Friday, 25 January 2013

Inspiration from childhood winters: Chicken and bechamel pot pie

Whilst travelling home on a very windy, cold and snowy evening last week, my thoughts inevitably turned to what I should cook for dinner. I was cold, wet, miserable and desperate for a glass of red, a few episodes of Lovejoy and something warming, comforting and tummy-fulfilling. Gazing out of the window on the train at the dark misery outside, I had a flashback to being in the same position on the way home from school in the winter, and if we needed any further proof that my stomach has always been number one in my mind, wondering what Mum (or Dad) was making for dinner.

One of my favourite ever comfort-food meals was Mum's chicken in white sauce with a baked potato. It's the fact you get creamy sauce, chicken and potato all in one meal - I reckon it's like regressing back to baby food but in a good way. So, here's my slightly updated take on it - gluten free, of course... 

Chicken and bechamel pot pie (serves 4 hungry people)

George wondered whether there were
enough potatoes.
I LOVE how Sainsbury's sell six filleted chicken thighs in a pack now - cheaper than chicken breast, loads more of it for your money and far juicier. Yum.

1. Saute 250g chopped pancetta, 2 chopped leeks, 2 chopped cloves of garlic, 3 diced carrots and a diced courgette in a big knob of butter on a medium heat. After 5 minutes add a packet (usually around 6 small or 4 large) filleted chicken thighs chopped into big chunks. Season generously. When the chicken is browned, add two big ladlefuls of frozen peas and a handful of chopped fresh parsley, and set aside.

2. In the meantime, make a large batch of bechamel sauce - I have discovered that using gram flour makes it lovely and thick, but rice flour makes it lighter, so if you're using gluten-free ingredients this really depends on what you fancy. I think I'd prefer rice flour for something like lasagne but because you want this to be nice and thick and wintery, gram flour is great. 

Bechamel sauce is dead easy - 50g butter melted in a pan, add 5 tablespoons (or a generous packet-shake) of flour and stir in for a minute on the heat. Take off the heat and gradually add a pint of milk, stirring all the time. Pop back on the heat and wait until it thickens, stirring occasionally - should take about 10 minutes. If you want it cheesy, add whatever cheese you fancy at the end and stir in. I love using a bit of cream cheese for some things but probably not for this recipe as you'd lose the chicken flavour. 

3. Slice up three big baking potatoes into thin (3mm or so) slices.

4. Mix the chicken and sauce together, pour into a casserole dish and layer the potatoes on top - mine made two layers but one is fine if you fancy less carbs. Season the potatoes and spread with a few dried herbs. 

5. Bake at 200 degrees for 40 minutes or until the potatoes are going brown and crispy on the top.

I served mine with some steamed mange tout just to give a bit of extra green-ness. It definitely 'filled a hole' as my Dad would say.

Not to be eaten if you want to be able to stand within half an hour of finishing.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

George goes to Japan (in Ashford): Chicken Katsu

Last night George, the other half and I were invited round to my sister's house, which luckily is only about 5 minutes down the road from us. My sister is Cabin Crew with British Airways and speaks fluent Japanese. We found out last night that she cooks fluent Japanese too. 

However, it was with some trepidation that I walked up the path to her front door, and not just because the path was frozen solid with ice. Before the event, she posted the following on Facebook:

今夜初めて料理がシェフみたいに詳しい姉のために日本料理を作るって約束しちゃった。彼女がめっちゃ期待してるらしい。あー、どうしよう ><

I think this was aimed at her Japanese friends, as quite obviously I couldn't make snout or tail of what she was saying. But for us idiots who can speak a tiny bit of school-taught French and just about as much English, Facebook has this clever in-built Bing translation tool, which when I clicked on it, said the following:

"I had for the first time cooking making Japan dishes for more my sister like a chef tonight. His turtle woman really are seems to be excited. Oh, what should I do"


Apparently this had something to do with one word half meaning something else, as my sister valiantly tried to explain, but I was too busy giggling to listen.

Anyway, here's what she cooked, which was (for the record) delicious.

Chicken Katsu

George had only taken a small bite before I whipped the camera out and rearranged the chicken...
And here's how, in her words...

"You make it by dipping the chicken in raw egg and then Panko breadcrumbs, and deep frying for about 5 minutes on each side - the oil has to be on a medium heat so it goes golden-brown but doesn't burn. The rice was just standard Japanese rice and the vegetables [onions and carrots] were literally just fried in veg oil and loads of soy sauce. That's all it was."

Easy, huh? Well, apparently so - but as you can only get Panko breadcrumbs from a special shop in central London maybe not so much. However, I reckon it would work with gram flour mixed with a little bit of ground ginger for a similar effect - the Panko breadcrumbs made the chicken lovely and light and crispy. You can get Japanese rice and gram flour from big supermarkets. 

George says it was just the ticket. Thanks, Anna!

Sunday, 20 January 2013

How to confuse meat-eaters: Chili con beanie

Come on, he's cute. Even
George grudgingly admits it...
Last Sunday was an exciting occasion for the Hill family, as my very cute (but I'm biased) six-month old nephew Elijah was dedicated at church. For those not quite used to the way us happy-clappies operate, it's a bit like a Baptism or Christening, but sans water and a fair amount of liturgy. Anyway, we all trundled off to the church hall afterwards, where my brother had 120 potatoes baking in the oven and three tonnes of chili con carne on the hobs to feed the masses.

Not wanting the veggies to be left out (or in the case of my Mum, people who pretend to be veggies when what's on offer looks nicer than the meaty version), I made a bean chili, or chili con beanie, to give it its official culinary title. 

Interestingly enough, I personally thought it tasted more like a traditional chili con carne than my brother's massive spicy American chili, even though that too was indeed delicious. It's definitely the cumin and paprika that does it, especially if you fry all the spices with the onions before adding anything else - and that goes for the 'normal' version, too. Many recipes call for dry-frying the spices before you add them to the dish, but as this just makes me sneeze like an express train I figured I'd leave it out for the sake of Elijah's guests.

Chili con beanie (or four-bean chili)

See, it almost looks like there's mince in there! Almost...
I used four types of beans for this dish, rather than three or five. Why is it that when I googled it, I could only find recipes for three- or five- bean chili? No idea, but the fact that Sainsburys had a '4 tins for £2' offer may have influenced my choices slightly!

The quantities I've provided below make enough for around 6 people with rice or 8 people with baked potatoes, although I made triple... It's moderately spicy but not raging hot.

1. Fry up 2 large chopped onions, 5 cloves of chopped garlic and 2 fresh sliced chilis in a solid-bottomed pan for a couple of minutes. I leave the seeds in my chilis, but it depends how hot yours are to start with - I'll leave that decision with you!

2. Fry until the onions are nice and soft, before adding 2 tablespoons - yes, tablespoons - of cumin seeds, 1 tablespoon of paprika, 1 tablespoon of chili powder, 2 teaspoons of cayenne pepper and 1 teaspoon of mixed spice. Mix together and fry off for a couple of minutes. 

3. Chop 6 tomatoes into fairly chunky pieces and add to the mixture. Cook for 2 minutes before adding 4 tins of beans. I used kidney beans, butter beans, flagolet beans and borlotti beans, but you could probably use just about anything you wanted, as long as you include the kidney beans. 

4. Throw in a good glug of Worcestershire sauce, lots of black pepper, a pinch of salt and a pinch of sugar before leaving to simmer for 45 minutes, or until 2/3 of the liquid has disappeared. 

5. Right at the end, stir in a big bunch of finely chopped coriander (oh, how I love my food processor for these bits!) and serve with rice and salad. Or 120 baked potatoes.

6. Sit back and watch the carnivores try to find the meat. Mwah ha ha ha ha...  

Monday, 14 January 2013

What happens when you leave the other half at home all day: Proper Irish cottage pie

As regular readers of this little blogette will know, the other half has been suffering from a broken ankle for the past 10 weeks. He's actually managed to get back to work recently, but today had a scan at the hospital and decided to be lazy and stay at home.

I reckon the little giraffe must have given him a kick (either that or I made him feel guilty by doing my 'hard done by woman' act yesterday in the kitchen) because I got home today to find two massive cottage pies in the oven. Excited isn't the word - I almost did a little wee. Not that you wanted to know that.

I'm now sitting on the sofa stuffled to the extremes, and very very nice it was too. However, I'm also giggling quietly to myself having made a mental list as I was carting spadefuls of pie into my mouth of a few things that made it so brilliantly Irish...

1. Potatoes. Not just your ordinary mashed potatoes, no... potatoes on the bottom, sides AND top of the meat. Enough to take over the world. And my tummy.

2. Onions. Not just in the meat... oh no. Onions sauteed in a pound of butter and mixed in with the potatoes. Onions flaked on top of the potatoes. Onions everywhere. 

3. A burnt oven bottom. Put the overflowing dish on a tray to prevent fall-out? Nah... it'll taste better with a slightly burnt smell. (Actually, it did.)

4. Quantity. I think the other half must be termed as a 'feeder'. Not just one pie. TWO pies. TWO WHOLE PIES. For two whole people (and a small giraffe). Not your little one-person pie dishes or anything poncey like that. Two massive casserole dishes.

I loved it. He can definitely stay...

Two pies. I had a ladylike spoonful. George ate the rest. Honest.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Winter veg panic: Sausage, swede and beetroot roast

I have taken to thanking God every evening for the existence of two things I feel a little guilty for taking for granted: a) the freezer, and b) the veg box.

I am well aware that thinking about what to cook for dinner occupies the majority of my day normally anyway, but in January it seems to be even worse - the pennies are pinching and there's a definite need for something more warming and filling than an iceberg lettuce and a bit of floppy cucumber, and a diet of leaves is apparently not conducive to a happy giraffe in these cold climates.

Having had a prod from the ungrateful little animal, I woke up the other morning and actually managed to have a look in the freezer to see if there was anything in there that might work for dinner. And there they were, my saviours - six gluten-free sweet chili sausages, purchased by my forward-thinking other half from Budgens (almost all their sausages are gluten-free, it's marvellous) and popped into the freezer.

On arrival back home from work, I continued to thank the Lord / my lucky stars / my other half's debit card for the delivery of the winter veg box, not all of which we managed to scoff over Christmas. However, we managed to leave the stuff that one tends to think is a bit boring (swede) or isn't quite sure that everyone likes (beetroot - the other half hates it), or which quite honestly panics me a bit (anything that looks like this celeriac). So, taking the knife firmly between his hooves, here's what George rustled up for us...

Sausage, swede and beetroot roast

Here's a 'before' picture for you, beetroot firmly at the side for the other half...

Peel and chop a swede into nice big chunks, and put in a roasting tray along with a couple of chopped field mushrooms, some whole beetroot, some halved tomatoes and two whole cloves of garlic. Add a big glug of olive oil, some cumin seeds, a shake of paprika and a pinch of dried chilis, and do a little shaky dancy thing around the kitchen to mix it all together.

Lay the sweet chili (or other) sausages on the top, and a nice big sprig of thyme, and cook for about 30-40 minutes in the oven, on about 180c.

Delicious, warming, filling, cheap - and a nice low carb count!

And the 'after' picture, beetroot all for me. Yum Yum.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

An anniversary on a budget: Confit duck with bean and black pudding cassolet

Congratulations were due to the other half yesterday, who had officially put up with me and George for two whole years. (George says will I leave him out of it please, as he's the only reason the other half bothers with us anyway. I am not so sure about this, but sometimes it's just easier to let an annoyed little giraffe have his way. Those hooves may be small but they don't half pack a punch.)

Anyway, as we had just seen off Christmas and its excesses, there was no going out for fancy meals or even to the pub for a pint, due to the severe lack of anything other than coppers in our wallets. So I roped in my long-suffering work colleagues to help me plan a celebration on a budget.

Fabulously, Blythe's cupboard seems to contain the most brilliant selection of stuff, and I ended up with not only the most lurid card with hearts on I've ever seen, but also a big posh tin of two confit duck legs for dinner. Donations of champagne and wine, a branded poncho, a packet of Percy Pigs and a (possibly) broken hanging basket holder from the rest of my superb office and I had very full, if a little eclectic, bag of pressies to take home.

So, with massive amounts of thanks to my brilliant colleagues and a root around in my kitchen cupboards, here's our special anniversary dinner on a budget.

Confit duck with bean and black pudding cassolet

George started quacking at this point.

Saute a chopped leek (or onion) with 4 cloves of garlic and a couple of chopped up slices of black pudding in a saucepan for 5 minutes. Add cumin, smoked paprika, cayenne pepper and some thyme before adding 4 chopped tomatoes. Continue cooking until the tomatoes have warmed through (this helps them break down) before throwing in the contents of a tin of butter beans and a tin of flagolet beans, including the water. Season thoroughly (lots of black pepper to cut through the black pudding) and cook for 20-25 minutes until some of the liquid has evaporated and the black pudding has crumbled through the dish.

In the meantime, take two sauteed duck legs (if you want to saute them yourself, it's basically a matter of cooking them very very slowly for 4-6 hours covered in duck fat with some herbs, salt and bay leaves) and pan fry fatty side down for 15 minutes on a low heat. Cover them with foil to ensure the meat on the other side warms through for the last 5 minutes.

Light candles, serve and enjoy with champagne!

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

And now for the diet: Monster cake and Monster pig

Well, happy 2013 one and all. I do hope you all had what is generally referred to as 'a good one' over the Christmas period. We certainly did, although George is feeling the effects of trying to eat his weight in cake. He tried his best, but as the monster cake the other half and I made weighed over two stone, he struggled a little.

George decided to wear his reindeer costume for the festivities.
Continuing on the Monster-sized theme, George and I cooked a whole pork belly on Christmas Day for 12 friends (and a dog). Along with the obligatory roasties, veg, gravy and stuffed peppers (for the veggie in the room) it went down a treat, especially with the dog.

Dougal relaxing with a foot massage from his 5-year-old friend Maria, after eating a whole pig.
And lastly with a not-so-Monster-sized but oh so much appreciated theme, we were treated to a lovely Christmas morning breakfast of smoked salmon, scrambled eggs and bucks fizz.

Thank you Chef Jose.

So, Happy New Year, and if anyone wants to join me in signing up to WeightWatchers, let me know!