Lentils with squash and spinach

Lentils with squash and spinach

A new discovery, this lentil dish is both comforting and fresh-tasting, thanks to being flavoured with orange peel and juice. The idea came from the beginning of a Lindsey Bareham recipe in her column for The Times, which Irene found online. The introduction and ingredients made it sound delicious, but the rest of the recipe was for subscribers only, so the method below is our guesswork (and the sage and fresh chilli our additions). So far, we have had it hot with sausages and pan-fried pheasant breast (separately, obviously) and at room temperature with salad and goat’s cheese. I plan to polish off the leftovers with some ham for lunch tomorrow, and Lindsey Bareham also recommends it cold with hard-boiled eggs.

These quantities make enough for 3 servings, or 4 as the accompaniment to something more substantial.

1 large onion
3 tbsp rapeseed or olive oil
2 oranges
1 cm piece dried chilli
150g puy lentils
1 bay leaf
3 sage leaves (optional)
300ml chicken or vegetable stock
250g butternut squash
100g spinach
1 fresh red chilli to serve (optional)

Heat the oven to 210°C. Chop the butternut squash into bite-sized chunks and toss in 1 tbsp olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and spread on a baking tray. Roast for about 20-25 minutes until tender. I tend to roast more butternut squash than I need for one recipe, as there are lots of recipes that you can then make easily, such as soup, pumpkin rice, squash with aubergine sauce, salad with mushrooms or risotto.

Softening onions for lentils with squash and spinachCut the onion in half and slice thinly. Heat 2 tbsp of the oil in a frying pan over medium heat and cook the onions slowly with a good pinch of salt, stirring regularly and reducing the heat if they start to show any sign of browning. After about 10-15 minutes, they should be soft and golden – rapeseed oil gives them a particularly lovely colour.

Add the lentils and stir them in to coat them with the oil. Pare several long strips of orange rind and add them to the pan with the dried chilli, bay leaf and the sage leaves torn into strips. Stir and cook for another minute or two, then add the hot stock to the pan.

Lentils with squash and spinach 2

I used 1 tsp of Marigold bouillon made up with 250ml of boiling water, but found I needed to add a little more water. Bring to the boil, then cover with a lid, turn down the heat and simmer for 15 minutes, checking after 10 minutes in case you need to add a little more water.

Wash the spinach and squeeze the juice of the oranges. After 15 minutes the lentils should be nearly tender – if not, give them another few minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then add the spinach to the pan (if you’re using previously roasted, cold squash as I was, add it at this stage to warm through).

Adding spinach and squash to the lentils

Put the lid back on and cook gently for another 3-5 minutes until the spinach has wilted. By now, the squash should be ready to come out of the oven. Stir the spinach into the lentils, add the orange juice and the squash if you are  haven’t already done so. Give it a final stir and check the seasoning, then serve hot, warm or cold. It may not look elegant, but it is delicious!

Lentils with squash and spinach

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)
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!).

Avocado, spinach and bacon salad

I have been running to catch up with myself since a most enjoyable holiday in the States last month, so have been rather neglecting the blog. A lot of good eating has been going on, though, including several classic American brunches, one ending with this very indulgent affogato Affogato in Philadelphiaand chocolate cake.  Back home it has been a question of throwing together familiar meals on the trot, with not much time to try new recipes or photograph what I’ve been cooking.

As the weather has shifted gear, salads are back on the menu, and this is a classic – a quick, easy meal in a bowl, combining creamy avocado and the salty tang of bacon. If you can, use thinly sliced bacon for this recipe, so you can get it nice and crisp, to contrast with the soft leaves. Purists would omit the red pepper and the rocket or watercress, but I like the cheerful colour of the red pepper and the peppery kick of flavour that the other leaves bring. A small head of chicory – red for preference – is also a good addition instead of or as well as the rocket or watercress – just slice it across into three or four pieces and separate the leaves.  These qualities are for 2, served with good bread. Add a dish of warm lentils dressed with olive oil and lemon if you want to make it into a more substantial meal.

Avocado, spinach and bacon salad
4-6 thin rashers of bacon
200g spinach
handful of rocket or watercress
½ red pepper
1 avocado
30g pine nuts

½ tsp dijon mustard
salt & pepper
1 tsp white wine vinegar
2 tbsp olive oil

Heat a frying pan with a drizzle of olive oil and cook the bacon over a medium heat for about 6-10 mins (depending on the thickness of your rashers) until it is nice and crisp. I used six rashers of bacon, as they were very small and thin. Meanwhile, wash the spinach and rocket or watercress and dry in a salad spinner (or shake in a tea-towel). Slice the red pepper thinly and chop into 2cm pieces. Cut the avocado into chunks. Toast the pine nuts in a small frying pan over medium heat – this should only take 2 or 3 minutes, but do watch them like a hawk, shaking and turning them so that they don’t burn.

When the bacon is ready, take it out of the pan and drain on a piece of kitchen towel. Put the drained salad leaves into a large bowl, and add the avocado and most of the red pepper. Whisk together all the dressing ingredients, pour over the salad and mix together. Finally, crumble the bacon and sprinkle it over the salad, with, the remaining red pepper and the pine nuts. I usually finish it with a tiny drizzle of oil and another grind of black pepper.

Pancakes stuffed with spinach and ricotta

Buckwheat pancakes stuffed with spinach & ricottaHaving tried out my buckwheat pancake recipe last week, I decided to cook stuffed pancakes for my reading group. I wanted a vegetarian dish that could mostly be prepared in advance, and this seemed to fit the bill. I found the recipe for the filling in Claudia Roden’s The Food of Italy – her recipe for Crespelle Ripiene includes three fillings, a cheese one, spinach and ricotta, and mushroom, but I thought the spinach and ricotta would go particularly well with the savoury buckwheat pancakes.

I altered the pancake batter slightly, to make it a bit richer and easier to roll – the pancakes are stiffer when you make them with water and fewer eggs – and increased the quantity (to make enough for 6), so I used:

200g buckwheat flour
1 tbsp olive oil
3 beaten eggs
400g (approx) of full cream milk

The method was exactly the same as the original recipe. I made the batter two hours in advance (longer or overnight would be fine) and put it in the fridge to rest. Meanwhile, I made the filling and sauce:

Spinach and ricotta filling:
1 large chopped onion
2 tbsps olive oil
500g spinach
175g ricotta
salt, pepper and nutmeg
3 tbsps grated parmesan

Wash the spinach and cook it in the water that clings to the leaves in a large saucepan over a medium heat until soft (about 5-7 minutes). Tip into a colander and press hard with a large spoon or spatula to extract as much liquid as possible. Allow to cool a little.

Heat the oil in a large sauté pan and cook the chopped onion over medium heat until soft. Turn the spinach onto a large board and chop roughly. When the onion is cooked, stir in the chopped spinach, ricotta and parmesan and season well with salt, pepper and nutmeg.

Tomato sauce
2 400g cans chopped plum tomatoes
2 tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper
1 tsp sugar
3 tbsps chopped parsley
250g mozzarella

Simmer the tomatoes in oil for about half an hour, seasoning with salt, pepper and sugar to taste, until they are soft and the sauce has thickened and slightly reduced. Slice the mozzarella finely.

Buckwheat pancakeShortly before you are ready to assemble the pancakes take the batter out of the fridge and heat the oven to 220ºC (unless you’re assembling in advance – in which case put the oven on as your guests arrive). Stir the batter and thin a little with water or milk if it has thickened in the fridge. Cook the pancakes, making them as evenly sized as you can, and stack them on a plate. I discovered that the secret to getting them to spread thinly was to hold the pan off the heat while pouring in a ladleful of batter and turning the pan to spread the mixture before putting it back on the hotplate.

Filling stuffed pancakesLightly oil the base of a large rectangular oven dish. Put a couple of large spoonfuls of the spinach and ricotta filling in a line across the middle of each pancake, remembering that you’re aiming to divide the filling equally into six. Roll the pancakes into fat tubes and arrange them neatly in the oven dish. Spoon over the tomato sauce and arrange the mozzarella slices on top. You can prepare the dish in advance up to this point ( though I wouldn’t leave it sitting too long with the sauce on).

Put into the oven for 20-25 minutes until the mozzarella has melted and it is all nice and hot. I served it with a salad of soft curly lettuce, red chicory and rocket, dressed with a mustardy vinaigrette.

Rhubarb and Almond CakeAfterwards, we had some Dutch gouda and this excellent Rhubarb and Almond Cake, which was posted recently by SingleGourmetandTraveller. As you can see, it went down very well! It has a delicious flavour, a moist, tender crumb and is a great way of enjoying the early Yorkshire rhubarb that is just coming into season now – highly recommended.

Leftovers: Squash, spinach and goat’s cheese gratin

Squash, spinach and goat's cheese gratinRecently we went to Vinoteca in Farringdon for lunch, and had a gratin of onion squash, spinach and goat’s cheese. When I found I had some leftover baked squash in the fridge – albeit Crown Prince rather than Onion squash – I thought I would try to recreate the dish and was very pleased I did. It made a quick, easy and tasty supper. These quantities are rather approximate and made supper for one.

200g baked squash
125g spinach
50g firm goat’s cheese
thyme, salt and pepper

Heat the oven to 220 C. Wash the spinach and cook it until soft over medium heat, then empty into a colander to squeeze out as much liquid as possible and chop it. This is important as the version we had at Vinoteca had quite a lot of liquid at the bottom, which detracted from the dish. Put the spinach into a small gratin dish. I have a small rectangular Le Creuset dish which I am very fond of, and is perfect for a recipe like this.

Cut the squash into bite-sized pieces and arrange on top of the spinach. Sprinkle over some thyme if you have it (my squash had already been baked with thyme) and season with salt and pepper. Cut the goat’s cheese (I used Capricorn) into small pieces and dot over the dish. Drizzle with olive oil, then put into the oven for 20 minutes until hot and sizzling. Voilà: supper!

Squash, spinach and goat's cheese on buckwheat pancakeI served mine on a leftover buckwheat pancake that I had heated in the oven for 5 minutes, which worked surprisingly well – and made good use of two different leftovers at once – but some good sourdough bread would probably be even nicer.

Rice, carrot, spinach and cashews

Rice carrots, spinach and cashewsA soothing lunch dish – a recipe by Nigel Slater, with the addition of spinach, which I used as I didn’t have any of the coriander specified in the original recipe and wanted to have some greens. I wasn’t convinced about the nigella seeds, and may omit them next time round. Quantities are for two middle-aged women – I’ve kept the original quantities of veg, but with less rice (and therefore less stock). Nigel’s recipe gives 100g rice per person – you might want to put the quantity of rice and stock back up again if cooking for hungry men or teenagers.
2 medium carrots, scrubbed or peeled and finely diced
2 spring onions, chopped
2 good handfuls of spinach (approx 80g)
3 cloves
1 tsp ground coriander
100g brown basmati rice
Butter & oil for cooking
250ml vegetable (or chicken) stock
50g cashews, toasted in a dry frying pan
2 tsp nigella seeds, if liked
1 tsp garam masala

Heat a nut of butter and a little oil in a frying pan or shallow saucepan (one with a lid) and add the spring onion and carrots. Let them colour lightly, then add the cloves, coriander and rice. Stir, add the stock and bring to the boil. Season with salt, cover and turn down to a simmer.

Cook for about 20-25 mins (Nigel says 15-20 mins, but I found the brown basmati took a bit longer) until the rice is nearly done. Add the spinach to the pan on top of the rice, turn off the heat, put back the lid and leave to steam for 10 minutes. Fold in the wilted spinach. Add a slice of butter, the toasted cashews, nigella seeds (if using) and garam masala and fork through.