“Healthy” brownies

I made my first chocolate truffles at nursery school. We must have had a teacher who loved cooking, because I also remember a day when we passed a bottle of milk around the circle, shaking it to try to churn it into butter. It was sort of like pass the parcel, but with no prizes (I’m pretty sure we didn’t succeed in churning the milk into butter – it was nursery school so we only did it for about 20 minutes before we would have had to stop for a snack and a nap). Anyway, one day we made chocolate truffles, and decorated boxes to put them in. I took mine home and put it in the fridge and proudly told my family what I’d made. My brother looked mildly interested in the fact that I’d brought something edible home from nursery, instead of another artistic masterpiece, and said he wanted to try them. He took one, took a tiny bite out of it, declared it disgusting, and spat it into the bin. I didn’t mind too much: more for me. But then he said, “Actually, I can’t remember if I liked it or not. I need to try another one.” So he took another one, took another tiny bite, said, “Eugh, disgusting!” and spat it in the bin. And then he said, “Maybe I should try another one, I can’t remember if I liked it or not” and did it all AGAIN. And then again, laughing all the time at his wittiness. And then probably again – but I can’t remember all the details, I was only 3.

Since then, probably due to this traumatic experience, I haven’t made many chocolate truffles, although writing about this has sort of made me want to. But what I have made many of, and what I am always on the hunt for, are truffly chocolate brownies. I know most people wouldn’t use the word “truffly” to describe a brownie. People more commonly talk about chewiness, gooeyness, etc. I do like that in a brownie, but very often I think brownies are too sweet and buttery and not chocolatey enough, hence why I use the word “truffly” to describe the level of chocolatiness I think a good brownie needs. I also like to cut my brownies into tiny little squares of about 1 inch, so they are quite truffly in size.

There are lots of recipes for brownies out there, and probably none of them could be described as healthy. These are maybe a bit healthier than most, partly due to their size, in the same way as those “count on us” or whatever they are called bags of crisps from Boots are healthier – “low fat, low cal – only 3 crisps!”. But also, these brownies use olive oil instead of butter and are therefore very low in saturated fats and high in the good things olive oil has to offer. I am also planning to try these  with coconut oil, which is solid at room temperature and therefore more similar to butter and may be even better, but that will be for a later post (i.e. when Waitrose restocks its extra virgin coconut oil).

The olive oil in these brownies gives them a slightly different texture to butter brownies – they aren’t quite so oozy, but they are denser and somehow more chocolatey. I think nuts in brownies are just a distraction, but if, like Jon, you disagree, then adding walnuts would make these even healthier. I think I made these with walnuts when I was pregnant, after I’d read something about how pregnant women should eat more walnuts for something, and declared them a health food and a necessity, but now I’d rather eat them nut-free.

Clearly these brownies are neither baby-friendly nor massively nutritious, but they aren’t totally against this blog’s manifesto, as they are super quick! They take barely 10 minutes to make and then about 20 minutes in the oven, and they taste great when they are warm so you could be reading this post now and be eating brownies in half an hour. They are made in one bowl with no electric mixer necessary so they require very limited washing up. Also, if you keep kosher, it’s really nice to have parev brownies which don’t use the dreaded Tomor (or any other margarine).

I made about 40 bite-sized brownies from this mix, and used a silicon baking tray that was about 7 by 9 inches. Something like an 8 by 8 inch pan would be ideal.

  • 3 oz unsweetened chocolate. This is not so readily available in England (surprisingly, it is everywhere in the US). You can buy something like this from Waitrose and other supermarkets, but it’s quite expensive. I used a bar of Lindt 90%, which worked well. If you do have to use something less than 90% then reduce the sugar significantly to compensate. Taste it as you add the sugar to gauge how sweet to make it.
  • 3 fl oz olive oil
  • 1 fl oz water
  • Approximately 6 oz caster sugar OR my current favourite combination, 2 oz caster sugar and 4oz dark muscovado sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoon flaky sea salt
  • 75 g plain flour
  • 1 tablespoon cocoa powder
  1. Preheat oven to 350F/175C/160 fan (aka your normal baking temperature).
  2. In a large bowl, break up the chocolate and add the oil and water. Heat over a saucepan until melted. You can also do this in the microwave if you are very careful and only do it in 30 second bursts.
  3. Once melted, remove from the heat and, using a hand whisk, start adding the sugar, whisking gently to incorporate. If you are not sure how sweet you want the brownies, then taste as you go. If you’re using muscovado sugar, then you might want to keep it on a low heat for a little longer to help the sugar dissolve.
  4. Whisk in the eggs and salt, and then the flour and cocoa.
  5. Tip into your baking pan. If you’re using a silicon tray like mine, you don’t need to do anything, but if it is a metal tray then it is best to grease and line with baking parchment.
  6. Put into the oven and bake for around 20 minutes. Depending on the thickness of the brownies, they made need another 5 minutes. Test by seeing if a toothpick or fork comes out clean (unless you like very gooey underbaked brownies, in which case, take them out sooner).

*Approximate nutritional values in 1 bitesize brownie*

  • Calories: 62 kcal
  • Carbs: 7g
  • Fat: 4g
  • Protein: 1 g
  • Sugar: 4g
  • Sodium: 76mg

Inspired-by-Bhajis

I take great pleasure from healthifying unhealthy foods. I’m not one of those people who secretly enjoys eating “sinful” foods laden with butter and sugar. The unhealthy elements of food actually make me enjoy eating that food less, so even as I’m biting into a moist, fudgy brownie, I’m thinking, “eughh BUTTER”, and while I’m crunching into a deep-fried spring roll in a Chinese restaurant, I’m thinking, “eughhhh FRIED”. Obviously none of this applies to crisps – these should never be healthified; baked crisps are a complete waste of time.

I’m honestly not a health freak, I just feel that the ultimate challenge in cooking is to find a way to make something that was unhealthy but incredibly delicious into something equally delicious, but also healthy. And I know, I know, a little bit of fat and a little bit of sugar or whatever won’t do you any harm; but wouldn’t it be even better if you didn’t feel that you should only have a little, that you could have as much as you liked AND it would be good for you too?

Admittedly, maybe there is a small part of me that revels in being virtuous with food – in the same way that sometimes in a restaurant, as we read the dessert menu, my mum might say, “I think I’ll have the apricot tart, that sounds delicious,” and then my dad will say, “Wow, apricot tart! You’re really going for it! I’ll just have fresh berries.” Or, in the opposite scenario, mum will say, “I think I’ll just have berries,” and dad will say, “Really? You don’t want the apricot tart? That sounds delicious!” “OK,” she’ll say, “You have it then!” And dad will look all conflicted – he does really want the apricot tart but he doesn’t want to lose “health points” by going for that if mum’s taking the healthy berry option (he’ll probably compromise and go for sorbet – “it’s just fruit and water!”)

This isn’t going to lead up to some amazing revelatory recipe which is healthy and as delicious as its unhealthy cousin, by the way. If I truly had that recipe I wouldn’t be putting it on a blog, I would be selling it for millions.

No, what I have today is inspired by that idea – it is delicious, it is pretty healthy, but it’s not quite close enough to it’s unhealthy inspiration to be the million dollar recipe. I call them my Inspired-by-Bhajis. I can’t call them just Bhajis because I have a few friends who will laugh at me if I do. Particularly the friend who tried an earlier incarnation of this recipe (it has improved since then, I might add), and who told me to provide a frying pan and oil when she came over so she could “do them properly”.

I think these are pretty great, though. To start with, they are much quicker to make than real bhajis and you don’t have to stand over a hot frying pan and get spattered with oil. Another friend asked me to blog about quick and easy starters, and I think this is one. You can make them in advance and crisp them up in the oven when you want to eat them, and they would look nice on the table with some salads and Indian-style accompaniments.

They’re also a pretty good snack for babies – Joe likes these as they are but if your baby doesn’t like the taste of the spices you could remove or substitute for spices they do like (and even sweeten them with cinnamon and mixed spice).

It’s hard to give precise quantities with this recipe because it really depends on the size of your onions, but it doesn’t matter anyway – you might decide that you prefer more batter or less batter: it’s up to you.

Makes around 10, depending on size of onions and size of each bhaji

  • 3 onions
  • 1 tablespoon of rapeseed or other vegetable oil
  • Approximately 4 tablespoons of chickpea flour (also called besan or gram flour)
  • 2 teaspoons of mustard seeds
  • 1 tablespoon of ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon of ground coriander
  • 2 teaspoons of turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon of cayenne pepper
  • Salt
  1. Slice the onions into fine half rings. Heat the oil in a frying pan and add the mustard seeds. A few seconds later, add the onion and fry until the onions are translucent.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, add the chickpea flour and spices, and then pour water slowly into the mix, stirring constantly. You want the consistency to be similar to yoghurt – wet enough to stir easily, but not too thin so that it drips off the onions.
  3. Add the cooked onions to the batter and stir well to coat them.
  4. Line a baking tray with baking parchment, and dollop spoonfuls of the mixture onto the tray. I slightly prefer these to be small and quite thin for ultimate crispiness, but you can make them in whatever size and shape you like.
  5. Bake in the oven until golden brown, approximately 30 minutes.

The baby-friendly version is simple – just add less or alternative spices and salt to the batter. You can bake some for your baby and then add spices and salt to the remainder of the mixture. I’ve even added raisins for Joe and he has really enjoyed picking them out and eating them! 

*Approximate nutritional values (2 bhajis)*

  • Calories: 157 kcal
  • Carbs: 19g
  • Fat: 5g
  • Protein: 8g
  • Sugar: 7g
  • Sodium: 907mg

Lebanese spinach rice

When you’re cooking for your family every night, it’s good to have up your sleeve recipes that really pull their weight, that can tick off more than one box at a time. In this category I include one-pot meals (Jon calls these “infinity meals”, because being served a portion from a big pot rather than just having food taken out of the oven and put on your plate makes you feel like you can go back again and again and again for more), and recipes which combine two parts of a meal in one, like a vegetable and a carbohydrate together.

The very idea that I would even come up with such a recipe goes a little bit against my core principles, devised when I was very little, which ruled that everything had to be separated on the plate. I would eat a meal with meat or fish, potatoes or rice and vegetables, but I could not bear the idea of eating a mouthful which contained more than one of those things. Often, but not always, I would eat all of one food first before starting on another (in reverse order of preference, obviously: gross vegetables first, OK chicken next, yummy potatoes last). The worst was when one food was in a sauce that would leak into another food, like chicken in a sauce that would leak into and TOTALLY RUIN the potatoes. I do still kind of eat like this, actually, but I have slightly relaxed the principles to allow for foods that are cooked together into a concoction that are intended to be eaten together. That is why I can happily eat the chicken in ratatouille I posted earlier (chicken, vegetables in tomato sauce), but will get really annoyed if the sauce from the chicken leaks into the rice I’m eating it with. Yuck.

You will be pleased to know that Joe is not like this at all. He loves to smush his rice into his curry, and much prefers his potatoes to be mixed into the tomato sauce of his casserole. However, I am secretly quite delighted that when he gets his cereal or porridge and berries in the morning he carefully picks out the berries first and gobbles them all up before getting down to the much more boring cereal part of the meal. Soon I hope he’ll learn the concept of delayed gratification, so that he’ll eat the porridge first and save the berries for last, but everything in its own time – he’s only just getting to grips with cutlery.

And so onto my hard-working, vegetable and carbohydrate combining recipe: Lebanese spinach rice. Disclaimer: this dish may or may not actually be Lebanese. What I can say for sure is that it is the most Lebanese dish I’ve ever had.

Which, OK, isn’t saying much. It’s possible that I’ve only called this recipe “Lebanese spinach rice” because it makes it sound exotic and therefore more appetising. I don’t think I’ve ever actually eaten authentic Lebanese cooking, but until I do, I’ll keep thinking of it as Lebanese. It came about because I was thinking about whether you could incorporate spinach into a rice dish in a delicious way, and I thought that if you could, it would be a Middle Eastern cuisine that would do it best. Then I read about a Lebanese restaurant, allegedly the best Lebanese restaurant in London. I didn’t go to it in real life, but I went to its website, where they had a recipe for spinach rice. I liked the sound of it, and so I added and subtracted a few things, and a delicious side dish, incorporating vegetables and carbohydrates, was born.

I think this goes brilliantly with simple grilled fish, or with a delicious marinated grilled chicken that I will share with you on another occasion.

Makes 2 adults (and probably 1 baby as well, as it seems to make very big portions)

  • 4 floz basmati rice
  • 1 large onion
  • 250g spinach
  • 1 tablespoon pine nuts
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 teasp Dijon mustard
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  1. Rinse and drain the rice and cook. For goodness sake, cook it properly and don’t make a stodgy mess of it. That means that for 4 fl oz rice you will need 6 fl oz water. Start by heating a small amount of oil in the saucepan, then add the rice, stirring to coat all of the grains and lightly toast them. Then add the water, and bring to the boil. When it is bubbling, reduce the heat to a simmer and cover. Leave it for about 10-15 minutes (really depending on the heat of your hob), until it is done. For this recipe, you don’t want to get a crispy layer of rice on the bottom, so do not over do it. (Writing this has given me an idea – since Jon is the rice master chef, I will add a video tutorial from him on how to cook the perfect rice)
  2. In a large, dry frying pan, add the pine nuts and toast, being careful not to overdo it, as they can burn easily. (In fact, if you look closely at the photo above, you’ll see that’s exactly what I’ve done – I did win the game of Ruzzle I was playing at the time, though).
  3. While that is happening, dice the onion.
  4. When the pine nuts are done, remove and set aside, and then add a little oil to the frying pan. Add the onion, and cook until golden.
  5. Add the spinach, and cook for a few minutes until it is greatly reduced. If the rice is not yet ready, then just leave the onion and spinach on a very low heat until it is.
  6. Juice the lemon while you wait.
  7. Add the rice to the frying pan, together with the lemon juice and mustard, and salt and pepper to taste. Stir well to mix everything together, and add the pine nuts back to the mix.

There is very little to do to make this baby-friendly – just don’t add the pine nuts at the end as they are a choking hazard and use less or no salt (but this dish doesn’t need much salt anyway).

*Approximate nutritional values (adult portion)*

  • Calories: 350 kcal
  • Carbs: 7g
  • Fat: 11g
  • Protein: 6g
  • Sugar: 6g
  • Sodium: 1130mg

Pesto

I hate “recipes” that are totally obvious. Why are people paying money for books with recipes like Malteser Icecream (recipe: 1 bag of maltesers, crushed. 1 tub of vanilla ice cream, slightly melted. Mix crushed maltesers into ice cream. Eat) That is not a fake recipe, by the way. That is from Jamie Oliver. Similarly, recipes for things like grilled fish (recipe: put fish on tray. Add olive oil, salt and pepper. Grill. Eat) These things are in the same category as warnings on the sides of bags of peanuts (“may contain nuts”) and “caution: hot” on the sides of takeaway coffee cups. Annoying, stupid, nannyish.

But. What if you write a food blog and you want to include things you eat quite regularly that you think others would enjoy, but those things are extremely simple to make? (As the writer of one such blog) I say, put it in, because others may not realise quite how simple it is, and anyway, this blog is free.

So, I want to talk to you about pesto. Pesto is a glorious and wonderful thing. So simple, so easy, so delicious, and pretty versatile. As it comes, it’s perfect on pasta or as a spread on top of fillets of fish. It is also great as a sauce for a fancy starter (I’ll blog about one later on), or in a salad (I made a great one a few weeks ago that I’ll blog about another time too). As long as you have a small food processor at your disposal, I literally cannot imagine why anyone would ever buy pesto, when it is so easy to make yourself, and so easy to tailor to your own tastes. It’s quite high in fat (and not especially high in protein) but it’s worth those aberrations from my nutritional plan as it is so delicious.

Now, here is an interesting question about pesto. Should it contain cheese? As an out of the closet cheese hater, I obviously say no. I don’t think it needs it. As far as my limited research has taken me, I believe that the Italians do not put cheese in their pesto (they may add some parmesan or grana padana at the table), and sometimes the French do. But what do the French know about cooking?

So my pesto recipe does not contain cheese. Second interesting question: what nuts should pesto contain? The conventional nut is the pine nut, and these are delicious. They are also the least nutritious and most fatty of all nuts. After my whole protein/general nutritional awareness started wearing off on Jon, he started hassling me every time we made pesto: “WALNUTS! Why don’t we make it with walnuts? They’re amazing for you.” So, we added walnuts. Then, “BRAZIL NUTS! Why don’t we add brazil nuts? They’re full of selenium, so good for you.” So, we added brazil nuts. But when we tried making it with just walnuts or brazil nuts, it wasn’t so great. The pine nuts are necessary for taste, but the other nuts are good additions to up the nutritional value. (That is my view. Jon wanted me to give, and I quote, “further credit to the walnuts. They add a real depth to the flavour.”) So – try it out. This is the kind of recipe you’ll make over and over again, so you can afford to be experimental. Obviously, the proportions and quantities of these nuts are up to you, and you may decide to just go with the basic pine nut version, which is totally delicious.

Basil, garlic, olive oil. These are the essentials that I haven’t meddled with, although I’ve seen and tried pesto using other leaves. I think they’re OK, but basil is the best.

And finally, salt. Pesto is one of Joe’s favourite foods, but I make his without salt. The baby-friendly version of pesto couldn’t be easier. You put all of the ingredients, without salt, into the food processor, and then extract your baby’s portion. Then add salt to the rest, and give it another whizz.

In the picture above we had it on pasta, with asparagus. Simply steam the asparagus, cut into small pieces and mix in with the pasta and pesto.

Basic pesto, with Jon’s nut recipe

Makes enough for about 2 adults and 1 baby

  • 25g fresh basil
  • 2 cloves garlic, with the last level of skin still on
  • 25g pine nuts
  • 50g walnuts
  • 3 or 4 brazil nuts
  • Approx 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt
  1. Put the garlic cloves and nuts in a dry frying pan on a medium heat. Stir until the pine nuts are toasted (the other nuts won’t change colour as much as the pine nuts).
  2. Remove the skins from the garlic, and tip, together with the nuts, into the food processor. Remove the stalks from the basil, olive oil and salt (or save the salt until later if making for a baby), and whizz.
  3. Adjust the olive oil and salt as necessary, and that’s it.

*Approximate nutritional values (adult portion)*

  • Calories: 438kcal
  • Carbs: 4
  • Fat: 45g
  • Protein: 7g
  • Sugar: 1g
  • Sodium: 1762mg

Chocolate mousse

Sometimes I do Weeks. Like, after a particularly indulgent, steak-eating holiday, when we get home, we do Thin Week, where  we try to eat light, healthy meals to compensate a bit for what went before. This week, for no particular reason other than that internet research over the week led me to links like these – Is Sugar Toxic?Is there a foetal sugar syndrome? and Sugar as Poison – I am doing Sugar-Free Week. I told Jon I was doing it and he huffed and puffed and said “does that mean a whole week without Percies?” I replied, “I said I’M doing Sugar-Free Week. YOU don’t have to” and he said, “Well obviously I do if you are… if there’s a THING happening, then obviously I’m doing it as well.” There’s no THING but there is a bandwagon going, so together we are doing Sugar-Free Week.

However, I’m actually not sure about Sugar-Free Week, for two reasons. Firstly, I don’t really like this whole craze of removing entire food groups from your diet for health reasons (unless, of course, there’s a live health reason, like diabetes). I particularly dislike carb-dodgers, who will eat fat and sugar and all kinds of rubbish but never Evil Wholewheat Bread or Terrible Brown Rice.

(As an aside, this reminds me of when my dad decided that he wasn’t going to eat melon, grapes or bananas anymore because they were “full of sugar”. Cake? No problem. Biscuits? Totally fine. Chocolate? You’ve got to have a square of chocolate after a meal. But melon? Take that lump of sugar away!) 

I just feel that in a normal healthy diet, eaten by a normal, healthy person of normal, healthy size, there is room for all food groups. And also I think there has to be a balance struck between health and enjoyment. I really enjoy eating, and I think it is one of life’s pleasures. Unless you really have to, I think it’s a bit hair-shirted to deny yourself some bad-for-you things some of the time.

Secondly, I actually don’t think I eat that much sugar. I do love my dark chocolate and I eat some every day. I also eat, sometimes, ice cream, more chocolate, and home-made desserts once a week. But I don’t drink fizzy drinks or juice (two of the major culprits, apparently), and I don’t tend to eat sugary snacks every day – I’d rather eat crisps. Mmm… salty, delicious, crispy crisps.

But, I do think I eat more sugar than I used to, particularly since having a baby. Since I read this article several months ago I started to think that this kind of eating was out of habit and, since I had acknowledged that, it should now be easy to stop, but it actually wasn’t. So Sugar-Free Week is an experiment: will I miss sugar, and will eating less of it make me feel better? Perhaps a week isn’t really long enough to find this out, but we’ll see.

All of this segues nicely into the recipe I want to share with you, which is for (absolutely not sugar-free) chocolate mousse. This was the last sugary thing I ate, as I made it this weekend, and so it was a perfect start to Sugar-Free Week.

This dessert obviously doesn’t fit the category of baby-friendly as even if you are OK with the sugar, the raw eggs are a definite no. But it is in the category of quick and easy things to make. This is the perfect quick dessert to make for friends or to take to friends for dinner – although it needs time to set, so it’s not the perfect dessert to make at 7pm just before your friends arrive. Make it the day before and it will be perfect. I should also add that it’s only a super quick dessert if you have an electric whisk (or Kitchen Aid/Kenwood style food mixer). If you don’t, it is possible to do with a hand whisk but I wouldn’t bother.

This recipe is unadapted, straight from Delia. I am always being complimented on it:

  •  200g dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids)
  • 4 fl oz water
  • 1 ½ oz caster sugar
  • 3 eggs, separated
  1. Break the chocolate into small pieces and put in a large bowl (stainless steel or heat-proof glass) over a saucepan of boiling water. It is difficult, but not impossible, to burn the chocolate doing it this way (you’ll know if you burned it as it will separate into a grainy part and an oily part) so keep an eye on it and stir it regularly. You want to end up with a totally smooth chocolate paste, and when you have this, take the bowl off the heat and put aside to cool.
  2. Separate the eggs, putting the yolks aside, and putting the whites into another large bowl to be whisked. Whisk with electric mixer until they have formed soft peaks, and then add the sugar, a little at a time, until the whites are glossy.
  3. Add the yolks to the chocolate and stir again until it is smooth.
  4. Then add one spoon of whites to the chocolate and mix it in to loosen it up. Next, using a metal spoon, add the whites to the chocolate by using chopping motions, or “folding and cutting” – not stirring, as the aim is to retain the air, which will be lost if you stir.
  5. Pour the mousse into another bowl or into individual martini glasses if you like, and put in the fridge to let it set.

 This serves around 6, but obviously depends on how greedy you/your guests are.

 *Approximate nutritional values*

  • Calories: 223kcal
  • Carbs: 60g
  • Fat: 43g
  • Protein: 13g
  • Sugar: 43g
  • Sodium: 68mg

Azuki bean risotto

   

I have a bit of an obsession with protein. I’m not sure when it started or why, but the idea of a meal without protein makes me nervous. Obviously when I make something with meat or fish this is no problem, but when I make vegetarian meals it’s sometimes more of a challenge. Often when I trawl the internet at about 4pm in search of dinner inspiration, and click on “vegetarian” on a recipe website, I find things that are little more than side dishes in large portions, or a pile of vegetables beefed up into a main course because it has cheese dolloped on top. I’ll save my anti-cheese ranting for another time, but suffice to say that I do not consider cheese to be an acceptable addition to a meal (I wouldn’t eat it myself but I can accept a cheese course, or possibly a small amount of cheese added to certain foods as a seasoning). Anyway, I’ve got lots of recipes for lentils and chickpeas and so on that are all excellent, but I have searched for a long time for protein-rich but dairy-free risotto recipe.

Before you get all “how can you not have cheese in a risotto” on me, can I just point you to a random website I found which quotes a possibly famous Italian chef as saying never to use butter or cheese or cream in a risotto, but to only use olive oil. And even Jamie Oliver says you should never mix cheese with fish in a risotto or pasta, so clearly cheese is not an essential risotto ingredient.

I’ve made risotto with chicken before (chicken and mushrooms) but it felt a bit like a delicious mushroom risotto with irrelevant pieces of chicken in it. I’ve considered making risotto using chickpeas or other beans, but although I love chickpeas I think the texture would be too incongruous in a risotto, and I don’t really like most beans because they taste too… beany. 

So how did I come to make a risotto with beans? Like this: in our house, Jon does the shopping. I think about what I want to make for supper for the next few nights, mentally assess what ingredients we already have and then email a shopping list to Jon, who goes to Waitrose on his way home. When he gets in I eagerly unpack the shopping and say things like, “I asked for 6 onions, why did you only buy 3?” and he replies, “Because we already had 3”, to which I say, “But I factored those 3 into my calculation of how many onions we needed! Don’t second-guess my shopping list!” But then he points out the 4 gradually deteriorating bags of fresh mint in the fridge and I am forced to accept that my amazing capacity to remember exactly what we have in stock at any given moment may not be quite so amazing after all. 

That aside, his shopping skills are excellent, but sometimes he comes home with random ingredients and wants them incorporated into some meal that I had already planned. Last week I asked him to buy broad beans because I wanted to make a risotto with them and other green things (as a starter – protein less essential). He did return with broad beans, but also with a can of azuki beans, because he’d read the nutritional values of all the different beans written on the cans and determined that azuki beans had the highest amount of protein and were, as proclaimed by the packaging on the can, a superfood. Yes, my protein obsession has rubbed off on Jon. Yes, in typical male fashion, he has taken it to another level.

So I put the can of azuki beans in the cupboard and promised to find something to do with them. After a bit of internet research, I discovered that (a) they are also called adzuki or aduki or adjuki beans; and (b) they are used mostly in Asian cuisine and usually made into red bean paste, which is sweet and used in Chinese confectionary. I didn’t want to make anything sweet so after sifting through a few cookbooks and more websites, I came across a quite appealing spicy azuki bean risotto recipe. I made a few changes to it when I made it, one of the most important being that I adopted Delia’s technique of shoving the risotto in the oven to cook, rather than standing over the pan stirring. I think if I had to do that I would never make risotto, but the oven baked technique works really well, and the fact that you don’t have to slave over the pan for 30 minutes makes you enjoy it all the more. In fact, with that change, this meal became one of the quickest and easiest to make, and it’s all in one pot! 

I really liked this risotto, which should possibly be categorised as “Asian fusion”, because it is risotto in texture but Asian in taste. Most of all I enjoyed the protein-richness of it, and the non-beany taste. In fact, the beans were the least beany I’ve ever had, so if you think you don’t really like beans, try this anyway. It’s really good.

  • 1 can azuki beans
  • 500 ml vegetable stock
  • 2 tsp rapeseed or other vegetable oil
  • 1 tsp toasted sesame oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 4 spring onions, sliced (white and half the green parts)
  • 1 box shiitake or other mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 green pepper, seeded and diced
  • 2 red chillis, seeded and cut into rings
  • 6 fl oz carnaroli or other risotto rice
  • 75 ml dry white wine
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp sesame seeds (optional)
  1. Prepare the vegetable stock.
  2. In a large saucepan that can go in the oven, heat the oil over medium heat. When hot, toss in the onion and the white parts of the spring onions, and stir for a couple of minutes until the onions start to go translucent.
  3. Add in the green pepper, chilli and mushrooms and saute for about 5 minutes until they begin to soften.
  4. Turn the heat down to medium-low. Add the rice and stir gently to coat the grains with oil.
  5. Drain and rinse the azuki beans, and then add them and the rest of the spring onions.
  6. Pour in all stock, wine and soy sauce, stir to make sure all the rice and vegetables are submerged.
  7. Cover and put the pan in the oven for 20 minutes. Remove, stir and replace for another 15 to 20 minutes.
  8. Serve immediately, garnishing with sesame seeds if desired.

I think this dish is a little too spicy and salty for Joe as it comes, so the baby-friendly version goes like this:

  1. Have another, smaller pan on hand.
  2. Use low sodium or salt free vegetable stock.
  3. Follow steps 1 to 5 as above, but without the chillis (or using fewer)
  4. Before step 6, remove from the pan your baby’s portion and put into the smaller pan.
  5. Add the chillis to the main pan and continue stirring.
  6. Add enough stock to the smaller pan to fully cover all the rice and vegetables.
  7. Add the remaining stock, wine and soy sauce to the main pan together with some salt if you used salt free stock.
  8. The smaller pan cooks in the oven in the same way, but you may want to monitor more closely how it is cooking and, if necessary, add more liquid during the process because it is hard to be precise about the liquid when separating the risotto like this.

*Approximate nutritional values (adult portion)*

  • Calories: 390 kcal
  • Carbs: 68g
  • Fat: 6g
  • Protein: 12g
  • Sugar: 9g
  • Sodium: 726mg

Anything in tomato sauce #1 – chicken in ratatouille

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When I was a baby and a child – OK, until I was about 18 – I only liked bland food. Pasta with nothing on it, plain grilled fish, and all my food separated on the plate. I particularly hated (OK, still do) shepherd’s pie, even though I liked meat and I liked potatoes; I just objected to the Evil Seam where the two meet. I actually still like plain pasta and plain grilled fish, but happily my tastes have expanded somewhat since then.

So when I had Joe, and when he started to eat food, I assumed that he would also like bland food. Not only because I did, but also because isn’t bland food what babies eat? Well, one of the first things Joe ate very well was plain pasta – I think he had 5 pieces on his first go. I was proud and delighted: my clever boy knows what’s delicious! But a few days later, I gave him pasta with pesto (no salt) and he ate 14 pieces. Then I gave him some plain fish and he nibbled at the edges. I gave him fish cooked in a tomato sauce and he wolfed it down. And so it has gone on – give him something bland and he might eat a bit if he’s hungry, but give him something with seasoning (cumin is a particular favourite) or mustard or balsamic vinegar, and he can’t get enough of it. In particular, he loves anything cooked in a tomato sauce.

However, it is not all angelic perfect eating in my house. My happy little eater is not a huge fan of vegetables. I have a friend whose baby’s favourite foods are broccoli and peas. They have to give him vegetables AFTER he’s finished the rest of his food, because if they gave them to him at the beginning he wouldn’t eat anything else. If you gave Joe a broccoli floret after or even during a meal he would just pick it up, perhaps sniff at it, and then drop it on the floor, or maybe hide it on his chair next to him. If we want him to eat any green vegetables at all, we can try giving them to him at the beginning of the meal, but he’s a bit too clever for that, and he might take a small bite but then he puts them all in the discard pile and waits patiently for the real food to be served. The other way is to disguise them in tomato sauce. This almost always works – sometimes he picks out a disc of courgette and eagerly eats it, and then looks annoyed because it wasn’t a meatball, and refuses to eat anything else that isn’t clearly meat – but usually he shovels in handfuls of whatever he finds in tomato sauce and seems quite pleased with it.

I made this chicken in ratatouille last night to freeze in portions for Joe, but it is delicious and could have been shared with us. I used red onion, peppers, aubergine and courgette because these seemed like good Mediterranean ratatouille vegetables, but I guess anything would work.

Made 6 Joe-sized portions, or 4 adult portions

  • 2 chicken breasts, skinned and boned
  • 2 x 400g tins of chopped tomatoes
  • 1 red onion
  • 1 aubergine
  • 2 peppers (I used yellow and green, to look pretty)
  • 1 large courgette
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • Olive oil
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Salt, if you like
  • Black pepper
  • Tabasco sauce, if you like
  • A glass or two of wine, if you like
  1. Chop the vegetables into small cubes. It’s useful if you can employ a sous-chef for this task, like my husband, who cuts perfect squares every time.
  2. Add a little olive oil to a large heavy based saucepan, and add the vegetables, starting with the onion, then the pepper, courgette and aubergine and garlic.
  3. Saute until everything is softened – about 10 minutes.
  4. Add the tins of tomatoes and wine, if used, cover and cook for 5 minutes.
  5. While it is all cooking, cut the chicken into small pieces if you like – I did this for Joe’s portions, but if it were just for adults, I may have left the chicken in big pieces.
  6. Taste and season with the vinegar, salt and pepper, and Tabasco, if used. You could also add herbs and other spices at this time – whatever floats your boat.
  7. Add the chicken, cover with the sauce, and put in the oven for 30 to 40 minutes.
  8. Serve, or cool and freeze in portions.

*Approximate nutritional values (adult portion)*

Calories: 243 kcal
Carbs: 16g
Fat: 7g
Protein: 30g
Sugar: 10g
Sodium: 10mg