Stir-fried King Prawns with Chinese Spinach and Garlic

Browsing in my local supermarket the other day, I spotted a living salad tray that contained Chinese spinach. It’s not something I have ever encountered before, and in truth it’s not actually that different from the ‘regular’ spinach you find on supermarket shelves, though it does release a deliciously earthy liquor when it is wilted down. This makes it an ideal choice for a stir-fry, where all that flavour can be used to enhance the sauce.

If you can’t find Chinese spinach, use ordinary spinach, or substitute it for pak choi.

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RECIPE serves 2 as a main, or 4 as a starter

2 tbsp groundnut oil

3 fat garlic cloves, finely sliced

4 birds-eye chillies, finely sliced

200g Chinese spinach (or pak choi) roughly chopped

16 large, raw king prawns, tails on

2 tbsp light soy sauce

1 tsp rice wine vinegar

2 whole dried red chillies, crumbled

1 spring onion, finely chopped

2 tsp toasted sesame oil


METHOD

Prepare all the ingredients before you begin to cook. Things happen quickly when you stir-fry so you need to be organised.

Put the oil in a cold wok with the garlic, and heat it up over a high heat – this will flavour the oil and protect the garlic from burning while it releases its flavour. When the garlic is golden, add the birds-eye chillies and spinach (or pak choi) and cook for about a minute, keeping things moving all the time.

Now add the prawns, soy sauce and rice wine vinegar and cook for a further 3 or 4 minutes, keeping it all moving, until the prawns are just cooked.

Remove from the heat and sprinkle over the dried chilli flakes, spring onion and sesame oil, toss together and serve immediately accompanied by steamed Basmati rice or your choice of noodles.

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Five-Spice Butternut Soup

The winter soup season is upon us at last. I secretly yearn for cold winter evenings just so I have an excuse to make stuff like this.

This soup takes only slightly more effort to make than opening a tin of soup, and not too much longer either. It is well worth that little bit of effort in order to wrap yourself in the rich, velvety sweetness of spiced butternut squash.

It may only be a simple soup, but it is easily elevated to dinner party-worthy fare just by being clever with your garnishes. Rather than throwing the seeds from the squash away, just scrub them, toss them in a little oil and lightly toast them for a few minutes before scattering over the top, with a drizzle of pumpkin oil and a swirl of cream, and finished with the lightest dusting of five-spice powder.

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RECIPE serves 4

1 butternut squash, peeled, deseeded and chopped into 1 cm cubes

4 fat garlic cloves, roughly chopped

3 tsp Chinese five-spice powder

1 tbsp caster sugar

500ml chicken or vegetable stock

100ml double cream

flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

To garnish:

toasted squash/pumpkin seeds

pumpkin oil

double cream

Chinese five-spice powder


METHOD

It doesn’t get much easier than this: in a large pan, put the squash, garlic, five-spice powder and sugar in with the stock and a little seasoning. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 20-25 minutes until the squash is soft.

Allow to cool for a few minutes, then transfer to a blender (or use a stick blender) and blitz until smooth. Add the cream and blitz for a few seconds more. Transfer back to the pan, warm gently until it is just below boiling point, check the seasoning and serve with the garnish(es) of your choice.

Pan-Fried Salmon with Roasted Apricots and Couscous

Everybody I know who has ever tried dieting, has failed. Actually, that’s not strictly true; in general they have lost some weight, but then gone back to eating how they used to eat and put the weight back on again. The key to losing weight and keeping it off is, of course, to permanently change the way you eat.

The trouble is, it’s all a bit of a trial isn’t it? All that denial, no treats, and the food is so unappealing…

It doesn’t have to be that way. I’m probably preaching to the converted, but if you can cook, then rustling up delicious healthy meals is very easy. With a little practice and a stock of good recipes you can make food that you would be happy to pay for in a restaurant. This is one of those meals: it’s quick and easy, packed full of interesting and delicious flavours, it’s attractive and it is, of course, extremely healthy.

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RECIPE serves 4

250g couscous

310ml light vegetable stock

2 pinches of saffron

25g unsalted butter

8 apricots, halved and stoned (fresh or dried)

1 tbsp caster sugar

1/4 tsp ground cumin

4 spring onions, finely sliced

3 tbsp pistachios, roughly chopped (or flaked almonds)

4 250g salmon fillets, skin on

coriander leaves, roughly chopped, to garnish

lemon or lime wedges, to garnish


METHOD

If you are using dried apricots, soak them overnight to rehydrate them, and keep the liquid that is left.

Dry the salmon fillets thoroughly on kitchen paper, set aside.

Put the couscous into a large bowl. If you have the soaking liquid from rehydrating dried apricots, add the stock to it to make it up to 310ml. add the saffron and a pinch of salt and, in a pan, bring it to the boil and turn the heat off. Add the butter, stir until it is melted, then pour the stock over the couscous, stir well, cover and set aside for ten minutes.

Place the apricots, cut-side up, on a grill tray and sprinkle with the sugar, cumin, salt and pepper. Grill under a high heat until they are bubbling and golden. Chop into smaller pieces, then fluff up the couscous with a fork. Stir the apricots and spring onions through the couscous, check the seasoning and scatter the pistachios over the top.

Season the salmon on both sides with a little salt, then fry in a little oil over a medium high heat for 3 minutes, skin-side down. Flip over and cook for a further minute, the flesh should still be bright pink and just cooked.

Serve alongside the couscous and lemon or lime wedges, garnished with coriander leaves. Apple and celery salad is a fantastic accompaniment to this dish, adding more flavour and texture.

Roasted Chick Pea Wraps

Quick, easy, filling, low-calorie (around 500 kcals per serving) and utterly, utterly delicious. All food should be able to be described this way.

This recipe originally appeared in BBC Good Food magazine, and has only been slightly changed.

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RECIPE – Serves 4 

2 x 400g tins of chick peas

2 tsp olive oil

2 heaped tsp ground cumin

2 tsp smoked paprika

2 avocados, stoned, peeled and chopped

the zest and juice of a lime

a small bunch of coriander, leaves only, chopped

8 soft corn tortillas

1 small iceberg lettuce, shredded

150g feta cheese, cubed

480g jar of roasted red peppers, chopped


METHOD

Preheat the oven to 220C/ fan 200C/ gas 7.

Drain the chick peas and put into a large bowl with the olive oil, cumin and paprika. Toss well until the chick peas are fully coated, then spread in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking tray. Roast for between 15 and 25 minutes, until they have the ‘bite’, crunch and texture you like. Check frequently as they can dry out just a little too much, very quickly. Shake the tray occasionally to ensure they roast evenly. Remove from the oven and season lightly, to taste.

Meanwhile, toss the chopped avocados with the lime juice and zest, and the coriander leaves.

Warm the tortillas according to the pack instructions and set the table with dishes and bowls of roasted chickpeas, avocado, lettuce, feta and roasted red peppers. Pile in and smile!

Seared Tuna with Braised Little Gems and Peas, with Mustard New Potatoes

My cooking time remains seriously limited at the moment, so I am largely confined to old favourites and quick bites. This combo is a new favourite however, we are having it again this evening due to popular demand and thankfully it is very quick to make as well as being delicious.

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RECIPE – Serves 4 

4 tuna steaks, approx 200g each

20g unsalted butter

2 banana shallots, finely sliced

6 little gem lettuce, halved

150ml light vegetable stock

400g petit pois

a small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, chopped

a small bunch of chives, chopped

1 tbsp creme fraiche

For the mustard new potatoes:

500g new potatoes, scrubbed

2 tbsp creme fraiche

1 tsp wholegrain mustard


METHOD

Defrost the tuna steaks if necessary.

If necessary, cut the potatoes so they are all a similar size. Bring the potatoes to the boil in a large pan of salted water, then reduce to a simmer for approximately 20 minutes. Set aside to steam dry in a colander; when cool enough to handle, mix the creme fraiche and mustard with some salt and pepper in a large serving bowl, then toss the warm potatoes through the dressing, set aside.

Fill the bottom of a dish large enough to hold your tuna steaks with dark soy sauce to a depth of 2 millimetres. Crush two garlic cloves into it, stir thoroughly then place the tuna steaks in the soy sauce, turning until it is completely coated. Cover with cling film and chill in a fridge for 30 minutes.

Gently saute the shallots in the butter over a medium-low heat for 5 minutes, until softened but not coloured. Place the lettuce in the pan, cut side down, and cook for a minute, then turn over and cook for a minute more.

Add the stock, cover and simmer gently for around 10 minutes until the lettuce is tender. In the last couple of minutes of cooking, add the petit pois.

Season, add the chopped herbs and creme fraiche and stir thoroughly, set aside while you cook the tuna.

Heat a ridged griddle pan over a high heat. When the griddle pan is very hot, scrape any pieces of garlic and excess soy sauce from the tuna steaks and lay them in the pan. Cook for approximately 1 minute per centimetre thickness on one side, and half that on the other – to make that clear, a 2 cm thick tuna steak would be cooked for 2 minutes on one side, then flipped over and cooked for a further 1 minute. Do not move the tuna while it is cooking, it is likely to stick until it is properly cooked, and you want well-defined char lines where the ridges are. Cooking it this way should ensure the outside is well-sealed and the very middle is still quite rare, the tuna steak will cook on even when it is on your plate.

Serve the tuna on warmed plates and let everyone help themselves to the braised lettuce and mustard potatoes.

Roasted Red Pepper Chana Masala

I seem to have had no time at all to enjoy cooking for the past few weeks, it has been a steady diet of ‘what can I make quickly?’ without the pleasure of actually enjoying the process. Yesterday was no less busy but, starved of inspiration and looking for something satisfying for a 5:2 diet day, I stumbled across this forgotten gem in one of my notebooks.

Please forgive me, but it was stunning. It had all the freshness and vibrancy of the best restaurant dishes, and I put that entirely down to fresh ingredients and the use of appropriate garnishes. I made up a fresh batch of Masala paste for this, and I also used a generous amount of chaat masala sprinkled over the top at the end. Links to my recipes for both are in the ingredients list, please try them, they turn a great dish into a magnificent one, and all for around 400 calories per serving (using rice as an accompaniment adds more)

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RECIPE – Serves 3 

1 tbsp rapeseed oil

3 fat garlic cloves, finely sliced

3 tbsp masala paste

2 tsp nigella seeds

1 400g tin of chopped tomatoes

1 400g tin of chick peas

2 roasted red peppers (good quality from a jar is fine), in bite-size pieces

200g piquante peppers (from a jar)

a small bunch of coriander, stalks finely chopped, leaves picked

the zest and juice of half a lemon

1 tbsp chaat masala


METHOD

Place the oil and garlic in a large, cold pan and cook over a medium heat for a few minutes until the garlic has been gently fried to a light golden brown.

Add the masala paste and nigella seeds and cook out for a minute or two until deeply aromatic, then add the tomatoes, chick peas (including the water from the tin, it acts as a great thickener) and both kinds of peppers. Simmer for twenty minutes until the nigella seeds are soft. Add the chopped coriander stalks.

If you have the time, leave this to sit for a few hours while the flavours get to know each other. Otherwise, just before serving, finely grate the zest of half an lemon over the top, then drizzle the juice over the top. Evenly scatter the chaat masala over everything, then dress with the coriander leaves.

DO NOT STIR! Bring it to the table and lift up each spoonful from underneath to serve, by doing so you will preserve the intensity and integrity of each flavour. It makes a real difference.

Serve alongside plain boiled or steamed Basmati rice, an onion salad and a carrot and ginger salad.

Moroccan Chick Pea Soup

Sadly, I have no idea where I first found this recipe. It’s a shame because it is absolutely delicious, very filling, quick to make and ridiculously low in calories. Somebody deserves credit for this dish, and though I have tweaked it over the years that somebody isn’t me.

You can vary the amount of chilli you put in depending on your own taste, but if you put in just one regular chilli, with the seeds, it will give you a background hum without being overpowering.  Don’t be afraid of using a good heaped teaspoon each of cumin, cinnamon and ras al hanout though, they provide the depth of flavour that makes this dish so good, and none of them are ‘hot’ spices.

Don’t overlook the final garnish of lime juice, za’atar and coriander. It raises the dish from the delicious to the spectacular. Diet food isn’t supposed to be this good!

Total calories per portion are 224 if you divide it among four people. If you are spectacularly hungry then you can eat half of it all by yourself  – that’s a challenge – and still have eaten less than 500 calories. That makes it ideal for anyone following the 5:2 diet.

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RECIPE – Serves 4 

200g dried chickpeas (or one 440g tin)

1 tbsp plain flour

1 tbsp fine sea salt

1 tsp of bicarbonate of soda

1 bay leaf

2 cinnamon sticks

1 tbsp olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

1 red chilli, seeds in, finely chopped

1 tsp chilli flakes

1 large thumb-sized knob of ginger, finely chopped

1 heaped tsp cumin

1 heaped tsp cinnamon

1 heaped tsp ras al hanout

200g roasted red peppers (from a jar is fine), finely chopped

2 tins of chopped tomatoes

400ml light vegetable stock

1 preserved lemon, pulp discarded, rind finely chopped

1 tbsp runny honey

50g couscous

a small bunch of coriander, stalks only, finely chopped

To garnish:

the zest and juice of a lime

1 tsp za’atar

a small bunch of coriander, leaves only, chopped


METHOD

The evening before, soak the dried chick peas in plenty of water (they will absorb a lot) with 1 tbsp flour, 1 tbsp fine sea salt and 1 tsp of bicarbonate of soda, stir well and set aside.

The next day, rinse the chick peas well, there should be no salt left on them. Put into plenty of water with the bay leaf and cinnamon sticks and bring to the boil, then simmer for 60-90 minutes until they are soft and tender, skimming off any scum if necessary. You may need to add more water as it evaporates. If you have a pressure cooker it will save you a lot of time, cook as per the instructions for your device (mine takes around 25 minutes).

Drain and set aside, removing the bay leaf and cinnamon sticks.

If you are using tinned chickpeas, use one tin; you won’t need the flour, salt, bicarbonate of soda, bay leaf or cinnamon sticks.

Heat the olive oil in a large pan, then gently cook the chopped onion under a lid for around 5 minutes, over a low heat.

Meanwhile, put the cumin, cinnamon and ras al hanout into a small bowl and add sufficient water to mix to a stiff paste.

Add the garlic, chopped chilli and chilli flakes, ginger and the spice paste, stir well, turn the heat up to medium and cook out for a minute or so until deeply aromatic.

Add the roasted red peppers, tomatoes and stock, mix well and bring to the boil. Turn down to a gentle simmer and cover with a lid for ten minutes.

Stir in the chick peas, preserved lemon rind and honey, stir well and season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Tastes good doesn’t it? Just wait, there’s more…

At this point you can set the soup aside for minutes or hours, to allow the flavours to develop, deepen and mellow. Or you can just move straight on…

Five minutes before serving, add the couscous and coriander stalks, stir well and keep at a gentle simmer until ready to serve.

Just before serving, give it a final stir, remove from the heat then sprinkle the zest of the lime over the top of the soup, followed by all the juice. Do not stir!

Scatter the za’atar evenly over the top, and then scatter the coriander leaves over that. Once again, do not stir, the garnish will sit on top and retain its vivacity. Even when you serve, dip your ladle down to the bottom of the pan and come up underneath the soup to retain the garnish layer. It might sound like a nuisance, but your taste buds will love you for it.

Quick Cod and Prawn Gratin

A few years ago Si King and Dave Myers – aka The Hairy Bikers – released a series of diet books that completely transformed my outlook on dieting. I’ve always kept myself fit and healthy, but creeping age and a slowing metabolism meant that the pounds crept on over the years. Sound familiar?

Dieting though? Everybody I have ever known who has been on a traditional diet – one that is based on denying yourself treats and cutting down your food intake – has lost loads of weight, only to put it all back on again, and a little more, once they return to ‘normal’ eating. There are complex metabolic (and mental) reasons why this happens, so, it struck me that the way to lose weight and keep it off isn’t by denying yourself but by finding other ways to satisfy yourself. The way to do that is by eating food that is low in calories but delicious, filling and satisfying. That way you don’t feel like you’re doing some kind of penance. Coupling that outlook with cycling through the 5:2 diet a few times a year, I changed the way I view treats and I have kept the weight off as I approach my mid-fifties.

Those Hairy Bikers books contain recipes that could be tailor-made for a 5:2 eating plan: low-calorie, healthy and absolutely delicious. I’m not a diet guru, but if you’re struggling with your diet then try this recipe, try it even if you’re not. My wife is one of those lucky people who will probably be slender forever, but when I am not on the 5:2 diet she still asks me to make stuff like this, just because she loves it.

Total calories per portion are 287. Yep, just 287 – that means you can have a fat boy portion if you want but not turn out to be a fat boy!

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RECIPE – Serves 4 

100g raw, peeled king prawns

400g white fish fillets (cod, hake, pollock etc)

150g undyed smoked haddock

400ml semi-skimmed milk

2 bay leaves

1/2 small onion, or 1 banana shallot, peeled and finely chopped

3 tbsp cornflour

3 tbsp water

100g frozen peas

2 tbsp vermouth

40g coarse breadcrumbs

25g cheddar, grated

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


METHOD

Cut the fish into 3cm chunks.

Gently heat the milk in a large pan, with the onion and bay leaves. Bring it to scalding point (where the milk at the edges of the pan just starts to foam) and keep it there.

Add the water to the cornflour to make a smooth paste, then add to the milk, stirring constantly over low heat for 5 minutes until the sauce is thick, rich and glossy.

Meanwhile, heat your grill to high.

Season the sauce, then add the vermouth and peas, cook for a minute or so then add the fish, stirring gently a couple of times and cook for two minutes. Add the prawns and again stir gently a couple of times for a further two minutes.

Transfer to a large warmed oven dish or, if you are serving individually, to whatever number of heatproof serving dishes you require. Combine the breadcrumbs and cheese, scatter over the top and grill for 2-3 minutes until the cheese has melted and the crumbs are lightly browned.

Serve alongside green vegetables, broccoli and/or cauliflower are excellent low-calorie and filling accompaniments.

Lighter Butter Chicken

I picked out Bill Granger’s book ‘Easy’ a few weeks ago, intending to cook just one dish, but I ended up making twenty and I could have cooked the entire book. The first and most important consideration whenever I cook is flavour, and Bill’s recipes deliver flavour in spades.

This dish is one that I have cooked a couple of times for lunch, though it is hearty enough to make an excellent dinner, and is definitely elegant enough to serve to guests. It’s quick and simple to make as well.

Traditional butter chicken is made with lashings of butter and cream, all that fat is what delivers the sumptuous flavour. Here, Bill has used cashew nuts and Greek yogurt to deliver the unctuousness. The man is a genius.

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RECIPE – Serves 4 

2 tbsp ghee (or groundnut oil)

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 tbsp masala paste

750g boneless chicken thighs, chopped into bite-sized chunks

1 tin of chopped tomatoes

125ml chicken stock

100g cashew nuts, ground into a fine powder

125g Greek yogurt

1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 tbsp caster sugar

To serve:

Basmati rice

naan bread

To garnish:

coriander leaves, chopped

Finely chopped onion

Lime wedges


METHOD

Heat the ghee in a large pan, then saute the onion over a medium-high heat for 6-8 minutes until soft and just starting to colour.

Add the masala paste. While stirring constantly, cook it out for a couple of minutes until aromatic, then add the chicken pieces and stir thoroughly so each piece is well-coated in the masala paste, then cook for a couple of minutes, stirring often.

Add the tinned tomatoes and chicken stock, stir to combine and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer gently for around  10-15 minutes until the chicken pieces are just cooked.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t already done so, blitz the cashews in a food processor (or bash down in a mortar and pestle) until they are a fine powder. Add to the simmering sauce and cook for at least 5 minutes; the sauce will thicken.

When you are ready to serve, remove from the heat and stir in the lemon juice, yogurt and sugar.

Garnish with finely chopped onion, chopped coriander leaves and lime wedges, and serve alongside Basmati rice and naan bread.

Kipper Chowder

I get strange looks when I mention this dish, I’m not entirely sure why because it is just a variation on the Scottish classic Cullen Skink. I threw this together last night after noticing a few packs of kippers in the freezer that were somewhat past their best-before date – 2 years past it in fact…

Before you ask the obvious question, nobody died. Kippers are smoked herrings, and smoking a fish is of course a method of preservation. It obviously works.

I urge you to give this a go: the combination of the creamy broth, the smoky aroma of the fish and the mild onion tang of the leeks is delightful. It’s quick to make and only cost me 55 pence – the cost of a packet of flat-leaf parsley – everything else I needed to make this was already in the house.

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RECIPE – Serves 2 generously

1 tbsp rapeseed oil

1 large or 2 small leeks, trimmed, washed and finely sliced

250g floury potatoes (Maris Piper, Roosters etc) peeled and diced into 1cm cubes

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

4 kipper fillets

2 tsp cornflour

850ml whole milk

2 bay leaves

a small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, chopped

a few chive stalks, chopped

the zest and juice of 1/2 a lemon

sea salt

freshly ground black and white pepper


METHOD

In a large saucepan, heat the oil then sweat the leeks over a medium-low heat, under a lid, until softened. This will take around 5 minutes.

Add the diced potatoes and garlic and cook for a further 3 or 4 minutes, stirring often.

Put the cornflour into a small bowl and add a little of the milk, stir thoroughly to make a thin paste. Turn the heat up and add the remainder of the milk to the leeks and potatoes, with the bay leaves. Pour the cornflour paste into the pan and stir thoroughly.

Bring the milk to a gentle simmer, stirring frequently, then cook gently for around ten minutes until the potatoes are just tender. The broth should be thick and creamy, coating the back of a spoon.

Meanwhile, take the skin off the kippers and chop the fillets into 2cm chunks.

When the potatoes are ready, add the fish to the broth, bring back to a simmer, then remove from the heat, cover and set aside for ten minutes. The fish will gently poach with no danger of it overcooking.

When ready to serve, add the chopped herbs and lemon juice. Stir thoroughly and check the seasoning carefully – you are unlikely to need much salt. Add a few good grindings of black pepper, and a little fresh ground white pepper as well (if you have it).

Serve with a little crusty bread, that’s all it needs.