Saturday, 30 January 2010

A Casual Midweek Dinner

We went out for dinner Thursday night on the spur of the moment, which is not usually a good idea when you live just west of London. Most restaurants are booked solid nearly every night of the week, and Thursday is often considered the warm up to the weekend, so your chances of getting a table on spec are pretty much nil. Sure enough, when we arrived at the fashionable canal-side in Reading, every restaurant we walked into was fully booked or had at least a forty minute wait for a table. We decided to try just one more restaurant before we gave up and went home, and went into 'Strada' without much hope, particularly when the couple in front of us turned down an offer of a table in about - you guessed it - forty minutes. The advantage was, there were three of us, and the host said he had a table that should be available in about six minutes. That didn't seem too long a wait, particularly as we have been to Strada before and really enjoy their creative menu and delicious food. And sure enough, we were shown to a perfectly laid table in less than the promised six minutes.

Although Strada do not have a bar area in their Reading branch, the restaurant itself is nicely laid out, so that you feel the buzz of being in a lively restaurant, but you've got plenty of elbow room at the table. Their menu is quite varied with lots of choices for just about everyone. As the majority of the food is prepared to order, should there be an ingredient you are not keen on they are more than happy to leave it out. Our son ate from the main menu, choosing one of Strada's delicious pizza Florentina. It had both cooked and fresh spinach which made for a delicious contrast.

My husband and I were impressed with their set menu which offered three courses for just £13.50 so we decided to work our way through that. It offered two choices of starter, Bruschetta con Peperonata and a Gnocci dish. I hesitated about the bruschetta because one of the ingredients was goat's cheese, something I really do not care for, but the waiter said the chef would be more than happy to leave it off so I chose that. It was really delicious with wonderful roast peppers, and a great way to wet my appetite. (Mind you as it was by now nearly 9pm my appetite was pretty sharp already!) My husband had the gnocci, baby potato dumplings with a delicious sauce. We both selected the same choice from the five main courses on offer for dinner, a Risotto Verdure with freshly grilled asparagus, broad beans, peas, courgettes and spring onions flavoured with grana padano cheese and mint. It was lovely and obviously freshly prepared as the risotto was perfectly al dente. All the vegetables were fresh and crisp and the balance of flavours was perfect. There were only two choices for dessert, a Tiramisu or a Pannacotta, so we decided to have one of each. Both were exceptionally delicious and definitely homemade.

I can't speak highly enough of the service. The waiter was friendly, knowledgeable and attentive. I was also very impressed that a refillable bottle of chilled filtered water and water glasses appeared when we ordered our drinks. It was refilled without hesitation throughout the meal - we did not even have to ask.

It's always hard to recommend a whole chain of restaurants in its entirely as the staff really do make or break these places, but the experiences we have had in our local Strada would encourage me to try one elsewhere without hesitation. The Strada website says that Strada "is all about quality, freshly prepared pizzas, pastas and risottos served in stylish, contemporary surroundings". In this case, it definitely is, and I highly recommend it.

I would recommend booking in advance if possible to ensure you get a table. Strada have locations through the UK and you can use their online booking service by clicking here. Our local branch which we enjoyed on Thursday is canal-side in The Oracle Shopping Centre at 20 The Riverside, Reading, RG1 2AG - telephone on +44 (0) 118 939 4861.

I'm also very impressed by Strada's website, which even offers video recipes. Click here to learn how to make some of their signature dishes from Maurice Maffeo, their Head Development Chef.

(This is a personal review. The opinions are mine and I was not compensated by Strada in any way.)

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Family Food History and Recipe Project

Like most people, I have a lot of family recipes scattered throughout my home in recipe books and files. I’ve also got my Mom’s own recipe box, which I “helped” her to organise when I was a little girl. It’s funny, she never changed the green plastic file box she had her recipes in. I made her one of those labels for it using a Dymo embosser, painstakingly punching out “Barbara’s Recipe Box” with my tongue firmly clenched between my front teeth. When I brought the box home after she died, I had to carefully extract the recipes which due to their sheer number had become quite literally stuck in the box. I moved them to a bigger file box (above left), but aside from referring to ones I knew were there, I have not really touched it since her death. I got thinking about it the other day and realised I was probably emotionally ready to go back through Mom’s files and find some of the dishes I have forgotten about - and also the ones that are lost in a fog of delicious memory - the ones I can just about taste, but really can’t name.

I also inherited my Dad’s recipe collection, a large number of clippings and notes encased in a copy of ‘The Microwave Guide and Cookbook’ and secured with an elastic band. Both my parents were very good cooks, and my Dad did a lot more than just barbecue, although that was definitely one of his specialities. Wholeheartedly embracing the trend towards microwave cooking in the late 1970’s, our first microwave oven even had a spit for cooking meat in it, and my Dad had an incredible knack for making it taste like it had been slow roasting for hours.

And then there is my stuff. More notebooks than I’d care to count and more than one bookshelf full of cookbooks are just the beginning. I love to cook, and in the past few years have become really adept at developing my own recipes, but I still read cookbooks like they were novels and love to make other people’s recipes too.

These are just a few of my notebooks. The two on the right I have had since I was in my late teens, and the blue book on the top left is one made by my husband and his sister when they were little, containing lots of recipes from his side of the family. In addition, most of my notes for recipes I have developed myself are on my MacBook. So if I seem a little daunted, it’s probably partially because of the sheer volume of the task I am taking on, but mainly because of how important I believe this task is. Nowhere is our family history evidenced more thoroughly than in our attitudes towards and experience of food, and our traditions round it.

It’s a task I have wanted to undertake for a while now and I’m going to blog about it from time to time over the next few months. As I find some of my old family favourites I will share them with you, along with anecdotes about the people who developed them. I’ll also test and experiment with some of the recipes I don’t remember in the hopes of reviving some old favourites.

There’s a lot of newspaper clippings both in my Mom’s recipe box and in Dad’s makeshift recipe file. I’m really intrigued by these and look forward to testing some of the recipes. This one is from the Hamilton Spectator dated Friday June 22, 1956. I was not born yet; in fact it was before my parents got married. The recipe is for Sweet-Sour Spareribs, but the whole thing is a real piece of the past, with a snippet of an article ‘Report Three Polio Cases During Week‘ just visible at the bottom. I can just read the words “Weekly telegraphic reports from the provinces showed only one paralytic case...” It was such a terrifying disease then. The recipe sounds good though, and I will definitely be giving it a try. It’s more basic than the ones we see in the amazing Chinese cookbooks available today, but it sounds yummy (and pretty easy too).

I'm posting about this on my The 21st Century Housewife website as well so you’ll be able to follow my family food history project over there too if you like. I hope it will encourage you to delve into your own family food history. It can be a great conversation starter between generations and you could even involve your kids. After all, most everyone likes to talk about food and to eat!

Please drop me an email or comment if you decide to research your own family food history; I’d love to hear about your progress!

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

The 21st Century Housewife's© Cointreau Soused Orange Slices

This may well be the easiest recipe I have ever posted. Inspired by beautiful blood oranges and some very pretty glass dishes, I had an idea for something so quick and delicious I could hardly believe it might work. But it did. In fact, it was amazing.

Blood oranges have a relatively short season. The months they are available varies depending on what country you are in and the weather conditions. Here in England we can usually get them imported from Italy in late January/February, but the season can start as early as November and carry on into March. Athocyanin, which is a pigment more commonly found in flowers than fruits and vegetables, gives blood oranges their distinctive red colour. They can be slightly more tart than ordinary oranges but are very delicious.

I served this as a simple dessert for two last night, but I think it would be wonderful at a dinner party, particularly where there is going to be a cheese course and you only want a light dessert. It would also be a lovely for the summer, although you would only be able to use ordinary oranges as blood oranges are not in season then. I don’t honestly think it would matter though.

I used both blood oranges and ordinary oranges in this recipe because I like the idea of the contrasting colours. Instead of peeling the oranges by hand I used a knife and carefully pared the skin off along with the pith. It can help to cut a small slice off the bottom of the orange first so that you can sit it flat on a chopping board to do this. Be sure to use a sharp knife and be careful of your fingers!

It’s nice to serve this in pretty glass dishes so the colour shows through.

You need:-

2 to 3 oranges per person, peeled and sliced in rounds
(try to remove all the seeds)
about 2 tablespoons of Cointreau or Grand Mariner per person

Peel and slice the oranges and place them all in a fairly deep bowl. Pour the liqueur over top, covering the oranges as much as possible. Cover with plastic wrap and leave in a cool place (not the fridge) to soak for about an hour or so, gently turning the oranges from time to time. The liqueur encourages the oranges to release some of their juices, so a lovely boozy juice will develop.

Divide the orange slices between the serving dishes and pour some of the juice over top. Serve with a little whipped cream or crème fraîche on the side for people to dollop on top. I have a feeling this would also be delicious served as a topping for good vanilla ice cream.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

The 21st Century Housewife's© Pork Tenderloin with a Mustard Cream Sauce

Pork tenderloin is a wonderful cut of meat. It’s lean and low in fat, and you can so do many different things with it. When I’m buying it I prefer to buy more than I need for just one meal. It’s usually cheaper that way and anyway, pork tenderloin is a great thing to have as leftovers. Among other things you can make really lovely hot supper sandwiches with it, serve it re-heated with spicy onion gravy or you can make it into something very special by preparing this quick and easy dinner with it!

To serve four people you need:-

1 tablespoon oil
1 red pepper, de-seeded and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons butter
2 heaped tablespoons flour
about 1½ cups milk
1 generous tablespoon whole grain or Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon paprika
about 2 cups cooked pork tenderloin, cubed
¾ cup frozen peas
1 bunch scallions (spring onions), washed and chopped
salt and pepper to taste
enough rice for four, cooked according to package instructions

In a small frying pan, heat the oil and gently sauté the pepper over a low to medium heat.

In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and cook for a couple of minutes. Now add the milk, a bit at at time, whisking constantly. As the sauce begins to thicken after each addition of milk, add a little bit more, but go carefully - you may not need the whole amount. When the sauce is a nice creamy consistency, stir in the mustard, paprika, cubed pork tenderloin, sautéed red peppers and frozen peas.

Heat gently over medium heat, stirring frequently and adding a bit more milk if the mixture begins to thicken too much. When the pork is heated through and the peas are cooked, stir in the scallions (spring onions). Taste the mixture and add salt and pepper to taste if you wish.

Serve over the hot, cooked rice.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Genetically Modified or Genetically Enhanced? It's Still a Thorny Question

As you probably know, a genetically modified (or GM) food is one that has had new genetic material added to it in order to alter its DNA structure. This might be done for a number of reasons including to improve taste, prolong shelf life or even to make the crop more disease resistant while growing. It can reduce the use of pesticides and make crops less likely to fail in extreme weather conditions such as unexpected early frosts.

But could they be dangerous? Many people maintain that GM crops are. In the first instance, genetically modifying crops can affect the surrounding ecosystems. They are already being cited as a potential source of blame for the collapse of many bee colonies. A large number of monarch butterfly caterpillars also died in the US after eating milkweed plants contaminated with pollen from corn genetically modified to kill insect larvae. There are also concerns that crops resistant to weeds will cross-pollinate and encourage the development of “super weeds”. It may not be possible to control these without the use of chemical pesticides and no one knows if the pesticides we have would be strong enough to kill them. As to what the effect of eating foods that are genetically modified will have on animals or humans in the long term, very little is known. However, GM foods have been in the North American food chain since at least the early 1990’s and we are not seeing anything negative that can be directly and conclusively linked to their consumption.

After all, haven’t we been playing around with agriculture for years? The loganberry is thought to be derived from a cross between a blackberry and a raspberry and tangelos are a cross between a tangerine and a pomelo or grapefruit. We’ve cultivated different varieties of apples, plums and pears by grafting and cross breeding for centuries. How different is that from what is being done with genetic modification? Well, to start with, none of the new fruits created from these crosses had a negative effect on the environment or killed bees or butterflies, both of which pollinate our crops.

What is most worrying is that we don’t always know what we are eating. Although products in the UK and Europe must be labeled if they contain anything that is genetically modified, in many other countries, this kind of labeling is not compulsory. Everything from soybeans to corn, rapeseed (Canola) and even sugar cane has been successfully genetically modified. This is by no means an exhaustive list. So if you eat corn oil made from genetically modified corn, or GM soy products (which are in more things than you would imagine) or even meat raised on GM soy based feed, you are consuming genetically modified products whether you are aware of it or not.

Public perception of genetically modified foods varies tremendously depending on where you go. For example, in North America one often hears the term “genetically enhanced” which sounds infinitely better and inherently safer than the “genetically modified” and “Frankenstein food” terminology that is used in the UK. However even here public opinion is shifting, especially as now the Food Standards Agency in the UK says that “GM foods may only be authorised for sale if they are judged not to present a risk to health, not to mislead consumers and not to be of less nutritional value than the foods they are intended to replace.” There is apparently a rigorous safety assessment that is carried out to ensure this and this has reassured many consumers.

So what do I do? Well, I try to buy organic wherever possible and I always read labels. I follow the GM issue very closely and keep an open mind. However, when given a choice, I avoid serving anything I know to be genetically modified to my family wherever possible. I buy organic fruit and vegetables, and source my meat from a reputable butcher (but it is still pretty likely a lot of the beef we eat is raised on GM soy based feeds). However if my favourite fruit was on special offer and it wasn’t organic would I avoid it? Definitely not. We humans are amazingly adaptable in terms of diet and I’m not unduly worried about the effects on our health but I do worry about what genetically modified products are doing to the environment. Let’s face it, we would be pretty lost without bees and butterflies and I don’t fancy the idea of “super weeds” at all.

The debate rages on. Despite research to the contrary, some people still maintain GM crops will help prevent world hunger, prevent climate change and that economically, nations have no choice but to embrace them. Others maintain GM crops will destroy the environment and harm our health irreparably. As with everything, I think this issue needs balance and open minds. Those who think genetic modification is the answer to all our problems need to consider that everything has consequences and tread very carefully. It might even be prudent to slow down a bit and wait and see what happens in the next few years around the foods we have already modified, both in terms of environmental and human health. Those who have closed their minds to the idea of genetic modification completely need to consider how beneficial it could be if properly implemented and regulated. It’s unlikely that genetic modification is going to go away anytime soon, so we definitely need to get folks on both sides of the debate discussing this issue constructively before it’s too late – not just for us, but for the world as we know it.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Cerise Restaurant and Bar at The Forbury Hotel in Reading

Isn't it funny how sometimes the nicest restaurants are really close to home? One night just before Christmas my husband and I dined at Cerise in The Forbury Hotel in Reading. The Forbury has recently been refurbished and it is such a beautiful place. Cerise is its flagship restaurant, of which it is justifiably proud.

We were shown to a table in the bar area when we arrived and presented with our menus. The drinks menu itself was incredibly varied, and I chose a Ginger Mojito. I'm a terrific fan of the original Mojito, but this was really special, and very seasonal with the fresh ginger flavour. My husband opted for vodka and coke, and was offered a choice of six different kinds of vodka, deciding finally on Grey Goose, one of his favourites.

We were really impressed by the variety on the menu, and also by the knowledge of the server who came over to discuss it with us well before the time came to place our order. She knew the menu inside out and offered detailed information about every item we queried. The wine list was also very good, and we selected lovely mid-priced bottle of Sauvignon Blanc which was to complement our meals beautifully.

When our starters were ready we were shown to a table for two. My husband had chosen the Game Mosaic which was a beautiful terrine including venison, duck and pheasant. My choice of tomato soup may have sounded pedestrian, but it was anything but. Fresh produce and an excellent balance of flavours made it one of the nicest soups I have ever eaten.

We both chose the Baked Sea Bream for our main course and it was beautifully prepared. Cooked to perfection, it was expertly filleted without a single bone left behind. We had a side dish of vibrantly coloured buttered green beans which was perfect with the fish.

There was a varied choice of desserts, and when they arrived, they were quite simply stunning. They also tasted as good as they looked. My Hazlenut Chocolate Torte was rich and delicious without being overpowering. It was served with a fresh berry compote and cream.

The Apple Tart Tatin my husband ordered was wonderful. It did not look like a traditional tarte tatin, but it was artfully presented and tasted light and delicious with just a hint of caramel. The ice cream was flavoured with Calvados and cinnamon - thank goodness my husband is good at sharing!

We had our coffee at the table, along with some delicious petit fours. It was a lovely evening - a delicious meal in an excellent atmosphere. Although the restaurant was practically full, the staff were attentive and seated us at a table that gave us a lovely sense of privacy whilst still feeling a part of things. If you find yourself in our neck of the woods, I highly recommend a visit to Cerise at The Forbury Hotel - and if home is a long way off, do consider staying at The Forbury. It's stunning.

Cerise Restaurant and Bar
at The Forbury Hotel
26 The Forbury

For reservations call 0800 789 789 from the UK or click here

Monday, 18 January 2010

Meatless Monday - The 21st Century Housewife's© One Pot Vegetarian Spaghetti Special

Although I am only an “occasional vegetarian”, I am a huge fan of the Meatless Monday movement, who in an effort to get us to cut our meat consumption by fifteen percent urge us to "cut out meat one day a week". Of course, it doesn't have to be Monday, but giving up meat one day a week makes sense both personally and corporately. Reducing meat consumption can improve your health, and with the United Nations estimating that one-fifth of manmade greenhouse gases come from meat production, it can improve the health of the planet as well.

Inventing new vegetarian recipes is something I really enjoy, and the weekly delivery of my organic vegetable and fruit boxes inspires me. I don't choose what comes in the boxes; I just have to work with what is in them. Of course, the company I use does allow you to have a list of things you dislike which they will remove from your boxes so you don't get anything you genuinely loathe, but on the whole I do find that having someone else choose the main content of the boxes in harmony with the seasons can be very inspirational as a cook.

This recipe was born out of a desire for an easy, one pot meal that was filling and delicious. I was very pleased with the results. Don’t worry if you have leftovers, they keep really well in the fridge and are very tasty re-heated the next day.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion
1 teaspoon Very Lazy Garlic or one garlic clove, chopped
2 peppers (I used red and yellow), de-seeded and sliced
1 cup (or about a handful) mushrooms, sliced
1 cup broccoli, finely sliced
2 small tins (about 400 grams each) chopped tomatoes
2 tins of boiling water
1 vegetable stock cube, crumbled
1 teaspoon of dried oregano
1/8 teaspoon pepper
3 generous tablespoons basil pesto (I use Sacla brand)
1 handful of spaghetti, broken into short pieces
(If you have it on hand, whole wheat pasta is wonderful in this)
1/2 cup vegetarian cheese (use your favourite or what you have on hand - I like cheddar or parmesan)

Heat the oil in a large frying pan or saute pan. Saute the onion over medium heat until it begins to soften. Add the garlic, peppers and mushrooms and cook gently for a few minutes. Now add the broccoli, tomatoes, stock cube, oregano, pepper, and boiling water. Bring the mixture just to the boil, stirring gently.

Add the spaghetti, stir in and turn down the heat. Cook until the spaghetti is al dente, about fifteen minutes. Stir in the cheese and pesto until the cheese has melted. Serve with hot crusty rolls.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Fish on Friday-The 21st Century Housewife's©Pesto Crusted Fish with Couscous and Roasted Vegetables

I love fish, and am all for reviving the tradition of eating fish on Fridays, whether for religious or secular reasons. Fish is good for you, and provided you buy products that have been sustainably fished, it is good for the environment too. According to UN estimates, meat production accounts for nearly one-fifth of manmade greenhouse gases so eating fish one day a week can only help. Although “fresh” fish can be expensive, frozen fish is often a very good buy. And to be fair, unless you are buying directly from a fish monger, most of the fish labelled as "fresh" has actually been previously frozen just after it is caught and thawed under controlled temperature conditions so it can be marketed as "fresh" in the supermarkets. As a result, I tend to buy the majority of my fish frozen, both for reasons of freshness and economy. For example, I can get a big pack of sustainably fished cod loins really reasonably at Costco, and they are suitable for cooking straight from frozen.

Cooking time for fish will vary, depending on whether it is cooked from fresh or frozen, and how thick the fish is. A general guide is that when fish is cooked it should no longer be opaque and it will flake easily with a fork. The timings I have listed here are for my “cook from frozen” cod loins which are fairly thick as well. So go carefully, as overcooked fish is not nice - but then neither is undercooked fish :). Also oven temperatures can vary pretty radically oven to oven, so the first time you make this recipe, just keep an eye on it and go carefully. You can always turn the heat down a bit if things seem to be cooking too fast.

Don’t be put off by the long list of ingredients; this recipe is so delicious it is well worth the trouble, and it really does not take very long to put together. If red or yellow peppers are too expensive, you can use green bell peppers instead, or even some roasted red peppers from a jar (don’t roast the jarred peppers though, just heat them through with the couscous at the end of cooking). Same thing goes for the red onion - a plain onion will do nicely if the red ones are pricey.

My family love this recipe, but I love the fact that it is special enough for company too. It’s easily doubled if you have extra guests.

For the fish:-
4 cod or haddock loins, filleted, bones removed
(fresh or frozen)
2 tablespoons prepared basil pesto from a jar
2 tablespoons matzo meal (or bread crumbs)
drizzle of olive oil
grated rind and juice of 1 lemon

For the vegetables:-
1 red pepper, de-seeded and chopped in medium pieces
1 yellow pepper, de-seeded and chopped in medium pieces
1 zucchini, chopped in half moons
(cut the zucchini in half lengthwise, and then slice)
1 small red onion, peeled and cut in eighths
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

Enough couscous for 4 people, prepared according to package directions.

4 large squares of aluminum foil

Start with the vegetables – place the peppers, zucchini and onion in a roasting dish. Drizzle with the olive oil and balsamic vinegar and toss to cover. Place in the oven and roast at 400℉ (200℃) for about twenty-five minutes, stirring once half way through.

Meanwhile, mix the pesto, matzo meal and lemon rind together in a small bowl. Drizzle a small amount of olive oil into the mixture and stir.

Place each cod loin on a square of aluminum foil, skin side down. Sprinkle a bit of lemon juice over each piece. Using a spoon and your fingers, gently press the pesto mixture on to the top of the fish. Seal the aluminum foil up round each piece in a package shape. (Don’t press the foil down on to the fish or topping.) Place the fish parcels on a baking sheet and bake at 400℉ or 200℃ for about ten to fifteen minutes.

At this point, remove the fish from the oven and open the top of the parcels, leaving the foil open. Return to the oven so that the fish can finish cooking and the pesto crust can brown a little. This will take about five to ten minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish and whether it was fresh or frozen to start with. The fish is done when it is no longer opaque and flakes easily with a fork.

If the vegetables have finished cooking before the fish, just remove them from the oven and cover with aluminum foil and a clean tea towel to keep warm.

Prepare enough couscous for four people according to package directions. (This should normally take about five minutes.) Mix the couscous and roasted vegetables together (including any remaining oil in the roasting pan), and divide between four plates.

When it is fully cooked, serve the pesto crusted fish on top of the roasted vegetable couscous.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The 21st Century Housewife's© Banana Maple Walnut Loaf

This is seriously yummy. It’s also incredibly easy to make, so I really can’t recommend it highly enough. At the risk of being bossy, I will include two little bits of advice - don’t leave out the maple flavouring; it gives the loaves a gorgeous hit of maple that the syrup alone just does not provide, and do try to use freshly grated nutmeg if you can; it is so much nicer than the nutmeg you buy already grated. As well as a snack, my Banana Maple Walnut loaf makes a lovely breakfast, and while it is perfectly delicious plain, it is absolutely amazing spread with a bit of fresh unsalted butter if you are feeling indulgent.

My recipe makes two loaves, so you need two large loaf pans.

2 cups all purpose flour
2 cups whole wheat flour
¾ cup white sugar
½ cup light brown sugar
2 tablespoons baking powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup chopped walnuts
¾ cup shredded or desiccated coconut
1 cup raisins or sultanas
3 medium ripe bananas, mashed
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 teaspoon maple flavoring
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2/3 cup oil
(sunflower, corn oil or mild olive oil also work well, but not extra virgin olive oil)
2 cups buttermilk

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

Place the mashed bananas in a medium bowl and add the maple syrup, maple flavouring, eggs, oil, buttermilk. Mix thoroughly.

Add the banana and maple syrup mixture to the flour mixture and stir very thoroughly until well blended, but don’t beat. Divide the mixture between 2 large greased and floured (or lined) loaf pans.

Bake at about 350℉ or 170℃ for 50 to 60 minutes or until a piece of dry spaghetti inserted into the middle comes out clean with no batter clinging to it. (If the loaves begin to brown to fast, turn the heat back a little.)

Take the pans out of the oven, place on a wire rack and allow to cool for about half an hour. Carefully remove the loaves from the loaf pans and leave to cool on the wire racks until cold.

The loaves will keep for two to three days (longer if you keep them in the fridge, but don’t serve fridge cold). I usually keep one of the loaves for us, and give one away. However, if you don’t feel like sharing, you can also freeze them quite successfully. I slice the loaves up first, and then put a bit of greaseproof or waxed paper between each slice so that it is easier to thaw a bit at a time. If you think you will use a loaf up all at once, do skip this step and freeze it unsliced as the pre-slicing and greaseproof paper insertion is a bit fiddly.

If you prefer, this mixture will also bake beautifully as muffins. You will need at least 24 muffin cups lined with paper liners. Bake the muffins for about 20 to 25 minutes or until a piece of dry spaghetti inserted into the middle of one of the muffins comes out clean with no batter clinging to it. (Turn the heat back if they brown too fast.) Again, once they are cool, these can be very successfully frozen -although I have found they usually disappear so fast, there are never any left to freeze!

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

The 21st Century Housewife's© Broccoli and Bacon Pasta

I used to worry about making sauces from scratch, but not any more! Even if you are new to cooking, don't let them intimidate you. Once you get the hang of them, most sauces are not difficult - you just have to remember to keep stirring. Also, in the case of this particular sauce, add the milk slowly and be aware you may not need it all. (You can always add more liquid, but you can't take it away!) This one is so easy and my homemade version not only tastes nicer than ready made cheese sauces, it is much less expensive. Plus you can avoid some of the unpronounceable ingredients and preservatives ready-made cheese sauces often contain.

This recipe is a great one for after a rough day as it takes very little time and effort to make. Also, as it relies on easy to find ingredients that are not too pricey it's great for the budget too.

In our house, broccoli is one of our favourite vegetables, but I have found that even people who really don't like broccoli often enjoy this recipe because of the yummy bacony cheese sauce. You can use smoked or unsmoked bacon; both work beautifully, it really is just a matter of taste. I do like to use wholewheat pasta because not only does it add fibre and make your dinner more nutritious, it also tastes really good!

1 tablespoon olive oil
3/4 cup of bacon, chopped or 3/4 cup of bacon lardons (pre-chopped chunks of bacon)
1 small head of broccoli, washed and chopped in small florets
4 cups dried pasta, whole wheat if possible
2 tablespoons butter
3 generous tablespoons flour
1 and 1/2 to 2 cups milk
2 generous teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 cup grated mature (also known as strong or "old") cheddar cheese

Heat the oil in a frying pan and fry the bacon over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until done. Steam the broccoli for about four minutes until tender. Drain and set aside. Cook the pasta according to package directions.

Meanwhile, melt the butter over medium heat in a small saucepan. Whisk in the flour and cook for a minute or two. Add the milk a little at a time, whisking after each addition and allowing to thicken a bit before adding more. You may need to turn the heat up a little at this point, but don't let it get too hot. When the sauce begins to reach a medium consistency (smooth and pourable, but not runny), add the cheese and stir in to melt. If the sauce gets too thick, just add a little more milk, a bit at a time. Stir in the mustard.

Drain the pasta and return it to the pan it was cooked in. Add the cooked bacon and broccoli and pour the sauce over. Stir to mix and heat through. Serve in warmed bowls. This is lovely accompanied by nice hot rolls, particularly at this chilly time of year!

Monday, 11 January 2010

And the Winner Is...

I had a great response to the Le Creuset Oval Casserole Giveaway sponsored by

The winner (chosen by a random number generator) is the 276th entry -

Joyce Barocas of Atlanta, Georgia, author of the Flour Power blog.

Congratulations to Joyce and many thanks to everyone who entered!!

Sunday, 10 January 2010

The 21st Century Housewife's© Cabbage with Red Onion and Madeira Sauce

Cabbage is one of "those" vegetables. Along with Brussel sprouts and spinach, it's had a bad reputation for years, but properly cooked, both red and green cabbage are absolutely delicious. They are also really, really good for you, and usually very reasonably priced so great for the budget. I developed this recipe when I was trying to think of things to serve alongside leftover ham and turkey after Christmas, but I've since discovered it goes with just about everything.

2 tablespoons oil (I used olive, but sunflower or Canola would be fine)
1 red onion
1 tablespoon sugar
1 small cabbage, shredded
¼ cup Madeira or sherry
¼ cup chicken or vegetable stock (from a cube is absolutely fine)
1 tbsp soy sauce
½ cup frozen peas

Heat the oil in a frying pan (with a lid) and sauté the red onion over low heat until it is just beginning to soften. Add the sugar and stir to mix through.

Turn the heat up to medium and add the shredded cabbage. Stir-fry for a few minutes until the cabbage is tender-crisp. Add the Madeira or sherry and the chicken stock, along with the soy sauce. Stir to mix and bring to the boil. Allow to bubble away for a minute or so just to let the liquid reduce a bit. Add the peas. Then put the lid on the frying pan, lower the heat and cook for about three to five minutes. (You still want the peas to be nice, bright green.)

Serves four to five as a side dish.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Last Chance to Enter the Le Creuset Giveaway

Just a reminder that the deadline for entries to the Le Creuset Giveaway - in partnership with - is Sunday 10th January. If you live in the US or Canada, you can be in with a chance to win a lovely oval Le Creuset casserole just by sending an email to with "Le Creuset Giveaway" in the subject line.

The winner will be announced on here on Monday so watch this space!

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

The 21st Century Housewife's© Leek and Ham Risotto with Cherry Tomatoes

This recipe is delicious – perfect comfort food for this time of year – and you probably have most of the ingredients for it already in your store-cupboard and freezer. In fact, it is a great way to use up any leftover ham you might still have tucked away in the freezer after the Holidays. If by any chance you don’t have any ham left, just buy a thick slice from the deli counter and chop it up. Don’t worry if cherry tomatoes are too pricey or not available. You can either chop ordinary tomatoes up finely and use them instead.

Risotto does require pretty much constant attention and stirring, but not much effort, and as it only takes about twenty minutes or so to make. This is why it is one of my favorite quick and easy dinners. Risotto is quite rich, so servings do not need to be all that big (in fact this recipe wills serve at least four hungry adults). You don’t really need to serve anything with this, although I’m sure no one would complain if you served some nice hot rolls or a small green salad alongside it.

2 tbsp butter
3-4 leeks, thinly sliced and washed and drained thoroughly
2 cups Arborio or other risotto rice
1 glass white wine
1 litre hot chicken stock
½ cup frozen peas
½ cup halved cherry tomatoes
1 cup cooked ham, chopped in bite sized pieces
¼ cup light cream

Melt the butter over low to medium heat in a large frying pan. Add the leeks and sauté until they begin to soften. Add the rice and stir to coat with the buttery leek mixture. Cook for a minute or so, but don’t let the rice start to brown at all. (Turn the heat down a bit if it starts to do that.)

Add the white wine and stir in until it absorbs. Now add the stock gradually, stirring after each addition until absorbed. Once you have added all the stock, the rice should be cooked, but still “al dente”, with just a little bit of bite.

Stir in the peas, cherry tomatoes, ham and cream. Cook, stirring pretty much constantly, until the cream has absorbed and the peas, tomatoes and ham are heated through.

Serve on warmed plates.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Tea at The Ritz

Is there anywhere more iconic than The Ritz Hotel in Park Lane, London? Since its construction in 1905, The Ritz has played host to everyone from Winston Churchill and President Eisenhower to Charlie Chaplin and Ana Pavlova. This is the place where Tallulah Bankhead famously sipped champagne from her slipper during a press conference. Whether you come from New York, Chicago, Toronto, Hong Kong, Sydney or anywhere in between, tea at The Ritz is something you should definitely include on any visit to London.

My family and I love having afternoon tea at The Ritz. It is such a beautiful place, harking back to an almost lost age of elegance, with its gorgeous surroundings, elegant atmosphere and delicious food. Tea is served in the beautiful Palm Court Restaurant, just as it has been for years and years. There is a strictly enforced dress code, and gentlemen must wear jackets and ties. For ladies, things are a bit more relaxed than they used to be in days gone by, but you are expected to dress elegantly. Most ladies wear anything from smart trouser suits to very formal tea dresses. The service at The Ritz is impeccable, and everything is done to be sure you enjoy yourself. Yes, it is expensive, but not eye-wateringly so. And for us, The Ritz has something really special that makes us come back time and time again. Our visit today was in honour of our son's seventeenth birthday and as usual, we had a wonderful time.

You cannot help but be impressed as you walk through the lobby and through to The Palm Court Restaurant.

Gold and cream decor contrasts beautifully with the green of the palm plants dotted throughout, and gold framed mirrors are dotted around the walls. Don't forget to look up; the spectacular ceiling is not to be missed.

Once you are comfortably seated, the first step is to peruse the menu of loose leaf teas - over twenty-five to choose from. My favourite is the strong yet mellow Ritz Royal Blend, while my husband prefers Assam, and our son Earl Grey with its distinctive Bergamot aroma. They offer fruit and herb teas as well. Everyone gets their own silver tea pot, and you also have your own silver tea strainer to ensure no tea leaves find their way into your bone china cup!

The first course of afternoon tea is always tea sandwiches - tiny brioche rolls filled with egg mayonnaise, and a variety of crustless breads enveloping fillings like smoked salmon, ham, cucumber, poached chicken breast and ham. Next come the warmed scones, served with strawberry jam and clotted cream. And finally, there are the cakes.

Delicate macaroons, flaky millefeuille, rich chocolate gateau, fruit tartlets and a white chocolate filled blackcurrant mousse flecked with edible gold leaf were all on offer today. When we somehow managed to finish them all, the plate was generously refilled - although that time we only managed to eat one or two!

Throughout the meal, a pianist played a beautiful white grand piano. Suddenly, we heard him start ‘Happy Birthday’, and what should appear but a gorgeous little cake for my son, and another one for a lady at a table nearby.

We were too full to eat it though, so a pretty box was produced to allow us to take it home easily.

We all had a lovely afternoon and it made for a really special celebration. Tea at The Ritz starts at £38 per person and can be easily booked online at Afternoon tea is very popular, so do book well in advance.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

The 21st Century Housewife's© Marble Cake

Tomorrow is my son's birthday, so today we are making birthday cake. I love making all kinds of cakes - from plain and simple white cake to chocolate extravaganzas - but as far as my son is concerned, the only cake that is really a birthday cake is a marble cake.

I had forgotten about marble cake for years, until we had one when we were visiting the US when my son was little, and I was reminded how much I had loved them myself as a kid. I developed my own recipe when we got home, using one of my vanilla cake recipes and going from there. A few years have gone by since then, and both the cake and I have evolved a bit, but it is still my (now nearly grown up) son's favourite.

I've photographed a single layer of the cake un-iced, so that you can see the pretty pattern on the top. The pattern runs right through the cake, so it looks gorgeous when it is cut. My recipe makes a two layer cake, and I always sandwich it together with vanilla icing - either homemade or Betty Crocker, depending on how much time I have. Then I ice the top and sides and decorate it with Hershey's Kisses or other chocolate candies. I like how the chocolate candy against the vanilla icing hints at the mix of flavour and colour inside.

You really do need an electric mixer for this one, unless you have extremely strong arms and lots of stamina!

3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 and 1/2 cups white sugar (superfine or caster sugar if possible)
4 eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3 cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 and 1/4 cups milk (reserve 2 tablespoons from this)
2 tablespoons cocoa powder

Preheat oven to 350℉ or 160℃. Grease and flour two eight inch round pans.

Using the large bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and the sugar together until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

In a medium bowl, sift together the flour and baking powder. Gently blend this mixture into the buttery eggy mixture on very low speed. Now add the the milk - EXCEPT the 2 tablespoons you have reserved. Blend the mixture on low speed until it is smooth and then beat for on a higher speed for about a minute.

At this point, remove about 5 generous spoonfuls of batter from the mixture and place in a small bowl.

Add the vanilla to the batter in the large mixer bowl and blend thoroughly. Divide this batter between the two baking pans.

Now take the batter in the small bowl and sift the cocoa powder into it. Add the reserved 2 tbsp of milk. Stir to blend together well.

Using a spoon, dollop the chocolate batter over the top of the vanilla batter in the baking pans, about three well-spaced dollops per pan. Gently run a knife from one side of each pan to the other, cutting the chocolate and vanilla mixture together. You want to see streaks of chocolate through the vanilla. Be careful not to over-blend.

Place the pans in the oven and bake for about 20 to 25 minutes or until a piece of dried spaghetti inserted into the centre of the cake layers comes out clean.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool in the pans for about ten minutes. Carefully remove from the pans and cool on wire racks. Allow to cool completely before icing and decorating.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

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

I get an organic vegetable box every week, and do try to plan meals around it, but every once in a while I end up with things left over when the next box arrives. I first developed this recipe when I ended up with too many carrots and needed to find a tasty way to use them up. These almost border on being cupcakes, but the whole wheat flour, carrot and nuts are really good for you (and they don’t have icing) so I think they still qualify as a muffin!

2 cups all purpose flour
2 cups whole wheat flour
2 tablespoons baking powder
1 teaspoon mixed spice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup chopped pecans
1 cup coconut
1 cup grated carrot
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)
2 cups buttermilk
1 tsp vanilla

Measure the flours, sugars, baking powder, mixed spice, cinnamon, pecans, coconut and carrots into a large bowl and stir to mix.

Beat the eggs, oil, buttermilk and vanilla in a medium bowl.

Add the egg and milk 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 and remove the muffins from the pans and place on wire racks. These are amazing served warm, so if you can manage to make them first thing in the morning you will be very popular indeed. (However warming muffins made the day before in the microwave or very gently in the oven is a very effective cheat if you, like me, are Not A Morning Person.) Or you can just serve them as a snack anytime.

Cool the remaining muffins and store in a sealed container (in the refrigerator if possible - bring to room temperature or warm in the microwave before eating.) These freeze well, but be sure to wait until they are completely cool before you put them in the freezer.