Photos: Matt Russell
Photos: Matt Russell

FOOD HONESTLY

What to eat if you have cook’s block

We all have times when we stare into our fridges and haven’t a clue what to cook. But there is a tried and trusted way to find new inspiration and rediscover old favourites, says Anna Jones

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By Anna Jones on

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The beginning of September brings us to the turn of another season. The light is warmer and the evening air gets a little cooler. While it’s still firmly summery, we return from summer holidays, freckled, bronzed and full in every sense. Attention turns back to routine, back to work or getting smaller people back to school, or both. If you’re anything like me, then lots will have been left undone over the summer months, the lure of a sunny afternoon in the park proving too tempting, so my to-do list has reached new unprecedented proportions. 

As the leaves wrinkle and shrivel on the trees, I turn back into the kitchen – after a summer of picnics, barbecues and snack suppers, I’m in the mood for cooking again. This is my favourite time of year in the kitchen – the apples, blackberries, figs (and their leaves), sweet bubblegum Muscat grapes, rainbow chard, late courgettes, tomatoes and soon squashes. 

In the kitchen, I sometimes need reminding of how I cook when a salad for dinner seems too meagre. I always think its like the transition from summer to autumn dressing – you forget what you have in your wardrobe, what shoes to wear with a certain dress or what it’s like to not wear open-toe shoes every day. But, equally, you discover old favourites and gems you’ve forgotten. You have to get back into the swing of cooking dinners, lunches and speedy breakfasts again. While you can still rely on old favourites, just like in your wardrobe, it’s always nice to have a couple of new refreshing ideas up your sleeve. 

Coming up with new ideas in the kitchen and writing recipes is how I spend my days and inspiration comes in lots of different forms. Sometimes I turn to my ever-growing recipe book collection – I must have at least a thousand by now; I’m trying to curb my habit. Sometimes it’ll come from a dish I’ve eaten at a restaurant, but sometimes, like anyone, I just feel a bit stuck. 

Coming up with new ideas in the kitchen and writing recipes is how I spend my days and inspiration comes in lots of different forms

If I’m feeling stuck, then I turn to my trusty laptop and think about four things. Firstly, the mood of the day – is it hot and heavy, light and breezy, or an evening with a nip in the air? Secondly, I consider I want out of the plate of food I’m going to cook – do I feel really hungry and need something to be hearty and sustaining, or do I want something cool and cleansing? Thirdly, I look at ingredients that are good right now – a big bag of apples for the greengrocer or a perfectly ripe tomato that needs eating at its best. Lastly, I’ll think about the time I have available to cook – it is a quick fix or do I feel like spending some calming meditative time, stirring a pan? 

From there, I’ll pick my hero ingredient and start searching online for things to inspire me. I am a visual thinker, which is why I find Pinterest a great resource for finding recipes and inspiration. I’ll type in my hero ingredient, the kind of dish I feel like cooking and then a key word like “quick”, “healthy” or “hearty”. 

Seconds later, I can see what I like the look of, and each Pin links back to a recipe. It’s far easier to see what the end product will be like and it may lead you to some more unusual sites and off-beat blogs away from the main few visited food sites to which a Google search might direct you. 

So, here’s my advice for finding new recipe inspiration online. By searching around a few key word, rather then for a specific recipe, I find my way to more unusual recipes I wouldn’t have usually come across. 

  • Pick a hero ingredient – right now, try apples, chard, corn, tomatoes, figs, squash beetroots. 
  • Pick a back-up flavour – lemons, heady herbs, sweetness, chilli heat, smoky spice.  
  • Pick a dish – think noodles, dahl, pasta, salad, sandwich, portable lunch, quick dinner.
  • Pick how you want the dish to make you feel – healthy, cleansing, hearty, warming, cosy, refreshed.

This mac and greens which was inspired by a need for a cosy bowl of pasta, but a desire to not feel so full I needed a lie down. While I was searching for inspiration, I came across a recipe for pesto alla trapanese which, I realised, would be a great way to make mac and cheese with a lighter touch. 

I love macaroni cheese – its tone-on-tone pasta and cheese is an amazing indulgence once in a while, but not something I want to eat every night of the week. So, this is my version, which has a little cheese (though, if feeling particularly virtuous or if you are vegan, you can leave it out) and it’s coated in a creamy heady pesto made from basil, tomatoes and almonds and topped off with a quick kale and chilli topping, which crisps up to give an amazing crunch and adds some goodness in every bite. 

The key thing with this recipe is to save some of the pasta water as you drain the pasta – the starchy water then gets mixed with the sauce to make sure its unctuous and silky; if you forget, you can use some hot water from the kettle instead. 

I use wholewheat pasta here, as I like its more wholesome, savoury note, but regular pasta works perfectly too, as does a good gluten-free pasta; just add a little more pasta water to your final mixture to account for the fact it can be a little drier. 

I like to serve this with a simple lemon dressed salad of peppery wintery greens, like mizuna, baby chard and rocket.

 

Mac & Greens by 101cookbooks.com

 

 

MAC AND GREENS


Serves 6 

  • 300g macaroni (I use Doves Farm organic gluten-free macaroni, but regular macaroni and wholewheat work well too) 
  • 1 large bunch of fresh basil 
  • 50g oats or wholemeal breadcrumbs  
  • 200g kale or other greens (about 1⁄2 a head), de-stemmed and roughly chopped 
  • Zest of 1 unwaxed lemon
  • Good pinch of dried chilli
  • 1 tsp fennel seeds
  • Olive oil 
  • 500g cherry tomatoes
  • 150g toasted blanched almonds 
  • 80g freshly grated pecorino (I use a vegetarian one)
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper 
  1. Preheat your oven to 200ºC/fan 180ºC/gas mark 6 and put a large pan of well-salted water on to boil, then add the pasta and cook for a minute or so less than the packet instructions, making sure that you keep it very al dente.
  2. Meanwhile, put half the basil, the oats, kale, lemon zest, dried chilli and fennel seeds, a good lug of olive oil and some sea salt and freshly ground black pepper into a food processor and pulse until you’ve got a finely shredded kale. Transfer to a bowl and give the processor a rinse. 
  3. Put the cherry tomatoes, almonds and pecorino into the clean food processor with the remaining basil and two tablespoons of olive oil. Whizz to a nearly smooth paste, then season well with salt and pepper and whizz again. 
  4. Once the pasta is cooked drain, reserving a big mug of the pasta water for later. Return the drained pasta to the pan, then add the tomato mixture and give it a good stir. Add the reserved pasta water bit by bit, using enough to thin the sauce to the consistency of double cream. You want it a bit runny, as the pasta will soak it all up in the oven. 
  5. Transfer everything to a large baking dish or casserole. Sprinkle the green kale crumbs evenly across the top and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the topping is crunchy. Remove from the oven and wait 10 minutes before serving with a zippy green salad. 

Click through to Anna's Pinterest board here.

@we_are_food 

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