Lentil and Vegetable Soup
Warm, spicy and filling

There is something gratifying about returning home on a blustery autumnal day and warming up your tunny with a big bowl of thick, spicy soup. The only let down is that this is still August and it is not meant to be autumnal at all!

But, through fair weather and foul, as they say….

This is an easy dish and low priced so there is precious little excuse. I have made this with red lentils since that was what was in the cupboard. Likewise, the vegetables chosen are what happened to be in the fridge. So, this is very much a larder recipe – vary it according to what you have in stock.

 Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons ground nut oil
  • 1 large onion
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • 1 small lump ginger
  • 1 cup red lentils
  • 4 cups chicken stock (or veggie stock if you prefer)
  • 1 chili
  • 1 tablespoon cumin seed
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seed
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 large carrot, diced
  • 1 stick celery, diced
  • 1 cup peas
  • 1 cup chopped coriander
  • Salt and black pepper

Cook it!

In a large heavy saucepan, heat the oil and gently fry the spices. Make sure they do not burn!

Add finely chopped onion, garlic, ginger and chili and cook till the onion is just turning colour – do not brown it too much as that wont work as well.

Stir in the lentils, carrots, celery and stock. Bring to the boil and turn down to simmer till the lentils are properly cooked. You might need to add more stock if it is too thick.

Add the peas and the coriander and cook for a couple of minutes more.

Salt and pepper to taste and serve.

If you want it spicier, increase the spice levels and you might want to drizzel some chili oil over the bowls of soup.

Chicken over charcoal
Cooked from Fresh

With the August Bank Holiday approaching, the Food Services Agency in the UK is warning people to take care when using the BBQ to reduce the chance of food poisoning, including telling people to pre-cook food in the oven first.

Although this is probably safe advice, for people who really enjoy BBQ food precooking is also a really good way to spoil the great taste of freshly barbecued food. So, what to do?

Pick your ingredients!

There are certain food which are more prone to cause problems than others. For instance, British sausages and BBQs are a bad mix! Often very fatty (which is what makes them nice) they burn easily on the outside, make the old charcoal go up in flames, and can be difficult to cook all the way through properly. To be honest, they fry better, so either avoid them completely or put an old frying pan on the BBQ and cook them in that properly. Note – don’t use a pan with a plastic handle!

Pork can be an issue and must be cooked properly. If you are not confident in getting it right, don’t use cuts that are on the bone, like large chops, as it can be harder to get the meat cooked properly that is closest to the bone.

Likewise, chicken on the bone is also problematical – again, if you are not confident, go for boneless thighs and breasts and do something different with them.

By the way, while you are choosing ingredients, don’t forget to BBQ veggies – they can be really nice!

Remember the good old Kebab

Turkish Lamb Garlic Kofta
Kofta with minced lamb

Cooking meet on a metal skewer is wonderful for several reasons – it looks nice, the meat is not on the bone (er, normally) and the metal helps transmit heat into the middle of the meat.

Meat can be in cubes if you have a good sized BBQ that will stay at a good temperature, but if you using a disposable that will not keep its heat, try threading thinner strips of meat onto the skewer instead. Pork makes good kebabs too, by the way, which often gets forgotten. Mince squeezed onto a skewer as a kofta is also a good alternative – again, go for a thin one if using a disposable and make sure your hands are spotless before squeezing!

Get a cooking thermometer

Professional Thermometer


This is a real essential item – don’t leave home without it, as they used to say. You should be using this in the kitchen at home anyway, to be honest. Get yourself a list of common internal cooking temperatures (here is one from Knorr) and STICK TO IT!

This is the best way to get things right. I strongly suggest you invest in a good one and use it for years. Not only will it help make sure you are safe, but when you want to get things intentionally rare (like that amazing T-Bone you just spent your week’s pocket money on) then you will get that right too.

The one shown here is a professional SuperFast Thermapen  and can be expensive – anything from £35 to £60 depending on where you get it. But there are cheaper ones, though they work more slowly and you must give them time to react properly. If you can treat yourself, go for this one – I love mine.

Pick the right BBQ and Temperature

Flaming Lamb Kebabs
Flaming Lamb Kebabs

Okay, I don’t like gas BBQs. For me the entire point of a barbecue is to get that charcoal, smokey flavour, and you don’t get that with gas without adding rubbish. But gas BBQs do have advantages – the main one from our point of view is consistent temperature over a long period of time. This makes the cooking process more predictable and therefore potentially safer. But you can achieve this with charcoal too, if you do not try and burn all your charcoal all at once, and refuel in very small amounts as you go instead (refuel with charcoal, that is, do not throw petrol on the damned thing, idiot!)

Temperature is also worth thinking about – you really do not want it too hot! For many foods, a slightly lower heat and longer cooking time will be safer and will cook better. You need to think about this especially on hot sunny days when your BBQ will heat up quicker and hotter and that can be a problem.

Cooking outside also causes a temperature contrast on cooler days – the top of the food (facing away from the grill) can cool down quickly if you have a cool breeze, so you may want to lay a clean small metal tray on top of some of the food as it cooks to help trap the heat above the kebab or whatever. The better Turkish restaurants in London like Efes in Great Tichfield Street do this all the time – worth just watching them to pick up great techniques.

If you have a large BBQ area, try going for a hot and less hot areas – you may want to char the outside of the meat first, then move it to the less hot area to cook through properly. Or, if you have different height grills, move stuff up to a cooler grill to finish cooking, but be careful of it not being cooled down by that British north easterly wind!

Follow obvious hygiene rules

Some people think some of the hygiene rules get in the way, but getting them right it very easy. Though it does get more complicated if you are cooking away from home.

Don’t mix raw and cooked

Get yourself two large containers, with lids, and use one to keep the uncooked food in and the other to put the food when it is cooked. Make sure both are spotlessly clean and keep putting the lids back on to help protect the food from flies, dust and anything you cant see.

Where you have food that will be served uncooked like salads and cold meats, keep them all separate from each other and away from the cooked and raw foods. If you think about it, you have four areas:

  • Raw to be cooked
  • Just cooked
  • Raw to be eaten raw (salad, for instance)
  • Previously cooked (ham, pork pies…)

Keeping those away from each other is a good rule of thumb.

Don’t put your tongs in the raw meat and then immediately in the cooked meat pile!

Again, obvious stuff. Once you have stopped cooking it, your dish will start to cool down. If you use tongs that have been in contact with raw meat that may be covered in bacteria (er, WILL be covered), then the cooked food will no longer be hot enough to kill it. So, keep separate tools for serving and so on. Easy.

Wash your hands

Make sure you have hand washing stuff available at all times. You can also buy antibacterial hand spray at loads of places, though if your hands are greasy, you should wash them. It is not just if you go to the toilet, being outside means you will inevitably pick up bacteria all over the place, so take extra care (and keep the kids away from uncooked ingredients, so they don’t put their grubby paws all over it)

Don’t trust your own hands either. Always use clean utensils to handle food – it just takes away one problem area.

Keep Utensils and Dishes Clean

Make sure you have clean plates (keep them wrapped up till you actually need them on picnics), clean utensils and clean everything. You do in your kitchen, it is equally as possible outside.  Also, make sure any cloths you are using are clean – make sure you have some spares and never touch food with cloths. Packs of disposable cloths are a good idea.

It is worth having spares sometimes of things like tongs and fish slices and so on. So don’t go and buy stupid expensive BBQ kits, just go and get good catering stuff that will last for years and is nowhere near as expensive. Your BBQ is probably not big enough to justify something with a ten foot handle! But if you have two, when you drop one, you can use the other while some kind person goes and cleans the one that has landed in the cow pat. I buy stuff from Nisbets through Amazon – good for proper sized aprons too!

Get your techniques and planning right

Don’t assume you know how to cook everything properly – go and look things up!

Different foods take different amounts of time and thicknesses play a big part. Plan your time.  Think about your BBQ – if it is a disposable, it wont last long, so do not try and cook half a sheep on it – go for thinner cuts.

Marinate in advance, but don’t use huge amounts of oil – it will drip and flame up, charring the meat too quickly without cooking the middle properly.

Don’t cook too hot – be patient. You will look more professional and the food will taste better. Remember, you want to flavour your food gently with smoke and wood tastes, not make it taste like a lump of coal!

Make sure you are not rushed or make things over complicated. If you are going for a picnic, choose just one or two items to BBQ and make stunning salads and pies to go with it that are eaten cold. Leave the complicated stuff for home where you can use your cooker as a backup.

Small is better – great fat lumps do not cook well on BBQs. BBQs are very direct, close heat and your choice of cooking should reflect that.

Reduce flareups – if they do happen, don’t spray them with water, move the food out of the way till it subsides.

Let food cook. So many people continually poke at the food. I am not sure what they are trying to achieve; looking more pro, probably. If you get the temperature right, you can put the food on the grill, let it cook one side and then gently turn it over for the other and so on. Prodding it continually won’t do anything for it and may actually cause you problems.

 

Okay, that is enough. None of this is rocket science (you can tell because no rockets have been launched as a result), but a little bit of thought goes a long way. Getting it right will not only keep your family safe, but your food will taste much, much, much better and your reputation will soar. What is more, you wont have to pre-cook everything to death and then kill it again over the coals (unless your recipe says so, of course).

Now, that has to be worth it, doesn’t it?

A bunch of fresh Spring Onions
A bunch of fresh Spring Onions

There is always a change at this time of year that is like a change of seasons, even though we are only halfway through summer.

Up to this point, the allotment has been focused on the early crops of peas and broad beans, onions, early lettuces and pak choi and the first crop of carrots. Now, the peas and broad beans have finished (though I have more peas on the way) and the ground has been cleared. In other allotments, the first and second early potatoes are all dug up and the ground cleared. So in some ways the allotments are less bushy than they were!

But now other plants are taking over. Turnips and Swedes are starting to swell, though they have a long journey yet to travel, and tomatoes, peppers and the squashes, cucumbers and melons are busy climbing their frames.

Some of these will be giving me a headache. We have had a long and welcome period of warmth and my outdoor cucumbers are producing as much as they would have indoors, so I will have a glut. Vinegar will be required, no doubt!

It is too early to see what will happen with the tomatoes, but the plants them selves are full and healthy. All mine are out side this year, so there will be no early crop.

Back at the house, the patio is looking wonderful with the begonias going bloomin’ mad. The peas and cucumbers are looking good too and make an interesting addition to the flowers. In a month or more they will be joined by chillies, which will be nice.

Apples and Pears are beginning to break the trees, so I am getting imaginative with supports. The sweetcorn plants are smaller than I was expecting, so I hope the corns are not too small!

And the trombone squash are everywhere, which is a touch of a surprise. Seems like some of them weren’t courgettes after all…

A little change from the usual verbiage; my new camera takes video too and though somewhat smaller (and less steady) than the cameras I played with in a former career, it is perfectly adequate quality – actually, it is very good.

A little bit of tarting up with Adobe Premiere Pro and writing some music especially for the occasion and I can proudly present a small, but significant tour of my little plot. Enjoy…

Harlequin Carrots
Harlequin Carrots

Having had a completely failed garlic crop, and it now looks like the second crop has got rust too, I was rather pleased to get a large and healthy first picking of carrots.

This first lot are called harlequin, which really is just a mix bag of colours from purple to white, yellow to, well, carrot coloured.

I had planted them in a raised bed that was mostly compost and no manure, which can cause them to split and generally behave badly. This has worked out well and I have 6 more rows, planted at 2 or 3 week intervals and I will also re-sow at the same spot these ones came from.

I haven’t eaten one yet, though I gave the only one that had split to the dog, who gallantly wrestled it to the ground, subdued it with a meaningful paw and got down to some happy chomping.

Now all I need to do is a large variety of carrot recipes, but quickly, because I am about to be deluged by broad beans and peas.

 

Fattening Peas
Fattening Peas

So, it is not the most inspiring song title ever, but today it was raining and yet, today I was also weeding; well, in bits, between the heavier downfalls!

Watering certainly has not been a major issue at the back end of this month; the allotment is not yet floating off down the hill, but the plants are beginning to shout, “Enough, already!” (Yes, I seem to have a totally Yiddishe crop!)

In fact, it is all looking fairly healthy at the moment.  I have started cropping broad beans (so, I should probably put up some recipes soon, if I can think of something new) and the peas are on the verge of being plump and ready. My normal beans are being a bit slow to get going as are a couple of other veg, but the peppers are now ready to be transplanted into their final pots as are the aubergines.

I think my first crop of garlic is going to be a failure. The plants got infected with rust, all in one go, and it looks like the resulting garlic bulbs are going to be tiny. Lets hope my second crop does not suffer the same fate. I will have to find a new location for the winter planting this year as once you have had rust the ground is contaminated for up to 5 years. I won’t be able to plant onions there either.

The peaches are reddening up so I hope they will be edible and not just fall off. The greenhouse grape vine has recovered this year, though the early signs of grapes look a little underwhelming; the outdoor vine is doing better.

My six melon plants (various types) are all looking healthy and are beginning to climb up their shelves, and the strawberries are doing well. Next year I think I am going to build a strawberry rack out of heavy duty canes and grow the strawberries in little pots on it. The system, if you get it right, produces lots of very clean strawberries since the fruit hang rather than lie on the ground.

Back at the house, the tomatoes are sturdy and growing well, and I have planted a couple of patio pots with blue peas and cucumbers. These will be joined later by 6 pepper plants which should make a nice display. I am moving the growing of lettuce, rocket and pak choi to the garden as I am losing to flea beetle at the allotment.

So, it is a a bit mixed – some good, some not so good, but it looked rather nice today, despite the rain.