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:

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).  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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beetroot To Yourself

This time of year gives us some stunning pink sunsets & amazing natural colours to brighten up our meals on those frosty days.  The fruits are dark, rich & intense; the vegetables are vivid, flavoursome & versatile.  It’s Nature’s way of getting those essential nutrients into us via such attractive packaging (most of which you can eat too!).  Working or not, lunches can often be random sandwiches with questionable fillings, or pasties filled with even more questionable meat.  Sometimes we need to set aside half an hour to whip up something a bit more substantial than a shop-bought sandwich from the local garage on your way to work (I’m not judging, we’ve all done it).

There are some things I really don’t like – rude people, empty jars put back in the fridge & beetroot.  Growing up, my parents ate beetroot & so did most of my friends, but I really couldn’t abide the taste.  My Mum would slice it so prettily, lay it on a delicate plate surrounded by salads & dishes full of delectable delicacies, trying to entice me to taste some (it didn’t work).  One so-called friend actually put it in a health drink to get me to try it (it didn’t end well).  Then a couple of years ago, someone gave me a savoury tart recipe to try with beetroot in it, so I decided to give it another go.  If I didn’t like it, my Husband would eat it (he likes beetroot).   Plus, beetroot has all those important vitamins, minerals & heavy metals that are good for you (I don’t mean Metallica or Iron Maiden, I’m talking folic acid, iron & copper).

This savoury tart is crammed full of luscious cheese & finely chopped beetroot adorns the filling with beautiful deep amethyst & magenta colours.  Everyone knows how much I love cheese, so I began my experiment with a positive attitude.  I adapted the recipe, mainly because my experience with grating anything by hand usually ends up with me grating my knuckles or a fingernail.  The original recipe had grated beetroot & just one cheese, so I’ve added a few more to give it a more rounded flavour & it’s good to use up various bits of leftover cheese (apparently leftover cheese is a thing in some homes!).

What you need:

For the Filling:
2 medium-sized Beetroot, drained & chopped finely
100g Feta Cheese, crumbled
1 tablespoon Cream Cheese or Ricotta
1oz grated Parmesan
1oz grated Grana Padana
2oz grated Cheddar (mild or medium)
3 large Eggs
Splash of semi-skimmed Milk
Freshly ground Black Pepper
Fresh Thyme (just a couple of sprigs is sufficient)

For the Pastry:
6oz Self-Raising Flour (plus extra for rolling out)
2oz Salted Butter (room temperature, cut into chunks)
1 large Egg

[You will also need a bit of extra butter & flour for preparing your tin]

What to do:

Preheat the oven to 180*C.  Prepare your baking tin – I prefer to use a 12″ loose-bottomed flan tin.  Butter the inside of the tin, making sure you get into any corners or edges (especially if it’s fluted around the edge), then sprinkle flour all over & tap out the excess.  This recipe is really easy & quick to make, so you could always double the mixture up & make a large one in a Swiss Roll tin, or make smaller single portions in individual tins or silicone tartlet trays.

Make the pastry: tip the flour into a large mixing bowl, add the butter & crack in the egg.  Get your hands in & mix it all together to form a firm dough.  On a lightly floured worktop, roll out the dough to about 5mm thickness & make sure it is larger than the tin you are using (a couple of inches extra all around should be enough).

Using your rolling pin, carefully transfer the pastry to your prepared tin & lay it over the top.  Gently pat it into the tin, being careful not to put your fingers through it.  Push it into all the corners or fluted edges & then prick it all over with a fork (this stops it from puffing up all over the place).  Don’t worry about cutting off the excess pastry too much – you can do this once it’s baked & this will leave you with a nice smooth finish to your pastry case edges.  Usually, I just make a nice decorative edge of pastry instead, so it’s down to personal choice here.

Grab a sheet of greaseproof paper & screw it up, then unravel it & lay it over your pastry in the tin.  In a previous blog, I’ve mentioned about baking blind, so if this is something you will do often then I suggest you get some ceramic baking beads.  If not, use a couple of handfuls of dried pasta such as fusilli or penne.  Tip them onto the greaseproof paper, then bake in the centre of the oven for about 10 minutes.

While that’s baking, prepare your filling.  In a mixing bowl, add the three eggs & a splash of milk, then give them a quick whisk to break up the yolks.  Add  the grated Parmesan & Grana Padana, half of the Cheddar & Feta, plus the Cream Cheese.  Give everything a light whisking using a fork to make sure everything is combined, then add a sprinkling of the black pepper.

Remove the pastry case from the oven & carefully lift out the greaseproof paper & baking beads.  Leave them to one side to cool down before putting them away.  If you used pasta, you can reuse this a couple of times so keep it for another time.

Sprinkle an even layer of the finely chopped beetroot pieces in the bottom of the pastry case & save a handful to one side.  Pour the egg & cheese mixture into the pastry case, covering the beetroot.  Gently dot the remaining beetroot pieces around the cheese filling, along with the grated Cheddar & crumbled Feta that you kept back.  Strip some leaves from the Thyme sprigs (hold it upside down & run your fingers along the stem to release them all) & add a few to the top.

Return the tart to the oven for about 15-20 minutes, until firm & golden on top.  Test it by touching the top – if it feels firm, it’s done.  Leave the tart in it’s tin on a cooling rack for about 10 minutes.  If you left the pastry edges on, carefully cut the excess pastry off from around the edges with a sharp knife.

If you have used a loose-bottomed tin, simply turn a small bowl upside-down & place the tart in it’s tin on top.  The base will stay on the mug, the edge will drop off around the bowl below.  Transfer the tart to a serving plate or chopping board, either leaving it on the base to serve or sliding a palette knife underneath to separate the two.

This beautiful beetroot tart is perfect for packed lunches & keeps for a couple of days wrapped up in the fridge or you can always freeze some.  Serve in slices, either on it’s own or with a gorgeous green salad & well-buttered jacket potato.  Even though I don’t like beetroot, I actually adore this & it adds a semi-sweetness to the soft, creamy cheese filling.  Obviously, my Husband loves it too, so I make two & there’s plenty to go around.

Have a go at making your own bejewelled beetroot tart for your packed or unpacked lunches & have a sandwich sabbatical!  A x

PS: For those who want to know, the kitchen is almost finished & although we don’t have a working hob just yet, we will do shortly (hopefully – keep those fingers crossed please!). 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

 

Grate Expectations

Apparently, so my sources tell me, Italian Cheese Week is being celebrated from 15-22 June 2017 (like I need an excuse!).  So, in honour of all things cheesy, I decided to share a couple of really easy recipes for you that I’ve picked up over the years.

There are a few things I like to have a good stock of & cheese is one of them.  As with my pasta shelf, I also have a cheese shelf in the fridge (yes, really).  Grana Padana, Gorgonzola (preferably Dolce, but I don’t mind a bit of Picante), Mozzarella, Mascarpone, Ricotta, Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan) & usually a bit of mild Cheddar all live happily together (albeit in diminished quantities by the end of the week).  And there’s always at least one tub of proper, full-fat cream cheese too.   As you all know, cream cheese goes with pretty much anything – mix with a splodge of pesto to make a creamy pasta sauce or, if you’re feeling naughty, it’s really nice spread thickly on a digestive biscuit with a dollop of raspberry jam on top (don’t judge me, try it – it’s addictive though!).  Recently, I’ve been a bit unhappy with my usual brand of creamy cheesiness – because according to it’s list of ingredients, it’s more fillers than actual cheese (locust bean gum anyone? No, didn’t think so) & therefore I have switched to another brand.  It always pays to read the back of a packet, because if like me you want a pure product for a specific recipe, you need to know that’s what you’re getting.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been making my own Ricotta cheese – thanks to the lovely Gennaro Contaldo’s recipe in “Gennaro’s Italian Year” (which was given to me by my guys & like them, it is very much loved!).  Now before you all start going “ooh!  that must be really difficult!”, it’s not.  All you need is a few pints of milk, some fresh lemon juice & a big saucepan (I use my pasta pan, which is pretty huge).  It takes a few minutes to bring the milk to the boil, then just take it off the heat for roughly 30 seconds before repeating the process a couple of times.  Finally, put it back on the heat & squeeze in the lemon juice, bring it back up to the boil & turn it off.   Then give it a stir – it will separate into curds (the cheese) & whey (the cloudy looking liquid). Tip it into a sieve & leave it to stand over bowl, so that the liquid drains away & as if by magic, you are left with a lovely soft cheese.  While that’s cooling, I’ll whizz up some wilted spinach in the food processor with a few pine nuts (untoasted), a little lemon zest, a spoonful of my favourite full-fat cream cheese (just because I like it) & a shake of sea salt & black pepper.  It’s then mashed up with the ricotta, before I pop the lot into a piping bag, ready to fill my favourite ravioli!

Sometimes (quite often), I will have a little leftover pasta & the lovely cheesy mixture, so I like to ladle some of my homemade tomato sauce into individual dishes, then layer up the lasagne sheets with alternating fillings of piped cheese & tomato sauce.

Adorn the top layer with a few ripped pieces of Mozzarella, a grating of Parmesan & a pinch of Oregano, then bake for 15-20 minutes at 200*C until everything is bubbling up around the edges & the cheese is crispy & golden on top.  They make a tasty simple starter or a light lunch, served with a gorgeous green salad.

And now, my pièce de résistance: cheese biscuits.  These are probably one of the easiest things to make – you just chuck everything in a bowl & squish it together.  It’s great for using up all those random leftover bits of cheese that seem to congregate at the back of the fridge.

What you need:

8oz grated mixed cheese, at room temperature (I use 80% medium Cheddar, then 10% each of grated Parmesan & Grana Padana, depending on what I’ve got in the fridge)
8oz plain flour
8oz salted butter, at room temperature
1 teaspoon sea salt
Half a teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Half a teaspoon English mustard (the pre-made type, not the powder)
Quarter of a teaspoon of cayenne
Optional:  a teaspoon of fennel or poppy seeds

How to do it:

Pre-heat the oven to 200*C & line a couple of trays with sheets of greaseproof paper (unless you want to do lots of washing up later, lining your trays this way will mean that you simply lift the paper out after cooking & transfer to a cooling rack, leaving clean trays – you’re welcome!).

Mix the cheese & butter together in a bowl with the mustard – use a spatula or the back of a wooden spoon to make it into a smooth type of thick paste.

Mix the dry ingredients together & slowly add to the cheese & butter, stirring well to form a soft, pliable cheesy dough.

On a lightly floured work surface, take a third of the dough & carefully roll it out to about half a centimetre thick.  Using a palette knife, slide this under the rolled out dough to ensure it is not stuck to the worktop & add a little more flour underneath, if need be.

Cut into shapes – either use small cookie cutters or slice into finger length strips, just create whatever you like!  Lift them onto the lined baking trays, leaving about an inch gap all around (they will not grow too much) & then repeat the above, until you have used up all the dough.

Bake in the centre of the oven for about 16-18 minutes, until they are lightly golden, then transfer to a cooling rack & remove from the greaseproof paper.

Once cooled, either eat them as they are, top with various cheeses as a snack, or make into canapes to go with pre-dinner drinks!  These crisp little bites of melt-in-the-mouth moreishness have just the right amount of kick too – the heat sneaks up on your tongue, so be warned!

Here’s to a “grate” week of cheesy delights!  Stay hungry 😉  A x

 

 

 

Risotto Reprise

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

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

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

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