Having a Ball!

After a rather hectic week, the weekend should be a relaxing affair with good friends, good food & a few good rays of sunshine!  Last week was no exception & seeing as my Husband was working over the weekend, it was nice to cook a simple Sunday dinner of rush-free, rustic fayre instead of a roast.  Sundays are perfect for making slow-cooked, sumptuous food & one of the best ways to get the whole family involved is a recipe that you can all make together.

Meatballs are perfect for this kind of lazy day & my Meatballs Casalinga (Polpette alla Casalinga) recipe is one I’ve been making for a long time, sharing various versions over the years with friends & family.  I’ve also made them in some unusual places (at the side of a riverbank while fishing & cooking them on a barbeque, next to foil-wrapped trout).  This recipe first began over thirty seven years ago when I was at school & evolved into the one I make today.  It is something I suspect would be considered as “cucina povera”, as it is quite a hearty dish made from a few simple ingredients, doesn’t cost much to make & will feed quite a few people easily!  They freeze well too & are great on baguettes for lunches (that’s if there are any leftovers – good luck with that!).

What I love most about making meatballs is they are really easy, you can’t mess up the recipe (there are three ingredients) & everyone can get involved.  When my guys are all home, we enjoy cooking together & it’s a nice chance to catch up on each other’s news while we’re standing around the mixing bowl, making meatballs & usually a mess (it also means they are done in less time than it would take me to make them on my own).  Because they are baked, it means you only have the pasta & sauce pans to watch too.

Sometimes I’ll use dried spaghetti as a swirly, silky cushion of plump pasta for the meatballs to sit on & sometimes I’ll make my own fresh (making your own pasta can be addictive, so be warned!).  Fresh pasta takes five minutes to knead & then needs half an hour to rest in the fridge, before rolling & cutting into shapes.  Before you start to panic about making your own pasta, it’s really easy & I’ve written a whole blog on this – here’s the link:  https://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/pasta-parcels/ .  Pasta machines have their own spaghetti cutters that slot into place at the front of the roller, so all the cutting is done for you at the turn of a handle!  Any extra pasta can be dried & stored for future use.  Even if you don’t have a pasta machine, you can roll it out thinly & cut into strips – make your own tagliatelle or papparadelle ribbons!  Get creative with your pasta & make whatever shapes you prefer.

Now while the pasta is being prepped & before the balling begins, I like to start making a rich, jammy tomato sauce & I’ve usually got a huge pan of this blipping away in the background.  Forget shop-bought jars of sauce with unpronounceable ingredients, unless you are using a jar of Passata (sieved tomatoes), then this one will sort you out & it won’t take long to make.  It is probably one of the most versatile sauces you will ever make & goes with pretty much everything!  Although this isn’t our family recipe, it’s a close one & tastes just as jammy.  Here we go!

What you need 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:

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 just a pinch will do).  Add a couple of teaspoons of dried Basil (or rip up about half a dozen leaves of fresh & chuck them in, don’t worry about chopping).  Give everything a good stir & reduce to a gentle simmer for about 25-30 minutes with a lid half on, stirring occasionally.

Once cooked, the sauce should have thickened & reduced slightly, so give it a stir & a quick taste.  Adjust the seasoning if you need to, taste again & when you’re happy turn off the heat & set aside, lid half on the pan (you don’t want the steam to add any more moisture to your sauce).  It should stay warm, but you can reheat it gently if you feel it needs it.

Time to get rolling the meatballs, so hands washed & aprons on!

What you need for the Meatballs:

500g Minced Beef (don’t go too lean, as a little fat will add flavour)
(traditionally you would use half Beef, half Pork, so use what meat you prefer)
1 large Onion (Red or Brown is fine), chopped finely or minced
6 slices Bread, whizzed into fine breadcrumbs
3oz Plain Flour
Extra Virgin Olive Oil

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 200*C.

In a shallow bowl (or casserole dish lid), tip the flour & spread it around the dish.

Grab a large plate & dust with flour – this is where your prepared meatballs will rest until you’re ready to cook them.

In a separate large mixing bowl, add the mince, breadcrumbs & onion.  If you’re wondering why I’m not adding any seasoning to them, it’s because there’s plenty in the sauce.

Get your hands in & squish everything together.  This is not a time to be squeamish & it will be cold, but you want to mix everything evenly into a huge ball of meat dough.  You may want to wash your hands again now, before the next stage.

Dust your hands in a little flour & scoop some of the meatball mixture up, about the size of a walnut.  Give it a roll in your hands, gently pressing the mixture together as you do so – don’t compact it though, otherwise you’ll end up with a tough meatball that won’t cook & will resemble a large marble!

Once you’re happy with your meatball shape, roll it in the flour dish then pick it up, give it a shake to remove excess flour & place on the plate you prepared earlier.  Repeat until all the mixture has been turned into meatballs & your plate is full.

In a large skillet or frying pan, heat a tablespoon of the olive oil.  Add a few meatballs at a time to the hot pan & roll around to coat them in the oil.  Brown for a few moments, about 30 seconds or so, moving them around so they don’t sit for too long (you want an even colouring).  Transfer to a ovenproof dish (a lasagne dish will do) & repeat until you have browned all the meatballs.

Place the dish in the centre of the oven for about 20-25 minutes, gently turning halfway (give them a little shake, but watch out for oil splashing).  Don’t worry too much about the fat, as it will render out during cooking into the bottom of the dish & leave your meatballs lovely & tender.

While your meatballs are baking nicely, towards the end of cooking them you should get your pasta going.  If it’s dried pasta, check the cooking times on the packet.

If you’re cooking fresh pasta, it takes about 2-3 minutes tops.  Get a large pan, boil the kettle & fill halfway up with boiling water.  Add a teaspoon of Sea Salt & bring to the boil.  Carefully add your pasta to the water & bring back to a rolling boil (that’s when the water rolls over from the edge of the pan to the centre).

Once cooked, drain your spaghetti & serve immediately (pasta waits for no-one!), swirling into silky spoonfuls on pasta plates or bowls.

Add several meatballs – they are filling, so I would say about 8-10 is a good amount (you can always go back for seconds).

Spoon over a generous drenching of the tomato sauce, coating the meatballs & serve immediately!  If you like, dust with a little freshly grated Parmesan – leave a little dish on the table with a spoon for people to help themselves.  Or you could use a speed peeler to add a few strips of Parmesan on top instead, it’s your choice.

Leftover meatballs & sauce will keep too – freeze the meatballs in a little sauce, either in bags or plastic tubs.  Pour any leftover sauce into sterilised jars when cooled & store it in the fridge.  You can use it for pizza, lasagne, pasta or just for dipping veg in (I like it on my chips).  It’s great on burgers too!

One thing I would recommend is don’t wear a white shirt while swirling sauce-laden spaghetti!  If you do get tomato sauce on your clothes, try this little tip I learned: add a spot of neat washing up liquid (any brand works, although Lemon seems to be best) & chuck the shirt in the wash.  If you do it straightaway, it should come out fine.  This works on red wine too (you’re welcome!).

So next time you fancy a lazy lunch with the family, try something different & have a ball!  Stay hungry 😉  A x

 

 

Perfect Pastafication!

It’s been a busy week here, as I’ve been working on new projects & the weather has been a bit random, making things interesting!  While I’ve been designing cake, making tiny tea sets & small sugar bunnies to sit on the top, I’ve also been writing & doing numerous things at the same time, like the multi-tasking ninja that I am.  When the weather is unpredictable, there is one thing you need to be able to rely on & that’s a rich, rib-sticking dinner to warm you through!

As most of you know by now, I’m rather passionate about pasta.  In our pantry, I have a dedicated pasta shelf bulging with a wide variety of conchiglioni, tagliatelle, lasagne, fusilli & penne, all waiting to be magically transformed into something heavenly, hearty & wholesome.  It’s efficient, versatile & quick to cook.  Making pasta is one of my favourite things to do & it’s something we make together as a family.  When my Son is home, we make pasta & pizzas, all congregating in the kitchen & chatting simultaneously, whilst we work on creating dinner.  It’s what cooking is all about for me & that’s how our children learn, by cooking with us.  There are times when stress will start to invade your life & making pasta is one of the best things to de-stress, relax & take your mind off everything.

Now although I adore making my own pasta, sometimes I need to pull together dinner quickly, which is where the pantry comes in handy!  Because my Husband works shifts, I like to make a variety of dinners & freeze them in two-portion pots, ready to be whipped out of the freezer at a moment’s notice.   Usually, the freezer has at least one whole drawer filled with a selection of lasagnes & they’re all different.  There’s the lasagne al forno, which is the one with meat (usually beef), a sumptuous spinach & cream cheese layered lovely & then, one of my favourites: vegetable lasagne!  I have been a vegetarian a couple of times & this luxurious layered dish is one of my favourite indulgences!  It’s lighter & quicker to make than a meat lasagne, but fabulously filling & you can create this velvety vegetable version in around half the time.  Plus you can make it in advance & freeze it in individual pots for those evenings when you need instant pasta gratification.  Fancy a go?  Hands washed & aprons on!

What you need:

For the Vegetable Ragu:

1 large Red Onion
1 large Courgette
2 Peppers (red & yellow are my choice, as the Courgette brings green to the dish)
1 small punnet Mushrooms, wiped thoroughly with a damp cloth
2 tins Italian Plum Tomatoes
1 tube Tomato Puree
2 teaspoons Sugar
6 cloves fresh Garlic, chopped finely
1 teaspoon Dried Organo
2 teaspoons Dried Basil (you can use fresh if you like, just finely chop half a dozen leaves)
Sea Salt & freshly ground Black Pepper to season
Extra Virgin Olive Oil

For the Cheese Sauce:

3oz Plain Flour
3oz Salted Butter
1 pint Semi-Skimmed or Full Fat Milk
2oz grated Cheese (mild Cheddar is great for this)
Sea Salt & freshly ground Black Pepper to season

Also, you will need:

4oz grated mixed Cheese (I use 3oz mild Cheddar with 1oz Parmesan or Grana Padana, but you can use whatever hard cheese you have)
Dried Oregano
1 pack dried Lasagne (or make you own fresh if you like – see my recipe here:  http://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/pasta-parcels/ 

What to do:

Prepare the veg.  Top & tail the courgette, then slice lengthways in half, then into half again & chop into small slices.  Place in a large dish.

Take the seeds & any white pith out of the peppers (save the seeds & you can plant them in eggboxes on the windowsill).  Chop the peppers into bite-sized pieces.  It doesn’t need to be perfect or anything.  Add them to the dish with the courgettes in.

Slice the mushrooms in half & then slice them into chunky pieces.  Add to the other veg in the dish.

Top & tail the onion, slice into chunky pieces.  Leave on the board while you chop the garlic finely.

Heat a tablespoon of the olive oil in a large skillet or frying pan & add the onion & garlic.  Stir fry for about 30 seconds to gently soften – you don’t want it to colour up, as the garlic will burn if you’re not careful (it won’t taste nice if it burns).

Add the other vegetables, tipping them in carefully & stir-frying them for a couple of minutes to get them heated through.

Pour the plum tomatoes into the pan, breaking up any large pieces as you do so & combine with the vegetables in the pan.  Stir well to ensure it’s all mixed together.

Add the tomato puree, Basil & Oregano, along with the sugar & a good pinch of the black pepper & sea salt to season your vegetable ragu.  Give everything a good stir to distribute the puree & seasonings thoroughly.

Simmer for about five minutes on a low heat, stirring occasionally until it thickens slightly, then turn off the heat & set to one side while you make the cheese sauce.

Gently melt the butter in a large saucepan.  Remove from the heat & add the flour, put back on the heat & stir thoroughly to combine into a thick, shiny roux by using a whisk.  Traditionally, you would use a wooden spoon, but if you want to make sure you don’t get any lumps I suggest using a good metal balloon whisk.

Add about a quarter of the milk to the mixture & whisk in, until it loosens up & then add the rest of the milk carefully.  Keep stirring with the whisk, getting to the bottom of the pan to ensure nothing sticks.

As the sauce thickens up, you should start to feel some resistance with the whisk.  Keep whisking (swap hands if your wrist aches) & when you are satisfied with the thickness, add a couple of ounces of the grated mild cheddar & whisk until melted.  Turn off the heat.

Add a little pinch of sea salt & black pepper to season, then taste it.  The consistency of the sauce should be thick like natural yoghurt & it should coat the back of the spoon well.  If you think it needs a bit more seasoning, add a bit more, but go steady with it as you’ll be adding Parmesan to the top & that is quite salty.

So now you are ready to start building your lasagne!  Get yourself a nice, large lasagne dish or large pie dish.

In the bottom of the dish, spoon half the vegetable ragu & spread evenly across the bottom.  If you’re using fresh pasta for this, drizzle a little olive oil across the bottom of the dish then add a layer of fresh pasta before adding the ragu.

Here’s a tip to help you fit your dried pasta sheets to those rounded corners of your dish.  Take your dried lasagne sheet & snap off the top corner edge with your thumb, about 1cm in.  Lay the lasagne sheet with the missing edge nearest the corner, then take the piece you snapped off & turn it around, placing it in the corner with the pointy end towards the middle of the dish.  You’re welcome!  All these years, we’ve all been trying to make it fit & then a few years ago, I decided to use up some random pieces & that was it!

Cover the ragu with a layer of lasagne, making your corners fit as above.

Now pour on a layer of the cheese sauce, starting at the edges & working your way in, so that all the little corners & any random bits you have used will all stay in place.  Spread evenly across the layer using the back of a spoon.

Gently add the remainder of the vegetable ragu, again starting at the corners & carefully working your way into the centre.  Ensure it is evenly spread across the layer.

Add another layer of the pasta, as you did before & then pour on the remainder of the cheese sauce, again starting around the edges & working your way in.

Spread it evenly with the back of the spoon you used before, then sprinkle liberally with the mixed grated cheese.  This will give you a gorgeous, crispy cheesy topping.  Sprinkle a good pinch of dried Oregano over the top, squeezing it in the tips of your fingers as you do so, to release the pungent fragrance of this wonderful herb.

If you’ve used the dried lasagne, leave it to stand in a cold oven for a couple of hours, or you could even make it in the morning & leave it to stand until dinner time (sometimes, I’ll let it cool & then cover it, before putting it in the fridge until the evening).  Most people will whack their lasagne in the oven straightaway & then wonder why the pasta won’t cook properly.  By allowing the dish to stand, the pasta will absorb the moisture in the dish, your lasagne won’t turn into soup & everything will be beautifully baked!

When you’re ready to cook it, pre-heat the oven to 180*C.

Place your lasagne on a baking tray to catch any drips (trust me, when it starts bubbling there will be spillages).

Put in the centre of the oven & bake for about 35-45 minutes, until the cheese on top has turned a gorgeous golden colour & is crispy around the edges.

Remove from the oven, place on a cooling rack & cover loosely with some foil or another tray (don’t press it flat, or your cheese will stick).  Leave to stand for 10-15 minutes, as it will be hotter than the sun & you will burn your mouth!

Serve with a huge green salad & maybe a few chunky chips, if you feel the need.  Any leftovers can be packed up into pots for lunches (hot or cold, it’s rather nice), or frozen for lazy late night suppers, curled up on the sofa with a glass of wine.

Next time you fancy something luscious & light, layer some love on the lasagne for perfect pastafication!  Stay hungry 😉  A x

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

Back to Work, Back to Reality!

Happy New Year everyone!  Hope you all had a fabulous holiday & you’re feeling refreshed! The festive season has finally finished & so has over-indulgence of all varieties.  January always brings everyone back to reality with a bit of a bump.  As I write this, people everywhere are making rules for themselves under the guise of “New Year’s resolutions”, vowing never to drink anything alcoholic ever again, not to let anything sugary pass their lips, or to dance in fountains in a fairy costume (which is a bit dangerous in this weather & makes your wings soggy).  December always seems to be used as an excuse for excess, leaving January to pick up the pieces (as long as they are small & fat-free apparently).

Now I’m not going to start admonishing people for being a bit generous with their portion sizing (that would be the pot calling the kettle), nor am I going to jump on the juicing wagon (think of your teeth people!).  There are two things to remember if you want to look after yourself:  (1) your body’s “In” door is a lot bigger than it’s “Out” door (I’m being polite here), & (2) that age old saying: everything in moderation.  Personally, I don’t do diets & prefer to simply eat until I’ve had enough, leave what I can’t finish & never deny myself anything (within reason obviously).  So, if you’re looking for fat-free dinky diet recipes, you’re going to be slightly disappointed here!   

Food is the fuel to our body’s engine & some get it revving up more than others!  Working lunches are usually a wilted, mystery sandwich from the local shop, accompanied by a packet of crisps, something posing as a sweet (that actually tastes like chocolate-coated cardboard with a bit of birdseed) & a diet Coke.  You’re probably thinking about lunch right now – maybe your day started with a bowl of cereal & a bucket of coffee, so the dragon in your stomach is starting to growl.  Rather than reaching for a rice cake or some other such food of the devil, a bit of prep the day before will sort you right out!  Who bought bags of salad to go with the mountain of cheese over the festive season?  Still in date & probably unopened?  Thought so.  And did you also have a roast dinner on New Year’s Day?  Leftovers languishing in the fridge (with those veg you didn’t cook) are just waiting to be transformed into luscious lunches to keep your motor running.  Right, get your hands washed & aprons on!

What you need:

Half a bag of dried Pasta, about 250g (all those leftover bits you’ve been saving will do!)
1 jar Green Pesto
1 ball of Mozzarella or a tub of Boccancini, drained
200g Pine Nuts
A couple of large spoonfuls of Roasted Veg (recipe further down)
A couple of handfuls of Salad Leaves (Rocket, Baby Spinach, etc – whatever’s in your fridge)
A couple of handfuls of leftover Roast Chicken (optional – you could use bacon)
Freshly ground Black Pepper
Sea Salt (for the pasta water)
Extra Virgin Olive Oil

For the Roasted Veg:

1 each Red, Green & Yellow Peppers, deseeded & chopped chunky
1 punnet Mushrooms, wiped clean with a damp cloth & halved
1 Courgette, topped & tailed, sliced chunky
1 Red Onion, topped & tailed, outer skin removed & chopped chunky
1 punnet Cherry Tomatoes
2-3 cloves Garlic, chopped finely or left whole (to be smudged onto a slice of warm, thick, fresh bread later maybe)
A few slices of leftover French bread, ripped into chunks
Dried Oregano
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Freshly ground Black Pepper

What to do:

Firstly, pre-heat the oven to 220*C.

Prep your veg as above & chuck them in a lasagne dish or similar (a large pie dish will do).  With the cherry tomatoes, halve them or at least poke a knife into them to make a vent (this is handy if you’re eating them hot – you don’t want exploding molten lava tomato in your mouth!).

Chuck in the chunks of bread (if it’s a day or two old, it’s brilliant for this).  Drizzle a good glug of olive oil over the top, sprinkle on the garlic, pepper & Oregano, then get your hands in & make sure it’s all covered nicely.  You don’t need salt for this, because it will just draw all the moisture out of the veg & leave it in a puddle.

Bake in the oven for about 20-25 minutes, giving everything a turn halfway through with a spoon.

Once cooked, leave to one side while you prep everything else.  These can be also kept in an airtight container in the fridge or frozen (great with some fresh focaccia & a bit of Balsamic vinegar drizzled on top).

In a dry frying pan, toast your pine nuts.  Be very careful here & don’t have the pan too high.  Keep moving the nuts about until they change from a creamy colour to golden.  Put them on a plate to cool.

Fill the kettle & put it on.  Once boiled, pour it into a large saucepan, chuck in some sea salt (about a teaspoonful should be sufficient) & give it a quick stir with a wooden spoon.  Add the pasta & bring to a rolling boil, cooking according to the instructions on the packet.

Once cooked, your pasta should be firm to the bite.  Strain & put back into the pan with a glug of olive oil.  Give it a shake & a stir (the oil will stop it going into a big pasta lump).  Set aside to cool for a bit (especially if you’re making it the night before work, otherwise you’ll just have a pot of steam & soggy stuff for lunch).

Get your lunchboxes ready – you can buy packs of those resealable little plastic tubs from your local supermarket or Wilkinsons & they are perfect for this!

Now, here’s where you can make different pasta salads for some variety (because the same thing will be boring).  Get four or five lunchboxes or bowls & divide the pasta equally into them all.

Tip the whole jar of pesto into the pasta (yes, all of it).  Give it a good stir around, completely coating all the pasta.

Drain your Mozzarella & rip up into small, bite-sized pieces (sometimes I use Bocconcino, which are little Mozzarella balls).  Chuck some into a couple of the pasta lunchboxes.

In two other lunchboxes, add a couple of spoonfuls of the roasted veg & mix in gently.  If you’ve got roast chicken in the fridge that needs eating, rip some of that up & add some to the pasta without Mozzarella.

Grab a couple of handfuls of salad leaves & put in each pasta box you want them in.

Sprinkle pine nuts over them all, adding more where you want & less where you don’t (it’s your lunch, so make it how you like it).

Dust them all with a few grinds of the black pepper, then cram the lids on top (I usually get my hands in & gently mix it up beforehand).  Put in the fridge until you need it.

In the morning, just grab a box before you leave & that’s lunch done!  Plus you might save a bit of money too (always a bonus).

There are lots of variations that you could try, so just raid the fridge & cupboards, use your favourite foods to give you a bit of inspiration & get creating!

So let’s start the New Year with a shot of colour & a luscious lunchbox of flavourful pasta!  Stay hungry 😉 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

 

Pasta Parcels

The first pasta I ever made was a very soupy looking lasagne when I was a teenager & it didn’t improve much until my twenties – it tasted very nice, but you needed a spoon to eat it (although my boyfriend at the time was far too polite to mention this).  My pasta skills have progressed a bit since then & I am happy to say, you don’t need a spoon to eat my lasagne anymore (although I do recommend wearing an elasticated waistband).

Some people may think of pasta making as a bit fiddly or time consuming (it’s like the bread making scenario all over again).  I appreciate this, because I too had a few issues in the beginning (actually, I still do on occasion) & that’s OK, because your kitchen isn’t a Michelin starred restaurant – you’re making it for family & friends, not paying customers!  It just takes a little practice, that’s all.  The best thing is pasta takes very little time to make from scratch, plus it’s fun to make when the weather is a bit pants & the kids are “bored” – get them making pasta!

What you need:

The recipe I use is 100g of strong ’00’ flour (or strong bread flour) & one large egg, per person (so if you’re cooking for three people, that’s three eggs & 300g of flour).  However, I like to mix half flour with half fine semolina, which gives it that gorgeous golden, sunshine yellow colour (& everyone likes a little sunshine).

Also, I recommend buying good quality free-range eggs – trust me, it makes all the difference.  Here’s a little test to see if your eggs are really fresh.  Half fill a jug with cold water & gently plop the eggs into the jug, one at a time.  If they sink, they’re fine & fresh; if they float, it means they are not that fresh & probably shouldn’t be used.

What to do:

Measure your flour into a bowl & tip onto a clean work surface.  Make a well in the middle, crack your eggs in carefully & combine them a little before using clean, cool fingertips to bring the flour in from the sides & gently combine into a lovely golden dough (it’s messy, but that’s half the fun).

Knead for about five minutes until flexible, then wrap in cling film & leave to rest in the fridge for half an hour.  After that, you can roll it out, stuff it with some fabulous fillings, or cut into ribbons (such as tagliatelle) & even hang some up to dry for another day (if you don’t have a rack, use a clean clothes horse).  It’s that simple!

To make ravioli, roll the dough out until it’s almost thin enough to see through.  Lay it down on a flour dusted surface (sprinkle some semolina too – this will stop it sticking).  Then simply add small splodges of your filling (about a teaspoonful), roughly an inch apart, down one side of the pasta sheet – sometimes I use a piping bag to do this (less mess & a bit quicker).  Dip your finger in a cup of cold water, run it along the edge & between the fillings, before folding the other side of the pasta over the top.  Press the edges down firmly, using a cupping action with the side of your hand to separate the fillings into individual bumps & remove any air.  Cut them into little parcels using a ravioli or pizza cutter & set aside on a plate or board, again dusted with flour or semolina (or both).

Bring a pan of water to a rolling boil, chuck in a couple of generous pinches of sea salt, then gently add your pasta to the water.  It should cook in about 2-3 minutes, so pick one out & have a taste to check – obviously, if you’re cooking ravioli or similar stuffed pasta, use your judgement on this & make sure the filling is piping hot.  Then drain (saving a cup of the water) & serve as you like it- spoon on some sauce, or just add a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil & a sprinkle of black pepper.   If your sauce is a bit too thick, add some of the cooking water to loosen it up a bit & make it silky smooth (you really don’t need much).  All you need to do then is eat it!

One of the best tips I can give is to treat yourself to a robust pasta machine – forget brand names here, go for the one that you feel most comfortable with.  When I first began making pasta, I would roll out the dough by hand with a rolling pin (several times until it was thin enough & my arms ached), so my pasta machine is one of the best purchases I’ve made.  With the turn of a handle you can have perfectly precise spaghetti (they are also really good for rolling out fondant icing – bonus!).

So next time it’s a bit dull outside, create some indoor sunshine & make your own pasta parcels!  A x

 

Pining for a Pasta Pile-Up

Pasta is probably the most loved food in our house (well, apart from cake obviously).  We indulge in this versatile staple several times a week (that’s not including leftover lunches).  If I’m not making it, I’m thinking about making it & what I can put in it or on it.

Last year, our son was working in Naples, Italy & during one of our daily chats, he sent me a picture of him cooking Spaghetti alla Carbonara (he has the cooking bug too).  I was so proud that he was cooking proper Italian food actually in Italy – especially when he reminded me of how I used to cook the same dish when he was young.  Over the years, I adjusted the recipe & used a variety of different pasta (spaghetti is still the best), but I had forgotten just how beautiful the original recipe is.  It also made me realise how much of an impact my cooking has had on my son & his approach to food.  It’s kind of big when you think that the simplest of things, like preparing food for our children, is something they carry with them into adulthood. Obviously, as soon as I put the phone down, I headed off to the kitchen to make a pile of pasta!

One of our favourite pasta dishes is “The One With The Pine Nuts” (as it is fondly known in our house).  It is colourful, cheesy, nutty & quick to make – what’s not to love?!  It’s also great for using up leftover fresh veg in your fridge that are starting to look a bit tired (courgettes go very well with this too) & that half bag of dried fusilli in the pantry that everyone has, so just have fun & experiment with different flavours.

All the hard work is in the preparation & even that’s quite relaxing! Toasting some pine nuts, preparing peppers, dicing bacon, trying not to eat the cheese (actually, this is the hard part!) & suddenly, it’s ready to put together.  The drained pasta is tipped into a huge skillet full of crispy, smoked bacon pieces & shiny, jewel coloured vegetables, sometimes a few handfuls of fresh baby spinach are thrown in, the vibrant green leaves gently wilting as it’s all stirred together.  Then generous chunks of Gorgonzola melt into the warm swirls of pasta, giving it an oozy smoothness that attracts all the other ingredients together, followed by a substantial showering of the toasted, almost popcorn-like flavoured pine nuts.

Just before heaping a huge ladleful into a bowl, I sprinkle on some more pine nuts, followed by a couple of twists of freshly ground black pepper & a pinch of grated Grana Padana (because Parmesan would be too salty here).  Then we grab a couple of glasses of chilled Pinot Grigio & warm slices of baguette to scoop up any cheesy remnants that attempt to escape.  This is for those evenings, when you’ve been busy all day & really can’t be bothered to cook – it takes about 15 minutes to make (especially if you delegate some of the prep!).

Maybe next time you’re pining for some pasta, give this a twirl!  A x

Love of Lasagne

There is something quite therapeutic about making a lasagne.   It’s not something to be rushed or raced, it is to be lovingly created over a couple of hours on a lazy afternoon.  Whenever I make lasagne (which is quite often if I’m honest), the whole experience is something I savour – from slowly simmering the ravishing ragu to whisking up a creamy cheese sauce to complement it.

Personally, I find the whole “chuck a jar of readymade” anything into a dish a bit wrong, unless I made it of course (there’s always a couple of jars of my tomato sauce in the fridge).  It takes minutes to whip up a white sauce from roux to ready – all you need is a chunk of butter, a pint of milk & a scoop of flour!  Plus jars tend to be laced with lots of other things like additional salt, sugar & unpronounceable ingredients (if you can’t say it, don’t eat it!).

Pasta on the other hand is personal, whether you buy it or make your own, no-one should judge you – it’s down to individual choice.  I love making my own pasta, it’s something I’m truly passionate about, but I also use dried. There is a huge array of dried pasta in my pantry – a whole shelf is dedicated to it & I even have a stash of random shapes in another cupboard, because I keep any unused leftovers for other recipes (my husband will be calling Pasta Addicts Anonymous for me now).

The best bit is sandwiching all the fabulous fillings between layers of pasta, then drenching the top with grated cheese & a sprinkling of dried Oregano (gently rub it between your fingertips as you scatter it to release it’s pungent perfume).  Once finished, I like to leave it to rest in a cold oven for at least an hour, sometimes longer & on occasion in the fridge overnight, just to let everything settle & the flavours develop.  It’s definitely worth the wait!  Then it’s baked slowly for an hour – the oozy, melting cheese creating a crispy topping, as the lasagne fills the house with it’s luscious scent.

Because it’s crammed full of rich flavours, all it needs is a green salad splashed with a bit of balsamic vinegar, a squeeze of lemon & a good glass of red wine.

Share the love (of lasagne)!  A x