Sunday, 10 July 2011


Lasagne is one of my all time favourites. Contrary to popular belief, this supposedly Italian dish is actually a British invention. Some time in the dim and distant past, my ancestors* came up with the idea of layering sheets of pasta with meat and white sauce.

*Okay, not my direct ancestors**


My recipe uses minced beef. Veggies, or indeed non-veggies, may like to use soya mince, Quorn mince or just vegetables instead.

I'll hold my hands up now, and say I used packet lasagne sheets. But the rest is homemade. It can be quick to throw together, but the meat sauce benefits from pre-cooking, which puts people off. The sauce can, however, be made in advance.

The Béchamel must be fresh.

For the meat sauce (which serves 2) you will need:

Minced beef - I used 100g of frozen
1 red onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped, but crushed will do
1 tin chopped tomatoes
Tomato purée
Baby plum tomatoes, cut into eighths
Black olives, chopped into quarters

You may also use mushrooms, if you are that way inclined. I'm not. Similarly, you can leave out the additional toms, olives and corn.

Heat some olive oil in a pan over a medium heat, add the onion and garlic, and soften for at least 5 minutes.
Add the mince, and brown. You might need to turn the heat up, but  be careful not to burn the ingredients.

If you are using soya mince, or Quorn, you won't need to brown it, and can move to the next stage.
Add the tomato purée; I would actually add more, a good 3 heaped dessert spoons from a jar, but I only had few measly squirts from a tube.
Add the remaining ingredients, and leave to simmer until any water has reduced. The key to having defined layers is a nice thick meat sauce.
Make a White Sauce; add fresh, ground nutmeg to the sauce, and it adds a new dimension to your lasagne. Seriously.

Assemble the lasagne. I wanted lots of layers, so constructed it in the middle of an oven-proof dish.

Top with grated parmesan, or if you've forgotten to buy some, ahem, grated cheddar will do.

I baked mine in the oven for 20 minutes at 190°C, as I like my pasta slightly al dente. Leave it stand for at least 5 minutes before serving. This again helps to keep the separate layers.

Enjoy with a glass of Valpolicella!

Back to Basics: White Sauce

Talking to my friends, many are terrified by the basic "White Sauce", which can be used in a variety of recipes, it really is that versatile. Crack it, and you're repertoire may include Parsley Sauce, Fish Pie, Chicken Supreme, Lasagne etc. Most would rather use a jar or packet on the basis that they won't get a lumpy, tasteless gloop, but really, it's not that difficult.

The key to a good White Sauce, or Béchamel if you want to be posh, is patience, however it doesn't take that long to make.

Follow this step by step guide to creating the perfect base for bigger things....

I have not included a list of quantities, as the amount depends upon how much sauce you want to make, and how thick you want it. The ingredients that you will need are:

Salt & pepper to season

The nature of the ingredients means that sometimes you will need more milk than the last time. Or you might need less. I work on the principle of 2 parts flour to 1 part butter. It works for me.

Melt some butter in a pan on a medium heat.
On this occasion, I used a dessert spoon of butter.

I also added my seasoning and some grated nutmeg, as I was making this sauce for a lasagne.
Add the flour; I prefer to use a whisk, as it mixes better. You can buy whisks designed for sauces, but as you can see, I make do with a balloon whisk.

"Cook" for 3-4 minutes or so; this should stop the sauce tasting of flour.

Stir regularly.
Remove the pan from the heat.

Add a small, and I mean small, dash of milk, and stir. The heated flour/butter mix means it will become a congealed blob. This is good.

Continue to add milk, a small amount at a time. If you do it slowly, you won't get any lumps. Trust me.
Keep on whisking in more milk until you have a liquidy mix that is not as thick as you want it. The sauce will thicken when it's returned to the heat.

Don't add too much milk at this stage; you can add it later, if your sauce is too thick.
Return the pan to the heat, and stir until the sauce is close to the desired thickness.

Remove from the heat and keep stirring; the sauce will continue to thicken, which is why you take it off before you get there.

If your sauce is too thick, slowly add more milk until you get the consistency that you want.

Once you've made the sauce, you can add your flavours, be it parsley, cheese, tarragon. And there you have it!

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Lamb Tagine

Another dish that has become popular following its appearance on certain TV cookery competitions, the Lamb Tagine is a Moroccan based slow cooked stew. But a bit spicy.

I looked at a few recipes, and then experimented. As you can see from the pic, it was a bit "sloppy", but it still tasted great, and the OH recommended mopping this up with toasted pitta bread.

For this dish, I actually used:

A 266g pack of lamb neck fillet - other recipes will say shoulder, but I couldn't get any. Neck's nearly shoulder, anyway....
1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion
2 cloves of garlic
1 400g tin of chopped tomatoes
Water - to wash out the tin, and the saucepan at the same time. In future, I will skip this.
½ pint of lamb stock - in future I would reduce this to 
50g flaked almonds - I didn't actually use this, as I had run out, so threw in some ground almonds instead.
A few squirts of tomato purée

The spice mix, which will need preparing in advance is:

¼ tsp cayenne pepper - in future, I will leave this out. You can increase if you like it spicy.
1 tsp ground/crushed black pepper
¾ tsp paprika
¾ tsp ground ginger
½ tsp turmeric
2 tsp  ground cinnamon

Chop the lamb into mouth-sized chunks, and marinate, preferably overnight, in half of the spice mix.

Remove from the fridge, where you should store it, about half an hour before you start cooking.

Chop the onion.
Heat the oil over a medium heat, and add the onion and remaining spices.
Soften the onion for 5-10 mins, depending on how thickly or thinly you've chopped the onion.
Added the garlic, either crushed, grated or finely chopped around the middle part of this stage.
 Once the onions have softened, add the marinated lamb, and brown. You might need to turn the heat up but remember, you don't want to burn the onion, garlic or spices, or you'll end up with a bitter flavour, not a sweet, fragrant one.
 Add the tomatoes and stock, and heat until it starts to bubble.
Purists would also add apricots, dates, and sultanas, but we are not fans of fruit in savoury dishes (yes, I know, tomato is a fruit...)
Carefully transfer to a casserole dish, or a tagine dish.
If you're really posh though, you'll have a casserole dish that you can do all of the above in. I am not that posh.
At this stage, I used a tin full of water but will not bother in future.

I covered the dish, and placed in an oven pre-heated to 150°C or Gas Mark 2 for 90 minutes. I found that the liquid hadn't reduced enough, so added the tomato purée and gave it another 20 minutes at 170°C for 20 minutes. The lamb was, however perfectly cooked, and melted in the mouth.

I served this dish with my Moroccan inspired couscous, but you can serve it with rice, flatbreads, chips if you so desire!

Mo"rocking" Style Couscous

Who says couscous is boring?

Couscous is a versatile grain, and can be mixed with all manner of different flavours. It's quick and easy to prepare, it can be eaten as a side dish or as a main, and if you make too much, you can save it and have it for lunch the next day, instead of a dull sarnie. With the added benefit of not having to get up early to make it!

This recipe is inspired by the North African flavours; I used the following ingredients, and got a two "me" sized portions (one of for now, one for another day) and a "man" sized portion for the OH. I used:

100g couscous
1tsp cumin
1tsp coriander
1tsp paprika
10g dried onion - I prefer dried as it easy and saves on the washing up
1tsp chicken stock granules - veggies should use vegetable stock, or bouillon, obviously
handful of sundried tomatoes - chopped
handful of frozen sweetcorn - yes. Frozen.
1tsp butter - you can use olive oil as an alternative

Add all of the ingredients to a bowl, except the butter/oil, and give it a good stir.
Add the butter/oil.
Add boiling water until the couscous is covered.
Give it a quick stir before covering the bowl.
Leave for 5 minutes.
After 5 minutes, stir with a fork to fluff it up and to ensure all of the couscous has an even flavouring.

If you've misjudged the amount of water, you can either add a little more, or you'll need to transfer to a microwavable dish and give it a quick blast in the microwave, or a saucepan to reduce the liquid on a hob.

But it is really that simple.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Cheesey Caramelised Onion Tartlet

I don't often feel like cooking when the OH is away, cooking for one seems frivolous.  But..... I needed to use up some bits and pieces that have been lurking in the freezer, and one of these was some spare shortcrust pastry that I had used to make my world famous Cow Pie.

Caramelised onion tarty dishes are quite common place, but I remember the days when you could gauge the standard of a pub or restaurant by its menu, and the classier establishments would include one in some form or other. Quite commonly, it's coupled with goat's cheese, as the two flavours compliment each other very nicely.

I was shocked at how easy it is to make the onion part, and now understand why you can find it everywhere, including at least one weekly appearance on cookery competitions, or so it seems.

I decided to use cheddar, as it was the only cheese in the house. It's quite a nice, crumbly mature Welsh cheddar, and I was hoping that the strong cheese flavour would combine with the sweet and sour onion taste.

For this recipe, I used:

For the base:
Shortcrust pastry - I had some leftover from another cooking session, but you can easily find a recipe. It's basically plain flour, hard fat (butter, marge, lard or a combination) and ice cold water. If you have warm hands, it's advisable to cool them under a running cold water tap before making.

For the caramelised onion:
A small amount of butter - I used a teaspoon worth
1 tiny red onion - I was making just the one!
About ½ dessert spoon of demerara sugar
About 2 dessert spoons of balsamic vinegar

For the topping:
Cheese - I thinly sliced mine, similar to shaved parmesan
2 baby plum tomatoes, chopped (optional)

I pre-heated my oven to 190°C - it's fan assisted, so will be cooler than a normal gas oven; I would suggest 200°C. I am reliably informed that this is Gas Mark 6.

I rolled out my pastry, which had been left to defrost/chill in the fridge. I did attempt to shape it so that it was a proper case, but I don't own any tartlet trays, and I blind baked on a baking tray, so it flopped. You might be better equipped than me!

I placed some baking beans into the centre of my case (as it was still at that point....), and blind baked for 15 minutes. This is to prevent the tart from having a soggy bottom, so's to speak.

Whilst the pastry was baking, I made the caramelised onion part.

Firstly, I heated a small amount of butter in a pan at a medium heat; I use butter for the taste, and also because it requires a lower heat. The aim is to caramelise, not to burn, or fry the onion.

Add the onion, which should be thinly sliced. Make sure that you coat as much as you can with the butter, and then leave to soften, occasionally stirring or shaking.

Once softened, add the sugar, and stir.

When the sugar has melted, add the balsamic vinegar, and leave on the heat until the mixture starts to go sticky.

By this point, the pastry base should be ready. Remove from the oven, turn off the heat on the caramelised onion, and leave to cool for about 10 minutes. If you're tight, like me, you can also turn off the oven! I leave it to cool, as when I've made this using puff pastry, it is easier to prep.

Once cooled, top the base with the caramelised onion, and then the cheese, and then the tomatoes (if you wish).

Bake in an oven pre-heated to the same temperature as before.

Remove and serve warm; I had mine with some rocket (the only green salad I can eat) and a slice of Parma ham. I would say it was a total success, but then again I would!