Thursday, 10 August 2017

COUSCOUS SALAD WITH ROAST SUMMER VEGETABLES


Packed lunches are a bit of a necessity when you're out and about with kids - they want to eat when they want to eat (waiting for it to be cooked is not an option) and what they want to eat (whether it's on the menu or not). As a result, my family eats a LOT of picnics at this time of year. Not that I'm complaining - even the simplest of lunches tastes amazing eaten in the great outdoors, especially if you've been active enough to work up an appetite beforehand. While my kids are more than happy with a sandwich or wrap, I like to change things up and will often take along a salad for my lunch. This couscous salad is a current favourite - it tastes just as good cold as it does hot, it is full of flavour, and it is robust enough to withstand transportation.

As well as being a great picnic dish, it would make a fantastic accompaniment to grilled meat (especially lamb skewers) at a barbecue, and I'm looking forward to trying it with grilled halloumi the next time I make it. This quantity of couscous salad will serve four as a light lunch or six as a side dish.


Couscous Salad with Roast Summer Vegetables

Serves 4-6

Roast summer vegetables
1 red pepper
1 yellow pepper
2 small red onions
2 courgettes
8 garlic cloves (optional)
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp dried oregano

Couscous
250g couscous
1 tsp each ground cumin, ground coriander and paprika
4 spring onions, finely sliced
325ml hot vegetable stock
juice and grated rind of 1 lemon
300-g can chickpeas, drained and rinsed

ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/Gas Mark 6.

First, prepare the vegetables. Deseed the peppers and cut the flesh into 2.5-cm chunks. Peel the onions, removing any roots but keeping the root ends intact. Slice each onion in half through the root, then cut each half into four wedges through the root so the layers don't separate. Trim the ends off the courgettes. If the courgettes are thick, cut them in half lengthways before cutting them into 1-cm-thick slices. Finally, break the garlic cloves, if using, from the bulb but do not remove the papery skins.

Put all the vegetables in a large food bag, pour in the oil and add the oregano and pepper to taste. Holding the top firmly, shake the bag until the vegetables are thoroughly coated in the oil and seasonings. Tip the contents of the bag into a large roasting tin. Transfer to the preheated oven and bake, stirring occasionally, for 30-35 minutes, or until the vegetables have softened and the edges are brown in places.

Meanwhile, prepare the couscous. Put the couscous into a large heatproof bowl and stir in the spices and spring onions. Pour in the hot stock, then cover and leave to stand for at least 5 minutes. Fluff up the grains with a fork, then stir in the lemon juice, lemon rind, chickpeas and pepper to taste.

Remove the roast vegetables from the oven and leave to cool down for a few minutes, then add to the couscous and gently stir through. Serve immediately or leave to cool down slightly and transfer to the fridge - this couscous salad is delicious eaten hot or cold.


Tips
  • To eat the garlic, simply squeeze the soft pulp out of the papery skin. Roasting garlic like this mellows the flavour, making it almost sweet and not at all pungent.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

SUPER GREEN SMOOTHIE


Smoothies are a super way to pack lots of nutrients into your diet. I tend to avoid taking in too many calories in drink form (unless we're talking wine) but I've been doing lots of running recently and have been enjoying the occasional smoothie as a post-workout snack.  I also find them to be a good breakfast option on mornings when I don't feel like eating anything too heavy or if I simply fancy a change from cereal.

Green smoothies have been around for some time but, to be honest, I've never really fancied trying them because they seem just too, well, healthy. Despite its vibrant green colour (no getting that past my kids!), I think this version is the perfect introduction to green smoothies as the sweetness of the banana and mango completely masks the taste of the kale, which can otherwise be quite bitter.

My girls aren't big smoothie (green or otherwise) drinkers but my 6-year-old was intrigued enough to try this - she even said "that's nice, Mummy", although she declined to have her own glass. I'm taking that as a partial success!

  

Super Green Smoothie

Serves 1

½ banana, peeled
60 g frozen mango
45 g frozen kale
225-250 ml coconut water

Put the banana, mango and kale in a blender with 225 ml of the coconut water and process until smooth. Check the consistency - it will be fairly thick, so stir in the remaining coconut milk if you prefer a runnier smoothie.

Tips

  • I've used frozen mango and kale in this recipe but you can, of course, use fresh - it's just quite nice to include frozen ingredients in a smoothie because they'll make it nice and cold.
  • Frozen fruit and vegetables are super-convenient - let's face it, preparing a mango can be a bit of a faff, and with frozen fruit that's all done for you. Using frozen also helps me to prevent wastage because my family is not keen on greens and I'd struggle to get through a whole big bag of kale on my own. With the frozen stuff, I just take out what I need and put the rest back in the freezer for another day.
  • That said, if you're using frozen fruit or vegetables in a smoothie, please be aware that not all blenders will be able to cope with rock solid ingredients. The stick blender I've been using for my smoothies is definitely on its way out! Ideally, you need to use a blender with a powerful motor that is advertised as being capable of crushing ice - this has the advantage of giving the finished smoothie a velvety-smooth finish too. Alternatively, allow the frozen ingredients to partially defrost before blending them.

Friday, 12 May 2017

SPEEDY PITTA PIZZAS


These pitta pizzas are so quick and easy to put together, making them perfect for an after-school dinner or a weekend family lunch. If you're particularly hungry, you could cook some oven chips to serve with them or add some vegetable sticks or salad on the side.

You can use whatever toppings you like - well, any that are child-approved anyway! I've given a recipe for a simple vegetarian topping here, but have included suggestions for alternative ingredients below. My girls' favourite topping is sweetcorn and pepperoni.

My kids love to help to make these and I usually set out the prepared toppings in little bowls so they can choose whichever they want (any leftovers can be tossed into a salad). This is a good activity to do when your child has a friend over and you're not sure what toppings the visiting child likes, plus it seems to be something the kids enjoy doing and it produces a fairly minimal amount of mess.


Speedy Pitta Pizzas


Makes 2

2 white or wholemeal pittas
2 tbsp frozen sweetcorn
1 tbsp chopped red onion
¼ green pepper, deseeded and sliced
4 button mushrooms, sliced
55g grated mozzarella and Cheddar cheese

Tomato pizza sauce
1 tbsp tomato purée
2 tbsp passata
½ tsp dried oregano

Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/Gas Mark 6.

In a small bowl, mix together all the ingredients for the tomato pizza sauce.

Place the pittas on a baking sheet and top with the tomato pizza sauce, spreading it right to the edges. Arrange the sweetcorn, onion, green pepper and mushrooms on top, then cover with the grated cheese.

Transfer to the preheated oven and bake for 10-12 minutes, until the cheese is melted and slightly browned.




Our favourite toppings:
  • Cooked chicken, red peppers, mushrooms and sweetcorn
  • Pepperoni, green peppers, onions and black olives
  • Pepperoni and sweetcorn
  • Ham, pineapple and sweetcorn
  • Ham, mushrooms and black olives

This is a great recipe for getting some veggies into your child. Even if they're not keen on vegetable toppings, just one tablespoon of tomato purée counts as one of their five-a-day. Add vegetable crudités on the side or perhaps some sweet potato fries and you're on to a winner!

Sunday, 26 March 2017

SPAGHETTI BOLOGNESE


I find it hard to believe that I've been writing this blog for over six months and I still haven't shared my recipe for spaghetti bolognese (or "spag bol", as us Brits call it). This was my favourite meal as a child growing up in the 1980s, probably because it was one of the most exotic meals on the menu. Back in those days, spaghetti bolognese night was the only time we ever ate pasta (unless you count canned spaghetti in tomato sauce), which I find rather incredible considering how much of the stuff my own children consume!

This recipe is probably as far from a classic Italian spaghetti bolognese (or ragu) as you can get but it's the only version I can contemplate making because it's the dish of my childhood. It's not my mother's recipe, but it tastes similar (from what I can remember) even though I've made some tweaks to make it more acceptable to my own children. They are not keen on "bits" so I've learnt to grate the carrots rather than dice them, and to use passata in place of canned tomatoes for a smoother sauce - and cleaner plates!

The recipe I've given below serves four adults, but the sauce is ideal for batch cooking so the ingredients can easily be doubled, or even tripled if you have a large enough saucepan. I also use the sauce as a base for lasagne (recipe to follow another time), which is a fabulous dish to serve when you have a crowd to feed.


Spaghetti Bolognese

Serves 4

2 tsp olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 small carrots, peeled and coarsely grated (100g prepared weight)
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
500g lean steak mince (5% fat)
1 reduced-salt beef stock cube
2 tbsp tomato purée
2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tsp dried mixed herbs (I like to use Italian seasoning)
400g passata
350g dried spaghetti
grated Parmesan cheese, to serve

Heat the oil over a low-medium heat, then add the onion and cook for 5 minutes, or until softened. Add the carrots and cook for 3 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook for a further minute.

Increase the heat and add the mince and cook, breaking it up with a wooden spoon, until browned all over. Crumble over the stock cube and stir until thoroughly combined.

Add the tomato purée, Worcestershire sauce, herbs and passata. Season to taste with pepper. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to low-medium and simmer for at least 25 minutes, or until the sauce is thick and reduced.

Meanwhile, bring a large saucepan of water to the boil, then add the spaghetti and cook for 8-10 minutes, or until tender but firm to the bite. Drain and transfer to dishes along with the bolognese sauce. Serve with grated Parmesan cheese.



Tips

  • There's no reason why you couldn't add extra vegetables to the sauce - mushrooms work especially well, but finely diced red peppers or celery, or grated courgette would also make fantastic additions.
  • The bolognese sauce freezes successfully and is very useful to have to hand when you need a quick dinner. Freeze in single portions in freezerproof containers or freezer bags. Remember to label and date them - unless you enjoy playing freezer roulette!
  • When I'm cooking meals that the children will eat, I only season with pepper as I figure that some of the ingredients I use (for example, the stock cube, Worcestershire sauce and Parmesan) are salty already.

Monday, 20 March 2017

MIXED BEAN CHILLI


Here's a little something for meat-free Monday! Even though we're a family of omnivores, I think it's important to incorporate meat-free food into our weekly menu, so I usually try to make at least one vegetarian dinner a week, and our lunches are often meatless. Actually, come to think of it, this particular recipe would be suitable for a vegan diet too, if you omit the yogurt accompaniment or swap it for a dairy-free alternative.

Sadly (although predictably), this chilli turned out to be a bit on the spicy side for my kids (and a bit on the vegetarian side for my husband, a confirmed meat-eater) but it freezes well so a batch lasts me a while. I like to eat it for lunch as a filling for a baked potato or, if I'm feeling slightly less virtuous, I'll serve with tortilla chips and a good dollop of cooling natural yogurt.

The vegetables and beans in this tasty chilli all count towards your five-a-day (although apparently beans only count as one portion a day, no matter how many you eat) so I reckon you'd be well on your way to this target if you ate this for lunch or dinner.



Mixed Bean Chilli (vegetarian/vegan)


Serves 4

½ tbsp vegetable oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 fresh red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
2 tsp each ground cumin and paprika
1 tsp mild chilli powder
1 each red, yellow and red pepper, deseeded and diced (360g total prepared weight)
400-g can chopped tomatoes
400-g can mixed beans in mild chilli sauce
400-g can red kidney beans in water, drained and rinsed
200-g can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 tbsp tomato purée
2 tbsp chopped fresh coriander

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over a low-medium heat and cook the onion for 8-10 minutes, or until softened. Add the garlic and red chilli and cook for a further minute.

Add the cumin, paprika and chilli powder and mix until the onion is coated in the spices. Increase the heat to medium-high, then stir in the peppers, tomatoes, beans, chickpeas and tomato purée.

Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes, until thick and reduced. Stir in the coriander just before serving.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

CARROT CAKE OVERNIGHT OATS


I definitely find that eating a nutritious, filling breakfast sets the tone for my whole day's eating. However, with two little girls to get fed, dressed, kitted up and out the door by 8.30am, mornings in our house can be hectic and if I'm running short on time I often find myself skipping breakfast.

That's why I'm loving overnight oats right now. When I get up in the morning, all I have to do is grab the bowl from the fridge, take a spoon out the drawer and dig right in! Sure, they take a bit of pre-preparation but I can honestly say that I put can them together in five minutes flat (usually while I'm cooking our evening meal) and one batch will last me two breakfasts.

Overnight oats need never become boring because it's so easy to change up the ingredients for new and exciting flavour combinations. Carrot might seem like an odd ingredient to use but, trust me, it totally works!

Carrot cake is my absolute favourite cake so these carrot-cake-inspired overnight oats were always going to be a winner for me. They marry together all the delicious flavours of the a traditional carrot cake - the sweet carrot, warming spices, juicy sultanas and hint of zesty orange - and the walnuts add a welcome crunch against the soft oats.

Carrot cake for breakfast? Yes, please!


Carrot Cake Overnight Oats

Serves 2

80g rolled oats
½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground mixed spice
40g sultanas
25g walnut pieces
1 carrot, peeled and finely grated (about 80g prepared weight)
finely grated rind of 1 orange
400ml semi-skimmed milk or unsweetened almond milk
1 tbsp maple syrup

Put the oats and spices in a large bowl and mix until the spices are evenly distributed. Add the sultanas, walnuts, grated carrot and orange rind and stir well.

Divide the mixture between two bowls (or jars/leak-proof containers if you intend to transport the overnight oats). Pour half the milk into each bowl - it should just cover the ingredients. Top each with 1/2 tablespoon of maple syrup and stir gently, then cover with clingfilm or a lid and chill in the fridge overnight.

In the morning, simply give the mixture a good stir and dig in.



Tips
  • I prefer to use finely grated carrot in this recipe because it softens nicely overnight; coarsely grated carrot retains more of its crunch.
  • I've used cow's milk but you can, of course, use non-dairy milk. I've tried this recipe using unsweetened almond milk and it was equally delicious.

Friday, 3 March 2017

CHICKEN & VEGETABLE CHOW MEIN


Takeaways are a great treat, especially at the end of a long week when you just want to flop in front of the telly with something tasty to eat and a nice glass of wine. However, they can be a very expensive option, not to mention hugely calorific as it's always tempting to order far more food than you actually need (eyes-bigger-than-belly syndrome). And I've lost count of the amount of time I've sat around impatiently waiting for a takeaway whilst knowing full well that I could have made it myself in less time.

This recipe is my take on chicken chow mein and, whilst it's is probably far from authentic, it's one of my favourite Chinese-style meals. It's essentially a stir-fry (although with the small quantity of oil I use, the vegetables end up being steamed rather than fried) with added seasonings to give it a real flavour kick. This is a great fall-back option when the cupboards are bare because it relies on mostly storecupboard ingredients, plus a few fresh vegetables that can be varied depending on whatever odds and ends you have in the fridge. It's also a good way to use up leftover roast chicken - simply add it with the beansprouts and spring onions.

My kids are still not mad keen on mixed-up foods so this isn't something I make for them at the moment but I hope to in the future. I sometimes find that giving them a deconstructed version of a dish (in this case, plain noodles, chicken and raw vegetable strips with soy sauce on the side for dipping) can help introduce them to new meals so I will probably try doing that.
  


Chicken & Vegetable Chow Mein

Serves 2 generously

125g dried medium egg noodles
1 tbsp groundnut oil
5-cm piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 fresh red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
350g skinless, boneless chicken breasts, cut into thin strips
1 red pepper, deseeded and thinly sliced
2 carrots, peeled and cut into julienne slices
4 spring onions, shredded lengthwise
2 handfuls of fresh beansprouts
½-1 tsp crushed chilli flakes (optional)
2 tbsp dark soy sauce
2 tsp toasted sesame oil

Bring a medium saucepan of water to the boil. Add the noodles and bring back to the boil, then cook for 3-4 minutes, or according to the packet instructions. Drain.

Meanwhile, heat the groundnut oil a in a large saucepan or wok over a high heat. Add the ginger, garlic and red chilli and cook, stirring constantly, for 30 seconds. Add the chicken and continue to cook, stirring, for 3-4 minutes, or until the chicken is sealed all over.

Stir in the peppers and carrot and cook, stirring frequently, for a further 3 minutes. Add the spring onions and beansprouts and continue cooking for 1 minute, or until the vegetables are softened and the chicken is cooked through.

Add the drained noodles along with the chilli flakes (if using) and soy sauce and, using tongs, toss well to combine. Finally, drizzle over the sesame oil, toss briefly and transfer to serving dishes.



Tips
  • It's best to have all the ingredients chopped and ready before you start cooking (getting all your ducks in a row, so to speak). There's a fair amount of  preparation to do with this recipe, but this is more than compensated by the super-quick cooking time.
  • If the noodles are cooked before you're ready to add them to the chicken and vegetables, drain them and toss in half the sesame oil to prevent them from sticking together in one big clump.
  • This recipe is really adaptable - the chicken can be replaced with pork fillet, rump steak, prawns or Quorn pieces - and it's a good way to use up whatever bits of vegetables you have lurking in the fridge too. Just make sure that everything is chopped thinly so it cooks evenly and add any vegetables that require a longer cooking time to the pan first. If you have any salad leaves that need using up, throw in a handful along with the noodles and stir to wilt.
  • Crushed chilli flakes are pretty fiery so if you are cooking this for kids it's probably best to leave them out at the cooking stage - you can always sprinkle some over the adults' portions at the end.