Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Chicken Pie - because real men (and boys) don't eat couscous

Normally, when the Husband is away, I descend pretty quickly to the "can't be bothered" level of cooking. Why his presence or otherwise should matter, and what that says about me is probably something I should spend some time considering, but not here. The kids are happy to eat pasta till it's coming out of their ears, and I'm happy to oblige, supplementing it with various cheap and cheerful vegetable combinations with the occasional bit of left-over meat or, prize of prizes, some bacon. If he's away for a long time, I might offer some mood boosting fajitas mid-week to lift the gloom, but like my housekeeping generally (which is scratchy at the best of times) it can pretty much all go to hell in a handcart, there's so much else to get done when it's just me at the helm. I salute people who do this on a more permanent basis for what ever reason.

Normally he's only away during the week which means there are the easy distractions of school and other activities. However, he snuck off at 6 on Sunday morning this time leaving me with a whole day of them potentially dwelling on his absence. With the help of some friends, we got through most of it, and I headed off the late afternoon melancholy that I was fearing with a DVD session and roast chicken. Desired effect (happy children) achieved, it has also meant I have had superior pickings in the fridge to see us through the beginning of the week.

The kids were out on Monday anyway, and so last night, armed not only with some left over chicken, but also some chorizo, I put together a particularly tasty version of my cold chicken standby. This is basically a one pot meal - dry couscous, cold meat, chopped tomatoes, frozen peas, whatever you have to hand, to which you add stock flavoured with ground coriander, ginger and smoked paprika (because I didn't have any harissa), cover the whole lot with foil and bung in the oven for 30 minutes. I didn't have quite enough couscous, so supplemented the carbs with a can of chick peas. Pink loved it - she can be fickle and picky but I have never seen a plate clear so quickly. Blue, he of the bottomless stomach and hollow legs, picked out the meaty bits then started pushing it around his plate, trying to engage me in ever more spurious conversations. Then we got the 'If I don't finish this, do I get any pudding?' - this when he still had half a plateful left. He ate on, reluctantly, and we eventually compromised at '9 more mouthfuls' (it would have been 8, but he was 9 on Saturday so the number of mouthfuls goes up!).

"Please tell me you will never cook that again" he said.

I was tempted to tell him we were going to have it again this evening, but without the chorizo, but I refrained. Instead, I stripped the chicken carcass, made stock with the bones, and got the little darlings into bed as soon as I could manage...

Anyway, the Husband came back this afternoon, a day early. Instead of rushing round tidying up the house and doing other wifely things, I focussed on the most important issue - how to use up the last of the chicken in a manner that would please everyone. In view of the available ingredients - cold chicken, the stock, a couple of leeks and some lovely thyme in the garden, I  made a chicken pie inspired by a recipe in Jamie's Dinners, a book that I picked up by chance this morning. I get a little annoyed when famous chefs start name-dropping about the tips they've had from other famous chefs/foodies, but in this case, I'm feeling fairly sanguine about it. I mean, if Fay Maschler, the food writer, suggested adding little balls of sausage meat to a chicken pie, who am I to argue?

Jamie uses raw chicken to start with, so I've added my cooked chicken at a later stage in the process and using the lovely stock instead of wine and milk. I've got less chicken than him, so I've added in extra veg, and probably a little more sausage...

Chicken & Sausage Pie

olive oil
2 leeks, cleaned and sliced
3 carrots, peeled and chopped
leaves from a handful of thyme
2-3 tbsps flour
1tsp dijon mustard
approx 1 pint of stock
200g cold cooked chicken
1 small can of sweetcorn
200g frozen peas
4 sausages (300g)
500g pack puff pastry (you may have leftovers)
1 egg

Pre-heat the oven to 220/200 fan

Heat a lug of olive oil in a parge pan or casserole, and add in the leeks, carrots and thyme leaves. Cook, stirring for 10-15 minutes, then increase the heat, stir in the flour and keep stirring for a minute or so. Add about a wine glass or so of the stock, stirring as you slowly pour it in to the pan to incorporate it with the flour and prevent lumps, then stir in the rest of the liquid, the mustard and grind in some salt & pepper. Bring to a simmer then cover and cook for 30 minutes or so, stirring every so often to stop the mixture catching on the bottom of the pan.

If the sauce is too loose for pie, you can mix up a little more flour with some of the sauce in a separate bowl then tip it back into the pan and stir - don't just sprinkle in more flour as it will just lump up.

Mix in your cold chicken, sweetcorn and peas to the sauce, and tip into your pie dish.

Squeeze the sausagemeat out of the skins, and divide up into 12-16 balls. heat some olive oil in a small frying pan, brown off the sausagemeat balls, and scatter over the top of the chicken mixture, then top your pie with the puff pastry. I don't have what I'd call a 'proper' pie dish, so I rub some water round the rim the pyrex dish I use, and put some strips of the rolled pastry on first before laying on the proper sheet of pastry.

Once you've laid the top sheet of pastry on, trim and crimp the edges down so they look pretty, and beat the egg and brush it all over the pastry. Bake the pie for 30-40 minutes when the pastry will be golden brown and flaky and the filling piping hot. There was so much veg in the pie, I only needed to boil some potatoes.

Clean plates all round.

This month's Herbs on a Saturday is hosted on Blue Kitchen Bakes for Karen at Lavender and Lovage and I'm linking up because of all the lovely thyme that went into this pie. 

I'm also linking to the Season of Soups and Stews hosted by Lancashire Food. The requirement is to use stock in your recipe - I made my own chicken stock for this pie.

And last, but not least - This post is part of the #FaveFamilyRecipes Competition with BritMums and Tilda Rice. Every pack sold will provide a meal to an expectant mum in need in support of the World Food Programme’s Mothers Helping Mothers initiative in Bangladesh.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Random Recipes - Spinach and lentil soup

It's still very much soup weather, isn't it. The grey skies, the rain...

Today is a strange day. Now that the kids are at school (breakfasted and with their packed lunches, I only have to feed myself because the Husband is away and it's my turn NOT to have the kids after school. An ideal day, then to throw myself into the Random Recipe challenge for the first time. This challenge is hosted by Dom at Belleau Kitchen .


I've had my eye on this for a few months. Choose a random recipe book, let it fall open and then cook what ever is on that page. A great way to cook a bit more broadly than I might otherwise, even if it's just once a month. Being as it's just me, I was slightly concerned that I might end up having to cook something extravagant, or scaling down some dinner party extravaganza, but I needn't have worried.

My cook books are scattered round various shelves, and rotate between them, and along them - if you see what I mean - depending on who's in favour at any one time. I chose the shelf that features in the backdrop to my blog, and the book that ended up being the chosen volume based on the 'birthday number selector' set for this month's challenge (use the date of your birthday and count that number of books along from right to left) was my well thumbed copy of Veg Everyday. Surprisingly, it didn't fall open at Macaroni Peas or his magic bread dough, but a soup that I haven't cooked of his yet - Spinach and Lentil.


Amazingly, I had everything I needed in the kitchen, onion, carrot and thyme, garlic and tomates, puy lentils and spinach... actually, I didn't have the spinach but as luck would have it, one of the only things that's looking good in the veg patch at the moment is our little crop of spinach, so I squelched off down the garden to pick. I didn't have baby leaves as recommended in the recipe, but I just ripped the leaves off from the stalks of the big leafed stuff I had to hand, and used that instead.

It's what I'd call a very worthy soup. It's tasty without being too tasty - you know it's good for you. Turns out it was a little too worthy for me today. Much as I thought it tasted good, it tasted better with some shredded ham that I had left over in the fridge from a brilliant slow cooker experiment last week (not yet blogged) and some grano padano grated on top...

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Cherry & Almond Mincemeat

The Husband has headed off on his plane to Saudi for most of the week. He was up at 5.30, and given that we didn't get in till about 1 this morning after a very fun dinner party, I wasn't particularly in the mood for doing anything much today. However, where there are children and dogs, there is always activity to be undertaken. Blue needed depositing at a friend's house for another birthday party (hot on the heels of his own outing yesterday), and the dog needed a walk, so we dug ourselves out of the house, ran some errands, dropped off Blue, and picked up a friend for Pink on the way back, all before 9.30. More sympathy please.

Pink and her friend immediately ensconsed themselves playing some wonderful game involving barbies and the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. I put on a pot of coffee and flicked on Radio 4. The Archers Omnibus. Joy. Rather than succumb to my tiredness and sink into a torpor, I decided to make some mincemeat - it is 'stir up Sunday' after all, I've already made my cake, and the pudding is the Husband's job, whether he's in Saudi or not (I'll let him make it when he gets back)

This is very easy and tastes delicious. If you think making mincemeat might be difficult, it really isn't and it does taste nicer than shop bought (I would say that, I know). There's something very soothing to me about pottering around in the kitchen preparing something like this - something that has been made in one form or another for years,

Cherry & Almond Mincemeat

makes about 3 jars (may be a little more)

4 cooking apples
350g soft light brown sugar
zest and juice of 1 orange and 1 lemon
1tsp ground cinammon,amd 1/4 tsp each ground nutmeg, ground cloves and groun all spice
100g glace cherries, chopped quite finely
300g raisins/sultanas/currants - today I used 150g raisins &150g currrants
100ml brandy
100g flaked almonds
100g shredded vegetarian suet

Measure the sugar into a large pan, and add the citrus zests and juices. Peel & core the apples, then grate  into the pan. Bring this gently to a simmer, stirring until the sugar has melted, then turn off the heat and stir in the spices, dried fruit and the brandy. Set aside to cool. Sterilise your jars, then when the mixture is cool, stir in the suet and almonds, put into jars, seal, and store till needed.

When I tweeted earlier today that I was making mincemeat, I got a tweet back from someone asking if I was using actual meat in it. Obviously, as you'll have gathered from the above, I wasn't but I am intrigued - has anyone made mincemeat with meat in it? Thanks to google, I have found this really funny post about it here and I'm quite tempted. What do you think?

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Chocolate Mousse for a date night

Phew, birthday parties. 

Well, if you're struggling through those early years nightmares - lots of children, lots of screaming, whether to make the sandwiches in brown (middle class brownie points) or white (at least you won't have loads left) bread, marmite or jam, and more fairy cakes than any woman should ever have to face, let me tell you that once they get to 9, things are a whole lot easier. Yes, there's cake to be made, and favourite food (within reason) to be chosen, but when you can basically palm a small group of friends off on a wannabe stunt man masquerading as a climbing instructor (yes, really!) at your friendly, local (ish) climbing wall, and not even have to do party bags, well life is a whole lot easier.

So easy in fact that although last night I had a cake to make, cinammon buns to knock up for the chosen birthday breakfast this morning, and a couple of presents to wrap, there was also time for the Husband and I to have a 'date night'. He's been away a lot recently, off again tomorrow for the best part of the week, and we're out for dinner with friends this evening, so it seemed like a good opportunity to get some nice food organised, a decent bottle of wine, and spend some time together.

The kids got fish fingers, oven chips and baked beans - well, the oven was on for the cake so it seemed like an economical option - and I paid a visit to the butcher earlier in the day and got some lovely sirloin steak, which we ate with rosemary roasted new potatoes and loads of watercress. I'm not going to tell you how to cook what is basically steak and chips, but I am going to tell you about pudding, because I was quite pleased that I managed to remember to make something, and having remembered, that I managed to find some appropriate ingredients in the cupboards. It's also one of those puddings that offers disproportionate reward for fairly little effort.

Chocolate Mousse and Amaretti biscuits

serves 2, pretty generously

50g dark chocolate
50g white chocolate
35g unsalted butter
2 large eggs, separated
10g caster sugar
Amaretti biscuits

Melt the chocolate and butter together in a bowl over some water that has been brought up to simmering point, but then taken off the heat. Stir from time to time, and when the chocolate is melted, take the bowl off the pan of water and set aside to cool.

Add the sugar to the egg yolks and whisk together till the yolks become thick and a little paler, then mix into the melted chocolate and butter. Whisk the egg whites to stiff-ish peaks. Whisk a spoonful into the chocolate mixture, then fold the rest of the egg whites in using a metal spoon. Divide the mixture between 2 ramekins and leave in the fridge to chill and set - ideally leave for at least a couple of hours.

Serve with Amaretti biscuits. I did think I might do something more exotic with them, but after a couple of glasses of the lovely bottle of Secateurs that my friendly local wine merchant, recommended, it all seemed like too much effort.


Friday, 23 November 2012

Banana and Coconut Blondies - good for lunchboxes

School day lunches - what do you do? School dinners? Packed lunches? Our school menu is pinned up on the board in our kitchen for careful perusal at the beginning of each week. It's planned on a 3 week rotation and the kids study it intently, because I will only let them have 1 a week. It would in some ways be much easier if I let them have school dinners every day - there are very few days where neither the meat nor the vegetarian option appeals, but I would still have to cook in the evening - even if it is just a good wholesome soup - because they rarely choose to have their school meal on the same day. Of course, if they had school lunch every day, that wouldn't be a problem, but here is the real rub: the lunches cost £2 a throw, and frankly, while the kids love them (they really do) when they have them, they always come home hungry. There is no differentiation in portion size between those, like Pink, who can, if pushed, survive on nothing more than 2 slices of cucumber and an oatcake, and Blue, who frankly eats like a horse. I can tailor a lunchbox so that there's enough in it to keep them going, according to appetite.

So 4 days out of 5, I send them in with lunchboxes. They are creatures of habit, and both like different things, so Blue gets sandwiches which include salad, tomato etc, while Pink, who has always been a little bit high maintenance, if I'm honest, and very much an 'on the side' kinda gal, gets little bits to pick at. She is never happier than with some bread sticks made with left over pizza dough, or some cold leftover pasta, some chunks of cucumber, some little bits of red pepper and spring onion. Protein will be a hard boiled egg or some chunks of cheese. I have long since given up sending Pink in with actual fruit, so she gets her portion in a smoothie. Blue eschews smoothies because he had a bad squirting incident once, but then, he will eat fruit till it comes out of his ears. 

Yes, I know what you're thinking, the tough love 'eat it or leave it' mummy at home panders horribly to their little foibles when it comes to packed lunch. I hold my hands up to that. But the bottom line is that they still have an afternoon of school to get through and I need to know that they will have eaten. It's all very well sending in something that will impress the dinner ladies, but if Pink won't eat it, she will be foul all afternoon, and I have to deal with that at pick up. On the other hand, if they don't eat what I give them for tea, I can hurry them into bed, and there's always breakfast the next day...

And then there is 'pudding'. I'm a big believer in giving them a little bit of something sweet, not once a week on a 'treat day', but every day. I know my kids mostly eat a good balanced diet and I have no problem with them having some cake in their lunch. School seems to take a different view. It's OK for school lunches to contain cake as pudding, because they are a carefully balanced meal equating to 1/3 of all the nutritional intake a child needs. I, of course, a mere parent, am not capable of feeding my child a balanced diet over the course of a day, so I should not be sending cake in with lunch boxes.

I ignore those letters.

Anyway, (I am getting to the point) balanced meals or not, school has a very strict policy about nuts, and while I am a little irked about this - my kids love nuts and they are a great source of nutrition, I understand about allergies enough to appreciate that there is a ban on nuts in school for a good reason. However, there has been a minor breakthrough this week - coconut is NOT a nut, and can therefore come into school.

This means Coconut Blondies are on the menu.  

Not a brownie (none of the melted butter and chocolate), less wholesome (I'll admit) than flapjack, but tasty and moist. There's condensed milk in there to satisfy my addiction to the stuff, and you can freeze the resultant squares, individually wrapped, ready to just pop into lunch boxes. I know it sounds horribly smug, and not a little OCD, but it is a top tip, and it will also prevent you from eating the lot and then having to do some more baking. Not  that that would be a bad thing, but I know my limits as far as will power is concerned, and sometimes freezing the cake is the best option, for my thighs if nothing else.

Best of all, those of you that are reasonably regular here will know that in my book, anything with oats and fruit in it pretty much counts as a health food (you're buying this, aren't you?).

150g porridge oats
50g dessicated coconut
100g plain flour
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
100g butter, soft
1 squishy banana (if you don't have a squishy banana, use 150g butter instead of 100g and forget about the banana)
100g light muscovado sugar - actually, yesterday, I had to mix dark and light - it doesn't matter.
1 x 397g can condensed milk
1 egg, beaten
100g white chocolate chips

You need an average sized baking tray - mine is about 26cm x 16 cm but don't worry about it too much - something in that sort of ball park will be fine. Line it with foil.

Combine the oats, coconut, flour and bicarb in one bowl.

Cream together the butter, banana and sugar. It may look a little split/curdled, but go with it, it will be fine. Slowly pour in the condensed milk while continuing to beat - this is definitely easier with a mixer. If you're beating by hand; add the condensed milk a little at a time. Once the condensed milk is all combined, slowly beat in the oats, coconut, flour & bicarb mixture, then the egg and finally stir in the chocolate chips.

You get quite a lumpy batter which you need to scrape into the foil-lined tin, and then bake for about 30-35 minutes. The top will look cooked and quite golden brown with the edges starting to come away from the tin, but it will be quite wobbly underneath. Go with the wobble - it will firm up as it cools and stay moist and chewy.

It's quite tricky to photograph a wobble...

When cool, peel off the foil and cut into squares.

You can substitute away with this recipe - it's great with dried cranberries or sour cherries, you can use dark chocolate chips or milk ones - it's very versatile so check out the cupboards and experiment. The kids will only thank you.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Pearl Barlestrone Soup - and character building

Character building. It's one of those phrases that echoed through my childhood - and still does today. Whenever something doesn't go particularly my way, or is more difficult than I'd like it to be, it floats unbidden into my mind, usually in my mother's voice. It's there, too, in my relationship with my kids. Resilience is so important, but it doesn' necessarily come naturally. While I am always available for cuddles when life is tough, the cuddles are often accompanied by a gentle discussion about how it's sad/a shame/disappointing but you have a choice about how to deal with a situation - die in a ditch or learn from it. Don't be ground down by it. While I don't think I have yet used the actual word "character building" to them just yet - they are a bit little - that's what those chats are really saying. It's all character building - take a bad or disappointing situation, learn from it and move on.

'Character building' doesn't just come from 'bad' things or experiences. I once spent 2 weeks in the North West of Scotland being beasted through a pretty extreme outward bound course. The kind of course where you had to get up at 6 a.m. and run 3 miles every morning, but if you weren't all out of bed and ready to run at 6, an extra mile was added for every minute. The kind of place where you had a lovely afternoon fishing and not catching much from a yacht only to then be told that all 4 fish you had between 15 of you was the food you had for the next 24 hrs, and " the way you see that island we're now sailing away from, that's where your sleeping bags are, so jump in and swim. You can each have a match and a bin bag to keep your clothes dry. " It was totally mad and I loved every minute of it, but it was definitely character building.

I will admit though, that these days, 'character building' seems to be more about managing situations that are less than ideal, and whenever they occur, my brain follows 'character building' with a mental foot stamp and a "Yes, but I am 40 and my character is built enough, isn't it?". Harrumph.

So you can guess that I've had that sort of scenario today. The circumstances are not important (well, they are, but only to me), and no one is hurt or anything like that, but my mental foot is stamping, and my mental bottom lip is quivering. I'll get over it - it's nothing like the end of the world, but there it is, writ large. Character building.

Lucky then, that the kids had chosen school lunch today (they get one a week - for them both to have chosen the same day is something to be grateful for) so I was required to produce nothing more strenuous than soup this evening. It was going to be minestrone (I had some savoy cabbage looking resentful and unloved in the bottom of the fridge), but I decided to use up some pearl barley that's been hanging around, opened, in the cupboard - no doubt purchased for one of my vegetarian forays courtesy of Veg Everyday. If Hugh can replace risotto rice with pearl barley (check out his 'speltotto'), I can substitute it for pasta in a minestrone soup. I also made flatbreads to go with. 

Soup is comforting anytime, so it was perfect today, and kneading of the dough for the flat breads gave me an opportunity to channel the mental foot stamping...

Pearl Barlestrone Soup

Serves 4 

1 onion, 4 sticks of celery, 2 carrots, 1 clove of garlic, 1 tsp smoked paprika (yes, I know, it gets everywhere), a good squirt of tomato puree, 1 litre veg stock ( you may need some more to thin down the soup before serving) a 400g tin chopped tomatoes, 75g pearl barley, 1/4 savoy cabbage

 Dice the onion, celery and carrots fairly small and finely chop the garlic. Slosh a little olive oil into a pan, heat it up and cook the diced veg and garlic till softening. Stir in the smoked paprika and tomato puree, and cook a little longer, then tip in the stock and chopped tomatoes, season then add in the barley. Bring to the boil and simmer for 30 mins or so till the barley is cooked. While the barley is cooking in the soup, thinly slice the cabbage, then just before the end of cooking, chuck the cabbage into the pan, stir and cook for 2-3 minutes more.

For the flatbreads, I used HF-W's method in Veg Everyday, which involves half and half plain and strong white flour. Assuming 500g of flour in total, for 8 flatbreads, you mix this with a tsp each of salt and yeast, a tbsp of olive oil and 325ml warm water. Mix altogether to form a dough, then knead for 10 minutes or so till soft and springy, then set aside in a warm place, covered with cling film, for 1-2 hrs (mine usually needs closer to 2 but my house is cold) till the dough has doubled in size.

Split the dough into 8 equal sized pieces, and roll out into rounds (or whatever you can get the dough to roll into - I've never managed rounds).

 Heat a heavy based frying pan or griddle till it's pretty hot, then lay the rounds one at a time in the pan. Cook for approximately 2 minutes then flip over and cook for another minute or so. You can keep the cooked breads wrapped in a tea towel while you finish the rest of them off. 

As the pan gets hotter, the dough may need less cooking time - you do need to keep an eye on it. I love watching bread cook this way - puffing up as it heats up, 

and the slight charring you can get. 

Admittedly, it's not great bread to eat cold, much after it's been cooked, but if you do have some left over, you can reheat it reasonably succesfully. And I have just discovered that it tastes very nice with peanut butter.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Sausage meatball pasta bake - the answer to bulk child feeding

You are so going to thank me for this.

On alternate Mondays, I have 4 hungry children to feed after school instead of the usual 2. I've mentioned before that it's a pretty quick turnaround as we're usually not back from school till just before 5, and then we have to be out again by 6.15 for Cubs. The food has to be easy, ready to go and crowd pleasing.

I actually made this for the post-Remembrance Sunday lunch, but we had to cancel as I succumbed to one of the many (or may be it's just one) nasty stomach bugs that's going round at the moment, and this was consigned to the freezer, along with the sausage and bean casserole that was the alternative dish, and the traybake Bakewell tart...

Pasta, meatballs, freezeable. I have yet to meet a child that doesn't like meatballs and you really can't have enough variations on them. This really is the answer to most post-school child feeding problems - certainly most of those that I am faced with. It started off as a John Torode recipe in a Good Food mag (September 2009 - a bumper issue as far as I'm concerned), but as is inevitable, has been tweaked to suit.

Sausage meatball pasta bake

Serves 6-8 mixed (and fairly hungry) adults & children 

150ml olive oil (I know - it sounds a lot, but you drain a lot of it off one way and another), 3 large onions, finely chopped, 2 garlic cloves finely chopped, 100g bread crumbs, or just mash up 100g worth of bread with a fork, 50ml milk, 500g beef mince, 500g sausage meat, 200ml red wine (or stock, if you haven't got any) 4 * 400g cans chopped tomatoes, 500g pasta - penne or macaroni is good, cheddar or other hard cheese to grate over.

Heat the oil in a large heavy based pan, and cook the onions and garlic, along with freshly ground salt and pepper, slowly, till they onions are soft but not coloured. Remove the onions using a slotted spoon, leaving as much oil as you can in the pan. Set aside half the onions and mix the other half in a large bowl with the breadcrumbs, milk, mince and sausage meat. Add in more salt and pepper if you want. If you do have some parsley available, you could add a good chopped handful in too. When everything is mixed together really well, shape into ping-pong ball sized meatballs.

Put a large pan of salted water on the stove, bring to the boil and cook the pasta.

While the pasta is cooking, put the pan with the oil in it (that's left from cooking onions) back on the heat and brown the meatballs in batches. As the meatballs are browned, remove to a plate lined with kitchen paper to absorb any excess oil. When all the meatballs are browned, put the reserved onions in the pan along with the wine/stock to scrape all the good bits off the bottom of the pan, then stir in 2 of the cans of tomatoes and the meatballs. Bring to a simmer and cook for 5-10 minutes. Drain the pasta then in the largest dish you can find, mix together the pasta and the meatballs and sauce. 

You can freeze the cooled dish at this stage - either as one massive dish or in portions as required. 

When you are ready to cook, pre-heat the oven to 180C. My dish looked a bit dry when I got it out of the freezer and defrosted it, which is where the extra cans of tomatoes come in, although you may decide you don't need it. The original recipe pours a white sauce over the pasta and meatballs, but Blue is no lover of white sauce, so I bubbled up the second 2 cans of tomatoes, tipped it over the pasta and meatballs, stirred it all together and grated some cheese on top. 

In the oven for 30 minutes = happy kids.   

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Routine, days of the week socks and breakfast pancakes

Children are such creatures of habit. Mine certainly are. Do something more than once and it becomes "But mummy, we ALWAYS do xxx". 

Blue is more set in his ways, or the ways he feels life should be lived, than Pink, and is more prone to this easy adoption of routine. I have worried a lot that this is due to how the Husband and I handled things during his illness, particularly the dreadful first year of chemo. We decided to always tell him in as much detail as  we felt his little 2 yr old brain could process what would happen, how it would be, whether it would hurt (mostly, yes) and what the compensation would be (cinammon swirls, or beef Hula Hoops depending on what he was craving). We felt that this was the best approach for us - no glossing over, but giving him as much knowledge as we could to help him (and us) cope. Whether it was a good approach or a bad one we will never know, ditto whether it is this that makes him crave routine, and certain knowledge about what will happen next - for they go hand in hand most of the time - it's just part of what makes Blue, well, Blue. He likes routine, he likes order, he likes knowing that things are going to happen in the right way. 

With that knowledge, then, it probably wasn't a good idea to let him choose 'days of the week' socks in M&S the other week. Unlike Sally's 'days of the week' pants which she confesses to Harry as the reason for her break up with a previous boyfriend ("...they don't make Sunday") in "When Harry met Sally", Blue came out of M&S triumphant with 7 pairs, Sunday to Saturday inclusive, which he now has to wear on the right day. It's what he ALWAYS does. What will happen if he wears the wrong socks on the wrong day? Sunday's pair weren't obviously evident this morning, so after much inner discussion (conducted aloud, in his room - I would never let him know that I was listening), he decided to wear Thursday's pair on the basis that if he put them in the wash this evening, they'd be washed again by next Thursday. He has much faith in my use of the washing machine. Then I found Sunday in the airing cupboard during the weekly clear out. He had to change.

Another thing that appears to have snuck into our weekend routine, along with days of the week socks, is breakfast pancakes (you knew there'd be a tenuous link there somewhere, from socks to cooking). 

I have always militated against regularly cooking the same thing on the same day to avoid just this pressure, but there it is. Cook pizza once or twice on a Saturday evening, and it becomes the norm. Next thing I know, I am being berated for producing a curry or lasagne "...because we ALWAYS have pizza on Saturday nights, Mummy". We don't. On the weekend, I usually get up around the same time as the kids (too early), and after a cup of tea and a potter, I will take a cuppa up to the Husband,  pull on some clothes and head out with the dog, leaving the Husband  hiding from the world under the duvet, and the kids engrossed in Total Wipeout or whatever the programme of choice is that morning - not just the kids that are wedded to their routines, it would seem!. Recently, though, I have found myself returning from my stomp over the fields to a transformed scene of domestic bliss, with my family chatting happily in the kitchen over breakfast pancakes that the Husband has knocked up. Now, if you ask the kids, we have breakfast pancakes at the weekend. We ALWAYS do.

This is all very well when the Husband is around, but today he is not. He has been in Greece since Tuesday (have I mentioned that before this week?). I managed to get out of breakfast pancakes yesterday on the basis that we had too much to do, but I felt meltdown imminent - missing Daddy, already out of sorts because of the lack of pancakes yesterday, and missing Sunday socks (and that was just the kids). I promised that we would have them this morning. The dog got a quick walk, much to his disgust, then I set too. Order restored, meltdown averted, perhaps routine isn't such a bad thing... 

These are drop scones, more in the American style, but I first called them pancakes to persuade the kids that they should try them - breakfast pancakes as opposed to tea time ones - and the name has stuck. 

Breakfast Pancakes

makes 10-15

130g wholemeal self raising flour, a pinch of baking powder & salt, 2 tsp caster sugar, 1 large egg, approx 150ml milk, 25g butter, melted, sunflower oil

Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into a bowl then stir in the sugar. Make a well int he middle and crack in the egg. Slowly whisk in the egg, keeping it all in the middle and slowly incorporating flour as you go. Then start adding the milk, and whisking, incorporating more and more of the flour, and add in the melted butter. You may need a little more or less milk as you go - you need a batter that is slightly thicker than double cream.

check out the bubbles
When the batter is ready, heat a non-stick frying pan on a reasonably high heat, and rub a couple of drops of sunflower oil all over using a piece of kitchen towel. Carefully pour in the batter using a ladle, tablespoon or egg cup to make circles of batter about the size of a digestive biscuit (although mine are frequently larger than this). Watch the batter - quite quickly, little bubbles will start to appear on the top. When they are covering the surface, flip them over the cook the other side - it will only need may be 30-40 second, a minute max, then remove to a plate and keep covered with a tea towel while you cook the rest. If necessary, wipe some more sunflower oil over the pan. 

lemon & sugar
I have photographed these numerous times on other days when I've been super smug and had raspberry or blackberry coulis to go with them, perhaps some sliced banana and Greek yoghurt, but never quite got round to blogging them. Today, Blue had nutella and maple syrup, then appelstroop (a kind of apple treacle thing from Holland) and maple syrup, while Pink had her usual lemon and sugar. 

appelstroop & maple syrup

I had a bowl of muesli and a lovely cup of coffee.

coffee - essential for Sunday mornings

Friday, 16 November 2012

Chocolate Malt Cake

Another Children in Need Day, another evening spent making fairy cakes with wholemeal flour because I forgot and was too late to get to the shop. Ditto, contemplating whether I could use cornflour to bulk out the fast disappearing icing sugar (ditto) and make it stretch to the 11th and twelfth cakes, on the basis that if I threw on enough sprinkles, no one would notice. These and other less creative thoughts were running through my head at 10.30 p.m. last night, but it's not my substandard fairy cakes that I want to share with you this morning.

No. What I want to share with you is the chocolate malt cake that is most definitely staying, selfishily, at home for my own purposes. For some reason, this cake popped into my head yesterday morning and wouldn’t leave. I’m not sure I’ve ever made it before, but I knew I had it scribbled down somewhere. Not just chocolate, but Ovaltine too. I’m not sure why I have such a fondness for Ovaltine – it’s not something that I remember as particularly featuring in my childhood, the whole ‘Ovaltiney’ thing being before my time, but somehow it’s there. In this cake, it adds a malty undertone to what is essentially a chocolate cake, but it’s a very welcome undertone.  

Dusted with icing sugar, still warm from the oven - a warm blanket of a cake, which was just what I needed last night, what with IT Support the Husband still away. So what if the Children in Need cakes were iced in a sub-standard fashion...

And although I've alluded to it just now, I must stress that if you can get your hands on this cake before it has completely cooled from the oven, it is well worth it...

Chocolate Malt Cake

350g plain chocolate, chopped (or use buttons/drops of cooking chocolate – Bloc is good)
200g unsalted butter
7tbsp Ovaltine
150g light muscovado sugar
3 large eggs
2tsp vanilla extract
160g wholemeal self raising flour
Icing sugar for dusting 

Grease and line a 20cm square tin, and pre-heat the oven to 1800C. 

In a pan, melt 200g of the chocolate and the butter, remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly, whileyou blend the Ovaltine with 2 tbsp water, and then, in a large bowl (using a mixer if you have one), beat together the eggs and sugar till light and foamy. Beat in the Ovaltine mixture, then the melted chocolate & butter, and the vanilla extract. Stir in the flour, then fold in the remaining 150g of chocolate pieces. Scrape the batter in to your prepared tin and bake for about 40 minutes till risen and just firm. 

Allow to cool (but not too much) on a rack, then dust with icing sugar and cut into squares. 

Not that you need to put it on a plate, you understand...

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Fried Green Tomatoes - Moro East stylie

A few months ago now, I was actually in a supermarket, rather than the online parody of one, and was waylaid by the book section. The cookery books section, to be strictly accurate. They had a great selection, at bargain prices. I meant to write about it then and there, but of course, time marches on and I can no longer remember exactly which volumes I was pondering. It goes without saying, though, that I couldn’t walk on by without looking shiftily around me, and, pretending no one had seen me, adding one to the trolley. 

While I do a lot of my shopping from supermarkets online, actually going to one is not particularly good for my soul. It can actually quite be dangerous, especially when, as I was on this occasion, unfettered by children competing for attention and unnecessary additions to their lives. I go with my list and come out with twice as much as I need and an overwhelming sense of panic. And while I’d like to say that I NEED new cookbooks, it’s just not the case. Some people hide new clothes in the cupboard then produce them saying ‘oh this old thing’. I hide new cookery books about the place, then cook something delicious from them in an attempt to gloss over the fact of the purchase... I don’t think he’s fooled...

Anyway, the book that won out that day was Moro East by Sam & Sam Clark. No panicking involved.

I have heard much of their food – my mum has eaten at one of their restaurants, and I think her goddaughter is actually a friend of the Clarks. It’s somewhere I’d love to eat.

The food is beautifully simple, and their books are gorgeously evocative of the food they cook. As I remember, the supermarket concerned had 3 of the Moro books on the shelf, but even I couldn't justify buying more than one, and I was seduced most strongly by the story of Moro East. Not just a recipe book featuring delicious Eastern Mediterranean food, it tells the story of the Manor Garden allotments in Hackney, where the Clarks grew their own vegetables, and of the vibrant community that had grown up around them, as is often the case, and which had welcomed the Clarks. Most poignantly of all, it also details how, with the long march towards the Olympics this summer, the allotment association lost out and their beautifully tended plots were bulldozed and in their place now stands part of the Olympic Park. As recently initiated allotment holders ourselves, this was the book for me that day.

The recipes are seasonal, all based on the huge variety of produce that came out of that little piece of Hackney and mostly easy to prepare, although not all the additional ingredients are easily available in rural Hampshire. They are accompanied by beautiful, slightly wistful photography which I love.

The recipe that caught my eye from the very beginning was one for green tomatoes. Not fried in the southern US style, but in a more Mediterranean fashion, with sweet red wine vinegar, garlic and chilli. The Husband and I experimented extensively with battered versions in the early days of our tomato growing attempts, based entirely on watching Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe, and let’s just say that we’ve felt they were best kept filed in the ‘interesting experiments’ section of our history together. However,  I’m always on the look out for a good green tomato recipe, and was interested to read the Clarks’ take on fried green tomatoes, with no batter anywhere. Having mentally bookmarked the recipe, I took the opportunity to make this dish earlier in the autumn, before we’d discovered the ‘ripen the green tomatoes in a drawer’ trick and after I had already chutney’ed more green tomatoes than I care to remember.

It was very tasty, and while it didn't please all of those who ate it, I would definitely make it again - more than I can say for my attempts from years gone by. I couldn’t think of any way to improve on the recipe, and so emailed the publishers to ask if they would mind if I reproduced it directly from the book. I am very pleased to say that they were happy for me to do so, so here, from Moro East by Sam & Sam Clark (Ebury Press, £17.50) 

Fried Green Tomatoes with garlic and sweet vinegar
Serves 4

5 tbsps olive oil
800g green tomatoes, cut into 2-3 cm wedges
3 garlic cloves cut into matchsticks
2 pinches dried red chilli flakes
1 tsp roughly ground cumin
1 tbsp sweet red wine vinegar or Pedro Ximinez vinegar (or balsamic)

In a wide frying pan, heat the olive oil over a high heat. When just hot, add the tomatoes, cut side down, in a single layer, and fry for a few moments till browned on the first side. Turn over one by one to fry the second cut side. As soon as this starts to colour, shuffle the tomatoes round to make a little room for the garlic and one pinch of the chilli flakes, and the cumin, tucking the garlic in so it makes contact with the pan. Once the garlic is a light nut brown, season the dish with salt, pepper and the vinegar. 

Serve immediately or at room temperature sprinkled with the remaining chilli.

I'm adding this post to November's Bookmarked Recipes on the Tinned Tomatoes blog.