Saturday, 29 September 2012

Butternut Squash & Spinach Salad

As the temperatures begin to fall, the refreshing and cooling salads of the summer make way for more earthy flavours and textures. As October approaches I find myself adorning salad leaves with warmer ingredients. This is our third warm salad supper this week. My love of warm salads comes from France where salades tièdes are often to be found on the menu. The one I often seek out is simple Salade Lyonnaise. Crunchy lettuce, sweet, mustardy dressing, salty lardons and creamy yolk oozing from a poached egg. The gentle heat from the bacon and egg warm the salad dressing and intensify its sweet-sour, salty garlickiness, yum. 

For my squash salad I wanted to replicate this balance of flavours and textures. This nutritious salad starts with a virtuous bed of spinach, dressed decadently with a sticky honey dressing to balance the earthy paprika spiced squash, salty bacon and nutty crunch of the seeds. My husband prefers this salad without the seeds. Food is subjective, recipes are to be adapted and tinkered with until you find the perfect combination for you. I simply make suggestions in the hope that I may inspire you to make something that you find utterly delicious for dinner. Vx

For 2 generous bowlfuls  of salad

1 medium sized butternut squash
6 rashers of pancetta
1 salad bag of spinach
Sweet paprika
Sea salt & pepper

For the dressing

1 clove of garlic
1 tsp. honey
4 tsp. sherry vinegar
8 tsp. rapeseed oil

Preheat the oven to 200°C. Peel the squash and cut in half lengthways. Scoop out the seeds and put them to one side for later. Chop the squash into chunks and place into a roasting dish. Toss in rapeseed oil and sprinkle with sea salt, pepper and sweet paprika. Roast for 30 minutes.

Remove any stringy bits from the squash seeds and rinse under the water. Dry on some kitchen towel. Toss with a teaspoon each of honey and rapeseed oil, a pinch of salt and paprika. 10 minutes before the squash is ready add the seeds and the pancetta rashers to the roasting tin.

Now for the dressing. Crush a clove of garlic and place in a jam jar. Followed by a teaspoon of honey, 4 teaspoons of sherry vinegar and a pinch of salt, give it a stir. Add 8 teaspoons of olive oil, put on the jam jar lid and shake until your dressing has thickened. Adjust to your taste: a little more vinegar? oil? salt?

Remove the squash from the oven. Toss the spinach leaves with half of the dressing and place in a bowl or plate. Place the squash on top of the spinach, crumble over the crunchy pancetta, sprinkle with the toasted squash seeds and add a dribble or two of dressing. Enjoy! Vx


Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Ode to A Frozen Pea.

Frozen peas are the reliable friends of the vegetable world. Often overlooked, simply boiled or microwaved as a quick accompaniment when all the other veg has wilted or gone. When you are reaching that point towards the end of the week when you really ought to have been food shopping already, frozen peas will come to your rescue to brighten up pasta, noodles or rice and any remnants of the week's ingredients that you can find in the fridge. They are so versatile: in winter they're a last minute pop of colour to a dark meaty stew; in spring they add a perfect sweetness to a minestrone with asparagus; in summer they make a lovely off the cuff salad tossed in lemon juice and olive oil, with a sprinkling of crumbly salty cheese; in Autumn they make this great last minute soup.

Soup is definitely what is needed. The 'season of mists and mellow fruitfulness' is undoubtedly upon us. The clouds hang heavy on the hills and the rain has poured and poured. The skies are grey and foreboding and the forecast does not show any signs of imminent improvement. This pea soup has the perfect rainy day combination. Sweet pea, mint and zingy feta help to lift the spirits, hinting at warmer sunnier times, whilst the comfortingly thick and warming texture soothes away the stresses of the day and the beating of the rain. So, I dedicate this most perfect of autumnal soups to the humble frozen pea.

Pea Soup with Feta & Croutons.

makes 4 steaming mugfuls

500g frozen peas
1 onion, roughly chopped
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
4 rashers of thinly sliced streaky bacon, cut into strips.
1 litre of chicken or vegetable stock 
A sprig of mint
Feta cheese
Stale sour dough bread
Olive oil
Sea salt & pepper

Put a saucepan on medium heat and add a glug of olive oil. Put in the bacon and brown a little. Next, add the onion and cook until softened and starting to go translucent, about 10-15 minutes. Add the garlic and soften for a minute or two.

Pour in the stock and bring to the boil. Once simmering, add half of the peas and simmer for 10 minutes. Put in the remaining peas and allow the soup to come back to the boil. 

Meanwhile, add a glug of olive oil to a frying pan. Add cubes of stale bread to the pan and fry until crispy and golden. Season the croutons with sea salt and pepper. 

Add 3 or 4 large mint leaves. Blend the soup.

Once smooth, check the seasoning and add sea salt and pepper as required. Ladle into mugs or bowls and enjoy with a sprinkling of feta, croutons and a few torn mint leaves.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Cacennau Cri (Welsh Cakes)

My day job involves convincing others of the benefits of learning another language. I spend hours enthusing about the insight you can have into another culture when you speak its language and eat its food. Language and food, cooking and conversation are so integral to what makes us human. So, where am I going with this? Well, I have a confession to make. Having lived in Wales for 10 years not only have I failed miserably in my attempts to master the Welsh language I have never even made Welsh Cakes! Not very impressive for food-loving linguist. 

This week I have made one step closer to integration. Our neighbouring town, Mold, is holding its annual food festival and as part of the celebrations has invited home bakers to enter a Welsh cake bake off. That sounded like my kind of fun so I hit the kitchen for a few trial runs. I played with a couple of recipes. For the competition entry I tried to stay within the parameters of the traditional recipe but I was concerned as the cakes were going to be judged the day after I dropped them off. Welsh cakes are at their best straight off the griddle, still warm and slathered in butter or at the very least eaten on the day you make them. So I decided to increase the number of sultanas from the traditional recipe and to soak them in a little orange juice. 

With the competition recipe decided, I was in the flow of recipe tinkering and couldn't resist trying a bilberry version. I had cleared the Clwydian Range bushes of their last few bilberries this week so I threw a few in instead of the sultanas, with pleasing results.

I dropped my entry off at the festival yesterday afternoon. It is in the hands of the judges now. I'll let you know how I get on, but in the meantime I am off to find my Welsh grammar books.

After all that baking I was ready for a little liquid refreshment. How could I resist? I discovered at the festival that I am not the only one harvesting in the Clwydians. Bilberry Brew from the Mold-based Hafod Brewery.

Welsh Cakes

Makes 12 cakes

225g. self-raising flour
100g butter
60g. caster sugar
1 egg
150g. sultanas
1 orange

Put the sultanas into a bowl and add the zest and juice of the orange. Leave to soften for an hour or two or even overnight.

When you are ready to make the cakes. Weigh out the flour into another bowl and add the butter in cubes. Place in the freezer for 10 minutes. Then rub the butter and flour together until they have a sandy texture. Add the sugar.

Drain the excess juice from the sultanas and add them to the mix and stir through. Next beat the egg and pour in, a little a time, bringing the mixture together with your hands or a wooden spoon until it forms a dough.

Put a heavy bottomed frying pan or a skillet on to warm on medium heat.

Dust your work surface with flour and roll out the dough until it is about 1cm. in thickness. Cut out the cakes with a round cutter, I used a jam jar dipped in flour so the dough doesn't stick. 

Place the cakes in to cook in the frying pan. I cooked them in batches of 3. Cook on each side for about 3-4 minutes or until brown.

For the Bilberry Welsh Cakes

At the stage where you add the sultanas replace with 100g. bilberries (or blueberries, blackberries, raspberries...). 

Fruitless Welsh Cakes

Welsh cakes are equally good plain and sandwiched together with your favourite jam.

In any case I enjoy them in all guises still warm from the pan slathered in butter. A perfect lazy Sunday afternoon tea. I hope you enjoy. Mwynhewch eich bwyd! Vx

We enjoyed our bilberry Welsh cakes at the top of Moel Famau.


Saturday, 15 September 2012

Blackberry Crumble

The school run.
The 'school run' has been taking twice as long this week. Last week I introduced Evie to the delights of roadside snacks in the form of blackberries. So an empty ice-cream tub has joined all of the usual school-related paraphernalia that accompanies us back and forth along the country lane between home and school.  

Our harvest has been plentiful; it seems that in spite of our enthusiastic picking new fruits ripen each day to bolster our supplies. The fruits are so deliciously sweet straight from the hedge that at least half of Evie's quota goes straight into her purple-stained mouth. So in order to procure enough fruit for the crumble I did have to do some surreptitious harvesting on my own.

I can't think of a better way to celebrate the changing of the seasons as the sun fades, the temperatures drop and the nights draw in: some roadside foraging, rewarded with a comforting bowl of warm, dark and spicy fruits to be eaten cosied up under a blanket in front of the telly (I am refusing to turn the heating on yet!). For me, there is no better partner to the black, syrupy almost mulled juices than a dollop or splash of cold cream. It certainly helps to soothe the scratches and nettle stings acquired from trying to grab the particularly black and luscious berries that always seem to be just out of my reach.

The fruits we gathered had such a delicious natural sweetness and deep, spicy flavour that I decided to leave them unaccompanied by their ubiquitous partner, the apple, and devoted a crumble entirely to their jewelled autumnal splendour. Having said that, I enjoyed the husky notes of the crème de mûres so much in the Baked Victoria Plums that I couldn't resist reaching for the bottle again here, adding a little splash to anoint the berries prior to their crumbly burial. 

Blackberry Crumble

300g. blackberries
Crème de mûres (optional)
A sprinkling of sugar

100g. plain flour
75g. butter
3 tbsp. almonds
3 tbsp. light muscovado sugar

Rubbing the butter and flour; Evie's favourite job in the kitchen.

Preheat your oven to 180°C. Place your berries into an oven proof dish and add a splash of the blackberry liqueur (if using) and toss them to coat. Add a sprinkling of sugar to taste.

Rub together the flour and butter then stir in the muscovado sugar with a fork. Lightly toast the almonds then roughly chop and stir into the crumble mixture.

Tumble the mixture over the blackberries. I like to leave some berries less covered so that the juices can escape.

Bake in the oven for about 40 minutes until the crumble topping is golden and some of those syrupy, bubbling juices have erupted through the topping. Serve whilst warm with cool cream.


Sunday, 9 September 2012

Market Lunches in France, Olivade & Baked Victoria Plums.

Sorry, I haven't posted for a couple of weeks. I had internet connection problems in France and I have been crazy busy since our return last Sunday, it feels good to be back blogging with two recipes inspired by my travels. 

I have had a lovely couple of weeks catching up with family and slowing down the pace of life. The first week of our trip was spent in the Monts d'Or on the banks of the Saône near Lyon. For the last thirteen years my husband's parents have made this beautiful part of France their home.

The sandstone villages of the Monts d'Or, golden in the morning sun.

The week passed with us quickly slipping into a routine of lazing in the sun punctuated only by lingering family meals and the odd trip to a food market or brocante to pick up delicious fresh ingredients and vintage kitchenalia. My mother-in-law is a prolific bargain hunter and she knows the brocantes and dépôts-vente of the Rhône-Alpes intimately. Luckily for me, she always seems eager to show me where the best bargains are to be had. So, after busy mornings scouring for pots, pans, peaches and plums we were ready for a bite to eat.

My favourite Saint Marcellin and Saint Félicien cheeses from the Rhône-Alpes region.

The Friday morning market at Neuville-sur-Saône.

And when you have got a plethora of markets with such beautiful and abundant ingredients on your doorstep, lunch becomes a very laid-back and utterly indulgent affair: there wasn't much cooking to be done. Back in Wales we Smiths don't need much of an excuse for a picnic but when you are surrounded by freshly baked bread, hundreds of cheeses and luscious fruits, simple alfresco dining really seems to be the only way to eat.

Lac de Sainte Croix from the beach at Salles sur Verdon.

The epicurean tone was set for our second week. We headed further south to Lac de Sainte Croix in northern Provence, a stone's throw from the breathtaking Gorges du Verdon. We had decided to take Genevieve camping as she had never slept under canvas before and she was bursting with excitement. She too embraced grazing on delicious fresh produce from her first nibble of bread on the walk back from the boulangerie and her daily pain au chocolat to lunching on her newly discovered love of French cheeses, cornichons, olives and saucisson.

Aromatic Fleur de Sel from the Carmargue on sale at Aups market.

One of my rediscoveries during our trip was the beautiful simplicity of the Jambon-Beurre; I lived on these sandwiches when I studied in France. The freshest baguette slathered with sweet, creamy butter and adorned with thinly sliced ham: tout simple, tout délicieux. The French are particularly adept at allowing each ingredient to shine and making butter one of the stars of the show can only be a good thing in my eyes. Another simple French classic that lets butter take centre stage is radishes served quite simply with butter and fleur de sel (crunchy sea salt). A lovely addition to any picnic lunch.

My favourite Jambon-Beurre sandwich; fresh bread, Isigny butter and rosemary encrusted ham.

Now, time for some recipes inspired by this lazy eating. Today's first recipe was inspired by the olive pastes that were omnipresent on apéritif stalls in the many markets I visited. There were some that were very similar to my chilli pesto. They also included blends of olives with sun-dried tomatoes, roasted peppers, aubergines and other delicious Mediterranean produce, flavoured with garlic and aromatic herbs and spices. One of my favourites was a blend of green olives and lemon. It had a clean, fresh, summery taste and inspired this recipe.

Olivade au Citron

Leftover baguette 
100g green olives, pitted.
1 clove of garlic 
The zest & juice of 1/2 a lemon
Olive oil
A pinch of sea salt  & pepper

Preheat your oven to 180°C. Thinly slice the baguette and place on a baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil, sea salt, pepper and maybe a few herbs of your choice. Bake in the oven for about 15 minutes or until golden and crisp. These make the perfect apéritif carriers for olivade, tapenade, pesto or pâté.

For the olivade, I employed a low-tech method that reflects the slower pace of holiday life. Also, after a busy week back in the classroom I was very grateful for some soothing, rhythmic chopping this weekend. If time is of the essence though you could just throw everything in the food processor. I started by slicing my garlic clove and then sprinkling with sea salt. With my knife I then used the coarseness of the salt to crush the garlic by sweeping the flat edge of the blade back and forth over the garlic.

I put the garlic into a bowl and add the lemon zest before squeezing in the juice. Give this a little stir, the lemon juice will mellow the taste of the garlic. Next, finely chop the olives then stir them into the lemon and garlic dressing. Add a glug of olive oil and season to taste. Serve with the crispy bread, a selection of charcuterie and cheese as part of a perfect picnic lunch or it would make a welcome guest at a gathering of pre-dinner nibbles.

Baked Victoria Plums with Vanilla Yoghurt

My second recipe is inspired by the desserts prepared by my mother-in-law, Helen. Most of our lazy market lunches were rounded off with delicious stewed fruit, usually rhubarb or peaches from her friend Jenny's garden. We would pair these syrupy fruits with delicious faisselle, a creamy fromage frais made from unpasteurised milk and named after the mould that it is made in. Here, I give a nod to the changing seasons with autumnal Victoria plums baked with boozy blackberry liqueur and served with creamy vanilla- infused yoghurt.

200g Greek yoghurt
1 vanilla pod
2-3 teaspoons of icing sugar
8-10 Victoria Plums 
A splash of crème de mûres (optional)
A knob of butter
A couple of tablespoons of light muscovado sugar.

Preheat your oven to 180°C. Slice the plums in half, longways, slicing around the stone. Give them a twist to separate the halves and then remove the stone. Place in a baking dish, sliced side up. Splash on a little crème de mûres. Dab a little butter into the plum halves, then sprinkle over the sugar. 

Slice the vanilla pod in two, vertically and run your knife along the inside of the halves to remove the seeds, saving the seeds in a bowl. Place the pod halves in amongst the plums and place the dish in the oven to bake for 30-40 minutes until the plums are soft, golden and oozing syrupy juices.

Add the yoghurt and icing sugar to the vanilla seeds and stir together until the yoghurt is speckled and sweetened.

Remove the plums from the oven and serve warm with a dollop of yoghurt and a drizzle of the syrupy, boozy, blackberry juices. I hope you enjoy.

Victoria x