Saturday, 21 February 2015

The Soups a Bit Thin...

Fact- I really love soup. No matter the weather, even when it’s boiling hot I can still manage to wolf down a steaming bowl of soup. In all my years on this earth I am yet to find a soup I didn’t like. Although the variety of fresh soups available now is immense there are countless benefits of making soup at home. For starters it’s simple, great value and incredibly versatile. Whatever you can find on offer in your local supermarket, even if it’s slightly past it’s best, can usually be turned into a pretty decent soup. It’s a perfect way to get down a few of your 5-a-day too. The possibilities are literally endless. Carrot & coriander, chicken noodle, French onion, broccoli & Stilton, consommé…I could go on for hours! 

Often on a Monday I clear out the fridge of the last remaining vegetables and make a batch of soup that will feed me for the whole week. If you keep stock cubes on hand and have a root through your store cupboard, you're bound to find loads of  herbs & spices or ingredients that will give your soup a boost. Such as pesto and dried oregano for an Italian twist, fish sauce, chilli & lime if you fancy a bit of Thai or honey, harissa paste & cinnamon for a Moroccan flavour. I will happily eat the same soup for a week, each day I add something different to vary it a little. Extra fresh herbs & chilli, sliced chicken or prawns leftover from the previous evening, grated cheese & croutons. Any I don’t eat just goes in the freezer in labelled pots ready for defrosting when I want it. Have it at home, take it to work or share it with a friend a batch of homemade soup will never get thrown away I guarantee it. Just remember to taste and season well when making it, bland soup isn't going to win you any friends! 

Whenever eating out in a restaurant with my Dad, if someone is to order a dish that requires a finger bowl he will always remark on receiving it "Oh look, the soups a bit thin." It's something I used to cringe at but I now even when he isn't there I find myself saying it too. A reassuring memory much like soup has become for me. Before I started to cook my soup fix would usually be from a tin. I was a bit of a fussy eater as a teenager. A stint at an incredibly strict primary school with terrible meals and zero tolerance to leaving any of your lunch had left me rather dubious of food in general. I think the amount of lumpy smash and mystery meat i'd choked down had given me the fear of cooked meals. My poor Mother would have to put up with me turning my nose up at a delicious home cooked meal and instead opting for something 'safe' from a packet, jar or tin.  I absolutely loved Heinz tomato soup; I used to eat it with grated cheddar cheese, lots of black pepper and triangles of sliced white bread to dip in. Always triangles, never squares, it tastes different- I promise. I'm happy to say that I grew out of that fussy stage, I now love my Mothers cooking, but I never grew out of Heinz or soup in general. 

For me Heinz tomato soup was as much an integral part of my childhood as Baywatch on Saturdays and Home & away followed by Neighbours after the school day was done. As familiar as playing Mario Kart for hours on end and choosing ridiculous email names on Hotmail. The ones that shame you for years to come. As satisfying as reading Point Horror books by the shelf load and managing to stop the tape right at the point when the song ended when recording the Top 40 on a Sunday.

Its consistency and familiar orange hue saw me through many a bout of illness or teenage heartbreak when chewing real food felt like too much effort. Even now that I am all grown up and can cook the most complicated of dishes it is what I crave whenever I’m knocked of course or feeling a little under the weather. So here’s my recipe for tomato soup, I wont lie it’s no Heinz but then why would you want to replace it when it’s just so good as it is (and counts as one of your 5-a-day)? Everyone should have a recipe for really good tomato soup, I think this is it, and hopefully you will too.

Proper Tomato Soup
Makes about 10 portions, easily halved if you have a smaller pan
Can be frozen

Make this when tomatoes are in season or if you have a local farm shop you can normally pick up a huge bag for about a quid. If not use tinned instead. But don’t bother roasting them first.

About 2.75kg ripe tomatoes, halved
2-3 fat cloves garlic
fresh thyme sprigs, leaves pulled off
1 red chilli, sliced
fresh oregano, lots.
Fresh basil lots.
2 chicken stock pots. Or use veggie if you’re that way inclined, chicken is better though, everyone knows that.
About 2 tbsp cider, red, or white wine vinegar
1 heaped tbsp. brown sugar
50g tomato puree
Freshly grated nutmeg
1 large onion, diced
1 large carrot, diced
2 sticks celery, diced
really good shake of Worcestershire sauce
100ml milk
50g light soft cheese
50g grated Parmesan cheese
salt, black pepper
olive oil

1 Heat oven to 180C/160C fan/gas 4. Lay your halved tomatoes on 2-3 big lined baking trays. Slice half the garlic. Scatter on, with the thyme, chilli & some of the oregano. Season well with salt & pepper. Drizzle on half the vinegar. Roast for 1 hour.

2 Meanwhile heat a little oil and a good pinch of salt in a very large pan. Sweat onion, carrot and celery until really soft. Add the rest of the garlic, crushed, the rest of the vinegar, oregano, sugar, puree, Worcestershire sauce, and some black pepper. Stir and cook until caramelised.

3 Add the roasted tomatoes and juices from the pan. Add the stock pots with enough water to just cover. Simmer for 30 minutes. Blitz with the basil, milk, soft cheese & Parmesan. Add extra water if too thick. Taste, season, fall in love. Have with a cheese toastie for proper comfort food bliss.

I usually eat this for a whole week at one go, so to stop it getting boring I chuck in something different to each portion I heat up (see pics). Try chicken, roasted veg, cherry tomatoes, prawns, fish, mozzarella, basil, chillies, rocket, pasta (but not all at once).

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Baking Hearts (Again)

So it seems as Valentines Day rears it’s ugly head the shops are becoming full of heart shaped tat and sickly sweet sentiments of love once again.

My early memories of Valentines Day were not too fond. I went to an all girls secondary school, so you would think I would’ve been safe from the mandatory exchanging of cards and overpriced rubbish but alas you would be wrong. Very wrong. Our school would join forces with the local boys grammar and to mark the occasion we would be allowed to purchase a rose on the week running up to St. Valentines. This would be delivered to our chosen stud at some point through the day. In return they could do the same for us. That meant an excruciating 8 periods of lessons where you were delightfully reminded that no, you were not the object of the local hotties affections. No likey - no lighty. There was always that one girl who would get hundreds of the bloody things. Seriously she wouldn’t even be able to fit on the bus home. I won’t lie, and anyone who has access to the wealth of pictures of the secondary school me would probably agree, I was no supermodel as a teenager. Suffice to say I was never in danger of putting Interflora out of business.  However I developed a good sense of humour, besides the girls that were beautiful as teenagers never developed much of a personality, well not at my school anyway, they just relied on their looks to get them through.

Fast forward a few years and my dislike of Valentines day is still present, even though the rose roulette is a now a distant memory. I just can’t get into the spirit of the “organised love.” I find it soulless and without any real sentiment. I feel like an over fattened goose, on the road to becoming a foie gras parfait, force-fed with hallmark messages of fake romance. Yuck! Plus the overpriced set menus that fill every single restaurant get on my nerves. The conveyer belt of sittings that they try to ram in, in order to create more revenue, removes any chance to linger with your loved one anyway, really what’s the point? In my opinion it’s a day designed to make people feel bad. Single people feel terrible, people in couples feel pressured to pull out all the stops, or disappointed when their partners don’t. The girl/boy who gloats about how much their partner has spoiled them is usually the one who gets treated like dirt all year around anyway. Again, what’s the point? And don’t even get me started on anyone that actually gets engaged on Valentines Day; pass the (heart shaped) bucket please.

However Valentines Day is here to stay so instead of harbouring all these feelings of angst I have decided to take my own joy from Valentines Day. Besides I can’t let a perfectly good excuse to dust off my heart shaped cutters and bake up something beautiful go to waste. Here’s what I plan to do, and you can to, should the mood take you. Make your Valentine someone unexpected this year. Your 'Un-Valentine' could be the lonely old man you always bump into in the post office, the auntie you always forget to thank for your Lynx deodorant set at Christmas. The postman who always finds the time to smile and say hello or your brothers awkward friend who everyone knows is getting nothing this year. That way you can make someone smile who never expected to. This isn’t ‘jumping through hoops’ kindness that we are shepherded into believing is the right way to behave, simply to avoid a bollocking from our other halves. Instead it’s just a simple token of generosity and good will towards a fellow human being. Plus who knows, maybe you’ll even be on the receiving end of an unexpected Valentines treat this year.

Happy Valentines Day!

Giant Valentines Jammy Dodger
Show me someone who dislikes shortbread biscuits and strawberry jam and I’ll show you a very surprised emoji face. This is simplicity at it’s best.

250g pack butter, at room temperature
100g golden caster sugar, plus about 2 tbsp for dusting
1 tsp vanilla extract
250g plain flour, plus a little for dusting
140g ground rice
400g strawberry jam
1 tbsp cornflour

1 Heat your oven to 180C/160C fan/gas 4 with shelves in the middle and lower third. Line a 20cm square tin with baking parchment. Place the tin on another sheet and draw around it; this will form the template for the top. Turn the paper over and put on a flat tray, you should still be able to see the outline. If not your pen is rubbish. Use a better pen, see it now? Great. Continue.

2 Beat the butter, caster sugar and vanilla with an electric whisk, until pale and fluffy. Stir in the flour and ground rice using a spatula then get your hands in and knead to smooth dough. Halve the dough, and press one half into the base of the tin.

3 Roll out the remaining dough on your sheet of prepared parchment (allow yourself to say here’s one I prepared earlier) to fill the square, trim to neaten a little but be warned it will spread so you’ll have to do this again after you’ve baked it. Stamp out a line of hearts, then two more, (see pic). Put the hearts on the tray too, extra biscuits!

4 Bake the base on the middle shelf and the top on the lower for 20-25 mins, until pale golden and sandy. Once cooked remove and immediately re stamp the hearts out as the biscuit spreads while cooking, trim to the square shape. Cool fully.

5 Mix the cornflour with 1 tbsp of cold water until combined put in a pan with the jam and bring to a boil, simmer until thickened then sieve into a bowl. You can leave out this step but it makes the jam thicker and glossy. Once cool put the base on a serving plate, spread ¾’s of the jam on top. Spread out leaving about 4mm border, as the jam will spread out with the weight of the top when you put it on. Gently lift it on, it will probably crack, mine did, but just do your best to gently put it back together, you’ll cover it up with sugar in a min, goody more sugar!!

6 Brush the top with a little water and then scatter on the rest of the golden caster sugar, spreading it out to cover the cracks (if you have some). Spoon the ¼ of the jam that’s left into the heart gaps and use the other end of the spoon to spread the jam out so it fills the holes up more and looks more even. Give to your un-valentine! 

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Baking: From the Heart

Over the weekend Cramps turned to me and said to “you’ll never really understand love until you get a bulldog, will you?” To which I had to totally agree.

Now don’t get me wrong, we don’t have children, so we’re not experts on unconditional love but we’ve both had other dog breeds before and stand by the fact that nothing can prepare you for the love (hair, puddles of wee, poo, ruined rugs…) that a bulldog brings to your life. We didn’t take the decision to get a puppy lightly. Our research told us the breed was fairly low maintenance in regards to exercise but needed a lot of love. They could be stubborn but were very loyal and affectionate. It seemed a great fit for our lifestyle. We had both been totally won over by the bags of character the breed have, a quick search on YouTube and you’ve got more hilarious videos of bulldogs than you can shake a stick at.

Part of their charm is their tough appearance that melts away in an instant! In fact I would say Benson is the soppiest dog I have ever met.  This is a dog who despite getting on for 25kg feels climbing onto your lap for a cuddle is a totally appropriate thing to do.  He will sit on feet while we are eating at the table and never leave our side once all day. He even follows me into the toilet or bathroom when I shower. His love knows no bounds. He is obsessed with soft things, cushions, rugs, blankets and will often burrow into said soft furnishings for a quick nap leaving a trail of dog hair and a musk of hamster bedding…hmmm aren’t we just so lucky. Forget independence Benson hates being left alone, the guilt inducing face he has perfected for when I try and leave the house is so perfect that he often rides shotgun while I do my errands. He is never left alone for more than 3 hours and that is only when absolutely essential.

He has about 100 different facial expressions, each one incredibly funny. To him you are everything. While it hasn’t always been easy to adjust I love having Benson in our little family. You will never feel as loved as when you walk through the front door to a bulldog that’s shaking with excitement to see you. If you have the time and commitment that it takes to look after a dog who needs so much love I can’t recommend this breed more. If you already have one then you will know what I mean. A truly special breed, one in a million.

While this isn’t my usual kind of recipe I decided to create this for a couple of reasons. My little mutt is so sensitive- he seems to be allergic to everything! Nightly Sudocrem massages and an avoidance of any foods with artificial colours help to keep his itching to a minimum. We once tried one of his dog treats to see “what all the fuss was about” I swear they are made of compressed cardboard. So as a token of my appreciation for his love and ensure I know what he was eating I had a go at making some tasty little dog treats for him. Really these biscuits could be eaten by us too as they are much like a savoury oat cake, however I think I’ll leave these for Benson, sharing food with a pet is a questionable at best. Once made they will keep for a week or so in an airtight container. He loved them; mind you he would literally eat anything if he had his way.

Bensons Biscuits
Makes about 50 small biscuits.

180g wholemeal four
100g polenta
55g oats
30g wheat germ
50g light brown sugar
½ tbsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
½ cup water
85g butter, cold, chopped into pieces
1 egg
1 Heat oven to 180C/160C fan/gas 4. Put all the ingredients, apart from the egg in a food processor and pulse until the mixture resembles crumbs.  Add the egg and pulse again then gradually add up to 50ml of cold water until you have a soft but dough. Divide into two balls and roll out each one in turn on a floured surface about ½ cm thick.
2 Stamp out hearts, bone shapes or whatever you fancy. Vary the size if you like depending on how good/big your dog is. Divide between flat trays lined with parchment. Re-roll any trimmings. Cook on the middle and bottom shelf, swapping the trays half way through, for 18-20 mins, until light golden and crisp. Cool. Keep in an airtight container. 

Monday, 19 January 2015

Have your cookie & eat it too!

So another year has passed already, I swear they whizz past quicker each year. Are you starting yours with good intentions? While resolutions can be a little cliché lets not forget about all the benefits of starting your 2015 with a fresh approach and a healthy attitude. When we all feel part of the same club or in the same boat there’s a much larger support network plus less fear of missing out. Lets be honest when you think all your friends are doing the same it makes it a lot easier to stay in with a bowl of healthy soup, than to opt for a night at the local pub followed by a late night Indian! Not only that but the papers, magazines and TV are inundating us with tips, advice, and relatable stories that can give us just the boost we need. Lastly after all the fun and excess of December our bodies really do need it, well mine certainly does anyway.

However in my opinion these things shouldn’t just be for January. There’s no point in signing up for unrealistic, punishing and lets face it unhealthy regimes or diets. These extreme diets just set us up for failure and following that failure can come nasty feelings of guilt. Frankly this isn't my idea of fun at all. The good news is the secret to long-term success is easy. Everything in moderation, it’s all about balance. Eat a varied, balanced diet and offset that bit of what you fancy with a bigger bit of what your body needs and you’ll be golden! We’re incredibly lucky to have such a wealth of recipes, ingredients and information to help us cook and eat more healthily. In fact healthy eating is more accessible than ever, so no more excuses ;-)!

Years ago healthy food was seen as strange and tasteless. Picture hippies in long skirts boiling up big vats of mung beans while waving around incense stick to mask the stench. TV shows with angry women who wanted to poke around our in our poo while the nation watched. No, not for me thanks! Luckily for us now it’s the complete opposite. You can eat healthy food all day long and be totally satisfied. We all have our guilty pleasures, vices and indulgent treats and so we should. For me it’s a glass of Prosecco and a bag of crisps once the working day is done, a really good Naples style pizza, and proper chips with loads of vinegar to name just a few. For this reason I could never follow a diet that cut out entire food groups or enforced eating at strange hours or on certain days only. Instead I find if I exercise a reasonable amount, take small steps to squeeze a little more activity into each day and eat a varied diet with lots of vegetables and lean protein then I can maintain a healthy weight. And still squeeze in a pizza or two week without busting out of my skinny jeans.

So my new years resolution is this: I’ll update my blog a little bit more this year and share with you some of my easy, healthy recipes that you can use in your everyday cooking too. I love cooking healthy meals and think that if more people tried these recipes, without a preconceived idea that they wont taste good or will still be hungry after they'd be converted too. For those that already do you will hopefully find some new ideas to try and adapt. Everything from soups for the freezer to easy weeknight dinners as well as more special meals for entertaining. Starting with these healthier oat & banana cookies. I used to make a similar cookie to this but each one had around 400kcals. When I went back to the drawing board I found with a few small tweaks I could reduce that by over half and they still tasted great. They’re full of goodness; oats, banana, dates, coconut, almonds and pistachios and can be eaten morning, noon or night. So looks like this year you can have your cake, well cookie and eat it too! Happy baking and Happy New Year!

Good Fortune Cookies
Makes 14
Around 179kcals, 10.5g fat & 5g protein per cookie.
Once cooked they will keep for a good 4-5 days in an airtight container, well that is if they last that long.

85g oats (use gluten free if you want to make these gluten free)
25g unsweetened desiccated coconut
25g whey protein (I got mine from Tesco)
75g ground almonds
50g raisins (optional)
40g nuts such as pistachios, almonds, hazelnuts, roughly chopped (whatever you have)
25g banana chips, roughly chopped (use extra nuts instead if you like)
4 tbsp coconut oil, melted
100g dates, stoned
65g really ripe (brown) banana
2 tbsp maple syrup
2 tbsp almond butter
1 tsp vanilla
¾ tsp bicarb

1 Heat the oven to 160C/140C fan/gas 3. Line 2 large trays with non-stick parchment paper. In a large bowl combine the oats, coconut, whey protein, ground almonds, chopped nuts, banana chips and raisins (if using) then mix to combine. Boil a kettle and cover the dates in boiling water, leave for a few mins to soften.

2 Once soft transfer to a blender with 2 tbsp of the water, the vanilla, coconut oil, banana, maple syrup and blend until smooth. Tip into a small pan with the almond butter and heat gently. Boil the kettle again and put the bicarb in a small bowl. Pour in 2 tbsp of boiling water then quickly add to the pan. Take off the heat and stir, it should bubble up and go frothy, mix well. Stir into the oaty mix.

3 Use an ice cream scoop to form balls of cookie dough and divide between the lined baking sheets, with a little space to spread. Press down to form cookie shapes. Bake for 14-16 minutes, depending on how chewy you like the cookies. Cool on a wire rack. Perfect with a hot cup of tea or a glass of milk!