Thursday, 28 April 2011

Royal Wedding Shortbread

Hello readers of Dine at Mine! You may notice a different tone to this blog, and that's because it's been written by a guest blogger. I'll call myself "Greedy Gusto", and I'll reveal to you the secrets of perfect Royal Wedding Shortbread.

This recipe is very simple. There are three ingredients: butter, sugar and flour. And there are four steps: mix the butter and the sugar together, then mix in the flour, then chill in the fridge, then bake in the oven. Simple.

So what makes this recipe Royal Wedding shortbread? Well, as you read on and, more importantly, look at the photos, you'll see how this simple recipe has been tailored for the Royal Wedding.

It's a very hands-on recipe too, as shown in the photo below:

Remember to wash your hands...

And there's lots of room to be creative when you cut the shortbread mixture into shapes before putting it in the oven. Start to see the Royal Weddingness come through?

All ready to go in the oven

The usual Dine at Mine blogger said that she couldn't take photos through the oven door. I just wanted to show that this is possible:

Kate's looking pretty hot in there

And here's the final result. Congratulations to William and Catherine!

A tasteful tribute to the happy couple

Royal Wedding Shortbread
(recipe can be adapted to make Queen's Diamond Jubilee Shortbread, London 2012 Olympics Shortbread, or even just standard shortbread)

- 125g salted butter (or unsalted with a pinch of salt)
- 55g caster sugar
- 180g plain flour

Beat together the butter and sugar in a bowl until smooth.

Work in the flour to get a smooth paste, mixing it all together with your hands. You could use an electric mixer, but it just won't taste the same. You have to use your hands.

Roll out the paste until it is about 1cm thick, cut into shapes, and place on a baking tray. Sprinkle over a little sugar.

Place baking tray in the fridge for 20 minutes, turn on the oven to heat up to 190C, and while you wait watch highlights of the Royal Wedding on YouTube.

Bake in the oven for about 15 minutes until golden brown. Remove from oven, put on a cooling rack, and enjoy! The shortbread will last in an airtight container for a day or so.

As stated above, this recipe can be easily adapted. For example, if you are making London 2012 Olympics Shortbread, then shape the shortbread into the London 2012 logo (ha - good luck!) and find some YouTube clips of Pinsent and Redgrave to watch while the shortbread is in the fridge.

That's it from Greedy Gusto. Feel free to post a comment on this site giving me feedback. Am I better than the regular Dine at Mine blogger? When considering your answer, remember the photo through the oven door above - you don't normally get that on Dine at Mine!

Strawberry Cheesecake Cupcakes

Now I know, cupcakes are so over and clichéd and girly and uninteresting, but wait! Firstly, these were made for a Royal Wedding party, hence a bit of girly tweeness is not only permissible, it's practically mandatory. Secondly, these ones are a bit more interesting than your standard vanilla + buttercream (large quantities thereof) = massive sugar rush. That's right, these are the Hummingbird Bakery's strawberry cheesecake flavoured cupcakes and they really are delicious. They're also pleasingly, patriotically red and white on the inside (well, red and brown, but you see what I mean).

Each little vanilla sponge has some chopped fresh strawberry added before baking and even with sub-standard, out of season fruit, this does make the cakes a whole lot more interesting, adding a jammy sweetness and a different texture. The cream cheese icing is the perfect topping, a bit of tang cutting through the sweetness.

BUT I had a total nightmare with these. You see, I went for novelty gold and silver cake cases (for the royal wedding innit) which was mistake number one - when it came to removing them from the tin, the bloody cases had leaked and disintegrated, cementing the cakes to the tin and meaning six - yes, half! - of the cakes never made it out alive. Emergency eating of destroyed cakes ensued. Then, mistake number two, I only had reduced fat cream cheese and tried to use that to make icing.The icing gods laughed in my face and turned it into something with the consistency of milk, totally impossible to use even after fridging. I bodged together a topping with some of the cream cheese carefully, carefully stirred with icing sugar (not stirred too vigorously or it would go runny again) but it was still by no means ideal. 

However, I got them iced and it was decorating time! The tasteful, elegant, appropriate garnish is some crumbled digestive biscuit symbolising the cheesecake crumb base - see, the name makes sense now, doesn't it? However, this is a Royal Wedding! No time for tasteful, elegant or appropriate (and I'm sure Miss Middleton's dress will have those bases covered anyway).

I went for glitter gel icing pens and a wobbly Union Jack. The right decision, no?

Three cheers for the Happy Couple! As the wedding is so early, you can breakfast off these cakes and a glass of bubbly. What? It's a special occasion! 

Strawberry Cheesecake Cupcakes
Adapted from the Hummingbird Bakery cookbook
Makes 12

- 120g plain flour
- 140g caster sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder
- pinch of salt
- 40g unsalted butter
- 120ml milk (they say whole, I only had semi-skimmed)
- 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract
- 1 egg
- 12 strawberries

Preheat the oven to 170, line your fairy cake tin then cut up your strawberries into little bits and share out among the paper cases. 

For the cakes, be warned that the Hummingbird method is weird - they say to blitz the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and butter with a processor or mixer. Obviously they mean a massive Kitchen Aid, but I just used my little Kenwood beaters and they were fine, not to mention £400 cheaper. Once this lot looks like sand, beat in the milk and vanilla, then the egg, then divide among the cases. Cook for 20-25 minutes and good luck getting them out of the tray.

Ice with cream cheese icing and for the love of God, don't use reduced fat cream cheese. Or, if that's not the reason why mine died, don't do whatever I did (I couldn't have overbeaten it, I barely did it for a minute). Either way, cross your fingers, hold your breath and think of the tackiest possible decoration. Then do it! 

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Wedding Cake

Update - see how the cake turned out here and here!

Now this is a biggie. For our wedding next month (next month!) we have decided to make our own cake, for factors including a) preferring home-made cakes to shop-bought, b) having the week off before the wedding so it shouldn't be too horrendous a job, c) absolutely hating fruit cake, marzipan and any of that sugarpaste icing which is rock solid and tastes disgusting, d) refusing to spend £500 on cake. After careful consideration of our menu, our venue (ha! rhyme) and our appetites, we've decided that a classic English summer Victoria Sponge would be perfect. This is where it gets complicated...

I found the ultimate inspiration for how the cake would look here (photo by Simon Fazackerley, found at RockMyWedding:

Doesn't that just look gorgeous? So pretty, so informal, so tempting and yet also very definitely a wedding cake. That is our inspiration and if we achieve anything as pretty, I'll be thrilled. We decided to fill it with raspberry jam and white chocolate buttercream and top with berries and roses like this. 

I emailed the bride from this wedding, a lovely lady called Aisling, asking if there was any chance that I could pick her brains for advice on cake sizes and construction etc. She was very nice and kind and sent back full information - namely that they used a madeira cake (recipe from the internet), the sizes were 6, 9 and 12 inch cakes, and they needed to be stacked using dowelling, cake boards and all sorts of internal scaffolding. This echoed what I'd read during extensive internet trawls, so it looks like this is the way we have to go. Easy?

Well, not exactly. Firstly, the madeira - chosen because it is sturdier and longer-lasting than a normal Victoria Sponge cake and therefore stronger when it comes to stacking. I tried out Nigella's madeira recipe from How To Be A Domestic Goddess but it didn't come out massively well - although, in fairness, I did split the mix across two tins which probably contributed to the dryness (as the edges are the driest bit). Nonetheless, it was tough, dry and just not right.

After more internet searching I found this recipe from an apparently famous cake baker called Lindy Smith (available here) and gave it a whirl in the 9in tin. The quantity of batter was outrageous and my poor little electric beaters were drowning amid the flying dollops of mixture but I eventually wrangled it all into the tin. Now, in an effort to get a level cake (better for decorating and stacking, innit), Lindy recommends firstly scooping out a hold in the middle of the tin of mixture before baking, and secondly wrapping the tin in layers of newspaper. As you can see from the pictures, I  did the former and not the latter and still ended up with a dome. I don't think this is a problem though, slicing it off is easy and means you avoid the crusty top layer anyway.

I made this on a Thursday, left it wrapped in foil until Saturday morning, then cut the top off, sliced it into three horizontally and filled it with raspberry jam and white chocolate buttercream icing (Lindy also recommends doing these separately rather than in a single layer, to avoid slippage). I am so happy to say that the result was brilliant! Moist, tasty, vanilla, sturdy but not too heavy, and delicious with our chosen fillings. 

The following day, the filled cake had dried out a bit but we tried some of the cake which had not been split into layers and it was still in good shape after two weeks! That is a serious cake, I'm impressed. Nonetheless, I reckon that we'll aim to bake on Wednesday or Thursday then split, fill and stack on Saturday morning for eating on Saturday afternoon.

In terms of quantities, both Aisling and the lady we consulted in a cake shop said that  it looks best to have a 3inch size difference between tiers. Apparently, a 6inch sponge cake serves 12 people, 9inch serves 30 people and 12inch serves 58 people. That gives 100 slices, so enough for everyone to have one and a third of people to have another. Given that we're serving other cakes, plus dinner two hours later, hopefully that should be fine even for the greediest of our guests (and by that, I mean me).

Wedding Cake
Adapted from Lindy's Cakes Blog
This is the one I made for a 9inch tin - see other ratios below.

- 15 oz unsalted butter at room temperature
- 15 oz caster sugar
- 15 oz self raising flour
- 7.5 oz plain flour
- 7.5 large eggs, or 8 medium at room temperature(I only had large so I broke the last one into a bowl, weighed it, beat it and measured out half to add. I know, serious stuff.)
- 1/4 teaspoon glycerin for each egg, so 2 teaspoons in total
- 2 teaspoons of vanilla bean paste

Preheat the oven to about 150C and place a roasting tin full of water on the shelf below the one you're going to use. 

Cream the butter and sugar really well (ideally until it's nearly white) then beat in the eggs one at a time, adding a spoonful of flour each time to stop it from curdling. Once you've added all the eggs, beat in the vanilla and the glycerin, then sift in the remaining flour and fold it in carefully with a metal spoon.

Transfer it to the lined tin and scoop the mixture out in the middle (see pictures). It's quite stiff so you'll manage, and don't be shy - really scoop it out deep! Bake in the oven for 1.5 hours then test with a skewer until the skewer comes out completely clean - mine needed about half an hour more, and I kept checking every ten minutes.

Leave the cake to cool in the tin, then transfer to a wire rack. Wrap it up tightly for 12 hours in foil (or in an airtight tin) before you do anything to it, and it'll last for ages.

Return of the cake - this time it's bigger (and also, smaller)

Based on Lindy's cake conversion table, it looks as though I will want the following recipes for the other sized tins:

For the 6inch tin
- 6oz unsalted butter
- 6oz caster sugar
- 6oz self raising flour
- 3oz plain flour
- 3 large eggs

For the 12inch tin
- 30oz unsalted butter
- 30oz caster sugar
- 30oz self raising flour
- 15oz plain flour
- 15 large eggs

That is an insane quantity of ingredients. Further instalments to follow!

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Butternut Squash and Chickpea Salad

Ok, cancel the last Smitten Kitchen chick pea salad, this one is even better and when I say better, I mean amazing. I tried this salad with left over butternut squash from the muffins and although I'm sorry that it's another hugely unattractive set of pictures, you will have to take my word for it that this is completely delicious.  

It's basically an unhummoused hummous - chickpeas, garlic, tahini, lemon juice and oil - gussied up with spring onion and roast cubes of butternut squash. The result is far more exciting than that makes it sound, and this is about the most moreish thing I've made in a long time. I ate a huge amount of it at lunch and although it's really filling, I still kept going back for more, far beyond my normal levels of greed. 

The squash is roasted very simply in oil, salt and pepper and a bit of crushed garlic, and it's the garlic which makes all the difference. It sounds so basic but I'd never have thought that the garlic and sweet, candied squash would complement each other. Not only do they complement, they write long, passionate love speeches to each other and swear to be together forever. I'm not joking, I don't think I'll ever roast squash without garlic again.

I made a few changes to the Smitten Kitchen recipe - most notably reducing the amount of raw garlic (having learnt my lesson from last time) and, for similar reasons, swapping the red onion she suggests for spring onion. I'm sure the red onion is delicious but I hate tasting oniony all afternoon, so spring onion seemed like a safer bet. The greeny flecks in the beige / orange mush are either a pleasing dash of colour or a heinous aesthetic crime, depending on your point of view. Finally, I toasted the seeds at the same time and stirred them in, and they added a nice crunch. I also found that the roasted squash tended to smush apart as I stirred the dressing in, rather than staying in attractive, disparate cubes like those on the Smitten Kitchen site.

Aesthetics apart, this is my new favourite lunch and I am indeed smitten with it. When the weather was so glorious last week, I ate this out in the park with a bit of green salad on the side and it was the perfect picnic food - especially because I didn't have to share it with anyone. At a more social picnic? Make lots, enjoy the sunshine, and hope that the fact that this looks a bit unattractive means that no one will want to try it. All the more for you!

Butternut Squash and Chickpea Salad
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen
Serves 2 for a massive lunch, or 4 or more as a side

- 1 butternut squash, chopped into smallish chunks
- 2 crushed cloves of garlic
- oil, salt and pepper
- 2 tablespoons of tahini
- 1 tablespoonful of olive oil
- juice of half a lemon
- 1 tablespoonful of water
- tin of chick peas, drained
- 2 spring onions, chopped
- handful of chopped parsley

First off, preheat your oven to 180. Toss your chunks of squash in oil, salt, pepper and 3/4 of the garlic, then roast for half an hour or until soft and slightly caramelised. I toasted the seeds of the squash at the same time. Set aside to cool while you make the dressing.

In a big bowl, mix together the tahini, oil, lemon juice and water with the rest of the garlic. Taste to check that the flavours are good - you want to be able to taste the sharpness of the lemon - then add the chick peas, squash, seeds, spring onions and parsley and stir together.

This was fantastic warm but I had to wrangle it into a lunchbox for the next day and let me tell you, it was still bloody brilliant. I think next time I'd boost the quantities of dressing if I were planning to have it the next day, as the flavours had muted slightly, but still so good.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Chicken and Vegetable Fajitas with Guacamole

I know that photograph above is not very well lit, not beautifully arranged and not at all artistic, but I have to admit that it is making my stomach rumble and my mouth water. These fajitas are messy, unattractive to eat and completely delicious, and I will be eternally grateful to one of my best friends who introduced me to them at university. 

As an American, fajitas are his favourite food bar none, and when we lived together we used to eat them in our flat on an almost weekly basis - complete with homemade guacamole as a matter of course. Ever since finding out how easy it is to smush up an avocado, I haven't bought guacamole since. (Plus, I'm spooked by wondering what they put in it to keep it so green, when proper avocado goes brown almost instantly. Kermit?).

At university we tended to use the Old El Paso kits, complete with heavily sweetened spice mix, and very delicious they were too. In grown up life I wanted something a bit healthier, a bit less full of additives, and this Jamie Oliver recipe (of course!) fits the bill. The smoked paprika is a genius touch, adding both heat and that addictive smoky flavour.

Jamie recommends using raw chicken but we tend to use this as a way to use up left over roast chicken, and it works really well. To keep the chicken juicy, we only add it near the end, instead marinating and cooking the vegetables for longer to make them sweet and soft with charred edges. The use of the griddle makes all the difference - a frying pan will encourage everything to steam, but the griddle really adds caramelised, smoky flavour. 

My cooking and eating partner in crime objects to the texture of warm tortillas so he insists on turning his into a quesadilla - stuffing the mix into a tortilla with loads of extra cheese, then griddling it to turn the outside crispy and hard and the inside gooey. Me? I like it wrapped up in a soft, warm tortilla, with guacamole splurging out at either end and cheese melting over the chicken and vegetables inside.

Either way, these are easy, quick and delicious. Justin, I will always be grateful to you for bringing fajitas into my life - even if my hips are not.

Chicken Fajitas
Adapted from Jamie Oliver
Serves 2 greedy people

- left over roast chicken strips
- 2 sliced peppers (any colours but red are the nicest)
- sliced onion (one big or two small)
- a teaspoonful of smoked paprika
- a pinch of cumin
- a pinch of chilli flakes
- olive oil 
- salt and pepper
- juice of a lemon or lime

As we were making this with cooked chicken, we started by marinating the veg with the spices, oil, salt and pepper and juice of half the lemon / lime for at least 5 minutes. Cook the whole lot on a griddle pan to get good charred edges, adding the chicken after 5 minutes to give it time to warm up and char slightly. 

Once it's all cooked, squeeze over the remaining lemon / lime juice and serve in warm tortillas with grated cheese, guacamole (below) and, if you fancy, sour cream and salsa.


- 1 ripe avocado
- 1 spring onion, finely chopped
- squeeze of lemon or lime
- salt
- handful of cherry tomatoes, chopped

Simply mash the avocado with a fork then stir in everything else. Dollop onto your fajita, scoop out with a tortilla chip, or simply eat from the bowl with a spoon. Yes, avocadoes may be as unhealthy as "green butter" (to quote a colleague), but that's what makes them so mind-numbingly delicious.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Roasted Red Pepper and Chickpea Salad

I am always looking for the perfect lunchbox solution. As someone who is both greedy and stingy, I hate spending a fiver a day on something tasteless and stodgy from the canteen, or overpriced and unhealthy from a shop. Add to that the fact that I work in an area bereft of good lunchtime food options (a tourist hot dog stand doesn't count), and that means that I end up bringing a lunchbox several days a week.

Now leftover dinners are the classic, unimprovable lunch, especially during winter. But the other downside of being greedy is that we often eat all our dinners in the evening and there's nothing left for lunch. That's when I have to get creative, and that's when I start making something specifically designed to ease lunchtime tummy-rumblings and power me through the afternoon.

My criteria are simple but, as it turns out, surprisingly restrictive. I've found that anything too carbilicious in the middle of the day (pasta, jacket potato, baguette) may be delicious but leads inexorably to massive 2.30pm yawning sessions and such killer mid-afternoon blood sugar dips that I have to go to the loo and slap my own face in an effort to wake up. So, carbs are out. 

I like to have something healthy because, let's face it, it's more fun to have something greedy in the evening than in the middle of the workday while you're running errands or worse, eating al desko. I also tend to get hungry quickly so protein is essential in getting me through the afternoon without emergency trips to the canteen. And, of course, I want something that tastes good enough that the prospect will get me through a dull morning, and the memory will help through the dead hours of an afternoon.

The smoked mackerel pate is a frequent choice, or maybe a cold omelette, a salad made with left-over roasted squash and some blue cheese, or a makeshift nicoise with tuna, sundried tomatoes, capers and a boiled egg. In an effort to expand my repertoire, though, I found this recipe on the beautiful Smitten Kitchen site and as it ticks most of my list (healthy! protein! No carb!), I thought I'd give it a whirl. 

I was not wrong. This is really tasty, fresh and zingy and satisfyingly solid-tasting from the chick peas, while the flavours are strong enough that you forget you're just eating a salad. At work I used it to augment a cup of soup from the canteen, while at home I did the classic protein-no-carb-bonanza and stuck an egg on top. This would also make a great part of a casual weekend lunch alongside some crusty bread, a quiche and a green salad. Ah the weekend - when afternoon naps are not just allowed, they're positively encouraged.

Roasted Red Pepper and Chickpea Salad
Makes 2 big lunches, or serves 4 as a side dish

- 2 red peppers (mine were quite small and I think 3 would have been better)
- 1 tin of cooked chick peas, drained and rinsed
- 1 tablespoonful of capers (she says to rinse them, I didn't bother)
- 1 clove of garlic, crushed (I felt this was a bit much - add half the clove, taste and see if you want more)
- Salt and Pepper
- 1 tablespoonful of red wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoonful of olive oil
- handful of chopped mint
- handful of chopped parsley

Roast your red peppers by putting them whole in the oven for about an hour, turning every twenty minutes, until blackened all over. Set aside in a bowl and cover it with clingfilm (the condensation will make it easier to peel them). Once the peppers have cooled, peel and de-seed them then cut into strips.

Mix together the vinegar, oil, garlic and salt and pepper in a bowl, then add everything else and toss together. This lasts for a few days and, if anything, gets better as the flavours merge together. If you're taking it to work in a lunchbox, just pop in a toothbrush so you don't garlic your colleagues to death during the afternoon. 

Friday, 15 April 2011

Butternut Squash Muffins

On my way to lunch yesterday at work, I walked past piles and piles of crisp, clean, genuine bank notes. You see, the building I work in doesn't accept credit or debit cards in the canteens, so there are a few cash machines littered around. Cash machines which, apparently, need refilling by a lone, harassed looking man in shirt sleeves, kneeling on the floor in front of the machine surrounded by wodges and wodges of cash. I'm not exaggerating, it was like a film where the mafia tries to buy someone's silence with a suitcase full of money, only it was on the floor right next to me and my shoe almost grazed it while I pretended, in a very English way, not to notice anything and walked straight past. 

And in that moment, I felt the siren call of temptation shrieking in my ear. Something was telling me to grab one of those lumps of twenty pound notes - just one bundle, how restrained! - and leg it. Of course I didn't, because I'm a grown up and law-abiding and Stealing Is Wrong, but for a fraction of a second I really wanted to, just to see what would happen.

As if all that temptation wasn't bad enough, when I reached the canteen it was packed full of cakes, pudding and afternoon tea cakes. I have a firm respect for cake but after an incredibly greedy weekend, I have been trying to have a week of eating healthily. I had a salmon salad for lunch - she says, while polishing her halo - but I have to be honest, all I was able to think about all afternoon was pudding. Not a yoghurt, not a few nuts, not a half-arsed dried apricot or, pff, FRUIT. I just want a cake, something that's sweet and iced and crumbles in your mouth and leaves your fingers sticky with icing.

After a whole afternoon of obsessing, this was my best attempt at a compromise and frankly, I'm pretty impressed by my will of iron even getting to this stage. I've had my eye on these muffins for ages - from, you guessed it, Jamie Oliver - and with their butternut squash and no butter, I can practically kid myself that they're healthy. At least, they're healthy compared to Chocolate Guinness Cake, aka my mum's favourite cake but only because she hasn't seen the quantity of sugar and butter involved (I must never tell her). 

I have to warn you, these make the most repulsive looking cake mix you can ever imagine. Because the butternut squash is just raw and chopped, the mix doesn't even taste that delicious - I am a staunch bowl-licker and I managed to resist this. Are you ready for the sight? Don't say I haven't warned you. 

But don't let that stop you - these are really tasty, a sort of carrot cake / banana bread hybrid. Plus, in cake terms, these are practically health food - you could even have them for breakfast! Admittedly I don't get the cake for breakfast thing, being a staunch porridge girl, but I know that Americans go nuts for cakey breakfast goods and they can't all be wrong. 

I will be cracking into these after lunch, at afternoon tea-time, and for an evening's pudding, and although they're full-on cake I don't even feel bad about it. Just don't mention the ice cream (what? It's pudding!). 

Butternut Squash Muffins
Adapted from Jamie At Home 
This is half of his recipe, and therefore makes 6 full-size muffins or, as here, 12 fairy-cake-sized ones

- 200g butternut squash, unpeeled but roughly chopped
- 175g light soft brown sugar
- pinch of salt
- 2 large eggs
- 200g plain flour
- 1 heaped teaspoon of baking powder
- handful of walnuts
- half a teaspoon of ground cinnamon
- 88ml of olive oil (well, as near as dammit)

For the icing
juice of half a lemon 
- enough icing sugar to make a drippy paste

Preheat the oven to 180 and put paper cases in a muffin or fairy cake tin. 

Blitz the butternut squash in a food processor until chopped, then add everything else and whiz it until just mixed, scraping down the sides half way through if necessary. Dollop the mixture into the paper cases and bake for 20-25 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. 

For the icing, Jamie O suggests that you ice these with a mixture of soured cream, lemon juice and vanilla, decorating with clementine zest, lemon zest, dried lavender flowers and rose petals in a feat of extreme ponciness. I had none of the above, plus I was worried about whether the soured cream would mean that the muffins had to be kept in the fridge, so I just made a glace icing of lemon juice and icing sugar and drizzled it over. This gives the added bonus that you can swipe the drips with your finger for an instant sugar hit while decorating (this counts as cleaning so it's guilt free).

Scoff and comfort yourself with the thought that squash sort of counts as one of your five a day.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Sausage, Lentil and Cherry Tomato Bake

When I was at university, I distinctly remember a Lady Grantham-esque feeling at the weekend when the streets were jampacked with shoppers and the banks were closed. As a student with only intermittent lectures and permanent studyloads, the days of the weekend and the week merged into a single entity and it felt very strange to be reminded that Saturday and Sunday were different from the rest of the week, annoyingly busy and with erratic opening hours. They were also much worse nights for going out as all the pubs and clubs were full and prices were higher, so we used to stay in on Saturdays and the big party nights were Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. It seems completely inconceivable to me now. 

Then I rejoined the real world, started work and oh yeah, let's welcome back that concept of living for Friday night at 5.30pm. The return of a normal attitude to evenings and weekends is part of my permanent feeling of "why the hell didn't I appreciate student life more now that I have to commute and work for a living and can't just arse around doing a bit of desultory reading and watching Neighbours, Doctors and Diagnosis Murder". All of a sudden, I too am rushing to go to Boots and pay in a cheque and take back a top all in my lunch hour, and weekday evenings are overshadowed by work, washing and the need to get up early tomorrow. 

But! An effort to salvage some fun from a school night is still worthwhile, and a casual dinner with friends and a daring bottle of wine is one of the best ways to go. One of the easiest options is another Jamie Oliver-inspired recipe (I wasn't kidding when I said how much I love him), without a doubt my favourite way to eat sausages as long as you can wait an hour for your dinner. If I'm having people round for a casual dinner on a work night, this is what I make. It's easy to prepare when you get in, leaves you free to tidy up manically while it's in the oven, goes perfectly with some no-hassle sides like salad and crusty bread, smells fantastic while it's cooking and stands up well to even the ropiest red wine. As a bonus for the cook, any leftovers make the most amazing lunch the next day when chopped up and stirred through pasta. 

We've made this so often that we've hacked the recipe a bit. As well as the cherry tomatoes he suggests (and in extremis, you can buy tins of cherry tomatoes which will work fine), I also add sliced onion at the beginning and some red pepper if I have it. Some of those vacuum-packed chestnuts are deliciously sweet and candied against the deeply savoury, juicy sausages, while adding a drained tin of lentils or butter beans about ten minutes before the end bulks it up and makes it more of a cassoulet. The dish also depends on the taste of the sausages, whether you go for herby, garlicky Toulouse-style ones or, as here, spicy Chorizo-style ones. 

No matter what you add, this minimises cooking stress and maximises flavour. Now make the most of being a grown-up, buy some proper wine that you can afford now you have a salary, and remember how good it feels not to have an essay crisis hanging over your head. 

Sausage, Lentil and Cherry Tomato Bake
Serves 3

- 1 pack of six sausages (the good quality, high-meat content ones that are always on offer in Sainsburys and Waitrose are perfect)
- 500g cherry tomatoes
- a few sprigs each of rosemary, thyme and a couple of bay leaves (fresh or dried herbs depending on what you've got)
- 1 tablespoon of dried oregano
- 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
- 2 onions, sliced
- salt, pepper, olive oil
- good splash of balsamic vinegar (a couple of tablespoons)
- tin of lentils or butter beans

Preheat the oven to 190 and get out a big ovenproof roasting dish. Add everything except the lentils/beans to the dish and mix with your hands until everything is coated and glossy. Arrange the sausages on top of the vegetables, then put the whole lot in the oven.

After half an hour, stir it around and turn the sausages so that their underside gets roasted and golden as well. After another twenty minutes, add your drained lentils/beans, stir them in and give everything 10 more minutes or until the sausages look sticky, the onions are slightly caramelised around the edges, and the sauce is bubbling. If the sauce is too runny, you can boil it down on the hob, but I tend to serve it as it is and use mashed potato or warmed crusty bread to mop up the juices.

Delicious with salad or green veg, a bottle of red and some kind of absorbent carb - bread, mash, pasta, rice, polenta if you're feeling fancy. 
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