Comforting Conchiglioni, the Cold Conqueror!

January is always a bit of a fresh month, both in weather & starts.  The freshness outside at “OMG it’s early!” was a bit bracing this morning, as we were driving through a downpour in the darkness.  Fresh starts are also being encouraged – every which way you look, there are adverts for skinny salads, sugar-free snacks & fat-free fodder, none of which help when it’s freezing cold & you need a decent dinner to warm you through!  As you probably know, I don’t do diets & a bit of lettuce & a rice cake won’t give you much energy, especially in this weather!   It’s all about balance & there are plenty of other things to make life dull – food should definitely not be one of them!

On our morning drive, my Husband & I always discuss dinner before I drop him off – it’s a sort of ritual we have & the anticipation of what I’m cooking builds during the day, making dinner that much more enticing.  Pasta is undeniably one of my favourite foods!  It’s easy to prepare & a pleasure to eat, especially when it’s crammed full of flavoursome fillings or dressed in a rich, sumptuous sauce, or both!  When I discovered these pretty pasta shells on a random shopping trip some years ago, I had already decided what kind of fillings I would make, the sauce, the herbs, everything – all before reaching the checkout!  Now I appreciate not everyone gets excited by a bag of pasta (I have a dedicated pasta shelf in the pantry), but they inspired me to create something wholesome & filling – proper rib-sticking, colourful comfort food to warm you on a chilly day like today, without taking all day to make.  This recipe for Stuffed Conchiglioni is something we enjoy making together as a family & definitely eating together!  They can be made in advance & the best bit is there’s going to be plenty of leftovers for lunches (hot or cold) & maybe a couple of pots for the freezer, for those “can’t be bothered” nights.  So here goes – hands washed & aprons on!

What you need:

500g of dried Conchiglioni (1.1lb)
400g of Full Fat Cream Cheese (the good stuff – check it’s not got locust bean gum in it – that’s not cheese) or use Ricotta if you like
4-6 slices of day old bread, whizzed into breadcrumbs
400g packet of Bacon (smoked or unsmoked), trimmed of fat & cut into about 1cm pieces (use scissors for this & make your life a bit easier)
1 large Red Onion, topped, tailed & finely chopped
1 ball of Mozzarella
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Dried Oregano
Sea Salt (for the pasta water)

For the Sauce:

4 tins of Italian Plum Tomatoes
Half a bulb of fresh Garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon of Tomato Puree
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Basil (fresh or dried)
Freshly ground Black Pepper
Pinch of Sea Salt
2 teaspoons of Sugar

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 200*C.  Heat a large skillet or frying pan, add a drizzle of the olive oil.

Chuck in the chopped onion & bacon pieces, stir fry for a few minutes, keeping the onion moving so that it doesn’t catch & burn.  If any liquid forms around the bacon, simply strain it off & discard.  Add a little more olive oil if needed.  Once cooked, leave to cool for a few minutes.

Tip the breadcrumbs into a large mixing bowl, along with the cream cheese.  Add the fried bacon & onion, mixing thoroughly to create a lovely thick stuffing.  Cover the bowl with a plate & leave while your pasta cooks.

Put the kettle on to boil the water for your conchiglioni (it saves time doing it this way).

Add a teaspoon of sea salt in the bottom of a large saucepan – it needs to be big enough to hold the pasta & water easily, so try it out dry before you put the water in.  Pour in the water & reboil the kettle if you need more – you should have enough water to reach two thirds of the way up the pan.  Use your judgement here – you’re going to have to lift this lot up, so make sure you can take the weight or cook it in two separate pans if you’re not sure.

Carefully tip in the pasta & give it a good stir with a wooden spoon.  Bring to a rolling boil, stirring occasionally to separate the shells & cook according to the instructions on the pack.

When your conchiglioni are cooked, they should still have some firmness to them & hold their shape.  Strain into a colander & sit it over the saucepan.  Put to one side to cool for a few minutes, ready for stuffing!

In a large casserole or lasagne dish, drizzle a little olive oil & smudge it all over the inside of the dish (this stops your pasta from sticking).  You might want to prep another, slightly smaller dish for any extra shells (OK, there are always extra shells, trust me on this).

Then get yourself a teaspoon, your stuffing mixture (& any glamorous assistants you might have to help you) & start stuffing!  Scoop a teaspoonful of the stuffing into each shell, being careful not to overfill them (they will just overflow).  My technique is to take a shell in my hand, then gently pinch the top & bottom together, opening up the middle nicely to fill.

Lay each stuffed shell in the prepared dish, then carry on stuffing until you’ve filled them all.  At this point, you can cover them in cling film & put them in the fridge until you want to eat them – they will keep until the next day.

Now to make the sauce!  Although this isn’t our family recipe, it’s a close one & tastes just as jammy.  Usually, I have this blipping away in the background while I’m stuffing.

Into a large saucepan, heat a tablespoon of olive oil & add the garlic.  Gently fry for a few seconds, then slowly add the tomatoes & their juice, giving them a good stir around & breaking up any large pieces (or you can just squish them in your hands before you put them in the pan).

Add the tomato puree, the sugar & seasoning to taste (you won’t need much salt, so go easy on this).  Add a couple of teaspoons of dried Basil (or rip up about half a dozen leaves of fresh & chuck them in).  Give everything a good stir & reduce to a gentle simmer for about half an hour with a lid loosely on, stirring occasionally.

Once cooked, the sauce should have thickened & reduced slightly, so give it a stir & a quick taste – it should be darker, rich & really lovely!  Adjust the seasoning if you need to.

Spoon your sauce generously all over the stuffed shells, making sure they are just covered & no bits are peeking out.  Dot chunks of Mozzarella all over the top & add a sprinkling of dried Oregano.

Then bake it in the centre of the oven for about 20-25 minutes, until the cheese becomes gorgeously golden & the sauce bubbles up all around the edges (put a tray underneath to catch any drips).

Remove from the oven & let them rest for a couple of minutes (that sauce will be hotter than the sun).  Get some fresh, crusty bread, get everyone to the table & get stuck in!   Usually, my guys magically appear in the kitchen while I’m dishing up, grabbing a slice of warm bread to munch on & dunking it in the sauce.

These gorgeous conchiglioni can be crammed with whatever you fancy – try chopped spinach with ricotta & pine nuts, or sundried tomato & sausage, or maybe swap silky cheese sauce for the tomato & dust with a little grated Grana Padana.

So next time you feel the chill on a dull day, whip up some colourful, comforting Conchiglioni!  Stay hungry 😉 A x

 

Freezing Your Assets!

Autumn is now well underway – the clocks have gone back, the darker nights are drawing in & the bright mornings have a frosty freshness in the air, meaning it’s that time of year when we begin craving proper, rib-sticking comfort food.  Everyone has their favourite suppertime stodge, whether it’s a rich roast dinner or luscious layers of cheesy lasagne, but not everyone has the time when they get home.

Working full time, different shifts or having a jam-packed day can mean that time is limited when it comes to preparing a home-cooked meal.  Whilst shopping at one of my favourite supermarkets on Tuesday morning, I had a similar conversation at the till, as I talked about making a week’s worth of stew & biscotti (hello to the lovely lady who served me!).  This is where a bit of “stealth cooking” helps, taking the pressure off by preparing a few items in advance & keeping a stash in the freezer for when you need them.  If you cook a little bit extra every mealtime, you’ll be more prepared than a Scout!

Once a month, I like to make a few meals for week-nights, so that when we get home we can pop them in the oven & relax.  Everything is ready, there’s very little washing up & we get to eat fuss-free good food.  Making a huge steak, ale & mushroom stew at the weekend, then freezing it in individual pots means instant pie filling anytime!  Just take a couple out of the freezer to defrost in the morning, then knock up a bit of pastry when you get home & bake in the oven for a speedy version of a  slow-cooked, sumptuous pie.  Simple mashed potatoes can be wonderfully warming too when the seasons start to cool & having a few tubs in the freezer is always handy.  My tip is to make a huge batch (at least double), then leave to go cold before dividing into separate two-portion tubs for freezing – there’s no point in cooking a small amount when you can make plenty with a little extra effort!  It  just takes a few minutes to reheat in the oven or microwave & also doubles up as pie lids for delicious stews (even more lazy!).

For fast mash, just wash, peel & slice thinly a 2kg bag of potatoes (keep the peelings for later) – I use a food processor if I’m short of time.  Pour just enough boiling water over to cover them, add a sprinkling of sea salt & simmer until cooked (obviously, I have to do this in the microwave, because at the time of writing I still don’t have a hob that I can use – week six!).  The reason I slice the potatoes thinly is because they cook so much faster & I really have better things to do than stand around watching pans boil.  If you don’t have a food processor, just slice them by hand or chop into small chunks.  It shaves a bit off the cooking time (always a bonus!) & makes a smoother mash.

Once cooked, drain & tip them back into the pan (or casserole dish if you’ve microwaved them).  Add a generous chunk of butter, a couple of tablespoons of cream cheese, about 2oz of grated cheese & get mashing!  Serve some immediately & leave the rest to cool, before freezing in double portion pots.

If you want to cheese up your mash a bit more, butter the inside of a casserole dish, tip the cheesy mashed potatoes in (fresh or defrosted) & spread roughly, making sure you get into all the corners.  Sprinkle liberally with even more  cheese, then grate half a crust of bread over the top – fine or chunky, whatever you prefer.  Dust with a good pinch of dried Oregano, then bake it in the oven at 200*C for about 10 minutes.  The cheesy crumb topping will go all golden & crispy, with fluffy, buttery, cheese infused mash underneath.  Dish up & dig in!

Remember to keep your potato peelings, along with any carrot or parsnip ones & make homemade crisps out of them – it’s like free treats & no waste!  Simply spread them on a baking tray & drizzle olive oil on top, along with a good dusting of sea salt & freshly ground black pepper, then bake at 200*C for about 15-20 minutes, turning them mid-way.  Once crispy, tip them into a metal sieve to shake off any excess oil, then pop onto some kitchen paper & serve.  Add a bit more seasoning if you like, maybe a splash of balsamic vinegar too.  They’re great for munching while you’re catching up on your emails or watching a film (they also disappear rather quickly, which is why there’s no picture).

One of my favourite lazy ways to cook mash is to make miniature jacket potatoes & chuck them in the food processor afterwards.  Carefully slide a few raw baby potatoes on a metal skewer & pop them in the oven at 200*C for about 25-30 minutes (no baking tray required).  The metal skewers cook them from the inside as they heat up (I use this method for larger potatoes too – just use two skewers per potato).  Once cooked, slide them off the skewers & put them on a board to cool for a couple of minutes.  Put them in the food processor, along with a chunk of salted butter & a dusting of freshly ground black pepper, then whizz them up, crispy skins & all!  If you like, add a splash of milk to make them creamy.  Then tip into a small casserole or pie dish, grate cheese over the top & put back in the oven for five minutes to give it a nice crunchy cheesy topping.

If you’re really organised, next time you make stew just freeze a few ladles of gravy in a tub or zipped freezer bag & defrost it when you fancy proper gravy.   If anyone checked out my freezer, they would find an icy treasure trove of ingredients & delightful dishes.  I’ve always got a few bags of berries for puddings, plus some sweet crumble topping (I usually make extra just to keep in reserve).  There are bags of breadcrumbs, portions of lasagne, meatballs, homemade garlic & bacon butter, along with generous pots of cauliflower cheese, mashed potatoes, chicken stock, random rashers of smoked bacon & homemade gravy.   If you add to that the pizzas & chicken dishes I’ve made too, like kievs & cacciatore, it’s like my own little freezer shop at home!

By cooking just one extra portion of food for each meal & freezing it, you’re giving yourself time to do other things, even if it is just putting your feet up with a glass of wine in the evening.  The best bit is you can also share the cooking with the rest of the family – get yourself an eye liner pencil & write cooking instructions on each tub (being careful not to smudge them) before freezing – it sets in the freezer & washes off afterwards too, so it doesn’t spoil your tubs.  Then everyone can cook a proper, homemade meal & you can relax in the knowledge that your evenings are your own.  Stay hungry 😉 A x

 

 

 

 

 

The Blanket Banquet Three Ps: Plan, Prep & Picnic!

It doesn’t need to be a fabulous Summer weekend to enjoy a perfect picnic, it just needs to be fabulous.   Contrary to popular belief, I don’t spend days in the kitchen packing up a feast full of moreish munchies.  It’s all about the three Ps:  planning, preparation & picnic!  With a bit of clever organising, you can pack up a portable party & be out of the door in no time.

First thing to do is the planning.  Most people (including me) don’t have a hamper or an ice box for picnics, but obviously we all want our treats to arrive cool, fresh & full of flavour.  What I do have though is a couple of those freezer blocks/bricks (I always have at least two in the freezer, ready to go) & a few padded freezer food shopping bags from my local supermarket.   This also ensures that everyone can help carry the food & nobody is left lugging a huge ice box behind them.  No freezer blocks?  That’s easy – just stick a bottle of lemonade in the bottom of the fridge overnight to act as a cooling aid in the bag!  Mini plastic bottles can be frozen, but the liquid expands as it freezes, so tip a little out of each before doing that or you’ll have to do some cleaning up before you go!    Don’t forget to put cups, cutlery & condiments in a separate bag too – wrap them up in a couple of tea-towels to pad them out & avoid breakages.  This can all be done the night before, ready to go.

Whatever you can do the day before, do it.  Because I bake bread most days, I’ve usually got a couple of baguettes or focaccia & slice them before we go, so they can be filled when we get there – no pre-made sandwiches taking up your time.  If there’s any leftover pizza (I’m being optimistic here), that gets sliced, wrapped & put into the picnic bag.  I’ll also pop in a couple of jars of “sandwich enhancers” too – olives, sundried tomatoes, roasted peppers, that sort of thing.  Then I’ll chuck in a selection of our favourite foods: salads, cream cheese (great for spreading or dipping), a couple of mozzarella balls, some sliced ham, spicy breaded chicken strips (I make these in huge batches so there are always leftovers), cooked pasta & pretty much whatever I’ve got stashed in the fridge, along with a jar of my homemade tomato sauce.  Although I make this sauce for pasta, it’s perfect as a dip or relish & I’ve usually got a couple of jars in the fridge (OK, at least four).  Anything that needs slicing or chopping, do it now & put it in a bag or a container.  You don’t want to be trying to cut up a tomato on a wonky blanket!  One thing I do bring along is a nice dessert or pudding, usually a few cupcakes or slices of fruit pie – individually portioned & wrapped, so no messing about when we get there.

That’s the planning, now for the preparation!  Everyone likes a nice cold beverage & obviously ice doesn’t travel well, so if you like your drinks chilled, this can be a problem – nobody likes a warm drink on a hot Summer’s day (unless it’s a cup of tea!).  One of my favourite solutions is to use frozen fruit instead – strawberries, raspberries, cherries, blackberries, anything I can get my hands on!  Just before you set off en route to your picnic, put a box of frozen fruit in the bag with a freezer block underneath them.  This should keep them cold for a couple of hours.  Then when you pour your drink, pop a couple of frozen fruit pieces in your glass for instant chill!  Plus, you can eat them when they’ve done their job & defrosted (we all love a bit of multi-tasking!).  Don’t just use berries though – freeze thin slices of fruit like peaches, pineapple, lemons, limes, oranges, apples, even cucumber (yes, it’s a fruit!).  Or try a couple of frozen grapes plopped into a glass of Pinot Grigio.  This time of year is great for blackberries – freeze them in a single layer on a tray, then once frozen you can pile them into a plastic tub with a lid on, ready in the freezer for whenever you want a few!  Create you own frozen fruity flavours & enjoy their colourful combinations.

Now you all know I enjoy finding ways to use everything up & have very little food waste.  Here’s a lovely little snack to make the day before & add to your picnic.  Do you peel your carrots, potatoes & parsnips, then throw the peelings out or compost them?  Why not turn them into healthy homemade crisps instead (no waste & free snacks – what’s not to love?).  Before you peel your veg, wash them thoroughly beforehand, making sure you trim any bad bits off.  Drizzle a little olive oil onto a baking tray – don’t be stingy, this oil will add flavour.  Lay your peelings onto the oiled tray, ensuring they are well coated all over.  Sprinkle on some sea salt & a little freshly ground black pepper, then bake them in the oven at 200*C for about 15-20 minutes until crispy (depending on how many you make).  You can shake them halfway through cooking if you think they need it.  Once cooked, pop them on some kitchen paper on a cooling rack until cooled or tip into a metal sieve, then put them in an airtight container until you need them.  Have a taste & add a bit more seasoning if you like – take some vinegar with you to sprinkle on them just before eating too.  These taste great on their own or dipped in cream cheese or salsa.  Not bad for something we would usually chuck in the composter!

Want more oven baked goodies?  How about some really easy, low fat, low fuss onion rings.  These can go in the oven at the same time as the crisps, just to make things easier.  Get yourself a couple of big onions, top & tail them, peel the outer skin off, then slice them thickly.  Separate all the layers, keeping the rings whole if you can (although you really won’t care once you taste how good they are!).  Beat a large egg in a bowl, then put the onion rings in the egg & toss around to coat them thoroughly (I will warn you, this smells awful at this stage).  In another bowl, tip a couple of tablespoons of plain flour, add a pinch of sea salt & black pepper to season, then stir well.  Chuck in the egg coated onion rings, a handful at a time & toss around in the seasoned flour, making sure they are completely coated.  Shake off the excess & lay them on an oiled baking tray.  Drizzle on a little more olive oil & bake in the oven at 200*C for about 15-20 minutes, turning over half way through to ensure they are crispy on each side.  Once out of the oven, let them cool before stashing them in an airtight container to eat later!  They’re lovely hot or cold, naked or dipped, plus all the flaky crispy bits leftover on the baking tray taste so good sprinkled on a salad (bonus gift!).  These gorgeous onion snacks go very well with a tub of Greek yoghurt to dip them in (mayonnaise is lovely, but I like the slight sourness of the yoghurt).

Once you’ve devoured your fabulous feast, there’s the little problem of sticky hands & fingers, but I’ve got a simple solution for that & it’s re-usable.  This  was originally something I saw on a random TV show one afternoon as an addition for packed lunches, but it works equally brilliantly for picnics too.  What you need is a packet of those small washing up sponges (without the scratchy side), a large fresh lemon (sliced thinly), a few sandwich bags with little handles & some room in the freezer (I always forget this bit & end up on my knees in front of the freezer, trying to rearrange everything like some sort of frozen Jenga!).

Run a sponge under the cold tap & squeeze out the excess water, but leave it quite moist.  Put a slice or two of lemon on top (lemon is a natural de-greaser) & put the whole thing in a sandwich bag.   Tie the little handles to seal the bag (try to remove any air without squeezing the sponge) & pop in the freezer overnight.  The next day, put one of these little bags in with the picnic for each person – not only will it keep the food lovely & cool, but once defrosted it will also act as a refreshing wipe after they’ve eaten!  No more greasy, sticky little mitts – just fresh, lemon-scented clean hands (you’re welcome!).  Plus you can re-use them as I mentioned – simply wash them in warm soapy water when you get home, rinse well, repeat the steps above (replacing the lemon with fresh slices) & they’re ready to be used again – much better than a one-use wet wipe!

Finally, all that’s left to do is the last P – picnic!  So don’t panic over your picnic pack up – just follow the three Ps & you’ll have a blanket banquet to remember!  A 🙂 x

 

 

 

Grate Expectations

Apparently, so my sources tell me, Italian Cheese Week is being celebrated from 15-22 June 2017 (like I need an excuse!).  So, in honour of all things cheesy, I decided to share a couple of really easy recipes for you that I’ve picked up over the years.

There are a few things I like to have a good stock of & cheese is one of them.  As with my pasta shelf, I also have a cheese shelf in the fridge (yes, really).  Grana Padana, Gorgonzola (preferably Dolce, but I don’t mind a bit of Picante), Mozzarella, Mascarpone, Ricotta, Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan) & usually a bit of mild Cheddar all live happily together (albeit in diminished quantities by the end of the week).  And there’s always at least one tub of proper, full-fat cream cheese too.   As you all know, cream cheese goes with pretty much anything – mix with a splodge of pesto to make a creamy pasta sauce or, if you’re feeling naughty, it’s really nice spread thickly on a digestive biscuit with a dollop of raspberry jam on top (don’t judge me, try it – it’s addictive though!).  Recently, I’ve been a bit unhappy with my usual brand of creamy cheesiness – because according to it’s list of ingredients, it’s more fillers than actual cheese (locust bean gum anyone? No, didn’t think so) & therefore I have switched to another brand.  It always pays to read the back of a packet, because if like me you want a pure product for a specific recipe, you need to know that’s what you’re getting.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been making my own Ricotta cheese – thanks to the lovely Gennaro Contaldo’s recipe in “Gennaro’s Italian Year” (which was given to me by my guys & like them, it is very much loved!).  Now before you all start going “ooh!  that must be really difficult!”, it’s not.  All you need is a few pints of milk, some fresh lemon juice & a big saucepan (I use my pasta pan, which is pretty huge).  It takes a few minutes to bring the milk to the boil, then just take it off the heat for roughly 30 seconds before repeating the process a couple of times.  Finally, put it back on the heat & squeeze in the lemon juice, bring it back up to the boil & turn it off.   Then give it a stir – it will separate into curds (the cheese) & whey (the cloudy looking liquid). Tip it into a sieve & leave it to stand over bowl, so that the liquid drains away & as if by magic, you are left with a lovely soft cheese.  While that’s cooling, I’ll whizz up some wilted spinach in the food processor with a few pine nuts (untoasted), a little lemon zest, a spoonful of my favourite full-fat cream cheese (just because I like it) & a shake of sea salt & black pepper.  It’s then mashed up with the ricotta, before I pop the lot into a piping bag, ready to fill my favourite ravioli!

Sometimes (quite often), I will have a little leftover pasta & the lovely cheesy mixture, so I like to ladle some of my homemade tomato sauce into individual dishes, then layer up the lasagne sheets with alternating fillings of piped cheese & tomato sauce.

Adorn the top layer with a few ripped pieces of Mozzarella, a grating of Parmesan & a pinch of Oregano, then bake for 15-20 minutes at 200*C until everything is bubbling up around the edges & the cheese is crispy & golden on top.  They make a tasty simple starter or a light lunch, served with a gorgeous green salad.

And now, my pièce de résistance: cheese biscuits.  These are probably one of the easiest things to make – you just chuck everything in a bowl & squish it together.  It’s great for using up all those random leftover bits of cheese that seem to congregate at the back of the fridge.

What you need:

8oz grated mixed cheese, at room temperature (I use 80% medium Cheddar, then 10% each of grated Parmesan & Grana Padana, depending on what I’ve got in the fridge)
8oz plain flour
8oz salted butter, at room temperature
1 teaspoon sea salt
Half a teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Half a teaspoon English mustard (the pre-made type, not the powder)
Quarter of a teaspoon of cayenne
Optional:  a teaspoon of fennel or poppy seeds

How to do it:

Pre-heat the oven to 200*C & line a couple of trays with sheets of greaseproof paper (unless you want to do lots of washing up later, lining your trays this way will mean that you simply lift the paper out after cooking & transfer to a cooling rack, leaving clean trays – you’re welcome!).

Mix the cheese & butter together in a bowl with the mustard – use a spatula or the back of a wooden spoon to make it into a smooth type of thick paste.

Mix the dry ingredients together & slowly add to the cheese & butter, stirring well to form a soft, pliable cheesy dough.

On a lightly floured work surface, take a third of the dough & carefully roll it out to about half a centimetre thick.  Using a palette knife, slide this under the rolled out dough to ensure it is not stuck to the worktop & add a little more flour underneath, if need be.

Cut into shapes – either use small cookie cutters or slice into finger length strips, just create whatever you like!  Lift them onto the lined baking trays, leaving about an inch gap all around (they will not grow too much) & then repeat the above, until you have used up all the dough.

Bake in the centre of the oven for about 16-18 minutes, until they are lightly golden, then transfer to a cooling rack & remove from the greaseproof paper.

Once cooled, either eat them as they are, top with various cheeses as a snack, or make into canapes to go with pre-dinner drinks!  These crisp little bites of melt-in-the-mouth moreishness have just the right amount of kick too – the heat sneaks up on your tongue, so be warned!

Here’s to a “grate” week of cheesy delights!  Stay hungry 😉  A x