Friday, 18 April 2014

Pasta with Pea and Mint Pesto

The warm weather has come our way at last. And what a difference it's made! The wintery jumpers are finally ready to go away and so are the heavy coats - though I have to say I'll miss my beautiful grey trench coat - and I'm just about to switch to a lighter duvet in order to sleep a little more peacefully.

Shopping is in full swing - bright t-shirts in jewelled colours, pale blue cotton blouses and (of course), little flowered dresses to be paired with tan sandals. And let's not forget lilac nail polish (and eyeshadow if you're adventurous), coral lips and that all-important visit to the hairdressers for the annual cut and blow dry.
Oh, spring! 

Lighter evenings means that dinnertime comes later - on weekends anyway - and with that there is also some degree of laziness.  Who really wants to spend an hour in the kitchen when there are hazy evening walks to be enjoyed?

This recipe takes only twenty minutes from start to finish and what's more, is full of fresh spring flavours such as pea and mint. Long tendrils of spaghetti are paired with a minty green pesto, mixed with wilted spinach and sprinkled with bacon. Add a little cheese and you're done! A lovely change from traditional pesto.

Spinach Pasta with Pea and Mint Pesto (serves 4 generously)
300g spaghetti (or other dried pasta)
200g baby spinach
3 - 4 rashers streaky bacon
200g frozen garden peas/petits pois, defrosted
handful of fresh mint, leaves picked
small handful of pine nuts
1 small garlic clove
1 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese 
4 tbsp vegetable oil

1. Boil a pan of water and cook the pasta until al dente. Meanwhile, make the pesto: blitz the peas, mint leaves, pine nuts, garlic, cheese and oil together until they form a sauce. Add more oil or a bit of pasta water to loosen, if wanted. Spoon into a small bowl.

2. Fry the bacon and cut into pieces. When the pasta is cooked, drain it, place back in the pan and add the spinach to the pan. Cover with a lid and leave for a few minutes for the spinach to wilt. 

3. Once the spinach has wilted, stir in the bacon. Serve the pasta with the pesto, extra parmesan and a little olive oil, if you like. 

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Revision Solutions (aka COOKIES)

So, my holidays are here and I now have a lovely long two week break from the endless cycle of school. The weather is slowly warming up, there are new bright clothes in the shops and I'm looking forward to purchasing a bike upon which to cycle aimlessly around the countryside in search of a secluded spot to sit and read.

Unfortunately, I also have two years' worth of revision to do. Looks like that bike ride will have to be postponed!

A standard day in the life of Emma: wake up, breakfast, get dressed (into some sort of tracksuit - jumper - hoodie combination), sit at desk, revise, revise, TEA BREAK, revise, revise, LUNCH BREAK, revise, revise, revise, DINNER TIME, blog/read/catch up with Pride and Prejudice, bed. 

Then I get up the next day and do it all over again. 

I'll admit that I maybe exaggerated a little bit for effect. Maybe I do get a  bit of spare time (that is wasted on Facebook or Pinterest), and perhaps I can be rather slow in getting dressed. But sometimes it is hard to study for a whole day - this is meant to be holiday time!

I've been attempting to motivate myself with the thought that in two months, the dreaded exams will be over and I'll be free for three months. With the thought that on Friday I'm hoping to go for a summery little picnic to catch up with some good friends. (Blog post planned, don't worry!) Also.... that these cookies will be waiting for me with a nice cool glass of milk during my study break. 

Peanut butter cookies are something I've always wanted to try, but for some strange reason I've never got around to making them. I haven't seen them in shops or bakeries (typical Northern Ireland) and so I decided that the time had come to test them out myself. 

I used Lorraine Pascale's recipe, reducing the quantities of peanut butter a little bit (because I needed the leftovers for toast in the morning) and halving the recipe to make six cookies because I didn't want to waste anything if it wasn't a success. 

Thankfully, success came my way. In fact, success is such a weak word for the result. They are a triumph; a ground-breaking achievement; a possible contender for the ultimate soft cookie. They are sweet and nutty, soft and buttery - just like a hug in edible form. 

My advice - make lots. 

Peanut Butter Cookies (makes 12 - 14)
125g soft butter
200g light brown soft sugar
1 large egg
2 drops vanilla extract 
200g plain flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
200g crunchy peanut butter
A handful of lightly toasted peanuts to decorate 

1. Heat the oven to 160 degrees C (140 fan). Cream the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy. Bea in the egg and vanilla.

2. Stir in the flour, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda. Gently stir in the peanut butter.

3. Divide the dough up into equal sized pieces and roll each into a ball. Place on two large lines baking trays, leaving room for spreading. Squash slightly with a fork and press a few peanuts over the top. 

4. Bake for 15 - 17 minutes, until golden brown and slightly soft. Leave to firm and cool on the trays before eating.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Coincidences and a little cake recipe

Today I'm going to share a recipe with you that is very close to my heart. 

Yoghurt cake.

This cake is pretty much the essence of my childhood. I would come home from school, my latest painting clasped tightly in my hand, to find out with delight that mum had been baking again. I couldn't wait to take a bite of the cake, crunching through the dark outer layer to reach the sweet pale centre.

It starts off life as a fairly boring mixture of eggs, flour, oil and sugar; but when the magic ingredient (apricot yoghurt) is added, it is totally transformed into a moist, sweet, simple cake that can be enjoyed at anytime of the day and prepared with very little hassle. The best thing about it is that there is no measuring equipment required - all you need is yoghurt carton. 

It's so much a staple in our household that it didn't really strike me as being particularly unusual - until I brought it to a bake sale and we labelled it 'apricot cake' so as not to put anyone off! 

When I was in Spain in October, our host told us about a local cake that they call bizcocho. Imagine my surprise when I heard that it was made with yoghurt too! Naturally, I had to try some and so on our last day I nipped into a bakery by the sea and bought a little slice or two of the local delicacy to take home to my family.

(I know that Spain is not typically known for its desserts/sweets, but the region of Cantabria is green and wet - perfect conditions for dairy herds.)

The bizcocho was very similar to our version, though there wasn't as much of a crust and it had a sticky glaze on the top over a few slices of dried apple. Ever since that moment I've wanted to write about it and to share my discovery with you; but I haven't made a yoghurt cake in so long that this idea was thrust on the back burner to simmer away in the depths of my brain.

Still, all has now been revealed, and I hope you enjoy it! Isn't it interesting how different cultures can also have similarities? And what would your favourite family recipe be - the one that conjures up a smile on your face, as if you can almost taste it? 

Apricot Yoghurt Cake (makes two loaves)
1 450g carton apricot yoghurt (I use Yeo Valley)
1 carton oil
1 carton caster sugar
3 cartons self-riasing flour
3 eggs

1. Heat the oven to 180°C (fan 160°C). Grease and line two 1lb loaf tins.

2. Combine the sugar and flour in a bowl. Beat in the oil and the eggs. Stir in the yoghurt.

3. Spoon into the greased tins. Bake for 45 minutes or so until brown and cooked through. Leave to cool before removing from the tin. Eat or freeze the loaves as needed. 

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Shades of spring

It was Mother's Day last week, and with that special day came the first glimpses of spring. The sun shone (briefly), the wind quietened and the daffodils even came out to celebrate!

Our winter here lasts for so long - taking up almost half of the year - and so by this time I've started to long for sunny evenings and hazy days spent outside with a book or cycling round the countryside. Admittedly this year there will be a lot less relaxation time than previously - twenty exam papers in one month doesn't leave much free time - but  perhaps study leave will give me the chance to enjoy the sunny weather that so often comes in May and June. As Carol Ann Duffy wrote in her poem 'Mrs Tilcher's Class', in a "feverish July, the air tasted of electricity" and "you [were] always untidy, hot , fractious under the heavy, sexy sky". Deeper meanings aside, this poem sums up perfectly the last few weeks of summer term.  I've found that there's nothing worse than being stuck inside a stuffy classroom whilst golden rays of sun and warm breezes tempt you through the windows.

Wow, I've gone a bit off topic there. Sorry! Back to the food.

In celebration of our new season (and in gratitude to our wonderful mother), my sister and I offered to make lunch. Roast chicken with honeyed carrots and baby potatoes for main, and lemon cheesecake for dessert.

This cheesecake is so simple. It can be made the day before and left to sit in the fridge overnight, which takes away any stress of catering the next day. Pull it out of the fridge, pop out of the tin and drizzle with extra lemon curd.

I decided to make my own lemon curd for this cheesecake, but unfortunately it backfired a bit - no matter how long I cooked it for, it refused to set. I made do and served it as a lemon sauce, but it did affect the consistency of the cheesecake a bit and so it was softer than I'd have liked. Unless you're fully confident in your curd making abilities, I'd suggest buying a jar of lemon curd as backup just in case something goes wrong! 

Start by making the base with crushed biscuits and butter. Blend until it forms clumps and press into a tin. 

Leave in the fridge for a few hours and then make the creamy topping!
Beat cream cheese in a bowl. Fold in whipped cream and the lemon curd.

Spread into the tin and leave in the fridge until serving time. 

Decorate with a few artistic swirls of lemon curd, chocolate shavings or mint leaves.

Lemon Curd
125g digestive biscuits
75g softened butter

300g cream cheese
250ml whipping cream
60g icing sugar
3 - 5 tbsp lemon curd

lemon curd/chocolate sprinkle/mint leaves, to decorate

1. Blitz the biscuits in a food processor until they form fine crumbs. Add the butter (chopped), and blend again until it begins to clump.  Press into a 20cm loose bottomed tin and leave in the fridge until the topping is made.

2. Beat together the cream cheese, icing sugar and lemon juice in a bowl. Whip the cream until it forms soft-ish peaks that hold a shape. Gently fold the cream into the cheese mixture.

3. Spread into the tin and place in the fridge for at least 4 hours.

4. When ready to serve, remove from the tin and decorate with sauce, chocolate or anything else that takes your fancy. Enjoy!

Monday, 31 March 2014

That awkward moment

Last Friday I was able to take a break from study and enjoy some quality time out with friends. For our birthday (way back in December), my friends had clubbed together and bought my sister and I tickets to see Miranda Hart's live show! Needless to say, we were beyond excited. 

Miranda is one of those programmes that is difficult not to love. Whether it's her mockery of uptight Brits, her hopeless attempts to get together with Gary or just the general absurdity of the situations she gets into, it's something that never ceases to make me smile - even when I've heard the jokes before! At the moment one of my favourite episodes is the one in the hotel room... or the one where she and Gary go out for dinner.... or the one where Tilly plans her wedding! But of course, we can't forget the season finale and that cliffhanger. Do you have a favourite episode? 

We thought we'd make an evening of it and so booked a table at the Red Panda restaurant in the Odyssey Arena in Belfast. As we waited outside we spotted a small group of female teachers coming our way. As they passed us we issued an awkward "hello" before collapsing into giggles. We watched them go into the restaurant - they'd obviously reserved a table too - and repeated, "It'll be okay as long as we're not near them".  Sliding neatly past the long queue, we slipped into the restaurant and followed the maître d' to our table. And guess who was at the table opposite?!

You couldn't have planned it if you'd tried. A few grimaces, smiles and general expressions of confusion followed - of all the places to sit! However, after a few minutes we soon forgot all about the teachers sitting opposite and succumbed to the menu. 

We started with cabbage spring rolls with sweet and sour sauce. A little bit boring, especially when I was expecting hits of ginger and cabbage!

Barbecue Ribs were another option - quite a large portion for starters but tasty nonetheless!

The third and final starter (don't worry, i didn't eat these all by myself) was a dish or crispy fried chicken with a little garnish of spring onions and peppers, drizzle with chilli sauce. Yum.

Aaaaand onto main course. We ate from the pre-theatre menu, which allowed you to pick your meat with a range of sauces. 

I naturally chose prawns - the ultimate food! Lightly battered and flavoured with a chilli and honey sauce, this was delicious; not too heavy and with a good kick.

We ordered a bowl of noodles or rice each; and on reflection, a single bowl would have done two of us perfectly! At nearly £4 a bowl these weren't cheap  - but it's all a leaning experience. 

Honey chilli chicken for another friend. The batter was heavier on this and it was a rather toxic-looking red colour, but again very nicely balanced!

Another friend stayed predictable and chose her favourite Chinese meal - beef in black bean sauce. I'd been wanting to try this for a while but my resolve wavered when I read about the prawns and so it will have to be an experiment for another day. 

Sweet and sour chicken - not a personal favourite of mine (I can't handle the sourness) but delicious, I was assured. 

And so for the final dish of the evening - prawns in curry sauce. An unusual combination but lovely nonetheless. 

All in all I enjoyed our meal. For someone who rarely eats Asian food (and when I do, it's Indian), I thought it was good to experiment and try something new. Whilst the food wasn't top-notch, it was handy for an evening out and the restaurant was very busy, buzzing with conversation. I'd recommend that you book a table to be sure of getting a seat if you go on the night of a show/concert; and do think about portion sizes! Share a bowl of noodles and maybe skip the starter if you want to be able to eat all of your main course. Better for your waistline and the pocket, too! 

We made our way into the auditorium and shimmied along to powerful tunes such as Dancing Queen and I Will Survive. The lights dimmed.... Miranda had entered the building!  A sing-along, matchmaking and free Doritos for some lucky audience members were little extras that adorned a great performance - with a surprise at the end. A brilliant evening that made me thankful to have such thoughtful friends. Here's to laughter, inside jokes and a big helping of tasty food!

Monday, 24 March 2014

Get your noodle together

One thing that I've become much more aware of recently is the art of photographing food. Prior to blogging I would never have thought about it, but now I have really started to see the high level of skill that is involved in food photography and styling.

Reading beautiful blogs such as Katie's Kitchen Journal, Joy the Baker and Topped with Cinnamon, I have suddenly felt rather plain and boring. My photos tend to consist of close ups, with a few shots of  our lovely wooden table, which makes a background a bit more interesting! I've noticed how many more likes a photo gets on Instagram (yes, I am that sad) if it is presented beautifully - really, the time it takes to chop up a few herbs, dig out pretty plates or scatter over a handful of nuts is 100% worth it. If food looks beautiful, you, my lovely readers, will be more likely to admire it; to hunger for it, to want to make it yourself.

I think that it's important to focus on the quality of the posts as opposed to the regularity of posting. Not all of us can be professional bloggers, especially not with exams looming in the next few months! So be prepared for less recipes, but (hopefully) more attractive photos.

I love noodles - they're basically another way to eat pasta - and we usually eat them on Saturday nights in a stir fry. However, recently I packed some leftovers into a box and threw it in my bag with a spork; and what a lovely lunchtime surprise that was! Sometimes I get a bit bored of my usual ham or chicken sandwich and so this made the perfect change.

With that in mind, I've tried to recreate a salad that I think would be perfect for lunch. It can be eaten hot or cold, and the quantities are incredibly easy to scale up or down. In addition, you should be able to find all of the ingredients in your store cupboard or lurking at the bottom of the fridge! Perhaps more inventive salads will make their way into my head; but for now, this is satisfying enough. 

The photos here show a salad made for two people - just double the quantities below!

Storecupboard Noodle Salad (serves 1)
1 carrot, peeled and cut into batons
1/4 red pepper, batoned
1 handful Savoy cabbage, cut into strips
As many noodles as wished
Soy sauce
Sesame oil
Sweet chilli sauce
Sesame seeds, for sprinkling
Cooked chicken pieces (optional)

1. Cook the noodles in a pan of hot water for a few minutes. Drain and place in a bowl. 
2. Steam the carrots, pepper and cabbage separately, over a pan of boiling water or in a microwave. Add to the noodles. (Add in the chicken, if using.)
3. Make the dressing by combining the soy sauce, oil and sweet chilli sauce in a ratio of 2:2:1. Drizzle the dressing over the noodles and sprinkle over the sesame seeds. Serve warm or cold. 

Friday, 21 March 2014

Not just any meatballs

This weekend I offered to make dinner for my family. It used to be a regular occurrence, on Saturday nights, but revision schedules and music practices soon put an end to that. Still, recently I've felt the desire to improve my cooking skills; after all , you can't live on cake alone, as much as we might wish to!

This desire was further spurred on by my two most recent attempts at baking - both the muffins and the cookies tasted good, but the texture was all wrong. So, I thought I'd take a little break for a while and focus on savoury foods - with the occasional sweet treat thrown in. At the moment I'm dreaming of a roasted carrot salad (just like Katie's, here) and maybe a pasta dish as well. For now, we have meatballs! (Badly photographed - a great time for my camera to go out of battery.)

I've always avoided making meatballs purely because Mum warned me about the difficulties - they can be quite prone to falling apart - but there came a time when the urge to recreate the succulent little balls from Santander became too much for me. A trip to the butcher soon followed, and after a search through the cupboards and a forage in the herb garden, this recipe was born.

I wanted light, tender meatballs in a rich tomato sauce. Here we have pork mince (not as heavy as beef) that has been flavoured with oregano, bulked up with breadcrumbs and cooked in the sauce (as opposed to frying, which creates a crust).

The sauce is made with tinned tomatoes, a bit of red pepper, onion and a few soft tomatoes that were rolling around in the fridge. The vegetables will have to be chopped as finely as possible, until you can barely see them; or you can simmer the sauce, blend it and then add the meatballs if your eyes start to well up at the thought of spending more time chopping onions! I always seem to be quite badly affected by the bitter fumes and end up with mascara streaming down my face and a burning that can only be relieved by sticking my head out of a window for a minute or two; has anyone got any tips for onion-proofing your eyes?

Anyway, let's get cooking! 

Start by sautéing onion, a bit of garlic, red pepper and a few tomatoes in a little oil. 

Add tinned tomatoes and a little bit of water. Throw in a bay leaf, some herbs de provence and simmer. 

Whilst the sauce is cooking, make the meatballs. Breadcrumbs, onions, pork mince, an egg and some fresh oregano. 

Shape into little balls and drop into the (blended) sauce. Cook until they are no longer pink and are piping hot. 

Enjoy with some rice and vegetables such as peas, beans or cabbage. 

Pork Meatballs in Tomato Sauce
1 onion
1 clove garlic
1/2 red pepper
A few cherry tomatoes (optional)
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp herbes de provence
Pinch sugar
1 tin chopped tomatoes + half tin of water

1. Finely chop the onion and the garlic. Sauté in a little oil in a large pan until translucent.
2. Chop the pepper and the tomatoes and add these to the onions. Cook for a few minutes.
3. Add the chopped tomatoes, water, herbs and pinch of sugar. Simmer with the lid on the pan for 20 -30 minutes whilst you make the meatballs. Blend the sauce before adding the meatballs, if wished.

300g pork mince
1 small egg, beaten
80g breadcrumbs
1/2 onion
2 tbsp fresh oregano, chopped

1. Mix all of the ingredients together until they form a clump.
2. Shape into small balls - you should be able to get about 20 meatballs. 
3. After blending the sauce, drop into the pan, trying to get every meatball covered in the sauce, with its own space in the pan. Cook for 20 - 30 minutes until piping hot and cooked through. 

Serve with rice and vegetables!