A Ragu-gu-gu!

It’s been a funny old year so far, like one of those intense mystery novels with one dizzying plot twist after another.  None of us know what’s going to happen next, the author has gone rogue & the leading characters are all bickering with each other like petulant, hungry teenagers.  When everything seems to be a swirl of stress & stomach dragons are grumbling, never fear – comfort food is here!  A proper dinner helps calm grumbling of all kinds, soothing those pesky stomach dragons & restoring a little peace (albeit briefly).

Preparing a meal is something I truly enjoy.  It’s impossible not to feel relaxed, while creating something so comforting & satisfying.  The whole process requires you to focus on each task & that in itself seems to release any tension.  It’s not as precise or technical as some recipes, but it’s sheer ease brings a sense of peace as you create a meal for your family.  My adoration of Italian food began when I was a teenager & this is a rush-less ragu recipe I’ve been making for my family ever since.  It is at the heart of my homemade meat lasagne, slowly baked between blankets of cheese sauce & sheets of homemade pasta, regularly shared as a Sunday dinner & often accompanied by my Husband’s focaccia (he’s quite a talented baker).  Sometimes I make it with sausages, sometimes beef or both, usually whatever I’ve got in the freezer (I freeze meat in small batches for this very purpose).  

This is a family-sized recipe & will serve at least six people generously (it makes a decent six portion lasagne too, although I have stretched it to eight on occasion).  Keep some handy in the freezer for when you’re short on time (make sure you use fresh beef or sausage if you intend to freeze it though, not previously frozen).  

A ragu is not fast food – to me it means “Relax And Gradually Unwind”, so just take your time & go at your own pace – there’s definitely no rush.  Ready to ragu?  Hands washed & aprons on!

What you need:

200g Minced Beef or 4 Plain Pork Sausages, skins removed (or half beef & pork)
2 medium Carrots, washed, peeled & finely chopped
2 sticks of Celery, washed & finely chopped
1 medium Onion, skin removed, topped, tailed & finely chopped
2 tins of Plum Tomatoes & their juice
1 generous tablespoon Tomato Puree
1 or 2 dried Bay Leaves (if you’re unsure, just use one)
1 sprig fresh Rosemary (approx 6″ long), leaves chopped finely
3 or 4 cloves garlic, chopped/sliced finely
2 tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil
A splash of Balsamic Vinegar (the good stuff – about a teaspoonful)
Seasoning – Sea Salt & Black Pepper, both freshly ground

What to do:

Firstly, prepare your garlic, carrots, onion & celery.  Make sure you wash the carrots & celery thoroughly to remove any grit or dirt.  Peel the carrots & trim the ends off them & the celery.  Chop finely into mini pieces & set aside on your board.

Next, peel the garlic & onion.  Top & tail the onion, then chop finely as before – you can always use the food processor for this if you prefer.  Here’s a little tip from me: wear sunglasses to help reduce any tears (obviously not dark ones, you need to see).

Chop the garlic finely & then the Rosemary.  Remove the spindly leaves from the stem first – I save these for making mini-tomato & vegetable kebabs.

Heat the oil in a large skillet or deep frying pan on a medium heat.  Add the carrot, celery & onion & fry for a few minutes to soften.  Keep them moving around the pan, so they don’t catch & burn.

Add the meat – squeeze the sausages from the skins straight into the pan if it’s easier.  Break any big chunks into finer pieces (I use tongs for this, but a wooden spoon or spatula is just as good).  Stir fry until the meat is thoroughly coloured & all the pink has disappeared.

Season with a little salt & pepper, sprinkle in the garlic, Rosemary & bay leaves, giving everything a good stir (the scent is fabulous).  I don’t add the garlic at the beginning, because it can burn quite quickly & lose it’s sweetness.

Next, add the tomatoes – I tend to buy the whole plum tomatoes & squish them by hand, evenly over the pan.  Yes, it’s messy but you’ll wash.  Half fill each tin with cold water to swirl out those last little drops of tomato juice into the pan too – we don’t waste anything!

Add the tomato puree & a good splash of balsamic vinegar (even a few drops makes all the difference).  Reduce the heat to low & let it softly simmer for about 30-40 minutes, stirring occasionally.  

Give it a taste, then add a little salt & pepper as needed (depending on the sausages you use, you might not need very much).  Using a clean spoon, taste it again to make sure it’s to your liking (seasoning is a personal thing).

Once you’re happy, let it bubble away on a gentle simmer for another 30 minutes or so, until reduced to a rich, thick meaty sauce.  Give your ragu another quick taste to check the seasoning is good & adjust it if you need to.  To test if it’s done, drag the spoon through the middle (the parting of the ragu) – if it leaves a gap & you can see the bottom of the pan, then it’s ready!

Get the family together, grab a fork & get stuck in!  It makes a sumptuously lazy supper generously spooned over spaghetti (with a good scattering of grated Parmesan on top), or stuffed in a variety of pasta parcels & shapes.  This versatile rich meat sauce is especially fabulous layered up in lasagne – here’s the link to my vegetable lasagne recipe, just swap the meat ragu for the vegetable one: https://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/perfect-pastafication/

When the world gets too fast, slow down the pace & make a little comfort in your own kitchen with a fabulously flavourful ragu – Relax And Gradually Unwind.  Stay hungry!  Aimee 😉 x

Perfect Pastafication!

It’s been a busy week here, as I’ve been working on new projects & the weather has been a bit random, making things interesting!  While I’ve been designing cake, making tiny tea sets & small sugar bunnies to sit on the top, I’ve also been writing & doing numerous things at the same time, like the multi-tasking ninja that I am.  When the weather is unpredictable, there is one thing you need to be able to rely on & that’s a rich, rib-sticking dinner to warm you through!

As most of you know by now, I’m rather passionate about pasta.  In our pantry, I have a dedicated pasta shelf bulging with a wide variety of conchiglioni, tagliatelle, lasagne, fusilli & penne, all waiting to be magically transformed into something heavenly, hearty & wholesome.  It’s efficient, versatile & quick to cook.  Making pasta is one of my favourite things to do & it’s something we make together as a family.  When my Son is home, we make pasta & pizzas, all congregating in the kitchen & chatting simultaneously, whilst we work on creating dinner.  It’s what cooking is all about for me & that’s how our children learn, by cooking with us.  There are times when stress will start to invade your life & making pasta is one of the best things to de-stress, relax & take your mind off everything.

Now although I adore making my own pasta, sometimes I need to pull together dinner quickly, which is where the pantry comes in handy!  Because my Husband works shifts, I like to make a variety of dinners & freeze them in two-portion pots, ready to be whipped out of the freezer at a moment’s notice.   Usually, the freezer has at least one whole drawer filled with a selection of lasagnes & they’re all different.  There’s the lasagne al forno, which is the one with meat (usually beef), a sumptuous spinach & cream cheese layered lovely & then, one of my favourites: vegetable lasagne!  I have been a vegetarian a couple of times & this luxurious layered dish is one of my favourite indulgences!  It’s lighter & quicker to make than a meat lasagne, but fabulously filling & you can create this velvety vegetable version in around half the time.  Plus you can make it in advance & freeze it in individual pots for those evenings when you need instant pasta gratification.  Fancy a go?  Hands washed & aprons on!

What you need:

For the Vegetable Ragu:

1 large Red Onion
1 large Courgette
2 Peppers (red & yellow are my choice, as the Courgette brings green to the dish)
1 small punnet Mushrooms, wiped thoroughly with a damp cloth
2 tins Italian Plum Tomatoes
1 tube Tomato Puree
2 teaspoons Sugar
6 cloves fresh Garlic, chopped finely
1 teaspoon Dried Organo
2 teaspoons Dried Basil (you can use fresh if you like, just finely chop half a dozen leaves)
Sea Salt & freshly ground Black Pepper to season
Extra Virgin Olive Oil

For the Cheese Sauce:

3oz Plain Flour
3oz Salted Butter
1 pint Semi-Skimmed or Full Fat Milk
2oz grated Cheese (mild Cheddar is great for this)
Sea Salt & freshly ground Black Pepper to season

Also, you will need:

4oz grated mixed Cheese (I use 3oz mild Cheddar with 1oz Parmesan or Grana Padana, but you can use whatever hard cheese you have)
Dried Oregano
1 pack dried Lasagne (or make you own fresh if you like – see my recipe here:  http://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/pasta-parcels/ )

What to do:

If you’re making fresh pasta, you need to do this first so it can be resting while you cook the fillings.  For a regular sized lasagne dish (six portions), I use two large free range eggs with 100g fine semolina flour & 100g strong bread flour (see the recipe link above).

Prepare the veg.  Top & tail the courgette, then slice lengthways in half, then into half again & chop into small slices.  Place in a large dish.

Take the seeds & any white pith out of the peppers (save the seeds & you can plant them in eggboxes on the windowsill).  Chop the peppers into bite-sized pieces.  It doesn’t need to be perfect or anything.  Add them to the dish with the courgettes in.

Slice the mushrooms in half & then slice them into chunky pieces.  Add to the other veg in the dish.

Top & tail the onion, slice into chunky pieces.  Leave on the board while you chop the garlic finely.

Heat a tablespoon of the olive oil in a large skillet or frying pan & add the onion & garlic.  Stir fry for about 30 seconds to gently soften – you don’t want it to colour up, as the garlic will burn if you’re not careful (it won’t taste nice if it burns).

Add the other vegetables, tipping them in carefully & stir-frying them for a couple of minutes to get them heated through.

Pour the plum tomatoes into the pan, breaking up any large pieces as you do so & combine with the vegetables in the pan.  Stir well to ensure it’s all mixed together.

Add the tomato puree, Basil & Oregano, along with the sugar & a good pinch of the black pepper & sea salt to season your vegetable ragu.  Give everything a good stir to distribute the puree & seasonings thoroughly.

Simmer for about five minutes on a low heat, stirring occasionally until it thickens slightly, then turn off the heat & set to one side while you make the cheese sauce.

Gently melt the butter in a large saucepan.  Remove from the heat & add the flour, put back on the heat & stir thoroughly to combine into a thick, shiny roux by using a whisk.  Traditionally, you would use a wooden spoon, but if you want to make sure you don’t get any lumps I suggest using a good metal balloon whisk.

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

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

Add a little pinch of sea salt & black pepper to season, then taste it.  The consistency of the sauce should be thick like natural yoghurt & it should coat the back of the spoon well.  If you think it needs a bit more seasoning, add a bit more, but go steady with it as you’ll be adding Parmesan to the top & that is quite salty.

So now you are ready to start building your lasagne!  Get yourself a nice, large lasagne dish or large pie dish.

In the bottom of the dish, spoon half the vegetable ragu & spread evenly across the bottom.  If you’re using fresh pasta for this, drizzle a little olive oil across the bottom of the dish then add a layer of fresh pasta before adding the ragu.

Here’s a tip to help you fit your dried pasta sheets to those rounded corners of your dish.  Take your dried lasagne sheet & snap off the top corner edge with your thumb, about 1cm in.  Lay the lasagne sheet with the missing edge nearest the corner, then take the piece you snapped off & turn it around, placing it in the corner with the pointy end towards the middle of the dish.  You’re welcome!  All these years, we’ve all been trying to make it fit & then a few years ago, I decided to use up some random pieces & that was it!

Cover the ragu with a layer of lasagne, making your corners fit as above.

Now pour on a layer of the cheese sauce, starting at the edges & working your way in, so that all the little corners & any random bits you have used will all stay in place.  Spread evenly across the layer using the back of a spoon.

Gently add the remainder of the vegetable ragu, again starting at the corners & carefully working your way into the centre.  Ensure it is evenly spread across the layer.

Add another layer of the pasta, as you did before & then pour on the remainder of the cheese sauce, again starting around the edges & working your way in.

Spread it evenly with the back of the spoon you used before, then sprinkle liberally with the mixed grated cheese.  This will give you a gorgeous, crispy cheesy topping.  Sprinkle a good pinch of dried Oregano over the top, squeezing it in the tips of your fingers as you do so, to release the pungent fragrance of this wonderful herb.

If you’ve used the dried lasagne, leave it to stand in a cold oven for a couple of hours, or you could even make it in the morning & leave it to stand until dinner time (sometimes, I’ll let it cool & then cover it, before putting it in the fridge until the evening).  If you’re using fresh lasagne, you should still leave it to stand for about half an hour.  Most people will whack their lasagne in the oven straightaway & then wonder why the pasta won’t cook properly.  By allowing the dish to stand, the pasta will absorb the moisture in the dish, your lasagne won’t turn into soup & everything will be beautifully baked!

When you’re ready to cook it, pre-heat the oven to 180*C.

Place your lasagne on a baking tray to catch any drips (trust me, when it starts bubbling there will be spillages).

Put in the centre of the oven & bake for about 35-45 minutes, until the cheese on top has turned a gorgeous golden colour & is crispy around the edges.

Remove from the oven, place on a cooling rack & cover loosely with some foil or another tray (don’t press it flat, or your cheese will stick).  Leave to stand for 10-15 minutes, as it will be hotter than the sun & you will burn your mouth!

Serve with a huge green salad & maybe a few chunky chips, if you feel the need.  Any leftovers can be packed up into pots for lunches (hot or cold, it’s rather nice), or frozen for lazy late night suppers, curled up on the sofa with a glass of wine.

Next time you fancy something luscious & light, layer some love on the lasagne for perfect pastafication!  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