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Fake Pesto = Popeye Pasta sauce for kids

I love a fresh basil pesto pasta. But basil pesto sort of sucks without the parmesan cheese if you’re dairy free like me. And then, much as I know basil is rammed full of healthy goodness, I’m always quite keen to add a few more veggies into anything I serve up to my kids. Plus some kids seem to hate the taste of basil, unfortunate little souls, and this is a good way to introduce the taste a little more gently. Enter fake pesto sauce. I whipped this up in mere minutes and the kids wolfed it down even more quickly.

I keep vast quantities of this frozen in little cubes in my freezer as a quick pasta sauce for my kids. Its pretty versatile and works brilliantly if you half and half it with a béchamel sauce, stir through some scrummy cheese and shredded chicken or tuna. You can even use it for a pasta bake. Or as a puree for a really small baby, or as a base for a pasta sauce for adults.

Green pasta sauceIngredients:

1/2 a finely chopped onion

A couple of cloves of crushed garlic

2 medium courgette, grated

A large handful fresh spinach (or a few cubes of the chopped frozen variety)

A big sprig of fresh basil leaves (optional if your kids can’t stand it)

Method:

Sweat the onion in a little olive oil in a covered pan until very soft and full of flavour. Add the garlic and saute for a minute. Add the green veg and  cook gently until everything is well softened before blitzing with an immersion blender, liquidiser or food processor.

To freeze, portion out into ice cube trays, cover till cool, then freeze. Once these guys are frozen solid, you can flip them out of the tray into a ziplock bag. They will keep for roughly 3 months in the freezer.

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Apricot and Almond Tart

Some of you may have noticed my absence from blogging over the last month or so. Life has suddenly become very busy; we have an impending emigration looming, so I’ve been busy sorting, decluttering and partially packing things. Its very stressful and exciting at the same time, but isn’t leaving me much room for cooking anything decent. We’ve been relying on an embarrassing number of take out meals. Both sad, and boring!

As an added bonus, it has been absolutely freezing cold here. Last week we had a sprinkling of snow, just enough to disrupt everything. And today, at a chilly -4 degrees C, everything is frozen and covered in frost. It looks fairyland beautiful, but is definitely a day for perking myself up with a reminder that summer will be back, eventually.

My chefy friend L over at Colour Me Happy Kitchen, who did some epic jam making with me earlier in the year, came up with the MOST delicious Apricot Almond sunshine tart that just sings of sunshine! Her version is gluten AND dairy free, whereas mine is just dairy free. You could switch out the dairy free spread for butter if you are a butter only cooking snob, but honestly, this tart is delicious and light as is, so you really don’t need to.

This was very simple to make. We had this a few weeks ago as a dessert for a dinner party and while I was putting my kids to bed, my sneaky guests dished it up and gobbled it down so quickly that I didn’t get a chance to take any photos of it ready to eat. They were however, nice enough to leave me the barest sliver to eat. Thanks guys!

Apricot Almond TartAdapted from Colour Me Happy Kitchen’s All-in-one Apricot and Almond Sunshine Tart:

Ingredients:

75g dairy-free sunflower spread

100g caster sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract

2 beaten eggs

30g plain flour

75g ground almonds

a tin of halved apricots

Method:

Preheat your oven to 180 degrees C

Grease an 18cm cake tin with a loose bottom (I used a silicone tart case)

Mix the sugar and sunflower spread together in a bowl until well combined. Add the vanilla extract.

Beat in one egg till well combined, then add the other egg and beat till combined. Gently stir in the flour and ground almonds before spreading over the base of your cake tin. The dough is quite thick and you don’t need to worry about spreading it all the way to the edge.

Drain the tinned apricots and place them evenly all over the mix, rounded side up, without pressing them in.

Bake for about 25 minutes until the almond mixture has risen up around the apricots and turned golden brown. Let your tart cool in the tin for a few minutes before loosening with a knife and lifting out of the tin. You can cool it on a wire rack or on the tin base, but my dinner guests ate it pretty much straight out of the oven.

This goes brilliantly with a dollop of pouring cream or ice cream, but I enjoyed it on its own. A delicious shot of sunshine to brighten up a frosty winter day!


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Fornightly Meal Challenge #4: Sloe Gin Venison Pie

I absolutely love the warm, comforting deliciousness of a decent meat pie on a cold, damp night. On a particularly blustery night, I put together a very special venison pie for one of our holiday dinners. The special ingredient? Sloe Gin! If you don’t know how to make it, check out my handy recipe, so you’re all prepared next year! If you don’t have sloe gin and are desperate for venison pie, never fear, this works very well with lashings of red wine instead.

I’ve found loads of venison pie recipes. I’ve also read that once your sloe gin is ready, the sloes left after decanting go well with venison pie. I’ve never managed to find a recipe for the two together, so decided to try making my own.

The only hot tip when making venison pie is that you must NOT under any circumstances braise/brown the venison. It can make the meat tough and even 12 hours of slow cooking won’t save it. You’ve been warned. To get super melt in the mouth meat, you slow cook this stuff slowly in the sauce. The best method I’ve found is 12 hours in the slow cooker, finished off with an hour in the oven to add some colour before adding that lovely puff pastry topping. My MIL does hers (with kudu and mushrooms) all day in a pressure cooker and it is gorgeous.

While we were away I didn’t have a slow cooker or a pressure cooker, so did mine for 8 hours in the oven before adding the pastry. The meat was just as tender, but slightly drier. Clearly slow cooking does keep meat tender and moist. 
I cheated and used ready rolled puff pastry because I’m absolutely rubbish at pastry. I blame my hot hands. You can use any veg but this works best with winter seasonal root veg like carrots, parsnips and Swede. Mushrooms will also work well, but you should probably cook them in butter before adding them.

For the venison, try to get hold of cheap diced meat. The lower legs are fantastic for flavour and the long, gentle cooking really breaks the meat down into meltingly tender and rich tasting pie. This is one of those dishes where it pays to be friendly with your local butcher.

Don’t like pastry? No problem, you can just serve this as a casserole with a root veg and potato mash, dumplings or rice.

Ingredients (for 8 hungry hunters):

800g diced venison off the bone

2 large white onions, chopped

A tablespoon of chopped fresh garlic

Olive oil

A small glass of sloe gin (roughly 125ml)

2 cups (tins/cartons) of chopped tomatoes

2 bay leaves

large sprig of fresh rosemary

large spring of fresh thyme

A good quality beef or vegetable stock cube

Assorted veg, just use what you have. I had six carrots, four parsnips and a couple of courgettes

250g ready rolled puff pastry, or make your own!

A beaten egg or a couple of tablespoons of milk to wash the pastry

Method:

Preheat your oven to 120 degrees C.

Coat the base of a large pan with olive oil and put onto a medium heat.

Saute the chopped onion then cover the pan and turn down the heat to let them sweat until translucent. It should take about 10 minutes. Give the pan a shake now and then so they don’t stick and burn.

Add the garlic and turn up the heat again for one minute. Add the sloe gin and sauté off the onions and garlic for a few more minutes until the sloe gin fumes stop giving off their alcohol fumes.

Add the chopped tomatoes and bring up to a simmer. Add all the other ingredients, top up with some boiling water if necessary (you want everything to be just covered with sauce) and transfer to a covered oven proof dish and pop in the oven. You may need to fiddle with the oven temperature, but you’re looking for this to have a gentle fizzle of bubbles at the edges so that it cooks really slowly. I did mine for eight hours, stirring once after four hours. Remove the lid for the last hour so that it can get some extra colour.

Roll open your ready rolled pastry, or roll out your own. Cut to fit your pie dish. I usually use a new dish so that I can measure the pastry nicely, and to ensure I dirty up some extra dishes for my long-suffering spouse to wash. Remove the venison and turn the oven up to 200 degrees C.

Transfer the venison filling to the pie dish. You shouldn’t need to thicken it up, but you could do with cornflour if you really want. Brush the rim of the dish with your egg/milk to glue the pastry lid down. Top with pastry, embellish as desired, poke in a few holes to let out the steam and brush all over with egg/milk. Pop it back in the oven at 200 for 40 minutes.

Serve and enjoy! You can serve it with boiled new potatoes tossed in butter and parsley with some fresh steamed beans or broccoli, but as you can see, we didn’t bother and enjoyed it just on its own.

What are your favourite meat pie fillings?

 


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Gran’s Crunchies

Crunchies are a fantastic oat bar biscuit that most South African’s of my generation enjoyed. They are quick and cheap to make, last ages and have remarkably little sugar compared to many other biscuits I make. These were always knocking around in the cookie jar at home, my Gran tells me she had to make a batch almost every week because we ate so many of them.

They are very similar to Anzac biscuits, which are made round and not as bars. Anzacs were, I believe, originally made and packaged off to soldiers in the First World War because they last so well. It must have been total heaven receiving some of these little gems in the trenches. They are also similar to the British Flapjack, although Flapjacks are much softer and more buttery in taste.

This recipe is from my Gran’s hand written recipe book, and is dated over 60 years ago! It seems identical to most other South African Crunchie recipes I’ve Google’d, so clearly this one is a classic:

Ingredients:

180 g butter

1 tablespoon golden syrup (If you’re in the US, I don’t believe golden syrup is readily available. Light Molasses is probably the closest replacement)

1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

2 cups of plain rolled oats (not the quick cooking type)

1 cup desiccated coconut (unsweetened)

1 cup sugar

1 cup plain flour

Optional extras:

Replace 1 tablespoon of flour with a tablespoon of plain cocoa powder

Replace 1 cup of the oats with mixed seeds. I love using sunflower and sesame seeds

Add a handful of raisins or cranberries or sultanas or cranberries or chocolate chips. You get the idea.

Method:

Preheat your oven to 180 degrees (160 if it’s a hot convection like mine)

Put the butter and syrup together in a pan on a low heat to melt together.

Mix together the oats, flour, sugar, coconut and whichever optional ingredients you are using.

Once the butter and syrup are melted together, remove from the heat and add the bicarb. It will foam. Give it a quick stir and add to the dry ingredients. Mix it all together until everything is coated with the butter mix.

Press into a greased baking tray (mine is roughly A4 sized) and bake for 25 minutes.

Keep an eye on these towards the end of the baking time, as the edges can start to burn easily. If you prefer them chewy, you can take them out after 20 minutes when they should be a light golden brown. I prefer mine crisp, so I’ve left them in for longer until the edges just start to catch. I’ve used cocoa in mine here, so they are a bit darker than the classic version.

Leave the Crunchies to cool in the pan for 8 minutes before slicing. Slice too early and they crumble, slice too late and the whole lot will be rock hard and impossible to cut. Lift out and cool on a rack.

They can be stored in an air tight container for ages, but they never last much longer than 3 days in our house. I can highly recommend sprinkling the crumbs over ice cream! Enjoy.


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Baking conversions and cheat sheets

Presumable, like me, a lot of you source much of your cooking inspiration and recipes from the www. One thing I do struggle with is conversions for things like oven temperatures (I work in Celsius not Fahrenheit), weights (I work in kilograms) and volumes (I work in millilitres). And I’ve always been fascinated by the “sticks of butter” used in the US. It turns out they are roughly 113g! For my sanity, I use a skinny slice of 125g from my 500g slab instead, it works out to much the same.

With lovely recipes from all over the world now easily accessible, its handy to have a quick conversion table to hand, and this one is my favourite. I have it printed out and stuck to my fridge for easy reference.

And for weight to volume conversions for some more common baking ingredients, check out these conversion tables on Diana’s Desserts! If you’re looking for a wider range of ingredients, you will find this conversion calculator far more useful.

Hope this helps!


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Chicken soup and pasta necklaces

I think that women just have a primeval instinct to make soup, which they will try to foist on anybody who looks like a likely candidate ~ Dylan Moran

It’s a cold, wet and miserable day here today. As it’s the first rainy day in ages, I feel that it’s ok to stay indoors with the kids, playing random games and watching way too many DVDs. Yesterday’s roast chicken carcass is currently hanging out in my massive crockpot, accompanied by some onion, celery, garlic, a parsnip, 2 carrots, a sweet potato and red lentils. I doubt it will be ready for lunch, but the kids and I will definitely be enjoying a thick and comforting broth with big chunks of sour dough bread for tea tonight. I’m quite looking forward to it.

When the miserable weather really set in, as it can only do in the UK, we have to just grit our teeth, don our rain gear and head on out into it. Its a pretty trying time really. Toddlers get bored, mothers get frustrated and cabin fever sets in for everyone. The easiest way for toddlers to deal with the whole situation seems to be through horrific behaviour. Its understandable really as they have no way to burn off the same amounts of energy as they can on a nice warm sunny day.

I used to struggle to deal with the behaviour, and particularly, with preventing it happening in the first place. Thankfully I have a very good friend who is also an amazing Mummy. I remember a very ranty chat we had where I was moaning about the Terrible Two’s and she gave me the most brilliant solution. Create a “Special Box” of crafty bits and pieces to be brought out on particularly bad days. Genius idea. So far, no tantrums today. J is threading a pasta necklace. Its kept him occupied for almost an hour so far. I made sure the stiffened lace end wasn’t too perfect to make sure it takes a bit more time dexterity.

No beads? Make your own with pasta in your kitchen! There are loads of tutorials out there. You just need threadable pasta (I used Penne), ziplock bags,  food colouring and some vinegar (or rubbing alcohol).Use one zip lock bag per colour. Add in a tablespoon of vinegar and some food colouring. Drop in your pasta and swirl around till it is all well coated with colour. I left mine for 5 minutes before spreading it out on waxed paper to dry.Very easy. You should try it before the tantrums strike!


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Fortnightly meal challenge #1: Sage and Clementine Roast Chicken

So my first new meal challenge is done and dusted, hooray! Judging by the scraping of plates towards the end of the meal, it was a success. Baby K was so excited by her first taste of roast chicken that she nearly bounced out of her chair. And our toddler has morphed into Oliver, with not one, not two, but THREE requests for, “More please!” It was really tasty. The flavours weren’t phenomenally strong, but subtly different from an ordinary roast chicken. The sage and clementine work really well together. I would definitely make this again.

As with most roast chicken dishes, this one was fairly easy, going straight into the oven once prepared with no maintenance necessary allowing me to get on with other things.

Inspired by the original recipe made with chicken pieces here, this version, using a whole chicken was pretty easy.

You will need:

1 chicken. I can really recommend getting a good organic, corn fed, free range chook. Cheap chooks aren’t great except maybe as stock.

A couple of clementines

A bunch of fresh sage leaves

olive oil (or butter if you prefer), salt and pepper.

Gently pull the breast skin away from the meat. You should be able to form a pocket between the skin and the breast meat on either side by pushing a finger under the skin and gently breaking the connective tissue. Shove a sage leaf and a clementine slice into each pocket you’ve made. If you’re using butter you can wedge a good knob of it under the skin too.

Put some more sage leaves and a few clementine halves inside the chicken.

I made a dressing of around 6 tablespoons of olive oil, the juice of one clementine, a tablespoon of chopped sage and salt and pepper to taste which I used to coat the chicken before it went into the oven.

Roast at 220 degrees Celsius (430F for the western hemisphere readers) for roughly an hour until the thigh juices run clear. The timing will vary wildly depending on the size of your bird.

Once done, cover will foil and leave to rest for 10 minutes while you plate up your veg.

We had this with roasted peppers, courgettes, onions and cherry tomatoes with a mash made from parsnip, sweet potato and swede. My favourite autumnal mash.