Soups for September and the start of school

Well the start of school nursery actually. Lexie is now going for two and a half days which is about the limit for both of us. It has all gone very well. Lexie’s school is sweet and small, her teachers are gentle and kind (and much calmer and more patient than me!).

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It’s lovely for me to have the time alone with Finn and lovely for Lexie to be challenged/entertained in a way I can’t provide. She has a sociable class and has already found her feet making some friends – Helena and Sarah in particular – the three little monkeys.

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The flip side is that at home she’s behaving like a despot, very wilful and disobedient, but apparently that’s all part and parcel of having to be so well behaved at school, the kids get home and just go fluruugh.

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We are very much adjusting to this new routine and I’m still struggling during the witching hour. Finny needs to be home a good half an hour before Lexie is really ready, either for his afternoon nap or for some wriggle time before supper. Often when we get back, he is overtired and clingy which makes prepping dinner more stressful for me. He has a penchant for throwing himself at my feet sobbing every time I step in kitchen. It’s not as cute as the pic below let me tell you!

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So, as I’m very often preparing their dinner with him in my arms, I’ve been getting more organised and trying to have a few meals ready to go in the fridge that just need heating up. (I’m not sure what my problem is with the freezer. I just don’t use it. Need to get over that!). These tend to be an easy salad for me, a tomato pasta sauce and lots of soups. Mainly because they are baby friendly, nourishing and easy to heat up quickly. Also soups, like stews, tend to improve in flavour after a couple of days so they are good to prepare in advance. Plus it’s the start of Autumn which is the perfect season for soup, as we all know.

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The next few posts are therefore dedicated to our current favourite soups. I featured the obvious contender, butternut squash soup, last Autumn, although I’m on the look out for a better recipe if anyone can share one? My best, most autumnal offering is this pretty and nourishing minestrone, full of leafy greens, butternut squash, tomatoes and beans.

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It’s based on a minestrone I’ve been raving about every since we had it at Petersham Nurseries. I do a spring version and also a winter version which is basically the same as this one replacing the squash with potato. I always feel better about life after this soup (ha ha that sounds ridiculous! Maybe a better comparison is it’s a bit like a relaxing child free lavender scented bath or a good nights sleep. No that’s just as silly. It’s a nice bowl of soup. There you go).

It’s definitely better to make it a day in advance. It’s not difficult but it’s not one you can rush (unlike my cream of tomato soup which is ready in 15-20 mins). Lewis and I have it with a good drizzle of olive oil, lots of parmesan grated on top and with sourdough bread toasted and rubbed with a bit of garlic and more olive oil. The kids have it with bread and for Finny I juzz it in the blender. They are both complete tomato fiends, they love tomato pasta, tomato soup, cherry tomatoes and this minestrone.

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Autumn minestrone

  • 1 bunch rainbow chard
  • 1 bunch cavolo nero
  • 1 carrot
  • 1/4 or 1/2 a butternut squash
  • 1 red onion
  • 1 stick celery
  • 2 sprigs of thyme, leaves stripped and roughly chopped
  • Salt and pepper (leave salt out for babies)
  • Olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 1 tin cannellini or haricot beans (can also use borlotti or chickpeas)
  • 1 tin cirio plum tomatoes
  • Chicken stock (real chicken stock makes a huge difference here but you can use a cube or veg stock, or even broth from beans if using dried beans)
  • Parsley

Prep the veg by chopping it all into small pieces roughly the same size. So slice the celery stick in half then slice into 5mm rounds and do similar with the carrot and onion. Also do this with the stalks of the chard then dice the peeled butternut squash into smallish cubes. Slice the leaves of the chard into similar 5mm rounds and set aside. Slice the green part of the cavolo nero away from the white stalk and discard the stalks. Then slice the green leafy cavolo nero into bits as per the chard leaves.

Gently sweat the onion, carrot, celery and chard stalks for a good 15-20 mins in the olive oil. Then add the garlic, thyme, parsley stalks and butternut squash and sweat for a further 5 mins. Add the tin of tomatoes, turn up the heat and break them up a bit with a wooden spoon.

Add the chicken stock, bring to the boil, then simmer, partially covered for 20 mins. Then add the chard and cavolo nero leaves and cook for about 10 mins adding more water or stock if needed. When the soup is about done, add the drained tin of beans and heat through.

Serve this soup with a good drizzle of olive oil, some chopped parsley and some grated parmesan. Toast sourdough bread, rub half a clove of garlic over the toast then drizzle with more olive oil.

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A minestrone for spring?

Is it summer? Is it spring? Is it winter? The weather is particularly doollally at the moment. I’m writing this with the heating on wondering when I can pack our winter clothes away. Equally my peonies from the market are in full bloom and the kitchen is full of english asparagus and strawberries… I think this minestrone is a good compromise. It’s packed full of new season veg and I’m looking forward to warming up with a bowl of it later.

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I also have to express a new fondness for peas, one of the ingredients in this soup. It turns out Lexie is a master pea podder and will sit happily for an age, podding away. I think we will be eating a lot of peas this month!

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The recipe is adapted from one in the Petersham Nurseries cook book (I need some new cook books!). It is easy but it takes a little time to prep the veg. Given it will improve overnight, I recommend making the base of the soup including the tomato stage the day before. Then all you have to do is reheat and add the last min veg for 10 mins.

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A minestrone for spring

  • 1 stick of celery, halved and sliced into 5mm strips
  • 1 carrot, peeled and chopped as above
  • big handful of peas
  • 1 bunch of asparagus, trimmed and washed, sliced diagonally also 5mm
  • 1 red onion, chopped
  • proper chicken stock (ideally)
  • small bunch of rainbow chard, leaves stripped and washed, stalks sliced into 5mm rounds
  • 2 cloves of thinly sliced garlic
  • 3 charlotte or new potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 1 tin Cirio (or another good brand) tomatoes
  • small bunch chopped parsley
  • parmesan
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper

Sweat the onion, celery, carrot, potatoes and chard stalks in a little olive oil in a heavy bottomed pan for about 10 mins. The aim is to soften not to colour the vegetables.

Add the garlic followed by the tomato and cook for a few more minutes. Heat and add most of the stock so the veg is well covered and simmer for 20 mins.

Then add the chard leaves as well as the asparagus and peas and more stock if needed. Simmer for another 5-10 mins until the veg is tender. Season with salt and pepper and serve with chopped parsley, a drizzle of olive oil, lots of grated parmesan and some good sourdough bread.

(This last pic of my pouty Lexie at the flower market. She’s also like this crazy weather. It’s up to 4 seasons an hour with her at the moment – sunny spells interspersed with some epic gales!)

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A nourishing vegetable curry… and a baby!

I’ve been pondering how to return here. With an overspill of events since early autumn to catch up on, not to mention the backlog of recipes still from the summer, where to start? With the most important news of course…

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My son Finn was born on the 2nd of December. Having spent most of September and October rueing the unseasonal heat, I was delighted in bitter November when the wind began to howl, the trees became skeletons and it finally got cold. I’m so happy Finn was born at the start of December, at the beginning of this frozen month, and just before the Christmas festivities began in earnest.

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Now he’s here it’s like he was always with us, as is the way with babies. I feel complete and also delighted to no longer be pregnant. He’s a beautiful, blue eyed boy. Looks remarkably like his sister did as the picture below shows. Very strong, very sweet and growing exponentially, especially considering he’s been plagued with viruses since birth. The love came instantly this time round.

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Obviously we are exhausted! To the bone. He has colic, poor little boy. It is really hard. So the first recipe I’m noting is from the food parcel delivered by my mother-in-law the week after he was born. A gentle vegetable and chickpea curry, delicately spiced and laced with coconut milk. It’s comforting, nourishing and also a good January dish being both warming and good for the body and the soul. It’s easy to make a huge vat of this for freezing or for quick suppers and it’s mild so suitable for little ones. There is a one off investment in the requisite spices, after that this recipe is as cheap as chips. She first made us this when we arrived for a stay at her house in the Scottish highlands, perfect after 12 hours of travel culminating in a 3 hour drive with a screaming child. When she asked us what we wanted in the food parcel it was my first choice (Lewis wanted fish pie). She says the spicing comes from a Nigel Slater recipe. Pic of curry to follow and I don’t know why the pics are so massive on this post – sorry!

Vegetable curry

Prep: 20 mins
Cook: 45mins – 1hr
Serves: 6
Budget: £5-10 assuming spices not included

  • 1 or 2 tins chickpeas, rinsed and drained
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 3 red chillis (or less if wanted), chopped
  • 3 carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 2 tsp coriander seeds
  • 6 cardamon pods
  • Groundnut oil (or sunflower/vegetable oil)
  • 15 curry leaves
  • 1 tsp black mustard seeds
  • 2 tsp turmeric
  • 500g tomatoes, roughly chopped
  • 1 large sweet potato (new potatoes are nice too instead), peeled and in chunks
  • 1 red pepper, thick slices
  • Spinach, rinsed
  • Vegetable or chicken stock, 750 ml
  • 1/2 or 1 tin of coconut milk
  • Handful of chopped fresh coriander

Grind the coriander seeds in a pestle and mortar. Remove the seeds from the cardamon pods and also grind.

Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pan and gently cook the onions and garlic until soft.

Stir in the curry leaves, mustard seeds, ground coriander, turmeric, cardamon seeds and chopped chillis. Fry for a few mins then add the carrots and cook on a low heat for 5 mins.

Add the tomatoes, sweet potato and peppers then pour in the stock. Bring to the boil and skim off any froth that comes to the surface, then simmer gently for 20-30 mins, stirring from time to time.

When the veg is nicely tender but not overdone the curry is ready. Stir in the chickpeas and when they are warm add the coconut milk.

Finally stir in the spinach which should wilt instantly in the heat then garnish with fresh coriander and serve with rice.

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Beef stew

Beef stew, beef stew, whatcha gonna do? Whatcha gonna do when beef stew comes for you… This was a massive in joke with my boss back when I had a 9-5 office job. At random times, including at big meetings, he’d pick a word from the current conversation and ‘whatcha gonna do’ it. For example ‘business plan, business plan, whatcha gonna do when business plan comes for you’ and so on. We thought it was hilarious. Our co-workers perhaps, at times, found it a bit wearing. Ha ha ha us. (If this is completely baffling watch this… specifically 0:24… see what we did there?)

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So… beef stew! I know two recipes for this. One my mum taught me which is a variation of her lamb casserole but with beef instead of lamb and a tin of petit pois instead of flageolet beans (can I just add that tinned peas are utterly delicious. Lewis loooves them and they are very common in France and Spain, less so here I think. A fab Spanish recipe is to fry some bacon or slivers of jamon serrano with a little garlic and maybe some onion, add the drained tin of peas and a little stock and fresh parsley – delicious with a fried egg.)

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As my mum’s stew is quite rich and I’m still craving light and healthy foods (not long now, due date 9th December, eek!) I plumped for this one instead. The recipe is from Jane Clarke’s Yummy Baby book which is full of baby and toddler friendly recipes for the whole family. I’m a big fan of this book, my squash and feta salad is from Yummy Baby and so is my staple daal that hopefully I’ll post here soon. This stew is a little lighter with more veggies. I love it and so clearly does Lexie. We made it the other day for the first time this year. Her response as follows: “It’s good,” pause, “it’s super yummy,” another pause. “I really like this… ooh look a carrot sausage!” More pausing, “Thank you for making this mummy.” !!!

Beef stew

Prep time: 5-10 mins
Cooking time: 3 hours
Budget: £10-15 (£5 beef, £7 wine, £1 mushrooms, £1 courgettes, £1.50 shallots, £1 celery, £2 bacon)
Ease: Easy
Serves 4-6 Ingredients:

  • 800g braising or stewing beef in large pieces
  • Olive oil
  • 50g diced bacon or pancetta
  • 12 shallots, peeled but left whole (or 1 chopped onion)
  • 2 sticks roughly chopped celery
  • 2 medium carrots, peeled and thickly sliced
  • 4 chopped garlic cloves
  • 750ml red wine
  • 1 tbp tomato puree
  • 1 bouquet garni (sprigs of rosemary, thyme and flat leafed parsley)
  • 12 mushrooms, sliced if large
  • 2 medium courgettes thickly sliced
  • Pepper

Preheat the oven to 180C/300F/Gas 2. Season the beef with ground black pepper and heat olive oil in a frying pan on a high heat. Fry the beef in batches until well browned then put in a casserole dish, like a Le Creuset. Add a little more olive oil to the frying pan and add the bacon, shallots, celery and carrots, frying until golden. Add the garlic, cook for another min, then tip everything into the casserole dish. Put the frying pan back on the heat and pour in half the red wine. Bring the the boil and scrap up all the bits at the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Pour this into the casserole, adding the rest of the wine, the tomato puree and the bouquet garni. On the hob, bring the stew to the boil then cover with the lid and cook in the oven for 1 1/2 hours. Then add the sliced courgettes and the mushrooms and put back into the oven for another 1 1/2 hours. Once done, the meat will be wonderfully soft and should fall apart on the fork. For extra veg you can add a few frozen peas before serving and some fresh parsley to garnish. This is delicious with boiled potatoes, or rice, or some buttered pasta.

Lexie’s tomato rice

I was going to call this ‘Basque vegetable stew’ – sounds a bit better than marrow stew which essentially what it is. Then Lexie started calling it ‘tomato rice’ which is a much better name. This is sort of a ratatouille, sort of a piperade and I remember my mum teaching me how to make it.

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Lexie is going through a weird hardly eating anything at all phase – literally three mouthfuls and she says she’s done. It’s quite challenging! But she really loves her ‘tomato rice’ and yesterday actually asked for it so I thought I’d share the recipe here. We always have it with rice and fried eggs. It’s really easy to make with kids – Lex slices the veg and pours the tomatoes into the pan, she loves stirring the pot and also helping to fry the egg (we gently break the egg into a bowl then she pours it into the pan and I fry it). Make a big batch of this on the weekend and you’ve got an instant veggie packed meal ready to go for the rest of the week.

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(I need to update this post with some pics of said tomato rice. Until I do here are some pics of Lex in her new little Indian girl outfit. She’s very keen on a Peppa Pig themed birthday party this year… erm…. so I preempted and bought her this costume. Success! She loves it and now wants a Cowboys and Indians theme. Am I a bad mother because I don’t want her to have a Peppa Pig party?)

Lexie’s tomato rice

Prep time: 5 mins
Cooking time: 1 hour
Budget: £5 (£1.50 peppers, £1 marrow, £1 tinned tomatos, £1.50 eggs)
Ease: Easy
Serves: 6
Ingredients:

  • 1 marrow or 2 big courgettes – cut in half and sliced into crescents
  • 1 red pepper, sliced
  • 1 green pepper, sliced
  • 1 yellow pepper, sliced
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • 1 clove sliced garlic
  • 2 tins of tomatos, drained
  • 1 chicken or veg stock cube and water
  • Salt and pepper
  • Sugar (equal to salt so maybe 1 tsp)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Chopped parsley
  • Rice
  • Eggs
  • 4 tbsp olive oil

Fry the onions gently in olive oil in a heavy bottomed pan or casserole dish for 10 minutes. Make sure they don’t brown and season with salt to help release the onion’s juices, as my mum always says. Then add the peppers and fry for another 10 mins. Then add the marrow and fry for another 10 minutes before adding the drained tins of tomatoes, sliced garlic, bay leaf, stock cube and water. Add a little more salt and the equivalent sugar. Cook partially covered for 30 mins – 1 hour until you are happy with it. Sprinkle on the fresh parsley and serve with rice and fried eggs and some nice bread to mop up the juices. This tastes better the next day and keeps well in the fridge for about a week.

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Chocolate and almond cake

Hmm my last recipe was sweet and so is this one… Looks like I’m getting to the ‘cake’ phase of pregnancy. With Lexie, I had a sugar aversion during my first trimester but, by the time I finished breastfeeding, cake had become a major food group. A la ‘sleeping child = nice cup of tea/coffee and slice of cake.’ Indeed it is 3:37pm and, after a lovely and hectic morning at the London Transport museum my child is asleep. Here I sit with a lovely little latte and a slice of this scrummy chocolate and almond cake. If only my flat were tidy rather than toy strewn madhouse then we’d be pretty close to nirvana… (yes I could be tidying up instead of blogging BUT I’M NOT.)

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That picture is not my slice! That’s what is left of the cake at the moment. My much more reasonable portion is pictured below. The other pictures are from the London Transport museum. Ok so the recipe is another recommendation from my friend Dani. I’ve made it about 6 times now and think it tastes better the next day or even after a few days. It’s a Hugh Fearnley jobby (his recipes are so reliable I find, as if he’s Delia’s prodigal son) but I’ve changed it a little after a few mishaps/larder emergencies. I had no caster sugar so twice I used granulated white sugar. I’ve since made the recipe properly (and also once with a bar of Lindt chocolate orange by mistake) and I prefer it with granulated sugar. Lewis says I’m cray cray as one must always bake with caster sugar but I think granulated gives it a cruncher crumb and nicer texture. I also usually half or third the recipe as it’s a big cake.

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Chocolate and almond cake

Prep time: 15-20 mins
Cooking time: 30 mins
Budget: £5-£10 depending on what essentials you have £5-£10 (£5 chocolate, £1.50 eggs)
Ease: Easy to medium
Serves: At least 6
Ingredients:

  • 250g dark chocolate (around 70% cocoa solids – we use Lindt), broken into chunks
  • 250g unsalted butter, cut into cubes
  • 4 medium eggs, separated
  • 200g granulated sugar!!!! Or as the original recipe states either 100g caster mixed with 100g soft light brown sugar OR 200g just caster sugar)
  • 50g plain flour
  • 50g ground almonds
  • 23cm springform cake tin

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Preheat the oven to 170/gas 3 and grease the cake tin with butter. I use the leftover paper from the butter used in the recipe to do this. Put the chocolate and butter in a bain marie or, as I do, in a smaller saucepan suspended over a larger pan of barely simmering water, ideally making sure the water isn’t touching the smaller pan. Stir occasionally until the butter and chocolate have melted.

Meanwhile, whisk the egg yolks and sugar together in a large bowl until well combined. Then stir in the melted chocolate and butter. Combine the flour and almonds and then fold these in.

In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until they hold firm peaks. Stir a large spoonful of egg white into the chocolate mixture to loosen it, then carefully fold in the rest of the egg whites with a large metal spoon, trying to keep in as much air as possible. When I first made this, I didn’t mix the egg white in properly so my cake was marbled with streaks of chewy egg white. So it should be a glossy brown when you are done.

Pour the mixture into the cake tin, place in the oven and bake for about 30 mins, until only just set. Hugh says: “It should still wobble slightly in the centre – this means the cake will have a divinely sticky, fudgy texture once it’s cooled down.” YUMMY! Then leave to cool for 10-15 mins before taking it out of the tin. It tastes better cold than warm and way better the next day, especially if you use the granulated sugar.

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Prawn and chorizo omelette with pimientos and chipotle lime mayo

Short and snappy title hey? And that’s the abridged version. We recently celebrated my little cousin Bec’s birthday with brunch at Caravan (Kings Cross). I had this delicious omelette – the official title being ‘prawn and chorizo omelette with pimientos, flaked almonds and chipotle lime mayonnaise.’

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I’ve never eaten at the original Exmouth Market branch of Caravan but know it’s famous for the coffee and fusion East/West style of cooking. The Kings Cross outpost is fab, especially the outdoor seating area overlooking the supremely toddler friendly fountains. Fountains are a big thing for us in London over summer and these Kings Cross ones are great because they are teeny tiny therefore not scary for little ones. I’ve had brunch here a few times, the coffee is indeed excellent and I’ve tried some delicious things like chilli avocado on sourdough, and jalapeno corn bread with fried eggs and black beans.

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The omelette with a long name was totally divine and I decided to recreate it at home. My first attempt didn’t really work – I used supermarket packet prawns and way too much filling per egg ratio. It was tasty but not a patch on Caravan’s omelette. Then I tried again with king prawns from the fishmonger and it was really yummy. The pimientos and chipotles en adobo are the most exotic ingredients but shouldn’t be too hard to find (see suggestions in the ingredients list). The rest is easy to source and it’s not that faffy to make. Because the mayo is a little spicy I left this off Lexie’s portion and also made sure to buy non spicy pimientos and chorizo.

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I haven’t got any recent photos of the Kings Cross fountains so these are from last year with Bec at KERB – the wonderful street food market run by my bessie – that often takes over Granary Square (check their website for details).

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Prawn and chorizo omelette with pimientos and chipotle lime mayo

Prep time: 10 mins
Cooking time: 5 mins
Budget: £10 if you already have the condiments, £15-20 if you don’t (£5 prawns, £5 chorizo, £4 chipotles en adobo, £5 pimientos, £2 rocket, £2 mayonnaise, 20p lime, £1.50 almonds, £1.50 eggs)
Ease: Easy if you know how to make an omelette
Serves 1 and a toddler. Definitely make separate omelettes if making for more people – just cook the filling in one go, reserve and add to individual omelettes when cooking
Ingredients:

  • 3 eggs
  • Chorizo – about 5cm chopped into thin slices
  • 5 king prawns in their shell
  • 2 pimientos cut into strips (from Brindisa online or M&S, Waitrose also do a version)
  • 1 tsp flaked almonds
  • 1/2 tsp chopped coriander
  • Handful of rocket
  • 2 tbsp mayonnaise
  • 1 tsp chipotles en adobo (to taste)
  • Juice of 1/2 lime (to taste)
  • Salt and pepper
  • A little olive oil

Assemble all the ingredients and start by toasting the almond flakes in a hot pain with no oil. This should only take a couple of mins and take care they don’t burn. Once done, remove the almonds and heat a little olive oil in the same pan to fry the prawns and chorizo. When they are done pour into a separate bowl along with all the oil. Once the prawns are cool, shell them trying to reserve their juices in the bowl (throw the shells away!! Or use for a fancy fishy stock – I don’t know how to do this!). Don’t wash the pan – the leftover oil will be used to fry the omelette.

Make the chipotle lime mayo by combining these ingredients to taste – it should be fairly liquid. Slice the pimientos and get the rocket and almonds ready. Season and beat the eggs then reheat the pan. Once it’s hot pour the eggs in and a few seconds later add the coriander, prawns and chorizo along with some of the juices (not all or it will be too oily). Check the heat and use a spatula to start lifting the edges of the omelette. When it is mostly set but still liquidy in the middle, use the spatula to lift one side of the omelette over the other creating a sort of half moon. Cook for another few seconds then I usually use a plate to flip the omelette (place a large plate over the pan, flip the omelette onto the plate then slide back into the pan). Cook for another few seconds until you think it is done, it should be runny in the middle.

Once the omelette is ready, place on a plate and drape the peppers on top. Cover with a handful of rocket and some flaked almonds. Finally drizzle or, as in my case, blob the chipotle lime mayo on top. Voila! A tasty omelette with a very long name!

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Here are some more pics of some of our favourite fountains this summer.

Princess Diana memorial

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Victoria and Albert museum

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Southbank Centre

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Somerset House

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