Dunn Burgering About!

Spring has arrived, a flourish of foliage appearing on the trees & new growth in the garden.  This is also a time of Spring cleaning & doing all those jobs you wanted to do over the Winter, but it was too soggy & cold.  A little bit of sunshine does everyone the power of good too.  While we were out recently, we decided to have a little treat for lunch – a small cheeseburger & fries.  It was not my finest decision & reminded me of a line in a film – “what’s wrong with this picture?”.  The fries were hot but tasteless (no salt) & the burger was sad, cold & rather flat in every respect.  You could have bounced the bun down the motorway, it was that stale!  On the way home, my Husband suggested we make our own burgers.  Although it’s not my forte, I said “hold my spatula!” & that’s how the delicious Dunn Burger happened (named by my wonderful Husband).

It’s been almost 27 years since I last made a proper beef burger.  My Son was a baby, we had gone fishing for the weekend (aka sunbathing with benefits) & took along some of my homemade meatballs.  Someone suggested we make them into burgers instead & they ended up on the grill next to the trout we had caught.  A little surf & turf barbeque ensued & the rest is history.

Fast forward to today & I’ve recreated my delicious burger with a few supporting acts – homemade buns, crispy baked onion rings & my chunky “Aimée chips”.  It took me a whole afternoon to make everything, but it was definitely worth it & let’s face it, if you’re going to do something, might as well do it properly.  Also, I’m no expert on burgers, this is just the way I do it.

To make it easier for you to recreate this dish, I’ve split everything into three sections: burgers, buns & sides.  Not everyone is going to want the buns or side dishes, so this recipe is just for the beef burgers & I’ve put links to the others at the bottom.

Ready to bake it happen?  Hands washed, aprons on & here we go!

What you need (this makes 4 burgers):

500g Minced Beef (10-15% fat content – if you cut the fat, you cut the flavour)
8 rashers Streaky Smoked Bacon
A little Sea Salt & freshly ground Black Pepper
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (for extra pepperiness)
25g Salted Butter
50g Grated Cheese (I used Medium Cheddar)

Optional Extras:
Mustard
Ketchup or Relish
Pickles (I used pickled Cornichons & sliced them)
Crisp Iceberg Lettuce, washed & patted dry
Large Tomatoes, sliced

What to do:

Get 5 pieces of greaseproof paper ready for your raw burgers, approx 6 inchs square – one for each burger & one spare.

Divide the beef into four equal pieces & gently shape each one into a ball.  Be careful not to squeeze them too much, otherwise they will be tough & won’t cook properly.

Put each ball onto a square of greaseproof paper & put the spare piece on top.  Press down evenly to flatten out your burger slightly, until about a half an inch thick.  Remove the top square of paper & use your hands to shape the burger into a circle, flattening down any uneven areas gently.  Repeat with the other three burgers.

Wash & dry your hands again, then sprinkle a little sea salt & pepper over each burger, flipping them over & repeating on the other side.

Stack them up with the greaseproof paper still on them, put them on a plate & wrap in clingfilm.  Place in the fridge for about 30 minutes to rest, as this will help them hold their shape when you cook them later.

Remove the burgers from the fridge & set them aside while you cook the bacon.  Heat a large frying pan or skillet on a medium heat & add the bacon rashers.  There’s no need to add oil at this stage, you want them to render their fat into the pan.  Do not be afraid of the fat – fat is flavour & this is a treat (you won’t be eating burgers for every meal every day).

Once the bacon has started to get some colour to it, transfer the bacon to a baking tray & cover with foil.

Add half the butter to the frying pan & place your burgers into the pan.  Press each one with a spatula, so they make full contact with the hot surface.

Cook for approximately 4-5 minutes each side.  Now I like my burgers cooked well-done, so if you like them more on the rare side, cook them for less time.  When you flip the burgers, press again for a moment to maintain contact with the pan & if desired, add the rest of the butter.

Once your burgers look gnarly & you’re happy with them, pile up a little cheese on each burger & cover with a large saucepan lid or cake tin for a couple of minutes – this will help to melt the cheese.  If you use a cake tin, remember it will get hot, so use tongs to lift it off your burgers.

When the cheese is melted, they’re ready to serve & it’s time to pack those flavour layers into your bun!

Serve these delicious burgers with a side of chunky chips, crispy baked onion rings & a generous green salad.   Usually, I make a dish of homemade mayonnaise too, just for dunking the chips & onion rings in.

Fabulously flavoursome, this fine burger is a tower of taste. You might need both hands for this one!  Stay hungry!  Aimee 😉 x

PS: Here are the links for the buns & sides:

For the buns – You’d Better Bun-lieve It!

For the side dishes – Sides by Side!

 

 

Flaky Pastry Pasties!

It’s this time of year that always seems magical.  Trees have an abundance of Autumnal  toned leaves, as they tumble around like confetti on the breeze, swooning in swathes wherever they land.  Late blooming flowers appear, their vibrant blossoms adding some freshness to the greenery that remains.  Although it’s November, the sun shines just as brightly as in earlier months, spilling spectacular shades across the skies as it arrives & departs each day.

It’s also a great time of year for those comforting dishes, the ones that really hit the spot when you need it.  Sumptuously slow-cooked stews, deeply filled fruit pies & crisp flaky pastries.  We all have our favourites, especially those childhood dishes that evoke fond memories of deliciousness.   The mere mention of puff pastry takes me to a stool in my Mum’s kitchen, watching her create all kinds of pastry treats & especially savoury pasties.  She would make shortcrust pastry ones, filled with her heavenly homemade stew (our version of a Cornish pasty).  Leftovers would be lovingly wrapped in fabulously flaky pastry parcels, deliciously warm & comforting.  And then there were my favourites – crisp buttery puff pastry packed with mashed potatoes, cheese & onion.  There would always be some mashed potatoes leftover from the previous night’s dinner, just enough to make a few pasties for lunch the next day.

Now you all know that I prefer homemade puff pastry (all butter & no unnecessary ingredients!), but we don’t always have the time.  This recipe is one that was passed on to me & one I make often for both savoury & sweet treats.  It’s a faster flaky pastry with all the buttery crispness of puff pastry, but takes much less time to make.  Also, don’t worry about special pastry cutters or equipment.  All you need is a small side plate or saucer & a sharp knife.  You should get eight good sized pasties from this recipe, so plenty to go around.  Ready to bake it happen?  Hands washed, aprons on & here we go!

What you need:

For the Pastry:
8oz Self-Raising Flour (plus additional for dusting your worktop)
5oz Salted Butter, cold from the fridge or at least chilled so it’s firm
100ml Cold Water
1 large Egg, beaten (for glazing the pasties)
1/2oz  Melted Butter (for the tin)

For the Filling:
Approx. 8oz Potatoes, peeled & chopped into small chunks
1 tablespoon Semi-Skimmed Milk
1/2 a teaspoon Sea Salt
2oz Butter
4oz Cheese, grated (I use whatever I have in the fridge)
1 medium Red Onion, finely chopped
Freshly ground Black Pepper & a little Sea Salt
Fresh Thyme leaves (just a couple of sprigs)

What to do:

First, let’s make the pastry.  Sieve the flour into a mixing bowl.  Cut the butter into small pieces, dropping them directly into the flour.

Using your fingertips, rub the butter chunks into the flour a little – we don’t want it like fine breadcrumbs, more like a rough rubble texture with plenty of lumps.  This is just breaking down the butter a bit to make rolling easier.

Using a round ended knife, stir the water into the flour mixture to form a soft dough – the bowl should be clean when you’ve finished.

Tip the dough onto a lightly floured worktop & shape into a rough rectangle.  Dust your rolling pin to stop it sticking & roll out the pastry until about half a centimetre thick.

Fold into thirds (fold one end into the middle, then the other over the top), turn it 90 degrees, then roll again (remember to re-dust your work surface to stop it sticking).  Repeat this once more, then very loosely wrap in a sheet of greaseproof paper & place in the fridge for about 15 minutes or so.  This will allow it to rest & the layers to form.

While the pastry is resting, make the mashed potatoes.  Fill the kettle with water & put it on to boil.  Cut the potatoes into small chunks, about a centimetre (this will help them cook faster) & chuck in a deep saucepan.

Add the sea salt & carefully tip on the boiling water from the kettle (no standing around waiting for the pan to heat up), just enough water to cover the potatoes.  Put the lid on & simmer for about 8-10 minutes, until soft enough to cut easily.  Drain well into a colander over the sink.  Give the empty pan a quick wipe with a cloth to remove any moisture, then tip the potatoes back into the pan, ready for mashing.

Add the semi-skimmed milk & butter, then get mashing!  It’s up to you how mashed you want them (personally, I prefer a bit of texture to my mash & always use a manual hand-held masher).  Leave to cool with the lid off (don’t be tempted to put the lid on, as it forms condensation & you’ll end up with watery spuds).

While the mash is cooling, pre-heat the oven to 220*C & prepare your baking tray.  Line it with a sheet of greaseproof paper, lightly brushed with the melted butter (the butter will add colour & crispness to the underside of the pasties as they bake).

Add the finely chopped onions & grated cheese to the potatoes, along with a little seasoning & a sprinkling of Thyme leaves.  Give everything a good stir & have a quick taste to make sure you’re happy with the filling (this takes restraint, because I could just eat it from the pan at this stage).  Set aside.

By now, your pastry will be ready to roll.  Lightly flour your work surface & rolling pin, then roll out the pastry to about half a centimetre in thickness.  Make sure it’s nice & even, but don’t worry about being too precise.

Place your saucer or plate on the pastry, cutting neatly around the edge & repeat until you have cut out as many as you can.  Where you have leftover pieces of pastry, place them on top of each other, reshape & roll out again.  Sometimes, I’ll just shape these last ones with my fingers rather than cutting them out again (trust me, it will all be fine once they’re baked).

Take one of the circles & roll lightly from top to bottom, to make a more oval shape.  Place a couple of spoonfuls of the potato mixture onto the lower half of the pastry, leaving about a centimetre edge of pastry uncovered.  Repeat until you have all your pasties made.

Brush a little beaten egg around the edge of the pastry & fold the top half of the pastry over, pressing the edges together to seal in your filling.  From one corner of the pasty, gradually squish the edges together to form a crust, finishing at the other corner.  Lift onto your prepared baking tray, prick holes with a fork in the top.  Repeat this step, until you have all your pasties made.

Brush them well with the beaten egg & sprinkle on a little black pepper (or grated cheese if you like).  Bake in the centre of the oven for about 25-30 minutes until gorgeously golden topped & piping hot.

Place on a cooling rack for a few minutes – even if you’re eating them warm, they will be like the surface of the sun right now & melt your mouth.  While they’re cooling a little, grab a few crisp salad leaves or some chunky chips (or both), pile them on a plate & tuck in!

Fabulously flaky pastry, filled with fluffy cheesy potatoes & crisp red onion, these delicious savoury pasties are perfect for a light lunch or lazy supper.  If you do have any leftover pasties, they can be frozen once completely cooled & reheated when you fancy one (pop them in the oven at 200*C, for about 15-20 minutes until piping hot again).

These delicious pasties also make fabulous flaky finger-foods, great for picnics & parties – just make smaller nibble-sized ones & add a spicy tomato dip for dunking!  I use my tomato sauce recipe for meatballs & add a pinch of cayenne to give it a kick (recipe link here: https://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/having-a-ball/).   Next time you have a cheesy comfort food craving, try my easy cheesy mashed potato pasties!  Stay hungry!  Aimee 😉 x

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plum Tuckered Pud!

The seasons have started to shift, it’s almost as if you can taste it in the air,  as we swap long lazy Summer days for softer sunsets & cosy nights.   Hot-headed August has passed the baton to sultry September,  bringing with her the bountiful & beautiful beginnings of a delicious Autumn.  There is nothing as therapeutic as an early morning meander in the countryside, especially during September!  Gloriously gorgeous berries adorn the brambles & hedgerows, while trees are groaning under the weight of their fruity loot.  Nature is amazing, turning tiny Spring blossoms into an Autumnal array of plump berries & fragrant fruits, with a little help from her pollinator peeps of course!

One of the most deliciously juicy fruits of this season are plums, especially Victoria plums – sweet, golden centres wrapped in tart,  sherry-coloured skins.  We were lucky enough to be given a couple of bags of these beauties by a kind neighbour & so I decided to create something a bit special, a sweet but tangy treat – my Plum Tuckered Pud!  Now before you get all excited, this is a bit more involved than my usual “chuck it in a bowl & bake” kind of recipe.  It’s easier than it sounds, I promise, but the best bit is you can make each stage in advance & fling them together at the last minute, making you look like a superstar dessert ninja.  If you don’t have the time to make the pastry or can’t be bothered, you could always skip that step & buy a ready-made pastry case or ready-to-roll shortcrust pastry instead.  Ready to bake it happen?  Hands washed, aprons on & here we go!

What you need:

For the pastry:
175g Self Raising Flour (with extra for dusting your worktop)
60g Salted Butter, cold from the fridge
60g Sugar
1 large Free Range Egg
Zest of half an Orange & half a Lemon

For the fruit compote:
2kg Victoria Plums, washed
3 Star Anise
1 Cinnamon Stick
3 long strips of Orange Zest (I used a speed peeler)
1 ball Stem Ginger, chopped finely
100g Sugar
50ml Cold Water
2 teaspoons Ginger Syrup from the jar
A good squeeze of Lemon Juice
25g Cornflour & approx 2 tablespoons of cold water to make a liquid

For the cream topping:
250g Mascarpone Cheese
250ml Double Cream
2 generous tablespoons Greek Yoghurt
1/4 teaspoon Vanilla Extract (the good stuff)
1 generous tablespoon Lemon Curd
Fresh mint leaves to decorate
1 teaspoon Icing Sugar for dusting

What to do:

Firstly, we’re going to make the plum compote.  Half the fruit, carefully remove the stones (you can put them in the composter).  Set aside a few plums in a dish, cover & pop in the fridge to keep them firm for later (these will be for your topping).

Cut the rest of the plums into quarters – leave the skins on because they naturally contain pectin, which will help the compote thicken up.  Put them in a large saucepan with the sugar, water, lemon juice, star anise, cinnamon, ginger, ginger syrup & the long strips of orange zest.

Gently heat until the sugar dissolves into the water, carefully nudging everything around the pan with a wooden spoon or spatula.  Bring to a boil & simmer gently for about 15 minutes on a medium heat, stirring regularly to make sure nothing sticks to the bottom of the pan.  It should reduce to a sunset-coloured jammy syrup that smells like Autumn.

Turn down the heat, remove the spices & orange strips, then add the cornflour water.  Stir swiftly into the fruit compote (not so much you splash yourself, but enough to blend everything).  Once the compote has thickened up, turn off the heat immediately. 

Leave to cool in the pan, without a lid on (because that will trap condensation & add unwanted moisture).  When cool, transfer to a dish, cover & put in the fridge to chill.

Pre-heat the oven to 180*C (fan oven) & prepare your baking tin – I used a loose-bottomed quiche/pie tin, about 9 inches across.  Smudge a little butter around the inside & edges, then sprinkle a tiny bit of flour on top, shaking it all around until you have a fine floury layer.  Tip out the excess onto your worktop for rolling out your pastry.

Put the flour & sugar into a mixing bowl, then add the butter.  Using your fingertips, squish the butter into the sugary flour & rub together, until you have a fine crumb-like mixture.

Break up the egg with a fork, then add that & the zest to the floury crumbs & mix together to form a soft pastry dough.

Roll out the pastry a couple of inches larger than your tin & about half a centimetre thick.  Lay it carefully over your rolling pin & gently lift onto the baking tin, allowing it to drape into the middle.  Push it into the edges gently, so that it covers the entire base & sides of your tin evenly.

Cut off the excess around the edge of your tin, or you could just use your fingers to press it off against the edge.  Prick a few tiny holes in the base with a fork.  (Any leftover pastry can be cut into shapes & baked on a flat baking tray, dusted with a little icing sugar – perfect for nibbling).

Grab a bit of greaseproof paper, screw it up to make it easier to shape to your tin & then loosely place on top of your pastry.  Tip some baking beads or dry pasta shapes onto the paper, spreading them all across the top & filling the pastry case.

Bake in the centre of the oven for about 12-15 minutes, just until it starts to go golden.

Remove from the oven & place the tin on a cooling rack.  Carefully lift out the paper & baking beads or pasta (which you can save for another time).  Set them to one side on another rack to cool too.

Tip the Mascarpone cheese, double cream, Greek yoghurt, lemon curd & vanilla extract into a large mixing bowl & briefly whisk together until thick & fluffy.  It’s going to be piped on top of your dessert, so it needs to be thick enough to do so.  If it’s too thick, add a little more Greek yoghurt to loosen a little (a couple of teaspoons should do the trick).   Once you’re happy, pop the bowl in the fridge to chill.

Remember the leftover plums?  These are going to be your dessert decorations.  Cut the plums into thin slices, cover & put in the fridge.

Time to assemble!  Before lifting your pastry case from the tin, here’s a tip to give it a more elegant edge.  Take a sharp knife & run it around the top of the pastry, level with the tin edge, slicing off any bobbly bits.  Transfer your pastry case to a pretty serving plate.

Spoon the plum compote into the pastry case, filling it to just over three quarters of the way to the top, smoothing the surface.  Save any leftover compote (more on that later).

Snip the end off a piping bag (we’re going nozzle-less!) & half-fill with the Mascarpone cream, twisting the top of your bag to make it secure.  Starting at the outer edge, pipe round plump splodges of the cream close together to form a bumpy circle.  Then pipe more splodges on the inside, working your way towards the centre of your dessert.  If you have any gaps, pipe a few smaller ones to fill them in.

Now for those pretty plum slices we made earlier!  Place the slices skin-side up at intermittent gaps across the top, like shards of sunshine peeking through the clouds.  Add a couple of mint leaves at intervals – you don’t need many, just a few will do.   Pop your dessert in the fridge for about ten minutes or so.

Just before serving, remove from the fridge & give it a delicate dusting of icing sugar.  Slice & share!  This delicious dessert would make a pretty Autumnal centrepiece for a special dinner or celebration.  Refreshingly tangy, softly spiced plum compote, crowned with a feather-light fluffy cloud of Mascarpone cream & fresh plums, all sat atop a crisp, melt-in-the-mouth pastry base.  If you have any of that delicious plum compote left over, it’s a magical multi-tasker – it tastes rather lovely spread on hot buttered toast, or try a spoonful with a few slices of cheese & crackers too.

So why not make the most of the fabulous plums available this Autumn & try my pretty Plum Tuckered Pud!  Stay hungry!  Aimee 😉 x

 

 

 

Resplendent Risotto & the Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Tiny Little Arancini

Here we are, at the start of a brand new year, full of hope & a handful of resolutions!  After decadent December’s sparkly finale of festivities, January’s bright, crisp sunshine has been a welcome sight.  Although we’re barely into the New Year, piled up platefuls of plenty are replaced with sparse-looking salads, kale on a crispbread & some rather questionable smoothies.  Personally, I don’t go in for all that stuffing & starving yourself (there are other ways to be miserable).  As I’ve mentioned before in a previous blog, there are two things to remember: (1) your “in door” is much larger than your “out door” (think about it) & (2) everything in moderation (one slice of chocolate cake, not six).  January is not a sponge to wipe away the over-indulgences of December!  It’s still Winter & we need warming, cocooning comfort food that satisfies the appetite & fills you up, so this is no time to start depriving your body of much required sustenance!

Weekends here usually involve whizzing around on a Saturday doing chores, catching up with friends, family & phone calls, followed by a lovely lazy Sunday with the Husband, a glass or two of wine & watching old movies together while dinner’s cooking.  Sometimes, I’ll cook a roast chicken & make chicken stock at the same time (multi-tasking at it’s finest!).  Homemade stock is extremely easy to make, you know what’s in it (no hidden nasties) & is very versatile too, being the base to many soups, sauces & dishes.  It also means that we can have a rich, rib-sticking risotto on a Monday night, made with fabulously fresh chicken stock, a bit of bacon & a variety of colourful vegetables.  Here’s a link to my easy roast chicken & chicken stock recipe:  http://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/beauty-the-baste/

Risotto is a simply sumptuous staple dish & as long as you give it your full attention (no wandering off mid-cooking to check the score or your social media), it will reward you with a rich, resplendent rice dish.  Once you master the basic recipe, you can add your favourite flavoursome ingredients & toppings.

This is a recipe I’ve been cooking for years & have found it works well every time, plus the leftovers can be made into some rather tasty arancini – risotto is a bit like the gift that keeps on giving.  Gorgeously gooey & glossy risotto is beautiful piled on a plate, adorned with shimmering roasted vegetables & a drizzle of the oil from the pan with all it’s garlicky goodness.  A tray of roasted veggies will cook in about the same time too & any leftovers are perfect on pizzas, tossed in pasta or just topping some toasted ciabatta rubbed with a little raw garlic & olive oil, creating a beautiful bruschetta anytime (I’ve usually got a jar of these in the fridge).  If you’re cooking this risotto as a vegetarian meal, simply swap the chicken stock for homemade vegetable stock instead (& leave out the bacon, of course).  Ready to give it a go?  Hands washed, aprons on!

What you need:

For the Risotto:
Chicken stock (I usually have 2-3 pints in a pan heating up)
4 rashers Smoked Streaky Bacon or Pancetta
3 sticks of Celery, washed & trimmed
1 bunch of Spring Onions, washed & trimmed
4 large handfuls of Arborio Rice (or you can use Carnaroli if you prefer)
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 large glass of Dry White Wine (Pinot Grigio is good with this, but dry un-oaked white wine will do)
4oz grated Parmesan (because you’ll need some for garnish)
1oz Butter
Freshly ground Black Pepper

For the Roasted Vegetables:
Half a punnet Baby Plum or Cherry Tomatoes, halved
2 Peppers (each a different colour), deseeded
1 Courgette, trimmed
1 Red Onion, trimmed & outer skin removed
3 cloves of Garlic, chopped
Freshly ground Black Pepper
Extra Virgin Olive Oil

What to do:

Firstly, get your stock ready.  If it’s already strained & been chilling in the fridge, simple scoop off any layer of fat from the top (there shouldn’t be much).  Strain into a large saucepan using a metal sieve to remove any bits in the liquid (if you’ve forgotten to do this, just use a sieve when adding the stock to the rice).  This is important, as you don’t want any gritty bits in your risotto.  Because homemade stock already has salt in it, you won’t need to add any to this recipe (there’s no added salt to the roasted veggies either – it draws the water out & makes them mushy).

Put the lid on the pan & heat gently on a low heat until nice & hot – don’t rush this, it will only take a couple of minutes.  Sometimes, I’ll add a cup of boiling water from the kettle if I’ve made a smaller amount of stock & need more liquid.  It’s best to have more than you need, just in case.

Pre-heat the oven to 220*C & prepare your roasting vegetables – wash thoroughly & apart from the tomatoes, chop into chunky pieces.

Chuck them all into a roasting tin or large dish, with a good glug of olive oil & some black pepper (a little goes a long way, so go steady with this).

Chop the garlic & add to the tin, giving everything a good toss around (get your hands in there!).  If you prefer, just give the garlic a bash with the back of a knife & chuck it in the pan whole – it will flavour everything, but more delicately (plus you can squeeze it onto crusty bread later for a snack).

Put in the middle of the oven to cook while you make the risotto.  Give everything a shake after about 10 minutes & return to the oven.  Once cooked, pop them on a cooling rack (this will be when your risotti is finished, but here’s a picture to give you an idea of what to expect).

Prepare your risotto vegetables – wash them thoroughly, trim the ends & chop finely.  Set to one side.

Heat a couple of tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet or frying pan & using a pair of scissors, cut the bacon into small pieces into the pan.

Add the onion & celery, stir frying for a couple of minutes until softened slightly & a little translucent.  Make sure you keep everything moving, as you don’t want the onions to “catch” & burn.

Add the rice to the pan, stirring well & ensuring it is thoroughly coated in the oil (this is important).

Pour the glass of white wine into the pan & stir well (the scent of this bit is always lovely!).  Always use the wine you would drink & absolutely never anything marked “cooking wine”!

Add a couple of ladles of stock into the pan, stirring thoroughly into all the ingredients.  Keep stirring gently until the liquid has been absorbed by the rice & repeat this step.

After about 20 minutes, give it a taste & the rice should be al dente (just like pasta – cooked “to the tooth”).  The rice should be easy to bite through, yet it will still be firm.  If you think it needs a bit longer, add another ladle of stock, stir well & when absorbed, taste it again.

Once you’re happy with your risotto, add a generous handful of Parmesan, along with a couple of small chunks of butter dotted around the pan & leave the pan to one side (you can cover it up if you like).  Give it a couple of minutes to rest, then slowly stir in the puddles of butter & melted cheese.

Spoon generously onto a plate & top with roasted vegetables, dust with a little black pepper & Parmesan, then tuck in!  This rich, warming comfort food tastes lovely with leftover chicken from Sunday dinner or try topping with crispy chicken legs roasted with honey, lemon & fresh Thyme.  Have a wander around my other recipes to give you some ideas.

Due to my lack of portion control, there are always plenty of leftovers, which are perfect for creating the most amazing arancini (which literally translates as “little oranges”).  Because the amount leftover varies each time I make risotto, I don’t tend to measure the ingredients when I make these beautiful little rice balls, so these are approximate measurements below.  An ice-cream scoop comes in very handy when you’re making these & I have been known to use a melon baller on occasion, hence the title to this blog.  Ready?   Let’s get rolling!

What you need:

Leftover Risotto (cold & preferably left overnight)
Breadcrumbs (4-6 thick slices of bread, whizzed in the food processor should do it & any bread – I’ve used seeded, white, brown, whatever needs using up)
1 large Egg, beaten
2oz Plain Flour
Extra Virgin Olive Oil

What to do:

Tip the cold risotto into a bowl & break up any large lumps.  Using a tablespoon or an ice-cream scoop, take little heaps of cold risotto & shape into balls in your hand (yes, you’re going to get messy but that’s half the fun).  Leave them on a tray in the fridge to chill for at least half an hour (if you can leave them for a couple of hours, this will be better).

Put the flour in a flat bowl or casserole dish lid.  Do the same with the breadcrumbs.

Beat the egg in another similar dish (tip: add a tiny pinch of salt to break down the egg & make it smoother).

Roll them around in a little flour, shaking off the excess, dip in the beaten egg, shaking off the excess again & drop into the breadcrumbs.  Give them a good roll around, making sure they are thoroughly coated in breadcrumbs & put on a large plate while you make the rest.

There are two ways I cook these, depending on how many I’ve made.  If I’ve just made a few, I’ll shallow fry them.  Heat a couple of tablespoons of the oil in a large frying pan & gently shallow fry a few of the arancini at a time, moving them around the pan gently (I find tongs best for this), until golden all over & crispy.  Test one by putting it on a plate or board, cut it in half & it should be piping hot in the middle.

If I’ve made quite a few (which is quite often), I’ll bake them in the oven – really easy & no hot pans to stand over.  Get a cupcake or patty tin, put an arancino in each cup & drizzle with a little olive oil (drizzle, not drown!).  Bake them for about 10 minutes, turn them using a couple of spoons, & return to the oven for a further 5-10 minutes until crispy & golden.  Test one as before, to make sure they are piping hot in the middle before serving.

Once cooked, remove the arancini gently using a slotted spoon or tongs & place on either greaseproof or kitchen paper to remove the excess oil (or tip them into a metal sieve & shake).  Allow them to cool for a couple of minutes before serving.  Sometimes, I’ll let them cool completely & pop them in the fridge to chill for a couple of hours, ready to snacking later (they are perfect for picnics).

Perch these plump little treats onto a watercress salad, drizzle with beautiful balsamic vinegar & add a dusting of black pepper.  My homemade tomato sauce goes very well with these – the richness of the risotto is cut by the sweet, but tart tomato (see my meatball blog for tomato sauce recipe).  These more-ish little mouthfuls are perfect for munching, whether for lunch, supper or as a simple starter (also great for nibbling with pre-dinner drinks or curled up on the sofa with a glass of wine & a good film).

Next time you cook a roast chicken for dinner, make some stock & rustle up a resplendent risotto & itsy bitsy teeny weeny tiny little arancini!  Stay hungry!  😉  A x

Super Cauli-Flower Cheese-ness!

It’s been a few weeks since I wrote my last blog (my apologies & I hope my social media pics have kept you well fed in it’s absence).  After a very busy October, filled with sugar art, baking & creating spooky treats for my friend’s little boy who was having a Halloween party, we have zoomed through a newly frosted November at warp speed & driven straight into December!  If you’ve been following me on social media, you’ll know that our Son has graduated from University in November (cue lots of photos & two extremely proud parents!).  Seeing him there in his cap & gown, clutching his well-deserved Degree, was one of those moments I won’t forget!  He’s probably reading this, so I’ll just say it’s wonderful to see all his hard work (both studying & supporting himself working) come to fruition, so congratulations once again & we’re really proud of you!

Things have been busy here in the Hungry household, what with all the celebrating & such.  Now the seasons have cooled drastically, the garden is looking a little tired & in need of some love.  The pots of pretty pink & delicate white miniature Chrysanthemums were recently in full bloom, brightening up the patio with their petite blossoms, while some squirrels had a great time munching on the buffet of bulbs we planted & flinging their furry little selves around the garden with airborne abandon (that can’t be good for their digestion).

The chilly days of late November sunshine & sogginess have given way to a Wintry December, which could be why we are craving richer, rib-sticking dinners & delicious desserts.  Anytime of year, we all have those days when we need something substantial to sustain our busy lives & keep us nourished, both physically & spiritually (because food should do both).  Not necessarily a full-on girdle-busting roast dinner with all the trimmings (although very welcome at certain times of the year!), but sometimes we just need a hearty helping of heavenly comfort food to give us a boost.  Some of the simplest foods can bring us such comfort, just by their fragrant aroma or even the thought of them, evoking happy memories of meals gone by.

One of my favourite indulgences is a large spoonful of creamy, crunchy-topped cauliflower cheese, enveloped in a silky smooth cheese sauce.  Although I know you can get cauliflower all year round, it seems to taste better when it’s in season during these later months.  Cauliflower is one of the most versatile veg we can eat & I’ve grilled, baked, steamed, boiled & pureed it, cooked it in curries & eaten it raw, dipped in lots of luscious pots of sauces, pesto & salsa (this came from when I was a little girl & loved to eat the stalk).   

Usually, I like to serve a rich cauliflower cheese as a side dish with a roast dinner (especially with my spicy roast & baked gammon – recipe soon), but if I’m honest, it’s simply beautiful on it’s own as a luscious veggie dish.  Pure pale cloud-like florets, steamed until al dente & draped in the most luxurious silky smooth sauce, created with a collection of cheeses & crowned with a deeply golden crispy crust – it’s spectacular as the main event, rather than just a mere side dish & this humble vegetable should be given a bit more kudos! 

There are various ways to prepare cauliflower cheese & I have shared this recipe before, but I feel it deserves an article all of it’s own.  It freezes really well & you know how much I like to have food prepared in advance (especially if it’s been languishing in your fridge & needs using up).  If you have various bits of cheese that are loitering in your fridge, now is the time to gather them all together for this delicious dish!  Half a bowl of bocconcini balls, odds & ends of Red Leicester & Double Gloucester?  Grate, slice & shred them to go in this dish.  If you are using smoked cheese, you might want to omit the Gorgonzola or any blue cheese (I find they are both strong flavours & probably best using one or the other).  Ready?  Aprons on, hands washed & here we go!

What you need:

1 large head of Cauliflower (2 if they’re small or you’re making extra to freeze)
1 teaspoon Sea Salt (for the cooking water)

For the cheese sauce:

1 pint of Semi-Skimmed Milk
3oz Salted Butter
3oz Plain Flour
6oz Cheese, grated (half for topping & half for the sauce)
Other bits of Cheese, about half an ounce each – I’ve used Gorgonzola Dolce, Grana Padana, Mozzarella, Bocconcini, Red Leicester, Cheshire, Ricotta & Cream Cheese – if it’s cheese, chuck it in!
Half an ounce of grated Parmesan (for the topping)
1 crust of bread (preferably a day or two old, but if you have to use fresh, leave it out on the side unwrapped)
Oregano (dried is fine)
Sea Salt & freshly ground Black Pepper for seasoning

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 200*C, then fill the kettle & put it on to boil.

Prepare the cauliflower heads – trim off the leaves & remove the stalk, then separate into florets, keeping them as chunky as you can & wash them in cold water.  Place all the florets into a steamer & sprinkle with a good pinch of sea salt.

Pour the boiling water all over the florets, dissolving the salt & washing everything (salt is a purifier).  Put the lid on the pan & steam for about 8 minutes until al dente (poke it with a sharp knife & it should be still be firm, but easy to cut).

While your cauliflower is steaming, prepare your cheeses.  Grate any of the hard cheeses, such as the Grana Padana, mild cheese, etc (if you’ve got a food processor attachment, use it & make your life easier – your knuckles will thank you!).  Mix them well & set aside.  Any cheese with a rind will need it removing, such as the Gorgonzola.  Cut into rough pieces & set aside.

For cream cheese or ricotta, scoop a spoonful into a cup or bowl (leave the spoon in it) & place with your other cheeses.  Once you start making the sauce, you’ll need everything to hand so it’s best to get this organised now.

Once ready, transfer the florets carefully into a large lasagne or pie dish.  Make sure they are all floret-side up & pack them well into the dish.  I find this easier to do with a couple of forks or spoons, so you don’t burn your fingers.  Set to one side while you make the sauce.

Gently melt the butter in a large saucepan – this should be a plain or stainless steel pan, not a non-stick one as you’re going to use a metal whisk in it & you don’t want to wreck your saucepan (or get bits of non-stick coating in your sauce either!).

Remove from the heat & add the flour, put back on the heat & working quickly, whisk thoroughly to combine into a thick, shiny roux.  Traditionally, you would use a wooden spoon, but if you want to make sure you don’t get any lumps I suggest using a good metal balloon whisk (nothing fancy, just a plain wire one will do).

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

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

Add the other cheeses & whisk in again until melted.  Turn off the heat.

Take a spoon & dip it into the sauce – it should coat the back of the spoon well & leave a trail in the pan.  The consistency of the sauce should be like natural yoghurt.

Now taste it – depending on which types of cheese you have used, it might not need much seasoning as some cheeses, such as Parmesan, can be a little saltier than others.

Add a pinch of black pepper (half a dozen twists with a pepper grinder should be fine) & if you think it needs it, add a pinch of sea salt but go steady because once it’s in, you can’t take it out.

Whisk & taste again (with a clean spoon please!).  If you’re happy with your cheese sauce, carefully pour all over the cauliflower florets, drizzling slowly into all the corners & working your way towards the centre.  Make sure every floret is covered with the sauce & use a spatula to scrape out any remaining in the pan – you’ve worked hard to make this & shouldn’t waste any (or you could just dip a piece of crusty bread in & eat it – call it Chef’s perks).

Sprinkle the remaining grated cheese & the little bit of Parmesan all over the top generously, grating more if you think it needs it (I usually end up doing this).  Every little creamy cloud of cauliflower should be covered in a good sprinkling of cheese!

Do the same with the breadcrumbs, ensuring an even coating all over.

Finally, add a good dusting of the dried Oregano across the whole thing.

Bake in the centre of the oven for about 20-25 minutes, until bubbling furiously & the top has turned the most gorgeous golden brown.

Remove carefully & place on a cooling rack for 5 minutes (trust me, it won’t go cold!).  This will allow everything to relax, settle & generally calm for a few moments (because it will be hotter than the sun & you don’t want to burn your mouth).

Serve either as a side dish with a Sunday dinner or simply scoop some onto a plate, grab a spoon & indulge in a little luscious cheesy delight on these cold evenings.  If you want to pimp it up a bit, scatter some chopped crispy smoked bacon pieces into the cheese sauce just before you pour onto the florets, or add broccoli to bring some colour to the dish.  Try adding different cheeses (Goat’s Cheese is a lovely alternative to cream cheese or maybe try crumbling a little Cheshire cheese into the sauce), perhaps swap fresh Thyme for the Oregano & even add a few delicate dots of red chilli to give it some extra heat!

So that’s my very cheesy, creamy Super Cauli-Flower Cheese-ness, in all it’s lusciously gooey gorgeousness!  Make it your own centrepiece for a vegetarian dinner, or even as an accompanying dish to go with your favourite Sunday roast.  Next time you want a side with substance, reach for the cauliflower & create a little cheesy indulgence!  Stay hungry!  A 😉 x

 

 

 

 

Puff Up The Volume!

Driving home this morning, seeing the luscious much-needed rain has brought the gardens back to greenery & lowered the temperature slightly, I felt rather peaceful.  Last week was particularly interesting, especially as we had to part with our beloved little Peugeot, Phoebe.  Although over the years she leaked, shivered & shook, little Phoebe was like driving a rocket strapped to a rollerskate & I adored her.  So it was rather reluctantly that we drove her to our local “Car Spa”, thinking we would never find another like her.  Fortunately, thanks to the magic of the internet & a rather brilliant chap called Richard (who really knows his stuff!), we bought a beautiful cream coloured beauty & promptly named her Erica (after Eric Clapton, because he was in a band called Cream & calling her Buttercream would have been a bit weird!).  Stress levels deflated, I could concentrate on baking again & two rather rapidly approaching birthdays!

Twenty-four years ago, I was nine months pregnant with my handsome Son & as he was born the day before my birthday, we always celebrate in a double way.  Some of my friends will know that I’m making a sugar lion at the moment (hopefully it will be ready in time!) & it’s rather large, so most of my fridge is full of lion parts (not real ones – please be assured they are all made of marshmallow, chocolate ganache & rice crispies!).  Once it’s finished, I’ll share some pictures with you.  When I bake up a birthday banquet, it’s usually a relaxed affair with everyone helping themselves to the various nibbles & treats, with a triple layer, triple chocolate birthday cake in the midst of it all.  One of our favourite nibbles is cheese pastry straws made from delicate flaky, buttery puffed-up pastry.  You know the sort I’m talking about – the crisp, light, shatter-into-a-squillion-shards-in-your-mouth kind of pastry that melts into a swirl of savoury cheesy butterness once it hits your tongue.

Now usually I would buy some shop-bought puff pastry, as it’s pre-made & quick to roll out – job done!  However, despite my best efforts, I can’t find one made with just butter so I make my own version, using a recipe my Mum & Grandma made when I was younger.  My Mum used to make all kinds of delicious pastries when I was a little girl & the scent of baked buttery delights would always entice me to the kitchen.  Sat on a high stool by the door, I would watch her working her magic & creating all kinds of tantalising treats.  Delicate voluminous layers of flaky fabulousness would crown rich fruit pies, be wrapped cocoon-like around sausage rolls or made into swirly sticks, simply showered in shavings of cheese.  Of course, all magic takes a little time & I was fascinated at how a few simple ingredients can be made into something magnificent (I still am!).  This pastry recipe is really simple to make (the basic recipe is just three ingredients BC – before cheese) & although it takes a little more effort to make than shortcrust pastry, the taste is amazing & it’s really worth it!

One of the most important things when making pastry is cool conditions, so it’s best to make it first thing in the morning (I like to do this when everyone is still in bed at the weekends).  To make sure your hands are cool, after washing them run your wrists under the cold tap for a few moments (trust me, it works).

The next thing to remember is take your time.  Some foods should be made slowly, it’s like a ritual binding all the ingredients together & each process is important, so you can’t skip anything.  This pastry is one of those slow foods, lovingly created by hand – your hands & not squished out of some huge machine into a packet (don’t get me started on the random ingredients list of unnecessary additives either!).  Once you master this flaky-layered lovely, shop-bought pastry will never taste the same again!  Ready?  Aprons on & here we go!

What you need:

For the Pastry:
8oz Self-Raising Flour (plus extra for rolling out)
6oz Salted Butter, cold from the fridge & cut into 4 equal pieces (I used salted, as it omits the need for additional salt)
100ml Cold Water

For the Filling:
1oz Medium Cheddar, grated
Half an ounce each of Parmesan & Grana Padana, grated finely
Freshly ground Black Pepper
A bit of melted butter (a teaspoonful should be enough)
1 large Egg, beaten (for glazing)

What to do:

Tip the flour into a large mixing bowl & add one of the butter pieces.  Rub it into the flour until it resembles fine breadcrumbs.

Using a round-ended knife, stir together & slowly add enough water, just a little at a time, to bring it all together – take your time, as you don’t want a sticky gooey mess.  Once you have achieved a thick, dough-like consistency, that should be enough.

Turn out your pastry onto a lightly floured worktop & shape into a rectangle.  Roll away from you into a long piece, about a centimetre thick.  Try to keep the edges as straight as you can, but don’t worry too much or you’ll drive yourself loopy!  Using a dry pastry brush, dust off any excess flour as you go, especially when folding the layers (otherwise it may affect the recipe & you want flaky pastry, not floury).

Take one of the three pieces of butter & cut into small chunks of about 1cm (you can just pull it apart, but the heat from your hands might melt it).

Dot the butter all over the top two thirds of the pastry.

Fold the bottom plain piece over the next third of pastry, then fold the top piece over that.  Brush off the excess flour & press the open edges together to seal the layers of butter & air in.

Dust the worktop with a little more flour.  Turn the pastry one turn to the right & roll out again, just as you did above.

Repeat the above steps a couple more times, using up the last two pieces of butter.  Then turn the pastry to the right, roll it out again & fold into thirds, brushing off the excess flour as you go.

Lay your pastry on a piece of greaseproof paper, fold the top of the paper over your pastry & put it on a plate in the fridge for an hour (you might need to leave it longer during this heatwave we’re having, so probably add another ten minutes if you’re not sure – I’ve left it a couple of hours before & it didn’t do any harm).  Get yourself a cuppa, put your feet up & read a book or something (if you’re like me, you’ve probably been whizzing around, so relax for a bit).

Pre-heat the oven to 220*C & then prepare your tins (you’ll need a couple of baking trays).  Brush melted butter all over the inside of the baking tray & then run under the cold tap.  Tip away the excess, leaving a wet film on the tin.  Repeat with the second tray & set them to one side.

Once your pastry is rested & chilled, it’s time to get rolling!  On a lightly floured worktop, roll out the pastry into a wide rectangular strip, about a centimetre thick.

Cut into two equal pieces & on one of them, brush a little melted butter all over the top & sprinkle on two thirds of the cheese.

Place the other piece of pastry over the top, press down & roll out again, about 1cm thick.

Brush the top of your cheesy pastry with beaten egg – just the top, not the edges, otherwise your pastry won’t rise properly.

Using a knife or a ravioli cutter (my fave tool de jour), cut into finger width strips & twist each one loosely into a twirl of pastry with the egg glazed side outwards.

Place on the baking tray & repeat with the rest of the pastry, until you have a couple of trays of twirly swirls with about half an inch between them.

Sprinkle with the remainder of the cheese, taking care to get the majority of it on the actual pastry (although you will love the crunchy cheesy chips that this produces).  Give them a quick dust with some black pepper.

Bake in the centre of the oven for about 10-12 minutes, until they have risen & turned a gorgeous golden hue.  Carefully transfer them onto a cooling rack using a pallet knife or thin spatula.  Remember the crunchy cheesy chips?  Shake them into a dish for sprinkling on salad as a crispy garnish or just eat them as they are – Chef’s perks!

Serve your cheesy sticks either on their own or maybe dunked in an oozy, warm baked Camembert with a glass of chilled wine (you’ve worked hard & deserve a treat).  I doubt they will last long, but if you do have any leftover just pop them in an airtight container (they will keep for a couple of days, so I’m told).

If you want to make an alternative to cheese twists, just make cheese “sausage” rolls – instead of cutting into strips, cut into wide ribbons.  Lay grated cheese across the top half of the pastry ribbon, brush a line of beaten egg on the opposite edge of the pastry & roll over, carefully encasing the cheese inside.  Press lightly to stick the roll together, then cut into inch long pieces & brush with egg.  Bake at 220*C for about 10-12 minutes, until golden & risen.  Transfer to a baking tray to cool for a few minutes before serving.  Great for lunches, nibbles or parties.

So when your pastry needs to be buttery, puffed up, flaky & fabulous, have a go at homemade!  Stay hungry!  A 😉 x

 

 

Comforting Conchiglioni, the Cold Conqueror!

January is always a bit of a fresh month, both in weather & starts.  The freshness outside at “OMG it’s early!” was a bit bracing this morning, as we were driving through a downpour in the darkness.  Fresh starts are also being encouraged – every which way you look, there are adverts for skinny salads, sugar-free snacks & fat-free fodder, none of which help when it’s freezing cold & you need a decent dinner to warm you through!  As you probably know, I don’t do diets & a bit of lettuce & a rice cake won’t give you much energy, especially in this weather!   It’s all about balance & there are plenty of other things to make life dull – food should definitely not be one of them!

On our morning drive, my Husband & I always discuss dinner before I drop him off – it’s a sort of ritual we have & the anticipation of what I’m cooking builds during the day, making dinner that much more enticing.  Pasta is undeniably one of my favourite foods!  It’s easy to prepare & a pleasure to eat, especially when it’s crammed full of flavoursome fillings or dressed in a rich, sumptuous sauce, or both!  When I discovered these pretty pasta shells on a random shopping trip some years ago, I had already decided what kind of fillings I would make, the sauce, the herbs, everything – all before reaching the checkout!  Now I appreciate not everyone gets excited by a bag of pasta (I have a dedicated pasta shelf in the pantry), but they inspired me to create something wholesome & filling – proper rib-sticking, colourful comfort food to warm you on a chilly day like today, without taking all day to make.  This recipe for Stuffed Conchiglioni is something we enjoy making together as a family & definitely eating together!  They can be made in advance & the best bit is there’s going to be plenty of leftovers for lunches (hot or cold) & maybe a couple of pots for the freezer, for those “can’t be bothered” nights.  So here goes – hands washed & aprons on!

What you need:

500g of dried Conchiglioni (1.1lb)
400g of Full Fat Cream Cheese (the good stuff – check it’s not got locust bean gum in it – that’s not cheese) or use Ricotta if you like (fresh is easy to make & I’ve attached a recipe link at the bottom of this article)
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 a couple of handfuls of 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

PS:  If you want to make your own ricotta (it’s easy, I promise), here’s the recipe link to a previous blog I wrote: http://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/grate-expectations/

 

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 Bocconcini, 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)
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.  Rather than waste any of that leftover salad, chuck it in the blender to be whizzed up with a few untoasted pine nuts, a good grating of Parmesan cheese & a drizzle of olive oil, et voilà! – homemade pesto! Spoon into a jar, stick it in the fridge & save it for another day (try it on hot baby new potatoes, it’s delicious).

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! Aimee  😉 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 (for the recipe, click on this link to my blog: https://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/super-cauli-flower-cheese-ness/).  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).  Hands washed, aprons on & 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.  Clean hands & 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.  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)
OR
2 tablespoons Plain Flour & 1oz Butter
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).

If you’re using the gravy browning, measure the powder in another jug (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.

If you’re using the flour & butter method, melt the butter in a pan & sprinkle the flour in to make a thick paste.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.  Hands washed, aprons on & 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 your 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 😉  Aimee x