Thursday, 30 June 2011

Butternut Squash and Bean Chilli

I've expounded before on my theory that inclusion of an explicitly healthy ingredient in a recipe (oats, lentils, cottage cheesesquash) means that the whole meal can be classified as healthy and that you can therefore feel virtuous, smug and entitled to a pudding. I don't care if the healthy ingredient is soaked in lard and covered in cheese, fried in butter and coated in chocolate - if it's there, its superfood-status trumps everything else. I don't care if this is dietetically unsound, I'm sticking to it.

This dinner is another example of this principle. By virtue of the squash and the pulses (two types of beans! Surely health food territory), I reckon this vegetarian chilli counts as pretty impressively healthy. Even though we smothered it in melted cheese and scooped it into our ravening mouths with warmed tortilla chips (yep, we made nachos), I STILL think it's mostly healthy. Don't tell me I'm wrong.

The inspiration here came from that Waitrose weekend newspaper, although we adapted it quite heavily. They said to boil some preprepared butternut squash and sweet potato chunks, mix with a tin of kidney beans in chilli sauce and make into tacos. We spurned all their labour-saving suggestions and went old-school, preparing everything from scratch. Well, except that we didn't boil the beans from dried, obviously. Who has time for that?

Even with a bit more effort - adding onion, garlic, tomatoes and spices, chopping the squash etc - it was still super-easy and super-quick. And most amazingly, even a couple of carnivores like us actually think we prefer it to meat chilli! I feel very unsettled by making such a bold and revolutionary claim but it's sort of true.

To illustrate how much we liked it, I can reveal that we made it again within three days. That is a sign of true dedication. And the fact that we had half a butternut squash and half an iceberg lettuce in the fridge, which needed using up.

But the main motivation for making this in the first place was that we'd been to the seaside and had therefore eaten nothing but fish, chips and 99s all weekend. We needed something healthy and this was a delightful and delicious way to achieve that. Why are you pointing at the tortilla chips and cheese? Look at the squash! Look at the two types of beans! Definitely healthy.

Butternut Squash and Bean Chilli
Serves 5-6 (it was a huge amount but we took it to work for lunch for a few days. You could easily scale down)

- Half a butternut squash, washed and cut into 2cm chunks. I never bother to peel it but you can if it bothers you
- 1 big or 2 small onions, roughly chopped
- 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
- 1 teaspoon of smoked paprika
- a couple of big pinches of cumin
- a few shakes of cayenne
- a shake of dried chilli flakes
- 2 tins of beans - we used one of kidney, and one of black-eyed, because that's what we had
- 2 tins of chopped tomatoes

Boil the squash for 15-20 minutes or until tender all the way through (including the skin if you left it on).

Meanwhile, fry the onion and garlic in a bit of oil until soft and starting to brown, then chuck in the spices - we experimented so feel free to add any others or change quantities to suit your taste and inclination. The smoked paprika is definitely a winner though. Fry the mixture for a few minutes to bring out the flavour of the spices, stirring frequently, then add the tomatoes and beans and anything else you fancy. I went for a squeeze of ketchup because I always do when cooking tomato-based sauces.

Add the squash and let the whole lot bubble away briskly for 5 minutes or so or until it's as sloppy and mushy as you want. Those words sound unattractive, but you know what I mean. Serve with tortilla chips, melted cheese, shredded iceberg lettuce and some other greens if you want to be extra healthy. You know, as well as all the beans.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

How to make your own Confetti Cones

Remember how I said last time that anything to do with weddings is seen as an excuse for vastly inflated prices? That's definitely true of confetti cones too. I was always quite keen to make these myself, particularly once I realized that, like buying a wedding cake from M&S or Waitrose, you always had to do the hard part (the assembly) yourself. If you bought confetti cones at vast expense from the internet, they normally arrive flatpack and you would still have to do some complex origami to turn them into 3D receptacles for your beautiful confetti.

So you might as well just make them from start to finish, thereby saving yourself yet more cash which you can put towards better food, more booze or another night of honeymoon. Plus you won't end up in the ludicrous situation where your aunty runs around collecting all the used cones from the floor because they cost £6 per pack and she can't bear for them to be chucked away after 10 seconds of use (NB: this actually happened at a wedding I attended).

As you can see from these pictures, we had a bit of a "white lace theme" for our wedding. I know that sounds incredibly pretentious and/or precious but please try not to gag - all I mean by that is that my dress and the bridesmaid dress had white lace details, we had white paper "lace" bunting hung around the garden and we used lace to wrap the bouquets. In a stroke of genius of which I am very proud, I therefore made the confetti cones out of paper doilies - cheapo cheapo, really easy and, I think, incredibly pretty. Look at these! I think they looked gorgeous.

I made them one evening in front of the telly a couple of weeks before the wedding, and it took me an hour or so to make around 100. We used a variety of normal, big-plate sized doilies which I simply cut in half, rolled into hand-sized cones and stuck together with a stripe of pritt stick along the "seam". I didn't mind too much if they were slightly different sizes and widths, but if you wanted uniformity you could always make a mould out of cardboard or something. We then got a big basket, spread the bottom with shredded white tissue paper (so that the cones would stand up straight, not flop around on the base of the basket) and wiggled the cones into the shred so that they stood up, ready to receive the confetti. Easy peasy, practically free and extremely pretty, if I say so myself.

The main thing here, though, is the method. I loved the doilies - they were really one of my favourite wedding details - but you could use any pretty paper or card and just cut them into circles, then roll and stick. I'd say bear two points in mind: a) you might want them to look pretty on the inside of the cone as well as the outside, so consider double-sided paper/card, and b) the cone will need enough structural integrity to stand up straight to hold the petals (so just tissue paper alone wouldn't be strong enough). Other than that, the world and the stationery section of Paperchase would be your oyster.

Here they are in use with some of that white lace bunting behind. So there you go, incredibly easy. I should point out that, as with the confetti, the cake, the flowers on the dinner tables and my home made veil, I didn't just turn to DIY because it was cheaper (although it was) - I chose to do it because I loved having elements of the day which were personal and meaningful. They were hand made with love, totally personal and totally unique. Plus, I will immodestly say it again. Look how pretty they are! I loved them.

Monday, 27 June 2011

How to Make Your Own Confetti

A slight tangent from Dine at Mine today - think of this more as "Get Married at Mine". This post is inspired by one of my closest friends, who has recently got engaged (hurrah!) and who has expressed interest in making her own confetti like we did. How, I hear you, her and the rest of the internet cry? It's laughably easy. This is how.

There are three routes, which all give good results, but which involve varying degrees of effort. We ended up using a combination of all three, but any one of them would do, so take a look and see which appeals to you.

Option 1) buy a whole load of cheap (eg: supermarket) flowers on the day before or morning of the wedding, and pull the petals off them. Done. We in fact cannibalised the red roses left over from decorating our wedding cake, and combined them with our pre-prepared dry and pressed flower petals (see below), but you could use just fresh petals easily. For an even cheaper option, which would be enchantingly pretty, you could just use a whole load of tiny flower heads from your/your family's garden. I was desperate to use just forget-me-not flowers as confetti - how beautiful would that have been? - but the freak hot April this year meant that they had all flowered and died months ahead of their normal season so this wasn't an option for us. Another time...(no, darling, I'm not planning another wedding, don't worry).

Option 2) whenever you have flowers during your engagement (and this is an excellent reason to treat yourself/get your fiance to treat you), simply hang them upside down in an airing cupboard or somewhere warm and dry when they start to die, instead of chucking them out. Once they've dried, pull off the petals and keep in a paper bag or shoebox until the wedding - something which allows air to circulate, where they won't go mouldy. Roses are particularly good because the colours stay really vibrant (see the picture at the top of this post) but almost any flowers will do, so you can experiment. Get your mum/sister/aunties on this as well and you'll easily end up with more than enough. 

Option 3) my incredible aunty painstakingly collected and pressed thousands of little violets which were so pretty, you can't even imagine. No, I have no idea how long it took her and yes, we are very grateful.

Basically, like everything to do with weddings, people will try to charge ludicrous amounts for confetti. But making your own is so simple, quite fun and will save you a fortune. Plus, because you're making your own, you can be as bridezilla as you want about colour. I actually wanted lots of colours because I think it makes the final picture prettier, but you could easily go chic and monochrome if that's what you fancy. Bear in mind, too, that you only need the confetti for a few seconds and then it'll be trampled underfoot for the rest of the reception. Do you really want to spend hundreds of pounds buying flower petals? Well, exactly.

It should be noted that I am talking here about confetti made out of flower petals, rather than paper/foil shapes, purely because I prefer it and most venues only allow the flower variety. But if you wanted paper stuff and your venue doesn't object, I would recommend taking inspiration from Gareth in The Office. Remember when he's breaking down in tears at the prospect of David Brent leaving him, and Brent offers him a memento? "Not the guitar, I meant stationery or summat, summat I can reorder". Gareth chooses the holepunch and, when the little punchings fall out onto his lap, tearfully whispers that they're "like confetti". You could ACTUALLY do that with pretty coloured/metallic paper and a novelty holepunch with heart/star-shaped holes. But that would be a lot more effort and not as nice, so I'd really just go with the petals.

So you've made a big pile of confetti, now all you need is something to hold it in. Coming up next - the confetti cones!

Friday, 24 June 2011

Turkey Tagine

I'm sure I've mentioned before how middle aged we are - favoured weekend activities include afternoon tea at National Trust properties, going to the tip and getting up at a sensible time. You didn't come to this blog for rock and roll, did you?

Anyway, another parent-like habit we've developed is cooking big batches of food at the weekend to bung into the fridge or freezer. There they lie, smugly prepared and reasonably healthy, ready to be reheated after work for nights during the week when we're too tired or busy to cook but still want a proper meal.


We have a few regular candidates for this weekend culinary escapade, including chilli con carne and a lovely beef casserole. This tagine wins the prize for being the most middle-aged though, because we make it in a slow cooker. That's right, an actual specific countertop appliance like my parents use. Have you lost interest yet?

Well don't turn away, because this is delicious. I'm not sure how authentic it is as a tagine - not very, I suspect - but it's really quick to prepare, very tasty and just right for a cold winter (or summer) night. We make it with both chicken and turkey, and alter the vegetables depending on what we have in the house, but the basics are meat, onion, carrot, dried apricot and chick peas. And then there's the question of the spices.

I should point out that this recipe came from my Dad (and he got it from some recipe book designed specifically for slow cookers), and the first few times we tried to recreate it in our own flat, we were disappointed. It was still nice, yes, but it tasted a bit - dull? Muted? Bland? We checked the recipe, and double-checked it, and we were sure we were doing it right, but it just didn't taste like Pa's. So we asked him.

Turns out he'd misread "teaspoon" as "tablespoon" and had been turbo-charging the spicing for years. And he was right to do it! The slow cooker has many excellent qualities - meat comes out so tender, you wouldn't believe it - but it does have a tendency to dampen down flavours so you really need to over-compensate. And yes, admittedly he hadn't done it on purpose, but it was still a stroke of genius. Inadvertent genius.

We've had this just with steamed veg and couscous for a simple worknight dinner, or made it in vast quantities to serve at a dinner party, preceded by mezze and accompanied by flatbreads, yoghurt and tarted-up couscous (ie: with pomegranate, cucumber and herbs). Either way, we like it a lot. But then we also like a nice cup of tea and a sit down, so who are we to judge? 

Chicken or Turkey Tagine
Makes 4 big servings

- 1 pack of turkey/chicken breasts or thighs (they'll all work)
- flour, salt, pepper
- a couple of onions, chopped quite large
- 2 or 3 cloves of garlic, sliced
- a few carrots, cut into chunks
- a cinnamon stick
- a tablespoonful of ground cumin
- a tablespoonful of ground coriander
- a tin of tomatoes
- a handful of dried apricots, chopped quite small (they swell as they absorb the liquid)
- 300ml of chicken stock
- a tin of chick peas (you can add two tins if you want to bulk it up a bit - we did, here)

In a big pan, fry the onions and garlic until browned and then chuck into the slow cooker. If you're not going to use a slow cooker, get a big casserole pot and preheat the oven.

Cut the meat into chunks and scatter with a tablespoonful of flour, plus some salt and pepper. Toss it around then put into the empty pan with a bit of oil and fry until browned. Add the carrot, and spices, cook it for a few minutes while stirring frequently, then slop in the tomatoes, apricots and stock. Bring back to the boil, then transfer to the slow cooker for 3-5 hours on medium (or the oven for about 2 hours on a low heat), adding the chickpeas about an hour before it's done.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Beetroot Salad with Cottage Cheese

A few months ago, I told you on these pages of my pear epiphany. As I get older, I keep trying to expand the list of "food I like" and, like an IDIOT, I had always thought I disliked pears. A pear and chocolate pancake proved that I was wrong, and that I had been missing out. All those wasted years! I can't bear to think about it.

It's not just pears - this year alone, olives, blue cheese and lamb have all successfully crossed the Rubicon from "hmm, would never choose them in a restaurant and might actively pick them off my plate" to "ooh yum, yes please and are there seconds?". But no one can rest on their laurels for too long. Top of the list still to be conquered, as far as I'm concerned, is beetroot.

It's not that I hate beetroot, per se. I appreciate its jaunty colour and I think it's my favourite element in a pack of vegetable crisps. But I've always found the fact that it smells and tastes of soil to be quite offputting, and nothing has really changed my mind on that. Even though my family is Polish and clings to beetroot as it does to potatoes, sausage and other hearty middle European peasant grub, I've never really chosen to partake.

For the rest of my family, Christmas dinner is unthinkable without a bright magenta splodge of Cwikla (pronounced Chvickwa), a Polish relish of grated beetroot and horseradish which stains everything on your plate pink and is (apparently) transcendentally wonderful with cold meats and cheese. But me? Nah. It gets near my mouth and smells like earth, I have traumatic flashbacks to the Duke of Edinburgh scheme and I put it back and turn away.

But I am determined to try again - at beetroot, not Duke of Edinburgh (god, no) - so I turned to this Jamie Oliver recipe. My motivations were a) I like cottage cheese, b) it has lots of other gutsy flavours which might overpower the aroma de soil, and c) it looks pretty. Shallow? I don't care. I'm also being a good wife as my husband loves beetroot and I never really have it in the house, so I am hoping that this display of conjugal bliss will distract from the fact that he doesn't really like cottage cheese. Look, we all have to make an effort at liking new things, ok? (Note: this tactic didn't really work as far as the cottage cheese was concerned.)

So did it work? Well, we tried it alongside an awesome Steak Sandwich and while I wouldn't go so far as to say the beetroot was my favourite thing on the plate, I did like it a lot. The herbs and balsamic did brighten up that earthy flavour, and the cottage cheese went a ludicrous bright pink colour which cheered me up no end (sadly not captured in those photos). I took the leftovers to work for lunch and I think, overall, we can call this a cautious win. I'd grade it a B+. Which is still a lot better than any beetroot has scored before, as far as I'm concerned, and I'll definitely keep trying. And this year, with the Christmas turkey and far too many roast potatoes, I'd like to finally add some Cwikla to my plate. In a world where so much else changes, I think family traditions should be embraced and enjoyed for as long as possible. Even if you never liked them before.

Beetroot Salad with Cottage Cheese
From Jamie Oliver's 30 Minute Meals

- 1 pack of shrinkwrapped, cooked beetroot (not in vinegar)
- splash of balsamic
- olive oil, salt and pepper
- a few sprigs of mint (J.O. says basil, but I didn't have any so blithely improvised with mint)
- few sprigs of thyme
- zest of half a lemon
- half a small pot of cottage cheese

Chop your beetroot into easy-to-eat chunks and toss in a bowl with a good splash of balsamic, some oil, salt, pepper and basil/mint. Mix the cottage cheese with the thyme leaves, salt, pepper, a drizzle of olive oil and the lemon zest, then plonk it on top of the beetroot.

Have fun making the cottage cheese on your plate go bright highlighter pink - it's like the Cocoa Pops milk effect but for adults and in dayglo colour.

Steak Sandwich

Ladies and gentlemen of the interweb, yesterday we had been married for exactly one month. A whole month of married life! That that deserves a huge celebration. As you may have guessed, we chose to celebrate with food.

In the whole wedding planning process, one of the most fun jobs on the gargantuan To-Do List was choosing our menu for dinner. Clearly, both Greedy Gusto and I are very keen on food, and one of the earliest decisions we made was that we wanted to prioritise good wedding food over spending thousands of pounds on a dress (I know! Shock horror), or a string quartet, or hand-inked invitations, or whatever else the wedding industry tries to make you buy. We chose our venue not just because it was beautiful, meaningful and had history for us (which it is, is and does), but because we have never had a bad meal there and we knew they would provide something incredible for our guests. Which I'm proud to say that they did.

So they invited us to suggest what we'd like, and we named our ideal menu, and they cooked it, and we tried it, and it was delicious. I'm serious, our afternoon testing out our menu (full-size portions of all three starters, mains and puddings complete with multiple choices of wine for each course) was described by my now-husband as "the best afternoon of my life". I choose not to be offended by that fact.

We eagerly anticipated that food for months and months, telling everyone how incredible it would be - and when the day came, it didn't disappoint at all. But we disappointed ourselves. We had no appetites! We couldn't finish any of our food and even though it was heart-stoppingly delicious and everything we'd hoped for and more, we just couldn't eat it. It might be the only thing I regret about the wedding. 

One month later, our appetites have definitely returned and we decided that our monthiversary dinner would be a sort of homage to our wedding meal - specifically, we'd  be having beef. On the wedding night itself, we ate very rare Beef Wellington with truffle mashed potatoes, buttered green beans and a red wine jus so delicious, even my non-beef-eating-mother chose to have it just so that she could eat the gravy. Last night, we didn't stretch to anything quite so luxurious, but we did go for beef and it was something delicious - Jamie Oliver's Steak Sarnie from 30 Minute Meals.

We've made this once before so we knew it'd be a good choice, and it didn't disappoint. Rare, tender meat, oozing with savoury juices, livened up with a peppery kick from horseradish and rocket and some tangy, sweet roasted peppers. All in a big wodge of bread. What more do you need to celebrate a very special Tuesday night?

Steak Sarnie
Serves 2 greedy people

- 1 big steak or 2 medium ones 
- a few sprigs of fresh thyme and parsley
- 1 big ciabatta loaf
- a couple of handfuls of jarred, roasted peppers in oil
- a few tablespoonfuls of horseradish sauce
- a large handful of rocket (we actually had a mix of rocket, baby spinach and watercress, which was perfect)

Get a griddle or frying pan really, really hot and turn on the oven. Scatter salt, pepper, thyme and olive oil all over the steak, and rub it in on all sides. Cook it in the hot pan for a minute or so each side - longer if you don't want it rare - then remove to a big board and let it sit and rest for a bit. Put your ciabatta in the oven to warm up.

On the edge of the same big board, chop up the peppers and the parsley with the juices from the steak so that you have a sort of salsa. Slice the steak into strips, then get out the ciabatta and slice it in half horizontally ready to be sandwiched.

Drizzle the cut edges of the ciabatta with olive oil, then smear a generous few spoonfuls of horseradish sauce over the bottom half. Top with rocket/leaves, then the strips of steak, then the peppery saucey smush, not forgetting to drizzle any juices left on the board over the top. Plonk the other half of ciabatta on top, then cut the whole thing in half vertically so that you can both dive in.

Be warned, this is messy food - the juices will run down your chin, bits of leaf will stick out of your mouth, and you may groan a bit when you've finished the whole massive portion because you are so full and yet ate the whole thing. Good thing you're married now, so you don't need to worry about looking unattractive when you eat! That's the sign of true love.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Vanilla Whoopie Pies with Rhubarb Compote and White Chocolate Buttercream Icing

I know that "whoopie pies" is a ludicrous name and almost reason enough to be prejudiced against these. But I promise that they were really yummy and even though the target audience was all pretty stuffed from a big Father's Day lunch, these slipped down surprisingly easily and secured big thumbs up from all present. As my mum so wisely said, the real test is to ask "would I make these again?". And we unanimously thought that we would. All we need is a slightly less annoying name (sponge drops? cakewich?).

The inspiration was, as so often, the compulsion to use things up. Specifically a pack of rhubarb going brown and slimy in the fridge (mmm, appetising), and STILL some of that excess white chocolate icing from our wedding cake. I had a hunch that rhubarb and white chocolate would go nicely together and I was planning to make a normal sponge cake as the vehicle for this meeting of minds, when my mum pointed out a recipe she'd saved from a Waitrose mag for Whoopie Pies. Metaphorical light bulbs went "ding", the batter was speedily whipped up and in no time at all, we were feasting.

One of the most gratifying elements of these cakes was that they were really quick and easy to throw together. It's basically a thick sponge batter, baked in little circles (or as near as you can get to circles). Because they're so small, they cook and cool in no time at all, meaning you can concentrate on the important bit. Namely, what you use to squodge them together. 

The original Waitrose recipe suggested clotted cream and raspberry jam - which would be absolutely delicious - but I can think of lots of options. Little blueberries and raspberries wodged into buttercream? Lemon curd? Whipped cream? Chocolate ganache? Nutella? Caramel sauce? SALTED caramel sauce?? 

You could also adulterate the basic sponge mix ad infinitum. These just had some vanilla extract but you could add lemon or orange zest, chocolate chips, coffee, almond extract (blurgh), cocoa, coconut, other nuts..anything you put into a normal cake, you could put into a mini cakewich.

Yep, I think I'm going with cakewich. It just has the best ring to it. 

This filling combination was delicious though, and I urge you to try it. To make the compote, I just chopped up the bits of the rhubarb that were still ok and chucked them in a pan with some sugar and a splash of water, then cooked until soft. 

Because it's not forced rhubarb, it didn't come out that pretty Barbie pink - more of a brown, to be honest. I couldn't pretend that this was attractive. But we squished it between two layers of cake so never mind that, just embrace the brown slop and move on.

The white chocolate buttercream icing was the same stuff left over from the wedding cake - icing sugar, butter, melted white chocolate. Still delicious, still my favourite "neutral" icing (better than plain vanilla, I swear).

And as you can see, once dusted with icing sugar and adorned with a very few, very small, home grown strawberries, they looked quite cute. Not very manly but otherwise, wholly appropriate for Father's Day. And any other day of the year. Cakewiches! I'm converted.

Vanilla Whoopie Pies, aka Cakewiches
Makes 12 complete sandwiches

- 50g butter
- 50g caster sugar
- 1 egg
- Half a teaspoon of vanilla extract
- 125g self-raising flour
- 50 ml milk

Preheat the oven to 180C and line a couple of trays with baking parchment. 

Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, then add the egg and vanilla and beat well. Fold in half the flour, then half the milk, then the rest of the flour, then the rest of the milk - you should be left with a fairly stiff batter. 

Plop 24 teaspoonfuls of the mix onto the baking sheets and try to shape them into flattish circles. It'll be difficult but have a go. Bake them for 12-15 minutes or until risen and firm to the touch, then transfer to a wire tray to cool.

Once they're cooled, you can do the fun bit and sandwich them! NB: a dusting of icing sugar will cover up any clumsiness in squishing them together. We went for rhubarb compote and white chocolate icing, but the recipe suggests clotted cream and raspberry jam (yum). Let your greed guide you. 

Rhubarb Compote

- a few sticks of rhubarb, sliced into chunks of about 2cm
- 1/4 of the weight of rhubarb in grams of caster sugar (ie: if you have 400g of prepared rhubarb, add 100g of sugar)
- splash of water

Simply chuck it all in a pan and leave to do its thing until it's mushy and soft. When you stir, it'll all collapse into an inchoate mess, but it'll still taste good so I don't mind that. 
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