Cheaty cheapy roasted tomato & pepper soup with basil oil

As much as I love tomato soup I’m often horrified by the cost of making it at home. It’s common for recipes to call for a minimum of 1.5kg tomatoes for a few portions, that’s pretty darn expensive to buy, and even when I have a glut in my garden I’ll be hard pressed to provide that more than once a season.

Tomato Pepper Soup

So to satisfy the penny pincher in me (and to acknowledge that for yet another year in a row there’ll be little to no sunshine and my tomato harvest is likely to be nil) I’ve created a tomato soup that delivers all the flavour for a fraction of the cost, the tomatoes being bulked out a little with peppers and carrots, and a shot of concentrated tomato puree gives an extra boost of tomatoeyness. The basil oil isn’t strictly necessary, but I do think a homemade soup deserves that little extra dressing up, and it means you can make this in the winter (or our ‘summer’ equivalent), with hothouse-grown tomatoes, and still feel like you’re in the Provençal sunshine.

Roasted tomato & pepper soup with basil oil
Serves 4

500g cherry tomatoes
2 red peppers, quartered and deseeded
Half a red chilli (in the piece, not chopped)
3 small carrots, peeled
a small knob of butter
1 small red onion, peeled and finely diced
2 garlic cloves, bruised and peeled
pinch of celery salt
3 tbsp concentrated tomato puree
500ml vegetable stock

For the basil oil
15g basil leaves
olive oil

Toss the tomatoes, peppers and chilli in a tiny drop of oil (just enough to stop them sticking), then roast at 200˚C/Gas 6 for 40-45 minutes. Remove the peppers to a bowl, cover with clingfilm and leave to cool before skinning. If you can be bothered, pinch the skins from the tomatoes too, but don’t be too fastidious about it.

Finely grate the carrots (use the finest side on a box grater, or a microplane), then sweat in the butter with the onion, bruised garlic, celery salt and tomato puree until meltingly tender. Add the roasted tomatoes, skinned peppers and the chilli, plus the vegetable stock. Bring to the boil, simmer for just a minute or two, then blitz and season to taste.

For the basil puree, whizz the basil leaves with a pinch of salt and just enough olive oil to form a smooth paste (using a stick blender or mini processor). Serve the soup drizzled with the oil.

Chili-con-Carne for even the most hardened chilli-phobe (and chilli-lover!)

Chili con Carne IllustrationOne of my friends has, despite my best efforts, a persistent and downright pesky lack of tolerance for heat. A whiff of even the mildest serrano chilli or teensiest pinch of cayenne has him running for the water trough with steam coming out of his ears. After one memorable lunch when I presented him with a chicken kebab which I promised was only mildly spiced but that had him nearly in tears, he has developed a healthy suspicion of my definition of ‘hot’.  On a cold and blustery afternoon when I was preparing to cook for 6 people whose spice preference ranged from ‘zero’ to ‘eyeball-meltingly-hot’ this recipe was developed with him in mind, having all the delicious warmth and spicing of a traditional chili, but with none of the actual – erm – chilli! It’s perfect not just for chilli-phobe adults but also kids whose palates have yet to adjust and appreciate the searing burn of fire.

Although fabulously tasty by itself, I accompany this chili with a super-spicy salsa, to be dolloped on each bite, or stirred in to taste at the table, to add fire strictly for those who wish for it. At the heart of the salsa are tomatillos – sharp green fruits that look like a cross between unripe green tomatoes and the papery lantern-wrapped physalis – but these are hard to find if you don’t spend your spare time frequenting chilli festivals (or growing your own under glass), so you can happily substitute nice ripe tomatoes, and just add a little extra vinegar or some lime juice to give it bite.  The ‘finishing butter’ adds a delicious richness and also limey freshness at the end, especially for those who are eschewing the salsa. Dried anchos are the key to the stew’s smokey depth and yes – I know they are technically a chilli – but this classification is misleading: they have the same heat punch of a bell pepper, which is essentially what they are! Pork skin may seem an odd addition to a stew (and is totally optional), but it melts down and vanishes during the long slow cooking, leaving a gorgeous richness and lending extra body to the sauce, and as pork shoulder in the piece almost always comes skin-on it seems a crime to waste it by omitting it.
Read on for the scrummy recipe……

Glazed beetroot with honeyed goat’s milk mousse and candied cobnuts

funny gifsI know I haven’t blogged in a while, but let’s skip right over that as one of my pet peeves is people who apologise because they haven’t blogged recently (read: haven’t posted in 3 days), or write long tracts explaining that they’re going to be away on holiday so wont be able to post (for a whole 2 weeks – shock horror!). It just seems so…..egotistical. Like they think their readers will be stunned, bereft, inconsolable that they can’t read about a total strangers latest baking project on a daily basis. There’s a darn good reason I haven’t blogged recently and it’s this…..there’s been nothing noteworthy to blog about. My meals for the last few weeks have been homely, dull or downright nasty. We’ve eaten chicken wings with chilli sauce at least 5 times in a fortnight. When we haven’t been eating our own body weight in hot wings it’s been pasta. Pasta. And more pasta. And there’s been takeaways too, more than I care to admit, and all of them ranging from mediocre to piss-poor. Yes, I confess, I’m a foodie who occasionally, eats like a peasant (and I don’t mean an old rural Italian mamma who makes fresh pasta every day, I mean peasant as in definition no.2 from Google: “An ignorant, rude, or unsophisticated person”, the kind that shoves McDonalds through the school gates for her bratty monsters rather than force them to eat Jamie Oliver’s healthy school meals).

Christmas may seem like an odd time of year to be making virtuous resolutions about food, but actually it’s a (rare) time of year when I eat less – and generally healthier – than everyone else. When you’re in the kitchen all day for three days straight (I have a big family – I like to feed them!) eating sort of looses its appeal, and I tend to pick at the big meal itself, fortifying myself instead with whole orangeries-worth of clementines. So, to regain my kitchen mojo, improve my diet, and remount the blogging horse all in one go before the rest of 2012 slips away,  I would like to share with you the absolute antithesis to my dining of late, a dish with rather more swank than the recipes I usually post:

Glazed beetroot with honeyed goat’s milk mousse and candied cobnuts

Glazed beetroot with honeyed goat’s milk mousse and candied cobnuts
Serves 4

Although the instructions are long and it all looks a bit fiddly and poncy, this is actually a supremely easy dish to make – and creates an instant wow when it’s plated up. If I was the sort of person who served starters as part of the Christmas meal this would be what I’d do – everything can be prepped well in advance, and it’s not so heavy that you can’t manage a full-on main course afterwards. The mousse is deliciously creamy, contrasting fantastically with the earthy beetroot, and then the sweetness of the candied nuts adds an extra dimension.  The apple adds acidity, and extra crunch.  Be sure to be generous with the salt in both the beetroots and the candied nuts, to ensure this stays within the boundary of savoury, rather than becoming dessert-grade sweet.

For the honeyed goat’s milk mousse:
500ml fresh goat’s milk
2 tbsp honey
3 leaves platinum-grade gelatine
125ml double cream

Candied cobnuts:
50g shelled cobnuts (or hazelnuts)*
50g caster sugar

Glazed beets:
6 small cooked, peeled beetroots (if you buy them ready-cooked be sure to get the kind in natural juice, not vinegar!)
30g unsalted butter
1 tbsp caster sugar
Leaves from 2 sprigs fresh thyme
1-2 tbsp balsamic vinegar

You will also need: A sharp green apple (Granny Smith has the right level of acidity)

To make the mousse: Heat the goat’s milk in a small saucepan, simmering slowly and gently until reduced by half. This will take around an hour, don’t be tempted to raise the heat too high and boil it, as this will scorch the milk. Once the milk has reduced remove it from the heat and stir in the honey. Soak the gelatine leaves in a little cold water for a few minutes until soft and flabby, then stir into the hot milk reduction until dissolved, then strain through a sieve and set aside to cool. Whip the cream to soft peaks, then fold gently into the cooled milk. Pour into a small tub, cover and chill for 4 hours or overnight, until set. If you want to turn the mousse out and cut it into strips or squares, line the tub with clingfilm first to make it easier to turn out.

To candy the nuts: Line a small baking tray with greaseproof paper. Mix the sugar with 100ml water in a small pan on a low heat, stirring until it dissolves. Increase the heat and heat the mixture to a deep russet caramel colour, swirling the pan occasionally but not stirring. When the caramel looks on the verge of being too dark remove from the heat, and stir in the nuts and a generous pinch of flaky sea salt. Spoon out the caramel-coated nuts individually onto the paper-lined baking tray, and allow to harden. They will keep for a day or two in an airtight container, but if you use cobnuts their moisture will gradually soften the caramel so you’ll lose some of the crunch.

Make the glazed beets: Cut the beetroot into thick slices or small wedges. In a small frying pan melt the butter with the sugar, 1 tbsp water, thyme leaves and a pinch of salt. Cook on a high heat until bubbling, stir in the balsamic vinegar, then add the beetroots and simmer, spooning the mixture over the beetroots constantly, until the liquids have reduced to coat the beetroots in a sticky, shiny glaze.

To serve – arrange either cubes or quenelles of the mousse on plates, then arrange the glazed beetroot and sliced apple around.  Scatter over the candied nuts and serve at once.


*Cobnuts are sweeter, juicier and more tender than hazelnuts, but they really can be used interchangeably in just about any recipe. Whilst hazelnuts are easy to procure shelled, cobnuts are usually sold shell-on. You’ll need 200-300g shell-on cobnuts to yield 40g shelled.

Chicken, ham, leek and cheese pancake bake

Chicken, ham, leek and cheese pancake bakeI racked my brains trying to think of a way to photograph this in a manner which conveys its utter deliciousness, but somehow soft, slippery, filled pancakes with copious amounts of creamy gooey sauce just don’t photograph all that well (and tend to fall apart a bit when you take them out of the dish), so I hope you’ll take my word for it when I assure you that this tastes sooo much better than it looks!

This is a simple yet indulgent dish perfect for either lunch or supper, and despite the fact that it uses rather more pans than I normally want to utilise for a weeknight dinner, it is extremely quick to prepare.  To save on washing up I confess I often use shop-bought pancakes (not something I’d dream of using for a dessert, but somehow perfectly okay in a savoury bake); but if time is not against you, you could of course make your own – I suggest a half quantity of Delia Smith’s foolproof recipe.  A punchy, sharp cheddar and proper smoky ham are essential here to stop the dish being simply soft creamy goo.

Chicken, ham, leek and cheese pancake bake
Serves 4

8 pancakes (shop-bought or homemade)
8 thin slices smoked ham
a large knob of butter
5 thin leeks, trimmed, sliced & rinsed
1/2 tsp mace
125g cream cheese
1 heaped tsp Dijon mustard
125g mature cheddar cheese, grated
2 cooked chicken breasts, roughly chopped
250g creme fraiche
Handful of parmesan, grated

Preheat your oven to 200˚C/Gas 6. Melt the butter in a large frying pan, add the leeks and sweat gently until they are tender. Stir in the mace, cream cheese, mustard and two-thirds of the grated cheddar, plus salt and pepper to taste. Take off the heat, stir in the cooked diced chicken and set aside.

Mix the creme fraiche and remaining grated cheddar in a small saucepan, and heat gently, stirring regularly until the creme fraiche has thinned and the cheese is almost all melted, then season with salt & pepper

Take your pancakes and lay a slice of ham on each. Spread an eighth of the leek mixture in a line down the centre of the pancake, then roll the pancake in a cigar shape around the filling. Place each rolled pancake into an ovenproof dish in which they will fit quite snugly, then pour over the creme fraiche mixture. Grind over some black pepper and scatter with parmesan. Bake for 30 minutes until golden on top and bubbling underneath. Serve with crusty bread (the ‘crusty’ is important as this dish is all soft and tender – you need some crunch!) and a green salad to cut the richness.

Lasagne of Wild Mushroom Ragu with Pecorino and Porcini sauce

Lasagne of Wild Mushroom Ragu with Pecorino & Porcini sauceThis is a gorgeously indulgent dish, full of rich earthy flavours and textures. For the best result, the ragu should be made with a mixture of wild mushrooms, such as Ceps, oyster mushrooms and Enoki), however these can be expensive and/or hard to get hold of depending on the season. A mixture of chestnut and large flat mushrooms would work well as an alternative, I wouldn’t bother with those polystyrene globules sold variously as ‘white mushrooms’ or ‘closed cup mushrooms’ as they have next to no flavour. You’ll still get a good depth of mushroomyness with the more commonly available varieties, as the dried porcini added to both ragu and sauce pack quite a punch, and they’re readily available in supermarkets; in fact I always have them in the storecupboard, ready to pep up any stew, risotto or soup which needs extra oomph.

Random foodie know-how: The white sauce in Lasagne is traditionally a béchamel sauce, but the Pecorino & Porcini sauce in this recipe is technically a velouté. The difference? Although both sauces begin with a classic roux (butter and flour gently heated together to make a thickening paste into which a hot liquid is then stirred), a velouté is made with stock – in this case the liquid from steeping the dried mushrooms – whereas a Béchamel is made with milk.

Anyway, on with the recipe

Sausage and Lentil casserole

Sausages & LentilsIs there any foodstuff more comforting than a plate of sausages? Gently fried to a caramelized brown, juicy within and sticky without, they have to be one of the greatest culinary inventions of all time. With the last sunshine of the year well and truly behind us, that most British of pursuits: incinerating sausages on a barbie whilst getting horribly sunburnt, has been laid to bed and it’s all gone terribly grey and miserable here in London.

Grim weather overhead, after a sausage-making workshop with fourth-generation master butcher Keith Fisher and the lovely PR team behind the forthcoming British Sausage Week (1-5th November), what I really fancied doing with my beautifully handcrafted sausages was something altogether more warming, and this sausage and lentil dish fit the bill perfectly.

read on for the recipe….