Pre Christmas literary lunch

December 9, 2009 § Leave a comment

There are 7 of us in the book group to which I’ve belonged for a few years now.  We meet every month to discuss our chosen book but in December we put the books aside and just get together for a meal and conversation.  Following on from last year’s very successful cheese fondue at Gwyneth’s I offered to host lunch on a Friday in early December.

December is a busy time.  At work everyone wants the job done before Christmas.  At school there are fairs to be organised and costumes to be prepared for christmas plays and concerts.  At home there are cards, presents and food to be taken care of as well as all the usual routines.  Inevitably the washing machine or fridge will pack up in December (as mine just has) and to round things off nicely, the workmen who’ve been promising to turn up all year will finally make an appearance just when they’re no longer wanted.  I decided that what we all needed was a Superfoods Lunch.  The ideas was to boost our energy levels and immune systems before the rigours of Christmas preparations.  And of course the food had to taste good and look inviting.

There seems to be no standard definition of what a Superfood is.  This BBC article is a helpful and quick summary of the status of superfoods  – really a marketing tag more than anything.  Nevertheless, running through the lists of superfoods that various celebrity nutrionists have put together (take you pick from what’s available on the web), I soon had inspiration for a lunch.  We would have a spicy butternut squash soup to start, packed with sage, chilli and garlic for extra flavour. Next, there would be two salads, one based on quinoa and roast vegetables (beetroot and red onion as well as yet more squash) together with cranberries and seeds, the other a more green leafy one featuring watercress and spinach, avocado, pistachio nuts and pomegranate seeds.  I managed to find a red quinoa for the roast vegetable salad which both looked more appetising than the regular white kind and retained a bit more bite.

I neither followed nor wrote down a proper recipe for the salads, it was more a question of tasting and adding as I went along but resisting the urge to throw in too many ingredients.  For the quinoa salad, I cooked the red quinoa according the packet instructions and dressed it with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and lemon juice while it was still warm.  I then stirred in chopped parsley and chives, lightly cooked cranberries, and salt and pepper.  I tipped the dressed quinoa into a salad bowl lined with crisp red radicchio leaves then topped the salad with chunks of roast beetroot, squash and red onion.  I then blobbed on pieces of mild goats cheese and sprinkled everything with linseeds and roast sesame and sunflower seeds.  Finally I snipped some extra chives over for colour.

The other salad was an assembly of different salad leaves and chopped avocado in a lemony vinaigrette with pomegranate seeds and pistachios sprinkled over the top.

My guests brought either bread for the soup (special mention to Gwyneth’s tomato bread fresh baked that morning) or something for pudding.  Alison made a stunning dish of apple pancakes from windfalls in her garden (thanks for the extras Alison – I’ve used them variously in soup, as and addition to braised red cabbage and finally in an Eve’s Pudding).  Pictured below are Marian’s muesli slices and Nadia’s chocolate cake – both absolutely delicious.

Lunch concluded with an exchange of Secret Santa gifts, which were of course books.  I received “The Secret Scripture” by Sebastian Barry which will be my reading over the Christmas holidays.  Can’t wait to get started on it.

Recipe for butternut squash soup with garlic and chilli

This recipe is the pumpkin soup recipe from from Lindsey Bareham’s book “A Celebration of Soup”.  A decent cooking pumpkin is hard to find at the best of times but butternut squash, its close relation, is readily available. Lindsey Bareham tells us that this recipe is chef Sally Clarke’s version from the book “Women Chefs of Britain”.  The ingredients given below serve 6.


1 large butternut squash (original recipe specifies 1 medium pumpkin, preferably a green-skinned variety)
75 ml (scant 3 fl oz olive oil)
6 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage leaves
1 large onion, roughly chopped
1 leek, roughly chopped
2 sticks celery, roughly chopped
1/2 fennel bulb, roughly chopped
2 small red chilli peppers chopped very fine
1.75 litres (3 pints) – maybe a little less if your pumpkin/squash is on the small side
salt to taste (recipe suggests 2 teaspoons)

to garnish – any or all of the following:

roast pumpkin seeds sprinkled with a little salt, either seeds from the pumpkin you used to make the soup or a packet of pumpkin seeds which you roast yourself (see below)
chopped parsley
extra virgin olive oil or chilli flavoured oil

Prepare the pumpkin or squash by peeling, seeding and cutting into 2.5 cm/ 1 inch cubes. Reserve the seeds for roasting if you like.

Heat the 75ml/3 fl oz olive oil and stir fry the garlic and sage until aromatic but don’t let it burn.  Add the onion, leek, celery, fennel, pumpkin/squash and chillis, and increase the heat slightly, stirring around until the vegetables begin to soften.  Cover with the water (the recipe suggests 3 pints but I’ve found through trial and error that this can be a bit too much – try 2 pints and add more during cooking if required) and bring to the boil, then simmer gently, half-covered, until all the vegetables are soft.  Purée to a smooth consistency.  If you like your soup very smooth, pass through a medium sieve into a clean pan.  I use a stick blender directly in the soup pan and don’t bother with a sieve. Check for consistency. Boil to reduce if too thin, add more water if too thick.  Check seasoning.

If you are roasting the seeds you extracted earlier from the pumpkin, wash them under cold running water then lay the cleaned seeds on a baking tray, drizzle them with a little vegetable oil and sprinkle with a little salt.  Bake for 10-15 minutes at 375 degrees F, 190 degrees C, gas mark 5, turning with a spoon occasionally, until they are golden brown and crisp to the bite.  If you are using a packet of seeds, proceed in the same way (but no need to rinse them under cold water first) but they will need less time in the oven as they are drier.  Watch them like a hawk as they will turn from golden to burnt in a matter of moments.

Serve garnished with the roast pumpkin seeds plus a drizzle of olive oil or chilli flavoured oil and chopped parsley if you like.

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