KFC but not as we know it

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I know I promised you that bhaji recipe – and it is on the way – but an opportunity has presented itself to me to be vaguely topical so it would be remiss of me not to take it.

The not-fake-but-so-preposterous-it-could-be news earlier this week was that KFC had to close two-thirds of its UK branches because it had run out of chicken. Seriously? That’s like Costa running out of coffee beans. Or Piers Morgan running out of bullshit. Or UKIP post-Brexit.

Needless to say, The Great British Public is outraged. The police have had to issue a request urging people not to call them regarding the #KFCCrisis (#morons). KFC has set up an emergency online service so people can locate stores that remain open with a ‘limited’ menu, whatever that means. Bargain buckets of slaw or baked beans perhaps?

But fear not people, I have come up with an alternative. It uses an ingredient that is cheap, healthy and in plentiful supply in the UK: the humble cauliflower. Marinate it, coat it and cook it in the same way as you would Southern fried chicken, and you have a meal that will satisfy not only vegetarians craving a little filth in their diet, but meat eaters like me, who happen to love vegetarian food. And you might even convert a few fried chicken lovers along the way.

Southern fried cauliflower tacos with homemade buffalo sauce

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My family (The Husband included) who would previously only tolerate cauliflower if blanketed in a copious amount of cheese sauce, loved this, but if you have ardent carnivores in yours, the marinade and coating can be used on chicken and I daresay, other animal proteins. Squirrel anyone?

For the cauliflower

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Serves 4

  • 1 medium head cauliflower, broken or cut into small florets
  • sunflower or vegetable oil for shallow frying
  • flaky sea salt
  • 8 -16 corn or wheat soft tacos, depending on appetite (the Wahaca ones are great – available from Ocado) or you could use standard sized tortillas
  • Shredded red cabbage and iceberg lettuce
  • grated cheddar or crumbled feta
  • buffalo sauce, shop bought or see recipe below
  • sour cream
  • guacamole
  • pickled jalapenos
  • coriander leaves

For the marinade

  • 250ml buttermilk
  • 1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/2 tsp onion salt
  • 1/2 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1/2 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp salt
  • pinch of white pepper, good grinding of black

For the coating

  • 150g plain flour
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 2 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp dried thyme
  • 1 tsp salt
  • a good grinding of black pepper
  1. Mix the marinade ingredients together in a large bowl, then add the cauliflower florets and use your hands to coat well with the mixture. Leave for an hour or so if you can.
  2. In a wide bowl or rimmed tray, stir the coating ingredients together and toss each floret in this until evenly coated.
  3. Heat about a centimetre of oil in a wok or large frying pan over a medium high heat and fry the cauliflower in batches, on each side until golden and crispy. *
  4. Drain on kitchen towel and sprinkle over a little flaky sea salt.
  5. Assemble your tacos as you see fit.

Homemade buffalo sauce

  • 150g hot/chilli sauce (I used Linghams)
  • 125g cold unsalted butter
  • 1 1/2 tbsp rice, white wine or cider vinegar
  • 2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
  • pinch garlic powder
  • pinch salt
  1. Combine all the ingredients in a small saucepan and whisk gently over a medium heat until the butter has melted. Bring to a simmer, turn off the heat, stir and serve either warm or cool. Add water to loosen if it becomes too thick. Keeps well covered in the fridge for a week, but bring to room temperature before serving.
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The baked version

* For a healthier version, bake the cauliflower in an oven preheated to 190°C (fan). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper, spritz the florets with oil spray or drizzle with a little oil and bake until caramelised – about 30-40 mins.

Ten minutes before the end of cooking time, brush over some buffalo sauce and return to oven – this will stop it from tasting too dry and worthy.

 

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In which my children go vegetarian

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OK so that title may be a little misleading. It was only the one meal, but but but, my little carnivores CHOSE the vegetarian option of their own volition. There was no coaxing, cajoling or hiding of vegetables. Nor was this pasta, lightly doused in a tomato or pesto sauce, nor a margarita pizza, because they don’t count. No, this was a curry with actual, discernible chunks of real vegetable – sweet potato, cauliflower, spinach, chickpeas to name but a few – and they LOVED it (sorry you can tell I’m a little over-excited). Even The Husband said it was ‘quite nice actually’. High praise indeed from someone who believes a meal without meat falls into the same category as soup, ie. does not constitute a ‘proper’ feed.

The secret? Shop-bought curry paste. I had never thought to use commercial curry pastes before because I am a snob I thought it to be a bit cheaty, but then Mr Oliver said it was fine to do so in his new five ingredient cookbook and who am I to argue? I now have a range of them in my cupboard and my curries have never been quicker nor (I’m loath to admit) better, so good in fact that no one seems bothered if none of the ingredients ever had a pulse. These pastes provide a depth of flavour that could only otherwise be achieved by hours of measuring, toasting, grinding, grating chopping, crushing and swearing* and because the good quality ones such as Patak’s contain zero nasties, there is no processed flavour to betray your lack of effort.

*Obviously no one needs to know that you haven’t spent hours doing this even though you have in fact been hiding in your kitchen with the iPad catching up on the latest episode of SAS: Who Dares Wins.

Sweet potato, cauliflower, chickpea and spinach curry

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Different pastes have different flavour profiles and levels of heat so give them a try and see which you prefer. I like to use tikka paste for smothering over chicken (à la Jamie) or root vegetables before roasting, the rogan josh obviously works well with lamb but also with Mediterranean veg and for this curry, I use madras because its heat works well with the sweetness of the potato (and also because the kids worry less about it not containing meat when their mouths are on fire).

I like to roast the sweet potato and cauliflower in the oven for 40 mins as this gives a better flavour and texture to the end dish, but if you can’t be fagged it won’t be the end of the world.

Yes those are bhajis in the picture (onion and cauliflower) but I am in the process of tweaking the recipe so will let you have this next time.

Serves 4-6

  • 1 heaped tbsp coconut oil plus extra if you choose to roast the potatoes and cauli first
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 thumb sized piece of ginger, peeled and finely chopped
  • 3-4 garlic cloves, finely chopped or crushed
  • 2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2cm cubes
  • 1/2 head of cauliflower broken into small florets
  • 400g tin of chickpeas, drained
  • 75g red lentils
  • 2 heaped tbsp Patak’s madras curry paste (not sauce)
  • 1 heaped tbsp tomato puree
  • 400g tin coconut milk + tinful of boiling water
  • 1 vegetable stock cube dissolved in above boiling water
  • 125g spinach (I used frozen)
  • squeeze of lemon juice, salt and chopped coriander to finish, maybe some toasted flaked almonds if you’re feeling fancy
  • mint yogurt to serve
  1. If you have the time and inclination, roast the sweet potato and cauliflower with a little salt in a couple of tablespoons of coconut (or veg) oil at 200ºC for around 40 mins until they start to caramelise.
  2. Heat the coconut oil in a large saucepan and gently fry the onion for about 10 minutes until translucent and softened. Add the ginger and garlic and cook for another minute.
  3. Add the curry and tomato pastes and cook while stirring for another couple of minutes, then add all the vegetables including the sweet potato and cauli, the coconut milk, water and stock. Bring to the boil and then reduce to a simmer for about 30 minutes. The lentils should have cooked down and thickened the sauce. If it’s too thick add a little more water.
  4. Add the spinach straight from the freezer – it will take about 5 minutes to defrost and heat through. Or stir through fresh spinach a minute or two before serving, until it is just wilted.
  5. Taste and season with salt and lemon juice, then sprinkle over a handful of chopped coriander.
  6. To make the mint yogurt, blend a handful of fresh mint leaves with 200g natural Greek yogurt (or use a dairy free alternative to keep things vegan), then stir in a squeeze of lemon, a pinch of salt and a pinch of caster sugar to taste.

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Seedy: Part Two

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So, having fought off this mystery flu-not-flu, now the 11yo has come down with the same – no surprise really given his insistence on sleeping in my bed while my husband was away despite my protestations otherwise. ‘Don’t blame me if you catch my bug,’ I warned and to be fair he hasn’t. He hasn’t really said very much at all, as he has lain prostrate on the sofa, bearing a striking resemblance to Murdoc from Gorillaz (if you haven’t a clue who I’m talking about click here) and, as I was 10 days ago, surviving on little else but bagels, crisps and shortbread.

It was when my food cravings switched from all the beige to all the rainbow that I knew I was on the mend. It’s like someone pressed the ‘re-nourish’ button in my brain. I now want all the fruit and all the veg. Bring on the beans and pulses and seeds, the butternuts and the nut butters. Move over white bread, there’s kale to be massaged (it’s a thing don’t you know?). Goodbye under-duvet Netflix binges, scoffing those cheese straws left over from Christmas and self-medicating with red wine, there’s alcohol free gin to be had (this too is a thing). Because – and I’m calling it now – February IS the new January.

On that note, here’s wholesome little breakfast bowl, which I am sure will divide you, but which is certain to appeal to those of you currently working on turning your body into a temple. Now, where’s my yoga mat?*

Seedy breakfast bowls

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I have to confess to not being a great fan of chia seeds and all their frog-spawny snottiness. However, when combined with a bunch of other seeds their texture becomes more palatable, pleasant even, although you may beg to differ.

I also confess that I stole this idea from Gail’s bakery, which sells pots of this for about a million quid each. The recipe isn’t in its cookbook so I had to make it up, but it’s pretty true to the original. The good news is that if you make it at home you can add and adjust flavours to your liking – and you won’t have to take out a second mortgage to afford it.

Serves 2-3 depending on appetite

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  • 40g chia seeds
  • 40g linseeds
  • 20g sesame seeds
  • 20g sunflower seeds
  • 40g dried cranberries (the original has raisins but I prefer the tang of cranberries)
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • 1 tsp vanilla bean paste or extract
  • 250ml almond or other milk
  • 1 tbsp maple syrup
  • juice of half a lemon
  • yogurt of your choice (I use Greek full fat), passion fruit and blueberries to serve
  1. Mix all the ingredients together, cover and refrigerate overnight (or for at least four hours). The mixture will keep well in the fridge for a few days.
  2. Portion up then top each with a dollop of yogurt, the seeds from half a passion fruit and a handful of blueberries. If you need more sweetness drizzle over more maple syrup.
  3. Om.

*I do not own one of these.

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Seedy

Boy, have I been feeling rough. Having dodged various seasonal flu bullets in December, I have been taken out by a pathetic, non-descript, yet persistent little bug; a bug that hasn’t quite decided what it wants to be when it grows up. So while I’ve had all the ache and lethargy of flu, I’ve had none of the snot, cough and splutter. I asked Dr Google what it could be, and he, helpfully, replied that it’s probably nothing but possibly viral meningitis. At which point, I stopped asking.

I suppose I should feel grateful that I’m missing the messy half of flu, but instead I just feel a bit of a fraud, albeit a very tired one. Needless to say, all this started at the beginning of last week coinciding perfectly with the kids’ return to school (and therefore the 6.30 a.m. starts) and the husband’s business trip to LA.

What I have found most irritating, aside from the throbbing head, the eyeballs that feel three times too big for their sockets and the need to sleep for 15 hours a day, is the fact that I haven’t lost my appetite. You would have thought that a bug at this time of year might be nature’s helping hand towards shifting those extra Christmas pounds (in my case, four to be precise), but no, I have been shovelling more crap into my face than I did in the entire month of December. ‘Beige’ and ‘stodgy’ are the two adjectives that would most accurately describe my recent diet. Pappy white bread, cheese and crisps have featured heavily (individually or all together in a sandwich with pickled onions – don’t judge) as have biscuits dunked in bottomless cups of tea. One evening, while the kids ate the chicken tinga I had prepared for my abandoned cookbook club’s Mexican night (more on this at a later date), I could only manage the cheesy tortillas – essentially I ate crisps for tea. On Friday, when we had a takeaway curry (because cooking is off the agenda), I ate little more than poppadoms – ditto.

The healthiest thing I have eaten by far is porridge. Lots of porridge. Some days for both lunch and dinner (I have slept through all breakfasts skulking straight back to bed as soon as the kids have left for school). So in want of anything better to write about, I thought I’d share with you a couple of my favourite ways with porridge, which make the humble oat, well, less beige and less stodgy.

Porridge two ways

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The seedy one

The first, here, is with lemon zest, vanilla and seeds. The lemon and vanilla lift the flavour out of dullsville and the seeds give it some bite.

Simply add a teaspoon of poppy seeds and two of linseeds per portion to your standard pan of porridge (I like using oatmeal rather than oats for the texture and almond milk in place of milk or water: I use a ratio of 1 part oats to 4 parts almond milk) along with a teaspoon of vanilla bean paste and the finely grated zest of half a lemon and a teaspoon or two of maple syrup. Top with a blob of Greek yogurt (coconut yogurt works well here too and would make this vegan if that is your wont), berries and an extra grating of zest. Drizzle over a bit more maple for extra sweetness.

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The second version sees a couple of chopped Medjool dates and a heaped tablespoon of cooked quinoa (I used red) added to the porridge as it cooks. I top this again with some Greek yogurt plus some caramelised apples and pecans. And some blueberries. You can probably tell I am partial to a blueberry or two on my breakfast.

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The caramelised apple and pecan one

To make the caramelised apples, fry one eating apple (I used Jazz) which you have peeled, cored and sliced into twelfths in about a tablespoon of butter until golden brown, then add a small handful of pecans and a tablespoon of brown sugar, half a teaspoon of cinnamon and a pinch of salt and continue to cook gently until the nuts and apples are coated in the caramel.

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Et voila. OK, so these may be a little bit on the beige side… but I promise they are not at all bland.

 

The freezer drawer of doom

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Because I am ever so slightly neurotic about waste, most of our leftovers end up in the freezer rather than the bin. This, however, is where the efficiency ends, because my fridge management skills leave A LOT to be desired.

My freezer is a cryo-dumping ground – a frosty equivalent to the Universal Drawer of Toot, the place where I hoard random stuff in the genuine belief that it will come in handy one day. Odd shoelaces, keys to doors that almost certainly no longer exist, several sizes of rawl plug, some crusty old lip balm. (Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. Every house has one.) Here’s mine:

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My freezer is the same. Here you will find (and I use the term loosely) heels of parmesan that I will never put in a minestrone because I never make minestrone, chicken carcasses that I will never bother turning into stock, crumble topping which I will only remember about at the point of blitzing a fresh batch and salmon trimmings which God only knows what I was thinking.

Nothing is labelled so it’s pot-luck as to what I pull out. There are cling-wrapped balls of brown stuff which could be either cookie dough or burger mix and tupperware pots of more brown stuff which could be chocolate sauce yet quite possibly, beef gravy. Just the other week I defrosted a couple of portions of chilli, a tub of cottage pie filling and a vat of pulled pork ragu, before finding the bolognese I was looking for. This meant a week of eating one plate after another of brown slow-cooked slop, because, you know, throwing stuff away is BAD. My kids were not amused.

And why is my freezer’s always full to burst, no matter what, it seems, I take out? It’s as if the remaining contents morph to fill any available space. On the occasions where I am stupid enough to order frozen stuff from Ocado, a full tetris-style reshuffle is required to fit it all in. I have to squeeze the air out of bags of peas, decant chicken pieces from their packaging into freezer bags (unlabelled of course) and God help me if I’ve ordered a tub or two of Haagen Daz.

Action is required. A ruthless freezer purge is in order. I am mentally preparing the family for more defrosted brown food so I can make room for, among other things, this delicious (and brown) sausage and lentil casserole I have batch cooked. It freezes beautifully, but be warned, once frozen, it looks remarkably similar to bolognese.

Sausage, lentil and red wine casserole

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This is a great way to use up leftover sausages and half bottles of red wine that are past their drinking best. Use meaty sausages with a strong flavour such as venison or beef or any of those fennel, chilli or garlic ones you find in Italian delis. Serve with creamy mash and a glass of red.

Serves 6

  • glug of olive oil
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 2 medium carrots, cut into 1cm cubes
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 150g Puy or brown lentils, rinsed
  • 1 tbsp tomato puree
  • 6-8 leftover strongly flavoured sausages (about 450g), chopped into 1 cm discs
  • 400g passata
  • 375ml red wine
  • 200ml chicken or beef stock (or water)
  • 2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
  • salt and pepper
  1. In a large pan or casserole, sweat the onions and carrot in the olive oil for about 10 minutes until the onions are soft and translucent. Add the garlic and bay leaves and cook for a further minute.
  2. Stir in the lentils and tomato puree and cook for a couple of minutes before adding the sausages, passata, red wine and stock.
  3. Bring to the boil for a minute then reduce to a simmer and cook for 30-40 minutes until the lentils are tender and the sauce has reduced and thickened. If the sauce is too thick, add a splash of water, or too thin, continue cooking until reduced to the desired consistency.
  4. Season to taste with salt and pepper and stir in half the parsley then sprinkle the rest on top before serving.

 

Roots ‘n’ rice

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Quick post today. This roasted root rice salad went down well with the extended family at this weekend’s annual fireworks shindig so I thought I’d share it with you here. It’s robust enough to serve as a vegetarian meal in its own right (or vegan if you omit the cheese), but is also great as a side to roast chicken, pork or indeed sausages. Use short grain brown rice to ensure a nubbly, chewy texture and serve at room temperature, not fridge cold. Autumn on a plate.

Roasted root rice salad with salsa verde

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Use whatever root vegetables you fancy (beetroot and fennel both work well) and substitute the sweet potato with squash if you prefer.

Serves 6+

  • 1.5 cups short grain wholegrain rice (I find using cups the easiest way of measuring the rice to liquid ratio – in the case of this rice use 3 parts rice to 4 parts liquid)
  • 2 cups salted water, or vegetable or chicken stock for extra flavour
  • 4 banana shallots, halved
  • 3 medium parsnips, peeled and chopped into rough 2cm chunks
  • 3 medium carrots, peeled and chopped as above
  • 2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped as above
  • 2 cloves of garlic, flattened under the blade of a knife
  • 2 sprigs of thyme
  • 1 tsp fennel seeds
  • 1 tsp Aleppo chilli flakes or a pinch of regular chilli flakes
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • chopped flat leaf parsley
  • salsa verde (recipe in previous post, click here)
  • goats or feta cheese
  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C (fan).
  2. Put the rice and the water/stock in a medium saucepan, bring to the boil, clamp on a lid, reduce the heat its lowest setting – a bare simmer – and cook for 40-45 minutes until all the liquid has been absorbed by the rice. Remove from heat and remove the lid, place a clean tea towel over pan and replace the lid. Leave to stand while the vegetables finish cooking.
  3. While the rice is cooking, prepare the vegetables and place in a large roasting tin (in one layer, otherwise use two tins) with the garlic, fennel, chilli, thyme, salt and pepper. Drizzle over a generous amount of olive oil and toss the vegetables to coat. Cook in the preheated oven for 45 minutes to one hour, tossing regularly, until cooked through and nicely caramelised.
  4. When the vegetables are cooked, remove the garlic and thyme sprigs from the tin, then toss in the cooked rice, scraping up any caramelised bits from the bottom and coating the rice in the flavoured oil. Taste and add a little more salt if needed.
  5. Before serving, stir in a handful of chopped flat leaf parsley, then dollop on blobs of salsa verde and scatter over the crumbled cheese.

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A big bowl of comfort

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I’ve had a short sabbatical, but now I’m back. It was only supposed to last the summer but then The 11yo started secondary school and all my good intentions to write more (and drink less) flew out the window along with a good portion of my sanity.

It’s been tough, for sure. Even though we’ve been through it all before with The Teen, like childbirth, I’d forgotten quite how traumatic the settling in process is. Anxious and disquieting for us, yes, but for him, absolutely bloody off-the-scale terrifying. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that he was sitting on a carpet trading nits with his chums having a story read to him by a kindly teacher who shared his love of pandas. Now he has 19 different lessons in 19 different classrooms with 19 different teachers, in a school that’s double the size with not a familiar face in sight. Jeez.

But in spite of a wobbly start, he is coping admirably. Until a few days ago, I would’ve said he had it nailed, but then he went and got his first ever detention (albeit only a two minute one – for forgetting his reading book in a library lesson (erm, come again?)) and the tears returned. Huge, round, unremitting tears. Tears that, although heart-breakingly silent, said, ‘I’m trying my best I really am, but I’m only little and I’m overwhelmed and I’m exhausted and I’m scared so please give me a fucking break.’ He didn’t say any of this of course. He just looked at me with big, sad eyes and said: ‘I really miss my old school.’

We all crave comfort food at this time of year, but for some of us, it’s not just owing to a change in the weather.

Chicken and barley broth with crème fraîche and salsa verde

Adapted from a veggie version in Caravan Dining All Day, this soup is a hug in a bowl. Don’t even think about missing out the crème fraîche and salsa verde – they transform the flavour from ‘meh’ to ‘yeah’. Best served with good bread, good any old wine and good company.

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Serves at least 6

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • knob of butter
  • 3 onions, finely chopped
  • 3 carrots, finely diced
  • 3 sticks of celery, finely diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, very finely chopped
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 4 sprigs thyme
  • 100g Puy lentils
  • 200g pearl barley
  • 2 litres chicken or veg stock
  • 1 large or 2 small cooked chicken breasts (I poached mine for about 10 mins)
  • zest of 1 lemon, finely grated
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • salt and pepper
  • crème fraîche
  • salsa verde (see below)
  1. Heat the oil and butter in a large saucepan and gently saute the the onions, carrots and celery for about 10 minutes, until softened.
  2. Add the garlic, bay leaves and thyme and cook for another 5 minutes.
  3. Stir in the lentils and barley then add the stock. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for about 30-40 minutes until the grains are tender.
  4. Tear up the chicken and add to the broth, stir in the mustard and lemon zest and season with plenty of salt and pepper.
  5. Serve in bowls with a generous dollop of crème fraîche and salsa verde on top.

Salsa verde

  • large handful of mint leaves, finely chopped
  • large handful of flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
  • small handful of tarragon, finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp capers, rinsed and finely chopped
  • 1/2 clove garlic, crushed or finely grated
  • 1 heaped tsp Dijon mustard
  • zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • good quality extra virgin olive oil
  • salt and pepper

Stir all the ingredients together in a bowl and add enough olive oil to give loose sauce consistency – about 50ml (add half the lemon juice first, taste, then add the rest if needed). Season to your liking.