Sunday, 30 March 2008

Worry Beans

Well, tonight's was the last family meal I shall have to cook for a few days; tomorrow the boys and their Dad set off for Yorkshire to visit Grandma and Grandad (and to give me a break, phew!). I'm simultaneously really looking foward to being completely independent for a few days and worrying about what on earth I'm going to do with all this time, without my babies to fill it for me. At the moment, plans haven't got much further than the vague 'sleep and clean' (though I've already mentioned my lunch date for tomorrow). I will almost certainly be enjoying some shellfish (Hubby's bête noire) for dinner at some point and hope to have a good 'booty trawl' around the local charity shops. I love charity shops, anything of that kind, and some of my favourite things are second-hand or vintage. Top of the pops at the moment are a 1970s brown felt hat from eBay and a gorgeously gaudy flower-power-patterned glass jug from the Barnado's shop.

This chicken and beans 'thing' was a half-formed idea that came together very well as I cooked it. A simple one-pot dinner is always good for a family; fewer pots to wash (and therefore fewer to argue about?). I did have a bottle of wine open, but I keep a bottle of vermouth, for little bits like this, by the stove as (1) it's a screw-top bottle and not all the wine I like is, and (2) I don't drink much vermouth (you only need a whisper in a Martini) so I can rely on always having some. Hubby doesn't like it at all, so he doesn't nip into the bottle as he is wont to do with other thing.

Chicken and Bean Casserole

1 onion, haved and sliced
4 rashers of bacon, chopped
2 x 400g cans mixed beans, or your choice of pulses
6-8 chicken pieces (thighs and drumsticks)
4 bay leaves
75ml vermouth or white wine
300ml chicken stock, hot

Gently fry the onion with the bacon in a lidded casserole until softened. Add the drained and rinsed pulses to the pan, then tuck in the bay leaves. Lay the chicken pieces on top and season to your own taste. Pour the vermouth or wine into the pan, letting it boil briefly before adding enough hot chicken stock to come about halfway up the chicken. Cover the pan and transfer it to a 180°c oven for 30 minutes. Uncover the pan and cook for a further 10 minutes to crisp the skin of the chicken.

Saturday, 29 March 2008

A Little Kitchen Pottering

This morning I decided to make a chocolate blancmange for us to eat after dinner. Blancmange is a great 'storecupboard' pudding; as long as you have a pint of milk, you're sorted and, as anyone with small children usually has either too much or too little milk in the house at any one time it comes in handy as a way to use up the surplus. This was, as you may have guessed, the reason for my making one today. Too much milk, not enough fridge space!

Chocolate Blancmange

25g cocoa powder
40g cornflour
40g sugar
1 pint milk (yes - bad girl - I know I shouldn't mix metric and imperial but this is easier)

Mix the cocoa, cornflour and sugar together in a large bowl, then add enough of the cold milk to mix it to a smooth paste. Heat the rest of the milk to boiling point, then pour the hot milk over the chocolate mixture. Stir thoroughly, then return the mixture to the saucepan immediately. Sir continously as the mixture comes back to the boil, then let it boil for one minute (still stirring so that it doesn't stick). Pour it into a wetted mould and leave it to cool before chilling until completely set. Turn it out onto a plate and decorate it as gaudily as you like. I always like to see a glacé cherry, don't you?.

In a cooking sort of mood after the blancmange, I suggested to Christopher that we make some houmous for lunch. Dips are one of my (and the boys') absolute favourite things to eat and houmous is the dip I make most often, being whipped up quickly in the processor.


I usually use canned chickpeas for this – organic for preference – and rinse them well to get rid of the foul-tasting liquid they come packed in.

420g can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
3 tbsp olive oil
1 clove of garlic, crushed, grated or very finely chopped
1 tbsp tahini paste, if you’ve got it
2 tsp ground cumin
juice of half a lemon

Place all the ingredients in the processor and whizz to a paste (I prefer a more interesting ‘grainy’ consistency to industrial smoothness). Taste to see if you need more lemon juice or cumin and add a pinch of salt if you like. Add a little water to thin the houmous to the consistency you like, then scrape itinto a bowl and serve with warm bread and crunchy vegetables, whatever takes your fancy. This makes enough for 2 or 3 people for lunch, but it keeps, covered in the fridge, for a day or so and makes an extremely good sandwich; on brown bread with spinach and grated carrot.

The fabulous plate in the picture is a new favourite - I bought it last week when I was away, on a rare trip to IKEA - credit where it's due!

This afternoon I took the boys to the cinema (a first for both of them!) to see a matinée showing of "Dr Seuss' Horton Hears A Who!". I was pleasantly surprised by how well they both behaved; Christopher pretty much perfectly, and James sat through most of it before wanting to go off exploring and find girls to flirt with. Only one, and already he's a charmer...there may be trouble ahead. The only slight downside of this lovely afternoon treat was that they were, weirdly, too tired to eat much dinner when we got home. I don't know why sitting in a dark room for two hours watching glorified TV should be so tiring, but apparently it is. Ho hum, what do I know..?

Friday, 28 March 2008

Rock On!

The boys and I had a lovely Easter break at my parents' house and experienced the difficult feelings of not wanting to leave, but, at the same time, really wanting to come back. I don't think I'll ever get used to that little tug-of-love between the places that I call home. The subject of last night's W.I. meeting was an added attraction; we had a visit from a lady who showed us how to make a range of filled chocolates at home. I will let you know what kind of results I get...

Today and the next couple of days are an odd sort of no-woman's-land for me. Last week was spent wawy with the children and on Monday, Hubby is taking the boys away to his parent's house in Yorkshire for a few days. It will be the first time I've ever really been away from them and again that tugging feeling comes into play; looking forward to having some real time to myself versus wondering how I will ever manage to fill my days without them all. Sleep comes to mind initially, and long hot baths in the middle of the day. I've already arranged a ladies-who-lunch date with a friend for Monday to start things off with a giggle.

Today, while James was having an afternoon nap, Christopher came to sit on my lap, bringing with him a cookery book (catch 'em young). We looked through it together, talking about the sort of things that we each like to eat, before he decided that he would like to do some baking. Paucity of ingredients was an initial sticking point, but we cobbled together the necessary to make a batch of rock buns, which we began eating more or less straightaway, when James woke up. Anyway (a trifle defensively), they are only really wonderful on the day you bake them, then they stale and begin to resemble real rocks. Well, that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it!

Rock Buns

200g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp ground mixed spice
1/4 tsp grated fresh nutmeg
100g butter
75g caster sugar
75g mixed dried fruit and peel
zest of 1 lemon and half its juice
1 egg, beaten
about 50ml milk

Mix the flour, baking powder and spices, then rub in the butter. Stir in the sugar fruit and lemon zest, then mix with the beaten egg, milk and lemon juice to make a fairly stiff and sticky dough. Drop lumpy spoonfuls onto lightly oiled baking sheets and cook for 15 minutes or so at 200°c until golden. Remove the cooked buns to a cooling rack, but they are at their best with the warmth of the oven still lingering.

For our supper this evening I cooked a good old family favourite; my Frank & Maisy Pasta Bake. As a variation, tonight I added a tin's-worth of drained and rinsed red kidney beans. These are one of the boys' latest fads; put them in anything (perhaps not trifle) and they wolf it down. Always good. They wrapped themselves around some Easter egg for pudding - at least 'afters' are easily dealt with at this time of year.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Stewing Bee

I would describe myself as a happy, healthy omnivore; we all four enjoy eating meat, and I make sure to buy as much as I can from the local butcher or direct from the producers at the farmers' market. What I don't like is the term 'carnivore' being attached to those of us who choose to eat meat; we almost invariably enjoy more than just meat in our diets and so, pedant that I am, I prefer the correct term to be used. If I'm going to be labelled, I want it done accurately!

Having said that, however, I love vegetables and enjoy the challenge of cooking a meal with nothing but veg, especially with the beautiful produce we get in our weekly organic box. Vegetables give the cook such a wide palette of flavours, colours and textures that I can't imagine life without them; nor could I enjoy eating wholly without meat and its by-products. Tonight I made a really hearty vegetable stew, though I admit the dumplings on top weren't 100% vegetarian-friendly; I can't resist a dumpling made with proper beef suet. If your tastes differ, substitute vegetarian suet (whatever that is) or vegetable shortening (something like Trex; chilled in the freezer and then coarsely grated). A touch of spice livens up the starchy roots no end, and pulses bulk it out perfectly.

Chunky Root Stew with Dumplings

I used ground de arbol chillies from Mexgrocer, which are very hot - use your favourite and adjust the quantities to your taste.

1 onion, peeled, halved and sliced
2 tsp ground coriander
2 tsp ground cumin
pinch ground chilli (and see above)
4 potatoes, peeled and chopped

3 parsnips, peeled and chopped
4 carrots, peeled and chopped
400g tin chickpeas, drained and rinsed

80ml/⅓ cup split red lentils

Heat a little butter and oil in a large casserole and gently fry the onion with the spices until softened. Add the vegetable chunks, chickpeas and lentils and pour in enough cold water just to cover everything. Bring to the boil, then transfer to a 180°c oven and cook, covered, for 30 minutes, while you get on with the dumplings. God, I love dumplings - even the word itself is comforting.

150g self-raising flour
50g suet (and see above)
1 tsp mixed dried herbs
salt and pepper

Stir the suet, herbs and seasoning into the flour, then add milk to bind to a sticky dough. Divide into eight ball-like lumps and drop into the top of the stew. Cook, this time uncovered, for a further 15 minutes. If you like your dumplings less crusty on top, either baste them with some of the juices from the stew, or cover the pan completely for a really soft dumpling. I do them this way on top of stews in the slow cooker, too - which works really well. Just plop them in for the last half-hour before you want to eat.

I steamed some broccoli for a bit of 'green', but it was more because we had it left in the fridge from this week's box; the children and I are going away for Easter tomorrow and somehow I can't imagine Hubby cooking broccoli for himself while we're away...

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Just Enough is Good Enough

Confession time. I am not a born ‘clean freak’. I am not even a very convincing pretend one. What I am, at heart, is bone idle. I would much rather sit and read a cookbook than dust the bookshelves and I would much rather bake (and eat) a cake than clean the oven. Even now I would much rather build Lego tunnels and squidge playdough with my son than, well, just about anything else. In fact, just today I made a cardboard-and-tinfoil robot with Christopher, while sitting in a very messy room. And it didn't matter, because we had fun.

I approach housework in rather a slapdash fashion, but I always hate ending up in a huge panic if we're expecting visitors. Living in secret fear of ‘unexpected guests’ is no way to be. The washing machine used to lie dormant for days at a time, then be suddenly confronted with four consecutive loads when we realised that we had nothing to wear.

As a stay-at-home mum, I feel that part of the deal is that I take care of most of the day-to-day running of the house. That is not to say that my hubby arrives home from work, puts his slippers on and sits in his favourite chair for the rest of the evening. This is not a 1950s American sitcom (thank God). Everyone in the family (okay, maybe not the cat) has their part to play. If it’s not done, though, it’s ultimately my problem, and I try to find ways to do what needs to be done without coming over all, y'know, scary. I've discovered a talent for organisation I never knew I possessed. I (usually) know where things are without hours of searching and last-minute panics. I open the fridge and no badly-wedged jar of mouldy jam falls out to smash on the floor. I get dressed easily and quickly every morning, having looked in my wardrobe the night before and chosen an appealing outfit in peace. We can invite people for dinner, or to stay for a weekend, without spending untold hours cleaning just before they arrive. Getting even slightly organised means that it soon takes only a short time each morning (no more than an hour a day for me; during Woman's Hour on BBC Radio 4 for me, which seems apt) to finish the majority of the housework for the day.

This is, emphatically, not about being a perfect domestic goddess, nor is it about 'playing house'; spending hours decanting your laundry detergent into fancy bottles and tying up bundles of clean sheets with silk ribbon. I have better things to do and so, I'm sure, do you. A homemade cake and a few pretty touches can make all the difference to your life if most of it is spent at home, but let's not get carried away - this is about doing what needs to be done with the minimum of fuss and still having time to enjoy being a mum, being a wife and occasionally, just being yourself...such heaven.

Best of all though, I can be proud of my home. I look forward to having guests and actively encourage visitors (although we generally need to keep our bedroom door shut to hide the stuff I've thrown in there at the last-minute when I realise I've run out of time). So the fact that often I feel like I’m still pretending to be a grown-up, efficient, houseproud type doesn’t matter. Cutting corners is OK, really. As long as it gets done, there’ll still be time for a G & T.

Friday, 14 March 2008

Easter Comes Early

I was sent this beautiful "Your Eggsellency" Easter Egg from Hotel Chocolat to see what I thought. My first thought was "how can I keep this all to myself?", swiftly followed by "how on earth am I going to eat all that?". You see, when they say 'Extra Thick Easter Eggs', by golly do they mean it! The chocolate was so thick in places that I could hardly break a piece off, and the taste was beyond compare; no high street chcolate egg I've had in the past even comes close. The dark chocolate half, in particular, was a revelation; smooth and sliughtly smoky, but not at all bitter. The children each had a piece of milk and dark chocolate to try (without knowing it was from an Easter egg - I wasn't going down that road) and both enjoyed it as children do...

For the smaller (I'm reluctant to use the word 'mini', as they were close in size to a creme egg) truffle eggs inside the larger chocolate shell, I enlisted the (willing) help of my beloved Hubby. I felt that if I was going to eat an Easter egg bfore Easter (shock horror!), then I should at least try to spread the sin around a bit! They were, in the main, wonderful. A particular favourites of mine was the Bellini egg, while we both agreed that the Pink Marc de Champagne and Amaretto eggs stood out from the others.Unfortunately, both of us found the Rum egg to be rather strong for our tastes; the only slight letdown in the whole (delicious) package.

On balance, this would make a wonderful Easter gift for somebody special. They are expensive, at twenty pounds apiece, and definitely not for children, but if you have a hankering to stand out from the Easter crowd, this is definitely the way to do it, plus there is a range of smaller gifts on the website for those with tighter budgets. As an added bonus for the disorganised, Hotel Chocolat will take orders for Easter right up until 4pm on Maundy Thursday if you use their Gold delivery service.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

The Fake Ice-Cream Way to 5 a Day!

Tonight the boys and I were on our own for supper, so I steamed some pieces of rainbow trout, cut from a lovely fillet which Christopher chose off the fishmonger's counter yesterday. 'Steamed fish' sounds so full of self-denial, redolent of all those miserable 'diet' features in magazines but it is actually the best ways to cook a nice piece of oily fish like this; it tastes wonderfully, vigorously, of itself.

To go with, in the streamer basket above that containing the pieces of trout, I steamed some ribbons of carrot and courgette. This is an easy way to make vegetables seem extra special to the children and all you need is the potato peeler - just pare off as many long strips as you can or want to. A tangled heap of vegetable ribbons with a piece of fish perched atop, would be delicious enough, but I added a little dressing for James and myself (Christopher is going through a 'suspicious' phase when it comes to sauces and dressings; his loss!)

Soy & Garlic Dressing

The garlic vinegar is easily made - just poke some unpeeled, fat cloves of garlic through the neck of a preserving bottle and top up with cider vinegar. Leave it to steep, topping up the vinegar as necessary over time. For this precious ambrosia, I am much indebted to the memory of the late Laurie Colwin, from whose book More Home Cooking it comes.

50ml olive oil
2 tbsp dark soy sauce
1 tbsp garlic vinegar (and see above)
pinch ground ginger
good grinding of fresh black pepper

Whisk everything together, then pour or drizzle over your fish and vegetables, or whatever else takes your fancy.

For a little bit of something sweet tonight, I grabbed a box of frozen melon cubes from the freezer and made this impromptu ice. We all love melons, especially for breakfast on warm days (I wish), but there always seems to be a bit hanging around that's gone a bit squidgy when we've had our fill. To save wasting it, I chop it up and freeze it for cocktails, fruit salads or just for little James to munch when he has a tooth coming. By whizzing it in the blender with a teeny splash of water, you get a sweetly perfumed dessert with a kind of 'Slush Puppy' texture, only far less virulently coloured and terrifying. For colour and another taste, I heated a handful of frozen blackberries (any berries, fresh OR frozen, would do) with 100ml water, a tablespoon of golden caster sugar and a teaspoon of ground arrowroot to make a sauce which I left to cool before pouromh over bowls of the melon ice. It went down very well, almost as a party-type treat and - ssshh! - apart from that spoonful of sugar in the sauce, it's all fruit!

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Rainbow Bright

Well, who's been a lucky girl today? A lovely card, handmade by Christopher (with just a little help from his teacher, I suspect), a pretty plate, covered in candy-coloured flowers and a beautiful, bright Zsiska bracelet that I've been coveting for weeks.

On top of all that, tonight we had a really good Sunday roast. Rib of beef with horseradish cream, Yorkshire puddings and lots of veg (including a dish of purple sprouting broccoli; steamed and then tossed, rather fabulously, in garlic butter). Then we had apple and blackberry crumble with custard. Though madame did find the 'waffer'-thin mint tempting, I feel I must go and lie down somewhere now...

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Sant

Yes, it's the 1st of March - St. David's Day. Christopher has been full of excitement for it, having done various activities and crafts at school this week. He even had me on the floor earlier, attempting to make a Welsh dragon out of red building blocks. Not so good, however I was very pleased with my Lego Daffodil!

For our supper tonight there was only one choice. Cawl is peasant food; good food to warm the cockles on the coldest night and has, beyond a doubt, the right to be called Wales' national dish. As it is proper home food, recipes vary hugely - as I found when I picked the brains of the other ladies at our W.I. cawl supper the other night. Opinion is divided between whether cawl should be made with beef or lamb; I've eaten both and lean towards the beef versions (cawl cig eidion), as does one of our near neighbours, who also introduced the notion of the lentils to me.


I like shin of beef best for stewing, but chuck or skirt would do very well too. Replace the beef with lamb, if you fancy a cawl cig oen more

25g beef dripping or other cooking fat
1 onion, peeled and chopped
400g stewing beef (and see above), cubed
4 medium potatoes, peeled and chopped

1 swede, peeled and chopped
3 carrots, peeled and chopped
100g split red lentils
knob of butter
3 leeks, sliced

Melt the fat in a large casserole and fry the onion until softened. Brown the meat, then add the chopped vegetables and lentils and turn them in the fat. Pour over 1.2 litres of water and bring to the boil. Scoop out any scum that rises to the top as you can, adding a knob of butter to disperse any that remains. Transfer the pan to a 160c oven and cook for an hour, then add the sliced leeks to the pan and cook for 30 minutes more. Swirl in some roughly chopped fresh parsley just before serving.

The only accompaniment you need is bara menyn (bread and butter) a caws (and cheese), and perhaps (if you feel like going really Welsh) some Bara Brith for pwdin.


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