Thursday, November 8, 2012

Roasted Butternut Squash, Red Onion, Lentils and Feta Salad

It’s 8 November, the sun sets at 16.21 in London today, and the weather is swinging from cold and grim to bright but chilly. Do you need any more explanations as to why a salad of roasted butternut squash, red onion, lentils and feta is a great idea? Vibrant colours, autumnal tastes, warm kitchen, and on top of that, it goes very well with red wine. That is more than enough for me!

It wasn’t enough for the daddy and toddler though, so there was plenty left, in fact I brought some for lunch to the office. Yes, I confirm, I have turned in one of those people who bring their lunchbox, but hey, apparently all food bloggers do that! It is officially cool and hip, I underline, cool and hip, to munch your home made gourmet food, while everyone else depends on the sandwich chains, you should try it too...

Roasted Butternut Squash, Red Onion, Lentils and Feta Salad

Serves 2
  • 150 g puy or green lentils
  • ½ butternut squash
  • 1 red onion
  • Olive oil
  • Thyme, ideally fresh
  • Feta
1)    Preheat oven to 175C.
2)    Cover the lentils with about a litre of cold water, and put on the stove. Once boiling, reduce heat to simmer and boil as per package instructions. Should take about 20 minutes, but could be different.
3)    Peel the butternut squash, remove the seeds and chop in 1-2 cm cubes. Peel onion and chop in 0.5 cm rings. Put squash cubes and onion rings in a bowl and toss with a generous amount of olive oil, some salt and the leaves of fresh thyme (or use dried thyme).
4)   Cover a roasting tin with foil (no need to wash it afterwards), put the squash and onion on top and place the tin in the hot oven. Roast for about 40 minutes, stirring from time to time to prevent from sticking.
5)    Check the lentils, and once cooked, but still firm, take off the stove and drain.
6)    Put lentils in a big bowl, add some oil and salt to taste, mix in the roasted butternut squash and red onion, and top with as much feta as you like.      

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Tart Without a Tart Tin

This morning I was able to zip up a zip which wouldn’t normally go all day way up. It is quite surprising, I thought I had eaten enough cake lately, but apparently there is room for some more. Plan more cake, definitely one of the better ways to start the day…

So if there is room for more cake in your life, your trousers, or your boots, I am very excited to share this recipe for a tart that doesn’t need a tart tin.

Of course I own a tart tin, I also own mini tart tins, not to mention other kitchen equipment gathering dust in the cupboards. This post is a special reminder to myself that I don’t really need that spice grinder, or the pressure cooker, or the meat thermometer, or any other kitchen gadgets that Amazon is so quick to offer me… Even better, the recipe doesn’t even require blind baking (the fiddly bit where you have to wrap the rolled dough in foil and bake with baking beans on top). And I am a firm believer that simple is better than elaborate, and while it might not look like patisserie product, who cares, it is great satisfaction to be having a yummy home-made plum tart for breakfast at 6.30 am before I go and face the rest of my not-so-pleasant office day…

The recipe comes from the Dock Kitchen cookbook, which is full of beautiful photography, exotic ingredients (freekah, anyone?), spice mixes including 17 different spices - I might have to buy the spice grinder after all… Original recipe asks for loquats and almonds, I used plums instead, but I suppose you can try with any hard fruit such as apples, pears, even hard peaches, but might need to adjust cooking time and sugar amounts.

It is essential when making shortcrust pastry to chop the butter in cubes of 1 cm, and pop it back in the fridge for a little while. Also, put a glass of water in the fridge, as proper iced water helps the pastry come together. I split the pastry in two and only baked the second tart once the first one was gone (it didn’t take very long). Pastry keeps well in the fridge for 3-4 days.

In any case, I hope you are enjoying your cake. The world is full of people who don’t eat enough cake and when they do, they scoff it off in a hurry without savouring the flavour of each bite. Such a waste of a good cake!

Plum tart

Adapted from Dock Kitchen Cookbook

  • 250 g plain flour, plus more to dust
  • 185 g unsalted butter, diced, cold from the fridge
  • 2 tablespoons caster sugar for the pastry
  • 100 g caster sugar
  • 2 tablespoons ice water
  • 7-8 plums

1)    Mix the flour with 2 tablespoons of sugar, rub one third of the butter into the flour mixture using your hands, until it resembles crumbs, then mix the rest of the butter. Add the two tablespoons of water, bit by bit, until the pastry comes together.

2)    Wrap the pastry in cling film and put in the fridge for at least two hours. You might want to split the dough in two, and only bake one smaller tart at a time.

3)    Roll the pastry on a baking paper to about 0.5 cm height. Chop the plums and arrange them in the center, leaving about 5 cm margin, sprinkle 100 g sugar over the fruit. Fold the pastry over the fruit, and put the tart back in the fridge until the pastry is firm.

4)    Preheat the oven to 200C, bake the tart for about 25 minutes, until light brown.





Friday, November 2, 2012

Pot Roast Beef

In our multi-language multi-culture kitchen, there is so much scope for confusion that arguing is inevitable. Especially, if you couple up a former vegetarian as the cook with an Italian craving his arrosto. Do not assume that an English recipe for a roast will reconcile the differences, it will only make it worse, and more arguing will ensue about how long the meat should be cooked, and where the gravy comes from. I was a vegetarian for so long, that even if there is gravy in my national cuisine, I have never heard of it!

Admittedly, the daddy always insisted that arrosto is cooked on the hob, wallowing in its gravy, but I dismissed this as gibberish coming from someone who has only peeled potatoes once in his life. Until I came to a recipe for roast in a pot, and had a revelation, this is what he meant all this time. In my defence, I am not a great meat expert, and it is surprisingly difficult to google something you don’t know exists. Raise your hand if you knew about pot roasting, and did not assume that all roasts come out of the oven! But now that I know the name, I did my homework, so I can tell you that pot roasting is a braising technique, which dissolves the collagen in the meat into gelatine; it is used for tougher cuts, and it results in succulent and tender meat, and ready gravy.

So, the daddy and I can now move on, leave the roast to rest and start arguing about something else at home. And I can’t even start explaining how important it is to do a little arguing and a little shouting when you have an Italian man in tow, or else he might get the impression that there is no enough passion in this kitchen…


Pot Roast Beef

  • About 1 kg topside beef
  • 1 onion
  • 1 carrot
  • 1 celery stick
  • 3-4 tablespoons olive oil
  • Fresh herbs – thyme, rosemary, sage, bay leave
  • 100 ml wine, red or white
  • Hot stock, or hot water

1)    Chop the onion, carrot and celery. Heat the olive oil in a big pot, and fry the vegetable over low heat for 5 minutes.

2)    Wash and dry the beef, rub it with salt and pepper, add to the pot and brown on all sides.    

3)    Add the wine and herbs to the pot, and increase the heat. Once the wine has mostly evaporated, add some hot stock or hot water, cover, and decrease the heat to low-medium.

4)    Check the meat often, turn around and add more hot water/stock if necessary. You might want to cut the meat in two in order to speed up the cooking process. A 1 kg joint should take about 1-1.5 hours, but do check by stabbing the meat with a fork/knife and making sure only clear liquid comes out. Or alternatively, cut some meat and taste it.

5)    Once ready, discard the rosemary/thyme sprigs, slice the meat in 1 cm thick slices, and serve covered in the gravy.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Saffron Vanilla Cookies

It seemed like a fine idea, take two days off work, and hop on a three-hour flight to spend four days with friends and family, but the maths didn’t quite work out so well. True, we enjoyed that sunnier corner of Europe a lot (24 degrees!!) but had to come back to a dirty, disorderly house with an empty fridge, toddler in dire need of wellington boots (try walking without these in the park), huge pile of office work that accumulated during the long weekend, and worse of all – there were no home-made cookies......!!!
The daddy is a bit of a biscuit case, as in, that is the only thing he would eat for breakfast, biscuits dunked into his coffee. He has been completely spoilt (by me) and would put up with any other inconvenience at home, but no home-made biscuits, now, this is a true emergency, and takes priority over everything else.
Ever since I realised how little time cookie baking requires, I started baking a batch every week. So if I ever excel in something in the kitchen, it will be cookies. I did even (briefly) entertain the idea to leave my City job and start baking biscuits for a living, but not sure how many biscuit cases there are on the market...
According to the daddy, these are the best biscuits ever – although, personally I can’t stand the taste of saffron in sweets. However, as a positive consequence, we now have plenty of saffron in the house, and I can indulge in a weekly plate of risotto Milanese, but more about this next time. In the meantime, approach these cookies with care, the reaction seems to be either love or hate...
The original recipe is for nine big cookies, however, mine are smaller, 2-3 bites sized, and fit the coffee mug in which they are all dunked. Recipe makes about 30-35 smaller ones. Don’t be put off by the grinding of saffron, I don’t have a spice grinder and my pester & mortar got left behind when moving house, but a bowl and a plastic baby spoon worked just fine.

Saffron Vanilla Cookies

·         about 30 threads of saffron (to yield 1/8 teaspoon ground saffron)
·         1 teaspoon vanilla paste or extract
·         2 tablespoons milk
·         2 cups / 280 g all-purpose flour
·         1 teaspoon baking soda
·         1/2 cup / 113 g unsalted butter, at room temperature
·         1/2 cup / 100 g granulated sugar
·         1/2 cup / 109 g packed light brown sugar
·         1 teaspoon salt
·         1 egg
1)    Grind the saffron as fine as you can in a spice grinder or using pester and mortar.
2)    Put the milk, vanilla paste and saffron in a bowl and microwave for 20-30 seconds. Alternatively, heat on the hob over very low heat until bubbles start coming out, take off the heat before reaching boiling point. Cover and leave for ten minutes.
3)    Sift flour and baking soda in a bowl.
4)    Beat the butter, with the sugar and the salt until light and fluffy.
5)    Add the egg to the milk mixture and beat vigorously.
6)    Next, add the egg-milk mixture to the butter and sugar mix and beat well until combined.
7)    Add the flour and mix until the dough comes together. Wrap the dough with cling film and put in the fridge to rest for at least an hour.
8)    Preheat oven to 375F/175C. Line the baking sheet with parchment paper, roll balls of the dough and arrange on the sheet, spacing them at least 2 cm apart. Bake for about 10 minutes (exact time will depend on your oven and the size of the cookies) until golden brown.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Very green kale soup

This time last year, the toddler was six months old, and would not, at any cost, accept spoon feeding of any pureed food. So we fell into the baby led weaning approach (which is quite common in the UK and lets the baby feed herself at her own time and abilities, instead of force-spooning purees). Except that she wasn’t particularly keen on putting much in her mouth, and I was getting incredibly frustrated in my attempts to feed her, until slowly she started eating more, an olive here, a tomato there, and then (gasp!) some prosciutto (all the too-salty, allergy-prone unacceptable items which would have sent the paediatrician in tilt, but of course, we lied to him that she eats baby puree instead!). And then the final breakthrough, eating properly after seeing the other babies in nursery do so (the nursery is worth all the money I pay them!)…

Feeding toddler can be hard job unless you are one of these very lucky parents whose children gobble up what they are supposed to. I have now resigned myself to offer whatever she likes which makes life slightly easier, and then I hope that the nutritionalist-approved menu in the nursery will balance it all out. I used to drive myself crazy to get everyone to eat the same meal – but, let’s face, had to give up this impossible task of reconciling all the demands of the daddy and the toddler. So I now feed the toddler her favourite things: tomato pasta, ravioli, plain boiled rice with grated parmesan, beans, boiled eggs, omelette or a pot of hummus on week nights, and whatever she likes from our dinner.

Feeding the daddy can be very difficult too, so I waited for him to go on a business trip to cook one of my favourite soups, kale, potatoes and beans. The daddy has very strong anti-kale opinions, and so did the toddler last night – she did throw a hissy fit upon seeing this very green soup on her high chair. Luckily, I anticipated this reaction and had left some cannellini beans out of the soup, so she scoffed those, and shared some (or most) of my toast with cheddar which goes brilliantly with the kale soup. And most importantly, I had all the soup to myself, yum!

Kale soup

(source: VegBox recipes)

  • 1 onion
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 500 g potatoes
  • 200-300 g curly kale (or cavolo nero), chopped, stems removed
  • 1 L vegetable stock
  • Olive oil or butter
  • 200 g cooked cannelloni / butter beans (optional)
  • Fresh herbs – thyme, parsley (optional)

1)    Peel the onion and chop it roughly. Peel the garlic and crush it.
2)    Heat the oil in a large pan and sauté the onion and garlic for 5 minutes.
3)    Wash the potatoes and chop into 1 cm chunks. Add to the pan and sauté for 5 minutes.
4)    Add the herbs and stock. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes.
5)    Add the cabbage to the soup and cover. Simmer for 10 minutes.
6)    Liquidise the soup, if you prefer. Wash the beans if they come from a can, add them to the soup. Heat through.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Parmigiana Light

I have to admit that I have been heavily questioning the whole idea of having a blog lately. I can’t possibly compare with some of the bloggers out there, I am neither a great expert in the kitchen, nor can I take great photos (and frankly, I don’t care), and on top of that I haven’t been passed a treasure of recipes by my grandmother. I am just trying to feed the family without repeating myself too much, and that takes a lot of main dishes and significant creativity at times, as it is difficult to get particularly inspired by London vegetables. So, let’s say I will continue posting, but please don’t have ridiculously high expectations of me, I will occassionally forget to take a photo of the main meal, ooops, and I ain’t going to teach you how to bake macaroons any day soon...
It’s been now 7 months since I went back to work full time, and things seem to have fallen into a routine: quick weekday dinners, batch of cookies on Friday night / Saturday morning, slow cooking on the weekend, a pre-cooked meal for Monday night, and lots of lists – things to buy, recipes to google, meal plan by days... And also, a well stocked freezer for emergencies, and not only.

I had never thought about using the freezer before, but now I have about 3 liters of home-made chicken stock (essential for a tasty risotto!), a box of sauce Bolognese, a bag of cookies (ready to be popped in the oven), and a tray of parmigiana. It’s not much but I have only just started looking for freeze-friendly dishes. Apart from pasta sauce, I don’t like the idea of freezing cooked stuff, so it has to be pre-arranged meals to be cooked from frozen, such as lasagna or parmigiana… Any other ideas?…

Aubergines are now in season (or are they not? Hard to keep track of these details in London where vegetables don’t have a season, or much taste either!), so why not prepare two trays of parmigiana, one to eat immediately and one for the freezer.

This recipe is for parmigiana light and does not involve frying aubergine. I have nothing against fat and frying, good fat is good for you, and frying in moderation is ok, but aubergine tends to drink an incredible amount of oil which makes the dish quite heavy. The recipe uses grilled aubergine instead and doesn’t require salting the slices and waiting for the water to come out.

The recipe below feeds 3-4 hungry people – mainly because this is the size of my roasting dish. Adjust quantities if you are cooking for more, have a bigger tray, or are making an additional tray for the freezer. I prefer slicing the aubergine in rounds instead of length-wise, as it is easier to arrange a layer with smaller pieces. Traditional parmigiana asks for mozzarella and parmesan (hence, the name), but any grated/slices cheese would do. I have so far used ready grated cheddar, grated mozzarella, a combination of both, but also sliced edamer, or cheddar work (buying grated or sliced cheese is a great time saver!). Ideally the top layer should be parmesan as it doesn’t tend to burn as much as the others.

Parmigiana Light

  • 2 large aubergines
  • 1 onion
  • 2 cans of peeled tomatoes
  • Basil (optional)
  • Dried oregano
  • Olive oil
  • Mozzarella, or edamer, or cheddar – grated or sliced
  • Parmesan

1)    Whizz the peeled tomatoes and their juice with an immersion blender. Place in a pan, add some oil, the peeled onion (no need to slice it), as much oregano as you wish, torn leaves of basil. Heat up to boiling, decease heat and let it bubble for about 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until sauce thickens.

2)    Slice aubergines in 0.5 cm thick round slices.

3)    Heat up girdle pan and grill the slices.

4)    Pre-heat oven at about 180C.

5)    Check the tomato sauce is ready, discard onion, add salt, pepper to taste.

6)    In a high side casserole dish, place some oil on the bottom and spread around. Spoon in some of the tomato sauce and spread it around. Place a layer of grilled aubergine slice, a layer of tomato sauce, layer of grilled/sliced cheese. Repeat until you run out of ingredients. The last layers should be tomato sauce and parmesan/grated cheese.

7)    Depending on how much oil you put in the tomato sauce and how much oil you permit yourself to eat, you might want to drizzle some more over the parmigiana.

8)    Place in the oven and cook for 40-50 minutes. A parmigiana cooked from frozen would require more time, I would go for one hour.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Crème Brûlée Tartlets

This mummy has still got a job so my cunning plan to grab some redundancy money and buy a boat for the birthday of the daddy failed. Instead I had to bake him a cake, a special cake. A small special cake – because neither of us can eat a lot of cake, and the toddler would only consider cakes and muffins as bombs aimed from the highchair to the floor (lucky that we don’t have a carpet!)...

So looking for something special, I decided to go for crème brûlée tartlets – so difficult to spell, and so many things that can go wrong, must be special!

If you don’t live within Amazon reach where tartlet tins can be ordered easily – or simply can’t be bothered - you can try the recipe in a big tart tin, or skip the pastry all together and have the cream in six cups instead. Personally, I can’t wait to put these mini tins to some good use and bake of a mountain of quiche, tartlets, and, and – well, I don’t know what else yet, but I will duly research it when back in the office on Monday...

A lot of things can go wrong with crème brûlée tarlets, namely - tart (pastry), crème and brûlée (French for burnt, right?). But given the amount of cream and butter this recipe involves, there is just no way, that it will not be delicious, so don’t give up yet.
My pastry came out just right, not too crumbly, not too soft – although I can’t imagine how anyone manages to roll it, as in my experience the pastry always sticks to the rolling pin. So instead of rolling it, I cajoled a ball of pastry into each small tin, just flattening it with hands, pushing, pulling and squeezing in the right shape, very much like a toddler playing with playdough.

I admit I cooked the crème for too long (following the ambiguous recipe advice to wait until it thickens), so by the time the tartlets were ready, it was no longer a crème. And I don’t own a blowtorch and putting the tartlets under the grill didn’t quite achieve the beautiful caramel crust. And I waited so long for the grill to do its job, that the sides of the tartlets got burnt... Oh well, still yummy!

And in any case, it is always a good idea to read the whole recipe in advance, not just the list of ingredients, or else you might miss the minor detail that the tarts need to stay in the fridge overnight – which means that they would only be ready for the day after the birthday, ooooooooops!


Crème Brûlée Tartlets

makes 6


  • 150 g flour (plus some more for rolling)
  • 25 g caster sugar (or any other sugar)
  • 125 g butter, chopped in cubes, cold
  • 1 table spoon water
  • (foil and beans for blind baking)

  • 4 yolks
  • 50 g sugar
  • 400 g double cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla essence/paste
  • Cane sugar

1)    Put the flour, the sugar and the cold butter cubes in a bowl, and rub the butter in with your fingertips until you have a bowl of floury breadcrumbs.

2)    Add the tablespoon of water and work the dough until it forms a ball. Wrap in cling film and put in the fridge for 30 minutes.

3)    Divide the dough in six with a knife. Spread some flour on the work surface. Either roll the dough flat, or pat and squeeze into a flat shape and transfer into six tins with diameter of 10 cm. Prick the dough with a fork and put the tart tins in the fridge for 20 minutes.

4)    Preheat oven at 190C. Cover the pastry in each tin with foil, and put some beans on top (also known as “blind baking”). Bake for 15 minutes, then remove beans and foil, and bake for another 10 minutes. Take out of the oven and let the tins cool down.

5)    Put the cream and vanilla essence/paste in a pan and bring it to boil, then reduce the heat to a minimum and simmer for 5 minutes.

6)    In a separate bowl, beat the sugar and egg yolks together until pale and fluffy.

7)    Bring the cream back to boiling point. Pour it over the egg mixture, whisking continuously until thickened - this indicates that the eggs have begun to cook slightly. Let the cream cool down a bit, then spoon in over the pastry and put in the fridge over night.

8)    Sprinkle each tartlet evenly with a tablespoon cane sugar. Caramelise using a chef’s blowtorch. Alternatively, heat the oven grill and put the tins for 3-4 minutes.