Thursday, 19 July 2007

Playgroup Picnic

We really made the most of the sunshine today. As it was our last playgroup session before the schools' summer holidays begin, we all packed up picnics and ate our lunch on the church lawn after the children had run around playing. The local toy library had lent us some big outdoor toys, so they had boats and ball pools and all sorts to play with today, which was great fun. Our picnic was pretty standard; sandwiches, vegetable sticks and small pork pies. I made a plain 'Margherita' pizza yesterday and cut it into squares so that James could eat some of that - a baby eating a sandwich is not the tidiest activity! I also made a quick half-dozen fairy cakes this morning while the boys were having breakfast with their Dad.

Sponge cakes are the one thing I always make using imperial measurements - it's so easy to adjust quantities for what I need. For the standard 12 cakes, I use 4oz each of butter, sugar and self-raising flour, plus 2 eggs. For just 6 cakes today I used 2oz of each, plus 1 egg. If you want more, just increase the ingredients, using 'half' the number of eggs to ounces of the other ingredients. Or, for a large cake, use a 3-egg mixture (i.e. 6oz of the other ingredients) and divide it between two 20cm sandwich tins. I generally flavour the sponge by using vanilla sugar (just chop up a couple of pods and add to a jar of caster sugar, preferably the 'golden' unrefined sort), but sometimes I do orange or lemon flavoured sponge, grating in the zest of one fruit per dozen small cakes. If you want a chocolate sponge, replace a tablespoonful of the flour with the same amount of cocoa powder.

Sponge Cakes

caster sugar
self-raising flour
flavourings, if you like

Cream the butter and sugar together, either with a wooden spoon or in an electric mixer. Beat in a spoonful of flour and the beaten egg. Mix in the rest of the flour, then spoon the mixture into paper cake cases (I like flower-printed ones if I can get them), or greased and base-lined sandwich tins. Bake at 180°c for about 15 minutes for cupcakes, 25 minutes for the larger cakes.

To tart the cakes up a bit, today I made a basic buttercream icing with equal quantites of butter and vanilla sugar, spread it thickly over the tops of the cakes, then sprinkled over some hundreds-and-thousands. Gloriously vulgar-looking, don't you think?

This afternoon I spent ages clearing out my car, which is basically a giant handbag on wheels, before loading it up again with all the stuff the boys and I need for a week away. It's made easier now that James is a bit bigger; we can use the small, cheap stroller we bought for use on holidays and the like, which takes up vastly less space than the usual Mamas & Papas one, which is great, but very big even when folded. As an easy supper option tonight, possibly because it was supposed to be his night to cook, Karl went out and got dinner from our favourite Siop Pysgod a Sglodion (Fish and Chip Shop) in Aberaeron. We don't have them very often, but there's really nothing like fish and chips, is there?

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Balls to us all...

I don't really know where today has gone - I've done a lot of laundry and played with the boys (including setting up Christopher's playden in the sitting room and later, on his request, burying him under a pile of teddies and other assorted 'cuddlies'). Other than that, who knows? Suddenly it was 5 'o' clock and time to sort out the dinner. I'm taking the boys to visit their Granny for a week on Friday, but as yet I haven't done any packing. Oh well, there's always tomorrow...

The dish I cooked for our supper tonight originally arose because I had a load of meatballs in the freezer that needed using up and didn't fancy pasta. I always make meatballs in large quantities and open freeze them before transferring them to a large freezer bag. This means that, rather than an amorphous lump of fused meatballs, I can just defrost the number I need for individual meals. I use fine semolina for binding them, which gives a good dense texture without making the meatballs at all 'bready', but make sure you do use the fine stuff; the coarser, more 'gritty' sort that you use for semolina puddings won't do at all. As for the herbs, use what you've got - I normally use a couple of sprigs each of fresh thyme, rosemary, sage and oregano. I have all of the above, and more, growing just outside the back door so it's easy to cut what I need when I need it. Don't buy loads of those silly little packets to make up a mixture, you won't get any grief from me if you just use a big pinch of mixed dried herbs.


500g minced pork
500g minced beef
2 tbsp grated parmesan
2 tbsp fine semolina
1 egg, beaten
fresh herbs, chopped (see above)

Mix the minced meats in a big bowl. The easiest way to do this is with your hands. Squidge in the parmesan, semolina, herbs and seasoning to your liking, then add the beaten egg and squelch it all together thoroughly. Form the meatballs to the size you want by rolling some of the mixture into a ball between your palms. To open freeze, place on a baking sheet lined with clingfim. Transfer to a large freezer bag once solid, and seal it well. Defrost the meatballs as you need them, covered, overnight in the fridge.

Meatballs are so versatile, and very popular with the children (the parents love them too!). We usually have 'spaghetti and meatballs', in a smooth tomato sauce, with garlic bread and salad alongside, but they're also good cooked in a thick, meaty gravy, with mashed potatoes and vegetables, or skewered to use as 'kebabs', with or without chunks of onion and peppers. To turn a dozen meatballs into this supper dish, I cover them with a thick, tomato-based sauce and top with cheese. Served with some basmati rice and a bowl of salad, it makes a change, for a nice easy dinner when insipration is at its lowest ebb.

Meatball Bake

12 meatballs, defrosted if frozen
1 onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 stick celery, finely chopped
1/2 red pepper, finely chopped
1 bay leaf, fresh or dried
400g tin chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato purée
150g strong cheddar cheese, grated

Heat the oven to 180°c. Put the meatballs in the bottom of a deep ovenproof dish and bake for 10-15 minutes while you make the sauce. Heat a little oil in a pan and fry the onion, carrot and celery together until softened. Add the chopped pepper and the bay leaf, then tip in the tomatoes and tomato purée, plus about 75-100ml water. You want the sauce to be very thick at this stage, don't worry. Let the sauce bubble for 5 minutes or so, then fish out the bay leaf. Take the dish out of the oven and pour the sauce over the meatballs. Scatter the cheese over the top and return the dish to the oven for a further 15 minutes.

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Do You Like (Normal) Eggs and Ham?

Crazily busy at the moment - mainly with another round of decluttering-mania. We just seem to have accumulated loads of stuff and need to keep ploughing through it to discard all the junk. Hubby is building new wardrobes in our bedroom at the moment, and the project seems to be bringing all sorts of hidden horrors to light. Oh well...

Supper tonight was a quick and easy affair again - I had a meeting with our playgroup leader to sort out what I have to do next year when I take over organising speakers etc. for each week. Doesn't seem too daunting (famous last words). By the time we got home, and I'd done all the jobs I didn't do before going out, this was all I had the energy for. This ham and egg bake is very quickly thrown together in whatever small ovenproof dishes you have, and only needs some decent bread to accompany it. Tonight we tried a Onion Cob Loaf which Christopher took rather a fancy to.

Ham and Egg Bake

225g bag baby spinach
about 8 slices of ham
8 eggs
grated parmesan

Wash the spinach, then put it in a colander and wilt it by pouring a kettleful of boiling water over it. Leave it to drain. Line four small ovenproof dishes with slices of ham, then arrange spinach in th base of each dish. Crack two eggs into each, then dot with a few small bits of butter. Sprinkle over some parmesan and grind over some black pepper. Place the dishes on a baking sheet and bake at 180°c for about 15 minutes, until the whites are just set and the yolks still runny. Serve straightaway, with some nice bread for dipping in.

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Sticky Chicken

Well, the weather got better! It's been gorgeous all day and I had time this afternoon to go and do a bit of shopping. It was lovely, driving into town with the roof open, enjoying the sun and listening to music I like, instead of Christopher's cBeebies album again. Even better was finding not one, but two summer dresses in Matalan. Now I've just got to hope that the good weather continues long enough for me to wear them a few times!

For supper tonight I cooked a recipe from BBC Good Food magazine. I've subscribed to it for years and I try to cook at least one or two recipes from it every month. I keep six months' worth of back issues at a time and go through the oldest edition, cutting out all the recipes I want to keep, as soon as my new copy arrives. They now have a website with a pretty comprehensive archive (though the recipe I used tonight is not listed there, so see below), but I still do my cuttings as I can organise them in plastic wallets by categories I choose, and refer to them when I'm planning meals and looking for inspiration. It really saves time, not having to trawl through all the family meals when I want something for entertaining and vice versa. I quite enjoy doing just one issue every month, but when I used to keep more we used to get inundated by old magazines very easily, and I used to clip them then lose all the clippings, then forget to throw the cut-up magazines away anyway. I also take cuttings (anything that piques my interest) from other magazines I buy, food and non-food related, and keep them all in a little filing area I've set up for the purpose, where I also store the current issues of magazines and my collection of mail-order catalogues.

This Sticky Marmalade Chicken was really nice. It had something of a 'sweet-and-sour' flavour and went very well with some Basmati & Wild Rice and steamed broccoli. It's even more appealing because most of the ingredients come from the storecupboard. I had chicken fillets and chicken stock in the freezer so it was cheap, too, with only the broccoli bought fresh this week.

Sticky Marmalade Chicken

4 chicken breast fillets
300ml chicken stock
4 tbsp fine-cut marmalade
fresh thyme leaves

Heat a little olive oil in a large deep-sided frying pan. Season the chicken and fry it for about 10 minutes, turning halfway, until golden on both sides. Add the stock, marmalade and thyme. Simmer for 5 minutes, then remove the chicken and keep it warm while you boil the sauce hard to reduce it to a syrupy glaze. Pour this over the chicken to serve.

Friday, 13 July 2007

And the Rain Came Tumbling Down...

Yes, it's STILL raining. All the time. I've basically given up on the whole idea of summer now, so today the boys and I had a picnic lunch on the sitting room floor. It was entirely Christopher's idea; from the moment he got up this morning, he was nagging me for a teddy bears' picnic. He originally wanted to wear his teddy suit but by the time we got home (soaking) from the shops, we were too tired and hungry to bother with it.

I really don't feel like we should be having baked pasta for supper at this time of year. I want to be making all those light, refreshing and full-flavoured summer dishes that hot, sultry evenings demand but, with the weather the way it is, we're all craving something more substantial. This tuna pasta bake is a popular meal that I haven't cooked for a while, so it was something new for James tonight. He ate loads, which is great, because he's really trying hard to crawl at the moment and using an awful lot of energy getting frustrated by it all. You can use whatever pasta shapes you have. I'm basically in thrall to Christopher's whims in this respect, we use whatever he likes the look of when we go shopping. I prefer conchiglie or penne if I have the choice; tonight I used cavatapi.

Tuna Pasta Bake

200g dried pasta shapes
1 red onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
400g tin chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato purée
bouquet garni
400g tin tuna in spring water, drained
340g tin sweetcorn, drained
150g cheddar cheese

Bring a large pan of water to the boil and cook the pasta until al dente. Meanwhile, make the tomato sauce. Heat some olive oil and fry the onion and garlic together until softened. Tip in the chopped tomatoes, then blend the tomato purée with 100ml water and stir that in too. Add the bouquet garni, cover the pan and let it bubble for 5 minutes or so, stirring occasionally. Fish out the bouquet garni, then add the flaked tuna and the sweetcorn to the sauce. Mix the drained pasta and the sauce together, then turn it all into a large ovenproof dish. Scatter over the grated cheese and bake for 15-20 minutes at 200°c.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Friends for Dinner

Well, last night was great fun. Our friends came over at about 6.30pm, so they had some time to see the boys before they went to bed. Unwillingly of course, as they suspected they would be missing out on something. Quite rightly, I suppose. After they were in bed, I tipped the chicken and its marinade into a roasting tin and cooked it for 45 minutes at 200°c. While that was in the oven I assembled some little toasts as a sort of 'nibbly' first course to have with a much-needed glass of wine.

Cut a baguette into thin slices; spread both sides sparingly with soft butter, or brush with a little olive oil, then place on baking sheets and bake at 200°c for about 8 minutes, turning them over halfway through, until golden and crisp. I normally do this earlier in the day, or even the day before, and keep the toasts in a plastic box until I need them. Top them with whatever you like. I made a selection last night, as I normally do when I make these; these are two of our favourite toppings.

Mushroom Topping

mushrooms, chopped finely
zest of 1/2 lemon, roughly chopped
cream cheese

fresh thyme leaves, chopped

Fry the mushrooms in a drop of oil or a knob of butter until soft. Season with salt and pepper and remove from the heat. Stir in the lemon zest and allow the mixture to cool slightly. Stir in enough cream cheese to bind the mixture, add the parsley and mix thoroughly. You can set this aside for a while if you don’t want to eat straight away, or leave it in the fridge in a covered bowl overnight, which is what I usually do.

Goat's Cheese & Caramelised Onion

onion relish
goats cheese (preferably the soft, ‘log’ type with rind on).

Spread each toast with a little onion relish and top with a small piece of goats cheese. Flash under the grill to melt slightly, if you like. I also make an English Ploughman’s version of this with small-chunk Branston pickle and sharp cheddar cheese, but you do need to melt the cheese for these to be really good.

You need to leave the final assembly of any of the toasts until the last minute to avoid any sogginess. When you want to eat them, just top each little toast, put them on a large plate (or two), take them to the table and let everyone help themselves.

The chicken followed, with couscous, some salad and a bowl of Lemon Crème Fraîche Sauce. Then the cheesecake, which looked great with its topping of chocolate curls (which I did find time to make). We sat around gossiping and polishing off the wine until late. Bliss!

Hubby decided that he wanted to cook dinner tonight, so he got a nice piece of salmon, which he just fried in a little butter. We had baked potatoes with it and some lovely broad beans, just podded and blanched in boiling water for 1 minute before being skinned and turned in hot butter with a little black pepper to finish them off.

We had the rest of last night's cheesecake for pudding, too. Yum!

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Getting Ahead

We've got friends coming for dinner tomorrow night, so today while both the boys were having a nap after lunch I did some advance preparations.

I've decided to cook my Baked Spiced Chicken, which always goes down well. Most of the work is done in advance so it can marinade in the fridge overnight, then I just need to tip it into a roasting tin and put it in the oven tomorrow. The side dishes I serve with it take hardly any time, so I don't spend most of the evening in the kitchen, missing out on the gossip.

Baked Spiced Chicken

4-6 chicken leg portions
150ml olive oil
juice of 1 lemon
2 tsp cumin seed
2 tbsp coriander seed
large pinch coarse sea salt ( I use

With a small sharp knife, cut two or three deep slashes in the thickest part of each chicken leg. Place the portions in a freezer bag and tip in the olive oil and lemon juice. Crush the cumin and coriander with the salt, using a pestle and mortar, then add this mixture to the bag. Knot or seal the top of the bag, excluding as much air as possible, then squish and massage the chicken through the bag to coat it completely in the marinade. Put the bag in the fridge for several hours or overnight. Bake at 200°c for 45 minutes until cooked through.

A cheesecake always goes down well for pudding and this is a really good one. It's a slightly fiddled-about with version of a chocolate cheesecake with cherry sauce that was in delicious. magazine a while back. I love their way of putting it together in a loaf tin, believe me, it looks really stylish when it's turned out. I make it with Milky Bar, which appeals to my kitsch side, but you can use posh white chocolate if you want.

White Chocolate Cheesecake

Wet the inside of a loaf tin and line it with clingfilm.

150g white chocolate
250g cream cheese
142ml tub double cream

Melt the chocolate, then stir until smooth and leave to cool a little. Whick the cream until it holds its shape. Beat the cream cheese and the melted chocolate together until smooth, then fold in the cream. Spoon it into the tin and level the top. Chill it for an hour to firm up.

230g plain chocolate digestives, crushed
1 tbsp cocoa powder
70g butter, melted

Mix the crushed biscuits and cocoa powder together, then stir in the melted butter. Spoon into the loaf tin on top of the chocolate mixture and press down lightly. Cover and chill overnight.

It's easier to turn out than some cheesecakes can be, too, so that's a real plus when it's likely that people might be watching you. All my worst disasters have happened when someone was 'hovering' nearby, watching me make a cock-up. If I have time tomorrow, I'll make some chocolate curls to go on top. There are some raspberries to go with it, too.

Monday, 9 July 2007

'New from Old'

Yesterday evening we had a lovely dinner of roast pork with lots of vegetables and, of course, gorgeous roast potatoes cooked by Karl. We had a 1.5kg piece of pork shoulder, with the bone removed, so I filled the cavity in the centre with a bunch of fresh sage from the garden, which gave the meat a lovely flavour. We followed our meal with some jellies, striped yellow and green, that Christopher and I had assembled together. It was a lovely evening so after supper we headed down to the beach for a walk.

Because of the leftover pork in the fridge, dinner was a pretty easy option tonight. I often make pies like these when we've had a joint of roast pork the day before and you can see the recipe here. Tonight I used broccoli instead of cauliflower (also left over from last night) and crème fraîche instead of double cream, because that's what I had in the fridge. Because the pork was already so strongly flavoured by the sage, I didn't add any more herbs.

I really like cooking with leftovers. It would be easy to dismiss the idea of a 'repeat performance' as dull, but I get a lot of pleasure from making something new out of the bits we didn't need after all. I've actually made some really good things this way. It would be awful to just throw the stuff away after it has lingered under clingfilm in the fridge for a few days. Far too much food gets wasted anyway, and I can't bear to do it in such a cavalier manner when something else could be done with it. Some of the best meals ever were designed to use up scraps of meat, stale bread or stock made from leftover bones. Plus it saves money, which is not so much a plus as it is a reason.

Saturday, 7 July 2007

Saturday Supper

After a busy day today, I was definitely ready to sink into a chair to enjoy my Saturday Supper and some much-needed peace and quiet. By giving the boys their supper, bathing them and getting them off to bed before I have my supper, I'm ensuring a few hours of 'me' time most weeks, without trying to find a space in the diary to go out anywhere. It's also a brilliant way to spoil myself a little with things that I wouldn't necessarily be able to feed to the whole family for whatever reason. Tonight's supper was very simple, mushrooms stuffed with some cheese and bacon, served with a bit of salad. I have to say that a glass of chilled Chardonnay would have been perfect alongside, but I don't like to drink alcohol when I'm here on my own with the children, so instead I had a 'Mango Madness' Snapple. I made this with some soft, rinded French goat's cheese, and toasted a split ciabatta roll as I was cooking only for myself.

Mushrooms stuffed with Goat's Cheese & Bacon

large flat field mushrooms
streaky bacon
goat's cheese
fresh thyme leaves
olive oil
black pepper
ciabatta, to serve
salad, to serve

Chop the bacon and fry until cooked and just crisp. Mix in the thyme leaves. Drizzle the mushrooms with a little olive oil, and fill the 'cavities' with the bacon-and-thyme mixture. Crumble the goat's cheese over the top and grind on some black pepper. Bake at 200°c f0r about 10 minutes, then serve on a piece of toasted ciabatta, accompanied by some salad leaves.

Friday, 6 July 2007

Crumble and Cabbage (again, not together)

For supper last night we had our good old favourite, Savoury Mince Crumble. I cheated a little by defrosting some savoury mince that I'd cooked in advance and frozen. It's so easy to cook a double quantity of this kind of thing and it freezes beautifully. All I needed to do was tip it into a dish and top it with some crumble, knocked together in the KitchenAid. 40 minutes in the oven at 180°c gave me plenty of time to sort out some vegetables and lay the table.

Today meant the usual slog into Aberystwyth to do the food shopping, not helped by the seemingly never-ending resurfacing of the A487. We were very ready for lunch when we got home, then Hubby was home from work not long after James woke up from his post-lunch nap. He'd been in there since 4 this morning, so he spent the rest of the afternoon dropping off on the sofa.

This afternoon I did a little baking and tried something new. I'm always looking for new 'treats' like this, mainly to put in Karl's lunchboxes, though of course we all enjoy them. We actually had one of these each, with some hot custard poured over, for pudding this evening and it worked very well indeed. I used ready-to eat apricots to make these.

Apricot & Ginger Crumble Slices

250g dried apricots
125g butter
250g self-raising flour
250g light muscovado sugar
40g porridge oats
1 egg
1/2 tsp ground ginger

Soak the apricots in 100ml of boiling water, from the kettle, for 5 minutes. Tip the apricots and water into the blender and whizz to a purée. Set aside. Grease and line a 9in square baking tin. I use my Silverwood™ 'Eyecatcher' brownie tin, which has a slide-out base, so I just line the base.
Rub the butter, flour and sugar together, then take out about 1/3 of the mixture and stir in the porridge oats. To the remainder, add the ground ginger and the egg, then beat until smooth. Spread this portion of the mixture out over the base of the tin. It won't seem like enough, but it is, honest! I find it easier to put blobs of mixture all over and spread them together, rather than trying to spread it all out from the centre.

Spread the apricot purée over this layer, then scatter over the oaty 'crumble' mixture and press it down lightly with the back of a spoon. Bake at 180°c for 20 minutes, until the top is just golden. Let it cool in the tin, then cut into squares or bars as you like.

When I sat down to plan the week's meals and write the shopping list yesterday evening I, as always, asked for any requests from the men of the house. Christopher told me he loved bacon, he wanted bacon for dinner and we needed to buy some at the shops. So, we agreed on gammon steaks, served with mashed potatoes and cabbage. This way of cooking cabbage is a great favourite in our house. I've even had renowned salad-dodgers fighting over the last serving of this, which was nice. Half a medium-sized cabbage serves 4 as a side dish.

Savoy Cabbage Braised in Chicken Stock

half a Savoy cabbage, shredded
large knob of unsalted butter
200ml chicken stock
black pepper

Melt the butter in a wide-based pan with a lid. I use a frying pan, but the lid is the important thing. Just make sure it's big enough to allow you to stir the cabbage without spilling it all over the hob! Tip in the shredded cabbage and turn it in the hot butter to coat. Tip in the chicken stock , stir quickly and cover the pan. Cook over a high heat for a few minutes until the cabbage softens. Grind over some black pepper and serve.

If you want to make it richer, a dollop of double cream or crème fraîche can be stirred through as soon as the cabbage is cooked.

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

We Heart Liver

Yesterday, I tried using my slow-cooker to cook a whole chicken. My in-laws bought our Morphy Richards slow-cooker for us a few years back and - while it gets plenty of use for stews in the winter - I've never plucked up the courage to try cooking a chicken this way, which they absolutely swear by. I have had to learn to carefully disregard the instruction booklet that was included, as it seems to imply that most of the ingredients going into the slow-cooker should be, in fact, practically cooked already. Hardly a time-saver - and even more washing up.

Hubby brought home a 1.5kg organic free-range chicken a few weeks ago, which he'd seen reduced to 9p! Bearing in mind that the original cost was nearly £7.00, that was a bargain not to be missed. I stashed it in the freezer, then defrosted it to cook yesterday. I put it in the slow-cooker on HIGH just before we sat down for lunch, then turned it down to MEDIUM mid-afternoon. The bird was fantastically succulent and juicy, though you do lose the crisp skin you'd get with a roasted chicken.

I tore up the meat from the chicken and used it for Tagliatelle with Chicken from the Venetian Ghetto from Nigella Lawson's How to Eat, which is originally a Claudia Roden recipe from her Book of Jewish Food. I left out the specified pine nuts because of the children (too chokey) and served, instead, a small dish of toasted flaked almonds alongside for Karl and I to scatter over our food at the table.
Dinner tonight was Liver and Bacon Kebabs, adapted from a recipe in one of my favourite cookbooks, Meals in Moments by Maggie Brogan. I adore liver and am lucky to have a family who share my feelings on the matter. As for the bacon, I got some great short back bacon from the butcher which was very thick cut, so I just cut it into largeish pieces and folded them in half. If you can only get thin cut bacon, use halved rashers of streaky and roll them up.

Liver & Bacon Kebabs

400g pig's liver, cut into chunks
200g bacon (see above)
250g chestnut mushrooms, halved
sunflower oil

Soak 8 wooden skewers in water for 30 minutes. Thread the liver cubes, bacon pieces and halved mushrooms onto the skewers and place on an oiled baking sheet. Brush the kebabs with a little more oil and cook at 180°c for about 20 minutes.

To go with the kebabs, I cooked some brown rice in the rice machine, then stirred through some fried onions and chopped parsley. I like a little Worcestershire sauce sprinkled over the rice too, though Karl prefers his beloved Henderson's Relish.

Monday, 2 July 2007

Oh Burger!

I've just about given up on the idea of any more barbecues for now (bloomin' weather), but I can't go long without serious burger cravings. Cheeseburger cravings, in fact. So, this afternoon I made some burgers and tonight we had them for supper. You can put all sorts of bits and bobs into burgers; I've seen recipes for them with upwards of half a dozen ingredients, bound with egg and all sorts. A good burger needs nothing more than some good beef, minced (or very finely chopped, if your patience can stand it) and some seasoning. I made mine without salt so that James could have a small burger too. He's reached a stage where he howls indignantly all the way through meals if he feels he's getting something different, and therefore 'inferior', to everyone else.

Beef Burgers

250g beef, minced
black pepper
salt (if there are no babies dining with you tonight)

Put the meat in a large bowl and season it to your liking, squidging the seasoning through with your hands. Form th meat into burgers and place them on a tray lined with greaseproof paper. Cover with clingfilm and chill until just before you need them. Brush them lightly with oil before you cook them. I do ours on the (very hot) stove top griddle, but you can grill them, fry them in a dry non-stick pan or even bake them in the oven. Keep an eye on them, though - you want them just cooked through, or even still slightly pink.

Burgers are, as you would expect, assembled to individual specifications. Hubby likes two burgers, in rolls but otherwise unadorned, Chris likes a little cheese as well. Me, I like a well-loaded burger; lettuce, cheese, plenty of raw onion (again) and a good dollop of ketchup. Burgers are the only thing I eat ketchup with, but I can't imagine them without it.

To go with the burgers, I prepared a big plate of cut-up salad veg, or crudités if you like. I also cooked a tray of herby potato wedges in lieu of chips.

Herby Potato Wedges

sunflower oil
mixed dried herbs
black pepper

Preheat the oven to 200°c. Cut the potatoes into wedges (quarters for small spuds, sixths or eighths for biggies). Put all the wedges into a bowl or freezer bag and pour over some sunflower oil (probably a couple of tablespoonfuls if you're measuring it). Tip the wedges out onto a large baking sheet and sprinkle a large pinch of mixed dried herbs over them. Grind on some black pepper, then bake them for 30-40 minutes until crisp and browned without, soft and fluffy within.

Sunday, 1 July 2007

Cooking the Books

It's probably no surprise to anyone that I love cookbooks, or that I have a collection of over 200 of them which is unfeasibly large, given the size of our house. Yesterday evening I actually found some time to sit down and do some cookbook reading - mainly to dredge up some inspiration for tonight's dinner. It's lovely to just sit and read cookbooks, but I like the cooking part even more, so the most important thing for me when I choose a new book is that it should make me want to cook, not just read.

I like my cookbooks to be quite 'wordy'; to hear something of the history of a dish and the writer's feelings about it. Nigel Slater's books rate very highly with me for his evocative writing style as much as for his recipes. I wonder whether it boils down to the fact that I talk all the time, so I want everyone else to do the same somehow. A quiet world is not the world for me, that's certain. If I had my choice, I would have some pictures of the dishes, but to me they're not essential. Several of my favourite and most-used books don't have a single photograph.

Tonight's supper came from the pages of 'Apples for Jam' by Tessa Kiros, a recent addition to my library and one that I supspect is destined to become a favourite. It ticks all three important boxes for me -a lovely chatty way of writing with suggestions for adapting and changing her ideas to suit yourself. I could just sit down and read it for pleasure (and I do). The book is also truly beautiful to look at, but most of all, I am just desperate to cook just about everything in it!

This Sausage and Potato Goulash, which I cooked tonight, is a typical example of the recipes contained in the book; simple family food which is a joy to cook and to eat. Some good-quality sausages are cut up and sautéed with onions, flavoured with paprika, bay and cinnamon, then simmered with potatoes, tomatoes and water to make a gloriously-coloured soupy stew, full of flavour. Both the children adored it and I'm very glad that there are leftovers in the fridge for tomorrow's lunch. There nearly weren't! There is an excellent balance between this kind of practical everyday food and more frivolous and delightful things like fizzy orange and jam shortbread. Both of which have the pages turned down in my copy.


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