Italian baked chicken with grapes followed by semifreddo with honey, figs and walnuts

Italian feast

Boasting honey, figs, grapes, nuts and sweet wine, this Italian feast would surely have won the approval of Bacchus himself. When I think about good food, when I dream about delicious dishes bringing together the simplest ingredients to create something truly magical, when I picture myself being served an incredible meal in an idyllic setting, I tend to find myself transported to Italy.

It’s been a few years since I’ve travelled in Italy and I long to return. My parents are in Tuscany right now and as you can imagine I am extremely jealous. My step-mum Sue has been sending me droolsome updates on Whatsapp, replete with photos, documenting their food adventures. There have been accounts of wonderful salads with chicken, ravioli in a walnut cream sauce,  the thinnest pizzas with just one or two toppings, grilled sea bass with roast courgettes, fritto misto in the lightest of batters, fagiolini with fine green beans and bacon in tomatoes and garlic. Oh and lots of gelati with figs and cherries… The list goes on. It’s been pure torture.

So when Expedia challenged me to come up with an Italian meal for their #expediaworldonaplate challenge, I knew I would be taking my inspiration from Tuscany. Continue reading

Habas con jamon (broad beans with Serrano ham and mint)

habas con jamon

One of the things I love most about summer holidays abroad is the opportunity to try out lots of local dishes. Sadly we’re not going overseas this year. But that’s OK. Instead we’re heading up to Durham and Northumberland next week and while the North East might not be renowned for its cuisine – although saying that, I am extremely fond of that Geordie favourite, stottie cake with ham and peasepudding – I know we’re going to have huge amounts of fun exploring all the castles, beaches and Roman remains along Hadrian’s Wall.

So while we might not enjoy guaranteed sunshine on this year’s summer getaway (my fingers are firmly crossed nevertheless), we have been enjoying a taste of the continent right here at home. Think of Spain and I think of tapas, and this habas con jamon has to be one of the tastiest tapa on the menu. Continue reading

Tray-baked pork chops with rosemary and pears

pork pear rosemary

I’ve been making this dish for years. It’s a perfect meal for Saturday lunch when you want to get on with the weekend and not spend the day in the kitchen.

I regularly make this on Saturdays once the girls’ ballet lessons are out of the way (why, oh why did I go for dance lessons on a Saturday morning?) and it’s simply a case of throwing everything in a roasting tray, tossing in olive oil and bunging in the oven. Easy as. It doesn’t really warrant a recipe, but I thought I’d write it down anyway. It is actually based loosely on an early Jamie Oliver recipe, from his Naked Chef days, but even easier – if that’s possible.

So, simple and tasty and the kind of food I have to stop my children picking up and eating with their fingers, until I give in and join them.

pork pear rosemary

Tray-baked pork chops with rosemary and pears

Serves 2 adults and 2 children

3 or 4 pork chops – I used to share one between my two kids, but now they’re getting bigger they demand one each
several sprigs of fresh rosemary
6 large carrots, scrubbed and chopped into large chunks or quartered lengthways
3 pears, cored and quartered
4 large potatoes, scrubbed and quartered
6 garlic cloves
salt and pepper
2 tbsp olive oil

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

Arrange the pork chops, rosemary sprigs, carrots, pears, potatoes and garlic in a large roasting tray.

Season well with salt and pepper. Drizzle with olive oil and toss to make sure all the ingredients are lightly covered.

Roast in the oven for 45 minutes to an hour, until everything is nicely browned and turning the chops and vegetables once or twice during the cooking time. The pears will be squishy and the garlic oozy, while the pork chops will be sticky and the carrots will have that lovely caramelised thing going on. The kitchen will smell incredible.

Serve with a big dollop of mayonnaise, homemade preferably, or the best shop-bought you can afford.

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As rosemary is used in abundance in this dish, I’m entering it into Cooking with Herbs hosted by Karen at Lavender & Lovage where the themed herb this month is rosemary.

Roast garlic and butter bean soup

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Working as I do in an office with others, I wonder sometimes whether I should eat as much garlic as I do. Don’t get me wrong. Nobody’s actually said, or hinted at, anything to do with garlicky aromas. Not unless their hints have been far too subtle for me to pick up.

But, considering the amount of garlic I cook with and eat, some scent of last night’s dinner must surely remain the next morning? A friend told me a while back not to worry about it. Her theory was that if you eat garlic all the time, your body is accustomed to it and so then you won’t smell of it. If you don’t eat it all that often though, on the occasions when you do, the scent tends to linger.

I have no idea if that theory is true or not but I was happy to go with it until a friend told me this week of her personal concerns about eating garlic. The other kids at school wouldn’t sit next to her, you see, because she smelled of garlic, and yet her mum apparently cooked with garlic all the time.

Perhaps it was simply because garlic was so much more unusual back then? Everyone cooks with garlic today, don’t they? And so here we all are, happily munching on garlic and smelling of garlic together, while the exceptions among us are much too polite to mention the stench.

Even if someone did say something though, I’m not sure I could ever give up my garlic habit. That would mean no more roasted garlic, a staple whenever we make a roast dinner, and also the star of this fantastically simple soup.

Made in a matter of minutes and with just a handful of ingredients, the garlic shines through as the star of the show and, because it is roasted, the garlic is much less pungent and instead takes on a much milder and beautifully sweet and earthy flavour.

garlic butterbean soup

Roast garlic and butter bean soup

Serves 6

1 head of garlic
olive oil
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
2 x 400g tins of butter beans, drained
1 litre vegetable stock
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to gas mark 6 / 200° Celsius.

Place the garlic head on a large piece of tin foil and drizzle with a little olive oil. Wrap loosely and place on a tray in the oven. Roast for 30 to 40 minutes until the garlic cloves are squishy. Allow to cool a little.

In a large saucepan, heat a little more olive oil over a gentle heat and fry the onion until soft and translucent.

Simply add the butter beans and stock. Squeeze the gorgeously gooey garlic from the skins into the pan and puree it all into a soup with a hand blender or in a processor. Taste and season with salt and pepper if required.

That’s all there is to it. Serve with fresh bread and cheese or cold meats for a super easy lunch or light supper. And maybe take a packet of mints out with you tomorrow.

But if you’re like me, I really wouldn’t worry about it.

This article was first published in the Wells Journal on 13 March 2014.

Baked sea bass with ginger, garlic & chilli and miso rice

sea bass

When you read my blog posts, it’s probably easy to assume I spend most of my life in the kitchen. While it’s true that at the weekend I can generally be found at the stove and do make a bit more of an effort with our meals, most of my family’s food is a pretty speedy, simple affair.

I am a working mum and most days I don’t have time to cook anything too complicated, so I am trying to build up a trusty list of staples I can rustle up in half an hour.

I realise Jamie Oliver can cook up a meal in just 15 minutes but, unless it’s beans on toast or pesto from a jar stirred into pasta (and there is nothing wrong with either of those), I find it practically impossible to cook anything quite that quickly.

Although that’s probably because, unlike Jamie, it’s impossible for me to give the dinner my undivided attention. There’s usually one of the children asking for help with their homework, or the cat demanding to be fed, or my husband wanting to know if I’ve seen his glasses/wallet/keys (delete as appropriate). You get the picture.

sea bass

This is one of those meals I can cook up in about 30 minutes. Baking fish in foil makes for an incredibly quick dinner and, by throwing in heaps of garlic, ginger and seasonings, it’s incredibly tasty too. Sea bass is perfect with these strong Oriental flavours.

What’s more, the foil parcels allow me to cater for different family tastes. My youngest daughter is only five and isn’t keen on chilli, so I wrap her fillet separately and leave out the chilli. My husband can’t actually eat fish, so I wrap a chicken breast instead for him, although I do have to cook it for an extra five minutes.

Cooked in instant miso soup, the rice has a wonderfully savoury, umami flavour and I could happily eat bowlfuls of this rice on its own.

sea bass

Baked sea bass with ginger, garlic & chilli and miso rice

Serves 4

2 tsp sesame oil
4 sea bass fillets
fat, thumb-size piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 red chilli, finely sliced
4 radishes, trimmed and finely sliced
5 spring onions, trimmed and finely sliced
2 tbsp fish sauce
juice of 2 limes
1 tbsp light soy sauce
large handful fresh coriander, roughly chopped (leaves and stalks), plus extra for garnish
miso soup paste
250g Basmati rice

Preheat oven to 220°C / gas mark 7.

Tear off sheets of foil, large enough to encase your fillets. You can bake them altogether in one parcel or individually, depending on whether everyone is happy with all the ingredients – I’m thinking mainly about children and chillies here.

Drizzle a little sesame oil onto the foil before placing the fish on it, skin side down.

Pull up the sides of the foil around the fish and toss in the ginger, garlic, chilli, radish and spring onion. Pour in the fish sauce, lime juice, soy sauce and finally sprinkle with the fresh coriander.

Close up the foil parcel tightly and place on a baking tray. Bake in the oven for 20 minutes.

Cook your rice in your usual way, but instead of using plain water, make up a cup of miso soup according to the packet instructions, and cook the rice in this.

Serve the fish on the rice and don’t forget to pour over all that lovely sauce left behind in the foil. Garnish with more chopped coriander.

sea bass in foil

badge CollageFab Fast Food is the theme for Family Foodies in March. Family Foodies is a challenge I co-host with Louisa at Eat Your Veg and this month it is my turn to host. This baked sea bass is one of my favourites for a speedy supper, but I’m keen to see your ideas so I can have a few more tried-and-tested dishes up my sleeve.

The theme for Four Seasons Food this month, hosted by Louisa at Eat Your Veg and Anneli at Delicieux, is Something Fishy, and so I’m entering my baked sea bass into that challenge too, and as sea bass is in season right now I’ve just got to enter it into Ren Behan‘s Simple and in Season food blog event.

Finally, as this dish features a good amount of fresh ginger I’m also entering it into The Spice Trail, hosted by me, as the spice in question this month just happens to be ginger.

Tagliatelle with lamb’s liver and a sage, chilli and garlic butter

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Could you come up with a meal for at least two people for under £3? That’s the challenge set by the leading food charity The Trussell Trust in partnership with Buyagift with the aim of raising awareness of just how difficult it can be to eat well on a limited budget.

I managed to come up with a dish but it wasn’t easy, and I really wouldn’t want to have to work with this budget every mealtime. But for so many people in this country, it is the reality they face each and every day. While the UK might be the seventh richest country in the world, many people here struggle to put food on the table.

You can help raise awareness of the work of The Trussell Trust and the urgent need for us as a nation to tackle food poverty by taking part in the challenge and coming up with your own recipe. You can also visit the charity’s website for more ways to support their work, from donating to your local foodbank to raising money for them as you do your online shopping.

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For my dish I decided to use liver as it is relatively inexpensive. Obviously a vegetarian pasta dish would have been cheaper still, but I wanted to see if I could manage a meat dish on this tight budget. I managed to buy 370g of lamb’s liver from my local butcher for just £1.48 and I only used half of it. A little liver goes a long way.

OK, so not everyone likes liver but I’m sure that’s because it’s generally been overcooked when they have tried it. In this dish it is sliced very thinly and fried for only a few minutes, so it is beautifully moist and tender. My husband doesn’t normally eat liver but he enjoyed this. Plus it was cooked in a very generous amount of butter, with lots of chilli, garlic and sage, so absolutely packed full of flavour. It actually tastes quite luxurious despite the cheap ingredients.

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Tagliatelle with lamb’s liver and a sage, chilli and garlic butter

Total spend: £2.21½

250g dried tagliatelle (47½p)
1 egg (24p)
170g lamb’s liver, thinly sliced (74p)
2tbsp olive oil (13p)
75g butter (36p)
1 red chilli, finely sliced (22p)
2 cloves garlic, crushed (5p)
6 sage leaves, finely chopped (free from the garden)
salt and pepper to taste

Cook the tagliatelle in salted, boiling water according to the packet instructions.

Beat the egg in a shallow dish, add the liver and coat well, and leave for a few minutes.

Heat the oil and butter in a frying pan over a low heat. When the butter has melted, add the chilli, garlic and sage and fry for a couple of minutes.

Drain the liver and add to the frying pan. Increase the heat to medium and fry for three to four minutes, turning frequently, until cooked through. Season to taste and remove from the heat.

Drain the pasta and add to the frying pan. Toss well to coat the pasta in the butter and distribute the pieces of liver. Serve immediately.

As well as entering this dish into The £3 Challenge, I’m also sharing it with The Spice Trail (where the theme this month is chilli), Credit Crunch Munch (hosted by Dinner with CrayonsFab Food for All and Fuss Free Flavours), Cooking with Herbs (hosted by Lavender & Lovage) as it features fresh sage, and Pasta Please (hosted by The Spicy Pear and Tinned Tomatoes) as it contains garlic.

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Virgin Bloody Mary soup – a recipe for Live Below the Line

virgin bloody mary soup

When Save the Children first invited me to contribute some frugal recipes for the Live Below the Line challenge, I knew immediately I had to get involved. Trying to eat good food on a budget is what I’m all about after all. But as soon as I started pulling together possible recipe ideas, it dawned on me this was going to be really rather difficult.

People taking part in Live Below the Line are getting sponsored to live below the poverty line on a measly £1 a day for five days from Monday 29 April to Friday 3 May. That’s just £1 for all their food and drink. No foraging or gifts allowed. £1 wouldn’t buy you a cup of coffee in your average cafe. It’s harsh, but it’s also the reality 1.4 billion people around the world wake up to each and every day.

Everyone taking part in Live Below the Line for Save the Children will be doing their bit to raise awareness of the plight of people facing extreme food poverty, while raising vital funds to help change the lives of vulnerable children everywhere.

Save the Children has challenged food bloggers to devise dishes that cost less than 40p to make from scratch. Every single ingredient has to be costed; every grind of salt and every splash of oil.

As I was thinking up ideas, it quickly became painfully clear just how difficult it is to eat well on such a low budget. Fresh vegetables and meat are practically out of reach, making tinned and frozen foods so much more attractive. While sliced, white bread might offer virtually no nutritional value, it does has the advantage of being cheap, and fills you up for a short time at least.

If you’re going to try to eat anything vaguely tasty or interesting while on the Live Below the Line challenge, as opposed to surviving solely on beans on toast, it pays to cook in bulk to get your money’s worth. Team up with others as it’s pretty much impossible to cook cheaply for one. And plan your meals. For instance, to get the cheapest onions you need to buy a big bag of them. So then you need to plan a whole list of meals to make sure you get your money’s worth. That’s why the three dishes I’ve come up with for Live Below the Line all revolve around onions, oil, garlic and spices to make sure I made the most of them.

Coming in at just under 34p a serving, the first of my dishes is a spicy tomato and red pepper soup, flavoured with celery, Worcester sauce and hot pepper sauce rather like a Bloody Mary, but alas without the Vodka. You really couldn’t sneak that in on this budget! I did intend to use Tabasco but found I couldn’t afford that either, so had to find a cheaper alternative. The soup is served with crispy garlic croutons, which I reckon is a pretty good use of cheap white bread, and helps bulk it out.

virgin bloody mary soup

Virgin Bloody Mary soup with garlic croutons

Serves 4

1 tbsp vegetable oil (15ml)
ASDA sunflower oil £3 for 3 litres = 1.5p

1 onion, chopped (around 100g)
ASDA Smartprice brown onions £1.16 for 2kg = 5.8p

1 celery stick, sliced (around 35g)
ASDA celery sticks £1 for 350g = 10p

1 red pepper, chopped
ASDA red pepper = 40p

1 400g tin chopped tomatoes
ASDA Smartprice chopped tomatoes 400g = 31p

500ml vegetable stock (made from one stock cube)
ASDA Chosen By You vegetable stock cubes 12 for 78p = 6.5p

Dash Worcester sauce (5ml)
ASDA Lea & Perrins £2.16 for 290ml = 3.72p

Dash hot pepper sauce (5ml)
Tesco Frank’s Red Hot Cayenne Pepper Sauce Original 148ml for £1.00 = 3.37p

Salt (2g)
ASDA Table Salt 29p for 750g = 0.07p

Pepper (1g)
ASDA Smartprice Ground Black Pepper 25g for 20p = 0.8p

2 tbsp olive / vegetable oil (30ml)
ASDA olive oil £1.98 for 500ml = 11.88p

4 slices white bread, cubed
ASDA Smartprice medium sliced white bread 50p for 22 slices = 9.09p

3 cloves garlic, crushed
ASDA loose garlic 30p for approx. 8 cloves = 11.25p

Total cost = £1.35. Cost per serving = 34p.

Preheat the oven to 200°C/Gas Mark 6.

Heat the vegetable oil in a large pan and cook the onion, celery and red pepper until soft. Stir in the chopped tomatoes and vegetable stock. Add a dash of Worcester sauce and hot pepper sauce and season with salt and pepper to taste. Leave to simmer gently for 10 to 15 minutes while you get on with the croutons.

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive or vegetable oil in a frying pan and gently fry the garlic until it has just turned golden. Throw in the cubed bread and stir well so all the pieces are coated in oil. Turn the bread out onto a baking tray and cook in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes. When the croutons are looking crispy on the top, use a spatula to turn them over and cook for another 5 to 10 minutes depending on how just how dry and crunchy you like them.

When the soup is cooked, blend in a liquidiser until you achieve a fairly smooth consistency but not completely – it’s good to have a little texture. Serve in bowls and sprinkle a handful of garlic croutons on each. Grub’s up!

virgin bloody mary soup

As this dish is so utterly cheap and cheerful, I’m entering it into April’s Credit Crunch Munch, a wonderful blog challenge celebrating the very best in fantastically frugal food. This month it is co-hosted by Helen from Fuss Free Flavours and Camilla from Fab Food 4 All.

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