Lovely leek and broccoli fish pie

This is, hands down, the tastiest fish pie I’ve ever had. It is more of a work-day dinner than a dinner-party piece, but it is just tasty-gorgeous. It is from the Donna Hay magazine which is worth every penny of the £5.20 an issue I pay for it.

Ingredients

200g fresh sourdough crumbs (I keep a bag of left-over sourdough pre-grated in the freezer then you can use it when you want)

Half a bunch of tarragon (so about 12-15g)

150g unsalted butter, melted

salt and pepper

2 leeks, white part only, thinly sliced

2 cloves of garlic, crushed

300g broccoli florets, cut into smaller florets

800g of thereabouts of firm fish (fresh not frozen as in it can’t be cooked from frozen!). I have used all cod, or a combo of cod and salmon and smoked haddock. See what you like. Cut it into 3cm pieces – this is important as it gets only 10 mins in the oven.

1 tablespoon of plain flour

250g sour cream

2 tablespoons of Dijon mustard

125ml water

Method

Oven to 200C. Place the breadcrumbs, half the tarragon, half the butter, salt and pepper in a large bowl and mix to combine. Then place on a large oven tray and cook for ten minutes – until golden.

While the breadcrumbs are toasting, heat the rest of the butter in a large ovenproof pan over a high heat – the pan will eventually go in the oven with the whole fish pie in it. Add the leek, garlic and broccoli to this pan and cook, uncovered, for about five minutes or until the veg is softened.

In a separate bowl, place the fish, flour and more salt and pepper and toss to combine. Add this fish mixture, the remaining tarragon, the sour cream, mustard and water to the pan and stir to combine. Top with the breadcrumbs and cook in the oven for another ten minutes in the oven until golden brown and the fish is cooked through.

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I serve this with peas. It is so much tastier than you think it’s going to be.

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I want to say “my children lap this up.” But they pretty much hate it. But I still make it.

(Don’t forget how good leeks and garlic are for gut bacteria!)

 

 

 

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Polenta ‘pizza’ with cherry tomatoes and some sort of cheesy topping.

This is not, of course, pizza. But it is delicious.

Polenta featured large in my father’s home cuisine – northern Italy. But it didn’t feature in my mum’s – southern Italy. And because my mum was the cook when we were growing up, I feel I can safely say we never had polenta. I would hear about it, but I could not get my head around what it was. Sometimes it was a powder, then it was solid, then like mash.

When I got older I tried making polenta and it was a disaster. Since then things have improved and it features in my home cuisine and I always find it comforting.

This recipe is from Delicious magazine. I like that the making of the polenta doesn’t involve loads of butter and parmesan – sometimes you want that, but not all the time. Of course you can vary the topping to have what you want on it. Because my children aren’t so keen on dolcelatte I bought some brie with truffles in it as a treat.

Anyway this is just delicious. It easily fed four of us and I had the left overs for lunch the next day (heat up for a few minutes in a dry frying pan, if you can cover it to catch the steam) and it was wonderful.

2 courgettes, sliced thinly (I used a potato peeler)

200g or so of cherry tomatoes, halve them

Olive oil for drizzling

600ml of milk

400 ml of chicken stock, either your own or made from a cube

250g instant polenta

50g cheddar, grated (or use some other cheese it’s okay)

80ml of passata

80g of dolcelatte or brie, thinly sliced

a handful of basil leaves to scatter

Method

Heat the oven to 200C. Spread the courgettes and tomatoes over a large baking tin, drizzle with the oil, season with salt and peper and roast for 10 minutes. This bit is important as you won’t be cooking the finished pizza for long enough to get the courgettes and tomatoes sufficiently roasted. When done set aside but leave the oven on.

Meanwhile, put the milk and stock in a large sauce pan and bring to the boil. Put the polenta in a jug and when the liquid boils, pour the polenta in a stream and stir continuously with a wooden spoon or large whisk. You want the mixture to thicken and bubble on the surface, like larva. Now turn down the heat and stir in the cheddar and season well.

Pour the polenta mixture onto a baking sheet (I find some baking parchment helps but is not essential), spread out thinly to a circular or rectangular shape. Spread the passata over – it will be very thin. Top with the roasted courgettes/tomatoes and the thin slices of cheese. Bake for 15-20 minutes until golden. Scatter basil leaves atop.

You can serve this with a salad but I like it on its own, with one fork, and my feet up on the sofa.

Faux Christmas trees

I have been writing, professionally, for 23 years. During that time I have learned that two things are so emotive, I don’t write about them anymore:

Breastfeeding.

Anti-wrinkle creams.

I suspect this will be an equally divisive topic.

Last Christmas, I went to my friend Louise’s house. Louise lives in a beautiful house and she had, in the entrance hall, a beautiful Christmas tree. It was only on closer inspection, that I realised it wasn’t real. “Do you think it looks okay?” she asked. “I think it looks fabulous,” I replied.

I went straight home and bought one, after doing some sums – ours cost £318 last year, before Brexit and before the pound fell, like a snowflake from the sky. That’s not an inconsiderable amount of money to sink into a Christmas tree but given we were spending £40-£50 a year on one, I wish we had bought one ten years ago.

Coincidentally, my other friend Sandra, had bought one the week before – but it hadn’t really sunk in – and she said it had made her “truly happy”. Now, Sandra isn’t the sort of person to find happiness in Christmas foliage, usually. So I knew I was onto a good thing.

My partner took a bit of persuading because, every Christmas, we go somewhere in the Suffolk countryside and choose a tree. I say we, but they all look pretty good to me and he spends AGES choosing one and I find the whole selection process really stressful, and cold. Really bloody cold. I just don’t know why I find it stressful, but I do. Anyway, we bought one, he loves it. My children, after becoming hysterical at the thought (they thought it would be really fake looking) also love it. I grew up with a faux (okay, we called it fake back then) Christmas tree which is still going strong from when it was purchased by my parents – in 1963.

When I told a few people that we were venturing into fake Christmas tree territory, they went nuts. As if we were telling them something awful. “I don’t know who you are anymore,” joked (?) my friend Jo.

Here is the case for a fakey faux Christmas tree:

No more going out to buy one and spending £40 plus on one, or whatever it is they cost. No more jostling with people for the tree that looks great.

No more cutting down live trees.

You can put it up from 1st December and no risk of leaf fall.

No more vacuuming up pine needles.

Okay, no more real tree smell but you know, you can get that in a SPRAY from Jo Malone or The White Company (you can actually get very good pine smelly things which you hang on the branches, I got some from the supermarket which cost a couple of pounds and they were, incredibly, rather good).

We got one which comes with lights IN IT. No more untangling the lights, risking electrocution and finding that none of them work anymore.

It looks good all the way through Christmas, no more sad Christmas tree.

I am not trying to convince you, but if you are thinking of going faux, then take the plunge! We love ours and are putting it up as soon as the clocks chime midnight on November.

I’m mentioning all this now cos we got ours from Balsam Hill – also where my friends got theirs from – and the quality is superb. And there’s a sale on. We got one with a not-too-huge bottom to it (I love that you can choose the width, from a narrow tree if you don’t have much room to a more full-bottomed one). Go for the most realistic ones. I know they’re not cheap, but once you’ve bought one you have it. We got the Vermont White Spruce with ‘candelight’ lights which give a warmer glow.

The pictures were of our tree last year (forgive the scaffolding outside, we were having building works done) – I tried to take a picture of it looking as ‘real’ as possible, not with any funny filters on or anything (not, ha ha, ‘spruced’ up). And here is one of the branches close up:

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You’ll see we go for a white and silver theme…

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Pressure/Slow cooker

Earlier this year, just as we were emerging from the shuck of winter and blinking in the spring sunshine, with thoughts turning to light, easy lunches involving salads and grilled things, I decided to I needed to buy a slow cooker to cook stews in.

A slow cooker is actually a very good idea for someone like me, because I am a natural early riser and I am at my best, my most industrious, early in the morning. It’s all down hill from there. I am often too tired of an evening to cook, or think about cooking. In Italy, at least in my family, it is customary to largely prepare the main meal of the day (whether that be taken at mezzogiorno or a cena) in the morning. This is when people visit and the cook can chat, catch up with the latest gossip and prep a substantial meal. I would watch many such occasions as a child and marvel at how organised and easy it seemed.

(I would also marvel at just how much bitching would go on.)

But, I never managed this level of organisation and I thought the slow cooker would help. As these things go, I started looking at entry level slow cookers and before I knew what I was doing, I had ordered a top of the range slow cooker and pressure cooker combined – a huge hulk of a stainless steel beast, the Fast Slow Pro by Heston for Sage (before anyone thinks I am on a salary from them, I am not, this is literally only one of two Sage appliances I own, the other one being an insanely priced waffle maker which is brilliant but I don’t recommend anyone buy because no-one can like waffles that much.)

It is an electric model, so you can use it anywhere there is a plug (no need for a stove top).

Of course, the purchase of lots of books on slow cooking and pressure cooking followed and I realised that most people were either evangelical about one type of cooking, or another. But you can be a fan of both and this lets you be.

Slow cooking, in case you don’t know, is just like cooking something on a stove top or in an oven at a very low temperature for a very long time. The difference is, because the slow cooker is sealed, no moisture gets out so things stay very moist. I have done the best ‘roast’ chicken in this ever, you then reduce down the gravy, in the same slow cooker pot, using the reduce function which is the equivalent of a pan on the hob simmering away.

Moist is not a bad word.

Pressure cooking cooks things under, er, very high pressure so it cooks things very very fast. It is particularly good for cooking dried pulses etc.

The beauty with either is that you just put it in the pot, turn the lid and leave it. I can’t comment on other appliances but mine is all digital and you set a timer and it does it all for you.

I mostly use mine for making stock and bolognese, which is brilliant cos I chuck everything in and do it on a slow cooker 12 hour timer overnight. I use the pressure cooker for things like ribs (does them in an hour * they are literally falling off the bone when they come out which may not be to everyone’s liking) and pulses.  But you can cook loads and loads of things in it, I am only just starting.

*The pressure cooker takes time to come up to pressure and also to release the pressure so if it says it does it in an hour remember to factor in these things.

It’s also brilliant at reducing (you leave the lid up) as you can reduce, say, a stock on a timer and leave it whilst you do other stuff. Obvs you can do this with an ordinary sauce pan, on the hob, but you don’t have to worry about going back and switching it off.

It has a ‘keep warm’ function so once it has finished its main cooking, it will keep things warm for two hours. Great if you are a bit nebulous about a coming home time.

In short this is a brilliant bit of kit – huge so think about where you’re going to put it – and I’ve had it for several months now and I really rate it.

Chicken, pesto, pasta with courgettes and peppers.

The idea for this came from the Waitrose Weekend newspaper they produce each week. I’ve said before that whomever writes the recipes for Waitrose is really rather good.

Because I wanted to get more veg in there, I changed it slightly and upped the quantities on most things, as the original was for two people. I used the pesto in this recipe, and this was also the meal, mentioned in the pesto recipe, that my youngest ate four portions of. It is really, really tasty and quick and easy, especially if you prep the veg five minutes before you need it, unlike I did.

300g fusilli. I used Napolina’s half regular, half wholemeal

2 tablespoons of olive oil

About 350g of chicken breast – use more if you want or less etc – cut into thin strips

2 red peppers, diced or cut into strips

100g frozen sweetcorn

2 courgettes – I use a Julienne cutter to cut mine into strips, but you can spiralise yours if you want, or cut it into half coins or use a vegetable peeler.

4 tablespoons of pesto

200g creme fraiche

Put a pan of salted, boiling water on and at the same time heat the olive oil in a frying pan.

Put the pasta into the water to cook for the recommended time. Fry the chicken and peppers in the oil, for about five minutes; add the sweetcorn, courgette and cook for a couple of minutes. Now add the pesto and creme fraiche and cook through for 1-2 minutes. Check the chicken is cooked. Drain the pasta and add it, give it a stir through. Put in a bowl, eat with a fork and be happy.

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Besto pesto

Pesto is not something I have ever made particularly successfully. Lord knows why. It is not difficult or complicated. My eldest can make it before she takes her coat off (but has washed her hands) after school. But the pesto I make never makes me shut my eyes, momentarily transported, and go ‘mmm’.

A friend called Vonetta first made me pesto, with farfalle shaped pasta, when I was in my 20s. Incredibly, I had never had it before. It does not feature highly in the cuisine of my father’s province: Parma, nor my mother’s: Avellino.  Italian cuisine is incredibly regional you see – there is very little cross fertilisation; each region fiercely proud of everything they do and determined it can’t be bettered. They rarely invite in new dishes, however old.

I made this pesto in a great rush, after tearing the recipe out of a magazine (the superb Donna Hay’s) as an afterthought. As I orchestrated dinner, and everything came together a bit too fast, a bit too suddenly, I didn’t have time to taste anything until I was sat at the table, and then I was blown away.

This pesto was the basis for another dinner, which I will post another day, which was so successful, that my youngest, who likes almost nothing savoury that I make aside from my sourdough bread, ate four helpings.

For now, here is the pesto recipe, ever so slightly adapted:

Ingredients

80g baby spinach leaves

25g basil leaves

150g roasted cashew nuts – these are absolutely key, and they must be roasted. I gave mine about 4 mins at 190C, watch them carefully.

1 clove of garlic

1 teaspoon of salt (I used pink Himalayan salt just because I had that in)

The juice of half a lemon

The zest of one small lemon

2 tablespoons of olive oil

2 tablespoons of water

Method

(Note: no parmesan, that is correct!)

Put the spinach, basil, cashew nuts, garlic, salt, lemon juice and rind in a food processor until everything is well chopped and blended. While the motor is running slowly add the oil and water. Scrap down the sides of the processor if need be so everything is finely, and uniformly, chopped. That’s it. Use it there and then, keep it for a few days in the fridge or freeze it for another day. It’s superb in pasta, of course, but also spread as an extra layer in sandwiches, in salad dressings or used on cauliflower pizza.

Sliced sourdough from Waitrose. The best sliced white ever.

I have been making sourdough bread for about seven years now (shout out to Emily for the starter). Thanks to following Dan Lepard’s recipes from his bread book, and a bit of occasional hand holding from him via the medium of technology, I feel I can bake a really quite good loaf of sourdough. Shaped as baguettes, rolls or one big boulder loaf of bread.

But sometimes I don’t want to. I’m just too lazy. And sometimes I crave uniform slices of bread, toasted.

Commercially available bread usually doesn’t interest me. (I have no chi-chi artisan bakers near me, which is why I started baking my own bread in the first place.)  I find the long list of ingredients terrifying. And yet, sometimes, I want a white bread sandwich or toast, all neat slices and not made from ‘home made bread’. I search in vein on the shelves for something that isn’t full of things I’ve never heard of and if I do ever give in and buy white sliced, it’s like eating nothing – completely unsatisfying.

A few months ago,  I read that Waitrose was going to introduce sliced sourdough which contained nothing but flour, water and salt. And lo, it did.

Bertinet sliced sourdough comes in white or wholemeal (not tried the latter as it’s always sold out). The white is glorious. I’ve only ever had it toasted so far but it makes the best toast. I would go as far as to say it is the best sliced white bread I’ve ever tasted. It’s quite sour – I like that – and it’s really satisfying. I can never, quite, eat two slices. With normal sliced-white I could keep eating it and just get hungrier (sourdough is supremely satisfying bread, with a lower G.I than commercially yeasted bread).

It’s no substitute for when you want a hunk of delicious home made bread dipped in olive oil or soup. And it’s not cheap compared to many white sliced loaves: but then, good bread shouldn’t be. It costs £3.50 a loaf. But you can stick it in the freezer and toast it when you fancy ‘hospital toast’ without the trip to hospital, but also want something more substantial than the usual pitiful offerings of white sliced.

(I know the photo I took isn’t up to, ahem, my usual standard, but I just wanted to show the packaging and it was 6am..)