I was given this delicious gratin recipe by Italian chef and cookery writer, Valentina Harris, who I met through my involvement in the wonderful Wells Food Festival, which has now become an annual event in England’s smallest city.
This article was first published in my Eat the Season column in the Wells Journal on 16 January 2014.
I am rather partial to a big bowl of minestrone. It’s such a versatile soup and lends itself brilliantly to whatever vegetables are in season.
During the summer months I like to make minestrone using produce straight from our small veg patch – ingredients like peas, beans, asparagus and lots of lovely fresh herbs, such as basil, oregano or mint. It makes for a wonderfully light and crunchy dish, especially when you serve with a spoonful of pesto on top. And there’s something rather virtuous and wholesome about cooking up a pot of soup from things you’ve grown yourself. I come over all Barbara from The Good Life.
But winter minestrone is quite a different affair; much more comforting and satisfying. It transforms what can seem quite dreary winter vegetables into a fine meal, and succeeds in persuading my youngest daughter to actually enjoy leafy greens.
Everyone tends to have their own way of making minestrone. Some add rice or pasta, others don’t. Common ingredients usually include beans, onion, celery, carrot and tomato.
Minestrone of course hails originally from Italy. Almost every Italian region has its own version, which varies from a thick, mushy soup to something more like a broth with lightly cooked vegetables and sometimes meat too, such as sausage or bacon.
This is my recipe for winter minestrone, featuring pancetta for a rich, smoky flavour. I’ve also used the tiny, rice-shaped pasta, orzo, but feel free to substitute with rice or any other small pasta or even broken spaghetti.
Winter minestrone with pancetta
2 tbsp olive oil
260g pancetta, diced
1 onion, peeled and diced
3 carrots, peeled and diced
2 sticks of celery, diced
3 cloves garlic, crushed
250g root vegetables, diced (I used swede and celeriac)
400g tin plum tomatoes, chopped
250g winter greens, finely shredded (I used Swiss chard and curly kale)
handful fresh thyme, picked from the stem
1 litre hot chicken or vegetable stock
2 large handfuls orzo
salt and pepper
Parmesan to serve
Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan and slowly fry the pancetta, onion, carrot and celery until soft.
Add the garlic and root vegetables and continue to cook while stirring to prevent sticking.
Stir in the chopped tomatoes and cook for about 5 minutes until they have reduced a little.
Add the winter greens, thyme and the hot stock, and bring to the boil. Simmer gently for 20 minutes.
Add the orzo and cook for another 10 minutes or so until the pasta is tender. Season to taste.
Serve hot with freshly grated Parmesan.
As the soup is packed full of healthy vegetables, I’m entering it into January’s Four Seasons Food challenge, hosted by Eat Your Veg and Delicieux, where the theme this month is Virtuous Food. I reckon you can eat a bowlful of this minestrone and feel very virtuous indeed!
Sick of cliches about diet food? The ‘gals’ from Adland are sure to put a smile on your face!
We don’t eat a lot of processed cheese in the Bangers & Mash household, but I am trying to keep an eye on my weight so when Kerry invited me to try out their LowLow cheese spreads I was keen to give them a go. This spoof ad made me chuckle and I love the idea of cutting down on our fat intake without sacrificing on taste. Can it really be possible?
While LowLow probably won’t replace a couple of slices of a mature local Cheddar in my lunchtime sandwich, I was impressed with LowLow as a cooking ingredient and will use it again as a substitute for full fat soft cheese or maybe even cream in certain dishes.
Kerry sent me recipes for Pancetta Wrapped Chicken and Spring Vegetable Risotto and I put them to the test on my family, including my discerning mother who was over from Spain to stay this weekend. I played with the recipes a little to suit the tastes of my brood and also to make the most of what happened to be in our fridge, particularly the heaps of wild garlic and purple sprouting broccoli we have to use up.
The first dish I tried out on my family was the Pancetta Wrapped Chicken. Both my husband and mother pulled faces when they saw I was cooking with a low fat cheese spread, and I rather wished I hadn’t told them beforehand what I was up to. Personally I thought the end result was rather good. I don’t think I would have spotted the cheese was a low fat alternative if I hadn’t already known, but Jason and my mum were convinced it tasted different to normal soft cheese. However, they still ate it regardless and the children wolfed theirs down quite happily. Here’s what I did…
Pancetta Wrapped Chicken
2 large sweet potatoes
1 tsp Cajun seasoning
4 chicken breasts
125g LowLow Mature Cheddar Spread
8 sun-dried tomatoes
8 slices of pancetta
300g spring greens
Preheat the oven to 180°C (gas mark 6).
Scrub the sweet potatoes, dry with kitchen towel and slice into wedges. Place in an ovenproof dish, spray with a little low-fat oil and sprinkle with Cajun seasoning. Roast in the oven for around half an hour until soft inside and a little charred on the outside.
Meanwhile, prepare the chicken breasts by cutting a slice in each one at the thickest point, to create a pocket. Spread a quarter of the LowLow Mature Cheddar Spread into the pocket and pop a couple of sun-dried tomatoes into each one.
Wrap 2 slices of pancetta around each chicken breast, making sure to seal the pocket.
Place the chicken breasts on a baking tray and spray with low-fat spray. Season with black pepper. Cook for 20 minutes.
While the chicken is cooking, shred the greens and steam for 4-5 minutes.
When the chicken is cooked through, slice and serve with the greens and sweet potatoes. Enjoy!
When I made the Spring Vegetable Risotto the following day, I learned from my previous mistake. This time I didn’t tell anyone I’d used LowLow when I served up this lovely fresh and creamy risotto. It went down an absolute treat with adults and children alike, and my husband and mum both requested second helpings. The LowLow gave the dish a rich cheesiness, which wasn’t too cloying, and rather good to know wasn’t piling on the calories at the same time. Here’s how I prepared the risotto…
Spring Vegetable Risotto
2 tbsp olive oil
1 large shallot, finely chopped
300g risotto rice
1.25 litres vegetable stock (hot)
200g spears of asparagus spears, trimmed at an angle
200g purple sprouting broccoli
100g frozen peas
125g LowLow Mature Cheddar Spread
large handful wild garlic, roughly chopped
Heat the oil in a large, heavy-based saucepan. Add the shallots and sauté for 3-5 minutes until they are soft. Stir in the rice so it is coated with oil.
Pour in a ladleful of stock and stir. Cook, stirring regularly until the stock is absorbed. Continue until the stock is used up and the rice is tender all the way through.
In the meantime, steam the asparagus and broccoli until just cooked, retaining a little bite.
When the rice is cooked, stir in the asparagus, purple sprouting broccoli, LowLow Mature Cheddar Spread and wild garlic. Cook for a minute or two until the vegetables are heated through and the cheese has melted. Serve immediately, sprinkled with a little extra wild garlic.
If you’d like to try Kerry’s LowLow yourself, I have five vouchers each worth £3 to give away. Simply leave a comment below saying why you’d like to try it.