A comforting dish of meatballs and polenta

What am I doing, writing this on one of the hottest days of the year? But English weather is so variable that you may need this in a couple of days. You can, of course, eat this when it’s hot, and we do. But it is particularly comforting on a day when you need succour – be it due to weather or weariness. I can’t over play how delicious this is, and how easy if you make it in stages – which I do.

I have also been meaning to write this up for some years, ever since I saw the Chiappa sisters make this on TV. (I have since adapted it slightly.)

After reading about a brilliant piece about the nitrates in our meat, written by the excellent Bee Wilson I realised that I had become really lazy about making meatballs and burgers. Which is shocking given my heritage.

My mother has never ever bought shop bought burgers or meatballs. And although she now allows herself the luxury of buying ready-minced meat, she also – until fairly recently – used to mince all the meat herself. It was the only way she could be absolutely sure of the cut of the meat used for mince.

My mother is a goat farmer’s daughter and when I was growing up and went shopping with her, she would tell the butcher not only exactly how she liked her meat cut, but where off the animal she wanted it cut and he utterly bowed to her expertise – she not only did this in butcher shops but she also used to do it in Sainsbury’s. Sainsbury’s – back then – used to have a phone over the chilled meat counter and you could ring up and speak to the butcher in the back (oh for those days!). She would pick up the receiver and he would recognise her voice and he would say “coming out Mrs Barbieri” and he would come out and meet her where the back of the shop met the shop floor, where the big plastic curtains were – and she would say, in her heavily accented voice, exactly how he was to cut the meat for our dinner. I used to baulk slightly at the time it all took, but even then, I would be awed at her expertise and the way he listened to her. And this was a time when not everyone did listen, because speaking in accented English – some thought – marked you out as stupid.

You see how far I’ve come, blithely slinging ready made meatballs and burgers into my trolley. All be them from Waitrose and free range and organic etc.

So now I make my own, thanks in no small part to Bee’s piece, in bulk. And I freeze them in vacuum packs. And of a morning when no-one can decide what to eat that night, or be bothered to shop, it is with high levels of smugness that I can then pull them out of the freezer to defrost.

Shall we get on with the recipe?

You can make much of this in advance and bring it all together at time of eating. This is what I do. Note I make double of the sauce and meatballs and freeze for another time. As the recipe stands it makes enough for four modest eaters. You have to make the polenta at the time of eating.

The sauce

2 red peppers, de-seeded, chopped

4 ish tomatoes, of medium size, quartered

3-4 cloves of garlic, peeled (less or more if you hate/love it) – leave whole.

A few sprigs of thyme

Salt, pepper, olive oil

Heat oven to 180C. Put the two chopped peppers, the four quartered tomatoes and the 3-4 whole cloves of garlic in a bowl. Sprinkle some salt and pepper over the top and about two tablespoons of olive oil and mix all together, then put on a baking tray and cook for about 20 minutes. I find this is massively variable as sometimes the veg puts out a lot of water, but you’re looking for the veg to be soft and a bit golden in parts.

When done, let cool slightly and then blend to a thick sauce in a blender. Don’t worry about the skin of the peppers, you don’t need to take it off. You can use immediately or keep it in the fridge for a couple of days (or freeze the whole lot). Heat up before using.

The meatballs (or, for another time, burgers)

This is a fantastic recipe, generally, for meatballs (polpette) or burgers and it’s the only one I now use. It makes a very well flavoured meatball/burger, but I do sometimes leave out the parmesan (or put less in) and the fennel seeds if I want something just really simple and plain. I would, however, urge you to make the proper version for this dish however as the polenta doesn’t have as much parmesan in it as some recipes.

I do have a bit of an important note which is – put all the ingredients in a food mixer and pulse together until smooth. Sharp eyed readers will know I do this with my meatloaf, because – if I know what’s in it – I do really prefer a very smooth ground burger/sausage/etc.

You’ll need:

250g of really good pork mince (organic, free range, farm assured)

250g of same quality beef

100g of grated parmesan (I buy mine in bulk, grate it and freeze it grated)

1 clove of garlic if you like it

100g of breadcrumbs

2 eggs, medium sized

a handful of chopped parsley

1 teaspoon of ground up fennel seeds

half a teaspoon of salt

a good grinding of black pepper

Oil to fry.

So I basically bung all the ingredients, bar the oil, into my Magimix and pulse away until it’s all smooth. But if you want, just mix in a bowl with a wooden spoon.

You then shape into meatballs/burgers and either cook immediately or freeze/fridge until needed. They keep in the fridge for as long as the sell-by date is on the meat. I make the meatballs into walnut size and the burgers I have a burger press for and they are, I guess, quarter pounder size.

What I do with the meatballs is fry them gently, but then finish them off in the sauce when I’m reheating it. This stops them having a super hard crust which I don’t like. But if you fry them super gently they should be okay. About ten minutes frying should do it for the meatballs. 12 minutes for burgers.

For the polenta

200g of fast cook polenta – for the love of God don’t use any other kind.

A knob of butter

800ml of cold water

2 handfuls of grated parmesan

a pinch of salt if you really want (but I find the parmesan salty enough)

Put the 800ml of cold water, the 200g of polenta and the butter into a large pan and bring to the boil. When it comes to the boil, lower the heat and simmer for another minute. You do need to be present and whisking, but don’t be intimidated as the whole process takes minutes. As it simmers for that last minute and finishes its thickening, stir in the parmesan and salt if you want. Then it’s ready!

To serve, dollop spoonfuls of the polenta onto a plate, top with the hot sauce and the cooked meatballs. I serve with broccoli.

If you have any polenta left over, and no chickens to serve it to, then you can persuade it into a flat tin (it will get harder to handle as it cools), put in the fridge, then cut into finger shapes and shallow fry to make polenta chips.

But I have never done this.

I made burgers from this and served it in brioche buns made from this recipe (obvs leae out the chocolate chips) and they were, hands down, the best burgers I have ever eaten.

 

Chestnut marmalade muffins (gluten, wheat, dairy free but don’t let any of that put you off)

These are adapted from a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recipe (from his book Light & Easy). The original calls for 75g coconut oil, which I just find too much, and 75g runny honey, which I’ve eased back on just ever so slightly. His recipe also says cook for 25 mins, but mine are done at 17.

It calls for chestnut flour – which isn’t cheap, nor madly readily available. But is delicious and so filling. Don’t be tempted to buy it in bulk, it doesn’t keep for very long.

And you really need an electric whisker unless your arms are super strong. If they are, all respect to you.

These are just so delicious though, and gluten-free if that’s important to you. I love anything to do with chestnuts as it reminds me of my Pa.

Note these make ten. I’ve been making these for a few years now and every time, with my 12-bun tray, it catches me out.

125g chestnut flour

A pinch of salt

2 teaspoons of baking powder

125g marmalade

2 large eggs

70g runny honey

half a teaspoon of vanilla extract

50g coconut oil, melted and cooled.

Pumpkin seeds to sprinkle.

 

Preheat the oven to 170. Line a muffin tin with…muffin cases

Combine the flour, salt and baking powder and set aside.

In a food mixer with whisk attachment, put the eggs, honey and vanilla and whisk for, frankly, ages. But about eight minutes. Until the mixture is like a thick mousse and the beaters leave trails when you lift them out.

Now gently and slowly, with the mixer running, spoon in the flour mixture and when all is incorporated whisk again for a few minutes. The mixture will go down to a batter-type one. When done, trickle in the melted coconut oil with a tablespoon of water and whisk for half a minute more. Take off from the mixer and just with a spoon fold in the marmalade.

Spoon the batter into the TEN muffin cases. They won’t come up all the way, that’s how it should be, about 2/3 full. Sprinkle on the pumpkin seeds and bake for  about 20 mins – check after 15. They should be golden and bounce back when you touch them. Depends on your oven of course.

Gingernuts

Gingernuts are not anything I’d really buy in the supermarket but, home made, they are not only delicious, but also super-easy.

This year I decided that, each and every month I would make a positive, healthy change.

This is because I have slid into rather bad habits since late 2016, which was a traumatic year for me. So January was all about giving up NOTHING but instilling an exercise routine – which I have done. And February we are giving up all shop bought cakes, biscuits, sweets, chocolate etc. (aside from high days and holidays, because my children adore the loathsome Fox’s Party Rings for a birthday..).

But home made we can still have. I’m not ready for any sort of deprivation just yet.

I made these a few weeks ago, for a friend who loves ginger. The original recipe is Delia and I’ve adapted it slightly.  The original is from Delia’s Complete Cookery Course which is from 40 years ago and the original recipe calls for margarine. Delia’s more recent incarnations changed it to butter.

You need

110g self raising flour

Two level teaspoons of ground ginger

1 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda

40g granulated sugar

50g butter, from the fridge, sliced into little pieces

50g golden syrup

1 piece of stem ginger in syrup, drained and chopped (you could also use the syrup in part exchange for the golden syrup)

This is what you do

Heat the oven to 190C.

Put the flour, ginger, bicarb and sugar into a bowl and mix around. Add the butter and rub between fingers to make like fine breadcrumbs. Now add the chopped stem ginger and the golden syrup. Mix together lightly to form a dough.

Break off little pieces (my mixture made about 12), roll gently between your palms, put on a baking parchment lined tray, flatten with a fork or your hand.

Bake for a scant seven minutes. Delia says 10-15 mins and I’m not sure what would have been going on in her oven back in the day, mine are over cooked at eight minutes so watch them carefully. In 15 minutes these would be incinerated.

Take out, cool, eat, yum.

Enriched bread dough with nuts and dried fruit (bread machine)

After I made enriched dough chocolate chip rolls, I thought I’d try making something similar, but stuffed with nuts and dried fruit instead. My mum especially, likes bread like this. She gets something from M&S that is stuffed with nuts and fruit.

I doubled the recipe used before and added 160g of mixed dried fruits and nuts of your choice. The bread was lovely, really soft, tasty and would be lovely with cheese or just eaten with a thick spread of butter. I made two loaves this morning and one is almost already all gone (the other, on its way to my Mamma).

This is what I did:

One teaspoon of dried yeast (I use Dove’s Farm)

500g strong white bread flour (you could make this a teeny bit more healthy by using 400g strong white/100g of strong wholemeal)

Two teaspoons of caster sugar

50g butter, chopped and added in

Two tablespoons of milk

One teaspoon of salt

Two eggs

175ml water

(for later: 160g of dried fruit and nut mix, I used 40g each of walnuts, hazelnuts, cranberries and chopped dates)

Put everything, bar the fruit and nuts, into the bread machine and set to a dough cycle (mine lasts 2hrs 20mins). When done, take out and put in a bowl and mix in the fruit and nuts. Leave for ten minutes.

On an oiled surface, tip out and knead lightly to make sure everything is incorporated. Leave for ten minutes. Then cut in half and shape into a baton shape (or a round, which ever you prefer). Place both on a baking parchment lined tray and prove overnight in the fridge (cover with a clean dishcloth).

In the morning bake for 15mins at 220C, then turn down oven to 180C and turn the loaves on their side and give an extra five mins.

Delicious!

(Apologies if I’ve made any mistakes, I’m typing this whilst also answering 101 questions about Our Generation dolls, posed by my youngest…)

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Chocolate Chip Brioches, dough made in the bread machine (especially for Connie).

So a while ago, I posted a recipe for enriched dough chocolate chip brioches. My youngest actually prefers the enriched dough version but I had long hankered after proper, buttery, brioche dough.

I wanted something I could bung in the bread maker and let machine make the dough. And although my Panasonic bread maker doesn’t have a brioche cycle (it’s nearly 20 years old) I knew the newer ones did so I did a search and found a recipe, online, in a newer Panasonic breadmaker instruction book.

These brioches are fairly fuss free. As with all brioche dough, it is very buttery and if handled too much at the shaping stage you become FULLY aware of how much butter is in there as it starts to slide across the kitchen counter and you end up needing to wipe down your hands a lot. But most of the work is done in the bread machine so don’t worry.

Make these the day before you want them, shape them, cover them, stick them in the fridge and the day you want them (they make wonderful breakfasts) just heat up the oven, glaze the buns and stick them in the oven. Voila. Buttery, brioches with melting chocolate inside.

I cooked some of these this morning (made yesterday) because I was making Christmas cards with my children and my friend Mary, who is super crafty came with her absolutely fabulous children and we all sat sticking, embossing and cutting; chatting, the fire burning, lovely music on. It was like something out of a Jane Austen novel, except with Spotify.  Connie, the eldest has just started making bagels and asked me for the recipe. So here it is.

One and a half teaspoons of instant yeast

400g strong white bread flour

Four tablespoons of caster sugar

15ml of rum (I seriously don’t know what this does so if you don’t have it I’m sure you can just add a bit more milk but if you have it, add it, I mean why not?)

One and a half teaspoons of salt

70g of butter, cut into cubes and straight from the fridge

90ml of milk

50g of butter, cut into cubes and straight from the fridge for later *

100g chocolate chips, I prefer dark – for when the dough is out of the machine

Makes 12

Put everything except for the chocolate chips and ‘later’ butter into the bread maker and set the dough cycle – it should be about 2hrs. Mine is 2hrs 20minutes.

At the first knead stage (about 30-50 mins in) add the ‘later’ butter. Your machine may have a beeper for ‘later butter’ stage. Mine doesn’t.

*You can add all the butter at the beginning and honestly I’ve not noticed much difference, so see how you go. If you’re around and can add it later, do, if you need to get on with something just add it all at once.

Don’t, however, add the chocolate chips now, they will melt slightly and the dough will be slightly coloured. It doesn’t affect the taste but..I just prefer it done later.

When the dough cycle is finished, take the dough out, flatten out, add the chocolate chips and sort of gently knead them in. Rest the dough for ten mins, then cut 12 pieces out of it and shape into sausage shapes (or rounds). If you find the dough resistant you can cut the 12 pieces, then rest, then shape. Or just cut and shape straight away – see how you feel.

When shaped, place on a baking parchment lined tray, cover with a tea towel and put in the fridge overnight or for a few hours until you need them.

When ready to bake, heat oven to 180C, brush the brioches with egg yolk and cook for 20 mins (check after 15).

Eat about 30 mins out of the oven when it’s the perfect mix of warm brioche and melting chocolate. You can also freeze them, when cold, for resuscitation another day.

Stracciatella in brodo

Many people may associate stracciatella with ice cream and indeed, you can and do get stracciatella – traditionally flor di latte ice cream with bits of chocolate in.

Straccio in Italian means ‘rag’, bits of cloth.

Stracciatella in brodo is, to my mind, one of the finest foodstuffs. It is oft made, in Italian kitchens, as a bit of a ‘scratch’ meal when there’s not much else. But to think it’s in anyway lacking because of this is to be a fool. It is deeply nourishing and savoury, good for you, ready in minutes if you have some stand by ingredients and I’ve never met a child who doesn’t love it.

I do have home made chicken broth in the freezer on stand by. I make it in batches. But of course you could use a stock cube. Then all you need is some baby pasta (optional), parmesan (which I buy in bulk, grate and keep in the freezer) and an/some eggs.

Don’t be afraid by the lack of precision in the ingredients, just go with it.

This is what you need:

A quantity of chicken broth for the amount of people you have

An egg per person

About 20-30g of small pasta (I use stelline – little stars) per person. It must be small.

Some parmesan, grated

This is what you do:

Cook the pasta separately.

Warm up the broth until simmering.

Break the egg(s) into a separate bowl and beat well – this is important

When ready to go, stir the broth and beat in (with a fork or a whisk) the egg. It will cook immediately. Then add the pasta and a good helping of parmesan and serve.

 

Home made malt loaf

Recently I went to my friend Becky’s house, almost entirely unannounced (I gave her maybe ten minutes notice). And as me and my youngest tumbled into her house, all fizzed up with after-school-ness, she proffered Soreen Malt Loaf, something I’d not seen, and certainly not had, for decades.

Malt loaf is not particularly British (the Swedish have something called wort loaf which is similar), but Soreen Malt Loaf is – it was originally made in Manchester in the 1930’s and still is.

Becky sliced and buttered a few slices and I tried really hard not to eat them all. Then I went home and decided to make it. I had no idea how, or how hard it was and it’s fair to say that, like a lot of things, home made malt loaf isn’t exactly the same as shop bought. But then, what would be the point. But it’s close. I’ve given this to people who know malt loaves and they have decreed it absolutely delicious.

Malt is apparently full of B-vitamins and is meant to be good for you, but it is, at its heart, just sugar so don’t go thinking this is a health loaf. The dried fruit gives you fibre, but again with sugar. So let’s not pretend this is anything other than what it is: cake.

This is adapted from a Good Food recipe, but there are loads on the internet and Nigel Slater has a very fine malt loaf marmalade pudding if you fancy sacrificing one of the malt loaves to this.

Ingredients

150ml hot black tea

180g malt extract plus a bit extra for coating the loaves

85g dark muscovado sugar

200g dried fruit – I use prunes, apricots and then some sultanas/raisins depending on what I have in. Chop them up

2 large eggs

250g plain flour – I sometimes add a small proportion of wholemeal flour, too, but not too much

One teaspoon of baking powder

Half a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda

You also need two loaf tins and either baking parchment to line the tins, or loaf liners. If you use baking parchment you can get away with greasing the tins (with oil) and placing a long strip of parchment in the tin, so that it covers the bottom and the two short ends (so you also have something to lift out the cake with).

My loaf tins are about 22cm x 7cm (2lb ones). The cakes do rise; they do so uniformly and they about double so bear that in mind when you pour them into any tin you have.

Method

It is so easy that you’d better have your oven preheated to 150C.

Pour the 150ml of tea into a bowl and add the 180g of malt extract; mix around then add  the 85g of sugar, the 200g of dried fruit and the two eggs. Mix gently until incorporated.

Now add the 250g of flour, one teaspoon of baking powder and half a teaspoon of bicarb and mix together.

So easy isn’t it?

Now divide up between the two loaves. It’s fairly fluid so if you are using loaf liners careful that you don’t pour in too quickly as the liners can fold in on each other, I spoon mine in. But you do need to work fairly fast and get them in the oven.

Mine are done after 40 mins exactly but as ever, know your oven. They should be firm to the touch but not over cooked. As soon as they are out, brush more malt extract over the top, then leave to cool.

I wrap mine in foil whilst still warm (Soreen is packed whilst still warm to retain the ‘squidge’) and they are apparently even better after 1-2 days but mine have never lasted that long.

Serve, in time-honoured way, sliced, buttered and with joy.

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