23 October 2014

No stir tomato, pancetta and basil risotto

Italian food. I have always loved it but at the mo' I can't stop cooking up an Italian-inspired storm. So it was verging on the serendipitous when the lovely team at Jamie's Italian asked me to write a post about cooking Italian food at home. Nessun problema, I said. Well, I didn't actually.

So, first of all, why is Italian food so popular with families, or rather, kids? All kids love pizza, pasta, gnocchi, lasagne - even vegetable dishes are welcome when they've been given the Italian treatment. My baked aubergines (posh name Melanzane di Parmigiana) goes down really well with my lot. Maybe it's the combo of flavoursome sauces on a comfortingly carby backdrop, with the ubiquitous cheese factor - parmesan (my kids are obsessed) or stretchy Mozzerella? Maybe it's that the food is flavoursome, but simple.

If you're going to keep it simple at home you'll need two things: great ingredients and some inspiration.

For the ingredients I say always buy the best pasta you can afford. It makes a big difference for a few pennies more. The Italian brands are best, like De Cecco - stock up when they're on offer. Secondly, invest in a very good extra virgin olive oil for drizzling over dishes and salads, making pesto with - and buy a normal, non extra virgin one, for cooking with. Get good quality cheese too - good Parmesan is expensive so save money by using Grana Padano or Pecorino which is just as nice. Eat seasonally to get the best out of vegetables. Use good quality tinned tomatoes rather than fresh out of season. Get to know your butcher and use small amounts of cheap cuts like pancetta to flavour. And season well - I know we're cooking for kids, but when cooking from scratch a little seasoning is required. Italians really understand seasoning. I use Maldon sea salt.

For inspiration, I love flicking through my favourite Italian cook books (Nigellissima, River Cafe, Giorgio Locatelli's Made in Italy, Silver Spoon). For me, authenticity isn't that important for the home cook - take inspiration and make it your own. The fact that this recipe is a no stir risotto would have Italian mamas chasing me down the street with a wooden spoon. But I'm not Italian, so I'm allowed to cut corners - especially when they work as well as this.

Of course, when you're not cooking at home, and you choose to brave a meal out with kids, then I couldn't recommend Jamie's Italian enough. When we visited Jamie's Italian Manchester, the staff were so kid friendly (not surprising as JO has 4 kids so I'm sure that's part of the staff training) and the food was stunning. There aren't many places in England where you feel the same buzz as when eating in Italy itself. The food is fresh and exciting, but they celebrate the simple - and it's not too expensive either.

So, this recipe. The ingredients were gorgeous - the pancetta (smoked bacon cut into chunks, or lardons) was from our local butcher who cures and smokes his own - was unreal, so sweet - and cheap too. Making a risotto with chopped tomatoes is something I wanted to try for ages. It works brilliantly, as does the no stirring trick. This was such an easy and delicious dish. The kids went wild, both asking for more! I only wish I'd made more! On the table in under half an hour too, which makes it perfect midweek fodder.

Serves: 2 adults , 2 kids 
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes

250g arborio rice
1 onion, diced
3 cloves garlic
Glass of white wine
175g pancetta (smoked bacon cut into lardons)
40g (1 x tin) of chopped tomatoes
Chicken stock (fill the tin 1 1/2 times with hot stock)
Large bunch of basil, leaves kept whole
50g parmesan, grated - plus more to serve
Salt (go easy if using a commercial stock) and pepper
1 or 2 tablespoons of olive oil, to cook
Extra virgin olive oil, to serve

  1. Heat some olive oil, gently, in a heavy bottomed pan. Soften the onion for a few minutes. Add the pancetta. Let it cook slowly and get a little colour, crisping up and caramelising. Lastly add the garlic and soften that for a few minutes more. 
  2. Add the rice and stir. Now the wine. Turn up the heat and cook off the booze for a minute. 
  3. Tip in the tin of tomatoes, followed by the chicken stock (fill up the tin with stock 1 and 1/2 times) be careful if it's hot commercial stock, as I used, as the tin conducts heat so use a tea towel to protect your hands. If using fresh stock put it in cold. Bring to mixture to a boil. Stir, turn down to a simmer and put the lid on. Cook for 15-20 minutes. Check to see how much the rice has expanded and if most of the liquid is absorbed. 
  4. For the last few minutes of cooking, remove the lid to reduce and thicken. (You want quite a wet texture, so if it's absorbed too much water add a splash more from the kettle to loosen.) Stir in the grated cheese and season. 
  5. Lastly add the basil leaves, whole, removing only the big stalks. 
  6. Serve with more cheese, a drizzle of extra virgin, some freshly ground black pepper, and a few more leaves torn on top. (I stirred in a spoon of creme fraiche into the kids' bowls to cool the hot risotto, which they loved, so maybe try that if you like a creamy tomato sauce.) 

Disclaimer: Jamie's Italian paid me to write this sponsored post, but all opinions are my own. I have visited the restaurant and highly recommend it. Links to their website are nofollow. 

21 October 2014

Sweet and sour chicken meatballs

Sweet and sour chicken was something my mum used to make for a regular midweek family tea back in the 80s! My brother and I loved it. Mum's was different to this; I think it was a stir fry in fact, but still it featured pineapple and also a made from scratch sweet and sour sauce. I asked her about it recently and she said the recipe was off the back of a cornflour packet!

I love sweet and sour, but never order it from the takeaway. It always feels a little bit too... radioactive. The worst thing you could say about my sauce is that it is merely a little sugary (ketchup and also some brown sugar). However that is counterbalanced with the fact that the balls feature two lots of hidden vegetables, carrots and red pepper. The latter is something my kids refuse to eat. So, yeah I felt a little smug as they chomped happily through the lot.

I have never made chicken meatballs before, and I was worried about how they'd turn out. Would they be too mushy? Do you know what? They were lovely, and it was very easy to get this dinner together too. I made the meatballs before I went off on the school run, then chucked the rest together when I got back. Back of the net, I think a certain fictional middle aged sports presenter with a comb over would say.

Serves: 4 (2 adults and 2 kids)
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes

500g skinless chicken breasts (free-range or organic ideally)
2 carrots, grated
1 red pepper, chopped small
1 clove garlic, grated
1 thumbs' length of ginger, grated
1 tablespoon of sesame oil
1 tablespoon of honey
Pinch salt
2 tablespoons of flour
3-4 tablespoons of vegetable oil

For the sauce: 
About 250g pineapple, fresh or tinned
500ml chicken stock
6 tablespoons of tomato ketchup
4 tablespoons rice wine vinegar (or white wine vinegar)
2 tablespoons of brown sugar

Straight to wok noodles (one packet)

  1. Whizz up the chicken breasts with the grated carrot, chopped pepper, grated ginger and garlic, plus honey, sesame oil and salt. Pulse it, and only pulse as much as you just need to - you don't want to create too fine a mix. (This is why you add chopped, grated ingredients, to the processor doesn't have to work too hard.) Add the flour at the end, using a spoon to stir in and gauge how much is needed - less is more. 
  2. It is a sticky, wet mix, so you'll need to add some more flour to a plate, then pick out golf ball sized amounts using a spoon and, using floured hands, make them into balls. Roll them in flour again once the balls are made to prevent them being too sticky to handle. 
  3. Heat a pan till smoking then add the oil (enough to cover the base of the pan) and let that get hot too. Add the meatballs, careful not to overcrowd the pan (do it in two lots if you have a small frying pan). Don't move them! This is key to avoid sticking. Only when they have formed a crispy crust, i.e. a few minutes, then turn them. Try to brown like this on all sides. Once browned all over, take out and set aside to drain on some kitchen paper. You can do this bit ahead. 
  4. Drain the fat out the pan. Then add hot stock and all the other sauce ingredients (apart from the pineapple). Let it reduce by a third on full heat - it should thicken - then turn down the heat and add the pineapple, then the meatballs. Toss them in the sauce and allow them to fully heat through - should take about 10 minutes - and eventually, last of all, add the noodles. The sauce should be sticky and reduced at the end. (Take a meatball out and cut in half to check they're cooked). 
  5. Enjoy - and feel free to use chopsticks if you're all swish like that. We don't. 

15 October 2014

'Every day is special' lemon drizzle cake

I don't make enough cake for cake's sake. Sure, I make the odd biscuit or flapjack. But a real, big, exciting, two-tiered cake to go with mugs of steaming tea... no, I definitely don't make enough of those. I seem to wait for an excuse to do one. Why is that? I could be hit by a bus tomorrow!

A big cake adds a little bit of happiness to an otherwise humdrum day, a little lift when it's raining outside, or when you've had a disturbed night and need to be kind to yourself. It also gives you something nice and creative to do with the kids. I have a window, each day after I have picked my daughter up from playschool and given her lunch, from about 1pm till 3pm (before I have to get my son). Sometimes it's too easy to stick the telly on, which I do quite a bit - too much. If I can muster the energy, I'm always happier with myself when we do something creative together - and she loves to bake/cook/create havoc in the kitchen.

We made this very cake together, and she was so proud of herself! The whole thing was demolished in a couple of days. My son went crazy over it. He had 3 slices one day. He's thin as a rake, so I let him run wild.

It's a mixture of several recipes - but to be honest lemon drizzle is quite a standard recipe cake - with reduced sugar on top for the drizzle bit, as I find it so sweet anyway. I also leave out the lemon curd from the middle, again as I find it so sweet. Instead I smear a little creme fraiche to add tartness, just enough to create a moist middle layer.

Make it soon... and don't wait till a special occasion. Isn't today special enough?

Makes: 8-16 slices, depends on thickness!
Prep time: 5 minutes (plus 5 minutes to make filling and drizzle)
Cook time: 25 minutes
Total time: 35 minutes

225g self-raising flour
225g butter, softened a little
225g caster sugar
2 teaspoons of baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon of milk
Small pinch of salt (only if using unsalted butter)

4 tablespoons of creme fraiche (or Greek yoghurt)
1 teaspoon of maple syrup (or honey) to sweeten

Juice of 1 lemon
50g sugar

  1. Preheat oven to 180C. Grease and flour (or line) 2 x 20cm sandwich cake tins.
  2. Cream the butter and sugar with an electric whisk if possible, or a normal whisk - or wooden spoon. A few minutes will do. 
  3. Add the rest of the ingredients gradually and mix. Try not to mix too much, just enough to combine. 
  4. Pour into two tins and bake for 25 minutes. Stick a metal skewer in to see if it's done. If it's wet then pop it back in for 5 minutes more. 
  5. Let it cool until you can handle the tin, and tip out onto a cooling rack. 
  6. When cool, spike holes with a skewer into both layers. Mix the sugar and lemon juice and pour over as evenly as you can. You may feel it is too much, but the cake will soak it up, don't worry. Let them stand a while, then sandwich with the creamy filling. 
  7. Enjoy huge wedges with large cups of tea.  

13 October 2014

Creamy pesto salmon pasta with peas and spinach

What are the most important things for us stressed out mums when it comes to getting tea on the table midweek? As far as I'm concerned - feel free to chime in - it's got to be quick if it's dinner on a school day. It has to be tasty, ideally for adults as well as little people. I would love it if it were healthy, containing some choice vegetables that they won't hurl across the dining room, or worse, ignore entirely.

Is this smoked salmon pasta the holy grail then? Because it ticks all the above boxes... oh yeah! They both loved it, even my 4 year old, Arthur the Pea Hater, who exclaimed that if I made peas like this all the time then he'd always eat them up!? Duh, mum!!

I have rediscovered creme fraiche as an ingredient. I used to use it all the time, like in the 90s! Why did I stop? I love it. It is an instant sauce really, with a tang that straight cream hasn't got. Use half fat if you want, it's perfectly acceptable.

Veg wise, if you have fussy eaters for offspring, and think presenting spinach to them is entering crazy town territory, either throw caution to the wind and try it (the pesto works wonders), or leave it out entirely. Hey, you're still getting one green veg in there. Maybe consider switching it up with some sweetcorn? That'd be good too, right?

The best thing about this dish is that it's on the table in the time in takes to make the pasta, so, about 15 minutes from putting water on to boil to serving it up. Don't believe me? Try it! Buy the best pesto you can for this, as it makes a difference. Mine was a deli sort that would only stay fresh for a few days - the next best thing to homemade. For the smoked salmon it's OK to buy those much cheaper packets of offcuts, they're perfect for pasta.

Serves: 4 (2 adults and 2 kids)
Prep time: 5 minutes (including time it takes for pan of water to boil!)
Cook time: 10 minutes
Total time: 15 minutes

300g penne pasta (any type is fine)
100g smoked salmon, cut into rough strips
100g peas
125g spinach
4-5 tablespoon of pesto
4-5 tablespoons of creme fraiche
Salt and pepper
A little olive oil (1/2 tablespoon)
Squeeze of lemon (optional)
Parmesan, lots, to serve

  1. Put a large pan of water on to boil, with an optional pinch of salt. Add pasta when boiling angrily. Just before it's done, scoop out a half mugful of cooking water, and put to one side.  
  2. Snip the salmon into ribbons with scissors. 
  3. In a little frying pan over a medium heat, once the pasta is cooking and not before, add a lick of oil and throw in your peas and then spinach. Let it wilt but not completely go to mush. 
  4. Stir in the pesto and creme fraiche. Add the smoked salmon. 
  5. Season, stir and turn off heat. All you want to do is heat through. 
  6. Once the pasta is done, drain (reserving a little cooking water remember), and tip it into the frying pan (or vice versa). Mix well, squeeze a little lemon if you like. Season, and add a small splash of pasta water - this will stop if going sticky or claggy. Mix again.
  7. Serve immediately with copious amounts of parmesan.

9 October 2014

Easy fish pie (no bechamel sauce required!)

I never win anything, like ever! So imagine my surprise when Mumsnet got in touch with the news that I had won the just released Crumbs cookbook. (I tweeted a very condensed version of this recipe to bag the prize.) Then, only a few days later, we won not one, but two prizes in a pub charity raffle! Popcorn machine and a wooden travel version of solitaire. Erm, I think you could safely say I am WINNING this week. 

Ah, how I love this book though (popcorn machine and little game are also great). I have known about the Crumbs girls for ages. First they were food bloggers, and now their YouTube videos are a big hit. If you're here, on my little family food blog, then it's safe to say you would enjoy Crumbs too, as they dole out the same stuff that I do: excellent family recipes made my normal mums. But why am I explaining who they are? You already know, right?

Anyway... the book! It is beautifully styled, but crucially it is bursting with great, practical, fun, time-saving recipes that your whole family will love. Not only that, but it's a pleasure to read. I perused my way through the tome (it's nearly 200 pages) over the course of two evenings, very much enjoying the 'voice' of the book, which feels familiar and funny, and is successfully shared between the two sisters. It's split helpfully into occasion-led sections that are easy to dip into: Celebrate, Make ahead, Crowd Pleaser, One-Pot Stop, Box Fresh, Cooking Ahead, which is nice - they've addressed the key issues us mums face. 

For the 'keen cook' (AKA 'cookery sadist') like me it provides lots of short-cut inspo. It's made me rediscover my love for Creme Fraiche as pretty much an instant sauce. Not only that, it's opened my eyes to a few perfectly acceptable shortcuts: nice to meet you, frozen chopped onions, and bonjour to you too, quick cook pasta - please don't tell my husband that we've become friends. Importantly it strikes the right balance between being informative and entertaining - and reminding us that it's OK to not be a perfect domestic goddess. 

This fish pie was delicious, and, as the title suggests, doesn't require a bechamel, which shaves off some of the work of a trad fish pie, certainly. But does the creme fraiche replacement work? Well, everyone loved it, so yup, it does! I have ever so slightly amended their recipe - I used the small amount of milk used to poach the fish to add to the mash and a little to the sauce. The main difference though is that I have increased the proportions by about 1/4 as I used a very large pie dish. I also omitted herbs, as I couldn't get any in the village that day. Do use herbs though if you can get them. 

Oh, the eggs! I nearly forgot! Yeah, I don't normally serve boiled eggs as a side to fish pie. But I forgot to chop them and include them inside the pie. So I served them alongside. Not a little bit weird, a lot weird, I know...

Serves: 6 adults
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 40 minutes
Total time: 1 hour 

300g salmon fillets
300g undyed smoked haddock 
Bunch (about 6) of spring onions, thinly sliced
150g prawns (I used cooked, but uncooked is better if you can get them)
3 tablespoons of frozen peas
300ml creme fraiche
150g cheddar cheese 
3 hard boiled eggs, chopped roughly 
1/2 pint of milk 
Bay leaf (optional)
Few peppercorns (optional)
1 tablespoon of olive oil 
Handful of fresh parsley, roughly chopped (I omitted this but you should include herbs if possible)

For the mash: 
1kg potatoes (Desiree is good)
Good knob of butter
Salt and pepper

  1. Preheat the oven to 200C. 
  2. Put the potatoes on. When 7 minutes away from being cooked, add the eggs. Drain then mash the potatoes when cooked. Add a large knob of butter and season well. Put the eggs in a pan of cold water to stop them overcooking. Peel once cool. 
  3. Meanwhile, bring a frying pan of milk to a very gentle boil with a bay leaf and some peppercorns in. Poach the salmon and haddock for about 4 minutes and turn off the heat. Take out the fish. Peel off the skin and flake the fish into a bowl, checking for bones whilst you flake. Keep the milk, but take out the peppercorns and bay leaf. Add a splash to the mash.  
  4. Rinse out the frying pan and add a little oil. Return to heat. Add the spring onions and fry gently to soften for 5 minutes. Then add the peas, then the creme fraiche, now turn up the heat and bring together with a little splash of the fishy milk. Throw in 3/4 of the cheese. If using raw prawns, add them too (if using cooked, pop them in last minute). Add the eggs, roughly chopped. Now stir in some fresh herbage, roughly chopped flat leaf parsley is normally what I use. Add the cooked fish last and combine. Turn off heat - you're only heating the mixture through really. 
  5. Pour the fish pie mix into a large baking dish. Top with mash and the last of the cheese. Bake for 30 minutes. Serve with a nice green vegetable, or salad. And if you want to be rad like me, chuck a hard boiled egg on there too.