'Tis the season

I do love Christmas.  Not in an over the top way, and definitely not until December 1 hits.  I don't like it when the shops put out their Christmas goods in September, and am always vaguely distressed by the out of control advertising for things you don't want or need.  'This Christmas' should be banned from the airwaves, forever.  But there are many lovely things about this time of year. The parties, the lights, the scent of a newly cut Christmas tree (mine is bringing me out in hives, but at least is looking pretty while doing so).  Advent calendars, which I will apparently never be too old for.  And the food.  Most especially the baking.

This weekend I had some good friends around for an early celebration.  There were smoked salmon sandwiches and there was Prosecco, because tea just seemed too prosaic.  There were orange cupcakes with chocolate icing.  And there was gingerbread cake.  Which was too good not to share.

Gingerbread cake with lime
(adapted from Mary Berry)

250g/8oz softened butter
250g/8oz dark muscovado sugar
110g black treacle
375g/12oz plain flour
5 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 eggs, beaten
1 fresh ginger root (or a few pieces of stem ginger)
2 limes, zested
300ml milk
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

You can cook this in any shape or size you want, but for reference, the mixture fills two 7" baking tins or one 10" tin.  I bet it would also make lovely muffins.

Start by preheating the oven to 160C/325F/Gas Mark 3, and greasing and lining whatever tin you decide to use.

In a saucepan, heat the butter, sugar and treacle over a low temperature, stirring until the mixture is smooth and all of the butter lumps have disappeared. Then take off the heat and set aside to cool slightly.

In a large bowl, mix together the flour and the spices. Be generous with the ginger, and add in any other spices you think might complement it.  Pour the treacle mix into the flour, and stir thoroughly until they are combined.  Stir the beaten eggs into the mix, and add half a grated ginger root.  Or more, if you desire.  It gives the cake a lovely low fire.  You could also chop up some crystallised stem ginger and throw that in.  I don't care for ginger pieces so they didn't make into my version of the cake.  Instead, I decided to add the zest of a lime.  I think that I could have done with twice that amount though, as the flavour didn't come through all that strongly.

Warm the milk gently in a saucepan, taking care that it doesn't get too hot and burn on the bottom of the pan. Add the bicarbonate of soda and let it foam a little. Add to the gingerbread mixture, and stir until well combined.

Pour the whole lot into your prepared tin and throw it in the oven for 45 minutes to an hour, until the top is starting to.  I found that my cake needed the full hour, since it was being cooked at a relatively lower heat.  Keep checking it to make sure that it doesn't burn though.  If a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean, it's done.  Et voila!  I don't think this cake needs much else by way of adornment.  Just a sprinkle of icing sugar.

I was considering making a tarte tatin for Christmas Day this year, but think that this cake might just have moved into contention...


Sweet Potato and Almond Tarts

It's Thanksgiving in the US today - happy happy day if you're celebrating! As it's not a holiday here, I'm celebrating on Sunday, at which point I'm cooking the whole traditional meal with all the trimmings, so I probably won't be blogging. But it's a tradition of mine - and many - to start listening to Christmas music for the year while starting on the Thanksgiving baking, and I couldn't wait three more days, so here we are. I made this one up based on too many different recipes to mention - it's on the less sweet side, so adjust accordingly for taste. 

(Makes 24 tarts)
2x 365g rolls of shortcrust pastry (if you know how to make your own, you're way ahead of me)
Three sweet potatoes (approx 500g)
2 eggs
1x 170g tin of evaporated milk
50g ground almonds
50g sugar
Vanilla essence
Mixed spice (cinnamon, coriander, nutmeg, clove, ginger)

Preheat oven to 200c
Grease muffin/cupcake/tart tin (or whatever you call that thing with the dents in it)
Cut the pastry in 24 discs - should use almost all of it - I use a large coffee mug.
Put the pastry in the dent thingies.
Blind bake for 20 minutes.
Repeat if working in two batches.
Turn the oven down to 125c.

Peel and finely chop sweet potatoes.
Cover with cold water in a pan, bring to the boil, simmer until breaking apart (approx twenty minutes).
Drain, mash. 
Leave to cool for a few minutes.
Mix in evaporated milk, sugar, ground almonds, vanilla, spices, eggs. Stir thoroughly. 
Spoon into pastry cases, leaving room to rise.
Bake for  an hour, checking regularly. Adjust heat if pastry is browning too fast. Filling should be golden brown and firm.


My new Best Friends Forever

I suppose everyone goes through phases in which one cannot get enough of a certain foodstuff or method of cooking and develops a sudden passion, like those of adolescents for a temporary crush.

This week (or possibly month, for it has already lasted some time), my two special best friends forever-ever-ever are kale (or chard, if I can't find kale) and a new cooking pot called Gastrolux Biotan (registered trademark and don't you forget it). I even took a picture of the two together (and for those who know me, this has got to be a first-ever event).

What you see here is an unremarkable weeknight dinner, with a mix of brown and red rice, ground pork, onion, red and yellow peppers, zucchini (courgettes), and kale, in my wonderful new skillet.

The skillet is amazing because nothing burns and nothing sticks, and it doesn't flake like Teflon. You can throw any meat into it, without adding oil, and it will cook beautifully with whatever fat is already in the meat.

And kale is amazing, because you can heat it and wilt it and yet it remains robustly green and frilly, whereas spinach turns to slime under the same conditions. And I say this as someone who loves spinach.

I hasten to add that I am not being paid by the Gastrolux people or the Kale Kouncil of America to make these claims. I am honestly in thrall to my skillet and to greens that were once of only mild academic interest.

I sometimes use the skillet to do a quick stir-fry of kale (or chard) with a bit of olive oil and garlic; this then becomes a bed for any available protein (chicken, fish, steak).

I daresay that my crush will wane, as these things do, but for now it's me and my skillet, my bunch of kale, and my gas stove. We are invincible.


Courgette and potato cakes with mint and feta

My poor blog.  It should be suing me for neglect and emotional distress.  It's been a very busy summer, moving house and moving jobs, and I haven't had much time for culinary experimentation lately.  However, as the days grow shorter and colder and Christmas draws near, it is time to spend more time at home in the kitchen.   I hauled the slow cooker out for the first time in months today, and look forward to trying out some new stew recipes over the next few months.  No stew in this post though.  Instead, a Delia Smith recipe I've been meaning to try out for a while: courgette and potato cakes with mint and feta.  I'm a fairly recent feta convert, but now I use it in every dish that I can (and even some that I probably shouldn't).  It was perfect for these potato cakes though.  On their own they might have been a little bland, but the feta gave them a lovely sharpness and accompanied the mint and the courgette nicely.  So, without further ado:

Courgette and potato cakes with mint and feta cheese

6 medium courgettes (weighing about 700g)
4 medium Desirée potatoes (weighing about 700g)
4 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
450g feta cheese, crumbled
4 spring onions, finely chopped
2 large eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons plain flour
50g butter
1 ½ tablespoons olive oil
salt and freshly milled black pepper

First, grate the courgettes coarsely (leaving the skins on) and put them into a sieve. Then sprinkle them with 2 teaspoons of salt to draw out some of their excess moisture and leave them to drain for about an hour. While these are sitting, scrub the potatoes and place them in a large saucepan. Pour enough boiling water over them to just cover them, then simmer gently with a lid on for 8 minutes. When they are slightly tender, drain them and leave them aside until they’re cool enough to hold. Then peel them, grate them into a large bowl and season with salt and freshly milled black pepper.

When the courgettes have sat for an hour, run them under cold water.  Squeeze as much moisture as you can with your hands, then put them on a clean tea towel and roll it up to wring out the remaining water.  This was a neat trick - I'd never thought of doing it before, but it did help to get rid of the juices and prevented the cakes from ending up as soggy messes.  Add the courgettes to the grated potatoes, along with the spring onions, mint, feta and beaten eggs and toss the whole mixture together.

To prepare the cakes, divide the mixture into about 16 (or as many as you can get with the quantities you use), shape them into small rounds about 1 cm thick and then lightly dust them with flour.  The important thing is that they stick together.

To cook them, pre-heat the oven to 425°F (220°C). Melt the butter and oil in a small saucepan, then brush the cakes on both sides with it. When the oven is ready, place the cakes on trays, returning one to the top shelf and the other to the middle shelf for 15 minutes. After that, turn the cakes over, using a palette knife and a fork, swap the positions of the trays in the oven and cook them for a further 10-15 minutes, or until they are golden.

The recipe calls for them to be served hot, but I can confirm that they work well as cold leftovers too.  I think they were intended to be a side dish, but two of them make a lovely light lunch, accompanied by a green salad.


Roast aubergine, tomatoes and mozzarella

 Singin' in the rain

Well after today, if one doesn't sing, one is liable to shoot oneself.  The nonstop downpour from 10 am through until now, almost bedtime, was enough to make the silly ducks and chickens who live in the garden next door gurgle or gargle.  The farmyard noises are a constant, and I try not to think stews and roasts and endless wonderful casseroles when I hear them.  Oh dear, now I've just lost about a dozen of you and any other vegetarians who read this, of course.

Perhaps you will give me a second chance as the meal I made tonight was all veggie, up and down the line, and not a feathered friend in sight, except through the window but I was on to better things by then. 

David often finds good recipes in the Times which he reads online each morning.  He can't send articles by email  from that form but he can photograph with his blackberry and then email me a picture of the recipe.  It works, sort of, to a point.  The quality of the print is fuzzy and the pics all look like swamps with rushes but the ideas are great.  And this one of Lindsey Bareham's (and on the strength of this and several other successes of hers, I've ordered two of her cookbooks) is so simple it's almost embarrassing to add but it's another way of attacking the mighty aubergine and a most attractive dish if done properly.  Not sure my pics will do it justice as I'm not good at multi tasking, but you'll get the general idea and if you like aubergines, then give it a whirl.

For 2 people:

2 medium aubergines
olive oil
6 large, ripe, vine tomatoes
2 garlic cloves (Lindsey says four, but unless you're alone for the weekend, be sensible!)
couple of handfuls of Basil leaves (recipe calls for 50 but life is simply too short)
2 buffalo mozzarella, drained (lump kind, packed in water)

Oven to 200ºC/gas mark 6

Line a roasting tin with tin foil, shiny side up.  Halve the aubergines lengthwise.  Cut a diagonal lattice pattern in each cut side about 2 cm wide.  Brush olive oil over the tops.  Roast for 10 - 12 minutes in the oven until the centres begin to soften.

Arrange the halved tomatoes, cut side up, around the aubergines and drizzle with oil and seasoning if desired.  Return tin to oven and roast for another 10 to 15 minutes until the tomatoes are squashy.  Remove from oven, scatter minced garlic cloves over aubergine and flip tomatoes so that they are arranged cut side down on top of aubergine.  Cut thick slices of mozzarella to cover the top and return to oven briefly until the cheese begins to melt.


Tear basil leaves over top before serving.

David prefers a grated hard cheese to the mozzarella which does get a bit 'stodgy' if the slices clump together.  Any cheese would work and goat cheese might be best of all.  Let me know if you have any other good ideas.


Dog days fish

A few days in August are known as the dog days because the dog star Sirius appears in the heavens. Or because our neighbour's friend arrives for a visit with her enthusiastic and very vocal Bouvier by the name of Luke. One or the other.

My husband is working flat out on renovations in our basement, and I am helping my mother prepare for a move to a much smaller flat. Everyone is a bit too hot and a bit too stressed.

Tonight, in an effort to reduce stress levels, I made one of my easy-peasy, never-fail recipes. The original version came from "The Ultimate Book of Fish and Shellfish" by Kate Whiteman. I am now at the point, however, where I just glance at the recipe, think "Oh, yes," and carry on. I never follow the rules exactly.

The recipe calls for fresh fish. I use frozen.

The recipe calls for fresh parsley. I consider it optional.

The recipe calls for sunflower oil. I use any oil that's handy.

The recipe calls for "wholemeal breadcrumbs." I throw stale baguette into the grinder and use that.


The recipe calls for fresh tomatoes. At this time of year, fresh local Ontario tomatoes are wonderful and we usually have a basketful on the counter.

All in all, a match made in heaven.The fish has the nice crunchiness of bread-crumbed fish without the wallpaper-paste starchiness of traditional batter.

So here we go.


5 or 6 medium-sized pieces of frozen cod. Or haddock. Or some other white fish.

2 or 3 fresh tomatoes.

1 or 2 lemons, from which you have extracted the zest (grated rind) and the juice.

Breadcrumbs created from whatever has outlived its best-before date in your fridge.

Oil. Your choice.

Heat the oven to 200oC or 400oF. Check to make sure you have some white wine. Put a little oil in the bottom of a baking dish and arrange the fish in a single layer. Slice the tomatoes and layer them on top. Mix up the lemon zest/rind, lemon juice, a few tablespoons of breadcrumbs, and a teaspoon or so of oil. Spread it over the tomatoes. Put the lot into the oven for 20 or so minutes. Check to see if it is cooked through. Serve with salad or reheated frozen veggies or whatever else causes the minimum amount of stress. Pour a glass of white wine for the chef and other eaters. Relax.

As usual, I never think of food photography in time to add it to the blog. So for decoration, I have a photograph that I took of an heirloom tomato that I tasted in Charlottesville, Virginia, which had been grown in the gardens of Monticello, the house once owned and occupied by Thomas Jefferson. This is the kind of tomato that ruins you for all other tomatoes, because it has about 10 times the taste of supermarket tomatoes. It was probably the best thing I tasted in the whole time I spent in Virginia.

 Now if I had one of those and a fresh fish, just imagine what the recipe would taste like!


The Devil's Fish

I don't like anchovies. I don't like how they taste or look. I don't like their inclusion on an otherwise delicious pizza. I don't like the way that their salty sharpness dominates a recipe. They are, as far as I'm concerned, The Devil's Fish. And yet... I have cooked a recipe that uses them quite subtly; one that I don't think I'll be leaving anchovies out of in future. I have found these anchovies to be... useful.

The recipe is for classic pork pies, yet another dish that I thought came straight out of a deli or fridge section of whichever chain food store you wish to mention. Amazingly, you can make them at home: this recipe is one lovingly collected from Stylist magazine's "gourmet on the go" section. I imagine that the editor must think that the cook "on the go" is a three-toed sloth, because making these pork pies took me hours. (Incidentally, I think Stylist has gone downhill a bit in recent months; I used to rely on it for my free weekly girly-fix, but I just don't find it that essential anymore. But I digress.)

In addition to a substantial amount of time, you need:

for the pastry
450g of plain flour
one egg
175g lard
one teaspoon of salt
one teaspoon of sugar;

for the filling
300g pork belly (skin removed)
300g pork shoulder
two anchovies in oil (drained)
200g smoked bacon
half a nutmeg seed (grated)
salt and pepper to season;

for the jelly
three gelatine leaves
200ml good chicken stock
100ml sweet sherry
one plastic syringe;

butter for greasing
flour for dusting and rolling
one egg, beaten with a pinch of salt for glazing.

I started on the pastry first, mixing the flour with the egg and stirring while I melted the lard in a pan of 175ml of water, adding the salt and sugar as I went. Bringing the mixture to the boil then taking if off the heat after 30 seconds, I added this to the flour / egg mixture, stirring all the time.

Once the dough was sticky, I covered it with a tea towel, letting it rest for one hour, before turning it out onto a floured work surface to flatten. I then folded the flattened dough into thirds by taking one side into the middle and pressing down, then repeating with the other side.

I flattened this into an oblong shape and placed it on a baking tray covered with greaseproof paper and put it into the fridge for 30 minutes.

Next came the meat. After dicing the pork belly and shoulder, I mixed them with the anchovies (holding them at arm's length) before whizzing the lot of them in a food processor until they were mincemeat. I then diced the bacon and stirred this in before adding the nutmeg and seasoning.

After turning the oven on to 180ºC / gas mark 4, I took out the pastry and rolled it out on a floured surface. I folded it into three then rolled it out again until it was about three millimetres thick. From this, I cut out eight 12 cm-wide circles and eight 8cm-wide circles.

I greased eight metal pie moulds, dusted them with flour and lined with the 12cm pastry circle, leaving a little over-lapping. To each, I added one eighth of my pork filling, before placing the 8cm pastry circle on top, crimping the edges as I went.

After brushing them with egg wash and skewering a hole in the top, I placed them in the hot oven and baked for 40 minutes. Once out, I placed them on a rack to cool for two hours.

Now for the jelly. I soaked the gelatine in water for two minutes then squeezed out the excess water. This gelatine was added to the heated chicken stock and sherry and I stirred until it was dissolved, before cooling until it was thick enough to pour... fun and games were approaching.

I've never added jelly to a recipe like this before. The instructions stated using a syringe and, considering that I didn't know where the nearest needle exchange was situated, found myself in Sainsbury's buying a syringe for adding icing. (This, for reasons about to be made plain, may not be the best instrument for such a task. If you can think of a better one for next time, please let me know.)

I filled the syringe's body with the jelly and squeezed it into the hole I'd made in the top of the pastry. While a fair amount made it into the pie, a good deal of the jelly made it all over the work surface. Most annoying. I placed the whole lot in the fridge overnight, although eight hours would have been enough: I think I'd had enough of the process by this time.

However, when I took the pies out of the fridge the following morning, I was most pleased with the results: a lovely, crumbly pastry with a firm, meaty filling and a pleasant jellied surround awaited me as I sliced into the first pork pie. I added some mustard to the second slice; a little brown sauce to the third. They were lovely, providing me with a pleasant lunch for the next few days, when consumed with a large salad.

As to the Devil's Fish, I thought it blended in quite nicely. Will I try it again?


Victoria (well Lyn, actually) sponge

God save our gracious sponge!

Well, we've almost made it.  Here we are, contemplating the Closing Ceremonies in a few hours when the curtain will come down on an absolutely spectacular Olympics, and very probably the last one in which I shall take more than a passing interest, unless one of my children or grandchildren go in for sports in an Olympic way.  The former have missed the mark in terms of age.  There is no latter and with no sport genes in this family, the chances are about as great as me taking gold in show jumping.  One member of the family made it onto the Olympic stage for the Opening Ceremonies and I couldn't have been prouder but I suspect that was the beginning and end of it.

That said,  I've felt more patriotic pride in the last two weeks than I've felt in my entire life.  And it's pride for a country where my  family roots on both sides are firmly anchored, and yet one in which I came to live in the fourth decade of my life. A number of people have asked me if my loyalties have been divided between the Union Flag and the Maple Leaf.  My answer is a resounding 'no'.  I live here now, my reference points are all British and have been for years and while I retain a huge affection for and pride in what was 'my home and native land' for many years, my loyalty and allegiance go to the red, white and blue which we've all watched fluttering in the thousands in the stands or adorning the shoulders of the 40-odd British athletes who've done their country proud along with the many others who've placed in the rankings and the scores who've worked their socks off in training for years and got this far but simply not been able to put themselves on the board.  They are the undecorated heroes of the Games and we should be very proud of all who've given it their best shot, even if they go home with memories not medals.  Well done, Team GB!!

What better way to mark the finale of a splendid season of Jubilee and Games than with a quintessentially English tradition:  Victoria Sponge.  Oh, I know, most of you can make these while doing the crossword and texting your friends.  Victoria sponge is to Great Britain what pancakes and maple syrup are to Canadians and anyone who holds a British passport should, I feel, master this national teatime treat.

So now I have to kneel and confess that I've never made a true sponge.  I've made pound cake which is similar and also very English, a wonderful American chocolate cake called 'Wacky Cake' which I might add to this blog in a future post simply for the fun of making it and dozens of spice, lemon, orange and assorted other types of cake.  But not sponge.  And embarrassingly, it's the easiest of the lot and as it's in the oven now, I'll refrain from adding the 'never fail' tag, for that will surely blight my first attempt.  But like boiling an egg or making toast, it would be a pretty poor cook who couldn't get this one right.  With only 5 ingredients it's a no-brainer.

I don't expect a single one of you to make this for I'm sure the English cooks among you all have a tried and true sponge recipe but if you ever fancy a change, then this one gets my vote for an alternative.  Like  many of my favourite recipes, this comes from the kitchen of the talented Lyn who is so generous with all her culinary knowledge and any recipe which she's found and had success in producing.

Weigh three eggs.  Place the same weight each of margarine and caster sugar in a bowl and combine well.  Add the eggs and a few drops of vanilla.  Finally beat in the same weight of self rising flour and beat for a couple of minutes so that the batter is light.  It's not called sponge for nothing. Voilà.  Turn into two greased and floured sponge tins and bake at 160º C for about 30 minutes or until done.

Cool on a rack before turning out of the tins.  A true Victoria should have red jam methinks, but you can personalise in any way you choose and fill with fresh fruit, or any curd or jam and for special occasions top with whipped cream.

Start with a Pimms and then the main course could be bangers and mash, shepherd's pie, toad-in-the-hole or bubble and squeak.  Nice cuppa at the end of the meal and you will be singing Rule Britannia before bed time.


Bacon and ricotta cake with roasted tomatoes

Forgive me father readers for I have sinned; it has been two months since my last post.  Oh dear.  Moving house in the middle of an already busy summer has left me with very little time for attempting new recipes, despite the fact that I have a very nice new kitchen that is crying out to be used.  However, I will soon be on enforced home stay thanks to the Olympics and the official* advice to stock up with water and canned goods, barricade the doors, and stay away from the streets and all forms of public transport for the next three weeks.

The upside of this is that it should give me more time for experimentation in the kitchen, so I will hopefully get back into a more consistent blogging routine soon.  To start off, here's a recipe I tried recently that I can tell will become part of my regular repertoire.  Easy, not too time intensive (10-15 minutes to prepare, 45 minutes to cook), and absolutely delicious both warm and reheated.  It works equally well as a side or a main dish, and could be adapted for vegetarians by omitting the bacon (although I must say, one of the two reasons I could never be a vegetarian is my love for bacon.  The other would be my love of a really good steak).  So without further ado:

Bacon and ricotta cake with roasted tomatoes
(adapted from Waitrose Recipes)

For the cake:
  • 1 medium potato, peeled and quartered
  • 225g bag baby spinach
  • 1 or 2 40g packs crispy smoked bacon (the original recipe calls for 4 packs, but I only used one and that seemed to work just fine, so I would recommend reducing that)
  • 4 tbsp Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
  • 250g ricotta cheese (the recipe called for 500g, but again, I used half that with no adverse effects)
  • 2 large (or 3 medium) eggs

For the tomatoes:
  • 300g cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp caster sugar
  • fresh thyme or oregano
  • 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar  

Before you start, preheat the oven to 180°C (gas mark 4) and grease and line a 900g loaf tin with baking parchment.

Place the potatoes in a pan, cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Simmer for 10-15 minutes until tender. Drain and allow to cool slightly, then grate coarsely.  While the potato is cooking, place the spinach in a pan, splash with a little water and cook over a medium heat for 1-2 minutes, or until just wilted (microwaving in the bag works equally well - just follow the instructions on the pack). Drain and cool in a colander, then squeeze out any excess liquid and chop roughly.  Crush the bacon into a bowl and mix in the spinach, potato, Parmigiano-Reggiano, ricotta and eggs. Season with pepper. Tip the mixture into the loaf tin. Cook for 25 minutes.

While the cake mixture is in the oven,  chop the cherry tomatoes in half and place in a roasting tin, cut side up. Drizzle with oil and sprinkle with the sugar, thyme or oregano and season. After the cake has had 25 minutes, put the tomatoes on a lower oven shelf, beneath the cake, and continue to cook for about 10-15 minutes until the cake is just firm to the touch and the tomatoes are cooked.

Leave the cake to cool slightly in the tin, then turn out while still warm. Drizzle the tomatoes with balsamic vinegar and serve with slices of warm cake.  Et bon appetit!

*This may not have been the message that LOCOG and Transport for London have been trying to convey, but everything they have said thus far has had that effect!


Baked courgettes with leeks and blue cheese

Not a capital offence surely?

I'm talking about unpremeditated blogging here, the kind that happens spontaneously when one makes a new recipe just for fun, it turns out successfully and only then does one realise that one should have had the camera handy before the finish line.  I'm hoping that my punishment won't be eternity slaving over a hot stove for this one.

We're having a rare, make that unprecedented, week in our flat in town.  In the more than four years we've owned High Windows, I've only ever spent three consecutive nights here at a time.  We've planned, on several occasions, to take a week and play tourists in town but never managed to pull it off (perhaps because it's too close to home to really make it a proper holiday) and now, with the insane atmosphere in the capital, it's not the place to be playing anything except perhaps sports for one's country.

But we're here anyway and one of my intentions on this break was to make a new recipe every night.  We've been here for three so far and the first dinner had to be something last minute, easy and familiar.  The second night we went out as I'd been at work all day and didn't want to be getting my head around unfamiliar recipes at the end of it.  So it wasn't until last night that I hauled out what was to have been my kick-off on Night One and away I went.

This is an easy one.  It's vegetarian and would make a good side dish for grilled chicken or fish but it also works as a stand alone and we both agreed it worked well.

2 tablespoons olive oil
4 medium courgettes, halved lengthwise and then cut again into quarters
25g butter
2 leeks, washed and sliced
100g blue cheese, crumbled (David is not a fan of blue and goat's cheese works very well too)
50g walnut pieces (and for once, with Kit no longer living here, I went out on a limb and added these too)

Heat the oil in a frying pan and fry the courgettes, in batches, cut side down.  Transfer to an oblong ovenproof dish. 

Melt butter in the same pan and fry the leeks gently for 4 to 5 minutes until they begin to soften.  Season then spoon on top of the courgettes.  Sprinkle the cheese and walnuts evenly on top.  I also added some grated cheddar which, in our opinion, improved the whole but it's not necessary.

Bake at 200ºC for about 20 minutes until walnuts are crisp, vegetables are tender and cheese is melted.  Scatter a few halved cherry tomatoes over the top to add colour and a loaf of hot ciabatta wouldn't go amiss either.

Now of course I realise I could and should have done this on the first night as it's so easy.  But I was too tired to be chopping and slicing at that point, and I think we enjoyed it more as it was planned beforehand, unlike this blog entry!


Salmon and prawn pie

                                                                      WE WILL NOT STARVE

although if you were depending on this blog for your inspiration (until to our great delight, two of our wonderful and loyal followers put up some amazing carbs), you'd have keeled over and expired of starvation some time ago.  It's been a busy month for two of the major bloggers on the site.  One has been travelling and then moved, the other has been going in ever-decreasing circles as the family home became a warehouse and then a ghost town. 

Life changes:  life goes on.  We now need to reorient, refocus and redesignate the purposes of three of the rooms in the house.  Everything is in transition here and I realised one afternoon whilst all this was going on, that there were, at the time, only three places where I could sit, lie or relax until more is moved out and reorganised.  But on the plus side, I had my bedroom, the bath and, thankfully, the kitchen that remained unscathed after the exodus.

So to celebrate kitchen functionality, David and I decided to make a simple fish pie for  supper but the number of steps and exhortations in the given recipe made the whole thing much more complicated than necessary.  The finished product was a great success so our last 'family' meal, before Kit moved away was a memorable one.  The Vas Felix Chardonnay was an excellent accompaniment and encouraged us during the  preparation of the meal.

Here goes, and I'll cut out a lot of the direction guff and just streamline the method as much as I can.

Peel and slice 750g each potato and sweet potato and boil (separately is easier) for 15 minutes until tender.  Remove from the heat, combine and mash together coarsely with 25g butter or margarine.

Put 250 ml semi skimmed milk (skimmed works just as well), 200 ml hot fish or vegetable stock, 500g salmon fillet and 200g cooked and peeled prawns in a roasting tin, fish kettle or large frying pan and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes or until fish is cooked through and will flake easily.  Lift fish onto a plate, reserving liquid.  Skin the salmon and break into chunks.  Arrange with the prawns in the base of a 2L casserole dish.

Wash 250g baby leaf spinach and, leaving the water on the leaves, place in a pan on hob and 'wilt' for a few minutes until reduced slightly.  Spread spinach evenly among the pieces of fish and prawns.

In a medium pan (yes, this recipe uses a lot of cookware!) melt 50g margarine and add 50g flour, stirring constantly to make a roux.  Remove from heat and gradually add reserved fish liquid, stirring until smooth.  Return pan to heat and continue to stir on low until sauce has thickened.  Remove from heat, stir in 170g soured cream and a handful chopped, fresh basil.  Pour sauce over fish in casserole.

Top with the mashed potato and sweet potato mix and bake in a 200ºC oven for about 20 - 30 minutes until bubbling and browned on top.

Serve with a green vegetable such as broccoli, asparagus or beans.

Serves 6


Pitta rising

One of the main delights of reading a cook book is in how it demystifies cooking. Those dishes that seem so intimidating are made approachable with a recipe's few easy steps; just follow the instructions.

This works for the everyday items, too. Pitta bread, for instance; bought with a punnet of hummus, consumed with some haloumi cheese, available in food outlets high and low, so commonplace that one needn't try to make it oneself. Where would one start? Why would one bother?

First answer: looking in the Fabulous Baker Brothers book (again). Second answer: it's fun, quick and in my view the results are tastier than what's available in most stores.

Quick? Oh yes, surprisingly so. But first, the ingredients: mix a sachet of dried yeast in a jug with 20 millilitres of rapeseed oil and 300 millilitres of tepid water; add this combined liquid to 560 grams of strong white flour with 10 grams of sea salt in a large bowl. 

Mix and knead for 15 minutes by hand or for ten minutes by machine with a dough hook: any excess wetness from the liquid will soon disappear as you create a pliable bread dough. Cover with a tea towel and leave for an hour.

Pulling off the tea towel, the dough should have expanded up to twice its size. Now comes the cooking, so heat up your oven to 230º Celsius, or whatever your oven's maximum is (ours is a lowly 200ºC, but we love it so). Put a baking tray inside to heat up with the oven.

While the oven's warming up, pull off pieces of the dough of around 100 grams each. Shape each one into a ball and, on a well-floured work surface, roll the dough out into pittas, keeping both sides well-floured so they don't stick. Keep rolling until the pitta is as long as your arm, from knuckle to elbow.

Once ready, pull out the baking tray with oven gloves or the like and place the pitta onto it carefully. Now, place this in the oven. Within 30 seconds, the pitta bread will start rising... and in well under five minutes, the pitta bread will have not have just risen but ballooned, browned and baked.

Take this out and let dry on a rack; continue with the next ball of dough and then next and the next, until you've got a pile of warm pittas ready for eating or storing. Next? Buy some hummus or haloumi cheese or... actually, why not make some?


Inception Cookies

Today was definitely a comfort food kind of day. In this weather - or at least, the weather we'd been having until yesterday, which I didn't realise had changed until I eventually ventured outside wholly underdressed for the lovely cool breezy evening - I'd usually turn to ice cream, but there's this crazy, over-the-top baking indulgence that's been doing the rounds of various culinary blogs - in fact, basically the Internet at large - recently, and I wanted to give it a try: Oreo-stuffed chocolate chip cookies.

Now pretty much the first thing you'd think is that it'd be too sweet. The blog I looked at - BeckyBakes - says that's not a problem, but in an effort to mitigate that ever so slightly, and also put my own personal twist on it, I added a smear of peanut butter (I'm a big fan of the Oreo/peanut butter combo, as explored in a different incarnation here).

And that's pretty much it. For my first attempt I focused on (and struggled with) construction, so I used pre-mixed cookie dough. I love the Betty Crocker just-add-water powder mix, but I found it a little bit sticky for my purposes, so consider going a little drier than usual with whatever your go-to cookie recipe is.

It's quite straightforward - dollop of dough, Oreo, peanut butter on top if you wish, and another dollop of dough.

Then I think the technical term is "smooshing".

Bake according to your usual cookie recipe (in this case, 10 minutes at 170 in a fan-assisted oven), and, if you can stand to, leave to cool.

Milk makes the perfect companion to this - as expected - very sweet but delightfully indulgent treat.

Enjoy! Oh, and if the name (Inception Cookies), means nothing to you, read this