Is there anything more beautiful than a plate full of glorious colours & textures? A plate that makes you want to throw decorum to the wind and plant your face in it? A plate that you know will make you feel as good eating it as you do simply staring at it?
I don’t think there is. Yeah, yeah, yeah, there are sunsets and there are babies and there are miniature pigs in wellies but really, a plate full of gorgeous food still does it for me every-time and in this post, I’m going to teach you how to make such a plate in your own home. I say ‘teach’ loosely because it’s comically simple but it might ask you to step out of your comfort zone hence my hand holding as we get into it.
Nutty, full-of-flavour wholegrains topped with roasted-until-caramelised-and-sticky sweet potato, beetroot, pepper, tomato and red onion and adorned with chunks of creamy avocado and nuggets of tangy goats cheese…in the words of Lurpak whose adverts I could watch on repeat much like a Ryan Gosling film, this is your dinner.
I talk a lot about roasting vegetables and sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one who loves cooking this way to the point of obsession or if there are other devotees to the oven, the baking tray and the drizzles of oil & herbs that produce such beautiful results? Do let me know if I’m alone in my passion for this way of cooking or if you’re right there beside me…
There are a few explanations for my fixation on roasting as a way of getting a delicious dinner with minimum fuss; firstly, the flavours of anything you put in the oven are incredible compared to so many other ways to cooking. Everything goes sweetly caramelised & crispy – the ode I could write to the charred, chewy, blackened bits that gather along the edges of your meat or vegetables after time in the oven is a whole other post – and the flavours are fuller, richer & more intense yet mellow at the same time. Compared to boiling or steaming or frying, there’s no comparison and vegetables like tomatoes are better for you when cooked as their levels of antioxidants such as the cancer & heart disease fighting lycopene are enormously improved and made easier for your body to absorb.
Sauteing in a hot pan comes an acceptable second place and is sometimes quicker but this leads onto my second point, time. The joy of popping something in the oven means you can do just that. Pop it in and walk away. No need to stand there stirring or poking or jabbing at your pan all of which are kitchen crimes we’ve been guilty of, like everything’s going to come together so much quicker if we stand there and prod at the pot in a somewhat satisfying but completely pointless manner?! Slide that tray of vegetables or piece of meat in the oven and nip off to make the bed, work out, drink wine or collapse on the sofa to spend a quality 20 minutes with Sheldon Cooper.*
*delete as applicable and appropriate depending on the quality of your day at work and it’s timing within the week
Alright, so let’s get down to what we’re doing here or rather what you’re going to be doing one night this week as a result of reading this…
INGREDIENTS (for 2 people)
- 1 large or 2 small sweet potatoes
- 1 red pepper
- 1 small red onion
- 2 cooked beetroot (in natural juice not vinegar)
- 2 salad tomatoes
- 1 avocado
- 50g soft goats cheese (log as opposed to round here as we don’t need rind for this recipe)
- 100g freekeh
- olive oil
- smoked paprika
- Pre-heat your oven to 200c/400f/gas mark 6-7. You want the oven hot enough to get all those vegetable sugars flowing without incurring an electricity bill that will result in you eating cold cereal for the rest of the month.
- Peel your sweet potato & red onion and then chop these as well as a red pepper, two cooked beetroot and two salad tomatoes into chunks roughly the size of a large grape – you don’t want the pieces to be microscopic otherwise you risk them roasting away to nothing. Feel free to substitute a different colour of onion or pepper – as you well know by now, J and I are just big fans of the sweet and not overpowering flavours of the red varieties. Cherry tomatoes will also work just as well and can be left whole or simply halved – go with what you have access to and what tastes good.
- Toss all of these hunks of vegetable into a bowl then have a little daydream about an actual bowl full of your favourite hunks as vegetables…I’d suggest the sweet, southern drawling McConnaughey for the potato, maybe a touch of six-packed-to-the-max Tatum for the beetroot and a dash of multi-layered-and-multi-talented Cumberbatch for the onion.
- Drizzle olive oil and a very generous sprinkling of smoked paprika over the vegetables and give them a good stir ensuring every piece is coated in shiny, russet-hued flecks of spice. Tumble them into the baking tray, slide it onto a shelf about a third of the way down from the top of the oven and leave them for approximately 40 minutes – I like to give them a bit of a turn halfway through cooking just to make sure everything’s roasting evenly and you’ll know everything is done once the sweet potato can be easily pierced with a knife.
So while your veg are having a party, starting to know each other and generally getting it on in the oven, let’s chat about freekeh and what the heck it is. Put simply, it’s a wholegrain. It’s somewhat like the love child of rice & bulgar and it comes from a young, traditionally green, wheat that is toasted and cracked. It’s been around for thousands of years but thanks to the rise in popularity of wholegrains and chefs like Ottolenghi, it’s now becoming more widely known and available. The one I used here was from M&S but I’ve also seen it in Wholefoods, Waitrose & Tesco so it’s not as impossible to find as you may have first wondered.
Incredibly high in fibre and delightfully low in fat, it’s a wonderful source of protein and contains high levels of selenium, iron, magnesium, zinc & potassium, all of which can be tricky to consume enough of on a daily basis. I love how much it fills you without leaving you feeling heavy and because it’s natural flavour is not particularly strong, it’s a perfect partner to anything you’d normally associate with rice.
- Begin preparing your freekeh while the vegetables are roasting.
- Soak the grains in cold water for around 15 minutes and put a litre of salted water on to boil.
- Once the grains are soaked, rinse and add to the boiling salted water. Once the water is boiling with the freekeh in it, turn it down to a medium simmer and cook for approximately 12 minutes. A few extra moments in the pan will give you a softer grain but J and I love the slightly nutty texture…we’re not big fans of ‘gloop’ in this house.
- While everything is cooking, crumble your goats cheese and slice your avocado. We have half an avocado each, scooped out of the shell into luscious and rustic looking dollops.
- Once everything is cooked in the oven and the freekeh is at the right consistency for you, drain it and divide between two plates. You could add the vegetables to the freekeh in the pan and mix everything up together but as the vegetable will have softened in the oven, you don’t want to risk smashing them up beyond recognition; it’s much nicer to recognise what’s on your plate!
- Top with heaping, overflowing spoonfuls of roasted veg trying not to eat too much straight from the pan, and then scatter the avocado and cheese over everything. Serve with a squeeze of lime and some simple poppadums or pittas.
I’m not going to pretend that this is a high cuisine dish. It’s not going to win anyone a Michelin star and it won’t be the finest, most elegant serving of Downton Abbey-esque dining you’ve ever had but y’know what? It’s simple. It’s healthy. It’s rustic and warming and comforting and filling and delicious and good value and it makes me incredibly happy to share something that makes me feel this good with you all. I hope it goes some way to changing the way you think about mid-week suppers, wholegrains and roasting beautiful earthy ingredients into something bright, appetizing and full of goodness.