

This week we have been enjoying strawberries too from our local market. As they were only £1 a punnet I bought 4 punnets and decided to make strawberry jam. This is really easy to make. You only need 3 ingredients - strawberries, sugar and lemon juice. Jam needs pectin to help it set. Some fruits such as cooking apples. gooseberries and plums have a high pectin content and so will set easily. However strawberries are low in pectin and so need extra pectin in order to help it set. You can use jam (but this is double the price of granulated sugar) or you can use granulated sugar and add the juice of 1 or 2 lemons. It is a good idea to soak the strawberries overnight in the sugar. This helps to harden them off and stop them dissolving when making the jam. You don't need any fancy equipment for jam making. I use a heavy based saucepan rather than a preserving pan. I do have a sugar thermometer to help me see when the jam has reached its setting point (105C) but you can also use the plate method. Place a small plate in the freezer to chill for 10-15 minutes. When you think the jam is set you can test it by dropping a small spoonful on the plate and leaving to cool in the fridge for a few minutes. If the jam is set it will wrinkle when pushed lightly with your finger. When it is set leave it to cool in the pan for 10-15 minutes as this stops the strawberries floating to the top when you bottle it. I use a funnel to pour it into sterilised jars and then seal with a wax disc and film lid. It will keep in a cool dry place for a few months, if there is any left by then!

Strawberry Jam
Makes 4-6 medium jars

1kg of strawberries
1kg granulated sugar
Juice of 2 lemons

Hull the strawberries and cut in half if large
Put into a large bowl with the sugar and leave to harden up overnight
The next day place the strawberries and sugar in a large heavy based pan
Add the lemon juice
Put the lid on and bring up to the boil
Boil for 10-15 minutes until it reaches 105C and is thickened
Meanwhile place a small plate in the freezer for 10-15 minutes to chill
To test whether the jam is set drop a small spoonful onto the chilled plate and cool in the fridge for a few minutes
If it is set it will wrinkle when pushed lightly with your finger
Leave to cool for 10-15 minutes in the pan
Then pour into sterilised jars and seal with a wax disc and film
To sterilise jars - wash in warm soapy water. Rinse then leave to dry on a baking sheet. Place in a preheated oven (180C) for 5-10 minutes. Pour the jam into the hot jars.

Friday, 28 June 2013

I can eat a rainbow!

How many of us remember being told as children to 'eat our greens'. Our parents were right in encouraging us to eat green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, kale and cabbage. They are a rich source of potassium, magnesium, iron and B Vitamins. They are high in fibre and low in fat and calories. Greens are also high in antioxidants that have been linked to the prevention of certain cancers.

Health experts now tells us that we should not only be eating at least five servings of fruit and vegetables a day but that these should be a variety of colours as well. Many of the naturally occurring chemicals that give fruit and vegetables their bright colours also help keep us free from disease. They act as antioxidants which can help to protect against heart disease, cancer, cataracts and premature ageing. So don't just think green when you are choosing your vegetables but also red (peppers, tomatoes, radishes and red cabbage), orange (carrots, sweet potato and squash), yellow (peppers, sweetcorn, yellow courgettes) and purple (aubergines, purple sprouting broccoli and purple cabbage).

I find that a great way to incorporate a wide variety of vegetables into a meal is in a vegetable curry. I first started making these about a year ago when we decided as a family to eat at least one meal a week meat free. This was as a result of watching Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's series River Veg Everyday where he went meat free for three months. I have found the book which accompanied the series a great source for inspiring recipes . The vegetable curry below is one I have adapted from a Waitrose recipe. I find the vegetables soak up the spices really well and you really don't notice it doesn't contain any meat. In the summer I like to make it using new potatoes, courgettes and peppers. In the winter you could use sweet potatoes, squash and kale. It's good to serve it with basmati rice and an extra serving of vegetables such as cabbage or broccoli. If you did this you could almost get your 'five a day' from this one meal!

Vegetable Curry
Serves 4
1 large onion peeled and finely chopped
1 garlic clove peeled and crushed
1 teaspoon of freshly grated ginger
400g new potatoes chopped in half or quarters
3 courgettes sliced
2 peppers (red, orange or yellow) deseeded and cut into chunks
2 tomatoes chopped
2 tablespoons of medium curry powder
2 tablespoons of mango chutney
300ml of vegetable stock
400ml can light coconut milk

Heat a teaspoon of vegetable oil in a large heavy based pan
Add the onion and cook over a low heat for 5-10 minutes until softened and golden
Add the garlic, ginger, potatoes and peppers and cook for a furthur 5-10 minutes
Add the curry powder and stir to coat the vegetables in the spices
Stir in the tomatoes and chutney
Pour in the vegetable stock and coconut milk and bring to the boil
Reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes until the veg is almost tender
Add the courgettes and simmer for another 5 minutes
Serve with basmati rice and a green vegetable such as cabbage or broccoli

Friday, 21 June 2013

A Spoonful of Sugar!

When I was younger I had a very sweet tooth. I was always baking cakes. I had sugar in my tea and my mum gave us a home made dessert (such as lemon meringue pie, trifle or apple crumble) every night of the week. I have found in recent years my tastes have changed and I probably prefer savoury flavours over sweet ones now. The average person in the UK is now eating over 2 lbs (1 kilo) of sugar a week and this is affecting our health and contributing to the increase in Type 2 diabetes and obesity. A lot of this is found in the processed foods we buy - ready meals, drinks, yogurts and shop bought cakes and biscuits. This makes it very hard to gauge how much we are actually eating. I like to cook most of our food from scratch. This way I know how much sugar is going into our meals, cakes and desserts. Recently I came across a recipe in a magazine for malt loaf. It uses malt extract. As I found this difficult to find in the shops I substituted it with molasses sugar and it still tasted very good. Molasses sugar is a thick black, syrupy sugar. It was the most popular sweetener used until the late 19th Century. Refined sugar was very expensive and so molasses sugar was an affordable alternative. I was interested to read that it has some good nutritional benefits. It is a very good source of iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium. One tablespoon provides the same amount of iron as a tablespoon of red meat and almost the same amount of calcium as half a glass of milk. As it is unrefined sugar it is broken down into the body more slowly and helps keeps energy levels more stable than if you ate refined white sugar. For the malt loaf recipe you need to buy the Molasses syrup (which looks a lot like black treacle). I found it in the health food shop Holland and Barrett. The good thing about this recipe is that the cake keeps well for a week or even two. It  is best made and left wrapped in baking parchment and foil for a couple of days to become moist and sticky before eating.

Another good recipe with molasses is a dessert that uses Molasses sugar as a topping over Greek yogurt mixed with bananas. It is left in the fridge for a few hours and the sugar melts down to make a lovely fudge like topping. It really is one of the quickest and easiest desserts to make and tastes great.

Malt Loaf
Makes 2
sunflower oil for greasing
150ml/1/4 pint of hot tea
175g/6oz molasses
85g/3oz dark brown sugar
300g/11oz mixed fruit
2 large eggs beaten
250g/9oz plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda

Heat oven to 150C/Gas Mark 2
Line the base of 2 1lb loaf tins with baking parchment and grease the sides
Pour the hot tea into a mixing bowl with the molasses, sugar and dried fruit
Stir well then add the eggs
Tip in the flour then quickly stir in the baking powder and bicarbonate of soda
Pour into the prepared tins
Bake for 40 minutes until firm and risen
While still warm brush with a little more molasses and leave to cool
Remove from the tins, wrap in baking parchment and foil and leave for a couple of days

Molasses with Greek Yogurt and Bananas
Serves 2
1 large banana
250g Greek yoghurt (2% 0r 0% fat)
75g Molasses
25g of chopped Brazil nuts, walnuts or flaked almonds.

Slice the banana and mix together in a bowl with the Greek yogurt
Divide between 2 small glasses or ramekin dishes
Top with the molassses sugar
Cover with clingfilm and leave in the fridge for about 3 hours
Just before serving sprinkle with chopped nuts