Love Love Love!

Unless you’re living on a remote island without any media, you’ll know that St Valentine’s Day is just around the corner.  As we’re being bombarded with heart-shaped novelties, cheesy cards & rows of roses everywhere, the story of the real St Valentine has always fascinated me.  One legend in particular says when he was in prison (apparently something to do with secretly marrying couples against the wishes of the Emperor of Rome at the time), Valentine befriended the Jailer’s Daughter.  Just before his execution, he left her a note signed “Your Valentine”.  Maybe that was the birth of the Valentine’s card, who knows!

When you’ve got the love bug, you can’t resist showering your beloved with tokens of your affection!  All love should come from the heart & it should be personal (let’s face it, anyone can buy something from a shop), which is why a romantic home-cooked dinner à deux can be rather appealing.  Making a romantic three course dinner for your beloved just requires a little imagination & preparation time.  I’ve put together a simple menu for you, with some easy to make recipes (most of them can be made in advance too, so you can spend a bit of time pampering yourself before your date arrives).  Before you do any kind of shopping or cooking, it would be a wise idea to ask if your Amour has any food objections, allergies or requirements.  They might not like certain foods & the last thing you want to do is serve it to them!   

If you have a few minutes free, why not make a couple of floral centrepieces for your table too – half fill a couple of pretty glass jars with seashells, fill up 3/4 of the way with water & put in some herbs, a couple of roses & some sprigs of gypsophila flowers.  The seashells help stabilise the roses so they stay put & don’t move around.  Candles are fine, but you don’t want to be worrying about putting them out later (if dinner goes well, you might be distracted!).

Now because this blog is a little bit longer, I’ve split it into three sections: starters, mains & desserts.  Here’s your menu:

Bite-sized Beetroot & Feta Heartlets to start, then
Honey & Lemon Chicken Thighs (for your Honey), accompanied by
Love Apple Focaccia & Roasted Romantic Vegetables, followed by
Warm Chocolate Fondue with Raspberry & Strawberry Ice-Cream.

Firstly, starters orders!  You want something you can prepare in advance, nothing that needs stirring or that’s going to take your attention from your delightful date.  Bite-sized beetroot & feta heartlets take about 20 minutes to make & are light enough for a starter, plus the pastry cases can be baked the day before, then filled & baked just before your date arrives.  Now I’ve got a blog dedicated to this recipe that gives you all the info you need, so have a look at “Beetroot to Yourself” – here’s the link:

http://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/beetroot-to-yourself/

If you don’t have any heart-shaped baking cases, just cook a regular sized tart then use a heart-shaped cookie cutter to make lots of little lovehearts!  Arrange on a large platter as nibbles to serve with a glass of something nice, or you could just pop a couple on individual plates with a few salad leaves as a starter.  A little tip for you: by adding a little more cream cheese to the mixture & less beetroot, you can make the colour a romantic blush pink (well it is Valentine’s Day!).

Next, the main attraction!  As it’s a Valentine dinner, we really should keep the courses quite light (because falling asleep after dinner with your buttons undone is not going to get you another date!).  This recipe for Love Apple Focaccia is really simple & can be prepared in advance, so that when your date arrives you can give them your undivided attention!  Here’s a bit of romantic trivia for you: tomatoes were known as “love apples” & the French called them pommes d’amour.  In history, apparently they were once considered an aphrodisiac because of their beautiful heart shape, making them quite appropriate for Valentine’s Day!  This can be baked earlier in the day & pre-pampering (you’re going to work up a sweat with this one).  Aprons on!

What you need:

500g Strong White Bread Flour (plus extra for kneading & dusting)
15g Dried Yeast (or 12g fresh if you prefer)
Half a teaspoon ground Sea Salt
300ml Lukewarm Water (dip a finger in it & it should be just warm)
2 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil (plus extra for drizzling)
Half a punnet of Baby Plum or Cherry Tomatoes, washed & halved (you need the other half punnet for the roasted veg later)
1 sprig Rosemary (fresh or dried, chopped)
3-4 cloves Fresh Garlic, chopped finely
Sea Salt & Black Pepper
Coarse Semolina (optional – for your baking tray)

What to do:

In a large mixing bowl, tip the flour, salt & yeast together & give it a good stir.

Add the olive oil & the lukewarm water, giving everything a firm mixing until all the ingredients form a soft, sticky dough.

Tip onto a lightly floured worktop & knead for ten minutes (your arms will be lovely & toned!).  The dough might need a little extra flour occasionally as you’re doing this – be careful not to overdo it, otherwise it will alter the recipe & not be very pleasant.  Remember, the effort you put into the kneading now will result in a fluffy, risen bread later, so give it some elbow grease!

Once kneaded, sprinkle a little flour into the bottom of the mixing bowl & pop your dough back.  Drizzle a little olive oil onto a sheet of clingfilm & loosely place over the top of the bowl, put that on a tray & place in a draught-free place to rise for an hour (I usually put mine in the airing cupboard).

Preheat the oven to 220*C & prepare a large baking tray by sprinkling a little coarse semolina across it or just a little flour, or a little of both.  Your oven will need at least an hour to get hot enough.

When your focaccia dough is ready, it will have doubled in size.  Simply take the oiled film off & tip your dough onto a lightly floured work surface, making sure you scrape any remnants of dough from the bowl (you’ve put a lot of work into this, so don’t waste any!).

To knock out any large bubbles that may have formed, give it three good throws onto the worktop.  Then roll out & stretch until it is the size of your tin & about half an inch thick.

Carefully place your dough into the tin & drizzle olive oil across the top, gently smoothing it across with your hands.  Using your knuckles, make indentations all over the top of the dough.

In these little indentations, place half a tomato & dot them all around your focaccia dough, spacing them out evenly.

Sprinkle the chopped garlic all over the top, along with the Rosemary, a bit of black pepper & a pinch of sea salt crystals, sprinkled on top like sparkly shards (everyone likes a bit of sparkle).

Bake in the top of the oven for about 10-12 minutes, until the bread has risen & turned golden, with crispy, dark tomato skins.

To check if your focaccia is cooked, lift it up carefully at one end & tap the bottom – if it sounds hollow, it’s ready!  Remove from the baking tray & place on a wire rack.  While it’s still warm, drizzle with a little more olive oil & leave to cool.  Try not to eat any before your date arrives!  When it’s cooled, wrap in clingfilm to keep it from going stale.

Now, onto the other elements of your main course – let’s start with preparing the roasted vegetables, ready for later.  If there are any here that you don’t like, just replace them with ones you do like.  Ready?  Here goes!

What you need:

1 each of Red & Yellow Peppers, deseeded
1 large Courgette, top & tailed
1 Red Onion, top & tailed
Large handful of Mushrooms, wiped & clean
Half a punnet of Baby Plum or Cherry Tomatoes
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Freshly ground Black Pepper
A little Sea Salt
Oregano (dried is fine)

What to do:

Get a large roasting tin.  Prepare the peppers first – wash, deseed & chop into chunky pieces.  Chuck them in the tin.

Next, prepare your courgette – wash, top & tail, then slice on a slant into quarter inch thick slices.  Cut these slices in half lengthways & add to the peppers in the tin.

Wash & dry your baby tomatoes, cut into halves & add to the tin.

Wipe the mushrooms, trim the stalks & cut into quarters or halves if smaller.  Add them to the tin!

Top & tail the onion, take off the outer skin, then cut into thick slices & cut these into chunky pieces.  Again, add to the tin.

Drizzle all over with a little olive oil & give everything a stir, so that all the veg mix together.  Sprinkle some pepper on (don’t go mad here – you only need a little) & add a couple of pinches of dried Oregano across the top.  Really important bit:  do not add any salt until you are just about to cook it, otherwise your veg will become watery, mushy & un-roastable.  Just add a pinch before it goes in the oven.

Cover with cling film & leave in a cool place until later – you can always pop it in an airtight container in the fridge until dinner time, then tip into the tin just before roasting.  If you’re going to present your main course in the roasting tin with the chicken, you could put some of the veg onto metal skewers at this stage, so you can place them around the chicken when cooked.  That way you can serve your date at the table.

Finally, it’s time to prepare your chicken thighs.  This is one of those “chuck it all in a dish & bake” kind of meals & doesn’t need you to stand over it.  Hands washed & apron back on!

What you need:

6-8 Chicken Thighs, skin on & bone in (yes, 6-8 because … leftovers!)
1 large Lemon (make sure it’s ripe – the riper the lemon, the juicier it is)
4 cloves Garlic
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 Sprig Fresh Rosemary (or fresh Thyme sprigs, just use a handful)
Sea Salt & Black Pepper for seasoning
2 tablespoons Runny Honey

What to do:

Preheat the oven to 200*C.  Get yourself a large roasting tin & put the chicken thighs in, skin side up.  Usually, I get a pair of scissors & trim off any excess skin.  Drizzle the chicken with a little olive oil.

Cut the lemon into quarters & give each one a gentle squeeze over the chicken pieces, then put in the roasting tin around the chicken.

Get the unpeeled garlic cloves, give them a bash with the back of a knife & chuck them in around the chicken.

Rip up the Rosemary into four smaller sprigs & chuck that in with the chicken too.

Season the chicken with the salt & pepper, then put the roasting tin in the middle of the oven & roast for about 25-30 minutes.

At this stage, take the chicken out & it should be crisping up nicely on top.  Use a spoon to drizzle honey over the chicken pieces & return to the oven for another 5-10 minutes or so.  When it’s cooked, stick a metal skewer or sharp knife in the thickest part – the juices should run clear.

 

Remove from the oven, place on a rack & cover with foil, giving it a chance to rest.  It is important to rest any roasted meat after cooking, so that it becomes tender.  Generally, you can leave it to rest for the same length of time it took to cook.

While that’s resting, turn up the oven to 220*C & put the vegetables in to roast, adding a tiny sprinkling of sea salt just before you do.  These

take about 20 minutes, just give them a shake about halfway through cooking.

If you want to add something extra, why not thread a few baby potatoes (skin on) onto a couple of metal skewers & roast them directly on the rack with the vegetables (they take about the same time, maybe five more minutes, depending on size).  Just pull them off the skewers when ready – give them a gentle squeeze & they should be soft on the inside & crispy on the outside, then serve with splodges of butter for mashing in.

By the time your vegetables are roasted, your chicken will be rested nicely & ready for serving.  Time to get your gorgeous courses to the table!  Slice the focaccia into thick, fluffy fingers & place on a plate with a small dish of extra virgin olive oil & a few drops of balsamic vinegar in for dipping.  Then plate up your chicken with a generous spoonful of the roasted vegetables on the side (or a skewer of veg if you’re serving at the table), with a few buttery, baby baked potatoes.

After all that luscious loveliness, you will need a delicious dessert that can top it off with ease & this dessert duo will get you plenty of Brownie points with your date (it’s essentially finger food), plus it can be prepped well in advance.  It’s a hot & cold dessert – warm, silky chocolate fondue & frosty fruit ice-cream!  Here’s the first stage – you will need your blender for this, a couple of plastic tubs with lids & space in your freezer. 

What you need:

500g Greek Yoghurt
250g frozen Raspberries
250g frozen Strawberries
Juice & Zest of half a Lemon (unwaxed & washed)
1 or 2 tablespoons Runny Honey

What to do:

Put the fruit & yoghurt in the blender & pulse a few times to break up the fruit.  The strawberries may cause it to clog, so get a plastic spatula (not a metal one, or your date might end up being a Paramedic) & give it a stir around between pulsing if necessary.  It will thicken up pretty much immediately, so take it steady.

Add the rest of the ingredients & whizz up to create a creamy, frozen flurry of fruitiness!  Tip into a couple of plastic tubs – only fill up to halfway, leave the lids off & put them in the freezer for half an hour.  Lick the spoon (because you need to taste it & it’s Chef’s perks).

Remove from the freezer, give everything a stir through with a fork to break up any pieces of ice that may have formed, then put the lids on & return to the freezer until dessert time.

Take a tub out of the freezer about ten minutes before serving, so that it softens slightly.  Here’s a tip for serving:  boil the kettle & pour a little hot water into a mug, stick a serving spoon in for 30 seconds & scooping your ice cream will be so much easier.

Now onto the second stage of your delectable dessert:  gorgeously gooey chocolate sauce to make your fondue!  I make jars of this to spread on toast & for decorating cupcakes.  It keeps for ages in the fridge (well, if you hide it in the veg drawer it does).  This one just needs a saucepan & a spoon.  Let’s get chocolatey!

What you need:

4oz softened Salted Butter
8oz Chocolate
14oz can of Sweetened Condensed Milk

What to do:

Put everything into a saucepan & heat gently to melt, stirring carefully until fully combined.

Once everything has melted into a dark, delectably dense pan of silky deliciousness, it’s done.  Store any leftovers in a sterile jar in the fridge & spread on toast when you fancy it.  As this sauce takes about five minutes to make, you can prepare it just before your date arrives & pour into a serving bowl to cool slightly (nobody likes being served a bowl of molten chocolate).  Place your bowl of beautiful chocolate fondue on a plate, surrounded by bamboo skewers of strawberries, marshmallows & pineapple pieces, ready for dunking & drizzling onto refreshing scoops of softened strawberry & raspberry ice-cream.  You could pile ice-cream into wafer cornets & drizzle chocolate sauce on top, or dip strawberries in & feed them to your Amour.  It’s your evening, so share the chocolate!

Now that’s the dinner done, there’s just the dishes (but they can wait, there’s kissing to be done!).  Have a fabulous Valentine’s Day, Lovers!  Stay hungry 😉 x ❤ 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

 

Snacks & The Green Stalks

It’s almost here!  That sparkly, sugar sprinkled season where everyone becomes all warm & full of fuzzy feelings, children become (loudly) obsessed with the latest toy or gadget, while credit cards are maxed out & the balls of your feet burn from trudging the streets to find that “special gift”.  Well this is my special gift to you!   I’ve split this blog into four shorter ones, mostly because I want to make life a bit easier for you, plus you’ll probably get bored or stressed (or both) scrolling all over the place & you really don’t need that (remember Rachel in Friends & that beef trifle?!).

As a child, I adored the whole thing – Santa, sparkly shoes & Spangles in my selection box (they were sweets in the 70’s if you didn’t know).  I remember being at my Grandparents’ house, sitting cross-legged in a pretty dress by my Mum’s chair, with the twinkling tree lights shimmering their kaleidoscopic colours around the room.  My Grandma would give me a posh glass, half-filled with lemonade & a Marraschino cherry on a stick.  The childlike allure of being with family, eating a wholesome meal together (& probably too many Quality Street!) while watching old films, Morecambe & Wise, The Two Ronnies & playing cards for matchsticks – it was blissful & I absolutely loved it!  This is also the time of year my Husband & I met, so we always celebrate our first date (it involved a large Harley Davidson Sportster, a couple of hundred bikers delivering Christmas presents & rather a lot of tinsel!). 

Because I like to spend time with everyone, catching up on their news & sipping a glass of something nice, I don’t want to be faffing about in the kitchen!  My Christmas dinner is a simple affair, because most of the prep is done ages before & I really just want to be with my family making memories.  For a stress-free Christmas, you need to be strict with your time & delegate – don’t take “no” for an answer!  Explain that everyone will want to eat on the big day, you can’t do it all on your own (I know, I’ve tried) & the grand prize will be a relaxing day together with minimal mayhem in the kitchen!  If you have to resort to bribery here, so be it!

First thing’s first, pour yourself a stiff drink (important bit this – do it before the delegating & maybe afterwards too, but only if you’re not driving anywhere otherwise it’s a strong espresso!).  You are the Chef – your kitchen, your rules!   Each blog will cover prepping the following:

  1. Snacks (even shop-bought nibbles need a bit of love).
  2. Sides.
  3. Desserts.
  4. Bird.

Let’s start with some simple snacks, which can be done way before Christmas Day.  Some of these multi-tasking munchies can even be used as a starter, so make a few extra (which is my mantra, as you probably know by now).  One of my favourites (& apparently everyone else’s!) are baked cheesy biscuits – you can serve them simply on their own or with a dip, or even pipe some cream cheese on them & decorate with chopped chives.  They are really easy to make & the recipe is in my blog called “Grate Expectations” – here’s the link for speed:  http://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/grate-expectations/

The next snacks are really easy too & can be served with a salad as a starter: very stuffed mushrooms.  Make them ahead the day before & stick them in the fridge, covered in cling film.  Just warm them up in the oven when you want them.  If you don’t like mushrooms, use tomatoes with the seeds scooped out instead.  Food processor at the ready!

You will need:

2 punnets Mushrooms (closed cup for nibbles or flat mushrooms if you’re making a starter)
4 thick slices of Bread (a day old at least, or leave it to dry out for an hour uncovered – use the crusts if you can).
5-6 Sundried Tomatoes, snipped up
1 tablespoon of the Oil (from the Sundried Tomatoes)
2 cloves Garlic, chopped
1oz grated Parmesan Cheese or 1oz grated Grana Padana (or half of each) & a little extra for sprinkling on top
A handful of Pine Nuts for topping
1oz salted Butter
Freshly ground Black Pepper

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 200*C (if you’re cooking them now), then make the breadcrumbs.  Rip up the slices of bread, put them in a food processor (only a couple at a time, don’t fill it further than half way or it will jam) & whizz them up until fine crumbs.  Tip them into a bowl & then whizz up the next lot of breadcrumbs, but leave them in the food processor.

Into the processor, add the chopped garlic, snipped up sundried tomatoes (use scissors – please don’t chase a wet tomato around a chopping board, there are no fingers in this recipe!) & a tablespoon of the tomato oil, grated Parmesan and/or Grana Padana, plus a small sprinkling of the black pepper (don’t overdo it, you just want to season them).  You don’t need salt, because the Parmesan will provide all the salty seasoning you need (bonus!).  Whizz the whole thing up, adding the other breadcrumbs gradually as you are doing so.  If it’s too dry, add a drizzle of the tomato oil as you whizz again.  You should end up with a nice, moist crumble mixture.

Tip the mixture into a bowl if you’re going to use it straightaway, or you can actually pop it in the fridge in a sealed bag for later (great when delegating, because it’s already done & they only have to do the assembling).  Set aside while you prep the mushrooms.

Wipe the mushrooms with a damp cloth or use a pastry brush, removing the stalks (keep these for stuffing or making leftover pies).  Get a couple of lasagne dishes or similar, but don’t use tins to cook these in or they will burn.

Heat a skillet or frying pan & melt the butter in it.  Add the mushrooms, frying them for about 30 seconds each side.  You only want to coat them in the melted butter, so they should stay pretty light coloured.   Gently remove each one & lay them side by side, cup side up, in a lasagne dish, ready to be filled.

Scoop spoonfuls of the breadcrumb mixture into each mushroom – be generous & keep going until every mushroom is crammed full, then sprinkle with a little more cheese.  Any leftover breadcrumb mixture, chuck it in the fridge for later (someone always turns up late or you might fancy a midnight snack).  Scatter a few pine nuts over the top (these are gorgeous & have a sort of popcorn taste to them).

If you’re preparing them in advance, cover in cling film now & pop them in the fridge until you need them (they keep until the next day at least).  Otherwise, bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes until golden & gorgeous.  These are great hot or cold, either on their own or with dips, or just with a green salad as a starter.

So that’s a couple of baked snacks done & stored, ready for Christmas!  You should be feeling pretty good by now, because you’re getting organised & should be looking forward to relaxing a bit on Christmas Day (obviously, I can only help you with food – my name isn’t Merlin, so I suggest hiding the TV remote in the laundry basket & the batteries in your pockets, just in case you have to barter for some peace).

Next thing is the snack sticks!  Slender slices of lovely veg are the easiest things to prepare, especially if you get these done a couple of days before & delegate too!  Cooling cucumber, carrot & celery can be prepped by one of your Helpers a few days before, then stashed in the fridge in airtight containers or bags, ready to be whipped out with a delicious dip anytime!  If you fancy something different, try raw crunchy cauliflower florets (one of my faves), sliced peppers, sugarsnap peas & mangetout.  Give them a good wash, trim the ends & stand them in a cup.  One thing I don’t do at this time of year is make dips – I really cannot be bothered & what with all the other stuff to do, just buy some nice ones & store them in the fridge until needed.  Simply scoop them into individual tea cups with saucers & dinky spoons (saving your table from splodges), rather than leaving them in a plastic tray – even if they do have one of those optimistic re-sealable tops, dips always disappear first!

Ready for some more?  Another favourite of ours are these spicy chicken strips & these crispy morsels have a bit of a kick to them!  These are really easy to make, even easier if you get a Little Helper involved & you can make these well in advance, freeze them & use them when you want to.  Aprons on!

What you need:

2 large Chicken Breasts, cut into about half an inch thick strips
1 large Egg
2oz Plain Flour
4-6 thick slices of Bread, whizzed up into fine breadcrumbs
Tip of a teaspoon of ground Cayenne (1/8th teaspoon approx)
Quarter teaspoon each of Turmeric, Cumin & dried Coriander leaves
Zest of a Lemon (if you’re Lemon is huge, use only half the zest)
Sea Salt & freshly ground Black Pepper for seasoning
Extra Virgin Olive Oil

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 200*C.  Drizzle a little olive oil in the bottom of a roasting tin or baking tray.

Measure your spices into a cup & carefully mix together.  (Sometimes, I only use half this mixture & sprinkle the rest over chunky raw potato slices, drizzled in olive oil, to make spicy wedges in the oven – bake at 220*C for 25 minutes).

Tip the flour, breadcrumbs & lemon zest into a shallow bowl or plate, adding a little sea salt & black pepper to season.  Add the spices & mix everything together.

Beat the egg in another shallow bowl or plate.

The tip here is to keep one hand for the wet dip, one for the dry, otherwise you end up with breaded fingers & it’s not pretty (they look like little drumsticks!).

Take a couple of pieces of chicken, coat them in the egg & shake off the excess.  Chuck them in the breadcrumb mixture & pat this onto the chicken to ensure it’s coated well.  Place them into the roasting tin & repeat until you have coated all the chicken.  Drizzle more olive oil over the top (drizzle, not drown).

Bake in the oven for about 20 minutes, turning over halfway through.  Once cooked, they will be crispy, fragrant & gorgeously golden.  Test they are cooked by cutting a strip in half & it should be white, not pink at all (salmonella is not a Christmas gift).  Obviously, you should eat this one (if it’s cooked through) because you’re the Chef & need to make sure they’re nice.

Spread them on a huge plate for people to help themselves – turn it into a starter with a salad, a couple of potato wedges & a yoghurt & mint dip, or leave them to cool before freezing them in a bag until needed.  Job done!

Hope that’s helped you out a bit & now you can have a selection of snacks & stalks ready in advance.  So put your feet up & have a cuppa with your “Hungry Helpers” – you deserve it!  Stay hungry 😉 A x

 

 

 

 

 

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

A Pizza Cake

Fridays are fabulous for many reasons: it’s the Preekend, the fizz is chilling in the fridge & thoughts turn to dinner.  Pizza is very much loved in our house & we’ve tried them all over the years – the fresh, the frozen & the takeaways.  But nothing beats making your own, getting everyone involved & having a relaxing meal (pizza is definitely relaxed & a great way to wind down the week!).

Because I’ve been baking up a storm, I like to delegate the dough making on a Friday night to the guys & my Husband has become Chief Pizza Dough Maker.  Usually, I’ll pour us each a glass of Prosecco to sip (in “scary saucers”, which my Husband can fit his face in) & while he’s kneading the dough, we catch up on each other’s news & gossip. Here’s how to make your own.

What you need for the dough:

12g fresh yeast
330ml lukewarm water (stick your finger in it & it should be the same temperature, not hot or cold, just right)
500g strong white bread flour (plus extra for kneading, etc)
A good pinch of sea salt

What to do:

Dissolve the yeast in the water, stirring with a fork to ensure it’s all mixed.

Mix the sea salt & flour in a large bowl, then add the yeast water, stirring well to create a dough.

Bring the dough together with your hands, wiping it around the bowl to remove any excess on the sides.  Sprinkle a little flour around the bottom of your bowl (all will become clear later on!).

Dust your worktop with a bit of flour, then tip the dough out onto it.

Knead well for ten minutes using firm strokes, pushing away from you with the heel of your hand & then folding back on itself, turning & repeating.   This gives it (& you!) a good workout & makes it smooth, elasticated & easy to work with.

Once kneaded (it should spring back from the touch), place in the floured bowl & cover loosely with a piece of lightly oiled clingfilm.  It doesn’t need to be sealed tight – your dough will double in size, so needs room to grow.  As long as there are no gaps around the edge of the bowl, it should be fine.  Put it in a warm, draught-free place to prove for half an hour – I tend to put mine in the airing cupboard, except when it’s Summer & then it sits on the worktop in the kitchen.  Proving is where the dough is allowed to rest from all that exercise & all that kneading you’ve done will ensure it rises well.

Once the dough is proving, turn on your oven to 230*C to ensure it’s really hot by the time you are ready to start cooking the pizzas.  This is when I prepare my tomato sauce & get chopping the toppings.  Usually, I have a couple of jars of my homemade tomato sauce in the fridge, leftover from the various pasta dishes I’ve made in the week.  This sauce was something I started making when I was 17, in my own kitchen with a couple of Italian cookbooks for inspiration.  Fast forward 30 years & it has become a staple in my repertoire, my signature sauce & a flexible foundation for many of my recipes – especially pizza!  Unfortunately for you lovely people, I can’t share it (secret family recipe & all that, you know the score).  

However, if I don’t have time or any pre-made jars, I make this simple version.  It’s just a tin of Italian plum tomatoes, gently squished by hand in a bowl (just get your hands in there & do it – you’ll wash).   Add a little sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, a tiny pinch of sugar (to balance the acidity), a little shredded fresh Basil & that’s it, no cooking required!   Make it into your own signature sauce – add a little chopped fresh garlic or a sprinkle of shredded fresh chilli, if you’re fancy it being a bit fiesty.  It’s your sauce – create your own masterpiece & just play around with different flavours until it’s how you want it.

By now, your dough will be ready to shape into pizzas.    Dust your worktop with a little flour & remove the dough from the bowl – it will be quite sticky now, so just scrape it around the bowl to remove it all.  Knock it back to remove any large air bubbles (I throw it on the worktop a couple of times & give it a quick knead for a few seconds).

Before you start worrying about throwing spinning sheets of dough in the air like a professional Pizzaiolo, just remember you’re in your kitchen at home & how you do it really is up to you.  Cut the dough into quarters & set aside three of them on a floured worktop.  Take the piece left & shape it into a ball, then work into a circle (or whatever shape you want) with your fingers, pushing it out on the worktop, or use a rolling pin – whatever you feel comfortable doing.   Sprinkle a little coarse semolina onto a flat baking tray & transfer your dough onto it.  Set aside while you do the same for the other dough balls.

Once the dough is stretched out, I smooth a large spoonful of the sauce over the top, leaving half an inch around the edge & it’s ready to be adorned with beautiful toppings! Obviously, we all have our favourites – mine is spinach, ricotta & sundried tomatoes – shiny green swirls of wilted spinach & splodges of ricotta are decorated with snipped up, ruby red sundried tomatoes.  I am also a bit partial to Proscuitto & Pepperoni with a few plump, roasted pepper pieces on top (I buy the jars, because I really don’t have the time to faff about roasting my own & they really are quite lovely!).  

Finally, I add a little torn mozzarella, a dusting of Parmesan & a pinch of pungent Oregano.  I only use a small amount of each topping, because pizza shouldn’t be drowning in them – it will never cook properly if it’s stacked like a skyscraper & your base will just be soggy (& nobody likes a soggy bottom).  

Bake in a very hot oven, a minimum of 230*C, for about 5-8 minutes, until the melted cheese has oozed into all the gaps, before it crisps up & turns a gorgeous golden hue.  If you have a pizza oven, it will take about 3 minutes because they get to much higher temperatures (I’m going to have to invest in one, especially with the amount of pizza I make!).

Slide it onto a chopping board, slice it up & serve!

Another tip is to get yourself a proper chopping board specifically for pizza, because they also double up as a serving tray & everyone can help themselves to a slice (just use a couple of napkins – no plates to wash up!).

Have a go at making your own Friday night treat – it’s a pizza cake!  A x