Turning a meal into a feast

It’s often too easy for me to lose perspective and forget gratitude. Life is busy and full and sometimes it feels overwhelming. I all too easily forget how fortunate I am, that my life is busy and full because of the many lovely people and opportunities that have come my way in the last few years. I forget how much I prefer it this way to a life that often used to feel lonely and empty. I start to feel that life is one set of problems after another demanding my attention. When I feel like this I need to slow down, look around me and look again for the things that I am thankful for and there are plenty. I find writing gratitude lists a useful habit at times like these and can recommend it to anyone feeling a bit underwhelmed by what they feel they have and overwhelmed by what they feel they have to cope with. My lists change from day to day, they generally include the big things like health and family along with an ever changing appreciation of small things that make the world more lovely like unexpectedly bumping into a friend or a new tablecloth or a sunny autumn afternoon.

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.” Melody Beattie

I’ve had a week where I felt almost swept away by worry and confusion. Thankfully a friend’s good counsel has got me back on track and everything in my head has once again begun to assume its proper size. I sometimes worry I sound smug on here, I hope not, I’m just very thankful that my life is the way that it is today. Anyway, today I’m grateful for a lovely, supportive husband, a freshly painted kitchen, people taking the time to read this blog and the discovery of a dish that pretty much combines stew and scones – two things I already liked very much individually.

Creamy chicken cobbler (adapted from here)

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 leek, sliced and washed
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 375g pack of boneless, skinless chicken thighs, sliced
  • 2 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
  • 1 tbsp plain flour
  • ½ chicken stock cube
  • 300ml boiling water
  • 300g frozen peas
  • 75ml single cream

For the cobbler

  • 125g plain flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 small free-range egg, beaten
  • 75ml buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 220°C/fan200°C/gas 7.

Heat the oil in a large pan over a medium heat.

Add the onion and leek and gently fry for 5 minutes, until soft.

Add the garlic and cook for a further minute.

Add the chicken and thyme and brown the chicken all over.

Stir in the flour, cook for 30 seconds, then crumble the 1/2 chicken stock cube into 300ml boiling water and stir in the peas and cream.

Season well.

In a bowl, mix together the cobbler ingredients and season.

Turn out onto a generously floured surface and gently roll to about 2cm thickness.

Use a cutter to cut rounds (just like if you were making scones) and sit them on top of the chicken stew. Brush the cobbler pieces with milk and then bake for 15-20 minutes, until cooked and the cobbler is risen and golden brown.

Of dad and dumplings

(There has been a bit of a break between my last missive and this one, we are in the process of redecorating our little kitchen. I have finally managed to finish writing this sitting at my dad’s old computer at my parents’ house, where me and the boys are staying while Barry, the dashing decorator, paints the kitchen).

When I sat down to write this I was struck by a memory. When I was a wee girl and dressed up for a party or some other occasion my dad would look me up and down and say “you’re as pretty as a picture…” there would be a pause “…a picture of a dumpling”. It was one of those comforting family rituals, a joke between me and my dad, just for us. The origins of the joke are lost, I always meant to ask him about it, perhaps I even did and have forgotten what he said. I can’t ask my dad about it now, he died in May of this year. It seems that this is what his death means for me really, a repeated absence at times when in the past connection would have been possible. I miss him.

‘Dumpling’ remains a term of affection I use often with my own children and even occasionally my husband (he’s less keen to be fair!).

I think my dad would have liked this blog, he was a good cook himself and a far better writer than I. His blog, Wee Jokes, is still there and contains the amazing, powerful, unflinching poetry he wrote in his last few months. Go and have a look, I’d like that.

Beef stew and dumplings

I’ve made beef stew lots of times but dumplings were something I had never attempted before and I was apprehensive that they would turn out heavy and lumpen. A light touch with the dough and using self-raising flour meant my worries were unfounded. Leaving them peeping out of the stew and cooking them uncovered meant they had a lovely crunchy top. Proper rib sticking wintery fare.

  • 750g stewing steak, cut into large chunks
  • 2 tablespoons seasoned plain flour
  • A small turnip (or what Scottish people, like me, call a turnip – a swede? The one with the yellow flesh not the tiny wee white kind. I’m not the first to ponder this as this rather amusing article proves…)
  • 2 medium carrots
  • 2 medium leeks
  • 1 stick of celery
  • 1 large onion
  • 500ml beef stock
  • 2 bay leaves
  • A few sprigs of fresh thyme
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

For the dumplings

  • 100g self raising flour
  • 50g suet (or grated, frozen butter works too, my mum says)
  • A pinch of salt
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
  • 5 tablespoons cold water, or thereabouts

Preheat the oven to 170 c/ gas mark 3/ 325 f

You will need an ovenproof casserole with a lid (ideally one that can go from stove top to oven…)

Toss the stewing steak in the seasoned flour and shake off the excess.

Brown the meat in batches.

If you are transferring the stew to a casserole to put it in the oven then deglaze the pan with a little of the stock and pour it into your casserole dish so you don’t lose any of the nice meat juices and flavour.

Chop all the vegetables into rough chunks and add to the casserole along with the browned beef.

Add the vinegar and the Worcestershire sauce to the stock and pour it over the meat and vegetables.

Tuck the bay leaves and the thyme into the middle.

Put the lid on and stick it in the oven for 2 ½ to 3 hours until the meat is tender.

To make the dumplings mix the flour, suet, salt and herbs together in a bowl and add water until you have a soft, pliable dough. Take small lumps and roll them into balls using floured hands. This amount should make about 8.

Pop the dumplings on top of the stew, mainly submerged but with the tops peeping out and return the dish to the oven without the lid for 20-25 minutes.

When it is done the dumplings will be bigger and lightly brown and crispy on top. As pretty as a picture.

Good company and an inspiring challenge

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Today’s been a lovely day. My friend Jo and I took our littler ones and went for a long walk in the autumn sunshine. We first met when we were both pregnant with our older children, both boys and both now in their first year of primary school. Jo now also has a wonderful, bright, chatty daughter and I have my sweet wee 4 month old baby boy. Good company and conversation built on the solidarity of shared experience meant that our walk was over all too soon and I’d managed the excellent trick of exercising without noticing.

A new Greek deli has opened at the bottom of Byres Road and we had a lovely chat with the friendly owners. I bought a spanakopita to munch as we walked and chatted. It was delicious even if the baby, strapped to my front in his carrier, ended up covered in a light dusting of filo shards. He’s fairly used to it – an occupational hazard of being carried everywhere. Further on we stopped for coffee and a scone at Kember and Jones and I coveted every one of the loaves. I resisted until another day as I knew we would never eat it today and it would be a tragedy for bread that nice to go to waste. Nearing the end of our walk we stopped into KRK in Woodlands Road where I bought some beautiful little aubergines for the curry I was planning.

It does me good on so many levels to get out in the sun and walk and talk. As the dark of winter starts drawing in I know I need to get out in the daylight as much as I can, to shore me up against the long nights that are coming. Sunshiny food, fragrant and warming, was the perfect end to the day.

Aubergine, coconut and tomato curry

Some of my best friends are vegetarians. Really. They’re kind enough to persist in reading my recipes on here and encouraging me despite the fact that for those amongst us who don’t eat meat it’s a bit of a thankless task. I had been feeling vaguely guilty about this anyway when my pal Fi commented on my last meaty blog post to Facebook “I dare you to make something vegan!” What could I do but accept that challenge?

I almost completely succeeded – until I added a dollop of natural yoghurt right at the end! To be fair, this was for the boy’s portion (he’d made me promise that next time I did a blog he’d get to “eat the photo”) and it worked well to cool it down a wee bit for him. It’s entirely optional so if you’re vegan rather than vegetarian it’ll still be good without it.

I won’t ever give up meat entirely but I would happily eat less. Making this recipe has inspired me to introduce my household to at least one meat free evening meal a week. I’m crazy for anything that’s a pulse at the moment so some brown chickpeas (also in my chicken double chickpea curry) made it in here too. Pulses are a fantastic veggie source of protein and with them in there I didn’t miss having meat at all.

About 600g of aubergine – I used 1 large and 8 smaller ones but 2 large would be fine
2 medium onions
2 generous handfuls of cherry tomatoes – about 250g
1 tin coconut milk
1 tin brown chickpeas
1 thumb sized piece of fresh ginger
2 fat cloves of garlic
1/2 – 1 chopped chilli depending on how hot you want it
1 teaspoon of medium curry powder
1 teaspoon turmeric
8-10 cardamom pods
2 teaspoons cumin seeds

Finely chop the onions, garlic and ginger and fry them in a little oil over a low heat. Once they are started cooking, put a lid on and leave them on the heat to soften for 10 minutes or so.
Meanwhile cut the aubergine into large chunks and cook it on a griddle pan or under the grill until it starts to brown.
Smash open the cardamom pods to get the black seeds from inside. Throw the outsides away and use a pestle and mortar to crush the seeds slightly.
Make a space in the middle of the onions and add the cardamom, cumin seeds, turmeric and curry powder to the pan. Let the heat toast them until the fragrance begins to release then stir them through the onions.
Roughly chop the tomatoes and add them to the pan along with the tin of coconut milk and the chilli.
Add the aubergine to the pan and cook with the lid on for half an hour until the aubergine is lovely and soft.
Add the drained, rinsed chickpeas and cook with the lid off for a further five minutes.
Sprinkle with chopped coriander and serve with rice and Indian bread.

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Lamb hot pot and pans envy

I’ve been suffering from serious pans envy recently. This time of year puts me in the mood for hearty, slow cooked dishes that warm you up when it’s cold outside. I have one cast iron le Creuset casserole which I use all the time (as you may well have spotted!) but it’s a shallow pan and while it’s ideal for some things I want a bigger deeper version. We are about to repaint our kitchen in a lovely 50s blue(well, Barry is) and I am already looking at blue le Creuset casseroles and putting one firmly at the top of my Christmas list. (Did I mention Christmas there?? – sorry!!!). One of those casseroles would be ideal for this recipe. It would allow you to brown the meat in the same dish that you put into the oven so you didn’t lose any of the lovely flavour from the bottom of the pot. I don’t have mine (yet!) but I do have a beautiful heart-shaped stoneware casserole which we were lucky enough to get as a wedding present. You can’t use it on the hob but it is a thing of beauty all the same.

Lamb hot pot

  • 600g lamb shoulder
  • 2 Tablespoons plain flour
  • 3 large potatoes – about 600g
  • 2 large onions
  • 4 medium carrots – about 200g
  • 1 big stick of celery – about 100g
  • A generous sprig of fresh thyme
  • A bay leaf
  • 500ml of lamb stock
  • Salt and pepper
  • Butter
  • Oil

You will need a deep casserole with a lid.

Preheat the oven to 170.

Toss the lamb in seasoned flour so it is lightly coated. The easiest way to do this is by putting the seasoned flour in a zip lock bag and adding the lamb and jumbling it about.

Heat a tablespoon of oil over a high heat and brown the lamb well then remove from the pan and set aside.

Slice the onions and fry them in the same pan until they are soft and just beginning to brown at the edges.

Slice the carrots thickly and chop the celery roughly.

Place the browned lamb and all the vegetables into your casserole.

Pour the stock in and tuck in the thyme and the bayleaf.

Peel the potatoes and cut them into thick slices.

Layer the potato on top, overlapping the slices.

Dot the potatoes with butter and season with salt and pepper.

Put the lid on and cook in the oven for an hour and ten minutes.

Remove the lid and cook for a further 50 minutes.

Serve with something green. We had sliced greens but cabbage would be good, or peas.