Snow! It’s winter at last. That would make hearty stews and chunky soups the obvious choice. And it’s not always wrong, or boring, to take the obvious choice. Often, with food at at least, the obvious is obvious on account of being simply right and appropriate. Don’t call it ‘obvious’, call it ‘seasonal’ and not only does it not read as wrong and boring, it’s suddenly both fashionable and worthy.
So yes, by all means, fill your casserole with big lumps of meat, and leave to cook long and slow in a low oven while you go out and build a snowman, or simply snuggle up in front of a blazing fire (or the TV) with a bottle of something rich and red.
But when it really snows, sometimes it’s a question of conjuring something filling and heartwarming out of what you have in the larder. After all, you may very well wake up to a winter wonderland without a kilo of either pork belly or oxtail in your fridge, the cheeks of neither ox or pig, no shanks of lamb or pork; and if you are actually snowed in – or simply don’t care to venture out into the teeth of the blizzard - no means of getting any.
Tinned pulses are something I would always hope to have in my larder – at least one, preferably all, of chickpeas, cannellini, borlotti and butter beans, any of which can supply the protein basis of a hearty winter meal. Tinned tomatoes too, of course, are a constant staple. This time of year the chances are I’ll also have a parsnip or two and some carrots, and of course a bag of potatoes and a few onions. As long as you have these few items and some tasty stock (in your fridge, freezer or out of a tub of Marigold instant veg stock, another basic larder staple I’d never wish to be out of) you have yourself dinner.
The other day, finding myself with a single parsnip and carrot, and just a few potatoes in the larder, half a tin of chopped tomatoes and half a bag of spinach in the fridge I decided to use them all up to make a delicious and heartwarming wintery version of chickpea and spinach stew, served alongside a layered potato, parsnip and carrot bake – a kind of winter veg gratin or boulangere, I guess.
The chickpea stew is a not particularly adapted version of the Spanish tapas classic garbanzos con espinacas, a brilliantly versatile dish that’s equally suited to being a side dish or the main feature of a meal, can be served hot or cold, winter or summer alike – and perhaps the best thing about it is it’s so quick and easy to make. Just fry some onion with garlic and spices add the chickpeas, a little stock, stir in a big bunch of spinach at the end and Bob’s your Mum’s brother. Or you can add a few other bits and pieces as I did. On this occasion, a few mushrooms and that half tin of chopped tomatoes. You could easily add a little shredded bacon if you wanted to, or even better, chorizo and/or morcilla (or good old British black pudding). If you don't have chickpeas, any of the other regular beans will make a perfectly adequate substitute, but the slightly crunchy texture of the chickpea is best suited to this dish. Other, softer beans will lend a different, not necessarily inferior, character to it.
For the winter veg Boulangere
4 potatoes (floury ones like King Edwards or Maris piper)
250ml stock (any stock you like, I prefer a strong flavoured stock like beef for this dish, but if you’re making it to go with the chickpea dish above, then the same, lighter, stock you’d use for that is just fine)
Finely slice the root veg, to no more than the thickness of a pound coin, thinner if you can - perhaps the thickness of a two pence piece. Slice the onion rather thicker. Most recipes then simply advise constructing the dish by layering all the components in your gratin dish raw, I have found that this is often unsatisfactory – the different components, cooking at different rates tend not to soften and combine as you’d wish. My trick is to put the sliced potatoes into a pan with the stock and bring them to the boil and straining of the stock. This does create a little more washing up and makes handling the hot potato a little trickier, but I find the finished result is worth it. I also quickly soften the onion in a frying pan, in a little olive oil, with some finely sliced garlic, thyme leaves and salt and pepper. Then I layer the gratin dish. Always start and finish with a layer of potato, what you do in between is up to you, but in this case I went potato, onion, parsnip and carrot together, onion, potato. Then pour over the hot stock, enough so it's just visible at the level of the top potato layer - don't flood the dish.
Bake in the oven at around 200, for about half an hour. You might want to turn up the heat at the end to get a golden top layer, or finish it under the grill.
For the Chickpea stew (or Garbanzos con Espinacas if you prefer, and I think I do)
1 x 400g tin of chickpeas (you can of course use dried, they are superior in texture and flavour, but less convenient and it’s convenience that’s key here)
1 small onion (red for aesthetic preference, but regular yellow is fine)
Spices (any or all of cumin, coriander and fennel seeds, lightly crushed, a pinch of turmeric or saffron, salt and pepper, obviously)
Half a dozen or so chesnut mushrooms chunkily sliced or halved/quartered depending on size)
Half a tin of chopped tomatoes (or two or three fresh tomatoes skinned, deseeded and chopped)
A couple of big handfuls of young leaf spinach
250ml hot stock (ham, chicken or veg)
Gently fry the onion with the garlic, chilli and spices in a little olive oil till the onion is softening, then add the mushrooms (and tomatoes if you’re using fresh ) and cook for about another minute or two before adding the chickpeas and the stock, cook together for about ten minutes, at a gentle simmer, preferably covered. Immediately before you are ready to eat, throw in the spinach and stir it through.
If you want to add bacon or chorizo, do that right at the beginning. If I was going to add blood sausage, I’d do so at the same stage as the mushrooms. If you’re using dried chick peas you will obviously have had to soak and cook them first.