Friday, 18 November 2011

Friday Night Fakeaway : Ginger Chicken

Now, this is GOOD... Happy Friday, everybody

Ginger Chicken

For the sauce:

2 tbsp soy sauce
4 tbsp cider vinegar
1 tablespoon tahini
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tbsp fresh ginger, chopped
1 lemon, zested and juiced
1 tbsp toasted sesame oil
4 tbsp rapeseed oil

Place all ingredients except rapeseed oil into a bowl. Slowly whisk in said oil to make a thick, pale brown sauce. Set aside while you do everything else (or you can make it the day before).

4 chicken breast fillets, cut into bite-size pieces
2 beaten eggs

Roll the chicken pieces in cornflour, then egg, then cornflour again.  Heat about 4 tbsp oil in a large pan and fry the chicken in batches until ncrisp and brown.  Don’t worry about cooking it all the way through, just get it looking good… Remove and drain on kitchen paper.

Now, you could (and I have)just throw it in a dish and pour the sauce over before baking it, but I like to add noodles and spinach underneath to make it a more ‘complete’ meal.  Soak two or three nests of dried egg noodles in hot water from the kettle, then drain them over a colander containing a handful or so of chopped leaf spinach.  Put this into an ovenproof dish and stir through a few spoonfuls of the sauce.  Top the noodles with the crisp pieces of chicken,  in a single layer (or as near as damn it),, then spoon over the remaining sauce, making sure you get a bit on every piece of chicken.  Scatter with some sesame seeds and bung it in a 180 degree oven for 25 minutes.
Cath xx

Friday, 11 November 2011


Now this is bit of a revelation.  Homemade ice-cream in five minutes with no cooking!  You need a pot of cream, a jar of jam, a lemon, a shot of some sort of booze and a lemon (and you only need half of that!).  If I can get all of these things in the shop in the village, they are hardly difficult to come by.  True, you do have to freeze the ice-cream overnight, so it's hardly what you could call an instant pudding, but it is so easy that you can almost always have some in to feed the ravenous hordes, whether expected or not...

It does need to be a decent jam though, and I favour the Bonne Maman conserves.I've also had luck with blackcurrant with cassis and apricot with amaretto but I always, always go back to the favourite; strawberry with triple sec.  There's something about the orangey alcohol that just seems to bring out the true flavour of the strawberries and this has been described to me by more than one person as the most strawberry-ish strawberry ice-cream they've ever had.  Not bad for five minutes' work!

Jam Ice-Cream

284ml carton whipping cream
370g jar of jam (and see above)
2 tbsp booze of your choosing (and see above)
juice of half a lemon.

Stiffly whip the cream.  Stir the jam, alcohol and lemon juice together, then fold this mixture into the cream until thoroughly combined.  Pour into an airtight plastic container and freeze.  Transfer the box from the freezer to the 'fridge about twenty minutes to half an hour before you want to serve the ice-cream.  I normally do this as we sit down to eat, which is easy enough to remember.  Dish it out with an ice-cream scoop dipped in hot water for ease.

Cath xx

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Posh Peelings

 What a busy few weeks we've had at Distracted Towers! Weekend after lovely weekend we've had friends and family visiting and lots of enjoyably drawn-out suppers around a very convivial table.  My younger son turned five last week and, eschewing a party, announced that he wanted to go to dinner at the local Italian restaurant.  Yes, he's five... and yes, we went and all had a wonderful time. These announcements are getting to be regular occurrences of late; only the weekend before he announced that he wanted mussels to eat.  His beloved, and adoring, Granny dutifully purchased said bivalves and he tucked into them with gusto... I had to snaffle some quickly to be sure of a share!

When Hubby took the boys to see his parents during the half-term holiday, he returned with a rather large bag of apples.  He confessed that he'd accepted them thinking the children would gobble them up before long, before he found out they were, in fact, 'cooking' apples.  So they sat around guilt-inducingly, until today when I finally had time to process the whole sack bag's worth.

I now have four 1-litre bags of stewed apple for the freezer, and a couple of bottles of extremely tasty apple juice.  This may just be my new best thing...

Thrifty Apple Juice

apple peelings

Pack the apple peelings into a deep lidded pan.  I had to use my stockpot because I'd peeled thirty-plus apples and had a veritable Mount Peelmore on the worktop.  Pour water over to just cover the peelings and bring to the boil.  Reduce the heat to a very low simmer for a couple of hours, then strain the juice and stir in some powdered sugar to taste.  Let cool before decanting into (empty wine) bottles with a funnel.  Keep in the fridge, or use some to make ice-lollies

Cath xx

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Normal Service will resume shortly...

Just to let you know, it's the school holidays, and we are mired (in a good way, natch) in visitors and the like, so I shan't be posting much, if at all, for the next week or so.  Sorry!
Cath xx

Monday, 17 October 2011

Luscious Leeks

I really, and I mean REALLY, love leeks.  I adore them and would happily eat them, cooked in all sorts of ways, several times a week.  I rather rate them, too, chopped raw into salads in place of spring (or aren't we now supposed to say 'salad') onions.  Leek soup is fab and there is no easier, nor lovelier, side dish to a roast chicken than a tin of chunked up leeks, roasted with a little oil and some chestnut mushrooms chucked in halfway through cooking.  Anyway, I digress...

I remember eating something rather similar to this as a child, though only vaguely.  'Baby' (i.e. early) leeks wrapped in prosciutto, with hollandaise sauce was also quite a regular first course for entertaining in my newlywed girl-about-the-kitchen days.  Leeks and ham, or bacon, are a marvellous double act in whatever guise you choose.  See also:

Leeks with Ham & Cheese

I like to use 'Black Forest Ham' in cooking more and more these day; I love the smoky flavour and find it drier and less greasy than a lot of cured hams.  It tends to be cheaper than prosciutto too, which is always nice these days!

6 slim leeks, washed, ends trimmed and cut into thirds (and see picture)
50ml dry vermouth
9 slices of ham, halved (and see above)
75g butter, plus some for greasing the dish
50g plain flour
1 tsp mustard powder
400ml milk
125ml double cream
50g strong Cheddar cheese, grated
100g fresh (i.e. stale) breadcrumbs
100g Parmesan cheese, grated

Preheat the oven to 180°c.  Put the chunked up leeks in a big pan, slosh in the vermouth and top up with water.  Bring to the boil and cook until just tender.  Drain and set aside.  Melt the butter in the same saucepan, then stir in the flour and mustard powder.  Cook briefly, then pour in the milk and cream, stirring continuously.  Simmer until thickened, then add the cheese, remove from the heat and whisk like b**gery, until the cheese has completely melted into the sauce.

Wrap each chunk of leek in a piece of ham and arrange these little parcels in a reasonably shallow ovenproof dish which you have greased with a little lump of butter.  Pour the cheese sauce over the top and smooth it out as best you can.  Mix the breadcrumbs and Parmesan together, add a few grindings of black pepper, then scatter these over the dish.  Bake for 25 minutes.

I rather like a bit of salad with this but, apparently, I'm weird.... (how rude!)
Cath xx

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Harvest Braised Steak

This is a precious hand-me-down from my paternal grandmother.  My beloved Granny gave this recipe to my darling Mum, who cooked it often during my years at home, before writing it out for me.  Now I pass it on to you, for fear that this delicious recipe will otherwise, one day, be lost forever.  It's a brilliant one-pot dinner, quickly prepared but slow to cook; ideal for a rainy Sunday in autumn.  Food like this just feels so right at this time of year, familiar and warming but not flash or fussy.  It's a completely self-contained meal as well, no bits and pieces or side dishes required, so very little washing-up to be done before the mad weekly rush to get the children's things ready for school tomorrow, lay out uniforms for the morning and get my babies off to bed, ready for the last week of school before half-term (and, blimey, hasn't that come around quickly!).

Harvest Braised Steak

2 tbsp oil or dripping
1 onion, chopped
4 carrots, chopped
600ml beef stock
20g cornflour, dissolved in 100ml cold water
500g carton passata OR 400g can chopped tomatoes
200g mushrooms, chopped roughly
320g can sweetcorn, drained
handful of uncooked  macaroni
800g braising steak, cut into portion-size pieces

Preheat the oven to 150°c.  Heat the fat in a large casserole pan on the hob and cook the onion and carrot until softened.  Pour in the stock and the cornflour mixture.  Add the tomatoes, mushrooms, sweetcorn and macaroni and stir well.  Lay the pieces of braising steak on top and transfer the pan to the oven.  Cook for two hours, checking occasionally that it is not becoming too dry.  Top up with a little water or stock if necessary, then serve straight from the pan at the table.

Cath xx

Friday, 14 October 2011

Friday Night Fakeaway: Meatball Pizza

My eldest son came home from school a week ago, having been on a field trip to taste the food at a local Italian restaurant (I know! How good is that? We never had cool trips like that in my day! *feels old*).  One of the dishes the children had tried, which had made a very serious impression on my lad, was "a really nice pizza with meatballs and lots of stringy cheese, Mummy".  It soon became clear that the mere notion of this full-on 'man' pizza was enough that the males of the household; from the tallest to the shortest, would pester me mercilessly until I caved in  ask me very, very nicely if I would please make a similar pizza for the Friday Night Fakeaway this week.

Pizza is, it has to be said, a favoured option for Friday nights; I have used my bread machine pizza dough recipe for almost as long as I have had the machine itself, and this simple no-cook pizza sauce is easily thrown together and left to do its thing morning, noon or night.

Love-It-and-Leave-It Pizza Sauce

1 tube tomato purée
250ml water
4 tbsp cooking oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 tbsp dried thyme
fresh black pepper

Stir everything together in a bowl.  Cover it with clingfilm (which I hope, by now, you have learned to keep in the freezer) and then pop the dish in the 'fridge for a few hours; overnight or all day is fine too, just leave it for a bit for the flavour to really develop.  Spread liberally onto your prepared pizza base and cook as normal.

Meatball Pizza

For tonight's meatball pizza, I defrosted some meatballs that I already had, as is my habit, in the freezer, but you can use whatever you have, buy some or make some specially.  Use as many or as few as you like, naturally.

Cook the raw meatballs in the oven at 180°c for 15 minutes until cooked through, then remove from the oven and set aside.   Turn the oven up to 220°c.  Dust your baking trays with cornmeal (polenta) or regular flour, then place the rolled-out pizza bases on to the trays.  Prick all over with a fork, then spread evenly with the tomato sauce.  Dot  the sauce-smothered pizza bases with the meatballs.  Cover the pizzas with grated mozzarella (for the 'stringy cheese' of my son's description), sprinkle with a few mixed dried herbs and finish with some grated parmesan for an extra 'cheesy' flavour.

Transfer the trays to the preheated oven and bake for 15-20 minutes until cooked; crisp around the edges with the golden, sizzling cheese settled around the nubbly forms of the meatballs.  Throw a salad of some kind together (I'm still very keen on my Black Bean & Sweetcorn Salad).  Remove the pizzas from the trays to a board,  and slice them into wedges.  Pour a glass of something lovely and enjoy the start of the weekend.

Happy Friday, everyone!  Cath xx

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Chicken, Chickpea & Spinach Curry

This straightforward dish feels like real cooking, somehow.  Pootling about in the kitchen for a while, wearing an apron; sounds of sizzling and amazingly delicious smells wafting through the house.  Even better, the simmering time is sufficient for me to put two cups of basmati rice and a few cardamom pods into the hallowed rice cooker with some water and switch it on for a perfect, no-tears side dish;  my relaxed raita is easily stirred together, leaving me plenty of time for a cheeky pre-prandial while I straighten up the kitchen.  

Chicken, Chickpea & Spinach Curry

3 tbsp cooking oil
a few cloves
a few cardamom pods
2 fresh or 1 dried bay leaf
1 large onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled
about an inch of ginger root

2 tsp ground coriander
2 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
500g carton passata

150ml carton single cream
400g can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 tsp garam masala
500g chicken thigh meat, sliced 
250g spinach leaves, washed

Whizz the garlic and ginger, with about 4 tbsp of water, in the blender to make a runny paste.  Heat the fat in a large pan. Add the cloves, cardamom and bay leaves to the pan and sizzle for a few seconds.  Add the the onion and fry until soft but not coloured.  Scrape the garlic-ginger paste into the pan and stir everything together well, then mix in the spices and cook briefly; the smell really is brilliant!  Pour in the passata, add the rinsed chickpeas and swirl in the cream.  Sprinkle in the garam masala, then add the chicken to the pan.  Simmer gently for 30 minutes, stirring only occasionally, then fold the spinach into the curry until wilted.  Serve with rice and a dollop of  raita.  It tastes even better than it smells, believe me.

This curry really does freeze amazingly well; so much so that I often do a double batch, squirrelling half of it away for a future meal.  It's great when you can just defrost a really nice home-cooked evening meal in an emergency!

Cath xx

Monday, 10 October 2011

Courgette & Salami Pasta

My mandoline slicer is one of those things that comes out only rarely, but when I do use it, I wonder why don't I use it more often?  I suspect the answer is probably that it lives in its box in a cupboard, whereas the KitchenAid and the Magimix are out on the kitchen worktop.  And I forget all about it, sometimes. And I'm a bit lazy.

Never mind, because 'the mandoline' really is the perfect tool for the job in the case of tonight's recipe.  Take the courgettes and use the fine julienne blade to cut them into the thinnest matchstick strands imaginable.  And if my distracted and oft-cackhanded self can manage this, so can anyone!.  The heat of the pasta water will soften them as the pasta drains through the colander, no problem.  If you don't have a mandolin, don't worry - you don't have to buy one!  However, please don't try to knife-cut these incredibly thin strands of courgette; it'll send you potty, I should imagine.  Just coarsely grate the courgettes instead; the texture will be a little different but the recipe will still work and taste good.

Courgette & Salami Pasta

150g short pasta (such as penne or fusilli)
150g salami, cut into thin strips
3 cloves garlic, chopped finely
3 courgettes (prepared as above)
handful mixed fresh parsley & basil, torn up
handful freshly grated parmesan

First, put some water on to boil for the pasta.  Now, 'frizzle' the salami.  Put the strips into a dry frying pan and heat gently until the oil starts to run.  Turn the heat up and cook, stirring, until the edges of the salami start to 'catch' and curl then remove the pieces with a slotted spoon and drain it on kitchen paper.  Add the chopped garlic to the oily juices in the pan, stir well, then remove it from the heat   Tip the pasta into the now boiling water and cook until tender.  Put the prepared courgettes into a colander in the sink and then, reserving a small cupful of pasta water, drain the pasta into the same colander (i.e. emptying the pan contents over the top of the shredded courgettes).  Return the contents of the colander to the pan and put over a low heat.  Pour in the garlicky salami oil and toss well to coat the pasta-and-courgette mixture, then stir the salami pieces through, along with the torn herbs, adding a splash of the reserved pasta water if it seems at all stodgy.  Tip into a warmed serving dish and scatter with the parmesan.

Cath xx

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Pre-prandials: Americano cocktail

Not to be confused with the caffe Americano (espresso topped off with hot water), an Americano cocktail is one of my most regular pre-prandial whistle-wetters, though I must confess that I drink mine in the non-standard way (i.e. with red vermouth rather than the classically-stipulated sweet).  It is a refreshing long drink, no good with a meal to my mind, but a less solid drink, to paraphrase one James Bond, speaking in Ian Fleming's short story From a View to a Kill, ideal for killing time in a Parisian café.

Ah, yes, 007.  Much as he is associated in the main with the vodka martini (shaken, not stirred, yada yada...), the first drink he orders in Casino Royale** is, in fact, an Americano!  It reappears in From Russia with Love and again in the aforementioned novella, and as a long-time Bond fan, Fleming's drink-related authorial influence has clearly rubbed off on me.

Americano Cocktail

1 part Campari
1 part red vermouth (rosso)
sparkling, or soda, water - to top up

Mix the Campari and vermouth in a highball (i.e. tall) glass.  Top up with fizzy water.  Drink deeply, considering the possibility of another.

**It should be taken as read that I refer, above, to the novels and not to the films.  Fleming was much more exacting about the drinking habits of his most famous character than United Artists or MGM have ever been (apart from the, frankly, now oft-repeated, almost hackneyed martini-ordering sequences which seem  to recur almost constantly (or is that just how it feels to me these days?). Sorry, geek rant over...
Cath xx

Sunday Soldiers

I love a man egg in uniform!  Admittedly, this isn't really much of a post, this, just a quickie...  How fabulous is this soldier egg cup and toast cutter set? My boys were lucky enough to be given one apiece by my parents and it continues to prove, almost every weekend, that it is just the thing for 'dippy' boiled egg and soldiers.  The soldier sets are widely available on the interweb and the sort of cool gifts-homewares-and-novelty shops I spend far too much money in.

Eggs are easy enough to boil, but hobs are fussily awkward about producing them until you get the timing and temperature just right for the stove you're using.  Luckily (?), with two small egg-o-holic boys, I get lots of practice!
Cath xx

Saturday, 8 October 2011


Much as I drink tea by the bucketload (and I drink what has become known, chez moi as 'naked' tea; black, with no milk or sugar), I do, rather love my coffee as well; more specifically, my latte.  My lovely husband bought me a coffee machine with a steam nozzle a while back and now I am never far away from one if I so fancy (which is often).  The children are fascinated by the way that the steam nozzle works and the resultant clouds of cloud-like milk foam (and, yes, they have been warned about steam being dangerous, burns being horrid, not to touch the machine, yada yada yada...).  After discovering the bambinoccino on the 'piccolo menu' at Pizza Express, they were unable to believe their luck when I pointed out that I was able to make these at home too.  These are always popular, at any time, but seem to go down best with them at weekends, making them feel 'grown-up', watching a favourite film while the rain rattles against the windows.

I serve what we call 'babbaccinos' in their very own little cups;  Maxwell & Williams demi cups, from the Cafe Culture range.  I bought these in my lovely local coffee shop, Y Mecca / The Mecca, which is well worth a visit should you ever happen to be in the Aberystwyth area!.  The sprinkle of cocoa mixed with cinnamon is de rigeur, and non-negotiable, as far as my boys are concerned.  As you can probably imagine, they feel much the same way about the biscuit perched on the saucer alongide their 'babba'.

Cath xx

Friday, 7 October 2011

Friday Night Fakeaway: Homemade Cheeseburgers

I've written before that I can't go very long without getting major cheeseburger cravings.   Having instituted the concept of the 'Friday Night Fakeaway' at home recently; feeding our cravings for curries, burgers, pizza, fried chicken and the like, without flaking out too much on our 'homemade is best' principles or busting out on our food budget.  It's proved so popular that, quite often, the menu for the following week's 'Fakeaway' is discussed and decided while, or occasionally even before, we eat this week's! I used to make beef burgers exactly as below, but using salt and pepper for seasoning, until I read Nigella Lawson's Feast and was wholly won over to the Zuni Café method she writes about in that book.

Beef Burgers

700g lean 'steak' mince

3/4 tsp caster sugar
3/4 tsp salt

Split rolls, sliced cheese and Special Burger Sauce (and see below), to serve

Put the meat in a large bowl, sprinkle it with the salt and sugar, squidging it all together with your hands. Form the meat into six burger patties.  Place them on a tray lined with greaseproof paper. Cover with clingfilm and chill them in the 'fridge until just before you need them, but do give them a chance to return to room temperature before cooking them. Brush them lightly with oil (I, almost exclusively, use British rapeseed oil in cooking now, but I just use the ordinary stuff here and save the cold-pressed for 'best') before cooking them under a medium-hot grill.  You could also fry them in a dry non-stick pan, barbecue them (though maybe not in this dismal weather) or even bake them in the oven. Keep an eye on them, though - you want them only just cooked through, still juicy and possibly, even, still slightly pink in the middles.

We like to eat our burgers in split rolls (cut-sides lightly toasted, please) with slices of Monterey Jack cheese and dollops of Special Burger Sauce, the recipe for which is taken from The Takeaway Secret by Kenny McGovern; a lovely book and an absolute must for any 'Fakeaway' aficionado.  The brand recommendations given in this recipe are Mr McGovern's; I have to say, I agree with him.

Special Burger Sauce
(American Fast-Food Style)

4 tbsp mayonnaise (recommended brand: Hellman's)
2 tsp yellow mustard (recommended brand: French's)
2 tsp tomato ketchup (recommended brand: Heinz)
1 tbsp finely chopped gherkin

In a small bowl, combine the mayonnaise, yellow mustard and ketchup.  Add the chopped gherkin and mix well.  Refrigerate for at least 1 hour before use.

I also cook some Real Oven Chips to go with burgers; while I have never been especially enamoured of chips, the same cannot be said of the rest of the household who LOVE them.  I would possibly be ousted from the pedestal I happily occupy if I ceased my provision of bowls of chips!

Happy Friday, everyone! Cath xx

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Fast and Furious Dinner Rolls

I love freshly baked bread with supper, it somehow seems to make a fairly basic meal of soup or pasta feel like so much more of a 'dinner event'.  Rolls are always a great option for me, easily portion-controlled and saveable for the next day (if 'saveable' is indeed a real word, which I somehow doubt).  For the longest time, I've been making the Quick Mixer Rolls that I've written about before but in recent months I've moved on to these babies; a slightly smaller batch of dough and easily adapted to suit different meals perfectly.  Sometimes we have these as very basic round rolls, but these 'knots' are extremely easy and very popular.  I have had some, limited, success cutting the dough thinly and plaiting the strands, but it was way too much like actual effort for my liking.  The knots are ridiculously simple and give the false impression of hours spent tending dough.  It's our little secret, dear reader...

.I generally just brush the unbaked rolls with melted butter before they go in the oven (as below), but there are numerous ways to tart them up to better match your meal.  One of our favourites is cheese, herb and garlic rolls to go with tomato-based pasta dishes.  Simply sprinkle the butter-brushed rolls with a mixture of garlic salt, mixed dried herbs and freshly grated Parmesan cheese.  You can also scatter over either, or a mixture of, poppy seeds and sesame seeds, or make a naughty 'weekend breakfast' version by mixing a tsp of cinnamon with 2 tsp of sugar and sprinkling this over.  Gorgeous with freshly brewed hot coffee!

Fast & Furious Dinner Rolls

I must confess that the thing that makes these fastest is that I do the kneading in the KitchenAid.  They work well in the processor too, or even by hand, they just won't be quite as immediate.  More like 'national  speed limit rolls' rather than '100mph instant ban rolls', I suppose!

300g strong white bread flour
100g granary flour (or use all white)
1 tbsp easy-blend dried yeast
1 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
300-350ml warm water
melted butter, for brushing

Mix the dry ingredients together and then add as much water as you need to form a softish dough.  Knead for 3 minutes in a mixer or by hand until smooth, silky and springy.  Set aside in a covered bowl for 10 minutes.  Cut into eight, roll each piece into a thin sausage shape and tie loosely in a knot.  Place on floured baking sheets and cover.  Leave to rise for 30 minutes, brush with melted butter (adding any flavourings you like, and see above) and bake at 180°c for 15-20 minutes until the bottom of the rolls sound hollow when tapped and the crust is nicely burnished brown.
Cath xx

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Risotto alla Carbonara

Yes, it's been a while. I won't go into boring details, nor will I make excuses for my time away, just know that I'm back, hopefully for good!

This is a lovely recipe that can be easily thrown together from ingredients that can be kept in the 'fridge or the cupboard for a good while.  I am wholly won over to the oven-method for risotti; I love the therapeutic stirring of a trad risotto but more and more often, especially on a week-night, there are more pressing tasks to attend to than standing over a steamy pot for half an hour. My mascara is grateful, let me tell you!. 

'Oven risotto' is very straightforward, and ideal if you have guests too, as the bulk of the work can be gotten out of the way, a dish bunged in the oven and a good time had by everyone (rather than by everyone else, while the cook stirs, cursing, in the kitchen). This risotto alla carbonara feels rather indulgent with its creamy texture and is almost a one-pot meal, though of course you do need hot stock, so if you're using homemade you'll need to heat that in a pan too, soz.  I've moved away over recently from my previously much-admired Touch of Taste bouillon liquid to another Knorr product, the oh-so-convenient Stock Pots; these are now my storecupboard emergency stock replacement of choice. 

The Black Forest Ham is not, I know, at all authentically Italian, but it eliminates the need to fry pancetta (thus saving on washing up) and gives a wonderfully rounded, smoky flavour  Anyway, I tried it once because we had a pack in the 'fridge that needed using up and the rest is, as they don't say but should, merely a matter of geography.  As for the cheese rinds, I find that they are a wonderful addition to this kind of risotto.  They impart a delicious, deep flavour to the risotto and are very popular with my children, who both love the savoury chewiness of the cooked-down rinds.  To this end, whenever I finish a chunk of Parm., I scrub the rind well under hot water, then transfer it to a bag in the top of the freezer set aside for cheese rinds.  Just fish out one or two and add them to risotti when you add the stock.  They can also be useful in certain soups, but do remember to remove the rind(s) before using the stick-blender.  I write from scalded experience...

Risotto alla Carbonara

30g unsalted butter
1 onion, finely chopped 
1 stick celery, finely chopped 
1 or 2 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped (optional)
300g risotto rice
100ml dry vermouth (or white wine)
200g pack Black Forest Ham, chopped
2 Parmesan cheese rinds, if available (and see above)
1 litre hot stock.
3 eggs, beaten with 100ml double cream and 50g freshly grated Parmesan, 

Melt the butter in a large ovenproof casserole and soften the onion and celery.  I sometimes add a little chopped garlic at this point, sometimes not.  As with so much, food is all about how you feel!  When the onion and celery are very soft, tip in the rice and stir to coat in the buttery pan juices.  Pour in the vermouth, stir in the chopped ham and pour in the hot stock.  Stick the pot in the oven and cook, uncovered, for 30 minutes at 180°.  Remove the pan from the oven and vigorously stir in the egg mixture. Cover the pan with a lid and leave for five minutres while you  pour a(nother?) drink and finish setting the table or whatever.  With risotto, I like a salad and a glass of wine, both crisp, nothing more.

Cath xx

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Oh Snapz!

Children always seem to want to snack, don't they?  I suppose it's because they are such busy little bees, but my boys always seem to be re-fuelling.  So I am always interested to find out about new snacking options for them; ones that are good for them, or at least not bad for them, and which have a touch more kid-appeal than the usual 'healthy' options seem to.  I received a parcel from Healthy Supplies this morning, containing a selection of the interesting and nutritious goodies stocked on their website.  First on our taste-testing schedule were some Snapz fruit and vegetable crisps... 

Baked, rather than fried, they are still crisp and really rather delicious.  We first tried the beetroot crisps and the carrot & paprika crisps.  It's fairly obvious which is which, huh?  The children were torn as to which they preferred but ultimately Chris liked the beetroot crisps best (as did I); sweet and crunchy as they were, while James preferred the carrot & paprika version.  I found these tasted very strongly of carrot, which would be a big plus for most people (and especially my carrot-addicted children), but I've never been a huge fan of cooked carrots , vastly preferring them raw, so I couldn't eat more than a few.  However, the two types were hugely complimentary when mixed together which was an interesting option, and the paprika added a pleasant piquancy to the earthy-tasting carrots.  We often eat root vegetable crisps as a pre-dinner nibble, but these weren't salty or greasy like some we've tried and tasted so clearly of the vegetables rather than the seasonings alone, that it was a completely new experience

Next,  I suppose, we moved on to 'pudding', and tried some of the apple fruit crisps.  One the left in the picture are the regular Crunchy Apple variety, the Apple & Cinnamon crisps on the right are strongly flavoured with cinnamon.  Rather too much cinnamon for my taste, but the children adored them and were pretty close to licking the dusty scraps out of the bowl after they'd polished the actual apple-slice-crisps off.  The cinnamon-flavoured apple crisps were noticeably thicker, and chewier, than the au naturel version, which were delicious and, somehow tasted even more of apples than do actual untouched apples.  Go figure!  The children rated the selection as follows.
  • #1 Beetroot
  • #2 Apple & Cinnamon
  • #3 Carrot & Paprika
  • #4 Apple
  • #1 Carrot & Paprika
  • #2 Apple & Cinnamon
  • #3 Apple
  • #4 Beetroot

As for me?  I preferred the beetroot and the carrot & paprika crisps when they were mixed together as a savoury option.  I wouldn't choose to eat the apple & cinnamon crisps again, but I might nibble on the odd pack of the plain apple crisps in the future.  I can see these finding a home in lunchboxes for school trips and the like in the future.

Cath xx


Saturday, 5 March 2011

Saturday Salads

How to get children to enjoy salads? To get them, regularly, actually asking clamouring for them to be served for lunch? The answer, I find, is relatively simple... crunchy bits!

The first lunchtime salad I regularly serve is this simple hard cheese salad.  Known as 'lunchbox salad' by me, this is the little salad that my Mum used to pop in for me if ever I needed a packed lunch for school. Shredded Little Gem lettuce (rather than the original Iceberg), diced celery and grated carrot are combined with a bit of grated cheese (strong cheddar for Chris, 'Special Reserve' Red Leicester for JD, who is clearly becoming a food snob!) and a scattering of salted peanuts.  Obviously, times have moved on and heads would surely spin, were I to attempt to send this peanut-studded salad into school with my kids so we eat it with nuts at home, with croûtons for school trips and the like.

Croûtons are another easy way to add crunch to a salad, but don't forget some of the things that you can easily buy and stash in the cupboard for quick salad-bar assemblies.  Bacos, or similar bacon crumbles are great with this easy blue cheese salad dressing, again served simply over some shredded leaves (usually Gem or Romaine).  You can also get some rather addicting little fried onion shreds which are divine in a salad of this sort.  They're called 'Onion Crispies', but 'crispy' is such an idiotic word that we'll quickly gloss over that fact...

Blue Cheese Dressing

25g blue cheese, crumbled (I usually use Danish Blue, but anything goes!)
1 tsp cider vinegar
2 tbsp crème fraîche

Gently heat the crème fraîche and the vinegar with the crumbled cheese, stirring until the cheese has melted.  Taste it and add a dash of pepper if you like.  You probably won't want any salt, but you may want a dot more vinegar or crème fraîche.  This is also rather lovely as a dip, especially with leftover chicken strip from fajitas (naughty, naughty!).
Cath xx

Friday, 4 March 2011

Making the Mustard

Just before Christmas I made a massive batch of wholegrain mustard to form part of my Christmas gifts for family and friends.  Today I needed to make another batch, as the last jar that we have in stock now has only a mere scrape left in the bottom.  Making your own mustard really is so easy and extremely rewarding. I give you, below, the basic blueprint for my mustards - I have made wine mustards, beer mustards, cider mustards and now a sherry mustard using this basic recipe; all have been successful and delicious.  Try to look out for a wholefood shop or market stall that will sell the mustard seeds 'loose', those little supermarket jars can work out very expensive indeed!

Homemade Wholegrain Mustard

Use a vinegar that corresponds to the other liquid you want to use; i.e. sherry vinegar and sherry for a sherry mustard.  If you want to make a beer mustard, use a cider vinegar and switch the quantities (i.e. 200ml good beer and 100ml vinegar).  I suggest using a malt extract instead of the sugar or honey in this case.

100g brown mustard seeds
100g yellow mustard seeds
200ml vinegar (and see above)
1 tbsp English mustard powder
100ml beer/cider/wine/sherry
1 tbsp soft brown sugar or honey
1 dsp (2 tsp) salt

Either whizz the mustard seeds in a processor/blender, or bash them up in a pestle and mortar.  You don't need to reduce the seeds to a powder, just crack them a bit.  Put the seeds into a bowl, stir in the mustard powder, sugar and salt and pour over the liquid ingredients. Leave to soak for a couple of hours or until the mixture has thickened slightly.  Pot in small sterilised jars and keep in the cupboard for a couple of weeks to let the flavours fully develop.  See how easy?

Cath xx

Sunday, 27 February 2011

BBQ Beanfeast

I  wrote recently about my culinary experiments with American-style pulled pork and ever since, the flavours have continued to fascinate me.  The flavour rub for that recipe has found its way into several dishes since and a keep a jar of it, ready mixed, in one of my kitchen cupboards.  Tonight I used it yet again...

Basic BBQ Rub

6 tbsp paprika (regular, not smoked)
2 tbsp flaky sea salt 
2 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
4 tsp garlic powder
4 tsp English mustard powder

Stir all ingredients together. Keep in a (labelled!) jar in the cupboard.

This is the sort of easy dish that we all love; something like a chilli con carne, actually, but sweeter and with less spicy heat.  It is very forgiving as regards side dishes as well, I prefer to serve it with rice, but it also works well with soft flour tortillas or potatoes (jacket spuds and potato wedges, especially).  Frankly, a little salad and  a chunk of crusty bread to dunk is all you really need.

Beef  &Bean BBQ Pot

I mainly use the ordinary HP barbecue sauce, but I occasionally dally with another brand.  Just use your favourite.

2 onions, chopped
120g smoked bacon chopped
300g minced beef
3 tbsp BBQ rub (and see above)
1 red pepper, halved, de-seeded and sliced
400g tin of mixed beans, drained
400g tin chopped tomatoes
bottled barbecue sauce
dried oregano

Heat a little oil in a casserole pan and fry the onion until soft.  Add the bacon to the pan and cook through, then put in the beef and brown it well.  Sprinkle the BBQ rub in as you brown the beef, then add the strips of pepper and mix through the meat and onions.  Tip in the beans, then the tomatoes. Fill the empty tomato can half-full with water and add a good squirt of bottled barbecue sauce.  Stir well and add this liquid to the pan.  Sprinkle dried oregano into the pot and stir again. Cook, covered, at 160°c for 20 minutes, then remove the lid, stir again, and cook for 15 minutes more to reduce the sauce.  Enjoy!

 Cath xx
P.S. Blogger formatting has gone insane, it seems.  No matter.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

It's Leeking again!

I love cooking with leeks.  It feels right, somehow, using them as often as I do when I live in Wales, but I suspect that I would use them almost obsessively wherever I lived.  They give a delicacy of taste that onions, however useful (and they are) in cooking, simply cannot provide - leeks are, to me, definitely the blushing ingénue to onions' dashing cad.   They go particularly well with chicken, cheese (ooh, leeks and blue cheese...) and ham or bacon, but I also love them with black pudding and with salmon.  Mustard is another friend of the leek, and this wholegrain mustard-spiked chicken dish is a great favourite of ours.

Chicken with Wine and Mustardy Leeks

8 chicken thighs
5 leeks, halved and sliced
200ml white wine
2 tbsp wholegrain mustard
200ml chicken  stock
15g butter

Heat a little cooking oil in a casserole pan and brown the chicken well all over.  Remove to a plate and set aside, then put the sliced leeks into the pan and cook, stirring, until soft.  Add a splash of boiling water from the kettle to help scrape up any chicken bits from the bottom of the pot as you stir.  Stir in the mustard and add the stock. Bring to the boil, then remove from the heat and stir in the butter until it melts.  This will help to emulsify the saucy leeks a little.  Put the chicken pieces back on top of the leeks, pop the lid on and transfer the pan to the oven.  Cook at 160°c for 30 minutes, then remove the lid and cook for another 5 to 10 minutes to crisp the chicken skins and reduce the sauce a little.

I served this with a pan of brown rice, and we had pre-dinner munches on root vegetable crisps (with a cheeky G&T for me!)

Cath xx

Friday, 25 February 2011

Feeling Greeky

I have been remiss with trying out recipe ideas recently, so I've taken advantage of the latter, less busy, part of the half-term holidays to try out some new things.  Now, I know that this kind of pie is nothing new (sorry spanokopita), but I like to think that there is a place for my distracted version; mainly just stirring stuff together, but with a nice bit of pastry layering to feel like I've done some 'real' cooking (what a ludicrous phrase that is - all cooking is real cooking, unless it's merely re-heating, I suppose... but what else am I supposed to do with leftovers?)

'Greek-Style' Cheese & Spinach Pie

For the 'hard cheese' specified, I use a roughly half-and-half mixture of parmesan and cheddar, but either would be fine on its own, or use a different, well-flavoured hard cheese.  I do wonder about blue cheese as an idea, too, maybe with walnuts replacing the almonds?  Perhaps another day...

600g spinach, (2 big bags from the supermarket)
handful flaked almonds
good pinch dried oregano
3 eggs
200g feta cheese (or similar Greek-style' or 'salad' cheese)
150g hard cheese
2 cloves garlic, minced
good grating of fresh nutmeg
50g or so butter, melted
1 (supermarket) packet of filo pastry - 12 sheets

Wilt the spinach in a couple of batches by plonking it in a colander and pouring a kettle-full of boiling water over it.  Remove it to a big bowl and leave to cool.  Repeat with the second batch.  When the spinach is cool enough to handle, squeeze out as much liquid as you can, being careful in case there are any 'hidden' pockets of hot water.  Set aside.  Toast the almonds in a dry frying pan until just golden, remove to a dish and add the dried oregano immediately.  Stir, and the delicious aroma of the herb will be released. Beat the eggs in a large bowl, add the cheeses, the garlic, a little black pepper and plenty of nutmeg (lush with spinach).  You don't need to add salt, the cheese is plenty salty enough.  Finally, add the nuts/herb mixture and the roughly chopped spinach.  Mix well.

Brush the inside of a pie dish with melted butter and lay a few sheets of filo over to cover the base and overhang at the sides.  Brush with butter again, then top with some of the spinach mixture.  Repeat with another layer of buttered filo; another layer of spinach filling . Finish with a nice thick layer of buttered filo sheets.  Sprinkle with another pinch of dried oregano, for pretty, if you like.  Bake at 180°c for 25-30 minutes until the pastry is crisp and golden.  Serve with a cucumber or tomato salad (or both, or something else entirely, if you like, hehehe).  We nibbled on some black olives and feta that I'd marinaded in garlic oil beforehand.
Cath xx

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Souper, Smashing, Great...

I adore this soup, based of stock with lots of of good things added.  It can so easily be varied by changing very little. I sometimes make a more 'Spanish' version by swapping the bacon for chorizo, the beans for chickpeas and the pesto for smoked paprika.  However, my most usual soup of the type is this; filling and rustic in an Italian style...

I keep a couple of bags of the shredded leek-and-carrot mix in the freezer; I find it to be so much less hassle to do a big session of chopping once in a while than to have to start knife work every single time!  A couple of handfuls of the mixture is enough for one batch of soup and defrosts ever so quickly - I suspect that you could probably could use it straight from frozen, but I've never tried. **UPDATE: I now have, and you can! **

Bean & Bacon Soup with Small Pasta

I generally use macaroni, as I keep that in the storecupboard as a matter of course; you can always substitute another small 'soup' pasta (like conchigliette), or just use some broken-up bits of spaghetti.  This amount feeds all four of us comfortably, with enough left over for two small portions for lunches in the week.  It freezes well, too.

200g bacon, chopped up roughly
1 leek, halved and sliced
2 carrots, diced
1.5 litres chicken stock
2 tbsp pesto 
150g small pasta (and see above)
2x 300g cans borlotti beans, drained

Grated parmesan, to serve

Heat a very little oil in a large pan.  Fry the bacon until cooked and tinged with brown.  Scoop the bacon out of the pan and set aside.  Put the leek and carrot into the pan and fry until soft.  Add a little of the chicken stock and scrape up all the nice toasty bits that have 'caught' on the bottom of the pan, then put the bacon back in the pan, pour in the rest of the stock and bring to the boil.  Add the pesto and stir well, then tip in the pasta and cook for five minutes.  Add the beans and continue to cook until the pasta is al dente.  Ladle into warm bowls and serve, topped with plenty of freshly grated parmesan.
Cath xx

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Planning Ahead...

My regular task on a Sunday is to plan our family meals for the week ahead, before I go food shopping on Monday morning.  I know that some people find this too much to be bothered with, preferring instead to make a decision every day.  Each to their own, but I would find that crippling; I am certain that we would end up eating the same meals over and over again, that supper time would becoming stultifyingly dull and that I would be gripped, nightly, by paralysing  indecision, plus you always have an answer to the whiny "what's for dinner..?" questions.  As a keen cook, I want to try out new things and, by planning ahead, I can build our week of menus to include both the comfortingly familiar and the appetisingly new... It is liberating to come home and be able to start dinner without having to make any decisions and to know that I have everything needed for a meal [a] in the house, not requiring an emergency shopping trip and [b] not still in a solid, icy lump in the freezer (because I knew last night I would want it and I took it out to defrost then).

Making a shopping list inevitably saves you money if you stick to it; it's when you meander around the shops picking up 'what looks nice' with nary an idea of how you intend to use it that you fritter your pennies away.  The excuse that "I wait to see what's on special offer" is no excuse really, lists of all the supermarket deals can be found online, via their websites.  Try somucheasier for a conveniently grouped list of all the stores' sites.  Plan your meals according to what WILL be on offer.

If this sounds preachy, I'm honestly sorry, it's not meant to, but I save so much by shopping this way that my list for the week can always include a few treats; some nice wine for the weekend, a trip to the cheese shop for a beautiful piece of cheese to go with soup and bread, or some delicious olives and chorizo from the Spanish deli; I want others to enjoy these little pleasures too.  Plan midday meals too, if there'll be people in for lunch, or just build in a few simple options to your list.  Likewise with breakfasts...

When you have children of school age, the other advantage of meal planning is that you can check what the next week's school meals will be and cater accordingly, even my children would baulk at the idea of spaghetti Bolognese for supper if they had already eaten it for lunch at school.  Our local council, in Ceredigion, provides parents with a copy of the 4-weekly rolling menu and I'm sure that can't be exclusive to that one authority.  So useful to keep track of what they're eating and plan your family meals at home accordingly.  If your school doesn't provide you with this, ask them; even if they only put the menu on their website it would help, but I would think that most schools would be only too pleased to accommodate a genuine interest in improving the family life and well-being of its pupils.  Happy planning!
Cath xx

Saturday, 22 January 2011

On the Pull...

This is a fab Saturday night family supper.  Not much work, then all day in the slow-cooker, a little bit (but again, not much) of work again and you're ready to eat.  I found this recipe on one of my blog-watching sessions, following links and seeing what I can find.  This is taken from the website of an American public media radio show, The Splendid Table and I've bookmarked a couple of other ideas that interest me from this site too.  I've made a few tiny changes (mainly to do with quantities), but the original recipe is here if you'd rather follow that.  Bottled 'liquid smoke' is available in the UK from American Soda, who are based in Ashton-under-Lyne, though I suspect that this would be just as tasty, though in a different way, without the 'specialist equipment'.  I also adore the fact that, in the US, pork shoulder is (inexplicably, to my mind) referred to as 'pork BUTT'.  Oh my, how the evolution of language fascinates...

American BBQ-Style Pulled Pork

I think the dsp (dessertspoon) measure may be a little archaic these days, but I rather like it; it refers to 2 tsp.

2kg boneless pork shoulder
3 tbsp paprika
1 tbsp flaky sea salt 
1 tbsp black pepper
1 dsp garlic powder
1 dsp English mustard powder
4 tbsp bottled 'liquid smoke'

Stir the spices and salt together. Cut the pork into chunks, removing the rind   Put half the pieces into the slow cooker, then add half the spice mix and half the liquid smoke, then add the rest of the pork and the remaining flavourings.  Cook on medium all day (I would say use high if you don't have a medium setting). Put the cooked meat in a bowl and strain the cooking juices into a jug.  Shred (this is the 'pulling' part...) with two forks as for French rillettes or Peking duck.   Put the shredded meat back into the slow cooker pot and add as much of the reserved juice as you need for a pleasantly soft and juicy texture

Serve with rolls, salad and barbecue sauces and condiments of your choice.  Our pre-prandial snack tonight was celery sticks with a cheesy dip.
Cath xx


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