Coupler Soup

Summer appears to be racing by at a dizzying pace, wildly spinning the wheel of weather as she goes.  From sultry heatwaves to spectacular storms, August has given us plenty of gloriously sunny days too.  It’s always a busy month for us, celebrating birthdays in the first few days & our anniversary later in the month (there’s much cake to be baked & eaten!).  Breakfasts, lazy lunches, pasta & Prosecco have all been enjoyed on the patio,  while the plants have been abundant with their produce & easily picked for dinner.

The last few months, I’ve been sharing the home office with Mr Hungry (his upstairs, mine down) & it’s been a change most households have seen this year.  There are some downsides (other people can hear & see you on live calls), but there are plenty of ups too!  Not so long ago, we would meet for lunch in town to share a coffee & a few kisses, before wandering back to work.  This brief interlude would put a pep in my step & make the afternoon brighter – we have now have resumed our mid-day meet-ups.  Even though we are all in much closer proximity at the moment, it doesn’t mean we should become territorial about sharing space with our loved ones.

Shopping has recently become a bit like a treasure hunt, heightening our resourcefulness & making us more aware of our limited pantry.  This is nothing new to some of us, especially those on a limited budget or diet.  Being frugal can be a blessing, especially in the taste department.  Think of it as one of those old TV shows, where you were given a bag of ingredients & had to make a delicious dish.  It’s a challenge, but you’re up to it!

One of my favourite frugal recipes is based on an old minestrone soup.  Hearty, healthy & heaped with lots of little ingredients that don’t cost much.  We call this the Coupler Soup, because you need a couple of this & a couple of that.  We’ve all bought a tin of this, a packet of that, hoping to use it in some elaborate & exquisite dish, but shoving it to the back of the cupboard.  Bits of leftover dried pasta, a random tin of beans & that twisted up tube of tomato puree with a tiny bit left.  All seemed a bit pointless when you popped them in there, but now they are like gold dust!  You might notice I’ve used spinach instead of Cavolo Nero or cabbage.  This is simply because I like spinach on my pizza & there’s always a bit leftover, just enough to chuck in a soup or whizz into a delicious pesto, as you will know if you’ve been following my blog.  Over the years, I’ve adjusted the recipe to accommodate whatever ingredients were available, but it always has the same result – soupy satisfaction!

One of the main ingredients for this recipe is fresh chicken stock & here’s the link to my stock recipe:  https://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/a-bird-in-the-hand-is-worth-ten-in-a-dish/ .  I dilute it for this recipe, with a little water to wash out the tomato tin.  If you prefer to use a stock cube, make enough according to the instructions on the pack.  Ready to take the plunge?  Hands washed, aprons on & here we go!

What you need:

2 pints of fresh Chicken Stock, well-strained if homemade
4 rashers Bacon (I used streaky smoked or whatever is in the freezer)
1 medium Onion, finely chopped
2 medium Carrots, washed & finely chopped
2 sticks Celery, washed & finely chopped
2 dried Bay Leaves
1 tin White Beans, drained (such as Cannellini or Haricot beans, whatever you have available)
1 tin Italian Plum Tomatoes (save the tin for measuring your pasta)
2 handfuls of Dried Pasta (see above)
2 handfuls of fresh Spinach, washed & chopped chunky, stems & all
1 tablespoon Tomato Puree
1 sprig fresh Rosemary – remove leaves & chop finely (keep the stalk)
2 cloves fresh Garlic, chopped finely
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Sea Salt
Freshly ground Black Pepper

What to do:

Prepare your ingredients first – wash, peel & chop finely as above.  Set them aside, ready to start.  Keep the Rosemary stalk & dry it – they make fabulous skewers for mini kebabs (slide whole cherry tomatoes & bocconcini on, then bake for 5 minutes in a hot oven – delicious!).

Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a deep saucepan (you will need the lid for later) & using some good kitchen scissors, finely snip the smoked bacon into the pan.  Let it sizzle for a couple of moments, allowing it to render it’s fat (this adds essential flavour & in all honesty, it’s a miniscule amount).

Add the onion, carrot & celery to the pan, mixing well with the bacon & oil.  Give everything a good stir & fry for about 4-5 minutes, until slightly softened & the onion become glossy.

Tip in the garlic & Rosemary into the vegetables & then add the beans.  Add the chicken stock & bay leaves, stirring everything gently together.

Pour the plum tomatoes into your hand over the pan, squishing them carefully into the liquid (you can always tip them into a bowl & do this beforehand, if you prefer).

Fill the tin with cold water, swish it around to get the last drops of tomato juice & pour into the pan.

Using the empty tin, fill it with dried pasta pieces – whatever you’ve got in the cupboard is fine.  This recipe is to make the most of those leftover bits you’ve been saving for a rainy day – well it’s chucking it down now!  Carefully, without splashing yourself, sprinkle them into the soupy liquid.

Add the tomato puree, tip the chopped spinach into the pan & get stirring, mixing everything together.

Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer & put the lid half on the pan.  Let it bubble away softly for about 15-20 minutes, giving it a swirl around with the spoon occasionally.

Using a clean spoon, have a taste of your soup  & adjust the seasoning to your personal taste (get a clean spoon before tasting again).  It’s worth noting that any stock (homemade or shop-bought), along with bacon, contain salt, so you shouldn’t need to add much.  When you’re happy with the flavour, turn off the heat & tuck in!

Scoop your soup generously into bowls, making sure you get to the bottom of the pan!  Add some well-buttered, crusty bread for dunking & indulge in some soupy comfort food.  Ladle any leftovers into tubs or pots when cooled, pop them into the fridge & save for another day (it should keep in there for a couple of days at least).  I’ve used jam jars to stash soup in the fridge, just put an upturned cupcake case on the jar before putting on the lid (it gives it a bit of a better seal).

Although an everyday soup, it can also be turned into a souptacular starter.  Got a bit of day old bread that needs using up?  Make your own croutons!  Cut into cubes (as chunky or dainty as you like), drizzle with a little olive oil & bake on a tray in the oven at 220*C for about 10-15 minutes (give them a shake halfway through cooking).  Once bronzed & crisp, tip them onto a sheet of greaseproof paper on a cooling rack, before transferring to a serving plate for people to help themselves.  Pile a few in the centre of your soup, swirl with a little olive oil & a dusting of grated Parmesan.  That’s it!

Whether a romantic lunch or a suppertime starter, try my Coupler Soup to use up those random ingredients & create a hearty, wholesome soup!  Stay hungry!  Aimee 😉 x

 

 

Champignon The Wonder Pie!

Gazing into the garden while sipping my first coffee of the day, there is an Autumnal air about it.  The early sunshine is just peaking over the rooftops, causing the dew laden lawn to shimmer in the sunlight & perfectly summing up the Summer.

August has been very much “all or nothing”, either a raging hot heatwave or shivering shade, deluge or drought, & nothing inbetween.  The poor plants don’t seem to know which way to turn & our multi-tasking willow tree has been happily soaking up the excess water, whilst providing welcome cool shade to the local wildlife.  There are baby olives on our little olive tree trying to ripen, green tomatoes just starting to blush red & a bounty of blackberries waiting patiently to be plucked.  The garden seems to be clinging on by it’s very leaf-tips to the last days of Summer, as Autumn has quietly arrived & begun to unpack her colourful attire across the landscape.

Before Autumn settles in, there are some comforting meals we can indulge in to soften the seasonal switch.  Fresh produce is all around us, just waiting to be turned into tasty transitional treats.  Some of my best ideas come from mooching around the markets, shopping when everyone else is sat in traffic (or still in bed), & picking up some fabulous bargains.  The early bird always catches her worm & although thankfully not very worm-like, earthy foods have caught my eye recently – the beautiful but humble mushroom.

Soft, light & flavoursome, mushrooms are one of the most versatile ingredients in cooking.  They go with pretty much everything, adding both subtle & substantial flavour to dishes, & the variety is truly amazing!  From the tiny to the tawny, closed cup or open, the frilly or the flat, these fabulous funghi are just waiting to be turned into delicious dishes!

As I wanted them to be the main attraction, I created my Champignon the Wonder Pie – a delicate mushroom & vegetable stew, tucked in under a crisp comforting blanket of buttery puff pastry.   This is one of those lazy afternoon recipes to make, rather relaxing & a little therapeutic even.  Although simple to make, there is going to be some prep involved – I hear you groaning, but I promise it’s all easy stuff, no mysterious ingredients & worth every minute when you taste the results. 

Firstly, you’re going to need vegetable stock – use either a stock cube or fresh, whatever works best for you & the time you have available.  I make my own & freeze it, as it uses up all the veg trimmings & you know what’s in it (too much salt & mushrooms = watery mess & a soggy pie).  My easy vegetable stock recipe means no standing around watching pans either.  You’ll need a couple of carrots, an onion, two celery sticks & a handful of fresh herbs (half a dozen Sage leaves, some sprigs of Thyme & a couple of Rosemary stems work well), along with any mushroom stems, parsnip, bean or pea trimmings – wash everything well to remove grit & dirt, then chuck them all in a roasting tin with 2-3 pints of cold water, a splash of olive oil & a few good grinds of black pepper & sea salt.  Cover it with foil to seal in all the juices & bake at 200*C for just over an hour, then strain & that’s it.  Use it fresh, stick it in the fridge for a couple of days or freeze it.  Save the veggies to whizz up into soups or sauces & pour any leftovers into jars for the fridge or ice cube trays to freeze.

If you prefer, you can swap the vegetable stock for chicken stock (as long as your guests are not vegetarian) – both work well & it tastes just as lovely either way.  A little bit of tasty trivia for you here: vegetable stock is actually a broth, as stock refers to a liquid that has bones cooked in it.

Next, although I have used two types of pastry (shortcrust for the base & puff for the lid), you could use shortcrust all over or just use shop-bought puff lids if time is limited – please make sure it’s proper all-butter puff to do your pie proud.  If you do fancy having a go at making your own, here’s the link to my puff pastry recipe: https://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/puff-up-the-volume/   You will only need half the amount, so reduce the measurements accordingly.  It’s easy to make & just needs an hour to rest in the fridge before rolling, so you could make this while the stock is in the oven.

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

What you need:

For the filling:
250g Mushrooms approx (I’ve used closed cup & flat but use what you like here)
1 stick of Celery
1 medium Carrot
1 medium Red Onion
2 tablespoons of Sweetcorn
100ml Vegetable Stock approx
25g Salted Butter
25g Plain Flour
1 tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil

For the base Pastry:
6oz Plain Flour, plus extra for rolling out & prepping your tin
2oz Salted Butter, plus extra for your tin
1 large Egg
A little cold water, about a tablespoon

4oz Puff Pastry (see link above to make fresh or buy all-butter puff pastry)
2 teaspoons grated Parmesan or Medium Cheddar
1 Egg & 2 tablespoons of Milk, whisked together to make egg wash

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 220*C & prepare a pie tin.  I’ve used an 8″ square cake tin because it was handy.  Smudge a little butter around the inside of the tin & then sprinkle with flour.  Tip out the flour (save for rolling out) & set the tin aside.

Time to prepare your vegetables!  Give them all a good wash in cold water & remove the onion outer skin.  Top & tail all of them, chop finely & set aside.

Prepare the mushrooms next.  Give them a good wipe with a damp cloth to remove any dirt or grit (if they’re small, use a pastry brush).  Take out about half a dozen & set to one side whole.  Chop the rest up finely & set aside too.

Heat a large frying pan or skillet.  Add the butter & oil, mixing well until melted together.

Add the carrot, onion & celery, stirring well to coat in the oil butter mixture, then fry on a medium heat for 3 or 4 minutes.  Give them a nudge around the pan from time to time, so they don’t catch & burn.  You want them to soften slightly, but not go squishy.

Add the mushrooms & give everything a good stir fry for a couple of minutes.

Sprinkle in the plain flour around the pan & stir fry everything together until the flour has disappeared.  This is going to make a roux in the pan, as it will absorb the butter & oil in the mixture, thickening everything up nicely.

Add the stock gradually & stir well into the mixture, making a smooth sauce.  When everything is combined, turn off the pan.

Slice up the whole mushrooms you saved into bite-sized bits & stir them into the stew.

Make the base pastry by rubbing the butter into the flour.  Add the egg & stir into the flour mixture using a metal spoon or knife.  As it starts to come together, add a trickle of the cold water to form a soft dough.

Turn it out onto a floured surface, sprinkle a little flour on top & roll out until slightly larger than the size of your tin all around.

Flop the pastry over your rolling pin & carefully lift into the tin, draping it inside as you do so.  Press gently into all the edges & leave a little hanging over the tin (to attach the puff pastry lid to later).  Try using the end of the rolling pin for this, as it’s smooth & won’t tear your pastry.

Roll out the puff pastry to just over the size of your pie tin & set aside.

Tip the mushroom pie filling into the pastry lined tin & spread out well.  Dip your finger in a cup of cold water & run it around the edge of the pastry.

Put the puff pastry lid on top & press the edges down to seal the pastry base to the lid.  Prick all over with a fork or a sharp knife.

Brush with a little egg wash all over.  If you want to make little pastry decorations with the leftover bit of puff, do that now & lay them on top, then brush them too (not too many though).  Sprinkle with a little grated Parmesan.

Bake in the oven for about 25 -30 minutes, until thoroughly golden & the layers are starting to show at the edges.  The sides of the pastry will come away from the tin slightly when it’s ready.

Put the pie tin on a cooling rack for a few moments to relax before serving.  That’s it!  Just get everyone around the table & dig in!   Meaty but meatless, this mushroom-packed pastry goes well with either a generous scoop of cheesy mashed potatoes & steamed crisp vegetables, or a zesty green salad scattered with a few spots of aged Balsamic vinegar & toasted pine nuts.  Slice it up cold for a luscious leftover lunch or freeze in slices for indulgent lazy suppers after a long day at work.

However you serve it, this crispy champignon-crammed pie is the perfect comfort food for chilly almost-Autumn evenings.  Stay hungry! 😉 Aimee x

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pining For a Proper Pasta Pile Up!

Here we are in the middle of glorious Summer sunshine, bright blue skies & toasty temperatures!  When it’s hot like this, the last thing anyone wants is to be cooking some long-winded dish in a hot kitchen.  Salads are great, but when you’ve had a long day, a more substantial supper is required to hit the spot.  Pasta is probably the most loved food in our house (well, apart from cake obviously).  We indulge in this versatile staple several times a week (that’s not including leftover lunches).  If I’m not making it, I’m thinking about making it & what I can put in it or on it.  I’ve even got a dedicated pasta shelf in the pantry!  We don’t live in a vast mansion (it’s more like a doll’s house), so a few years ago we put the cupboard space under the stairs to better use than a home for the hoover!  It’s now fully stacked & packed with all our staples – pasta, tins & jars of various sweet & savoury delights to whip up a wonderful plateful at a moment’s notice.  Obviously, that’s where all my sugar paste lives, because it’s cool & out of the way (the marzipan lives here too, but don’t tell my Husband or I’ll have none left!).

A couple of years ago, our Son was working in Naples, Italy & staying in the rather picturesque Pozzuoli (he took the lovely pictures of the sea I’ve shared here).  During one of our daily chats, he sent me a picture of him cooking Spaghetti alla Carbonara (he has the cooking bug too).  I was so proud that he was cooking proper Italian food actually in Italy – especially when he reminded me of how I used to cook the same dish when he was young.  Over the years, I adjusted the recipe & used a variety of different pasta (spaghetti is still the best), but I had forgotten just how beautiful the original recipe is.  It also made me realise how much of an impact my cooking has had on our Son & his approach to food.  It’s kind of big when you think that the simplest of things, like preparing food for our children, is something they carry with them into adulthood.  Obviously, as soon as I put the phone down, I headed off to the kitchen to make a pile of pasta!

One of our favourite pasta dishes is “The One With The Pine Nuts” (as it is fondly known in our house).  It’s colourful, cheesy & quick to make – what’s not to love?!  It’s great for using up vegetables in your fridge that are starting to look a bit tired & all those little leftover bags of pasta in the pantry that everyone has.  If you don’t like bacon, you could leave it out altogether & maybe add courgette slices, or swap it for thin strips of chicken instead – it’s your choice.  This is one of those great last minute dishes too, so if you suddenly have a houseful you can feed everyone easily (I get 4 huge portions out of this).  Hungry?  Hands washed & aprons on!

What you need:

Approx 250g dried Pasta (Fusilli, Farfalle, Penne, Conchiglie – whatever you like)
200g Gorgonzola Dolce
8-10 rashers of Bacon (smoked or unsmoked)
2 Peppers (I’ve used 1 red & 1 yellow, but use whichever you like)
1 Red Onion
1 bag Fresh Baby Spinach (about 4 huge handfuls), washed
100g Pine Nuts
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Freshly Ground Black Pepper
Sea Salt (for your pasta water)

What to do:

Firstly, we need to toast the pine nuts, so gently heat up a large skillet or frying pan & add the nuts to the dry pan.  On a low heat, keep moving the pine nuts around the pan so they don’t burn.

Once they have turned a golden colour, turn off the heat & tip into a bowl to cool – don’t be tempted to eat them at this stage!

Next, prep all your veggies!  Top & tail the red onion, deseed the peppers & chop everything into chunks (don’t worry about them being perfect, just get chopping).  Set aside.

Trim & cut the bacon into roughly one inch pieces, removing any fat (I like to use scissors for this, as it’s much easier than chasing a slippery bit of bacon around the chopping board!).

Heat a couple of teaspoons of olive oil in the skillet, add the bacon pieces & stir fry on a medium/low heat.

While the bacon is cooking, get the kettle on & boil some water for your pasta (quicker than waiting for it to boil on the stove!).

Add roughly 1 teaspoon of sea salt to a large, deep saucepan, carefully pour in boiling water (about half way) & put on the heat until you get a rolling boil.

Add your pasta to the water, stir with a wooden spoon & cook according to the instructions (usually dried shapes take about 10 minutes max, giving us time to cook everything else).

The bacon should now be going a bit crispy, so add the vegetables & stir fry for a few moments until they are slightly softened, but still firm.  Turn off the heat.

The pasta should be done now, so take a piece out & taste it – it should be al dente (“cooked to the tooth”, meaning to your personal preference, your individual tooth).  Strain the pasta & set aside for a moment.

Sprinkle handfuls of spinach onto the bacon & vegetables in the skillet.  Now tip the pasta carefully all over the top – this wilts the spinach nicely, so it softens slightly.

Add the Gorgonzola now – break it up with your fingertips or cut into small pieces & dot all around the pan.

Sprinkle about three-quarters of the toasted pine nuts over the top, then get a couple of wooden spoons & gently toss everything together, until fully combined.

That’s it!  Dinner’s ready to dish up – a huge skillet full of crispy, smoked bacon pieces with gorgeously glossy, jewel-like vegetables & vibrant emerald-green spinach leaves.  Generous chunks of Gorgonzola melt into the warm swirls of pasta, giving it an oozy smoothness that attracts all the other ingredients together, followed by a substantial showering of the toasted pine nuts, adding an almost popcorn-like flavour to everything.

Grab a few bowls or pasta plates & dig in!  Just before heaping a huge helping into a bowl, I sprinkle on a few more pine nuts, followed by a couple of twists of freshly ground black pepper (maybe a dusting of Grana Padana too).  On sultry Summer evenings, this goes well with a couple of glasses of good wine & maybe some fresh, warm slices of baguette to scoop up any gooey, cheesy remnants that attempt to escape – in Italy, this is known as “fare la scarpetta”, which means to “make the little shoe” with the bread to mop up any sauce (now that’s a shoe I do love!)

If there is any left, once cooled divide it into plastic tubs with lids & stick them in the fridge – that’s tomorrow’s lunches sorted!

Next time you’re pining for a proper pasta pile up, why not give this a twirl!  Stay hungry!  😉 A x

 

Snacks & The Green Stalks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You will need:

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

What to do:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What you need:

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

What to do:

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

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

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

Beat the egg in another shallow bowl or plate.

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

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

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

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

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