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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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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Braised fennel, tomatoes and chickpeas (nice with cod)

When I was pregnant we lived with my mother-in-law for six months. Our beautiful flat (that we no longer live in… sigh) was being renovated. We moved into it in September and Lexie was born a month later. Although it was a bit stressful being displaced, it was also a golden time. Living in her light, airy Georgian house that summer I felt extraordinarily free. I wasn’t working, I spent a lot of time napping, reading and sitting in the shade of the fragrant garden. It was an oblique time compounded by the displacement perhaps and I was very happy.

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She also cooked us so many wonderful meals. This is one of her recipes that I love. Fragrant, filling and nutritious, I usually make this with baked or pan fried cod but it’s lovely by itself too. Ideally use dried chickpeas using the cooking water as the stock, but I rarely have the foresight and use tins. I haven’t managed to get Lex to eat the fennel yet but she loves the tomatoes, chickpeas, fish and broth.

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Braised fennel, tomatoes and chickpeas

Prep time: 5 mins
Cooking time: 20-30 mins
Budget: £5 no fish, £10-£15 with fish (£1 chickpeas, £1.50 tomatoes, £1 fennel, £1.50 herbs)
Ease: Easy
Serves: 2

  • 1 tin of chickpeas or equivalent dried chickpeas soaked overnight and cooked for 1 hour
  • 1 fennel bulb, sliced and rinsed
  • 1/2 red onion (white fine too)
  • Some small tomatoes on the vine
  • Bouillon
  • 1 clove peeled and sliced garlic
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • A handful of chopped fresh parsley or basil
  • Splash of vermouth or sherry or white wine (optional)
  • Fillets of cod (optional)

Put the sliced onion and fennel in a pan with olive oil and some salt. Cook slowly, partially covered for 10-15 mins. Then, If using sherry or vermouth, add a splash now and sizzle for a bit until the alcohol has gone. I haven’t used any booze in this dish for ages – it’s fine without. Add the garlic and place the tomatoes into the pan and cook on a medium heat. Stir from time to time but the idea is for the tomatoes to retain their shape so stir around them with a wooden spoon. After another 20 mins add a small glass of water and a tiny sprinkle of bouillon. Add the drained and rinsed tin of chickpeas along with the chopped parsley or basil. Add more water to get the consistency you want – it can be as soupy as you like, maybe just add a little more bouillon in which case. Cook for another 5 mins or so and it should be done. Serve with olive oil for drizzling and some nice fresh bread to mop up the broth.

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  • If you have used dried chickpeas (so soaked overnight, drained and rinsed, then cooked for an hour in fresh water), use some of the cooking water in place of stock and also add the cooked chickpeas as above.
  • If having fish, either pan fry or bake. To pan fry – salt and dust the cod fillets with a little flour, heat some sunflower oil in a pan to a high heat, place skin side down and don’t touch for 2-3 mins, gently turn over add a squeeze of lemon and fry for another 2-3 mins. The fish should be ready and serve on top of the chickpea, fennel broth with a slice of lemon. To bake – place some of the chickpea, tomato and fennel broth into a casserole and place the fish fillets on top. Drizzle the fish with olive oil, coarse sea salt and a squeeze of lemon. Put in a pre-heated oven for 10 mins – you will need to judge the cooking according to your oven and the size of the fish – when done the fish should be flaky and slightly translucent.

Here is a picture of my mum and Lexie enjoying my mother-in-law’s beautiful garden last summer.

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Lamb stew with flageolet beans

We’ve gone from the wettest January in 250 years according to the press to ‘Wild Wednesday’ with ‘Red Warning’ winds hitting Britain. In the Basque country when the sea waves are this big it’s called temporal. Whenever it’s stormy here my mum tells me about how much more ‘impresionante’ temporal is in San Sebastian and how people go out of their way to witness it. So far today she’s told me about temporal at least 3 times…

We’re staying in then! I’ve a mountain of laundry to conquer (including a bag of dry clean only knitwear I just realised our machine can wash perfectly on a cold wool setting!! HIGHLIGHT OF MY DAY! NOT BEING SARCASTIC). I made a nice minestrone for our lunch and, because I remembered to marinate the meat last night, this lamb stew is currently bubbling away on the stove for our dinner, while we listen to Lena Horne’s Stormy Weather on the stereo!

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It’s one of my mum’s staples and she also does a similar stew with beef which I’ll share soon. It’s very rich and gorgeous – Lexie likes it but I give her a small portion and often water her sauce down a little. It’s also another brown recipe from me! I’m turning into the brown pot lady! I’ve got a bright orange butternut squash tagine coming up as well as my cousin’s hake and clams in salsa verde. This blog will soon be a rainbow I promise! (Couldn’t resist this pic again!)

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Lamb stew with flageolet beans

Prep time: 10 mins plus 4 hours + marinating time
Cooking time: 2-4 hours
Budget: £10 (£4 lamb neck, 60p onion, 30p carrot, £1 rosemary, £2 tin flageolet beans, £2 bacon)
Ease: easy
Serves 4

  • 2 pieces of lamb neck fillet or similar cut of lamb for stewing – cut into pieces
  • 1 white onion, peeled and chopped
  • 1/2 carrot, peeled and sliced
  • 1/4 stick celery, sliced
  • 2 tbsp roughly of olive oil
  • 2 big glasses of red wine
  • 1 stick of rosemary
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 carrot
  • 2 rashers streaky bacon, chopped
  • 1 stock cube – chicken, lamb or veg
  • Plain flour for dusting lamb
  • Salt and pepper
  • Tin of flageolet beans

Marinate the meat for 4 hours or ideally overnight in some olive oil (2 tbpsn), a big glass of red wine, salt and pepper, garlic cloves and a stick of rosemary.

Heat the oil in a heavy bottomed pan (I used a Le Creuset). Take the lamb pieces out of the marinade, reserving the liquid to add to the stew later, dust lightly in flour and place into the hot oil. I used to be crap at browning meat – the trick is, as Hugh Fearnley says: “Remember you are looking to burn…” This info from his MEAT cookbook is the business:

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Once the meat is browned, set aside on a plate and add a big splash of wine to the pan. Turn the heat up and use a spatula to scrape up or ‘deglaze’ all the meaty bits. After a couple of minutes pour the winey bits into the marinade.

Put more oil in the pan, heat then add the onion, carrot, celery and bacon. Season and cook gently for ages to make the sofrito (very softened onions, not browned). When the sofrito is ready add the meat and juices that have been released while it’s been resting. Then add the marinade liquid keeping the garlic cloves but removing and chucking the stick of rosemary. Add a bay leaf, the stock cube and top up with lots of water – the lamb should be well covered. Bring to the boil and then simmer for 2-4 hours. From time to time check it’s not drying out and if it is just add more water. 10 mins before serving open, drain and rinse the flageolet beans and add to the stew. Season to taste and serve with lots of fresh crusty white bread. This stew is also nice with boiled new potatoes instead of flageolet beans or even rice – but not chips or roast tatties!! Nooo – it’s too rich for them!

(Here’s a pic of our sole outing of the day at dusk so Lexie could have a scoot around the square and look at the moon!)

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EDIT: We’ve just eaten the stew – it was bloody amazing!

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Lentils with chorizo

When I was little my dad and I absolutely loved my mum’s lentils with chorizo. She could never understand how we could get so excited about lentils which represent to her the poverty of growing up in post Civil War Spain – endless stews of lentils or chickpeas, eking out whatever meat was available. “Are you sure you want lentils?” She’d ask: “What about a lovely roast pork or chicken?” But we’d always want the lentils and spend ages trying to distract each other so we could steal more lumps of chorizo from the other’s bowl.

After another day of drizzly rain we went for a quick run around the square, came back and put on Ay Carmela!, my favourite Spanish Civil War revolutionary song from Rolando Alarcon’s album, and had steaming hot bowls of lentils with chorizo! Rhumbala rhumbala rhum ba la!

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This stew is very cheap, nutritious and delicious which must be pointed out as it can look a little like brown sludge. It keeps for about a week in the fridge and, as with all these stews, tastes much better the day after you make it. Lexie absolutely loves it and it’s probably her second favourite dish right now (although she won’t touch the chorizo!! #sonotmydaughter). In my view the chorizo makes this dish and I always make it if I have any pork leftovers as they are delicious chucked in too. But I should say it’s tasty even with no meat so if you are veggie just leave out the bacon/chorizo etc and use veg stock. It’s similar to the sausage lentil casserole I’ve posted before and I’ll add a French variation at the end taught to me by my 97 year old granny-in-law.

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Lentils with chorizo

Prep time: 5 mins
Cooking time: 45-1 hour
Budget: £5-10 (£1 lentils, 20p onion, £3 chorizo, 30p potato, 30p carrot, £3 bacon)

  • Green lentils – half a packet serves 4
  • 1 peeled potato chopped into big chunks
  • 1 peeled carrot chopped into big chunks
  • 1 peeled and chopped white onion
  • Chorizo chopped into chunks – 1 little one or half a big one
  • 2 rashers chopped bacon
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 chicken stock cube
  • Leftover pork (roast or pork chop) – optional
  • Olive oil

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Fry the bacon and onion in a little olive oil in a casserole dish – I used a Le Creuset. Add a little salt to help the onions release their juices and fry gently for as long as you can be bothered. The idea is to make a sort of sofrito with softened not browned onions so I usually fry gently for 10 mins, turn it off covered for 10 mins then fry again for another 10. Then add the green lentils, bay leaf, stock cube and chopped carrot. Cover with double the amount of water, bring to the boil then simmer partially covered. After 20 mins check the water, top up if need be as lentils guzzle water, then add the potato. Cook for another 20 minutes, check the water again then add the chorizo and any leftover pork if using. My mum sometimes boils the chorizo for 30 seconds in water before adding to remove excess oil but I don’t often bother. Simmer for another 10 mins and it should be ready – all lovely and brown and sludgy! You really have to believe me on this one! Serve with some lovely fresh bread.

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  • French variation – exactly the same recipe but omit the potato and chorizo (you can still add pork leftovers). Cook for 40 ish minutes then just before serving add one tbsp of dijon mustard and stir around. Delicious served with chipolatas!

“Don’t like beans” with olive oil, garlic and lemon

Lexie is a good eater so it’s always funny when she doesn’t like something… “Don’t like beans mummy.” I find this one quite hard to understand because she loves lentils and chickpeas! Luckily she sometimes forgets what beans are so as long as I call them something else (‘baby chickpeas’) she’ll give them a go. Especially if she has flowers painted on her face!

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My favourite quick staple meal is beans with lots of olive oil, crushed garlic, lemon and salt. The original recipe is from Gwyneth Paltrow’s first cookbook (not the macrobiotic one!) using giant butterbeans but I’ve made it many many times with chickpeas and cannellini beans. Lexie really likes it too despite it’s garlickyness (I leave out the salt for her). It’s very easy to adapt the recipe and make a warm version more suited to winter – see variations below. I love this recipe hot or cold – the hot version is delicious soothing comfort food, the cold version just lemony garlicky heaven. Both ways take less than 5 mins to prepare, are incredibly cheap and leave you feeling nourished as beans are so good for you.

Beans with olive oil, garlic and lemon

Prep time: 5 mins
Cooking time: None (unless using dried beans instead of canned beans – see note below)
Budget: Under £5 (beans 60p, lemon 30p, spring onions 80p)

  • Giant butterbeans or cannellini beans or chickpeas – Brindisa Spanish foods sell delicious jars of chickpeas and giant butterbeans that you can get from their shop or Ocado OR cheaper at M&S. Normal tins are fine but avoid Sainsbury’s tinned beans – they’re horrid! (1 tin is two small portions or one big portion)
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 clove of crushed garlic
  • 1 or 2 sliced spring onions
  • Lemon
  • Salt and pepper
  • Chopped herbs like basil or parsley – optional
  • Watercress salad (any salad is nice – see variations below)

Open, drain and rinse the beans. Crush the garlic and add to the beans with a generous drizzle of olive oil. If using basil or parsley add them now with the spring onion. Add a good squeeze of lemon juice, season to taste and serve with watercress/salad.

  • The Gwynnie recipe adds griddled prawns which I’ve tried and is nice. She also marinates the beans for at least an hour in the fridge which I don’t think is necessary.
  • When using chickpeas I usually add courgette carpaccio – thin shavings or grated courgette – with the same dressing. This is especially nice with yellow courgettes.
  • With cannellini beans I think good quality tinned tuna is a lovely addition.

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To do a warm version get a pan and gently heat the garlic in olive oil (don’t let it brown). Add the drained and rinsed beans, season then squeeze some lemon juice on the beans and add a little water or light chicken stock. If you have homemade chicken stock definitely use a little as it transports this simple dish into something heavenly. If you have any herbs like thyme, a bay leaf add them (but not rosemary – too pungent) as they will give lots of flavour. Smash the beans into the oil using a fork or wooden spoon. The idea is not to make a puree, rather to have some mushed beans and lots of whole ones. If you want to make it more soupy add more stock. Add chopped parsley or basil (try to use herbs if doing this version). Serve with some nice fresh bread, olive oil to drizzle and a little grated parmesan if you want.

  • If I’m doing this with cannellini beans I add spinach to the recipe above which only takes a minute on the heat to soften. Serve with grated parmesan. Lewis loves this version which says a lot given it’s beans and spinach! (See pic)
  • If I’m doing this with chickpeas I usually fry a bit of bacon with the garlic and definitely use a bit of chicken stock. A little chorizo added at the end is nice too. The spinach version above is nice with chickpeas too.

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(NOTE: If using dried beans, before trying the recipes above, make sure you soak them overnight, drain and rinse them in the morning – dried beans are toxic if you don’t do this!! Then put them in a pan and cook for a good 40 minutes or so using fresh water (not the water they soaked in). If making the warm version the water from the cooked beans is wonderful to use as the stock. The River Cafe recipe for smashed beans recommends cooking the beans with a garlic clove and some sage leaves for 45 minutes then draining, removing the sage but not the garlic, before adding the olive oil and smashing the beans.) Here is a pic of Lexie happily shelling borlotti beans with Lewis in France this past summer.

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