Friday, 30 September 2011

Foil is your friend

It's been a manic week in Recipe Junkie's household and frankly, the pasta on Monday has been the culinary highlight so far. With the husband away until Wednesday evening, and the usual mad dash between school run, dog walking, working, school pick up and after school activities, I could barely chuck a few potatoes in the oven on Tuesday and heat up some baked beans. In an attempt to add some interest, I mashed up a can of salmon with some philadelphia and mayo - Pink loves it - but that was as far as it went.

The kids had friends round after school on Wednesday. I had planned sausages but as I realised I didn't have any to hand and Sainsburys wasn't coming till today, I had to find alternative options. Fortunately, there was still a turkey meatloaf in the freezer - just the job. A good job too, because having intimated that he wouldn't be home till late, the husband turned up at 6.30 needing feeding - if it had been sausages I wouldn't have cooked enough, but as it was, there was just enough meatloaf to look like I'd planned it all along. I'd cooked extra potatoes too, to make potato salad for the packed lunches on Thursday, so he was extra lucky!

On Thursday, I was planning to cook salmon, and got the necessary out of the freezer in time, but the moral of this story is that bargains are not always what they appear. I'd bought a bag of frozen, skinned salmon fillets from the supermarket, and frankly, even when they were defrosting, I knew they weren't going to be good. Maybe it was the freezing, although I usually freeze salmon, but the pieces of fish were thin and unappetising even before they were cooked, promising nothing but dryness. Pink was at a friend's for tea, so I cooked Blue's under the grill. I rubbed it with sesame oil and some soy sauce, but, even watching it like a hawk, it came out dry and tough. I let him slather it with mayo and he ate it manfully - to be honest though, growing lad that he is, he's so hungry all the time, there's not much he won't eat. I then had a dilemma - try and do something better with it for me and the husband - after all this was supposed to be a special supper given that we hadn't seen each other for a few days - or sack it and think of something else at short notice. I rooted around in the fridge, found another courgette (they're everywhere, I tell you) and some root ginger, and had a brainwave - salmon parcels!. Cut up some ginger into matchsticks, ditto the courgette. Take a big piece of foil (enough to double wrap the fish and make a parcel) - ginger and courgette in the middle, fish on top, slosh on some sesame oil and soy sauce, wrap up loosely (but make sure all the edges of the parcel are sealed) and whack it in the oven. I cooked it for about 20 minutes at 180 (I cook everything at 180 unless there's a recipe specifically says otherwise). It wasn't divine, but it was OK, and probably slightly less dry than the piece Blue had to suffer.

So the week has hardly been a beacon of gastronomic success. However, we have people coming for supper tomorrow, so I have been saving my efforts. I don't want to say too much now, because about half my readership are coming (more a comment on the number of people who actually read this - lovely people though you are) than the size of the dinner party, but suffice to say, foil was again my friend this morning.

Last night, I made the 2 hazelnut meringue discs that are going to be the basis of a fabulous (she hopes) pudding. But guess what - having cooled them overnight in the oven, I realised that I had no tin big enough for them. But never fear - foil is here - I put one on top of the other on one of the baking sheets, and wrapped in foil. Marvellous. Instant meringue tin.

pudding in process
And here's a sneaky preview...

Monday, 26 September 2011

Hunt the vegetable pasta sauce

It's worth remembering that in times of need, when you have forgotten to get what you had planned for supper out of the freezer, that there is much that can be done with a can of chopped tomatoes and some pasta.

I was lucky today - not only did I have the can of chopped tomatoes, and pasta, available, I also had garlic, a courgette (they're still coming), celery, some tired carrots that didn't make it into yesterday's soup and - the big highlight - some left over creme fraiche. No onions, but we can live without them. Fried the courgette and garlic in some olive oil, grated in the carrot and finely chopped the celery and added that. After a few minutes to soften the veg (not that it needed much softening), chuck in the can of tomatoes, rinsed out with about 1/4 can of water added to the pan and simmer while the pasta is cooking. Once it was all cooked, I added some basil leaves (it's trying deparately to bolt, but I keep pulling it back from the brink), and a dollop of creme fraiche, and whizzed it all up with a handheld 'stick' blender.

Kids get a good portion of their 5 a day without realising it - or so I thought. "What's this?" Blue asked, holding up an un-whizzed chunk on his fork, alarmingly close to my face. "Um, courgette" I ventured "but you like courgette" - always go for affirmation where possible - I find I sometimes manage to convince them. Pink joined in - "You mean there is courgette in this and I didn't even notice?" She looked horrified. "And didn't you enjoy it?" I asked with a song in my voice and an undertone of menace. Obviously today was not a day that she was going to be combative. "It was yum-ee" she said.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Flirting with Hermann, and tired vegetable soup for a tired mummy

The husband returned home late on Friday for a flying visit back from Wales and before heading off for Italy this morning. The children had social engagements planned (a birthday party for Blue) and engineered (I asked a friend to have Pink) for the afternoon, so I just had to fill in a couple of hours after he'd gone before I could have a whole lovely afternoon to myself.

I always find it's better to have a focus in situations like this, otherwise the kids just start to crumble, so the goal for this morning was Hermann - otherwise known as the German friendship cake. Now, there was a batch of Hermann floating round the village earlier in the year, but this one came from the Husband's boss. Basically, it's a sourdough type cake starter - you are given a portion of starter - fairly sloppy, and a set of instructions about how to care for it and in 10 days time, how to make a scrummy cake with it. Essentially it's a stirring and feeding process. Put the starter into a big bowl and cover. Stir every day and on day 4 and 9 you add sugar flour and milk. Having done this on day 9, you divide your bowl of starter into 4, give 3 away along with the instructions, and then make your cake using the 4th bit of starter. The cake is a lovely appley cinammon cake, and you can add nuts and/or dried fruit as you wish. School has a no nuts rule, so I didn't put nuts in this time, and I baked it all in a big roasting tin do I could cut the finished cake into lunchbox- sized squares, half of which I have wrapped individually in clingfilm and bunged in the freezer as a timesaver for packed lunches.

I was interested to see if this one would be different from the one that I'd had previously - someone once told me about another friend who had made sourdough bread, and the bread she had made using a starter made in one house was totally different from the bread that came from a starter 'grown; in a new house that they had moved to - different wild yeasts etc. If I thought about it, I'd try and get some starter going myself. The starter for this Hermann smelt much more alcoholic than the one I'd had previously, and was more liquid when I got it, but the cake at the end of it was still pretty darn tasty. Pink picked out the raisins on the basis that they were 'suspicious' (??) but Blue in much less discriminatory.

I'm feeling quite tired after a foul cold that hit on Friday. It's clearing up now but I'm still feeling pretty wiped out. Fortunately, I had some tired veg in the fridge, so the easy lunch solution for today (and for the next few days!) was 'Tired Vegetable Soup'. Fried up an onion and some celery, chopped up a potato and the left over veg, which today was some brocoli and cauliflower, add a 1.5 litres of stock, bring to the boil. simmer till the veg is cooked, then liquidise. Just too easy for words. I remembered a tip from somewhere that if you keep your old parmesan cheese rinds and chuck them in to soup, it adds 'depth of flavour', and amazingly, I did have an old parmesan rind, which I had saved for just this purpose. The chances of the 2 events combining (that is, me remembering the tip, and actually having the wherewithal to act on the tip) are fairly unlikely but obviously, the kitchen gods were smiling today.  I forgot to take it out before I liquidised the soup, but I don't think it's any the worse for it, and to be honest, I think it might have nelted down anyway.

I hardly ever follow a recipe for soup, and it's just the easiest thing. I remember having the wierdest conversation with my former step-mother in law who asked in amazement "You can make soup?" Apparently it had never occurred to her to do anything other than buy it in a tin or a tetrapak. She was even more freaked out that I couldn't tell her what the recipe was - I can't remember what soup it was that I'd made but it was probably some form of squash, probably with ginger and chilli. To give her her due, she did then have a Damascene conversion to soup making - and we got soup everytime we went there, although she did never get beyond leek & potato.

Soup for me is just a brilliant thing to have around. Allotment Junkie (a.k.a. my mother) is the queen of soup making - she will start off with some type of soup, around October time, and it gradully morphs over the weeks into something completely different. Instead of starting fresh, she just chucks what's leftover back into the soup pan along with some more of whatever stock she's got, bubbles it all up, quick liquidise, and there you go - new soup. She'll vehemently deny it, but (and don't read this if you're of a nervous disposition - or if you're likely to eat at her house during the winter months) I'd hazard that she doesn't actually wash up the soup pan from October to March. Good job we've all got cast iron stomachs. I don't quite subscribe to her methods, but I do agree that you can't beat a good bowl of soup.

Did I mention that I had a whole afternoon to myself? Well I did. After I'd dispatched the kids and walked the dog I got home for a toasted bagel and a bowl of tired vegetable soup. I read a bit of  Gordon Ramsay dessert book, but somehow I just can't get excited about his stuff - he writes about food too clinically - even though I'm sure it tastes delicious. We have people coming over for dinner next Saturday and I was wondering about pudding, but, sorry Gordon, it's going to be Thomasina Miers' summer (just) lemon and raspberry meringue cake. I did some ironing, did some writing and all of a sudden it was time to pick them up again. Time flies...

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Bagel, schmagel

I feel like I have done nothing this week but get stuff out of the freezer (admittedly stuff I have cooked on another occasion specifically so that on mad weeks like the one that's just been, I can do just that) and I've felt a bit kitchen deprived. The husband has been away all week, but before he went off to darkest Wales, he finished off turning a piece of fairly ordinary supermarket beef into a delicious piece of pastrami that has been sitting in the fridge waiting for his return. What better for Saturday lunch than bagels with cream cheese, pastrami & gherkins. I reached for Domestic Goddess, and the strong white flour...

Homemade bagels with home cured & smoked pastrami,
gherkins and cream cheese

The Dough!
We've had lots to do today, and the good thing about making any kind of bread really is that although it might seem complicated and longwinded, it's just a few stages where you might need to spend a few minutes and then get on with something else between times. So stage one - the dough. Fairly similar to normal bread dough although you use half the amount of yeast (so for a kilo of strong white flour, use 1 sachet of yeast), 500 ml of warm water with a tablespoon of oil and 2 of sugar dissolved into it. You mix this together then knead it - I have an ancient Kenwood with a dough hook, and I always use it for kneading. It was partiiculalrly helpful here because the dough is really dry and hard to work, so I just left the kenwood taking the strain and went to hang out the washing. By the time I'd done that the dough was looking great - really smooth and elastic - probably about as close to looking like the recipe says as I've ever been in a bread making scenario. Easy peasy and time to leave the washing to dry and walk the dog. The husband was spending time with the kids at swimming lessons, so I had the onerous job of striding out on a glorious and sunny September morning across the fields for an hour or so while the dog ran himself ragged. No rabbits fortunately which was a relief - after a break for a few days, I had been proudly presented with another bunny yesterday. One he was obviously keen to keep as I ended up having to prise it out of his jaws. Not nice.

But I digress. Back home and the dough was looking good, but I thought I'd leave it a little longer, so on to the next job - swabbing out the mud from Daisy (the van) and getting her ready to go into the barn for winter. I shall be sad to see her go, but it really is the best place for a lady of advancing years to spend the colder, wetter months of the year.

As lunch time approached, with Daisy repacked with all her clean crockery and ready for the barn, I turned back to the bagels. The dough was looking well risen (it probably had an hour longer than the recipe said, but didn't appear any the worse for it). The next bit takes a bit of time - forming the bagels. The dough is split into 3, each thiurd is then rolled into a 'rope' pof dough and divided into 5 pieces, which are in turn rolled into little ropes, then formed into loops. Quite fun in a 'playdough' type of way.
Waiting to puff
You get to leave the doughy loops under teatowels for another 20 mins to get all puffy, during which time you need to bring a large pan of water to boil and get the oven up nice and hot (240C or as hot as it will go). Once the water is boiling you add 2 tablespoons of sugar to the pan and when the bagels have puffed up you start the initial part of the cooking which is poaching them for a minute. You have to do it in twos (threes at most) otherwise they'd be in too long, but it doesn't take much time:

Boiling the bagels

Then onto oiled baking sheets and into the oven for 10-15 mins till they are golden brown - like so:

I was really pleased with how they turned out, and after a few minutes cooling, they were ready to eat. The husband had to slice the pastrami - I had meant to take it to the butcher and ask him if he would do it for us on his whizzy slicing machine, but I got too absorbed in cleaning Daisy, so we had to make do with a carving knife. Split bagels, slather on the cream cheese add pastrami and some sliced gherkins - delicious. 

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

In praise of hoarding, quick fixes - and chocolate brownies

I'm not going to grace you with a picture of this evening's supper. A gastronomic feast it was not. However, it was quick, easy and the children ate it which, today, was just what was required. As I may have mentioned, the weekend just gone was our last outing in the van for the year, and so in the interests of everyone, we cleared out the 'reserve food' and have decided to eat it now rather than putting it back in the van to sit in the bottom of the cupboard for another season.

I do like to hoard, and don't feel particularly comfortable at home without a couple of cans of beans, some tuna (not that I particularly like canned tuna, and neither do the kids, but, you know, it's there if we need it) and various other bits and pieces 'just in case'. In fact, the reality is that I actually enjoy planning what we're going to eat on our excursions, so we are usually massively overcatered, and have never needed the reserves. As a result, there is now, sitting on our sideboard (because there is no room in the cupboards at home, because they are themselves stacked out with the home emergency rations - I mean you never know when there'll be a nuclear winter): a tupperware of pasta (OK, so that has been used and replenished), some 'pickwicks' teabags purloined from the scout camp in Holland, 3 tins of liver paste (ditto Holland) a jar of Pataks korma sauce, 2 cans of baked beans, a can of ambrosia rice pudding (yum yum), a can of kidney beans, a can of sweetcorn, a tin of corned beef (!!!) some orange and lavendar marmalade, a can of black olives, half a pack of Dutch noodles (Mie Nestjes, no less) a bottle of tabasco and some Uncle Bens boil in the bag rice. I mean what exactly I was going to do with that in an emergency of the kind I was anticipating is anyone's guess but there we go.

So this evening, I made inroads into the supplies but using up the other half of Mie Nestjies, and cooked them with some brocoli and cauliflower that were lurking in the fridge. To make this more exciting, I used the remaining sachet of Satesaus - also originating from the Dutch scout camp and squirreled into the van - a powder which makes up into a viscous peanut satay sauce. I squeezed in the remains of a lime that had otherwise been used for G&T and was starting to look rather tired, and I thought it would make the sauce slightly less cloying. Drained the noodles and veg, pour on the sauce, job done. Pudding yesterday was the carton of custard with pear halves. Today was the other can of Ambrosia with peach slices. Lush.

Perhaps I was feeling a bit guilty about the level of processed food I'd shoved into the kids in the name of easy food and knackered mothers, but feeling slightly more recovered from the weekend today, I am currently baking a tray of Nigella's chocolate brownies (the Domestic Goddess ones). Half quantities, and using dried sour cherries instead of walnuts so that the kids can take them to school in their lunch boxes. I know that brownies don't fall into the 'healthy food' category, but I am a firm believer in treats and homebaked treats at that, and brownies definitely come in to the top 10. I haven't made them for ages either, as I've been big on cake during the camping season, so I'm hoping I will get huge mummy points tomorrow when they open their lunch boxes.. I didn't have enough chocolate in the conventional block (I though I'd had 2 blocks left but my attempts to boost my iron levels before the last blood donation had obviously overridden my memory of what I had in my cupboards, although I find this happens a lot with my chocolate supplies), but I had some chocolate chips, and judging by the smell from the kitchen now as it cools down, I don't think any harm has come.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

dumplings for tea

So we returned from Dorset damper and distinctly muddier than when we arrived. It was a great weekend, but the weather wasn't kind and our area of the campsite was definitely looking a bit like Glastonbury by the time we headed back for home.

As it was the last van trip of the year, and Daisy will be heading for the barn next weekend, there was more than the usual clearing up to do, but fuelled with gallons of tea, the husband and I have made a pretty good start. The second load of washing is on, and the kids are now clean and dry, and tucked up in bed ready for the week. Not sure that one 'early' night will make up for a weekend of late night racketing, stream jumping, swimming in the sea and general jolly japes on the beautiful Isle of Purbeck, but at least we tried!

I was so pleased that I'd been Mrs Organised at the end of the week and made that casserole. So much so that I had a brainwave and decided to do something that the husband has been asking for ages - make dumplings (no smutty comments). I had some suet knocking about from a suet pasty I made for a steak and kidney pie a few months ago, and following a quick consultation with Hugh F-W (this time in Meat), herb dumplings it was.

I know that dumplings probably aren't the most glamorous thing, but after a weekend of being slightly damp, a little hungover (or a little drunk), in the great outdoors, with the scent of Autumn definitely hanging in the air, they seemed an appropriate end to the weekend. I thought they might be heavy and dense, but strangely not. The HF-W recipe is self raising flour, breadcrumbs and suet, mixed together with some finely chopped herbs (I used parsely and rosemary which is what I had closest to hand in the garden and a couple of beaten eggs. The recipe made 12 which was probably slightly too many for the 4 of us - but they all went. With the casserole I'd made the other evening - bacon, braising steak, shallots and mushrooms, they were perfect: to cook them, you pop them in the top of the casserole, put on the lid and they steam on the top. I did some token carrots and a few potatoes, mainly because they needed cooking - instant hassle-free supper and just what was called for after the mud.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

getting ready for the last hurrah

This time last year, we spent a fabulous weekend down on the Devon coast with our good friends and our vans. We were van virgins last year, but a year on, van veterans, we're headed off for another weekend, this time to celebrate their eldest daughter's 8th birthday with, I think, 7 or 8 other families, down in Dorset, to the fabulous Burnbake campsite, as venerated by Cool Camping.

With a camping weekend pending, normally, there would be plenty of opportunity for advance cooking of lovely things, but this time round, we have our instructions - it is to be fish & chips from the chippie in Swanage on Friday night, and a BBQ on the beach on Saturday. Can't wait.
However, the instructions do not take account of cake. Cake is the second most desirable item to take camping (I'm assumng the accomodation, be it van, tent or other) after alcohol. It is a sad fact but a true one that I would find camping a much less rounded experience without my Friday night van G&T. Things have been a bit hectic this week, but I've got a tin of Hugh F-W's 10 minute chocolate chip cookies from River Cottage Everday ready to go (if we don't eat them all beforehand). I actually made the oat and raisin alternative that he gives, but Pink got a bit sad about the lack of chocolate (she is so her mother's daughter!), so I fiddled about with the quantites and instead of putting nuts in (which would have meant they couldn't have them in their lunches at school) I put 100g of chocolate chunks in. I would recommend this. They are extremely good (if I do say so myself).

I am hoping to have time tomorrow to bake a cherry & coconut loaf (Nigella's from Kitchen) or possibly a sticky ginger treacle cake out of the Camper Van Cook Book, but I will have to see how it goes.

The thing I am most pleased with however, is that I have managed to be organised for Sunday evening. I mean let's face it, the last thing you want to be doing after a full on weekend out in the open air doing fun camping things is to sort out a meal, but as the scent of Autumn fills the air, and with my mind turning to things warming, I managed to sort my life out, and tonight, have a delicious beef casserole gently cooking away in the slow cooker. I will freeze half of it and put the rest on the fridge ready for re-heating on Sunday night. Am looking forward to it almost as much as the camping itself...

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Chick, chick, chick, chick, chicken...

So the last time I managed a post I was roasting a chicken, and very delicious it was too, especially after the fish disaster on Saturday. GAA has now moved on to the next relative and we are feeling relaxed - and exhausted: especially the husband who has been subject to more art & culture in the last 3 days than he could ever have thought possible.

I was flicking through the Good Food mag that I purchased the other week and it has a whole section on how to use up a roast chicken. Not just how to use up the left overs: it specifically encourages you to roast a chicken then use it for other things rather than eating "as a roast". How odd.

I guess that it's a good way of encouraging people to buy a whole chicken and using it all up, rather than buying pieces (breast fillets etc). A whole bird is honestly is much better value, and while I don't think I would ever roast a chicken with the intention of using the roast meat primarily in other recipes, I thought I would witter on about my favourite ways of using up leftover roast chicken (after the first meal of chicken, roast potatoes etc).

If there's plenty of gravy left from the first meal, I find there are 2 easy options. The first is to re-heat the gravy and serve the cold chicken with boiled potatoes and veg with the hot gravy poured over (or 'on the side' if you are Pink). The kids are also pretty keen on a pasta with chicken and gravy sauce. To make the sauce, I re-heat the gravy and thin it out with some creme fraiche or cream if there's any such naughtiness left over from the pudding, or if not, then some stock, and depending on what it's tasting like, perhaps adding some dijon or wholegrain mustard (depending on what's not mouldy in the fridge). Once the pasta is cooked, just drain it, chuck it in with the sauce and add in the cold diced chicken.

Stuffed pancakes is another good way of making a little leftover chicken go along way. We're lucky that we have a constant (if variable) supply of eggs, so if I'm feeling like super lovely mummy, I will make the kids pancakes for a pudding and make sure there are enough pancakes leftover to do this for the following night - it also freezes well for another time. So, for the filling, I would finely chop some mushrooms (really fine, so the kids don't notice) and cook them down, and wilt some chard or spinach (again - we have tonnes in the garden, but it's easy to get hold of a bag of spinach), squeeze it out and chop it up. Add the leftover gravy and ingredients as mentioned for the pasta sauce as above, but remember that you don't want it too runny - just to keep the mushrooms, spinach and chicken moist - then get the pancakes, dollop some of the filling along one edge then roll up and put in an ovenproof dish. Do the rest with all the pancakes, and hopefully you will have a bit of sauce left over to pour over the top, although it's not strictly necessary - you can always apply Tommie K when you serve it if it's a bit dry, then sprinkle on some grated cheese and bake in the oven till hot. Yum.

If there isn't enough gravy left, then I do noodles and stirfry some veg with some chinese five spice and some soy sauce.

If you have a discerning GAA or similar staying, there are a couple of more sophisticated options that are useful to fall back on. The Good Food mag was advocating a chicken risotto as the 'primary' recipe to knock up with the roast chicken and I'd agree that risotto is always a good option, but the real beaut is Chicken and Chorizo couscous. This is another Good Food recipe, copied out on to an index card and is probably the most used in my box of recipes. To serve 6, the ingredients are as follows:

350g each of couscous & cooked chicken; 100g sliced chorizo
3 medium tomatoes, deseeded (that's what the recipe says - I never bother - and if I don't have big tomatoes, I have used a handful of cherry toms)  and chopped
100g frozen peas (again, the recipe says they should be thawed but I never bother)
900ml hot chicken or veg stock (if yp've been really organised you can use the stock you made from the chicken carcass - or alternatively dissolve a couple of stock cubes...)
1/2-1 tsp harissa paste or hot chilli sauce
pinch of saffron,
1 tsp each of ground ginger & ground coriander
3tbsp olive oil
3 tbsp chopped coriander (or parsley is fine too - or don't bother)

Pre-heat oven to 180C/Gas 4 (fan 160)

You put the couscous, chicken, chorizo, tomatoes and peas in a large shallow dish, and combine the stock. harissa, saffron, ground ginger and coriander with the oil, and seasoning. Pour the stock mixture over the couscous etc give a good stir with a fork and cover tightly with tin foil then bake for 30 mins. Remove foil, stir in the fresh coriander (or parsley) (if you can be bothered), breaking up any clumps of couscous and serve.

You can replace the peas with courgette, and you can add other veg. It's really delicious. The recipe above is for 6 but you can halve it etc or make a big load and the leftovers are delicious cold - especially with some tabasco...

Sunday, 11 September 2011

(Almost) Perfect Picnics, and Suicidal Suppers...

We made it to Wisley yesterday at around midday, as per instructions, to be met with full carparks and crowds of people. None of us had checked, and it turned out that we had chosen Wisley as our venue on the weekend of its flower show. We were directed to an overflow carpark, quite a way from the main entrance. We met up with F2 (one of the 2 families we were meeting - see post from Friday 9th September) almost immediately, having arrived not long after them and so fortunately had been directed to the same car park. After half an hour of waiting, F1 (bringing GAA) had not arrived. And F2 wife, and, more importantly the link between us and F1, had forgotten her mobile, so we had no way of contacting them. Cue contrived conversation about how we never used to have mobile phones and things would always turn out one way or the other, so we decided to head into the garden and take it from there. I began to warm very much to F2 wife as she began to write notes to F1 to leave at various key points, on the basis that they might just be directed to the same car park us we had. This is very much a recipe junkie approach to life - much to the husband's despair.

Picnic anxiety returned when F2 child appeared with a very desirable picnic holder type thing, but we headed off together nonetheless. Our confidence that we would meet up with F1 suffered a further blow when we realised that there were not 1 but 3 cafes in the garden. We headed for the first cafe near the main entrance but no F1 and no GAA, so we decided, it being most definitely lunchtime, we decided to find a spot and feed out 4 kids (and ourselves) and worry about F2 and GAA later.

Imagine my relief to discover that F2 picnic was in many ways very similar to ours (albeit packaged in a more desirable container - which I have tracked down to John Lewis - you could have guessed!). We had potato salad - homemade and with hiomegrown potatoes - they had cold rice salad. They may have had muscat grapes left over from their recent holiday in France, but they had shop-bought biscuits to my homemade cake. We both had designer crisps with us. A draw, I feel.

Eventually, lack of mobile phone not withstanding, we were united with F1 (delayed by an accident on their trip from Cambridge) and we had a very jolly afternoon dodging the rain and forging new family ties. It was a great relief that the older kids (ours and the F2 kids) did a quick appraisal of each other, found each other to be suitable companions and headed off to find the nearest muddy ditch (there are several at Wisley).

It was late by the time we left, GAA safely installed in the front of the car while Recipe Junkie was crammed in the back between the kids' booster seats, wishing that she wasn't quite so addicted to baking. GAA's suitcase fell on top of Fred (who had had to accompany us and who had spent a miserable afternoon in the car, visited by the husband whenever he wanted a fag (the husband that is, not the dog), and the kids were getting ratty. "Still" thought I, "I have a simple but delicious meal ready to knock together and still be in time to watch Dr Who".

Rule No 1: Never ever ever cook something new when you have guests. I wish I could follow this - it must be the cardinal rule of entertaining. On the basis that I never remember this until it is too late, the husband has started to refer to my 'Suicidal Suppers'. Saturday night was no exception. I had ordered the finest sea bass to be roasted whole, along with a roast peper and tomato salsa. The meal came from a Good Food mag (September 2009), and I had selected it for a couple of reasons. I thought that GAA would probably like fish, and it seemed like a quick but sophisticated meal. I have never roasted whole fish before.

In fact, the meal was relatively easy to put together. The fish were already scaled and gutted and it was just a matter of shoving some lemon slices inside along with some parsley stalks and roasting for 20 minutes, and the salsa was also quick and easy. Served with some new potatoes, it should have been (and in my head, it so was) a triumph of sophisticated dining, suiting the palates of young and old alike. However, when it came down to it, I think I'd forgotten that I really don't like it when my food looks like it's supposed to be - so faced with the fish, eye whitened from the cooking, tail on, it just didn't seem so appetising. And there are just so many bones. It tasted good, but it went cold quite quickly - what with all the faffing around getting people to the table. Blue manned up and ate it - we all liked the salsa anyway, GAA, the husband and I too, but Pink looked at it, tried the timiest mouthful and said - "Mummy - I do like some fish - just not this type". I know what she meant.  

Sunday is of course another day. The feta & chard parcels were a great success at lunchtime for the adults (Blue didn't like, but tried at least before chowing down on his preferred cheese and chutney sarnies, and Pink was in junk food heaven at a birthday party taking place at local soft play), and as I type, the lovely scent of roast chicken is wafting out of the oven for our supper. After the hazards of playing with fire (and fish) last night, I needed something routine to night to keep it together. I'm doing rosemary roast new potatoes and Vichy carrots (Sarah Raven again - cook them in water but with some butter, sugar and salt & pepper till the water is all gone and the carrots are glazed then chuck in parsely and lemon juice) and for pudding, a rhubarb puff thing that needs to go in my 'How Puff Pastry Saved my Life'  recipe book that I found on the Good Food website .I'm going to whisper that it doesn't quite seem the weather for crumble (even though it has been lashing with rain) but GAA has expressed a desire for Rhubarb and we have a freezer full, so this seemed like the least labour-intensive option. Puff pastry (bought) is a wonderful thing.

Anyway, I need to get off my backside and get on with the gravy, otherwise my beautiful roast chuck will suffer the same fate as Friday night's fishfingers, and that would never do.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Picnic anxiety

So it's Friday evening and I'm feeling a bit stressed. In fact, I have anxiety about what to put in our picnic tomorrow when we will be going to Wisley to meet up with the husband's great aunt from Australia (henceforth "GAA"). She is already in England staying with another family. Tomorrow, other family (F1), the Recipe Junkie mob, plus another family (F2) are meeting up at RHS Wisley so that we can spend the day together and then we will assume responsibility for GAA.

Now the 2 other families are almost entirely unknown quantities. The wife/mother in F2 is somehow distantly related to the husband, and the wife/mother in F1 is her step (or half - I can't remember which) sister. All quite complicated. F1 includes and 18 month old and F2 includes a 9yr old and a 7 yr old.

I could handle all this except I have only met the adults from F2 once, at a funeral, and the adults of F1 not at all, and I just don't know how to approach 'the picnic'. I don't know if these other children are paragons of virtue who will only eat wholefoods and spurn chocolate in favour of fruit, or faddy fusspots. And secretly (well, not so secretly) I want to produce something that will show my family to be good. I can't guarantee their behaviour, but if I get the food right, then at the picnic at least, I can be pretty sure that for 5 minutes, all will be well, and it's the thought of those 5 minutes that I am clinging on to. So here is the dilemma - do I try and rustle up something delicious, organic and delightful (which the children will probably eat but might - might just - turn their noses up), or suppress my desire to perform as an alpha mummy (exhausting myself into the bargain) and just produce a normal picnic. For the past few days I have been considering the many suggestions for picnic food in the many Good Food magazines I have (in month order) in the study. Should I make ploughman rolls (home baked with cheese and tomato baked into them)? Should I make a fritatta or roast some chicken legs in some exotic marinade? This must, I think, be the current manifestation of my competitive streak.

However, I did nothing about the ploughmans rolls, the fritatta or the chicken legs, and given that it's already after G&T o'clock, and I am blogging you can guess that I have managed to get a grip and head for the middle ground (I should clarify that I do not yet have said G&T in hand). Ham and cheese rolls it will be (peanut butter on crackers for Pink - I would rather pander to her foibles than have her not eat enough and be foul). But I think I might manage some homemade hummus and some carrot sticks to dip, and, as I type, there is in the oven, Nigella's seed cake (from Kitchen). An odd choice, perhaps, but I know that my kids will like it, and I can't help feeling a little bit smug about taking homemade cake along. It's another really easy loaf cake, and it has ground almonds and caraway seeds in it. The smell from the kitchen is divine. And there it is again - that feeling that perhaps F1 or F2 will turn up with homemade cake AND something else (that I can't think of) that will make me feel inadequate (or, heaven forbid, they will have compared notes to come up with a super amazing picnic) . But inadequate I will just have to feel.

In the midst of all this angst, I managed to burn the kids' fishfingers for tea, but at least they'll be able to eat homemade cake tomorrow.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Things are not always as they seem...

...and so there was a perfectly good reason for me to be buying red wine and chocolate at 9.45 this morning. The woman on the till in the Co-op looked at me a bit strangely, and when I said "Honestly it's not that bad" she looked at me again, asked me for my Co-Op card, and when I said I didn't have it and scrabbled round in my pocket and handed over a tenner from among the debris (2 dog biscuits, a couple of old receipts and a furry cola bottle), she said "Are you sure? Looks quite bad to me!".

I maintained a dignified silence and left the shop.

In truth, the reason for the chocolate might seem rather weak, but I'm giving blood later today and I tend to have low iron levels which can stop the Blood service taking my pint. However, after the 8 pints that George had during his first year of chemo, I feel that this is something really important to do, so in the run up to donating, I take measures to boost my iron levels. "Dark chocolate, though" I hear you muse. "Sounds like an excuse to me". Well, there's a thing. When I was discharged from hospital 5 days after having Blue by emergency c section, with low iron levels, I was advised by the hospital not to take iron tablets or eat spinach. Oh no. The advice was very clear - red meat and dark chocolate. I had the best steak of my life that evening - huge, rare and bloody. Unfortunately, that advice also fueled an already frightening relationship with Green & Blacks which only ended when Pink was about 1 and I realised I had put on over 3 stone (to be fair, the circumstances were exceptional, and the choc wasn't the only thing to blame, but even so...). The 3 stone has gone, but I use the opportunity of giving blood to sneak in a few cheeky bars of the good stuff. This morning, it was a bar of co-op dark choc with spices and orange oil, and very delicious it was with my cup of coffee.

You see, although I know you want me to say that red wine works with dark chocolate to increase the absorption of iron, the truth is that the wine is for the chilli this evening. But as I am giving blood and then hopefully going on a rare night out to the cinema this evening, it all needs to be cooked in advance and ready to go. One of my pots of braised mince is out of the freezer ready to be transformed, once I've finished working, the it iwll be a matter of frying some onions and garlic, chucking in the mince, kidney beans and some tomatoes along with some spices and I will have a delicious meal ready for all the family to enjoy. I feel like I am living in some 50s lifestyle show about how to be a good wife and mother. Pass the gin someone.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

I know I'm getting old when...

...a good evening involves pottering around, unhindered in the kitchen and making something delicious.

Blue & pink are fast asleep and the husband is off doing good community works keeping the local youth off the streets (probably burning things - but in a controlled scout-type way in woods somewhere) so I had the kitchen to myself. Sarah Raven beckoned yet again, back to page 395 of the Garden Cookbook, and those feta & chard parcels. The husband's great aunt is coming to stay at the weekend. She is an amazing woman of indeterminate age who lives in Australia and comes to Europe every couple of years for a grand tour. She might be 70, or even 80 - but she has the mind and stamina of someone much younger. Anyway, I have been troubled by the catering required for her stay and these parcels look like just the job for Sunday lunchtime.

The recipe is straightforward - fry leek in butter, add the chard leaves (you could use spinach) to wilt, then beat in some feta and parmesan and a beaten egg, and make parcels out of strips of filo pastry. I love this kind of fiddling, making a filling, cutting up the filo and then dolloping in some filling and folding and folding to make little delicious triangles. I have frozen them uncooked, so on Sunday I can take out what I need, brush with egg, roll in sesame seeds and bake till crisp. Can't wait.

I had some filo left  over, but as luck would have it, in the fridge I had some apple mush that I'd baked yesterday with a dollop of honey. I had intended to make baked apples, but I kept breaking the apples up when I was coring them, so just chopped everything up, squeezed some runny honey over the apple and baked it (the oven was on anyway). Earlier this evening, I made some blackcurrant cupcakes (recipe also in Sarah Raven - can you see a new addiction developing?) and had a few blackcurrants left over, so I mixed them in with the apple, and bingo, managed to have just enough to make apple & blackcurrant parcels out of the left over filo.

I've frozen the parcels on 2 trays. One is just the feta & chard, the other is half and half (feta & chard, apple & blackcurrant). I have laid the parcels out on greaseproof and labeled them, but I would lay bets on someone getting an apple & blackcurrant parcel on Sunday...

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

green soup and onion tart

Maybe it was all those rabbits but I really didn't feel like cooking meat today. Besides, the garden is full of veg, and the weather was horrible so I felt like something warming and comforting. I bought a Good Food mag the other week (October 2011 if you're interested), on the basis of having had a skim though while staying at mum's. There was a recipe for an onion tart (p 40) made in the same way as a tarte tatin, but using a scone base. There's also a similar recipe in Domestic Goddess (p.85 of my edition), so in the interests of crossing another DG recipe off the list, I got out DG too and picked out the best bits of both. I cooked the onions according to Nigella (30 mins, rather than 5-8 mins specified in GF), and did this before I went up to school to collect the kids. I also used Nigella's scone base recipe. The GF one used wholemeal flour and in the interests of getting the kids to eat it, I thought I'd go with all plain flour - the browner food is, the more suspicious they are of it, unless it's HP. However, I didn't use the cheese that Nigella specifies because my kids can be a bit funny about cheese in things, and I cooked the thyme with the onions rather than adding it afterwards which is what Nigella does.

I thought the kids would probably enjoy it, but I was really pleased by how much they liked it. They did have HP with it (Nigella endorses it as an accompaniement to this particular recipe, so it must be OK), and beans from the garden, and it all disappeared. Blue even had seconds and asked if he could take some for lunch tomorrow "but only if the onion doesn't slide off" - he does have a point! I don't think it would freeze particularly well, but I think it will taste OK cold, although as I type, it is sitting in the oven covered in foil trying to stay warm for when the husband gets home.

More in hope than expectation, I started the meal with chard and coconut soup from Sarah Raven's Garden Cookbook. I found this recipe the other night - or rather the husband did as he was recipe surfing trying to find out how best to use up his bumper celery crop (!). I was actually looking up the chard & feta parcels he'd mentioned, as they may be the answer to my food dilemma this coming weekend, and on the same page (395) is this very simple and, as it turns out, delicious soup recipe. It's basically sweated onions & garlic, add chard, veg stock and coconut milk, simmer for 10 mins and whizz up - how easy is that: and totally delicious. Now I am not an idiot - just because I like something doesn't mean the kids will, and I was definitely not expecting them to have more than a sip. I did dress it up, giving them each a little espresso cup to try, rather than a big green bowl ful, and I actually managed not to call it 'special green soup' (or similar. I wouldn't tell them what was in it - Blue was convinced from the colour that it would be pea (peas being his nemesis) - but they both tried it nevertheless, and both finished their cups up. I even managed not to try and force them to have some more, but was satsified that they'd tried it and finished what I'd given them. Probably a first for me!

I haven't had my onion tart yet, but I did have some soup with the kids becuase after all the weather today and 2 'bracing' walks (for bracing, read very wet and windy) with the rabbit catcher. I'm looking forward to proper supper when the husband gets home.

more bl***y rabbits

The dog has clearly given up on pheasants. After all - pheasants don't play fair do they? Sitting there in the fields teasing a poor simple dog, only to leap into the air like some kind of feathered and ungainly jump jet, just out of reach. What's a dog to do? I knew we had reached some kind of turning point when I managed to get him back during our walk this morning with just 2 short blasts of the whistle and one "Fred!" (rather than frantic whistle blasting and many "FRED"s in my most fierce 'bad dogs and childen' voice). And this after I had already heard the whirr of wings as the birds rose from the fields, and the dog's mad "I'm chasing birds" bark (it's more like a 'yip' than a bark actually) - which has previously been the point just after the point of no return as far as Fred's concerned. But today, he came racing back on my first attempt. I started to feel slightly suspicious.

We continued on our wet and windy walk in the kind of 'blow the leaves off the trees' weather I associate more with October, especially as the leaves haven't really started to turn yet here. All was fine until we reached Bunny Alley, at which point, he raced off up the track and refused to even acknowledge me or the whistle. The next time I saw him, my heart sank. Trotting down the hill, bunny in mouth, he was the picture of proud dog bearing presents. He arrived and sat, blinking regally, proudly displaying his prize. "Fred, good boy" I said "now drop the rabbit". No response. "Drop the Rabbit. Please". Fred carried on blinking at me. The rabbit twitched. "Drop. The. Rabbit. NOW". Nothing. The rabbit was clearly getting a bit fed up and had started to show that it was very much still alive. It raised its little bunny head and the pink rimmed eyes looked at me. "Not today" those eyes said "Not now. And not like this - it is not my time".

After a few more seconds of my pleading with the dog, the rabbit took matters into its own hands (or rather paws) summoned up some energy, gave a big twist and managed to free itself. Fred looked very surprised , but just as he was recovering himself the rabbit made for the hedgerow and disappeared, hopefully to live to meet a horrible death another day, and the husband will once again be deprived of rabbit pie.

Twisted Rabbit Catcher?

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Rabbit catching, blackberries and courgette cake for tea

There was a point during this afternoon's foray out for blackberries where I looked in front of me down the lane to see the dog lolloping ahead of the husband, followed in turn by blue and pink holding hands and singing. The sun was shining, a gentle breeze whispered through the hedgerows and the birds were tweeting. A rural idyll. Or not.

Despite a long walk earlier in the day, the dog was intent on exhausting himself and us. I should have known that he would not be naturally suited to blackberry picking. He made it virtually impossible for me to pick anything while he was still on the lead, as he kept winding his lead around my legs then trying to leg it after whatever he had spied in the bushes. Once we'd got off the road and into the green lane, he was clearly in rabbit-mode (rabbit chasing mode, that is). He raced like a demon up and down by the hedgerow, stopping every now and again to shove his head deep into the thicket to the point where you would just see his tail and behind furiously wagging from side to side. After a few seconds of bum waggling, he would leap back out again, tongue hanging out, panting madly, with a deranged look in his eye and covered in ever increasing burrs, fuzz balls and other debris, only to race off again after more invisible (to us at least) wildlife. Fortunately I'd managed to let him off the lead, so he wasn't dragging me behind him...

Meanwhile, we tried to pick blackberries. Unfortunately, our chosen spot was not as prolific as previous years with most of the blackberries high up and protected by 2 feet of nettles. The husband and I are now tingling from the knees down from the stings, and the children gave up early and concentrated on eating the ones they could reach. Pink was particularly interested in the concept of gathering free food. "Is this like poor people do?" she asked. Every few minutes, I had to check for the mad dog who was thoroughly beside himself with excitement and kept disappearing.

We were turning back, having gathered a respectable tub-full (turns out we got a kilo), when Fred decided that he too wanted to contribute to the foraging. After whistling to call him from which ever undergrowth he was investigating, he appeared, looking very pleased with himself, with something in his mouth. Those of you with a nervous disposition, look away now.

"He's got a rabbit" shouted blue.

It took a couple of minutes to prise the still twitching bunny from his jaws. He trotted up and sat down clearly seeking praise, but refused to give up the prize, so I was forced to step in. The husband did the decent thing. The poor bun was 'mixi' anyway, and for that I have mixed feelings. Obviously, I feel sorry for the bunny, being dead and all, at the hands of the dog, but had it not been mixi, the title of this blog would have included rabbit pie...

 Thankfully (!) as rabbit pie wasn't on the menu, I could do some much less carnivorous baking today. What with all those courgettes, and getting a bit fed up of using them as veg, I decided to remind myself what Nigella's courgette cake tastes like. Pink is not a fan or courgette and kept asking if she would be able to taste it in the cake, but when she became involved in the cake baking process she was much happier. The cakes themselves are quite light, and are sandwiched together with lime curd (the recipe is also in Domestic Goddess) and topped with a cream cheese icing. Even though the curd is very sharp, I think topping it with the cream cheese icing makes it possibly a little too sickly, but I am sure I will have a few more slices just to make sure. Blue liked the creamcheese and the cake but not the curd, while pink hoovered he whole lot up. The dog won't get a look in - I had to spend 20 minutes (I timed them) brushing the burrs out of his ears when we got back from the walk so he is not in the good books...

Friday, 2 September 2011

Sourdough - revived

Spurred on by a friend who has been posting on Facebook about her sourdough bread, I retrieved my starter out of the freezer whence it has been languishing since Easter. After a couple of abortive attempts at sourdough (using Jamie Oliver’s instructions) a few years ago, I decided to have another go, inspired by Hugh’s instructions in River Cottage Everyday which I got at Christmas. I followed the steps meticulously and before I knew it, I had amazing and delicious bread. We decided that it was probably a bit of a faff to have every day, so normal fast acting yeast is what I continued to use for ‘day to day’ bread – the sourdough didn’t make for great sarnies because of the shape of the loaf for a start, but for the weekend, sourdough was definitely a great treat. I got into a routine for keeping the starter in the fridge during the week then ‘reactivating’ it on a Thursday or Friday to make a couple of loaves for the weekend, then putting it back to sleep. However, as the easter holiday approached, I knew that I was going to have to take that leap of faith and put the starter, that I had nurtured and cared for since Christmas, into the freezer.

Now, my freezer (or should I say freezers – I have 3) is a dangerous place to be at the best of times – you never quite know when you’re going to be attacked by an exploding back of 3 year old runner beans, or foxed by some unlabelled bag which looks like raspberries but turns out to be cubes of red wine, frozen after a particularly intensive period of Nigella addiction (I mean honestly, who really has wine left over to freeze after a dinner party – we just drink it). It is genetic – this inability to manage a freezer. Allotment Junkie once served up stewed gooseberries which she’d mistaken for soup.

Anyway, Hugh confidently assured me that my starter would be OK in the freezer, so I put it in a tub, labelled it and tucked it away. And there it has stayed, until yesterday.

I wasn’t hopeful - friend who had taken some of my original starter had tried earlier in the year, and it had died, cold and alone, in her freezer – but I decided that I owed it a chance, so I liberated it from the freezer, and thawed it out.
Once it was defrosted, I added some more flour (rye, to give it something wholesome after months in the yeast equivalent of Siberia) and a bit of warm water, gave it a mix and waited.  And it seems that I may not be disappointed. This morning, there were definite bubblings going on. I got very excited and thought about getting on with a loaf straight away, but decided to give it at least one more feed (the bit where you chuck away half, add some more flour and some warm water). After a couple of hours this morning, I am pretty confident that I am back in business – and very pleased I am too. Assuming it’s still looking happy this evening, I shall be baking sourdough again.