Pimping dinner with pumpkins Monday, Nov 4 2013 

As you’ve probably gathered by now, I LOVE pumpkins. Autumn food in general, in fact (parsnips, butternut squash…) but ESPECIALLY pumpkins. And Whole Foods Market caught my eye today with a genius healthy dinner idea, using pumpkin, that’s ready in minutes.

For ultimate speed, you need pumpkin purée. I’m able to buy mine in frozen cubes from Picard (the French equivalent of Iceland). Foodie website Sous Chef sells it at £2 a can – or you can make your own perhaps. The basic recipe is this: fry some onion in olive oil, followed by brown or tricolor rice (about 75g per person). Throw in vegetable stock (200ml per person) and about 75g pumpkin purée. Add a couple of bay leaves and a bit of freshly ground black pepper. Cook for the rice’s cooking time as directed on the packet. Stay by the pan to make sure it doesn’t boil dry (add more water if necessary). Once it’s ready, there’s no need to drain it – just spoon straight into a bowl and enjoy!

As well as being tasty, it’s healthy too – a hard thing to come by as the days get shorter, the nights get colder and the food gets stodgier. As a vegetarian sympathiser, I’m thrilled to have found another easy, quick vegetarian meal to add to my repertoire. Here’s why it’s so good for you:

Brown or tricolor rice. Tricolor rice mixes tend to consist of white (or brown) rice, red rice, and wild rice. Red rice is known to retard plaque formation, and has high levels of iron and calcium (which help to strengthen the bones and blood). White rice is an excellent source of slow-burning energy and contains good levels of B vitamins (which, among other things, prevent anaemia and keep nerve and muscle tissue healthy). Brown rice contains all of this and more – particularly magnesium, which can prevent strokes and heart attacks. Wild rice, however, is perhaps the champion, providing all of this as well as promising levels of protein (to strengthen hair, nails, bones, metabolism and more) and zinc (to support a healthy immune system and quick healing times).

Onion. Perhaps the original superfood, onions are anti-inflammatory, anti-cholesterol, anti-cancer and antioxidant thanks to the lovely range of flavanoids they contain.

Olive oil. This unsaturated fat is better for you than saturated fats – it can help maintain healthy cholesterol levels and could even prevent Alzheimer’s disease, strokes, and liver, bowel and pancreatic diseases.

Homemade vegetable stock. Don’t worry if you’ve only got a cube. I won’t tell anyone. But by using homemade vegetable stock, you’re getting the best benefits: not only are they lower in salt than many commercial stock cubes, but the vitamins and minerals in the vegetables you used to make it all stay in the stock, increasing your intake of vitamin A, iron, and calcium.

Pumpkin. Arguably the star of the show in this recipe, pumpkin is one of your five a day. It’s low-calorie (26 calories per 100g), extremely low in fat (0.1g per 100g), and high in vitamin A – specifically, in beta-carotene. This is essential for a healthy immune system, sharp vision, and good skin. All the more reason to keep chomping on it – even though Halloween is over.

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Spices at Starbucks Thursday, Oct 31 2013 

THE pumpkin spice latte. Gotta say I didn’t think it would have so much cream on it.

With Halloween and autumn now both officially, the food focus is shifting towards root vegetables, spices, and anything generally warm, sweet, and comforting. Starbucks’ spicy pumpkin latte seemed to fit this bill, so I set off towards my local branch today in the hope of procuring one. I’d actually seen it advertised a week (or maybe more) ago, but with our branch having only opened this month, I was waiting for the crowds to die down. Unfortunately, they were all out of pumpkin spice latte – it would appear that the onset of autumn combined with a branch of Starbucks opening for the first time in an affluent, expat-heavy town was a bit too much for their suppliers to bear – leaving me to hunt elsewhere in the next week or two for a chance to sample one (a quick look at the Starbucks website reveals that the fabled drink is not so limited-edition as to no longer be on sale after Halloween).

Perhaps the surprising part, though, is that I wanted to try the pumpkin spice latte at all. Why? I DO NOT LIKE MILK. I remember rejecting it even as a small child, scheming at playgroup to try to trade my milk for other children’s biscuits (ah, the 90s – they’re probably not allowed to give biscuits to three-year-olds in nurseries now). I also can still smell the warm, rubbery smell of the inside of the milk cup. BLECH.

Today my calcium intake is probably still quite shocking. I love cheese, but somehow manage to ration the amount of it that I eat. I tend to eschew yoghurts for fruit purées at lunchtime, and I don’t even take milk on my cereal. I am not a fan of cream or custard in vast quantities. Tea and coffee is served BLACK 99% of the time. So anything that gets some calcium into me is probably a good thing. My love of pumpkin and spices could well override my general dislike of milk. Plus, I’m a grownup now, and grownups are supposed to be able to try new things without puking, right?

So in the absence of the pumpkin spice latte at my local Starbucks today, what did I order?

I could have gone for the fail-safe option of a cappuccino, but I instead decided to go out on a limb and order a chai tea latte, made with skimmed milk. I had never tried this and so was a little apprehensive: not just because of the milk thing, but also because a) I resent paying for tea outside the home [it’s a fricking tea bag!] and b) I thought it might be bland and that I could be disappointed. WAS I EVER WRONG. This hit the spot in terms of warm spiciness and only slight milkiness. Starbucks don’t give too many clues about what their blend contains, only mentioning cardamom, cinnamon and black pepper in a slightly coy manner. However, they do hint at chai’s Ayurvedic Indian roots, which primarily emphasises healing through the power of spice. However, a little bit of digging around online reveals that the traditional spice base (named Karha) must contain ginger and cardamom as a given, with many variations on this basic theme existing. Beyond those two spices, most traditional blends can contain any or all of the following: cinnamon, star anise, fennel seeds, peppercorns, or cloves. These add to the drink’s medicinal qualities, and the whole blend together is in fact known as masala (chai is just the Urdu word for tea, in fact). Suffice it to say that once the spices and tea are mixed, and then sweetened and mixed with steamed milk, the whole concoction is bloomin’ lovely.

To continue the spice theme, I had a cinnamon swirl. Essentially a Danish pastry, this too was packed with flavour, thanks mainly to the sweet icing and the generously packed cinnamon that twisted throughout the curled bun. The sultanas were a little bit lost in amongst all of this, but I can forgive that. I don’t go to Starbucks that often (maybe two or three times a year), so it sounds a little sad, but this trip was a real treat. Throw in the Adrian Mole book that I’m reading, and I was HAPPY. Faceless global corporation? Maybe even that was challenged by the staff’s friendly and festive demeanour in my local branch today (and this is in France, where they REALLY don’t ‘do’ Halloween). Expensive? At €6 for a chai tea latte and a cinnamon pastry, not hideously so. And tasty? Absolutely. What’s that they used to say about spicing up your life…?

When the weather outside is frightful… Sunday, Nov 4 2012 

Even before the snow sets in, the weather can be just shocking in autumn, thanks to miserable drizzle and high winds. Despite being armed with Ugg boots (do they look ridonkulous? Yes. Are my feet warm? Yes. CASE CLOSED.), there’s little I love more on a blustery autumn weekend than curling up in front of a log fire with a good book, some folk music, and a homemade autumnal snack. Here are a few of my suggestions for you.

PARKIN. Originating in Yorkshire, this is a wonderful treacly mess fused together with oatmeal, and spices, meaning it’s sweet, warm and filling. Any classic recipe will do – and there are many. But what I like to do is serve it with Lapsang Souchong – a smoky tea that’ll really complete that Bonfire Night feeling.

PUMPKIN PIE. This is an American dessert that hasn’t quite made it across the pond into France yet, so naturally my froggy husband was initially suspicious. However, with the right mix of spices and a puréed consistency of filling, it makes a satisfying dessert that contrasts nicely with the crunch of the pie crust. Serve with orange juice (slightly warmed in a pan first if you like).

ROAST CHESTNUTS. A savoury option this time! If you have them “au naturel”, roast in the oven until the skins are black, and then peel them off and eat straight away as soon as your fingers can take the heat. Another fun way to cook them is to wrap them in foil, and throw them into an open log fire if you have one, extracting them with tongs. Assam or oolong tea would be a good accompaniment here – the chestnuts already have a creamy, smoky flavour that you don’t want to be overridden by a strong tea like Lapsang.

CRUMPETS WITH MARMITE. OR CHEESE. This one’s a bit of a cheat as most people don’t make their own crumpets (although with a flat pan and some metal rings, you can), but it’s a bloomin’ marvellous autumn snack. Just pop a few crumpets in the toaster and, once done, garnish with a few wafer-thin slices of Cheddar, and/or a slick of Marmite. Say no more.

HOT CHOCOLATE, HUNGRY MOUSE STYLE. This takes a little more effort than your standard instant hot chocolate. You need to order the cocoa nibs and then have a means of breaking them down (the best way is to use a coffee grinder), before whisking this powder together with milk, cream, vanilla, and perhaps a few spices. Cardamom is nice. Top with extra cocoa nibs. The Hungry Mouse’s instructions are excellent, and I recommend that you follow them.

Curl up on the sofa, and enjoy! And remember that there’s only 50 more sleeps ‘til Christmas! *squee*

Autumn days… Tuesday, Nov 1 2011 

…means autumn food!

As well as making pumpkin and red pepper soup this week, with a kick of chilli for good measure (enough for 4 lunches! No more inferior cup-a-soups for me for a while…), I’ve also been busy on the dessert front. Observe:

That, my friends, is a pumpkin pie. Keeper’s first, and he loved it.

I combined two recipes, using one from Jamie Oliver and another from the Guardian. The secret? Two tablespoons of rum (well, alright, I used brandy in the absence of rum). The taste? Delish! Next time I would separate the eggs and whisk the whites for a mousse-y rather than custardy texture, blind bake the base for less time (20 minutes is too long and left it hazardously close to burning), and, of course, add more alcohol.

I also made this:

I could not be prouder of this parkin if I had given birth to it. It is AMAZE. But nonetheless, one slice is still more than enough (it’s very filling thanks to the oatmeal), meaning one tin lasts ages. YAY. I used this recipe, which gives just the right amount of spicy satisfaction. Eat with Lapsang Souchong for ultimate Bonfire Night goodness.