Fennel Ratatouille

Winter has been particularly cold this year. Despite the heating being on full, I still find myself desperately wanting soothing and comforting food which can warm your cockles, and nothing beats a good bowl of ratatouille. This French vegetable stew (which comes in many shapes and sizes) is mostly prepared in autumn when vegetables are plentiful and cheap. However, I feel the same could apply to winter. Feel free to play with the recipe and add whatever you have knocking about in the kitchen: carrots, potatoes, celery, turnips and even pulses such as chickpeas all make for wonderful additions.

I found this version with fennel here and I thought it would be a good alternative to the classic recipe. If you are not keen on the liquorice-like flavour of fennel, then leave it out (alongside the dill) and it will be just as amazing. When it comes to the passata, please choose a plain and chunky one, there’s no need to go for the one with basil, garlic or the like and you are never quite sure what it actually contains. Finally, I served this with a nice and soft rye bread I made on the day, but please feel free to have any kind of crusty bread (a good rustic bloomer would be perfect) to complement this heavenly and oh so good dish.

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Ingredients

  • 2 aubergines
  • 2 large red peppers
  • 2 fennel bulbs
  • 1kg courgettes
  • 2 onions
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 1 x 400g chopped tinned tomatoes
  • 600ml tomato passata
  • chopped fresh dill (optional)
  • olive oil

Method

  1. Start by prepping the vegetables. Cut the aubergines in approximately 3cm chunks, then set aside. Slice the courgettes in thick rounds and put in a bowl. Remove the stems and the core from the fennel bulbs, then slice roughly and add to the courgettes. Peel, halve and finely slice the onions, then roughly chop the garlic.
  2. Heat some olive oil in a frying pan, then tumble in the aubergine cubes and fry until golden, turning occasionally. Use a slotted spoon to remove them to a plate lined with kitchen paper, then set aside.
  3. Add some more oil, then fry the peppers for about 5 minutes, then remove from the pan and set aside in a bowl.
  4. Add some more oil and pan fry the courgette rounds and the fennel slices for 3-4 minutes, then remove from the heat and add to the peppers.
  5. Drizzle some more olive oil in the same pan and add the onions over a medium to low heat, gently sweating them for about 10 minutes, until they turn a nice golden brown. Add the garlic and fry for another 3 minutes, then return all of the vegetables to the pan (ensure it is big enough), add the tinned tomatoes, the passata, some seasoning and gently simmer with the lid on for 30 minutes, stirring now and then. Stir in the chopped dill (if using), add some more seasoning (if needed) and serve alongside some crusty bread. Enjoy!

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White Chocolate and Persimmon Tarts

Persimmons are also called Sharon fruit and they have a slightly honeyed and sweet taste. Their texture can vary from very firm (similar to an apple) to very soft, depending on how ripe they are. On top of being very flavoursome, they contain a good amount of beta carotene, vitamin C and potassium – an all round good fruit, as you can see. I remember my dad eating them when I was a kid. He would scoop them out from their skins with a spoon and eat the slightly stringy and supple flesh. I never really understood their charm until I found a feature on them in the BBC Food magazine, which is where the recipe below comes from (although slightly amended).

If you follow this blog, then you’ll also know I am very partial to pastry. In order to make these (I got at least 12 out of the quantities below), you’ll need small tart tins. However, if you don’t have them, don’t worry, just line a big tart tin instead. You will need to bake the custard for longer, then you can still decorate the top with persimmon slices. I kept the pastry very thin because I don’t like filling my mouth with pastry and compromising on the filling, but I shall leave that decision to you. Please allow plenty of chilling time in between baking the pastry to ensure it doesn’t shrink in the oven.

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Ingredients (for the pastry)

  • 150g unsalted butter, chilled and cubed
  • 90g golden caster sugar
  • 250g plain flour
  • 50g cocoa powder
  • 1 large egg
  • 1-2 tbsp icy cold water
  • 1/2 tsp salt

Ingredients (for the filling)

  • 400ml double cream
  • 300g white chocolate, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp vanilla bean paste
  • 2 large eggs

Ingredients (for the topping)

  • 50g golden caster sugar
  • 75ml water
  • 1 tsp vanilla bean paste
  • 2 persimmons, finely sliced
  • 3 tbsp pistachios, finely chopped

Method

  1. You can make the pastry by hand or in a food processor. If you opt for the latter, just whiz the dry ingredients with the butter first until you get a sandy consistency, then add the egg and the water (if necessary) and pulse until the pastry comes together. If you are doing it by hand, like I did, put the dry ingredients in a large bowl and combine, then add the chilled and cubed butter and use your fingertips to mix it in the dry mixture until you have a sandy consistency. Crack the egg in and use a round bladed knife to mix that in, adding the water 1 teaspoon at a time to ensure the pastry comes together but is not too wet. Tumble on a work surface and briefly knead the pastry, shape it into a ball and wrap it in clingfilm. Gently squash the pastry and transfer to the fridge to chill for at least 1 hour.
  2. Roll out the pastry to the thickness of slightly less than a pound coin, then line the small tart tins. I only have 4 so had to do this in batches. Trim the edges with a sharp knife, then gently press the edges of the pastry upwards so as to make it adhere to the fluted indentations on the sides. Prick the base with a fork, then chill the pastry cases in their tins for at least 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 180C and place a baking sheet to warm up.
  3. Line the inside of the pastry cases with baking parchment, then fill with baking beans. Blind bake the pastry cases for 15 minutes, then remove the beans and parchment and bake for another 5 minutes, until fully cooked. Set aside to cool completely and repeat with the remaining pastry until you have 12 pastry shells.
  4. To make the filling, pour the cream into a saucepan and heat it up until boiling point. Place the chopped chocolate in a large heatproof bowl, then pour the hot cream onto it and stir to dissolve. Add the vanilla bean paste and leave aside to cool slightly. Preheat the oven to 160C.
  5. Add the eggs to the cream and chocolate mixture, then pour into a big jug (it will make your life easier when you need to fill the pastry cases). Lay the pastry cases onto a baking tray, then fill with the chocolate custard but leave approximately 5mm at the top. Bake for 11 minutes, then remove and allow to cool completely.
  6. To prepare the topping, melt the sugar and vanilla bean paste in the water in a saucepan over high heat, then bring to the boil and let it bubble for 5 minutes until the mixture is syrupy. In the meantime, lay the persimmon slices onto silicon mats or baking parchment, then remove the hot syrup from the heat and use a pastry brush to gently coat the fruit slices. Allow to cool completely.
  7. To assemble the tarts, delicately place a glazed persimmon slice onto each tart, then sprinkle with the chopped pistachios. Enjoy!

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Pear and Pecan Cake (GF, Vegan)

Who said a vegan and gluten-free cake cannot be beautiful and flavoursome at the same time? True, if you come from a Victoria sponge cake-like mentality, like me, picturing something which doesn’t include flour, butter and eggs and expecting it to deliver on different levels might be a bit of a stretch, but believe me, this cake does it. I was a bit skeptical at first, mostly because I tend to find gluten-free cakes are slightly crumblier than their traditional counterparts. Needless to say, it is the gluten which keeps them together and lends softness and the traditional spongy structure to the cake. Once you remove that, your cake might end up being slightly on the crumblier and drier side.

Or so I thought. Using nuts in the sponge is a perfect way to counteract the lack of eggs and butter. Nuts are rich in natural oils and they add extra depth of flavour, which clearly gives you an advantage straight away. As for the pears on top, I would suggest going for a pink or more colourful variety, but simply because I like my food to be very colourful and I feel this cake can be perceived and very autumnal with its brown shades. Even so, it’s delicious, so I very much suggest you give it a try.

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Ingredients (for the cake)

  • 100g pecan nuts
  • 200g gluten free plain flour
  • 115g granulated sugar
  • 2 tsp gluten-free baking powder
  • 200ml gluten-free soya milk
  • 75ml rapeseed oil
  • 2 tbsp maple syrup
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

Ingredients (for the topping)

  • 2 unwaxed pears, halved, cored and sliced
  • 25g caster sugar
  • juice of 1 unwaxed lemon
  • 25g vegan and gluten-free margarine
  • 25g pecan nut halves

Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 180C. Grease a 23cm round, springform cake tin with gluten-free and vegan margarine.
  2. Divide the 100g pecan nuts in two equal portions. Chop one portion very finely (no need to use a food processor for this) and put them in the prepared cake tin, then tip it so that the chopped nuts stick to the greased base and sides of the tin. Tip any spare nuts out into a bowl.
  3. Put the flour, sugar and baking powder into a large mixing bowl and stir together. Chop the remaining pecans roughly and stir them into the dry ingredients alongside any of the leftover finely chopped pecans.
  4. Put the soya milk into a measuring jug and add the oil, maple syrup and vanilla extract.
  5. Pour the wet ingredients into the bowl of dry ingredients and quickly mix with a wooden spoon until just combined. Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and smooth the surface with a spatula. Bake in the preheated oven for 35-40 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean. Leave the cake to cool in the tin completely before turning it out.
  6. To make the topping, place the pears in the bottom of a large baking dish. Sprinkle with the sugar and lemon juice, then dot with margarine. Bake for 30 minutes at the same temperature as before (ensure you have left your oven on), basting every 10 minutes, then set aside to cool.
  7. Decorate the cake by overlapping the pear slices in a circle around the edge and then fill the gap in the centre with the pecan halves. Enjoy!

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