Friday 22 April 2011

Butternut Squash Soup

I'm a great fan of butternut squash and even started growing my own in the garden last year.  With the intense colour of sunshine,  it brightens up any plate whether served in slices and sauteed in olive oil, stuffed and baked in the oven or diced in a risotto.  For sheer intensity of flavour, dazzling colour and minimal preparation, you can't beat a lovely roasted butternut squash soup.

This recipe is simplicity itself. The squash, onion and garlic are all baked in the oven with olive oil and thyme before being pureed in a food processor and diluted with some vegetable stock. The result is a truly delicious soup with a soft luscious texture and superb natural sweetness!   And did I mention the colour?

Ingredients                   Serves 4

I medium butternut squash (approx 1 kg/2lbs)
1 large onion
5 cloves garlic
8 - 10 sprigs of fresh thyme
3 tbsp olive oil
1 vegetable stock cube dissolved in 300ml boiling water
fresh parsley to garnish
salt and pepper


Preheat the oven to 200C/
180C fan/Gas Mark 6.

Cut the squash lengthways and remove the seeds and any stringy bits but leave the skin on.  Cut into chunks and arrange in a single layer with the cut side upwards in a large baking dish.
Leaving the skin on the onion and garlic too, cut the onion into quarters and together with the garlic cloves, place in between the squash.

(Five garlic cloves may sound rather a lot but, when it's baked slowly in the oven, garlic becomes soft and gooey and mild in flavour)

Drizzle the olive oil over the vegetables and place the thyme sprigs on top. Season with salt and pepper. 

Cover the dish with foil and bake for an hour or so until the vegetables are tender.  Test for softness with a sharp knife and, if the squash still feels hard, give it another 15 to 30 minutes.

Remove the foil and leave for a few minutes until cool enough to handle or until you are ready to make the soup.

Using a spoon, scrape the squash from the skin and place in a food processor.

Discard the outer layers of the onion and remove the sprigs of thyme.  Squeeze the garlic cloves between your fingers and add the soft garlic puree to the processor with the cooked onion wedges.

Blend until smooth and then transfer the pureed vegetable mixture to a large pan.   Gradually add 300ml hot stock or enough to make a smooth soup.  If it's too thick, just add some water.

Reheat the soup gently, check the seasoning, then ladle into bowls.  Garnish with a little chopped fresh parsley.

Sunday 3 April 2011

Smoked Mackerel with Lemon Risotto

Including oily fish in our weekly diet is believed to have some wonderful health benefits. Mackerel, salmon, sardines and herrings are excellent sources of omega-3 which is known to help reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes, protect us against strokes, lower our blood pressure and our cholesterol levels. 

Mackerel is currently plentiful in the UK when it's in season during the summer months so it's a good sustainable choice.  Smoked mackerel is fantastic too. It's an incredibly versatile food, relatively inexpensive and a great way to boost your health at the same time!   

Even though it's good just as it is served cold with a salad, mashed up in sandwiches or made into a pate, smoked mackerel is also delicious hot, served as a main course with vegetables.  Celeriac and potato mash, fried tomatoes and a green vegetable go particularly well or, for a change, serve it as I've done here with a tangy lemon risotto.

This simple risotto really compliments the rich flavour of smoked mackerel. It's made the traditional Italian way with arborio rice and has a lovely creamy consistency, completely unlike fluffy basmati or long grain rice.  It takes a little longer and needs plenty of stirring but it's well worth the effort! 

Ingredients                       Serves 4

3 to 4 smoked mackerel fillets
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 leek, finely shredded
2 tbsp olive oil
300g arborio rice
2 vegetable stock cubes (e.g. Kallo)
Juice and grated zest of one lemon
2 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
freshly ground salt and pepper

Begin by heating the olive oil in a large heavy-based saucepan - I use a large Le Creuset casserole dish.  Fry the chopped onion for 3 or 4 minutes over a medium heat, then stir in the garlic and cook for a minute or so before adding the shredded leeks. Carry on cooking for about five minutes until softened but not brown.

Prepare the stock by pouring a litre of water into a saucepan, add the two vegetable stock cubes and bring to a low simmer.

Peel away the skin from the fish and lay the mackerel fillets either on a plate or on a sheet of foil.  Place under the grill and leave on a lowish heat to warm through slowly.

Add the rice to the leek and onion mixture and stir continuously for a few minutes with a wooden spoon to allow the rice to fry a little in the pan.

Now pour in a ladleful of hot stock and simmer gently, uncovered, stirring well until the liquid has nearly been absorbed.  Carry on adding the stock a little at a time and keep stirring and simmering, allowing the rice to absorb the stock before adding any more.   If you run out of stock, just use boiling water. 

When the rice is nearly cooked and most of the stock has been absorbed which usually takes 15 to 20 minutes, add the chopped parsley, the grated zest and juice of a lemon and some salt and pepper.  At this point, the risotto should still be moist, but not swimming about in a sea of liquid!   Taste the rice to check if it's cooked - it should still have a slight bite to it, (al dente, as they say) rather than be soft and mushy.

By now your mackerel fillets will be hot, though hopefully not cooking! You can either leave them whole and place individually on top of a serving of risotto or alternatively, flake the fish into pieces and mix into the risotto.

Best served hot and straightaway or it's liable to go thick and sticky! 

If you do have any leftovers,  it's very easy to form the cold risotto into rice balls or croquettes.  Roll in some flour or polenta and fry for 4 to 5 minutes in olive oil until golden.