Nuts for you

sdr

No two chestnuts crack the same way. Let that be my motto for the week.

A distinctive winter feature here is the roasting of chestnuts, often accompanied by the (loud) cries of vendors. Most communities have a shop selling fruit and vegetables with one corner devoted to jars and baskets of assorted nuts and seeds. The chestnuts are roasted in a large round steel barrel and sold usually by the half kilo. That’s how much I bought, costing me about two pounds sterling.

According to the EAT-Lancet Commission the recommended intake of nuts per day is 50g, which amounts to a couple of handfuls. I certainly wasn’t going to eat half a kilo of chestnuts in one day (the shelling alone would have tipped me over the edge) but then I suddenly had a thought: what if these are actually not classified as nuts, in the same way as almonds are technically seeds and peanuts legumes?

Yes. They are nuts. As nutty as a Nuthatch hatching nuttin’ but nuts. And they are good for you too, a healthy source of carbohydrates and various essential minerals. In the end I prepared about 250g, along the way developing the aforementioned motto. Why. Don’t. They. Crack. Luckily they did before I did.

Tis the season of pumpkins and squashes so it made sense to me to combine the elements. First thing I made was a soup, the squash roasted with chilli and coriander seeeds and then cooked down with the chopped nuts in bay-infused stock until reduced enough to blend. A palmful of lemon thyme leaves stirred in at the end lifted the dish. It was good enough and warming, the spices and herbs combatting the natural sweetness of the main ingredients.

Somehow it didn’t quite hit the spot though. I wanted something more robust and hearty. I took inspiration from Italian cuisine, especially the famous Ferrarese dish cappellacci di zucca, which uses pumpkin puree as a filling for ravioli.

So I made a puree of my own by roasting squash pieces with salt, pepper, a little chilli powder and sprigs of lemon thyme. Once these were ready, about twelve minutes in a hot oven, I put them in a pan with enough vegetable stock to cover and reduced the mixture until it had conglomerated enough to be able to combine with an electric hand mixer. Result: nice silky smooth puree.

Meanwhile I shelled the nuts – about 50g or so – and then grated them into a bowl. Rooting around in my cupboards I came across some dried porcini mushrooms. Time to turn up late Autumn factor to eleven. These I soaked in warm water for about thirty minutes (note somewhat staggered timing here; I was making it up as I went. Obviously if I had found the mushrooms earlier I would already have put them to soak). I cooked up some conchiglie, not due to any aesthetic reasons but because it was the only pasta I had. Anyway, I figured, the natural cups made by the shell shape would hold the sauce I made quite nicely.

With the pasta almost ready I chopped up the mushrooms and fried them with a little oil, garlic and some of the soaking liquor (again, hindsight allowed me to reckon that the squash stock could have been augmented with the mushroom liquid, if only I’d thought of that. If only). Anyway I heated up the puree and tipped the cooked pasta into it, stirring until thoroughly combined. On went the mushrooms, then the grated chestnuts. I finished with dots of goat’s cheese, which turned out to be a surprising salty necessity.

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Great flavours – at once sweet and earthy, rich and tangy. Texturally not too bad either, although as I was eating it I figured the ingredients might all work better together in a lasagne of sorts. Waiting on a mushroom delivery. Watch this space.

 

On the pulse, with the grain.

One of the key things I’ve learnt about getting creative in the kitchen is that the process of making starts with what is absent. If I had a large, fully equipped kitchen and a well-stocked larder at my disposal I daresay I would never have started this blog.

Limited preparation space and minimal cooking facilities. The unavailability of many familiar ingredients. The effort it takes to source a fresh bunch of thyme. Into this mix I am now stirring the challenge to cut out as many carbohydrates as possible from my diet. It’s a weight-loss thing. I figured on this with a combination of regular exercise and less alcohol.

At least two of those are going pretty well. Where I have to get creative is to think of alternatives to the usual sauce-moppers and solid textures. No longer will my fall-back be a rustling portion of fried potatoes, glistening with salt. Same goes for that lunchtime convenience of two thick slices of bread filled with whatever I can fashion from the fridge contents. No takeaway pizza. Rice and noodles are also out, which excludes me from about eighty percent of the dishes in this country. I’m making an exception, as a once-weekly treat, of pasta, although I haven’t been as tempted as I thought I would be.

Creamed white beans

An inspiration which crept on at me one morning at work and which possessed me for the rest of the day until I could not wait to get on with it. It provided the base for slices of medium-rare sirloin and kale.

  • tin of white beans (eg. cannellini)
  • half a medium onion
  • palmful of thyme leaves, chopped
  • grain mustard, spoonful of
  • stock – I crumbled in about half a vegetable cube to a jug of hot water
  • cider vinegar, splash
  • cream, about 50ml
  • salt and pepper

It was the soothing prospect of this which had me salivating. The vinegar provided a nice sour note, cutting through the richness, although I guess white wine would have done too. I added the chopped onion to a hot pan lubricated with a little oil and then after a few minutes, added the thyme and mustard. Vinegar sloshed in next with the heat turned up to let it boil. Back on the simmer I poured in the beans, well-drained to get rid of that cat-food tin smell. The stock covered the beans and basically I let it bubble away for about fifteen minutes while the rest of the meal was prepared. Near the end the addition of the cream and another couple of minutes’ cooking thickened the dish deliciously. I could probably just be happy with a bowl of this some other time.

Spiced lentil soup

A good late-season warmer. At least a hand-held blender is necessary for the final emulsification.  I eventually made enough for about five separate servings.

  • green lentils – I weighed in about four generous handfuls.
  • chilli flakes, a pinch
  • more stock, enough to more than cover all the ingredients – again, I generally just use cubes
  • one big onion, diced
  • garam masala, a good spoonful of
  • one squash, cut up into chunks
  • spinach or similar, thick bunch of
  • cream, about 100ml

There might have been some other ingredients, but this was essentially it. Always starts with the onion frying in oil until soft. I threw in the spices and chilli fairly early on in the process. Then the lentils and squash were introduced and allowed to take on all the pan flavours. The spinach was wonderfully cold when I washed it under the tap. In it went. Then the stock, up to the boil, cook till everything was soft and in with the cream and, after a bit of amalgamation, the B L E N D. This was my lunch out of a thermos for the next three days.

Chickpea stew

Not meant to stand alone this one although I daresay it could. In this case it was the base for a couple of pollack fillets which originally I’d planned to cook separately but in the end just bunged in with everything else. This recipe is the bastard child of an Aldo Zilli creation. The appropriation is, as ever, my own.

  • tin of chick peas
  • medium onion, chopped
  • capers, spoonful of
  • chilli flakes, sprinkle
  • stock, as for the beans
  • one carrot, diced into small pieces
  • bunch of coriander, chopped

Pretty sure Zilli uses sun-dried tomatoes in his dish. I compensated for the lack of those with the capers – the piquancy is needed in some way. The process remains the same. Onion and carrot, spice, chick peas, capers, stock, coriander, in that order. Cooked until most of the stock reduced to a thin flavoursome gravy. Particularly delicious contrast between the nutty pulses, still with a bite, the sweetened onion and carrot and the hint of spice.

No pictures for this post. How could I visually recreate the sensation of my splayed palm over the pan as it heats, or the squeak the spinach makes when the knife slices through it? How to replicate the rattle of pulses in the colander or the magical mingling of spices in the air? What photo can do justice to the longing I had for a dish of beans or the impatience over a pan of nearly-boiling water?

Day of the Soup

Almost the perfect day for making soup. Many of the ingredients necessary for this most Sunday of Sunday activities, along with a long laundry cycle and a second cup of tea, were present: indolence of a day with nothing particular to do; cold symptoms – the muzzy head like some good hangovers; the afternoon drear outside and perhaps chilly too, dissuading any plans for a long walk.

I had the first two but the day itself was wonderfully clear and filled with sunshine, the air clean and fresh, the route around the park beckoning. I had a walk, to get the items I needed, indeed, the ingredients I had woken up thinking about. As the shop which sells fresh thyme, generic Italian-style cured ham and any kind of cream is a fair trek away, 8860 steps round trip my doting mobile app informs me, I now no longer felt guilty spending the rest of the day indoors, involved largely in the preparing, cooking and consumption of soup.

So I shlepped about the apartment, making soup in stages. It was always going to be a squash or pumpkin-based affair, though still not sure of the difference. In the greengrocer I pointed to what looked like a huge squash, certainly not the classic pumpkin shape one recognises from the commercialised approximation of the ancient and mysterious celebrations at Winter’s Eve. My translation app had it down as that, however, rather than squash, and so, after some inter-linguistic kerfuffle, I got the man to slice off a large portion with his shiny cleaver.

I had in my fridge a nice dirt-bejewelled carrot which would give depth to the orange colour and the aforementioned ham would add the required saltiness. The soup would work equally well without any meat and indeed, for some months now, I have been conscious of the amount of meat I consume, after reading an article by George Monbiot. His take is that the amount of land given over to grazing is disproportionate to the amount of meat actually consumed, at least in the UK. It is a phenomenal waste of resources, he argues, a needless ruination of countryside areas which could be left to their natural wild states, thus encouraging micro-systems to thrive and endangered species to return.

Not to mention the ethical questions regarding meat production. It seems as though more questions are being asked of meat’s place on our tables, with many meat-eaters going through trials of abstention, including a friend of mine, here. I’m still playing around with the issues, wondering where I stand. Certainly I think for now an awarenesscan lead to a gradual reduction in meat consumption and I am pleasantly surprised that, so far on this blog, I have included no recipes which have meat as the main focus.

In the meantime I mooched. The squash was to be roasted with three cloves of garlic (added halfway through the cooking) and added to a pan-cooked conglomeration of carrot, rosemary, thyme and ham. What? Roasted? But how….It’s here I have to admit to leading you a little up the garden path. When I started this blog and decided on its name, describing the mean amenities to hand, I did not possess an oven. Now I do. It’s a portable affair, limited in its scope but more than handy. It sits on top of the fridge in place of the microwave which came with the apartment and which I used but once.

The squash took about an hour to soften and colour sufficiently. Mixed with the other cooked ingredients, the garlic squeezed sluggishly from its crackly skin, I poured in a Tupperware-tubful of chicken stock I had prepared some days previously and brought all to the boil then simmer with a lid for about twenty minutes.

When I felt things should be ready I had a taste and decided I was right. Last but one addition was about 25ml of cream to thicken and then I smoothed it all gently with the whirring of a hand blender. Chopped parsley and trickle of olive oil to finish and there it was. Immensely satisfying to both make and eat, it brought the day together, from concept to conclusion. I have enough for three large bowlfuls.