ArchiveFebruary 4, 2024

Winter Warmers

Rory O’Connell

My goodness, the weather has been particularly unpleasant this winter and despite the tiny little “stretch” in evening light, it feels that we are sometime away from bright spring days. Having said that, I have spotted some daffodils blooming in my garden – much too early if you ask me, and my spring bulbs in pots are bravely pushing up through the cold and damp soil. Little glimmers of hope.

However, while we await those joyous moments of spring, I feel the need for comforting and warming dishes to soothe body and soul, so I am suggesting three dishes to fulfil that need.

Lentil and Kale Soup is a hearty and robust offering which I find deeply nourishing and despite its rather rustic appearance has a really sophisticated flavour. I serve this in the “Italian style”, so thick and soupy at the same time. You can indeed loosen the consistency with a little more stock to achieve a thinner soup or at least one that is less thick, but the porridge type consistency is part of the charm. If you can manage to find a bottle of “new seasons” extra virgin olive oil, a little drizzle of that on the soup is marvellous. The “new seasons” oil is from olives pressed last autumn or early winter, so I suppose the most recent olive oil. I love the oils from Tuscany in Italy which generally have a freshness and flavour that is described as grassy. It is an ingredient that I look forward to every year and though it is expensive, a little goes a long way and the rich green oil elevates the ordinary to the very special. If you do buy a bottle, drizzle a little on a cooked grilled steak or fish, cooked fresh pasta, tender cooked cauliflower or broccoli and even over humble mashed swede turnips with a grating of Coolea or Parmesan cheese. Marvellous.

Casserole Roast Chicken with Indian Spices will also warm the cockles. The green chilli that is secreted in the pot with the bird and the spices is the heat source here. The technique for cooking the bird in a heavy casserole with a tight fitting lid is endlessly useful and can be used for other birds such as pheasant, guinea fowl and even a turkey, though that will require an extra-large pot. The beauty of preparing a bird in this way, is that once it is cooked, the juices that have been trapped in the tightly sealed casserole can simply be the sauce. In this recipe, I de-grease the cooking juices and add a little cream though that could be optional. Other than the fresh tasting green chilli, the remaining spicing here is gentle. I serve this with plain boiled rice. A crispy poppadom would be a charming addition.

The Winter Chocolate Apple Pudding to finish the meal is a personal favourite and the addition of a little mincemeat leftover from Christmas past is somehow a way of putting a little of the winter to bed or at least to good use – perhaps that is wishful thinking. This comforting dish should be served warm and ideally on hot plates with cold softly whipped cream to accompany. The combination of rich chocolate, refreshing apple and fruity mincemeat is delicious and the contrast between warm pudding and icy cold cream is a delight.

Lentil and Kale Soup

Serves 6 -8

250g green lentils

1 red chilli

1 bay leaf

3 cloves of unpeeled garlic

branch of thyme

1 onion halved

1 – 1.2 litres chicken stock

500g curly kale, weighed after the tough stalks have been removed

150ml cream

salt and freshly ground pepper

Place the lentils, chilli, bay leaf, garlic, thyme, onion and chicken stock in a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook very gently until the lentils are tender. Do not allow the lentils to become overcooked and mushy but at the same time they do need to be completely cooked all the way through. I add a good pinch of salt to the cooking lentils 5 minutes before they are cooked.

Remove the bay leaf, thyme and onion and discard. Peel the skin off the chilli and discard the skin. Split it in half lengthways and remove and discard the seeds. Chop the chilli flesh finely and add back into the lentils. Press the flesh out of the cooked garlic and discard the skins. Stir the soft garlic into the lentils. Taste and correct seasoning.

Bring 3 litres of water to a boil in a large saucepan and season well with salt. Add the kale leaves and cook uncovered until completely tender. Strain off all of the water and place the leaves in a food processor. Purée briefly, add the cream and continue to puree to a smooth consistency. Taste and correct seasoning making sure to add some freshly ground black pepper. Both elements of the soup can be put aside now for reheating later.

When ready to serve the soup, Heat the lentils and kale in separate saucepans. When both mixtures are simmering, add the kale to the lentil saucepan and gently fold through. The soup can look streaky at this stage and that is the way I prefer to serve it. Ladle into hot soup bowls and drizzle each serving with olive oil. Serve immediately

Serve with new season extra virgin olive oil.

Casserole Roast Chicken with Indian Spices

Sometimes when I want a spiced chicken dish, I want a no-holds-barred, hot and aromatic experience. Other times, I am in the mood for tender and succulent slices of chicken with a lightly spiced, thin cream or juice to accompany it. This recipe is the latter.

Serves 6

1 free-range chicken, about 1.3kg

20g soft butter

1 heaped tsp coriander seeds, lightly toasted and ground

1 heaped tsp cumin seeds, lightly toasted and ground

¼ tsp turmeric powder

pinch of chilli powder

2 tbsp lemon juice

4 green chillies

225ml cream

2 tbsp chopped coriander leaf

salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 180°C/Gas Mark 4.

Mix the ground coriander, cumin, turmeric and chilli powder with a pinch of salt. Mix this spice mix into half of the butter.

Heat a heavy casserole on a gentle heat. Rub the breasts of the chicken dry with some kitchen paper. Smear the remaining half of the soft butter on the breasts. Place the chicken, breast side down into the heated casserole. The butter should sizzle a bit and that tells you the casserole is hot enough. If it doesn’t sizzle, whip out the chicken immediately and allow the casserole to get hotter.  Allow the chicken breasts to become golden brown, making sure the casserole doesn’t get so hot that it actually burns the butter. This will involve a bit of manoeuvring, perhaps sitting the chicken on its side and so on. Season the coloured chicken breasts with a pinch of salt and pepper. Allow to cool for a few minutes and then smear the spiced butter all over it. Place the chicken back in the casserole, breast side up. Pop the chillies around the chicken and sprinkle over the lemon juice.  Cover with greaseproof paper and a tight fitting lid and place in the preheated oven. Cook for 90 minutes. 

Remove the casserole from the oven and check to ensure that the chicken is fully cooked.  This can be done in several ways. One way, the best in my opinion, is to insert a metal skewer in between the leg and the breast. This is the last place to cook in the chicken so it is the best place to check. Count to ten seconds. Remove the skewer and test the temperature of the skewer on the back of your hand. If it doesn’t feel so hot as to make you immediately pull the skewer away from your hand with a start, then the chicken probably is not cooked. The other way to test is to endeavour to extract a little juice from the same place, between the breast and the leg to see if it is completely clear. If it is not clear and if there is any trace of pink in the juice, then it is not cooked. If this is the case put the chicken back in the oven for a further 10 minutes and repeat the test.

Remove the cooked chicken and the chillies, which by now will be collapsed and a bit sad looking, from the casserole and keep warm in the oven with the temperature reduced to 50°C/Gas Mark 1/2. Allow the chicken at least 15 minutes to rest before carving.

Strain out all of the cooking juices into a bowl and allow it to settle for a minute or two. The butter and chicken fat will rise to the surface of the liquid. Spoon off the buttery fat, now full of the flavour of the spices, and save it for roasting vegetables. It is particularly good with parsnips or for tossing into crushed new potatoes.

Place the degreased juices back in the casserole and add the cream. Bring to a simmer and cook until the sauce is lightly thickened. Add the chopped coriander leaves. Taste and correct seasoning. Carve the chicken neatly and serve with the sauce. The chillies should be used to garnish the dish and the heat fiends will find them delicious to eat.

Winter Chocolate Apple Pudding

This is a variation of the classic apple betty, which is a simple pudding that I love.

Serves 4

1kg Bramley apples, peeled, cored and cut into large chunks

30g butter

2 tbsp water

For the crumb layer

150g mincemeat

125g soft white breadcrumbs

75g light soft brown sugar

50g dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa solids), roughly chopped

75g butter

3 tbsp golden syrup

To serve

chilled softly whipped cream

Preheat the oven to 190°C/Gas Mark 5.

Put the apples in a pan and toss with the butter and water over a gentle heat. Cook for about 10 minutes, until the apples start to soften and are collapsing just a little at the edges but still generally keeping their shape. Tip them into a 1.5 litre baking dish.

Mix together the mincemeat, breadcrumbs, sugar and chocolate and cover the apples loosely with this topping. Melt the butter and golden syrup together in a small saucepan and pour it over the crumbs, making certain to soak them all.

Bake in the oven for 35 minutes, until the apple is soft, and the crumbs are golden and crisp. Allow to cool slightly, then serve in heated bowls with chilled softly whipped cream.


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