All you pretty things!

It’s been a good month for all things pretty. And what girl doesn’t love pretty things? I’ll level with you. I used to be a big shopper. I loved it! I lived for it!Trawling through sale racks, finding that elusive bargain; all clothes of course. But my priorities, no, my interests have changed. I’m nesting, you see, which means I get turned on by homeware now rather than shoes. Of course, there’ll always be room for another pair of ballet pumps in my closet but I would definitely choose a visit to Crate and Barrel over H&M.

When the sun is out in Chicago we often take ourselves to an amazing Mexican restaurant called Las Fuentes for one of their superb margaritas. They have the most darling little courtyard that is like a much needed oasis in the chaos of the big city, complete with murals and a fountain. We totally chanced upon it one evening when we were out walking in the late afternoon sun and because we’d already eaten we just ordered a margarita. It came in this quirky cactus glass, which tickled me no end, so much so, I’ve been near on obsessive about buying them for our own kitchen. I really wasn’t expecting to find them in the Dollar Tree that has just recently opened near to where we live. Tacky to some, hideous to others, divinely kitsch to me, four of them were promptly purchased and I cannot wait to fill them with a gloriously tangy margarita! Arriba!

Who says food can’t be pretty too? I mean everyone loves the sight of a colourful cupcake but I think nature does pretty best. On the outside a watermelon doesn’t look like much. In fact, put two side by side and they’re downright hilarious! Slice one open, however, and the first thing that strikes you is the colour. That same colour isn’t comparable to any other colour in the world. For me it (watermelon) tastes exactly like that colour – fresh, sweet, light, juicy. I can find no fault with a watermelon maybe other than those seeds. I won’t lie, I am slightly concerned as to how they grow seedless melons but it does make eating them a whole lot easier. And they really do look so pretty. Edibly pretty. In every way:)

Vintage is another passion of mine and this interest has now extended from clothes to furnishings or anything remotely homey. It does feel great to find that unique item you know no-one else has in their wardrobe, kitchen, livingroom, whatever. I live about a ten minute walk from some seriously amazing vintage stores. It can be dangerous though because I know I will always come home with something and the other day was no different. Hubbie wanted to go for a walk. Fine. We walked to that street with those amazing vintage stores. Great. I stumbled upon some mega cute jars stashed in a box that even the shop assistant wasn’t aware of. Fantastic. At $2 dollars a piece they were an absolute steal and exactly what I had been looking for to store my spices. Sold. See what I mean? So now they’re sitting beautifully beside my cooker holding my three most used spices: cumin, cinnamon and chilli. Oh, and would you just take a look at them? Sooooooo pretty!

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Sardinian Sausage Casserole

Travelling is a wonderful thing. It can change you. It has changed me. I’ve always had the urge to get out there and explore. You could say I’ve broadened my horizons but more importantly I’ve broadened my eating habits. I mean, that’s the thing about being in ‘foreign’ countries where they don’t serve the food you’re most used to – you have to eat it! Sometimes it works out well and other times, like when you’ve had a suspicious beef dish in Mumbai and end up doubled in two, not so! Put you off your dinner yet?

Italy is a whole different ballgame though – it’s safe. What could be more familiar than pasta, cheese, meat, all the good stuff. Everything tastes so much better in Italy. The flavours are more intense, the pasta always al dente, the meat cooked to perfection. For me, it is food heaven. Yes, even France has to come second – a very close second mind you!

Okay, so let’s not get confused, Sardinia isn’t exactly Italy. As someone from Northern Ireland I understand the confusion people have when dealing with nationality and identity. So, I think I can understand where Sardinians are coming from, which perhaps explains why I felt such an affinity with the place and the food. I had the same feeling in Palestine too. Geographical proximity is a peculiar thing. Of course, Sardinian food has Italian influence by the bucketload, however, it’s those small differences that set it apart.

Gnocchetti is the local pasta. It’s been described as a smaller version of the potato dumpling Gnocchi but I think I profoundly disagree. There’s no potato in it for one and whilst the shape is similar it most certainly is a pasta. I foolishly thought these little pasta shapes would be easy to come by because you can get anything you want anywhere in the world now, right? Wrong. So what does one do in times like these? That’s right, one substitutes – or something like that! Orzo is the most similar and appropriate pasta that I could find and it really does work a treat. Again, this is a variation on a very traditional Sardinian dish but I don’t think that really matters because it’s impossible to recreate something like this without authentic local produce. We can, however, give it a damn good try!

Ingredients:

1 onion

6 hot italian sausages

3 garlic cloves

400g canned tomatoes

1 tbsp oregano

1tbsp sugar

salt and pepper

250 orzo pasta

100g colby/monterey jack – or any good melting cheese

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees farhenheit.

Heat a tablespoon of canola oil in a frying pan. Finely dice onion, add to pan and fry for a few minutes. In this particular dish I think it’s quite nice if the onion browns slightly:) Mince garlic, add to pan and fry for few minutes.

Skin the sausages, tear into pieces and add to the pan. Cook thoroughly until they are nicely browned – this should take around 15mins.

Stir in tomatoes, add sugar, oregano and seasoning. If it looks a little thick add some water – I fill the tomato can and add accordingly. Bring to a gentle simmer for around 20mins.

Bring a medium sized pan of water to the boil. Salt and add orzo. Partially cook (approx 6mins). Drain and leave to one side.

In a casserole dish layer the ingredients: sausage. pasta, sausage, pasta, sausage, cheese. Bake for 30mins until golden brown on top.

Allow to cool for 5mins before serving.

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Peanut Butter Thumbprints

My tooth is more savoury than sweet, which probably explains why most of this blog focuses on dinner rather dessert. That is not to say I can’t appreciate a good cake or a decent cookie but in general I’m always going to get more excited about a foccacia than a flapjack. I’ve also come to learn that even the sweet things I do like always have a salty or more specifically a nutty element – pistachio ice-cream, frangipane and of course pb&j (that’s peanut butter and jelly(jam) for my anglophile readers). True to form, my absolute favourite confectionery is Reese’s peanut butter cups – simply divine – and it’s a major plus they are not made with high fructose corn syrup (don’t get me started!), which in the States, is a small triumph.

So, whilst perusing the Nigella forum I chanced upon a recipe for peanut butter cookies, I knew they had to be made immediately. The recipe in question was offered by a Mr JohnMc – I think it’s only fair I credit him – and it is the most painless cookie I’ve ever had the pleasure to make.

This isn’t my first foray into the peanut butter dessert arena. I’ve succesfully constructed a moreish pb cheesecake for a dinner party so I had an inkling these where going to be good. Also inspired by Smitten Kitchen’s recent hazelnut thumbprints and the fact I had a bag of butterscotch chips begging to be used I thought it only natural to combine all these awesome elements and create peanut butter thumbprints.

Let me tell you how gorgeous these are, not only to look at but also to eat. Crunchy round the edges and super soft on the inside, just the way a cookie should be. As soon as I tasted the first one it was obvious they’d make fantastic cakeballs. So the next time I make these I’m going to keep them ball shaped and coat them in chocolate – hey presto, my very own peanut butter cups! It doesn’t get much than that:)

Ingredients:

1 cup peanut butter (I used smooth but crunchy would work too)

1 cup light brown sugar

1 egg

butterscotch chips

hershey’s chocolate sauce (optional)

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

In a large bowl whisk the egg until foamy. Add the peanut butter and mix until smooth.

Stir in sugar and thoroughly combine until you get a soft dough.

Take a small (teaspoon) amount  of dough and roll into a ball. Place on baking sheet and repeat – you should get up to 20 balls out of the dough.

Using your thumb gently make a thumbprint in each ball. Place a butterscotch chip in the centre of each thumbprint. At this stage you could squirt a teeny amount of chocolate sauce into the thumbprint also – I only did it with 4 of them but they tasted gooooood!

Bake for 10 minutes. If you want a firmer texture bake for 15 mins.

Take them off the baking sheet as soon as they come out of the oven. They become difficult to take off the sheet when they cool. Place on a cooling rack. They are good warm but I liked them better when completely cooled.

You probably shouldn’t have them for breakfast…..but I did:)

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Chilli con Carne

Is this my third or fourth Mexican food installment, I’m starting to lose track? I’ll have to start organising this site a bit better soon – categorise recipes and all that, eek! Not right now though, I’ll procrastinate a little more and use the time to talk about my Chilli. Chilli con Carne. A classic mid week dinner and as with Spag Bol everyone has their own faithful recipe, which rarely alters. But why? I’m guilty of it too. So now I’m changing the pattern. The universe seems to be doing a good job of it with my life so I’m taking charge in my own small way – in the kitchen.

Let’s begin with the kidney bean. I’m not a big fan of the kidney bean. I believe I mentioned this in my Negril review in reference to their glorious rice and peas, which has black eyed peas and not those unattractively coloured pulses shaped like an organ (that in itself is freaky deaky!).  Nethertheless I’ve blindly used them in every Chilli I’ve ever made without questioning their inclusion. Look, I may be exaggerating. I don’t hate the little blighters but in the same token I don’t love ’em. So why it’s never occured to me until now to replace them with a pulse I could eat in abundance is beyond me.

The chilli is looking and tasting better for that swapsie already so while we’re on it I see no reason not to add some bacon – that extra fat goes a long way in heightening flavour, agreed? And I always thought a chilli was called so for a reason so apart from fresh (just didn’t have any) I’ve chucked every other kind of the famous hot pepper into the pot that I could get my hands on: jalapenos, chilli flakes, chilli powder, paprika and tabasco sauce. Rather aptly and to quote the pop group The Black Eyed Peas, “It’s gettin’ hot….in here!!”

Finally, don’t forget the cumin. If Heston reckons it’s the key to a great Chilli then who are we to argue.

Ingredients:

1 onion

1 green pepper (i only had half left but it was rather large in the first place)

5 rashers streaky bacon

350g minced beef

400g canned tomatoes

400g canned black eyed peas

1 tbsp tomato puree

1 tbsp sofrito

3 garlic cloves

1 tbsp jalapenos, cumin, chilli powder, chilli flakes, paprika, sugar.

several splashes of tabasco (by which I mean I lost count!)

salt and pepper

Heat a tablespoon of canola oil in a large pot. Finely dice the onion, add to pot, season and sweat for a few minutes with lid on. Then add the garlic, cumin and 1/2 tbsp of chilli powder (we’ll use the rest later) and cook for a further few minutes. If I were using fresh chilli’s I would add them at this stage too – I’m a sucker for a habanero but be careful they are super hot, one is plenty!

Chop bacon – I use scissors, it’s easier – and add to pan with onion. Fry until cooked but not crispy. Add beef and brown with lid on.

Chop pepper into large chunks: too small and they will dissintegrate. Add to pan and cook for another few minutes.

Stir in sofrito (don’t worry if you can’t find this), tomato puree and ensure all the ingredients are evenly coated. Add canned tomatoes, sugar, jalapenos, chilli flakes, rest of chilli powder, paprika, and tabasco. Season too:) Mix thoroughly and bring to a gentle simmer with lid on. If it looks very thick add a touch of water.

Simmer for about 45 minutes. Drain and rinse black eyes peas and add to pot for a further 15 minutes. Remember to taste and season. You can adjust the hottness to your liking by adding more tabasco.

Serve with grated cheese (maybe some sour cream too if you have it) and absolutely, definitely tortilla chips. I know the temptation would be to serve with rice but trust me this way is far superior. If you can get hold of the blue corn variety even better!

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Panko Breaded Prawns

‘Making do’ just might be my mantra. Well certainly of late anyway because I’m trying to gradually re-stock my store cupboard with all those essentials that most of you take of granted. Flitting between Cities means that both kitchens are severely lacking in many of the staples needed to make a good meal great. I’m getting there slowly but surely but in the meantime i’ll ‘make do’:)

Hands up who likes a prawn. They really are fab, aren’t they? I mean, there are few people I’ve met who won’t eat them – even self proclaimed veggies will pop a prawn now and again. The same could be said for fried food. So combine those two things and you’re onto a serious winner. If you want to enhance this even further then you rock out the Panko breadcrumbs; Japanese style breadcrumbs that perfectly coat any food and fry to crunchy perfection. Seriously, once you try these amazingly versatile breadcrumbs you’ll never look back! Normally I would flour, egg and coat in panko but my store cupboard being the way it is at the moment I was missing flour. So I ‘made do’ and just egged and breaded. Admittedly I was concerned the crumbs wouldn’t adhere properly but I needn’t have worried, it was totally fine, although the texture was a little different but certainly not in a bad way.

The ‘making do’ didn’t stop there. I only had two thirds of the holy trinity of chinese cooking; i.e. I had no ginger, so my heavenly duo of garlic and chilli would have to do. Of course the mirin, soy sauce and sesame oil helped the flavour and all in all the stir-fry was not too shabby. Simple, fresh and clean tasting, it did the job rightly. After all, those prawns are the star of the show!

Oh yes! I am entirely unapologetic for the gratuitous use of packet ramen noodles. What, the same kind that comes with that God awful msg clad flavouring? The very same. I just toss the flavouring – or rather put it in my cupboard where there is now an unhealthy stash of the stuff. So wrong:)!

Ingredients:

Panko Breaded Prawns:

20 medium cooked prawns

1 egg

1 cup panko breadcrumbs

salt and pepper

canola oil

Thai Sweet Chilli Dipping Sauce

Stir-fry:

1/2 green pepper

1 large carrot

6 spring onions

3 garlic cloves

1/2 tablespoon chilli flakes

1 tablespoon mirin

1 tbsp sesame oil

2 tbsp soy sauce

2 pckts ramen noodles

Pre-heat the oven to 220 degrees fahrenheit or a fairly low temp. Line a dish with kitchen roll.

Crack the egg into a bowl, whisk, add a tablespoon of water and season. Empty panko onto a large plate. Heat canola oil in a small frying pan – enough to shallow fry, you don’t want the prawns completely immersed when cooking. A medium to low heat works best otherwise the oil will spit and that’s never nice for anyone.

This part is like a little conveyer belt of breaded prawn production:) I do five at a time but work pretty quickly. Dunk the prawns into the egg, thoroughly coat before transferring to panko. I like to bury them in the panko. Ensure they are completely covered before transferring them to the oil. Repeat until all the prawns are frying. You want them golden on one side before turning. Once they’ve fried themselves silly transfer to the lined dish and put in oven to keep warm.

Finely slice the veg into lengths. I’m a firm believer that how you chop your food should be appropriate to the cuisine you are trying to recreate. So for asian cooking, angles and long strips are the way to go. Heat a tablespoon of canola oil in a wok or frying pan (I’ve yet to purchase a wok – shocking I know!). Add carrot and pepper and fry quickly for a few minutes. Mince garlic and along with chilli add to pan. Keep the veg moving and try not to let it colour too much. At this stage add the mirin, sesame oil and 1 tbsp of soy sauce.

Bring a medium pan of water to a boil. Break up noodles and boil for several minutes – they don’t take very long to cook. Drain and keep to one side.

Add spring onion to the pan. Stir for a minute or two. Toss in the noodles and using tongs ensure the veg is thoroughly combined. At this stage you can add the other tbsp soy sauce and more sesame oil if you wish.

Serve with a generous helping of Sweet Chilli Dipping Sauce for those prawns!

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Cinnamon Raisin Pancakes

For me the weekend means pancakes. I love love love classic pancakes and we often have them with bacon and maple syrup which feeds my sweet and salty cravings. But sometimes it good to shake things up and not only with fillings but with the flour and milk. I think my favourite variation on the classic pancake has to be banana pancakes made with soya milk – delish! Failing that I’m happy to give anything a go and so on Sunday I decided on cinnamon raisin – this choice was mainly determined by what I had in my cupboard but hey this is a blog about everyday eating. Because let’s be honest, not every meal can be planned and playing with what ingredients you have is fun and food should be fun.

I still had the remainder of that gluten free flour – the same one used in my lemon cupcakes – so whilst these are sans gluten all purpose flour is ideal. I should say at this point I won’t be using the gluten free sort again: I was less than impressed with the texture in general. Why did I buy it then? In short, I didn’t. I inherited it from someone who had been staying in our flat whilst we were in London.

Okay then, now that the flour issue has been addressed onto the pancakes. I adore anything cinnamon but find it is all too easy to overdo it. When this happens you lose the spicy sweetness and gain an overpowering powdery almost choking taste that is not pleasant. Therefore I’m always cautious when it comes to using the ground variety. The sesame seeds and raisins just add a bit of interest but are well worth including.

Unfortunately I only have one decent pancake pan that allows me to cook a single pancake at time. Plus I don’t own a pancake warmer (I desperately want one though!) so I line a dish and pre-heat the oven to the lowest possible temperature and it works just fine.

I could never get bored of pancakes, it’s just not possible. There are too many combinations begging to be made and eaten. They are also pretty much fool proof or at least that’s what I’d always thought. Recently I ordered some white chocolate, pretzel filled pancakes with a buttery caramel sauce (yeah, I know how good that sounds!) in a very popular Chicago bruncherie called The Bongo Room. I’d heard so much about this place and was ready to be impressed. Sadly, it was not to be. The pancakes were huge. Too huge. Ridiculously huge. This might not have been a problem had it not been for the fact they were uncooked in the middle – schoolboy error if you ask me. The chewy, salty pretzel chunks would’ve been wonderful but I just couldn’t get over the doughy raw pancake. Yes, I know, I could have sent them back but the place was rammed and frankly I couldn’t be bothered so I sucked it up and ate the edges. That was not the only problem. The sauce was too sickly sweet and as much as I love white chocolate I was overcome by the sugar. You get what you ask for, right? I disagree. Because the concept behind these pancakes is pure genius and I couldn’t help thinking the entire time: “I could make these better”. And I will. Watch this space.

Ingredients:

1 cup flour

1/2 tsp baking powder

1/4 bicarbonate of soda

1/4 tsp salt

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

tablespoon sesame seeds

handful of raisins

1 egg

1/2 cup milk

tablespoon melted butter

Pre-heat the oven to the lowest possible temperature – mine goes to 170 faherenheit. Line a dish with parchment paper.

Combine all the dry ingredients in a bowl. I use a spatula.

Add egg and gradually whisk in milk. You want a thickish batter so if it’s looking watery stop adding milk. If the batter does get too thin you could add more flour but the measurements should be entirely accurate.

Stir in sesame seeds and raisins.

Heat the tablespoon of butter in a pan and add to batter. Wipe the pan clean. On a medium heat pour a small amount of batter in the pan – a little goes a long way. When bubbles appear on top flip the pancake and cook for a few seconds on the other side. Transfer pancake to lined dish and pop in oven to keep warm. Repeat. You should get 8 medium sized pancakes out of the mixture.

Serve with maple syrup or dust with icing sugar or both:)

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Gluten free lemon cupcakes

This must be a new record for me – my third batch of baked goodies in a matter of weeks. I think keeping a blog has spurred me on to improve my baking skills and I’m more pleased than I expected with the results.

Don’t get me wrong I’m not saying everything has gone smoothly because it hasn’t. Take yesterday for example. I decided to try my hand at more cupcakes and seeing as I had a bag of gluten free flour in the cupboard I got to making some lemon cupcake batter. It was all going well. Too well. I may have been getting a little cocky and I may have been thinking to myself “this baking melarkey is a piece of cake”. Just about the same time I was thinking that my electricity went off! I think this may be called karma. Cupcake karma. Due to my baking inexperience I kinda panicked, filled the cases anyway and put them in fridge, which of course was off too but cooler than my kitchen surface.

That wasn’t all. When the electricity came back on I was so impatient to get the darned things baked that I foolishly put some of the them on a baking sheet and the bottoms came out a little browner than I’d have liked:(

I do own a lovely red ceramic muffin holder, however,  it only holds six cases. But really that is no excuse. My bad – I should have waited and baked them in batches. Luckily I had enough mixture left to fill a final six cases, which were baked in the ultra lovely red ceramic holder and in the end I got 12 perfect little cupcakes and 12 imperfect but perfectly edible ones – you win some you lose some! I’ll chalk it up to experience and next time will remember not to use the baking sheet.

Ingredients:

1 1/2 cups gluten free flour

1 tsp baking flour

1/2 tsp salt

zest of 1 lemon

1/2 cup milk

juice 1/2 lemon

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup softened butter or margarine

2 eggs

for the icing:

2 cups icing (confectioners) sugar

juice 1 lime

zest 1 lime

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees fahrenheit.

In a bowl cream the sugar and butter until light and fluffy. I use a spatula but you could use an electric whisk. I’m a glutton for punishment when it comes to baking and try to do everything by hand!

In a separate bowl sift the flour, baking powder and salt. You could add a pinch of bicarbonate of soda too if you desire a lighter cake. I wanted something more dense. Zest the lemon, add to bowl and mix.

Add both eggs to the creamed sugar/butter and combine thoroughly with spatula. Empty half of the dry ingredients into the bowl and mix.

Squeeze the lemon juice into the milk, immediately add to bowl and stir – don’t hang around, as it will curdle. Combine the rest of the dry ingredients until you get a smooth batter.

Fill the cases half way up with the batter. Bake for 20 minutes.

Slowly add the lime juice to the icing sugar until smooth, glossy and fairly thick. Toss in the zest and mix until you get fleks of green evenly scattered throughout the icing mixture.

Wait until the cakes are completely cool before icing. Top them with a teaspoonful of icing and smooth to edges using the back of the spoon. Leave to set – a half hour should do it. Eat, share and/or store in an airtight container for up to two days.

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What I’m eating.

This should really be called ‘What I’m eating and drinking’ because my most exciting discovery of late is the truly awesome Dogfish Head beer, which I was turned on to after watching Beer Wars. For those of you not in the know, Beer Wars is a documentary focusing on the dominance of the three beer giants here in the US: Budweiser, Miller and Coors.

I’ve always been a conscious consumer but after watching this film hubbie and I were even more determined to support local and micro brewery beers. Not that this is a chore because in reality they taste so much better than that watery awfulness some call lager. There are many Dogfish head beers to choose from but we went for the ‘Raison D’Etre’ variety, which on the bottle describes itself as A deep mahogany ale brewed with Belgian beet sugars, green raisins & a sense of purpose. A beer with a sense of humour? You gotta love that! It is way too easy to drink and without sounding too poncy it’s smooth, rich with just enough fizz (can you tell I’m not exactly a beer connoisseur?). A word of caution though, at 8% Alc. you should take it easy – I felt a little wooly after only two:) I’m looking forward to trying the other Dogfish beers on offer. In fact we have a four pack of ’90 Minute Imperial IPA’ sitting in our fridge as we speak just begging to be opened and they shall be very soon – in honour of St. Patrick and all that!

From beer to fruit – a natural progression! My relationship with the stuff is a complicated one. Complicated in the sense that I don’t eat enough of it. I definitely don’t get my five a day through chowing down on apples and oranges that’s for sure. I think my problem is that much of the fruit available in UK supermarkets is utterly tasteless – i’m sorry, but it is! I’m happy to chop bananas onto my cereal and pick at grapes or berries but I’m not a fan of apples and is it even possible to find a nice peach or nectarine? Usually they’re rock hard and refuse to ripen or they’re completely devoid of any moisture. Recently I chanced upon some delightful pears in a random corner shop in Fulham – I can spot a good fruit when they’re about – which hubbie and I devoured with such gusto fearing for our lives that we’d never find more like it. How sad is that?

The fruit in the US, however, is far superior to the nonsense we are forced to buy in Britain. For this very reason I like to make a point of eating more of the good stuff when I’m in the States. This mainly means lots of citrus and in particular grapefruit. It’s such a refreshing way to start your morning and now that the weather is on the up and up in Chicago I wouldn’t have it any other way.

More American goodies that I cannot resist come in the form of covered pretzels. Does anyone recall when they briefly released chocolate covered pretzels in the UK? I loved those things (especially the white chocolate ones) – the salty sweetness was my idea of snack heaven and I was devastated when they unfathomably stopped selling them:( So, when I was in my local cornershop (a wee gem of a place) the other night and spotted some yoghurt coated pretzels they had to be purchased quick pronto. Holy moly are they good. Lip smacking good. It’s been so difficult not to eat the lot in one go that I’ve had to ration myself to a few a day – I need to fit into a bikini in a few weeks y’know!! They might just be worth it though.

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Pasta and mini meatballs

I have a confession to make. It’s been barely a week since my last meatball. Last night I was debating what to do with the minced beef in my fridge. Chilli? Maybe. Bolognaise? Not sure. Burgers? Nope. What I craved was a meatball. But I only had my Moroccan version a few days earlier and not that there are any hard and fast rules regarding how many times a week you should be allowed a certain food, common decency tells me there should be a good seven days in between. When that desire gets you though it sure is hard to shake. So I succumbed. However, to make myself feel a little better about it I decided to make them mini.

Up until recently I really thought I had perfected the meatball making process. I’d nailed it. My method was always to combine meat, one whole egg, bread soaked in water – squeeze excess water and remove crusts – salt, pepper and I would then vary the extras (herbs, spices etc.) to suit. That’s just how I do (did) it. I knew that I could soak the bread in milk, use breadcrumbs and just the yolk but I didn’t because if it ain’t broke and all that. This kind of thinking has got me into trouble before and I really should know better by this stage of my life but I seemingly never learn.

Anywho, a recent meatball making experience forced me to use breadcrumbs due to the sorry state of the bread: nothing was going to salvage this poor slice other than blitzing it into oblivion, which is exactly what I did. The moistness of the meatball surprised me but I was convinced it was fluke so I had to try the breadcrumb thing again. Not a fluke. Let me repeat: NOT A FLUKE! Totally deliciously moist. So that’s it, no more soaking of the bread, it’s breadcrumbs all the way from now on.

Ingredients:

250g minced beef

1 egg

1 slice wholewheat bread

2 cloves garlic

1/2 tsp dried basil

1/2 tsp dried oregano

salt and pepper

For the sauce:

1 onion

2 cloves garlic

400g canned tomatoes

1 tsp sugar

1 tsp balsamic vinegar

1/4 tsp chilli flakes

1/4 tsp dried basil

1/4 tsp dried oregano

salt and pepper

350g any dried pasta

Chop or blitz bread until you have fine breadcrumbs. In a bowl mix beef, egg, breadcrumbs, minced garlic, basil, oregano and seasoning. I use the back of a metal dessert spoon. You could use a wooden spoon but I find it easier to get the texture I want with the metal spoon. Ensure all the ingredients are thoroughly combined before dividing the mixture into small balls (I use the same dessert spoon) – you should get around 17 mini meatballs. Refridgerate until you’re ready to cook them.

Finely dice the onion. Heat a little oil in a frying pan (skillet). Add the onion, minced garlic cloves, seasoning and fry for several minutes. When the onion starts to colour add the chilli flakes, basil and oregano and cook slowly for a further 10 minutes.

Using a hand blender blitz the canned tomatoes until you get a smooth tomato sauce. Add to the pan along with the sugar, balsamic vinegar and seasoning. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook for a few minutes.

Place meatballs in the sauce and let colour on one side before turning. Occassionally spoon the sauce over the meatballs so they don’t dry out. Cook meatballs for around 20minutes.

Meanwhile bring a large pan of water to the boil. Salt and add 350g dried pasta. Cook until al dente and drain.

Remove the meatballs from the sauce. Add the drained pasta to the pan with the sauce and mix. Divide pasta between three plates and top with the meatballs. I sometimes retain a little sauce and pour this over the meatballs before serving. Sprinkle with parmesan or any hard cheese.

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Quesadillas

Continuing with my current obession with Mexican food my next entry will be the ever popular (in our household anyway) Quesadilla. I first discovered these little beauties in Nigella Express, my favourite go to cookbook ever since it was released a few years ago. The thing I love about Nigella is her attitude towards cooking, which I think in many ways reflects my own. I can rustle up just about anything from any given, no matter how obscure, ingredients: my Husband has named this skill ‘making something out of nothing’. It’s true. I rarely say “we’ve got nothing in the cupboard” because even when it’s looking pretty sparse in there I somehow manage to conjur up a more than edible meal for two. Many of Nigella’s recipes are ever adaptable and although she can be scrict about certain things – only large organic eggs, maldon salt etc. etc. – generally speaking her dishes are fabulously accessible, which is, I think, at the crux of her popularity.

Until I purchased Nigella Express I’d never heard of a quesadilla and I consider myself to be a well informed foodie. But I needn’t feel so bad. London is not exactly coming down with Mexican restaurants and the one I eat at most – Cafe Pacifico on Langley Street – doesn’t have an extensive menu and besides, being a creature of habit, I always order the chimichanga.

I was so excited to try a quesadilla I immediately ran out and bought a griddle pan because if you’re going to do something you might as well do it right. Right? I was not disappointed. The crispy exterior. The oozing melted cheese. The tang of the jalapenos. The salty meatiness of the ham. All of it combines to create one harmonious whole that is the quesadilla.

So when I came to Chi-town and realised I lived right smack bang in the middle of a Mexican district literally teaming with amazing restaurants I quick footed it to the nearest one to order me a quesadilla. But what happened surprised me. The quesadilla they served me just didn’t hit the spot I was expecting it to. Yes, I was a novice at ordering in these etablishments so I can be blamed for some of the let down. First of all you have to request meat and most of the time ham is not an option: don’t get me wrong, a chicken quesadilla is nice but it’s not in the same league as salty slices of pork – this is all subjective, of course. Secondly, it was the lack of those smoky griddled lines on the tortilla that totally underwhelmed me too. So that is why I’m taking a leaf out of Nigella’s book and getting strict about a few things, well one thing really. If you want a decent quesadilla get yourself a griddle pan. Tell yourself it’s an investment, that it’s crucial for steaks or whatever it is to justify it but do buy one. I’ve just returned to my ‘real’ kitchen and the first thing I had to do was get mine out. Don’t judge me but I get all dreamy when I think about certain kitchen utensils and this is one them: black cast iron, weighs a ton, is a bugger to clean but griddles magnificently. I could on – about the pan and the quesadillas – but I won’t. Suffice to say they are sheer loveliness and if you serve them at a party to your friends they will love you forever.

Ingredients:

4 soft tortillas (wholewheat if you can get them)

4-6 large slices of ham

60g monterey jack cheese

60g munster (cheddar and red leicester if you can’t get the other two)

6 slices jalapeno peppers

oil for brushing

You can fit two quesadillas in a griddle pan so lay out 2 tortillas for preparing. Heat griddle pan on a medium heat – do not add oil.

Cover the whole tortilla with ham. Sprinkle half with cheese and top with a small handful of chopped jalapenos.

Fold tortillas in half so you get a half moon shape. Lightly brush one side with oil. I use a mixture of canola and olive oil.

Place the tortillas oil side down onto the heated griddle pan. You can then oil the other side: it’s much less messy this way. It should only take a few minutes each side but you can lift them up to check. It’s personal preference but I like the griddle lines to be fairly dark but obviously not burnt. Turn over and let them cook for several minutes on the other side. I think tongs are essential here too.

Cut each tortilla into three triangles and have a sauce for dunking. Nigella recommends salsa but Hubbie isn’t so keen on tomatoes so we have a tomatillo taco sauce, which I think unfortunately you can only get in the US. You could use whatever you like, even, dare I say it, ketchup – not very Mexican but who doesn’t like it!

Eat and repeat:)

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