I have little restraint when it comes to food that I can convince myself is healthy. This includes dates, malt loaf and pistachio nuts. Oh and yoghurt-coated apricots. That’s just yoghurt and fruit, right? I recently realised I’ve been spending a small fortune on tiny jars of cashew nut butter, as I scoff down the calorie-dense paste by the spoonful, straight from the jar. I’ve toured round all the different nut butters, including the slightly bizarre apricot kernel butter, and decided that my top two are definitely almond and cashew. But the fact remains that to buy them is horrendously expensive. So I found a recipe and decided to have a bash at making some.
Making my own almond butter wouldn’t be financially viable without Scoop Away, which is an amazing wholefood shop where you literally scoop everything into bags, which is then priced by weight. When I first discovered the shop, I went a bit over the top, buying lots of random things that I had never seen before, such as yoghurt coated honeycomb, in industrial quantities. Even now I visit the shop weekly, and have to reign myself in when faced with the yoghurt- coated section. So I scooped what seemed like a reasonable amount of almonds into a bag, later realising that I had bought over double the quantity needed for the nut butter, having lost all sense of proportion when scooping.
Making almond butter is ludicrously simple. You need a powerful food processor to get the creamy consistency, and simply roast the nuts in the oven for a few minutes, then put them in the food processor and leave them to it. I was convinced that it wasn’t going to work at first, as I just had ground almonds whizzing round the processor bowl for the first ten minutes. But then, suddenly, the oil is released and the almond powder mushes together to form the butter. One of my favourite things to do with the butter (other than eat it straight from the jar) is to stuff pitted Medjool dates with a spoonful, then put them in the fridge to set. In my experience, it’s impossible to eat less than five of these in one sitting.
Paris and I spend most of the week engaged in an intense back and forth about what we’re going to blog about at the weekend. We send each other links to blogs that might have a particularly well-arranged salad, or suggest a novel way of using chickpeas. We bandy around ideas of ingredient and flavour combinations, some of which we instantly dismiss as being too bizarre. In this case, we had gone through so many possible ideas for dishes involving preserved lemons, that by the weekend we had completely forgotten what we decided on. So this was a more spontaneous creation, centred around the notion that there had been a lot of talk throughout the week about red cabbage.
The ingredients in this salad were chosen primarily for their visual appeal, based on how well they would compliment the bright yellow of the preserved lemons. I know, right. Hipster food bloggers. Not to mention the poncey addition of pomegranate seeds. To be frank, I don’t actually enjoy eating pomegranate seeds that much – I find that hard bit in the middle somewhat irritating. But they look so beautiful, that for the sake of the photographs I conceded. We decided to pair the lemons with red cabbage (yellow + purple = good), then added vibrant green parsley leaves and red pomegranate seeds. When our eyes began to hurt, we chucked in some bulgur wheat to calm everything down a bit.
Bulgur wheat is my new favourite grain. It has the easy pour-a- kettle-of-water-over-it cooking method shared by cous-cous (and pot noodles, although I’ll pretend I don’t know that, as it wouldn’t do much for my food blogger image). It retains a pleasant bite and has a slight nutty taste. It balances out the sharp acidity of the lemons rather well. Preserved lemons are usually the preserve (pun entirely intended) of hearty Moroccan lamb tagines and baked fish dishes. Here we’ve given them a new lease of life as the centerpiece of this simple salad.
This is an embarrassingly unoriginal Ottolenghi knock off. I even shamelessly copied the style of the photographs. The recipe is an amalgamation of two different offerings from Yotam’s latest cookbook, ‘Plenty More’. Apart from the dressing, which we cobbled together from random ingredients lurking at the back of the kitchen cupboard, it’s pretty much a dead copy. Which is unusual, as I don’t find myself following recipes much these days. I get too frustrated with following exact measurements and prescriptive methods, and end up disregarding both and producing something that bares little resemblance to the intended dish. One of the hazards of being a food blogger, I guess.
Ottolenghi provides an unstoppable font of inspiration for me. He combines ingredients in ways that I had never even considered (leeks, goats cheese and sultanas, for example) opening up a whole range of new tastes. Also, the methods and techniques of cooking he uses are so varied and interesting that they have me running straight into the kitchen to start experimenting. There’s usually one element of each of his recipes that elevates them to another level – such the addition of a particular spice, usually an unpronounceable Middle Eastern variety that can only be ordered online. I have invested in several Ottolenghi ‘essentials’, such as pomegranate molasses, sumac and za’tar, but don’t ask me what any of them actually are. All I know is that they often provide an elusive final taste to make Middle Eastern specialities taste much more authentic.
The tumeric roasted walnuts in this recipe are an example of the above – a simple ingredient transformed by the addition of a few spices and a different way of cooking. I’ve always considered turmeric a bit of a non-spice, its chief use being the vibrant yellow colour that it imparts. However, roasting walnuts in the spice brings out their sweetness, adding a remarkable depth of flavour. I have since learnt that turmeric is commonly used in sweet dishes, and some folk swear by drinking turmeric tea first thing in the morning. This somewhat fusion recipe combines these walnuts with fresh green veg, sesame seeds and a punchy, vinegary dressing. Hopefully Yotam would approve.
I attempted Veganuary this year. I lasted three days. But the reason for my downfall was not the aching lack of bacon or creamy yoghurt, but milk. And, more specifically, milk in tea. Say what you will, almond milk just doesn’t taste the same. As I drink on average about five cups of tea a day, this was a bit of a problem. I have been trying to consume less dairy, so have almond milk on cereal, but I realised pretty quickly that completely cutting out dairy was going to be a challenge that I didn’t particularly want to deal with. Especially alongside dry January, which is going much better (apart from an ill-considered encounter with a boozy tiramisu, which I’m not sure counts).
However, I am trying to eat more vegetables, and less meat. This seems to be more problematic for people to grasp than just saying you’re a vegetarian. I do eat meat, I’m just deliberately trying to eat less. I have recently found myself inadvertently cooking vegetarian and vegan food, as I’m focusing on vegetables as the centerpiece of the dish, rather than meat. This beetroot dip is laughably easy, and a great way to shoehorn lots of raw veg into an easily digestible form. It can be eaten as it is, with toasted pittas to scoop it up with, or as part of a salad with some grilled halloumi, maybe. The nigella seeds (not marketed by Ms. Lawson, they’re also known as ‘black onion seeds’) are optional, as they can be hard to get your hands on. We found some and thought they’d act as a brilliant colour contrast to the vibrant purple of the beetroot.
I’ve recently returned to Bristol after a restorative and relaxing break visiting my parents in the countryside of Devon and Cornwall. The silence and peace that being a good twenty minutes from the nearest major road affords was much needed. It was lovely to spend time with family, and in my mind, there is too much talk of Christmas being about stuff, rather than people. That being said, carefully chosen presents are always appreciated. My stocking seemed to mostly contain food and food related items, including, of all things, smoked garlic. It was heavily wrapped in newspaper, so as to stop the pungent aroma permeating everything around it. I’m sure this is the modern, Ottolenghi version of a satsuma.
Another memorable part of my Chirstmas was visiting my uncle and his family on Boxing Day. We turned up at 5pm, at which point there had been a good three hours of alcohol consumption already. My Mum and I proceeded to neck back the Prosecco at quite a rate, in a feeble (and futile) effort to catch up. When the general level of inebriation reached its peak, there was a particularly hilarious incident that stemmed from the suggestion of karaoke. It was then decided that we didn’t have a microphone, and so must find the requisite stand-in. This led to my uncle foraging through the salad drawer of the fridge to find suitable phallic-shaped vegetables to use as microphones. This included a parsnip, a carrot, a courgette, and, in a moment of desperation, a Romaine lettuce leaf. These were laid out on a tray for the unwitting karaoke performers to make their selection from. There was “Rocking around the Christmas tree” sung into a parsnip, and my personal favourite, ‘Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” with the help of a long red pepper.
Lots of food writers talk about how food can evoke memories. Diana Henry, for example, enthuses about how gooey cow’s milk cheeses take her back to snowy seasons in the Swiss Alps, scraping the cheese off slates with spoons whilst sitting by a roaring fire. The connection between the vegetable karaoke and this soup is slightly more tenuous, but I still had to suppress a chuckle as I was peeling the parsnips. The creaminess of the parsnips works well with the pungent hit of smoked garlic. If you can’t get smoked garlic (find your nearest fancy deli and it should have it), just use regular garlic. I think this recipe sums up my Christmas break rather well: wonderfully foodie stocking presents and parsnip microphones.
Cauliflower has never held much of an appeal for me: the boiled, bland florets often taste of nothing much. But Ottolenghi, the God that he is, has revolutionized the vegetable for me via the simple suggestion of roasting it. The gently charred edges give the cauliflower a delicious smokiness that makes them take on a completely different taste than when they’re cooked in any other way. Ottolenghi combines roasted cauliflower with pomegranate seeds, celery and all manner of interesting embellishments in his salads, but I’ve gone for a more simple approach.
Romanesco is the Italian cousin of the common cauliflower, yet much more exciting. It’s vibrant green spikes mean that it barely looks edible, but is in fact delicious. This is a laughably simple recipe. Given the Italian origin of Romanesco, I stuck to a broadly Italian theme, combining it with punchy garlic, lemon and crunchy hazelnuts. The garlic and lemon are added at the end, letting the heat of the roasting tin cook them slightly, but not too much, so they retain a bit of a punch.
1 head of Romanesco cauliflower
60g whole hazelnuts
1 clove of garlic, crushed
Juice and zest of half a lemon
2 tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 180C. Divide the Romanesco into florets and put in a roasting dish. Drizzle over 1 tbsp olive oil, a splash of water and some salt and pepper. Roast for half an hour. Put the whole hazelnuts onto a baking sheet and toast in the top shelf of the oven for 8 minutes, until the skins are starting to crack and peel away. Rub off the skins by rolling the nuts in a clean tea towel. Roughly crush them in a pestle and mortar, then mix into the cauliflower. Whisk together the lemon juice and zest and crushed garlic with the remaining 1 tbsp olive oil. Pour over the cauliflower and stir, allowing the heat of the roasting tin to cook the garlic slightly.
I was having a gentle browse through my food cupboard the other day, as I often like to do on an evening, and I realised that have 5 different kinds of nuts. Not to mention two different kinds of nut butter. This strikes me as quite excessive. But nuts, in my opinion, are a great addition to any meal. I have always been a devoted fan of peanut butter. The wholenut, crunchy variety in particular. I’ve recently discovered the joys of cashew nut butter, which is a whole new level of amazingness. You can only buy it in tiny, and ludicrously expensive, jars. But man is it worth it.
This is yet another vegan miracle. Frozen bananas whizzed up in a blender make ice cream. No joke. It’s apparently quite a thing, and has it’s own hashtag on Instagram (#nanaicecream). This is what Paris and I made to go with our chocolate and beetroot muffins. The first time we tried it the bananas weren’t frozen enough, so it melted into a sloppy mush, and I remained skeptical. But on the second try, with really well frozen bananas, it worked. The bananas get broken up into small pellets, and then when mixed with the tahini and cashew butter they form a deliciously creamy ice cream – without any cream.
It’s quite a revelation to be able to wolf down copious amounts of something that greatly resembles ice cream without much consideration for calories. A liberating experience, as far as ice cream goes. Considering the ‘ice cream’ is ninety percent banana, there isn’t an overwhelming banana taste. The cashew nut flavour complements the banana really well, and the occasional crunch of a nut is all the more welcome. And it’s pretty much guilt free.
If someone had said to me a year ago that I would bake a vegan muffin that tasted ‘just like the real thing’ I would have given a derisory snort of disbelief. But in my new wholesome existence, thanks in no small part to becoming friends with Paris (the founder of the lifestyle website called Avocado Please, nonetheless), I have opened my mind to the possibility that you can bake something delicious without butter. Yes, some things will always need dairy – cheese scones for example – but muffins, I have recently discovered, are not one of them.
For our last Vegessential recipe using beetroot, we opted for the well-known and loved combination of chocolate and beetroot. We used a combination of ‘Beyond Dark’ 85% chocolate chips and melted chocolate, for a double whammy of the good stuff. The beetroot gives a deep, rich flavour and provides the moistness that is so essential for a good muffin. There is a ‘secret’ ingredient that flummoxed everyone who tried to guess it: avocado. This binds the mixture together, and gives the muffins a smooth, buttery texture. Paris sums the muffins up rather well, describing them as combining ‘a vibrant purple complexion, an earthy aroma and nutritional brilliance’. Well said, Paris.
The styling team (me and Paris) had great fun creating ‘muffin chaos’ shots on my bedroom floor, arranging bits of muffin haphazardly in amongst chocolate chips and beetroot leaves. The chocolate drops melted in the sweltering July heat, leaving shiny little circles on the slate that we gleefully scooped into our mouths once we’d finished the shoot. That thing that is slopped on the side of the muffins is a rather remarkable banana and cashew ice cream (recipe coming soon.)
I wanted to make something to stave off the inevitable hunger pangs that reliably hit around 4pm everyday. I have started eating fruit when this happens, which helps to a certain extent, but I inevitably also follow it with random handfuls of dried fruit, nuts and seeds. So I decided to combine these into a snack that would give me energy, whilst also being substantial enough to keep me going until dinner. It is also a desperate bid to get rid of a jar of ground mixed seeds that I have hanging around, which I am not particularly fond of – I end up finding small pieces of hemp seed painfully lodged in my gums after sprinkling them on my morning porridge.
I tipped pretty much the entire contents of my food cupboard into these – beginning with oats and mashed banana, then joyfully pouring in the ground seeds, tahini, peanut butter, cashew nuts, ground almonds, and anything else that needed finishing off. I also found some dried sour cherries hidden behind the pasta that I had bought on a whim several months ago, then completely forgotten about. I opened them and discovered, after chomping down on one rather hard, that they still contained their stones. So I spent a rather tedious hour soaking the cherries in boiling water, then popping out each stone individually.
This sort of thing is all the rage among the nutrition and exercise obsessed, who see them as the perfect ‘post-workout’ snack. There are numerous versions of homemade ‘energy bites’ and ‘high-protein snack bars’ out there, with increasingly ridiculous names – the best one I found was ‘healthy almond joy protein bars’. No joke. This version is raw, which gets a whole host of people on board. ‘Raw’ food is seen as superior by its advocates, as cooking is thought to ‘denature proteins’ amongst other evil things. I’m not prepared to jump on that bandwagon just yet (well, never), but I simply wanted to see if everything would stick together without the need to cook it, more out of laziness than health concern. Turns out it did, although they were much easier to shape into balls than press into bars, leading to the dubious name of ‘seed balls’.
One of the many good things about this collaboration is working with someone who knows the perils of trying to fit a food blog around a full time job. I’ve been doing lots of food photography for my new job (more on that in a later post), meaning that I’m finding it difficult to summon the energy to also do it in my spare time. Paris and I decided to fit in our next Vegessential session one evening after work. We were both knackered, and were seriously contemplating not bothering, but we ploughed on. It was then that we realised that there being two of us makes the whole process much easier.
One of the many up-sides of doing a post together is you’ve got someone to help you make all the decisions. It made me realise the sheer amount of decisions involved – about ingredients, quantities, cooking methods, camera angles and styling. It’s great to have someone to offer their opinion on the exact placement of a piece of torn pitta, or an errant pomegranate seed. In fact, we spent the majority of the time precisely arranging the pomegranate seeds to look artfully scattered.
Armed with our trusty beetroot once again, we set about making beetroot falafel. I’ve never had this before, but Paris has, and assured me that it’s delicious. It was. Basically, you just whack everything in a food processor and whizz briefly until it comes together, then roll into balls and fry. We seriously contemplated leaving them raw, as we had to restrain ourselves from eating all of the mix before it was fried. But in the end went for a shallow fry in sunflower oil, until the outside edges began to crisp up. The real winning ingredient was the dates, giving the falafel a sweetness that complemented the beetroot really well. Have a look at Paris’ post on Avocado Please here.