Friday, 26 February 2010

Nifty and Thrifty!

It's getting to that time of year... The time when I drag my spring clothes out of the wardrobe and wear them in defiant abandon of the weather.  I take my umbrella with me everywhere, but (happily) have rarely had to use it lately. It' the time of year when a rainbow of colour begins to resurface, when chunky costume jewelery sparkles again, when cooking begins to lose a little of that wintry comfort-food edge

At this time of year you can often find over-ripe (albeit imported) tomatoes, bought too early by over-enthusiastic retailers, going for a song because they can't yet be sold to customers still hunkered down against the cold weather.  I spend happy afternoons cooking these fruits into batches of lovely sauce and freeze them, all the better to enrich mid-season meals like the simple tomato-and-mozzarella pasta bake we enjoyed this evening. This tastes sooo much better than jar-sauces and even sauce made with tinned tomatoes (my cold-weather standby); it is totally moreish and takes very little actual work, honest; just be around to 'poke' it occasionally.

Thrifty Tomato Sauce

Obviously adjust this to the quantity of tomatoes you have, but I thought framing the recipe for one meal's-worth of sauce would probably be the most helpful.

3 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped 
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 kg tomatoes (overripe, somewhat squishy is fine. Mouldy, however, is NOT )
1 tsp mixed dried herbs
2 tbsp tomato purée
seasoning, to taste

Heat the oil in a large pan, add the onion, garlic and dried herbs and cook until the onion is soft, but not brown.  Add the tomatoes and crush lightly (with a potato masher or similar) to pop them and release the juices.  Stir in the tomato purée and cook very gently over a low heat for 45 minutes to 1 hour, giving it an occasional spoon-tweak to check it doesn't stick, until the tomatoes are very soft, Purée with a (hand) blender until smooth, then season to taste and cool before freezing.

Cath xx

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Oh, if only...

Carlisle station was recently bedecked in full-on Technicolour to film a TV advert for Homebase

While it is unlikely in the extreme that the powers-that-be would ever even consider allowing it to remain like this indefinitely, I just wonder how much the general happiness of our society would be improved by surroundings like this forming part and parcel of our daily lives.

Just imagine candy colours, Pucci-style prints, Missoni-esque stripes, twinkling lamps and stairs that surely must lead to something wonderful..?

I have long felt that my mood improves in direct relation to the quantity and quality of colours I wear; sometimes just a glance down at one of my (many and varied) rainbow-hued bracelets is enough to stave off a gloomy moment similarly I feel it would be hard to wait for a train here, even a horribly delayed one, without a little smile twitching your lips.  And the train pulling in at the end of the day would surely pick up even the most jaded and exhausted commuter?

Think of the places that could be improved by a makeover like this... away with the grey from dismal multistorey car parks, institutional council buildings, banks, public loos.  And certainly hospitals and doctors' surgeries could be be made into vastly more pleasureable places?
Dream on, I know - but bring the RAINBOWS into your life and see what happens!

Cath xx

Photographs with thanks to Keep Carlisle Station Like This! on Facebook

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Doing Porridge

Porridge is a near-perfect breakfast for children (and most adults too).  Filling, warming and stoked with energy that lasts until lunch.  I'm somehow a little wary of microwave ovens, but they are wonderful for making porridge - even on a rushed morning before school I can manage to dish up bowls of basic porridge, usually served with a little milk (or a tot of cream if we have it) and a sprinkle of demerara sugar.  This, the porridge of my childhood in Scotland is now the porridge that fuels my boys' childhood in Wales.

Weekends sometimes seem to call for a bowl of porridge that feels slightly less basic and run-of-the-mill, however, and this banana porridge is a great favourite.  If we have some fresh blueberries in the fridge (and we did, today), I add those, but more often than not I prepare this with sultanas, which swell up, juicily delicious, as the porridge cooks.

Banana Porridge

1 cup porridge oats
pinch of salt
1 banana
1 cup milk
1 cup water
handful blueberries or sultanas
fresh nutmeg, to grate over

Mash the banana and blend with the milk and water.  Put the porridge oats into a large microwaveable bowl and add a pinch of salt.  If you're using sultanas, stir those in too.  Pour the liquid into the bowl and mix well to combine.  Microwave for 5 minutes, then stir and return to the microwave for another 3 minutes, or until cooked.  It is ready when it looks like porridge!    If you're having blueberries with it, stir those in now.  Transfer to small bowls for serving and grate a smattering of fresh nutmeg over.

Cath xx

Friday, 19 February 2010

It's the little things...

Sometimes children blindside you, unexpectedly and at exactly the right moment, with just how wonderful they truly are.  After an extremely hectic morning, I was rushing around trying to get my chores done and, to my shame, ignoring the children, frequently shooing them from my path.

A little while later, my baby James (who is, of course, now a very grown-up three years old) wandered up to me and presented me with a bunch of flowers he'd built out of K'nex. Well I was floored.  What a lovely gesture from one so young, and what a special reminder to, as they say, "stop and smell the flowers".  In fact, I've put them in an old jam jar, on the mantelpiece, to remind me not to get so frantic about things that, ultimately, don't really matter - especially if it means ignoring the things that really are important!

Cath xx

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Simple Pleasures

'Feeding the ducks' is a favourite with all children, little ones AND  ones and, while it's bitterly cold in West Wales today, the sun has been shining beautifully.  So, with Granny and Grandpa in tow, the children and I headed out for a wintry walk, armed with a 'duck bag', filled with the dry ends of various loaves of my home-made bread for the ducks we new we'd see, on the riverbank, en route.

Ducks are, with the possible exception of penguins and meerkats, the most comical of animals.  It is so easy to anthropomorphise them as city gents in bowler hats (umbrella under the wing, etc) and to laugh at the ones who grab chunks of bread and then run desperately away from the rest of the flush of ducks (and therein lies something else I adore; the peculiarly English notion of collective nouns.  We laughed as they ran, giggled as they followed us, in vain hope, as we continued on up the riverbank once all the bread was gone and we marvelled at the subtle differences in plumage, along with a few no-so-subtle aberrations.  Such as my new favourite thing, this handsome chap, sporting his very own fabulous ducky afro!

Cath xx

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Taking It Easy

Those after-school dinner decisions are tough, Aren't they?  Even if you make meal plans, sometimes life kicks you to the kerb and you have to come up with something fast and filling for the family.  Something you can cook easily while dealing with the aftermath of the school run and children tired and fractious after a busy day.  Not for nothing do I (only half-jokingly, sometimes) refer to this time of day as 'the suicide hour'.

Now, baked beans are not something that I would ever choose to eat in the normal run of things, but they can occasionally be a useful ingredient in cooking and this is one of those times.  Likewise with stock cubes; I only rarely use them but when you are cooking with minced meat from the supermarket, rather than the butcher, they can add an extra boost of flavour.

Easy Home-From School Hotpot

Obviously switch the lamb mince and stock cube for their beef equivalents if you'd rather...

3 or 4 large potatoes, sliced thickly
1 onion, sliced
500g lamb mince
1 lamb stock cube
420g can baked beans

Put the sliced potatoes into boiling, salted water, return to the boil and cook for 10 minutes until just tender in the centre.  Drain carefully (i.e. don't break them up!). Meanwhile, heat a littl oil in a casserole pan and fry the onion until softened.  Add the mince and brown it, then crumble in the stock cube.  Cook for a few minutes, then remove from the heat and stir in the baked beans.  Lay the slices of potato on top in a spiral fashion (see picture), drizzle with a little melted butter and transfer to a 200°c oven for 15-20 minutes to brown the top.
Cath xx

Friday, 5 February 2010


Another slow-cooker meal tonight, but not so much of the same old, same old stew/casserole/something in sauce ilk.  In fact, this can even be dressed up a bit and served for quite a fancy meal.  I adore plain old lentils and use them often in cooking to bulk out stews and provide a different texture to meat sauces.  The children wee both weaned on them and they are an essential part of my cawlLentilles de Puy, however are a different matter and deserve a starring role in whatever meal you make with them.  This recipe does make rather more savoury lentils than you really need to go with the fish, but as they are trulyt fabulous for lunch the next day with some goat's cheese or salty feta crumbled over, this is, emphatically, not a problem.  The lentils tend to come boxed in 500g quantities and, in any case, 'little-bits-in-packets' hanging around the cupboards is a pet hate of mine!

It does need you to attend to it very briefly, to pop the fish in, about an hour before you want to eat but, if you prefer to eat the moment you get in, you could put some pork or chicken steaks on top of the lentils in the morning instead.  I don't think that slow-cookers manage onions particularly well, so always prefer to start this off myself if I can.  I cooked the onion last night and left it, covered, in the kitchen so that it was ready for this morning. If I have any of my slow-cooked onions in the freezer, I defrost it overnight and use that instead, just mincing the garlic and chopping the parsley straight into the cooker.

Slow-Cooker Salmon with Puy Lentils

30g butter
1 onion, finely diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
fresh parsley, chopped
500g puy lentils
500ml vegetable stock
50ml dry vermouth (or white wine)
1 tsp cornflour mixed with 1 tbsp water
3 or 4 salmon fillets

Melt the butter and soften the onion with the garlic.  Stir in the parsley.  You can do this the night before (and see above), or do it in the morning if you have time and prefer to.  Put the onion et al into the slow-cooker, then tip in the lentils, the stock, the vermouth and the slaked cornflour.  Cook on LOW for as long as you need to (i.e. all day).  An hour or so before you want to eat, pour in an extra 100ml of boiling water and lay the salmon fillets, skin-side-up, on top of the lentils.  Continue to cook on LOW until the film is opaque and hot throughout (check with the tip of a knife).

Divine.  I think this is a fabulous way to cook fish, and the lentils provide both the vegetables and the carbs, so ther's very little to think about; no potatoes, no bread, no salad.  Some lemon to squeeze over, both the fish and the lentils, is good, and I always like a blob of natural yoghurt with salmon...

Cath xx


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