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

 

Far From the Pudding Crowd

The Christmas countdown has commenced & everything has gathered momentum.  Shops are bulging with baubles & tinsel, snow dredged streets have transformed into Las Vegas-style light displays & peace has been replaced by panic, as everyone realises they have two weeks to get organised, including the food!  As you’ll probably be racing around like a crazy Christmas shopping ninja, jacked up on Java & sugary snacks, desserts for Christmas Day are probably the furthest from your mind, which is why my third Christmas blog is full of sweetness.

Every Christmas it’s always the same – boring boxes of mince pies (or the homemade ones that Queen Thistle* would be proud of), Christmas pudding (flambéed eyebrows anyone?) & fruitcake so boozy, your breath can melt glass!  We’ve all been there & said our polite thank-yous, while discreetly disposing of half-eaten mouthfuls in a napkin. [*Queen Thistle is in Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom – ask any five year old who made the bricks for Mrs Fig’s school!].

Because I don’t do anything remotely traditional about Christmas desserts, we like to create a few traditions of our own.  Before Christmas arrives, I discuss desserts with my Husband & Son, then we all pick a different one & make them.  It’s that simple & everyone gets what they wanted, because they picked it.  Usually, the guys like a tiramisu or my refreshing lemon cheesecake, scattered with a selection of fresh berries.  If I can get some good lemons, I’ll make a luscious lemon drizzle cake too – splashed with Limoncello, this makes an excellent trifle base (without custard obviously, because that’s just wrong!).

When I was a little girl, my Mum & Grandma would bake all kinds of delicious creations, including beautifully light, crisp choux pastry (pâte à choux).  Mum vigorously beat the paste with such effortless ease, until it was silky smooth (although simple to make, profiteroles need strong arms & plenty of stamina).  Once baked & filled, these piled up plump little pastries would be generously glazed with glossy, rich chocolate sauce & adorned with sparkly spun sugar.  I would watch in amazement as my Mum swiftly whipped a sugar-dipped fork through the air & glittery, golden sugar strands would appear as if by magic!  Although I don’t tend to make spun sugar very often, I do still make proper profiteroles & once you have tried them, you’ll be hooked too.  So, aprons at the ready!

What you need:

4oz Plain Flour
2oz Salted Butter (plus extra for greasing trays)
A quarter of a pint of cold Water
3 large Eggs
600ml fresh Double Cream (for filling)

What to do:

Place the butter in a medium sized saucepan & add the water.  Gently heat until the butter is completely melted, then bring to the boil.

Remove the pan from the heat & add the flour, stirring well.

Put the pan back on the heat, stirring continuously until the mixture comes together into a ball in the pan, then leave to cool.

Beat the eggs in a separate bowl.

Once the mixture has cooled, this is where you need your muscles!  Grab a wooden spoon & gradually add the eggs a bit at a time, while beating them vigorously into the mixture, until everything is combined.  Then you’re ready to pipe!

Pre-heat the oven to 220*C & prepare a couple of baking trays – grease with butter, then run them under cold water & tip off the excess (you need a film of moisture to create steam in the oven to help raise them).

Tip your choux paste into a piping bag with round nozzle attachment (usually about 1cm sized), although I like to use a star nozzle because it gives extra texture.  If you stand your piping bag over a tall mug or jug, folding the edges over the top to hold it in place, you can do this with ease & avoid losing your choux paste.  Once filled, get rid of any excess air from the bag & twist the top to close it (after all that hard work, you don’t want your bag bursting!).

Pipe the mixture into round little dollops about an inch big, leaving an inch or two gap between each of them so they can grow.

Bake for 20 minutes until risen & slightly golden.  Tip onto a wire rack & while they’re still warm, make a little hole in the side of each (gently poke the end of a knife in).  Leave to cool.

Once cooled, your profiteroles are ready!  If you are preparing them in advance, you can freeze them a few at a time in a single layer – they crisp up beautifully after a few minutes in a warm oven.  They can be filled with either savoury or sweet fillings – try filling with a fluffy cream cheese mousse to make a starter, drizzled with a little pesto on top.

Fill your piping bag with whipped cream & pipe into the tiny hole you made in each profiterole, until just full.  Stack them up on your plate or put them in the fridge in a covered dish, but don’t leave them too long as they will go soggy.

Generously drizzle warm, chocolate sauce over them & serve!  You want the recipe for chocolate sauce, don’t you?  It’s really easy to make & one of my favourite “chuck it all in a pan” recipes.  I make jars of this & store it in the fridge or the cold pantry, then warm it up to make it runny enough to pour over cupcakes (it tastes fabulous spread on hot toast too).   Here it is!

What you need:

4oz Butter, cut into small chunks
8oz Plain Chocolate, chopped into chunks (use the food processor)
14oz tin of sweetened Condensed Milk

What to do:

Pour the milk into a dry small saucepan, add the butter & chocolate chunks.

Heat gently on low, slowly stirring with a whisk & making sure everything is combined, for about four or five minutes.  It should be glossy, smooth & silky.

That’s it!  Your sauce is ready, so pour it into a nice serving jug or sauce boat just before the dessert is plated up.  This also makes a fabulous fondue with chunks of pineapple, whole strawberries or fluffy marshmallows dipped in (elasticated waistbands are advisable though).

Ready for more?  Thought so!  As most Christmas food is heavy & starchy (especially fruit-laden puddings), we tend to go for light, fresh or fluffy desserts instead & this one is all three: Strawberry Sponge Square Cake.  It was the result of an impromptu dinner party, where I had to quickly improvise with what was in the fridge at the time & it has become a firm favourite! The sponge cake can be made the day before & kept in an airtight container with greaseproof paper between the slices, then all you need to do is assemble it!

What you need:

2 large Eggs
3oz Self-Raising Flour
3oz Vanilla Caster Sugar (or give normal sugar a whizz in a coffee grinder like I do)
A little melted Butter for preparing your tin
1 heaped tablespoon extra Vanilla Sugar (for laying your sponge on)

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 220*C.  Get a shallow baking tray or Swiss Roll tin & brush the melted butter all over the inside.

Line the tray with a sheet of greaseproof paper that is slightly bigger than the tin, leaving half an inch of paper out of the tin all the way around – you will need this to lift your sponge out at the end.  Push the paper into the corners & making sure it is completely covered with the butter.

Take the greaseproof paper out, turn it over & repeat, leaving it in the tin, with the edge sticking up all the way around.

Crack the eggs carefully into a mixing bowl & give them a whisk to break them up.

Add the sugar & give it a good firm whisking until pale & cream coloured.  I usually use the electric whisk for this (even I have my limits!) & whisk for three minutes on full.

Next, you need to fold in the flour.  Folding is easy, just take your time.  Sift the flour into the bowl, then using a large metal spoon, make a figure of eight & tip the flour over into the liquid.  Repeat until all the flour has been incorporated into a lovely, thick foamy mixture.

Using a spatula, scrape the mixture into your prepared tin.  Make sure you get it into all the corners & level it out with the spatula if necessary.

Bake in the centre of the oven for about 4 minutes, until it is golden & slightly risen.  Give it a gentle pat with a finger & it should spring back – that’s when it’s ready.

Sprinkle the other sugar onto another sheet of greaseproof laid on top of a wire cooling rack.

Remove your sponge from the oven & carefully tip the whole thing over onto the sugared greaseproof paper, using the edge of the cake paper to help you if need be.

Pull off the greaseproof paper from the sponge cake & discard.  It should come away easily (& the smell of baked butter is just heavenly!).  Leave to cool for a few minutes.

Once cooled, take a large knife with a smooth blade (like a French cook’s knife) & trim the edges of your sponge (you can eat these or feed them to the birds).

Cut the sponge into three equal strips & set aside while you make the filling.  The filling can be prepared the day before too, just keep it covered in the fridge.

For the filling:

600ml fresh Double Cream (the real stuff please, it’s Christmas)
1oz Icing Sugar, plus extra for dusting
1 large punnet of Strawberries

What to do:

Wash, trim & hull your strawberries – that’s the tough bit under the leaves in the top of the strawberry.  Just run a little paring knife under the leaves, all the way around & it should come out.  The more ripe the strawberries, the easier it is.

Stand them pointy end up & using the paring knife, slice thinly – keep the trimmed edges to one side for decorating (or munching).  Put to one side in a bowl or large cup.

Get the electric whisk out again & whisk the double cream in a large mixing bowl, adding the icing sugar as you do so, until it is in soft peaks – the icing sugar gives the cream body & will hold it’s shape when piped.   You can whisk it by hand if you need to release some stress, but it’s really important that you don’t over-whip the cream, otherwise you’ll end up with butter (yes, really – I’ll cover that in another blog when we’ve all got more time).

Now you’re ready to assemble your sponge cake!  Take your first layer of sponge & lay it on a serving plate.

Scoop the cream into a piping bag with a star nozzle (or a smooth round one).  Pipe a layer of cream in a decorative swirly pattern around the edge.  Take your time over this, there’s no rush.

Lay strawberry slices all over the cream, leaving the pointy tips over the edge slightly.

Take the next layer of sponge & squeeze a little splodge of cream on the underneath side, then lay it gently on top of the strawberries.

Repeat with the next layer in exactly the same way, leaving a layer of sponge cake on the top.

When you’ve finished, you should have a beautiful strawberry sponge square cake (yes, I’m aware it’s not square, just go with it).  Dust lightly with icing sugar all over the top (use a tea strainer for this & you only need about a teaspoonful of icing sugar to do the whole thing) & serve immediately.

Use any remaining strawberries & cream to decorate each person’s plate, maybe dusting with a bit more icing sugar if you like.  Or you could just hide the rest in the fridge for nibbling on later (I think you’ve earned it!).  If you don’t like strawberries, use blueberries or even your favourite jam.  One of my favourite variations is to make a tiramisu filling instead of using cream, then mix some Sherry or Brandy with an equal amount of espresso coffee to drizzle over the sponge & replace the icing sugar on top with finely grated dark chocolate.  Decorate with a few coffee beans & a sprig of fresh mint.

So that’s dessert done & dusted (with icing sugar)!  Hopefully, I’ve given you some ideas for lighter & brighter alternatives to the usual stodgy puds, something to bring a little freshness to your Christmas table.  Now you know the drill – get yourself a lovely cuppa, put your feet up for a bit & relax, we’ve got this covered.  Stay hungry 😉 x

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Bit on the Side

Weeks before writing this, I was already thinking about what fabulous foods to make for Christmas Day & what I could do beforehand.  By the end of November, I had already chopped, mashed & stashed an array of side dishes in readiness, cramming pots of fluffy potatoes, gorgeous gravy & cauliflower cheesiness into my freezer.  Most of us work & don’t have the time to faff around in the kitchen, so a bit of prep now will make all the difference.  It’s like giving yourself the gift of time!   Because I’m covering a few things here, you will need some strong coffee to keep you going & a few Little Helpers to share the load (bribes at the ready if necessary!).

If you have been following my blog, you will know I like to keep a supply of freezer-friendly food (here’s the link for speed:  http://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/freezing-your-assets/ ) & Christmas is no exception.  A week or two before, I make a mountain of mashed potatoes & a giant cauliflower cheese (sometimes with broccoli), then freeze them in two-person portions.  If you want your mash to look fancy, pipe into swirls on greaseproof paper before freezing (let it cool first though) & reheat when you want them!  The only spuds you need to cook on Christmas Day will be roasts & maybe some steamed baby potatoes (because there’s always someone who won’t eat mash or roasts).  These can be cooked along with the veg, cutting down on pans to watch & wash, & hunting for that ever elusive potato masher!

The freezer is also bulging with breadcrumbs – if a crust is going spare, it gets blitzed in the blender & bagged up (I can’t waste them & the birds are so well-fed in the garden, the trees are leaning!).  Normally, I use these for coating chicken goujons or kievs, along with stuffing mushrooms or making arancini from leftover risotto, but they are also the main ingredient in stuffing.

Whilst I appreciate that some lovely person invented packet mix stuffing, if you’re serving anyone who is vegetarian or vegan then you need to check the box first.  Most contain suet, which is either beef fat (& needs baking in the oven once rehydrated), or made from palm oil – it might be vegetarian but it’s not very ethical in my book!  When I was a vegetarian, shop-bought stuffing went off my list completely & I started making my own from scratch.  It’s so simple, you can make it in advance & freeze it until you need it!  If you prefer it inside the bird, just make your stuffing the day before, cover it & leave in the fridge.  Depending on the size of your dinner party or the size of your bird, just increase quantities as required (I say “bird” because not everyone eats turkey, my family included, as we prefer chicken).  Here goes!

What you need:

6 thick slices or crusts of Bread, blitzed in a blender (keep them chunky, not too fine)
1 large Onion, finely chopped
1oz Salted Butter
1 tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 heaped tablespoon of Sage (I used fresh but you can use dried)
1 heaped teaspoon of dried Rosemary
Pinch of fresh Thyme (this is strong so you only need a bit)
Quarter of a pint of boiling water (you might not need all of this)
Seasoning to taste (freshly ground Black Pepper & Sea Salt)
[Optional: a teaspoon of Lemon Zest or a tablespoon of chopped roasted Chestnuts or Walnuts)

What to do:

Melt the butter & oil together in a large frying pan or skillet.

Chop the onion finely & add to the butter & oil, stirring well to ensure it’s completely coated.  Stir fry on a medium heat for a couple of minutes until softened & starting to colour slightly (don’t leave them, otherwise they will catch & burn).  Turn off the pan.

Sprinkle the Sage & Rosemary into the pan with a pinch of Thyme, add the breadcrumbs & stir well.  The residual heat from the pan will bring everything together nicely, so just mix well.  Season with a little sea salt & black pepper, stirring well again.  If you’re adding the roasted chopped chestnuts or lemon zest, do this now.

Add a little of the boiling water, drizzling it around the pan & stirring to bring it all together into clumps.  If it’s too dry, add a little more water & stir again.  Once you feel the consistency is right, stop.  It should be firm, not soggy.  If you think it’s too soggy, add more breadcrumbs until firmer.

Pre-heat the oven to 200*C & if you’re making stuffing balls, lay a sheet of greaseproof paper on a baking tray.  If you’re baking it in a dish, butter the inside of a casserole dish, scoop the stuffing mixture in & use a fork to make rough peaks on the top (these bits will go crispy when it bakes).

If you’re making stuffing balls, get yourself an ice-cream scoop (spring-loaded will make your life easier & will also ensure they are all roughly the same size).  Put some of the mixture into the ice-cream scoop (you don’t want to damage your pan by scraping it!) & press it in gently.  Release the ball from the scoop, shape it into a nice sized ball in your hand & place on the greaseproof paper.  Repeat until you’ve used the whole lot.

Bake your stuffing (whatever shape you make) in the centre of the oven for about 15-20 minutes until golden brown on top, turning halfway.  Once cooked, either serve immediately with your roast dinner, or place on a cooling rack (still on the greaseproof paper) & leave to cool completely.  These can then be frozen & reheated on the day you want them.  That’s the stuffing stuffed!

Next, it’s time to sort out some sides & as most of these are already done by the time Christmas arrives, there’s not that much to do on the actual day.  A few days before, enlist your Little Helpers (or “Side”-Kicks?!  *groan*) then go to your local Wilkinson or Poundshop, buy a couple of speed peelers & delegate a bag of veg to each person with one of these little numbers.  Put some Christmas tunes on to get everyone in the mood (or some AC/DC, whatever floats your boat), get them all around the table & off they go!  They can peel & prep, you can pretty much leave them to it & get on with anything else that needs doing.

A firm favourite of ours is roasted baby potatoes in their skins, along with roasted carrots & parsnips.  Just prep as much veg as you need, according to the number of guests you’re expecting & leave to soak in a pan of cold water until required.  Big tip here: don’t put any salt in the water, because no amount of cooking will make them soft & you’ll have rock hard roasties instead.  Aprons on!

What to do:

On a chopping board, cut the potatoes in half lengthways.  If you want to give them a bit more texture, cut little slices in the curved top all the way along (hasselback style) to almost halfway through – don’t go all the way though, otherwise you’ll just have thin slices of potato!  Cut the parsnips & carrots into chunky wedges, in a similar size as the potatoes – they can all go on the same tray (less washing up!).  If you’re not cooking them right now, this is when you put them in some cold water until you’re ready for them.  Before roasting, strain well & tip your roasting veg onto some kitchen paper to dry (because oil & water don’t mix, they spit!).

Spread some olive oil on a baking or roasting tin, put the potato halves in curved side down & then drizzle more olive oil on the top, give them a good sprinkle of the sea salt & black pepper.  If you want to add some chopped Rosemary, sprinkle some on too (go easy with this stuff though, it’s quite strong).  Get your hands in, toss the potatoes in the oil & seasonings, making sure they are well coated & return to their curved side down position, flat side up.

Bake them on the top shelf in a hot oven at 220*C, for about 15 minutes until they are sizzling & golden.  If they have stuck a bit, just use a spatula or tongs (nothing metal though or you’ll damage your tray) & ease them away from the tin.  At this point, turn them over carefully so you don’t splash yourself in hot oil & return to the oven for about 10 minutes or so until crispy, then serve.  If you want to, you can always pop them on some kitchen paper to remove any excess oil, but I find a good shake in a sieve does a pretty good job & it’s not lard, so you’ll be fine.

The parsnips & carrots should be transferred to a warm heatproof dish, then while they’re still hot drizzle with a teaspoon of runny honey to glaze (drizzle, not drown remember) & they’re ready to serve.

Once you’ve got your sides sorted, Christmas Day becomes a doddle – just take them out of the freezer the night before, pop them into an ovenproof dish to defrost & that’s it, prep done!  They can be reheated in the oven while the bird is resting & the veg are roasting. This is also handy when unexpected extras turn up for dinner, because you’ll have a spare pot you can defrost (making you look like the most organised person ever & score major Brownie points!).

By now, you should have a sumptuous selection of sides prepared: mash, three types of roasties, veg for steaming & cauliflower cheese (for the recipe, click on this link to my blog: http://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/a-kitchen-nightmare-readymeals-set-go/ ).  However, there are still a couple of things that will finish off the list nicely – starting with a pimped up cranberry sauce.

Not everyone wants to make cranberry sauce from scratch (me included) & not everyone likes it, so do yourself a favour & buy a good quality one that you like, then pimp it up with a few little tweaks.  Simply scoop the whole lot into a small saucepan & break up with a wooden spoon, heating very gently.  Add a shot of Sherry or Port, stirring carefully into the cranberry sauce.  Sprinkle a little orange or lemon zest into the pan, about half a teaspoon, & stir gently for a minute or two.  Pour it into a small dish to cool, then cover & put in the fridge until you’re ready to serve!

And lastly, all you need is a gorgeous homemade gravy!  Everyone loves gravy & at this time of year, you might want to make proper gravy.  It’s actually easier than you think & just needs a little patience!  The best bit is you can make it before & freeze it, or make it on the day in minutes using heated stock you made previously or stock from your roast on the day.  So grab a whisk & a saucepan ….

What you need:

1 pint of chicken stock (or vegetable stock)
4 heaped teaspoons of Gravy Browning (such as Bisto powder)
A good glug of cold water (about 3 tablespoons)

What to do:

If you’re using fresh, hot stock from your roasted bird, simply ladle off a pint into a jug.  To remove any fat from the stock (that’s the golden bubbles you can see here), get yourself a few sheets of kitchen paper & touch it gently on the top – the grease will attach itself to the paper, which you can then throw away (no faffing around trying to separate it).

In another jug, measure your gravy browning (I use Bisto because my Mum uses it, so whatever you like best use that).  You don’t need any seasoning, because there’s plenty in the gravy browning & also in your stock.

Pour in the cold water & mix to form a smooth brown liquid, followed by a quarter of the stock, then tip into your saucepan & heat gently for a few seconds, using the whisk to mix everything thoroughly.

Add the rest of the hot stock carefully & keep whisking gently to prevent lumps forming.  The gravy will begin to thicken up nicely now, so dip a spoon in & if it coats the back of the spoon, it’s ready.

Pour into a gravy boat or just a jug & that’s the gravy made!  If you’re making it in advance, let it cool, then pour into a bag or plastic tub, seal & freeze.

So now that your stuffing & some sides are prepared in advance, hopefully it’s taken some pressure off & you can look forward to a fuss-free festive holiday!  Now, get the kettle on, put your feet up with a cuppa & relax!  Stay hungry 😉 A 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

 

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