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


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, 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.


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
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


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!


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