Wednesday, 30 December 2009

A New Way of Entertaining

I’m not sure quite when it happened, but sometime around the mid-1990’s, having a dinner party became something of a competitive sport. Tallies were kept of who was asked, and who asked back, of who served the best wines and the most fashionable dishes. For some strong souls, this was a boon to their competitive spirits, but for the rest of us ordinary mortals, it transformed “entertaining” from a pleasure into something that was only just off the trauma of a root canal.

Yes, even I was one of those people sweating in the kitchen, panicking as I tried to produce food worthy of the best restaurants – course after course of the new and different – worried that my cooking wasn’t up to it and that my budget wouldn’t stand it. Some of the cooking programmes of that time period didn’t help either, positively feeding the frenzy for the exotic. They would show Michelin-starred chefs producing dishes with an army of invisible minions, yet assuring us that we could – indeed should – be able to reproduce them single-handedly in our own kitchens. The worst thing is, so many of us believed them.

Recently, however, there has been a sea change. More and more cooking programmes feature people who insist they are “cooks” and not chefs, people who encourage us to try the new and different and step out of our comfort zones, but not so far that we end up quivering wrecks in the corners of our kitchens. It’s wonderful, and it is changing how we cook once again.

Of course, another reason for the change in how we entertain and what we cook is the economic crisis that arose last year, and that persists in hanging round like an unwanted dinner guest. Thank goodness, showing off is now decidedly last year, and more and more people are entertaining the old fashioned way – with delicious, honest food and decent, mid-priced wines. It’s no longer about status; it’s about comfort and conviviality.

This is something that needs to be encouraged. While there is no reason not to prepare Boeuf en Croute with Foie Gras if you feel economically and ethically able to do so, there is equally no reason to feel you must if, quite frankly, chilli is more your forte. Standards are slipping and it is making for a delightful change.

We need to encourage each other to entertain buoyantly and bountifully, but to do so in a way that we are comfortable with and that suits our pocketbooks. It’s perfectly acceptable to invite friends to share a potluck dinner in your home, or to suggest a dinner party that offers different courses prepared and brought by various guests. If you do want to prepare and offer everything yourself (and there is equally nothing wrong with that), you should feel no pressure whatsoever to offer anything beyond what you can comfortably prepare and reasonably afford. Not only that, but it should be abundantly clear in these days of economic caution that while it is imperative to RSVP, reciprocating should be purely and completely voluntary.

The other thing these frugal times have taught us is how much we value the things that are really important - things like family, friends and time spent together. The last thing anyone wants to be doing when they have friends visiting is having a meltdown in the kitchen. Entertaining is meant to be fun, both for those being entertained and those entertaining. If it stops being fun, you are not doing it right!

So let’s make one of our first resolutions for this New Year – indeed new decade – be to embrace this new, more relaxed style of entertaining, one where there is nothing to prove, and no one to keep up with. Let’s resolve to enjoy ourselves, whether we be the entertainer or the entertained, and celebrate the joy of being a cook in the kitchen - not a chef or a performance artist - but a good, home cook who enjoys celebrating life with friends.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

The 21st Century Housewife's© Delicious Sherry (or Madeira) Trifle

Trifle is a wonderful dessert at any time of year, but it is lovely at Holiday Time because as well as tasting great, it also looks really pretty. This is my Grandma's recipe which my Mom taught me to make when I was a little girl. My Mom told me that Grandma’s trifle used to be legendary in Stoney Creek, Ontario, where she and her sister grew up. Even the strictly teetotal Vicar used to ask for seconds!

Grandma originally used rum for the trifle, but then changed to sherry, although no one ever knew why. I think it is because it tastes so lovely and stains the cake bit of the trifle such a gorgeous shade of red. Be sure to use good sweet sherry or a nice Madeira for this recipe as the alcohol is a very important part of it. I ate it as a child and it was never a problem, but be sure to tell folks with children and drivers that it does contain alcohol. It is very sweet anyway, so most people will only want a small portion.

I have made one change to my Grandma's recipe, in that hers never did contain any fruit. However when I first came to England and served trifle for dessert, I had a lot of people ask me why I had "left out" the fruit. They seemed adamant that in England, trifles must contain fruit, so I decided to give in and amend the recipe a bit. If I am honest I really do like the fruit, and am pleased with my version, although I do hope my Grandma would approve!

The quantities are quite loose and you really have to judge according to the size of the bowl you are using, but it never hurts to have left over jelly roll, custard, or sherry so I always err on the side of having too much. When I say jelly roll, I’m talking about a rolled up sponge cake filled with jam or sometimes jam and cream (either works really well). Jelly roll is also called Swiss Roll or Roulade in many countries. Just as a guide, to serve 8 to 10, I use:-

2 and 1/2 medium Jelly/Swiss Rolls/Roulades
2 batches of custard
(made from Harry Horne’s or Birds custard powder according to the directions on the can and allowed to cool just a little)
1 to 1-1/2 cups of sherry or Madeira
2 small cans of strawberries or raspberries, very well drained
1 large container whipping cream

It is nice to use a pretty bowl for this - it's a good opportunity to use that special cut crystal bowl that sits in the cupboard waiting for a special occasion. However I have even made it in a casserole and it still looks and tastes lovely. Please bear in mind that the quantities I have listed above are affected by the size of your bowl, so they really are just a guide. Be careful not to overfill the bowl, and leave lots of room for cream at the top, as well as a bit of a space at the top of the bowl so you can cover the trifle with Saran Wrap or cling film without ruining the top of it.

This is so easy to make. Just assemble your ingredients and slice the Jelly/Swiss Rolls/Roulades in medium slices. Be sure the custard is ready and that it is warm, but not piping hot. Also do be sure you have drained the fruit well.

Use the slices of Jelly/Swiss Rolls/Roulades to line the bottom and the sides of the bowl, up to within about an inch and a half of the top. You might not be able to get the jelly roll all the way up the sides of the bowl with the first layer, so if not, just keep working your way up the sides of the bowl as your inside layers get higher.

Sprinkle sherry very generously over the first layer of jelly roll. Add about 1/3 of the fruit, followed by about 1/3 of the warm custard. (Warm custard penetrates the jelly roll better). Repeat this at least two more times, depending on the size of the bowl, being sure to finish with a layer of custard and leaving at least an inch and a half at the top of the bowl. Allow the trifle to cool to room temperature, then cover and put it in the fridge.

Leave the trifle in the fridge for at least two or three hours (you can leave it overnight if you like). Once it is nice and cold, whip the cream and spread it over the top. If desired, you can sprinkle the trifle with a few flaked toasted almonds or decorate if with a few Amaretti biscuits. Again, it isn't something my Grandma did, but I am sure she would have no objection and I think it makes the trifle look even prettier!

Thursday, 24 December 2009

A Merry Christmas To All

Well, I am about as ready for Christmas as I am going to be. We've collected the turkey and the hams from the butcher and they are ready to be put on ice for the journey. I've just got two more stuffings to make and a few more things to do as we pack up and get ready to go to my husband's parent's house for Christmas.

As I look back on this year, I'm really excited by how The 21st Century Housewife's Kitchen© has evolved, and I'm looking forward to even more exciting things next year. I'm especially grateful for the support of all of you, my readers, and I hope that you have enjoyed lots of inspiration this year. Most of all, I hope that I've encouraged you to be more relaxed about cooking, and that cooking has become for you (as it is for me) a real source of creative expression and enjoyment.

I'm really looking forward to writing about more restaurants and food issues as well and am hoping to expand that side of the blog in the New Year. Watch this space!

I hope that you are spending this Christmas with people you love, and that you will enjoy lots of fun, food and celebration. Thank you for being a part of The 21st Century Housewife's Kitchen© this year. A very Merry Christmas to you all.


Wednesday, 23 December 2009

The 21st Century Housewife's© Banana Coconut and Pecan Muffins

It's always tricky deciding what to eat for breakfast on Christmas morning. The kids are usually awake early and you fancy something to eat, but you don't want to spoil your (or their!) appetite for the big event later on. These muffins are positively decadent, but light enough not to fill you up too much, and you can still pretend they are a little bit good for you because of the whole wheat flour and the bananas! The ginger makes them lovely and seasonally spicy, just right Christmas morning.

My recipe makes a big batch of 24 large muffins, but that is no problem as I find they disappear very quickly, and anyway they freeze very easily once cooled. If you really don’t want 24 muffins, pour half the mixture into a loaf tin and make a loaf cake and just 12 muffins. You just have to remember to bake the loaf cake for longer - about 50 to 60 minutes instead of the 20 to 25 minutes the muffins take. Allow the loaf to cool completely before slicing.

Despite my Christmas theme, the muffins are delicious all year round!

2 cups all purpose flour
2 cups whole wheat flour
2 tablespoons baking powder
2 to 3 teaspoons ginger
1 cup pecans chopped
1 cup desiccated or flaked coconut
3 medium ripe bananas, mashed
3/4 cup white sugar
3/4 cup light brown sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2/3 cup oil
(sunflower or mild olive oil works well, but not extra virgin olive oil)
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups buttermilk

Measure the flours, baking powder, ginger, pecans and coconut into a large bowl and stir to mix.

Place the mashed bananas in a medium bowl and add the sugars, eggs, oil, vanilla and buttermilk. Mix thoroughly.

Add the banana and sugar mixture to the flour mixture and stir thoroughly until well blended, but don’t beat. Divide the mixture between 24 large lined (or greased and floured) muffin cups. (I use an ice cream scoop with a release trigger to do this.)

Bake at about 350℉ or 170℃ for 20 to 25 minutes or until a piece of dry spaghetti inserted into the middle of a muffin comes out clean (ie. with no batter clinging to it). Keep an eye on these in the last five minutes or so of cooking or they will over-brown.

Take the muffin pans out of the oven. Remove the muffins from the pan and cool on wire racks. I feel obliged to mention here that these are delicious warm from the oven with a nice hot cup of tea!

Once cooled, store in a sealed container in the refrigerator if possible. (Bring to room temperature or warm in the microwave before eating.) To freeze, wait until completely cool and then seal in freezer bags or containers before freezing. Thaw overnight in the fridge. These taste nice warmed in the microwave for a few seconds before eating.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

The 21st Century Housewife's© Pork Tenderloin with Balsamic Roast Shallots and Madeira Gravy

I’ve heard so many folks talk about using Madeira in cooking, I bought a bottle recently so I could experiment with it. I have used it in a lot of recipes – from gravies to soups and stews - with great success. If you don’t already know, Madeira is a fortified wine, fairly similar to sherry but with a slightly different flavour to it. Having said that, you can definitely substitute sherry for the Madeira in this recipe if you don’t have any Madeira to hand.

I love pork tenderloin. It is easy to cook and usually very tender. I buy mine from the butcher, who removes the white skin and trims the fat for me so all I have to do is season it and plonk it in the roasting dish. I recommend this course of action highly – the one time I did try to do the trimming myself I ended up frustrated plus I cut my finger!

This dish is definitely good enough for company, but it is a great one to treat yourself to as well! Leftovers keep for a couple days in the fridge and make lovely sandwiches.

Pork Tenderloin with Balsamic Roast Shallots and Madeira Gravy

2 to 3 pork tenderloins
2 cups shallots, peeled and sliced in half if they are big
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil

For the gravy:-

1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 generous tablespoons flour
about 2 cups chicken stock
½ cup Madeira
¼ cup cranberry sauce

Arrange the shallots around the tenderloins in a roasting dish. Mix the balsamic vinegar and the olive oil together and pour over the tenderloin and shallots. Turn the shallots a bit in the pan to coat them with the oil and vinegar. Roast at 375℉ (190℃) for about 30 to 40 minutes until the tenderloin is cooked with no pink inside –with an internal temperature of about 320℉ (160℃).

Meanwhile, make the gravy. Melt the butter with the olive oil in a medium saucepan. Add the onion and cook over very low heat, allowing it to soften slowly for about ten to fifteen minutes.

Add the Madeira and turn the heat up to high. Reduce the Madeira by keeping it at a high heat and stirring occasionally so it does not stick. Basically you want the onion to look like it has absorbed nearly all the Madeira, but with a tiny bit of liquid still in the pan.

Turn the heat back to medium, and sprinkle the Madeira soaked onions with the flour. Stir and allow to cook for about a minute. Gradually add the chicken stock, stirring after each addition. You are aiming for a smooth, fairly thick gravy. You may not need all the stock, or you may need a little more, but I find 2 cups is usually about right.

When the gravy is a nice consistency, stir in the cranberry sauce until it is all blended in and heat through.

Slice the tenderloin and top it with the roasted shallots. Pour a little of the gravy over top to serve, and put the rest in a gravy boat on the table so people can help themselves.

Monday, 21 December 2009

The 21st Century Housewife's© Scrumptious Crab Melts

This is such a busy time of year that sometimes the idea of having to prepare another meal is just that step too far. These Crab Melts are so easy, delicious and filling they really do save the day. Great for lunch with some chips or a salad, they also make a really warming dinner served with a nice bowl of soup. We had these with some chips on the day we were decorating the house for Christmas and they made a really special lunch on a busy (but fun!) day.

You can use canned crab meat, but fresh is really lovely. I buy mine ready prepared in a little pot from the grocery store. It’s expensive, but a little goes a long way. These are very rich; you only need one half of the ciabatta or panini each so this recipe serves 2.

½ cup white crab meat
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp finely chopped red pepper
1 tbsp finely chopped celery
2 tbsp mascarpone cheese
salt and pepper to taste
2 slices of Monterey Jack or Swiss cheese
1 small rectangular ciabatta bread, or 1 panini

Cut the ciabatta bread or panini in half, and put the halves in the oven on a baking sheet at about 350℉ (175℃) for five minutes to toast up a bit.

Meanwhile, mix the crab meat with the mustard, red pepper, celery and mascarpone cheese. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Remove the ciabatta or panini from the oven, and divide the crab mixture between the two halves. Cut the cheese slice slices in half and put two halves on top of the crab on each piece of ciabatta or panini.

Return the crab and cheese topped bread to the oven for five to ten minutes, until the cheese is bubbling and brown.

Serve one half of the panini or ciabatta to each person, allowing to cool a bit before you bite in - the cheese gets very hot!

Friday, 18 December 2009

Le Creuset Giveaway - and Luxury Cottage Pie

Cottage Pie is a great dish for this time of year, not least of all because you can make it ahead and reheat it. I often make two at a time and freeze one so I have a delicious and easy meal tucked away for busy days. I make lots of different variations on my recipe, but this version is just that little bit extra-special as it contains Madeira, a fortified wine. One of my favourite casserole dishes to use for my Cottage Pies is my Le Creuset oval casserole dish pictured above. It’s a brilliant oven to tableware dish that is also fridge and freezer safe. I own a number of Le Creuset products and they are a brand I trust and use regularly. And the great news is that the generous folks at

have offered to send one of these very useful Le Creuset oval casserole dishes to a reader in the United States or Canada. (Sadly they only ship to North American addresses.) If you click here you can see a Le Creuset dish like the one are giving away. In return they have asked me to mention their new line of Paula Deen Cookware, which looks really interesting. I saw Paula’s products at her very famous shop in Savannah and they were definitely very covetable! For a chance to win the Le Creuset dish, send an email to with the words Le Creuset Giveaway in the subject line and I will enter you into the draw - closing date is Sunday 10th January. Remember you have to have an address in the continental US or Canada to enter as the prize is being shipped direct from

Here is the cottage pie I made the other night, with its lovely gravy peeking up around the edges:-

and here is the recipe!

The 21st Century Housewife’s© Luxury Cottage Pie
Serves 4

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 pound of ground beef
1 generous tablespoon flour
2 large carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
3 large potatoes, peeled and cut in chunks
3 parsnips, peeled and cut in chunks
(if you don’t like parsnips, just use an extra potato)
3 tablespoons butter
about 1/4 to 1/2 cup light cream or half and half
about 1 cup beef stock
1/4 cup ketchup
1/4 cup Madeira (or dry sherry if you do not have any Madeira to hand)
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan, and sauté the onions gently over low heat until they are beginning to soften. Add the beef. Break up any large chunks with a spatula or spoon and brown, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, put the potatoes and parsnips in a saucepan. Cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Boil for about ten minutes until the potatoes and parsnips have softened. Drain and return to the saucepan. Mash with the butter. Add the cream gradually, continuing to mash, until the potatoes and parsnips are moistened, but still have a fairly firm consistency. Cover and set aside.

When the beef is nearly cooked through, sprinkle with the flour and stir it through. Allow to cook for about a minute. Gradually add the stock, a bit at a time, stirring after each addition. Add the ketchup, Madeira and Worcestershire sauce and stir in. Bring to the boil, and allow to bubble away merrily for about five minutes so the gravy can reduce a bit, stirring occasionally so the mixture doesn’t stick. Lower the heat, cover and cook for about ten minutes, stirring occasionally. If the mixture appears to thick, add a bit more stock, but be careful not to add too much.

Put the beef mixture into the bottom of a casserole dish. Carefully dollop the potato and parsnip mixture on top with a spoon. Gently spread the mixture over the beef using a fork, covering it right up to the edges. (The Shepherd’s Pie can be cooled at this point and refrigerated or frozen for another day.)

Bake the Cottage Pie at 350℉ or 175℃ for about 20 minutes or until the potato is beginning to turn golden. (If you have made the pie a day or so earlier and taken it from the fridge, you will need to heat it at about 375℉ or 190℃ for about 30 to 40 minutes or until heated through. If frozen, thaw in the refrigerator overnight and then cook as for from the fridge.

Incidentally, if you are wondering why this is called Cottage Pie and not Shepherd’s Pie it is because Shepherd’s Pie is made with lamb and Cottage Pie is made with beef. And yes, there is absolutely no reason why you could not use ground lamb in this recipe and call it Shepherd’s Pie :)

Don't forget to enter the giveaway!

* have not reimbursed me for this post in any way, except for providing the Le Creuset dish for the giveaway, which will be shipped to the winner directly from them.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Some News....

Watch this space for a very special Giveaway announcement on Friday! The nice folks at are joining up with us here at The 21st Century Housewife's Kitchen to do a very cool giveaway. They have some great products on their site, including some wonderful Paula Deen Cookware.
I saw some of Paula Deen's Cookware products in her shop when I visited Savannah a couple years ago and they looked amazing. The item being given away is from one of my favourite lines, and one of you could find it a very useful addition indeed to their kitchen - so be sure to be here on Friday for the announcement!

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

The 21st Century Housewife's© Mincemeat and Brandy Cake

This is such an easy recipe to make and it just tastes of Christmas! It is also wonderful for people who are not big fans of traditional fruitcake (like me!) because although it has many of the elements of a fruitcake, the sponge makes it so much lighter. It will keep for three or four days if you wrap it well and it tastes even better the day after it is made. It isn’t the prettiest cake in the world, but it sure tastes good!

1 cup mixed dried fruit
3 tbsp brandy - dark rum or whisky work too, but you have to slightly adjust the name of the cake to Mincemeat and Rum or Mincemeat and Whiskey Cake :)
½ cup plus 1 tbsp butter, softened
¾ cup white sugar
3 large eggs, beaten
1-¾ cups flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1 cup mincemeat
3 to 4 generous tablespoons of demerera sugar for the topping

Put the mixed dried fruit in a bowl and pour the liquor over top. Stir and set aside. Grease and flour (or line) an eight or nine inch square pan.

Cream the butter and sugar in an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add the eggs and beat in. Gently blend in the flour.

Using a wooden spoon, fold in the mincemeat and soaked dried fruit (along with any liquor left in the bowl), stirring until just mixed through.

Pour into the cake tin and sprinkle the demerera sugar over the top. Bake at 300℉ (150℃ ) for 30 to 40 minutes. Ovens vary so radically in how quickly they cook, it really is worth keeping an eye on this the first time you bake it so it does not brown up too fast. The cake is done when a skewer (or piece of uncooked spaghetti) inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Cool, and the cover tightly with foil or store in a sealed tin. It is lovely served on its own with a cup of tea, or serve it as a dessert with some good vanilla ice cream.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

My Mom's Mincemeat Tart Oat Squares

This recipe is one of my Mom’s, from the recipe box she left me. The box is such a treasure to me as it contains so many memories of my Mom and the things we used to cook together. I have to admit to playing with the recipe a bit over the years to make it my own, but the original idea is my Mom’s. These squares are great for this time of year as not only are they seasonal, but the oats in them almost allow you to convince yourself they are good for you!  It’s the perfect recipe for a Saturday afternoon, when hopefully you have not only the time, but also the inclination, to bake something delicious. Having said that it is so quick and easy you could even put it together after a frantic day of shopping.   These delicious squares can be cut in small squares for dessert buffets, or larger ones if you want to serve it as a dessert at a sit down dinner.  (In which case a scoop of good vanilla ice cream or a nice dollop of whipped cream is a lovely accompaniment!) Be sure to use proper oatmeal, not the instant kind.
¾ cup rolled oats (not instant)
¾ cup all purpose (plain) flour
¼ teaspoon baking soda (bicarbonate of soda)
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup brown sugar, packed
½ cup butter, (cold, cut in small cubes)
1 – ¼ cups mincemeat (store bought is fine, but choose a good brand)
2 tablespoon rum, brandy, Cointreau or Grand Mariner
(Cointreau or Grand Mariner give the recipe a gorgeous citrus hit)
Grease and flour an eight inch square pan.  Preheat the oven to 350ºF or about 150º - 170ºC.  Put the mincemeat in a small bowl and stir in the liquor.
In a medium size bowl or in the food processor, combine the oats, flour, baking soda, salt and sugar.  Add the butter and either process or cut in until the mixture is crumbly.  Firmly press half this mixture into the square pan.  Pop the pan in the freezer for about fifteen minutes.  Put the remaining of the oat mixture in the fridge for the same amount of time.
Remove the square pan from the freezer and the remaining oat mixture from the fridge. Carefully spread the boozy mincemeat over the top of the oat mixture in the square pan.    Gently sprinkle the remaining oat mixture evenly over the top.  Bake in the oven for about 20 to 25 minutes.   (Ovens vary so wildly it is hard to say so please do keep an eye on the pan.)  When the squares are cooked they will be lightly golden brown on top.  Remove from the oven and allow to cool.  (Seriously, do not cut into these when they are warm as they will just crumble everywhere.)
When they are totally cool you can slice in either small squares to eat with your fingers as a snack or on a buffet, or in larger ones to serve with whipped cream or ice cream as a dessert.  If you have any left over, they will keep in a sealed container for a few days. You can store them in the fridge, but bring them to room temperature before eating.

I hope you enjoy these as much as we do in our house!

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

The 21st Century Housewife's© Christmas Parsnip Soup

There is nothing like coming home from a hard day's Christmas shopping knowing that you have something lovely and warming for supper in the fridge. Parsnips are plentiful this time of year and combined with the nutmeg, they just taste of Christmas. This soup is so easy to make, and although it takes a bit of time, very little of that is labour intensive. It is wonderful served with crusty bread or rolls, or with your favourite sandwich. It travels well in a thermos too, if you want to take it along for lunch on the go!

1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
6 – 7 medium parsnips, peeled and cut in fairly small chunks
1 litre chicken stock
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly ground if possible
125 to 250 ml milk or single cream
paprika or a swirl of cream for garnish

Heat the butter and oil in a saucepan. Add the onion and cook over low heat until softened. The longer you can cook the onion the more flavourful it will be, provided you keep the heat very low. If you have time, you can leave them cooking away for about fifteen or twenty minutes; if you are in a rush, just make sure that they are nicely softened.

Stir in the parsnips, making sure to coat them with the melted butter and oil. Turn the heat down as low as you can and put the lid on the saucepan. Set the timer for ten minutes and let the parsnips sweat in their buttery coating. You can peek, in fact I encourage you to, just to be sure they are not sticking. Turn the heat back a bit if they do start to stick a little. Let them sweat away in the pan, giving them the occasional stir.

After ten minutes, remove the lid and add the stock. Bring to the boil. Now turn back the heat. Stir in the nutmeg and simmer gently for about 20 to 30 minutes until the parsnips are very, very soft. Take the soup off the heat.

Cool for a few minutes so the liquid and parsnips are not scalding hot. When the soup has cooled a bit, puree it in the blender in batches. If I am going to serve it later, this is the point at which I allow the soup to cool right down and then refrigerate it as I prefer to add the milk or cream just before serving.

If you are serving the soup right away, however, wash out the pan and dry it, and put the soup back in. (If you made the soup earlier and you now want to serve it, remove it from the fridge and allow to sit at room temperature for about twenty minutes -so it isn't icy cold - before putting it in a pan on the stove. ) Place the pan over a low heat and begin to stir in the milk or cream. Now the amount of milk you add depends on the thickness of the liquidised parsnips and stock you have in your pan, and indeed whether you have chosen to use milk or cream (which is slightly thicker). Just take it slowly as there is nothing worse than thin soup. Remember, you can always add more milk or cream, but you can’t take it away! Heat until piping hot. Carefully taste the soup, adding a little bit more nutmeg if you feel it needs it.

Serve in bowls or mugs with a sprinkling of paprika or swirl of cream for garnish.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

The 21st Century Housewife's© Sausage and Balsamic Roast Shallot Pasta

This is a great recipe for this time of year because it is quick and easy, yet tastes like it took a lot of time and effort. It is also easy on your purse or pocketbook! The shallots and spice give it an excellent flavour and the brussel sprouts add a lovely Christmassy touch. Please don’t go all funny on me about these – properly cooked they are gorgeous. (Overcooked, soggy and wilted they are awful!!) Having said that, if you really hate them, please feel free to leave them out. We love them in our house! In fact, I think I may be the only Mom who can say that when my son was little he used to stand in the vegetable aisle in the grocery store and say, “Please buy me some brussel sprouts mummy, I haven’t had them in ages!” Honestly, he did! People used to look at us, amazed – hearing a child ask for any vegetable is pretty incredible - hearing them ask for brussel sprouts is nigh on miraculous!

Anyway, if you are using fresh chillies, be sure to wear gloves or wash your hands very thoroughly after chopping them – and keep your fingers well away from your eyes until you have washed your hands. Believe me, chilli can burn. I have found ready-chopped chillies preserved in jars here in England and I must admit I use them quite a lot. The ones I buy are from the English Provender Company and are quite appropriately called ‘Very Lazy Chillies’. They do ‘Very Lazy Garlic’ as well (which you could also use in this recipe). I am sure there must be something similar if you live in North America and if you can find it, do please feel free to use it in this recipe! Anything to save a bit of time and effort at this busy time of year!! (NB. I use about half a teaspoon of the chillies when I make this, and about a teaspoon of the garlic.)

Passata is cooked, sieved tomato and is sold in jars or those cardboardy tetra-pac containers. If you can’t find it, feel free to use a tin of tomatoes instead. If your family is like mine and doesn’t like chunks of tomato in their food, just whiz the tomatoes in the food processor or blender before using.

This is a pasta meal that is definitely good enough to serve to guests, but it also makes a super family meal. The quantities listed below serve two to three hungry adults, but the recipe is easily doubled.

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 teaspoon of balsamic vinegar
about 10 shallots, peeled and quartered
6 good quality pork sausages, chopped in three to four pieces each
2 garlic cloves
half a small red chilli (ribs and seeds removed), chopped OR
a pinch of dried red pepper flakes
½ cup white wine
1-1/2 cups passata (cooked, sieved tomatoes)
1 generous teaspoon white sugar
1 chicken stock cube
a good handful of brussel sprouts, washed, peeled and finely sliced
9 to 10 ounces (250 – 300 grams) whole wheat pasta

Pre-heat the oven to very hot (400℉ or 200℃). Put the shallots in a roasting dish and drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the oil and 1 teaspoon of balsamic vinegar. Here is how mine looked before they went into the oven:-

Roast the shallots in the oven for about twenty minutes, stirring once, until softened and golden, like this:-

Meanwhile, heat the other tablespoon of oil in a large frying pan (with a lid) on the stove top. When it gets to medium heat, add the pieces of sausage and fry gently, stirring as little as possible so they don’t fall to pieces. When they are starting to brown, grate in the garlic using a fine grater. (You can chop it finely if you prefer. I saw Rachael Ray grating garlic into a recipe on television one day, thought it was a fantastic idea, and have never looked back!) Add the white wine, passata, chillies or red pepper flakes and the white sugar. Crumble the chicken stock cube over the top and then stir everything gently together. Pop the lid on the pan and simmer over low heat for about fifteen to twenty minutes or until the sausages are cooked through.

While the sauce is simmering, cook the pasta in boiling salted water according to package directions.

Once the sausages are done, toss the sliced Brussel sprouts and roasted shallots into the sauce and stir gently to mix. Pop the lid back on and cook for about three to five minutes over low heat just to let the sprouts soften.

Drain the pasta and return to the pan. Pour the sauce over the pasta and stir gently to mix. Serve and enjoy.

PS - This is really, really delicious with a nice glass of full bodied red wine, like a merlot or cabernet sauvignon - or a glass of red grape juice!

Monday, 7 December 2009

The 21st Century Housewife's© Creamy Christmas Turkey with Rice

I love leftovers - anticipating well in advance what I will do with them - so Christmas is a great time for me. It's the season of leftover everything - and the only limit is my imagination! The key to using up your leftovers is to be sure to cool them quickly and refrigerate them promptly. This keeps them fresh, safe and appealing. Also remember to buy extra fresh vegetables so that you can use them creatively with your leftovers - after all, you can only eat so many sandwiches!

Because the cream sauce is pale and delicate, I use only light meat turkey for this recipe. It's reminiscent of Chicken A La King, but with a much more evolved flavour and texture. Please don't omit the nutmeg - it adds a fantastic hit of spice that suggests Christmas, but is not immediately identifiable. It's one of those - "what is that?" flavours that takes a recipe from good to great.

It goes without saying that this works very well with leftover cooked chicken too. And please do not feel you have to make the stock from scratch, ready made or from a cube is fine.

To serve four people you need:-

2 tbsp butter (unsalted if possible)
2 tbsp flour
2 cups chicken, turkey or vegetable stock (you may not need it all)
½ cup light cream or half and half (again you may not need it all)
Leftover white meat turkey – roughly 2 cups chopped
1 red pepper
3 – 4 leeks, washed, thinly sliced and drained
1 cup frozen peas, measured into a cup and set aside to thaw a bit
½ tsp dried oregano
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly ground if possible
salt and pepper to taste

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over a low heat. Add the leeks and cook slowly, stirring occasionally. The longer you cook the leeks in the butter, the softer and more meltingly tender they will get. If you can leave them for about fifteen minutes that is wonderful. If you are in a hurry, ten will do.

Sprinkle the flour over the leeks and stir to coat. Add the stock gradually, stirring and allowing the sauce to thicken after each addition. You want it to be fairly thick, but remember you still have cream to add, so don't feel you have to add all the stock. Just go slowly.

Meanwhile, cook enough rice four people in boiling water according to package directions. (I usually find about a cup and a half of rice is more than enough for four, but check the package directions.)

Add the red pepper to the creamy leeks and sauce and cook for about five minutes. Add more stock if necessary.

Now add the turkey, frozen peas, oregano, nutmeg and about half the cream. Stir together and heat over low heat with the lid on, stirring occasionally if necessary. After about five minutes, add more cream if you feel it needs it. You want a nice consistency; not too runny, not too thick.

When you get your desired consistency and everything is heated through, take a small spoonful to taste. (Careful, it's hot!). Add salt and pepper if necessary. (I highly recommend a bit of pepper, but I've always skipped adding any more salt to this recipe. However taste is a personal thing so you should do as you like - except if you are on a low-sodium diet - in which case, please be good and don't add any salt! )

Serve the Creamy Christmas Turkey on a bed of rice.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

The 21st Century Housewife's© Christmas Gravy

With Christmas on the horizon, I’ve been thinking about all things poultry, and have been doing a lot of experimenting in the kitchen around that theme. I first developed this gravy in an attempt to jazz up some chicken breasts. (It worked!!) It is brilliant with turkey as well, and I have even served it with sausages and mashed potatoes. It’s also a great multi-purpose gravy for everyone. Vegetarians can use vegetable stock instead of meat stock and vegans can do that as well as eliminate the butter and use olive oil instead. It’s delicious every way I’ve made it, and really, really easy. I know that onions are not necessarily a normal part of a Christmas gravy, but wow, do they make a delicious addition!

2 tablespoons plus 1 tablespoon butter
2 large onions, red or white, peeled and thinly sliced
2 heaped tablespoons flour
2 to 3 cups of turkey, chicken or vegetable stock
(made from cubes or store bought works just fine)
3 heaping tablespoons cranberry sauce from a jar

Melt the 2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Turn the heat back to low and fry the onions gently, stirring occasionally. Frying the onions slowly over low heat makes for a sweeter gravy, so I usually let them cook for ten to fifteen minutes. By this point, the onions should be softened and just beginning to take on a bit of colour.

Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter, and melt it through the onions. Give it all a stir and then sprinkle the flour over the onions and stir through to coat. Slowly begin to add a bit of the stock at a time, stirring constantly. When the mixture begins to thicken, gradually add more stock, a bit at a time, until you get a nice, thick, pourable gravy. (Keep stirring!) You may need slightly more or less stock, depending on how your mixture cooks up.

When the gravy reaches your desired thickness, add the cranberry sauce and stir to melt through the gravy. Taste, and add a bit of salt and/or pepper if you want to. Decant into a gravy boat and serve.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Very Versatile Vanilla Sugar

If you didn’t already know, the funny looking thing pictured above is a vanilla pod (sometimes referred to as a vanilla bean). Vanilla pods are the dried, cured pods of the vanilla orchid which grow most commonly in Mexico and Central America. Vanilla is also cultivated in Madagascar. Pollination of these plants is only done by certain breeds of bees and hummingbirds, so vanilla often has to be pollinated by hand - a very time consuming and laborious process. It is one of the reasons vanilla can be so expensive.

Now there is nothing wrong with vanilla extract, provided you use a good brand (not one that is artificially produced). However there is something else that you can use as well to give a lovely deep vanilla-y hit to your cooking and baking - vanilla sugar.

Vanilla sugar is often looked on as a luxury ingredient, most likely because of those tiny pots of very expensive vanilla sugar you see in the supermarket or speciality stores. I urge you to ignore these (except for gift inspiration, but more about later). For a less than the cost of one of those tiny jars you can buy a vanilla pod - and with it you can make lots and lots of lovely vanilla sugar. I’m not denying vanilla pods are themselves expensive - it is always a shock to pick up a very light, virtually empty jar containing one little pod and have to fork over quite a lot of money for it (they cost about £4 in the UK, and about $5 in the US and Canada). However you can make so much vanilla sugar with just one pod, it is a very good investment indeed.

To make vanilla sugar, all you need is the aforementioned vanilla pod and a pound (or about half a kilogram) of granulated white sugar. Pour half the sugar into a container you can seal tightly. I use one of these:-

but any container that seals well will do.

Cut the vanilla pod in half and put both halves in the container on top of the sugar. Pour the rest of the sugar on top. Seal and leave for at least two days. That’s it. The flavour gets deeper the longer you leave it and you can keep topping it up with more sugar as you use it. Just remember to give the container the odd shake from time to time so the vanilla flavour gets distributed evenly. One vanilla pod will flavour as much sugar as you can use for at least six months. I tend to run the contents of my container down when it gets close to being six months old - refraining from adding any more sugar - and then start fresh. I just give the container a good wash, dry it thoroughly and start with a fresh vanilla pod and fresh sugar.

You can substitute vanilla sugar for white sugar in almost any recipe, except for ones in which the primary flavour is savoury. For example, I use a teaspoon of sugar in most tomato based sauces and I sure would not use vanilla sugar in that case! But it is fantastic for baking - in everything from cookies to cakes and pies. It is worth pointing out here that I still use vanilla extract if it is called for in recipes in which I have substituted vanilla sugar for ordinary white sugar. It has never given too strong a flavour in my opinion. In fact, the flavour of vanilla extract is slightly different from that given by vanilla sugar and in my experience one enhances the other.

You can also get very creative if you feel so inclined and make a variety of different sugars based on vanilla sugar using smaller containers and smaller bits of vanilla pod. I like to keep a small container filled with sugar, a piece of vanilla pod and a couple tablespoons of ground cinnamon. It’s gorgeous on toast or stirred into hot milk or cocoa. You could also make versions with ginger or mixed spice if you wanted to.

You can even give vanilla sugar - or vanilla cinnamon sugar - as gifts. Just find a pretty storage jar to fill with sugar and a vanilla pod, tie with a ribbon and you are done. (If it is a smaller jar, just use half - or a third - of a vanilla pod.) It is a great idea for anyone who likes baking and is a lot nicer than those jars of vanilla sugar you buy in speciality stores! You could even tie a little recipe card on the container with a ribbon giving instructions on how to keep the “starter” you have given going. It’s a really reasonable gift (depending on how much you spend on the jar!) and yet it looks like a lot.

There is nothing like vanilla sugar for baking your favourite treats, especially at Christmas, and if you start a container now it will be ready in plenty of time for either baking or gifting!

Monday, 30 November 2009

The 21st Century Housewife's© Easy "Green" Pasta with Pancetta

I’ll be posting some festive recipes soon, but for the moment I’m concentrating on easy, delicious recipes that make life less stressful at this busy time of year. This recipe is just right for one of those evenings after a long day, or after an exhausting session of Christmas shopping. It is so easy, and perfect for using up the lovely autumn vegetables we are getting now. Leeks and courgette (zucchini) are plentiful and they taste delicious. I like to use cubed pancetta (Italian bacon) in this recipe, but if you want to keep this recipe vegetarian, just use an extra tablespoon of olive oil and leave out the meat. It really is so quick to put together - okay, there is a little light chopping involved, but that can be quite therapeutic after a rough day!

You can use any pasta shapes you like for this, although penne is a good one to use as it is budget-friendly. By all means use whole wheat pasta if you want to ramp up the fibre and vitamin content; I did not have any the night I took the photograph so I used white pasta, but it makes no difference to the finished dish what sort you use. The recipe will serve 4 hungry people.

1 tablespoon olive oil (2 tablespoons if you are leaving out the pancetta)
70 grams of chopped pancetta (or bacon lardons)
(You can use 3 or 4 slices of streaky bacon, chopped, if you can’t find pancetta.)
3 leeks (white part only), washed and cut in thin slices
1 courgette (zucchini), washed and cut in fairly thin half moons
(Slice the stem and end off, then cut the courgette in half lengthwise, and then slice - this will give you half moons)
generous handful of frozen peas
250 grams pasta shapes
4 generous tablespoons ready-made basil pesto
2 tablespoons half fat (low fat) crème fraîche or sour cream

Prepare the vegetables and heat a medium size frying pan with a lid to medium heat. Add the pancetta or bacon (or heat 1 tablespoon oil in the pan if you are not using meat). Toss the pancetta (if using) around for a minute to allow some of the fat to release. Add the leeks and courgette (zucchini).

Drizzle 1 tablespoon oil over the vegetables and toss with the pancetta. Cook for about five minutes and then put the lid on and stir occasionally, until the vegetables start to soften and the pancetta is cooked.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta in a large saucepan in plenty of boiling salted water, according to package directions.

Add the pesto and crème fraîche or sour cream to the vegetables and pancetta in the frying pan. Stir and heat through.

Drain the pasta and return to its pan. Add the vegetable and pancetta sauce to the pasta and toss to coat.

Serve with a nice glass of red wine - you deserve it :)

Friday, 27 November 2009

The 21st Century Housewife's© Leek, Beef and Beer Stew with Carrot and Parsnip Mash

This is a gorgeous, warming stew for a blustery winter’s evening. The carrot and parsnip mash gives a lovely hit of color alongside the stew, and it’s a great way to get your antioxidants this time of year.

This recipe will serve four, but don’t worry if there are only two of you, the leftovers taste lovely if you cool them quickly, store in the fridge and re-heat thoroughly the next day!

For the stew:-
2 tablespoons butter
3 or 4 leeks, washed and sliced in thin slices
about 500 grams of chuck steak, cut in chunks
275 ml bottle lager beer (I use Coors light)
250 ml beef stock (ready-made or from a cube is fine)
1 bay leaf
1 generous spoonful of red pesto or tomato paste (tomato puree in the UK)
150 grams orzo

For the mash:-
3 – 4 carrots, washed, peeled and cut in chunks
3 parsnips, washed, peeled and cut in chunks
2 tablespoons butter
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 350℉ or 170℃.

In a large stove top to oven safe pan /casserole dish with a lid (I use a large shallow one by Le Creuset but a deeper one will work just as well), melt the butter over medium heat. Add the leaks and fry for a few minutes until they are beginning to soften. Stir in the beef and cook until browned, stirring pretty much constantly.

Pour in the lager and the beef stock. Bring the mixture to the boil. Stir in the bay leaf and the red pesto or tomato paste.

Put the lid on the casserole and carefully put in the oven. Cook for an hour and fifteen minutes, stirring once after about forty minutes. If it looks like it is cooking too quickly, lower the heat a bit.

When there are about ten minutes left to go, steam the carrots and parsnips on the stove-top until tender. Drain and mash with the butter and add salt and pepper to taste. Cover and set aside to keep warm, or place in a covered casserole dish in a low oven.

Remove the stew from the oven and place the casserole on a heat-proof surface. Add the orzo and stir. There should still be a fair amount of liquid in the stew, but if not, add a bit of boiling water just so the orzo has liquid to absorb. Stir again.

Cover the casserole and return to the oven for ten minutes. Remove once again and check the liquid level. If it has all been absorbed, add a tiny bit more boiling water (only a little!). Return the casserole the oven for five to ten minutes more. At this point, the orzo should be tender and most of the liquid should be absorbed.

Serve the stew and mash with some warmed crusty rolls.

By the way, it is easy to make vegetable mashes and they are a healthy alternative to mashed potatoes served with just about anything. As well as carrot and parsnip mash, you could try parsnip and turnip (swede in the UK) or butternut squash and sweet potato. Just steam the vegetables and mash with butter and seasoning as above.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The Thanksgiving Tradition

It is Thanksgiving in the United States on Thursday. I think having a set day every year to join together in being grateful for all our blessings and to spend time with our families is a wonderful tradition. I come from Canada and we have Thanksgiving there too, only it is celebrated a bit earlier, on the second Monday in October. No matter what is happening in our lives, we all still have things to be grateful for, and it is good to take time out to do that. Even though I have lived in England for over twenty years now, I still make a point of celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving with my family. It is not a holiday here, but we still have a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, even if it is on a workday! It does not just give my family and I an opportunity to be grateful, it also enables me to celebrate my heritage and instil this tradition in our son, who is, after all, a dual citizen just like me.

For Americans Thanksgiving is said to have begun back in 1621, with a meal shared between the Plymouth Colonists and the Wampanoag Indians. Since 1863 it has been a tradition to repeat this celebration on the fourth Thursday in November with family gatherings, traditional meals and parades. The Macy’s Parade in New York City may be the most famous, but parades are held in many American cities including Chicago, Philadelphia, Plymouth, Seattle, Pittsburg and Los Angeles. For Canadians, Thanksgiving stemmed from the historic European tradition of a day of thanksgiving for the harvest and also from a thanksgiving celebration held by Martin Frobisher, a British explorer, on his arrival in Newfoundland in the late 1570’s.

The Canadian Thanksgiving is a much lower-key celebration than in the United States, but just because the celebrations are lower key does not mean Canadians don’t feel Thanksgiving is an important part of their lives and heritage. In fact it is often the holiday tradition those who leave Canada miss the most.

In England where I live, the only harvest-time Thanksgiving celebration I know of is that held by the Christian church on the Sunday in September or October consisting of a thanksgiving service during which a collection of food is made for the poor. Sometimes there is a church lunch afterwards, or a harvest supper. It is lovely, but the trouble is, anyone who does not attend church misses out on the opportunity to celebrate their blessings and be thankful. As a result, there is no one corporate reminder here in the UK for secular society of the very important premise of gratitude and how it should figure prominently in our lives.

However, in the case of both the American and Canadian celebrations, Thanksgiving has become much more secular over the years. Although I’m not a tremendous fan of religious celebrations being assimilated into popular culture (and sometimes losing some meaning in the process), in this case I think it is a good thing. You see, the majority of people in North America celebrate Thanksgiving regardless of their faith. Most of us have a lot to be thankful for whatever our circumstances and whatever your faith, being grateful is a positive emotion. It benefits not just the person who is grateful, but also those around them.

When I was a little girl in school, they always used to ask us what we were grateful for at Thanksgiving. It made us stop and think. It is so easy to rush through our lives, getting caught up in the corporate quest for “more” and forgetting that, in most cases, we already have so much. It is not just children who need to be reminded.

Whether you are in a country that celebrates Thanksgiving or not, if you were to celebrate it on Thursday, what would you be grateful for? In other words, what are you grateful for right now? My family, my home and the abundance in our lives are only just a start on my list. And if you are celebrating Thanksgiving on Thursday, do enjoy it. It is entirely possible that Great Aunt Martha might drink too much and Uncle Bill will probably say something controversial as usual, but does it really matter? And if the turkey isn’t perfect or someone forgets the green bean casserole, never mind. What you eat isn’t important, eating it with a grateful heart is. It is a privilege to celebrate Thanksgiving - so please do have a happy one!

Monday, 23 November 2009

The 21st Century Housewife's© Balsamic Brandy and Onion Sauce for Beef

This is a fantastic sauce for beef, whether it be fillet steak or Salisbury steak! (For anyone who is not familiar with Salisbury steak, this is a very popular dish in North America made of seasoned ground beef and shaped into an sort of oval shaped patty to resemble a steak.) I developed this sauce on Friday night to serve with some sirloin steak I got from our wonderful butcher and it was received very warmly by my tireless recipe testers (my husband and son). It really is delicious, and very, very easy to make, transforming a fairly ordinary steak dinner into something wonderful - or turning a hamburger patty into something very special indeed.

For enough sauce for three to four servings, you need:-

1 generous tablespoon butter
1 large onion
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons brandy
1/2 to 3/4 cup canned beef consomme or beef stock

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté gently for ten to fifteen minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the sugar and balsamic vinegar and stir through.

Pour the brandy over the onions and very carefully light the alcohol with a match. Allow to flame for a few seconds and then carefully blow out the flames.

Add about 1/2 cup of the beef stock and stir in. Turn the heat up to high and allow to reduce, stirring fairly regularly. If it thickens too much, gradually add a bit more stock, but keep the mixture fairly thick by keeping the heat high.

Lower the heat to medium, stir again and serve over your steak.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Emergency Chicken Noodle Soup

It’s that time of year again - the time when colds and flu strike and make folks feel really awful, just when they want to be enjoying themselves. The other day my son came home from college full of cold and feeling really terrible. All he wanted was a nice hot bowl of soup. The only problem was my favourite soup recipe takes rather a long time to make. I got to thinking that there had to be an easier and quicker way to a hot and comforting bowl of soup - and luckily, I was right. I just started with some chicken stock and went from there. Slicing the scallions thinly and grating the carrot means it all cooks up in no time.

Sadly that time I had no cooked chicken in the fridge, but the soup still tasted really good without it. I thought how it would be even better if you did happen to have some though and so the other day I had another go at making this easy recipe. It only takes about fifteen minutes, and can make you look like a domestic goddess any day! Actually, this would be a great way to use up some of the leftover Thanksgiving turkey. You could freeze small portions of turkey ready to defrost in the microwave - ready for any emergency that might be helped by a lovely, hot bowl of soup.

By the way, emergency soup for vegetarians is just as easy; simply replace the chicken stock with vegetable stock and leave out the chicken. It's still a lovely warm and comforting treat.

To make Emergency Soup for one person you need:

8 to 12 ounces of chicken stock (made from cubes or packaged is fine)
1 “nest” of Chinese egg noodles
3 or 4 scallions (spring onions), very thinly sliced
half of a carrot, peeled and grated
1/2 cooked chicken breast, shredded or finely chopped

Heat the stock on the stove over low to medium heat. Add the scallions and grated carrot. Put a lid on the pan and simmer for about ten minutes.

Meanwhile, cook the noodles according to package directions. When they are ready, drain them and add to the vegetables and stock. Add the chicken (or turkey). Heat through and serve.

Instant comfort - whether you have a cold or not!!

Friday, 20 November 2009

Where Foodies Go To Play

Over the past twenty years, Britain has gone from having a cuisine that could at best be described as "basic" to becoming a nation of foodies, full of gourmet shops and restaurants. More and more people are enjoying cooking on a regular basis, and we Britains love to eat, drink and talk about food almost more than anything else. As a result, for several years now, the BBC has been running Good Food Shows in Birmingham, London and Glasgow and attendance at these events is always really high.

In the past my husband and I have attended the Birmingham show, but now we live closer to London, we attend the BBC Good Food Show at London's Olympia Exhibition Venue every year. This year it has been re-named “Masterchef Live” after one of the BBC's very popular cooking programmes, but honestly, most folks still think of it as The Good Food Show.

Small food and drink producers, wineries, kitchenware stores, cook book resellers and speciality shops all have stands at the show. Most offer samples and discounted “show deals” if you decide to purchase their wares. Major restaurants - which this year included Launceston Place, Theo Randall at the InterContinental, The Ivy, The Boxwood Cafe and Caprice - offer small but exquisitely formed portions of their signature dishes in the Restaurant Experience. There are also shows, demonstrations and lectures about all things food and drink by some of the larger suppliers and by food groups such as Slow Food. It's foodie paradise.

This year, Masterchef (a cooking programme in which amateur chefs compete for the coveted title of Masterchef) presented Masterchef Live, offering several shows each day in which past winners and contestants cooked in front of an audience, either developing new dishes on the spot or showcasing dishes that won them their titles. The shows were fast paced and entertaining, and played to packed audiences. On another stage, some brave members of the public submitted themselves to "The Invention Test". They were given five ingredients (unknown until the actual moment of the competition) and twenty minutes to prepare a dish from them. The results were very entertaining, and in many cases, quite amazing.

It takes at least a day to go through all of the stands and exhibits and also to attend the various shows and presentations. We visited the stands of some of the producers we already know and love like the wonderful Dorset bakery Honeybuns for their gorgeous cakes and Littleover Apiaries for their wonderful honey. We also discovered some new favourites. I was particularly impressed by The Coffee Fairy, a company run by Martina Gruppo. She sources coffee from Miraflor in Nicaragua (actually going there and getting it herself!) and ploughs a portion of the proceeds from the sale of it back into the community there, working to offer educational scholarships to enable the children to go on to secondary school, and also renovating the school there. The coffee tastes amazing and what a wonderful, ethical fair trade business!

Some of the producers are very small indeed, like another one of my new favourites The Good Chutney Company. Offering some very creative sauces and condiments, The Good Chutney Company is literally a one (wo)man band; the award winning sauces are made by one very talented lady in her own country kitchen. I bought two jars of their scrumptious Horseradish Mustard along with some other goodies including a yummy Gooseberry Chutney. We also bought lots of wine and port, and even found a new bespoke wine sourcing service for folks like us who love our wine.

Lunch consisted of various dishes at the restaurant experience. The servings are reasonably priced and so small so you can taste lots of things, and sharing is definitely allowed! We started with lobster soup with brandy and saffron cream served in a cocktail glass from Lauceston Place (see photo above), and then I tried The Ivy’s rich and tender beef and bashed neeps while my husband chose Masterchef winner Steve Wallis’ pan roasted sole with chantrelle mushrooms, oysters and white wine sauce. We also shared two dishes from Roast Restaurant - Pork Belly Bridge Roll and Fish finger and tartare sauce cones. Both were fantastic examples of old fashioned British comfort food at its best. For dessert, we shared the vanilla and gingerbread cheesecake with mulled fruit from the Boxwood Cafe which was light and delicious (the mulled fruit had lovely zing), and also the soft chocolate cake from Theo Randall at the InterContinental. This chocolate cake was by far our favourite dish of the day. Served with a soft marscapone cream, it literally melted in your mouth, and was one of the nicest desserts I have ever eaten.

The Good Food Shows are a great day out, and wonderful places to find out about the new and different. There are also a great source of ideas. We did a lot of Christmas shopping and brought home loads of goodies. We even ordered all our Christmas wine and spirits. Tickets are very reasonable at around £15 each, but you can also buy a more expensive VIP ticket which gives you access to a private dining area in the Restaurant Experience, a lounge with complimentary tea, coffee and snacks, free storage for your purchases and priority queues for book signings. It is well worth the extra cost to take advantage of this option.

The next BBC Good Food Show is being held at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham November 25th to 29th, or there is a Summer one also being held at the NEC 16th to 20th June 2010. The next BBC Good Food Show in London is in November 2010. For more information, go to

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Fast Food Parisian Style

For a culture that reveres “slow food”, the French are becoming very au fait with the fast kind too - and I’m not just talking about the Mcdonald’s restaurants you will find scattered all over France these days. Although long, multi-course meals are still the norm there, two “fast food” chains that are way beyond burgers are now on the scene.

The first has been around for many years and, as frequent travellers to Paris, I have to confess it is one of our favourites. L’Entrecôte de Paris has branches all over Paris, but the one we return to most is at 29 rue Marignan, literally just off the Champs Elysées (the nearest metro station is Franklin D Roosevelt). Although there are many items on the menu, the most popular is their “Formule” – a set menu of walnut salad with a beautiful vinaigrette dressing followed by steak frites – steak with thin and crispy French fries. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have eaten here but the steak is always good – delicious and tender – and cooked to order. It is served on a metal tray with tea lights underneath so that the steak and frites stay nice and hot. If you run out of the latter, you can just ask for more. However the best thing about L’Entrecôte is their buttery, mustardy sauce. Its piquant taste has been the source of endless speculation, but the recipe is still a closely guarded secret. You will often hear the request “plus de sauce s’il vous plait” (more sauce please) from happy diners – it is quite indescribably delicious.

Tables at L’Entrecôte cannot be booked, and it is not uncommon for there to be a queue. If there is, I have noticed over the years that the host or hostess always says “cinq minutes” (five minutes) when you request a table. Sometimes this standard estimate is wildly inaccurate, but it is worth the wait. However as a diner, I have never, ever felt rushed. They have a super wine list and we have happily spent over an hour here even when it has been busy without so much as a sideways look from anyone. This is French fast food at its best, and the fact they are constantly busy is testament to this.

Sadly the second of the two restaurant chains is nowhere near as good. Bistro San Ferdinand at 275 bd Péreire in the 7th arrondissement (just near the Port Maillot metro station) is one of a number of restaurants conceived by Willy Dorr where the order of the day is “tout compris” or “everything included”. For 38 Euro, you are offered an apéritif, starter, main course and dessert along with a half bottle of wine per person. The premise of this is fantastic, and very good value indeed for Paris. However the reality is disappointing. We stumbled on this version of French fast food by accident, having eaten in a restaurant in the same location some years before, and thinking we were going back to the same establishment. We were wrong.

Although the décor in this location is lovely, tables are placed even in the hallway between the main and rear dining rooms, meaning that you are being bumped into by the waiters rushing back and forth constantly. The kir apéritif (sparkling wine with blackcurrant liqueur) was very nice, and the house wine was excellent, but things went downhill from there. The starters were unremarkable and the worst thing was the main course. The chef completely ignored our requests for steaks cooked to medium, and we were presented with steaks that were very rare indeed –in fact they were practically “blue”. We sent them back to the kitchen and they returned charred on the outside, but still far too rare inside. Accompanied only by three small boiled potatoes, the plate was pretty empty, and the meat was tough and virtually inedible. We felt rushed throughout the whole meal, and the atmosphere was one of “hurry up”, both for the staff (who literally ran through the restaurant at times), and for diners. When it came time for dessert, our crêpes Suzette were plonked on the table in front of each of us, without any sauce or explanation, and tasted awful. When a flaming pot of sauce arrived we were very relieved, and they did taste better after that. On the whole it was really disappointing, and we left stressed and frazzled by our second experiment in fast food Parisian style. Not only that, but the only consideration towards our uneaten main courses was the removal of the cost of a bottle of water we had ordered from the bill! We definitely won’t be returning.

I’m not entirely sure that I would want the French to embrace fast food too enthusiastically as part of the reason we travel there is to experience the marvelous cuisine and long, relaxing meals. L’Entrecôte is a wonderful bridge between the fast food of the well-known chains and the traditional Parisian eating experience and I am sure it will always be one of our favourites. I would skip the Bistro San Ferdinand entirely next time. Frankly I’d rather have a McDonald’s!

Friday, 13 November 2009

The 21st Century Housewife's© Crab Linguini with Pink Peppercorns

Many years ago I had a delicious brandy and pink peppercorn sauce at a restaurant called Horniman’s in South London (which is sadly no longer open). The sauce had a lovely flavour - ever so slightly peppery, but also sweet and gorgeous. Ever since then I have been fascinated with this very intriguing ingredient. You see, despite being called ‘peppercorns’ these bright pink spheres are not peppercorns at all. Their flavour is similar to pepper and when crushed, they do give off a peppery smell, however they are actually the fruit of a small tree native to South America. It is called the Baies Rose plant and is now cultivated in many places, including Madagascar. It used to be really difficult to find pink peppercorns, but now even my local grocery store stocks them. You can buy them preserved in brine or dried. (I prefer the dried ones as you have to rinse the ones that are preserved in brine before use.) If your grocery store does not stock them, most speciality cooking stores do and you can also source them on the internet.

This recipe is a really nice mid-week treat for two, although it will stretch to three if you use a bit more pasta (about 100 grams more) and add a bit more stock and cream. (You could add a few extra peas as well.)

It is a very easy recipe and just that little bit extra-special. Of course, neither crab meat nor pink peppercorns are exactly budget-friendly ingredients. If this is a problem, this recipe does taste very nice even without the addition of the curious little pink spheres. (Although of course in this case, you might want to call it simply Crab Linguini.) You can also use canned (tinned) crab meat, which tends to be slightly less expensive than fresh.

In the Italian style this pasta does not have a lot of sauce; the pasta and crab are the stars of this dish. However what sauce there is does cling nicely to the pasta and give it a lovely texture. Feel free to use a bit more cream if you prefer a bit more sauce. (Remember to add only a little bit at a time - it’s hard to take cream away once you’ve added it!)

225 grams dried linguini
100 grams fresh crabmeat
(or canned white crab meat, rinsed and drained)
150 ml vegetable stock
(made from a cube is fine, although store bought chilled fresh stock is lovely)
about 200 ml single cream
a handful of frozen peas
1 scant teaspoon pink peppercorns

Cook the linguini according to package directions. Meanwhile, heat 200 ml stock in a small saucepan over low heat.

Crush the pink peppercorns - you can use a mortar and pestle or very carefully crush them on a bread board using the flat of a knife. Set aside.

When the pasta is nearly done, add the frozen peas and 100 ml cream to the stock. Turn the heat up to medium and let it bubble away so that the sauce reduces slightly. Now turn the heat back to low and stir in the crab meat and crushed pink peppercorns. Heat through.

Drain the pasta and return to the pan. Pour the sauce over and lightly toss to mix. If it is not quite moist enough add a bit more cream and heat through. Serve and enjoy.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

The 21st Century Housewife's© Balsamic Chicken and Bacon Pasta

Chicken and bacon are a classic combination, but the addition of a balsamic vinegar spiked sauce makes this pasta dish really special. This is one of those recipes that tastes so good, no one can believe how easy it is to make. It really does not take a long time either, but it is important to take your time sautéing the onion as this really helps the flavour to develop. Onions are one of those things that get better the longer you cook them, provided you keep them over a very low heat so they do not burn or catch.

The quantities below serve 2 very generously - in fact I am pretty sure they would stretch to 3 if you use the 7 ounces of pasta. It’s easily doubled though if there are more of you.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
½ cup mushrooms, thinly sliced
6 ounces chicken stock (from a cube is fine)
2 generous tablespoons half fat crème fraîche or low fat sour cream
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
¼ teaspoon pepper
about ¼ cup chopped pancetta or bacon
6 to 7 ounces whole wheat pasta (depending on how hungry you are)
1 large cooked chicken breast, thinly sliced

Heat the oil in a medium frying pan over low heat. Sauté the onion gently for five minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the mushrooms and continue to fry over low heat for five to ten more minutes.

Meanwhile, fry the bacon or pancetta in a small pan over medium heat and start to cook the pasta according to package directions.

Now, add the stock and balsamic vinegar to the onions and mushrooms and turn the heat up to high. Let it bubble away madly, reducing the stock, for a couple of minutes.

Turn down the heat and add the crème fraiche or low fat sour cream and the pepper. Drain the pancetta or bacon, add to the sauce mixture and stir through. Add the chicken and fold in very gently. Turn the heat down to low and heat through.

Drain the pasta and return to the pan. Fold the sauce in gently. Serve in warmed bowls accompanied by lots of hot, crusty bread.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Sweets From the Land Where West Meets East

I’ve eaten a lot of baklava over the years. It’s one of my guilty pleasures, although it can be hard to find where I live. Baklava is a sweet treat made from multi-layered phyllo pastry, nuts, fruits, syrups and honey. It has been part of Greek, Turkish, Cypriot and Arab cuisine for centuries, although recipes for it have evolved as time went by. I tasted baklava for the first time at the home of a Greek Cypriot friend when I was a teenager. It was served in tiny diamond shapes. The beautifully flaky phyllo pastry rendered it incredibly light and the concentrated filling made with ground nuts, enhanced by the layers of syrup poured over it made it incredibly sweet and delicious. Since then baklava is my special treat of choice – when I can find it.

The only thing is, no baklava ever really measured up to stuff that my friend and her mom made all those years ago, except once when I found a tiny Cypriot bakery tucked in the back streets of a town in the north of England. But last week all that changed. I visited Athens for the first time and discovered baklava like I had never tasted before.

Baklava is believed to have been developed by the Assyrians back in the 8th century, but it is the Greeks, more specifically the Athenians, who are credited with incorporating the lighter pastry into its construction. Originally the Assyrians made it with a much heavier dough, almost like a bread dough. “Phyllo” means “leaf” in Greek – and the many-leaved pastry is what makes baklava so light – but it is the nuts I love. Chopped very finely or ground, they make this sweet treat something incredibly special. However I learned on my visit to Athens last week that actually I knew very little about baklava. In fact, there are almost more versions of baklava than you could possibly imagine.

Greek people are famous for their hospitality, so it should have come as no surprise to me that their portions are generous. However even I was surprised when the first baklava I ordered (at the Orizontes café at the top of Lycabettus Hill) came in a slice the size of a piece of pie. I was used to the tiny morsels served in western countries, and this portion was the size of about ten of those, (Thank goodness my husband and I had decided to share.) Not only that, but it came garnished with ice cream and drizzled with caramel sauce. Mmm – three of my favourite things on the same plate – this was looking good.

And oh my goodness, it was. Walnuts and pistachios had been blended together in this confection in very generous portions. In fact if I had scraped all the nuts out of the baklava we were served I am sure there would have been about half a cupful. This was a festival of nuts, offset by delicious Greek honey and layer upon layer of pastry. Delicious.

Various forays into little tavernas and visits to the odd bakery (okay, I probably ate too much baklava, but it was in the name of research) led me to realise that baklava comes in all shapes and sizes, and can contain everything from nuts to dried fruits and even coconut. Most people are passionate when they talk about the baklava they make or serve. One man said that they only used goat and sheep’s milk to make their baklava (which kind of horrified me as I’m a bit funny about stuff like that, but in truth their baklava was delicious). Another explained to me that the reason some of the baklava we get in England is not quite the same – I’m talking the packaged stuff that you buy in store, not from speciality bakeries – is that it is a dry version of the original. This helps it to keep better for shipping. Come to think of it, some of the pre-packaged baklava I have bought in the past did have awfully long shelf life dates stamped on it. In fact, it was all beginning to make a lot more sense. I have purchased fresh syrup-soaked baklava in the beautiful Harrods’ food halls in London before, and it was always displayed in a refrigerated case. The shop staff always say that if you are not going to eat it straight away, you should refrigerate it too but to definitely eat in within a couple of days. There is no way something that has sat on a shelf for a couple of months can compete with that.

It certainly explained why I loved the baklava in Athens so much – it was definitely fresh - with lots of honey and syrups. In fact, I found that some varieties of baklava in Athens actually contain more fruit than nuts, gorgeous plump dried fruits, syrup-soaked to the point of saturation. My husband ordered one of these at Dionysos, a restaurant in the shadow of the Acropolis. He likened it to Christmas pudding, and when I tasted it I could see where he was coming from. The dried fruits outnumbered the nuts and they were absolutely sodden with spiced syrup. I could taste cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. There was less pastry in this version, but it was still incredibly delicious. Once again it was served with ice cream, but this time surrounded by crème anglaise and caramel.

Since I got home, I’ve been talking to lots of people about baklava, and it turns out I’m not the only one who loves it. In fact, most major cities, including London, Chicago and New York, have bakeries that make their own version of the real thing. Fans of baklava are passionate about their favourite source, and I have actually heard arguments break out over the subject of where you can get the best baklava outside of Europe and the Middle East. As for me, I have learned that while baklava may come in a myriad of different guises, it is still one of my favourite treats. Whether nuts or fruit prevail, the combination of layer upon layer of light flaky pastry, delicious fillings and mouth-watering syrups is something I can’t help but love – and I’m definitely in very good company when it comes to that!

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The 21st Century Housewife's© Banana Walnut Muffins

The cold and rainy autumn weather always makes me want to bake muffins and fruit loaves. They are delicious for breakfast or a snack, and the ones that involve fruit and nuts do actually qualify as pretty nutritious, although they are fairly high in sugar.

This is a really easy recipe to throw together, and is a great way to use up over-ripe bananas. It may seem odd to have both buttermilk and milk in a recipe, but trial and error has led me to the discovery that in the case of banana muffins, using all buttermilk can make the flavour slightly too rich. Having said that, buttermilk really adds something to muffins so I didn’t want to leave it out entirely - hence my compromise of half and half.

I love the spicing in these muffins, and the smell of them when they are baking makes them hard to resist. Try to use freshly grated nutmeg if you can - it really does make a huge difference to the flavour. Another tip - use the ready chopped walnut pieces that you can buy in most grocery stores. They are cheaper than walnut halves and it saves time and mess if you don’t have to do the chopping yourself.

My recipe makes a big batch of 24 large muffins, but that is no problem as they freeze very easily once cooled. If you really don’t want 24 muffins, just pour half the mixture into a loaf tin and make a banana walnut loaf instead of all muffins. You just have to remember to bake it for longer - about 50 to 60 minutes, instead of the 20 to 25 minutes the muffins take.

2 cups all purpose flour
2 cups whole wheat flour
2 tablespoons baking powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup chopped walnuts
3 medium ripe bananas, mashed
3/4 cup white sugar
3/4 cup light brown sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2/3 cup oil
(sunflower or mild olive oil works well, but not extra virgin olive oil)
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup milk

Measure the flours, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg and walnuts into a large bowl and stir to mix.

Place the mashed bananas in a medium bowl and add the sugars, eggs, oil, buttermilk and milk. Mix thoroughly.

Add the banana and sugar mixture to the flour mixture and stir thoroughly until well blended, but don’t beat. Divide the mixture between 24 large lined (or greased and floured) muffin cups.

Bake at about 350℉ or 170℃ for 20 to 25 minutes or until a piece of dry spaghetti inserted into the middle of a muffin comes out clean (ie. with no batter clinging to it). Keep an eye on these in the last five minutes or so of cooking or they will over-brown.

Take the muffin pans out of the oven. Remove the muffins from the pan and cool on wire racks. I feel obliged to mention here that these are delicious warm from the oven with a nice hot cup of tea!

Once cooled, store in a sealed container in the refrigerator if possible. (Bring to room temperature or warm in the microwave before eating.) To freeze, wait until completely cool and then seal in freezer bags or containers before freezing.