Category Archives: family budget cooking

Robust venison goulash for an Autumn supper

food festival Ludlow 2014 276I know it hasn’t been particularly Autumnal of late, but as the nights start to draw in and the evenings are beginning to cool, I’ve found myself craving  the dishes I associate with this time of year. With back to school and work routines now in place I long for comfort food. Out go the summer salads, BBQ’s and light meals designed for hot evenings and in come roast dinners, casseroles and hearty flavoursome stews (although this weekend was perfect BBQ weather!).

The Autumn and winter months also herald the beginning of game season, and although these days Venison is available across the year it’s still associated with the hunting, shooting and fishing season, and this might be why it’s overlooked. It’s often seen as a bit expensive for ordinary folk and just for those ‘posh’ people who wear red jackets, riding hats and have an expansive wallet. There is also of course the emotional, “poor Bambi” reaction which I often hear from people,while others aren’t sure they would like the taste, thinking it’s too strongly flavoured.

Some of this fear of venison is related to previous experience. If it was a bad experience then the obvious reaction is to avoid, or perhaps it was nice first time round and the flavour was different the second time. Production methods and labelling were less consistent in the past, plus the label never distinguished between types of venison, red deer for example tastes different to fallow deer. These days however many local butchers and game specialists routinely stock venison, and opinion is slowly shifting. Why? because production methods have improved, the processing of wild venison is quicker, there are more deer farmers out there and in both cases improved methods produce meat with a more consistent flavour and quality.

Venison is so similar to beef the two are often confused but it differs in that it is leaner, has more protein, more iron and B vitamins making it a good health choice. Also, because wild deer lives on wild and pasture food there is a minimal fat content in the meat and what is there has higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid (a possible protector against heart disease and cancer). Because it is like beef it also cooks in a similar way. Steaks are best cooked fast on a high heat or a BBQ, while diced venison takes well to slow cooking and robust sauces. I used diced venison to make a rich Goulash, a family favourite. Its quick and easy to prepare and although it takes a long time to cook you can stick it in the oven and go do other things while you are waiting.

If you want to give venison a try, now is a great time. The deer have spent the summer feeding on wild food and pasture so the meat is top quality and not very expensive. I purchased my venison from my butcher (G Williams & Son in Bangor). It came pre-packed in a 500g tray and cost £4.00.

Venison Goulash:

Serves four as a lunch dish (served with some rye bread or similar) or 2-3 as a main course dinner with lightly steamed vegetables

1 tablespoon vegetable oil (plus a knob of butter)

500g diced venison

1 large onion finely sliced

2 cloves of garlic (chopped or crushed)

1 teaspoon caraway seeds

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

1 teaspoon plain flour

350g fresh tomatoes chopped (or tinned in the winter months)

300ml beef stock

400g small potatoes, washed, peeled if necessary and chopped into chunks

salt and pepper

Preheat the oven gas mark 3/160 degrees C

Heat a large non-stick pan and add the oil. Add venison when its nice and hot and brown over a medium heat. Once browned tip into an oven proof casserole dish. Add the butter to the pan and tip in the sliced onion. Cook for about 15 minutes until starting to soften and change colour. Add the garlic, caraway, paprika and stir for a minute then sprinkle over the flour, add tomatoes and stock. Stir to combine and bring to a simmer then tip over the venison in the casserole dish.

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Pop on a lid and put in the oven for an hour. After an hour tip in the potatoes and cook in the oven for a further 30 mins.

Once the potatoes are tender serve with a glass of red wine (unless its lunch time and you have to work afterwards) and some hearty rye bread to mop up the sauce.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under British food, Butchers, family budget cooking, Game recipes, home cooking, local produce, Organic meat, Recipes, seasonal food

One for midweek..Moroccan lamb and spinach balls with harissa tomato sauce (couscous and minty yogurt)

Sometimes my decision-making skills seem distinctly lacking. There are times when I endlessly dither over the tiniest details, instead of going with my instincts, until I drive myself (and others mad) with my inability to make up my mind. I know it’s an infuriating trait and its so stupid when I can make monumental life changing decisions, big business choices,  but can’t decide if I want meatballs for dinner or something with some Moroccan spice.

I hope for divine inspiration, umm and ah for a while, running ideas by the boy who seems impressed and so we eventually come up with Moroccan spiced meatballs. Throw in some fresh spinach (which I have in good supply now my local veg box is running again) and there. How easy was that?

A family feast ...Moroccan lamb and spinach balls, couscous and minty yogurt

A family feast …Moroccan lamb and spinach balls, couscous and minty yogurt

Moroccan lamb and spinach balls, harissa tomato sauce (couscous and yogurt with mint): recipe for up to four (although Aidan and I were very hungry after our Sunday run so ate three-quarters of them!)

For the meatballs:

500g lamb mince

100g finely chopped spinach

clove garlic finely minced

2 teaspoons ras al hanout

1 teaspoon cumin

1 egg beaten

zest of 1 lemon

salt and pepper

1 tablespoon oil to fry

For the sauce:

small red onion finely chopped

1 tin of chopped tomatoes

1 teaspoon harissa

150ml chicken stock

one dessertspoonful sun-dried tomato paste

salt/ pepper and a pinch of sugar if the sauce seems a bit tart (tinned tomatoes are often quite acidic)

**

Mix the lamb, spinach, spices, garlic, seasonings, lemon zest and egg in a large bowl. Use your hands to knead it all together so the spices are completely distributed. Form into bite size balls.

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Heat the oil in a large pan. Add the lamb balls and fry over a medium heat until nicely brown all over. Remove and keep to one side. Add a little more olive oil if necessary (you will probably find that enough oil remains) and turn the heat down a bit. Add the onion and garlic and sweat gently for about five to ten minutes. Add the tomatoes, harissa, tomato paste and stock and turn the heat up again. Bring to a gentle simmer and return the balls to the pan cooking gently for about 25 minutes, or until the sauce has cooked down and thickened. Check the seasoning adding salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar if the tomatoes are a bit acidic.

Serve with couscous (try Yotam Ottolenghi’s Green Couscous from his book Plenty it’s an absolute favourite…or make a variation as I did below..

Serves 4

150g couscous
160ml vegetable stock
1 small red onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper
sml tsp ground cumin
3 spring onions, finely sliced
30g rocket, chopped

juice of half a lemon
handful of coriander finely chopped

Place the couscous in a large shallow dish and cover with the stock. Cover the dish with cling film and leave for 10 minutes or so.

Meanwhile, fry the onion in olive oil on a medium heat until golden and completely soft. Add the salt and cumin, and mix well leaving to fry for a minute. Stir onion mixture into the couscous, fluffing up the grains with a fork as you go. Add the remaining ingredients mixing together well.

To finish mix a handful of finely chopped mint into a small bowl of Rachel’s low-fat natural yogurt with a pinch of sea salt.

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Filed under family budget cooking, home cooking, local produce, middle eastern food, Recipes, salads, seasonal food

French onion soup with a bit of oomph!

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Yes I know, I slightly burnt my toast…but it didn’t matter with all that Gruyere and once it has soaked into the soup…anyway they were my last slices of bread!

I’m fast becoming the queen of soup! What with running pop-up soup kitchens at festivals and events, making soup for lunches (The Green Man crew love their lunch time soup) and quite a lot of soup recipes under my belt, I guess I have to admit, I really like soup. And so do the kids which is an important factor in the equation. If the kids will eat it, its quick, nutritious and tasty it’s on my menu list.

French onion soup is an absolute favourite but for the past few years I’ve avoided making it. This is of course because the kids won’t eat it, but now things are changing. The teen has discovered she likes onions and the boy will eat almost anything these days so I’ve joyfully rediscovered this glorious decadent,  peasant dish.

I’m not sure  ‘glorious’  ‘decadent’ and ‘peasant’ should go together in the same sentence. For all the fancy ingredients and recipes out there its the old ones, the ones made by the poorest, with the fewest ingredients that satisfy the most. The basis of this soup is just onion and stock, but I’ve chucked in a bit of butter, vermouth and some Gruyère which but takes this recipe from its firmly peasant origins to something quite luxurious.

Recipes for French onion soup vary from cook to cook but at its base is a simple formula; slowly cooked and lightly caramelised onions, good quality beef stock, wine and finished with a cheesy topped crouton. Inevitably chefs add their own touch, Felicity Cloake follows Anthony Bourdains lead adding balsamic vinegar plus a splash of brandy, the latter I approve of strongly (I usually add a dash of cognac to mine) but as the soup already has a sweetly savoury flavour, the vinegar adds little in my opinion. Delia Smith adds sugar to her French onion to help the onions caramelise. She recommends cooking in a very hot casserole, stirring until the edges turn dark, which should take all of 6 minutes! The cooking time is a huge underestimation, while sugar is wholly unneccessary because the onions are sweet enough to caramlise. As to the high heat, well slow is best, probably around 30 minutes slowly.

Another pet hate is adding flour to soup which both Nigel Slater and Raymond Blanc do. Having often made soup for friends with a range of allergies and dietary issues, I like to keep mine gluten-free and I don’t feel it lacks depth for doing so.

Like Delia I like to add a bit of garlic and as Felicity does, a bit of thyme. I would guess that these are fairly authentic additions so I don’t feel like I’m straying too far from the peasant origins.

The choice of stock is a hard one if you are vegetarian. Most of the recipes I’ve come across favour beef stock for its richness, although there are those that use chicken stock. The most important thing is that its good stock. Even if you choose to use a vegetable stock use one of those stock pots and not powdered varieties, they are a cut above and used by chefs, so that has to say something.  I wouldn’t recommend the Raymond Blanc approach to just use water. Having given it a go once I can vouch that it produces a fairly insipid soup and I prefer something with big banging flavours. The beef stock certainly gives it that.

Alcohol is crucial. Most chefs stick to dry white wine although Felicity uses cider, which is an option. I would go with the wine option, although once when I had no wine and couldn’t be bothered to go to the shop I tried it out with dry vermouth (my usual addition to any risotto) which is after all begins life as wine and to my relief it worked well, adding a somewhat deeper, heavier flavour. I balanced it by using slightly less than recipes using wine ask for, but it was a perfectly adequate substitution working along with so many other intense flavours. I rather liked it.

The other essential to component to a French onion soup is the cheese topped crouton. I wouldn’t argue with any recipe that calls for toasted baton, rubbed with a clove of garlic and topped with Gruyère. No substitutions will suffice, although the night I made my soup I was using house leftovers (as usual) and only had a crusty loaf from which I cut thick slices toasted them and cut them in half.

Of course as I already mentioned I also favour the addition of Cognac at the end, as does Lindsey Bareham and Simon Hopkinson in The Prawn Cocktail Years. It adds that last bit of oomph that the original peasant version may well have lacked.

French onion soup recipe: Serves four.

800g white onions

50g butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 fat cloves garlic finely chopped

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

250ml vermouth (or 300ml white wine)

700ml beef stock

salt and pepper to taste

A glug of cognac

8 slices from a baguette

a clove of garlic

about 100g Gruyère, grated.

Peel and thinly slice the onions. Peel and finely chop the garlic.

Add the butter and olive oil to a large saucepan and when melted and just beginning to bubble add the onions. Allow to cook gently (for about 30 minutes) until very soft. Add the garlic and thyme and keep cooking, stirring occasionally so they don’t burn. Cook until a nice golden caramel colour. They will begin to stick to the bottom a bit at this point but keep stirring until they turn a nice golden brown.

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Add the vermouth and stir scraping any stuck bits off the bottom of the pan then add the stock. Allow to cook on a low heat for about 50 minutes to an hour.

Meanwhile, toast the baguette on both sides then rub with the garlic clove. Grate the cheese.

When cooked add the glug of cognac and taste for seasoning. Ladle into warm heatproof bowls, top with the croutons and sprinkle over the cheese. Place under the grill until the cheese begins to melt then serve.

 

 

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Filed under family budget cooking, French food, home cooking, local produce, recipe books, Recipes, reviews, Welsh produce

Recipe for home-made granola (its not just for breakfast!)

Well hello home-made granola, where have you been all my life! (and why have I never made you before)? It really couldn’t be easier.

I guess out of laziness I’ve always bought packs of granola, not imagining home-made would be any better than some of the good brands out there on sale. How wrong I was. Now I have to say, I do love Dorset Cereals granola, but now I’ve discovered home-made is on another level. Not only is it healthier (you can control the sugar content) but you can add whatever you like to the recipe, if you prefer certain nuts then just add more of them. I’ve tried to introduce more seeds, nuts and dried fruit to my diet recently so my recipe had a generous addition of sesame and pumpkin seeds, almonds, hazelnuts and pecans which are my favourites. They are a great source of fibre, contain omega 3 (healthy fats) and are reputedly good for reducing inflammation and preventing the onset of type 2 diabetes. Instead of butter, sugar or golden syrup I used agave and maple syrup, plus a bit of local honey and some nut oil.

What I love about this granola is that you don’t just have to eat it for breakfast. It’s true to say I usually start my day with granola. Just a handful sprinkled on Rachel’s organic vanilla yogurt with some fresh or dried fruit sets me up nicely, but I also discovered that it’s just as nice as a quick and attractive dessert requiring minimal effort. Another brilliant thing is that once you’ve made a big batch of granola it keeps for a while (probably around 4 weeks) as long as you store it in a sealed airtight tub. But if my kid is anything to go by though it wont last that long. He’s not usually a cereal fan but couldn’t get enough of this!

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Layer chopped kiwi fruit, fresh chopped pineapple and banana, with Rachel’s organic Mango yogurt and home-made granola for a healthy tropical dessert.

Home-made granola:

300g of rolled or jumbo oats

50g sunflower or pumpkin (or a mix of both) seeds

50g sesame seeds

1 tablespoon flax-seed

150g mixed nuts (flaked almonds, pecans, hazelnuts, walnuts, cashews) chopped

1 large tablespoon nut oil

60ml agave syrup

60ml maple syrup

2 tablespoons honey

1 teaspoon good quality vanilla extract

25g desiccated coconut

50 to 100g dried fruit

Preheat the oven to gas mark 2/150 degrees C.

Mix the wet ingredients (oil, syrup/honey and vanilla) in a large bowl. Add the dry ingredients (except the fruit and coconut) and mix well ensuring that it is all coated (you may have to add a little more honey or syrup if it looks too dry). Spread the mixture out fairly thinly on either one large or two smaller baking sheets. Bake for about 15 minutes before checking and giving it a bit of stir to make sure of an even bake. give it another 5 minutes then add the coconut. Bake for another 15 to 20 minutes keeping an eye on it and stirring a bit if necessary. Once it is a lovely golden brown remove from the oven and allow to cool. Break up any really big chunks and store in an airtight container.

Lovely golden granola

Lovely golden granola

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Glamorgan sausages, a Welsh vegetarian favourite

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January and February are traditionally lean months so I often avoid (or at least restrict) the amount of meat I eat. Stuffed from Christmas and recovering from financial overindulgence its nice to pare things down a bit and appease the vegetarian in me.

As a teenager and into my early twenties I was vegetarian. No fish and no meat. In fact I even made a foray into vegan living, but as a fussy teenager with a mother who had no idea what to feed a girl of such persuasion, it meant eating very little. Not a healthy option for an adolescent girl and after a six months I saw sense and returned to a less restrictive veggie diet.

My mother gave vegetarian cooking a good go. Being quite creative in those days and an avid collector of Sainsbury’s recipe cards (circa 1980 something) she tried out all kinds of strange and wonderful recipes on us kids.  One of her favourite and regular creations was something called “Glamorgan supper”  a breadcrumb, cheese, egg and spring onion mixture, rolled into balls and fried. We couldn’t get enough of them back then, but it was only as I got older I discovered they were in fact a variation on the Welsh classic, Glamorgan sausages.

Now I have my own kids, one of whom is an avid meat hater, Glamorgan sausages have once again become the perfect lunch or supper dish of the day, avidly devoured with a rich home-made tomato sauce..or indeed good old ‘sos coch’ (which translated is red sauce. In other words plain old tomato ketchup). I prefer mine with a nice tomato chutney, or even red onion marmalade and a lightly dressed salad.

Glamorgan sausages: recipe makes approx 8

175g breadcrumbs

110g Gorwydd Caerphilly

1 small leek finely chopped and cooked gently in butter until soft but not browned (or a bunch of spring onions if you prefer)

1 teaspoon of Welsh honey grain mustard

1 teaspoon fresh thyme chopped

a small handful of finely chopped flat leaf parsley

2 large eggs beaten

a drop of milk (if needed)

Halen Mon sea salt

black pepper

To coat:

1 egg beaten

panko crumbs

3 to 4 tablespoons of sunflower oil

To serve:

A lightly dressed salad, some nice tomato relish (or sos coch…tomato sauce…as the kids prefer)

Mix the breadcrumbs, herbs, spring onions (or cooked leek) and grated cheese in a large bowl. Add the beaten eggs and mustard, with a little salt and pepper, to the bowl and mix until you have a stiff doughy mixture.

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Mix breadcrumbs, thyme, parsley and a lovely chunk of Gorwydd Caerphilly in a large bowl

Divide into eight sausage shapes.

Beat the remaining egg in a shallow dish and spread the panko crumbs on a plate. Dip each sausage in the egg, then roll in the crumbs. Heat sunflower oil in a shallow frying pan until quite hot and just sizzling but not smoking, then lay the sausages in the pan in a single layer and cook until nicely browned on all sides.

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nine fat sausages sizzling in the pan…turning a lovely golden brown

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Filed under British food, family budget cooking, home cooking, photography, Recipes, vegetarian dishes, welsh cheese, Welsh food, Welsh produce

Post festival recovery risotto with Trealy farm chorizo and artichokes

Travelling here, there and everywhere is unsettling at times. It always takes me a while to  get acclimatised once back at home and despite finding cooking remarkably relaxing and therapeutic, I often struggle to get back in to the familiar groove of  daily routine, family meals and planning shopping. Instead I crave quick, easy suppers with limited washing up and preparation time, often using whatever I have in the store cupboard and not go charging about to the supermarket.

Add to my current state of de-stabilisation a large dose of stress, a sudden influx of work and if I’m  honest I just want to hide away. I am juggling the desire to eat well with a severe lack of creative energy. I want to be cooked for, or at least if I have to cook I want to be able to rustle up something that’s quick but also delicious, comforting and soothing. A recovery dish.

If I’m looking for comfort food then risotto is one of my favourites. Deep, intense, savoury flavours, but also rich and satiating. Laden with cheese and butter, with a hint of wine or vermouth. I love all risotto, whether it be full of parmesan, seafood, a gorgeous mushroom one cooked for me by a lovely friend, or a kid friendly one that my daughter loves with chicken, fresh herbs and a dollop of mascarpone.

Once, when I was still working as a researcher I stayed in Oxford for a week. Life can get lonely when you go away to work, so my trick was always to find a good restaurant and a friendly bar. The restaurant I found in Oxford was Branca, a popular Italian on the edge of the trendy Jericho district. With welcoming staff and no urge to usher me out the door I often lingered over my evening meals, plus it was the place where I ate the best risotto I have ever had. I can’t to this day work out what made it so good….I know it had masala in it and finished with perfectly cooked scallops. It was so good I ordered it three nights in a row. I haven’t been to Oxford since so have no idea if they still make it, but the memory stayed with me.

My festival recovery risotto was less glamorous, but no less tasty. Chorizo is another favourite and armed with my stash from Trealy Farm a tin of artichokes I found in the cupboard, and some left over parmesan I set to cooking.

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Chorizo and artichoke risotto (serves up to 4 people)

2 small onions, finely chopped

2 fat cloves of garlic (or I used a quarter of a bulb of elephant garlic) finely chopped

50g butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

350g arborio rice

1 stick of Trealy farm sweet chorizo diced

100ml vermouth

750ml hot vegetable (or chicken) stock

6 artichokes, quartered taken from a tin

50g parmesan cheese (with a bit extra to grate on top)

Melt the butter and oil in a large pan and add onion. Sweat without browning for about 5 to 10 minutes or so. Add the garlic and rice and stir well to coat. Cook until the rice begins to turn slightly translucent (about 5 minutes) then turn the heat up a little and add the vermouth. Allow to bubble until the vermouth has almost been absorbed into the rice then begin to add the stock a ladle full at a time, waiting until it’s totally absorbed before adding the next.  It’s not necessary to stir continuously, but it is important to stir or shake the pan frequently to make sure the rice doesn’t stick and the starch in the rice has broken down. You may well run out of stock; if you do just add a little boiling water, but don’t over do it. You are looking for the rice to be ‘al dente’, soft, but with a bit of bite which should take about 15-20 minutes. If you want it softer just cook for another 5 minutes, but don’t overdo it.

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In a separate pan heat a little oil and when hot chuck in your chorizo. Fry briskly until just beginning to crisp then remove with a slotted spoon and add to the risotto.

Turn off the heat and add another knob of butter, the grated parmesan and the artichokes. Check seasoning then put a lid on the pan and allow to rest for a couple of minutes.

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Simple summer salads #1…tomato, basil, chives and torn mozzarella

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I keep being asked to suggest good ideas for salads; ones that are simple, quick to make and don’t use hundreds of ingredients.

Well this salad is so simple I’m almost embarrassed to blog about it. What’s not to love about this humble tomato, basil and mozzarella combo? It ticks all the boxes for me; its quick, goes with almost anything and is a real flavour explosion with freshly picked basil leaves, chopped chives and a sharp dressing made from rapeseed oil and balsamic vinegar.

The one important thing to remember is that its only as good as the ingredients you use. Don’t skimp or think that out of season tomatoes will give the same depth of flavour. They won’t.

Use fresh British tomatoes, the first of the season, freshly picked basil leaves and good quality mozzarella. Combine with as good a quality balsamic vinegar as you can afford and the same with the rapeseed oil (I use Cotswold Gold). If you do use the best you can afford, it makes a world of difference lifting something as simple as tomatoes, basil and mozzarella to a different level. Eat on the patio, or in the garden in the sun while you can…Enjoy!

Tomato, mozzarella, basil and chives:

Serves two to three people…or 4 to 6 if you up the ingredients…

250 – 500g freshly picked tomatoes (mixed colours, cherry, heritage…all work well as long as they are UK new season)

One or two good-sized balls of buffalo mozzarella (not the hard dry stuff used for pizza)

A handful of fresh basil leaves

3 to 6 tablespoons Cotswold Gold rapeseed oil

1 to 2 tablespoons of good quality balsamic vinegar

sea salt and pepper

chopped chives

Chop the tomatoes into a bowl, tear in the mozzarella and basil leaves. Make the dressing in a jar adding all the ingredients and shaking together. Pour over the salad. Finish with some snipped chives and there it is!! salad in 5 minutes.

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Authentic Italian lasagne; a simple family favourite

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I remember the days when my mother cooked us ‘exotic’ dinners. It was the 1970’s and early 80’s and she was experimental for the time. She didn’t entirely leave behind the post-war and rationing traditions of her parents generation; everything laced with a generous amount of butter, cheese and cream, but because she’d travelled widely and liked to cook she took inspiration from the food encountered on her trips around Europe. Later, when she married my step-father more cross cultural traditions entered the house. He grew up in Trinidad to a white family who held on to their British heritage, although he much preferred Caribbean food and company. Rum punch entered our lives, as did cauliflower ‘Roman’.

We lived on the local council estate where our decidedly ‘middle class’ diet and eccentric ways were something of a novelty in the street. From the books that lined our walls to the high brow discussions that took place over the dinner table our upbringing was not financially rich, but was eclectic and intellectual often leaving friends somewhat bemused when they came to visit.

One of my favourite dinners was a simple plate of home-made beef lasagne. This dish, along with moussaka, crepes stuffed with mediterranean vegetables and parmesan, and her famous ‘Saturday chicken’  are meals inextricably linked to my teenage years. They remind me of a time of food discovery, experimentation and a bustling house.

Mum’s lasagne would have given any Italian cook a run for their money. It consisted of dryish layers of deliciously thick and tomatoey bolognaise sauce, alternated with layers of bechamel, dried pasta blanched in  plenty of hot water and finished with plenty of parmesan cheese. Mum’s was not the lasagne of the traditional British cook or supermarket. It wasn’t falling apart and the sauce didn’t run off the plate (although as a teenager I rather liked it like this, not caring a jot for authenticity and happily mopping up sauce with crisp lettuce and cucumber slices). Mum made a good lasagne which improved after it had stood a while, or the next day.

Much to the horror of my waistline my love for rich, sauce laden dinners has stayed with me (although these days I try not to cook them so much as I’m less able to burn off the pounds in the way I did as a teen). The simple lasagne however holds special memories of those loud communal dinners, evoking warm, safe feelings that only comfort food from childhood can. Its one of those dishes I crave when I need a carb hit, or if I’m a bit under the weather.

Over the years I have made different versions of lasagne. In my vegetarian days I regularly made vegetable lasagne with eggplant, courgette, peppers and tomatoes or even a mushroom, tomato and ricotta concoction. My favourite layered spinach with tomato sauce, mozzarella and ricotta. I didn’t mind the these variations and much prefered them to the version my daughter got me to make with chicken or turkey mince (for the teen who won’t eat beef). In he end though there is always a bit missing from the jigsaw. The pieces just don’t fit together in the way a simple, traditional beef bolognaise and bechamel do.

Here is my tried and tested version.

Serves 4 to 6

Two tablespoons of olive or rapeseed oil

1 large onion finely chopped

1 carrot, peeled and grated

1 stick of celery finely chopped

1 large clove of garlic, finely chopped

750g good quality beef mince

100ml of red or white wine (red gives a richer, deeper flavour)

1 tin of chopped tomatoes or the same amount of passata

100ml good beef stock

1 teaspoon or dessertspoonful tomato puree (optional, but it produces an even more intensely rich tomato sauce)

salt and pepper

50g butter

50g plain flour

1 pint (500ml) milk

enough pasta to make 3 layers. I used bigger sheets of fresh pasta which needed no pre-cooking so it only took 5 sheets

about 100g parmesan cheese to finish the dish

Preheat the oven to gas mark 6, 200 degrees C

Heat the oil in a large frying pan. Gently fry the onion until almost soft hen add the carrot and cook for another 5 minutes. Add celery and garlic and continue to cook. Add the mince and turn the heat up a bit to brown it (5 to 10 mins). Add the wine and allow to bubble until it reduces a bit then add the tomatoes and stock. Season with salt, pepper and simmer gently for about an hour. It should be almost dry by the time it’s cooked.

To make the bechamel sauce melt the butter in a medium pan, then stir in the flour cooking for a minute or two. Remove from the heat and gradually add the milk stirring into the butter/flour paste well. When it’s all mixed return the pan to the heat and cook gently until it comes to the boil and begins to thicken. Stir continually so it doesn’t turn lumpy. Season well with salt and pepper.

To assemble the lasagne, take a deep, wide dish and coat the bottom with about a third of the meat sauce. Add a layer of pasta then a layer of bechamel, then another layer of sauce, pasta, bechamel and finish with a layer of pasta. Pour over the rest of the bechamel and sprinkle over the cheese. Cook in the oven for 40 minutes, until golden brown and bubbling.

If you have time leave the lasagne to rest for about 15 minutes before serving.

NB. If you but dried lasagne that needs precooking, bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and add a couple of drops of olive oil. Add a few sheets of pasta at a time blanching for one minute or so. Remove with tongs and leave to dry on a tea towel or plate before using in your dish.

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I didn’t wait to let my lasagne rest. I was too hungry. But it holds together even better if you are patient.

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Japanese fish two ways: sticky sesame and deep fried with panko

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I love fish, but I don’t eat enough of it for my liking. The main reason being that the teen hates it (in the same way she hates most things that are good for her; with a passion) and so I always end up cooking family friendly meals that everyone will eat and enjoy (while saving myself extra work cooking several different things). Fish is, as you can imagine, generally off the menu!

This weekend was different. No teen. Lots of fish.

I made both of these dishes to go with the noodles in smoky broth I made a few weeks ago (see post here). The first was inspired by a group of Korean families I met crabbing at the beach. They’d travelled over from Birmingham for the day bringing calor gas stoves, pots pans and lots of ingredients, hoards of kids and crab catching apparatus made from bread baskets and old kitchen sink drainers. Our kids looked on fascinated, not quite believing they were going to cook up shore crabs to eat! My kids friend, who knows stuff about the seashore because her parents are ecologists, stated categorically and rather disparagingly that “you can only eat EDIBLE crabs you know” . She had to eat her words later.

As the family cooked up the spoils of their fishing trip they tucked in to kimchi, rice and tiny sweet, salty and slightly sticky fried whitebait. They invited us to join them and taste the crab stock with noodles giving us handfuls of these tiny fish while we waited. The kid (who likes fish) couldn’t get enough of them, and I also found the sweet-salty sesame flavour totally addictive, and so decided to recreate them.

I had a little search around and found a recipe that looked promising on Meemalee’s Burmese food blog. She used scallops and something called Shichimi togarashi. Off I went in search of said Japanese spice in my local Asian supermarket. I wandered aimlessly looking at incomprehensible letters, pots and jars. I found the Japanese section but nothing labelled Shichimi, eventually I gave up and asked the shop keeper. He wasn’t sure either so searched on his computer. Together we discovered it has several names, but is commonly known as Japanese seven spice.

For my fish dish I used Cornish Sardines which I meticulously filleted with a very sharp knife leaving small thin pieces and not whitebait which is currently off the sustainable list. Sardines are a good alternative as are anchovies, herrings or sprats.

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Sticky sesame Sardines:

250g small fish, either eaten whole or filleted to make small strips

A knob of butter

dessertspoonful  of sunflower oil

a handful of black sesame seeds

a sprinkle of Japanese seven spice

a drop of soy sauce

a teaspoon sugar

Heat the butter, oil and soy sauce in a large non-stick pan. When hot and bubbling add the fish giving the pan a good shake after a couple of minutes. Be careful not to break the fish when turning and moving about. Add the sesame seeds, seven spice and sugar and keep moving about the pan until cooked, slightly crispy and a lovely brown colour.

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My other dish was an immediate kid favourite. Monkfish tail (another sustainable option), dipped in Japanese seven spice seasoned flour, beaten egg and panko  breadcrumbs, then deep-fried in sunflower oil until golden and crispy. What could be simpler?

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Smoke me a kipper!…..(and some cheese, butter, salt, and even WATER…) plus a recipe for smoky Udon noodle soup

Smoking has slowly taken over from traditional barbecuing is now something of a trend. This is back to basics barbecuing but brought thoroughly up to date. Forget the charcoal briquettes; were talking oak, maple, or cedar chippings, hickory, tea, rice or anything really that will produce an interesting taste and aroma. Things have clearly moved on from a good old-fashioned camp fire although that too has seen a recent resurgence; probably dictated by our modern desire to get back to basics ( its no surprise that foraging and wild cooking are very popular now..food for free that evokes childhood memories of camping in the woods is always good).

It seems that nothing is immune from the smoke treatment; and really, I mean nothing.

There are two ways to smoke food; hot and cold. Hot is by far the quickest and simplest. Cold smoking is a complicated process and generally requires time and proper equipment. I say this but my other half attempted to build a cold smoker out of an old metal ballot box once. It kind of worked, but the fish ended up a little too smoky. I guess it just takes a bit of practise and experimentation and if you don’t mind some wastage (in my other half’s case he’d been out fishing and caught 70 mackerel…this is before they were OFF the sustainable list you understand…and they wouldn’t all fit in the freezer, so he had a go at smoking them).

I’ve hot smoked a fair bit using a small Cameron’s stove top smoker, mostly chicken, wild salmon, mackerel, trout, a variety of vegetables, garlic and mussels. They are also incredibly easy to rig up using a wok with a rack in it. Basically you line a wok with foil, put in your smoking ingredients (chippings, tea or other flavourings), then use a wire rack or tray that fits neatly inside the wok but doesn’t touch the base. Cover with a tight lid or foil to cover the top. Fish usually takes about 20 mins to cook through, chicken longer. Basically its an experiment.

Anyway, these days smoking has moved way beyond bacon, mackerel and haddock (although these are good). I’ve also tried smoked salt, cheese, butter, paprika, mushrooms and duck. Now I hear smoked beer and smoked vodka are on the market, while cookery programme contestants are coming up with smoked yogurt and chocolate! What next I hear you say?….well what next is SMOKED WATER.

The product, hailed as THE culinary sensation of the year since Heston jumped on the smoked water bandwagon, but I’ve been aware of it since its launched last year at the Abergavenny food festival. This unlikely product, made by none other than our very own Halen Mon salt who are just a few miles up the road from me, has taken off and orders are pouring in, but its taken me this long to get round to trying it..

This week I nipped over to visit them and picked up a few sachets while I was there.  I was a wee bit nervous and sceptical at first. Some smoked products are quite overpowering and at first sniff the smoky aroma seemed quite intense. The instructions on the packet suggest that it is best used in stocks, for marinading, in risotto and Heston uses it to give seafood and potatoes a smoky taste, but it doesn’t suggest the amount to use so I proceeded cautiously. I first tried it out by adding it to a pan of hot water to blanch asparagus. I only used a third of a sachet, just to see how intense the flavour would be, but the outcome was pleasing. The very mild smoky hint  didn’t overwhelm the flavour of the young fresh asparagus and turned out just right.

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I got a bit braver so I decided to try it in a traditional udon noodle dish, using Schichimi Togarashi ( or Japanese seven spice), lemongrass, ginger, garlic, fish sauce, chilli and coriander. Again I used about a third of a sachet to see if it tasted stronger in a soup base. It did, but still not overpowering. The combination of spice, smoke and fish was delicious and proclaimed a winner…although not by the teen who said it was too fishy.

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Udon noodles with a smoky spicy broth (enough for 3 to 4):

1 stick lemon grass finely chopped

2 cloves garlic finely chopped

a thumb of ginger peeled and grated

half to one teaspoon schichimi spice

a quarter of a sachet of Halen Mon smoked water

1 dessertspoonful of vegetable oil

a quarter of a teaspoon shrimp paste (optional…it has a very intensely fishy taste and aroma)

1 teaspoon fish sauce (the pale coloured Blue Dragon brand is best)

1 litre and a half of good vegetable stock

2 to 3 small packs of Udon noodles

1 medium or 2 small pak choy finely shredded

2 handfuls of bean sprouts

half a small tin of bamboo shoots (optional)

half a small leek finely shredded

4 medium spring onions finely chopped

1 red chilli finely chopped

a good handful of chopped coriander

a squeeze of lime juice to finish

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Heat the oil in a wok and add the ginger, garlic, lemongrass and stir fry for no more than 30 seconds. Add the schichimi spice, smoked water and stock and bring slowly to the boil. Reduce the heat and leave to simmer.

Dd the noodles to the broth and cook according the instructions on the packet (probably 3 to 4 minutes if they are fresh noodles).

In a bowl put a smile pile of bean sprouts, pak choy, leek and bamboo shoots (as in he picture below)

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Once cooked and piping hot, pile the noodles on top of the vegetables and then pour over the stock. Finish with a good sprinkle of spring onion, chilli and coriander and serve with some crispy sesame fish (recipe to follow) although it works just as well with some cooked chicken, or as a healthy fresh tasting bowl of noodles.

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