Category Archives: What’s for dinner?

Vegetable lasagna: chargrilled courgettes with a multitude of greens.

I’m actually on deadline for two pieces as I start on this. But what the hell. I see it as a warm up.

Every day I look for healthy things to make my family. And if the quest for healthy things is satisfied, my children will invariably not be impressed. The reaction to this was “but where is the pasta” followed by “it isn’t actually half bad”. My youngest – the harshest critic and who would, like her nonno, live off bread and Parma ham if she were able to – ate some. I can’t say she was a fan.

But I thought this was delicious and satisfies that urge for something healthy but tasty. And it has almost a kilo of green leafy stuff in it.

It’s adapted slightly from a Donna Hay recipe. I just love Donna.

Ingredients

About six courgettes, sliced lengthways. Not too thick, not too thin. You’re going to chargrill them.

Lots of extra virgin olive oil but not that super expensive stuff

An onion, chopped up so tears stream down your face

2 x clove of garlic, chopped small (I can’t bear to crush them)

A small bunch of oregano chopped up

Salt and pepper

500g kale, trimmed of the big thick stems in the middle – rinsed

About 300-400g spinach – rinsed

500g or thereabouts of ricotta

15g fresh parsley finely chopped (either sort)

Rind of an unwaxed lemon

About 100g of grated mozzarella

90g of grated parmesan

(quantities of cheese don’t have to be super exact but don’t veer off too much. Don’t sweat it if you only have 80g of each, say).

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Before the oven

 

What you do

I do love a recipe you can make in stages and this is one such. First you oil each side of the courgette slices and chargrill them.

[I use a griddle pan which I bought years ago. It’s a Le Creuset one and it’s big and rectangular shaped and you lay it across two rings. I use it for so many things: not just veg but also making toasted sarnies. I also have a griddle ‘press’ that I used to press things down on. I just looked and my Le Creuset griddle costs £160 now! But I bought it nearly 20 years ago and it’s still going strong so it is worth it on a per use basis. The press I have is something like this.]

So griddle the slices until they are marked and a bit cooked through. Put to one side. If you plan to make this later you can just put it in a lidded Pyrex and put in the fridge, otherwise just keep on a plate until you are ready to assemble.

Then you chop the one onion with the two cloves of garlic and gently saute with the handful of oregano and a little olive oil. I add the seasoning at this point:  a good pinch of sea salt and some black pepper which I always angrily grind over food, as if in a fury. When the onion is translucent set the mixture to one side. Or put it in the fridge until needed.

Now you blanch the spinach and kale and you will think “how can we eat all this green veg?” but you can because it will reduce down. What I do is blanch it, drain as best I can, then I whizz the lot up (in batches unless your food processor is ginormous) in a food processor, and then I sit it over a fine sieve atop a bowl and press down with a potato masher. Because I make this in stages, and not in a great rush, I sit it over a bowl and over an hour or so. You don’t have to whizz it up, it’s perfectly fine as it is, but you will need to carefully drain it in some way. You could sandwich it between two tea towels you don’t much care about.

At some point you introduce to each other, via a fork: the ricotta and the lemon rind and the parsley.

So you now have essentially three things: courgettes, ricotta mix and onion mix which you can assemble now or store for later.

It’s hard to say what size dish to use. Within reason you can use a normal family-supper sized dish. But I favour a square one that is about 25/26cm. Lightly oil the bottom, then when you are ready to cook you preheat oven to 220C.

Start with a third of the courgettes. On top of this put a half the ricotta, then half the greens, then sprinkle on a third of the cheeses.  Repeat and end with a layer of  courgettes and the last of the cheese. Mine was crammed to the top so I put it on a baking sheet in case it erupted (it didn’t). Cook for about 12-15 mins until golden and bubbling and crisp on the top. I didn’t taste it during making it and honestly expected something pretty healthy but bland. Well, no. It was really delicious. I served it with a crisp green salad made with a sharp dressing. Half of it fed four of us, but I suspect for people with larger appetites it won’t go so far.

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A cross section

Speedy, but slow, sausage and pearl barley with spinach, done in the slow cooker when you come home late and need something on the table in five minutes.

Catchy title isn’t it? This is less a recipe than an idea.

I’ve been flying solo a bit lately. That, coupled with long days, pick ups cross country and getting into the house, late, when it’s dark and cold outside and in need of nourishment fast, has meant I’ve had to resort to that sexiest of regimes: menu planning.

Last night I knew we’d not get in before 7.30 and I knew I’d be out from 3pm.  I have become a bit obsessed with pearl barley recently, we had some fine sausages in the freezer.

So this is what I did: I chopped up an onion which I sauted in a big slug of some rather fine olive oil in the slow cooker (mine has this function). To this I added six chopped up (defrosted) sausages for a bit. Then I slung in a jar (680g) of passata and 120g of pearl barley (which I had previously rinsed). I added a bit of water (I rinsed out the passata jar with it), then I set the slow cooker for seven hours. That’s it, no herbs, no salt, nothing else.

I put some spinach to soak, separately, in cold water.

When I came home I rinsed out and spun dried some of the spinach and slung some of it into the slow cooker and stirred it through and voila. Mangiare pronto!

I was just hoping for something edible, tbh, but it was one of the best things I’ve eaten in a long time. My youngest said “Mummy this is amazing!”

(Cooking meat in passata like this really flavours the tomato sauce and you could also omit the pearl barley and add the sauce/sausages to pasta if you have time to cook some up, but I knew even that would be beyond me last night.)

Unlike many slow cooker things it was fairly thick (the pearl barley sucks up all the moisture) but I loved it for that. It doesn’t take a good picture but you know what? On a cold January night no-one cares about that.

Pork and prawn noodle stirfry with lots of veg

This dish is a rare thing in our house, something which is healthy and which everyone likes. Granted, my youngest picks out the prawns, but otherwise we all eat this and it’s insane the amount of veg we seem to consume without complaining.

You can make this with any sort of noodle – cooked separately and added at the latter stages. If you use soba – which I do, sometimes – cook them carefully and rinse in cold water before adding, as otherwise they stick together. I do have ‘straight to wok’ noodles in the cupboard for this dish as it makes the whole thing ludicruously easy. Other than the chopping – which you could do in advance.

It’s adapted from a Delicious magazine recipe. I add more veg and omit the chillies.

You’ll need

Two teaspoons of olive oil

300g of free range, good pork mince

Three quarters of a teaspoon of Chinese five spice powder

Two and a half teaspoons of curry powder

180g (I confess here I just tend to add whatever the packet contains) prawns – if raw cook them for a bit longer, until pink. If already cooked add at the end as stipulated.

About 150g carrots which I julienne, but you can slice thinly

(a red chilli if you want to use it)

300g or thereabouts of ready cooked or straight to wok noodles

250g pak choi or other green veg – I find very thinly sliced button hole kale is really good here

2 courgettes, julienned or thinly sliced

Four spring onions, sliced thinly

One and a half tablespoons of soy sauce

This is what you do

Have everything ready for one and don’t make the mistake I did first time round…

Heat the oil in a wok on high, cook the pork mince for about 2-3 minutes, until browned. Now turn the heat down and add the spices, stir fry and cook for a couple more minutes.

Now add the veg in the order it takes to cook. So I add the green veg first, cook for a couple of minutes with the prawns if raw, then the carrots, courgettes and finally the prawns if they are already cooked. (Add the chilli here if you are using it, it should be thinly sliced.) Stir fry everything for a minute or two.

Then add the ready cooked noodles with two tablespons of water and the spring onions and just before you serve  – which is immediately – you add the soy sauce.

This feeds four big eaters, slightly more if you are more restrained about it.

 

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.

 

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.

 

Steak fajitas with avocado salsa and creme fraiche.

This is a favourite in our house, but there has never yet been a good photo taken of it. This is because we tend to descend on it when it’s made and also it just doesn’t photograph well. So I hope Waitrose will forgive me for nicking one from its site.

This recipe originally came from a Waitrose in-store recipe card and I’ve adapted it slightly as I don’t agree with the way it originally said to cook the peppers (with the steak, which is madness as they need vastly different times) and I’ve omitted the  chilli it originally called for and when I made this last night I omitted the chives as ours were covered in small black bugs – blurgh – and it didn’t do the meal any harm at all.

For four people you need:

for the marinade

About 300-340g of steak – the recipe calls for frying steak, I find this tough and I use bavette steak cut into strips. It’s an underused cut, not too expensive, and delicious but don’t cook for long. It’s also amazing made with venison.

2 cloves of finely chopped garlic

1 teaspoon of dried oregano

The juice of one lime (two needed in total, see later)

1 tablespoon of olive oil

the salsa

1 tablespoons of good olive oil

2 ripe avocados

1 small tomato, chopped

2 tablespoons of chopped chives if you have them, don’t stress if you don’t

Juice of one lime

also:

1 tablespoon of olive oil

3 red, yellow or orange peppers but not green. I’ve totally taken against green peppers

Some flour tortillas – we use two small ones each. It’s never enough

Creme fraiche and grated mozzarella to serve

What you do

I prep this in the morning – cut the steak into strips. Mix the olive oil, lime juice and olive oil in a bowl with the oregano. Put steak into marinade, cover and put in fridge until the evening (or at least ten mins).

When ready to eat:

Cut the peppers into strips and cook in the olive oil on medium heat until soft and slightly charred (about ten minutes).

Whilst that is doing:

Skin and stone avocado and put into bowl and mash with lime juice, olive oil, tomato and chives if using. Set aside.

Call someone to lay the table.

Warm the tortillas in a dry frying pan.

Tip the steak in with the peppers and cook on high for about five mins.

When ready to eat, bring to the table and get everyone to make their own: pile creme fraiche, avocado salsa and steak/peppers onto a tortilla and top with grated cheese.

I don’t bother to do any other veg with this…

 

The very best tomato sauce for pasta.

In Italy, August is the month of  ‘i pomodori’. Where they make pasta sauce for the whole coming year. The tomatoes are boiled, ‘passati’ (literally ‘passed’ through a sieve), reboiled and bottled. There is a lovely video here which shows you.

Because it’s quite a job, it tends to be done with everyone pitching in. It’s very low-tech (or used to be). Because the raw materials are the sweetest tomatoes the salsa you get (or passata) is incredible.

I never hoped to reproduce that in the UK, but my mother makes a very keen contender in her kitchen, in central London. She has even made it in my kitchen. I have tried to replicate it, I have watched her do it. I have bought the exact same ingredients as her, but it’s never the same.

If I have frozen salsa, and I serve it up on some pasta at a later date, my children can tell, immediately, if it’s ‘Nonna’s salsa’ or mine. They say her secret ingredient is salt, and love. And it’s true I tend to under salt things. For this I didn’t and went large with the salt.

It was a secret shame of mine, that I couldn’t make salsa as good as hers or any of my Italian relatives. Not because there is any shame in it really, but because, well, I cook a lot and you’d think this simple thing would not be beyond me. I tried cooking with plum peeled tinned tomatoes, chopped tomatoes,  fresh tomatoes, roasted tomatoes (this does work very well but is another layer of work), passata, all of the above and added tomato puree to it…but nothing came close. It all tasted too ‘new’ and didn’t have that complex taste, it always had a ridge of acidity, and none of the thickness of my family’s salsa.

“You needa to cooka it for a long time,” my Ma says – to take the acid out of the tomatoes. But whenever I tried I burnt it.

This year, I decided I really needed to step up. My mum and all the female relatives who hold the secret to good salsa are all…getting on.

So this is what I did. It’s so simple I am embarrassed I never tried it before and you will be disappointed there is no real secret recipe. Well there is. The secret is it’s really simple.

Warning, you really need a slow cooker and I think this goes some way to compensate for the fact that you are not using super red, sweet tomatoes from southern Italy. I have this one and it is a wonderful bit of kit which I use regularly and thoroughly recommend.

You take:

A jar of passata, I use Cirio’s Passata Rustica, 680g

One onion

A big pinch of sea salt

A clove or two of garlic if you like, chopped

Some very good olive oil (the better the better) – don’t skimp, this gives the sauce flavour

That’s it. Don’t add water or anything else. You finely chop the onion and fry it in the olive oil. I do this in my slow cooker as it has a saute function. When soft, you add the garlic if using and cook for a minute or so. It is at this point I add the salt but you can add it at any point, even at the very end, but give it a good stir through.

If you can’t saute in your slow cooker, and have been doing this on the stove top in a pan, you now add the onion, garlic and any remaining oil to your slow cooker. Then the passata.

Put down the lid and you cook it in the slow cooker, on low, for hours. At least six but 12 if you can. Then you take it out, cool it, use it all at once or store it in glass jars in the fridge (it keeps for a good few days) or freezer.

You can easily double/triple etc this recipe so you can make a batch up every few weeks and store it in the freezer so you are always good to go. And you will always have super-wonderful home made salsa for your pasta or pizza or whatever.

You can add herbs later but honestly, you just don’t need to. Yesterday I did as above, but cut up some sausages and stuck them in (lightly sauted first but you don’t need to) – you could also put meatballs in. I cooked it overnight for 12 hours and it was superb on pasta for lunch.