20 August 2014

Green beans with Wensleydale and fried breadcrumbs

I have started getting a weekly organic fruit and veg delivery by Riverford. After reading recently about the horrors of pesticides, I decided to go organic, with fruit and veg at least. Plus I like being more in tune with what's in season. Also though, I wanted someone else to decide what we were having! I know that sounds crazy, but I love the challenge. I'm too tired and busy to think about it! I eat everything, and I want my kids to grow up the same way (no such luck as yet, but I'm working on it every day), so I love the fact that I don't know what will be in there. 

We're two boxes in. This week we got: bananas, apples, rhubarb, physalis, tomatoes, lettuce, salad pots, mushrooms, florence fennel (with masses of fronds too, great for soup) - and green beans! I like the fact that I have to use something every day, to get through it all. It's making me a more inventive cook. (Don't worry though, they supply plenty of recipe ideas for anyone who gets stumped.) 

Also, last week (my first order) was a little bit late due to an admin error. To make up for it, this week I got 2 posh little bottles of apple juice, plus a really lovely cook book filled with seasonal fruit and vegetable recipes. Thrilled to bits with that. Brownie points aplenty, Riverford! 

Anyway, I had some leftover breadcrumbs, as well as some cheese and a little parsley in the fridge, so this is what I had for lunch. I can't vouch for the kid-friendliness of it, as they're not here, but I bet they would give it a go - green beans are nice and easy to handle for little ones, so it'd be one to encourage them to eat with their hands. 

Serves: 4 as a side, 2 as a lunch 
Prep time: 2 minutes
Cook time: 8 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes

400g of green beans
100g Wensleydale (any white crumbly cheese will do - use feta if you like)
25g (approx. a large handful) stale country / artisan loaf breadcrumbs 
3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon sea salt
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
Small handful of finely chopped flat leaf parsley 

  1. Plunge the green beans into a couple of inches of boiling water with a little salt. Steam for about 7 minutes, or until cooked just beyond the squeaky point! Drain and toss in oil and a little more salt. 
  2. Meanwhile, warm 2 tablespoons of oil in a frying pan and add the garlic, let it soften for a few minutes without colouring. Add the breadcrumbs and parsley, a large pinch of salt, and fry until brown and crisp. About 10 minutes should do. 
  3. Cut up the cheese into cubes, or crumble if it's very crumbly. 
  4. Combine in a large bowl. Drizzle with more oil and eat immediately. 

Italian style beef and mushroom stew

Italian beef and mushroom stew with polenta

In my experience, kids tend to like most what people (or is it just me and my Nana?!) call 'nursery food'. (Not sure why we call it that. Perhaps it's because young, nursery aged children like it? Feel free to inform me if you know, use the comments field below!) This type of food is probably the safest bet for clean plates with my 2 and 4 year old. Traditional dishes, often with slow cooked meat at their heart, along with a gravy of some kind and some vegetables. It's soft food. Think of Shepherd's Pie, Irish Stew, Meat and Potato Pie - that sort of thing. I would include Fish Pie in this group too, even though it's not meat. 

In England we are really good at nursery food, and we shouldn't shy away from it. It's nutritious, delicious and easy to prepare - perfect family fodder. This stew is nursery food, but with a few 'buonissimo' flavour twists (balsamic, red wine, rosemary) to make it Italian in style and therefore more... modern I guess (and more interesting for parents). And instead of serving it with mashed potato, I've stuck with the Italiano theme and served up polenta, with grated parmesan on top. But, really, it's just a nice beefy stew! Ain't nothing wrong with that!

I made it using my Instant Pot electronic pressure cooker - my new kitchen BFF. I am working with them to develop some recipes, so every few days I am turning to it with dinner in mind. I heart my IP, seriously. It has all the benefits of a slow cooker, but it does the job - quickly! It is heaven sent for mums (like me) who like the idea of a slow cooker, but can't get organised of a morning to set it going before they head out for the day. You can do a slow cooked dish in half an hour, and that's good news as far as I'm concerned. Am I right? I'm right. 

That said, you could make this in a slow cooker, simply soften onions and garlic, brown meat, add liquid and then transfer to the slow cooker to set it to low for 8 hours. Add the mushrooms for the last hour. These are estimations (not tested) so please adapt if you think it will take more/less time in your model. I have instructions below for a normal cooking pot also. 

Serves: 4 adults
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes (with an Instant Pot) / 2 hours (without)
Total time: 35 minutes (with an Instant Pot) / 2 hours 5 minutes (without)

500g of braising steak, cut into bite size pieces
About 4 large Portobello or field mushrooms, sliced
2 cloves of garlic, finely sliced
1 onion, diced
2 bay leaves
3 stalks of rosemary, leaves removed and chopped (makes about 1 tablespoon)
250ml red wine
250ml beef stock
2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon of olive oil

To thicken: 
1 tablespoon of cornflour
A little cold water, to mix

To serve:
Extra virgin olive oil

Instructions - Instant Pot:
  1. Set the Instant Pot to 'Sauté' and, once 'Hot', add about a tablespoon of olive oil, let it heat up, and add the onions and garlic. Soften for a few minutes.
  2. Now add the beef. Brown the meat for a couple of minutes, stirring.  
  3. Add the herbs, wine, stock and vinegar and bring to the boil. Tip in the sliced mushrooms. Cancel the 'Sauté' setting. Set it onto 'Manual' for 30 minutes. 
  4. When it's done, take the lid off and then set it back to 'Sauté' - and thicken with a little cornflour. Once thickened, after a few minutes stirring, turn the IP off. 
  5. Serve with wet polenta. Quick cook is fine. And top with parmesan and a glug of extra virgin olive oil.

Instructions - normal:
  1. Add about a tablespoon of olive oil to a heavy bottom pan, let it heat up, and add the onions and garlic. Soften for about 5 minutes. 
  2. Now add the beef. Brown the meat for a couple of minutes. Get as much colour as you can. About 5 minutes. 
  3. Add the herbs, wine, stock and vinegar and bring to the boil. Turn down and simmer for 1 1/2 - 2 hours. Add the mushrooms for the last 20 minutes. Thicken with cornflour if required. 
  4. Serve with wet polenta. Quick cook is fine. And top with parmesan and a glug of extra virgin olive oil.

Italian beef and mushroom stew with polenta

18 August 2014

Healthy rice krispie squares

I am packing in drinking - for a while at least. A month to start with, then who knows. Last time I felt like I needed to detox, I did 9 weeks alcohol free, and I felt much better for it. Actually, by living an teetotal life for a while, you learn a lot about yourself and your weaknesses (and strengths), it's quite an enlightening exercise.

It's not so much drinking I want to part with in the long term, as hangovers. Ugh, even the word is awful. With kids, a bad hangover is just pure punishment. And it's not their fault, it's yours. You got too drunk so you need to get up the next day, make breakfast, then play, then make lunch, then do something else fun, then make dinner. You need to just get on with it. On Saturday I had to go and watch In The Night Garden Live with a really bad hangover. It should have been a lovely experience with my two year old, but instead I spent the whole time trying not be sick all over Upsy Daisy's shoes (we were in the front row so that wouldn't have been ideal).

Wish me luck! I'll let you know how I get on (of course)! Back to the healthy stuff...

Here are some very tasty little Rice Krispie treats, that are waaaaaay better for you and the kids than the normal, syrup, butter and sugar laden ones. They are just as good - especially with a little chocolate melted on top. Great for a party or lunch box. I adapted the recipe from a fab US blog called Detoxinista (the irony of that blog name is not lost on me right now) - you should definitely check it out if you are into healthy foods.

Get brown rice syrup and coconut oil from a health food shop, like Holland and Barratt. Coconut oil is expensive, but it's delicious, and very versatile (not to mention extremely good for you).

Makes: 16 squares
Prep time: 5 minutes
Chill time: 2-3 hours 
Total time: 2-3 hours 5 minutes 

180g brown rice syrup
3 tablespoons of coconut oil
100g Rice Krispies (or other brand rice pops)
1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract
Pinch of sea salt
50g dark chocolate (optional)
A little vegetable oil

  1. Line a 22cm (9in) x 22cm (9in) square tin with cling film, then brush the film lightly with oil. 
  2. Heat the syrup and oil in a pan over a medium heat and bring to a rolling boil. Boil for 1 minute. Add the vanilla and salt off the heat, and stir. 
  3. Add to the rice pops. Mix well. 
  4. Press the coated rice pops into the tin. Wrap some cling around your hand and oil it a little, then press down really firmly to ensure a tight pack. 
  5. Drizzle over melted chocolate to make them a little bit naughty. I decorated them too with a few white choc chips. 
  6. Chill for at least 2 hours, ideally overnight. You can get them started in the freezer if you're in a rush. 
  7. Guilt free goodies - enjoy with tea or cold milk. 

13 August 2014

Polenta with pancetta and greens

In my previous post I waffled on about what it meant to be healthy. Well, I want to briefly continue that subject here. After all, I am writing this post straight after. But don't worry, I won't bang on as long this time...

On Food and Drink this week the theme was 'healthy eating', so I watched with great interest. I really agreed strongly with the programme's approach to the subject. Monica Galleti cooked a lovely simple quail dish, with squash and lentils. There was animal fat in the mix, olive oil - the meal was simple, whole, natural - and it looked delicious. Lots of protein, and complex carbs too, as well as some fat, for flavour.

We should be encouraging people to cook and eat proper food. Food should be enjoyed, savoured. We need some animal fat, cheese and so on to make food taste good. Just eat them in small amounts! When you are satisfied by 3 good meals, you actually won't need to snack, but the occasional homemade treat is fine.

This dish is in that same spirit. It's got healthy vegetables and grains in there. But a little animal fat too - pancetta this good is really flavoursome so you don't need much. Cheese and butter too, but in small amounts to season the dish.

This is the first time I ever cooked polenta! Unbelievable! I am happy with how it went. I cooked too much (I halved the amounts for recipe below). But that's OK, I have some leftover which I think I'll fry in set slices and have with good sausages or something. It was very easy and very tasty. And, served with some healthy greens spruced up with our local butcher's salty/sweet pancetta cut into cubes, made for a wonderful, easy midweek dinner.

It's got a lot going for it, polenta. It's cheap, it's very easy to prepare. And it's a great backdrop, like pasta, to punchy flavours and sauces. Think of it like a sweet tasting mix between mash and cous cous. You could use quick cook polenta, which apparently is just as good, but quicker, which sounds perfect! You could cook this 'normal' polenta for less time, but it's better to give it a long cook for creaminess...

My daughter really really loved it. She kept coming back for more, even eating the greens. It's got that nice sweet and soft texture that most kids enjoy. My recipe below halves the amount of polenta I made, as I had lots of leftovers. Have a go!

Serves: 3 adults
Prep time: 0 minutes
Cook time: 40 minutes 
Total time: 40 minutes

150g polenta (I used 'proper' but quick cook is just as good, but quicker)
900ml of water or chicken stock (I had some to use up, so used the latter)
25g parmesan
25g butter
Salt and pepper

200g spring cabbage greens, sliced thinly
100g pancetta, cubed

To serve: 
More parmesan
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper


  1. To cook the polenta, simply bring a pot of water or stock to the boil, add some salt, then pour in the polenta, whisking. Whisk for ten minutes, then cook on low, stirring every few minutes or so, for about half an hour. Add butter and parmesan with more seasoning if needed at the end. 
  2. Meanwhile, steam your shredded greens for about 5 minutes, till al dente. Drain. 
  3. Slowly fry the pancetta over a low heat, so all the fat renders down. This takes a while, don't rush it - you're waiting for the polenta anyway. It's ready when it's crispy and there is lots of oil in the pan. Add the steamed and drained cabbage to the pancetta pan and toss. 
  4. Serve a large dollop of creamy polenta topped with greens and bacon. Add more cheese and a swirl of oil. Soooooo goooooood!

Healthier peanut butter cookies with sea salt sprinkle

Recently I was admonished by a health nut on Twitter, after Tweeting a link to my Healthy oat bran, raspberry and honey muffins. He didn't like the fact that I was promoting my muffins as healthy, as they had honey in them which, he said, is in fact a sugar. I replied saying that they didn't have any sugar (as in the white stuff) in, and although honey is a fructose, it also has health benefits and is fine when used in moderation. I also suggested he was a pedant and reiterated that I wrote a family food blog, not a health freak blog! Anyhoo, it all settled down fine, and we agreed to disagree. But it got me thinking...

Aren't we all so confused and stressed out about what is healthy and what isn't? I find all the differing opinions a bit exhausting...

Sometimes I am unhealthy, and sometimes (more often) I am healthy. One minute I'm devouring a chocolate croissant with a strong coffee, the next I'm all about quinoa and almond milk porridge for breakfast. The other night at a family wedding I did 4 sambuca shots. And then was a bit ill. But then I hadn't done a sambuca shot for a very long time. See, I'm normally in bed at 9.30pm, reading something rather tame. I don't even drink tea after 8pm!!

I'm a contradiction, you could say. Or maybe I am just trying to achieve a balance. I used to think I had an up and down disorder, but now I just think I'm human. I can't be good all the time. I just can't, it's not me. I like wine. I still smoke occasionally (I know, it's BAD. I'm working on it). I sometimes exercise. But mostly I don't.

All I know is, when I am eating healthily, sleeping well, not over drinking or smoking, I feel at my happiest - and most creative / productive. And that means I'm a better parent, a less fractious wifey, a more considerate friend. So it's this healthy version of me that I always come back to, no matter how often I veer off the virtuous path.

But I need treats. Ideally I want them to be as healthy as possible. And I still stand by the fact that honey and/or maple syrup is better than sugar: maple syrup is an antioxidant, and honey has natural antibacterial qualities. Sugar is just, well, not good!

Talking of being virtuous, I bought Gwyneth's new-ish book It's All Good last week. And it is all really good, in cook book terms. Chock full of great super duper healthy recipes, info on new ingredients and beautifully shot too. I find her really inspiring, and I like her ethos. This is what she says on the subject of being imperfect, health wise: "If I've learned anything, it's that it's all a process. "Falling off" is part of it, not a reason to beat yourself up."

Hear hear Gwynnie. I adapted her Almond butter cookie recipe which is taken from the book, and made a slightly less sweet Peanut butter cookie with added crunch. Oh God but the salt on top - it's AMAZING! Try try try it! My boy loves these so much.

Makes: About 16 cookies
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes
Total time: 20 minutes

200g gluten free flour (normal would be fine too - or try Spelt flour which has less gluten)
1/2 teaspoon of sea salt (I love Maldon, as does GP)
1 teaspoon of baking powder
4 tablespoons of smooth peanut butter
4 tablespoons of honey (choose a good brand, organic and raw are best)
6 tablespoons of maple syrup
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
75g blanched plain peanuts, chopped roughly (you could use roasted salted peanuts but leave out the 1/2 teaspoon of salt in the cookies)
A tiny pinch of sea salt flakes on top of each one


  1. Preheat oven to 180C. Lightly grease (I brush with a little vegetable oil) 2 x baking trays. 
  2. Whisk flour, salt and baking powder together. 
  3. Now mix the peanut butter, honey, maple syrup, and vanilla. Then crush and add the nuts too. 
  4. Mix the wet and dry ingredients into a sticky dough. Gently roll into golf sized balls. 
  5. Place on a baking tray with some space around each one. Press down slightly with a wet spoon and sprinkle with a few flakes of sea salt. 
  6. Bake for about 10 minutes. Let them cool on a wire rack.