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






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