Love Love Love!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What you need:

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

What to do:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What you need:

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

What to do:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What you need:

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

What to do:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

What you need:

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

What to do:

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

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

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

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

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

What you need:

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

What to do:

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

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

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

 

Back to Work, Back to Reality!

Happy New Year everyone!  Hope you all had a fabulous holiday & you’re feeling refreshed! The festive season has finally finished & so has over-indulgence of all varieties.  January always brings everyone back to reality with a bit of a bump.  As I write this, people everywhere are making rules for themselves under the guise of “New Year’s resolutions”, vowing never to drink anything alcoholic ever again, not to let anything sugary pass their lips, or to dance in fountains in a fairy costume (which is a bit dangerous in this weather & makes your wings soggy).  December always seems to be used as an excuse for excess, leaving January to pick up the pieces (as long as they are small & fat-free apparently).

Now I’m not going to start admonishing people for being a bit generous with their portion sizing (that would be the pot calling the kettle), nor am I going to jump on the juicing wagon (think of your teeth people!).  There are two things to remember if you want to look after yourself:  (1) your body’s “In” door is a lot bigger than it’s “Out” door (I’m being polite here), & (2) that age old saying: everything in moderation.  Personally, I don’t do diets & prefer to simply eat until I’ve had enough, leave what I can’t finish & never deny myself anything (within reason obviously).  So, if you’re looking for fat-free dinky diet recipes, you’re going to be slightly disappointed here!   

Food is the fuel to our body’s engine & some get it revving up more than others!  Working lunches are usually a wilted, mystery sandwich from the local shop, accompanied by a packet of crisps, something posing as a sweet (that actually tastes like chocolate-coated cardboard with a bit of birdseed) & a diet Coke.  You’re probably thinking about lunch right now – maybe your day started with a bowl of cereal & a bucket of coffee, so the dragon in your stomach is starting to growl.  Rather than reaching for a rice cake or some other such food of the devil, a bit of prep the day before will sort you right out!  Who bought bags of salad to go with the mountain of cheese over the festive season?  Still in date & probably unopened?  Thought so.  And did you also have a roast dinner on New Year’s Day?  Leftovers languishing in the fridge (with those veg you didn’t cook) are just waiting to be transformed into luscious lunches to keep your motor running.  Right, get your hands washed & aprons on!

What you need:

Half a bag of dried Pasta, about 250g (all those leftover bits you’ve been saving will do!)
1 jar Green Pesto
1 ball of Mozzarella or a tub of Boccancini, drained
200g Pine Nuts
A couple of large spoonfuls of Roasted Veg (recipe further down)
A couple of handfuls of Salad Leaves (Rocket, Baby Spinach, etc – whatever’s in your fridge)
A couple of handfuls of leftover Roast Chicken (optional – you could use bacon)
Freshly ground Black Pepper
Sea Salt (for the pasta water)
Extra Virgin Olive Oil

For the Roasted Veg:

1 each Red, Green & Yellow Peppers, deseeded & chopped chunky
1 punnet Mushrooms, wiped clean with a damp cloth & halved
1 Courgette, topped & tailed, sliced chunky
1 Red Onion, topped & tailed, outer skin removed & chopped chunky
1 punnet Cherry Tomatoes
2-3 cloves Garlic, chopped finely or left whole (to be smudged onto a slice of warm, thick, fresh bread later maybe)
A few slices of leftover French bread, ripped into chunks
Dried Oregano
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Freshly ground Black Pepper

What to do:

Firstly, pre-heat the oven to 220*C.

Prep your veg as above & chuck them in a lasagne dish or similar (a large pie dish will do).  With the cherry tomatoes, halve them or at least poke a knife into them to make a vent (this is handy if you’re eating them hot – you don’t want exploding molten lava tomato in your mouth!).

Chuck in the chunks of bread (if it’s a day or two old, it’s brilliant for this).  Drizzle a good glug of olive oil over the top, sprinkle on the garlic, pepper & Oregano, then get your hands in & make sure it’s all covered nicely.  You don’t need salt for this, because it will just draw all the moisture out of the veg & leave it in a puddle.

Bake in the oven for about 20-25 minutes, giving everything a turn halfway through with a spoon.

Once cooked, leave to one side while you prep everything else.  These can be also kept in an airtight container in the fridge or frozen (great with some fresh focaccia & a bit of Balsamic vinegar drizzled on top).

In a dry frying pan, toast your pine nuts.  Be very careful here & don’t have the pan too high.  Keep moving the nuts about until they change from a creamy colour to golden.  Put them on a plate to cool.

Fill the kettle & put it on.  Once boiled, pour it into a large saucepan, chuck in some sea salt (about a teaspoonful should be sufficient) & give it a quick stir with a wooden spoon.  Add the pasta & bring to a rolling boil, cooking according to the instructions on the packet.

Once cooked, your pasta should be firm to the bite.  Strain & put back into the pan with a glug of olive oil.  Give it a shake & a stir (the oil will stop it going into a big pasta lump).  Set aside to cool for a bit (especially if you’re making it the night before work, otherwise you’ll just have a pot of steam & soggy stuff for lunch).

Get your lunchboxes ready – you can buy packs of those resealable little plastic tubs from your local supermarket or Wilkinsons & they are perfect for this!

Now, here’s where you can make different pasta salads for some variety (because the same thing will be boring).  Get four or five lunchboxes or bowls & divide the pasta equally into them all.

Tip the whole jar of pesto into the pasta (yes, all of it).  Give it a good stir around, completely coating all the pasta.

Drain your Mozzarella & rip up into small, bite-sized pieces (sometimes I use Bocconcino, which are little Mozzarella balls).  Chuck some into a couple of the pasta lunchboxes.

In two other lunchboxes, add a couple of spoonfuls of the roasted veg & mix in gently.  If you’ve got roast chicken in the fridge that needs eating, rip some of that up & add some to the pasta without Mozzarella.

Grab a couple of handfuls of salad leaves & put in each pasta box you want them in.

Sprinkle pine nuts over them all, adding more where you want & less where you don’t (it’s your lunch, so make it how you like it).

Dust them all with a few grinds of the black pepper, then cram the lids on top (I usually get my hands in & gently mix it up beforehand).  Put in the fridge until you need it.

In the morning, just grab a box before you leave & that’s lunch done!  Plus you might save a bit of money too (always a bonus).

There are lots of variations that you could try, so just raid the fridge & cupboards, use your favourite foods to give you a bit of inspiration & get creating!

So let’s start the New Year with a shot of colour & a luscious lunchbox of flavourful pasta!  Stay hungry 😉 x

 

 

 

 

 

Beauty & the Baste

We’re almost there & as the big day draws near, gifts have been wrapped, greeting cards are written & parcels delivered.  If you’ve been following my blog, you’ll have most of your Christmas cooking prepared by now too (well done you!).  This part is all about the main event: a beautifully basted bird, & whether you prefer turkey, chicken or something else completely, you want it to be perfect.  It’s like a spectacular Sunday lunch, only with more people (& more wine).  Whether you’re having a full-on festive feast or not, everyone will be looking forward to spending a few days with their family & friends.

In the past, I have regularly cooked Christmas dinner for around 10-20 people (what was I thinking?!), including a turkey the size of a pterodactyl (it was a bit of a beast & needed two people to wedge it into the oven), along with joints of beef, pork & Quorn, plus a glazed gammon joint & various crates of veg – this involved several days, two kitchens & a bottle of Sherry!  Despite all the chaos, dinner would be done & I somehow managed to keep smiling – it’s a bit like being a swan on a pond, all calm & graceful on the top, but paddling like mad under the water!

Because we don’t eat turkey these days (nor do I try to feed the 5,000 anymore), I cook a large chicken on Christmas Day instead, but this method works equally well with a turkey too (probably not one the size of a pterodactyl though!).  For turkey cooking times, including defrosting times, here’s a link to the British Turkey website to help you get started:

The way I roast a chicken is actually quite easy & you don’t really need to prep the bird until Christmas morning.  You could do this just before bedtime on Christmas Eve if you really want to get a head start, just don’t add the salt or the water until you’re ready to roast.

One thing I always recommend is to get yourself some decent roasting tins!  Forget the non-stick ones – I learned the hard way that no matter how expensive they are or fabulous the guarantee is, that stuff eventually comes off on your food.  Save yourself some hassle & invest in some good, plain stainless steel ones – you don’t need to spend a fortune either, just check they are well-made & solid.  Let’s get started!

You will need:

1 fresh Chicken, without giblets (to feed four, I use about 1.5kg size)
(standard cooking times for Chicken are usually 20 minutes per 500g plus 20 minutes, although I tend to cook it longer by my method)

2-3 medium/large Carrots
2-3 sticks of Celery & a couple of the inner ones with leaves on top
1 large Onion or 2 smaller/medium Onions
Sea Salt & Black Pepper
A glug of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Optional: 6-10 rashers Streaky Bacon (smoked or unsmoked)

Stuffing:  either Fresh Herbs – a handful of Thyme, a couple of sprigs of Rosemary & a few Sage leaves are plenty;
Or:
Homemade Sage & Onion Stuffing (see my previous blog http://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/a-bit-on-the-side/)

What you do:

Pre-heat the oven to 200*C.  Before handling your bird, wash your hands thoroughly & dry them to avoid any cross-contamination – there’s a lot of hand washing, because you don’t want people to remember your Christmas dinner for all the wrong reasons!

Take the chicken out of it’s wrapper & most importantly: do not wash it!  Trust me, no bacteria will survive in a 200*C oven – the temperature require to kill E.coli & Salmonella is 70*C (160*F), so panic ye not people!

Remove any elastic or ties & pop the chicken legs out of their sockets, allowing the chicken to cook evenly.  To do this, hold the chicken in both hands, breast side up, with it’s legs in the palms of your hands & firmly push them outwards, away from the breast – you will feel them pop out easily.  Place the chicken in the roasting tin & wash your hands thoroughly again.

Wash the carrots & celery, then chop roughly into 3 inch long pieces & arrange around the chicken.  The reason we clean the veg is because you’ll be using the stock for gravy & you don’t want any mud or grit in it.  Cut the onion into half (leave the skin on if clean), or quarters if it’s a large one, putting the pieces in the corners of the tin.

Next you need to fill the cavity of the chicken – again, this helps the chicken cook evenly & it also flavours it nicely too.  There are various fillings you can use, but ultimately it’s down to personal choice – some people prefer traditional sage & onion stuffing, some prefer using a few fresh herbs & vegetables.  If you made some of my homemade sage & onion stuffing for this, simply spoon it into the cavity until full.  If you prefer your stuffing separate, bundle together a couple of thin carrot & celery sticks with the leaves on, along with the herbs (saving a couple of Sage leaves) & put inside the chicken cavity.

If you’re using bacon, layer your bacon rashers across the chicken breast, starting at the top & working your way down, with each rasher overlapping the previous one.  This is good if the skin has split on your chicken – it will keep your breast meat moist & the bacon will crisp up nicely at the end of cooking.  Wash your hands well again afterwards (they’ll be sparkling by now!).

Pour about three pints of cold water around the edge of the chicken (be careful not to splash), then drizzle some olive oil over the whole bird & legs, sprinkle a good teaspoonful of ground sea salt & black pepper over the top.   Rip up the rest of the Sage leaves, along with any Thyme & Rosemary leaves that fell off, then sprinkle them around the roasting tin.

Next, make a foil dome to go over the top of your roasting tin & capture all those lovely steamy juices.  This is the science bit that is going to save you time & effort: as the moisture heats up, the steam vapour rises to the top of the foil dome, condenses & drips onto the chicken, basting the bird so you don’t have to!  No more opening the oven every half hour to baste your bird & effectively let all the goodness escape the oven (including the heat!), nor are you going to end up with burned fingers or splashing your arms with meat juices.

Lay a couple of equal sized foil strips on top of each other, with the dull sides on the inside (the side that goes next to the chicken), then fold the top over about a centimetre all the way along.  Do this a couple of times, then mash them together well to make sure they don’t come undone in the oven. If you have a larger sheet of foil, just put a crease or fold in the middle, leaving the central part un-creased.  Put over the tin, making sure it forms a dome over the top & doesn’t touch the chicken, then press firmly around the edges of the tin so that none of that lovely steam can escape.  This is what makes your stock, infusing with the bird & veg to produce a fragrant, flavoursome fluid for making gorgeous gravy later.

Put your foiled roasting tin in the lower part of the oven & leave it there for at about two & a half to three hours – you don’t need to be too precise here, but if it’s a larger chicken than the size I have mentioned, I just add another half hour on (check the British Turkey link I mentioned before for weights & times, if you’re not sure).  As I mentioned above, standard cooking times for chicken are usually 20 minutes per 500g plus 20 minutes, however I tend to cook it longer by my method.

Once it’s cooked, take the roasting tin out of the oven, remove the foil (keep to one side) & check your chicken.  Take a metal skewer or a small sharp knife, poke it into the thicker part of the chicken & if the juices run clear, then it’s cooked.  To crisp up the bacon & skin a bit, strain most of the liquid into a large saucepan (keep this for later), leave the foil off the bird & give it another five minutes in the oven.

When you’re happy that it’s crisped enough, remove your roasting tin from the oven & place on a cooling rack (I use a grill tray with a wire rack in it for this, to catch any drips).  Replace the foil lid & seal around the tin to protect the meat from drying out, then let it rest for at least half an hour.  By resting the bird, the meat relaxes nicely & becomes beautifully tender.  Traditionally, you should let the bird rest for the same amount of time it was in the oven, but I leave it as long as it takes to cook the accompanying side dishes.

Just before serving, transfer the chicken carefully onto a large serving plate, ready for carving (you’ll find the meat will fall off the bone easily, so you might not need to do much carving at all!).

If you’re making pigs-in-blankets, do these now – they take minutes & use up any extra bits of streaky bacon.  Simply roll short bacon strips around chunky chipolata sausages, straight or diagonally, then pop them onto a baking tray (you don’t need any oil – the fat in both of them will render out onto the tray, giving sufficient grease).  Bake in the oven for about 25 minutes until crispy & bronzed, giving them a little shake halfway through.

If you’ve been following my previous blogs, this is where you grab a well-deserved glass of something nice, give yourself a pat on the back & relax, because all your sides will be prepared!  Just pop them in ovenproof dishes, then warm them through in the oven while your roasties cook (bet you’re glad you did all that prep now!).  Obviously, this is also when you tell everyone else to keep out of the kitchen while you’re working hard (on your G&T hopefully) & send them off to set tables, find tablecloths, fill glasses – anything to keep them busy & give you a five minute breather.

Feeling a bit refreshed?  Good!  Right, back to work (briefly anyway) – it’s gravy making time!  If you have pre-prepared your gravy, simply pour it into a saucepan & gently warm through, before transferring to a gravy boat or jug.  If you are making it from scratch, here’s a refresher of what to do.  Grab a whisk & 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:

Using the fresh, hot stock from your roasted bird, simply ladle off a pint into a jug (keep the rest in the pan, put the lid on & leave to cool, then freeze).  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’ve used Bisto for years, so just use whatever you like best).  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 a jug & that’s the gravy done!   Enlist a Little Helper to put it on the table, with a plate or saucer underneath (to catch the drips & save your table).

When everything is ready & you’re happy with it, get your Little Helpers in to distribute dishes to the table (maybe have some extra treats to reward them for their support).

That’s it!  Your festive feast is ready, everything is done & you can enjoy the fruits of your hard work.  Whatever you’re doing, whomever you’re with, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas & a fabulous New Year from my family to yours.  Stay hungry 😉  A x

 

Snacks & The Green Stalks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You will need:

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

What to do:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What you need:

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

What to do:

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

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

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

Beat the egg in another shallow bowl or plate.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

A Kitchen Nightmare: Readymeals, Set, Go!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Swiftest Sweet & Sour!

It’s not every weekend that my son comes home to visit, because we all have such busy lives, jobs, uni, etc, but a couple of weeks ago he finished his work & drove up here with his friend as a surprise, knowing that there would be a mini feast (yes, I know – I don’t do mini, let’s just say it was more of a small banquet).  I’m not sure what other parents feel like when their adult offspring come home, but for me it’s an opportunity to whip up some of his favourite foods & spoil him whilst he’s here (for my husband, it means he can share the truckload of treats I make).  The hardest decision the guys have to make is what they want to eat (I try to limit them to about half a dozen options, because I want to eat before midnight).   Within half an hour, the whole weekend’s main meals have been decided (along with a few breakfast requests thrown in for good measure!).

By the time my son arrived it was very late & a takeaway-style dinner was ready: homemade sweet & sour chicken with egg fried rice, along with a few bowls of locally bought prawn crackers (even I draw the line somewhere & the Chinese restaurant up the road makes the most lovely huge, crispy crackers, so it would be rude not to buy them).

That afternoon, I had already filleted a chicken & put everything in double bags in the fridge, so had some prep done.  You can use any meat really, or leave it out altogether (it tastes just as good either way).  If you’re going to use the legs, fry them in a little oil to brown them on the outside & crisp up the skin, sealing the juices in, then pop them into a casserole dish with a lid on – they don’t need to be cooked through at this stage, they are going to be slowly baked in the oven in a sauce.  If you use the darker, thicker meat (on the bone or not), it needs to be cooked low & slow (low heat, longer time).  Once cooked through, use a sharp knife or skewer to pierce the meat & if the juices run clear, then it’s cooked.  I usually give it an hour at 180*C, baked in the middle of the oven, just to be sure.  The meat usually falls apart, so it’s easy to tell that it’s cooked.

Obviously, this was not one of those occasions where I had much time, as I needed to make dinner at warp speed!  I sliced chicken breast thinly (so it cooks quicker) & fried the pieces in a large skillet with a little oil until opaque (white with no pink bits showing), while I started to prepare all the other ingredients – grated fresh ginger, finely chopped garlic, thinly sliced strips of multi-coloured peppers & button mushrooms, wafer thin wheels of chopped spring onions, all laid on a plate ready to be stir-fried into a beautiful, bright blend.   Sometimes, I chuck in some strips of baby sweetcorn & a few slices of water chestnut, it just depends on what I’ve got in the fridge or pantry.

Everything is stir-fried in a hot skillet, before I add some smooth tomato ketchup (trust me on this), a good splodge of honey & a splash of balsamic vinegar, with a few spots of light soy sauce mixed in.

Plump pineapple chunks are sprinkled across the top, sinking into the simmering sauce like little yellow pebbles.   Then everything gets tipped into a casserole dish, lid on & goes into the oven (on very low), just to keep warm while I make the egg-fried rice.  

Egg fried rice is one of those really easy foods that I love making – it takes a couple of minutes in a hot pan & that’s it.  Once you’ve drained your rice, heat the pan with a little oil in it (I use olive oil for everything & it tastes fine, but it’s up to you).  Beat a couple of eggs in a bowl & tip into the hot pan, using tongs or chopsticks to stir fry around the pan until just cooked, then add the rice & stir well together until everything is combined.  That’s it!   Actually, that’s when I have to tell my boys to wait until I’ve dished up, because they’re jostling behind me with plates, ready to eat!

Once everyone has their plateful of sweet & sour chicken, with a small hillock of egg-fried rice, there’s a big bowl of prawn crackers on the table & a bottle of soy sauce to sprinkle on.  All you can hear then is crunching & munching, along with “is there any more?”, before they’re dashing into the kitchen to scoop another spoonful onto their plates.

So next time you fancy a takeaway, have a go at making your own!  A x

 

 

A Bird in the Hand is Worth Ten in a Dish

If I had to count how many single portion meals I can get from one fresh chicken, I would have to say at least ten – yes, you read that correctly: ten!  That’s ten individual meals from one regular sized chicken.  I’m not Merlin the Magician, I’m just a mere mortal woman who insists on getting value for money & doesn’t like waste.

We’ve all done it – shopping tired, hungry, after work or at the last minute, so you buy pre-prepared chicken portions to cook for dinner. Not only is it ridiculously more expensive (think of the wine you could buy!), but learning to do it yourself is a great skill to have & it’s very satisfying knowing that you’ve got meals in the freezer for when you can’t be bothered to cook.

This is how I bone & fillet a chicken – I’m self-taught, it’s just me in the kitchen at home & this is the way I do it.  If you’re squeamish, please skip the next couple of paragraphs (I understand).

Before I begin, I usually give my husband a beer & hustle him off into the lounge (because he doesn’t like to watch, bless him).  Then I get to work!

Firstly, I pop the legs out of their sockets, then slide my boning knife between the socket & joint, removing the legs from the body – I use scissors to cut the skin between them & the body, because it’s easier.  Once that’s done, I carefully peel the skin back from the chicken crown (leaving it attached to the carcass) & feel where the breastbone is – this runs across the top of the chicken.  Carefully, I slide the knife as closely to the bone as I can, using firm strokes to cut the meat away from the breastbone & rib cage.    Once done on both sides, the bones should be pretty much clean & all that’s left is a thin membrane with the ribs intact.  A few minutes later, I have a plate of prepped chicken portions & a carcass to make a fuss-free stock.

Making stock is really easy – I make mine in the oven, not on the stove (because who has the time).  I stuff the carcass with a handful of fresh herbs (usually a couple of sprigs of Rosemary, half a dozen Sage leaves & a bunch of Thyme), along with some leafy stems of celery & a couple of carrot sticks, pulling the skin back over the top of the chicken to hold it all in.  Then it’s chucked in a roasting tray with some chopped, chunky veg & two or three of pints of cold water, a drizzle of olive oil & a good sprinkling of sea salt & black pepper.  I’ll whack it in the oven for a couple of hours with foil on top & once ready, it will cool on a wire rack before everything is tipped into a colander over a large pan to drain.  That’s the stock done!  It can keep in the fridge for a couple of days or you can freeze it.

That fragrant, golden stock will make a generous risotto for four people (or a risotto for two & risotto balls for more than two people the day after).  The legs make a great pollo alla cacciatore for two or can simply be roasted in the oven with some lemon & Thyme.  Then there are the very versatile chicken breasts – these are almost double the size of the ones you get in those pre-prepared packs!  Usually, I can make four kievs per chicken (coating them in homemade breadcrumbs of course), or use each breast to make a meal for two people – pie, curry, sweet & sour, whatever I like!  Plus, if someone is feeling a bit under the weather, I make a couple of bowlfuls of homemade soup using the vegetables that roasted with the carcass & a little diluted stock (which is why I always wash the veg before roasting).  It’s a great “pick me up”, especially when you have a few slices of warm, buttered bread to dunk in it too.

Let’s not forget the meat on the underside of the carcass & the wings – I strip this tender, lean chicken for our beautiful cat, who does a great Dyson impression & vacuums it from her plate!

If I can make more than ten meals from one chicken, anyone can – all it takes is a bit of practise & imagination, all for the princely sum of one lovely, whole chicken.   Where else can you get ten decent sized servings for about a fiver?

So show the chicken some respect: use the whole bird, fill your family & save yourself some money too.  Stay hungry 😉 A x

 

My Easy Roast Chicken

One of my favourite Sunday dinners is roast chicken, slowly cooked in the oven, filling the house with that unmistakable perfume & filling everyone with anticipation of eating it later!  The one thing you can’t do is rush this – it is meant to be cooked leisurely, without any fuss or faffing about.  You don’t need to baste it, you don’t need to do anything other than stick it in the oven & forget about it for a couple of hours or so.  The best thing is you make fresh stock at the same time, without any stock cubes or boiling any bones or carcass in a pan, which you would have to watch & keep checking.  Plus it’s great for using up any veg you have forgotten about in the bottom of your fridge (we all do it & I really hate throwing anything away, so now you don’t have to).

Once you learn how to do this, your Sundays will be so easy that all you need to do is relax & enjoy your day.

One thing I will recommend is that you invest in some decent roasting tins – forget the non-stick ones (I learned the hard way that no matter how expensive they are or fabulous the guarantee is, that stuff eventually comes off on your food & spoils it).  Save yourself some hassle & invest in some plain stainless steel ones.

You will need:

1 fresh chicken, without giblets (approx size 1.2kg – 1.5kg)
2-3 medium/large carrots
2-3 sticks of celery & a couple of the inner ones with leaves on top
1 large onion or 2 smaller/medium onions (I prefer red ones)
Fresh herbs – my favourites are a good handful of Thyme, a couple of sprigs of Rosemary & a few Sage leaves
Sea salt & black pepper
A good glug of olive oil

What you do:

Heat the oven to 200*C.  Clean & chop the carrots & celery into 3 inch long pieces, cutting the carrots in half again lengthwise, then arrange them around the chicken.  Cut the onion into half (leave the skin on), or quarters if it’s a large one, putting the pieces in the corners of the tin.

Take the chicken out of it’s packet, cut off the elastic & pop the legs out of their sockets before putting it in the roasting tin in the middle of the veg.  Yes, I know it sounds a bit odd, but by doing this to the legs you allow the chicken to cook evenly & thoroughly.  To do this, hold the chicken in both hands with it’s legs in the palms of your hands & firmly push them back – you will feel them pop out easily.

Then you need to fill the cavity of the chicken – again, this helps the chicken cook evenly & it also flavours it nicely too.  Put together the inner celery sticks with the leaves on, a couple of carrot sticks, a good handful of the thyme, the sprigs of rosemary & about 3-4 of the larger sage leaves.  Put them inside the chicken cavity & then wash your hands well.

Pour about two & a half pints of cold water around the edge of the chicken – be careful not to splash yourself, then drizzle some olive oil over the chicken & it’s legs, sprinkle a good teaspoonful of ground sea salt & black pepper over the top.   Rip up the rest of the sage leaves, along with any bits of thyme & rosemary that fell off, then sprinkle them around the chicken in the water.

The last part is to make a foil dome to go over the top – as the moisture heats up, the steam hits the top of the foil & drips onto the chicken – this is what does the basting for you, so you don’t have to!   I usually lay a couple of equal sized foil strips on top of each other, with the dull sides on the inside (the side that goes next to the chicken), then fold the top over about a centimetre all the way along.  Do this a couple of times, then mash them together well to make sure they don’t come undone in the oven.  Put over the tin, making sure it forms a dome over the top & doesn’t touch the chicken, then press firmly around the edges of the tin so that none of that lovely stock can escape.

Put it in the lower part of the oven & leave it there for at least two & a half hours – you don’t need to be too precise here, but if it’s a larger chicken than the size I have mentioned, I just add another half hour on.

Once it’s cooked, take the chicken out of the oven to check it’s cooked.  Take a metal skewer or a small sharp knife, poke it into the thicker part of the chicken & if the juices run clear, then it’s cooked.  If you want the skin to be a bit more crispy, take the foil off & give it another five minutes in the oven.

Take the tin out of the oven & stand on a cooling rack (tip: if you have a grill tray with a wire rack in it, just use that).  Make sure that the foil is sealed around the tin to keep the juices/heat in & let it rest for at least half an hour.  By resting the chicken, the meat relaxes nicely & it also gives you plenty of time to cook your side dishes.   Usually, I turn up the oven & pop some potatoes in to roast while I prepare some vegetables to steam (or just chuck a salad in a bowl).

Once your sides are all done, the chicken will be ready for serving.  The meat will come off the bones very easily, so you don’t really need to carve it.

So, what to do with all that lovely stock?  Leave it until after dinner, so it’s cooled a bit (stealing some to make gravy first though).  Get a big saucepan, put a colander in the top (get yourself a metal one preferably) & carefully tip the contents of the tin into the colander slowly.  The stock will drain into the saucepan below & you can use it for making gravy, soups or risotto (my favourite use!).  It freezes well too & not a salty stock cube in sight!

Here’s a couple of pics to inspire you – “before” & “after”.

I hope your family enjoy it as much as mine do!

A x