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Every Wednesday, the mother-in-law welcomes a meditation group into her home. This small, quiet gathering of mostly women centres itself in the living room of the house bringing with it a humming, wombish equanimity that soothes the middle of the week, when the infant residents are peaking in their puissance and my maternal stability threatens a wobble.

One of the abhyasis (practicants) is Edna, a lovely Israeli woman who runs Edna’s Kitchen, a local food company making incredible, authentic middle eastern food. She recently gave us a pot of her beetroot hummus to sample, which was so utterly moreish I just, well, had to make more.

If we were to talk about food in terms of fashion, hummus would probably be placed somewhere alongside the Converse hi top. Outside their natural habitat (the Middle East/the basket ball court) they’ve been pop cult since the 1970s and have, in recent years, become so prolifically and commercially manufactured that everyone has eaten it and worn a pair, probably at the same time.

Beetroot isn’t as trendy as kimchi or a pair of McQueen ‘bumsters’ (ok, so my knowledge of haute couture stopped somewhere around 1996) but it’s definitely not as common as sliced white or a Burberry umbrella. It’s also an amazingly versatile ingredient (try making beetroot and chocolate brownies, they’re bloody gorgeous) and incredibly healthful.

Beetroot provides a rich source of strong antioxidants and nutrients, including magnesium, potassium, Vitamin C and sodium. It also contains betaine (which also gives it its crimson colour), a compound vital to cardiovascular health in that it reduces the concentration of homocysteine, a naturally occurring but harmful amino acid cysteine which contributes to the onset of heart disease and strokes. Recent studies have shown that it also helps to reduce blood pressure and increase stamina and performance (Lance, you should have hit the beets), and that betaine may protect against liver disease caused by alcohol abuse, protein deficiency or diabetes. Interestingly, beetroot has been used since the Middle Ages to treat illnesses of the blood. You definitely want to be eating this stuff.

It’s also worth noting that beetroot is cheap as chips and environmentally friendly to boot – it’s best-suited to northern European climates, so perfect for British soil, and rarely needs treatment with pesticides. This red orb can do no wrong.

A super-quick and easy-peasy recipe (if you have a food processor), this spiced beetroot hummus is heavenly with fresh pitta (here’s my recipe for that). Although today I had mine slathered on rye with some home-cured salt beef brisket. To. Die. For.

Ingredients

300g raw beetroot or around 250g ready-cooked beetroot (in water NOT vinegar/brine)
3 tablespoons tahini (sesame seed paste)
1 400g can of chickpeas, drained (260g drained)
Juice of 2 lemons
3 large cloves of garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
1 teaspoon dried coriander
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 tablespoons olive oil
Sea salt and black pepper

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Method

If using raw beetroot, wash before cooking and then cover with cold water in a saucepan. (It’s not necessary to peel the beetroot.) Bring to the boil and then simmer until tender (around 1 hour depending on the size of the beetroot). Drain and leave to cool slightly before handling so you can peel the skin; it should just come off under some cold running water.

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Once cooled, roughly chop up the beetroot and place in the food processor with the tahini, drained chickpeas, lemon juice and crushed garlic. Flick the switch and blend to a consistency that you are happy with (I like my hummus smooth). You should have a beautiful, light crimson-coloured paste.

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In a heavy-bottomed frying pan, heat the olive oil and then add the sesame seeds, cumin seeds and coriander. Fry, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon, for no more than 2 minutes making sure that the seeds don’t catch and burn. Remove from heat and add about two-thirds of this oily seed mix to the blender, along with some freshly-milled black pepper and salt (if you use). Whiz up again for a moment.

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Spoon the hummus out into a dish and put the last third of the oily spice mix on the top. Eat.

The hummus should store for a good few days in the fridge, unless you’re my family and it goes in a few minutes.


Glossary

Kimchi – snazzy sauerkraut (or what they call fermented cabbage in Korea); as seen (albeit as Choucroute) in The Independent’s Ten Ingredients for 2013
McQueen Bumsters – what people aspired to wear when I went to the London College of Fashion for a TERM (see here)

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orange_bay_jelly5This recipe was inspired by one of my favourite cookbooks, ‘A Year in My Kitchen’ by Skye Gyngell. It’s a beautiful book in every sense of the word – the recipes, the writing and the photography.

Skye Gyngell’s recipe is for blood orange and rosemary jelly. I make mine with other sweet orange varieties (like navel or valencia) which are readily available, but I have also used blood oranges when in season. I replace the rosemary with fresh bay leaves (we have numerous bay trees growing in our garden – they are prolific multipliers) and find that they add a lovely bittersweet floral scent and an ever so delicate flavour to the tangy orange. You can use dried bay if you can’t get hold of fresh leaves but use less as they have a more concentrated flavour, as with all dried herbs.

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My recipe uses considerably less sugar than most others – just 2 tablespoons – so it’s relatively child-friendly for a dessert, especially for a jelly. Blood oranges can be more tart than other types of sweet oranges as they contain hints of raspberry in their flavour profile. So when using the sanguiferous variety you could up the sugar content of my recipe if you want to (Skye Gyngell recommends 100g of caster sugar for 600ml of blood orange juice).

This is an incredibly easy and quick recipe, and looks beautiful on the plate – meaning it’s perfect for children to help make or a cute little number to put together for a grown-up feast. The jelly is best served on the day it’s made but will happily sit in the fridge overnight to be gobbled up for lunch the next day.

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Also, it’s worth noting that I personally use vegetarian gelatine in the form of agar agar although my recipe denotes amounts for agar-agar, leaf and powdered gelatines. Agar agar is a mixture of complex carbohydrates (rather than animal proteins) and minerals derived from gelidium seaweed species of Red Sea algae. It gives you a more set and chewy jelly compared to the silky, melt-in-the-mouth jellies you get from using gelatine. (Find out more about agar agar at this great site). However, do refer to the instructions on all vegetarian, leaf (or sheet) or powdered gelatine packets as strength differs from product to product.

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Serves 4

Ingredients

500ml freshly squeezed orange juice (I use navels, Valencias or blood oranges, depending on availability) plus a little extra for serving (about 8 oranges worth, depending on their size)
1 orange for serving
2 tablespoons caster sugar (I used golden)
3 fresh bay leaves (or 1 dried bay leaf)
1.5 teaspoons of agar agar or 3 sheets of medium-strength leaf gelatine or an 11g sachet of powdered gelatine
Sunflower oil for greasing moulds
Individual pudding/jelly moulds or a muffin tray (this is what I use and it makes 4 perfect little jellies!)

Method

Lightly crush your bay leaves (or bay leaf, if using dried) between your fingers to release their flavour and scent, which will infuse the jelly. Add the bay to a saucepan and pour on the orange juice and sugar. Place the pan over a gentle heat, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar.

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Whilst your pan is heating, and if using leaf gelatine, soak the gelatine sheets in a bowl of cold water for 5 minutes. Then remove from water and squeeze out excess liquid. If using powdered gelatine follow the packet instructions for use. If using agar agar, soak in cold water and remove after 5 minutes but then add to the saucepan and boil together with the juice, sugar and bay for another five minutes – this activates the setting agents in the agar (gelatine has a lower setting temperature so you never add gelatine to liquid if it is still boiling).

Once your juice has come to the boil, remove from the heat and add the gelatine (if you’re using agar agar skip this step as you have already added your setting agent). Stir to ensure the gelatine has completely dissolved.

Then, using a sieve, strain the juice into a jug to remove the bay leaves and pith.

Using a little oil, wipe round your moulds before pouring in the warm liquid. Set aside to cool completely and then pop in the fridge for a couple of hours to set.

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When ready to serve (ideally on the day you make them), briskly dip the bottom of the mould (or muffin tray) in warm water and run a palette knife around the edge of the jelly to dislodge. Squeeze a little juice and place a slice or two of orange (peel and pith removed) on each plate, and complete with your little wobbly jelly balanced atop.

orange_bay_jelly5My almost-three-year-old daughter has, for the past few months, become somewhat obsessed with food. I have always encouraged us to cook together and she is by far the most adventurous eater in our family, which she recently proved by licking a sprat at the fishmongers. However, her fanatics have taken her into the realms of desserts. Puddings, or whatever it is that may be the ceremonious closing of her dinner, have become all-consuming and occupy her fizzing little brain 24-7. When reading, she hones into pictures of cakes, jellies, ice-cream and biscuits as if each illustration is a ‘Where’s Wally’ meets ‘Larousse Gastronomique’ lip-licking game. I tell myself that this is probably completely normal for a toddler whose time at home is spent huddled with her family around the cooker (yes we spend a lot of time cooking but the AGA is actually the warmest being occupying the house), but often she is disappointed and, frankly, let down by the end of a meal when a massive, cream-filled sundae isn’t plonked down in front of her.

The truth is, I worry about sugar. I’m being honest. Ok so I grew up chomping on 10p Chomps and gnawing at acid-coloured Irn Bru bars (and my god they were awesome, especially after you’d just smoked three fags in the forest next to the school and burnt your eyebrows in the process), and I still have all my own teeth and most of my own marbles. And, yes, I am aware that if you withhold or elevate certain foods you risk fetishizing them and, well, making matters worse. But sugar really is pretty bad for us physiologically, psychologically and sociologically (do your research, it isn’t hard to find the evidence against fructose, corn syrups and the like). So I’m finding a middle way as a parent, and I attempt conversation about food, its provenance, nutrition, what happens when people can’t afford to eat and why, so that my children are given as many of the facts as I can give. The fact that they are 2 and three-quarters and 9 months old summons the words ‘falling’ and ‘ears’ to mind, but there’s hope…

So we have fun cooking together in the meantime, including making stuff that contains just a little bit of sugar.

When looking for an easy-to-make-with-children dessert for dinner guests last Friday, I came up with a tangy, just sweet-enough Orange and Bay Jelly to round off a robust, wintry meal of jerusalem artichoke soup, oven-roasted plaice and braised root vegetables. It’s easy-peasy to throw together and a delight for both milky-toothed toddlers and grown-up children alike. Needless to say, my daughter was very, very happy when the wibbly wobbly pudding arrived.

Click here to read my recipe for Orange and Bay Jelly.

Empanadillas_1Empanadillas are simply delicious, crescent-shaped little pies that are traditionally filled with fish or meat and a base of tomato, garlic and onion sauce.  Hailing from medieval Spain (and before that probably coming from the east via the Indian samosa), the empanada is the people’s snack of much of Southern Europe and Latin America.  Its name derives from the Spanish verb empanar ~ to coat in bread (I love the Spanish.  But then I’d love anyone who had a verb for coating in bread), and it disguises itself across the world going by pseudonyms like cornish pasty, borek, kibbeh, roti, knish, stromboli and calzone.  But the basis is much the same: something scrummy wrapped in bread.

This recipe for empanadillas is borrowed and bent from Claudia Roden’s magnificent new tome, ‘The Food of Spain‘.  I am eternally in awe of Claudia Roden and her service to food.  My recipe differs in that I use tinned mackerel (instead of tinned tuna) with the addition of smoked paprika to make use of an incredibly underrated fish and a superb, traditional Spanish spice to enhance the flavours of the sauce and vegetables.  I also use spelt flour (or farro, as it is known in Italy where it is traditionally used to make pizza bases) instead of plain flour, as it’s more nutritious than plain wheat flour (higher in protein, fibre and vitamins and minerals) and has a slightly nutty taste that adds depth to the rich olive oil pastry.

Mackerel is a star both in terms of taste and for its sustainability status.  Its rich, earthy flavour holds its own against acid-tomato sauces (especially this one flavoured with smoked paprika and olives) and, compared to tuna and salmon (which are hugely over-fished species mostly caught in dubious, polluting and damaging ways), it is low in the food chain, fast growing, sustainably-caught and incredibly good for you (you know, full of those essential omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA).  I use tinned mackerel (in olive oil, if you’re asking) for this recipe because, well, it’s so darn good and very affordable.

Like ordinary paprika, smoked paprika is made from the ground, dried fruits of sweet (or chilli) red peppers.  However, it is then smoked over oak fires to create its supremely deep flavour and scent, typical of the Western region of Extremadura in Spain where it has been produced since the 1500s.

These empanadillas are relatively easy to make and are perfect warm from the oven or cold as a snack.

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Ingredients


The Pastry
125ml olive oil, plus extra for greasing
125ml warm water
1/2 teaspoon salt
375g spelt flour
2 egg yolks, beaten

The Filling
1 red pepper
2 tablespoons of sweetcorn (either tinned or cooked from frozen)
1/2 red onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
2 tablespoons of olive oil
250g tomatoes, peeled and chopped
125g tinned mackerel, drained and flaked between your fingers
A handful of black and/or green olives, stones removed and chopped into pieces
2 tablespoons of chopped coriander and/or parsley
Sea salt and cracked black pepper

Makes around 20 empanadillas

Method

Preheat your oven to 350°F / 180°C / gas mark 4.

Make the pastry by mixing the oil, water and salt in a bowl with a fork.  Slowly add the flour, initially mixing with the fork to make a soft, pliable dough.  Then continue to work the pastry using your hands, before kneading briefly.  The dough should be nice and smooth.

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You can use the dough straight away or keep it, according to Claudia Roden, wrapped in cling film and at room temperature (not in a fridge) for as long as a day.

Now make the filling.  Grill (or char over a naked gas flame) the red pepper, turning every five minutes or so, until it is blackened and soft, and so that the skin may be peeled off.  Remove and discard the seeds, and chop the soft pepper into small cubes.

Next heat a large frying pan and cook the onion in the olive oil over a low heat, stirring regularly, until it is soft and translucent.  Add the garlic, smoked paprika and chopped tomatoes, and turn the heat up a bit, cooking this mixture until the liquid has evaporated and you are left with a thick sauce.  (This will take around 10 minutes.)  Now add the mackerel, olives, sweetcorn, chopped parsley/coriander, and season with salt and pepper.  Stir together well and remove from the heat to cool.

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Now make the empanadillas.  Divide your pastry dough into 4 pieces and do the following steps one batch at a time:

Roll each piece out thinly.  You will not need to flour the surface as the dough is very oily and will not stick.  Using a 10cm round pastry cutter, cut out circles of dough, making sure to reuse offcuts by rolling them back into balls, rolling them out thinly with the pin and cutting more rounds.  The dough is quite elastic so gently roll the pastry circles a little if you feel they have snapped back a bit and become too small, not worrying if the circle becomes a little malformed!

Brush the edge of each circle with the beaten egg yolk (you can just use your finger for this) and – I find picking up the round of pastry and doing the next step in the palm of my hand is easiest – put a generous dollop of filling into the middle before folding the circle in half to make a half-moon shaped pie.  Nip the edges together using your fingers, and then press down along the edge with a fork so that the pie has little pronged marks undulating their way around.  Do this until you have used up the pastry and filling.

Finally place the empanadillas on a baking sheet lined with lightly oiled tin foil, and brush the tops of each pie with the remaining egg yolk mixed with a little water.  Bake in the oven for around 30 minutes or until golden.

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Where Christmas Eve was appropriated with chicken soup (and surely Mary would have supped some of the good stuff before birthing her infant, Jesus), my mother marks Christmas Day with a gargantuan kosher turkey and all the trimmings, as any self-respecting, assimilated Jewish Nana would.  This year, I’m ashamed to say, my favourite part of the meal were the pigs (or rather cows) without blankets: a platter of heavily salted, kosher beef cocktail sausages that, when dipped in Nana’s  deeply-spiced bread sauce, I seemed to snort up like a rabid stock broker on a trip to Bogotá.

The meal – as with all meals that followed that week at my mother’s house – was brought to a coma-inducing close by an enormous bowl of Christmas pudding, courtesy of the commercial copulation of Waitrose and Heston Blumenthal.  Thankfully, I had been prepared – my mother had announced this to me in the late summer when she purchased ten of these puddings from said supermarket as, she explained, they had sold out the previous year before she could buy one.  (Or one hundred.)  And so I broke my vow to never eat sugar or dairy for the one week of the year where, frankly, I’d have had to go into protective custody to escape the stalking sugar-coatedness of the final throes of the festive season.

So, all-in-all, I spent most of the last week of 2012 at my mother’s house doing a great deal of face-stuffing, and very little moving.  This meant that on our return home, and during the first week of the new year, I could be seen hauling myself away from the mother-in-law’s kitchen, panting and salivating and eye-balling the biscuit tin, with a deranged toddler clinging to my leg doing much the same as her mother and mouthing, “eyescreeeeem, beeeesciiit, lollllipopppp”.  It was time for the family to do away with the microwaveable desserts.

Therefore, in the vain hope that I would enliven our palettes with something fresh and relatively healthful, I decided to cook up a dish of empanadillas that I have been making since November, when some dear friends sent me a copy of Claudia Roden’s magnificent tome, ‘The Food of Spain’.

And here is the recipe for Mackerel and Smoked Paprika Empanadillas.

Soup Of The Evening

Lewis Carroll

Beautiful Soup, so rich and green,
Waiting in a hot tureen!
Who for such dainties would not stoop?
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!

Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!
Beau – ootiful Soo – oop!
Beau – ootiful Soo – oop!
Soo – oop of the e – e – evening,
Beautiful, beautiful Soup!

Beautiful Soup! Who cares for fish,
Game, or any other dish?
Who would not give all else for two p
ennyworth only of beautiful Soup?
Pennyworth only of beautiful Soup?

Beau – ootiful Soo – oop!
Beau – ootiful Soo – oop!
Soo – oop of the e – e – evening,
Beautiful, beautiful Soup!

In the magical ‘Alice in Wonderland’, Lewis Carroll wrote an ode to what I’d like to think was his most cherished entree, soup. Maybe it was even his most beloved dish of any of the day’s repast. And I would have to agree – soup is one of the greatest gifts you can give a vegetable.

Any humble, muddy rooted legume may be transformed into a Rajasthani queen, given a sprinkling of toasted spice and a roast in the oven. A cast of spring vegetables can be charmed into a pool of broth for a synchronised swim. The threadbare remnants of a roasted hen can be redressed and transformed into a meaty elixir, worthy of clobbering any grown-man’s influenza. Throw in a handful of grains, a cup of lentils, some beans or pasta, and you have yourself a solid meal. Yes siree! This is the fairest of food; transcending class, race, gender, age, and season. It tells stories about where we come from and, also, where we’re at. A simple potage of potatoes could feed a small village during a famine whilst a bouillabaisse in the south of France could cost a week’s salary somewhere else in the world. Best of all, soup keeps us alive.

And so here I am, sitting today at my mother’s house, full with the riches of her famous chicken soup. Two bowls, in fact. This is no ordinary chicken soup (none of that creamy malarkey that was born in a tin or a carton, with murdered fleshy bits floating on the curd) – this is the goldenest of liquors, extracted from a koshered boiler after hours of simmering in a shissel full to the brim with root vegetables and giblets. This is the soup that leaves a fine meniscus of oil around a tipped bowl, like a luscious Pedro Ximenez, just to remind you of its strength of body and spirit.

So, in response to a question reminiscent of a Passover seder table: why on this day do we eat chicken soup? Well, it’s the best thing a Jewish family on Christmas Eve in London can eat to remind themselves about where they have schlepped from.

Glossary
Shissel – Yiddish word for a large cooking vessel
Seder – the ritual Jewish feast of the festival of Passover
Schlep – Yiddish word for (v) haul or carry; (n) a tedious journey

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When my son Reuben was tiny he suffered from Gastroesophageal Reflux.  There are many ways to treat this not-uncommon condition in infants – ranging from pharmaceuticals through to probiotics, positioning and homeopathy – and what is prescribed depends both on the gravity of the condition and the opinions of the child’s parents and/or caregivers.  Although Reuben was prescribed medicine, we chose not to medicate him, and instead sought a variety of non-pharmaceutical aids.  Hand-on-heart, I will attest that – aside from the infant probiotics (which did wonders, I tell you) – our most efficacious approach was simply my diet, and the changes I made to it as a breast-feeding mother.

Six months ago, I stopped eating dairy products (both infant and adult reflux has been linked to dairy for some time), refined sugars and caffeine, and – short of indulging at a wedding, barmitzvah, shiver (purely out of respect, of course), or the delightful Colonna & Smalls coffee house in nearby Bath – I doubt I’ll ever gobble another bowl of macaroni cheese (sob), guzzle a bag of milk chocolate buttons, or sup a cup of freshly roasted coffee again.  Yes, seriously.  And it has been amazing.

Aside from the ebb of sick, Reuben stopped shrieking and writhing around in pain, and I felt (and still feel) incredible.  You know that energy lull you get in the middle of the day?  You know, the one they tell us is all about carbs.  Well, I’m sorry to rain on those women magazines’ parades, but it’s all about sugar and caffeine.  I no longer feel tired – and I’m a full-time mother to two children under three people! – and my skin is amazing.  And best of all, I feel really positive and high all the time.  Not wishing to sound totally evangelical about my new-found self-nourishment, here’s a link which is worth a read, and I’ll just leave you to do your own research, as I did.  (But it doesn’t mean I won’t try to surreptitiously introduce you to this eatable revolution through my cooking.)

The following recipe is both dairy- and sugar-free and offers a dense, sweet and moist cake.  It is also incredibly child-friendly because it doesn’t contain refined sugars (which kids eat far too much of nowadays) and introduces little ones to the idea that puddings can be made using vegetables.

My recipe is an adaptation of a lovely one that I found on the Heavenly Cakes blog – thank you Heike.  You can read it here.

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Ingredients

250g grated carrots
200g white spelt flour
2 tsp baking powder
Pinch of fine sea salt
3 large eggs
100ml agave syrup
180ml sunflower oil, plus extra for oiling your cake tin
150g ground nuts (I used 100g almonds and 50g hazelnuts)
2 teaspoons of cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg
Zest of 1 orange
Juice of 1 orange

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Method

Preheat your oven to 350°F / 180°C / gas mark 4 and then oil and line a 30cm round cake tin with baking parchment.

In a large bowl, sieve together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon and nutmeg.  Then, in a second bowl, combine the grated carrots, orange zest, oil, eggs, salt and agave syrup.

Tip the wet ingredients into the dry and carefully mix together.  Finally, fold in the ground nuts.

Pour the batter into your cake tin and bake in the oven for around 50 minutes or until the top is a golden colour and a skewer comes out clean.  Whilst your cake is baking, squeeze the juice of the orange into a jug.

Leave your cake to cool in the tin for a few minutes before turning out onto a wire rack.  Place a large dinner plate under the rack and, using a skewer, pierce 7-10 holes evenly around the top of the cake.  Lastly, drizzle the orange juice over the top of the cake.

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