Spring a Leek

The leek is a wonderful vegetable currently in season and often overlooked for its more exotic counterparts.  A member of the allium family, but milder in flavour than the onion, like them, they are rich in sulphur and consequently both anti-bacterial and antiviral.  They are also rich in flavonoids which have a cardio-protective effect on the body.  Containing a fibre called inulin, they act as a prebiotic, that is, they feed probiotics and promote good bacteria in the gut, thus helping to maintain a healthy digestive tract.  Leeks provide a good source of folic acid, iron and potassium , as well as lesser amounts of B vitamins, magnesium and calcium.  They are alkalising and have a cleansing or diuretic effect on the body, can help with bladder stones, and may also be used to help regulate bowel movements.  They are anti-arthritic and can also help alleviate the symptoms of gout.  In other words, they are a wonder vegetable.

In terms of cooking with leeks, they are very versatile.  Most commonly used in soups (as part of the stock, or on its own in a vichyssoise), leeks are delicious boiled and served cold, dressed with a vinaigrette.  They also work well with Asian dishes to delicately flavour broths.  They work particularly well with potatoes, ham and cheese, and make theperfect comfort food for wet, cold winter evenings.

My mum used to make this dish for us in winter, and we all loved it.  I suspect it was inspired by a Robert Carrier recipe.  The leeks are blanched and then wrapped in ham, topped with a cheese sauce and baked until bubbling and golden.  It is quite indulgent due to the butter, milk and cheese content, so should be viewed a treat rather than a routine supper..  Make sure you use the full fat versions of all the dairy items to maximise your intake of fat-soluble vitamins, and to really enjoy the taste.  Food that is whole is more satisfying than food that has had its fat removed.

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Leeks and Ham Au Gratin (to feed four)

  • 8 leeks, cleaned and trimmed
  • 8 slices of good quality roast ham
  • 75g butter
  • 75g flour
  • 1 1/2 pints milk
  • 150g grated cheese (cheddar or gruyere are good)
  • grated nutmeg
  • seasoning to taste
  1. Preheat oven to 180C
  2. Blanche the leeks for 5 mins or so until tender (use the tip of a knife to test if yielding)
  3. Drain and pat and squeeze leeks dry
  4. Wrap leeks with ham
  5. Place in buttered baking dish
  6. To make the cheese sauce:
    Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan
    Add flour, stirring with a wooden spoon, for a couple of minutes
    Remove from heat and add the milk, stirring well
    Return to the heat and cook, stirring, until the sauce has thickened
    Leave to cook for 10 minutes or so
    Add grated nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste
    Add the cheese gradually, so it melts and blends in evenly
  7. Pour the cheese sauce over the leeks and ham
  8. Place in oven and cook for 40 minutes or so, until golden
  9. Serve with a large rocket or watercress salad, dressed with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar

Why not discover this underrated vegetable and try this dish to celebrate with the Welsh on St David’s Day tomorrow with a good glass of red.  The husband recommends Pinot Noir or Gamay grape.

And to celebrate the weekend, how about a Friday Night Cocktail?

For 2 Tartinis, or Blood Orange Martinis

  • Juice 3 seasonal blood oranges
  • In a cocktail shaker chilled with ice add
    4 fluid ounces of vodka
    1 fluid ounce Cointreau
    2 fluid ounces of the blood orange juice
  • Shake, strain and serve

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Finger on the Pulse

After the crash weight-loss madness of January, it’s probably time to look at more sustainable ways to lose weight.  To help us lose weight, and keep us feeling fuller longer, a good intake of protein is essential.  However, a diet rich in animal protein can increase saturated fat intake to unhealthy levels, and cause the body to become too acidic (symptoms of an overly-acidic body include depression, fatigue, anxiety).  Pulses are a great provider of vegetable protein, and have an alkalising effect, helping to restore the pH balance of the body.
Pulses are the edible seeds of any legumes (such as beans, peas or lentils), and were among the first foods to be cultivated.  They are low in fat, low calorie, contain no cholesterol, and are high in protein and fibre.  They are cheap, and can be easily stored for prolonged periods of time.  Available in dried form requiring overnight soaking prior to cooking, in canned form or ready cooked (Ready to Eat Puy Lentils from Merchant Gourmet) for immediate use, they are the most versatile of products.
Increasing intake of pulses can help promote bowel regularity, build strong bones, protect the heart, lower cholesterol and help to regulate blood sugar levels.
Pulses include:-
  • chickpeas
  • kidney beans
  • butter beans
  • borlotti beans
  • aduki beans
  • cannellini beans
  • blackeyed beans
  • haricot beans
  • broad beans
  • black beans
  • mung beans
  • flageolet
  • marrowfat peas
  • pinto beans
  • split peas
  • lentils

Delicious and versatile in vegetarian dishes, pulses can also be used alongside meat to create a more satisfying meal.  One of my favourite weekday suppers is based on a Jamie Oliver recipe for a simple, oven-baked chicken dish cooked with sweet roasted tomatoes, garlic, basil and tinned cannellini beans.  It is a simple, one pot dish that takes minutes to prepare, and then bubbles away gently in the oven while you get on with all your other pre-dinner jobs.

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Chicken with Cannellini Beans and Tomatoes

Preheat oven to 180C/350F.  Serves 4.

  • 2 tbsp olive oil (or coconut oil)
  • 4 chicken legs or 8 thighs
  • 1 bulb of garlic
  • 1 ripe red chilli
  • 250g cherry or vine tomatoes
  • 2 tins of cannellini beans
  • bunch of fresh basil
  • salt and pepper
  1. Season chicken with salt and pepper and put in casserole dish
  2. Pick basil, chopping stems finely.  Add to dish.
  3. Add tomatoes.
  4. Rinse cannellini beans well, and add to dish.
  5. Rinse and chop chilli finely, add to dish.
  6. Break garlic bulb into cloves (unpeeled) and add to dish.
  7. Place in oven and cook for 1 ½ hours, turning halfway through, until the skin is crisp and the meat falling off the bone.
  8. Serve with broccoli, or another dark green leafy vegetable.  Squash the soft, cooked garlic out of its skin and eat alongside.

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A great vegetarian dish, perfect for Meat Free Monday, is a sort of lentil chilli.  I tore this recipe out of a Sunday paper a couple of years ago, and it is attributed to Alice Hart.    The good fat from the avocado and the pumpkin seeds and the fibre in the lentils make it really filling, and the addition of the chipotle paste, with the smokey paprika and cumin seeds,  gives it an amazing aromatic and fiery bite.  It is lovely warm, however, I often make extra to eat cold for lunch the following day (sadly this usually just means we eat more that night!).

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Puy Lentils with Roasted Tomatoes and Chipotle Cream

Preheat oven to 160C/325F

  • 600g small vine tomatoes, halved
  • 3 large red onions, halved and thickly sliced
  • 1 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
  • 6 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tsp honey
  • 1 tsp smoked paprika
  • juice of 1 lime
  • 1 packet of ready cooked puy lentils (Merchant Gourmet)
  • 2 ripe avocadoes
  • large bunch of coriander, roughly chopped
  • 50g pumpkin seeds, toasted
  • heaped tsp chipotle chilli paste
  • 4 tbsp creme fraiche
  1. Line baking tray with non-stick baking sheet
  2. Place tomatoes, cut-side up, on one end of baking tray
  3. Add chopped onions to other end, tossed with cumin seeds and half of the olive oil
  4. Roast for an hour and half or so, until onions are soft and tomatoes shrivelled.  Turn occasionally.
  5. Whisk together remaining oil with honey, paprika and lime juice.  Season.
  6. Add ready-cooked lentils to salad bowl and dress.
  7. Roughly spoon out avocado flesh into bite sized pieces and add to bowl.
  8. Add roasted tomatoes and onions, and toss gently.
  9. Top with chopped coriander and pumpkin seeds.
  10. Marble the chilli paste through the creme fraiche

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