prawn & pea orzo

Orzo with prawns and peas
Orzo with prawns and peas

Goodness. Is anyone else feeling the chill lately?

During the rickets-inducing darkened winter months, I feel it’s almost mandatory to switch over to comfort food. After all, after trudging through the biting wind on icy pavements, I think even the most determined salad enthusiast would be hard-pressed to be happy to come home to a chilled bowl of leaves.

Instead, it’s time to embrace winter food. Piping hot soups. Steaming piles of pasta. Plates of deep, rich stew and rivulets of gravy running down mountains of mash.

Getting cosy with winter food is a definite bright spot in the otherwise grey, chilly days.

Comforting. Easy. Delicious.
Comforting. Easy. Delicious.

Winter food is all about creamy comfort, and one of the best places to find it is in a bowl of silky orzo. Cooking orzo risotto-style has become all the rage, which is a total blessing for the time-poor. If you’re in the mood for a risotto and you can’t possibly face stirring at the stove for an hour, orzo is your friend.

I love this recipe for many reasons – it’s filling without being heavy, it’s fast and it’s super easy. Most of all, it’s completely delicious. The succulent prawns and juicy peas invoke memories of sunshine bright enough to sustain us through a freezing winter.

 

Prawn and pea orzo (serves 2)
1 onion, diced
1½ cups orzo
1 cup peas
1 tbsp tomato paste
2½ cups fish stock
1 tsp smoked paprika
12 prawns
3 cloves garlic, minced
Chopped parsley to serve
Lemon juice

Slowly fry the onion in vegetable oil with some salt, so it begins to soften. After three minutes, add the orzo and coat in the oil.

Add the tomato paste, paprika and stock, stirring. It takes around 12 minutes to cook orzo this way.

At the 8-minute mark, add the frozen peas.

At this point you can also heat some oil in a frying pan, ready to toss the prawns in. They are very quick – place them on one side for one minute, then add the garlic and toss the prawns so the other side cooks. They need around two minutes in total, depending on the size. Take them off the heat and set them aside.

Test if the orzo is done. It should be toothsome but yielding, just like normal pasta. Serve the orzo with the prawns and top with a handful of chopped parsley and a squeeze of lemon juice.

spelt spaghetti with zucchini

A piping hot plate of pasta... what could be better?
A piping hot plate of pasta… what could be better?

I have a slightly alarming ability to consume vast quantities of pasta. I love every second of the dance; twirling golden strands into thick ropes around your fork, feeling the pile unravel in your mouth, the moreish, al dente bite against your teeth and the explosion of juicy flavours. Oh, God. It’s deeply satisfying, and I never want it to be over.

But the passionate love affair burns brightly until every last morsel is gone, and then I’m left bereft and alone, faced with the inevitable post-consumptive regret that is pasta bloat.

spelt and zucchini
Simple, tasty and on the table in ten minutes.

I mean, it’s definitely worth it. After all, what’s a little digestive discord in the grand symphony of the perfect pasta dish? If the measure of love is what you’re willing to sacrifice, pasta and I would make a Mills and Boon novel blush.

But recently I discovered something wonderful, life-affirming and joyful, so naturally I must share it with you. It’s spelt, it’s delicious, and it’s much kinder to your digestive system.

Spelt pasta loves you back.

 

This ancient grain is a species of wheat, but has a different molecular structure to the common modern classifications and thus is digested differently. It’s not safe for coeliacs, mind, because it still has gluten. But those with wheat sensitivity often find that they can tolerate spelt – excellent news for the wheat-challenged amongst us!

Spelt is high in fibre and a great source of complex carbohydrates as well as providing a wide range of nutrients like vitamin B2, niacin, copper, iron, zinc and magnesium, all of which contribute to the healthy function of the body’s nervous, cardiovascular and immune systems. And for what it’s worth, in my very non-clinical trial I found that pasta bloat was not a problem with spelt.

Spelt is kind of wonderful.
Spelt is kind of wonderful.

Spelt pasta has a gentle nutty flavour and a smoother texture than wholemeal pasta, so it’s a perfect option for those who dislike the grainy mouthfeel of brown pasta. Cooked here with subtle strands of zucchini and lit up with lemon, garlic and chilli, it makes a fantastic ten-minute supper. Dive in – twirl away – enjoy!

Spelt spaghetti with zucchini (serves two)
200g spelt spaghetti
1 medium zucchini
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tsp Chiu Chow chilli oil or chilli flakes
Zest of a lemon
1 tbsp olive oil
Parsley, to garnish

Put the spelt on to boil but be careful not to overcook it. You want to stop it before it’s quite done as it does keep cooking when you drain it and again in the pan later.

Meanwhile, shave the zucchini into strips using a vegetable peeler.

Reserve one cup of the spelt cooking liquid and then drain the pasta.

In a pan, heat the olive oil and zest the lemon into the oil.

Gently fry the garlic over a medium heat without letting it colour. You can add salt to stop the garlic from browning.

Add the chilli oil and half the cooking liquid.

Add the zucchini and heat through, then add the pasta and toss well. If it looks a little dry, add some more of the cooking liquid so it forms a creamy sauce.

Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve hot.

spinach & ricotta lasagne

Warm and comforting.
Warm and comforting.

I’m not a vegetarian.

I mean it. I love meat. I celebrate spaghetti bolognese. I adore lamb shanks. I’m devoted to roast chicken. I have been known to weep with joy over a good unsmoked rasher of back bacon, damn it. Basically, if it swims or flies or roams this earth in a non-human not-too-exotic fashion, odds are I’ll have considered eating it at one point or another.

But despite my keen interest, I don’t really eat very much of it.

I know many people who belong to the ‘if it doesn’t have meat in it, it’s not a meal’ school of thought. Often, they are rightly concerned about the nutritional balance of a vegetarian lifestyle, which can lack protein, iron and magnesium if practiced incorrectly. Sometimes they approach it from a culinary perspective, because truthfully meat will add a taste and texture no other food can quite emulate. Mostly, though, the reasons have to do with a mental state; it doesn’t feel like a real meal if it doesn’t have meat in it.

The thing is, there are plenty of compelling reasons to eat less meat: environmental sustainability, health, cost and convenience being just a few. These are all solid incentives, but surely one of the greatest motivations is vegetarian food itself; it can be so darn good. The problem is overcoming years and years of bad restaurant PR – decades of limp pasta arrabbiata and dry veggie burgers – which is not at all representative of vegetarian cuisine.

Nothing limp or dry about this.
Nothing limp or dry about this.

Me, I’m a part-time meat eater at best, and this is what I’ve learned from my casual carnivorism: if you want to eat less meat, you can’t just cook traditionally meat-based dishes and leave the meat out. You’ll always feel like something is missing, and it will be, because you crafted it with meat in mind. Instead, you have to truly celebrate vegetables. After all, what is a chicken salad without the chicken? A pile of sad-looking lettuce and a mangled tomato, that’s what. But what if you created a salad with the earthy crunch of spinach, and added sweet kernels of corn, nutty quinoa, roasted pumpkin, avocado and a scattering of pine nuts? Would you truly feel deprived?

A meal doesn’t need meat to be satisfying; to me, what matters is how you use the ingredients you choose to include. So as an enthusiastic advocate of vegetables I want to share this recipe with you; it’s delicious and filling – I think the word ‘nourishing’ would be appropriate. It warms you from the inside out, like the pasta version of a big, warm hug, and it is: a pile of vegetables, loving you back.

Make and bake. Simple and delicious!
Make and bake. Simple and delicious!

Spinach and ricotta lasagne
250g lasagne sheets
500g frozen spinach, thawed and drained
250g ricotta
Pinch of nutmeg
1 egg
1 x 125g ball of mozzarella
2 x 400g tins of canned tomatoes
1 x 400g jar of passata
1 onion
1 vegetable stock cube
Mixed herbs
Salt and pepper

Make the tomato sauce first. Chop the onion and sauté gently until translucent, then add the tomatoes, passata, stock cube and herbs. Simmer for 15 minutes and taste, adjusting the seasoning. Depending on the sharpness of the tomatoes, you might need to add ketchup or sugar.

Mix the spinach with the ricotta, egg and nutmeg. Add salt and white pepper.

Starting with a drizzle of the sauce so the lasagne sheets don’t stick to the bottom, layer the sheets, sauce and spinach mixture in an ovenproof dish.

Bake at 200C for 20 minutes, then top with the torn mozzarella ball and return to the oven for another 30 minutes.

pumpkin & cheddar frittata

It's sunshine in cake form.
It’s sunshine in cake form.

Frittatas are gloriously summery. Sweet and eggy, deliciously filling and incredibly versatile, frittatas are this lovely golden yellow that always makes me think that they’ve found a way to catch Italian sunshine and smuggle it back for the rest of us. Somehow, despite being basically a collection of eggs and odds and ends, they’re unfailingly cheerful. I challenge you to stare at a frittata and not feel uplifted by its simple goodness.

It’s pretty difficult to stray too far off the path with a frittata, even if you’re not following a recipe. They’re the kind of thing you vaguely know how to make almost instinctively, and they’re fairly forgiving, so they’re the ultimate in stress-free cookery. What’s not to love?

I love making frittatas with sweeter vegetables like pumpkin and zucchini to bring out the natural sweetness of eggs. You can serve frittatas hot or cold and they’re great accompanied by a fresh salad, beans or some quinoa.

Serve with salad and quinoa.
Serve with salad and quinoa.

Pumpkin and cheddar frittata
1 x medium butternut squash
200g cheddar cheese, half grated, half cubed
9 eggs
Small bunch of chives
Salt and pepper

Cut the butternut squash into small chunks and roast in a 200C oven for around 20 minutes, or until soft.

Take it out and remove the skin – I find it easier and faster to do after it’s been cooked, but you do lose a little more pumpkin flesh.

Chop into cubes and place into a cake tin (one that doesn’t leak is helpful!) with the cubes of cheddar.

In a bowl, beat the eggs until light and fluffy, then snip the chives in and add a good strong pinch of salt and white pepper. Stir in the grated cheese and pour the lot into the cake tin.

Bake in a 200C oven for 40 minutes.

low-fodmap meatballs

low-fodmap meatballs are comforting, delicious and safe for friends with IBS
Low-fodmap meatballs are comforting, delicious and safe for friends with IBS

One of my dearest friends is following the low-FODMAP diet to combat IBS, and it can be a little challenging to stick with the ‘no wheat, onion and garlic’ rule when you’re eating out. It’s not impossible, but I’ve seen the struggle – poring over menus, referencing the extensive list of prohibited foods and interrogating waiters as to the contents of a dish while your dining companions wait to order. A menu becomes a minefield and what should be a lovely, free and happy choice based purely on what you feel like eating becomes stressful, difficult and a little isolating.

Serve with rice or rice pasta for a FODMAP-friendly meal
Serve with rice or rice pasta for a FODMAP-friendly meal

So sometimes we eat in, and whenever I have her around I like to make something she can eat safely and share with everyone else. It’s maybe a little complicated, but with a bit of creativity and an understanding of good substitutions, everyone can tuck into the same dish.

The simple act of sharing – good food, a cheeky glass of wine and lots of laughter with friends – is a powerfully healing experience. I can’t think of a better way to spend a weekend!

Low-FODMAP meatballs (makes 60)
For the meatballs:
500g beef mince
500g pork mince
2 bunches spring onions (green part only), finely diced
5 sprigs of parsley, finely diced
1 tbsp mixed herbs
1 tbsp garlic oil
4 tbsp parmesan
4 eggs
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp pepper
2 tsp baking soda
3-4 tbsp cornstarch

For the tomato sauce:
2 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes
2 x 500g passata
1 bunch spring onions (green part only), finely diced
3 bay leaves
3 mozzarella balls, to bake

Put it in the oven to bake and go and join your friends for a chat.
Put it in the oven to bake and go and join your friends for a chat.

Mix all the ingredients except the cornstarch together with a fork.

The cornstarch is there to regulate the wetness of the mix, so start with 2 tablespoons, mix thoroughly and see how wet it is. You want it to be moist, but easy to handle.

Roll into small balls.

From here, there are a few ways to go about cooking the dish. The easiest is to place them directly into the sauce, top with mozzarella and bake the whole thing for 90 minutes in a 200 degree oven.

Alternatively, you can bake your meatballs separately for 30 minutes so they brown nicely, then place them into the sauce and bake for 30 minutes. This is also a good method if you like to drain the fat from your mince.

Finally, if you don’t have an oven, you can simmer them in the sauce. Don’t stir them at the start as they’ll break up – wait until the egg has cooked and will hold them together. Total cooking time is about 30 minutes, starting with a fast simmer for the first 15 minutes and coming back down to a low simmer.

Serve with brown rice or mashed potatoes.

FODMAP notes: I’ve included parmesan in the recipe, because even though lactose is a no-go, parmesan has very little lactose. I’m not quite sure what it is about the ageing process, but hard cheeses have far less lactose than soft cheeses and milk.

Having just said that, mozzarella is also on the safe list for FODMAP. Nevertheless, some people are super-sensitive to lactose, so leave it out if you have to.

spring pasta

Pasta with broccoli - the perfect spring supper.
Pasta with broccoli – the perfect spring supper.

This week I celebrated the arrival of my new baby: a beautiful, pristine Cambridge-blue ceramic pan.

Yes, I’m aware this is a little strange. Most people celebrate the arrival of actual children, of Spring, of parcels and packages and Christmas and birthdays. But those of you who understand the excitement associated with a new kitchen accessory – its perfect white ceramic surface gleaming up at you – you’re my kindred spirits. We’ll be completely mad together.

The colour makes me think of spring, which is fitting because it’s growing ever so slightly warmer in London – by which I mean you can now leave the scarf, hat and gloves at home and just go out with a coat and umbrella. Every day I throw open the curtains and peer eagerly up at the sky, just waiting for the moment I can put away the Vitamin D tablets and bask in the sunshine.

It’s just around the corner. I can feel it.

Pasta with broccoli, garlic and chilli.
Pasta with broccoli, garlic and chilli.

Broccoli with pasta is traditional to the south of Italy. This light, simple dish is bright enough to celebrate the imminent arrival of sunshine and filling enough to stave off the last of the winter blues, and it always makes me think of the outdoors and lazy days full of wine and laughter. I love the juicy burst of fresh tomatoes and the crunchy zing of parsley, combined with the dense bite of pasta and the gentle heat of garlic and chilli.

For me, this is the perfect spring supper.

Pasta with broccoli, garlic and chilli
250g short pasta
1 small head of broccoli, cut into small florets
5 cloves garlic, diced
½ teaspoon Chiu Chow chilli oil (you can use chilli flakes)
3-4 sprigs parsley, chopped
10 cherry or baby plum tomatoes

Cook the pasta in salted water until firm but not hard.

Three minutes before the pasta finishes, add the broccoli to the pot.

Reserve 1 cup of the cooking liquid and drain the pasta and broccoli.

In a frying pan over a medium heat, add the garlic in some oil and heat for around 30 seconds, taking care not to let it burn.

Add the chilli and fry for another 15 seconds, then add half the reserved liquid to the frypan. Turn the heat up so it bubbles.

Add the pasta/broccoli and heat through. If it becomes too dry, add more of the cooking liquid so it forms a creamy sauce.

Top with parsley and serve with cherry tomatoes.

warm tortellini salad

warm tortellini salad
a winter salad

Don’t laugh, but there are tortellini on my salad.

Sometimes I suspect the best food combinations have less to do with a considered stroke of genius and more to do with indecision, greed or laziness. Breakfast or lunch? Brunch sounds great! Meat or bread first, or keep playing cards? Hello, sandwich! Croissant, or donut? Behold the cronut! (tastier but much less amusing than its croissant/flapjack hybrid cousin, the crapjack.)

All of this is justification for what I’m sure you’re going to love, even if it does sound a little strange at first: a warm tortellini salad.

I’ve recently come back from Australia and moved into a new flat, which means that the cupboards are crazily, disconcertingly bare. The local Sainsburys is being far less cooperative than my old Tesco (why are the washing gloves not next to the washing up liquid? Why are dried pulses not in the vegetable or rice sections? For the love of God, are there any insoles left in London?), but I will prevail in time, and my cupboards will go back to looking like I’m preparing to sit out a small nuclear disaster.

In the meantime, though, supper is the quickest-of-quick meals: pasta and sauce.

There’s really nothing like coming home in the freezing sleet and gale force winds and diving into a pile of warm, comforting pasta. I suspect that my brief and unsuccessful stint at proper low-carbing had more than a little to do with my ongoing love affair with spaghetti. Pasta is a hug on a plate.

The thing is, pasta doesn’t have the healthiest reputation, and the vitamin content of a jar of sauce is not spectacular. But salads are just so cold and uninspiring at this time of year. What’s a girl to do?

The warm tortellini salad is the best of both worlds: a moderated helping of pasta and all the nutritional goodness of a salad. If you time it right, the pasta will still be warm and the salad crisp, and you’ll feel virtuous and beloved all at the same time.

Warm tortellini salad
150g tortellini
Salad of choice – I use baby spinach, plum tomatoes, capsicum and chestnut mushrooms
Good balsamic vinegar

Boil a pot of water whilst you prepare the salad vegetables.

Salt the boiling water and cook the tortellini as directed on the pack. While you’re waiting, place the salad on a plate.

Drain the tortellini and add to the salad. Drizzle with balsamic vinegar.

It’s almost embarrassing to call this a recipe, but there you have it. I will say that tortellini is very easily overcooked (even when the directions say 3 minutes) and I really dislike soggy pasta, so I tend to knock a minute or so off the cooking time. Enjoy!

oven-baked pizza

An Angela aubergine.
An Angela aubergine.

Would you look at this eggplant?

Eggplants, for me, are tremendously exciting and deeply satisfying at the same time. I can’t get over their brilliant purple hues – from dark, plummy violets to luminous lilacs and lavenders, I think eggplants are possibly the prettiest fruit I’ve ever seen, and that’s without being biased by the lovely velvety texture and mild, creamy taste.

Ok, I haven’t totally lost the plot. There is a reason that I’m waxing lyrical about eggplants, and it’s because this beautiful Angela Aubergine inspired tonight’s dinner: homemade oven-baked pizza.

To be honest, I would eat pizza a lot more if it wasn’t so unhealthy. It’s true that the kind you order on the phone or buy in freezer sections can be extremely high in fat and calories and carbs and just about every other tasty thing in the world – but if you make it yourself, you get to control what goes onto it and you get to use up all the vegetable odds and ends knocking around in your fridge.

Delicious, convenient and fast.
Delicious, convenient and fast.

This one is a relatively low-fat pizza and clocks in at around 250 calories. No, really.

Everyone’s got their favourite pizza ingredient, and I fully encourage random experimentation (the best pizza I’ve ever eaten had radicchio and truffle sausage on it). The one thing I will say is that the base is incredibly thin, so if you do want to place a lot of ingredients on it, you may need to double the base. Glue them together with a smattering of mozzarella.

While the mushroomy simplicity of pizza al funghi never fails to seduce me, I love the fiery heat of salami and the creamy texture of eggplant. The burst of colour that rocket lends completes the pizza, and my night.

Oven-baked pizza
Pizza sauce:
Olive oil
5 cloves garlic
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 tbsp Italian herbs
2 tomatoes, sliced (optional)

Pizza – obviously, all the toppings are optional, but here’s what I used:
1 wholemeal wrap (I used a sorj wrap, but you can use pita or an actual pizza base)
9 slices of eggplant (slice as thinly as possible so it cooks)
2 mushrooms, sliced
Roasted capsicum
1 slice hot salami
Mozzarella cheese (I used bocconcini)
Rocket

To make the pizza sauce, heat the oil over a low heat and crush the garlic into the oil.

Add the tomato paste, tomatoes and herbs with a little water and bring to a boil, then reduce and simmer for 15 minutes, or until the tomatoes have fallen apart.

pizza sauce
pizza sauce

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees celcius and prepare the vegetables.

Assemble the pizza. Start with a small amount of the sauce, layer on the vegetables and salami and top with cheese.

I love the beautiful little bocconcini balls.
I love the beautiful little baby bocconcinis.

Place in the oven and bake for 15 minutes or until the cheese has melted.

Top with rocket and serve with a large glass of red wine.

gobble this up

gobble gobble
gobble gobble

I’ve no recipe for you tonight, just a picture of yesterday’s turkey meatballs dished up the way they should be – perched on top of a bed of wholemeal spaghetti.

In case you’re wondering, the meatballs are juicy, sweet and light. Just what you need on this cold winter’s night!