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When the Cupboard Is Bare

Meal planning takes a on a new challenge this week: I’m on a quest to clean out the fridge and pantry before my family and I head off on our Easter holidays. I concede that I will probably leave behind the odd tin of tomatoes or chickpeas, and that I should probably just throw away the custard powder that I bought for one really odd recipe back in 2012, but my general policy is that no crumb will be left behind.

This delights the boys, of course, as I produce usually verboten treats from the depths of the freezer. Oven chips! Fish Fingers!  They’ve been less enthusiastic about the frozen peas and tinned sweetcorn, but ice pops (definitely purchased last summer…) seem to be making up for it. I, for one, was delighted to find tinned sweetcorn, however, because on Tuesday, after a long day of toddler chasing and hailstone dodging, topped off by a dentist appointment, I arrived home cranky, hungry, and in need of a pick-me-up. Enter: sweetcorn fritters.

Fritters, you say? Batter? Deep frying? Sounds too fussy for a Tuesday night. And you’d be right, if I hadn’t remembered this genius recipe from a blog post that I used to receive from my organic delivery service.  It’s simple, it’s light, full of flavour, and very quick.

A few confessions on my end though…I definitely used a tin of sweetcorn, and I have also used thawed frozen kernels as well. They’re not AS delicious as summer’s finest fresh corn on the cob, but they are more than adequate, and the fritters are way too nice to only eat a few months a year when corn is at its best. Also, I didn’t have any sour cream, so I spiked some natural yogurt with lime juice and drizzled that on top instead. (I also skipped the guacamole, again in the interest of not buying more fresh produce ahead of our vacation) And, my final confession: my husband and I ate them so quickly and happily that I completely forgot to take any photos, so you’ll have to trust us! It was a brilliant use of pantry staples (tinned sweetcorn, flour) and sad fridge items that might otherwise have been destined for the compost bin (a starting-to-wrinkle red chilli, a wilting bunch of spring onions, and some sad coriander left from last week’s Taco Tuesday). Somehow when they all came together it was just what the doctor (or maybe the dentist!) ordered.

Wednesday’s dinner was a bit more organized – out of necessity, really. I take a course on Wednesday evenings, so the boys have an early dinner and hang out with their granddad until my husband makes it home from work. We all eat at different times, and it can be hectic, so I find that the easiest thing to do is make a one pot meal that can easily be reheated. During Operation Empty Presses, this means Jools Oliver’s Pregnant Pasta.

I have no idea how this lovely, rich, meaty sauce got its funny name, but it’s a hit with absolutely everyone in my house. In less than 30 minutes, this hodgepodge of sad veggies and ordinary sausages becomes…

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…this wonderful, rich sauce flavored with fennel, oregano, and sweet, tangy balsamic vinegar.

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It’s absolutely gorgeous. I usually omit the red chili from the recipe, as my kids aren’t big fans, but I often sprinkle a pinch of dried chili flakes (one of my favourite pick-me-ups) on my own bowl. I usually serve this sauce with penne or fusilli (AKA ‘twirly whirly pasta’ in my house), but in a pinch, it’s also nice with spaghetti.

And finally, I needed a last minute solution to the Dessert Night dilemma We always have dessert on Wednesdays for a midweek treat. It is nice to enjoy something sweet once in a while, but I got tired of dodging constant requests for cookies and ice cream. Now that the boys know that they have a guaranteed treat coming one night a week, they don’t ask quite as often, and even if they do, I can cheerfully reply, ‘Yep, we can have that on Wednesday!’ Last week I forgot to pick something up at the bakery, and I didn’t want to buy a whole box of eggs for cookies or brownies, due to Operation Empty Presses, so I decided to use what was on hand and make these lovely little mendiants. I didn’t use the same posh toppings as Rachel Allen, because I didn’t think dried fruit would be an easy sell, so instead I used some mini marshmallows and mini Smarties that may or may not have been left over from Halloween.  They were a big hit, but a word to the wise – if you’re going to give these to a toddler, be prepared to throw him or her directly into the bath when they’re finished…

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More posts soon about some of Philly’s food offerings (not to mention all of the home cooking I’m going to soak up there…woohoo!)

 

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Spring has Sprung

So here is my new year’s resolution…3 months late is better than never, right? I’ve wanted to re-start the blog for some time, but have been struggling to make it a priority and find motivation. Since Monkey Number Two has started taking longer naps, and spring produce has made an appearance, I will make excuses no longer…and so, I bring you today’s naptime creation: Wild Garlic Pesto!

 

Wild Garlic Pesto

Wild Garlic Pesto

 

Wild garlic has always seemed a bit elusive…a lovely idea for serious chefs who have minions to forage for them, or people who can go hill walking for hours unencumbered by a buggy. As I fall into neither category, I always read blog posts and magazine articles about the stuff rather wistfully..until last weekend when I walked into Fallon & Byrne to buy bananas and discovered a gorgeous bag of luscious, piquant wild garlic leaves – €1.99 for 100g. Hurray for Wild Wicklow Foods!  As much as the idea of foraging appeals to the romantic food in me, this was too good to pass up. So far, I’ve thrown it into a whipped feta dip, some pizza sauce, and made Donal Skehan’s Wild Garlic Pesto. I’ll be serving it tonight over pasta, but I can also wholeheartedly recommend it smeared on some nice bread with a few slices of good cheese.

Wild Garlic Pesto with Bread & Brie

Wild Garlic Pesto with Bread & Brie

A brilliant start to spring if you ask me! Happy foraging & wild garlic-eating, whether in the wilds of the countryside, or your local green grocer.

 

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Frozen Assets

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m producing a show in the Absolut Fringe Festival. It’s keeping me on my toes ( along with the day job and family life) so I’ve been trying to use my time wisely and plan meals in advance. I had some quality time at home this weekend, so I decided to do some bulk cooking and freezing. This evening now finds me relaxing in front of The Sunday Game with a glass of wine safe with the knowledge that this week’s meals are done & dusted.

I started off by thinking about breakfast. Cereal is all well and good, and I do love my Special K, but it always leaves me wanting. I find that if I don’t have some kind of bread with my breakfast, I give in to the morning munchies and end up having a pastry with my eleven o’clock coffee – not good for training. So I used up the last of the garden’s summer bounty and baked a lovely batch of Rhubarb Muffins from Rachel Allen’s Food at Home and some Zucchini Bread from her brilliant Bake. The loaves of bread were sliced in half, double-wrapped  in cling film, and popped into the freezer. Muffins were popped into Ziploc bags and frozen as well. I’ll take them out the night before, leave them to defrost on the counter, and voila – breakfast!

On the savoury baking front, I also made two loaves each of brown soda bread and cheddar & bacon bread, which I’ll save for nights when we’re having some of the Minestrone and Lentil & Onion soup that I whipped up. (Seriously…I spent my entire weekend cooking…I barely ate!) Finally, I made the piece de resistance…an enormous lamb tagine a la Rachel Allen’s Easy Meals. (Do I have a Rachel Allen addiction? Maybe, but if admitting a problem is the first step to solving it, I don’t wanna!) This tagine will do us for at least three separate meals, and makes my entire family enormously happy. Served with cous cous, the ultimate fast food, it’s a great freezer treat. Here is one version of it, although if you have Easy Meals, which I highly recommend, give that recipe a try, as it uses dried apricots, which I love.

Last, but certainly not least…I also made a sweet treat to have on hand in case I need to brighten an upcoming production meeting, thank a co-worker, or keep the hubby sweet as I keep some looooong hours at work: these Peanut Butter and White Chocolate Blondies. They pretty much speak for themselves – super easy and sinfully delicious…try them. But don’t make the mistake of just making a single batch – double the recipe so you have some left for the freezer, because you will eat several straight from the oven…guaranteed.

 

 

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Dinner Dash

I was having lunch with some friends a while back when the topic of weeknight dinners was broached and a collective groan landed on the table next to my French onion soup. Everyone at the table was a working parent trying to juggle our own diary demands, plus those of our kids and partners’, while trying to satisfy our desire to sit down for tranquil family meals. It’s one hell of an equation…how can I bring child x to child y’s birthday party  whilst preparing a dinner that includes at least 2 of our 5 a day AND allows me to leave the house at 7 to dash off to colleague z’s leaving drinks? High school algebra was easier! (And that’s a strong statement coming from me…) In fact, I’ve had a draft of this blog post sitting on my computer for ages, but just haven’t had the time to proof and post it between meetings, appointments with the public health nurse, and managing the laundry.

Not everyday is like this in my house of course…I love to come home from work and lovingly stir a risotto,  roast chicken with spring vegetables, or make homemade cornbread while a pot of chili con carne simmers on the stove. In reality though, this happens a lot less often than I would like, so in order to keep dinner a budget-friendly, relatively nutritious event, I have a few recipes on stand by that I’d like to share. I can almost make them with my eyes closed at this stage, but no one has ever complained when they pop up on the table – tried and true family favorites.

The first is a lovely, summery pasta dish from Neven Maguire, one of my all-time favourite chefs. (his restaurant, McNean House is one of my happy places – get there if you can…)  This is a veggie dish with great substance and flavor without getting weighed down in too much cream, cheese, or butter.

Fettucine with Melting Courgettes (from Home Chef by Neven Maguire)

4 T. olive oil

2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped

450 g/1 lb courgettes (zuchinni where I come from!) or yellow squash

2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped

2 tsp fresh thyme leaves, chopped

1/2 t dried chilli flakes

250g/9oz dried fettucine

25g/1oz butter

2T flat leaf parsley, chopped

4T. grated Parmesan cheese

salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the olive oil in a heavy-based frying pan over a low heat. Add the shallots and saute gently for about 5 minutes. Add the courgettes& garlic, then saute for a further 15 minutes until a light golden colour before adding chili flakes & thyme, then season with salt and pepper. In the mean time, cook your pasta according to the directions on the packet. When the courgettes and pasta are both finished toss together with the butter & parsley, serve in bowls with Parmesan.

Another last minute favorite of mine is from Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals and is called (for whatever reason) Jools Oliver’s Pregnant Pasta. (In my house we just call it  Yummy Sausage Pasta –  it’s easier to sell it that way…) I omit the chillies, as my little guy thinks that anything spicier than chorizo is an attempt to poison him, and I’ve often used a yellow onion instead of a the spring onions listed. (Side note: If anyone in Dublin is wondering where to buy the best sausages, my absolute favorites are the breakfast sausages from  the butcher counter at Fallon & Byrne)

These fishcakes from my home cook guru, Rachel Allen are also a crowd-pleaser in my house. You can serve them with any green veg/spud combo for a very healthy meal. In my house we favor steamed broccoli and wedges with a light dusting of paprika. Sometimes I stick them into burger buns with a bit of mayo and sell them as ‘fishburgers’ – not that they need much selling!

Spicy Salmon Fishcakes (from Rachel Allen’s Favourite Food at Home)

350g filleted & skinned salmon, roughly chopped
50g butter
2-3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
100g white breadcrumbs
1 egg, whisked
2tsp dijon mustard
2tbsp lemon juice
2tbsp chopped coriander
6 spring onions, chopped
2tsp Worcestershire sauce
1-2tsp Tabasco sauce or 1 deseeded chilli, chopped (optional)
Combine all the ingredients in a food processor and whiz to combine. Taste* for seasoning add salt, pepper, lemon juice, or Tabasco if necessary. Shape into patties with a 3 inch diameter. Pan fry in olive oil for 3-4 minutes on each side.
*I never do this because I dont like to taste the raw mixture, but it’s in the original directions! I eat raw salmon all the time, as I’m a big sushi fan, but for some reason tasting the pulsed mixture makes me shudder…
Well, I hope that offers a few dinner dash solutions. If all else fails, I call these guys or call into Marks and Spencer for their dine-in for two special, which can generally be split 3 ways. I have a hectic week ahead, so I’ll take notes on what I come up with and let you know if I find any other gems!

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Deskfast

Today’s post is inspired by a great article by Roisin Ingle in this week’s Irish Times about dining al desko – a popular activity these days, as post-Christmas credit card bills loom and desires to book a summer holiday blossom. We’re all looking for a way out the sandwich rut and her article as well as this post and this piece offer some great suggestions that I will definitely be trying over the coming weeks, especially the Easy Duck Pie in Ingle’s article and Peanut Chicken Noodle Salad in Usborne’s – yum.

No matter how hard I try, I will never be a morning person, even if I am an early riser these days, and I need to be up and about for an hour or two before I really develop an appetite for breakfast, so Monday-Friday I often eat breakfast at my desk. I’ve been trying to keep breakfast a bit more inspired recently, as a result of a great Christmas gift. My husband bought me a fantastic insulated coffee mug, which turned out to be the gift that keeps on giving. We had a million plastic ones lying around the place, but this stainless steel beauty keep liquids hot for up to four hours. This means that I can brew a pot of filter coffee at home, pour it into my mug, pop it into my bag, run around like a mad woman dropping my son off at creche and chasing buses, and arrive at work with a lovely, hot cup of coffee to savor – all for mere pennies! A quality cup of coffee deserves an equal partner, so I’ve made an effort to trade my slice of toast, bowl of Special K, or (I’ll be honest here…) my Cuisine de France Pain au Chocolat for something a little more upscale. Here are two recipes that I love…

The first is Bill Granger’s Cinnamon Crunch Muesli. This is not yo mama’s muesli…it’s rich, crunchy, and so delicious that it feels a little too naughty for breakfast, but it’s chock full of oats and nuts. (He uses almonds, but I have also used hazelnuts – pecans would probably be nice too). The recipe makes loads and it keeps for weeks in an airtight container. I like to make a batch and leave it in a jar on the counter. I tip a few spoonfuls into a little container while my coffee is brewing, throw it in my bag with a yogurt (this is my current favourite brand). Happy days!

Museli Ready for the Oven

Muesli for the Week

Yogurt and Muesli Parfait with a Honey Drizzle

The second recipe is one that I’ve been making as long as I remember. I’m not sure of its origins, but it’s my mom’s favourite recipe for blueberry muffins. They are super easy and delicious to a ridiculous degree. I like to make a batch on Sunday night and bring them to work or stick them in my son’s lunchbox throughout the week. They’re a lot better than store bought muffins because despite the fact that they contain a bit of butter, they’re relatively low in sugar and have tons of blueberries (antioxidants!) in them. I’ll include metric and American measurements in the recipe.

Blueberry Muffins a la Peggy

2 1/2 c. (300g) plain flour (if you’re feeling virtuous you can use whole wheat pastry flour)

1/2 c.  (100g) white sugar

1 T. baking powder

1/2 t. salt

1 c. (280ml) milk

6T. (80 g) unsalted butter, melted

1t. vanilla

1 egg

1 cup (140g) blueberries

Preheat oven to 400F/200C. Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. In a separate bowl, beat milk, egg, and vanilla. Mix the wet with the dry and fold in blueberries. Spoon batter into muffin cups and bake for 20 minutes. Voila!

Blueberry Goodness

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It’s beginning to look a lot like…cookies!

As the temperature dips and the days grow short, I definitely feel nesting urges. I swap afternoon trips to the park with my son for sticking a stew  in the oven, popping a Christmas movie into the DVD player, and sitting on the couch for a cuddle and a cuppa. It is always hard to have a cup of tea without a biscuit, but in December, it’s hard not to have three or four, as there is always an endless variety in my house – not to mention the mince pies! I’m an absolute sucker for a new Christmas cookie recipe, so when the Irish Food Bloggers Association presented the opportunity for a recipe exchange between members, I jumped at the chance.

My recipe came from Magda, who blogs here about all sorts of goodies. She sent me a recipe for Cranberry Noel cookies, which she first discovered here, and she thinks are loosely based on a Martha Stewart recipe. I made them for the first time this afternoon and they tick a LOT of boxes for me. To begin with, I was able to make them while my son and his friend were having a play date in the next room (for those without toddlers, this means I was able to make them in about 7 minutes using only half of my brain, as the other half was tuned in to the conversation about dragons taking place in the sitting room). It’s an icebox cookie, so it’s easy to make up a few logs, stick them in the freezer, and bake on demand, earning you serious hostess points if someone drops in for tea and sympathy. The red & green in the dough is also very pretty and gives them a seasonal feel. The texture & flavour combinations are fantastic as well – a not- too-sweet, crumbly biscuit with mellow, crunchy nut and chewy, tart cranberry…excellent. I highly recommend giving them a go. Thanks, Magda!

Cranberry Noel Cookies, ready to bake

 Cranberry Noel Cookies

75 g unsalted butter
75 g icing sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla sugar
pinch of salt
1 tablespoon milk
250 g plain flour
30 g chopped pistachios
40 g chopped dry cranberries

Coating (I skipped it)
1 egg white (lightly beaten)
50 g finely chopped pistachios

Beat the butter with a mixer until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.
Add icing sugar, vanilla sugar, salt and milk.
Mix until just combined.
Gradually add flour, pistachios, and cranberries.
Mix on low speed until fully combined.
Divide dough in a half.
Shape each half into 8-inch logs, about 2 inches in diameter.*
If you are putting coating. Lightly brush the logs with an egg white
and roll them in the chopped pistachios.
Wrap logs in cling film and put into a freezer for 20-30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 200C/180C fan.
Line a couple baking sheets with unbleached parchment paper or a silicon mat.
Using a sharp knife, cut logs into 1/4-inch thick slices.
Transfer them into prepared baking sheets.
Bake until edges are golden, about 10-12 minutes. (Be careful, they burn quite easily)
Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

*At this stage, the dough was very crumbly and I was convinced that I had weighed the flour incorrectly; I hadn’t – the dough just needed a lot of shaping!

Yum!

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All I Want for Christmas

It’s that time of year again when I start casually leaving dog-eared magazines & catalogues around the house, ‘accidentally’  leave the browser open with certain items on display, or (I’ll be honest here…) blatantly take my husband by the arm, drag him into a shop and point to things I like. The vast majority of my hinting points towards food-related items, be they cookbooks, cook’s tools, or luxury food items.  If you’re looking to drop a few hints yourself, or there’s a foodie in your life that leaves you scratching your head, here are a few items that are tickling me this year…

Image: Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Cookbooks/Publications

For yummy recipes, quaint design, and the feel-good factor, you can’t beat The Mixing Bowl, a fundraising initiative from Our Lady’s Hospice and Care Services. The book includes a wide variety of treasures ranging from Foccacia Soda Bread to Oxford Lunch Cake to Marilyn Monroe Chicken. All of the book’s recipes come from residents and clients of the hospice service, and all proceeds go to support their work – brilliant.

A must for any household that requires dinner-on-demand is Rachel Allen’s Easy Meals.  I am completely in love with this book & its TV tie-in at the moment. A selection of recipes from the book can be found here (I highly recommend the scrumptious tarka dahl – it blew my mind), but I recommend picking up the whole book. It’s chock full of store cupboard suggestions, fantastic baking ideas (OMG, the chocolate mousse cake…) and general tips for getting a proper dinner on the table in minutes. I suspect that I will be using this book a lot. In fact, I’m planning to try the huevos rancheros in about an hour…

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is a book on the top of my Lust List is The Family Meal: Home Cooking with Ferran Adria Adria is the mad genius behind El Bulli. This gorgeous cookbook is a glimpse into one of the finest culinary minds of recent times, but contains achievable recipes. I also just love Phaidon cookbooks.

If baking is your thing, Phaidon have also outdone themselves with Ginette Mathiot’s The Art of French Baking. I got it for my birthday, and it is just a lovely thing to have, even if you are not ambitious enough to make anything in it! (I have drooled on it a lot, but not actually cooked anything from it…yet!)

Magazine subscriptions are also great for year-round giving. Food & Wine is a lovely Irish publication full of recipes, reviews, and tips.

Stocking Stuffers/Christkindl/Secret Santa

A few low budget ideas:

– Irish Atlantic Sea Salt

– This is perfect for those who like to add flare to their dinner parties

– Just about anything from this shop

-every kitchen should have a Microplane. Or two. Or twelve.

Cooking Fun

– A voucher for a local cooking school is a great gift. Look for a place with lunchtime options, like Cook’s Academy or Donnybrook Fair, or if it’s someone special, you could always plan a weekend away at somewhere like The Tannery or Dunbrody House.

– A trip to Kildare Village could net you some great Le Creuset Goodies. All of the products there are factory seconds, but are generally in great shape and significantly marked down from the average retail cost. There’s not a cook in the land who wouldn’t love a new enamel French oven or stoneware gratin dish.

Going for Broke

If you or someone you know has been VERY good this year (or you won the  lotto last night) these are my particular objects of desire at the moment…

– this beautiful stand mixer

– a complete collection of these

– book a trip to Denmark and try to get on the waiting list for dinner at Noma

When Visiting

By the time December 25th rolls around, I don’t want to see another bottle of wine or mince pie coming in my door. They both have their time and place, but they seem to pile up at an alarming rate during the month of December. This year, think outside the box for your host’s gift…I recently received a huge hunk of Comte Reserve from dinner guests and it was the gift that kept on giving (in fact, some of still lives on my hips…) Head to your local cheesemonger for a few wedges of something special and toss ’em into a red gift bag some some oatcakes or a crusty baguette. If you’re feeling boozy, when not try a craft beer? There are a few Irish microbreweries on my radar right now that are producing lovely stuff, like Dungarvan Brewing Company and Eight Degrees Brewing Company. But wherever you live, a guarantee that someone is brewing something lovely within an hour’s drive of your house. Find a stockist and share the goodness.

I’ll be writing about some DIY options next week, but hopefully the suggestions above might help you with your shopping this week!

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