Souped Up Sunshine!

From all the sprouting greenery in the garden, Spring is finally on it’s way, although it appears to have been delayed somewhere!  Zesty yellow daffodils brighten up frost-bitten hedgerows & windowsills, giving a bit of hope that warmer weather is approaching.  When it’s frosty & frozen outside, food tends to become more like a comfort blanket to pacify our need for warmth & contentment.  There are those chilly days where it’s barely above zero on the thermometer & you just want to wrap yourself head to foot in the duvet, like some cocooned caterpillar, inside & out.  All you need is a little warmth to take the edge off the chill & bring a little sunshine into your day.

Soup isn’t something to be sniffed at, it’s to be savoured & relished, almost smugly, as you dunk thickly cut, thickly buttered, crusty fresh bread in a bowlful.  It’s heavenly, hearty & wholesome – perfect for luscious liquid lunches or steamy suppers.  Wandering around the kitchen one lunchtime, opening all the cupboards & the fridge while looking blankly into their abyss for inspiration, I decided to make soup.  There were various little tubs of leftovers, some fresh vegetables that needed using up & plenty of pots of chicken stock in the freezer.  Just over half an hour later, I had a blissfully beautiful bowl of spicy soup to tuck into!  So why go for that tin of ready-made when you can have your own made ready?  It’s one of the easiest things to make, uses up all those bits of veg you were going to chuck out & will give you a boost for the rest of the day.  Whether you’re at work or at home, if a lunchtime sandwich just won’t cut it, this sumptuously sunny little number will get your engine revving until dinnertime & brighten your day.  So, aprons on & hands washed, let’s get started!

What you need:

5 large Carrots
1 large Parsnip
4 small Potatoes (I used baby ones, but just use whatever you have)
1 medium Red Onion
1 litre of Vegetable or Chicken Stock (homemade preferably)
(or use half boiling water from the kettle & half stock if you like)
Quarter of a teaspoon Cumin
Sea Salt & freshly ground Black Pepper for seasoning
1 small knob of butter
1 – 2 tablespoons Cream Cheese
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (just a spoonful)
Chopped fresh Parsley or Coriander (to garnish – optional)

What to do:

Get yourself a nice, large saucepan with a lid.  Prepare your vegetables by peeling, topping & tailing them.  Chop the carrots, parsnip, potatoes & onion into small chunks.  They don’t need to be perfect, but they will cook faster if they are cut smaller (meaning you get to eat quicker).  If there are any other veg you want to add, chuck them in the pan (if you’ve got a handful of frozen sweetcorn, they can go in too).

Heat a teaspoonful of the olive oil in the saucepan, add the onions & stir fry for a couple of seconds, just to get them softened.

Add the rest of the vegetables & stir fry them for about a minute.

Carefully pour your stock (or water & stock) into the pan, gently stirring the vegetables into the liquid & reduce the heat.

Simmer with the lid half on, for about 25 minutes or so, stirring occasionally – make sure you get that spoon to the bottom of the pan & get everything mixed in.

Once cooked, test the vegetables – the potato should crumble under the back of a spoon, so just press it against the inside of the pan.  The carrots should be firm, but easy to cut.

Take half the mixture at a time (put the rest into a jug or another pan) & pour into a blender very slowly – use a ladle to do this if necessary, so that you don’t splash yourself.   Be careful not to over-fill your blender & only go up to halfway, otherwise you’ll have a soup shower!  Whizz up for a few seconds at a time or pulse until it’s the consistency of textured yoghurt – if you want your soup more silky smooth, just give it another quick whizz up.  The vegetables will give up their colour & turn everything into an gorgeously golden liquid.

Pour the soup back into the saucepan, on a medium heat & bring it back up to a gentle simmer, then turn the heat down to low.

Sprinkle the Cumin across the top, along with a pinch of sea salt & black pepper – not too much though, you’re just seasoning it a little.  Give the soup a gentle stir to mix them in.

Add the knob of butter (around a thumb-sized chunk should be fine), along with the cream cheese.  Gently stir them through the soup until thoroughly melted.  The butter & cheese will give your soup a lovely creamy consistency & add a little thickness.

Have a taste.  If you think it needs a bit more seasoning, add another pinch of the sea salt & black pepper, then taste again.  When you’re happy with the taste, turn off the heat & serve.  Simply spoon your soup into a bowl & serve with a warm, freshly baked bread roll or baguette, smothered in cold butter, ready to dunk.  If you’re serving it as a starter, perhaps decorate with a little chopped fresh Parsley or Coriander & a couple of Parmesan shavings.

Any leftovers can be frozen in a couple of freezer bags or plastic pots with lids on, or you could stash some in the fridge in jars to take to the office – just warm it up when you need it!  Soup is a great portable one-pot lunch if you’re working & can be made in advance, so you can just grab one as you’re leaving the house.  It also makes a perfect pasta sauce too – ricotta stuffed ravioli draped in this silky soup & sprinkled with grated Parmesan will definitely warm you through!

So when you need a bit of sunshine in a bowl to warm up a wintry day, just soup it up!  Stay hungry 😉  A x

 

 

 

A Bit on the Side

Weeks before writing this, I was already thinking about what fabulous foods to make for Christmas Day & what I could do beforehand.  By the end of November, I had already chopped, mashed & stashed an array of side dishes in readiness, cramming pots of fluffy potatoes, gorgeous gravy & cauliflower cheesiness into my freezer.  Most of us work & don’t have the time to faff around in the kitchen, so a bit of prep now will make all the difference.  It’s like giving yourself the gift of time!   Because I’m covering a few things here, you will need some strong coffee to keep you going & a few Little Helpers to share the load (bribes at the ready if necessary!).

If you have been following my blog, you will know I like to keep a supply of freezer-friendly food (here’s the link for speed:  http://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/freezing-your-assets/ ) & Christmas is no exception.  A week or two before, I make a mountain of mashed potatoes & a giant cauliflower cheese (sometimes with broccoli), then freeze them in two-person portions.  If you want your mash to look fancy, pipe into swirls on greaseproof paper before freezing (let it cool first though) & reheat when you want them!  The only spuds you need to cook on Christmas Day will be roasts & maybe some steamed baby potatoes (because there’s always someone who won’t eat mash or roasts).  These can be cooked along with the veg, cutting down on pans to watch & wash, & hunting for that ever elusive potato masher!

The freezer is also bulging with breadcrumbs – if a crust is going spare, it gets blitzed in the blender & bagged up (I can’t waste them & the birds are so well-fed in the garden, the trees are leaning!).  Normally, I use these for coating chicken goujons or kievs, along with stuffing mushrooms or making arancini from leftover risotto, but they are also the main ingredient in stuffing.

Whilst I appreciate that some lovely person invented packet mix stuffing, if you’re serving anyone who is vegetarian or vegan then you need to check the box first.  Most contain suet, which is either beef fat (& needs baking in the oven once rehydrated), or made from palm oil – it might be vegetarian but it’s not very ethical in my book!  When I was a vegetarian, shop-bought stuffing went off my list completely & I started making my own from scratch.  It’s so simple, you can make it in advance & freeze it until you need it!  If you prefer it inside the bird, just make your stuffing the day before, cover it & leave in the fridge.  Depending on the size of your dinner party or the size of your bird, just increase quantities as required (I say “bird” because not everyone eats turkey, my family included, as we prefer chicken).  Here goes!

What you need:

6 thick slices or crusts of Bread, blitzed in a blender (keep them chunky, not too fine)
1 large Onion, finely chopped
1oz Salted Butter
1 tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 heaped tablespoon of Sage (I used fresh but you can use dried)
1 heaped teaspoon of dried Rosemary
Pinch of fresh Thyme (this is strong so you only need a bit)
Quarter of a pint of boiling water (you might not need all of this)
Seasoning to taste (freshly ground Black Pepper & Sea Salt)
[Optional: a teaspoon of Lemon Zest or a tablespoon of chopped roasted Chestnuts or Walnuts)

What to do:

Melt the butter & oil together in a large frying pan or skillet.

Chop the onion finely & add to the butter & oil, stirring well to ensure it’s completely coated.  Stir fry on a medium heat for a couple of minutes until softened & starting to colour slightly (don’t leave them, otherwise they will catch & burn).  Turn off the pan.

Sprinkle the Sage & Rosemary into the pan with a pinch of Thyme, add the breadcrumbs & stir well.  The residual heat from the pan will bring everything together nicely, so just mix well.  Season with a little sea salt & black pepper, stirring well again.  If you’re adding the roasted chopped chestnuts or lemon zest, do this now.

Add a little of the boiling water, drizzling it around the pan & stirring to bring it all together into clumps.  If it’s too dry, add a little more water & stir again.  Once you feel the consistency is right, stop.  It should be firm, not soggy.  If you think it’s too soggy, add more breadcrumbs until firmer.

Pre-heat the oven to 200*C & if you’re making stuffing balls, lay a sheet of greaseproof paper on a baking tray.  If you’re baking it in a dish, butter the inside of a casserole dish, scoop the stuffing mixture in & use a fork to make rough peaks on the top (these bits will go crispy when it bakes).

If you’re making stuffing balls, get yourself an ice-cream scoop (spring-loaded will make your life easier & will also ensure they are all roughly the same size).  Put some of the mixture into the ice-cream scoop (you don’t want to damage your pan by scraping it!) & press it in gently.  Release the ball from the scoop, shape it into a nice sized ball in your hand & place on the greaseproof paper.  Repeat until you’ve used the whole lot.

Bake your stuffing (whatever shape you make) in the centre of the oven for about 15-20 minutes until golden brown on top, turning halfway.  Once cooked, either serve immediately with your roast dinner, or place on a cooling rack (still on the greaseproof paper) & leave to cool completely.  These can then be frozen & reheated on the day you want them.  That’s the stuffing stuffed!

Next, it’s time to sort out some sides & as most of these are already done by the time Christmas arrives, there’s not that much to do on the actual day.  A few days before, enlist your Little Helpers (or “Side”-Kicks?!  *groan*) then go to your local Wilkinson or Poundshop, buy a couple of speed peelers & delegate a bag of veg to each person with one of these little numbers.  Put some Christmas tunes on to get everyone in the mood (or some AC/DC, whatever floats your boat), get them all around the table & off they go!  They can peel & prep, you can pretty much leave them to it & get on with anything else that needs doing.

A firm favourite of ours is roasted baby potatoes in their skins, along with roasted carrots & parsnips.  Just prep as much veg as you need, according to the number of guests you’re expecting & leave to soak in a pan of cold water until required.  Big tip here: don’t put any salt in the water, because no amount of cooking will make them soft & you’ll have rock hard roasties instead.  Aprons on!

What to do:

On a chopping board, cut the potatoes in half lengthways.  If you want to give them a bit more texture, cut little slices in the curved top all the way along (hasselback style) to almost halfway through – don’t go all the way though, otherwise you’ll just have thin slices of potato!  Cut the parsnips & carrots into chunky wedges, in a similar size as the potatoes – they can all go on the same tray (less washing up!).  If you’re not cooking them right now, this is when you put them in some cold water until you’re ready for them.  Before roasting, strain well & tip your roasting veg onto some kitchen paper to dry (because oil & water don’t mix, they spit!).

Spread some olive oil on a baking or roasting tin, put the potato halves in curved side down & then drizzle more olive oil on the top, give them a good sprinkle of the sea salt & black pepper.  If you want to add some chopped Rosemary, sprinkle some on too (go easy with this stuff though, it’s quite strong).  Get your hands in, toss the potatoes in the oil & seasonings, making sure they are well coated & return to their curved side down position, flat side up.

Bake them on the top shelf in a hot oven at 220*C, for about 15 minutes until they are sizzling & golden.  If they have stuck a bit, just use a spatula or tongs (nothing metal though or you’ll damage your tray) & ease them away from the tin.  At this point, turn them over carefully so you don’t splash yourself in hot oil & return to the oven for about 10 minutes or so until crispy, then serve.  If you want to, you can always pop them on some kitchen paper to remove any excess oil, but I find a good shake in a sieve does a pretty good job & it’s not lard, so you’ll be fine.

The parsnips & carrots should be transferred to a warm heatproof dish, then while they’re still hot drizzle with a teaspoon of runny honey to glaze (drizzle, not drown remember) & they’re ready to serve.

Once you’ve got your sides sorted, Christmas Day becomes a doddle – just take them out of the freezer the night before, pop them into an ovenproof dish to defrost & that’s it, prep done!  They can be reheated in the oven while the bird is resting & the veg are roasting. This is also handy when unexpected extras turn up for dinner, because you’ll have a spare pot you can defrost (making you look like the most organised person ever & score major Brownie points!).

By now, you should have a sumptuous selection of sides prepared: mash, three types of roasties, veg for steaming & cauliflower cheese (for the recipe, click on this link to my blog: http://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/a-kitchen-nightmare-readymeals-set-go/ ).  However, there are still a couple of things that will finish off the list nicely – starting with a pimped up cranberry sauce.

Not everyone wants to make cranberry sauce from scratch (me included) & not everyone likes it, so do yourself a favour & buy a good quality one that you like, then pimp it up with a few little tweaks.  Simply scoop the whole lot into a small saucepan & break up with a wooden spoon, heating very gently.  Add a shot of Sherry or Port, stirring carefully into the cranberry sauce.  Sprinkle a little orange or lemon zest into the pan, about half a teaspoon, & stir gently for a minute or two.  Pour it into a small dish to cool, then cover & put in the fridge until you’re ready to serve!

And lastly, all you need is a gorgeous homemade gravy!  Everyone loves gravy & at this time of year, you might want to make proper gravy.  It’s actually easier than you think & just needs a little patience!  The best bit is you can make it before & freeze it, or make it on the day in minutes using heated stock you made previously or stock from your roast on the day.  So grab a whisk & a saucepan ….

What you need:

1 pint of chicken stock (or vegetable stock)
4 heaped teaspoons of Gravy Browning (such as Bisto powder)
A good glug of cold water (about 3 tablespoons)

What to do:

If you’re using fresh, hot stock from your roasted bird, simply ladle off a pint into a jug.  To remove any fat from the stock (that’s the golden bubbles you can see here), get yourself a few sheets of kitchen paper & touch it gently on the top – the grease will attach itself to the paper, which you can then throw away (no faffing around trying to separate it).

In another jug, measure your gravy browning (I use Bisto because my Mum uses it, so whatever you like best use that).  You don’t need any seasoning, because there’s plenty in the gravy browning & also in your stock.

Pour in the cold water & mix to form a smooth brown liquid, followed by a quarter of the stock, then tip into your saucepan & heat gently for a few seconds, using the whisk to mix everything thoroughly.

Add the rest of the hot stock carefully & keep whisking gently to prevent lumps forming.  The gravy will begin to thicken up nicely now, so dip a spoon in & if it coats the back of the spoon, it’s ready.

Pour into a gravy boat or just a jug & that’s the gravy made!  If you’re making it in advance, let it cool, then pour into a bag or plastic tub, seal & freeze.

So now that your stuffing & some sides are prepared in advance, hopefully it’s taken some pressure off & you can look forward to a fuss-free festive holiday!  Now, get the kettle on, put your feet up with a cuppa & relax!  Stay hungry 😉 A x

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Snacks & The Green Stalks

It’s almost here!  That sparkly, sugar sprinkled season where everyone becomes all warm & full of fuzzy feelings, children become (loudly) obsessed with the latest toy or gadget, while credit cards are maxed out & the balls of your feet burn from trudging the streets to find that “special gift”.  Well this is my special gift to you!   I’ve split this blog into four shorter ones, mostly because I want to make life a bit easier for you, plus you’ll probably get bored or stressed (or both) scrolling all over the place & you really don’t need that (remember Rachel in Friends & that beef trifle?!).

As a child, I adored the whole thing – Santa, sparkly shoes & Spangles in my selection box (they were sweets in the 70’s if you didn’t know).  I remember being at my Grandparents’ house, sitting cross-legged in a pretty dress by my Mum’s chair, with the twinkling tree lights shimmering their kaleidoscopic colours around the room.  My Grandma would give me a posh glass, half-filled with lemonade & a Marraschino cherry on a stick.  The childlike allure of being with family, eating a wholesome meal together (& probably too many Quality Street!) while watching old films, Morecambe & Wise, The Two Ronnies & playing cards for matchsticks – it was blissful & I absolutely loved it!  This is also the time of year my Husband & I met, so we always celebrate our first date (it involved a large Harley Davidson Sportster, a couple of hundred bikers delivering Christmas presents & rather a lot of tinsel!). 

Because I like to spend time with everyone, catching up on their news & sipping a glass of something nice, I don’t want to be faffing about in the kitchen!  My Christmas dinner is a simple affair, because most of the prep is done ages before & I really just want to be with my family making memories.  For a stress-free Christmas, you need to be strict with your time & delegate – don’t take “no” for an answer!  Explain that everyone will want to eat on the big day, you can’t do it all on your own (I know, I’ve tried) & the grand prize will be a relaxing day together with minimal mayhem in the kitchen!  If you have to resort to bribery here, so be it!

First thing’s first, pour yourself a stiff drink (important bit this – do it before the delegating & maybe afterwards too, but only if you’re not driving anywhere otherwise it’s a strong espresso!).  You are the Chef – your kitchen, your rules!   Each blog will cover prepping the following:

  1. Snacks (even shop-bought nibbles need a bit of love).
  2. Sides.
  3. Desserts.
  4. Bird.

Let’s start with some simple snacks, which can be done way before Christmas Day.  Some of these multi-tasking munchies can even be used as a starter, so make a few extra (which is my mantra, as you probably know by now).  One of my favourites (& apparently everyone else’s!) are baked cheesy biscuits – you can serve them simply on their own or with a dip, or even pipe some cream cheese on them & decorate with chopped chives.  They are really easy to make & the recipe is in my blog called “Grate Expectations” – here’s the link for speed:  http://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/grate-expectations/

The next snacks are really easy too & can be served with a salad as a starter: very stuffed mushrooms.  Make them ahead the day before & stick them in the fridge, covered in cling film.  Just warm them up in the oven when you want them.  If you don’t like mushrooms, use tomatoes with the seeds scooped out instead.  Food processor at the ready!

You will need:

2 punnets Mushrooms (closed cup for nibbles or flat mushrooms if you’re making a starter)
4 thick slices of Bread (a day old at least, or leave it to dry out for an hour uncovered – use the crusts if you can).
5-6 Sundried Tomatoes, snipped up
1 tablespoon of the Oil (from the Sundried Tomatoes)
2 cloves Garlic, chopped
1oz grated Parmesan Cheese or 1oz grated Grana Padana (or half of each) & a little extra for sprinkling on top
A handful of Pine Nuts for topping
1oz salted Butter
Freshly ground Black Pepper

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 200*C (if you’re cooking them now), then make the breadcrumbs.  Rip up the slices of bread, put them in a food processor (only a couple at a time, don’t fill it further than half way or it will jam) & whizz them up until fine crumbs.  Tip them into a bowl & then whizz up the next lot of breadcrumbs, but leave them in the food processor.

Into the processor, add the chopped garlic, snipped up sundried tomatoes (use scissors – please don’t chase a wet tomato around a chopping board, there are no fingers in this recipe!) & a tablespoon of the tomato oil, grated Parmesan and/or Grana Padana, plus a small sprinkling of the black pepper (don’t overdo it, you just want to season them).  You don’t need salt, because the Parmesan will provide all the salty seasoning you need (bonus!).  Whizz the whole thing up, adding the other breadcrumbs gradually as you are doing so.  If it’s too dry, add a drizzle of the tomato oil as you whizz again.  You should end up with a nice, moist crumble mixture.

Tip the mixture into a bowl if you’re going to use it straightaway, or you can actually pop it in the fridge in a sealed bag for later (great when delegating, because it’s already done & they only have to do the assembling).  Set aside while you prep the mushrooms.

Wipe the mushrooms with a damp cloth or use a pastry brush, removing the stalks (keep these for stuffing or making leftover pies).  Get a couple of lasagne dishes or similar, but don’t use tins to cook these in or they will burn.

Heat a skillet or frying pan & melt the butter in it.  Add the mushrooms, frying them for about 30 seconds each side.  You only want to coat them in the melted butter, so they should stay pretty light coloured.   Gently remove each one & lay them side by side, cup side up, in a lasagne dish, ready to be filled.

Scoop spoonfuls of the breadcrumb mixture into each mushroom – be generous & keep going until every mushroom is crammed full, then sprinkle with a little more cheese.  Any leftover breadcrumb mixture, chuck it in the fridge for later (someone always turns up late or you might fancy a midnight snack).  Scatter a few pine nuts over the top (these are gorgeous & have a sort of popcorn taste to them).

If you’re preparing them in advance, cover in cling film now & pop them in the fridge until you need them (they keep until the next day at least).  Otherwise, bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes until golden & gorgeous.  These are great hot or cold, either on their own or with dips, or just with a green salad as a starter.

So that’s a couple of baked snacks done & stored, ready for Christmas!  You should be feeling pretty good by now, because you’re getting organised & should be looking forward to relaxing a bit on Christmas Day (obviously, I can only help you with food – my name isn’t Merlin, so I suggest hiding the TV remote in the laundry basket & the batteries in your pockets, just in case you have to barter for some peace).

Next thing is the snack sticks!  Slender slices of lovely veg are the easiest things to prepare, especially if you get these done a couple of days before & delegate too!  Cooling cucumber, carrot & celery can be prepped by one of your Helpers a few days before, then stashed in the fridge in airtight containers or bags, ready to be whipped out with a delicious dip anytime!  If you fancy something different, try raw crunchy cauliflower florets (one of my faves), sliced peppers, sugarsnap peas & mangetout.  Give them a good wash, trim the ends & stand them in a cup.  One thing I don’t do at this time of year is make dips – I really cannot be bothered & what with all the other stuff to do, just buy some nice ones & store them in the fridge until needed.  Simply scoop them into individual tea cups with saucers & dinky spoons (saving your table from splodges), rather than leaving them in a plastic tray – even if they do have one of those optimistic re-sealable tops, dips always disappear first!

Ready for some more?  Another favourite of ours are these spicy chicken strips & these crispy morsels have a bit of a kick to them!  These are really easy to make, even easier if you get a Little Helper involved & you can make these well in advance, freeze them & use them when you want to.  Aprons on!

What you need:

2 large Chicken Breasts, cut into about half an inch thick strips
1 large Egg
2oz Plain Flour
4-6 thick slices of Bread, whizzed up into fine breadcrumbs
Tip of a teaspoon of ground Cayenne (1/8th teaspoon approx)
Quarter teaspoon each of Turmeric, Cumin & dried Coriander leaves
Zest of a Lemon (if you’re Lemon is huge, use only half the zest)
Sea Salt & freshly ground Black Pepper for seasoning
Extra Virgin Olive Oil

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 200*C.  Drizzle a little olive oil in the bottom of a roasting tin or baking tray.

Measure your spices into a cup & carefully mix together.  (Sometimes, I only use half this mixture & sprinkle the rest over chunky raw potato slices, drizzled in olive oil, to make spicy wedges in the oven – bake at 220*C for 25 minutes).

Tip the flour, breadcrumbs & lemon zest into a shallow bowl or plate, adding a little sea salt & black pepper to season.  Add the spices & mix everything together.

Beat the egg in another shallow bowl or plate.

The tip here is to keep one hand for the wet dip, one for the dry, otherwise you end up with breaded fingers & it’s not pretty (they look like little drumsticks!).

Take a couple of pieces of chicken, coat them in the egg & shake off the excess.  Chuck them in the breadcrumb mixture & pat this onto the chicken to ensure it’s coated well.  Place them into the roasting tin & repeat until you have coated all the chicken.  Drizzle more olive oil over the top (drizzle, not drown).

Bake in the oven for about 20 minutes, turning over halfway through.  Once cooked, they will be crispy, fragrant & gorgeously golden.  Test they are cooked by cutting a strip in half & it should be white, not pink at all (salmonella is not a Christmas gift).  Obviously, you should eat this one (if it’s cooked through) because you’re the Chef & need to make sure they’re nice.

Spread them on a huge plate for people to help themselves – turn it into a starter with a salad, a couple of potato wedges & a yoghurt & mint dip, or leave them to cool before freezing them in a bag until needed.  Job done!

Hope that’s helped you out a bit & now you can have a selection of snacks & stalks ready in advance.  So put your feet up & have a cuppa with your “Hungry Helpers” – you deserve it!  Stay hungry 😉 A x

 

 

 

 

 

A Kitchen Nightmare: Readymeals, Set, Go!

Firstly, apologies for the delay in writing my blog, as we are in the process of having a new kitchen fitted (week three, yay!).  As you’re probably aware, the kitchen is my sanctuary, my haven of foodliness & culinary creativity.  It’s one of my favourite places when life gets stressful, where I go to take my mind off things & create sweetness when there is none (or knead the crap out of some dough for a bit to de-stress).  When I can’t cook or bake, I tend to get a bit tetchy!  I started the first week like SpongeBob on his first day at the Krusty Krab (“I’m ready!”), but rapidly transformed into Donna Corleone by the end of the second.  It’s never straight-forward when you’re having building work done, even a small kitchen & no matter how organised you think you are, you’re not.  As I discovered, even the most perfectly planned projects can go a bit awry & bring out your inner DeNiro.

Growing up, I learned from my parents how to do a range of tasks around the home – building a fitted kitchen with my Mum, digging out footings & laying a wooden floor, building a conservatory, learning basic car & motorcycle mechanics from my Dad (plus how to remove oil with sugar & washing up liquid).  My ex was also rather fond of renovating houses, so I learned to plaster, install a bathroom (at 6 months pregnant, I was lugging a steel bath up a staircase with him) & build various furniture (he would come home with a stack of wood & say “I’m making a pine bed”).  So I was quite prepared for a modicum of mayhem during this project.

Until Friday morning of the second week, there was no working sink, no oven, no hob, no washing machine in place & no wine, which even for the most patient of people starts to get a bit much.  None of this was made easier by sharing our lounge with most of the large kitchen appliances (which was everything but the fridge), a dining table & six chairs, along with all the usual furniture one has in a lounge & everything the cat owns too (along with one rather disgruntled cat, who was having to share with “the staff”).  The kettle, microwave, toaster & slow cooker were all perched rather precariously on the dining table & washing machine, just across from the sofa.  It was very cosy!

Unfortunately, the kitchen supplier (a rather large, well-known company who shall remain nameless) & their kitchen designer let us down, causing a few headaches for us & the builders.  Cue a few trips to the store across town – we drove there on one occasion because I got bored of being on hold for half an hour & they answered just as we pulled up outside.  At last count, there have been 17 telephone calls (most of them with me in my best “I’m so disappointed” Mum voice), seven emails with almost a dozen photographs sent to the supplier, mostly asking what part of “like for like” didn’t they get & then there was the tile incident.  Trying to explain that a subway tile is not a floor tile was like Father Ted explaining the difference between the cows in the field & toy ones (“these cows are small, but those are FAR AWAY!”), until we met the fabulous Jas (who they should promote immediately, because she is brilliant!).  I’m pretty sure the Duty Manager has bought a one way ticket to a remote island somewhere with no wifi, just to escape me (I bet he’s got a kitchen that works though!).

As you can probably imagine, my tetchy-o-meter is now wacked right round into the red & like the smile I’m forcing, it’s not good.  As we are midway into week three, with various as yet unresolved issues (such as a gaping chasm in the ceiling where the old oven fan used to be, no hob as yet & a couple of minor head injuries from the low oven vent, which has a tea towel on to cover the blood), you can imagine that we’re getting rather vexed & I’m suffering from serious Spaghetti alla Carbonara deficiency.  Note to self: remember wine next time & double it, with a few whiskey chasers!

Before the chaos began, I prepared a few meals in advance & filled the freezer with lots of luscious treasures to keep us going.  Firstly, I made my staple Italian favourite: an enormous lasagne al forno.  This was baked using a rich, slow stewed meat ragu & my hand whipped cheese sauce (it’s all in the wrist!), then cut into eight portions & frozen individually.  It’s important to do this, because I guarantee that not everyone will want to eat what you do on the same day.

As I was making a cheese sauce for my lasagne, I decided to make double (two pints) & use up the cauliflower, broccoli & carrots in the fridge before they walked out in protest.  This really easy recipe is a favourite of ours & I used to make it for my son when he was a baby weaning onto solids (many moons ago!).  Cut the cauliflower & broccoli into chunky florets, slice the carrots & then steam them all until cooked but still firm – usually five or six minutes.  Spread the veg in a dish (a lasagne dish is good for this), pour the hot cheese sauce over & grate a couple of ounces of cheese on top – whatever cheese you have that needs using up!  I’ve mixed chunks of Gorgonzola with grated Grana Padana, a bit of Parmesan & Cheddar, which works really well.  To give it a crispy topping, roughly grate half a crust of bread over the top & spread liberally.  It can be chunky or fine, it really doesn’t matter.   Sprinkle a pinch of Oregano on top, some freshly ground black pepper & bake it in the middle of the oven at 200*C for about 20 – 25 minutes.  It will be crispy on top, the cheese will go golden & all that gooey cheese sauce will plump up the veg, infusing them with cheesiness.  Leave it to go cold, slice into portions & freeze in individual tubs.  This tastes amazing on it’s own too & is quite filling (we had it with chips from our local Chinese takeaway – gorgeous!).

The next day, I prepared a couple of fresh chickens by filleting, skinning & cutting them into portions.  This provides four chicken breasts, four legs & two carcasses with the wings on.  Have a read of my article “A Bird in the Hand is Worth Ten in a Dish” if you need help here.   The key is to take it slow,  at your own pace – there’s no rush.  The legs were used in a Cacciatore, fried with a bit of smoked bacon before baking, then frozen individually.  The carcasses went into the oven with some veg, herbs & water to make stock (which was also frozen for future risottos when we have a hob).  The chicken breasts were divided into two to make chicken pies & kievs, stuffed with homemade garlic & smokey bacon butter.

After seeing our national treasure Jamie Oliver (hi Jamie!) make this garlic butter on TV, I thought I’d try it & it’s really quite fabulous.  Once a month, I buy a big pack of smoked bacon, split it into 4 or 6 rasher batches & freeze them, so I’ve always got smoked bacon for risotto or cacciatore – now I have it for garlic butter too.  I have also used Proscuitto di Parma when I have leftover slices – it crisps up perfectly  when fried.  It makes more sense to make a large batch of the butter, rather than faffing around with piddling portions just for two kievs.  The measurements are general here, depending on how much garlic you like, so go easy if you’re unsure.

Use a regular sized 250g block of butter (salted or not), remove the wrapper,  & leave it in a bowl to soften slightly (cut it into chunks to speed the process up).  Fry four rashers of streaky smoked bacon in a dry pan – you want the fat to render out & make the bacon crispy.  Once it’s crispy, remove from the pan & lay on a chopping board to cool.  Chop the bacon into tiny fragments, then add to the butter mixture.

Snip some fresh Parsley into the butter, about a teaspoonful should be enough.  If you don’t like Parsley, try Oregano (it works well).  Chop or crush about half a bulb of garlic – about 7 or 8 cloves is sufficient.  Also, I prefer to chop garlic as I think it tastes better (plus I’ve crushed more than my fair share of garlic crushers!).  Tip this into the butter with the Parsley & bacon.  Mash everything together with a fork until everything is evenly distributed & have a little taste – be careful, raw garlic can be hot!  If you think the balance is right, then it’s ready to be rolled.

Place a sheet of greaseproof paper on the worktop, about the size of an A4 notepad.  Dollop the garlic butter into a sausage shape about an inch above the edge of the paper, leaving a couple of inches either side to twist together afterwards.  Roll away from you & keep it tight, smoothing the paper with your fingers to make a sausage of butter, tucking the edge of the paper underneath it.  Roll evenly until completely rolled up & twist the edges together.  Wrap in clingfilm & twist the edges again.  Pop it in the top freezer drawer & leave it to set for at least an hour.  This will become firm & easier to slice.  Once ready, cut a couple of slices & put to one side ready for stuffing, then put the rest in back in the freezer.  When you need to use it again, leave it out of the freezer for about ten minutes to soften slightly before slicing.

Next, prepare the breadcrumbs – you don’t need expensive, pre-made breadcrumbs.  It’s a doddle to make your own & use up those crusts that everyone says they like, but always end up on the bird table.  Leave a couple of crusts on a plate, unwrapped for an hour to dry slightly – any bread will do (I use whatever I’ve got – seeded, baguette, whatever needs using up).  Chuck them in the blender & whizz them up until fine.  Job done!  If you’re not going to use them straightaway, pop them in a bag, flatten to remove the air & freeze.  They’re always handy to have & there’s no waste.

Take two skinless chicken breasts & cut across the thickest part to make two equal sized portions.  They may look small, but once they’ve been stuffed & breadcrumbed, they will be a lot bigger!  Make a small incision (about an inch long) in the side & create a larger cavity inside to make a pocket.  Push a slice or two of the garlic & smokey bacon butter into the cavity, then close up the opening with your fingers.

This is the messy bit:  you need to panée the stuffed chicken to make them into proper kievs.  To panée is a French term meaning to breadcrumb – for example, de la poulet panée means breaded chicken.  However, you need to concentrate & keep one hand for the wet dip, one for the dry.  This sounds simple enough, although many times I have panéed my fingers because I forgot which hand went where!  You need three dishes: one with a beaten egg, one with a couple of tablespoons of plain flour & one with fine breadcrumbs in it (a shallow one or a plate will do).

Roll the stuffed chicken breast in the flour, making sure it is coated everywhere, then shake off the remaining flour.  Using your other hand, dip the chicken in the egg then drop it into the breadcrumbs.  Using the same hand you did for flouring, sprinkle & pat the breadcrumbs onto the chicken, ensuring it is thoroughly coated on all sides.  Shake off the excess & place in a plate (sprinkle a few breadcrumbs onto the plate before you do this).  Repeat this process for the other chicken kievs, then cover the dish with cling film & put in the bottom of the fridge for an hour or so – raw meat should not be next to cooked or be above anything else, so I always use the bottom shelf.

This is where I do things a bit differently, because I prefer not to fry the kievs.  Preheat the oven to 220*C.  Get a roasting tin & lightly drizzle some olive oil in the bottom, then place the kievs on top.  Drizzle the tops with a bit more olive oil, chuck in a sprig of fresh Rosemary & bake them in the centre of the oven for about 20-25 minutes.  Halfway through cooking, grab some tongs & turn them over carefully, replacing them in the oven to finish cooking.   Once cooled, pop a couple in a tub & freeze (pour over any escaped butter & crispy bits from the tin too).  They reheat well once defrosted too – just put them in a dish in the oven at 200*C for 20 minutes or so.  Make sure they are piping hot before dishing up – stick a metal skewer in the centre & if it’s hot to the touch, they’re ready.  They go great with a huge salad & proper chunky chips.  If you’re not keen on bacon or garlic, try using different stuffings in your chicken – maybe some sundried tomatoes, a couple of slices of Mozzarella & some fresh Basil leaves, or shredded spinach, Ricotta & chopped pine nuts.

Have a go at making your own ready meals & even if you’re not having building work done, sometimes it nice to have a freezer full of pre-prepped dinners for when you’re working late or can’t be bothered to cook.  A x

 

There’s More to Stew Than Just a Pie!

This time of year is one of my favourites, as the last remnants of Summer slowly hand over the baton to the slight chill of September & bring those bright, sunny sharp mornings that you can taste in the air.  The hedgerows are full of dark & glossy, ripe blackberries, vegetables are ready for digging up & the branches of trees are groaning with the weight of their various fruits.

Just as the seasons begin to change, so does our desire for more hearty, substantial meals.  I love going outside early in the morning to collect the tasty treasures from our garden!  As I wander around, so does my mind as I consider what fabulous meals I’m going to make with these wonderful ingredients.  Obviously, we only grow a small amount of fruit & vegetables, so I like to head to the local shops & pick up whatever is in season.  Most people go shopping with a list; I like to just see what’s available, then decide what I can make from that.

Although I like a good pudding as much as everyone else, I absolutely adore a proper stew, made with a few simple ingredients & a lot of patience.  Everything is slowly cooked for a few hours, as the whole house is filled with it’s heady aroma & your stomach dragon starts to gurgle in anticipation of dinnertime!  Growing up, my Mum would make the most amazing stews & halfway through cooking, I would pester her for a cup of the rich gravy to dunk some crusty bread in.  Eventually, she would give in & I would sit on a stool, talking to her & clutching onto my cup as I savoured the steamy, flavourful liquid.

Everyone has their favourite recipes, their own way of doing things, but this is how I cook my Steak, Ale & Mushroom stew.  It is perfect for packing into pies & pasties to warm you up on a chilly Autumn evening, or just eating hot from the pot with a few slices of crusty, buttered bread.  It’s a really easy to make “chuck it all in a pot” kind of meal, very filling & it’s completely faff-free!  This makes two casserole dishes, because why make one when you can make two at the same time?  I can get about six very generous portions from this lot, so it could feed eight (my mini-pie dishes are actually not very mini really, they would feed two).  Freeze what you don’t use, it keeps very well & you can always keep a stash in reserve for evenings when you just don’t fancy cooking.

What you need:

500g Stewing Meat – I prefer beef, but you can use whatever you like (adjust which herbs you use accordingly)
2-3 Onions
4 Carrots
2 Parsnips
(you can use whatever root veg you like here – if you don’t like carrots, use something you do like)
12 Baby Potatoes (I usually have a few leftover in the fridge from other meals)
1 punnet of Mushrooms
A handful of fresh Thyme sprigs
Gravy Powder & water (I usually use 6 heaped spoonfuls to a pint & half of cold water per casserole dish)
Freshly ground Black Pepper
25cl Beer (one of those small, dumpy bottles is plenty)

How to do it:

Preheat the oven to 150*C.  Put the grill tray in the bottom of the oven, to catch any spills (if you follow my instructions though, there shouldn’t be any, but it’s best to be prepared).  Move the shelf to the lowest setting in the oven.

You will need two casserole dishes with lids, just the regular sized ones should do.

Divide the meat up equally between the dishes, removing any gristle or excess fat (slight marbling of fat in the meat is fine, because that will cook out & adds flavour, but anything else can be removed).  Use scissors for this – it’s so much easier that chasing a slippery chunk of meat around a chopping board with a sharp knife!

Prepare the vegetables – peel, top & tail the carrots, onions & parsnips.  Dice the onions.  Chop the other veg into bite sized pieces – I usually cut them down the centre lengthways, then again & chop them into pieces.  Share them between the two casserole dishes.

Leave the peel on the potatoes, just wash them.  Cut them the same way as the carrots, quartered lengthways, then chop into bite sized pieces.  Again, share equally between the dishes.

Clean the mushrooms by wiping them with a damp cloth to remove any grit or dirt.  If you’re using Chanterelle mushrooms, use a pastry brush instead to flick out any bits of dirt.  Cut into pieces or leave them whole if small enough, then share between each casserole dish.

For each dish, make up a pint of gravy as per the instructions on the packet (I used Bisto Gravy Powder because it was in my cupboard, but it’s your personal choice).  You could use fresh stock here if you prefer, or a stock cube.  I prefer the powder, as it also seasons the stew perfectly – no need to add any salt.

Share the bottle of beer between the dishes.  Stir everything together & make sure the liquid covers everything.  The mushrooms will float for now.  Season with the black pepper to your taste, then stir in.  Add the sprigs of Thyme, just plonk them on the top.

Put the lids on, put the dishes in the oven & forget about them for a couple of hours – it takes about three hours in total for a good stew to cook, as all the lovely ingredients slowly infuse the gravy.

After a couple of hours, take the dishes out of the oven & give them a stir, put the lids back on & bake for another hour.

The stew should be cooked after that, so take the dishes out & give them a stir.  Taste the stew, try not to burn your mouth (we’ve all done it!) & test the meat.  It should melt in the mouth, so if it’s still a bit firm, pop it back in the oven for half an hour to an hour.  I usually cook my stew for about four hours, as it just intensifies the flavour & the meat falls to pieces beautifully.

Once it’s cooked, place the stews on a cooling rack or thick wooden chopping board.  Using a fork & spoon, fish out the Thyme twigs & discard them – the leaves will have gone into the stew.  If you want to thicken your gravy, my tip here is to strain some off from each pot, about half a pint each, then heat it up in a saucepan while stirring.  This thickens it up nicely, without going like treacle.  Then pour it back into each pot, stirring into the meat & veg, before serving in huge bowls with lots of fresh, thick cut bread to mop up the gravy.

If you’re making pies, do this to the gravy just before serving, so it’s ready to pour over the lovely pastry once they are cooked.  Use a nice, rich pastry (see my article “Good Pie, the Blackberry Way” for the recipe) & decorate it as you like (3.14 is actually pi – it’s a little pi(e) pun I have with my Husband!).  I have also frozen batches of this gravy for Sunday lunches (again, sometimes you just can’t be bothered & lazy lunches really are the best).  Pour the cold gravy into plastic zip bags or tubs, then freeze (double bag it if you’re worried about leaks).

This sumptuous staple will make all kinds of dishes, not just pies or pasties.  Try making a savoury crumble with butter & flour, add a little grated cheese & sprinkle generously on top before baking in a hot oven, or roughly dollop mashed potatoes across the top instead & chuck on some chunky breadcrumbs, grated Parmesan & a little Oregano.  For an elegant evening supper, why not make filo parcels with a spoonful of stew inside, squish the edges up together, brush with melted butter & bake!

So embrace Autumn & all it’s edible treasures, maybe indulging in a big bowl of steamy hot stew, snuggled up on the sofa, with a few slabs of crusty buttered bread & a glass of red wine. Sometimes, the simple stuff is the best.  A x