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.

chicken & chorizo stew

Chicken and chorizo stew.
Chicken and chorizo stew.

Happy New Year everybody!

I spent the holiday break in Australia and although friends here warned me that it was freezing, it was a shock to step off the plane and discover just what they meant. For London is frosty beyond memory; it’s really really cold. It’s the kind of chill you’re not even sure how to handle, because doing anything other than the bare minimum involves a trip outside, which means getting dressed, and that requires a superhuman act of bravery.

Fortunately, there’s winter food to console us during the colder months, and we seek to ward off the chill with steaming bowls of something comforting. At this time of year, it’s all about cooking for warmth and ease – nothing fussy or fancy, just simple good food that invokes the memory of sunshine.

The ultimate winter dinner.
The ultimate winter dinner.

This stew combines aromatic chorizo with the gentle heat of chilli and the comforting graininess of butter beans. It’s perfect for nights like these!

Chicken and chorizo stew
6 chicken thighs
100g chorizo
1 x 400g tin butter beans, drained and rinsed
1 x 400g tin tomatoes
2 carrots, sliced
1 capsicum, sliced
1 onion, sliced
3 cloves garlic, sliced
2 tsp chilli flakes
250ml chicken or vegetable stock
Flour, salt, pepper and mixed herbs to coat the chicken

De-skin the chorizo and pull it into pieces. Fry gently in a non-stick pan and remove to a large baking dish, keeping the oil in the pan.

Season the flour with salt, pepper and mixed herbs. Coat the chicken in the flour and brown in the chorizo oil. Add the browned chicken to the baking dish.

Prepare the rest of the ingredients and add to the baking dish. Place in a 200 degree oven for 1 hour and serve with sweet potato mash, kale or a crusty loaf of bread.

party parcels

It's the party season, and we mean to do it well.
It’s the party season, and we mean to do it well.

‘Tis the season to be jolly, which means one thing: indulgence.

I love the way London does Christmas. It’s cool and crisp outside, cosy and warm inside, and people wander around town wrapped in scarves and beanies, noses pink from the cold and eyes sparkling with the twinkling lights of Oxford Circus and Regent Street.

The Grinchiest Grinch couldn’t fail to be caught up in the magic of this festive time of year.

The sadness at being away from those I love at home and abroad is somewhat tempered by the whirlwind of parties and irresponsible merriment. At any other time, drinking every day would basically render you a functioning alcoholic, but December is the exception: parties are simply the order of the month.

These party parcels are quick and easy to make and impressive to look at. Warm, filling and delightful, they’re perfect for a relaxed gathering – just add mulled wine, good friends and plenty of laughter.

Trio of Party Parcels: ‘Plant, Parma and Pumpkin
Eggplant parcel:
1 square of puff pastry, roughly 12.5-15cm in length
1 slice eggplant, about 7.5mm thick
Half a teaspoon of harissa paste
1 slice mozzarella cheese, about 5mm thick

If it isn’t already done, cut the puff pastry into a square. I used reduced fat ready-rolled puff pastry, but go with what you like.

Cut a square of pastry.
Cut a square of pastry.

Place the eggplant in the centre and top with the harissa paste.

Eggplant and harissa is an amazing combination.
Eggplant and harissa is an amazing combination.

Add the mozzarella.

Eggplant, harissa and mozzarella. It just works.
Eggplant, harissa and mozzarella. It just works.

To form the parcel, take two corners of the parcel and pinch together.

Wrapping the parcel.
Wrapping the parcel.

Crimp hard along the seam, folding over slightly to get a better seal.

Pinch along the seam.
Pinch along the seam.

Fold the other corners up in the same way, crimping as you go.

One party parcel.
One party parcel.

Truthfully, mine sort of popped open in the oven, so if you don’t want this to happen you can prick the pastry with a fork.

Parma parcel:
1 square of puff pastry, roughly 12.5-15cm in length
1 slice Parma ham
1 slice mozzarella cheese, about 5mm thick
1 slice pear, about 5mm thick
4 yellow pickled jalapeño slices

Take the square of pastry, and lay the Parma ham so the bulk sits in the middle and hangs off the side of the pastry square.

Isn't Parma ham delicious?
Isn’t Parma ham delicious?

Place the pear and jalapeños on top, followed by the mozzarella.

Parma, pear, pickles and cheese.
Parma, pear, pickles and cheese.

Wrap the other end of the Parma ham back over the top so it forms a neat package in the middle of your pastry.

Fold as per the eggplant parcel.

Parma party parcel
Parma party parcel

Pumpkin parcel:
1 square of puff pastry, roughly 12.5-15cm in length
1 slice pumpkin, about 5mm thick (I used butternut squash because that’s what I had lying around)
1 tablespoon chilli jam
1 square cheddar cheese (you can use mozzarella again here, but I think cheddar is nicer for the flavour)

Microwave your pumpkin slice for around 30 seconds and allow to cool.

Take the square of pastry, and lay the pumpkin in the middle and top with chilli jam.

Pumpkin and chilli jam.
Pumpkin and chilli jam.

Add the cheese and fold as per the eggplant parcel.

To cook, take a foil-lined tray and brush with a little oil. Place the parcels on top and brush with a beaten egg.

Brush with a beaten egg for a golden coating.
Brush with a beaten egg for a golden coating.

Bake at 180 degrees for 15 minutes, until the cheese turns molten and the pastry is golden.

party parcels - fresh from the oven
Serve hot and fresh.

They explode into a shower of buttery pastry crumbs when you bite into them, so hand out the plates first. Merry Christmas, everyone!

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!

beef and red wine stew

Winter warmers
Winter warmers

When the air is crisp and the days are short and cool, there’s nothing quite like a beef and red wine stew.

You’d be forgiven for having a sneaking suspicion that it’s a great excuse to snaffle myself a nice glass of red with dinner, but really, it’s so much more than that. I don’t eat a lot of beef, but when I do there’s a certain weightiness to it that’s perfect for a cold winter’s night.

There’s something very comforting about the tried-and-tested combination of beef, carrots and herbs, muddled together in synergistic harmony. Then there’s also the ritual of mushing an already-soft stew with a fork so that it falls into a tender heap atop a bed of mashed potatoes, staining their creamy perfection with little rivulets of rich gravy.

The first taste is like a big, warm hug. If you’re under the weather, out of sorts or nursing a broken heart, this is the stew you want to cook.

Beef and red wine stew
750g chuck steak, cubed
4 tbsp plain flour
2 onions
5 carrots
2 sticks of celery
2 tomatoes
3 cloves garlic
1 sprig of rosemary
1 small handful of parsley
500ml beef stock
250ml red wine
Salt and pepper

They're different colours, but only because that's what was in the cupboard.
They’re different colours, but only because that’s what was in the cupboard.

Start by quartering the onions and placing them, with a little oil, in a large pot over a low heat.

While it’s warming up, chop the celery and 1 carrot into very small pieces. Add these to the pot and cook over a low heat.

Season the flour with salt and pepper and toss the cubes of steak in the flour, coating them with a fine dusting. Add the steak to the pot and fry until browned.

Add the other carrots, stock, red wine, rosemary and tomatoes. Cover and simmer for 2 hours or until the beef falls apart. Remove the tomato skins and rosemary before adding the parsley at the very last minute.

Garnish with a little extra chopped parsley and serve with greens and potatoes.

Let’s talk about wine: the general consensus amongst the cooking community is that it’s not a huge issue what kind of wine you use, but it must be good enough to drink on its own. If you go buying crappy wine that you wouldn’t serve, the flavours are intensified when you cook it, giving you a horribly bitter stew with a cheap aftertaste that’ll remind you of every Friday night of your 20s. Just say no.

big kitchen roast chicken

tiny kitchen gone wild.
tiny kitchen gone wild. in poultry heaven.

Greetings from Australia!

Australia has many great things, including my parents, my sister, my friends and a full-size kitchen. Before I left London, I dreamed of the big oven in my parents’ kitchen and had plotted and schemed many dishes that I wanted to cook – one for each day of the week – a captive set free at last, if you will.

garlic roast potatoes
garlic roast potatoes

Of course, I underestimated the strength of pent-up parental affection, which is taking form in a tidal wave of soups, stir-fries and special cakes that I ‘just don’t get in London’. (It’s true. There’s nothing quite like braised pork made with mushrooms and love.)

My presence has kept both my parents in the kitchen for weeks, toiling away, and I’ve been begging to have a turn at the stove if only to give them a break. Tonight, I got my chance… so I went all-out with the ultimate winter meal: a roast with all the trimmings.

winner winner chicken dinner.
winner winner chicken dinner!

If you’re not fortunate enough to have an oven in your tiny kitchen, just commandeer a friend’s. Who doesn’t love a roast bird?

Roast chicken
1 large chicken (or 2 small chooks)
1 onion
3 cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon of mixed herbs
2 tablespoons of butter (or Proactiv)
1 lemon
Olive oil

Take the chicken out of the fridge and let it rest for an hour before preparing it. This helps it to stay moist.

Preheat a fan-forced oven to 180°C.

Wash the chicken and pat dry with kitchen paper. Make sure the skin is really dry because it will help it to crisp up.

Finely chop the onion and garlic, then mix with the herbs and butter. I used Proactiv Light, and it worked just fine.

Place the lemon into the cavity of the bird (or chop in half and place into the two smaller birds). Take the Proactiv mix and place a small amount into the cavity, then slide the rest under the skin of the bird.

Place the chicken breast-side-up onto a roasting tray and bake for 90 minutes. Turn it over at 60 minutes, and then again at 80 minutes. Test that the bird is done by poking a skewer or fork into the thickest part of the breast and checking that the juices run clear.

honeyed roast carrots
honeyed roast carrots

If you want to serve with the holy trinity of the roast vegetables – roast potatoes, honeyed roast carrots and peas – then the best time to add the potatoes and carrots to the oven is at the 30-minute mark. When you take the chicken out of the oven to rest (15 minutes), flick the grill on high to crisp the potatoes up.

nothing in the world like roasties.
nothing beats roasties.

turkey meatballs

Turkey meatballs - made for gobbling!
Turkey meatballs – made for gobbling!

I feel a bit ridiculous saying this when the memory of the chocolate hazelnut crepe I had for dessert last night is still fresh, but I’d like to be healthy. Wouldn’t we all?

Each day, we start out with the best of intentions and promise ourselves we’ll be good – and then, when confronted with the burger and fries we’ve wanted since time immemorial, our resistance crumbles like a honeycomb chocolate bar. Then the guilt sets in and the whole cycle begins again; the self-recrimination, the promise, the virtue of self-denial and sacrifice, and the inevitable ‘giving in’, generally a rather spectacular fall from grace involving a family-sized pizza and Sherlock DVDs.

Phew. How exhausting. I personally know of no quicker path to the ‘sharing’ bag of M&Ms.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if eating wasn’t a constant exercise in the ability to say no? Wouldn’t it fantastic if we weren’t continuously enslaved by the thought of indulgence, held captive by the mere scent of a splurge, paralysed by the fear of one food group or another? (Carbs. Hang on, fat. No, calories. Wait, sugar. Here, munch this piece of cardboard while I think about it.)

I think that like most things in life, eating well is about balance; generally making the right choices about what you eat, but also treating yourself occasionally and sensibly, without any of the insanity that goes along with being given rare and temporary freedom from the shackles of self-denial.

But thankfully, it isn’t all about salads versus burgers (or crepes, if you like). A lot of the time, you can make everyday meals healthier by having a look at what goes into them. Once you understand the ingredients, you can start tweaking recipes here and there to make them better for you.

With all that in mind, I’m having a look at turkey mince this week. It depends on the cuts used to make the mince and the fat content, but in general, pound for pound, turkey mince is lower in fat, calories and cholesterol than beef, pork, lamb and chicken. You can find turkey breast mince which is even leaner and is perfectly fine to use for this particular dish.

Because of its low fat content, turkey mince can tend towards being dry and tasteless, so it does take a little more love to get it to taste good. This recipe’s not for the weekday; leave it til the weekend when you’ve got the time to spend on cooking!

A healthy and satisfying pot of heart-friendly love.
A healthy and satisfying pot of heart-friendly love.

Turkey meatballs (makes 42)
For the meatballs
500g turkey breast mince
1 red onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tbsp tomato sauce
5 tsp dried mixed herbs
1 tbsp mild chilli powder
1 tbsp smoked paprika
1 chicken stock cube
1 egg
1 carrot, grated

For the sauce
1 red onion, finely sliced
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 x 400g cans peeled plum tomatoes
2 bay leaves
50g red lentils

Start by caramelising both onions. Basically, that means you put them into a non-stick saucepan over medium-high heat and stir occasionally as they go through the process from raw to soft to sticky, which should take around 30 minutes. You don’t want to fuss over them too much, and after about 10 minutes you can add a small splash of balsamic vinegar or sugar to help them along.

Once they’re caramelised, remove half and place into a large pot.

Back to the saucepan. Crumble in the stock cube with a little water, and add the garlic. Cook for a further 2 minutes and then remove from heat, allowing to cool completely.

Place the cool sticky onion mixture in a large bowl with the turkey mince, egg, spices, grated carrot and tomato sauce. Season with salt and pepper and mix thoroughly.

Shape the meatballs with your hands. My mix made exactly 42 small meatballs, which I think are nicer than the big ones, but cook as you like.

While you’re getting ready to brown the turkey meatballs, get the sauce started. The large pot with the remaining caramelised onions can go back on the stove with the rest of the ingredients for the sauce. Cover and bring to a boil, adding a little water if the lentils soak up too much liquid.

Brown the turkey meatballs in batches and add to the pot. Simmer gently for 30 minutes.

Serve with wholemeal pasta, brown rice or greens.

spanish stew

It's almost time to say goodbye to winter food for another year. Not that that really works in London.
It’s almost time to say goodbye to winter food for another year. Not that that really applies in London.

The other day we noticed that it was still light outside at 3pm. For the first time in months, it seems, you can go outside without gloves and a hat and not think you’re going to die of frostbite. That means the delights of Spring are just around the corner – and I know it seems like an impossibility right now, but in a few short weeks we’ll also be leaving the comforting realms of warm winter food behind.

Chorizo has become a regular feature on the menu of late. Are calorie-counters aghast? They needn’t be. This heavily spiced sausage is so strongly flavoured that you only ever need to use a small amount, and the smokiness will permeate the rest of the dish. Moreover, if you fry it slowly, the fat runs out and you can drain it away before plopping the toothsome morsels into a separate pan.

It also doesn’t hurt that chorizo has a good long fridge life, so you can keep some on hand for emergency stew action on those long, cold winter nights.

The basis for a hearty winter stew.
The basis for a hearty winter stew.

Spanish Stew
200g cooking chorizo (about 4 small links)
2 x 400g cans plum tomatoes
1 x 400g cans butter beans
1 yellow capsicum, sliced
1 red onion, finely sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon smoked paprika

Skin the chorizo and pull into pieces. You can cut it, but I like the ragged edges of pulled chorizo.

Place the chorizo into a non-stick frypan over a medium heat. When it starts to sizzle, add the onion and garlic.

While that’s cooking away, pour the tomatoes into a saucepan and bring to the boil. When the chorizo is done, drain it and transfer the mixture to the saucepan, adding the rest of the ingredients.

Simmer for twenty minutes and serve with crusty bread – or for a healthier option, go with piles of vegetables like mushrooms, broccoli and kale.

Serves four, 275kcal per serve.

Serve with vegetables or fresh crusty bread,
Serve with vegetables or fresh crusty bread.

pumpkin soup

Hello, my pretties

More soup?

I grew up with Asian soups, which are mostly broth-style concoctions with various things floating in them – from the standard pork and prawn dumplings or chicken to the weird and wonderful unnameable items that are considered to be the ultimate panacea for everything from stomach aches to back pain.

There is pretty much only one Western-style soup my mother makes, and that is pumpkin soup. It’s a hearty, filling winter wonder that I think is fitting for my American buddies who’ll be tucking into all sorts of Thanksgiving goodies very soon.

In my wholly unbiased and humble opinion it is the finest pumpkin soup you will ever taste, anywhere, and it ridiculously healthy because unlike most pumpkin soups it has no cream and no sugar, instead relying on the smooth texture and natural sweetness of the pumpkin. Go forth and try it! Wrap yourself in the warm blanket of virtue and congratulate yourself on how healthy you’re being.

Pumpkin soup
For the vegetable stock:
2 carrots
Two-thirds of a leek
Half an onion
2 sticks of celery
4 bay leaves
6 black peppercorns

For the pumpkin soup:
Half a kilo butternut pumpkin
Half a kilo paquito pumpkin
One-third of a leek, sliced
Half an onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped

Make the vegetable stock by placing all the stock ingredients in a pot, covering with cold water and bringing to a boil, then turning to a simmer for 20 minutes. Heston advises that you should slice the vegetables as thinly as possible to provide as much surface area as you can, but if you can’t be bothered it will turn out just fine.

Meanwhile, prepare the pumpkin. The butternut pumpkin in my photo is just over a kilo, and the paquito pumpkin is just under a kilo, and I used half of each. You could simply use one whole pumpkin, but I like the different tastes each pumpkin gives – the butternut has a nutty, robust undertone, and the paquito pumpkin is just a little sweeter and negates the need for you to add sugar.

There is nothing for it but to chop the pumpkins into small pieces, removing the skin as you go. This is a fairly painful process but sadly I see no way around it. Wear your pumpkin blisters with pride.

Pumpkin blisters. I hope you can avoid these, but if not, wear them with pride.

In a pan over a medium heat, place the onions and leek and cook until they start to soften but don’t brown them.

Add the pumpkin pieces and cook for 7-8 minutes.

A glorious orange frenzy

Meanwhile, drain the vegetable stock, reserving the liquid. Put the liquid back into the pot and add the chopped carrots, and when the pumpkin and onion is ready, add it to the pot. Cook for 20minutes or until the pumpkin is very soft.

Remove from heat and ladle out a bowlful of the liquid, keeping to one side. You want to hang onto this just in case the soup is thicker than you would like.

A stick blender would be ideal at this point, but I don’t have one, so I just used a hand masher instead – hence the rather pureed look of my soup. It still tasted wonderful. Proof positive that some recipes are extremely forgiving!

Bowlful of goodness