Moroccan spiced stuffed greens with sticky balsamic onions

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DSC_0014It’s so cold here now that when I drink tea, my breath comes out in mist, even indoors. To keep warm, I’ve resorted to curling up in bed with a hot-water bottle during the day just to do my work. Not falling asleep during my reading is getting more and more difficult, particularly as the monstrous pillow-like grey clouds are keeping us in a perpetual state of half light.

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But as the sky darkens, we start to fight back and bring out our own light and warmth: Christmas lights are starting to go up everywhere and the houses along my street have a cosy glow as I cycle home from university. The last couple of months of the year for me are all about cozy warmth and richness to keep us going. Instead of mourning the end of the year, we have to celebrate in order to keep our spirits up for the rest of winter. This recipe is warm and rich and sweet, while staying pretty healthy. Most importantly, it is delicious!

This makes enough for 2 as a starter

Ingredients:

- 4 large collard greens leaves
- Skewers or cocktail sticks (to hold them together)
- 16 pearl onions
- 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- Pinch of chili flakes (or to taste)
- Splash of olive oil
- 35g couscous
- 100ml vegetable stock
- 1/2 tsp harissa spices
- 1/3 tsp dried mixed herbs
- Salt and pepper to season

Method:

Heat a splash of oil in a heavy bottomed pan. Finely slice the onions and add to the pan. Cover and cook over a low heat for about 40 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes and making sure to scrape all the browning parts off the pan as you do so. I know it’s tempting to assume they’re burning when you see that browning but that is all the caramelizing sugar from the onion that will make this so delicious.

When the onions are rich brown, add the vinegar to the hot pan to de-glaze it, making sure you get every lat bit of the sticky caramel from the base of the pan. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the chili.

Heat the stock to boiling and add the couscous, then cover and set aside for 10-15 minutes until all the liquid has been absorbed. Once the couscous is cooked, add the spices, herbs, sultanas, salt and pepper and mix in.

Pile each leaf with a quarter of the couscous mix followed by a quarter of the onion mix. Roll the leaf and fold in the sides like a parcel and secure with cocktail sticks.

Add the stuffed leaves to a vegetable steamer and steam for 5 minutes, until the leaves are bright green. Carefully remove the hot leaves from the steamer, take out the cocktail sticks and serve!

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I’ve left my heart in Boston

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Late Wednesday night I arrived home with jet lag, a suitcase of gifts and probably an extra couple of inches around the waist, but having left my heart behind. I was lucky enough to spend a week in Boston for a biology conference, and though much of my time was spent in the conference centre, I did manage to get out to see the beautiful city. But before we get onto that, can I ask why all American food is so…

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Don’t get me wrong, I have a veery sweet tooth but all the junk food and soda was getting a bit much for me. Perhaps it was because I was catered through the day at the conference but it didn’t help to diminish stereotypes. That said, I’m going to contradict myself and congratulate Boston on its fantastic coffee culture. Caffeine addicts, the lot of us, we headed without fail for a bakery or coffee shop first thing each morning. First morning we found a Bon au Pain. It seems to be a chain in Boston, though not one I recognize from the UK as with Starbucks. We stumbled in and were immediately greeted by a confusing congregation of stations offering hot food, cold food, coffee in a plethora of flavours and types, and a huge warmed cabinet of a cakes and pastries of confounding beauty. Coffee shops seem to brim over mid morning so we went for a wonder and found ourselves in a lovely, autumnal park. Boston is stunning in autumn; the city is so green and America offers a sight that the UK rarely does: front gardens. The trees were intense reds and yellows and we watched leaves form a glittering cloak behind a guy on a ride-on leaf blower.IMG_1335

As Bon au Pain was somewhat out of our way for the days we needed to be at the convention, we decided to make our way in the mornings with the blind faith that we would stumble upon a caffeine source, and our conviction paid off. Perfectly in our path, we found ourselves at Flour. I’ve added a link for those of you lucky enough to live in the area. The bakery, though small and a little out of the way, was evidently popular and I can understand why. The counter was crammed with delicious freshly baked cakes and pastries of all descriptions. The chilled cabinet offered granola and yogurt, trifles and juice. I would happily eat there every morning for the rest of my life. Sadly, I only had time to sample 3 of their treats: a low fat fruit scone (maybe low fat but glazed in sugar and mouthwateringly good), a creamy yogurt granola pot and a vegan apple and cinnamon muffin. The coffee there too is very good.

With our breakfast sorted, we were well set up for the conference as well as for the two days we had either side for sightseeing. As I mentioned, Boston is beautiful in the autumn and my favourite parts had to be the trips we made to Cambridge to visit MIT and Harvard. Harvard Yard is a stunning little haven in the middle of a city, full of trees and traditional architecture. In contrast, MIT paints a beautifully formidable picture in the centre of a busy district. Both Universities have their own charm and are well worth a visit. The presence of the universities give the city a sense of easy homeliness: something I was amazed to feel, coming from such a safe and tiny city as I do. Everyone I spoke to was friendly and eager to help. It was wonderful always having someone to chat to, ask for advice or directions. Occasionally, it gets a little overwhelming for an introverted English girl when every shop assistant wants to stop and talk but the city felt so open and welcoming.

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The absolute highlight of my trip though, was a totally unique chance I got to visit the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, connected to MIT. Due to family connections with one of my travel companions, I had the incredible opportunity to meet the eminent scientist Robert Weinberg. One of the leading scientists in his field, Weinberg was incredibly personable and welcoming. He took our group of 8 into a board room and spoke to us – in relatively simple terms – about the research he was doing, the ways he liked to approach it and the multidisciplinary approach he had to science and education, there and at MIT. He wanted not just to teach, but to inspire and this was a sense I got throughout my trip. The friendliness of Boston seemed to be about encouraging and inspiring the same passion that the locals felt for their homes.

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This was certainly reflected in another sight I was lucky enough to see. On our last evening, a group of us visited the skywalk at the top of the Prudential centre and watched the sunset over our host city. On first approaching the windows, I think all our breaths were taken away. We hadn’t expected a view over a city we barely knew to be so lovely. Boston feels like a city with continuity. I love London’s jumbled architecture, representing its equally jumbled history. The juxtaposition of old and new is startling, lovely and jarring in equal measures. Boston, in contrast, has a juxtaposition which seems to hold together: though the buildings vary is style, age and design, they sit together as though they were meant to be. As the sun set, the city sat sublimely, quiet and homely. Then, as the lights came on after dark, it seemed to come alive. In the same way the building’s differences work, the contrast of easy welcoming days and bright, exciting nights made Boston somewhere I wanted to stay.

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But back to where we started: the food. We simply couldn’t leave Boston without trying some of what is was famous for: seafood! After only a few days I felt as though I could never face junk food again (then immediately contradicted myself by heading back to Flour for breakfast) but the abundance of sugar in so much of the food was getting too much, even for my sweet tooth. For me, sushi is the ultimate antidote to an overdose of sweets, cakes and cookies. It’s light, salty and oh so savoury. We found the most amazing looking freezer cabinets of sushi in one of the supermarkets and honestly, I could have gobbled the whole thing up.

But what Boston is really famous for is the lobster and the chowder. On our first day, we passed a place called Legal Seafood and joked that anywhere that had to put “Legal” in the name was probably dodgy. However, after hearing only good things, we decided to book ourselves a table as a last night treat. It certainly was a treat. Though most things in Boston were noticeably cheaper than home, the menu here made it clear we were in a classy establishment. The staff were so friendly and patient with us while our table made our first attempts at ordering seafood by weight but when it arrived, it was certainly worth it. I ordered a starter of rich, creamy chowder, and popcorn shrimp (from the appetizer menu) to follow: I would never have managed chowder and a main. The portions were massive but all of the fish was cooked absolutely beautifully. After only a couple of mouthfuls of shrimp, I significantly brought down the classiness at our table by manually de-popcorn-ing my shrimp (don’t blame me! There was SO MUCH batter).

I did steal little bites of calamari and lobster from friends in return for tastes of shrimp and chowder. The calamari was the best I’ve tasted. Lobster, though I’m sure it was perfectly cooked like the rest, may not be my thing. I’m not a fan of crab meat and to me this was similar but with less flavour. Overall, we made our way home on the last evening full and contented. Boston had been a wonderful host and we were all regretting we had to leave so soon.

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A day in Zurich…airport

A single day somewhere new can rush by in the blink of an eye. When you travel it can sometimes feel like you’ve barely set foot in a place before you are whisked away to your next destination. In Zurich, this was not the case. Ok, I claim Zurich. In face my “day” in Zurich was 12 hours in Zurich airport. Lucky for me they were separated into two different six hour stints either side of my current trip. For me travelling can be one of the most thrilling and rewarding experiences, but all too often, it can involve a hell of a lot of waiting around. I can’t help but wonder whether seasoned travelers have tips and tricks for dealing with long waits; no matter how good a book, it can only sustain me for so long.

So what are your tips for long periods of travel? Let’s see whether I can make my next visit to Zurich airport slightly more productive!

Here’s a little preview for my posts to come on my current trip!

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Earlybird’s Tastemade box

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I like to think I’m pretty tolerant but today I found myself getting annoyed at the enthusiasm of my course mates while queuing to talk to a lecturer. As soon as I finally got an answer for my question, I rushed straight off to a lecture in the next building. I had 3 lectures in a row over lunch time and by the end of the third, I my stomach was grumbling very loudly and I wasn’t taking in much information.This isn’t exactly ideal, particularly given I struggle to focus the whole way through a lecture anyway, but it isn’t unusual. I try to carry snacks with me but fruit gets easily squashed when I also have a laptop and books. That really leaves me with the vending machines on campus, which can be pricey and pretty unhealthy habits.

Subscription boxes of goodies are becoming a big thing and as a foodie blog, reviewing a snack box seems appropriate.  Graze seems to be gaining popularity but I recently discovered a Tastemade boxes by EarlyBird.

DSC_0044Each box comes with 5 little sachets of healthy snacks, one pot of dip and a tea bag. A leaflet gives the nutritional information for each snack and each is under 200 calories.

My box had “Marmighty” – tamari and blanched almonds;  “Thai sweet chilli” chili corn, goji berries and coconut flakes; honey roast sunflower and pumpkin seeds; gluten free pretzels to dip in the smoked chlli jam; and “berry balls” – dates, almonds, and dried fruit. It also came with a Tea Pigs, peppermint tea bag, which was quite a treat.

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I was a little surprised that a flavour so controversial as Marmite was included in my first box. Lucky for me, I’ve recently converted from a marmite-hater to -lover and the almonds were delicious and addictive.

The snack-bag sizes were really good and it was nice to see they were all under 200 calories, which makes it easy for someone calories concious (though truth be told, I actively avoid looking at calories).

My least favourite was the “thai sweet chilli” bag: a mix of chilli roast corn kernels, goji berries and dessicated coconut flakes. The combination of sweet and savoury felt all wrong and the corn kernals felt a little too crunchy for something edible…DSC_0050

That said, I loved everything else, particularly the honey roast nuts and the berry balls (I do have a desperate sweet tooth after all) and I thought the tea bag was a lovely touch.

In my opinion, there are positives and negatives to subscription snack boxes. The Earlybird box is a little more expensive than Graze, unless you get a weekly box at £3.95. Alternatively, it is £4.95 fortnightly or £5.95 monthly. However, the EarlyBird box did seem to me to contain a little more.

Subscription boxes are a pricey way to get food but they usually come with unusual treats and expensive ingredients such as nuts and seeds that you wouldn’t be able to buy any cheaper from a supermarket.  They also mean you get much more of a range to your snaking since anything supermarket-bought will tend to come in larger packages. I also love the added element of surprise! For me that’s half the treat of the box. But returning to the marmite bag, there is an added risk that you might not like something from the box. Personally, I was delighted with my first box. The snack are perfect for me to carry onto campus. EarlyBird has just started up and I’m excited to see where they’re headed next.

Pea and tahini soup

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Summer has well and truly passed. When I woke up this morning, the world outside was a shifting haze of white. I’ve been looking through some photos from late summer and dreaming of the past warmth.DSC_0077

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The morning mists, though lovely are harbinger of cold and flu. All my house mates seem to have succumb to “fresher’s flu” and campus is a-ring with coughing. This recipe is my absolute favourite for a quick and easy meal at the moment. It’s deliciously warm and comforting and packed full of all the goodies you need to fight off the winter ills. The tahini takes it to the next level with an underlying warmth. Enjoy! ~

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Pea and tahini soup (serves 4)

1 onion, finely chopped
Splash of olive oil
400 grams frozen peas
2 sprigs mint
600 ml vegetable stock
2 tbsp tahini
Black pepper

Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Add the onion and cook until slightly soft and translucent. Add the peas and stock and remove the mint leaves from the stems and add these. Bring everything to the boil, then turn down the heat and allow to simmer for about 10 minutes.
Remove from the heat and stir in the tahini. Blend until smooth and add a good grind of black pepper. Adjust seasoning to taste.
This is definitely best served with a good chunk of toasted and buttered rye bread: it’s like a hug for your belly.

Tranquil Bath

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I was lucky enough to be invited to Bath to celebrate with the family this weekend. So at 4pm on a Friday afternoon, I found myself sitting in York station in anticipation of a 5 1/2 hour journey ahead. Long train journeys are something I’m becoming very accustomed to but there isn’t much that can prepared you for a very loud phone conversation being had just across the aisle, for the majority of the journey.

Our day ended in the stunning Tasbourgh House Hotel. Despite our late arrival, the owner greeted us full of smiles and showed us to our rooms at the top of the house. The hotel sits atop a steep hill. This is not ideal when you are on foot, heading back and desperate for the loo, as I discovered to my cost. But the positive it that from our windows are some truly spectacular views of the City.

The following morning, we awoke to the smell of freshly baked pastry and a wonderful breakfast spread including homemade granola, toast, and croissants. After a lazy breakfast, we were ready to face whatever the day had to throw at us. Of course, we headed straight for the spa.

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At Bath Thermae Spa I had my first massage. I’ll admit it was a little odd at first, particularly when I sat down with the masseuse to have a talk about my general health what I wanted from the massage (to relax?), and then she left me to get (almost) naked. I’m not the sort of person who’s all too comfortable with being exposed to strangers. Though I’ll admit I’m not as bad as my friend who claims she can’t even look in the mirror naked…

Back to the massage. I hadn’t expected to find it so strange, someone touching my back, but a couple of minutes in and it stopped feeling odd and started just to be lovely. I’m sure my brain slowed down and 50 minutes were up in a flash. Then we were onto the actual spa. By this time it was somewhat busier and the gorgeous roof-top swimming pool was a little packed. Each pool there seems to have currents and if, like mine, your muscle have decided to take a break by that time, you can find yourself awkwardly close to some bathing-costume-enrobed strangers. Overall, a morning at the spa was a gorgeous treat, though I wouldn’t have wanted to stay longer than our allotted two hours.

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In fact, by that time, our oh so long and tiring morning had left our stomachs rumbling and we headed out to Lunch. The Great Bath Feast is on all this month and the foodie in me desperately wanted to make the most of it, but sadly, the rest of that day had to be devoted to work, since my uni term has just started again, and at full throttle.

Possibly the loveliest part of the weekend was the following morning. The hotel, set up on a hill, has a beautiful garden leading down toward the canal, so we followed the dewy grey-green grass down toward the town. The walk had an element of the fairytale to it. We past a stenny of bee hives and crunched over late-fallen apples until we reached the train line, at which point the scenery became less brother’s Grimm, more steam punk. I’m a rambler at heart and an early morning, late autumn walk does more good to my heart than any spa day.

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But all too soon, the serenity of my morning was punctured by the clock and I was headed back to the station. My train took me northward into an all together bleaker landscape, though one with it’s own kind of beauty.

I hope your weekend was as lovely!

Beetroot, caramelised onion and watercress pizza (vegan)

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Today, I retraced the familiar paths I hadn’t seen since early summer. Returning to university is lovely; our campus is full of trees. All around me was the leaves rustled. Where they were still on the trees, their gold was dappled with red and orange berries. Autumn is beautiful but brings with it a chill. On top of this, work is starting again in earnest. The cold can really drain your energy and after a long day of work, all you really want is to tuck into something warming and delicious, preferably something you can eat with friends around a movie. Pizza sounding good to you?

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I have a slight problem with pizza. It’s too homogeneous. The first few bites are heavenly but it can quickly start to feel as though you’re chewing through mouthful after mouthful of the same stodge. Delicious stodge, but stodge nonetheless. So I made it my mission to create something with a little more texture. Something a little lighter. Comforting, delicious and good for the soul.

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I offer beetroot. I love beetroot. It is the richest of autumn colours: like blood or mahogany, it has an intensity your rarely see outside the heart of a flower.. It doesn’t have a strong taste but it gives an earthy, warming undertone.

I offer onion. Caramelised with a splash of balsamic vinegar. These are sweet, sticky and delicious.

I offer watercress. These crunchy, spicy leaves transform the whole dish. They are light and packed with nutrients and flavour in equal measure.

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170g plain flour

a pinch salt

1 tbsp dried active yeast

1 tsp sugar

150ml warm water (50ml boiling + 100ml cold)

1 small beetroot, cooked

1 clove garlic

1 onion

2 tbsp balsamic vinegar

oil for frying

2 handfuls watercress leaves

Activate the yeast by dissolving the sugar in the water and sprinkling the yeast over the top. Mix it in well and leave in a warm place until it is frothy (about 15 minutes).

Add your flour and salt to a large bowl and pour in about half of the yeast-water mix. Stir with a spoon until it comes together. Keep mixing with your hands, adding any more water of necessary, until it all comes together into a slightly sticky dough. Tip this onto a work surface and knead until it is smooth and elastic. Place dough back into bowl, cover with a clean tea towel and leave to rise at room temperature for about an hour.

For the pizza sauce, puree the beet and garlic in a blender until smooth.

About half an hour after you have left your dough, start the onions. Fry them in the oil over a low heat until they start to brown. Make sure you scrape the bottom of the pan regularly so nothing burns and you keep all the lovely caramelised stickyness on the onions. After about 20 minutes, add the vinegar and stir in well. Let it cook off until there is none at the bottom of the pan and the onions are lovely and sticky, then take off the heat.

Preheat your oven to its highest setting. Once your dough has risen, tip it out on to a work surface and knead it for a minute or so until smooth. Roll it out into a circle about 10 inches. Spoon over the beet then top with the onion. Cook on a high shelf for 10-12 minutes.

Once cooked, scatter the leaves on top and enjoy!

Pear and ginger cake with apple butter, cardamom quark cream and cobnut brittle

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The taste of coffee still on my tongue, I head upstairs , pull an over-sized jumper from over my head and step into the shower, arms outstretched. As my hands hit the water, a fine, icy spray makes goosebumps across my arms and stomach. I stand as far as I can from my hands given they are attached to the ends of my arms, waiting for them to warm up. I know the year has officially turned when my hands and feet get so cold they turn steaming water into this cold mist.

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To my utter delight, while walking the other day, I looked down to see two perfect spheres clinging together, claw-like leaves cradling them: “Cobnuts!” I’ve never seen them growing wild before and was beyond delighted by the tree. After straining, we managed to find a few nestled in the branched just above our heads. We collected just enough for me to use here but if you can’t get hold of them, macadamia nuts are the closest.

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Today is my papa’s birthday. Yesterday was the autumn equinox. So many celebrations! There must be cake. The pear and rose hip cupcake recipe I posted here is possibly one of my favourite cake recipes all time so I used it as inspiration. On a note, I just love the way nut brittle looks. The rich umber glows in the sunlight.

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Recipe:

For cake…

  • 100 g unsalted butter, softened
  • 200 g caster sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tbsp ginger syrup
  • 2 tbsp honey
  • 1 1/2 pears, finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp stem ginger pieces, roughly chopped.
  • 240 g plain flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground ginger

For the filling and icing…

  • Apple butter (recipe or use apple purée/apple sauce)
  • 250g natural quark cheese
  • 40g icing sugar
  • 1/2 tsp ground cardamom

For the nut brittle…

  • 40g sugar
  • 1 tsp chopped cobnuts (can substitute macadamia)
  • 1/2 tsp chopped crystallised ginger

Method…

First make the nut brittle. Roughly chop the nuts. Place them in a dry frying pan over a low heat and toast until they colour slightly.

Place a piece of baking parchment out on one side. Heat the sugar in a pan. Don’t stir but give the pan a shake now and then to make sure the sugar doesn’t burn. Once all of the sugar has melted, tip in the nuts and ginger. Stir to coat everything evenly and pour mix onto parchment. Spread out and leave to cool and solidify. Any caramel solidified on the pan can be removed with boiling water.

Next grease and line a deep, 9 inch cake tin. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius, (356F).

Cream together the butter and sugar until very light. Beat in the egg, honey and syrup.
Gently fold in the pear and stem ginger pieces with a metal spoon.
Sift in the flour, baking powder, bicarb and ground ginger and fold in gently.

Spoon into the prepared tin and cover with tinfoil to stop the top browning too quickly. Bake on a middle shelf for about an hour.

Leave to cool and use a bread knife to slice in half so you can fill it.

For the cardamon quark filling, beat together quark, cardamom and icing sugar.

Once the cake has cooled completely, spread half of the cream on the lower half of the cake. Top this with all of the apple butter. Place the other half of the cake on top and top this half with the remaining cream. Top with shards of nut brittle.

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Lovely lentil and courgette salad

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It’s not unusual here for September weather to be better than August. In fact I enjoyed an ice cream in the park today: not something I could imagine mid-August and mid-deluge. Weather wise, there’s still plenty of time to enjoy salad but this one is a little heartier than I’d make mid-summer. Courgettes are in season and i just adore them. All over the web I see recipes where they are sliced into delicate slithers. Beautiful as they look like this, I don’t think you can beat sweet and tender chunks that you can really get your teeth into.

N.B. for those in the US, rocket = arugula, courgette = zucchini

Ingredients: (serves 4-6)

  • courgettes2 large courgettes
  • Glug of olive oil
  • pinch on salt
  • 250g green lentils (about 550g when cooked)
  • 3 large handfuls mixed rocket and baby beet greens

For the vinagrette

  • 6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 5 tbsp fresh orange juice
  • tsp dried parsley
  • Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 200 degrees C (about 390 degrees F). Cut courgettes into even chunks about the length of your little finger. Toss these in salt and oil. Place in an oven proof dish and bake in the oven for 25 minutes. Leave to cool.

Cook lentils according to packet instructions, drain and allow to cool.

Toss together courgette, lentils and salad leaves.

Add all the vinaigrette ingredients and shake well. Taste and season.

Pour vinaigrette oven salad and toss together.

Serve.

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Some delicious recipes from around the web using these delicious and seasonal ingredients…

Rocket:
fig and arugula wheat berry salad
Arugula goat cheese pesto with fava beans and prociutto

Courgette:
Yellow zucchini tarte fine
Wholewheat ravioli with courgette flowers
Carrot, apple and courgette cake
Sauteed zucchini