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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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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Blueberry muffins

I’m so proud of Lexie who is proving to be a super star big sister. All our worries about how she would react to Finn’s arrival disappeared the moment they met, she was completely delighted to meet him. And this remains the case. She shrieks with laughter at the smallest things he does, loves being next to him, and shouts at anyone who tries to hold him: “Don’t touch MY brother!!!”

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We had a few weeks of wild behaviour from her which seems to have stopped and generally she’s a very energetic bundle of delight. Even at her best, it’s challenging spending long periods of time at home so it’s always nice to have some fun activities up my sleeve to keep us both from going bonkers. She’s really into baking at the moment, cookies or cupcakes which gives us something to do before her bath these long winter afternoons. For breakfast on the weekend she makes crepes with her dad and fluffy pancakes or blueberry muffins with me.

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Here is our go-to recipe for foolproof blueberry muffins, taken from Gwyneth Paltrow’s first cook book, which isn’t macrobiotic and has some fantastic recipes, although it’s still full of ridiculous quotes, such as this one by her young daughter Apple: “I’m not gluten-free, but I really like gluten-free food!” ?!? Lexie really likes sorting the cupcake liners and putting them into the tray, breaking eggs which she does on her own, stirring the batter and, of course, licking the spoon!

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Blueberry muffins

Prep: 10 mins
Cook: 30 mins
Serves: 4

  • 125g unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 2 eggs
  • 125ml milk
  • 225g plain flour
  • 175g plus 1 tsp granulated sugar
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 300g fresh blueberries

Preheat the oven to 190/gas 5 and line a cupcake or muffin tray with paper cases.

Mix together the dry ingredients, so the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. In another bowl mix the wet ingredients, the butter, eggs and milk.

Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and then fold in the blueberries. Spoon the mixture into the paper cases and sprinkle the extra tsp of sugar on top to give a crunchy glaze.

Pop in the oven and bake until the muffins are golden brown, around 25-30 mins. If you want you can test them with a cocktail stick, they are done when it comes out clean. Leave for 10 mins and eat with some lovely fresh coffee! Or with a crying baby!

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Butternut squash and pumpkin soup with a thyme and taleggio tart

Argh I’m drowning in a sea of recipes I keep meaning to post here. There are recipes from the summer in my backlog!! Really nice recipes like roast sea bream with salsa verde or an indian chickpea curry we had for the first time in Scotland back in June. Also our favourite blueberry muffins, a windfall apple cake and the fish curry Lewis makes for the whole family every year in France. But alas! The mood to write, she is not there as Hercule Poirot, for whom I always have time, might or might not say.

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To start, here is a recipe for butternut squash and pumpkin soup. Very ‘in’ right now, I’m sure you’ll agree, seeing as it’s proper autumn with the damp and the rain and the leaves. We are greatly enjoying stomping through the leaves this year. The pic above is Lexie posting her birthday party invites, although I had to tell her they were birthday cards for her friends. She wants to keep all her precious Peppa Pig invites for herself and also wants to do the pinata on her own!! This is an easy soup and Lexie loved it when she was weaning onto solids. I’d make it super thick and she’d feed herself (also I never did this but you could easily freeze this into ice cubes for quick baby meals). Now Lexie hates butternut squash so has to be coaxed into having a couple of mouthfuls, or dabbing her cheese toastie in the soup.

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A blob of gorgonzola or another blue cheese is heavenly in this soup and I keep meaning to fry a little pancetta to add on top. A dash of cayenne pepper/chilli powder, a swirl of creme fraiche and some chopped coriander works well too. This recipe is also a good way to make pumpkin taste nice (pumpkin really isn’t that nice on it’s own). Definitely roast the squash first for a richer, more flavourful soup. The pic above is the first time Lexie saw a pumpkin and the other pic is of her helping me buy lots of squash and pumpkins last year – little cutie pie!

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Because I’ve been making this soup for years and find it a bit boring I thought I’d add the recipe for a delicious thyme and taleggio tart. I can’t remember when Lewis first made this for me. It was definitely in the early years of our ‘long term relationship’ (that’s an ‘in’ joke) and it’s a staple from his family. It’s sooo easy and sooo good, a pimped puff pastry job – do try this! Using the same principles you can make a variety of tasty tarts – some that I’ve tried include cherry tomato, basil and goats cheese, very nice. Also a butternut squash and feta tart, a variation of this salad. 

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Finally we’ve gone a bit nuts for autumny crafts in our house now that Lexie is almost 3 and actually a joy to do crafts with (as opposed to when she was 2 when really all I should have done every day was build a massive tower of soft bricks, give her a Timmy Mallet style mallet and set her loose to destroy!). We’ve got leaf ghosts, egg carton spiders and bats, hedgehogs made out of paper plates or conkers, fingerprint or popcorn trees, I could go on.

Butternut squash and pumpkin soup

Prep: 5-10 mins
Cook: 20-30 mins
Budget: Less than £5 (£1.50 butternut squash, £1 pumpkin, £1 parsley)
Ease: Easy
Serves: 2 – 4 depending on portion size Ingredients:

  • A butternut squash and a pumpkin, halved
  • 1 sliced onion
  • Chicken stock
  • Chopped parsley
  • Olive oil and butter
  • Salt and pepper

Roast the squash in pieces (skin on) drizzled in olive oil and sea salt. Try to roast it for at least an hour, until it is all soft and squoodgy.

Gently fry the onion in the olive oil and a little butter for 10 mins. When the onion is soft add the peeled and deseeded butternut squash/pumpkin and cover with stock – as much as you want depending on if you want a thin or thick soup.

Bring to the boil then simmer for 15 mins. Use a juzzer thingimibob to puree the soup et voila, presto, listo, done.

This soup is lovely with a nice cheese toastie or served with a good cheese plate. We often have it with comte cheese.

Thyme and taleggio tart

Prep: 5 mins
Cook: 20-40 mins
Budget: £6 (£3 taleggio, £1 thyme, £1.50 puff pastry)
Ease: Easy
Serves: 4-6 depending on portion size

  • 1 sheet of bought puff pastry
  • 2 onions
  • Lots of butter
  • A few sprigs of fresh thyme
  • Taleggio cheese

Preheat the oven to 200-220c and roll the puff pastry out onto a greased baking tray or a tray lined with greaseproof paper. Score the edges about 2cm apart to make a border (I never do this and it’s always fine, just leave a bit of a border if you want).

In a separate pan, gently fry the onion in lots of butter until soft and translucent, at least 10 mins of frying and don’t let it brown. When the onion is done spread it over the puff pastry and dob pieces of the taleggio on top.

Finally sprinkle the thyme sprigs all over the tart. Lots of thyme is good. Brush the pastry border with a little melted butter (again I never do this and it’s fine without), pop in the oven, and bake for about 20-30 minutes until the pastry is puffed and golden. You can turn the heat up if you want it to cook quicker/be more golden.