The arrival of the gruesome sounding blood orange in January is a happy moment for anyone that’s been seduced by the deep crimson flesh and distinct citrus flavour with a raspberry edge. They can be deliciously sweet such as the beautiful red-streaked Sanguinello, to the more bitter deep-red Moro variety. They are smaller than navel oranges with pitted skin and some have a dark-red rind; a hint to the alluring vivid interior. The colour is influenced by how far into the season the fruit was picked – more orange at the beginning and then more red towards the end – but when cutting into one, the element of wonder and surprise never ceases to amaze me.
Blood oranges have a season of only a few months so grab them by the crate load and use abundantly while you can. Fortunately, they are incredibly versatile and it’s not a problem to think of a multitude of mouthwatering uses: beautiful salads with simple, clean flavours; zingy feel-good juices; classy cocktails; citrus singing cakes and tarts; elegant puddings such as soufflés and Panna Cotta; and jewel-toned marmalade. And don’t get me started on icecream and sorbet. Just like asparagus and Jersey potatoes, their special status is preserved by their swift season and my excitement would definitely not be so palpable if available all year round.
Although grown in California, most of the oranges in our shops come from southern Mediterranean and Italy in particular. The best fruits are meant to grow in the volcanic rich soils of Sicily, where the classic winter salad of blood orange, fennel and olive oil is popular – throw in some plump olives and you’ve got heaven on a plate. This stunning Sicilian salad of blood oranges and fennel provides the inspiration for the recipe here.
It’s a simple salad with vibrant colours and palette-awakening flavours; perfect for a weekend lunch or light starter. The earthy sweet beetroot provides a perfect platform for the slightly tart orange, salty feta, delicate aniseed from the fennel and distinctive taste of the walnuts. Toasted hazelnuts or almonds are also particularly good. There’s a mix of textures to keep things interesting and a scattering of mint gives a lovely freshness to the whole dish. With one bite of this salad, you will forget the grey winter outside and be temporarily transported to the sunshine blessed island of Sicily with azure seas, stunning coastlines and majestic mountains.
2 medium cooked beetroot, cut into rounds
1 fennel bulb, sliced thinly
2 blood orange, peeled and cut into rounds
70g feta, cut into cubes
30g walnuts toasted and roughly chopped
Handful of mint leaves
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp orange juice
1 tsp red wine vinegar
Half tsp runny honey
- Steam the beetroot for about 1 hour, depending on size. Allow to cool and, with gloves on your hands, slide off the skin. Cut into thin rounds and set aside.
- Remove any tough exterior of the fennel bulb and cut in half lengthways. Using a mandolin carefully shave the fennel into thin slices. Alternatively, use a sharp knife and cut as thinly as possible. If preparing in advance, squeeze some lemon juice over to prevent it going brown.Toast the walnuts in a frying pan over a low-medium heat until golden. Keep shaking the pan so they don’t burn. Roughly chop.
- Cut the top and bottom off the oranges so they are flat, then using a sharp knife cut the peel and pith from each orange. Cut into thin rounds.
- Cut the feta into cubes and set aside. Then for the dressing, put all the ingredients in a small bowl and whisk until emulsified.
- Assemble by laying the beetroot on the bottom and then the fennel and oranges. Scatter over the feta and walnuts, finishing with a drizzle of the dressing and a handful of mint leaves.
After finding myself lucky enough to bring 12 boxes of Medjool dates home after a recent job I am determined to eat every last one of them. They have gone well past their ‘use by date’ but seem to be lasting quite nicely in the fridge. Known as the ‘king of dates’ they are large dried dates that have a honey-like sweetness, chewy succulence and are almost meaty in texture. Once you’ve tried Medjool no other dates will compare and are responsible for making sticky toffee pudding one of the most sumptuous and divine puddings around.
They have been around since 6000BC, which is incredible and makes them the oldest cultivated fruit in the world. For years only royalty and honoured guests indulged in the luxurious sweetness and complexity of flavour while the commoners, meanwhile, had to settle for a drier, harder and less sweet variety. Typical. Thankfully they are now readily available to everyone but they can be quite expensive in supermarkets so it’s worth seeking them out in local Middle Eastern shops, if you can.
I have been happily eating them as a snack, which is very indulgent, but I also love putting them in spice-rich tagines and rich sticky cakes. Today, though, after an artery-clogging weekend of Burn’s night food, I have decided to make a healthy salad for lunch, inspired by Moroccan flavours. This is quite a sweet salad as you’ve got natural sweetness from the orange and a touch of honey in the spiced almonds, but I just love all the different textures and flavours: soft chewy dates, moist refreshing orange, crunchy caramelised almonds, with creamy slices of avocado and tender mild bitter leaves of baby spinach. You could try it with strips of carrot as an alternative to the orange, which would not be quite as sweet. The spiced nuts recipe will make more than you need for the salad as it’s a bit tricky to downsize the recipe. They make a great snack washed down with beer though so sure they won’t go to waste.
1½ tsp rapeseed oil
½ tsp ground cumin
¼ tsp allspice and ground corriander
1 tsp runny honey
½ tsp medium coarse sea salt
100g pack of blanched almonds
8 Medjool dates
1 ripe Hass avocado
Large handful of baby spinach leaves
3 tbsp rapeseed oil
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper
- Preheat oven to 160C/300F/Gas 2. Heat the oil in a small frying pan and add the spices, salt and honey. Cook the spices for 30 seconds then add the almonds and stir to coat. Spread out on an oven tray lined with baking parchment and roast in oven for 15-20 minutes until golden and caramelized. Remove from the oven and set aside.
- Meanwhile, slice the dates in half lengthways. Peel the avocado, remove the stone, cut in half lengthways and then each half into slices. Prepare the orange by removing the skin with a sharp knife, cut into thin rounds and then into smaller segments.
- Combine the dressing ingredients some seasoning and whisk into an emulsion.
- Once the almonds have cooled arrange the baby spinach leaves, dates, orange segments and avocado onto a plate, then finish with a generous drizzle of dressing.
Mushroom risotto is wonderful – intense bold earthy flavours with creamy, unctuous rice – and surely is one of the ultimate vegetarian comfort dishes. I recently tried beetroot risotto for the first time and although this vibrant, crimson delight was an unusual and delicious risotto, it wasn’t enough to knock the mushroom variety of the top spot. A good squash with blue cheese is also heavenly and is up there on the list but it’s the strong punch of the dried porcini, in my opinion, that elevates the mushroom version ahead of the rest.
I’ve previously made this risotto with Arborio rice and produces a rich, luscious and incredibly satisfying meal. Using pearl barley as an alternative ‘rice’ gives a slight bite and nuttiness to the dish that is very different but by no means less enjoyable. It’s also a lot easier to cook than Arborio rice as you can add the liquid in one batch then leave it to absorb, rather than the tedious method of adding the stock in small ladlefuls combined with lots of vigorous stirring.
In an ideal world you would make this dish with wild mushrooms during autumn when they are in season. However, they are eye wateringly expensive and I live in zone 2 London so sadly foraging for my own is out of the question. This surely is a reason alone to move out of the Kilburn urban jungle to living The Good Life near woodland, countryside and open space. Ah, happy days…. For now the supermarket will have to suffice for the mushrooms required and varieties such as portobello, chestnut, enoki, shitake and oyster are widely available. The risotto will make much more interesting eating if you have a medley of mushrooms with different flavours and textures so see what you can find. If you can’t source a mixture of mushrooms then increase the amount of chestnuts.
I have borrowed Jamie Oliver’s method of introducing some mushrooms at the beginning and then the remainder at the end that I fry over a high heat until golden and use to top the risotto. It all makes for a taste sensation risotto so tuck in and enjoy!
Why not post your suggestions for other risotto recipes you consider the best and think will rival my mushroom one.
Serves 2, generously
10g dried porcini mushrooms
400ml hot vegetable stock
130g mixed mushrooms, sliced (chestnut, oyster, shitake)
1 small leek, cut into thin rounds
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
200g pearl barley
2 tbsp tarragon, chopped
Glass of white wine
10 cooked chestnuts, halved (Merchant Gourmet are good)
2 tbsp crème fraiche
25g Parmesan cheese, grated
1 tbsp olive oil
Large handful of chopped parsley
- Put the dried porcini in a jug and pour in 250ml of boiling water. Set aside for 20 minutes to infuse. Drain, reserving both mushrooms and the soaking liquid, ensuring any grit at the bottom gets left behind. Combine the porcini liquid with the vegetable stock into a saucepan and put on a low heat. Roughly chop the mushrooms and set aside.
- Heat 25g of the butter in a large frying pan over a low heat until foaming and then add the leeks. Fry gently until beginning to turn translucent, about 8 minutes, add the garlic and cook for a further minute.
- Add the pearl barley and the tarragon to the pan and give a good stir so that so everything is well combined. Turn up the heat, add the white wine and bubble until almost absorbed.
- Add half of the mushrooms and all of the hot stock. Stir well and simmer on a low heat until the liquid has nearly absorbed. This should take about 15 minutes.
- Put a frying pan over a high heat, add the remaining butter and a tablespoon of olive oil. Fry the remaining mushrooms for about 1 minute, with some salt and pepper until golden all over.
As per usual I’ve come back from the farmer’s market laden with bags chock full of vegetables that I barely have room for in my tiny kitchen. Only the other week the fridge was so crammed with swiss chard that the door wouldn’t shut properly and there were bushy beetroot leaves were protruding from the overflowing cupboard. I hate food waste so I try not to go to mad but there are usually a few whimsical purchases that I have no idea what I’m going to do with.
One such purchase was a load of mud encrusted yellow carrots. There’s something alluring about golden veg (see golden beetroot cake recipe) and different colour vegetables than what you can normally buy in the supermarket. Oh how I wish the supermarket offered a more exciting range – I did see purple carrots in Sainsbury’s, which was very surprising.
Although I had wanted to do something more exciting with these golden wonders, on the day I came to cook with them it was a foul grey day with lashing rain and havoc causing winds so they were just crying out to be used in a winter warming nutritious soup.
I found that the yellow carrots have a more subtle flavour than their orange relatives and produced a beautiful soup which I enhanced by the warmth of cumin and ginger. Use orange carrots in this recipe if you can’t find the yellow variety and it will still be delicious. Roasting the carrots with the honey and cumin, too, brings out the natural sweetness and gives a deeper flavour than just frying in the pot. Try and use a full bodied, rich and aromatic honey which will add another note of flavour to the beautiful carrots. If there is any left this soup freezes really well but don’t add the fresh corriander.
800g golden carrots
Rapeseed or olive oil
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp runny honey (I used a dark heather honey)
1 onion, chopped
1 celery stick, chopped
2 garlic cloves, grated
3cm piece of ginger, grated
2 litres vegetable stock
Handful chopped corriander
Salt and pepper
Crème fraiche or natural yogurt to serve
- Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4. Scrub the carrots (no need to peel) and chop into small even sized chunks. Spread out on an oven tray and add a glug of rapeseed oil, the honey, cumin seeds and some salt and pepper. Mix together so the carrots are coated evenly and put in the oven for about 35-40 minutes, depending on the size of your carrots. Shake the tray half way through so they become caramelised and golden on both sides.
- Meanwhile, add some rapeseed oil to a large pot and gently sweat the onion and celery with a pinch of salt until soft, translucent and beginning to take on a bit of colour. This should take about 8-10 minutes.
- Grate in the garlic and ginger and cook for a further 2 minutes whilst stirring to ensure the garlic doesn’t burn. The aroma wafting up is wonderful.
- Add the cooked carrots to the pot and the vegetable stock and bring up to the boil. Simmer for 15 minutes then turn off the heat and blend the soup to a smooth consistency. Taste and adjust the seasoning as necessary. To serve add some freshly chopped corriander, a swirl of yogurt and some extra toasted cumin seeds, if you like.
Although you can buy dried figs all year round you can’t beat the amazing taste and texture of fresh figs. I’m not particularly fond of dried figs so it is more of a treat when the fresh ones come into season. Black Turkish Bursa figs are in my opinion the best and are only in season for a short time in late August and September so take advantage while you can. They look so incredibly gorgeous with their deep purple skin and amber pink flesh flecked with pretty seeds. They have a luscious sweetness with a slight chewy texture that comes from a combination of the skin and seeds.
Some food pairings are just classics such as tomato and basil, smoked mackerel and horseradish, chicken and tarragon… and figs with goats cheese is one of them. So, there’s no point reinventing the wheel here and this recipe is a simple salad that is so delicious you could eat it every day of the week and still not get tired of it. I have enjoyed this salad also by roasting the figs with the balsamic vinegar and honey and serving them warm – they taste incredible. It is a special salad whichever way you decide to have the figs. Enjoy.
4 figs, cut into quarters
80g soft goats cheese
Mixed salad leaves
Olive oil for drizzling
50ml freshly squeezed orange juice
2 tbsp good quality balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp runny honey
- Place dressing ingredients in a small saucepan and place on a high heat. Bring to a rapid boil and reduce for 1-2 minutes until turns syrupy. Remember, it will thicken more once cooled so don’t take it too far as I’ve done on many an occasion! Set aside to cool.
- Toast walnuts in a dry frying pan until golden. Set aside.
- Arrange the salad leaves and figs on the plates then crumble the goats cheese over the salad with a generous drizzle of the dressing. Finish with an extra drizzle of olive oil.
Tomatoes are back in season – hurrah! I stay clear of imported fresh tomatoes during the winter months for obvious reasons but the long wait for the British season is rewarded with incomparable sweetness and flavour. This recipe is based on an Ottolenghi recipe that has the fun title of ‘tomato party’. Here, I use a mix of different types of raw tomatoes with oven dried tomatoes,but feel free to roast some too as per the original recipe, to give even more of a combination of flavours and textures. On this particular day, I wanted the freshness of the raw tomatoes to be the focus and I already had some oven dried tomatoes left over from the puy lentil, tomato and goats cheese salad so it was very quick to assemble.
Couscous is made from semolina wheat with the most common being the tiny pin-head variety, and is a staple in North African dishes. Israeli couscous is a medium size ‘pearl’ couscous that is which is made from hard wheat flour and roasted. Then there is the largest of all, Moghrabieh, the Lebanese giant couscous that is used like pasta. All are incredibly versatile to cook with and can be used in salads, stews, soups and served with all manner of dishes. I have also used barley couscous as a variation which is not made from wheat and as has a nutty flavour and a more grainy texture. You can buy the giant couscous in Middle Eastern grocers and the barley couscous from larger supermarkets. If you can’t find the different varieties then just use double the quantity with normal couscous.
Serves 4, 10 minutes preparation and 20 minutes cooking (or 1.5 hours if oven cooking dried tomatoes)
100g vine or cherry tomatoes
300g mixed tomatoes
3-4 sprigs of fresh thyme
125g barley couscous
125g giant couscous
Generous handful of mixed herbs such as mint, basil and tarragon, chopped
Small clove of garlic, crushed
Squeeze of lemon
Salt and pepper
- Pre-heat oven to 110C/gas 0.25 / 225F. Cut half of the tomatoes in half and place face up on a non-stick baking tray. Sprinkle with fresh thyme leaves, salt and pepper and bake for 1 hour 30 minutes. Set aside.
- Put barley couscous in a bowl with a pinch of salt, a drizzle of oil and pour over boiling water – enough to just cover. Stir, cover with clingfilm and set aside for 10 minutes. Fluff the grains with a fork and leave to cool.
- Add the giant couscous to a pan of boiling salted water and simmer for 18-20 minutes, or until al dente. Drain and rinse under cold water then leave to dry completely.
- Mix both types of couscous in a large bowl with the chopped herbs, crushed garlic and tomatoes. Add a squeeze of lemon, drizzle of olive oil and adjust seasoning to taste.