Ham and Lentil soup: a bonus meal!

At the weekend, Stephen had a fit of culinary enthusiasm, and decided to cook his celebrated chicken and ham pie. This meant that, not only did we have to hightail it to the supermarket for industrial quantities of cheese, we also needed to get hold of some ham to augment the rather paltry quantities of chicken which we had left by Sunday afternoon. After several pie-making sessions, we have decided that the both the tastiest and the most practical way of coming by a decent quantity of ham for the purpose is to cook a gammon shank: this economical cut (Morrisons sell them for £1.99), also known as a ham hock or hough, yields plenty of moist, flavoursome meat and takes very little time and trouble to prepare. If you’re not planning to make a pie, the ham would work beautifully in a recipe like Liz’s one for Pasta alla Medici, or added into a dish of cauliflower cheese for a substantial tea, while still leaving plenty over for a couple of sandwiches. The real bonus though, is that adding an extra ingredient or two to the pot while cooking your gammon gets you almost all the way to a surprise bonus meal: several generous portions of ham and lentil soup which come in very handy around lunchtime in this cold weather.

There is one ingredient here which you may not have to hand unless you have recently been feeding a small child, namely the baby stock cubes: I happened to have a stash of these in the house, left over from the time when Eoin was still quite small, and I was having to be pretty cautious about the salt content of any meals he would be sharing. They’re very low in salt, and, while they’re not usually as much use as home-made stock or a regular stock cube, they come into their own in this recipe: the gammon can be fairly salty in itself, and the baby cubes add flavour and depth to the sauce without adding any unnecessary extra salt. If you don’t have baby stock cubes hanging around, and you don’t think you’ll use them in the future, I’d advise using low-salt stock cubes, or perhaps half of a regular one. If you’re really the sort of person who can’t live without your meals tasting as if they contain a liberal dose of seawater, feel free to season at the table.

Ham and Lentil Soup

I'm sorry: this may be the most boring photograph anyone has ever taken.

I’m sorry: this may be the most boring photograph anyone has ever taken.

You will need:

  • One gammon shank/ham hock/whatever your butcher calls it. You’re looking for something a bit like this.
  • Two onions
  • Two good-sized carrots
  • A leek
  • A generous handful of red lentils
  • A baby-friendly vegetable stock cube, or an alternative as discussed above

Chop the vegetables roughly, and add them to a large pot. There’s a school of thought that you should braise them a little first, but to be honest I never do: there’s quite a bit of fat under the skin of the gammon shank, and, even though most of it tends to stay put during the cooking process, I don’t like to add extra fat to the mix. Sit the gammon shank straight on top of the vegetables, and add water to the pot so that it almost (but not quite) covers the meat. Turn the heat on, and, while bringing the pot up to the boil, crumble in the stock cube and add the lentils. In terms of seasoning, I’d suggest sticking with pepper and perhaps a bay leaf: you don’t want to add extra salt, for obvious reasons. Allow the pot to boil for a couple of minutes, then turn down to a simmer, cover, and leave for about an hour and a half on a very low heat.

When the gammon is cooked, carefully remove it from the pot, brushing off any lentils which might be adhering to its skin. and leave it on a board to cool for a little. When it is cool enough to handle, remove the skin and fat with the aid of a sharp knife: Liz’s recipe, above, suggests reserving a little of the fat and dry frying it with some additional flavourings to make a crackling-type garnish. I admit I haven’t tried doing this, but it does sound delicious. Remove the meat from the bone and add it to whatever dish you are using it for.

Don’t worry if the stock looks as bit as if it has yellow scum on the top: this is just some of the lentils which will have broken down during the cooking process. Using a stick blender, blend the stock, lentils and vegetable chunks into a smooth soup. Eat in large, comforting bowlfuls, and feel inwardly protected against the wind and rain.

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I don’t know what you would call it, but I call it an Olla Podrida

A couple of nights ago, I tweeted about having made a chorizo-based stew, of which both Eoin and I had inhaled copious amounts. I promptly got into a Twitter exchange about the nature of said stew, primarily around the question of whether it was a defined recipe or just a case of throwing ingredients at a pot and feeling hopeful about the result. As it happens, I do have a (fairly) defined recipe for this stew: it is a bit idiosyncratic, but it’s enormously comforting on a cold, dreich night like tonight. As I need to post something in the next couple of hours, I decided to kill two birds with one stewpot, and set my correspondent’s mind at rest.

Several years ago, before I went to library school, I worked part-time in the library of Trinity College alongside writing a PhD in esoteric aspects of nineteenth-century historical bibliography. The library was an amazing place to work and study, and my time there not only furnished me with the raw material for a whole chapter of my thesis, but also spurred me on to take an MA in librarianship and to learn far too much about various classification systems. Being an archetypally Cambridge-y place, the library also furnished me with another opportunity, namely to read their free copy of The Times every day during coffee breaks (I’m not a typical Times reader, but I’m not about to turn down a newspaper if it’s offered to me. Well, maybe the Daily Mail, but I think most right-minded people would turn that down). In one day’s T2, a recipe by Jill Dupleix appeared, with the tempting title, “A noble dish loved by Samuel Pepys”. If you have access behind The Times‘s paywall, you can read the original recipe here, but, if you don’t, I should explain that the recipe begins with a short historical introduction to the olla podrida, a Spanish stew involving pork, beans and an assortment of vegetables. It figures in Don Quioxte, and was described, charmingly and, for me, irresistibly as follows by Pepys: “the Olio [sic] was indeed a noble dish, such as I never saw better, nor any more of”. I photocopied the relevant page of the paper, went home and cooked the recipe, and then promptly decided that I needed to change some things. Originally, the recipe involved chicken thighs, chickpeas and bay leaves, but the chicken and chickpeas made the stew both too expensive and far too bulky: I sometimes add a small quantity of pulses of some sort, but the original quantities, which claimed to feed 4, would probably have fed twice that number, and I just don’t want to eat the same stew for that many nights in a row. I think I simply forgot about the bay leaves. What I ended up with was a comforting yet spicy stew which is easily put together from storecupboard ingredients, and I do think it’s worth sharing. In my head, I call in an olla podrida, though I’m sure it doesn’t bear too strong a resemblance to the standard dish. In my defence, and based on a liberal reading of recipes both online and in print, I don’t think the original recipe is any closer to a true olla podrida than mine is.

I should also apologise for the appalling photograph which accompanies this recipe: Stephen has temporarily commandeered my good camera, so I am working with the basic point-and-shoot compact. It was also really rather dark…

Olla Podrida

Olla Podrida-ishYou will need:

  • A chorizo sausage, sliced into rounds.
  • A small onion, chopped.
  • A handful of potatoes, the waxy kind, sliced. It’s hard to quantify how many you’ll need, but I tend to use about 6-8 egg-sized ones.
  • A couple of carrots, sliced.
  • Smoked paprika, both the hot and the sweet kind.
  • Half a cabbage, shredded. I usually use a savoy, but other varieties work well too.
  • 500-750ml chicken stock: precisely how much you’ll need depends on the size of your pot and the amount of ingredients you’re using.
  • Some chopped parsley to garnish.

In a large, solid pot, heat a little oil and fry the onion and the chorizo (you won’t need much oil as the chorizo will release oil as it cooks: you just need enough to stop the ingredients catching on the pan in the initial stages of cooking). When the onion has softened, and the fat in the chorizo has started to melt out, add the potatoes and carrots and continue to cook. Add a couple of generous teaspoonsful of the sweet paprika, and a more measured teaspoonful of the hot kind; mix it in well so that it coats the vegetables. After a couple of minutes, add the shredded cabbage. This will cook down, so don’t worry if the pot looks a bit over-full at first. Pour on enough stock to almost, but not quite, cover the stew, bring to the boil, then cover and leave to simmer for about 30 minutes. When cooked, add a handful of chopped fresh parsley, then ladle into bowls, and eat with relish.

As you’ll notice, I have added a small amount of haricot beans (I think it was about 200g) to the pot this time: I haven’t added these to the ingredient list, as I don’t usually use them, but the photo was taken using leftovers. I needed to feed two hungry adults, and Eoin and I had already made a pretty sizeable dent in the olla over the previous day’s lunch and tea. If you fancy adding pulses to your olla podrida, I’d suggest adding them to the pot when it still has about ten minutes of simmering time left.

A frugal nibble: toasted squash seeds

This is a quick post, as Eoin is having a rare nap. It is also, appropriately enough, a very quick make: if you happen to be having a squash for your tea any time soon, why not try making this instead of just throwing the seeds away? I was driven to make this for the very same reason:

There are a lot of recipes for toasted pumpkin seeds out there, and they seem to be divided pretty much equally between those that suggest long, slow cooking, and those that require a short, hot roast. Contrarily, I decided to split the difference between both methods, but I find the result to be satisfyingly rustly, crunchy and more-ish. I don’t think I have ever bought a pumpkin, but I do get through a great deal of squashes of various types, and this has worked with the seeds of every squash I’ve tried. I based the spice mix on the contents of my cupboard (the smoked paprika can hardly be a surprise, given that I have demonstrated my obsession with it on several previous occasions), but I went out and hunted down the garlic salt specially: it seemed to be a staple of the recipes online, and a pinch of it does add a certain something.

A word of warning, though, if you are making these in a toddler-filled household: Eoin loves these, and would cheerfully mainline an entire bowlful if I let him. As they are not only salty, but also a potential choking hazard, though, I make sure to only let him eat a very few while supervised.

Toasted Squash Seeds

Toasted squash seedsYou will need:

  • The seeds from one or two squashes
  • A small knob of softened butter (you can use olive oil, but butter works better and tastes nice, in my experience)
  • 1/4 teaspoon Colman’s mustard powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Pre-heat the oven to 200C/Gas Mark 6.

Rinse the squash seeds to remove any stray fibres of squash flesh: I tend to find this is easiest to do if you scoop all the seeds into a sieve, and swirl them around under some cool running water. Let them dry ( a little shoogle in the sieve works well), then mix your seasonings and butter in a large-ish bowl. You’ll end up with a paste which looks a bit like a marmitey sandwich spread. Add the squash seeds to the bowl, and mix them well so they are all coated in the mixture: this is why you needed to use a large-ish bowl, as you need plenty of room for stirring.

Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper or baking parchment, and spread the coated seeds out on this in as thin a layer as you can manage. They will tend to clump together a bit, but don’t worry: they’ll get easier to spread out as they bake.

Bake the squash seeds for about 15 minutes, stirring and re-spreading them on the baking sheet about every 5 minutes. At first everything will look very wet as the butter melts, but you’ll know when they are nearly ready as the coating will become drier and, well, more like an actual coating. You’ll know the seeds are ready when they rustle when you stir them rather than sticking together in a slightly apologetic manner. This is a bit hard to describe, but you’ll understand when you see it: trust me.

Serve warm, preferably with a glass of something on the side.

Wild Garlic and Hazlenut Pesto

It’s around this time of the spring that you are likely to spot patches of wild garlic popping up in parks, woods, on waste ground, alongside footpaths… Pretty much everywhere, in fact, but in my own garden, my optimistic planting of wild garlic bulbs having come to naught. Last spring, it seemed I couldn’t move more than ten feet from my house without my nostrils being assailed by the distinctive, almost spring-oniony smell of Allium Ursinum, the scent which tells you a delicious foraged dinner can’t be too far away.

Garlic flowersLast garlic season, I wasn’t very quick off the mark: I left my foraging until the end of May, by which point the garlic flowers were starting to go to seed, and the leaves, though tasty, were too tough to eat raw. This year, I decided to get a head start on things, and went for a garlic-hunting trip at the beginning of last week, scoring about half a carrier bag of tender young leaves. The plan was to make an initial batch of pesto, and then return just before the weekend to get another couple of handfuls for more experimental cooking or salad-making. Unfortunately, that was when the weather turned Arctic: we didn’t see the sort of snow that fell in other parts of the country here in South Wales, but let’s just say it wasn’t really ideal foraging weather. I’m planning to head out again with my bag next week: hopefully the garlic will have been tenacious enough to survive the cold.

I have a pile of garlic-related recipes I want to try out with my future pickings: my friend Liz’s Chicken in wild garlic leaves and pancetta is high on my to-cook list, as is the garlicky take on dolmades in the River Cottage Hedgerow book, although I’m planning to replace the rice the recipe calls for with some sort of wholegrain mixture: my pancreas could probably do with a break given the fact that I’ve spent the last few weeks eating pasta by the ton in order to keep warm.

As I noted above, though, my default position with wild garlic is to make pesto: it’s just too practical an option to ignore. Other than the obvious use as a pasta sauce, it makes an excellent sandwich filling or salad-dressing ingredient, it is delicious in a tart with goats’ cheese, with chicken or white fish, as a dip for breadsticks…Wild Garlic leaves You can store it in under oil in a jar in the fridge, or freeze it in portions for use later: it survives unscathed and defrosts in no time. I tend to freeze my pesto in a silicon mould intended for freezing portions of babyfood (it may be this very one): while I didn’t really make purées for Eoin, I find the tray is immensely handy for things like this. When the cubes are solid, I pop them out into a resealable freezer bag, and the tray is ready to be washed and re-used for the next batch. The recipe below is my default pesto recipe: the slightly eccentric measurement system is based on the fact that 125g of garlic leaves is roughly half a bagful, which is about the amount I pick before I start to get worried about not leaving enough for wildlife and for other foragers. The fear of overpicking is pretty unfounded in this case (wild garlic really does grow like a weed), but nonetheless it is important to be responsible about these things. You can, of course, use pine nuts in the pesto, but I experimented with a few different nut mixtures last year, and hazelnuts proved very tasty.

Wild Garlic and Hazelnut Pesto, and something to do with it

Ingredients trying to look arty

You will need:

  • 125g wild garlic leaves, thoroughly washed and drained
  • 50g parmesan, grated, chopped, crumbled or otherwise broken up
  • 50g shelled hazelnuts (you could toast the nuts if you like, but I don’t)
  • salt
  • olive oil

This is about as simple as a recipe gets: the ratio is 1 part cheese and 1 part nuts to 2-and-a-bit parts garlic leaves. Pop the whole lot in a food processor with a generous pinch of salt, blend thoroughly, and add the olive oil a slug at a time until you achieve the consistency you desire: I know a lot of people prefer their pesto sloppy, but I tend to leave mine reasonably stiff, reasoning that I can always slacken it later if need be.

Finished pestoOne of my favourite uses for my stored frozen pesto is to stuff a boned chicken thigh: I may have unconsciously adapted this from Liz’s recipe, above, or I may just be obsessed with stuffing things into chickens: who knows? Allow a couple of chicken thighs per person: one isn’t usually enough unless they are from a pretty enormous chicken. Bone the thighs, and place a single baton of frozen pesto inside each one (a dollop of fresh pesto tastes just as good, but tends to ooze out more during the cooking process: the frozen pesto has to thaw, and is therefore more likely to stay put). Wrap each thigh snugly in a piece of proscuitto, and bake them on a tray lined with baking parchment for about 30 minutes at 200C/Gas Mark 6.

Guest recipe: Mammy Lynch’s Chicken Pie

This chicken pie is a guest recipe on two counts: firstly, the recipe originated with my mother-in-law, a genuinely marvellous woman who gives the lie to all those mother-in-law horror stories which you have no doubt heard. It is she, not I, who is the Mammy Lynch of the title. Secondly, though I cooked it many times myself, the dish was perfected by my husband, an exacting experimental physicist with a penchant for chemistry who is constitutionally obliged to test every single variable in a recipe before he finally hits on the perfect, Platonic version. I think we may have reached a dozen iterations of the cheese sauce before he was satisfied: now that, folks, is devotion to your art.

Bear in mind that this is a pie in the loosest sense of the word: there’s no pastry involved, nor even a potato topping. I did ask Stephen why his mum used the tomatoes, and if the pie would be better made in some more conventional format. He was thoroughly horrified at the suggestion, saying that this was the way Mammy always made chicken pie, and this was the way it always would be made, gosh darn it! After a couple of failed experiments, I have to tell you that Mammy was right: the tomatoes, slightly charred from being finished under the grill, are essential as a sharp counterpoint to the rich, creamy sauce. As regards the filling: we’ve made this with both chicken and turkey, and often throw some cooked ham or gammon in as well if the poultry needs to be bulked out. The meat and vegetables listed in the recipe below represent the combination we tend to use, but it’s not a disaster if you depart from this: the pie originated as a way of using up the leftovers from a roast dinner, and, as such, the recipe is rather fluid in this respect. Mind you it’s so tasty that Stephen has been known to foray out in search of a ready-cooked chicken if leftovers are lacking. It’s serious comfort food, and I would highly recommend it as an antidote to the January blues.

Mammy Lynch’s Chicken Pie

Pie!

Apologies for the dreadful image quality: S took so long to make his cheese sauce that it was pitch dark before the pie was cooked and I could get snapping…

To feed four people generously, with some leftovers, you will need:

  • Cooked chicken, turkey and/or ham, cut into small chunks. It’s hard to be very specific as to quantities, but you will need enough to half-fill a 25cm/9.5 inch square oven dish. If you are being decadent and buying the chicken for the purpose, a small one (ready roasted) should do.
  • For the cheese sauce:
    • 3 tablespoons of plain flour
    • 2 tbsp butter
    • 600ml milk
    • One onion
    • Half a dozen cloves
    • 100g each of grated Parmesan and Gruyère cheese
  • One large leek, sliced
  • About 300g mushrooms, sliced
  • One onion, chopped
  • Four or five large tomatoes, sliced into thickish rounds
  • Mature cheddar cheese, grated, in sufficient quantity to cover the top of the pie

Pre-heat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4.

The first step in this dish is to make your cheese sauce. This is my Achilles’ heel: I am awful at making a white sauce of any kind (mine always taste floury) and I typically resort to buying some sort of a bottled alternative. Stephen is no such wuss, so the sauce directions which follow are his.

Make a roux by melting the butter in a medium-sized saucepan; when it has melted, stir in the flour a little at a time, and, when it is incorporated, cook the resultant paste thoroughly, while ensuring that the flour does not burn. This should take about five minutes. Meanwhile, warm the milk in another saucepan, and add it, little by little, to the roux. Incorporate it thoroughly, preferably by mixing with a magic whisk, until the roux gradually turns from a paste to a porridge to a smooth sauce. Peel the onion, slice it in half and stick each half with three or four cloves. Add it to the white sauce, season and simmer for about 20 minutes.

While the sauce is simmering, grate 100g each of Parmesan and Gruyère. Fry the sliced leek, chopped onion, and sliced mushrooms in a little butter or oil until soft and slightly coloured. Tip the cooked vegetables into your oven dish, add the chopped meat and mix roughly together.

Remove the onion halves from your white sauce, which should be well-flavoured by this point. Add the Parmesan and Gruyère and stir until it is thoroughly incorporated: Stephen still uses the magic whisk at this point, but he concedes that a wooden spoon would probably do just as well. Pour the sauce over the pie filling in the oven dish, and top with a layer of tomato slices, as shown in the not-terribly-wonderful photo at the beginning of the recipe.Pie. It may make your arteries go clang. Sprinkle the pie liberally with grated cheddar, and bake it for about 30 minutes. Finish the pie by flashing it under a hot grill for a few minutes: you want the tomatoes to caramelise slightly and the cheddar to bubble and toast.

Serve with some sort of green vegetable (we went for steamed cabbage), and eschew potatoes: this is a serious pie, and it really doesn’t need the extra carbohydrates. Dig in, and enjoy the culinary equivalent of a great big cwtch.

Sugo all’amatriciana, by special request.

Since I haven’t written a recipe up in a while, I thought it was high time I posted this sauceone, which has been lurking in the back of my mind for weeks. The rather lovely @CornishPol has been asking me to put it online, and I do owe her something in return for the particularly fine Rapper’s Delight sampler which she made for me (it looks like this, in case you’re wondering).

I’d like to preface this recipe with the caveat that this is not strictly an authentic sugo all’amatriciana. The genuine article is supposed, according to the magisterial Cucchiaio d’Argento, to contain onions instead of garlic. However, I once had a very nasty experience with a pasta all’amatriciana in Capri: it was oniony in the way that a rather greasy hot dog might be, and it not only stank out the entire restaurant but also made me feel rather ill for the rest of the night. Even cooking the recipe with non-greasy onions, I found I wasn’t over-fond of the texture of the sauce they produced. Following the advice of my friend’s housemate, a Bologna native and excellent cook, I substituted garlic for onion, and have never looked back. Emiliano was insistent that the garlic clove should merely be fried in the oil to impart flavour before being discarded, but I couldn’t square this with my garlic-loving conscience. The garlic in my sauce stays very much in the dish! Additionally, the sauce really should be made with guanciale, though if you’ve ever tried to find this in your local supermarket, you’ll understand why I’ve substituted pancetta.

Sugo all’amatriciana

To serve 2-3 people, you will need:

  • 2 or 3 plump cloves of garlic, crushed or finely chopped
  • A generous teaspoonful of dried chilli flakes
  • 100-150g diced pancetta, depending on how meaty you would like your sauce to be.
  • A 400g tin of chopped tomatoes (please, please use Cirio if you can: the flavour is so much better than any other type I have tried)
  • A small carton of passata (about 200g)
  • Grated pecorino to serve

You will also need a lidded frying pan or a large saucepan: the lid is important.

Heat a good slug of olive oil in your pan, add the crushed garlic and chilli and fry for a moment, but not for too long, or they will burn. Add the pancetta to the pan, and continue to fry until the fat starts to crisp. Stir in your tomatoes and passata and continue to heat until the sauce is bubbling merrily. Add a pinch of sugar to the pan and stir through: this will enhance the flavour of the tomatoes. At this point, half-cover the pan with the lid (you want to let steam escape while minimising the amount of tomato splashed around your kitchen), and turn the heat down to medium. Let the sauce reduce for 20-30 minutes, checking on it periodically: if it looks like it is reducing too quickly, turn the heat down further, or add a little water and/or a drizzle of olive oil to the pan. You are aiming to reduce it quite drastically, so that it will coat the pasta rather than pooling around it, as the somewhat steamy pictures below show:

Serve with bucatini, spaghetti or a similar type of pasta (I used maccheroni alla chitarra, just for the heck of it), and make sure you stir plenty of finely grated pecorino through before dishing up. This is a very simple dish (the use of tinned tomatoes and dried chilli flakes makes it something of a store cupboard staple), but it’s rather tasty, and a good way to warm yourself up on a cold winter evening.

Braised lambs’ hearts with Hindle Wakes-inspired stuffing

It has been a while since I’ve written up a recipe, and, after such a long hiatus, I was feeling the need for something a little more complicated than a new sort of biscuit. If you know me in person, you’ll probably be aware that I don’t shy away from eating offal, or indeed from feeding it to others: if you come for dinner at our house, you are fairly likely to be eating tongue, sweetbreads, or another member of the euphemistically titled family of “variety meats”.* There are several reasons why I’m very happy to tuck into offal, even though I know the idea of it makes a lot of people boak. Firstly, I like the taste: I’m not particularly squeamish about this sort of thing, and, let’s face it, there are few things more delicious than a tender piece of liver or a delicate, creamy sweetbread. Secondly, offal is often cheap, and it enables us to eat more meat than we would usually do on our budget, thus keeping my husband, the unrepentant carnivore, happy. Lastly, I see it as part and parcel of being a responsible meat-eater: if you’re going to eat animals for food, you don’t just pick and choose the “pretty” bits. You stew the ox-tail with stout and vegetables, you fry the chicken livers with mushrooms and garlic to make a pâté, you simmer the lamb breast with white wine and lemons, you stuff and braise the hearts: sticking to chicken breast and steak to the exclusion of all else is really just the first step towards a future of ChickieNobs and other gastronomic horrors.

When I first found hearts in my local butcher’s shop, I knew I wanted to cook them, but I wasn’t entirely sure how to do it. I trawled the internet, scoured my cookery books, and eventually came up with this method, which seems to go down rather well. I borrowed the vague times and temperatures from Delia Smith’s heart recipe in Frugal Food, which is a surprisingly useful book given that I’m not usually a Delia fan, and a throwaway reference in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s magisterial tome, Meat, led me to the prune part of the stuffing. Thinking about prunes, I naturally added bacon to the mix, and from there was irresistibly drawn to flavours in the traditional Lancashire dish, Hindle Wakes, to complete the stuffing. Hindle Wakes, presumably named after Wakes Week, is a poached chicken, stuffed with a mixture of pig’s blood and prunes, and served in a lemon butter sauce with plenty of herbs. I find the combination of flavours fascinating, giving the lie as they do to the notion of English cookery as something bland and unadventurous, and was sure they would work just as well with lamb. The pistachios and the sherry were both serendipitous additions: indeed, I only added the latter the first time because my parents, who like an Amontillado before dinner, had been visiting, and there was the dog-end of a bottle which needed to be finished.

This is a surprisingly easy dish to prepare, and a comforting and affordable luxury at this time of year. Be warned, though, it isn’t easy to make a heart look pretty in a photograph. I’ve done my best, but, at the end of the day, an organ is an organ, no matter how tasty.

Braised lambs’ hearts with Hindle Wakes-inspired stuffing

Some of the stuffing ingredients for the recipe: at this stage, you could be forgiven for thinking this was going to be a vegetarian feast…

Note: I have made this recipe with three lambs’ hearts, because my butcher only sells them in packs of three. It would be easy to scale the stuffing up or down as necessary, though: if in doubt, err on the side of making too much stuffing, and freeze the leftovers to use next time. The cooked hearts keep well in the fridge overnight: I usually eat the third one for lunch the day after I’ve cooked this.

You will need:

  • Three fresh lambs’ hearts

For the stuffing:

  • One slice of bread, preferably slightly stale sourdough
  • Two rashers of streaky bacon
  • One small onion
  • Five or six dried prunes, as large and moist as you can get
  • A handful of chopped parsley
  • Juice and zest of one lemon
  • A handful of chopped pistachios (about 25g)
  • A large knob of butter (about 50g)

To braise the hearts:

  • One large onion
  • 400ml lamb stock
  • 100ml sherry (I used Amontillado, but if you are substituting, I would go for something towards the sweeter end rather than a Fino)

Pre-heat your oven to 180C/Gas Mark 4

First, make your stuffing. Tear the bread into pieces and blitz to crumbs in the food processor. Tip the crumbs into a mixing bowl, then roughly chop the bacon, onion and prunes, add them to the food processor with the parsley, pistachios and lemon zest and blitz until everything is finely chopped. Add the processor contents to the breadcrumbs in the mixing bowl, squeeze over the lemon juice and add the butter. Mix the stuffing with your hands, squeezing the butter through the rest of the ingredients until it forms a reasonably smooth mixture. Once you’ve completed the stuffing, you can cover it and set it aside in the fridge, while you get on with cleaning the hearts.

I’ve never found trimming hearts to be too traumatic, but you do need a good pair of sharp kitchen scissors and plenty of clean, cold water if you’re going to make the job easy on yourself. First, fill the sink with water, and give the hearts a good soaking. There will probably be some blood lingering inside the chambers, so you need to get your fingers right inside to wash them out. After the first soak, I usually pour the water away, give the individual hearts a further clean under the tap, and then a second soak. The general rule is to keep rinsing until all the blood is gone and the water runs clear.

Click to embiggen, for more gory detail

Here’s a “before and after” view showing how I trimmed the hearts after cleaning. As you can see, the first thing to do is to remove the tubes from the top of the heart and cut away any excess fat and sinew. I have found this is much easier with sharp scissors than with a knife, as it’s easier to control where you’re cutting. Don’t worry too much about trimming the fat from the sides of the heart, though: you’ll only make a mess, and, besides, you need to retain some fat to render down into the sauce and make it thick and unctuous. I tend to snip through the central membrane between the chambers of the heart, too, but I don’t cut it away entirely: it’s meaty and tasty, and you can still stuff the heart easily with it in place. By this point, the hearts should be looking more like something you’d like to eat, and less like the Facehuggers from Alien. This can only be a good thing: much as I like the film, I don’t want to feel as if I’m eating a Xenomorph.

Now it’s time to stuff the hearts: take small handfuls of the prepared stuffing and gently push them down inside the heart cavity. You may find that it leaps back out at you again in an unruly manner, but keep going, a little stuffing at a time: soon you’ll have three plump, neatly-filled hearts, ready to cook. You will need to secure the openings at the top to ensure the stuffing doesn’t escape during the cooking process: if you have some long metal skewers, these would probably be ideal for the purpose. Sadly, we are currently a skewer-less household, which means I have to staple my hearts haphazardly together with a battery of wooden toothpicks. As you can see from the picture, this leaves them looking a little like extras from Hellraiser, but I can reassure you that their spiky appearance doesn’t affect the flavour in any way.

Heat some oil (or dripping, if you prefer) in a large, oven-proof casserole pot on top of the stove. Moving gingerly so as not to dislodge the toothpicks, brown the hearts on all sides in the hot fat, then remove them to a dish while you cook your chopped onion in the same pot. Once the onion has softened, return the hearts to the pot, and pour over the stock and the sherry: the liquid should come about half-way up the hearts themselves, so you may need less if you are using a smaller pot than I was. Let the pot come up to the boil, then cover it and place it in your pre-heated oven. The hearts should cook quite happily without any further attention, and should be ready to eat in about two and a half hours. Remember to remove the toothpicks/skewers before serving, obvs. But you knew that, didn’t you?

I served these with bulgur wheat cooked with dried wild mushrooms: the meatiness of the mushrooms complemented the hearts nicely, and the wheat provided a satisfactorily nubbly, non-stodgy sort of carbohydrate. You could, of course, substitute mashed potato: the basic idea is to soak up the rather delicious cooking juices, so choose your preferred carb-sponge. We had a very simple green salad afterwards, but I think some sort of steamed greens alongside the heart might also be a good accompaniment.

Have I convinced you to give hearts a try, I wonder? If you do, please do let me know if you enjoy them!

*And, no, they aren’t testicles. Honestly. I’m not sure why this myth persists: they’re actually the thymus and pancreas of the animal. What’s more, they’re delicious.

Ratatouille

For a long time, I had no success with making ratatouille: it always turned out disappointingly watery, no matter what I did. I tried varying the amount of olive oil I used, cooking the dish for a longer or shorter time, salting the courgettes and aubergines, not salting anything… Nothing seemed to make any difference. For a while, I pretty much gave up on the dish, but then the vegetable box stepped in to give me a prod in the right direction. Over a couple of weeks, I received a surfeit of peppers, aubergines and courgettes, which is really the closest an inanimate object like a vegetable box can come to giving you a good shake, and shouting at you to get over yourself and just make a ratatouille already.

I pored over Elizabeth David’s recipe (in A Book of Mediterranean Food) and Nigella Lawson’s (in How to Eat), among other versions. I also spent some time swooning over the version of Thomas Keller’s Confit byaldi so gorgeously depicted in Pixar’s Ratatouille, though I knew that, realistically, I was never going to have the patience to recreate such a delicately-made version of the dish.

I’m not sure what serendipitous impulse possessed me to add a small carton of passata into the pot when I did make my ratatouille, but it turned out to be the secret ingredient which turned the dish from a wappit, watery failure into a rich, unctuous success. Clearly fresh or tinned tomatoes on their own were not going to cut it: they needed the extra boost. I’m not sure how authentic this addition is (a quick trawl around google suggests that many recipes use passata or chopped tomatoes, but not usually both), but it has now become a staple in my kitchen. Eoin loves it, and will mainline bowfuls at a time: this is a relief as he is developing a toddlerish fussiness about many vegetables, and it’s good to know that ratatouille remains a reliable favourite.

Ratatouille

I realise that it’s beginning to look as if I work for Cirio, but I honestly do think they are the best tinned tomatoes out there. When the tomatoes are a major focus of the dish, as they are here, I think it’s worth splashing out.

You will need:

  • One large onion, or two small ones, fairly finely chopped
  • One or two large peppers, sliced (ideally, I’d suggest red peppers, but I’m using small orange ones here, because they were all I had in the kitchen)
  • An aubergine, cut into smallish chunks
  • Three or four medium-sized courgettes, sliced
  • A couple of cloves of garlic, crushed
  • A 400g tin of chopped tomatoes, or an equivalent weight of strongly-flavoured fresh ones
  • 200g passata
  • Plenty of olive oil

As an aside, there’s a lot of chopping involved in this recipe, so you may want to stagger the preparation of the vegetables: slice the onions and the peppers first, as they will need to be cooked for the longest time, then get to work on preparing the aubergines and courgettes while they are cooking.*

Heat a generous slug of olive oil in a large saucepan, add the chopped onion, let it soften a little, then add the peppers. Cook gently for about ten minutes, then add the aubergines and another splash of oil (they’ll soak up any liquid in the pan in double-quick time, and you want to keep everything lubricated). Continue to cook gently, adding the courgettes and the garlic as soon as the aubergine has absorbed some of the oil and is getting soft. Regarding the garlic: ordinarily, I would add garlic towards the beginning of cooking a dish, but, when you crush it, I find it has a nasty tendency to burn and stick to the bottom of the pan before you’ve even had a chance to get your wooden spoon to it. Adding it at this stage means you don’t risk this happening, but the flavour still has plenty of time to penetrate. Finally, add the chopped tomatoes and the passata: rinse out the tins/jars (as appropriate) with a little water and add this to the pot for a little extra lubrication. Turn the heat down so the pan simmers gently, cover and cook for about half an hour.

This keeps rather well in the fridge, and is, I think, nicer when served at room temperature than when it is hot. We ate this batch alongside baked whiting and new potatoes (cut potatoes into wedges, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt, bake at 200C or gas mark 6 for about 20 minutes, then lay the whiting fillets on top, season and continue to cook for 20-25 minutes more). Well, I say “we”. This is how Stephen and I ate it. Eoin got both hands in the dish immediately, and tried to climb in after them. It’s good to know that your cooking is appreciated, at least some of the time.

*As an added bonus, slicing the vegetables for the dish gives me an opportunity to come face to face with my culinary nemesis: the Ikea kitchen knife. Following an unlucky incident in the washing-up bowl, and another with a resilient onion, which left me partially nail-less, it is clear that it won’t be satisfied with just a taste my sweet human flesh.  Fortunately, I came out on top this time, and Mr Choppy was consigned back to his knife-block without having drawn any blood.

Fruity Oaty Bars

I’ve already written about making savoury biscuits for Eoin to replace expensive shop-bought toddler snacks. Surveying the remnants of the packaged biscuits and bars in the Eoin cupboard in the kitchen, I realised the next obvious step was to come up with some sort of fruit and oatmeal bar, which would be both portable and freezer-friendly, and would enable me to get plenty of vitamins into the little chap as part of his snack. Also, it means I can link to this without it being 100% gratuitous:

I’m going to assume that no rogue sleeper-agents have been activated by this video, though I do apologise for the inevitable earworm: I have been humming the jingle all day. Joss Whedon, you’re a bad, bad man…

Trawling through my growing collection of baby- and toddler-based recipe books, I realised that there were a lot of recipes for cakes and muffins out there, as well as pastry-type biscuits. However, I couldn’t find anything to approximate a firm-yet-squidgy cereal bar. I didn’t want to use an “adult” recipe, as I wanted to steer clear of honey, syrups and processed sugar (Eoin has enough of a sweet tooth without me encouraging him), and I was also keen to keep the texture of the bar manageable for someone who still only has six teeth, none of them molars.

Turning to The Baby-Led Weaning Cookbook, by Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett, I found a recipe which looked as if it might be a good starting point (the Baked Oat Cake on p.176, though this is more of a fruity loaf than a chewy bar). Working from this, I messed around with ingredients, quantities and cooking times until I had a bar with which I was pleased.  If you really did find that this recipe isn’t sweet enough, you could add a spoonful of honey to the mix, provided you’re baking for a child who is over 1, but I don’t like making things super-sweet for Eoin if it’s not really necessary.

Fruity Oaty Bars

Apologies for the rather rubbish picture: it’s hard to make oat bars look particularly photogenic.

You will need:

  • 125g mixed dried fruit (I used 50g raisins, 50g apricots and 25g mango)
  • Apple juice
  • Ground cinnamon
  • 200g oatmeal
  • 50g desiccated or shredded coconut
  • 1tsp baking powder
  • 1 banana, mashed
  • 1 small carrot, grated (about 25g in weight)
  • Mixed spice
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 50-100ml milk

Put the dried fruit in a saucepan, chopping up any large pieces (I cut up my apricots and mango with scissors, but left the raisins alone), and pour over enough apple juice to just cover them. Add a generous pinch of cinnamon, place the pan on the stove, and bring to the boil. Once boiling, turn the heat off, and cover the pan with a close-fitting lid.

Leave the saucepan of fruit and apple juice alone while you get on with the rest of the dish, starting with preheating the oven to 180C/Gas Mark 4. Grease a small, sturdy baking tin (I use my shortbread tin, which is about 20cm by 30cm).

Put the oatmeal, coconut and baking powder in a food processor with another good shaking of cinnamon and one of mixed spice. Blitz briefly to mix, and then add the carrot and the banana, blitzing again until you have a reasonably homogenous mixture. Strain the panful of fruit, add to the processor and blitz again (you want any large pieces of fruit to be reasonably well chopped, to avoid any potential choking hazards). Add the egg, blitz again, and then add the milk, little by little, until you have a reasonably moist yet still fairly firm dough. I used about 75ml, but your mileage may, of course, vary: don’t add it all at once, though, as you really don’t want the mixture to be too wet and sloppy.

Turn the dough out into your greased tin and flatten it carefully: it won’t be particularly thick at this stage, but it will rise slightly during the cooking process. Bake until firm to the touch: this took about 25 minutes in my oven. Mark out the pieces in the tin with a dinner knife, but don’t attempt to remove them until they have cooled, or they will fall to pieces.

Eoin fell on these, and ate three large pieces in one go. I have stored some in an airtight box, and the rest are in the freezer, biding their time. They are just sweet enough, and they are full of good things, so I hope they are a fairly virtuous snack for little ones. They certainly seem to be pretty portable, as well as being a handy way to get extra fruit and veg into your child. Hurrah to that, I say.

ETA: These bars freeze well, and I have discovered the best way to thaw them is to pop them in a warm oven (180C/Gas Mark 4) for about ten minutes. You can, of course, just leave them out at room temperature, but the oven method is not only quicker, but also results in a nicer texture.

Toddler-friendly cheese biscuits.

I try to make most of Eoin’s food myself, but I find I tend to buy a lot of snack-type foods pre-made, as they are generally convenient, portable, and can sit in the cupboard until needed without going off. This isn’t, of course, the worst thing in the world: I do check ingredients quite rigorously, and I try to buy the most sensible and healthy things I can. However, there’s no getting away from the fact that bought snacks are expensive, and, as time went on, I became more and more convinced that I had to work on making some healthy nibbles for Eoin. After all, there’s only so far a boy can get on satsumas and raisins: sometimes you need a biscuit.

I riffled through my cookery books, searching for recipes which combined Eoin-friendly ingredients with general portability. I liked the sound of both Dan Leppard’s black pepper and cheese buttons (from Short and Sweet, but also available online here) and the cheese straws in Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett’s Baby-Led Weaning Cookbook, but neither quite cut the mustard with the man himself. I spent several afternoons messing about with ingredients and quantities, and finally came up with something which Eoin enjoys, and which I feel is, in snack terms, reasonably good for him. I have used a mixture of plain and wholemeal flour: as the latter retains its bran and germ, it’s tastier and more nutritious than the former, and it also gives the biscuits a pleasantly crunchy texture. It’s important to mitigate the wholemeal flour with some plain, though: a biscuit made entirely of wholemeal flour ended up being rather too rough, unyielding and monastic. Eoin was still trying to masticate the first one a good ten minutes after he was given it.

A word of warning about size: I used my smallest biscuit cutter (about 5.5 cm in diameter) to make these. This, it turns out, is almost exactly toddler-mouth-size: in a lot of cases, the biscuit goes straight in, and then the child is stuck with a mouthful which is too big to chew, but which they are reluctant to remove. This leads to much spluttering and spitting of biscuit crumbs, which is a bore for all concerned. You may want to use a smaller cutter to create bite-size morsels, or just break the biscuit up pre-emptively before handing it over.

Cheese Biscuits

Biscuits ready for baking. I really should have dispersed them more evenly, shouldn’t I?

To make approximately 25 biscuits, you will need:

  • 50g butter (you can use unsalted if you prefer), cut into small cubes.
  • 75g plain flour, plus a little for dusting.
  • 25g wholemeal flour.
  • About 75g grated cheese: try to use a mixture of hard cheeses with a strong flavour. I used equal parts of mature cheddar, parmesan and Reypenaer VSOP, which is a sort of aged Gouda.*
  • One large garlic clove, crushed.
  • Half a teaspoonful of mild smoked paprika.
  • A pinch of dried mustard powder (I dipped the tip of a knife blade into the Colman’s tin in order to get the right amount).
  • 1 egg, beaten.
  • A little cold water, if needed.

Pre-heat the over to 200C/Gas Mark 6, and line a baking sheet or two with greaseproof paper (I needed to use two, as you can see, but you may get away with one, depending on the size of your tray and your biscuits)

Put the butter and flours into a food processor, and process until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Alternatively, if you have colder hands than me, or are just better at making pastry, you could rub the butter into the flour by hand. Add the garlic, cheese and spices to the mixture, and blend (or stir) well. If you have been using a processor, you will now want to tip the blitzed dry ingredients out into a clean bowl. Add the beaten egg, and mix into the dry ingredients, using a metal spoon. You may need to add some water if the dough is not coming together: if this is the case, I run a little water into the bowl in which I’ve mixed the egg, and add a drop of this water and egg-remnant mixture at a time. When the dough starts to come together, put the spoon aside and use your hands to complete the process.

Make sure your work-surface is clean, and then dust it and a rolling-pin with flour. Turn the dough out onto the floured surface, and roll it out until it is a little less than a centimetre thick (for me, this is about the depth of the fluted part of my biscuit cutter, so it’s easy to check). Turn the dough over and around a couple of times during this process, to ensure you’re rolling it evenly. Cut out your biscuits and lay them on your baking sheet: you need to leave a little space between them, but this mixture doesn’t seem to spread too much, so they don’t have to be miles apart. Bring the dough remnants together into a ball, roll and cut again: repeat until you have used all your dough up. Your last biscuit might be a somewhat pathetic little irregular splodge, but that’s the way of baking.

Bake the biscuits until they are a paprika-tinted golden colour, and firm to the touch: I find this takes somewhere between 15 and 20 minutes in my oven, but, as I use two baking sheets, I have to swap them over half-way through the cooking time, or else the top sheet cooks much faster than the bottom sheet. Let the biscuits cool on a wire rack, and then store them in an airtight container. I also find they freeze well, which helps with the convenience aspect of the recipe: place them into a freezer-proof container, such as a plastic box, in layers. You can re-use the greaseproof paper you have lined the baking sheet with in order to keep the layers separate (this is important, as you don’t want the biscuits to freeze together in a lump). When they’re frozen, you can either leave them in the box, or transfer them to a Ziploc-type bag, and then remove a couple of biscuits to defrost as and when you need them.

*It’s also excellent, and well-worth seeking out if you are ever in the Netherlands. Aside from Speculaas and those fantastic sweets that look like stones, it may be my favourite ever Dutch foodstuff.