The week before I fly home to England from California I always go into an extra crazy vegetable eating and juicing mission. It is my attempt to pack in as many vitamins and antioxidants so we are ready to fight off any bugs flying around inside of the plane. My usual waste not want not mentality goes into overdrive. I hate throwing away food so I plan meals to use up what is in the fridge and freezer before we go. This cuts unnecessary trips to the supermarket and saves me money which I can then spend on essentials like giant Toblerones at duty-free.
This mindset of making something out of nothing is equally useful year-round – on the day you feel like you must go food shopping but can’t summon the strength. Get into this habit and you can add an extra day or two to the length of time between grocery store trips. Just think of the money and time you’ll save over the year. It is also a great way to test your imagination in the kitchen.
The recipe I’ll share below is something I make a version of frequently at the end of the week to empty the fridge of veggies. It makes plenty and can easily be doubled so you can make extra to freeze or to eat the next day for lunch. It is lovely to come home from a long flight or day at work and pull a virtuous veggie stew out of the freezer.
This is more of a habit than a recipe. Set yourself the challenge and exercise your creativity. Use it as time to practice your chopping and flavour and texture balancing. For example, in the photo above you’ll see I have following textures – the softness of the veggie stew, topped with a soft fried egg for creaminess. I used the tail end of a bag of salad and microgreens for freshness. I topped the eggs and stew with a couple of crumbled spelt crackers for crunch – that final layer of texture transformed the dish into something balanced and satisfying. As for flavour balancing, my stew has the acid of the wine and vinegar, the sweetness of the veggies, the savoriness of the eggs and cheese, and the saltiness of the salt and cheese. I talk more about texture and flavor balancing and cooking without a recipe here.
Use the following list as a way of picking your building blocks when you freestyle a stew. That way you can use what you find in your store cupboard or fridge. Try and tick off each category below:
- base and bulk – any combination of vegetables plus some garlic, onion or leek
- protein – leftover bits of cheese, eggs, salami, leftover cooked meat
- carbs – rice, pasta, canned beans, barley, cous cous, quinoa – the recipe below excludes these but you can add them in at stage 3.
- flavour boosters – random ends of jars from the fridge – olives, sun-dried tomatoes, pesto, tomato paste. Spices and spice pastes such as harissa or curry paste
- acid – a glass of wine or a splash of wine or sherry vinegar
- crunch – crackers, toasted breadcrumbs, nuts or seeds
- freshness – fresh herbs, microgreens or salad leaves
To make enough for 4 people follow this recipe but please, please, please use this only as guide. Use whatever you have to substitute as long as you roughly follow my directions. I’m giving measurements as an indication but be driven instead by what you have and your taste buds.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 bulb of fennel, chopped into a small dice
1 red bell pepper, chopped into a small dice
4 carrots, scrubbed but unpeeled and chopped into a small dice
3 courgettes [zucchini], unpeeled and chopped into a small dice
a handful of baby tomatoes
a sweet potato, scrubbed but unpeeled and chopped into a small dice
an onion, chopped into a small dice
4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
a couple of handfuls of rocket [arugula]
a handful of microgreens or peashoots
6 sun-dried tomatoes in oil, snipped with scissors into small pieces
a teaspoon of fennel seeds
a half teaspoon of smoked paprika
a couple of tablespoons of grated Parmesan or crumbled Feta
a glass of wine
a tablespoon of red wine vinegar
salt and pepper
2 seeded spelt crackers
1. Heat a large pan on a low heat, I use my Le Creuset, and add a tablespoon of olive oil. Chop the onion followed by the fennel, courgette [zucchini], pepper, carrots, sweet potato and add each one as it is chopped to the pan
2. Once all the veggies are chopped and in the pan, add the baby tomatoes and bring the heat up to medium and cook them slowly while you go off and do other things. Stir every 5 minutes or so until the vegetables are starting to turn golden. This will take anything from 20-30 minutes depending on the size of your pan and heat.
3. Add the sliced garlic, sundried tomatoes, fennel seeds, smoked paprika and a half teaspoon each of salt and pepper and stir. Then add the wine and enough water so that the veggies are two-thirds covered. Stir and bring to a simmer. At this point your could stir in some canned beans, dried barley or pasta too. You could also add some chopped, cooked meat.
4. Cook with a lid on for 20-40 minutes, stir every 10 minutes and add more water if it is sticking. This is another part of the process where you can go off and do something else. The lower the heat the longer it can cook without sticking.
5. Once the veggies are tender, take the lid off and cook the stew until the liquid has reduced to a stew texture. You can always leave it more soupy if you prefer.
6. Stir through the grated cheese if using. Season gradually and taste until you are happy that it is balanced – taste and adjust the salt, pepper, cheese and add vinegar for brightness. At this stage you can set it aside with a lid on until you are ready to eat. I like it to be warm rather than hot.
7. To serve, fry or poach your eggs until they are soft – or you could use a spoonful of soft cheese or yoghurt for creaminess. Toast breadcrumbs or nuts or blitz your crackers in a food processor. Stir any fresh herbs or salad greens (in this case rocket/arugula) into the stew at the last-minute then top the stew with the eggs and crumbs.
8. Leftovers can be frozen. Or will sit in the fridge for 3-4 days. Leftovers make a great lunch, stuffed into pita bread with some crumbled feta to take to work, or onto a plane!