Monday, 24 December 2007

It's Coming...

Well, I picked up my (free-range Welsh) turkey from Rob Rattray's in Aberystwyth yesterday and today's the day when preparation really is the name of the game. My jobs have so far included making my giblet stock and stuffing, preparing the sausage-and-bacon rolls for the oven tomorrow and getting Delia's Parmesan Baked Parsnips (from Delia Smith's Christmas) done to the oven-ready stage.

The boys and I had a lovely lunch of scrambled eggs with smoked salmon earlier, though James didn't think much of the salmon and Chris and I were left to eat it all, quel dommage. This has long been the traditional Christmas Day breakfast at my Mum and Dad's, and I should miss it terribly if it didn't figure somewhere over the festive period. With small children, though, Christmas Day breakfast is more a case of "whatever gets you through". Coffee, anyone?
Things are pretty much ready to roll now, all the pre-preparation is done and dusted, the cake is iced and ready to slice and the fire is lit. The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is on Radio 4 as I type this and it really feels like Christmas has begun... The only thing left for Christopher and I to do is to put out the annual "snack tray", all those dried figs, twiglets and jellied orange-and-lemon slices that make Christmas nibbling so inviting. The dish of nuts is already seriously denuded; Chris has already discovered just how tasty are raw nuts, straight out of the shell.

We have the same Christmas Eve dinner every year, a ham (this year cooked in Coca-Cola á la Nigella), baked potatoes and vegetables, followed by mince tarts with thick cream. The leftover ham will be great for cold cuts on Boxing Day, it's true, but more than that is the comforting routine that the meal brings; we look forward to it almost as much as the big feat itself and every year another decision is already made. The ham goes on the stove as the aforementioned service starts at King's College, Cambridge and bubbles away gently until suppertime. Potatoes in the oven, veg on just before six and pour a nice glass of red. Merry Christmas to you all, God bless us, every one.

Cath xx

Thursday, 20 December 2007

A (Cran)Berry Christmas

Cranberry sauce is one of the essential components of Christmas dinner. I know you can buy it in a jar, but it's so easy to make that it would really seem a shame not to take the opportunity for some casual footling about in the kitchen. In fact, Christopher not only helps, but can pretty much make it himself, under supervision of course. What's more, it can be dealt with early in the week preceding Christmas, so I can get another job ticked off the list. As cranberries seem usually to be sold in 300g bags or cartons, it makes sense to cook the sauce in those quantities too. Yes, there'll probably be leftovers but in this house, a turkey sandwich without cranberry sauce is hardly worth contemplating. Cranberries freeze exceptionally well, so I buy early, then use the berries from frozen . Replace the orange juice with a slug of port if you want a more 'adult' edge to the sauce.

Cranberry Sauce

300g cranberries
200g caster sugar
juice of 1/2 an orange
1 cinnamon stick
Put the cranberries in a pan with 175ml water and bring to the boil. Simmer until most of the berries have burst open (I do think the texture and appearance of the sauce are better if some are still intact). Stir in the sugar and stir over the heat until dissolved, then mix in the orange juice and poke the cinnamon stick under the surface. Leave to cool, then transfer to an airtight container and chill the sauce in the fridge. The cinnamon stick will infuse the sauce with just a hint of spicy flavour , but do fish it out before serving, won't you!

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Cheating at Roasties

Regular visitors to The Distracted Housewife might recall my rather pathetic inability to make roast potatoes which are anything like as good as those made by my Mum or my husband. When I received some vouchers to try out the new McCain Roast Potatoes Basted in Goose Fat, I leapt at the chance. Promising "roast potato perfection...an unparalleled golden crunch...succulent fluffiness in the centre", how could I resist?

The potatoes were easy enough to cook - 40 minutes at 210°c in my fan oven (they apparently take 10-20 minutes longer in a conventional oven, and need the higher temperature of 240°c. In their frozen state, they were spattered with hard white streaks of fat, so that seemed encouraging. I turned them twice during cooking, but found this quite difficult. The rather small tray was quite crowded with decent-sized chunks of potato (definitely a good thing), so manoeuvring my tongs to get hold of them was a little tricky (not so good).

Once cooked, the potatoes were an appetising golden brown and had a crisp, crunchy exterior. The inside was very soft, so soft and smooth that it put me in mind of those potato croquettes my brother and I used to eat as children. In fact the flavour was similar too; they did taste 'processed' rather than home-made, but not in an altogether unpleasant way; they were very enjoyable. I would think of them as an alternative to roast potatoes, not a substitute for them (if that makes any sense to you). I think a carton might find its way into the freezer as a back up, for a quick Sunday dinner when Hubby's at work and I'm on my own with the children. Roast a small joint, two or three chicken legs (or even a poussin if I can get one), put these potatoes in the oven alongside and cook some veggies. That would keep the spirit of Sunday dinner without quite such a production number when we are just three. It would make a change from my usual roast chicken with baked potatoes and greens, and a change is as good as a rest, you know what they say. It's all good...

Monday, 17 December 2007

Mulling It Over

It's been a really busy weekend for us; my parents came to visit and, as we won't see them over Christmas, I wanted to give their stay a bit of festive spirit. We went to Aberystwyth on Saturday afternoon and visited the Christmas market; Mum and I both bought some mutton for the freezer and I also brought home some big slices of Welsh Black braising steak. We nipped into Ultracomida to get some cheese before driving home. I was able to pick up my annual cheese treat, a Vacherin Mont d'Or.

Mulled wine is a Christmas favourite, so a good home recipe is helpful if you want to avoid buying the supermarket alternatives of ready-mulled bottles, or teabag things purporting to be an 'easy option'. If you want to take a shortcut (always useful at this time of year), I would suggest the cloth-tied mulling bundles available from Julian Graves. What I would do without JG at this time of year I really don't know, a big sortie for snack foods and spices is de rigeur. This year we are mostly eating their gorgeous (and very moreish) Garlic and Herb Grissini.

Mulled Wine

This makes a lot, but you can use half of it for the chicken recipe below (which freezes very well). Nor do you have to drink all of it in one evening (ahem). If you strain it into a jug it will keep in the fridge for a couple of days to be reheated. You can even microwave it by the mugful if you like... Please don't try to use cheap nasty wine for this, you need something halfway decent or it will just be foul.

2x 75cl bottles red wine
500ml water
1 lemon, sliced
1 orange, sliced
inch of root ginger, sliced (no need to peel)
2 cinnamon sticks
pinch of whole cloves
pinch of whole black peppercorns
1/2 nutmeg
50ml brandy
50g caster sugar, or to taste

Bung everything into a big pan. Bring to boilking point, then turn the heat down and keep the wine just below simmering point for about 20 minutes. Either dole it out straight from the pan, or decant into a punch bowl if you have one (we were lucky enough to be given one as a wedding present). Either way, serve in heatproof glasses or nice chunky mugs. Mulled wine and good cheese is a great combination on a cold winter's night.

This chicken casserole, which we had for dinner on Saturday night, is something that I first made a few years ago when Hubby's parents came to visit just before that Christmas. Most of the work can be done a day or two in advance, then finishing it off takes only about ten minutes of hands-on work and half an hour in the oven, making it ideal if you want to spend time with your guests rather than your stove.

Mulled Wine Chicken

half-quantity of mulled wine recipe above
5 rashers streaky bacon, chopped
6 small onions, quartered
400ml hot chicken stock
6 chicken legs

Boil the mulled wine, reducing the quantity by half, to concentrate the flavour. Heat a knob of butter and a drizzle of oil in a large casserole and fry the bacon and onions until just browning. Add the hot stock and the (strained) wine, bring to the boil, then lay the chicken legs in the liquid. Cover the pan and transfer to a 200°c oven for an hour.

*At this point you can quickly cool and then chill the chicken for two days, or freeze it for up to a month. Defrost thoroughly, bring to the boil and then proceed as below.*

250g chestnut mushrooms, quartered.

Stir in the mushrooms and return to the oven for 30-40 minutes. Serve with steamed potatoes or rice and some green vegetables. We had broccoli and sprouts from this week's veg box.

Pudding was another Christmas favourite of ours; Mincemeat Meringue Tart. This is my bastardisation of Michael Barry's 'Mince Pie Royale' from his lovely Radio Times Cookery Year. I make an almond pastry for the base, top it with my homemade mincemeat and then pile on meringue made according to the original recipe in the book. Dust it with icing sugar and serve with dollops of thick cream.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Idle Pie

Idle Pie is the accepted name for Meat & Potato Pie in my husband's family and it was something I had to learn quickly how to cook to Karl's quite exacting specifications; good chunks of meat; tender, but not mushy, potatoes; a good savoury gravy cloaking the filling and a stout pastry case to hold it all together. I don't think that I've achieved the apotheosis of pie, but it's pretty darn good. Make sure the meat is a good stewing cut such as shin or chuck and not too lean. As long as you're in the house to put the pie in the oven and hang around (doing other things of course) while it cooks, this is actually a fairly low-effort affair. Make the pastry and preheat the oven, then get the filling together while the pastry rests in the fridge. A quick assembly and bung it in the oven until dinner time.

Idle Pie

Put a large baking sheet on the middle shelf of the oven and preheat to 180°c.

For the pastry:

175g lard
350g plain flour

Rub the fat into the flour, season it well and add enough cold water to bind the pastry together. Rest it in the fridge for 15 minutes or so, then roll out and line a metal pie dish. Trim the excess, then roll out again to make the pie 'lid'.

For the filling:

500g stewing beef (and see above), cubed
1 large onion, chopped
1 fist-sized potato, peeled and chopped
1 tbsp plain flour
salt and pepper

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl, mixing well to distribute the flour and seasoning evenly. Tip all this into your lined pie tin, then pour 175ml of cold water over. Top the pie with its top crust, crimp the edges together and brush the whole lot with beaten egg. Cut a couple of slits in the top of the pie to let out the steam (no need for a funnel here), then transfer to the baking tray in the preheated oven. Bake for 20 minutes, then turn the oven temperature down to 150°c and cook for a further 1 hour 15 minutes.
A dish of vegetables is all you need to to with this, then a comfy chair to sink into as you find out just why we call it idle pie.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Quickies #2

Always looking for easy dinner options that give a great meal without too much hands-on time, tonight I decided to try cooking a rice dish in the oven. It took about half an hour to put together, worked very well and I can imagine finding a lot of variations using the same method. The next thing is to try it out in the slow-cooker, as that would be a great help when Christopher starts nursery school in the new year.


Baked Pork & Cabbage Rice

1 onion, diced
500g cubed pork
250g brown rice
1/2 savoy cabbage, shredded
600ml hot vegetable stock

Heat some oil in a casserole pan. Soften the onion, then add the pork and cook it briefly, to 'seal', but not brown it. Tip in the rice and stir to coat the grains in the fat and pan juices. Put the cabbage into the pan, then pour over the hot stock. Cover the pan with its lid, bring the contents to the boil and transfer the pan to a 180°c oven for 20 minutes, until the rice is cooked.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Deck the Halls!

We put our Christmas tree up yesterday, after Karl and Christopher went out on the annual buying excursion. We spent the afternoon decking out the tree and the rest of the house, so everything now looks, well, as camp as Christmas. Yay! Proper paper-chains, three trees of varying sizes and no less than seven sets of fairy lights dotted around the house mean that it's begining to look a lot like Christmas. I went and ordered the turkey yesterday as well, a job that had been on my to-do list for a while. I can pick it up a couple of days before Christmas and get any last-minute bits from the nearby greengrocer and The Treehouse while I'm in town, thus saving myself the bustle and indignity of supermarket shopping immediately before Christmas.

It would perhaps be the understatement of the decade to say that I love Christmas. I adore it, and start getting excited about the whole shebang earlier than anyone else I know. I love settling down with my Christmas recipe books, planning what I'll cook, and making lots of lists to do with Christmas. The up side of this is that it's all pretty organised. The down side is that it just makes me worse! This year I have also (finally) got around to setting up a database of addresses so that I can print out all the address labels for our Christmas cards (complete with decorative holly clip-art, natch) and therefore have thankfully not practically broken my wrist by writing all the envelopes out by hand.




We've had such awful weather over the last few days that I was quite relieved to have a dry spell this afternoon so that I could nip out into the garden with my shears to cut greenery for decoration. Some ivy sprigs, round-leaved holly, rosemary branches and bay all came together beautifully to frame the mirror hanging over our fireplace. There's a lovely herbal fragrance scenting the room now, which is even better. It's especially lovely to have an open fire at this time of year; it always seems so festive and welcoming. The garland on the mantel itself is an artificial one with tiny baubles already attached, but I think it looks pretty good and the combination is great. I can't wait to sit in front of the fire with a glass of wine tonight. Maybe I should make some mince pies...

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Stwmp, stwmp, slam

Words are wonderful things, and words that make you feel good are extra special. For me, that means not only the words like "cake", "gin" and "sleep", but alliterations like "luscious lickable lemons" and anything that fools around with sound somehow. Onomatopoeia is, to me, the highest form of wordplay and tonight's dinner bears witness to that. Stwmp (say 'stoomp', like a Yorkshireman describing a tree stump) is derived from stwmp naw rhiw (mash of nine sorts); the name of a Welsh vegetable dish, traditionally served at Hallowe'en, supposedly to ward off evil spirits, but it's good all through the colder months. I don't use nine vegetables, just potatoes, carrots and swede. I have been known to chuck in a bit of parsnip or some shredded leek, but on the whole I stick to this basic 'root vegetable medley' idea. I used to make it for both the boys when they were still gummy-mouthed, newly-weaning babies (where did the time go?). It's great baby food, comforting and sweet, but still filling and nutritious.

Stwmp

The quantities given here are flexible, to say the least. Roughly speaking, I use:

500g potatoes
500g swede

500g carrots
a large lump of butter
salt & pepper

Peel and chop all the vegetables. Steam for half and hour until really soft, then mash with the butter and plenty of seasoning (and hear the fabulously onomatopoeiac 'stwmp' sound as you do) .

Stwmp is a great side dish (tonight, for us, it accompanied a roast shoulder of lamb), but it can also be a great veggie main course; pack it into an ovenproof dish, top with grated cheese and either grill or bake until browned and bubbling. In fact, that's what I'm doing with tonight's leftovers for the boys' supper tomorrow!

Monday, 3 December 2007

Anchovies and Extra Cheese

All this 'trying to empty the freezer' lark has a down side. Forgetting to defrost anything means that you're on your own with the contents of the storecupboard and fridge. Luckily, our vegetabkle box brings a wealth of opportunities with it each week and combined with a few basics we had a very good meal tonight. As we had everything, bar the bacon, in the house to cook my Potato and Bacon Layer, I decided to try something a little different and use anchovies instead. Now, before you start with the "I don't like anchovies" stuff, have you actually tasted one? I've converted several people to these salty, melting little fillets after they've admitted that they've never tried them because they don't think they'll like them. In fact, in this bake, you hardly taste them; it's certainly not 'fishy', just nicely savoury.

All I did was replace the bacon in my usual recipe with a can's-worth of anchovy fillets. Don't waste the oil; use it to brush the inside of the dish, rather than butter. I added some chopped rosemary and plenty of black pepper, but no salt (anchovies really are quite salty enough) and used créme fraîche instead of the cream because there was a tub in the fridge that needed using up. I used rather more cheese than I generally do, because I was nattering to Karl and got carried away with grating it over the dish.

It was very tasty - no leftovers - and great with the steamed broccoli I served a s a side dish (anchovies and broccoli are a fab combination, to my mind). With hindsight, I should have stuck with double cream though, as the créme fraîche didn't amalgamate with the other cooking juices too well and ended up a bit watery. A minor problem, however; just stick with the cream next time, methinks.

Friday, 30 November 2007

Comfort Food #3

It's cold, rainy and thoroughly awful. That means bringing out the big guns, comfort-wise. For us, that mean risotto and most of all, mushroom risotto. I love cooking risotto - the need to stir it all the time can only result in an enforced break from the usual hullabaloo of child-rearing, so tonight I waited until Karl got home from work, then set to.
I like a combination of dried and fresh mushrooms to make this risotto and this week we got a bag of beautiful field mushrooms in our vegetable box. They were just begging to be the star of the show. I like to use vermouth, instead of the more usual white wine, to make mushroom risotto because I love the slightly herbal depth it imparts. As a martini drinker, I keep vermouth in the drinks cabinet anyway, but don't consider it essential; just use a glass of the white wine you might like to drink with the meal.

Mushroom Risotto

30g butter
olive oil
1 onion, diced
1 stick celery, diced
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
200g risotto rice
glass vermouth (and see above)
handful dried porcini mushrooms 800ml hot vegetable stock
6 flat field mushrooms, sliced
fresh parmesan, grated

Pour 250ml boiling water over the dried mushrooms and leave them to soak. Melt half the butter with a drizzle of olive oil in a deep frying pan or sauteuse. Soften the onion and celery with the garlic, then add the rice and stir well to coat all the grains with the fat. Tip in the vermouth and cook for a minute or so to allow the alcohol to evaporate. Strain the porcini, reserving the liquid, and chop finely, then add to the pan. Then, add the mushroom soaking liquid and stir un til the riced has absorbed it all. Continue stirring all then time, adding the stock by the ladleful and allowing it to be absorbed before adding the next.

After you've put in 2-3 ladlefuls, add the sliced mushrooms then continue cooking in the same way. When the rice is cooked through (test as you go, scooping out a grain of rice with a fork), add some parmesan and the rest of the butter, cut into pieces. Give it all a good stir, then take the pan off the heat, cover it and leave it for a couple of minutes while you finish setting the table, tossing the salad etc.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Cauli-wobbles

I don't know what I would do without soup anymore; it is such a fab way of getting a lovely meal together quickly. Christopher has been talking about 'soup day' lately, so I suppose all the boys have now accepted it as a fait accompli; Mummy loves soup. As last week's vegetable box contained a large cauliflower, all creamy white and gorgeous, I wanted to do something to make it the real focus of a meal. Cauliflower cheese was the obvious choice, but turning it into this delicately-flavoured, but still very filling, soup meant I could do some of my Cheesy Soda Bread to go with. Christopher has been going on at me to make it again ever since we had it last week, so tonight I finally gave in. Hopefully this will silence the nagging for a day or two). This easily made enough for 4 adults, but the leftovers will make a fine lunch for the children and me tomorrow.

Cauliflower Soup

1 onion, finely chopped
2 medium potatoes, peeled and quartered
1 large cauliflower, trimmed and separated into florets
800ml vegetable stock
300ml milk

Heat some olive oil in a large pan and sweat the onion until softened. Add the potato and cauliflower florets, turning them in the fat and juices before pouring in the stock. Stir in the milk, then bring to the boil. Simmer for 25 minutes or so, until the vegetables are really soft and falling to bits. You can help this process along by breaking them up with a wooden spoon as they cook. Purée the soup and season it to taste, then reheat if necessary and serve.

It occurs to me that you could fry some spices with the onion at the start if you want to take this in a different direction. Cumin would be my first choice, but I think some garam masala would be a good option too. I sometimes fry up the leftover cauliflower from a roast in garlic oil with a bit of curry powder. The subtle taste of the vegetable seems a perfect foil for the warm spiciness of Indian flavours.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Wyau Ynys Môn - Get me, eh!

The whole 'learning Welsh' thing is going surprisingly well. I'm using a lot of little bits and pieces with the children and even trying it out with real Welsh speakers when I feel brave. Of course, being me, I have made a big effort to learn what lots of different foods and drinks are so I can now proudly offer the children a choice of breakfasts and lunches yn Gymraeg. They are, as promised by all authorities on the matter, having no trouble with it whatsoever.

With all this in mind I have been on a bit of a theme lately, cooking lots of Welsh food. Tonight's dinner was a real Welsh classic and a great family meal, containing lots of our favourite things; leeks, potatoes, eggs and cheese. I have no idea why this dish is known as Anglesey eggs, nor have I been able to find out. It's very lovely, popular with the children and, as an added bonus, it can be prepared in advance and baked at suppertime if you prefer, which is what I did today.


Anglesey Eggs (Wyau Ynys Môn)

500g potatoes
3 leeks
6 hard-boiled eggs
300ml milk
1 tbsp plain flour
3 tbsp butter
handful grated cheese

Peel the potatoes and cut them into chunks. Steam for 25 minutes,, then mash with 2 tbsp butter. Halve the trimmed leeks lengthways and thinly slice them. Steam these for the final 8 minutes, then stir into the potato once it is mashed. Meanwhile, put the milk, flour and 1 tbsp butter into a pan and heat to boiling point, whicking all the time. When the sauce boils and thickens, reduce the heat and simmer for a few minutes, before switching off the hob and whisking in the cheese.

Spoon the potato and leek mixture around the edges of an ovenproof dish, then halve the hard-boiled eggs and pile these into the centre hollow. Pour the cheese sauce over the surface and either brown the surface under a hot grill, or cool quickly and chill until ready to cook the dish. In this case it will need 30 minutes or so at 180°c . Serve with some nice bread to mop up the cheesy sauce

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Tear 'n' Share

This afternoon was definitely my girly time. After playgroup with the boys this morning I rushed them home, then left them with Hubby and rushed out again. I had a hair appointment, then enjoyed some much-needed retail therapy. Some of it was Christmas shopping, some just, well, shopping.

That did mean, however, that I needed something quick to make for supper. Something that was still special, so as not to short-change Karl and the boys when I'd been out enjoying myself. Because we had loads of carrots from the last couple of veg boxes, I decided to make a big pan of my carrot and coriander soup, which always goes down well, then added a loaf of this cheesy soda bread. Like all soda breads it is very quick to make - even more so if you can do it in a freestanding mixer.

Cheesy Soda Bread

250g plain flour
200g wholemeal flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp salt
250ml buttermilk
100ml milk
cheddar cheese
mixed dried herbs

Mix the flours, bicarbonate of soda and salt in a large bowl, then add the buttermilk and milk. Mix well, then turn the dough onto an oiled baking sheet and press or roll out flat(tish). Cover with a couple of handfuls of grated cheddar cheese, then sprinkle over some mixed dried herbs. Bake for 25 minutes at 180°c, then transfer to a rack to cool slightly. Serve warm, cutting or tearing the bread into pieces to share.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Ice (sort-of) Magic

I have, over the last few days, been making serious efforts to reduce the amount of food in the freezer in the run-up to Christmas. This means using it, rather than throwing it away. I was rather perturbed to read the following advice in a magazine supplement about preparing for Christmas;
"Make space in the fridge, freezer and kitchen cupboards by throwing away anything past its sell-by date"

According to lovefoodhatewaste.com, a third of the food bought in the UK is already being thrown away uneaten, and I think deliberately setting out to advise people to throw food away seems rather irresponsible. Better, surely, to find ways of using things up (ideally, before they reach their best-before) and to encourage readers to plan their shopping and meals to minimise waste. While 'use-by' dates must be strictly adhered to for safety reasons, many 'best-before dates are merely a guide to quality and thus can, within reason, be ignored, rather than throwing away bagfuls of food. Changing our attitudes and habits regarding food is a really easy place for us to start reducing our environmental impact. I feel so strongly about this that for the first time ever, I wrote a 'letter to the editor'.


The only slight downside of this has been that I have had to deal with some, shall we say, interesting finds, mainly from the section of the freezer containing spoils from Hubby's bargain-hunting . Most of these, at least lately, have been meat portions in odd, so-called 'flavour glazes'. They seem to be something that the supermarket adds to perfectly good meat in order to 'add value', but which seem, rather inevitably, to be sold off for 9p a pack just before going out of date. Fine to freeze, though and an economical way to feed the family occasionally. This, coupled with using up the end of last week's veg box before the new one arrives tomorrow means that dinners this week have been a bit Ready Steady Cook chez nous.

Last night's we had turkey, purporting to be 'Chinese Style', which I cut into strips and stir-fried, to be served with parsnip chips, steamed curly kale and basmati rice. Tonight the boys and I were on our own for dinner, so I cooked some 'Smoky B-B-Q' Pork Steaks and served them on top of a pile of my homemade baked beans. I told the boys that it was Cowboy Pork 'n' Beans and Christopher wolfed it down so fast that I don't think it even touched the sides!

We finished our meal off with a slice each of a really damp, tasty banana cake that I bought from my cake stall at the BFN bash last Saturday. Lovely, lovely, lovely. And I'm getting my hair done tomorrow!

Monday, 19 November 2007

Don't Get in a Flap, Jack!

Flapjacks are one of those easy traybakes that are so useful to have around, for childrens' snacks, hungry moments with a cup of tea or eats when friends come round. They keep well in an airtight tin and I've never met anyone who doesn't like them. Plus, as oats are now regarded as a 'superfood', we can consider them health food (while quickly glossing over the butter and sugar content, hehehe).

The one thing I think you really do need to bake flapjacks successfully is a non-stick baking tin. You still have to grease it, but it does away with the hassle of lining a tin and the immense irritation of flapjacks which collapse when you try to slice them. I've had to turn more than one batch into Peach & Flapjack Trifle.

Flapjacks

250g butter
175g light muscovado sugar
2 tbsp black treacle
350g rolled oats

Melt the butter, sugar and treacle together in a large pan over a medium heat, stirring well to combine until smooth, dark and glossy. Mix in the oats, making sure that they are all fully coated. Tip into a small greased non-stick baking tin and level the surface, as best you can, with the back of a spoon. Bake fo 20 minutes at 150°c. Mark out squares or bars on the surface, then allow the flapjacks to cool completely in the tin, before slicing.

You can vary flapjack easily with sultanas or chopped glacé cherries stired in with the oats. A chocolate topping is also nice once in a while (pour over 150g melted chocolate when you remove the tin from the oven, then mark out squares once the chocolate is semi-set).

I also finally got around to defrosting the damsons and making some jam. Our neighbour's tree rains damsons onto our lawn every year, but I never have time to make the jam when the damsons are in season. This year I froze the fruit, then added a little lemon juice to make up for any pectin lost during freezing. I've also got a huge box of blackberries in the freezer for jam, so I'd better do that soon; I need the freezer space!

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Weekend of Supreme Fabulousness

Saturday morning started early for all of us; Karl on the morning shift at work and off to Y Morlan in Aberystwyth to set up for the Breastfeeding Group's birthday bash, which I've mentioned before. I was helping to (wo)man the cake stall and had also baked the Boob Club a birthday cake. Chocolate cake, chocolate icing, pink and sparkly decorations - after all, there's nothing more girly than breastfeeding, is there?

Everything seemed to go very well and Christopher was particularly excited, not only by having his face painted as a lion, but also by winning win a book on the tombola and a tube of Minstrels in the raffle.

Saturday night was a big night for me and after dinner I did one of my favourite girl things; spending a considerable time getting ready to go out; my first real night out in a very long time. By real, I mean girls, uber-glammed up, ready to party and best of all for me, no driving! Hubby paid for me to taxi it home so that I could do something really out of the ordinary; go into a bar (actually, four bars) and have an actual drink (or 4, or 5). Tequila and tonic being my favoured tipple of late - ice and a slice, natch. I stayed out well past my bedtime and felt fabulous for it - yay!

(Much later)

Today has been a lazy, relaxing day for all of us. Karl's had a day off so we've enjoyed a real family Sunday, complete with full-on roast chicken dinner, with apple crumble to follow.

Our essential trimmings for a roast chicken are nothing new; roast potatoes (still K's job, I'm afraid), bread sauce, lots of veggies and sage-and-onion stuffing. Proper stuffing, which is so easy to make that I'm almost evangelical about it. My mother-in-law demonstrated her fab and very simple stuffing and I was hooked. You can, clearly, adapt this to include different flavours. My most regular departure is to make sausagemeat stuffing by adding 100g or so of sausagemeat to the mixture. In distinctly larger quantities, this is the stuffing I use for our Christmas turkey.

Sage & Onion Stuffing

150g white breadcrumbs
fresh sage leaves, finely chopped
1 small onion, peeled and halved

olive oil

Put the onion into the food processor with about 150ml water and whizz to a nubbly liquid purée. Mix with the breadcrumbs and sage and turn into an oiled dish. Bake for around 40 minutes at 200°c until crisp and browned on top.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Pork and Peasant's Pottage

Last night I tried my hand at cooking a meal with Chinese-y flavours, which we all enjoyed. I can't claim that it was even remotely authentic, but it was my attempt at imitating char siu pork. Not very closely as it turned out, but it was very tasty nonetheless.

Chinese-style Pork

500g pork fillet
soy sauce
honey
zest and juice of a clementine (or half an orange)
lump of fresh ginger, peeled

Pour soy sauce (several tablespoons) into a shallow dish, then dollop in some honey. Add the clementine zest and juice, then grate in some fresh ginger. Grind in some black pepper, then whisk it all together. Turn the pork fillet in this marinade, then clingfim the dish and stick it in the fridge overnight. The next day, let the pork come up to room temperature while you preheat the oven to 200°c. Cook the pork for about 40 minutes, basting with the marinade and juices in the tin every so often. Slice the fillet thinly and serve with rice and steamed greens.


Tonight's dinner was rather more traditional. It's great fun to try out different ideas and play with cooking, but equally lovely to return to the more familiar and homely way of cooking. This chunky vegetable soup is economical at the end of the week and easily adaptable to whatever's still hanging around from last week's veg box. Cooking the bacon separately and adding it just before serving means that the crisp texture is retained and the flavour stands alone. I tend to use my 'vegetable peelings' stock to make soups like this, but chicken stock would be fabulous, or you could substitute a good-quallity bought stock if you prefer.

'Rustic' Vegetable Soup

1 onion, peeled and chopped
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1 stick celery, chopped
chopped thyme, rosemary, bay etc.
6 medium potatoes, peeled and chopped
800ml vegetable stock
about half a cabbage, shredded

several rashers of streaky bacon


Put the bacon onto a baking sheet and cook it in a 200°c oven. Meanwhile, heat some olive oil (garlic-infused is good) in a large pan and gently fry the onion, carrot and celery with the herbs until the vegetables start to soften slightly. Add the potatoes, then pour in the stock. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 10 minutes. Stir the shredded cabbage into the broth, then cover the pan and cook for a further 5 minutes. Remove the bacon from the oven, roughly chop the rashers and add to the soup just before serving, with bread and cheese to accompany it.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Serious Garlic Breath (again)

Well, Karl has had a nice relaxing birthday, though poor James had to have his Hib/Men C booster jab today, which didn't go down too well. It's been very cold today, co we've had the fire lit since this morning. Hubby and I have some crumpets stashed in the kitchen to toast in front of the fire this evening, now that the children are in bed.

The birthday dinner was a chunky fish stew, very mildly spiced, with some garlic bread to accompany it. I used coley to make it, but any firm white fish you want to use would be fine.

Chunky Fish Stew

2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp smoked paprika

400g can tomatoes
red pepper, deseeded and chopped
400g white fish, skinned and boned
fresh parsley and lemon wedges, to serve

Heat some oil in a large pan and gently fry the garlic and spices for a minute or so. Tip in the tomatoes and half a can of water, then bring to the boil. Add the pepper and simmer for 5 minutes, season to taster, then put the fish pieces into the pan. Cover it and simmer for a further 5 minutes. Scatter over some chopped parsley and serve with lemon wedges for squeezing over.

This is a really good, quick way of doing garlic bread. Buy some of those long-life part-baked half baguettes or rolls and split them lenthways. Spread them with garlic butter and cook, on a baking sheet, at 180°c for 5-10 minutes or according to the instructions on the packet.

I make garlic butter with a 250g pack of butter and a whole head's-worth of garlic cloves (get organic garlic, if you can, the flavour is much stronger and better). Chop some parsley and a little thyme and mash it all together really well. This will keep in the fridge for a few days, or you can freeze it. I daresay, though I haven't yet tried it (yet), that you could make your own, superior, version of frozen garlic bread ready for snacks and to go with quick pasta meals.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Muffin-mania

Tomorrow is Hubby's birthday and everyone deserves some kind of birthday cake or cakes, don't they? Christopher's vote went to chocolate muffins, which is great as he practically makes those by himself anyway. Simple muffins like these are, to my mind, a great first 'proper' recipe for children as they really can do most of the work themselves - no sharp knives, no sieving or creaming. The batter seems to work fine even if it's a bit lumpy, so even the most inept of stirrers can make a decent batch of muffins. Just as long as you can cope with the mess on the worktop, the floor and all over your beloved (hair, eyebrows, sleeves, you name it). A set of cup measures makes baking a lot easier for little ones, especially those who are still pre-school.

Christopher's Chocolate Muffins

Dry ingredients:

1 cup plain flour
1/2 cup cocoa powder
3/4 cup vanilla sugar
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt

Mix together in a large bowl.

Wet ingredients:

1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup sunflower oil
1 large egg

Beat together in a jug, then pour into the dry ingredients and stir to roughly combine. Don't worry about lumps. Put paper cases into a 12-hole muffin tray and divide the mixture as evenly as possible between them. Bake at 180°c for 15 minutes, then remove to a rack to cool. This last bit is the only 'grown-up' bit of the whole procedure, but Christopher's usually lost interest by this point...

After all, there a bowl to be licked, isn't there? Don't you wish you were a child again?

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Nice & Spicy

The in-laws have been for a flying visit, so yesterday I cooked beef in beer for dinner. Becuase I had to go to a training session for my BFN breastfeeding helpers' course, I got the stew together mid-morning (2 onions, loads of garlic, a kilo of cubed beef skirt and a bottle of Theakstons' Old Peculier), and left it in the slow-cooker, then when they arrived and we all got home, I just had to knock up some garlic butter and make garlic bread to go with.

Today, after they'd left I made a batch of chutney, leaving it to bubble on the stove while I helped Christopher to make a collage. James was having a much-needed nap, having kept me and his Dad up most of last night. Poor little chap has a terrible cold that's really bugging him at night time. This chutney is made with an eye on Christmas; mainly to go with cold cuts and cheeseboards. Heaven. This recipe fills 3 x 450g jars which really need to be kept a few weeks to mature before using. I made 2 x 450g jars and 1 x 400g jar, so that I could put the little extra into a covered dish in the fridge for 'sampling' this evening with some nice Brie. Impatient, moi?

Spiced Apple Chutney

1 large onion, chopped
4 Bramley apples, peeled, cored and chopped
2 handfuls raisins and/or sultanas
400g light muscovado sugar
500ml cider vinegar
2 tsp ground mixed spice

Put everything into a large pan and bring to the boil, stirring occasionally to help the sugar dissolve. Turn the heat down and simmer, uncovered, for a couple of hours until everything is cooked down to thick jamminess. When the chutney is ready, your wooden spoon will (briefly) leave a clear trail on the base of the pan if dragged through the mixture. Ladle into hot, sterilised jars and seal with lids (plastic-coated, because of the vinegar). My jars are all recycled bought ones, mainly from peanut butter, to which I admit a serious addiction.

Hubby's at work late tonight, so dinner needed to be something he can reheat quickly when he gets home. I cooked my chicken version of the curried prawn pilau that is one of my Saturday Supper regulars. The children enjoy mild-ish curry flavours and I'm a bit of a chili wuss, so I use a tikka masala paste. Use something stronger if you like. I make lots of this becuase I have a particular liking for it cold, with a dollop of mayonnaise or even (for total carb OD) enclosed in a tortilla as a rice salad wrap.

Curried Chicken Pilau

1 onion, finely chopped
1 bay leaf
a few cardamom pods, lightly crushed
a couple of dollops of curry paste (see above)
750g diced chicken thigh (or breast, if you prefer)
500g basmati rice
handful of raisins
1 litre hot chicken stock

parsley and possibly toasted flaked almonds, to serve (optional)

Gently fry the onion with the bay and cardamom in some oil and butter until soft. Stir in the curry paste, then add the chicken. Cook until sealed, stirring well to coat everything in the spices. Add the rice and raisins to the pan, then pour in the hot stock and bring to the boil. Cover the pan and turn down the hob. Simmer for 10 minutes, then remove the pan from the heat and leave to stand for 5 minutes.

Lightly fluff up the rice with a skewer or a fork (not a spoon, which will break the rice up into mush) and serve, with chopped parsley scattered over if you like. I like some toasted flaked almonds over it too, but the men of the house prefer not. I toast a few just for me - some for now, some for my 'leftovers lunch' tomorrow. Yummy!

Friday, 9 November 2007

Siarad Cymraeg?

I've finally bitten the proverbial bullet and decided that after 10 years living in Wales, I need to try to learn to speak Welsh properly, at least conversationally. Largely because Christopher will be starting nursery school in January and will be taught, in part, bilingually. I don't think children should be encouraged to have a secret language that Mummy can't understand, do you? I have picked up bits and bobs over the years, mainly numbers and hello, how are you?-type things (sut mae?), and I can sing along to Welsh hymns yn Gymraeg when we go to church (though I don't understand them at all), but none to use 'properly'.

A lovely girl from Twf came to start us off on 'Using Welsh with your children' at playgroup yesterday and, all fired up by her enthusiasm, I came home and began to put the ideas into practice with the boys. Yesterday evening I had a look at the BBC Welsh learners' site and learnt quite a bit in just a little while from the in-site, free, Colin and Cumberland course.

Today I made Bara Brith ,which I make regularly anyway but which seems particularly apposite at the moment, and cooked a dinner of cig oen, tatws a pys (lamb chops, potatoes and peas). I was far too excited by writing what was for dinner tonight on the blackboard in Welsh, but there you go.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

The Tidy War

Well, it's been a week since my last post and what a week! After a fab long weekend staying with my friend, the boys' godmother it was back down to Earth with a serious bump today, as I looked around me at the state the house was in after a good few weeks of neglect. So the children and I have been waging the tidy war in every room today. Some of us more than other, it has to be said.


I've also been sorting out baby clothes to go to a bring-and-buy sale in a couple of weeks' time. A little sad, but they can't stay here forever and I've kept some of the 'favourite' items for posterity. Quite a few of the favourite actually, but I plan to revisit the pile in a week or two and edit it again when the initial separation anxiety has worn off. It seems odd to be so attached to things, but some things hold such happy memories of my babies when they really were babies. Christopher is 3 now, James 1. I can't believe how fast the time's gone - surely I only brought them home for the first time a few days ago!



Because it's getting nearer to December, I started to clear the freezer this week, using up as much frozen food as possible, so that I could defrost the small freezer in the kitchen and begin to make way for the festive freezing in a few weeks. Tonight's supper was therefore the first of several hotchpotch meals; a tray of roasted chicken thighs and sausages (cooked with red onion and rosemary) and a big pan of succotash, because I found THREE bags of frozen sweetcorn and had to start dealing with it all somehow... Wish me luck!

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Spooky!

To be honest, this is all about me indulging my inner child, though I hardly need to point out thatit's not so much an inner child as a loony, unrestrained outer child at times like these. I'd like to be able to say that it's all for the children, but that wouldn't be true. Even though neither of them really have any concept of what Hallowe'en is all about (or rather what it's become), I have jack o' lantern candles on the mantelpiece and couldn't resist doing something fun for supper tonight.


Hubble Bubble Soup for Hallowe'en


garlic-infused olive oil
1/2 an onion, chopped finely
3 handfuls frozen peas
500ml vegetable stock
30g grated cheddar cheese

toast, to serve (and see below)

Heat the oil and fry the onion until soft. Add the stock to the pan with two handfuls of the frozen peas. Cook until the peas are nice and tender, then purée. Return the pan to the heat and add the remaining peas and the grated cheese. Stir well and simmer until thesecond batch of peas are cooked through.

I served this with some toast cut out with some spooky-shaped biscuit cutters; bat, pumpkin, ghost, that kind of thing. The boys both wolfed it down and Christopher was very taken with his bat toast, even if he doesn't really get it just yet. Wait until next year, there'll be no stopping us!

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Quickies

I was so pleased with the boys and my lunch today. We often have a bowl of soup for lunch, either freshly made or defrosted, but today's batch really was in a league of its own.

There were quite a lot of potatoes and chunks of butternut squash left over after dinner last night, so I'd stashed them in a plastic box and put them in the fridge. This morning, unable to bear the thought of wasting them, I decided to do my usual thing of turning any cooked vegetables that are languishing in the fridge into a lunchtime soup. The habit is inspired by my Mum's brilliant roast dinner soups, made with the leftovers and stock from the bones. They're really good and for years were the only soups I'd eat.

I simmered the potatoes and squash pieces in some vegetable stock until they were really soft and collapsing, then puréed it all using my hand-held stick blender. A splash of milk to let the soup down to the consistency I wanted, a quick reheat and lunch was ready. You can clearly adapt this to anything you want to use, or use up. Leftover roast 'Mediterranean'-type vegetables make a good soup, as does (to my mind) any cheesy mashed potato that wasn't gobbled up the first time around.

With some bread rolls and a couple of cheeses to pick at, it was a lunch I'd happily have again and again. I'd even consider strategically planning the same dinner for the night before we have guests for lunch so that I could make it for them.

In other news, I made my Christmas cake today. I've already published the recipe for my Celebration Fruit Cake, which I make every year for Christmas and occasionally for other reasons. I've double-wrapped it in greaseproof paper and foil and tucked it away in a tin to be decorated the week before the big day.

Monday, 29 October 2007

And it's only October!

Some things you just have to make in advance. The essential Christmas ‘big three’ are among them and I like to get these done and dusted as soon as possible. Today I tackled the mincemeat - just the cake and the Christmas pudding left to do.  I'm taking the boys to visit their Godmother at the weekend. It's James' first birthday on Friday, so I sense a big baking bonanza coming on!

Mincemeat

Seriously easy, and the homemade stuff is usually miles better than anything you can buy. This recipe makes three 450g jars to keep for Christmas and three little 200g jars which are useful for presents. I sterilise the jars, and their lids, in diluted sterilising liquid (from the chemists) for 30 minutes, then rinse everything with freshly-boiled water and dry them with a clean linen ‘glass cloth’.


3 large Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and finely diced
650g mixed dried fruit and peel
175g shredded suet
175g light muscovado sugar
¼ tsp each of ground cinnamon, ground mixed spice and ground ginger
about ¼ tsp-worth of freshly grated nutmeg
zest and juice of 1 orange
100ml brandy

Put all the ingredients into a really big bowl, then mix everything together really well. Pour over the orange juice and the brandy and mix again. Spoon the mincemeat into cooled sterilised jars and store in a cool dark place until Christmas.


For dinner tonight I made Julia's fab butternut squash, potato and cheesy pork chop thing from A Slice of Cherry Pie. I used Y Fenni cheese this time, which was a great variation.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Feeding Friends

It's been over a week since my last post, but things just don't stop for us (for which read me) at the moment. The boys and I had a fabulous week staying with my folks and were thoroughly spoiled - just what you need from your Mum and Dad, or Granny and Grandpa.

I even managed to fit in a couple of solo days out while my Mum looked after the children, which was bliss. I love them to bits, but sometimes it's nice to walk at your own pace and just poke around in shops for a bit of retail therapy. Souring the treat was my fruitless search for some attractive daytime shoes in a size 9, even after visiting a major shopping centre and (I think) every shoe shop in Bath! I bumped into more than one person on an identical mission while I was out, and nearly all the shop assistants admitted that mine is now a common problem - so WHY aren't the suppliers meeting the demand? Yes I'm tall, but I still want to be able to buy glamorous shoes with a decent heel, not ugly pumps and things that look like orthopaedic school shoes. Sorry, rant over.

When we got home on Friday night, it was a quick turnaround before some friends arrived to stay on Saturday. The boys stayed up a bit late for dinner and I cooked chili con carne with all the trimmings, followed by a Baked Alaska.

My Big Fat Chilli con Carne

1 onion, sliced
1 tbsp mild chilli powder
1 tsp each of ground cumin and dried oregano

1 beef stock cube
500g beef mince
400g can chopped tomatoes
400g can red kidney beans, drained

200g can sweetcorn, drained (or equivalent amount of frozen sweetcorn)
1 red pepper, deseeded and chopped

Heat some garlic-infused olive oil in a large ovenproof pan with a lid and fry the onion with the spices and herbs until soft. Add the mince and brown it really well, then tip in the tomatoes, the crumbled stock cube and half a can of water. Bring to the boil then put the lid on the pan and transfer it to a 150°c oven for 30 minutes. Stir in the drained kidney beans, the corn and the red pepper, then return the covered pan to the oven for another half an hour or so.

For a family meal I usually serve this with baked potatoes or rice, some salad and a bowl of grated cheddar cheese but, for something a little bit special I like to have all the trimmings; rice, tortilla chips, guacamole, soured cream and grated cheese. Even after all that we had room for a bit of pudding , so another retro favourite was delivered with a flourish...I used a bought sponge flan case for the base, topped with some caramel dulce de leche, but you can equally use some good jam or fresh fruit, puréed or not and even - gasp - make your own cake base if you like.

Baked Alaska

small bought sponge flan case
Dulche de Leche, jam, fruit or similar to cover the sponge base
ice cream, preferably not 'soft scoop'

For the meringue:

3 egg whites
150g caster sugar

Put the sponge on an ovenproof plate and top it with the caramel or whatever. Preheat the oven to 210°c. Whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks, then whisk in the sugar to make a thick and glossy meringue. You can have this done before dinner and just finish things off at the last minute. When you're ready for pudding, pile the ice cream onto the prepared base, then thickly, and completely, cover it with the meringue. nPop it in the hot oven for about 5 minutes until the meringue is crisp and golden on the outside. Serve immediately, it doesn't keep well as you can imagine!

After the children were in bed, we shared drinks and some cheese while we played Scrabble, before moving on to Pass the Pigs and 'Simpsons' Monopoly.

For lunch today I whipped up a batch of my Split Pea Soup with Prosciutto, which went down very well.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Use Your Loaf!

I'm taking the boys to my parents' house for a week tomorrow, so most of today has been spent preparing for that, either packing bags or stocking up the cupboards with user-friendly food for Karl who - shock horror - has to cope on his own for a bit.

Tonight I made a sausage loaf for our dinner. It's another one that takes a while in the oven but isn't much work to put it together. The original plan was to save the leftovers for a mid-journey picnic tomorrow but, as there were no leftovers, I shall have to rethink that one...You can use whatever herbs you like; whatever will complement the sausages you've chosen. I had some good old-fashioned butcher's pork sausages, so I chopped some sage and thyme together.

Sausage Loaf

8 good-quality thick sausages
1 onion, diced
fresh herbs (see above)
4 tbsp fine semolina
1 large egg
8 rashers streaky bacon

Line a 900g/2lb loaf tin with 7 of the bacon rashers, reserving one for later. Fry the onion in a knob of butter until soft and golden brown, then whizz the fried onions to a purée in the blender (stay with me here). Split the sausage skins and squeeze out the meat into a bowl. Add the herbs, semolina and the beaten egg, then scrape the onion purée into the bowl and mix everything together really well.. Spoon the sausage mixture into the bacon-lined tin and spread out evening, smoothing the top. Lay the reserved piece of bacon centrally along the top of the loaf, then fold the edges of the other bacon rashers inwards to completely cover the surface. Bake at 200°c for 50 minutes until the loaf is cooked right through to the centre. Turn out onto a plate and garnish with a fresh herb sprig to serve.

Serve with steamed potatoes or mash and a green vegetable. Tonight I cooked some of my Savoy Cabbage Braised in Chicken Stock, which we really enjoy with this, but a mixture of peas and sweetcorn goes down well too.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Mega-Veg

We're all down with colds in varying degrees, plus the boys and I got caught in the rain when we went shopping to buy Christopher a replacement flask earlier. He broke the lid on his yesterday, typically just days before we go on a long car journey and he'll need it! We managed to get an identical one, which pleased him, though neither of us enjoyed the weather. Luckily we all had woolly hats with us. So tonight, just in case, I thought I'd better administer a super-sized dose of vegetables at dinner time. This variation of a good old cottage pie is, I think, even better than the usual 'standard' one I make, and I'm sure I'll make it again before too long.


Mega-Veg Cottage Pie

2 large parsnips
1 large onion
1 large carrot
1-2 sticks of celery
250g lean beef mince
4 tbsp split red lentils
knob of butter, melted
25g grated parmesan

Peel the parsnips and cut into large chunks. Cook until tender, either in boiling water or in a steamer, for about 10-15 minutes. When cooked, put them through a potato ricer or coarsely mash them. Don't bother to stir it together if you rice it, it gives a really nice texture to the top of the pie.

Meanwhile, heat some olive oil (garlic-infused, if you've got some) and fry the finely chopped onion, carrot and celery until soft. Set aside in a bowl, then brown the mince thoroughly. Add the lentils and 250ml water, then return the vegetables to the pan and simmer until the lentils are cooked through. They will absorb a lot of the liquid, so add a splash more water if it gets a bit too dry.

Tip the meat mixture into an ovenproof dish, then top with the parsnip. Brush with a little melted butter and sprinkle over the parmesan. Pop it in the oven and bake at 180°c for 20 minutes or so, until the top is crisp and tinged with brown.

I don't think that this pie really needs anything to go with it, although Karl loves a good sploosh of Henderson's Relish on anything like this. Chris is really keen on the stuff too, the Sheffield genes are obviously strong!

Monday, 15 October 2007

Easy Peasy (Nice and Cheesy)

This is something I occasionally make as a lunch for me and the boys; tonight, with the addition of some prosciutto that needed using up, it made a good evening meal for the four of us. It is essentially a rip-off of spaghetti alla carbonara, but I find it to be a little more child-friendly with the short pasta and the peas (always a favourite, I find). You could, of course, substitute chopped ham or cooked bacon for the prosciutto, or leave the meat out altogether (which is how I cook it as a lunch dish anyway).

Cheesy Peasy Pasta

200g penne
60g frozen peas
knob of butter
100g prosciutto, chopped
2 large eggs
60ml milk
60g grated cheddar cheese
Boil the pasta, adding the peas for the last couple of minutes of cooking time. Drain, reserving a cupful of the cooking water, then return the pasta and peas to the pan with a knob of butter. Stir the shreds of prosciutto through the pasta, then beat the eggs, milk and cheese together and add to the pan. Stir well, adding a splash of the reserved cooking water to bring the sauce together if necessary. Season with black pepper and serve immediately.
I like to have, quite simply, a good-sized portion of green salad to go with; though Karl and the boys had garlic bread too, I find this meal filling enough without any extra carbs.

Friday, 12 October 2007

Busy, Busy, Busy!

We've had an incredibly busy week with one thing and another, and it shows no sign of letting up over the weekend or beyond. I'm taking the boys to see my parents next Friday, so I'm definitely hoping for a bit of a rest! It's times like these when I'm really glad to have a pretty extensive back catalogue of basic, no-fuss meals, because sometimes, as Nigella Lawson once wrote you really do "have to hit the kitchen running".

On Wednesday night, a friend who I hadn't seen since before I was married (over six years ago - eek!) came to supper. We only recently found out that we both live in the area (!). Hubby was at work, so we had dinner with Christopher and James; I cooked a big dish of my Vaguely Middle-Eastern Couscous, accompanied by pitta bread, yoghurt and a minted tomato and cucumber salad I followed this with a plate of Fabulous Chocolate Brownies. After the boys were safely tucked up, we settled down to a great evening of gossiping and poring over photographs. It's been so long since I had a girly night in with a friend!

I needed more brownies for Thursday, when thay were my contribution to a serious play-fest with the children at another friend's house, followed by lots of errand-running all over town on my part. For dinner I cobbled together a Potato and Bacon Layer, always popular and very straightforward, thank goodness.

Now that Christopher has reached the milestone of a - drum roll please - china plate at dinnertime, rather than his plastic ones, I wanted to cook him a favourite meal to celebrate, and to relax after the hectic last few days. He's always loved sausages (as, I think, do all children) and these Sweetcorn Pancakes go very nicely alongside some oven-cooked bangers. Liberally lubricated with ketchup (for Christopher), with fruit to follow, they made for a balanced meal that the boys could both eat without any assistance. After I get them off to bed tonight, I'm going to collapse with my knitting and enjoy some time off my feet before it all starts again tomorrow. Still, can't complain - I'd much rather be busy than bored, wouldn't you?

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Long, Slow and Comforting

This is another of my childhood favourites and just wonderful for a cold autumn evening. We've had the fire lit for the first time and, now that the nights are really drawing in early, our thoughts turn to hearty stews, braises and casseroles. Karl's thoughts are mainly of pie, but that's not a seasonal thing, just a Karl thing! It does take a long time to cook, but there's very little preparation involved, so you can get on with whatever while it does its thang in the oven.

Try to get thinly-sliced 'sandwich'-type steaks, as you need to beat them out very flat. I have managed to do this with braising steak, by slicing it horizontally myself before proceeding with the usual method, but it's a bit of a faff, to be honest. You can also use half-and-half beef stock and red wine as the liquid (which is how my Mum does it), but I did it this way when I had no beef stock available, and we decided that we preferred it this way. You need some fairly plain starch to soak up the delicious gravy - I prefer baked potatoes as they cook, without intervention, alongside the casserole in the oven. I also need, need to have a substantial helping of green vegetables with this dish; broccoli tonight, but Savoy cabbage is also excellent.

Paupiettes of Beef

4 thin steaks (see above)
4 rashers unsmoked back bacon
mixed dried herbs
1 large onion, sliced
1 tbsp flour
300ml red wine

Beat the steaks out thinly. Lay one rasher of bacon on top of each steak and season with pepper. Sprinkle mixed dried herbs over each, then roll up tightly and secure with cocktail sticks. Heat some oil in a large casserole and fry the steak rolls until browned. Set aside, then gently fry the onion until soft. Add the flour and cook for a minute or so, stirring well. Pour in the wine and bring to the boil, scraping up any nice crusty bits from the bottom of the pan. Return the steak rolls to he pan, cover and cook in the oven at 160°c for 1 1/2 hours.

Best served with another glass of red wine and a comfortable chair to collapse into afterwards!

Monday, 8 October 2007

The Good Things in Life

You know the saying, "you don't know what you're missing..."? Tonight's dinner pretty well sums that up for me. Because neither of my parents can stand them, we never had parsnips in the house and I didn't so much as taste one until I was 20. Once I did, though, I was hooked. This soup recipe comes from the peerless Jane Grigson's wonderful book Good Things and is quite simply perfect in its simplicity. I adore this book and, if you don't already have a copy I heartily recommend it. It has recently been republished in hardback by Grub Street. The recipe itself calls for beef stock but, as I didn't have any in the freezer this time, I substituted duck stock, which I did have. It worked very well, too - though I wouldn't want to cook it with anything other than a strong, richly-flavoured homemade stock. As the book was first published in 1971, the recipe uses imperial measurements and I have left it alone. I can't compete with Mrs Grigson; these words are hers.

Curried Parsnip Soup

3oz butter
large parsnip
4oz chopped onion
1 clove garlic, crushed
tablespoon flour
rounded teaspoon curry powder
2 pints hot beef stock (and see above)
1/4 pint cream
chives

Peel and slice the parsnip. Put the onion, parsnip and garlic into a heavy pan with the butter and cook for 10 minutes slowly with the lid on the pan. The vegetables must not brown, but gently absorb the butter. Add flour and curry powder to take up the fat, and gradually incorporate the hot beef stock. Simmer until the parsnip is cooked. Liquidize or push through the mouli-légumes. Return to the pan, correct seasoning with salt, pepper and a little more curry powder if liked (but be cautious: keep the flavour mild). Add the cream and a sprinkling of chopped chives. Serve with croûtons of bread fried in butter and oil.

Note: liquidized soup may need the further dilution of some extra stock, or some creamy milk.

I feel I must confess that we didn't eat the soup with croûtons, but with homemade bread and some chorizo sausage. The spicy paprika flavour is brilliant with this subtly-flavoured, velvety potage.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Bite this Chump!

Lamb for dinner tonight - some big, fat chump chops from the butcher in the next village. I much prefer chump chops to the ubiquitous cutlet chops - more meat, more crisp fat and, ultimately, more flavour. I roasted them, on a rack, over some big sprigs of rosemary and squashed cloves of garlic for 20 minutes at 200°c, then served them up with mashed potatoes, broccoli, cabbage and a rosemary and redcurrant sauce. This easy sauce dresses up a meal like tonight's no end, and makes the most of well-flavoured, good-quality lamb without overpowering it.

Rosemary & Redcurrant Sauce

100g redcurrant jelly
200ml lamb stock
large sprig fresh rosemary

Melt the redcurrant jelly in a small pan and pour in the lamb stock. Add the sprig of rosemary, bring to the boil and simmer gently for 10 minutes. Cover the pan if the sauce reduces too much; it should be slightly syrupy, but still liquid. Leave the sauce to cool, then strain out the rosemary and reheat gently. Season to taste and transfer to a sauce boat.

To follow a simple Sunday dinner, what could be better than cake? Chocolate cake at that. I did the chocolate version of my usual Victoria sponge and filled it with a vanilla-laced buttercream. Don't worry, we didn't eat the whole thing - there's plenty left for tomorrow!

Chocolate Sponge

200g soft butter
200g vanilla sugar
4 large eggs
160g self-raising flour
40g cocoa powder
1 tsp baking powder

Cream the butter and sugar together. Add the beaten eggs, one at a time, interspresing them with spoonfuls of flour. Sift in the rest of the flour, the cocoa and baking powder, then beat well until you have smooth batter. Divide the mixture equally between two greased and base-lined 20cm sandwich tins, smooth the surface and bake at 180°c for 20 minutes. Remove from the tins and cool on a rack before removing the base paper.

Vanilla Buttercream

75g soft butter
100g icing sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
milk

Beat everything together, adding a splash of milk as needed to get a soft, 'dropping' consistency. Select the cake layer for the base and place it, upturned, on a serving plate. Spread over the buttercream over the surface of the upturned cake, top with the remaining cake layer and dust with icing sugar to serve.

Friday, 5 October 2007

Under Pressure

I am so loving the new soup pots! Having something so gorgeous makes me want to use them all the time, so I made soup again for dinner tonight. The other plus with this was that I got the pressure cooker out again. I really want to use it more often - it's so quick, but when I was first given it (it originally belonged to my late Nan), I hardly used it. Pressure cookers do seem rather to have gone out of fashion, but they are so quick and so good. I use it most for puddings, steak and kidney mainly (my number-one favourite), but also for steamed sponge puds and of course the Christmas pudding. It proves to be fabulous with soups like this one, but if you don't have a pressure cooker, you can simmer the soup for between one and one-and-a-half hours until the splits peas are collapsing. Seeing as in the pressure cooker it only needs 15 minutes, you'll understand the appeal, I'm sure. I had some prosciutto that we got cheap and stored in the freezer for cooking with, but any cured ham, pancetta or smoked streaky bacon would be a fine substitute. For that matter, you could leave it out entirely if you want a vegetarian option; the soup will still have plenty of flavour, though I would posit that you might need rather more seasoning in that case.

Split Pea Soup with Prosciutto


1 onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
2 sticks celery, diced
1 tsp very finely chopped fresh rosemary
100g prosciutto, chopped (see above)
200g yellow split peas
1.2 litres vegetable stock, hot
fresh parsley (optional)

Heat some olive oil in the pressure cooker (or a large pan). Fry the onion, carrot and celery with the rosemary until just soft. Stir in the bits of prosciutto, then add the split peas. Pour in the hot vegetable stock and bring to the boil. Either put the lid on the pressure cooker and cook for 15 minutes, or simmer for 1 - 1 1/2 hours. Purée, preferably with a hand-held stick blender to save on washing up, then reheat the oup and season to taste. I like to garnish the soup with a scattering of roughly chopped parsley, but it's not obligatory, just aesthetic really.

Serve with some good bread and, for our taste, a couple of types of cheese. Tonight we had some really good, local Caerphilly and a piece of sharp, crumbly Lancashire.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Good Old Pasta Bake

I love a pasta bake, I do. They're so simple to throw together, satisfying to eat and genuinely comforting. The versatility of this kind of dish, adaptable to suit what's in the cupboards and fridge, is what makes it so hard to imagine cooking for the family without it, at least once in a while. You really only need a green salad to accompany a pasta bake like this, though I often gild the lily by making garlic bread as well. You can use whatever tomato sauce you like, either homemade or your favourite ready-made variety. Just get 500g or 500ml in total, however you measure it. A little fun at dinner is always welcomed by the children so, given the ingredients; frankfurters and sweetcorn, I couldn't resist this -may I introduce my friends Frank and Maisy?

Frank & Maisy Pasta Bake

200g dried pasta
550g jar frankfurters, drained
340g can sweetcorn, drained
500g tomato sauce (see above)
grated cheddar cheese

Cook the pasta. Meanwhile, heat the tomato sauce and stir in the sweetcorn. Slice the frankfurters into roughly 2cm lengths. When the pasta is al dente, drain and mix with the tomato and sweetcorn sauce. Tip it into an ovenproof dish and add the frankfurters, poking them in and amongst the pasta. Scatter over a handful of grated cheese and bake at 200°c for 15-20 minutes.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

(Not Very) Fancy Feast

I love getting parcels in the post, don't you? Even when I know it's coming because I ordered it, it's still exciting. Today my new Le Creuset bean pots arrived from Pots and Pans, so I had to make some soup to serve in them at dinnertime. We quite often make an evening meal of soup with bread and cheese, but these pots will make a basic supper seem sooo much more glam, I hope. This is the soup I decided to make, which you could just as easily have for lunch or dress it up with a swirl of cream for an elegant first course.

Carrot & Coriander Soup

olive oil
1 large onion, diced
2 tsp ground coriander
6-8 carrots, peeled and sliced
600ml vegetable stock
milk
fresh parsley

Heat a little oil in a large pan and fry the onion gently until soft. Stir in the ground coriander, then add the carrots and pur in the stock. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for half an hour or so until the carrots are really soft. Purée the soup, then reheat gently, adding milk to bring it to the consistency you want. Stir in some chopped parsley just before serving.

To go with the soup, I made some soda bread, which we had with some local Gorwydd  Caerphilly cheese. Soda bread is particularly useful if you want a homemade loaf but are short of time as it's relatively quick to make and bake. It's very good with soup; with a toothsome crust and a good dense crumb, it's brilliant for dipping.

Soda Bread

125g wholemeal bread flour
125g white bread flour
2 tbsp porridge oats
1 tsp salt
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
200ml milk, mixed with 1 tsp lemon juice

Mix the flours, oats, salt and bicarb. together, then slowly stir in the milk to make a sticky dough. It is very sticky, but try to resist the tempotation to add more flour. Just form it into some semblance of a ball, slap it down onto a lightly oiled baking sheet and cook at 220°c for 10 minutes, then turn the oven down to 180°c and cook for 20 minutes more. Leave the loaf to stand on a rack for 15 minutes, then serve warm.

Because soup, bread and cheese is quite light for the main meal of the day, I like to make it into a real feast by following the main course with a hearty pudding, something like a crumble or steamed sponge. Today I got out the pressure cooker and made a Spotted Dick, studded with juicy sultanas. If you don't have a pressure cooker, steam the pudding for 2 hours in a pan filled with boiling water to halfway up the side of the basin.

Spotted Dick
225g self-raising flour
1/2 tsp salt
125g suet
2 tbsp golden caster sugar
175g sultanas
2 large eggs
about 100ml milk

Grease a 750ml pudding basin. Mix the flour, salt, sugar and suet together, then stir in the sultanas. Beat the eggs and milk together, then add to the flour mixture. Combine all the ingredients thoroughly, adding a little more milk if you need it, to give a soft 'dropping' consistency. Cover the basin with a greased, pleated piece of foil, tie with string, then place in a pressure cooker with 750ml boiling water. Steam for 15 minutes, then cook at pressure for 30 minutes. Turn the pudding out onto a plate and serve, with custard of course.

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