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.

Steak strip chilli

This summer, towards the end of my pregnancy with the littlest of my two sons I started to worry about what we would eat once he arrived and I had no time to cook. I started a campaign of cooking ‘for the freezer’ as is traditional at such a time. It’s a habit that has stuck and I love the convenience of doing a big batch of something and having a meal for now and a portion (or two!) to freeze for another time. It’s always cheering to have decent home cooked food after the kind of busy day where you haven’t had a chance to cook.

The recipe that follows freezes well and after making a big batch will feed us for a few meals. We almost always have a package of flour tortillas in the cupboard(they keep for ages) and half-fat creme fraiche stands in for sour cream and is an ingredient I use in lots of different dishes. You could make this with steak mince instead but it’s really good with beef strips. I buy them ready prepared at the supermarket but if you cant get them then any cheap steak cut into strips or small chunks would do. It doesn’t have to be amazing quality as it’s getting cooked for a decent amount of time. Everyone has their own chilli recipe I’m sure, I don’t know how authentic this is, but currently it’s mine.


Steak strip chilli

1 large onion, chopped finely
450g beef steak strips
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon hot chilli powder
1 finely chopped red chilli
1 tin chopped tomatoes
2 tablespoons of tomato purée
2 medium peppers, diced
2 tins of beans – I used black beans and pinto beans but use whatever ones you prefer

In a big pot that has a lid, fry the onion in a little oil until it is soft and translucent.
Add the beef and brown.
Add the dried spices and the chopped chilli and give it a good mix about so the beef is coated in the flavourings.
Add the tin of tomatoes, the tomato purée and the peppers.
Bring to the boil then reduce to a low simmer.
Put the lid on and cook for an hour or so or until the beef is tender.
Add the drained, rinsed beans and cook for another ten to fifteen minutes.

We usually have ours burrito-style, in flour tortillas with grated mature cheddar and big dollops of half-fat creme fraiche.

Freeze any leftovers in meal-sized portions (the size of these would depend how many of you there are). We are two adults and a five year old and we usually get two further meals out of this amount. If you’re new to the whole cooking for the freezer game then this article on BBC Good Food has loads of helpful information.

Chicken double chickpea curry

I’ve been making versions of this dish for a few months now since I discovered the original recipe on the BBC Good Food website. We love chickpeas in our house and I am particularly fond of kala chana or brown chickpeas. If you’ve not tried them, you should – they are smaller and have a bit more bite to them and a slightly nuttier flavour. Supermarkets tend to stock them these days, sometimes in the ‘international’ food section or just in with the other pulses. The original recipe only contains one tin of normal chickpeas but more and more often these days I find myself adding an extra tin of pulses to recipes like this. It’s economical as the dish goes further and I just prefer the less meaty result. I like to think my husband is coming round to my way of thinking.

I’ve made this recipe using chicken breast as originally suggested and it was lovely and probably very low fat but I think all in all I prefer the result you get when using chicken thighs. I’ve tried cooking it on the bone with the skin on but we’re trying to lose a bit of weight round here so skinless, boneless thigh meat is our happy medium – moister and tastier (to my mind) than breast meat but without the skin a reasonably low fat option.

Making my own curry paste always struck me as too much hassle in the past but using the food processor it’s really very straightforward and the whole dish can be made in under an hour. You can adjust the spiciness by leaving out some of the chilli – the boy, who is 5 and not mad keen on very spicy food enjoyed eating this.

  • 2 onions, quartered
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 3cm piece of ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 2 tablespoons of medium curry powder
  • ¼ teaspoon of turmeric
  • 2 teaspoons of paprika
  • 1 red chilli, seeded and roughly chopped (or less if you prefer less heat)
  • Fresh coriander
  • Chicken stock cube/powder
  • 425ml boiling water
  • About 500g of boneless, skinless chicken thigh fillets
  • 1 tin chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 1 tin kala chana/brown chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • Small pot of natural yoghurt

Put the onions, garlic, ginger, chilli and spices into a food processor and blend them into a paste. Add a tablespoon of water to help it blend if you need to.

Cook the paste in a large heavy based pan over a medium heat for about 10 minutes, stirring it frequently.

Add the stock and the boiling water and mix it in.

Add the chicken and simmer for half an hour or until the meat is tender.

Add the two tins of chickpeas and cook for another ten minutes.

Serve with basmati rice and naan or chappatis. Drizzle with the plain yoghurt and sprinkle some chopped fresh coriander on top.

“Turning the Tables” and a tasty tea

I’ve not posted in a couple of days as things have been pretty hectic round here. It was the boy’s fifth birthday party on Saturday so we were getting prepared for that and then afterwards – recovering.

Friday started off relaxing enough with a visit from my friend Jo and her daughter. We caught up over coffee and some of the mint chocolate cookies I made and froze for later the other day. Jo has a lovely blog called Binds You to Me where she writes about family and interiors(and lots of other stuff) and makes me jealous with her impeccable taste and gorgeous home. She brought me an amazing book as a present “Turning the Tables” which contains recipes and reflections on food and cooking by fabulous women like Angela Carter and Miriam Margoyles. It brought back fond memories of childhood when my mum’s bookshelves were full of books from feminist publishers, few of which sadly survive today. I’m looking forward to reading it and attempting some of the recipes.

Later on Friday was taken up by making up party bags for Saturday’s festivities and then suddenly realising it was nearly 5.30 and we hadn’t thought about tea*. The recipe below (so simple it barely qualifies as a recipe) is a quick and tasty tea that we quite often fall back on. If you don’t have chorizo, smoked streaky bacon would be nice too.

*A note on the use of the word tea – tea is used here in the good Scottish sense to denote the evening meal.

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Pasta with chorizo and tomatoes

  • 200g chorizo, chopped into small pieces
  • 200g cherry tomatoes, halved
  • Garlic purée or a crushed clove of garlic
  • Salt and pepper
  • Long pasta – spaghetti or similar
  • Tablespoon of balsamic vinegar
  • Olive oil

Fry the chorizo in a little oil until it has begun to crisp at the edges.
Add the tomatoes to the hot pan along with the garlic.
Allow to cook down until the tomatoes are collapsing and you have a sauce-y consistency. Add the balsamic and let it cook off.
If the sauce is a little dry looking then add some of the hot pasta water.
Once the pasta is ready, drain it and add it to the sauce in the pan. Toss it around until it’s all coated and then serve with plenty of Parmesan and black pepper.

 

Easy lamb steaks with aubergine

I’ve made this a few times recently because it’s very simple and makes a tasty tea for nights when you don’t want to spend much time in the kitchen. My husband likes it because it has a big bit of meat in a starring role which he considers one of the essential qualities in any meal. It’s vaguely based on a Delia recipe which I remember involved all sorts of complicated aubergine salting which I don’t bother with in my version. It’d probably be better with fresh herbs but I quite often don’t have any so dried is what I used.

  • 2 lamb steaks
  • 1 medium aubergine
  • 1 vine tomato
  • A generous handful of cherry tomatoes – I’m loving the multicoloured ones some of the supermarkets are selling now
  • Some dried rosemary and oregano(or whatever dried herbs you fancy)
  • garlic puree
  • salt and pepper to season

Preheat the oven to 200/gas mark 6. Chop the aubergine into cubes and fry in an ovenproof dish until it is beginning to brown at the edges and soften. Put the dish into the preheated oven.

Chop the cherry tomatoes in half and roughly chop the big tomato. After ten minutes or so, add them to the aubergine in the oven along with a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar, a squirt of garlic puree and the dried herbs.

If you have a griddle pan, use it to griddle the lamb chops so they are just sealed and marked, if not just brown them in a pan.

Add the lamb to the vegetables and put it back in the oven for 5-10 minutes depending how you like your lamb.

Take it out the oven, season, and let it rest for a few minutes before serving.

Serve with nice bread to mop up the juices.

Mint chocolate chocolatey cookies

Everyone is well aware of pregnancy cravings but you don’t hear so much about the cravings you get after the baby is born. This time during my pregnancy I couldn’t get enough lemonade ice lollies, whenever we found them in the shops I bulk bought them. This continued right up to the last few weeks of my pregnancy, which is why I now have a twelve week old baby son and a freezer drawer full of them. Once the baby had arrived I was struck by the overwhelming sweet tooth that I remembered from immediately after the boy was born. At one point in those first few weeks i was getting through a packet of bourbon biscuits and an entire banoffee pie a day. Clearly this couldn’t continue indefinitely and thankfully the intense sugar cravings have subsided somewhat. At the moment all that remains is a new found fondness for anything mint chocolate flavoured. Mint choc chip ice cream, mint chocolate ice cream bars and mint flavoured 70% dark chocolate.

Inspired, I decided I wanted to attempt some baking for a change and make some mint choc chip cookies. Casting about for ideas i found recipes that suggested using food colouring to colour the cookie dough so that it was green and the cookies sort of resembled mint choc chip ice cream. There’s something distinctly off-putting about green biscuits though and it seemed a bit, well, obvious. I decided mine would be a more sophisticated affair (natch!). This recipe is adapted from a Nigella recipe from Nigella Express and also available here. I changed some of the chocolate for mint flavoured dark chocolate and omitted the vanilla from the original recipe. Just for kicks I dyed some sugar green with food colouring and sprinkled it on top of a few, adds nothing to the taste so it’s fine not to bother but it looks pretty. They turned out pretty well, Nigella knows her stuff and the mint flavour was a subtle but sophisticated twist.

Mint chocolate chocolate cookies

  • 150g plain flour
  • 2x100g bars 70% cocoa solids dark chocolate
  • 2x100g bars mint flavoured 70% cocoa solids dark chocolate
  • 30g cocoa powder, sieved
  • 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 125g of softened butter
  • 75g light brown sugar
  • 50g white sugar
  • 1 medium egg cold from the fridge

Preheat the oven to 170/gas mark 3.

Break the two mint chocolate bars and one of the plain bars into little bits – think (very)generous chocolate chip kind of size, which is pretty much as small as you can snap them by hand. If your mum is visiting, get her to do it while you measure the other stuff. (Thanks mum!)

Put the flour, cocoa, bicarb and salt in a bowl and mix them together.

Cream the sugars and the butter in a bigger bowl.

Melt the remaining bar of plain dark chocolate in the microwave (1 minute on full power in mine, then a good stir did it).

Add the melted chocolate to the creamed butter and sugar. Once they are combined mix the egg in too.

Add the dry ingredients to the larger bowl and then the chocolate chunks/chips.

Put a tablespoon of white sugar in a wee bowl and add a few drops of green food colouring and mix it about until the sugar is dyed green.

Use an ice cream scoop to spoon generous mounds onto a baking tray lined with baking parchment. This amount makes about 12 cookies. Sprinkle some of the green sugar on top and then bake them for about 18 minutes. They’re done when the point of a knife comes out fairly clean rather than wet with cake mix, I struggled to find a bit without a big lump of melted chocolate in to test this theory however. This is no bad thing.

Let them cool on the tray for five minutes then move them to a wire rack to finish.

Eat them on their own or with a big scoop of mint chocolate chip ice cream.

P.S. I took Nigella’s advice and only baked six, I put the rest in scoops on a little tray and froze them, once they’re solid I’ll stick them in a sandwich bag and have frozen cookies ready to bake whenever I fancy which is pretty cool.