Sunday, 29 June 2008

Pre-prandials: Pink Lady

Definitely one for the girls, I feel - tonight's libation of choice is one of my perennial favourites. And for good reason, trust me. Gin-based (always a winner) and pleasantly sweet, but with a wicked sharp kick from the lime. That, and the addition of a maraschino cherry makes this, if not numero uno, then top three at least

Pink Lady

2 measures gin
1/2 measure grenadine syrup
juice of 1/4 lime
soda water
maraschino cherry and lime slice, for garnish

Pour the gin, grenadine and lime juice into a shaker and toss in one or two ice cubes. Shake it, baby! Strain into a cocktail glass and top up with soda water. Add the lime slice and - plink - the all-important maraschino.

Best enjoyed barefoot and in a swishy skirt - preferably while listening to some disco diva classics. Did you know I have a mirror ball in the dining room?

'Millions' of Cheese

I've been enjoying getting Christopher's input on ideas regarding what to have for dinner lately. He's come up with some pretty sensible suggestions too, most of the time, so as well as letting him decide what he fancies, it allows me to (subtly, I hope) help him learn to make good choices about putting a meal together; from both a gustatory and a nutritional point of view.

Yesterday, a friend and I took our children over to the Teifi Mania soft-play centre in Cardigan , for lunch and some seriously rambunctious playtime. This gave us a chance for coffee and a gossip while the children were burning off some of that excess weekend energy, knowing that they'd all be both starving for supper, and tired for bedtime when we got home.

On the way home in the car, I asked Chris what he fancied for supper. He immediately replied "pasta!" and then, thinking for a moment, added that he wanted it "with MILLIONS of cheese..."
I actually decided that, just maybe, four cheeses would be enough, so, taking inspiration from the flavours of a Quattro Formaggio pizza, I used it as a starting point for a pasta bake, which we ate with gusto, and some lettuce cut from the garden.

Four-Cheese Pasta Bake

These are the cheeses that I had, but you could easily substitute a different blue cheese and a different hard cheese, perhaps Cheddar, for the Double Gloucester.

500g dried pasta shapes
40g butter
40g cornflour
1 pint milk
75g Danish Blue cheese, diced
2 x balls mozzarella, diced
80g Double Gloucester, grated
50g Parmesan, grated

Put the pasta on to cook. Meanwhile, put the butter, cornflour and milk into a sucepan and brting to the boil, whisking continously, and simmer until thickened. Remove from the heat and stir in the blue cheese and 2 tablespoons of water from the pasta pan. Drain the pasta. Stir the blue cheese sauce and the mozzarella pieces through it, then transfer it to an ovenproof dish. Top with the grated Double Gloucester and Parmesan, then bake in a 180­°c oven for 15 minutes or so, until the cheesy surface is melted and bubbling, but only just tinged with brown.

There was enough, with salad, for all four of us for a really filling and enjoyable dinner, and enough left over to reheat for the children's (and possibly my) lunch, later today.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Favourites Old and New

This first course is a 1950s American favourite. informs me that the Lipton company first printed the recipe for its 'California Onion Dip' on the back of Lipton onion soup mix packets in 1954.

I first came across the idea in my copy of Kitschy Canapés by Babs Harrison and recently rediscovered it while book-trawling retro catering ideas for my 30th birthday party later this year. As the vrai Lipton Recipe Secrets Onion Soup Mix is un available to us limeys, I substitute a sachet of Knorr French Onion Soup mix. Mixed with a 300ml carton of sour cream and chilled for an hour or so, it makes for something that is way more than the sum of its parts. Things become classics for a reason, don'cha know..?

Speaking of which, may I present my new best thing. After a Facebook-based conversation with an old (the friendship, not the friend) mate, I was introduced to this, and could hardly wait to cook it for dinner tonight to accompany some plain-cooked Lincolnshire bangers.

Daniel's Favourite Potatoes

new potatoes
mature cheddar

Boil the potatoes until tender, then drain them and 'crush' lightly with a potato masher, to break them up but not too much. Mix in some mustard (I used wholegrain, but Daniel's original uses English mustard). Bung in a dish, top with cheese and melt it, in the oven or under the grill.

This is the sort of food you SCOFF!

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Blogger's Block

I just don't know what to say tonight - it's been one of those days. Busy the whole day; I haven't stopped, but I'll be darned if I've any idea what I've been doing with my time. Constructive? Fun? Not on my watch! So, in the absence of anything else to write about, let's proceed directly to what I cooked for dinner. It was lovely - I'll give it that - and the livers were cooked perfectly, despite my inner disquiet about frying and then poaching, but it has totally failed to cure my writer's block. It's hubby's night off, so maybe sharing a bottle of rosé will help. Ha! Well, it's an idea, at least...

Spiced Chicken Liver Pilaf

Cartons of frozen chicken livers vary between 100g-200g, depending on your butcher or supermarket, but are usually the size of a standard tub of cottage cheese. Don't lose sleep over it...

2 x cartons frozen chicken livers, defrosted
2 tbsp flour
approx. 6 spring onions, chopped
500g brown basmati rice
2 tsp ground coriander
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
4 cardamom pods
100g cashew nuts, chopped roughly

1 litre HOT chicken stock
chopped fresh parsley

Drain the chicken livers of any liquid and toss them in the flour. Fry, in a large pan, over a very high heat, just until sealed, and set aside. Add some more butterto the pan, then soften the spring onions and add the rice with the spices, stirring until the grains are coated in fat. Return the livers to the pan, stir in the chopped nuts and pour in the stock. Bring to the boil, then cover the pan and turn the heat right down. Cook for 15-20 minutes, until all the liquid has been absorbed, then fork through lots of chopped fresh parsley.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Pre-prandials: Salty Dog

I've decided(in a Sir Alan-esque, home-executive kinda way) that a cocktail or two on a Sunday night is a civilised way to end the weekend and start the new week in style. It helps that cocktails don't somehow become the proverbial challenge, like a bottle of wine does; why is it that a glass of wine makes you want more wine, but you can drink just one cocktail and be content? This was the situation that my girlfriends and I pondered as we drank Cosmopolitans together before going to see the Sex and the City movie during the week. We were glad of the fact that we weren't the only ones who'd dressed up to the nines in honour or Carrie and her cohorts, although to be honest I get gussied up for far less than that.

So, tonight (Matthew) I'm drinking:

Salty Dog

Frost the rim of a cocktail glass with salt. Add a shot of vodka and top up with chilled grapefruit juice. Sip, and sigh...the weekend's nearly over.

Cocktails, of course, mean canapés. Sometimes I really go to town on these, even just for myself; they're so much fun - but tonight I really can't be bothered, so I've cracked open a can of olives. Simple is as simple does.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Dearth (of ideas) Row

Sausage Casserole. Not necessarily an imaginative dinner, but a good one nonetheless. Ever since we had a sausage casserole like this at my parents' house a few weeks back, Christopher has been obsessed with it; in fact it feels like nearly all questions of "what would you like to eat?" have been answered with "that sausage casserole with potatoes on top like Granny makes" ever since. When he doesn't want "fish and chips" or (whisper) "sweets", that is.

It's hardly rocket science, and I feel kind of daft even typing it out as a 'recipe', but them's the breaks, kiddo. So here's what I did tonight to get supper on the table...

4 medium potatoes (child's fist-sized?)
1 onion, halved and sliced
8 sausages, your choice
2 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes

Slice the potatoes (I can never be bothered to peel them for this) and put them in cold water. Bring them to the boil, then drain. While that's going on, fry the onion, in a little oil, and brown the sausages. Tip in the tomatoes, and one can of water, and bring to the boil. Top with the drained sliced potatoes, cover the pan and bake in the oven at 180­°c for half an hour. Go and see what the kids are doing. Watch 'Superted' on YouTube (Christopher's new black) with them. When time is up, remove the pan's lid, dot the potatoes with a little butter and return to the oven (still uncovered) for a further 30 minutes. Set the table, referee a fight over a half-deflated balloon, trip over the cat (again) and get drinks for everyone. Serve the casserole straight from the pan at the table, with some green veg on the side - frozen peas, for sanity's sake.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Rhubarb, What Rhubarb?!

Our rhubarb plant seems to be staging a rebellion. Against what, or whom, I have no idea but the crop this year has been sad to say the least. After last year, with rhubarb jellies and fools all summer long, I don't know what's going on...

So this afternoon I set to the plant and harvested what meagre crop I could, enough to make this cake at least. The mixture itself is made like muffin batter, but I much prefer this in a single cut-and-come-again slab. I grind the hazelnuts myself at home, using the mini-blender - you can substitute bought ground almonds if you'd rather.

Rhubarb & Ginger Cake

340g plain flour
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp ground ginger
100g ground hazelnuts (and see above)

Stir all these 'dry' ingredients together in a capacious bowl.

250g light muscovado sugar
1/4 pint sunflower oil
2 large eggs
1/4 pint milk

Combine all these 'wet' ingredients in a jug, then stir into the dry bowl.

300g rhubarb, diced very small
2 tbsp demerara sugar

Stir the rhubarb into the batter. Scrape into a greased rectangular tin - about 30x20cm I suppose - and sprinkle the surface of the cake with demerara sugar. Bake at 180­°c for 45-50 minutes until a skewer comes out clean. Cover the surface of the cake after 15-20 minutes to stop it from browning too much. Cool on a wire rack.

Friends of ours got married yesterday, on a truly
glorious June day. I have never been to a nicer wedding, nor to one that took such good care of the youngest guests. The children really enjoyed the arts-and-crafts table set up in one corner of the reception venue, and they loved the fact that they had party bags to bring home! Craig and Amelia - here's to you and your future together. You deserve all the happiness you can imagine.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008


This is for the days when I feel, shall we say, a touch harried. Being able to set the table and put out some bread and cheese while this (ersatz, but none the worse for it, taste-wise) soup gets together calms me down, and the sheer fact of a (semi) home-cooked meal makes even a tense day seem calmer.

Minestrone 'Molto Pronto'

500ml vegetable stock (or chicken, if you prefer)
300g 'special mixed' frozen vegetables
400g can chopped tomatoes
400g can pasta in tomato sauce

Bring the stock to the boil and tip in the still-frozen vegetables. Cook for a couple of minutes, then add the contents of both the cans, stirring well. Season with plenty of black pepper (I don't bother with salt; those cans of pasta-in-sauce are quite salty enough). Leave to heat through thoroughly on a medium setting.

If you always have the wherewithal to cook a panful of this in the house, you'll never struggle for dinner, and it's one that will delight children and adults alike. So cheap, too (ignoring the approximate ton of cheese we always put away when I make this for supper) - I used bargain basics tomatoes and spaghetti in tomato sauce tonight; it tasted no different to when I've made it with the fancier equivalents. You can ring the changes for those fickle enfants terribles by using different types of character pasta-in-sauce too - Spiderman has been particularly popular in our house - and I love making it with Alphabetti ! I'm easily pleased, I know, but the little letters (and you can now get Numberetti) always make me smile.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Just Chillin', Little Bit o' Illin'

Today we spent ALL day in the garden - I only came inside as far as the kitchen to sort out meals. I bunged some bits in the slow-cooker mid-morning so that we could eat a dinner of Beef with Cider & Lemon this evening, avoiding too much time spent stovebound. I took bread, cheese and tomatoes outside for lunch and we took turns in the hammock (though my go was, in general, punctuated by the children jumping on me!)

The only other 'non-essential' thing I went inside for was to keep topping up the lemonade jug. This lemonade base is a fantastic way of having fresh lemonade all weekend, with very little work - and it makes a fab mixer too.

Lemonade Base

2 lemons, roughly chunked up
5 tbsp sugar (or to taste, we like it quite sharp)

Whizz these in the blender with 250ml water. Stir in a further 250ml water and chill the mixture in the fridge.

When you want some lemonade to take outside, strain the liquid from the pulp into a serving jug and top it up with 500-750ml more water.

This is the good bit; return the strained pulp to its container and stir in 500ml water. When you're ready for another jugful, proceed as before with the straining and topping up . Chill it, and let's go round again...You may find, after a few goes, that you need to add another tablespoonful of sugar with the water. I've been regenerating our batch of base all weekend, and little James has a new favourite - fresh, homemade lemonade.

Friday, 6 June 2008

Tarts - Always a Good Option

Well, that's what I think anyway, hee hee. Make the pastry , line the tin and you're laughing. All you need to do then is fill it - and you can do the pastry case in the morning or even the day before - just put it in a sealed plastic bag to keep it fresh in the fridge.

When you're ready to cook it, find some bits for a filling - tonight I fried some bacon bits and cut up half a camembert (which had been rather disappointing on the cheeseboard, but worked fine in this) - then beat 3 eggs and a 200g tub of crème fraîche together and pour into the pastry case, covering the filling. Bake at 200°c for 30 minutes, then leave to cool slightly before sliding it out of the tin and onto a serving plate.
I had intended to serve the tart with steamed potatoes and a green salad, but found that we'd actually run out of potatoes. Grr! This rice salad made a more than acceptable substitute, however, and reminded me how much I love rice salads (unlike pasta salads which, with limited exceptions, are pretty foul).

Colourful Rice Salad

I use Morrisons' Frozen Special Mixed Vegetables, defrosted, for this. There's not really anything that 'special' about them, but it's the sort of mix; peas, corn, carrots, broccoli and peppers - rather than those packs of diced mixed veg for stews - that you're looking for here.

300g brown rice
350g vegetables (and see above)
handful raisins
garlic & herb dressing (recipe follows)

Cook the rice. Chop the vegetables up, if necessary, for a nice finish to the completed salad and combine with the cooked rice. Stir in the raisins, then pour over as much dressing as you need to evenly coati, but not swamp, the salad. Chill until needed.

Garlic & Herb Dressing

5 fl.oz olive oil
2 tbsp garlic vinegar
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp Dijon mustard
handful fresh herbs - your choice - chopped finely

Whisk it all together, or whizz in a blender. You'll need only 1/3 to 1/2 this quantity for the rice salad, but thisis one of my absolute favourite salad dressings, so keep it in the fridge and use it whenever you might otherwise use a vinaigrette.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Grow Your Own

Tonight we ate, for the very first time, vegetables that I'd grown myself in our little back garden. Sure, it was only a lettuce, but baby steps are better than no steps at all and I can't describe the pride with which Christopher and I went outside, chose a lettuce, cut it, and prepared a simple Green Salad to accompany our dinner of Spaghetti & Meatballs. Anything that gets a three-year-old to eat a plateful of unadorned lettuce is worth it in my book.

I'm sure I'm not alone. I thought that vegetable gardening would be difficult, time-consuming and that you were either born with green fingers or you weren't. Sorry to all those gardening buffs who ply a trade full of seeding, weeding and feeding, but it's actually not that hard. To paraphrase Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (or 'Hairy Knitting-Wool' as he's affectionately known chez Homer), plants want to grow, leave them to it.

So that's what I did. I bought some plug plants from the local garden centre (£1.50 for 6 plants, not bad), stuck them in a patch of earth that I'd rather half-heartedly dug over and watered them occasionally when I remembered. I did a bit of weeding last week, but only because we'd been away and the lawn had begun to encroach rather badly on my self-styled 'allotment' .

I would feel quite smug, if I didn't know how little I'd actually done in the way of work (let alone back-breaking labour and - eek! - actual digging). Roll on the crop of 'lazy' broad beans - I can hardly wait!

Monday, 2 June 2008

The Same Old Thing

Tonight we had yet another variation on the 'chicken and bean casserole thingy'. This time I used flageolet beans, added some sliced potatoes and stirred in some crème fraîche before serving for a creamy sauce; something I hadn't tried with this before.

I keep fiddling with dishes along these lines, but none of them have yet reached stellar heights of other family favourites like Savoury Mince Crumble, Sausage Plait or Kedgeree.

I think we all get a few comfortable dishes that we return to again and again, the 'same old thing', but meals which everyone is always pleased to see. I like this; I certainly don't hark for the rigid ideal of "roast-on-Sunday. pie-on-Monday", with Friday being "pork chop night", but I do like to put a much-loved dinner on the table, rather like welcoming back an old friend. So many of these dishes have their own little stories attached, like the fact that Savoury Mince Crumble was the first dinner I ever cooked for my parents and brother (you know, the night when you're grown-up enough to be alllowed the run of the kitchen?), or that Sausage Plait was a school-dinner favourite of mine at age eight. So many memories, and so much of our personal and family histories seem to revolve around food and mealtimes.

What are your family's favourite dishes? What are their stories? I'd love to hear from you...

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Go Forth and Make Stock

We've spent the school half-term away from home, hence the long break between posts. Today I've been trying to get things back in order so that it'll be easier when the usual routine starts again. This has mainly meant doing (a lot of) weeding in the garden and trying to clear the freezer out a bit. I did make some space by taking out all the bones that I'd saved, bagged up, ready to make stock. Only problem is, after a stock-making session I've filled up all the space again. Oh pants, and double pants. At least the freezer looks rather less like something out of The Texas Chaiunsaw Massacre now, though.

Stock is easy. Believe me, it is. I save all the bones from roasts that we have and keep a bag (one for each type of meat) in the freezer, adding to it as I go along. I even keep bones from things like chicken leg portions and lamb or pork chops, after all they go in the same pan in the end and it boosts the quantity faster.

When I have a decent amount of bones, I bung them in a large pan, cover them with water from the tap and bring it to the boil. Simmer on a very low heat for at least a couple of hours (and we nipped out and did some shopping while the beef stock was on the stove). Sieve out the bones and bits, throw them away and pour the stock into freezer containers of some kind.

You can, I know, add all sorts of other things to the pan (vegetables, herbs and the like), but I never do, reasoning that the "something for nothing" pleasure of stock is more that slightly diminished if you chuck loads of fresh vegetables in as well. I eventually made chicken stock, beef stock and lamb stock today, all by the same method that I give you above. I didn't bother to wash out the pans and things in between, either, lazy cow. I now have a freezer's-worth of homemade stock and would seem positively holy, I know, to anyone who didn't know how easy it was. Until I tell them, which I always do, because I want them, and you, to feel as good as I do this evening (albeit illogically and unjustifiably so).

Go on, I dare you...


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