French Lentil & Mushroom Casserole

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Lentils and mushrooms make for a somewhat brown combination, but together they really complement each other and create a nutritious, delicious stew. Puy lentils are probably the tastiest lentil out there and hence, over the years, the French have seized on them for their cooking, so they’re often known as French lentils. As a legume (the seed of its plant), they really are powerhouses of protein, but so often they’re served as a side dish. This seems silly to me because a thick, warming lentil casserole is such a hearty, satisfying meal all on its own – it deserves to be the main, the focus of your plate. Taking inspiration from the lentils’ link to France, this casserole is bursting with French flavours, from the red wine to the rosemary and mushrooms.

Shiitake mushrooms are one of the most nutrient-rich mushrooms out there. They’re a fantastic source of bioavailable iron and protein, which is always good news for vegetarians and vegans. They also have a strong antiviral effect – perfect for the colder months of the year when our bodies are naturally more disposed to catching viruses. But the best thing about these shiitake mushrooms is that they were grown here in the UK, so they are local fungi through and through. The chestnut mushrooms also come from a few counties away, and the rosemary’s from a little bush in my garden, so as a whole this casserole is a local pleasure.

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Serves 6:

  • 50g dried shiitake mushrooms (porcini also work well)
  • 250g chestnut mushrooms
  • 120g shiitake mushrooms
  • 3 medium onions
  • 5 cloves of garlic
  • 1 litre of hot vegetable stock
  • 150ml red wine
  • 400g of puy lentils
  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • A sprig of rosemary
  • 2 teaspoons of miso paste

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First, give your dried shiitake mushrooms a quick rinse before placing them in a large bowl and pouring over the hot stock, leaving them to soak for twenty minutes.

Meanwhile, finely chop the onions and crush the garlic cloves through a press. Chop both the fresh shiitake and chestnut mushrooms into discs, making them all a vaguely similar size. Place the lentils in a sieve and give them a thorough rinse.

When the dried shiitake mushrooms have soaked for twenty minutes, use a slotted spoon to take them out, letting as much liquid as possible drip off so they’re fairly dry. Chop these mushrooms, discarding any hard stalk ends.

Place a large casserole dish (I like to use Le Creuset) over a medium to high heat and pour in the 2 tablespoons of olive oil. When the oil’s hot, tip in the onions and fry for a few minutes until they’re starting to soften. Add the garlic and a few rosemary leaves and allow to cook for another couple of minutes, turning the heat down to medium. At this point add all the mushrooms and fry for approximately 5-10 minutes until they’ve all softened and shrunk down, cooked through.

Pour in the mushroom vegetable stock and the red wine, give it a good stir and then add the lentils. Stir once more, season with salt and pepper and sprinkle in the rest of the rosemary leaves. Make sure all the lentils are down in the liquid before placing the lid on and reducing the heat to a simmer. They should take about 45-60 minutes to cook, but every 10 minutes check it’s gently simmering and give the stew a good stir. You may find you have to add a little more liquid as the lentils soak it up – do a small amount at a time as you want a thick casserole by the end.

Once the lentils are soft and the flavours have all come together, mix up the miso paste with a tiny bit of water and then stir into the mix, turning the heat off. Serve with rice or roast potatoes for a traditional winter supper, or try it in a lunch bowl with some roasted vegetables and salad.

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The Easiest Nut Milk

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I’ve never liked cow’s milk. My mother used to make my brothers drink glasses of the stuff when we were little, but for some reason (I’m not sure why) she never made me. Dairy has just never seemed to sit well in my body, never seemed to do me much good. For years I used to have rice milk on my cereal, which is delicious, but fairly sugary, if only made up of natural sugars from rice. I still have it sometimes, along with unsweetened soya milk, which is great as it has a fair bit of protein in it, but it can be tricky to find a soya milk that is literally just soya beans and water, without added sugar or things like monopotassium phosphate or gellan gum. The latter is supposedly a ‘stabiliser’ – something to artifically make all the ingredients blend and stick evenly together to make sure it ‘looks’ nice for consumers.

The best kind of milk, hands down, is nut milk. Almond milk is probably my favourite, but hazelnut milk and cashew milk are also scrumptious. When you take a sip and get that faintly sweet, nutty taste, it’s divine, especially splashed over porridge. But like soya milk most of the ones you find in supermarkets have those mysterious added ingredients which aren’t actually food, and most people have no idea what they are or stop to question them or what they might be doing to their bodies. Just the way food companies and corporations like Alpro and Tesco like it.

The freshest and most nutritious nut milk you can drink is (as with everything) the homemade from scratch kind. And when you make it at home, you know it’s literally nuts and water. When I have the time, I soak nuts overnight and then blend them with water before straining out the milk through a cheesecloth. But a lot of us in this 21st century world don’t have the time, especially first thing in the morning, or else we forget to soak the nuts the night before or often feel lazy. I’m guilty of all those things. That’s why a couple of weeks ago, I had a light bulb moment.

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I adore nut butters, forever spreading them on rye bread or rice cakes or just licking them straight off a spoon. Like nut milks I try to make them as often as possible but most of the time I live off nut butters bought from my local health food shop. I always either get Meridian or Carley’s. Carley’s is so great as they supply raw white almond butter, so it’s full of nutrients, having not been heated and lost some of its goodness. You can’t beat the creaminess of Meridian nut butters though. Either way, they’re both fantastic as they are literally just nuts, completely natural and with no added ingredients. You may be surprised that almost all shop bought peanut butters have added palm oil – for some reason (even the Whole Earth brand which purports to be sustainable and environmentally friendly) the people making peanut butter feel the need to take the natural peanut oil out and put palm oil in. Which just seems totally crazy to me.

But the crucial point here is that you can use these nut butters to make nut milks. Simply by scooping a couple of teaspoons of the butter out and then whizzing it up with water. Done in under a minute and voilà! You’ve got nut milk. And, especially if you use raw nut butter, you have a natural, delicious, nutrient-rich, protein-dense, sugar free milk to enjoy and gulp down whenever you like.

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Makes one small jug of nut milk:

  • 2 teaspoons of nut butter (almond, cashew, hazelnut or a mix)
  • 1 cup of water

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Place the nut butter and water in a blender (or, even easier, in a container for using with a hand blender) and blend for 10 seconds. Pour the mix out into a jug or bottle and seal, and store in the fridge. Most importantly – enjoy!

Apple, Cucumber, Lime & Mint Juice (aka Healthy Mojito)

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Our apple tree has always been a bit of an unreliable, fickle thing. Some years it produces one apple, some years none, and then this year it goes and surprises us by sprouting loads of little green balls, and early in the season too. These apples are great for stewing or for apple crumble, but I just love them in a juice. They’re about the freshest thing I can get my hands on, with the tree just a few steps from our kitchen door, and when you drink this garden apple nectar and compare it to the fake, artificial, sugar-filled juice you find in the supermarket, you realise it is real juice.

The combination of apple with the other flavours is amazing. I used to love mojitos – the mixture of lime, mint and sugar is a real taste explosion in the mouth. So sweet, so zesty. But since giving up alcohol and refined sugar sipping on a cocktail isn’t something I like to do. However, this doesn’t matter in the least because this juice tastes like the real thing and, what’s more, is bursting with nutrients.

Juicing is so good for you because the vegetable and fruit liquid basically bypasses your digestive system, and the nutrients are absorbed straight into your cells. There are so many antioxidants and vitamins in just one glass of this juice, giving you an energy boost without overloading your body with too much sugar, thanks to the cucumber, broccoli and spinach. The mint (freshly picked from my garden) adds further nourishment and goodness to the juice through its ability to promote digestion, soothe and alleviate inflammation, cleanse the skin and stave off fatigue as a natural stimulant. All blended together, this really tastes divine and leaves you feeling invigorated and uplifted – so get juicing!

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Makes 1 large glass:

  • 2 medium-sized apples
  • 4 inch piece of cucumber
  • 1 green broccoli stem
  • A handful of spinach
  • Half a lime
  • A good handful of mint leaves

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Put all the ingredients into the juicer and flip the switch. Be sure to squash the spinach and mint leaves between the apples, cucumber or broccoli so they juice well and the flavours really come out. Pour the liquid into a glass with a couple of ice cubes and sip on a sunny afternoon!

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