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

 

 

 

 

 

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