Roasted artichokes

Artichokes in salad
Artichokes in salad

We sourced a few good looking artichokes at Natoora and I couldn’t resist turning them into a lightweight dinner! This style of dinner is very common around my home area as it won’t have you digesting heavy stuff for hours, and so you can sleep well.

Preparation

  1. First chop their stems, and also a few of the outside leaves (as they’re hard, have spiky bits and that’s not nice). Then cut them in halves:

    Artichoke sliced in half
    Artichoke sliced in half
  2. Put them all on a pan, add some oil and salt, and set them to a high heat
  3. Wait until they got some colour in one side. Then turn them around and brown them on that side too. If they’re cooking too fast and you fear they’ll burn, reduce the heat!
  4. Add some water – about a centimeter tall, cover, and bring to a boil. Then reduce the heat and let the artichokes soften in the water
    Artichokes roasting in the pan
  5. Once the water has evaporated, check the artichokes are soft (I just “lightly” punch them with a fork). If not, you can either add a bit more water and repeat the process, or keep them on a very low heat for longer.
  6. Done! Ready to eat!

In this case I served them with some escarole salad, tomatoes and cucumber, and just a touch of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. It is way more filling that you’d imagine, because the artichokes are so full of flavour, and the other vegetables were really high quality so it was a really sensational dish 🙂

Other ways to serve them:

  • with toasted bread and olive oil. I would prefer wholemeal baguette style bread, but any good bread could work.
  • with an omelette (possibly a simple egg one)
  • with pan fried chicken breasts

Rambling time

Escaroles seem quite uncommon in the UK, but I grew up eating them during winter months, and I miss them, so I was very excited that Puntarelle & co had them in stock. The taste is quite different from your every day lettuce: peppery, spicy, a bit sour. I figured liking them is certainly an acquired taste because my very English partner didn’t like them at all! 😆

In the same vein, finding good artichokes in London’s markets is quite the challenge. Forget supermarkets—I’ve never, ever, been able to find artichokes which were not weeeeell past their best times.

But it’s hard to tell from the outside because to know for sure you’d need to slice open the artichoke and see if it is still a bud, all green and undeveloped, and it has not started to turn into the bloom before the flower (which is what artichokes are, after all).

One way to test this is to gently squeeze the artichokes and see how they respond. They should be flexible; if they’re stiff it’s too late. But sometimes it’s hard to say…

Another way of testing is to use your nose: fresh artichokes have a very ‘green’ and characteristic smell. But this doesn’t work with supermarkets because the produce has been in a fridge for so long it just doesn’t smell of anything anymore. And shops tend to be cold as well, which doesn’t help with releasing aromas. So you could only use this in fresh markets.

When the flower develops, the “core” of the artichoke turns into stems and it’s absolutely vile to eat because it’s like eating spiky hairs that make a ball at the end of your throat. Urghhh. It’s also incredibly difficult to slice, as it hardens. I’ve lost count of the amount of artichokes I’ve had to throw away after I tried to salvage some of their contents 😱

It is a complex problem that feeds itself:

  1. They are still a ‘weird’ vegetable and the demand is pretty low, so the food chain doesn’t prioritise getting good quality artichokes fast to the UK. And then they spend way too long in the shelves
  2. When people buy them and find a disgusting vile old artichoke they never buy them again, and so the demand keeps being low
  3. Back to step one 😭

Still, I keep trying to find decent ones, because they can be so delicious!

Amusingly enough in Spain you can not only easily find artichokes, but even the stalks of the plant, called pencas, which are eaten in stews and salads. Nothing goes to waste!

Blood oranges

We got these from Natoora at the Spa Terminus market. They’re Sicilian and so very nicely sweet and citric!

Blood oranges
Blood oranges

I must have been five years old the first time I encountered a blood orange “in the wild”. I was tasked with helping to make orange juice at home, and blood oranges are not always very obviously bloody from the outside. When I cut the orange and I found the “blood” I immediately panicked, thinking I had cut myself!

I started yelling and calling for help. Obviously my mum was very alarmed, but she quickly determined that it was all fine; I hadn’t cut myself and the orange was “normal”, but I still drank that juice with lots of suspicions 🤔

Courghetti with tomato and onion sauce

Courghetti with tomato and onion sauce

This is fun to make (spiralising things is so much fun), and fairly quick to prepare. Plus it’s quite filling AND lightweight – courgettes are basically water!

You will need a spiraliser, or you can buy pre-made courghetti, although I’ve never tried those and I’ve no idea how bad or good they are!

Ingredients (for two people)

  • Two medium sized courgettes (about 15 cm length)
  • 1 onion
  • 3 or 4 garlic cloves
  • One 400g tomato tin
  • Olive oil
  • Optional: Parmesan cheese and butter (leave out if vegan)

Preparation

  1. Start by washing and spiralising the courgettes. I make one pile per courgette, as it makes it easier to separate the portions later
  2. Peel and chop the onion and garlic cloves
  3. Put oil on a pan, and start frying the onion and garlic
  4. In parallel, wash and chop the parsley, and add it to the pan as well
  5. Once the onion is pretty soft, move everything to one side, like in the picture
  6. Add some more oil, and set to a very high heat
  7. When the pan is very hot, add the contents of the tomato tin to it, and fry on a very high heat for about 1-2 minutes or until you think things are going to burn! Stir frequently during this time. The goal is to get the tomato to lose its acidity
  8. Now reduce the heat and simmer for about 20 minutes
  9. Optional: add a dash of butter now to get a deeper body. Mix it well until it dissolves.
  10. Slowly add about 200ml of warm water to compensate for the evaporation.
  11. Add a tablespoon of paprika, and mix well
  12. About 10 minutes in the simmering, try a bit of the sauce, and add salt and pepper to taste, mix well and try the sauce again. It might still be a bit acidic, but don’t add sugar – just wait for longer!
  13. Depending on the quality of the tomatoes, you might need to wait for longer. It usually pays off to wait as the flavour gets more developed and interesting. So you might need more than 20 minutes.
  14. Once the sauce is ‘done’, turn the heat off.
  15. To cook the courghetti, add some oil to another pan, and set on a very high heat.
  16. When the pan is very hot, add a ‘pile’ of courghetti, and stir continuously. We don’t want anything to get stuck, and we want the cooking to be homogeneous. We also don’t want the courghettis to get too soft, so that’s why we need the heat to be very high, so they cook outside but not too much inside. If the heat is too low, they will start releasing water, and the result will be too “liquidy”.
  17. Once one pile is cooked, place on a deep bowl, and go to step 15 to cook the next, until all have been cooked.
  18. Pour the sauce on top of the cooked courghetti
  19. Optional: add a good dose of grated Parmesan cheese
  20. Add some pepper
  21. Optional: add a dash of the best olive oil you have

Tricks and tips

I used this smoked paprika my mum brought me from Extremadura, a region in West Spain, renowned by the quality of their paprika!

Smoked paprika

If you have the chance to shop at a Spanish grocers, “Pimentón de la Vera” is the type of paprika you want to look for.

Also, depending on your spiraliser, you might get very long ‘courghetti’ so it might be interesting to cut the piles a few times with scissors before cooking them, so they’re not like 3 meters long and impossible to eat with a fork.

Arroz con acelgas (rice with Swiss chard)

This is an extremely cheap, easy to cook and comforting rice dish, very typical from the region I’m from. You can make it more “liquidy” or drier, depending on your tastes.

I used this Spanish recipe as reference, but altered a few things. Thanks, Kiko!

Ingredients

  • 140 g of round rice (paella or bomba varieties)
  • A bunch of Swiss chard
  • 1 onion
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 1 medium tomato (or a bunch of cherry tomatoes)
  • 100 g of cooked chickpeas (about half a 400g can, drained)
  • Paprika (not smoked)
  • Olive oil

This makes about 3 generous portions, or 4 if smaller. But it’s very easy to stretch it for more people by adding more water or rice.

Preparation

Takes about 45 minutes (15 min preparing, 30 min cooking).

You’ll need a big pot; cast iron pots (‘le Creuset’ style) are a very good option, although in Spain it’s often cooked on earthenware, but it’s a bit hard to find good quality affordable earthenware implements in the UK.

  1. Peel the garlic cloves, but don’t slice them
  2. Peel and chop the onion, it doesn’t need to be very finely
  3. Wash and chop the tomato
  4. Carefully wash the chard and discard “ugly bits” (we’re not the only ones who like chard – worms love them too!), then chop it in pieces of about 2cm wide
  5. Add oil to the pot, set on a high heat and fry the garlic and onion on itChopped onion
  6. Add the chard and fry it until it starts to soften (you should be stirring everything so nothing gets stuck or burnt)
  7. Add the tomato and fry it too
  8. Add a tablespoon of paprika, mix everything together
  9. Add the chickpeas
  10. Add about 600 ml of water for a dry version, or more like 800ml for a soup finish. Add a pinch of salt.
  11. Bring to a boil
  12. Reduce the heat, place a lid and simmer for about 10 minutes. This will extract all the great flavours from the vegetables.
  13. Add the rice (you don’t need to wash it; the starch will help us give a good depth to the dish). Stir around to make sure it’s evenly distributed.
  14. Optional: add food colouring. You could add saffron, turmeric, or the classic cheap version that we use in Valencia often – a spices mix for paella (often called “Preparado para paella”).
  15. Cook on a low-medium heat for about 20 minutes, with the lid on and slightly ajar to let the steam off, but don’t leave the pot unattended because…
    1. There might be a burst of boiling water come up and you don’t want it to overflow, asphyxiate your stove and cause a gas spill
    2. Or the rice might absorb all the water and run dry
    3. So if need be, add more water (specially if you want it to be more like a soup)
  16. Towards the 15 minutes mark, you want to start checking that the rice is cooked, and if that’s the case, turn the heat off! We aren’t cooking congee here.
  17. Serve on deep dishes or bowls, if having soup. And enjoy the smugness of having cooked a cheap and comforting dish! 😏

How to tell when rice is cooked?

  1. If you take a grain and it’s soft, but you can still feel some ‘crunch’ inside when you bite it: it’s still raw. Check again in a couple of minutes.
  2. If the grain is still sort of cylindrical and keeping the original raw shape, but inflated, and you feel no ‘solid crunch’ when biting it: it’s cooked!
  3. If the grain is starting to expand like fluffy clouds and dissolving in the soup: TURN THE HEAT OFF IMMEDIATELY AND REPENT. You’ll do better next time.

This dish is quite forgiving if the rice is slightly overcooked and you’re aiming for a soup form; but under or overcooking would be Capital Sins when aiming for a dry form.

Alternatives

  • If you can’t find paella rice, replace it with risotto or arborio rice. Basically you want rice that can absorb liquid.
  • If you don’t have fresh tomatoes, you could replace them with some tinned tomatoes, about half of a 400g tin.
  • If you can’t find Swiss chard you can use spinach (or maybe kale?!)
  • You can replace chickpeas with other legumes you have handy. It’s about the protein: imagine you’re a peasant and need energy to do your labour!
  • You could also use good vegetable stock instead of water, if you want extra flavour, although this dish doesn’t really need it. But maybe you have the stock there and do not know what to do with it.

As you can see, this is a very accommodating dish.

Trivia

This is often eaten during Lent, as it is vegan! Although we didn’t call it vegan at the time. We just said it did not have meat. When Lent falls in February, and a cold spell happens, it’s very nice to eat a comforting warm soupy rice dish.

It’s also meant to be “poor people’s food”, which is not quite surprising given the ingredients. Swiss chard grow very well in the region, and you can even find them growing semi-wildly in the borders of built up areas nowadays.

I distinctly remember a schooltrip to a chapel on top a little hill that overlooks my hometown. We heard the teachers squeaking  with excitement as they realised that one side of the hill was covered with sort of wild chard, and it just took them a few moments to cave in to temptation and start foraging for the prettiest leaves, declaring:

Esto, ¡para el hervido de esta noche!

Or “this, for tonight’s boiled dish”.

And we did what children do: imitate the adults. We started grabbing leaves too, thinking we were doing great. My grandmother was extremely bemused when I showed up with a random selection of weeds and worm-devoured Swiss chard leaves! 😂

For the curious in you, read an explanation of what this boiled dish is!

Chickpea salad

I was feeling really lazy today so I decided to use a can of chickpeas instead of cooking lentils to prepare tomorrow’s lunch box. I feel that chickpeas go really well with cumin seeds.

Preparation time

I’d say 15 minutes. This is super easy to toss together as the ingredients don’t need much preparation; it’s just a matter of washing and slicing.

Ingredients

  • Chickpeas (obviously); you can make about 2 salads with one 400 g tin
  • Salad leaves – any type you like, although I prefer a crunchy sweet romaine for this
  • Tomatoes
  • Cucumber
  • Sweet red pepper (raw)
  • Olives
  • Feta cheese
  • Cumin seeds ~about half a teaspoon
  • Pine nuts
  • The best olive oil you can find
  • Salt
  • Pepper

of course, feel free to add or remove whatever you like or dislike… this is a salad, not a cake! For example, remove the feta cheese if you want to make this vegan.

Preparation

  1. Wash and shake the water off the ingredients
  2. Slice lettuce in manageable sizes but don’t go too thin or it becomes too bland
  3. Slice the tomatoes in half (if they’re cherry), or a bite sized portion if they’re bigger
  4. Slice cucumber, red pepper…
  5. Add olives and feta to taste
  6. If you have mortar and pestle, you could smash the cumin seeds a bit as that opens up the flavour, otherwise I often don’t even bother and just add them as they are. Be careful to not to add too many or you’ll end up annoyed by their “crunchiness”
  7. Sprinkle with pine nuts if that’s your thing
  8. Generously add olive oil
  9. And add salt and pepper to taste
  10. Mix everything nicely!

Note: If you’re preparing this for the next day, don’t add the oil yet, or it will make everything mushy. Wait until when you’re actually going to eat the salad to then add the olive oil.

Other options

This also goes nicely with some sliced parsley, if you have it handy.

Also, if your partner is on a business trip (like mine) and you really want some kick in your taste buds, you could [sort of finely] slice a garlic clove and mix it with the salad at the time you add the olive oil. You might need to add a touch more salt to make the garlic really stand out.

It really makes the whole experience quite… intense. I really like the combination of cumin seeds, olive oil and chickpeas with the garlic.

I only do this when I’m home alone, and I’d never bring a garlic salad to the office out of respect for my coworkers. Who knows, someone might be a vampire and my post-salad breath would knock them out! 😂

Who wants to ingest garlic pills to boost your immunity when you can just eat a garlic clove? 🔥😜🔥