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 Renault & 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).

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
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

 

A Bit on the Side

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

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

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

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

What you need:

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

What to do:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to do:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What you need:

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

What to do:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 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 😉 A x

 

 

 

 

 

A Kitchen Nightmare: Readymeals, Set, Go!

Firstly, apologies for the delay in writing my blog, as we are in the process of having a new kitchen fitted (week three, yay!).  As you’re probably aware, the kitchen is my sanctuary, my haven of foodliness & culinary creativity.  It’s one of my favourite places when life gets stressful, where I go to take my mind off things & create sweetness when there is none (or knead the crap out of some dough for a bit to de-stress).  When I can’t cook or bake, I tend to get a bit tetchy!  I started the first week like SpongeBob on his first day at the Krusty Krab (“I’m ready!”), but rapidly transformed into Donna Corleone by the end of the second.  It’s never straight-forward when you’re having building work done, even a small kitchen & no matter how organised you think you are, you’re not.  As I discovered, even the most perfectly planned projects can go a bit awry & bring out your inner DeNiro.

Growing up, I learned from my parents how to do a range of tasks around the home – building a fitted kitchen with my Mum, digging out footings & laying a wooden floor, building a conservatory, learning basic car & motorcycle mechanics from my Dad (plus how to remove oil with sugar & washing up liquid).  My ex was also rather fond of renovating houses, so I learned to plaster, install a bathroom (at 6 months pregnant, I was lugging a steel bath up a staircase with him) & build various furniture (he would come home with a stack of wood & say “I’m making a pine bed”).  So I was quite prepared for a modicum of mayhem during this project.

Until Friday morning of the second week, there was no working sink, no oven, no hob, no washing machine in place & no wine, which even for the most patient of people starts to get a bit much.  None of this was made easier by sharing our lounge with most of the large kitchen appliances (which was everything but the fridge), a dining table & six chairs, along with all the usual furniture one has in a lounge & everything the cat owns too (along with one rather disgruntled cat, who was having to share with “the staff”).  The kettle, microwave, toaster & slow cooker were all perched rather precariously on the dining table & washing machine, just across from the sofa.  It was very cosy!

Unfortunately, the kitchen supplier (a rather large, well-known company who shall remain nameless) & their kitchen designer let us down, causing a few headaches for us & the builders.  Cue a few trips to the store across town – we drove there on one occasion because I got bored of being on hold for half an hour & they answered just as we pulled up outside.  At last count, there have been 17 telephone calls (most of them with me in my best “I’m so disappointed” Mum voice), seven emails with almost a dozen photographs sent to the supplier, mostly asking what part of “like for like” didn’t they get & then there was the tile incident.  Trying to explain that a subway tile is not a floor tile was like Father Ted explaining the difference between the cows in the field & toy ones (“these cows are small, but those are FAR AWAY!”), until we met the fabulous Jas (who they should promote immediately, because she is brilliant!).  I’m pretty sure the Duty Manager has bought a one way ticket to a remote island somewhere with no wifi, just to escape me (I bet he’s got a kitchen that works though!).

As you can probably imagine, my tetchy-o-meter is now wacked right round into the red & like the smile I’m forcing, it’s not good.  As we are midway into week three, with various as yet unresolved issues (such as a gaping chasm in the ceiling where the old oven fan used to be, no hob as yet & a couple of minor head injuries from the low oven vent, which has a tea towel on to cover the blood), you can imagine that we’re getting rather vexed & I’m suffering from serious Spaghetti alla Carbonara deficiency.  Note to self: remember wine next time & double it, with a few whiskey chasers!

Before the chaos began, I prepared a few meals in advance & filled the freezer with lots of luscious treasures to keep us going.  Firstly, I made my staple Italian favourite: an enormous lasagne al forno.  This was baked using a rich, slow stewed meat ragu & my hand whipped cheese sauce (it’s all in the wrist!), then cut into eight portions & frozen individually.  It’s important to do this, because I guarantee that not everyone will want to eat what you do on the same day.

As I was making a cheese sauce for my lasagne, I decided to make double (two pints) & use up the cauliflower, broccoli & carrots in the fridge before they walked out in protest.  This really easy recipe is a favourite of ours & I used to make it for my son when he was a baby weaning onto solids (many moons ago!).  Cut the cauliflower & broccoli into chunky florets, slice the carrots & then steam them all until cooked but still firm – usually five or six minutes.  Spread the veg in a dish (a lasagne dish is good for this), pour the hot cheese sauce over & grate a couple of ounces of cheese on top – whatever cheese you have that needs using up!  I’ve mixed chunks of Gorgonzola with grated Grana Padana, a bit of Parmesan & Cheddar, which works really well.  To give it a crispy topping, roughly grate half a crust of bread over the top & spread liberally.  It can be chunky or fine, it really doesn’t matter.   Sprinkle a pinch of Oregano on top, some freshly ground black pepper & bake it in the middle of the oven at 200*C for about 20 – 25 minutes.  It will be crispy on top, the cheese will go golden & all that gooey cheese sauce will plump up the veg, infusing them with cheesiness.  Leave it to go cold, slice into portions & freeze in individual tubs.  This tastes amazing on it’s own too & is quite filling (we had it with chips from our local Chinese takeaway – gorgeous!).

The next day, I prepared a couple of fresh chickens by filleting, skinning & cutting them into portions.  This provides four chicken breasts, four legs & two carcasses with the wings on.  Have a read of my article “A Bird in the Hand is Worth Ten in a Dish” if you need help here.   The key is to take it slow,  at your own pace – there’s no rush.  The legs were used in a Cacciatore, fried with a bit of smoked bacon before being cooked, then frozen individually.  The carcasses went into the oven with some veg, herbs & water to make stock (which was also frozen for future risottos when we have a hob).  The chicken breasts were divided into two to make chicken pies & kievs, stuffed with homemade garlic & smokey bacon butter.

After seeing our national treasure Jamie Oliver (hi Jamie!) make this garlic butter on TV, I thought I’d try it & it’s really quite fabulous.  Once a month, I buy a big pack of smoked bacon, split it into 4 or 6 rasher batches & freeze them, so I’ve always got smoked bacon for risotto or cacciatore – now I have it for garlic butter too.  I have also used Proscuitto di Parma when I have leftover slices – it crisps up perfectly  when fried.  It makes more sense to make a large batch of the butter, rather than faffing around with piddling portions just for two kievs.  The measurements are general here, depending on how much garlic you like, so go easy if you’re unsure.

Use a regular sized 250g block of butter (salted or not), remove the wrapper,  & leave it in a bowl to soften slightly (cut it into chunks to speed the process up).  Fry four rashers of streaky smoked bacon in a dry pan – you want the fat to render out & make the bacon crispy.  Once it’s crispy, remove from the pan & lay on a chopping board to cool.  Chop the bacon into tiny fragments, then add to the butter mixture.

Snip some fresh Parsley into the butter, about a teaspoonful should be enough.  If you don’t like Parsley, try Oregano (it works well).  Chop or crush about half a bulb of garlic – about 7 or 8 cloves is sufficient.  Also, I prefer to chop garlic as I think it tastes better (plus I’ve crushed more than my fair share of garlic crushers!).  Tip this into the butter with the Parsley & bacon.  Mash everything together with a fork until everything is evenly distributed & have a little taste – be careful, raw garlic can be hot!  If you think the balance is right, then it’s ready to be rolled.

Place a sheet of greaseproof paper on the worktop, about the size of an A4 notepad.  Dollop the garlic butter into a sausage shape about an inch above the edge of the paper, leaving a couple of inches either side to twist together afterwards.  Roll away from you & keep it tight, smoothing the paper with your fingers to make a sausage of butter, tucking the edge of the paper underneath it.  Roll evenly until completely rolled up & twist the edges together.  Wrap in clingfilm & twist the edges again.  Pop it in the top freezer drawer & leave it to set for at least an hour.  This will become firm & easier to slice.  Once ready, cut a couple of slices & put to one side ready for stuffing, then put the rest in back in the freezer.  When you need to use it again, leave it out of the freezer for about ten minutes to soften slightly before slicing.

Next, prepare the breadcrumbs – you don’t need expensive, pre-made breadcrumbs.  It’s a doddle to make your own & use up those crusts that everyone says they like, but always end up on the bird table.  Leave a couple of crusts on a plate, unwrapped for an hour to dry slightly – any bread will do (I use whatever I’ve got – seeded, baguette, whatever needs using up).  Chuck them in the blender & whizz them up until fine.  Job done!  If you’re not going to use them straightaway, pop them in a bag, flatten to remove the air & freeze.  They’re always handy to have & there’s no waste.

Take two skinless chicken breasts & cut across the thickest part to make two equal sized portions.  They may look small, but once they’ve been stuffed & breadcrumbed, they will be a lot bigger!  Make a small incision (about an inch long) in the side & create a larger cavity inside to make a pocket.  Push a slice or two of the garlic & smokey bacon butter into the cavity, then close up the opening with your fingers.

This is the messy bit:  you need to panée the stuffed chicken to make them into proper kievs.  To panée is a French term meaning to breadcrumb – for example, de la poulet panée means breaded chicken.  However, you need to concentrate & keep one hand for the wet dip, one for the dry.  This sounds simple enough, although many times I have panéed my fingers because I forgot which hand went where!  You need three dishes: one with a beaten egg, one with a couple of tablespoons of plain flour & one with fine breadcrumbs in it (a shallow one or a plate will do).

Roll the stuffed chicken breast in the flour, making sure it is coated everywhere, then shake off the remaining flour.  Using your other hand, dip the chicken in the egg then drop it into the breadcrumbs.  Using the same hand you did for flouring, sprinkle & pat the breadcrumbs onto the chicken, ensuring it is thoroughly coated on all sides.  Shake off the excess & place in a plate (sprinkle a few breadcrumbs onto the plate before you do this).  Repeat this process for the other chicken kievs, then cover the dish with cling film & put in the bottom of the fridge for an hour or so – raw meat should not be next to cooked or be above anything else, so I always use the bottom shelf.

This is where I do things a bit differently, because I prefer not to fry the kievs.  Preheat the oven to 220*C.  Get a roasting tin & lightly drizzle some olive oil in the bottom, then place the kievs on top.  Drizzle the tops with a bit more olive oil, chuck in a sprig of fresh Rosemary & bake them in the centre of the oven for about 20-25 minutes.  Halfway through cooking, grab some tongs & turn them over carefully, replacing them in the oven to finish cooking.   Once cooled, pop a couple in a tub & freeze (pour over any escaped butter & crispy bits from the tin too).  They reheat well once defrosted too – just put them in a dish in the oven at 200*C for 20 minutes or so.  Make sure they are piping hot before dishing up – stick a metal skewer in the centre & if it’s hot to the touch, they’re ready.  They go great with a huge salad & proper chunky chips.  If you’re not keen on bacon or garlic, try using different stuffings in your chicken – maybe some sundried tomatoes, a couple of slices of Mozzarella & some fresh Basil leaves, or shredded spinach, Ricotta & chopped pine nuts.

Have a go at making your own ready meals & even if you’re not having building work done, sometimes it nice to have a freezer full of pre-prepped dinners for when you’re working late or can’t be bothered to cook.  A x

 

Love of Lasagne

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

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

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

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

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

Share the love (of lasagne)!  A x

Risotto Reprise

Monday nights are for making rich, rib-sticking risotto, using up the
lovely fresh chicken stock I made on a Sunday from the roast chicken & whipping up a lazy dinner.   Most people think risotto is fiddly, difficult & a bit boring (it depends what you put into it, as with most things in life!).

For me, risotto is a versatile & comforting food – once you master the basic recipe, you can add a variety of flavoursome ingredients & toppings. Mine is just chopped celery, smoked pancetta pieces (streaky bacon works really well), chopped spring onions, fried in a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil.  Then I add a couple of heaped handfuls of Arborio rice (you can use Carnaroli if you like), coating the grains well in the oil, then add a good glug of dry white wine (always use the wine you would drink & absolutely never anything marked “cooking wine”!) & a ladle of  hot, fresh chicken stock from a pan warming on the stove.  Give it a good stir & once the fragrant liquid has been absorbed by the rice, add another ladleful & repeat.  It takes about 20 minutes to cook – just give it a taste & the rice should be al dente (yes, like pasta).  Then turn off the heat, add a generous grating of Parmesan or Grana Padana cheese (I like to mix the two, because I’m a bit of a rebel when it comes to cheese), a couple of small chunks of butter dotted around the pan & cover.  Give it five minutes to rest, then slowly stir in the puddles of butter & melted cheese, spoon onto a plate & eat!  That’s it – no fuss, just a bit of chopping & stirring.

Due to my lack of portion control, there are always plenty of leftovers & that’s great for lunches, but
there are other options!  Like scooping little heaps of cold risotto into balls, rolling them around in a little flour, egg & some breadcrumbs. After that, gently shallow frying them until crispy & golden (actually, very shallow because it’s easier & you don’t need that much oil, just keep moving them about).  Put them on kitchen paper to dry the excess oil & then perch them on some watercress salad.  Give them a little drizzle of beautiful, dark balsamic vinegar, a squeeze of lemon juice & 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.

So stop throwing away that chicken carcass – make yourself some stock & rustle up a risotto!   A x