Easy ratatouille

Along with my tasty chicken rice, this easy ratatouille is my go-to meal when I’m stocking the freezer with quick weekday meals for the kids.

Now that I’m working over in Wells four days a week, ratatouille appears regularly on my meal plans. It’s particularly good for those days when I’m not back home til late and my husband has little time to get the girls back from school and fed before taking them off out again to their various clubs and activities.

My girls have been eating ratatouille since they were very little, when I’d mash it up for them a bit. They still love it today, served either on its own with a hunk of bread to mop up the juices, with rice, pasta or a baked potato and sprinkled with cheese, or as a veggie accompaniment to sausages or chops.

This is one of those recipes you can play around with. If you’ve got herbs to hand, throw in some of those. If you don’t like cumin, leave that out. The quantities of aubergine, courgette and pepper vary each time I make it, but this should give you the general idea.

Easy ratatouille

Makes 8-10 servings

2tbsp olive oil
½tsp cumin seeds
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 red bell pepper, deseeded and chopped
1 yellow bell pepper, deseeded and chopped
3 courgettes, chopped
2 aubergines, chopped
1 bay leaf
2 400g tins of chopped tomatoes
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 200ºC / gas mark 6.

Heat the oil in a large ovenproof casserole dish and fry the cumin seeds for a minute or so.

Add the onions and fry gently until golden, then add the garlic and fry for another minute before throwing in the red and yellow peppers.

Saute the peppers until they have slightly softened and then add the courgettes. Continue to saute for a couple of minutes and then add the aubergine. You may need to add a little more oil to the pan at this stage. Keep stirring the vegetables until they’ve started to colour, and then add the bay leaf, tomatoes and season to taste.

Put the lid on your pan and pop in the oven for 20-30 minutes. If it’s a little too liquid for your liking, remove the lid and cook for another 5 to 10 minutes. Leave to cool before dividing into freezer bags.

Destination Rio de Janeiro for Feijoada – Traditional Brazilian Stew

The fourth stop in my virtual Around the World in Six Suppers culinary tour finds us in Rio de Janeiro, the party capital of Brazil.

Back in my early 20s, when I was working in a PR agency in Bristol, I went on the jammiest press trip ever. I took some local business journalists all the way to Brazil for almost a week, just to see a fleet of new British Airways aircraft on the production line in Sao Jose dos Campos. We only needed to spend half a day in the factory, but due to flight schedules we had to stay for five days. A real shame that.

After our stint at the factory, our host Embraer put us up at fantastic hotels, firstly in Sao Paulo and then Rio de Janeiro, to make sure we got a really good impression of Brazil. It was incredible. We were wined and dined like royalty. I got to see football in Sao Paulo, sunbathe on Copacabana and Ipanema, hang glide close to Corcovado, take a cable car up Sugar Loaf Mountain (imagining I was in a Bond film), dance to Bossa Nova beats in the clubs and drink way too many caipirinhas. I’ve been on many a press trip since but none has ever come close.

And so, to take me back to those days of luxury in Rio and Sao Paulo, I’ve ironically cooked up what actually started out something of a peasant meal, and is now seen by many as Brazil’s national dish. It’s similar to a French cassoulet and is thought to originate from the slaves in Brazil who would cook up big pots of stew from black beans and the parts of the pig the landowners discarded.

It isn’t the prettiest dish in the world, stews rarely are, but it tastes so good. It’s rich and earthy, smoky and very, very satisfying.

Feijoada – Traditional Brazilian Stew

Serves 6

500g dried black beans
2tbsp olive oil
2 onions, peeled and finely chopped
1 red pepper, deseeded and chopped
6 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
130g smoked sausage – I used kabanos
600g pork ribs, cut into chunks
200g smoked gammon, cut into chunks
5 bay leaves
salt and pepper

Cover the black beans completely in cold water and soak overnight.

Preheat the oven to 150C/Gas 2.

In a large casserole, heat the olive oil and sweat the onions and red pepper until soft. Add the garlic and fry for a minute or so before adding the drained black beans, smoked sausage, pork ribs, gammon, bay leaves, salt and pepper. Stir briefly before covering with cold water and bringing to a gentle simmer.

Cover the casserole with a lid and place in the oven to cook slowly for around two hours, until the meat falls off the bone.

Serve with boiled white rice and sliced spring greens fried with a little chopped onion and garlic. It’s also traditional to serve with slices of orange, but I completely forgot this bit – I can’t say I missed them.

Care to Cook: The Winner is Announced!

When I put out a call a month or so ago for people to send in their favourite family recipes for the Care to Cook recipe challenge I had absolutely no idea what kind of response to expect. Care to Cook is a challenge I set up with a fostering and adoption charity I work with called TACT in order to promote their cookbook, which they’re selling to support adopted children and their families.

But I had nothing to worry about. You lot rose to the challenge splendidly, supplying a fantastic assortment of family favourites, both savoury and sweet. The task set was to suggest a dish you would cook to welcome someone into your family home. For many children in care, family meals are simply something they are not used to. Each and every dish submitted into the challenge is one I know would make a vulnerable child or young person feel special, valued and welcomed.

Before I announce the winner, here are each of those delicious entries in turn. Warning – this list is guaranteed to make you hungry!

First in was this tasty little number from Under The Blue Gum Tree, which looks far superior to its McDonald’s namesake: Homemade Fillet O’ Fish and “Chips”.  The fillet is served in lovingly prepared carrot and cumin bread rolls, with potato skins covered in paprika and cayenne pepper, and some salsa and soured cream on the side. Now, who could resist that?

Homemade Fillet O’ Fish and “Chips” from Under The Blue Gum Tree

Next we have French Madeleines from Crêpes Suzettes. These pretty little cakes look so tempting and perfect for goûter, the snack French kids have at around 4pm. I think my children must be a bit French as they are always starving when they come home from school too!

French Madeleines from Crepes Suzette

For Reluctant Housedad, what to cook for this challenge was a bit of a no-brainer. It had to be his Peanut Butter and Salted Caramel Chocolate Cheesecake. Doesn’t it look incredible? I love puddings that combine sweet and salty and absolutely anything that contains peanut butter, so this is going straight to the top of my must-bake list.

Peanut Butter and Salted Caramel Chocolate Cheesecake from Reluctant Housedad

My fabulous mother Cheryl suggested this next dish Hokkien Mee, which she remembers eating as a girl growing up on the Malaysian island of Penang. It’s a hot and spicy noodle dish, featuring both meat and seafood, common in many South East Asian dishes. It’s a little different to the Singapore version but, as my Mum would tell you, much more delicious!

Penang Hokkien Mee from Cheryl Leembruggen (photo via vkeon.com)

Karen from Lavender & Lovage offers up these ‘frugal but comforting’ Stuffed Tomatoes with Herbs and Oats, which I think look incredibly tasty and very satisfying. It’s a real family-favourite in Karen’s house; her daughter loved eating this when she was little, and still does now she is all grown up!

Stuffed Tomatoes with Herbs and Oats from Lavender & Lovage

My little sister Elly surprised me with her cooking skills with this next entry, her Nonya Chicken Curry from Malaysia. I just assumed she would submit a recipe for something sweet and sticky – she’s a great baker you see. But no, this is her curry dish that got a big thumbs up from her boyfriend’s dad. He’s from Malaysia himself and apparently not an easy man to impress!

Nonya Chicken Curry from Elly Rowe

Pasta and Pesto Sauce is our next entry which comes from A Trifle Rushed. Pesto is always a favourite in our house but I must admit it’s normally a meal-in-a-hurry using dried pasta and jarred sauce. Here Jude and her daughter lovingly make fresh pasta by hand and blend their own pesto in a pestle and mortar. I bet it tastes incredible; it certainly looks wonderful.

Pasta and Pesto Sauce from A Trifle Rushed

Louisa at Chez Foti now lives in the French Pyrenees and likes to cook classic French dishes whenever friends and family come to visit. This Boeuf en Daube is a particular favourite and I can see why; it looks so sumptuously satisfying! It’s one of those meals you can prepare in advance and leave to slow cook in the oven, so that your visitors arrive to the most glorious aromas emanating from the kitchen. Yum!

Boeuf en Daube from Chez Foti

When I received this next entry from Lavender & Lovage for Yorkshire Season Pudding with Herbs I had to try it straight away. We had it for brunch one Sunday morning, and it was perfect with our bacon, eggs and beans. I like the fact this is a traditional family recipe, and one that Karen’s grandmother used to make. I think it might just become a tradition for our family too.

Yorkshire Season Pudding with Herbs from Lavender & Lovage

Spinach and Bacon Macaroni Cheese from Sian at Fishfingers for Tea is next up. Macaroni cheese is the ultimate in satisfying comfort food and I do love this version, beefed up with tasty bacon and spinach and finished with slices of tomato and crunchy cheesy breadcrumbs on top. Another great dish for preparing in advance and popping in the oven just before your visitors arrive.

Spinach and Bacon Macaroni Cheese from Fishfingers for Tea

My Nana Barbara sent in two dishes for her entry: Courgette Bake followed by Vanilla Cream Terrine. She says the courgette bake works well both as a starter and as main course served with large hunks of crusty bread. My Nana is fantastic in the kitchen and as a kid I would love staying with her and Grandad as it always meant getting to eat lots of lovely cakes and pies.

Barbara’s Courgette Bake – perfect for anyone with a glut of courgettes on their hands

Chicken Basquaise is the delicious entry from Helene at French Foodie Baby. She warns that it might differ from traditional recipes but that’s what she likes so much about her mother’s cooking; she cooks from the gut. I love the way Helene relives her food memories through her blog and brings them into the present day as she cooks for her little boy Pablo.

Chicken Basquaise from French Foodie Baby

This Strawberries and Cream Birthday Cake comes from my step-mum Sue and is the cake she bakes every June to celebrate my twin sisters’ birthday. I’ve always been very jealous of them having a summer birthday when strawberries are in season! Now wouldn’t you like this for your birthday cake each year?

Strawberries and Cream Birthday Cake from Sue Hamer

The final entry is one of mine: Hainanese Chicken Rice. It’s a dish I loved to eat when I was a little girl on trips to Penang with my mum and little sister. I had no idea how to make it so I turned to members of my Chinese-Malaysian family for a helping hand, and my Aunty Lorene and Cousin Sisi did the honours by providing this recipe. How would I ever survive without Facebook?!

Hainanese Chicken Rice from Bangers & Mash

There you have it – a fine collection of family recipes if ever I saw one! But there can only be one winner in the Care to Cook challenge, and the unenviable task of selecting a winner was given to 15-year-old Josh, who lives with one of TACT’s foster carers in the South West of England.

Josh says it was a very difficult decision to make and he sat deliberating – and salivating! – over the list for quite some time and really struggled to choose just one winner. He really liked the look of both the Penang Hokkien Mee and the Strawberries and Cream Birthday Cake, but in the end it was the Peanut Butter and Salted Caramel Chocolate Cheesecake from the Reluctant Housedad that won his vote.

So a huge congratulations to Keith at the Reluctant Housedad for your fabulous entry, which Josh found he simply couldn’t resist! As winner of the Care to Cook family recipe challenge he will receive a copy of TACT’s Care to Cook recipe book, signed by the charity’s celebrity patron Lorraine Pascale.

Choosing one winner wasn’t easy but in the end our judge Josh couldn’t resist this Peanut Butter and Salted Caramel Chocolate Cheesecake from the Reluctant Housedad

And thank you to everyone who has taken the time to share their favourite family recipes, helping to raise awareness of this very worthwhile charity, which is working so hard to improve the lives of children and young people across the UK who haven’t had the best starts in life. More information of the work of TACT is available on their website.

Braised pig cheeks with celeriac mash

If you’ve never eaten pig cheeks, you really should give them a try. They are cheap and tasty and perfect for a family meal.

Please don’t be squeamish about this cut. I’m not asking you to cook tongue after all! When pig cheeks are slow cooked as in this dish, they have the most divinely succulent and unctuous texture and taste like they should cost a fortune. They’re actually cheap as chips. My butcher sold me six cheeks for just £4.

Pigs cheeks might not be that easy to find though. You probably won’t come across them in the supermarket and I don’t know of any butchers around us that would have them on display. I always order them in advance from our local butcher in Frome.

The first time he got them in for me, I was given almost the whole side of the pig’s head complete with ear (times six), and had the rather daunting task of removing the little cheek cushions from within these mounds of skin and sinew. Needless to say I learned from this experience and now always ask the butcher to remove the meaty morsels for me.

The pig cheeks, prepared by my lovely butcher

This dish sees the pig cheeks slowly cooked for four hours in vegetables, stock and wine and is the ideal comfort food for a chilly February evening. The addition of caraway gives the sauce a beautifully rich and intense flavour. The cheeks are served simply with a celeriac and potato mash. I’ve based my recipe on one by Anton Edelmann.

My whole family loves it – yes even my daughters who are six and three. Perhaps they are too young for the thought of eating cheek to be off-putting. Next I have to persuade my mother to try it when she comes to visit at the end of the month.

Braised pig cheeks with celeriac mash

Serves 4

6 pig cheeks, trimmed of fat
Salt and pepper
Flour for dusting
3 tbsp olive oil
2 onions, peeled and chopped
1 leek, washed and cut into 1cm chunks
2 carrots, peeled and cut into 1cm chunks
2 celery sticks, cut into 1cm chunks
2 garlic cloves, sliced
100g tomato puree
½ bottle dry red wine
300ml beef stock, hot
½ tsp black peppercorns
2 tsp caraway seeds
1 bay leaf

For the celeriac mash

Half a celeriac, peeled and chopped
4 large potatoes, peeled and chopped
100ml milk
50g butter

Preheat the oven to 140°C/gas 1.

Season the pig cheeks and dust with the flour. Heat 2 tbsp oil in a large ovenproof pan and fry the cheeks until golden brown. Remove from the pan and keep warm on a plate.

Add a little more oil to the pan and add the onions, leeks, celery, carrots and garlic and fry gently until just beginning to brown. Pour in a little of the red wine and the tomato puree. Cook gently to reduce the wine and caramelise the puree. Gradually add the rest of the wine, reducing down each time until you have a lovely rich dark sauce.

Return the cheeks to the pan and pour over enough stock to cover. Add the peppercorns, caraway seeds and bay leaf and bring to a gentle simmer.

Cover with a lid and cook in the oven for four hours. Stir occasionally and add more stock if it begins to dry out.

Towards the end of the cooking time, boil the potatoes and celeriac in a pan of salted water for around 10 minutes. Add the butter, milk and a little seasoning, and mash well.

When cooked, take out the cheeks and keep warm. Pass the sauce through a fine sieve into a clean pan. Bring the sauce to the boil and reduce until it is good and thick. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Serve the cheeks on the mash and generously spoon over the sauce. Enjoy!

Beef stew and parsley dumplings

I could never live permanently in a hot country. OK, so I have been known to moan about the cold weather from time to time. But if it were always hot, we’d never be able to eat warming winter grub like sticky sponge puddings, hearty meat pies or rich, slow-cooked casseroles. We need the seasons in order to eat well I reckon.

Stew and dumplings, a proper winter warmer

This beef stew with rib-sticking parsley dumplings is one of my favourite winter warmers. It’s a proper old-fashioned kind of meal, like your gran would make.

I like to include sweet potatoes in the stew to give it a lovely sweet, creamy flavour, but the real beauty of stews and casseroles is that you can use whatever root vegetables you happen to have in. It’s cooked nice and slowly so the meat and the vegetables are gorgeously tender. If your children aren’t big fans of veggies, this is a great recipe for sneaking a few past them.

Beef stew and parsley dumplings

Serves 4

1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped
500g stewing steak, diced
2 carrots, sliced
1 parsnip, diced
1 sweet potato, diced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tbsp corn flour
25o ml hot beef stock
2 400g tins chopped tomatoes
small bunch rosemary, finely chopped
salt and pepper to taste

For the dumplings

110g self-raising flour
salt and pepper
1 tbsp fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped
50g shredded suet

Preheat the oven to 150°C/Gas Mark 2.

In a large casserole heat the oil and fry the onion until golden. Add the beef quickly and fry until browned.

Next add the root vegetables and garlic and cook together for another few minutes. Sprinkle over the corn flour and mix in to cover the meat and vegetables.

Pour in the beef stock, tomatoes and add the rosemary and a little salt and pepper to taste – depending on how well seasoned your stock is. Bring to a gentle simmer, then cover and put in the oven for around four hours.

When the stew is almost finished cooking, make up the dumplings. Mix the flour, a pinch of salt and pepper and parsley in a bowl. Add the suet and quickly combine but don’t rub in. Mix in cold water, a little at a time, until you can pull the ingredients together to make a stiff dough that leaves the bowl cleanly. Shape into eight dumplings.

When the stew is ready, that is when the meat is tender and falls apart easily, place the dumplings carefully on top of the stew and spoon over some of the liquid. Cover again and put back in the oven, increasing the temperature to 220°C/Gas Mark 7, for about 20 minutes until the dumplings are cooked through.

Mutton with prunes

My adventures cooking mutton continued this week as I made a lovely dish the Italians call spezzatino con prugne. Or at least that is what it’s called in The Silver Spoon where I discovered the recipe.

Regular readers of this blog will know I’ve been experimenting with mutton over the last few weeks and I’ve discovered it really is a splendid meat. I am now a firm champion of the Mutton Renaissance campaign. So far I’ve cooked Irish stew and mutton curry, both of which were quite delicious.

When I came across the mutton with prunes recipe it appealed to me straightaway. Mutton has a deep rich flavour that I felt would work with something sticky and fruity like prunes.

However while I was cooking it, I have to admit I did have second thoughts. The brown mess in the pan wasn’t looking as attractive as the photo in the book. But my doubts were unjustified. It might not be the prettiest dish in the world, but it sure is good to eat.

It’s another very simple recipe, calling for only a few ingredients. There’s something quite old fashioned about it; I can easily imagine my mother-in-law making it for a lunch gathering.

And as with all these mutton recipes, the meat could be replaced with lamb.

Mutton with Prunes

Serves 4

200g prunes, stoned
300ml dry white wine
600g diced mutton (remove as much fat as you can)
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 garlic clove
50g butter
2 tbsp passata, maybe a little more
salt and pepper

Place the prunes in a bowl, cover with the wine and set to one side.

Put the mutton in a pan, add cold water to cover and bring to simmering point. Add the onion and garlic, cover and simmer over a medium heat (or in a warm oven) for about one hour. Season and then drain well, reserving the cooking liquid.

Melt the butter in another pan, add the passata and mutton, and cook over a high heat for a couple of minutes. Lower the heat, drain the prunes and add them to the pan.

Simmer for around 20 minutes, adding more cooking liquid if the meat starts drying out. I ended up adding most of the liquid, plus a little more passata.

Serve with rice or mashed potatoes and a green salad.

Irish stew

Knock knock!
Who’s there?
Irish stew.
Irish stew who?
Irish stew in the name of the law!

Apologies. I had an overwhelming desire to share one of my favourite childhood jokes from the classic Ha Ha Bonk Book. Whenever Irish stew is mentioned, I hear the joke in my head. Right, so now I’ve got that out of my system, on with the food…

I was recently inspired to experiment with mutton after reading a couple of newspaper articles. So after stocking up the freezer with various cuts, my first foray into cooking this delicious but much maligned meat saw me creating a wonderfully aromatic mutton curry.

Next I wanted to try something a little more traditional. And what could be a more traditional use for mutton than Ireland’s national dish, Irish Stew?

I found the recipe below in the rather wonderful The Silver Spoon cook book. I know, I know. Slightly strange to turn to the Italians for an Irish dish, but I love the fact you can look up any ingredient in The Silver Spoon and you’ll find what to do with it.

What immediately struck me was just how simple this recipe is. Apparently purists use only mutton, potatoes, onions and water, and perhaps a few herbs. It was hard to resist the temptation to add just a little something, even if it were just a couple of carrots. But resist I did, and good job too as it really doesn’t need anything else.

Despite the mutton having quite a strong flavour (it’s almost gamey), the whole family really liked this dish and so I will be cooking it again. Surprisingly, considering he is a big fan of curries, my husband prefered the Irish stew to the mutton curry.

If you can’t get hold of mutton, try using lamb instead.

Irish Stew

Serves 4

800g mutton, cut into cubes
800g potatoes, thinly sliced
3 onions, thinly sliced
1 tbsp chopped thyme
2 tbsp chopped flat leaf parsley
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper

In a large casserole arrange alternate layers of mutton, potatoes and onions, seasoning each layer with salt, pepper and herbs as you go. Add the bay leaf and pour in just enough water to cover.

Bring to the boil over a high heat. Cover, lower the heat and simmer for 1¼ hours until tender. (Or, like me, leave in the bottom oven of the Aga for an afternoon.)

And that’s it. Couldn’t be easier. Enjoy with a big hunk of buttered bread.