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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Lemon raspberry cupcakes

This recipe comes from Lewis’s cousin Laura. It’s originally meant to be crunchy lemon squares but she always makes it as a lemon drizzle cake. It’s so delicious I’ve made it for Lexie’s birthday 2 years in a row, although using a lemon buttercream icing instead of the drizzle for the purpose of adding sprinkles!

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We recently tried it as cupcakes for a pretty little picnic in the garden, taking advantage of the cherry blossom that was in full bloom. The addition of raspberries was a Lexie request that worked really well. The garden is proving to be a godsend for me given sleep is still broken and Lexie’s energy levels are high. Our favourite new game involves me lying on a rug with Finny and counting while Lex runs laps around the garden (ha ha ha exhausted mum)! We also like watching all the musicians come and go (the old church is now an orchestra rehearsal studio) or meeting up with Lexie’s little friends who also live on the square.

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Here I’ve written down the recipe for a standard cake with the lemon drizzle, adding raspberries because they were delicious. It’s very easy to change to make cupcakes, just divide the mixture into cupcake or muffin liners and adjust the cooking time. The lemon buttercream recipe is at the end in case you’d rather use that icing instead of the drizzle.

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Lemon drizzle cupcakes with raspberries

  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 4oz butter, cubed
  • 6oz self raising flour
  • 1 tspn baking powder
  • 6oz caster sugar
  • 4 tbsps lemon/orange juice
  • rind 1 lemon & 1 orange
  • handful of raspberries

Lemon drizzle icing

  • Juice 2 lemons
  • 4oz granulated sugar

Preheat the oven to 180c. Cream together the butter and sugar until soft and fluffy using a wooden spoon. Then add the eggs, lemon/orange juice and rind. Sift together the flour and baking powder and mix this into the bowl.

Grease and line bottom of oblong tin 7”x9”” (as per original recipe) or a round tin 8″ (200mm) if making a cake. Or put cupcake/muffin liners in a muffin tray – we prefer muffin liners to make bigger cupcakes!

Dollop the mixture into the tin or cupcake liners – if making cupcakes fill the liners half full as they rise a lot. Sprinkle fresh raspberries over the top and lightly push into the mixture.

Bake in the centre of the oven at 180c. If making a cake bake for 30 mins (less if fan oven) until golden brown, springy and slightly shrunk from edges. If making cupcakes check them after 15 minutes, ours took just under 20 mins and were starting to burn!

To make the drizzle, mix the lemon juice and sugar in a saucepan and heat gently until the sugar has dissolved. Then pour over the cake while the sponge is still hot. If making cupcakes you only need a tablespoon of drizzle per cupcake, maybe even less. Leave until cold and then enjoy!

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If using lemon buttercream icing instead of the drizzle

  • 125g soft butter
  • 250g icing sugar
  • juice 1 lemon

Put the butter and half of the icing sugar into a bowl, and beat with an electric whisk until evenly combined and smooth. Add the lemon juice and the remaining icing sugar, and beat again until light and fluffy. Dollop on top of the cooled cake or cupcakes and decorate with sprinkles!

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Yummy griddled chicken with sweet potato and purple sprouting broccoli

Hooray for these lighter days and all the pretty blossom on the trees. Given leaving the house with my two little ones is still an ordeal, I’m overjoyed that afternoons in the big garden are now feasible (on my first attempt at a picnic in March, it took us 40 mins to get out, a bird promptly pooed all over Finny including his hands… then it started to hail!). The two ancient cherry blossoms are in full bloom and we love lying underneath them making wishes.

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As I keep saying there are lots of recipes I keep meaning to add here. By a mile the yummiest thing we’ve eaten recently is this delicious griddled chicken. It’s a Lewis recipe (if I haven’t made it obvious, most of the best recipes on this blog are from Lewis and he does a lot of the cooking also! Thanks Lewis!! SuperChef!). It’s our version of the flattened chicken in my current favourite cookbook: Kitchen Memories and we have it with purple sprouting broccoli and sweet potato as suggested by the book (following their recipe), although it would be great with anything – in a hot chicken sandwich, with rice – it’s super versatile. You can leave the chilli out for kids. This recipe also works with grilled chicken thighs (pictured below)

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Yummy griddled chicken

  • 1 or 2 flattened chicken fillets (get the butcher to batter the chicken to about 1cm thickness or do it yourself)
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 lemon cut into wedges
  • 1 tbsp chopped fresh thyme and/or rosemary leaves
  • Chopped fresh parsley
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced into quarters lengthways
  • 3 smashed garlic gloves, no skin
  • 1 tsp dried red chilli flakes (optional)
  • Sour cream (optional)
  • 2 chopped fresh red chillis (optional)
  • Salt and pepper
  • Purple sprouting broccoli

Marinade the chicken in the olive oil, herbs, half the lemon juice. Season with pepper (not salt) and leave covered for about an hour.

Preheat the oven to 180C. Put the sweet potato in a baking dish with the garlic, thympe leaves, pinch of dried chilli and enough olive oil to coat them and season. Bake for 35-40 mins turning occasionally. They should be slightly caramelised on the edges when done.

Parboil the broccoli for about 2 mins, drain then toss with olive oil and season. Or lightly fry a clove of garlic in olive oil, add the parboiled broccoli and fry for a couple of mins adding a good squeeze of lemon and salt and pepper. Both ways are nice.

Heat the griddle pan until smoking hot. Season the chicken with salt, place on the hot griddle and leave to cook for 4 mins then turn and cook for another 4 – 5 mins. Check it’s done then remove from the heat and leave to rest for a few mins.

Serve the chicken with the sweet potato and broccoli and a wedge of lemon. If you want add a spoonful of sour cream and scatter the fresh chilli and parsley over the top.

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Fluffy pancakes

I’ve mentioned before we’ve started baking a lot with Lexie, especially at the weekends. What with PANCAKE DAY around the corner I thought I’d post one of our pancake recipes. Lewis is the master of crepes, while I usually do ‘fluffy pancakes’, her name for fat american style pancakes. Here’s how to make them. (Sorry for the massive pictures – not sure how to fix this)

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Fluffy pancakes

  • 350 g of flour
  • 80 g of sugar (or 100 g if you want them sweeter)
  • 2½  teaspoon of baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 pinch of salt
  • 500 ml buttermilk (make this by adding 2 tbsp of lemon juice to the milk and leaving to stand for 10 mins)
  • 2 big eggs
  • 50 g of melted butter
  • 1 packet of fresh blueberries – optional

This recipe comes from Babyccino Kids. We’ve tried lots of other recipes but this one has always worked best for us.

Mix the dry ingredients – the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, sugar and salt. Then in another bowl bowl mix the wet ingredients – the buttermilk, eggs and melted butter.

Pour the wet ingredients over the dry and stir until it is just combined, don’t over stir. If using, add the blueberries. Definitely let the batter sit for 10-15 mins – this makes a huge difference.

Melt a little butter in a frying pan that is on a medium heat. When it’s hot pour in a ladle of batter. Wait until little bubbles have started appearing in the pancake and then flip over, a couple of mins per side.

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For toppings we usually have:

  • If plain pancakes – streaky bacon and maple syrup
  • If blueberry pancakes – extra chopped banana and maple syrup
  • A mix of fresh berries and creme fraiche or yoghurt, drizzled with agave syrup or maple syrup. Or vanilla ice cream for a special treat!
  • Berry compote – cherry or blackberry are particularly good – with creme fraiche or yoghurt. (I prefer this topping on crepes).

A quick berry compote

A punnet of berries – any you like – I recently did blackberries
2 tbps caster sugar (to taste)
1 tbsp water
Squeeze of lemon

Put everything in a saucepan and bubble on a low heat until the berries are bursting. Taste the compote for sweetness, I like mine quite sweet but you can adjust the sugar to suit your taste.

A note about syrups

Although maple syrup is classically used for american pancakes you can replace with agave syrup or honey or even sugar if you prefer. According to Gwyneth Paltrow agave syrup is “super low on the glycaemic index and has lots of minerals including potassium, magnesium, iron and calcium.” Vermont maple syrup is also low on the glycaemic index and is “a great source of manganese and zinc.” There you go!

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Vongole for Valentines!

Ha ha naff title of the day! For last year’s Valentine’s post we made these silly heart shaped biscuits that didn’t really work. The origami message hearts were fun too but this year I’ve gone even simpler, what with having a baby and all. Some pretty cut and stick hearts…

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Along with some heart shaped balloon cards for Lexie to colour in and glitter. Obviously I’m biased but how amazing is her penmanship? (I love the heart where she obviously couldn’t be bothered anymore on the right below.)

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We’ve also been listening to ‘love’ music (in particular this song) and I’m contemplating trying some sable heart shaped biscuits with Lexie this afternoon because sugar cookies really don’t taste very nice. For us big people I’m leaning towards having spaghetti vongole. This has become my recent favourite ‘special occasion’ recipe and we had this for my birthday in January. (We tend to cook the same recipes for important days – Christmas/New Year’s Eve or birthdays – usually crab linguine or steak and chips.)

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As my favourite blood oranges are also in season I’m dreaming about some sort of campari blood orange cocktail for the aperitif, ideally with a plate of iberico ham from Borough market. The classic campari cocktails are the negroni or, my personal favourite, the sbagIiato (which means ‘mistake’ – apparently invented when a barman added prosecco instead of gin into what was supposed to be a negroni). Both of these would be nice with a splash of blood orange. As we don’t have any gin or vermouth I’ll probably make blood orange campari spritzes. This is a take on a cocktail my wonderful neighbour used to make for me 2 summers ago. We’d sit supping these delicious spritzers with our feet in the paddling pool in our communal back garden while our little toddlers splashed around – bliss! I’ll also ask Lewis to make me his yummy chocolate mousse pots for desert.

Blood orange campari spritz

Get a glass and add a shot of campari, a shot of white wine, a shot of blood orange juice. Stir and add some ice then top with fizzy water and stir again. This can be a tall or a short cocktail. Enjoy!

Spaghetti alle vongole

  • 500g small clams
  • spaghetti (dried)
  • knob of butter
  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 fat cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • ½ medium-hot red chilli, finely chopped
  • 100ml dry white wine
  • Small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
  • Zest of ½ a lemon and a spritz of juice
  • Salt and pepper

Rinse the clams in cold water and scrub a bit. Then put in a large bowl, cover with cold water and salt generously. Leave for 10-20 mins – my family say this is to make the clams feel they are back home in the sea. Then drain and rinse well to remove any grit.

Put the spaghetti into a large pan of salted boiling water and cook until al dente.

Meanwhile, put half the butter and all the olive oil in a large pan over a medium heat and soften the garlic and chilli.

Add the drained clams, and turn up the heat. Pour in the wine, cover and leave for a couple of minutes until most of them have opened. Discard any that are still closed. Add the others to the garlic/chilli pan.

Drain the spaghetti and add to the pan along with the remaining butter. Toss well and leave for a minute, then stir through the chopped parsley, lemon zest and juice, season to taste and serve.

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Roast sea bream with salsa verde

Yup it’s January. Not a lot to report here. Finn is still coliky and Lexie is a poppet. I’m slightly keen to escape London for the weekend, ideally somewhere snowy. Lex is obsessed with the idea of snow thanks to all her Christmas books and shows. It’s only snowed once in her lifetime when she was one and she can’t remember it.

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Thankfully a trip to beautiful Richmond is pretty much like going to the countryside and just as uplifting. Especially as we visited the magical Petersham Nurseries for a potter and lunch in the teahouse (the ‘cafe’ is actually the restaurant and so pricy, like £30 mains, the ‘teahouse’ is the slightly more affordable cafe with soups, salads and cakes). For those who don’t know, both are set within the garden nurseries and you eat in what look like beautiful vintage greenhouses with bare earth floors, and a robin in our case!

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The nurseries are so beautiful and it was a glorious but freezing cold sunny day. We warmed up with bowls of delicious winter minestrone, the best coffee I’ve had in a long time and decadant slices of lemon poppyseed cake. Lewis bought me a beautiful jasmine as a birthday gift and Lexie loved running around the nurseries, jump/sliding on the frozen puddles.

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The style of cooking at Petersham is very River Cafe, not surprising given the head of the kitchen garden Lucy Boyd is the daughter of River Cafe founder Rose Gray. I’ve since recreated the delicious minestrone we had at home and will post that recipe soon. Until then here is a recipe for roast sea bream with salsa verde, which I think is also a very Petersham Nurseries style of dish. We made this the same day with purple sprouting broccoli and puy lentils (it’s an update of this recipe with a different fish).

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Roast sea bream with salsa verde

  • 1 sea bream, cleaned
  • Handful of chopped basil and parsley
  • Sea salt and pepper
  • Olive oil
  • Lemon, thinly sliced

For the salsa verde

  • 8 tbsps olive oil
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice (or slightly less of red wine vinegar)
  • 6 anchovy fillets – chopped
  • 1 clove of garlic – minced
  • A handful of chopped parsley
  • A handful of chopped basil
  • 1 tbsp capers
  • Dijon mustard (optional)

Preheat the oven to 200/gas 5. Slice 4 or 5 slits on each side of the fish and stuff each one with a thin slice of lemon and some of the chopped herbs.

Put the fish in a roasting tin, season with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Cover with foil and roast for 20 mins or until done.

While the fish is roasting make the salsa verde as per Lewis instructions: “Chop a good handful of flat parsley and the same of basil, add a tbsp of capers, 6 anchovy fillets, a single clove of garlic, a tbsp of lemon juice or slightly less of red-wine vinegar. Beat in enough olive oil (about 8 tbsp) to make a thick, slushy sauce. I also add a little dijon mustard. Parsley, garlic, oil and vinegar/lemon essential. Basil, anchovies and capers desirable but not essential.”

We had this with some puy lentils that take about 20 mins to cook and some lightly boiled purple sprouting broccoli. It would also be delicious with rice or boiled new potatoes.

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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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