Monday 20 December 2010

Chestnut and Red Wine Pate en Croute

Christmas can be a bit daunting if you've only recently given up eating meat and dairy products but it doesn't have to be.   It's certainly not a problem thinking of animal-free alternatives to turkey or making dairy-free mince pies, Christmas cake, Christmas pudding, etc.  Of course, you may have to put up with the odd sarcastic comment about your unconventional choice of food usually from someone who doesn't know better but then we're used to being different, aren't we!

Over the thirty or so Christmases I've been "different",  I've tried out many recipes for the traditional meal, ideally something that fits alongside everyone else's and that goes well with  roast potatoes, parsnips, brussel sprouts, cranberry sauce and all the trimmings.  Probably the dish I've made most at Christmas is Rose Elliot's Chestnut and Red Wine Pate en Croute.

Apart from the fact that it's really good, it's also very practical.  It's made in minutes with very few ingredients.  Even better, if you're spending Christmas away and have offered to take your own dish to help out as I usually do, you can make the chestnut pate a day or two in advance, keep it in the fridge, transport it across the country, then quickly roll out the puff pastry topping on Christmas morning and bake.

Over the years, I have made a few changes to the original recipe. I've doubled the quantity of mushrooms (to 100g) and put the cooked chestnut mixture into a loaf tin to create an oblong shape. My measurements and cooking times also vary from the original. 
I can guarantee you'll find steadfast meat-eaters quietly helping themselves to a piece on the day.   Don't forget to make some lovely mushroom gravy and cranberry sauce to go with it.  You'll find the recipes below.   Have a Wonderful Christmas!

Ingredients                 Serves Four

2 tbsp olive oil
2 medium onions
2 garlic cloves
100g (4oz) chestnut mushrooms, chopped
1 glass of red wine
435g can of unsweetened chestnut puree such as Merchant Gourmet (or mashed fresh/canned chestnuts)
75g (3 oz) fresh brown/white breadcrumbs
500g dairyfree puff pastry (e.g. Jusrol)
salt and pepper


Put your tinned/mashed chestnuts into a large bowl and mix in the breadcrumbs.

Line a 1lb loaf tin (approx 16 x 11cm (6½" x 4¼") top, 8cm (3") deep) with cling film.

Chop the onions finely and crush the garlic cloves.  Finely chop the mushrooms.
Heat the oil in a frying pan and fry the chopped onions for about 5 to 10 minutes on a medium heat, stirring frequently, until soft.

Add the crushed garlic and fry for a further couple of minutes before adding the mushrooms.  Stir well and cook for 4 or 5 minutes.

Now pour in your glass of wine and let it bubble away on a highish heat for a couple of minutes until most of the liquid has gone.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir the mushroom mixture into the dry ingredients. 

Add some freshly ground salt and pepper and mash it all together with the back of a spoon so that it's well mixed.

Now press the mixture into the prepared loaf tin and level the top neatly.

Once cool, fold over the cling film and keep in the fridge until required.

When you're ready to eat, pre-heat the oven to 220C/200C fan/gas 7.

Lightly grease a baking sheet.  Dust your work surface with a little plain flour.

Cut off approximately two-fifths of the puff pastry and roll out carefully so that it measures about  25cm x 17cm (10" x 7").  Place on the baking sheet.

Tip the chestnut mixture out of the loaf tin and peel back the cling film from the top.  Turn upside down onto the middle of the pastry and peel away the rest of the cling film.

Brush around the edges of the pastry with a little cold water. 
Now roll out the remaining pastry so that it measures about 30cm x 22cm (12" x 9").  Carefully lay it over the top of the chestnut mixture,  easing it around the sides with your hands.

Press the pastry down lightly at the edges to seal and gently soften the top to make a more rounded shape.   Trim the edges of the pastry to leave a border of about 1". 

Roll out some of the trimmings and cut into decorative shapes or use a leaf cutter if you like.  You can make leaf markings too if you like.

Stick them on top of the pastry with water.  
Using a sharp knife, decorate the edges.
Make a few small steam holes with a knife and brush lightly all over with cold water.

Bake in a pre-heated oven for 8 minutes at 220C/425F/gas 7, then reduce the temperature to 200C/400F/gas 6 and bake for a further 30 to 40 minutes until the pastry is golden, crisp and flaky.  

Tip:  The recipe serves four hungry people or can stretch to six. If you're catering for more, just double up the ingredients, put the chestnut mixture into two loaf tins, roll the extra pastry to twice the length and place the mixture lengthwise down the middle.

Mushroom Gravy

2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 stick of celery. finely chopped
125g (4 oz) mushrooms, wiped and chopped
2 level tbsp plain flour
600ml (1 pint) stock
1 tsp fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1 tbsp soy sauce
freshly ground pepper

Heat the oil in a saucepan and fry the onion and celery over a medium heat for about 5 minutes. Then add the crushed garlic and chopped mushrooms and cook for a further 5 mnutes, stirring regularly.

Turn down the heat and add the flour. Cook gently until the flour starts to brown, about 5 minutes, then gradualy add the stock, bay leaf, thyme and soy sauce.

Bring to a gentle simmer and cook for 20 minutes. Season with freshly ground black pepper. 

Remove the bay leaf before serving.  If you want a smooth gravy, use a hand-blender to whizz till smooth but personally I like it with bits in!

My Mum's Cranberry Sauce

250g cranberries
300ml water
250g sugar
2 tbsp Port

Put the cranberries in a medium sized pan with the water. 

Bring to the boil and simmer for about 10 minutes until the berries have burst.  Add the sugar and cook for a few more minutes, stirring until it has all dissolved.


Remove from the heat and add the port.


Tuesday 14 December 2010

Moroccan Fish Tagine

Even though I haven't eaten meat, eggs or dairy products for thirty years, I'm not vegetarian or vegan as I eat fish.  It's always seemed like the right decision for me and I've never read anything in all that time that has convinced me that eating fish is bad for my health, in fact quite the opposite.

However, I don't eat it that often and when I do, I like to know where the fish I buy comes from so I'm not contributing to over-fishing or unnatural farming practices.  Fortunately, choosing fish clearly labelled sustainable or responsibly sourced and certified by the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council)  is an option that is available to us in the UK.

A few years ago, I came across a recipe for a fish tagine created by the London restaurant "Moro".   I've simplified their recipe but it still retains that wonderful Moroccan flavour and everyone seems to love it.  

Any filleted white fish will do, such as cod, haddock or hake. Just make sure there are no bones for some unsuspecting person to find on their plate or, worse still, in their mouth!  The fish is marinated in a traditional Moroccan charmoula which is what really makes this dish special.  

It's an ideal recipe for a party as you can make most of it in advance,  then simply cook the fish when you're ready to eat.  When you bring your piping hot tagine to the table and remove the lid, your guests will be blown away!

Serve with some good rustic bread, a mixed green salad or a green vegetable.

Ingredients for four people

For the Charmoula:

1 clove of garlic
1 level tsp sea salt
2 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp red wine vinegar
Juice of half a lemon
1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1 small bunch of fresh coriander

4 thickish fillets of white fish, skinned
3 green or yellow peppers, sliced
18 - 20 small waxy new potatoes
 (e.g. Pink Fir Apple, Charlotte)
About 15 ripe plum/cherry tomatoes
2 cloves garlic
Olive oil
A handful of black olives
100ml water

First make your charmoula.  In a pestle and mortar, grind the cumin seeds to a powder, then tip out on to a plate.   
Now, using your pestle and mortar again, pound together a peeled clove of garlic and a teaspoon of sea salt until creamy smooth. 

Add your ground cumin powder, then the paprika, lemon juice, vinegar, olive oil and finely chopped coriander.  Stir well together. 

If necessary, cut your fish into even sized fillets. Remove the skin if you can and pull out any bones. Place the fish in a shallow dish and pour two thirds of the charmoula over the top.  Then leave to rest in the fridge for at least 20 minutes or up to two hours.

Meanwhile, boil the potatoes in their skins for 10 to 15 minutes until almost tender.  Drain and cool, then peel away the skins and cut in half lengthways.

Peel and finely slice the garlic.  Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a large frying pan or saute pan. Fry the garlic over a medium heat until lightly browned. 

Add the sliced peppers, cover with a lid and cook until they begin to soften.

Now add the halved tomatoes and cook for about 5 minutes on a medium heat until they start to soften.

Pour in the remaining third of the charmoula and stir well.  Add some freshly ground pepper.

(If you're serving this to friends and family, you can prepare everything up to now in advance)

Using a tagine, if you have one, or any casserole dish with a lid that can be placed over a heat source (e.g. a cast iron dish like Le Creuset) first spread the potatoes evenly over the bottom. 

Now put about two thirds of the pepper and tomato mixture over the potatoes.  Then, lay the fish fillets evenly on top of that and put the remaining pepper and tomato mixture over each piece of fish.  
Finally, scatter the black olives over the top, add the water and then drizzle on the remaining tablespoon of olive oil. 

Cover with a lid and cook over a medium heat for about 15 minutes (allow a bit longer if you're re-heating the vegetables from cold) until the fish is lightly cooked and flakes easily. 

This looks and smells wonderful when you bring it to the table.  Carefully lift out a piece of fish with a generous portion of potatoes and peppers onto each plate. I serve it in large pasta bowls to catch all the delicious sauce.  

Monday 6 December 2010

Sage and Lemon Savoury Pâté

Maybe it’s just me but everywhere I look these days there’s a headline about obesity. Apparently the UK is the fattest nation in Europe and it’s all because we’re eating the wrong food.  Obesity now rivals smoking as the number one public health problem according to a recent BBC Panorama programme which explored the idea of adding a government tax to unhealthy products rather like the tax on cigarettes. The question is would this deter people enough from buying cheap junk food that’s so readily available in our supermarkets today?

Clearly it’s a problem that’s not going to go away and something has to be done before the obesity crisis escalates out of control costing individuals untold misery and the country millions of pounds in healthcare.  In my opinion, taxing unhealthy food would be unlikely to change anything. Like cigarettes, making them more expensive doesn’t necessarily make someone give up smoking.  

With the best will in the world, changing a habit takes commitment and discipline but, even more than that, requires an element of self-reflection which can be the hardest part for many people, especially when it comes to losing weight. Discovering where their relationship with food began and understanding how their thoughts and feelings have created the imbalance are essential steps towards making healthier food choices. 

Most of us learn how and what to eat from our parents and I’m no exception.  I grew up in the Sixties in a very different world to the one we live in today. Like many women of her generation, my Mum gave up her teaching career to care for the family only returning to part time work when I was in my teens.  She loved to cook and try out new recipes so, every evening, I came home to a freshly prepared two course meal made from scratch with a wide variety of meat, fish and dairy products and plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.  From an early age, I enjoyed good food and, thanks to my Mum’s creativity, I was eating Mediterranean dishes at home long before most of my friends had even heard of Spaghetti Bolognese.

Without doubt, the habits I learned in childhood around food gave me a healthy foundation on which to build my own parameters.  Three good meals a day were the norm so I never knew what snacking was. Our tuck shop at primary school may have sold potato puffs, jammy dodgers and an assortment of “goodies” yet I felt absolutely no inclination to buy them.  My mind and body didn’t crave them. 

My eating habits didn’t change that much during my teenage years but my initiation into food misery was yet to come.  When I went off to college at 18, living in digs proved an education in itself sharing a home with a young family where a child’s tantrums, especially concerning eating, and, in retaliation, a mother’s yelling were a new and shocking experience for me!  My evening meals were included but the food we were given took some adjustment with a typical family Sunday meal being chicken and chips with no vegetables.

In fact, tinned vegetables like butter beans often took the place of the fresh ones I was used to and I hated them.  The contrast from what I was used to eating was considerable and my body responded accordingly. Within a year, I had put on a stone in weight. Once I realised my body was ballooning outwards and it wasn’t just my jeans shrinking, I knew something had to change. I ended the summer term dieting frantically before I returned home for the summer holidays. 

From then on, I realised it was up to me to take control of what I ate and make conscious food choices every single day.  It mattered to me so much to stay fit and healthy that this decision was easy.  However many times other people offer us incentives to do something, even financial ones from the government, making a decision to do it for ourselves is the one that counts and that has to come from a place of knowing deep within us.  When we believe the responsibility lies entirely with us, and not elsewhere, our power to change is immense!

In celebration of tinned butter beans which is something I now keep in my store cupboard (though never eat on their own) here’s a recipe for a 
Sage and Lemon Savoury Bean Pâté
which is ....
  • CHEAP – a quarter of the price of a ready-made pate!
  • FAST – takes only 15 minutes to make 
  • TASTY – transforms beans into a tangy, light and healthy spread


A 410g can of Butter Beans
3 small shallots
1 clove of garlic
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
A handful (about 12) fresh sage leaves
Half a lemon
Salt and Pepper

Peel and chop the shallots, peel and crush the garlic, finely chop the sage leaves and grate the zest of half a lemon.  I do all this on one board and mix them together.

Now heat the olive oil in a frying pan and add the chopped mixture. Fry gently for 5 minutes stirring regularly so it doesn't brown.

Drain the liquid from the tinned beans into a measuring jug, keeping 100ml and throwing away the remainder.   Add the beans and the reserved liquid to the pan.

Bring to the boil, then cover and simmer for 5 minutes until most of the liquid has disappeared.  Remove the pan from the heat.

Pour in the juice of half a lemon and some freshly ground salt and pepper.

Using a hand-held blender (a potato masher or fork will do)  blend the mixture till smooth.

Transfer to a small bowl and cool.

 Serve with crusty bread or toast and salad for a simply delicious lunch!

Tuesday 30 November 2010

Spiced Potato and Cauliflower

If there's one thing I'd like to achieve writing this blog, it's to introduce the idea that eating a mostly "plant" based diet is anything but boring!  Even though Eric and I eat fish, we don't eat it that often so most of our meals are likely to be based on vegetables in some form or other. The variety of vegetables available all year round means you can ring the changes and eat really well.

Potatoes and cauliflower are rarely at the top of most people's list of favourite vegetables but wait till you try them served this way!  The spices in this Indian dish transform the humble potato and cauliflower into something quite exotic.   There's more than enough for two people as a main course with rice and poppadoms. It also goes well with onion bhajis which I'll be posting later.

This recipe works best with a firm waxy potato that holds it's shape well so I use  the pink fir apple variety that I grow at home.  A Charlotte or Nicola potato will do just as well.


250g (8oz) small waxy potatoes
1 small onion
2.5 cm (1") piece of root ginger
5ml (1 tsp) cumin seeds

2.5ml (1/2 tsp) turmeric
Half a cauliflower
A small bunch of fresh coriander

Salt and pepper
2 tbsp sunflower oil

Prepare the potatoes.  If they're large, peel and cut in half, otherwise leave whole and unpeeled and parboil in salted water for 5 minutes. They will still be hard on the inside. Drain.

When cool enough to handle, peel away the skins and cut the potatoes into chunks.

Cut the cauliflower into small florets.  Store the leaves for another day but you can use the middle of the stem if cut into small pieces.

Put the cumin seeds into a pestle and mortar and grind to a powder.

Peel and finely chop the onion and peel and grate the ginger.

Heat the sunflower oil in a large frying pan.  I use a wide-based saute pan with a lid. Fry the onion and ginger until the onion is translucent but not brown.  Add the cumin and turmeric and cook gently for a couple of minutes stirring all the time to avoid burning.

Add the potatoes and cauliflower to the pan and pour in 100ml of boiling water. Stir well to coat the vegetables in the spice mixture. 

Season with salt and pepper, then cover with a lid and cook gently for about 15 minutes. 

Keep checking that the mixture doesn't dry out and add more water as necessary so that there is plenty of steam to cook the vegetables.  Don't overcook them though, they should keep their shape and stay firm. 

Stir in some chopped coriander leaves and serve immediately.