Baked Squash with leeks

I saw a wonderful display of squash outside a greengrocers the other day and couldn’t resist buying a couple. Rather than chop them up and roast them, I thought it would be nice to cook them whole. An internet search threw up a recipe for Squash stuffed with leeks by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, which turned out to be in his River Cottage Veg Everyday cookbook, which I actually have on my shelf. It is ideal for enjoying small acorn or harlequin squash that are around now, but you could serve one larger squash between two people, remembering to give it more time in the oven (another 10-20 minutes at a guess).

The leeks are sweated in a little butter, then a little mustard, cream and gruyère added to give an unctuous filling which makes a nice contrast with the soft orange squash. I have tweaked the recipe by halving the quantity of cheese (to make it a big less rich) and adding nutmeg. I also used goat’s cream, as I happened to have some, which worked well, and you could use a hard goat’s cheese rather than the Gruyère. I think blue cheese might be worth trying too.

Aside from the slight fiddle of preparing the squash – much aided by making sure your knife is nice and sharp – this is a very straightforward recipe. Just right for an autumnal lunch this weekend. Quantities are for two people. I forgot to take a photograph of the finished dish, so I will try to remedy that next time I make it, as I am sure it will be back on the menu soon.

15g butter
1 large leek
½ teaspoon English mustard
2 tablespoons crème fraîche
30g Gruyère
2 small squash (about 400g each)
2 sprigs of thyme
Salt, black pepper & nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 190ºC/Gas mark 5. Trim the leek and slice it finely. Heat a good nut of butter in a saucepan over medium heat and add the leeks, stirring them about. Once they start to cook, turn the heat down, cover the pan and cook very gently for about 10 minutes, until very soft. Grate the cheese and stir it into the leeks with the mustard and crème fraîche. Season the mixture well with salt, pepper and a grating of nutmeg, remembering that the squash won’t have any seasoning.

Cut a small slice off the base of each squash so it will stand up securely. Using a strong knife and a steady hand cut a cone out of the top of the squash to make a lid. I found that trying to cut a flat slice was more tricky and didn’t go through to the centre of the squash. Put the lids on one side, and use a small knife and a teaspoon to scrape out all the seeds and fibres.

Spoon the leek mixture into the two squash, leaving a little room for the filling to bubble away,  and pop a sprig of thyme into each one. Replace the squash lids and stand the squash on a large baking tray.

Bake for 50 minutes, and then poke a knife into the flesh inside to check that the squash is nice and tender. Serve in solitary glory, though a crunchy salad (chicory and watercress?) might be nice before or afterwards.

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Aubergines, Chickpeas, Walnuts & Dates

Ten days ago I was lucky enough to be given Diana Henry’s book Simple: Effortless food, big flavours, and I have been obsessively cooking my way through it ever since. It really lives up to the promise of the title: lots of recipes that are simple enough to tackle when you’re  tired after a busy day, yet taste good enough to revive you – or fool guests into thinking you have been slaving over a hot stove for hours. I’m also delighted to find that Diana Henry has lots of recipes on her website (as well as those behind the Telegraph’s paywall) if you want to check them out before you commit to buying a book.

This satisfying combination of aubergines, chickpeas, walnuts & dates has the most wonderful tahini dressing, which I am planning to use for lots of other grain-and-vegetable salads in the near future. Aleppo pepper is also known as Turkish pul biber, which I found in Waitrose, but you can substitute a mixture of cayenne and paprika if you can’t find it – or don’t want another container in your spice drawer. The original recipe had a little date syrup drizzled over the dish at the end, which I omitted (though I did wonder about using pomegranate molasses instead). This is a perfect recipe for the sunny but autumnal weather we’ve been having in London, when you want something warm and reasonably substantial yet with the flavours of warmer climes.

These are the quantities for 4. As I was cooking just for me, I made it using a third of the quantity and had enough for one generous portion, plus a side for the next day, when it was just as delicious. The first day I served it on a bed of rocket, and second time round with quinoa and salad – the quinoa was particularly good with it. Henry recommends serving it with couscous or alongside lamb or grilled mackerel.

3 aubergines (about 750g)
3 smallish onions
6 tbsp olive oil
3 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp pul biber/Aleppo pepper
salt & pepper
400g can chickpeas
squeeze of lemon juice
half a small packet of coriander leaves
5 Medjool dates
15g walnuts

Dressing:
50ml tahini
50ml extra virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove
4 tbsp Greek yoghurt
juice of ½ lemon

Heat the oven to 190ºC/Gas mark 5. Cut the aubergines across into fat slices and then halve the larger slices. Peel the onions and cut them vertically into wedges. Put both into a large roasting tin and mix together with all but 1 tbsp of the olive oil, the cumin, pul biber, salt and pepper. Roast for 35-40 minutes, turning everything about half way through.

Put all the dressing ingredients into a small blender or a bowl with 50ml of water and either blitz or whisk until it’s thoroughly blended and the consistency of thick cream. Check the seasoning, adding more lemon if necessary.

Pit and chop the dates, roughly chop the walnuts and toast them for a few minutes in a hot frying pan if you have the energy (I didn’t). Pick the coriander leaves off the stems and chop.

Five minutes before the aubergines are ready heat the remaining 1 tbsp of olive oil in a pan. Drain and rinse the chickpeas and heat them through in the oil for a few minutes. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and tip onto a serving platter – over rocket, couscous or quinoa if you wish. Spoon the cumin-roast aubergines and onions on top, generously drizzle with the dressing, then scatter over the coriander, dates and walnuts.

And there you have a delicious, exotic dinner on the table in 45 minutes, of which at least half can be spent reading the paper or, in my case, doing your piano practice.

A perfect chocolate cake

In my book, this is a perfect chocolate cake: dense, moist, made with good dark chocolate and delectable eaten with a spoonful of whipped or clotted cream. As a child I would have preferred Felicity Cloake’s perfect chocolate cake, with its fluffier crumb and chocolate buttercream filling; no doubt my nieces and nephews would agree.  However, these days I find buttercream too sweet and sickly, preferring my cake unadorned, not too sweet and tasting of dark chocolate rather than cocoa.

I have been making this chocolate cake since 1983 when I acquired Arabella Boxer’s The Sunday Times Complete Cook Book. It became my bible, back before Nigel Slater, Nigella and Ottolenghi had started publishing, let alone entered my kitchen bookshelves. I have found Boxer’s recipes to be reliable and in impeccable taste, though somewhat more formal and classically English or French than much of the food I cook now. It is structured as a cookery course, with sections on different techniques such as braising or grilling. The section on menus for different occasions – with contributions from other cooks such as Antonio Carluccio and Claudio Roden (though Boxer’s own suggestions are generally more practical) – is particularly useful for a cook still learning to entertain. The book is now available very cheaply online, so treat yourself.

IMG_4549The simplicity of the method mean that this chocolate cake can be produced within an hour or so and uses ingredients that are probably in your cupboard (or definitely available in the corner store). You do not need beaters to cream the mixture, nor to remember a complicated list of ingredients. I have adapted the quantities to fit my tin and slightly reduce the proportion of eggs, also making it a very easy recipe to remember. It will work in any shape tin, or foil container, of the right size and I have made it successfully with all sorts of dark chocolate from corner-shop Bournville to posh 85% chocolate. It will keep for a couple of days in the tin wrapped in foil, if you have that sort of willpower, and will survive being transported like that for a picnic. So it’s a very handy recipe to have up your sleeve for cooking on holiday or when you have unexpected guests for tea.

Enough chat: here’s how to make 8 portions of chocolate happiness.

100g dark chocolate
100g unsalted butter
2 eggs
150g caster sugar
pinch salt
1 tsp vanilla extract (optional)
100g plain flour (or 70/30 flour and ground almonds)
whipped cream to serve

Break up the chocolate and put in a heatproof bowl over a pan of just simmering water, with the unsalted butter cut into cubes. Allow them to melt together then stir and take off the heat as soon as the mixture is smooth. Leave to cool – Boxer says for an hour, but I’ve never been organised enough to leave it for that long, and it has always worked fine.

Set the oven to heat to 175 C/Gas Mark 4. Grease and line the base of an 18cm cake tin or similar. Beat the eggs in a bowl and beat in the sugar, salt and vanilla extract (if using – Boxer doesn’t). Stir in the melted chocolate mixture, then fold in the flour lightly but thoroughly. If you want to gild the lily, and you have some ground almonds, then you can use a mixture of flour and almonds, which makes it a little more dense and moist.

Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and spread evenly. Bake for about 35 minutes, until the cake springs back when pressed, and is starting to come away from the sides. If you test it, the centre should still be moist.

Leave to cool in the tin. Serve in slices or squares with whipped cream, and berries if you wish. If you want to serve a chocolate cake for dessert, I think Lucy Boyd’s Chocolate and Almond Cake is a better candidate, whereas this is the perfect chocolate cake for morning coffee or afternoon tea.

 

Greengage and Almond Cake

This cake was inspired by some lovely greengages we found in a greengrocer in Totnes, near where we are staying on holiday. There weren’t quite enough to simply poach them, and I didn’t have a tart tin or any plain flour, so a greengage frangipane tart was out.  What I made instead was a Victoria sponge with half the flour replaced with ground almonds, flavoured with the grated zest of an orange and the greengages arranged on top as if it were a tart.

The result was a moist light sponge crowned with juicy greengages – it was delicious served for dessert with whipped cream, and I am looking forward to another slice with our coffee tomorrow morning.

I used a tip I saw in a recipe for the French quartre quarts cake, which is to put a pan of boiling water in the bottom of the oven. The resulting steamy atmosphere is said to make the cake particularly light – and on the evidence of this cake I will be doing it again. Sometimes the constraints of a holiday home kitchen, without all one’s usual ingredients and equipment, can lead to happy discoveries!

100g butter
100g caster sugar
2 large eggs
70g ground almonds
70g self-raising flour
Grated zest of an orange
8 greengages

Take the butter and eggs out of the fridge at least 30 minutes before you start cooking so they can come to room temperature. My eggs weighed 70g each – if yours are a different size simply adjust the other quantities accordingly.

Grease and line the base of a 18 cm sponge tin. Preheat the oven to 170ºC Fan/190ºC, with a baking tin half full of hot water in it (this is not advisable, or necessary, in a gas oven). Wash the greengages, take out the stones and cut them into quarters.

9A8040B1-78B8-47AC-B638-E1B26C6337EE
Greengage and almond cake ready to go in the oven

Cream the butter with a wooden spoon, add the sugar and beat until light and pale. Beat in the eggs one at a time, with a good scoop of flour, until well blended. Fold in the remaining flour, the ground almonds and orange zest. You can of course do all of this in the mixer if you are at home – or in a particularly well-equipped holiday cottage. Turn the mixture into the prepared tin and arrange the greengages in a circular pattern on top.

Greengage and almond cake
Bake for 25 minutes until golden brown, and the sponge springs back when lightly pressed. Leave to cool in the tin. Serve just warm with whipped cream. A glass of orange muscat dessert wine would go very well, too.

 

Nibbles, snippets or canapés

What do you call the small savouries served with drinks before dinner or at a cocktail party? Nibbles seems to be the most common description on menus for things like olives and nuts these days, but I first knew them as canapés or appetizers. In Spain they are, of course, tapas or pinchos, in Venice chicchetti. Then last week, when I was looking for ideas for celery and cheese canapés in a Katy Stewart cookbook of 1983, I found them described as cocktail snippets, a name I had never come across before. When I looked online to see whether the term had wider currency, I found a wonderful extract from The Reluctant Hostess. This priceless 1950s guide to entertaining etiquette by Ethelind Fearon was reissued a few years ago. Although I wasn’t tempted by many of the recipes, it is very amusing and full of down-to-earth advice on giving a cocktail party. So henceforth canapés will be referred to as snippets!

After all that, what snippets did I make? My dinner guests included one vegetarian and one pescatarian, so meat was out. The idea that led to my discovery of snippets was to have celery sticks stuffed with cream cheese and walnuts. After reading several recipes, this was what I made:

100g cream cheese
2 tbsps cream
pinch cayenne pepper
100g walnuts
handful flat-leaf parsley

Combine about 100g of cream cheese with 2 tablespoons of cream, then add a good pinch of cayenne pepper, salt and a grind of black pepper. Set aside 8 nice walnut halves, and finely chop the remainder (but see below). Finely chop the parsley and mix into the cream cheese with the chopped walnuts.

Wash 3 or 4 celery sticks and use a knife to peel off any tough strings, then slice a very thin bit off the outside of the stick so that its sits flat (thank Katy Stewart for that tip). Fill the  pieces of celery with the cream cheese mixture, cut into 5cm sections and top each one with half a walnut. The chopped walnuts made it tricky to fill smaller celery sticks, so next time I might opt for a 50/50 mixture of  cream cheese and blue cheese, or just well-flavoured cream cheese with a walnut on top.

I made a batch of Rachel Cooke’s wonderful Parmesan biscuits, as they are always popular (I always think I’ve made enough to have leftovers but there are rarely any left).

When I was in Manchester I had bought a packet of fabulous white anchovies, boquerones, from the excellent Catalonian delicatessen Lunya in Deansgate (there is also one in Liverpool). Boquerones are milder than the usual dark, salty anchovies, and have a lemony taste. Several recipes for making boquerones included parsley so, after carefully separating the fillets and blotting some of their oil on kitchen paper I covered the skin side with finely chopped parsley, wrapped them in pinwheels and secured with a cocktail stick.

Finally, we had a dish of lovely crisp French breakfast radishes, and some smoked salmon on thinly sliced sourdough. This selection of snippets went very well with a chilled bottle of champagne and some crisp rosé, with enough choice for vegetarian and pescatarian alike, and they were not too much work to prepare. As you can see, most of them got eaten before I got round to taking a photograph!

While I’m on the subject, my other tried and tested snippet recipes are:

Basil, mozzarella and tomato on cocktail sticks

Devils on horseback

Butter bean dip with dukkah and crudités

Not forgetting olives, marcona almonds and cheese straws.

Bon appetit!

 

Roast vegetable salad with quinoa

This recipe evolved from Roasted Vegetable Couscous Salad in Delia Smith’s Summer Collection, a book which was a sensation when it was published in 1993. Full of vibrant colours and flavours, the recipes seemed fresher than the rather traditional dishes of Delia’s previous books. Recipes like Piedmont Roasted Peppers, Salmon with Avocado and Crème Fraîche sauce and Oven-roast Ratatouille instantly became part of my regular repertoire.

IMG_4444As you can see from the state of the page, I have made this recipe a lot! Although the harissa-style dressing is nice, I have more often used a mustard or basalmic dressing instead, both of which work well. These days I am not so fond of couscous, so I thought I’d try it with quinoa instead, and added chick peas instead of goat’s cheese, to make a satisfying vegan salad. As tahini goes so well with chick peas, I thought I’d try a tahini dressing, and it went really well with both the vegetables and the chick peas. Feel free to revet to using couscous and goats cheese if you prefer, but however you make it, it is a perfect dish for this lovely summer weather. If it’s really hot, you can roast the vegetables in the cool of the evening or early morning and then quickly assemble it for a lazy lunch. And it looks so summery served in a large bowl, for everyone to serve themselves.

1 aubergine
2 courgettes
2 red or yellow peppers
1 large or 2 small red onions
4 large tomatoes (or equivalent in cherry tomatoes)
4 cloves garlic
Olive oil
120g quinoa
1 can chick peas
1 lemon (optional)
mixed salad leaves
2 tbsp tahini
2 tbsp warm water
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tbsp olive oil
handful of flat-leaf parsley

Start by heating the oven to 200 C Fan/Gas 7. Peel the onion(s), cut in half and the. Each piece into 4-6 wedges. Put into a roasting tin large enough to take all the vegetables.  Trim the top and bottom of the courgettes, slice them in half lengthwise (unless they are small, in which case you may need a couple more) and then slice diagonally into chunks. Add to the tin. Cut the stem off the aubergine, cut it in half lengthwise, each half into three wedges and then across into chunks. Add to the pan, season and drizzle the whole lot with some olive oil.

IMG_4445By now the oven should be up to temperature, so put the tray into the oven and set the pinger for 10 minutes while you prepare the peppers and tomatoes. Core and desired the peppers and cut into small chunks. Delia skins the tomatoes, which is an improvement, though I often don’t get round to it. Her recipe has the instructions. If using large tomatoes cut each into 6 or 8 pieces. Squash the garlic cloves with the side of the knife.

When the timer goes add the peppers and garlic to the roasting tin, giving everything a good stir. Set the timer for a further 10 minutes. Wash the salad if necessary. Measure the quinoa and rinse it under running water. Tip it into a pan, add 360ml of cold water, bring to a simmer and cook for 12-15 minutes until each little seed has unfurled like a comma. When the 10 minutes is up, stir the vegetables again and add the tomatoes for a final 10 minutes. I do this because I prefer the tomatoes to be soft and juicy – you can of course add them earlier if you prefer them more roasted.

IMG_4448Take the vegetables out of the oven and allow to cool a little – I think this salad tastes best when the grain and vegetables are still lukewarm (definitely not fridge cold, so if you are cooking this ahead, do get the vegetables out of the fridge an hour ahead so they can come up to room temperature).

When the quinoa is cooked I usually turn off the heat and let it sit to dry in the pan on the warm hot plate for a few minutes, before tipping it into a sieve to cool.

IMG_4447Drain and rinse the chick peas and mix with the quinoa in a large serving dish. I added some pieces of lemon to the quinoa, following a favourite Ottolenghi recipe. It does make the salad quite sharp, which I like. If you want to do likewise, cut off the top and bottom of the lemon, then stand it on a board and carefully cut away the peel and white pith using a sharp knife (preferably serrated). Then cut between the membranes to release the individual segments of lemon, discarding any pips as you go. Chop the parsley and mix it in.

Drizzle over a little of the dressing, then spoon over the still warm vegetables. Top with the salad leaves, drizzle over more of the dressing and serve with the rest of the desssing on the side.

IMG_4450

Spinach and ricotta filo pie

Otherwise known as Spanakopita, this is a variant of a dish that I have known since I was a teenager. I went to Greece for the first time in the 1970s and still vividly remember the food: huge Greek salads of intensely-flavoured tomatoes and olives, yoghurt in earthenware bowls with a delicious creamy layer on top, Kolokithakia (light, crispy fried courgette slices) served with tzatziki, moussaka rich with aubergines (then hard to find in the UK), and spanakopita: spinach and feta encased in golden filo pastry.

I used to make it according to Claudia Roden’s recipe in Middle Eastern Food: spinach cooked in butter and crumbled feta for the filling (no egg), and 8-10 sheets of filo pastry each brushed with melted butter. It is delicious, but feta can be very salty and with around 125g of butter it makes rich eating and is not so good for eating cold. So my recipe has gradually drifted (recalling Mae West’s “I used to be Snow White but I drifted”) away from authenticity to something lighter yet equally delicious.

Fresh, milky ricotta replaces over half the feta, an egg gives a gentle set to the filling and olive oil turns the sheets of filo into the same golden shards in a more artery-friendly way. A Greek shop is the best place to buy good feta, olives and filo but I don’t have one nearby. Luckily, filo pastry and olives are now widely available, and I have discovered that some supermarkets stock barrel-aged feta, which is sweeter and creamier than the young cheese, if you can stomach the higher price. You can use an onion or half a dozen spring onions instead of the leek if you wish – the latter will obviously only need to be softened very quickly. Last night I also went completely off-piste and added a layer of roasted butternut squash, which we decided was A Good Thing – I give instructions for both variants below.

I love the light freshness of the ricotta combined with the soft, mineral taste of spinach and the sweet saltiness of the feta, all contrasting with the crisp filo. Including the squash makes it a slightly more substantial meal, adding another texture, and the chilli flakes add a hint of heat.

This is an excellent dish for a crowd, as I think it is best served warm or at room temperature (as it is in Greece), rather than hot. It can easily be assembled and baked ahead of time, and it looks splendid as you cut generous squares of it from in a big dish. All you need to serve alongside it is, of course, a Greek salad – tomatoes, cucumber, Kalamata olives, green or red pepper and red onion (if you like it), liberally dressed with green Greek extra-virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar – with extra feta if you wish.

The dish I used for these quantities is 25 x 18 x 5 cm and made enough for 4 portions. It remains good eating for a day or two, so you may want to consider scaling up so that you have leftovers for packed lunches or an easy supper the next day.

450g spinach or 260g spinach and 200g butternut squash
2 leeks
olive oil
120g ricotta
80g feta
1 or 2 eggs
5 sheets filo pastry
a good pinch of chilli flakes (optional)
nutmeg
1 tbsp sesame seeds

If you are using the butternut squash heat the oven to 200º C/Gas Mark 6. Peel and deseed the squash and cut into small cubes. If you’re in a hurry you could use one of those bags of ready-prepared squash (often on special offer in the supermarket chiller at the end of the day). Put on an oven tray, drizzle with olive oil (keep your fancy Extra Virgin oil for the salad – you don’t need it for any of the oven cooking), season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with the chilli flakes. Roast for 15-20 minutes until the squash is just tender to the point of a knife, while you get on with the rest of the recipe using the smaller quantity of spinach.

Otherwise, heat the oven to 180º C/Gas Mark 4. Wash the spinach thoroughly, discarding any tough stems, and drain in a colander. Trim and clean the leek and cut into 1cm slices. Put a large frying pan or wok over a medium heat and add about a tablespoon of olive oil. Add the leek and cook, stirring regularly until it softens and turning the heat down if it shows any signs of browning – a matter of about 5 minutes. Put the ricotta into a sieve to drain (I don’t always do this, but it is worth it if the ricotta looks wet).

When the leeks are soft, add the spinach, with the little water clinging to its leaves, in batches if necessary, stirring it around as it collapses. When all the spinach has been added and is soft, take the pan off the heat and either press the mixture with a spatula and pour off the excess liquid or tip everything into a colander and press the liquid out.

Everything can be prepared up to this point in advance. When you’re ready, beat the egg(s) in a mixing bowl – using 2 eggs if you are using the larger quantity of spinach – and stir in the spinach mixture, ricotta and crumbled feta. Season with a good grating of fresh nutmeg and black pepper (you don’t need salt because of the feta). If not using squash, you can add a pinch of chilli flakes at this point if you wish. By now the squash should be ready and you can take it out and turn the oven down to 180º C/Gas Mark 4.

To assemble the pie, oil your tin and open your stack of filo pastry (ideally under a damp tea-towel to keep it soft).  Using a pastry brush and a small dish of olive oil, oil the top sheet of filo and lay it across the tin with the edges hanging out. Then oil the next sheet and carefully lay it in the opposite direction. Continue adding two more layers of oiled filo in alternate directions, making sure that you arrange them so that you have enough extra to fold over the top at the end (I kept back one sheet to make sure there was enough to cover the pie).

Now fill with the spinach and cheese mixture – and add the butternut squash in a layer if you are using it. Fold in each layer of the pastry in turn, brushing on a little more oil as you go, until it is all securely enclosed. Sprinkle sesame seeds across the top if you wish.  I don’t really recommend the black sesame seeds but couldn’t find any regular sesame seeds in my over-stuffed spice drawer.  Put into the pre-heated oven and bake for 35 minutes, giving it a peek after 20 minutes to check that it is not browning too fast – if so, loosely cover it with some foil or turn the oven down a bit (say 170º C/Gas Mark 3).

Spinach and ricotta filo pieAllow to cool a little before serving with a Greek salad (or, as here, the totally improvised salad we had with the leftovers!).