Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Currying Favour

Tonight I tried something new. 'Vegetable curry' was not something I was really expecting to go down terribly well, but I loved the idea of the combination of flavours and textures in this meal, so I decided to be brave and go for it.

Softening the (potential) blow of a totally vegetarian meal was made easier by a first course of a large plate of Potato Bhajias (made according to Madhur Jaffrey's recipe). I then brought the steaming pan of curry to the table and awaited my judgement with bated breath. What a relief! The children positively inhaled it , despite having already gorged themselves on the bhajias. I think Hubby was probably less keen, but he is more of a meat-and-potatoes-man and, give him his dues, his plate was clean.

Vegetable Curry with Red Lentils

I used an organic Tikka Masala curry powder, blended by Steenbergs, which we received in a hamper at Christmas (ta, G+E).

1 small onion, chopped
2 tsp 'lazy' garlic
1 tbsp curry powder (your choice, natch)
100g red lentils
600ml vegetable stock
1 small cauliflower, in florets
1 big carrot, peeled and sliced
100g fine beans, trimmed and halved
2 good handfuls spinach leaves

Heat some oil in a wide pan and cook the onion and garlic together until softened. Add the curry powder and lentils, then pour in the hot stock. Drop in the pieces of cauliflower and carrot, then cover the pan and simmer for 20 minutes. Stir in the beans, then lay the spinach on top of the curry and recover the pan for a further 5-10 minutes. Mix well and serve, with brown rice and condiments. I liked yoghurt and lime pickle with mine, Hub just the former. James wanted lots of mango chutney with his, I think he thinks it's jam. Christopher is still going through his (apparently never-ending) 'suspicious' phase when it comes to added sauces and dressings, so he had his 'as was'.

Saying that, I notice that his wariness doesn't seem to apply to chocolate sauce on ice-cream, nor to custard with puddings...

Tuesday, 29 April 2008


I love avocados, though I'm sure my hips don't thank me for that. They are (she writes in her defence) full of so-called 'good' fats and extremely good for the skin and hair if the (mainly self-appointed) experts are to be believed. Incidentally, the avocado is a fruit, not a vegetable, though much like the tomato I always think of it as the latter.

While we are all recent converts to Mexican food, I've never been particularly keen on traditional guacamole (i.e. with tomato in it) and I remain indifferent. As I have taken to adding soft cheese to this, for a milder flavour and to lighten the calorific load, this has no business calling itself 'guacamole', nor would I presume to do so. I feel that the food I cook must have some integrity, however silly that may seem. Avocado Dip it is.

I usually serve this as a first course with tortilla chips or, occasionally, with hot toast. Breadsticks and crudités accompany it well as part of a buffet spread and, if you want something a bit more celebratory, it also goes very well with smoked salmon.

Avocado Dip

I pinched the idea of seasoning the lemon juice before adding it to the other ingredientsfrom one of Nigella Lawson’s books, though I forget which.

2 or 3 avocados, depending on size
2 fat spring onions, very finely chopped
100g low-fat soft cheese (or 0% Greek yoghurt if you prefer)
juice of ½ to 1 lemon, to taste
a good pinch of salt and a twist of pepper

Mash the avocados well, then add the spring onions. Beat the soft cheese until smooth, then stir this into the avocado mixture. Stir the seasoning into the lemon juice and then pour it in, mixing well. Scrape the dip into a halfway decent-looking bowl, then cover the surface with clingfilm immediately and keep it there until seconds before you serve it. The lemon juice helps the dip to keep for a little while before turning brown, but don’t push your luck...

After our first course we enjoyed a pasta bake made with 200g of pasta, cooked and mixed with some leftover cooked chicken from Sunday's roast and some tinned sweetcorn. It was all bound together with a cheesy sauce and baked with more cheese atop.

Monday, 28 April 2008

Noshy Gnocchi

Much as I do love a pasta bake (and plan one for tomorrow evening), I' d never cooked anything with gnocchi until tonight. Tearing a riff on a favourite pasta recipe seemed appropriate, though, so I knocked up some blue cheese sauce and replaced the broccoli with spinach (yum...).

We started with a platter of Antipasti (read: I foraged in the fridge for anything feeling remotely Italianate and laid it all out on my big SYNTES SKISS plate from IKEA. With a glass of breadsticks and another holding celery it was a respectable first course that encouraged the children to try a little of everything, though not to like it all straightaway. As I'd included olives and anchovies, I was not particularly surprised!

Gnocchi with Spinach & Blue Cheese Sauce

The gnocchi I used was 'The Best' from the chiller cabinet at Morrisons. If you'd rather make this into a pasta bake, just substitute an equal amount of cooked pasta (i.e. about 200g -250g dry weight) for the gnocchi and proceed with the rest of the recipe.

30g cornflour
30g butter
1 pint milk

Put all three ingredients into a pan and bring to the boil, whisking all the time.

200g Danish Blue cheese, chopped

When the sauce has thickened, remove it from the heat and stir in the blue cheese, along with some pepper (but no salt)

2 big handfuls spinach leaves, washed
500g pack 'fresh' gnocchi

Wilt the spinach by putting it into a colander and pouring a kettleful of boiling water over it. Squeeze the excess water out with tongs and arrange this with the gnocchi in the bottom of an ovenproof dish. Pour the sauce over, pushing everything down well to cover it.

50g fresh parmesan, grated
50g breadcrumbs

Mix together and sprinkle over the top of the gnocchi. Bake at 200°c for 15-20 minutes until golden on top and bublling around the edges.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Cheese Saves the Day (again)

I feel compelled to pass on this little idea quickly. Yesterday, when Chris and I were preparing an Idle Pie for dinner, we trimmed off the pastry and found we had quite a bit left over.

I wasn't willing to waste it, or worse, wrap it in clingfilm, put it in the fridge and waste it in two days' time (!). So, I rolled it out thinly and we scattered grated cheese (parmesan) over it. Fold it like a letter (in thirds), roll it out again and repeat. Cut into strips and 'twist', putting them onto an oiled baking sheet. We put them in the oven with the pie (at 180°c) for about 10 minutes, until an enticing toasted cheese aroma filled the kitchen, then I cooled them on a rack.

Et voilà! A lovely pre-dinner nibble and no pastry trimmings in the bin!!

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Perky Turkey

It's been soooo hot today; not that I'm complaining, you understand. I've been shivering in "It's Spring, dammit!-denial" for weeks now, so it's rather nice that the weather has finally caught up with my wardrobe. James and I spent the afternoon (while Chris was at school) outside, playing and sitting, chatting to friends, respectively. I wasn't sure, on the way home, if the meal I'd planned for this evening would go down terribly well because of the heat. I'm happy to report that it did, after all - clean plates all round.

This is definitely a throw-it-together kind of meal. You can vary this in all sorts of ways to make it suit your mood and (in my case, anyway) what needs using up from the freezer.

Turkey Enchiladas

300g turkey, sliced
400g can mixed beans, drained and rinsed
2 x 400g cans chopped tomatoes
6 flour tortillas
100g cheddar cheese, coarsely grated

Heat a little oil in a large pan and fry the turkey strips until just cooked through. Add the beans, then stir in half of one can of tomatoes. Use this mixture to fill the tortillas, laying the 'wraps' side-by-side in an ovenproof dish. Tip the rest of the tomatoes into the pan, along with 100ml water, and bring to the boil. Pour this sauce over the tortillas, pushing the edges down to cover everything well. Top with grated cheese and bake at 180°c for 25 minutes until golden brown and bubbling.

For an easy first course, I set out a bowl of yoghurt and another of Salsa Mexicana Verde (from a can!), with some shop-bought tortilla chips. The salsa, which came from Mexgrocer, is quite tangy and piquant but nonetheless addictive for that. The boys aren't so keen, but there's time...

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

24 Carrot Gold

Tonight's first course was based on the memory of a salad my mum used to occasionally pack in my school lunchbox; shredded lettuce and carrot with cheddar cheese and salted peanuts. I always loved the combination of carrots and peanuts and have tried here to recreate that particular taste sensation, though in a slightly more dinner-friendly way. I suspect that it will also make a brilliant 'side order' salad for barbecues in the summer, but that little experiment will have to wait. You'll notice no cheese is included here, though - while I admit that it would (almost certainly) be fab with some crumbled feta cheese, sadly once again I am the only one willing to travel down that road... It did in fact go down very well with all of us tonight and my dreams of lunch tomorrow were dashed by the scant leftovers.

Carrot Salad

3 large carrots
handful of raisins or sultanas
100g bag salted peanuts
fresh parsley, chopped

Peel and coarsely grate the carrots. Combine all the above ingredients in a large bowl.

2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp garlic vinegar
1/4 tsp ground cumin

Whisk together, pour over the carrot salad and toss well to coat evrything in the dressing. The salad will sit happily for a bit while you get other things sorted out.

Speaking of which, we followed this salad with a Tuna Lasagne, made tonight with some leftover mixed bean salad, from the other day, in place of the peas. A successful substitution, one I was pleased with and which used up most of the remaining bean salad. I will (thankfully) be able to add that to the laughably minute serving of carrot salad to cobble together a lunch tomorrow.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Getting Saucy!

It's been a while since I blogged, chiefly because my parents visited and I wanted to spend time with them. However, now we're back in business! Still going with the plan-ahead weekly menus and I have to tell you, it really does make life easier, not having to hear that daily whinge of "what's for dinner?" with no definite answer to give. It makes the weekly food shopping easier, if I don't have to 'guess-timate' what food we might eat during the course of the week. It certainly saves money, plus it avoids the guilt of impulse-buying food that might get thrown away because it goes off before we get around to eating it.

Tonight we started with a simple platter of ham and mozzarella with French bread and basil oil, which I make by whizzing a bit of pesto (from a jar) with some olive oil. This is one of those really easy first courses that is always well-received but which takes (relatively speaking) no work at all. You could, depending on your constituency, add a few olives to the plate. As the only keen olive-eater in the house, though, I don't bother and just snaffle a few while I'm cooking.

Afterwards, we left the bread on the table as an accompaniment to our main course of Broccoli Cheese, to mop up every last scrap of the tasty sauce. I've mentioned the all-in-one method of sauce-making before, but it deserves a repeat entry; discovering it revolutionised the way I cook and for that I thank Saint Delia. And for the top of the broccoli (or cauliflower, for that matter) cheese, please consider using a 50/50 mixture of grated cheese and fresh breadcrumbs. Such a lovely crunch.

Basic All-in-One White Sauce

40g butter
40g cornflour
1 pint milk
1 tsp mustard (if you're making a cheese sauce)


grated cheese or chopped fresh parsley (for cheese sauce or parsley sauce respectively)
grated nutmeg (if it's to be a plain white sauce)

Bung everything into a pan and bring it to the boil, whisking all the time. Simmer briefly, to thicken the sauce and cook out any floury taste remaining, then flavour if necessary (with grated cheese, chopped parsley or whatever). Bada-bing, bada-boom!

Go forth and make sauce...

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

To Begin With

It doesn’t seem terribly 'cool' anymore, but I like having a proper first course; after all, I enjoy the ritual of dinner (almost) as much as the food itself. I’m not talking about fancy individual soufflés and restaurant-style ‘starters’, but just simple, tasty things to take the edge off the appetite while the main course finishes off in the oven, or to stave off the tantrums of hungry children whose Mummy is having trouble browning the pasta bake.

I can always get away with a few bits of ham, salami or chorizo and some ripe tomatoes, if I'm really pushed. Last night, in fact, I knocked up a quick, chopped tomato and mozzarella salad and served it with some of my fail-safe tiny toasts. I make a batch (one baguette's-worth) of these once every couple of weeks and store them in a box for this and that.

My Favourite Tiny Toasts

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. Cool completely, then store in an airtight container.

As well as last night's salad, these toasts came out this evening to go with a bowl of Smoked Mackerel Pâté that I knocked up while our main course, a Courgette and Goat's Cheese Tart, was in the oven. I had hoped to have some leftovers for my lunch tomorrow, but it was all too swiftly vacuumed up. Oh well...

Smoked Mackerel Pâté

Use peppered mackerel fillets instead, if you like.

200g soft cheese
1 tsp hot horseradish sauce
1 tbsp lemon juice
150g 'natural' smoked mackerel fillets
chopped fresh chives

Beat the soft cheese, horseradish sauce and lemon juice together with a little black pepper. Flake the fish into the bowl, then add some chopped chives and mix well. Scrape it into a serving bowl, cover and refrigerate until needed. As well as the aforementioned toasts, it is particularly good with chicory leaves and celery sticks.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Cheating for the Children

Not long ago I had an email from the website editor at Problem Presents, wanting to feature me in their 'Interview of the Week' slot. Feeling positively, and undeservedly, famous (ha!), I filled in the questions she sent me and you can read the interview here.

I went out to the Conrah for lunch with my girlfriends today, in celebratory anticipation of Becky's birthday next week. So having had a Caesar Salad with steamed chicken breast (which actually turned out to be a chicken and bacon salad with poached egg and -bizarrely - shavings of coconut), I don't feel like eating very much this evening. No matter, though, because Saturday is 'kiddie food' night, when Hubby works a late shift and I eat something lovely, but not to his or the boys' tastes, after the small people have retired for the night. That means giving the boys a treaty-feeling but still straightforward supper and tonight I opted for 'tarted-up' frozen pizzas.

Like most children, the boys each like to have something all to themselves. The small cheese-and-tomato pizzas you can get out of the freezers in supermarkets lend themselves well to that. I like to add a couple of toppings and a bit more cheese, otherwise they just feel too basic for words. In any case there's rarely enough cheese on a frozen pizza, I find. Tonight we mixed some chopped, cooked chicken with a little bit of barbecue sauce (Christopher's job) and added some defrosted frozen sweetcorn to top the pizzas.

With a few salad vegetables on the side, and yoghurt for pudding, that's a dinner the boys will always wolf down and which is healthy enough not to cause any guilt or worry on my part (which a child's idea of a treat rarely is).

Friday, 11 April 2008

Soup Night

A bowl of soup with bread and cheese to accompany it must be one of the most pleasing and convivial suppers there is. I make a lot of soup nowadays, though I've mentioned before my childhood aversion to the stuff (except for my mum's fab vegetable soups). I still have a horror of tinned soup, though I know a lot of people have a nostalgic hankering for a particular tomato soup... An essential part of what have become our 'soup nights' is the pudding. We always like to follow soup etc. with a proper pud, something hearty and rib-sticking. Preferably with custard.

Neither of the boys are particularly keen on mushrooms 'as is', but this soup always goes down well, having all the lovely flavour but none of the somewhat difficult texture. I like to boost the fairly pedestrian button mushrooms with a good heap of dried porcini and a good bit of thyme, which goes wonderfully with mushrooms.

Cream of Mushroom Soup

80g butter
1 small onion, finely chopped
fresh thyme leaves
250g button mushrooms, finely chopped
10g dried porcini
50g cornflour
1/2 pint milk

Soak the dried porcini in 1 1/2 pints of water from the kettle. Melt the butter in a large saucepan and fry the onion, thyme and button mushrooms until soft. Add the cornflour and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring all the time. Pour in the porcini and their soaking liquid, add the milk and bring to the boil, still stirring all the time. Turn down the heat and simmer for half an hour. Purée and reheat, adjusting the seasoning to taste.

I like a swirl of cream and a scattering of chopped fresh parsley, but -hey - your decision!

The pudding I chose to cook last night was one that has been adopted as a self-conciously 'retro' classic. I mean it, though, I love this and cook it often. Rather than doing it in a cake tin, though, try a pie tin. You get a lovely domed effect, not unlike a tarte tatin. Speaking of which, why is that 'fashionable' and this 'retro'? I know which I'd rather have.

Pineapple Upside-Down Pudding

To me this is emphatically a pudding, and not a cake.

pineapple rings, juice or syrup reserved
glacé cherries

4oz butter, plus 2 tbsp more
4oz light muscovado sugar, plus 2 tbsp more
2 eggs
4oz self-raising flour
pinch baking powder (about 1/4 tsp)

Press the 2 tbsp butter onto the bottom of a deep pie tin and scatter over the 2 tbsp sugar. Place pineapple rings in the base of the tin, filling each central void with a glacé cherry.

Cream the remaining butter and sugar together, add the beaten eggs, flour and baking powder. Add a little of the pineapple juice or syrup to make a smooth and soft cake batter, then dollop and spread this over the pineapple base. Bake at 180°c for 25 minutes. Loosen the edges of the cake with a palette knife, put an upturned plate on top of the tin then flip it all over to unmould the pudding in all its glory. Serve warm, with lashings of custard.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Pulse Rate

Lentils are so useful in the kitchen. I add the little red split ones to all sorts of things to bulk them out, stretch them further or just to add a different dimension of texture. A spoonful or two in a stew thickens the gravy nicely as it cooks, without the need for any artificial jiggery-pokery, and you can stretch a small quantity of minced beef further if you add half the quantity of lentils to whatever you're cooking and simmer with some stock. Pulses are cheap, especially if you buy the bags of dried ones which you soak and cook for yourself. More and more, too, I find that my children adore pulses of all kinds and will enthusiastically devour just about anything that is accompanied by lentils, chock-full of chickpeas or studded with red kidney beans.
For a meal or side dish, though, you'd be hard pressed to beat the beautiful, pebbly, French lentilles de Puy. Once a recherché resident of upmarket and continental grocers, they can now (thanks largely to Merchant Gourmet) be found in even the smaller supermarkets. This little one-pot meal shows them off to their best, cooked simply with sausages for an unfussy, but still somehow rather special, family supper.
Sausage & Lentil Braise
The pork chop was added really because I had one that needed to be used; you could easily leave it out, though I do think it adds to the flavour of the juices and to the 'feastliness' of the meal as a whole.
1 leek, shredded
fresh thyme
50ml vermouth (or white wine)
250ml Puy lentils
1 or 2 pork chops, bone-in please
6-10 coarse pork sausages
Heat a little fat in a flameproof casserole and soften the leeks with some finely chopped fresh thyme. Add the lentils to the pan, stirring to coat them in the fat, then pour in the vermouth or wine and allow the alcohol to bubble away. Pour in 500ml water, then lay the pork chop and sausages in the pan. Bring to the boil, then cover the pan and simmer for 20 minutes. Serve straight from the pan, possibly (if you can stand the extra carbs) with some nice bread for mopping up the juices.

Monday, 7 April 2008

Oh Crumbs!

Back to the usual routine today and all the joys of the school run, not to mention remembering to take the after-school snacks! I had plenty of errands to run in town while Chris was at school, so had no chance to miss him all over again. The Easter break was, after all, my first experience of him being on a 'proper' school holiday. He was clearly glad to be back, though - I hardly got a backward glance once he got into the building!

Now that we've returned to some semblance of normality, I've started drawing up weekly meal plans again. With everything else that was going on today, I'd decided on a quick and easy dinner for this evening. This crumb-topped salmon is ideal for a weeknight family supper. It's healthy and, as an added bonus, is easily varied to stave off the "not that again" mealtime ennui; use different fish if you prefer, mix the crumbs with pesto or even curry paste for a new twist. Crumbs with herbs, lime and red chilli work really well with otherwise uninspiring white fish fillets.

Garlic-Crumb Salmon

4 salmon steaks or fillets
100g breadcrumbs
2 (or more) cloves garlic, finely chopped
fresh parsley
2 tbsp olive oil
lemon juice

Mix the crumbs, garlic and parsley with a little seasoning, then add the olive oil and just enough lemon juice to bind it into a cohesive, but still crumbly, mass. Press this onto the fleshy surface of the pieces of fish and bake them, on a lightly oiled tray, for 10-12 minutes at 180°c.

I served the fish with steamed potatoes, broccoli and beans today, and followed it (for the children) with a small leftover piece of last night's chocolate pudding.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Sunday Girl

We woke up this morning to every child's (and my husband's) dream - a half-decent covering of snow on the ground. Christopher was barely able to contain his excitement during breakfast, then he was straight out into the garden to throw snowballs and (inexplicably) carry small buckets full of snow from one side of the garden to the other. James was intrigued by it all, though rather suspicious and apt to break down in tears if any snow got too close to him!

I really started cooking again today, having had the best part of two weeks off family meal-duty (what with all our various gallivanting around). A Sunday dinner was a good place to start, and really, what could we want more on a cold evening than a warming chicken stew with lemon-spiked dumplings and a chocolate pudding to follow?

I can't really bring myself to type out a 'recipe' for this stew; as you do with stews, I just threw it all together. I browned some free-range, corn-fed chicken legs, added leeks, carrots and potatoes, then cooked it slowly, for a couple of hours, with a splash of vermouth and some chicken stock. My recipe for dumplings is here, though today I added the zest of a lemon, used its juice to bind the dough and used fresh parsley instead of the dried herbs. Half an hour before we ate, I threw in some halved green beans and added the dumplings to the pan.

Now, this pudding I'm very proud of. Chocolate puddings can be a real problem, balancing richness with a need to stand up again and sweetness with wanting the children to get some sleep tonight. This pudding fulfils the brief well, as most of the really sweet and rich part comes from the accompanying Choco-Fudge Sauce. The ginger may seem unconventional and, it's true, the pudding doesn't taste much of ginger - but it does have an indefinable warmth that a pudding without the added spice lacks.

Choc-Choc Pudding with Choco-Fudge Sauce

I cook this in my pressure cooker but, if you don't have one, steam the pudding for an hour and a half.

100g butter
30g golden syrup
100g light muscovado sugar

Melt together in a pan, then remove from the heat and allow to cool to blood temperature.

150ml milk
1 egg

200g self-raising flour
25g cocoa powder
1 tsp ground ginger
pinch bicarbonate of soda

Mix the dry ingredients together, then beat the milk and egg into the cooled butter mixture. Add the flour etc., to the pan and stir throughly until everything is well combined. Pour the mixture into a well-greased 1.2 litre pudding basin, cover with foil and tie tightly. In a pressure cooker, steam for 10 minutes, then cook for 25 minutes. Otherwise, steam over hot water for an hour and a half.

As I've mentioned above, the crowning glory of this pudding is my Choco-Fudge Sauce. I make this, rather lazily, by melting three Mars bars with 150ml double cream. It's extremely good for dressing up this rather plain chocolate pudding (and others), for pouring over ice-cream or for dipping fruit and marshmallows into as a 'chocolate fondue'. Not that children, in my experience, need much encouragement to eat fruit, but sometimes it's fun to get in a mess just for the sake of it. Anyway, you know by now that I'm a hands-on sort of girl, don't you?


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