Barbecued baked beans (in the pressure or slow cooker).

I’m not not a fan of baked beans, but I’d never think “ooh I must have some baked beans”. They feature very little in my life other than when my partner decides to have some on toast, from a tin, for lunch, when there is very little else to eat. Then, they are a Godsend.

So the idea of making them only really came to me because I was seduced by a photo of them in the recipe book that came with my Sage Fast Slo Pro (and this is the recipe below, with some adaptions). I am quite shallow.

Sourcing “dried small white beans’ which the recipe called for (I went for cannellini but you can also choose haricot) was really not easy, they were nowhere to be found locally to me (I live in the countryside) so in the end I had to resort to the evils of Amazon. But you will be able to find them in the supermarket, it’s just that mine didn’t sell them…

These are really easy, but bear in mind you will need to reduce the sauce at the end. If you have a pressure/slow cooker that allows you to do this, all you really need to do is stir occasionally – it took about 20 mins on medium heat.

Making things that are easily bought is often a double edged sword and the shop bought can easily out trump the home made. Hummus, for me, comes into this category. I have only once tasted home made that was better than shop bought (that was my friend Sarah who made it whilst we were staying at Sackville House together).

I made these because, seduced by the aforementioned picture, I had bought some dried cannellini beans some weeks before and forgotten about them. Then, when we found ourselves without “a hot meal” as my partner put it one Saturday lunchtime, I looked in the store cupboard and found we had all the ingredients (the original recipe calls for bacon, I have omitted it). It’s super easy to make, I don’t know how you end up with a smokey barbecue flavour, but you do. They are delicious, nutritious and it makes LOADS. We had enough for beans on toast for about ten people. They properly fill you up – which is rare for me. Six hours after eating, I still wasn’t hungry.

My children don’t like baked beans, so I can’t tell you that children will love it as I don’t know – mine certainly ate more than shop bought beans, but only marginally so. My partner who is a life-long baked bean fan, said they were fantastic and gave me a round of applause.

This is what you need

1 onion, sliced

1 tablespoon of olive oil

2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped or crushed

500g small white beans, rinsed and picked over (I’m not sure what for, mine were all fine).

1 litre of water

125ml strong black coffee (I used a big tablespoon of instant espresso powder which I keep for making coffee cakes, dissolved in 125ml of hot water)

250ml passata

110g dark brown sugar (I’m sure you could alter this to use less but this is what the original calls for, I’m sure it still works out at having a lower sugar content than shop bought)

1 tablespoon of English mustard

1 tablespoon of black treacle

half a teaspoon of Tabasco sauce

1 and a half teaspoons of salt

2 tablespoons of white or cider vinegar (for the very end)

What you do

If you have a pressure/slow cooker which allows you to saute, put this function on, heat up the oil then add the onion and cook until soft – about five mins. If yours doesn’t have this function do this bit on the stove top in a frying pan/saucepan.

When soft, add the garlic and cook for a minute.

Now, either add the rest of the ingredients, minus the vinegar to the pot of your pressure/slow cooker, or now tip the onions/garlic into your pressure/slow cooker and then add the rest of the ingredients (minus the vinegar).

Select pressure cook 80kPa, natural steam release and cook for 35 mins (I like my beans really soft, you may prefer to do them for 30 mins) or select slow cooker mode for 10-12 hours on low.

When time is up, add the vinegar and you need to reduce the sauce right down until it’s syrupy – either in the pressure/slow cooker if you have a reduce function or decant into a large sauce pan and do it the traditional way. Mine took 20 mins.

 

 

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…

 

Enriched dough rolls with chocolate chips (bread machine)

These came about trying to make chocolate chip brioches for my youngest who is obsessed with them. M&S does the best shop bought ones – most leave a really weird taste in your mouth. But we no longer have a local M&S (thanks Stuart Rose)  and anyway, shop bought bread-products are nearly always full of other ingredients I neither recognise nor welcome.

These aren’t strictly speaking brioches – there just isn’t enough butter or eggs to really warrant the name – but they are a lovely little enriched breakfast bread that’s a bit more exciting than bread, but with very little sugar. I promised my youngest I’d make her some brioches, but when the time came, I had very little time and was slightly awed by traditional brioche recipes which involve massaging an entire packet of butter into dough. Plus we were in the middle of jigsaw making and I didn’t want to “splinter off” as my youngest puts it, and start mucking about with dough when she is happy with shop bought. So I looked at my trusty Panasonic bread maker recipe book which is 20 years old; the newer models have actual recipes for brioche bread which I shall attempt anon, and also a special cycle for them which adds half the butter during the cycle. Mine didn’t, but it had a recipe for enriched bread dough. I tweaked it slightly, threw everything save for the chocolate chips into the machine – although I could have put those in too (if you put them in, put them in at the beginning with everything else not in any fancy dispenser drawer as they may melt and get stuck).

It was so easy. Ingredients in bread pan, dough cycle (which is 2hrs 20mins on mine), during which you can do a jigsaw, out, knead in about 80g of chocolate chips, shape into eight rolls – put on baking parchment, cover with cloth, prove in fridge overnight.

In the morning: oven on to 220C, little buns brushed with a bit of milk, baked for 10 mins. Eaten for breakfast. Delicious. I ate three just for testing purposes.

What you need

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

250g strong white bread flour

1 teaspoon of caster sugar

25g butter

1 tablespoon of milk

half a teaspoon of salt

1 egg

85ml water

80g chocolate chips

 

Un tiramisu che ti tirasu

A few years ago, when we fancied making a tiramisu (it means pick me up, or pull me up), I looked at loads of recipes. I was quite shocked (I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to Italian cooking) at the variations. I mean, Nigella, whom I love, had one, in How To Eat, using no coffee or chocolate and meringues instead of sponge fingers. It caused me to  to slam the pages of the book shut in mock horror.

It is the coffee, and the chocolate that is supposed to act as a ‘tiramisu’. Anything else, to my mind, ti spinge giu (pushes you down).

I have hundreds of cookery books, and a world of recipes at my fingers tips, as do you, on the internet. But nothing was really saying Italian tiramisu to me. Then I thought of looking in my Italian cooking bible: The Silver Spoon.

In these days of celebrity cookbooks, stuffed full of photographs, the recipes in this book are easy to overlook: simple, very few pictures and the list of ingredients for each recipe is short. But don’t overlook them because not only is this a fantastic cookery book, the recipes are accomplished – some of them go back fifty years. As you may expect, some of the recipes are as good as they’re ever going to get.

And the tiramisu recipe is no exception. It is one of the few with a photo which I admit helped…I made it and it is the only way we make tiramisu now. It’s simple, anyone can do it (my bambine frequently do) and once made sits in the fridge for a good few days, yielding to your spoon just when you need a…pick me up.

It has no alcohol – so if you feel the need for some after dinner, serve that separately – which means children can easily eat this. Although beware of eating it too late as there’s quite a caffeine punch.

My friend Tamsin doesn’t like coffee, so she doesn’t include it in her tiramisu. Of course I have told her it’s not really a tiramisu, but more of a creamy pudding. Don’t even think of using cocoa powder (other than, maybe, on the very top but I don’t) instead of grated chocolate. The chocolate shavings make this stand out and allow for some bite in what is a wallowy pudding which offers little resistance: you could easily eat aged 98, when all your teeth have fallen out.

And use icing sugar, not caster, which can result in a runny mess.

Here it is:

2 egg whites, 4 egg yolks (freeze the 2 extra egg whites)

150 icing sugar

400g mascarpone

200g sponge fingers

175ml espresso coffee

200g plain chocolate, grated (grating chocolate is one of my least favourite jobs but I do it for this)

What to do:

I make this in a rectangular Pyrex, which also has a handy lid so I can save it for a few days. Mine is about 17cm x 25cm and it makes two layers. But of course you can make it in a different shape so you get more layers, or even make it circular or in individual portions, just break the sponge fingers up to fill the spaces.

It would, I think, easily serve eight people depending on the size of portion.

First you whisk the egg whites until stiff, set them aside for a moment whilst, in a separate bowl you beat the egg yolks with the icing sugar, then you fold/whisk the mascarpone into the egg yolks and sugar and finally, into this you gently fold in the egg whites. This is your creamy bit.

Lay the sponge fingers onto the base of your dish and brush or pour the coffee on top. Because I know mine makes two layers, I pour half the coffee on now. Then spoon on a layer of the cream and sprinkle with the grated chocolate. Repeat this, ending with a layer of mascarpone/sprinkling of chocolate. I usually end up with more chocolate than I need for this, for some reason, so if so just keep it in a jam jar for next time.

It is better the next day, but can be eaten within a few hours of making it and chilling it to allow the ingredients to meet each other, and mingle.

 

 

 

 

Pressure cooker risotto.

I never grew up thinking of risotto as risotto but ‘riso’ – this was just always how we had rice. So I’ve never been intimidated by it. This may be why I approached making it in the pressure cooker with the gung-ho attitude I did (it ends well, so don’t worry, no gore or heads blow off).

This is what happened. The children were playing with Lego, it was one of those days where all was right with the world. The sun was shining, the chickens were out pecking the grass, I had mascara on and it was a week day. I had, in the back of my mind, an inkling I had read you could make risotto in the pressure cooker – you can of course.

The pressure cooker was out because I had just made industrial quantities of chicken broth. And that broth tasted really good. I’m always a bit surprised when MY chicken broth comes out tasting anywhere near as good as my mum’s. Anyway. I had loads of broth, it was so tasty. We were going to have warmed up (home made, sourdough, wood-oven cooked – because what do you think I am?) pizza with salad.

But I couldn’t be bothered. I had a bit of a tummy ache and the thought of filling it with pizza, albeit as good as you can get pizza, didn’t really appeal. Plus, have I mentioned, the broth was SO good. So I got some short grain rice (judge me but honestly it’s so similar to risotto rice, which I also had but didn’t use), some onion, some oil, some of my amazing broth and I set to.

This is what I did:

I put the pressure cooker onto saute (mine has that function if not you’ll have to do this bit on the stove), and added some extra virgin really good olive oil. Forget this shit that you need to use crap olive oil to cook, you don’t. You can use really good stuff and it does make a difference to the taste of food (I do use not so good olive oil for some things but not when there are so few ingredients and each needs to step up and hold its own).

I gently softened a chopped onion and some bacon I found in the fridge (three rashers of smokey). Then I added 200g of short grain rice, stirred it around, put in 500ml of stock and put the pressure cooker on 40 wotsit pressure for seven minutes.

Seven minutes.

I did of course expect to open the lid and the rice explode like a million fire crackers or it be over cooked or undercooked, but it lay there, glistening, perfect and, despite what the Daily Mail will have you believe, nothing bad happened.

Sure it has to get up to pressure, but it doesn’t take long to get up to 40. After 7 mins you release the steam fast, add 100 ml of stock, some peas what I had had in boiling water for the last 7 mins (as in just chucked frozen peas in a jug and poured boiling water over them) and some parmesan.

It was so good I wanted to open the door and scream. It served three of us but you could easily double this.

More officially:

Some good olive oil, about a tablespoon

An onion, chopped

Bacon, snipped into pieces

200g risotto or short grain rice

600g home made stock – divided up into 500/100ml

An amount of peas to please you all

Parmesan to stir into once cooked.

Of course you could adapt this but this is the basics of what I used. 200g rice to 600g stock.

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.

 

 

Possibly the best phone ever for older people. Plus how to really crack down on spam/phishing callers.

I don’t really get spam/phishing calls. At least, not yet. This is possibly because I’ve never been in the phone directory, I have a landline that is, primarily there for my internet, and I am very tech savvy at blocking such calls on my mobile if I get them.

However, whenever I was round at my mum and dad’s their phone would regularly ring with phishing/spam calls. They would be annoying, and of course I registered them for the Telephone Preference Service but it didn’t seem to make much difference. Some of the calls were simply annoying “do you want double glazing” etc. Some so obviously scam calls as to be not a threat. But all meant my mum had to stop what she was doing and go and answer the phone.

The obvious thing is to to get an answerphone and screen calls. But here’s the thing. Getting a separate, mechanical answering machine that works with an existing phone and is not hugely expensive, is virtually impossible – I’ve tried. You can get integrated answering machines, with cordless phones, but this would mean a change of phone for my mum, which is okay, but the phones that come with integrated answer-machines tend to have small fiddly numbers; and my mum likes a corded phone so it can’t get lost/run out of charge.

BT’s Call Minder, which you access via your handset and is ‘remote’ is an option, but she didn’t like that as it’s too confusing for her. So an answer machine or an answering service wasn’t really an option. And anyway, a very sophisticated caller, such as she eventually came across, would have not been put off by such a device and they would have left a message, lending credibility to their call.

(Anyway I think even a fairly simple answering machine would have been frustrating for my mum to master and why make her feel crap about not being able to do something when she is so good at so many other things?)

Because, one day, my mum got a call of a very different kind. Very sophisticated, believable and distressing; I won’t go into the details here but, thankfully, at the last minute my mum pulled a blinder (you can take the girl out of Naples but…) and a very serious crisis was averted. (We reported it to Action Fraud.) But it got me thinking just how vulnerable some people are and I realised that something needed to be done. When I started telling people what had happened to my mum, the stories that came out were terrifying. I learned that someone I knew, with graduate parents (English their first language, quite unlike my mum), had been scammed of £5K.  Then another similar story, and so it went on.

My mum is not tech savvy. If you need to feed fifteen people with one stick of celery and a tomato, she’s your woman. Her vigour, energy, hospitality and inventiveness is gob-smacking, but she is a technophobe. So whatever I did had to be low-tech at her end and the tech burden had to be mine alone.  I also needed something I could monitor and tweak remotely. It was no use asking her to press button 1 to stop the last caller calling her again. She needed a phone, pretty much like her old phone, with buttons to press to dial someone.

This is what I did. It’s in two parts – the remote part and the actual phone.

First, BT launched something called BT Call Protect earlier this year. I knew about this but again though it would not work for my mum, but, with her permission I took over control of her account. It’s free, but you have to be a  BT customer (your phone service may offer something similar) and how it works is that, once activated, it has a pre-set list of known spam numbers, these are automatically blocked. But there’s more.

You can see who’s calling via the website or a phone app, and you can VIP these numbers – and name them so you recognise them again when you next log on – or block them. So now my mum only has to make a rough note of the time someone called if it was a bad call and I can, via my computer or the BT app, forever more block that number.

You can also set it so that it blocks all, eg. with-held or international calls. And of course if you fall out with someone, you can put them from the VIP list to the Blocked list. Imagine the power.

With VIP numbers you can control which times someone can call you, so that, eg, you don’t get disturbed at night, or so that they can ring you 24/7 – you decide. Useful if you have a relative who keeps different hours to you or you don’t want to be disturbed at night.

All of this I can do remotely for her and with her knowledge.

If you block a number, it goes to junk voicemail (which you access via pressing 1572 on the handset although, see below, I eventually got my mum Call Minder so I access this for her now) so there’s s safety net there in case it does turn out to be genuine (there was one casualty which was a long-lost friend from Rome, but, thanks to this I was able to get her message and let her know and what’s more, VIP her number for future calls).

Since I did this my mum’s spam calls have dropped to: zero. So far.

Then there’s the phone. It was long overdue that she be able to see who is ringing her. I also wanted her to be able to access important numbers really easily.

I’ve mentioned before that I got a mobile phone for my aunt from Action on Hearing Loss (formerly RNID) so I turned to them for a phone for my mum and found this one.

It is really excellent and here’s why:

It has a caller display which lots of phones do (although they tend to be cordless) but with this one, you can tilt it up for maximum visibility and also change the contrast* – it displays the number and, if you’ve input the person into the phone’s phone book, their name will also show. (You need a subscription to a Caller Display service for this to work.)

*Someone visually impaired would still struggle to see this however, so look at the RNIB’s shop for phones for them.

The call buttons are large and illuminate when you pick up the phone.

There are four photo-buttons so you can either put people’s photos or write their name in LARGE TYPE. You programme these so that you can simply press them to dial someone but not only that: THEY ILLUMINATE WHEN THAT PERSON RINGS. Which is really like Thunderbirds!

I programmed as many numbers in as I could for my mum, no mean feat when you consider the size of our family. This you have to do with the phone in front of you but once done no further teccy-input necessary.

The phone plugs in and also needs 4 AAA batteries as back up. This it needs for the illumination/phone box storage features. It is otherwise a corded phone.

Although you can use the phone book to ring people – i.e. without having to manually press the number-keys, my mum doesn’t do this as she likes to use the number keys to ring people. There’s a volume control and also a boost in case someone is hard of hearing. So it’s packed with really useful features, but otherwise it’s a normal low-tech phone.

So now, as an added safe-guard, if my mum doesn’t recognise a number, she doesn’t have to pick it up. I’ve also put Call Minder on her line so that if she doesn’t pick up a call and it’s genuine, the people calling have the option of leaving her a message.  I control this remotely for her by ringing into it once a day (you have to set a PIN on the actual phone, but once you’ve done this you can ring in remotely). I can also hear if any spam callers who have called and left a message or not left a message.

There are other options available for protecting vulnerable relatives, such as True Call Blocker, which has rave reviews and Fuss Free Phones, which sound like a great idea but would have involved too many changes for my mum.

Some other option may work for you. This is so far what’s worked for us. I did a lot of research to come to these conclusions and what is the point of it if it doesn’t also benefit others?