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

 

Aisha’s Amazing Kick-Ass Curry!

We can always tell when Autumn is well & truly on it’s way. The nights are drawing in, the leaves are beginning to turn into an array of vivid rouge & rust coloured hues, the crisp sunny mornings have arrived & the students are back at Uni. I have fond memories of University, although I left with a Husband instead of a degree (totally unexpected but pretty awesome!). As a mature student & single Mum in those days, I had a few struggles & one of them was making my food budget stretch. My son was only five at the time & we were renting a tiny “two up, two down” house in an old part of town, without many luxuries. I’m not talking warm Prosecco here – I had lost my home, ex-husband, job & finally my car, all within seven days & ended up sleeping on a kind person’s spare room floor.

So, I picked myself up & dusted myself down, found somewhere to rent, decided to enrol at Uni & get my life back on track (sort of!). The house was basic, but home: I slept fully clothed on an inflatable bed that would deflate during the night, there was no heating (the only gas fire was condemned) & we didn’t have a fridge, until my parents bought me one for my birthday (we kept milk cold in the sink). But it was paradise compared to how it could have been & we made the best of it. One of my dearest friends gave me a huge microwave & I managed to acquire an oven, so at least I could cook! I don’t want pity or anything (others have gone through much worse) & I’m not even sure I should be sharing such a personal experience, but my love for cooking became more important during this time, making me very resourceful & creative, giving me the opportunity to develop some of my best recipes.

It was at this little rented house that I met my fabulous neighbours, a lovely young couple who had the most beautiful baby girl, Aisha. Her Mum & I would chat about recipes, food & family. This curry was the result of those afternoon chats & is named in honour of Aisha & her Mum. It’s a firm favourite with my guys & I have shared it with several friends over the years too. It is inexpensive, easy to make & very flavoursome, plus it makes great spicy wraps the next day (if there are any leftovers!).

What you need:

4 Chicken Legs or 8 Thighs (skin on & bone in) or 2 Chicken Breasts, cut into thin strips
1 large Red Onion, sliced thinly
2 Peppers, deseeded & thinly sliced
1 tin Chopped Tomatoes (save the tin to measure water in)
1 chunk of Fresh Ginger (about 2 inches should do)
4 cloves Garlic
Half a teaspoon of Cayenne
2 teaspoons each of Cumin, Turmeric & Coriander (I prefer leaf, but you can use ground here)
2 tablespoons of Vegetable or Olive Oil (I use whatever’s in the pantry at the time)

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 180*C.

Prepare the spices & mix together in a small cup, ready for adding later.

Peel & grate the ginger, chop the garlic & slice the onion.

Heat the oil in a large frying pan or skillet. If you are using chicken legs/thighs, you need to seal the meat first, so fry for a couple of minutes on either side until the skin is browned & the flesh is opaque underneath. Set aside in a large casserole dish with a lid on.

Add the spices (be careful you don’t breathe it in though – stand back when you do this) & stir well. If it looks a bit dry, add a little more oil to loosen it up.

If using chicken breast, add this now & stir fry until opaque on all sides, mixing well with everything in the pan.

Add the peppers & stir fry everything for a couple of minutes to completely combine all the spices.

Add a tin of chopped tomatoes & half a tin of cold water. Mix well & cook for a couple of minutes, until it is bubbling away nicely (avoid splashes though – turmeric stains worktops & this sauce is hotter than the surface of the sun!).

Transfer to the casserole dish, pouring all over the chicken legs & ensuring they are completely covered in the sauce. Put the lid on & bake in the oven: chicken legs should need about 30-40 minutes, until the meat is tender & falling off the bone; chicken strips should need about 20 minutes max.

If using chicken strips, you can always cook it in the frying pan/skillet on the stove, because they don’t need much cooking. With chicken legs, to test if they are cooked through insert a skewer into the thickest part & if the juices run clear, it’s cooked. If not, pop it back for another 10 minutes.

While the curry is in the oven, cook some rice as per the instructions on the packet (maybe pop a couple of cardamom pods in the water) & make some flatbreads – I’ve been making some from a recipe my Mum gave me recently from a magazine. They take five minutes from start to finish, so you’ve got plenty of time to make them!

What you need:

8oz Self-Raising Flour (or 8oz Plain with 4 teaspoons of Baking Powder), plus a bit extra for rolling out
100ml cold Water
1 tablespoon Olive or Vegetable Oil, plus a little more for frying
2 cloves Garlic, finely chopped (optional)

What to do:

Clean out the skillet you just used – you’re going to fry these breads in it.

In a bowl or food processor, mix all the ingredients together to form a soft dough. Split into four equal sized balls & dust with a little flour.

Heat the skillet/frying pan & add a sprinkling of oil (you only need a little bit) – it needs to be quite hot.

Take each dough ball & roll it out in a little flour until very thin, shaping it into an oval shape as you do (mine are usually random shapes though, so it doesn’t really matter if you don’t).

Place two in the pan & cook for about 2-3 minutes each side, turning carefully so they don’t break up.

Once cooked, transfer to a cooling rack or chopping board until ready to serve. If you want them to stay soft, wrap individually in a bit of foil until you’re ready to serve. That way, you can chuck them back in the oven to warm up while you’re dishing up the curry & rice.

Serve straight from the casserole dish or skillet, with a dollop of cool Greek yoghurt mixed with a few finely chopped fresh mint leaves, along with the garlic flatbreads. The fresh ginger gives the curry plenty of kick, so I will warn you to have a glass of ice cold beer nearby (or milk).

Any leftovers make great lunch wraps the next day too – chop some salad up, add a little curry & a splodge of the yoghurt, then fold. No waste, plus you made your own bread in minutes to mop up that sauce!

Whether you’re studying hard or hardly studying, I hope you like Aisha’s Kick-Ass Curry as much as we do. Share with friends & add a little spice to your life!  A x