Gnocchin’ on heaven’s door (gnocchi with spinach, basil, feta and roasted tomatoes)

When I first started making gnocchi a few years ago, they always seemed to come out really dense and heavy. So, I did a spot of internet research and have tweaked my method as I’ve gone along.

The recipe here is the resulting recipe I use for plain potato gnocchi, although you could add some herbs or any other flavourings that take your fancy.

Personally, I don’t think making your own gnocchi is that much of a faff. Admittedly, it would be a lot quicker to get them out of a packet, but a bit of forward planning minimises the hassle. For instance, what I tend to do is bake and rice my potatoes the night before and leave them in the fridge, ready to make into dough the next evening.

The reason I bake my potatoes, rather than boil them, is that it keeps them as dry as possible (which is what you want). It’s also easier to leave a few spuds baking in the oven than to keep an eye on a boiling pan of them. Also, I rice my potatoes rather than mash them as this allows more moisture to evaporate from the potatoes and means they don’t get overworked. If you’re reading this and thinking “bloody hell, this woman is really overthinking her potato preparation methods”, then you are probably right, and you may just want to use some gnocchi from a packet for this recipe…

Ingredients

For the gnocchi (this makes about sixty gnocchi- enough to feed three people, or two with a couple of lunch portions left over):

  • Three smallish to medium baking potatoes
  • Two eggs, beaten
  • ‘00’ grade pasta flour

For the sauce:

  • About 200g of cherry or baby plum tomatoes
  • Olive oil
  • About 200g Spinach (I use frozen, ready chopped spinach because it’s cheap and I usually have it in the freezer but fresh would be good)
  • A handful or two of fresh basil
  • Three garlic cloves, crushed
  • 100g feta

To make the gnocchi:

Prick your potatoes all over with a fork and put them on the middle shelf of the oven at gas mark 6 (200⁰C) for about an hour to an hour and a half, or until a knife slides into the centre of them easily. Cut them in half when you take them out of the oven, and when they’re just about cool enough to handle, scoop out the insides and put them through a potato ricer into a bowl. There’s no need to waste the skins- keep them in the fridge to be picked at with a squidge of barbeque sauce from a bottle when you’re peckish. (Nigella-esque late night snacking in a black satin dressing gown is optional, but encouraged.)

As I tend to bake my potatoes ahead of making gnocchi, I cover the riced potato in cling film and leave it in the fridge. If you’re doing this, I recommend getting the potato out shortly before making your dough to warm up slightly, unless you don’t mind getting cold hands.

If you’re making your gnocchi the same day, leave the potato to cool down.

Add the two beaten eggs to the riced potato, folding the eggs into the mixture with a spatula.

Now, start to add your flour, gently squelching the ingredients together with clean hands. I honestly don’t know how much flour you’ll need to add- I’ve never measured it. All you need to know is that you need to add just enough until you have a good workable dough consistency. It’s helpful here to have someone tipping the flour in for you, as the dough will make your hands very messy. I don’t usually have a spare pair of hands for this bit and my bag of flour therefore ends up covered in doughy, potato-y paw prints.

Once you’ve got your dough, divide it into four portions and roll each portion out into a long sausage shape. When you’ve got a sausage which is about an inch thick and about 12 inches long, cut it into small pieces. Lay your gnocchi out on a plate or baking sheet which has been brushed with a thin layer of oil, then lightly press a fork onto the top of each one, flattening them slightly.

To make the rest:

Cut your tomatoes in half and put them in a baking dish or tin. Drizzle with a small amount of olive oil and season with sea salt and black pepper. I often sprinkle on some fennel seeds too, but then again I sprinkle fennel seeds on bloody everything. Use your hands to coat the tomatoes in oil and lay them out cut side up in the dish. Roast in the oven at gas mark 5 (190⁰C) for about 45 minutes. If you’re baking your potatoes at the same time, you could just put everything in at gas mark 5 and do the potatoes for longer, adding the tomatoes later on. I’ll leave you to work out the logistics.

Put a big pan of water on to boil.

Whizz your basil in a food processor or finely chop it. If you’re using fresh spinach, then whizz/ chop that too.

In another pan, heat a small glug of olive oil and add the garlic. Fry for a few minutes before adding the spinach and basil and stirring everything together. Allow to warm through thoroughly before crumbling in the feta. Turn off the heat and set aside.

Once your other pan of water has come to the boil and while your spinach is cooking, add the gnocchi to the pan in batches to cook (I usually do about fifteen at a time). When all the gnocchi in the pan have floated to the top of the water, remove them with a slotted spoon.

Divide the gnocchi between bowls, top with the spinach sauce and roasted tomatoes and serve.

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Simple shakshuka

Do you ever experience that thing where you hear about something or read about something you’ve never heard of before for the first time, and then happen to stumble across it lots of times again within a few days? No?

Okay, well anyway, this is what happened to me with shakshuka (also known as shakshouka/ chakchouka/ a few other variants). I read about it on a blog, then saw a similar dish on another blog a couple of days later, then Hugh Fearnley-Whatsisface did it on his River Cottage Veg Every Day programme (recipe here or in the book which accompanies the series, which I can recommend whether you’re vegetarian or not).

This recipe is my own version of shakshuka, which falls into my ‘handy vegetarian midweek dinner’ repertoire. It’s nothing fancy, yet I always especially look forward to eating it. I think it’s because the process of mopping up the eggy, tomato-ey sauce reminds me of dippy egg and soldiers (that’s a boiled egg and toast to the uninitiated) or of mopping up the remnants of a fried breakfast with a bit of bread and butter.

Ingredients

  • A red pepper
  • A yellow pepper
  • An orange pepper
  • An onion
  • Sea salt
  • A heaped tablespoonful of cumin seeds
  • Four cloves of garlic, crushed
  • A red chilli, deseeded and chopped
  • Two teaspoonfuls of smoked paprika
  • A tin of chopped tomatoes
  • Four eggs

De-seed and thinly slice the peppers and peel and thinly slice the onion. Put this all in a large shallow pan (use one with a lid if you can as you’ll need it later) with a bit of flavourless oil and a generous pinch of sea salt and fry on a medium heat until everything is softening nicely and the onion is turning translucent.

Add the cumin seeds, garlic and chilli and continue to fry gently until everything has cooked down and is smelling fragrant.

Add the paprika and chopped tomatoes (I like to whizz my tomatoes in a food processor first because I’m a bit like that) and stir everything together. Cook for a further five or ten minutes, stirring occasionally.

Now, make four ‘wells’ in the peppery, tomato-y mixture as best you can. Break an egg into each ‘well’ and leave to cook on a medium heat with a lid on the pan, allowing the eggs to cook in the steam as well as the heat from the bottom of the pan. Once the egg whites are well on their way to turning opaque, I like to finish the whole thing off by putting the pan under a medium grill for a few minutes. Alternatively, you could allow them to finish cooking on the hob. You want the eggs to be cooked through, but still runny.

Divide between two and serve with a wodge of bread for moppage.

By the way, shakshuka isn’t the most photogenic of dishes. I can assure you it tastes a lot nicer than it looks…

Two risottos for autumn

I’ve written before about my love of risotto and its comforting properties. So, as a follow on from my ‘Summersotto’ post, here are a couple of suggestions for autumnal risottos:

(both recipes serve two)

Roasted butternut squash and blue cheese risotto

Ingredients

  • 500-600g butternut squash (about half a large one), peeled and cut into chunks
  • Nutmeg (optional)
  • About 40g pine nuts
  • A glug of olive oil
  • A knob of butter
  • An onion, chopped
  • A stick of celery, finely chopped
  • 150-165g risotto rice
  • 700ml hot vegetable stock
  • A tablespoonful of fresh sage, finely chopped, or a teaspoonful of dried sage
  • About 100g blue cheese
  • Black pepper
  • Truffle flavoured oil, for drizzling (optional)

Start by roasting the butternut squash. Place the chunks of squash into a roasting tin and drizzle with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and grate on some nutmeg if you fancy it. Scrunch with clean hands to coat the squash in oil. Roast at gas mark 5 (190⁰C) for about 45 minutes or until the squash is tender enough for a knife to easily go into it. Set aside.

When you’re ready to make your risotto, get all your ingredients ready.

Toast the pine nuts in a dry pan (use the same pan that you plan on using for your risotto) until they start to turn golden but without burning them. Set them aside in a bowl.

Heat the olive oil and butter in the pan, then add the onion and celery and fry them gently until they are translucent. Add the risotto rice and stir it in until it’s covered in buttery oil.

Begin to add the stock a ladleful at a time as you normally would with any risotto. After the first couple of ladlefuls of stock have been absorbed, stir in the sage before continuing to add the stock.

When you’ve used up all your stock, test a couple of grains of rice to see if they’re cooked. If not, add a bit more stock or boiling water and keep stirring for a couple more minutes.

Turn off the heat and crumble in the blue cheese, stirring it in until it’s nicely melted. Season well with black pepper and divide between bowls. Scatter the butternut squash and pine nuts on top and serve.

I like a drizzle of truffle flavoured oil on this, but it’s just as nice without.

Mushroom risotto with bacon

Ingredients

  • 4 rashers of bacon
  • A glug of olive oil
  • A knob of butter
  • 250g chestnut mushrooms, sliced
  • An onion, chopped
  • A stick of celery, finely chopped
  • 150-165g risotto rice
  • 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • Sherry
  • 650ml hot vegetable or chicken stock
  • A tablespoonful of fresh thyme or a teaspoon of dried
  • Parmesan

Grill the bacon until crispy and set aside.

Heat the oil and butter in a pan and add the mushrooms, onion and celery. Fry until the onion and celery are translucent and the mushrooms are softened. Add the risotto rice and stir to coat with oil and butter. Add the garlic and fry gently for a couple more minutes.

Turn up the heat and add a generous glug of sherry. Allow it to bubble down a bit before beginning to add the stock a ladleful at a time. Add the thyme after the first couple of ladlefuls have been absorbed.

When you’ve used up all your stock, test a couple of grains of rice to see if they’re cooked. If not, add a bit more stock or boiling water and keep stirring for a couple more minutes.

Turn off the heat and grate in a decent amount of parmesan, stirring to melt it in.

Divide between bowls and trim the bacon into strips on top.

Note added 9th January, 2012

I made this mushroom risotto tonight, but used a pack of fresh shiitake mushrooms (which we like to pronounce ‘shit-ache’ in our household because we’re childish) which were in the reduced bit at Sainsbury’s. I also added several chopped chestnut mushrooms and a few dried porcini mushrooms, which I soaked in boiling water to rehydrate them. I then used the soaking water in the stock. I can definitely recommend the porcini mushrooms for an extra mushroomy flavour hit. You don’t need to use many of them- I find a pack of dried ones (stored in a kilner jar) goes a long way.

Bean and chorizo stew

In the words of House Stark: “Winter is Coming”. This is my favourite time of year- I know it’s a bit sad when the nights begin to draw in earlier each day, and getting out of bed for work when it’s cold and dark is a pain in the arse. However, I like getting all cosy at home in a big jumper and eating something suitably stodgy. We’re also at that nice stage at the moment where the weather hasn’t turned properly cold yet and the autumn sun is making everything look lovely (listen to me- what an old romantic I am).

Autumn cooking is my kind of cooking- oozy risottos, chutneys and jellies made from foraged ingredients or gluts of fruit shared by friends and colleagues, warming curries and comforting casseroles and stews. I’ve been enjoying all the autumnal blog posts that have been popping up in my feed recently- lots of pumpkin and squash recipes and good hearty dishes to stick to the ribs.

My slow cooker tends to see a lot more action over the autumn and winter months, and this is one of my favourite slow cooker recipes. It’s cheap, nutritious and tasty. This recipe serves four (or two with some portions left over for the freezer or for lunch the next day).

Ingredients

  • About 125g chorizo, cut into small half moons/ chunks
  • About 250g of mixed dried beans (I usually use a mixture of red kidney, cannellini, haricot, black turtle, pinto, adzuki and mung beans and chickpeas)
  • An onion, halved and chopped into half moons
  • 2 sticks of celery, washed and finely chopped
  • 4 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 1 tablespoonful flour
  • A generous glug of red wine
  • A tin of chopped tomatoes
  • About a tablespoonful of thyme (use fresh if you happen to have some, but dried is fine)
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 vegetable stock cube, crumbled
  • 200ml water
  • A couple of heaped tablespooonfuls of pearl barley
  • A carrot, scrubbed or peeled and then diced

Soak the dried beans overnight or for at least 8 hours in plenty of water with a bit of bicarbonate of soda added to it. When they’re soaked, drain them well and add to a pan with enough water to cover. Bring them to the boil, then let them simmer with the lid on for 10-15 minutes. Drain and set aside. (Don’t be tempted to miss out this step- The beans need to be soaked and boiled in order to get rid of toxins in their skins that can apparently cause severe stomach cramps.)

Add the chorizo, onion and celery to a pan and fry until the onion is looking translucent but not brown. Some fat should come out of the chorizo but add a bit of olive oil if the onion and celery need it to fry in. Add the garlic and fry for a minute or so. Add the flour and mix in until all the flour is coated with oil. Turn up the heat, add the red wine and simmer for a minute or so, stirring to mix everything together. Mix in the chopped tomatoes, thyme, bay leaves, stock cube and water, then add the drained beans, pearl barley and carrot.

Put the whole lot into a slow cooker and cook on high for about 4-6 hours, adding water if it looks dry.

Eat with some nice crusty bread for dippage.

For the vegetarian version, leave out the chorizo and add a teaspoon of smoked paprika instead.

Yorkshire (part two): York

After saying farewell to Pickersgill Manor Farm, we headed to York for two nights. We’d been watching the reports on the news showing the flooding in York which had resulted from the wet weather on previous days and didn’t really know what to expect. However, we were staying on the outskirts of York city centre and it was mainly right down by the River Ouse where the worst of the flooding was. The racecourse (which we passed on the bus on the way into town) had also suffered badly in the rain and looked like a lake. The birds seemed to be enjoying it, but I can’t imagine how horrible it must be to have your home flooded (as some were down by the river).

Anyway, as we got to York fairly early on our first day there, it meant we effectively had two days to explore the city. Everyone I’d spoken to before going said that York was lovely, and they were right. It’s a lot like Canterbury, which happens to be my favourite town (well, city) in Kent. We also just happened to be there while the York Food Festival was on, so there was even more to see and eat than usual.  There were cakes, champagne tents, meats, preserves, and all manner of other local Yorkshire goodies on show, and I feel very foolish for not having taken any proper pictures of them…

We got lunch from York Hog Roast on our second day there. As well as their two places in York city centre they also had a stall at the food festival. I had the works- roast pork, crackling, stuffing and apple sauce. It was gooood. As we’d stuffed our faces with hog roast at lunch time, we didn’t want an enormous dinner, so we opted for tapas at Ambiente on Goodramgate. I know tapas isn’t exactly traditional Yorkshire grub, but it was probably one of the best meals we’d had while we were away. Ambiente is a small place and they could only accommodate us in the bar area, but it was just right (and an interesting challenge to fit all of our tapas plates on the tiny bar table!) The caramelised chorizo and potato and the mushrooms with caramelised shallots and tarragon cream were particular highlights. It’s worth mentioning that the restaurant has a good vegetarian and vegan selection- not just a few token dishes. I’ve had better calamari but I’m not complaining- the food went down well with a nice glass of red (or pint of light, refreshing Cruzcampo in Owen’s case) and it was a nice way to end the holiday.

Our other York-centric activities included visiting the Jorvik Viking centre, walking the walls (all of them) and visiting the (alleged) grave of Dick Turpin. And, of course, here are some photos…

Flooding in a park by the River Ouse.

Walking the walls

The Shambles: For centuries, this street was lined with butchers’ shops. Butchers’ waste such as offal and guts would be discarded into the middle of the street. Lovely!

York Minster in the evening.

Operation Lunchbox: Mini baked falafels with cucumber and mint raita

Now, I enjoy a cheese and pickle sandwich as much as the next person, but when you end up eating them ALL THE BLOODY TIME for lunch, they get a bit boring. This is why, every now and again, I decide that Owen and I are stuck in a ‘lunch rut’ and vow to make more interesting things to take to work for lunch. We also happen to be on a bit of a health kick at the moment (contrary to what some of my posts may lead you to believe), so I’ve been thinking of wholesome, healthy things to eat at lunch time to get us through the working day. We do often use up dinner leftovers for lunches, which is nice, but is dependent on what we’ve had the night before and whether there’s any left (which there usually isn’t). I’m not planning on creating any of those bento box masterpieces you see lots of on the internet, I just want something decent to eat in the middle of the day that’s easy to make.

So, I was really pleased with myself when I had an idea for mini baked falafels. I then Googled ‘mini baked falafel’ and realised that lots of people had unsurprisingly already thought of this before me. I still thought they would make a good packed lunch though, and my own recipe for them is below. I did wonder whether these would need an egg or something to bind them together, but they came out okay and didn’t fall apart. They weren’t too ‘mealy’ either, despite being baked rather than fried.

For the falafels:

Ingredients

  • A 400g tin of chickpeas
  • A small red onion (or half a large one), peeled and roughly chopped into chunks
  • 2 cloves of garlic, peeled
  • A red chilli, halved and de-seeded
  • A tablespoonful of cumin seeds
  • A heaped teaspoonful of ground coriander
  • A third of a bunch of fresh mint, any large stalks or dodgy leaves removed
  • Olive oil

Put the onion, garlic and chilli in a food processor and whizz until finely chopped. Scrape this mixture out into a pan and add a bit of oil and the cumin seeds. Fry until the onion is translucent and the other ingredients are nice and fragrant. Set aside to cool a bit.

Drain and rinse the chickpeas and drain thoroughly again. Add them along with the fresh mint into the food processor and whizz until everything is an even crumbly consistency. Scrape the chickpea mixture out into a bowl and add the onion mixture from earlier. Add the ground coriander and season with salt and pepper. Add enough olive oil to bind the mixture together well and use clean hands to squelch everything together until it’s thoroughly mixed.

Use a pastry brush to lightly oil a baking sheet. Roll the mixture into balls measuring about an inch across and place them on the baking sheet. This mixture should make about twenty mini falafels.

Bake them in the oven at gas mark 5 for about 45 minutes, or until they are nicely crispy on the outside without being burned.

Before they went in the oven.

Cucumber and mint raita

Ingredients

  • About two inches of cucumber, halved with the watery seeds scraped out and discarded
  • A third of a bunch of fresh mint, any large stalks or dodgy leaves removed
  • A clove of garlic, peeled
  • Greek yoghurt

Put the cucumber, mint and garlic in a container- I use a blender stick/ wand thing to make this and it comes with its own plastic beaker, but any container with a flat bottom would be fine. Add a couple of tablespoons of yoghurt and whizz until blended. Keep adding yoghurt until you reach your desired consistency. You can obviously adjust the amounts of ingredients depending on how strong you want the flavour and how much you want to make. That one raw garlic clove goes a long way though- unless you want to be breathing garlic all over your co-workers then you might not want to add much more than that.

If you don’t have a blender wand, you could use a food processor or just grate the cucumber and finely chop the mint and garlic.

This keeps in the fridge for a couple of days.

We had the falafel and dip in our lunchboxes with some bulgar wheat salad. As all the mint on my balcony garden has died, I had to buy fresh mint especially for this, but I didn’t mind too much as it got used in the falafel, raita and bulgar wheat salad so there was no waste. I think coriander would make a good substitute for the mint, so I might give that a go too.

The Vegetable Fairy

I used to work with a woman called Di who had an (amazing) allotment, the spoils from which she used to share with all of her colleagues, including me. I actually have her to thank for inspiring me into and guiding me through my first forays into preserving. Di retired a little while ago (lucky her) but still pops in to my work from time to time to say hi. I went into work the other day to be greeted by a selection of veg on my desk- a bag of dwarf beans, a bag of runner beans and a pattypan squash. I recognised this immediately as Di’s own unique calling card (which I suppose makes her a bit like The Joker, but with veg. And with slightly less sinister overtones.)

I’ve never eaten pattypan squash before, so I did a bit of Googling and also asked Di if she had any recipe suggestions. She said I could treat it in the same way I would a courgette, so I ended up roasting it with some other veg (red pepper, red onion, a bit of carrot I had left in my fridge and a few garlic cloves- all sprinkled with fennel seeds, oregano, salt and pepper and drizzled with oil) and adding it to a bulgar wheat salad (cooked bulgar wheat with some added chopped spring onions and finely chopped preserved lemon). I griddled some halloumi to have with it as well:

Ready to go in the oven (gas mark 5 for about 45 minutes).

Bulgar wheat with roasted veg and griddled halloumi.

I usually add chopped fresh mint to a bulgar wheat salad, especially if we’re having halloumi with it, but I didn’t have any left on the balcony garden. Fresh chilli is nice in this as well, but I left it out on this occasion.

As for the other veg- I used some of the dwarf beans in a stir fry and the rest are going in a risotto tomorrow. I’m planning on having the runner beans with a roast over the coming weekend.

Thanks, Di!

Owen’s verdict on pattypan squash

Owen insisted on referring to the pattypan as a ‘pontipine’, which, in case you didn’t know, is a type of creature from In the Night Garden. (I’m not really sure how we even know what they are, considering we don’t have any children.)

He also commented during dinner that he kept imagining the chunks of pattypan were chunks of lemon, and got a bit worried about eating a big mouthful of lemon. He did say it was tasty though, so there you have it. Spoken like a professional food critic.