Butternut Squash, Lentil and Ginger Soup

Butternut Squash, Lentil and Ginger Soup

It’s been a while since I’ve had the time to post something here, but in the spirit of the season of giving, or a welcome break from the stresses of this time of year, I’ve forced myself to make the time now to begin sharing some of the recipes and ideas I’ve got stacked up from the last few weeks. This, then, is my new favourite soup, so much so that I’ve eaten it at least twice a week for the last several weeks, and I’m not bored of it yet. Warming and comforting, easy to throw together and perfect as a meal, either on its own or with some delicious bread, this is indeed wonderful solace from the mid-Winter routine of leaving the house for work whilst still dark and returning home when it is, alas, already dark again, its cheery orange hue adding to the uplifting effect. Not just a remedy for the Winter blues, this, I think, also makes a great first course for the sort of casual meal with friends you might want to share at this time of year, as I did the other week, following the soup with roast chicken, and everything else that entails, at our now annual faux-Christmas dinner for our friends whom are scattered across the country.

Split red lentils are particularly useful for a soup like this. Don’t worry that they disintegrate into a somewhat unappetising mush during cooking, that is what you’re after here. This yellow mush, when you blitz the finished soup, will help keep it thick and creamy, without having to add extra cream (although you can if you wish), and since they’re an extra vegetable portion too, this soup is quite healthy, and still deliciously rich. The lentils also help to make the soup go much further, so the soup is healthier on your pocket too. The quantity below easily feeds four, possibly six with extra bread, and would maybe stretch to eight as a starter. It should keep in the fridge for a day or two, and also freezes well, so if, as in Rupert’s kitchen, there are just the two of you, make the quantity below and keep half for another day, which will also save you having to use up half a leftover squash (although, you should know that, cubed and dropped into a freezer bag, I find that squash freezes quite well uncooked).

olive oil

2 onions

2 cloves garlic

1 butternut squash

200g split red lentils

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon dried chilli flakes

1.2 litres vegetable stock (good quality instant stock is fine – I like Marigold Bouillon)

Peel and roughly chop the onions. Heat a little olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan, and add the onions, sprinkling over a little sea salt to help stop them from browning. Cook over a gentle heat for ten minutes or so, until soft. Meanwhile, peel the butternut squash and chop it roughly into cubes of around 2cm. Peel the cloves of garlic and mince them over the onions, cooking for a minute more. Tip the squash cubes into the pan, and then add the lentils and spices. Give everything a good stir, and then pour over the stock. Bring to the boil, turn the heat down, clamp on a lid and simmer for around 25 minutes, although you may need more, until the squash and lentils are tender. Once cooked, check the seasoning is to your liking and let it cool a little before carefully blitzing the soup, in batches if necessary, in a blender until smooth. If you like your soup a touch thinner, add a little extra stock.

Serves 4+, and see introduction


Chicken Kievs

Chicken Kiev

‘This is so much better than something shop-bought’ is often a compliment proffered by eaters and gratefully, sometimes smugly, received by cooks. No doubt well intentioned, perhaps here this is a somewhat back-handed compliment, since the something shop-bought will generally be a mass produced, perfectly formed hump of spookily coloured ‘chicken’ mince and other ingredients of dubious provenance, frozen and reheated. Not that this sort of convenience food is always a bad thing, but here home-made is definitely better. Home made here is also necessarily different, unless you own some sort of contraption that can churn out the kievs described above. These are whole chicken breasts – one of the advantages of home made being you can have a say in what exactly goes into your food – crumbed and filled with garlic butter. So definitely a chicken kiev, but a bit different. Good different.

The garlic butter will probably mostly leak out onto the baking tray during cooking (you can just pour it back over, if you like) rather than stay sat in its little pocket (and, if anyone knows how to help it stay put, by all means leave a note in the comments below), but this just means you get moist, tender chicken breast packed with flavour. To go with these, I like creamy mash with a little of the leftover garlic butter. Rice to soak up the garlic butter would be equally good, as would some new potatoes and vegetables. Unashamedly low-rent as I sometimes like to be, I used to always have my shop-bought chicken kievs with pasta in some garlicky tomato sauce from a jar. And it was good.

I won’t deny this is a little fiddly – and, like anything breadcrumbed, generates a disproportionate amount of washing up during the preparation stage – but it’s worth it. They’re so much better than you can buy in a shop.

Chicken Kiev

50g butter, slightly softened

juice of half a lemon

a tablespoon or two chopped fresh (flat-leaf) parsley leaves

2 cloves garlic

2 skinless, boneless chicken breasts

couple of tablespoons of flour

1 egg

two good handfuls fresh breadcrumbs

vegetable oil, for frying

Preheat the oven to 200C / 180C fan. Put the butter, lemon juice and parsley into a small bowl and mince the garlic cloves in. Mash and mix everything with a fork to combine. With a sharp knife, make a deep slit, but not all the way through, along the fattest part of each chicken breast. Open it out slightly and stuff the garlic butter inside. Depending on the size of the chicken breasts, you may not get all of the butter in (and you could freeze the leftovers to spread onto some grilled ciabatta another day), but what you’re aiming for is to get in as much as you can while still being able to close the slit up again.

Put a couple of tablespoons of flour onto a plate and spread it out a little. Crack the egg into a shallow bowl and lightly beat it, and put the breadcrumbs into another bowl. Lay the first stuffed chicken breast onto the flour, turn it over and then shake off the excess so that the whole thing is lightly covered with flour. Next, lay the chicken piece into the beaten egg, and again turn it over so it is fully coated. Finally, lay the chicken into the breadcrumbs, and again turn it over so that a layer of crumbs sticks to the egg on both sides. Shake off any excess crumbs, remove to a plate and repeat the whole process with the second chicken breast.

Heat about a centimetre of oil in a frying pan until it sizzles when a few breadcrumbs are dropped in. Carefully lay the chicken breasts into it, and then carefully spoon oil over the top of the chicken breasts, so that the breadcrumbs on the top have all been drizzled with hot oil. Once the breadcrumbs are lightly browned, carefully transfer the kievs to a baking tray and cook in the oven for 20-25 minutes until golden brown and the chicken is cooked through. Serve as you wish, and see introduction for suggestions.

For 2, but easily doubled.


Cheddar and onion bread

Cheddar and onion bread

This is one of my favourite breads to make, delicious soft white bread topped with strong cheddar and onions. It started off as a homespun version of a lazy treat, those pappy white cheese-topped rolls from the supermarket in-store bakery, but it goes without saying this is infinitely better. A loaf is easily a meal in its own right, and I often just eat this, still warm from the oven, sliced, with plenty of butter, or perhaps with some caramelised onion chutney and maybe some extra cheese. It is also the bread I, not always but often, make to dunk in and soak up the sauce from a tomato-y pasta, lasagne, and, my favourite for this bread, these meatballs. It’s really a simple adaptation of my basic white bread, and you could use any relatively hard cheese, but my favourite is a strong, mature cheddar, and that’s what I most often have to hand at any rate.

I generally make two smaller loaves, rather than one larger one, or eight rolls. For the batch I’ve photographed, I made one loaf and four rolls, as I made it to have with meatballs, the loaf for slicing and dunking, and the rolls for meatball sandwiches with the leftovers for lunch the next day.

Sliced cheddar and onion loaf

500g strong white bread flour

1 sachet (7g) easy blend yeast

1 teaspoon sugar

2 teaspoons salt

glug of good olive oil

300ml warm water

a little milk, to glaze

150g mature cheddar, grated

2 smallish or one large onion, halved and sliced, and a little oil for cooking

Put the flour, yeast, sugar, salt and 50g of the cheese into a bowl and give it a couple of turns with a spoon to mix everything up. Add a good glug of olive oil. Tip in the water, and mix everything together with a table knife or wooden spoon, trying to get as much of the flour mixed in as you can. Tip the contents of the bowl onto a lightly floured worktop, scraping out any bits of dough stuck to the bowl. Knead the bread, either by hand for 10 minutes or for around 5 in a freestanding mixer with a dough hook. When the dough is smooth and springy, it’s ready. Shape the dough into a ball. Quickly wash up the bowl, drop a little oil into the bottom and smear it up the sides. Plop the dough into the oiled bowl, then turn it over so the entire surface of the dough is lightly oiled. Cover the bowl with clingfilm or a clean tea towel, and leave until doubled in size, either an hour or so on the kitchen side or overnight in the fridge, letting it come back to room temperature before you proceed.

Preheat the oven to 200C / 180C fan. Heat a glug of oil in a frying pan over a medium heat, tip in the onions and a pinch of salt (which will stop them from browning as they fry) and cook the onions, stirring now and again, until softened. Put to one side to cool a little. Deflate the dough by pushing it down with your fingers, then on a very lightly floured surface, divide the dough into two even sized pieces, and shape into round or oval shaped loaves. Place each onto a very lightly oiled baking tray dusted with flour. If you would rather have rolls, at this point divide the dough into six or eight smaller pieces, forming them into either round or oval shapes. Place these onto, again lightly oiled and floured, baking trays, spaced slightly apart so they have room to rise. As they rise and subsequently cook, they will join together, but be easily pulled apart, giving you lovely soft sides.

Brush the tops of your loaves with a little milk, scatter over the remaining 100g grated cheddar and then the slithers of onion. Cover loosely with a piece of lightly oiled cling film or a clean tea towel, and leave to rise until doubled in size again – this can take anything from half an hour to an hour and a half. Once risen, stick in the oven and bake for 25 – 35 minutes. Check at 25 to see if it is done, by (carefully) knocking on the underside of the loaf – if it sounds hollow, it’s finished. If not, put it back for another 5 minutes. Rolls may need slightly less, loaves slightly more. If you do choose to make one big loaf, it might need upwards of 40 minutes, but do start checking before then.

When out of the oven, cool on the tray, under a clean tea towel – this will keep the crust nice and soft. Eat fairly soon. As if you wouldn’t.

Cheddar and Onion Bread Rolls


Meatballs

Meatballs

This is one of my favourite meals, ever. This is real comfort food, rainy weekend afternoon in the kitchen type stuff, although I just as often make this on weekday evenings, or in the middle of summer. In fact, I should probably be embarrassed at the frequency with which I present this, as though for the first time, to friends and family visiting for dinner, but everyone loves it, and it’s easy, although takes a little time, to put together. I’ve tried various different recipes for meatballs, but always revert back to this, based on those from Nigella Lawson’s Nigella Bites. I make meatballs small enough to be cooked right in the bubbling tomato sauce, rather than larger ones which might need extra cooking first, so these are soft and tender, no crunchy outside, and the cheese, garlic and oregano mean these little nuggets of deliciousness are full of flavour.

Most often, I like to serve these with tagliatelle, sometimes pappardelle, those wider flat ribbons, but any long pasta would be good. The amount of meatballs here will easily feed four, with pasta, and would likely do for six. For six, fearing under-catering more than over-carbing, I would add bread for mopping up the sauce. For four, I would probably still add it anyway, and to that end would go with 75g pasta per person, cooked in well salted boiling water for the time directed on the packet, but checking for doneness a minute or two before that. And, whilst on the topics of bread and portion sizing, the last time I cooked this there were only three of us eating, but I made the same amount anyway, reheating the rest the following day and serving, sauce and all, in bread rolls. A triumph – now, I would cook these and keep them in the fridge just to make meatball sandwiches.

Adapted from Nigella Bites by Nigella Lawson

For the meatballs

500g organic minced beef

1 egg

50g cheddar cheese, grated

1 clove garlic, minced

1 teaspoon dried oregano

3 tablespoons semolina (or, if you don’t have semolina, the same amount of breadcrumbs made from slightly stale bread)

For the tomato sauce

2 onions

2 cloves garlic

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 tablespoon olive oil

680g bottle tomato passata 

pinch sugar

Put all of the meatball ingredients into a big bowl, seasoning with a little salt and freshly ground black pepper, and smoosh them all together with your hands until well mixed. I like to really squeeze everything together, until you can see that the flecks of cheese are fairly evenly distributed, and the mixture doesn’t feel too wet. The end result is something like sausage meat.

Break off small pieces of the meat and roll them into little balls, about, if you were to measure, 2 cm across. As you finish each meatball, place it onto a cling film lined plate or tray, and once you have filled a plate pop it into the fridge. Letting them rest in the fridge for the twenty minutes or so it will take you to make the sauce will help keep them firm and avoid them breaking up when cooking. The last time I counted, I got about 40 meatballs out of this mixture.

To make the sauce, first blitz the onion, garlic and oregano to a green speckled mush in the processor, or chop as finely as possible by hand. Heat the oil in a big pan, and dump in the processed onion mush, cooking over a lowish heat and stirring often, not letting it catch, for 10 minutes or until soft. Add the passata, then half-fill the bottle with water, swill it out and add this to the pan too. Add the pinch of sugar, season with a little salt and freshly ground black pepper, bring to the boil, and then turn down the heat and gently simmer for 10 minutes.

Drop the meatballs, one by one, into the sauce, and let everything simmer gently for twenty minutes, or until the meatballs have cooked. Resist the temptation to stir until the meatballs have turned from pink to brown, otherwise they may break up in the pan. Once the meatballs are cooked, if you aren’t quite ready with the pasta, it won’t hurt to stick a lid on and turn the heat down, letting them cook for a little while longer.

Serve with pasta, bread or both (and see intro).

Meatballs


Roasted smashed new potatoes with tomato chutney and cheddar

Roasted smashed new potatoes

I was tempted to call this ‘roasted smashed new potatoes with red stuff from a jar and cheese’, but that somehow didn’t seem quite as alluring, it didn’t quite set the tone, because I really want you to try this and not skip past it. Let me explain. I’ve been making this with tomato chutney, from a jar (and, for the record, specifically Marks & Spencer’s The Collection Sticky Tomato and Chilli Chutney, which I have been eating with all manner of sandwiches, burgers and anything else I can spread it on for the last week), and strong mature cheddar, which is both the cheese I most often have in the house and also the cheese that, I think, goes best with a good tomato chutney. However, this would work just as well with red pesto and mozzarella, or salsa, again with cheddar or perhaps monterey jack. You get the picture, this is less a recipe and more an enthusiastic suggestion – red stuff from a jar plus cheese. Just a final note about the name. Potatoes cooked this way are generally called smashed, but actually, assuming they are cooked properly, you just want to gently crush them with a blunt instrument – the end of a rolling pin is ideal – to break them up a little, and to burst open the whole potatoes. Taking the smashing too literally will mean you end up with messy mash flecked with skin, and you’ll be picking chunks of potato out of your hair.

This dish can called into service as a side, but works equally respectably as an easy weeknight dinner all by itself. The first time I made this (and this was actually The Other Half’s idea), it was for dinner, and it was so good I immediately made it again. Not the next day, you understand, but straight after eating, so ate it twice in the space of an hour. But for normal eaters, which we are most of the time, the amounts below will feed two for dinner, as is or with salad, or four as a side.

About 600g small new potatoes

Olive oil

Tomato chutney, from a jar (probably about 4 tablespoons, but don’t worry too much about measuring!)

Grated cheddar cheese, perhaps 50g or a couple of handfuls 

Preheat the oven to 200C. Bring a pan of well salted water to the boil. Quickly wash the new potatoes, and cut any larger (say above 5cm) ones in half, to make sure they all cook at a similar speed. Carefully tip into the boiling water, and let it come back to the boil. Cook for about 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are just cooked, and tender to the point of a knife. Drain well, and tip them back into the hot empty pan to allow them to dry for a minute. In the pan, gently squash the potatoes with the end of a rolling pin or with the bowl of a wooden spoon, breaking them up a little and bursting open the whole ones (think baby jacket potatoes).

Drizzle a little olive oil into the bottom of a roasting dish and tip in the potatoes. Drizzle with a little more olive oil and sprinkle generously with sea salt. Place in the hot oven and cook for 15 – 20 minutes until the skins are starting to crisp up just a little.

Remove from the oven and, using a small spoon, dot with the chutney, trying to get a little onto each larger potato piece. Sprinkle over the grated cheddar, and return to the hot oven for 3 – 5 minutes until the cheese is melted and bubbling.

Roasted smashed new potatoes with tomato chutney and cheddar


Spiced squash, chicken and couscous one-pot

Spiced squash, chicken and couscous one pot

Hot on the heels of the easy tuna melt pizza baguettes, this is based on another offering from BBC Good Food magazine, only this one was chosen by the Other Half. The choice was a bit of a curveball really, since he doesn’t like couscous, but I do, and since he was willing to give it a go, I kept schtum and got on with it. I assumed it was something about the taste, or perhaps lack thereof, that wasn’t appreciated, as couscous can be quite bland. Not that this is a bad thing per se, since a comfortingly plain pile of starch is often the ideal side to something that could be described as hearty, or spicy, or both, like this stew. And by all means, you could serve this with mashed potato, or plain rice, for me brown basmati, but whatever works for you.  

So if the plain-ness was the issue, this recipe might solve it, since the couscous is not steamed or soaked separately and then the stew ladled on, but is just added directly to the pot with the spiced chicken, vegetables and sauce and allowed to swell and get tender, absorbing the flavours of the dish. This was a real revelation to me – I had never thought about cooking the couscous like this before. Don’t know why, since really it’s like making a jambalaya with rice, which I have done countless times. Anyway, it was good, (although a little too lemon-y first time round, hence below suggesting you just add half of the lemon juice and taste before adding more) and we agreed the flavours were good. But he doesn’t want it again. Turns out it was the texture of the couscous that he doesn’t like. At least I tried, and I’d definitely make this again, either for myself to take to work for lunch over a few days, or for us both, minus the couscous and with alternative carbs.

Adapted from BBC Good Food August 2011

olive oil

1 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground cumin

2 red onions, halved and then sliced

2 skinless chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized pieces

1 small butternut squash, peeled, deseeded and cut into 1cm dice

2 400g tins chopped tomatoes

zest and juice of a lemon

two good handfuls cherry tomatoes, halved

140g couscous

small handful of freshly chopped coriander

Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large casserole or pan with a lid over a lowish heat. Add the chilli, garlic, spices and onions, give everything a good stir, and cook gently for around 10 minutes until the onions are soft and everything smells good, stirring every now and again. Add the chicken and brown it for a few minutes, and then add the cubed squash, giving everything another stir, and cook for another 5 minutes.

Add the tinned tomatoes, fill each tin half full with water, swill it around and add to the pan as well. Bring to the boil, turn down the heat, put on the lid and let it simmer for 20 – 30 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through and the squash is just tender. Add the lemon zest, and half of the juice, stir in and check to see if it needs it before adding the other half. Season, stir through the cherry tomatoes and couscous, put the lid back on and turn off the heat. Leave the pan on the hob for 10 minutes. Once the couscous is done, stir through the coriander and serve.

Spiced squash, chicken and couscous one-pot


Tuna melt pizza baguette

Tuna melt pizza baguette

I knew I wanted to make these when I saw them whilst flicking through my monthly food mags. Perhaps it was nostalgia that sucked me in, a memory of frozen ‘French bread pizza’ for dinner growing up. More likely, it was knowing that this was a really simple idea for an easy weeknight dinner, the sort of dinner you can put together quickly on one of those days when time seems to have gotten away from you, or a long and frantic day at the office leaves you bereft of energy for a full-on kitchen session when you get home.

The original recipe comes from BBC Good Food Magazine, one of the food mags I subscribe to and cook from quite a bit. I’ve tweaked a bit, adding onion – canned tuna and cheese need onion (and usually mayo too) – and although the intention here is never to be prescriptive – you, after all, know what you like on a pizza – the flavours here are good, and they work well together. Generally, I wouldn’t use tomato puree as the sauce part of a pizza, its flavour is too strong, but here it works. Maybe because there’s not much, and the bold flavours of the other toppings help out. A smearing of red pesto, from a jar, might be nice in its stead. The use of partially cooked baguettes as the base is what really makes these quick and easy, and it also means you get a thick, crunchy crust which complements the soft melting topping perfectly.

Adapted from BBC Good Food, August 2011

2 part-baked baguettes

1 red pepper

1 smallish red onion

200g tin sweetcorn, drained

200g tin tuna, drained

100g mature cheddar, grated

4 tbsp tomato puree

Heat the oven to 190C / 170C fan. Slice the baguettes, as yet unbaked, in half lengthways. Once the oven is hot, cook them directly on the oven shelf for 8 minutes. While they’re baking, dice the red pepper and onion, and mix them in a bowl with the sweetcorn, tuna and about three quarters of the grated cheese.

At the end of their cooking time, carefully place the baguettes onto a baking tray. Spread each half with a tablespoon of tomato puree, and then divide the tuna mix over them. Sprinkle the baguettes with the remaining cheddar, and place back in the oven for 10 – 12 minutes until the cheese has melted, the bread is golden and the onions are starting to caramelise just a little. If you want something alongside, a simple salad would be good.

Serves 4.

Tuna Melt Pizza Baguette