Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Polenta of Ideas to Try

Have you cooked with Polenta before? I only started using it just over a year ago when I first made Polenta chips for my son. I found the recipe in the River Cottage Baby and Toddler cookbook. I really recommend this book if you are looking for some interesting recipes ideas for young children.  The recipe involves mixing the Polenta granules with stock and boiling for 5 minutes until it is a thick pulp. You then add parmesan cheese (polenta on its own is quite bland and so it needs flavour added to it). You spread the thick mush out on a slab (I use a granite tile) and when cool cut into chips and bake until golden. My son loved them.I often make a big batch which I freeze and serve alongside his main meal or for tea with a tomato sauce. 

Polenta originates from Italy and is a coarse yellow cornmeal which can be cooked and served in a variety of ways. Often it is served as a thick mush alongside a ragout or stew instead of pasta or rice. It was originally the food of peasants but nowadays is served in homes and restaurants throughout Italy. You can buy it in supermarkets in dried granule form or prepared slabs.  

Polenta makes a really good coating for chicken and fish. I first tried a recipe where you mix polenta with cajun spice and use it to coat a chicken breast. This is then baked in the oven and served with a red pepper sauce. The polenta really sealed the juices in and this made the chicken very moist with a nice crispy coating. I have also tried coating a salmon fillet with polenta and it was just as tender as the chicken. Salmon has a good flavour so you can use plain polenta. I think polenta makes a good alternative to coating with breadcrumbs and it's good for people who need to avoid wheat.

It's surprising, but polenta is also used in cakes. I made a lighter lemon drizzle cake which was very moist. 

Polenta Crusted Chicken or Salmon
Serves 4

4 skinless chicken breasts or salmon fillets
2 tbsp cajun spice (optional for salmon)
4 tbsp polenta
1/2 teaspoon olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and sliced
3 peppers cored de-seeded and sliced
pinch of sugar
1 garlic clove peeled and crushed
1/4 pint of vegetable stock
150g tin chopped tomatoes
ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 200C/Gas mark 6
Toss the polenta with the cajun spice (if using) and spread out on a plate
Toss the chicken or salmon in the polenta to coat evenly, pressing with your fingertips to ensure it sticks
Transfer to a roasting tin and cook chicken for 30-35 mins or salmon for 15-20 minutes
Meanwhile heat the olive oil in a small saucepan
Add the onions and peppers,cover with a damp piece of greaseproof paper and put the lid on the pan
Cook gently for 15 minutes
Stir in the garlic, sugar,stock and tomatoes
Cover again and cook for 10 more minutes
Cool slightly then whizz in a blender until smooth
Season with pepper to taste 
Serve with the chicken or salmon, roasted new potatoes and steamed veg

Polenta chips
3-4 adult servings or 7-8 toddler servings

100g polenta
500ml chicken or vegetable stock
25g parmesan finely grated

Put the polenta in a small pan and gradually pour in the stock, whisking all the time so that lumps do not form
Place over a medium heat and bring slowly to the boil, whisking frequently
When it comes to the boil it will start spluttering, let it do so for about 5 minutes, and continue to stir so it doesn't stick to the pan
Remove from the heat and stir in the parmesan
Pour onto a large cold plate or marble slab. I like to use a large granite tile
Spread out evenly to about 1.5cm thick and leave to cool
Cut into chips
Place on a  greased baking sheet and cook at 190c/Gas 5 for 20-25 minutes until crisp and golden 

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Lovin' Those Summer Fruits

Last weekend we went for a cycle ride as a family and stopped off at Starbucks for a coffee on the way home. As they didn't have any fruit for my two year old son  I ended up buying a berry yogurt muesli  which he really enjoyed. I tried some for myself and it was delicious. It set me thinking about recreating it at home. I have made bircher muesli a few times for breakfast. The main ingredients are oats, yogurt  and honey (I like to use Greek yogurt). To the basic mix you can then add other ingredients of your choice, nuts (I liked flaked almonds), seeds, dried fruit, grated apple, and a little orange juice, apple juice or milk to loosen the mix. I find it is best made the night before and then left overnight so the fruits plump up and the oats have absorbed the yogurt. For the berry bircher variety to the Greek yogurt and oats I then added a berry compote. I made this by simmering 100g frozen summer fruits with a tablespoon of castor sugar. When cool I added this to the mix along with flaked almonds, sultanas, milk and a little honey. In the morning I topped it with fresh blueberries and strawberries. It was very good. My son obviously thought so too as he ate his portion very quickly and then shouted 'more mummy'!

Berry Bircher Muesli
Serves 2 

100g frozen summer fruits
1 tbsp castor sugar
25g porridge oats
150g greek yogurt
3 tbsp milk
1 tbsp sultanas
2 tsp flaked almonds
1/2 tbsp honey (optional, depending on how sweet you want it to be)

Put the summer fruits and sugar into a small saucepan and stir over a gentle heat until the sugar has dissolved. Bring to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes
Remove from the heat and leave to cool
Put the oats into a bowl and stir in the greek yogurt
Add the milk, honey and berry compote
Mix in the nuts and raisins
Put the mixture into two ramekin dishes or small glasses
Cover and place in the fridge overnight
Serve with fresh fruit.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

East meets West with my Chicken Korma Pie

This weekend I created a new recipe, Chicken Korma Pie. It was an idea my husband suggested when I had some chicken breasts to use for tea and couldn't decide whether to make a curry or a pie. 'Why don't you combine the two ideas?' he said. That set me thinking and I decided to give it a go. We enjoy spicy food in our house. I have a variety of Indian, Thai and Japanese curries that I cook. We wouldn't normally eat pies as they aren't the healthiest of meals. They are quite high in calories and saturated fat, mainly due to the pastry, high meat content and heavy sauces. However it was whilst reading a recipe in the March edition of the Healthy Food Guide Magazine that I discovered a healthier variation on the traditional pie that changed my thinking. In the recipe they used slightly less meat and bulked it out with some veg. The sauce was lighter than the traditional roux (butter, flour and milk) or a rich gravy and instead uses stock and reduced fat sour cream. The full fat pastry was replaced with reduced fat puff pastry which has 30% less fat. If served simply with steamed veg such as carrots and greens it would provide a meal that is filling, delicious and much lower in saturated fat than a traditional pie. 

This pies filling is a healthier take on chicken Korma which can be quite high in calories as the sauce is often made with a lot of oil and cream. I have a lighter version which uses natural yogurt, coconut milk and a small amount of ground almonds. I was worried that if I used these ingredients in a pie that would be cooked in the oven that the yogurt and coconut milk would curdle. So I decided to use half fat creme fraiche in the sauce instead. I added flaked almonds and sultanas as well to give some more texture to the sauce. The finished result was served with steamed carrots and courgettes and was really tasty. Most people would say there are no new ideas under the sun. Perhaps there aren't but often the best ideas combine things in a way that hasn't been thought of before. Let me know your view if you try this recipe.
Chicken Korma Pie
Serves 4
1 onion peeled and finely chopped
1 garlic clove peeled and finely chopped
500g chicken breast or thigh cut into chunks
2 tsp garam masala
1 tsp turmeric
250ml chicken stock
2tbsp  half fat creme fraiche
2 tbsp sultanas
1 tbsp flaked almonds
350g reduced fat puff pastry

Preheat the oven to 200C
Heat a tsp vegetable oil in a medium frying pan
Add the onion, reduce the heat to low and cook for 5-10 minutes until  the onion is softened
Add the chicken and cook until golden
Add the spices and garlic and stir until the chicken is coated in the spices
Add the stock and bring to the boil, then reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 15 minutes
Remove from the heat and stir in the creme fraiche, sultanas and flaked almonds
Season with salt and pepper
Pour into a medium pie dish and cover with the puff pastry. Make sure the edges are properly sealed to stop the filling escaping
Cut a slit in the middle of the pie to allow steam to escape and stop the pastry going soggy
Cook for 25-30 minutes until the pie is puffed and golden
Serve with steamed vegtables

Friday, 12 April 2013

How to make a Sandwich Filling

Since we have been married I have been making my husband a packed lunch to take to work. He works as a builder and as his job is quite physical he needs a filling lunch that is packed full of energy and keeps him satisfied all day long. I like to keep it as varied as possible with different sandwich fillings, fruits and home made muffins and cakes. I also like to make sure it is healthy, a good source of protein, unrefined carbohydrates and 3 of his 5 fruit and veg a day. . When I first knew him he made his own lunch. It was good in that it contained some fruit (usually a banana) and wholemeal bread for his sandwiches, but it also contained quite a lot of saturated fat, sugar and refined carbohydrates. This took the form of a sausage roll, shop bought cakes and a chocolate biscuit.  Most days he had ham in his sandwiches. Over the past few years I have made a few subtle changes which are still delicious but healthier too.
A typical days lunch normally contains the following:

  • 2 wraps or rolls. These are normally wholemeal, as they are a good source of unrefined carbohydrates. This means they are digested more slowly than white bread and help keep energy levels stable. Rolls or wraps are also a good source of fibre. Warburton do some nice square wraps which I find are easier to fill and roll.
  • A packet of wholegrain crisps or savoury rice cakes. These are lower in fat and salt than standard crisps.
  • Banana
  • Grapes
  • Apple, pear or orange
  • Home made flapjack
  • Home made muffin, carrot cake or date and walnut loaf 

I like to keep the sandwich fillings as varied as possible throughout the week with meat (lean ham or chicken), fish (tuna, tinned sardines and mackerel) and egg. I also like to include some salad too as this not only makes them more filling but also counts as one of your five a day. Two of my favourite fillings are mackerel pate and curried egg. The mackerel pate is a good source of oily fish, which Government guidelines recommend we should have 1 portion of each week. I use the cooked peppered mackerel fillets which are then blended with cottage cheese and lemon juice. It keeps in the fridge for a couple of days and as well as being a good sandwich filling is also good on toast or as a dip with cucumber sticks. My two year old really enjoys it for tea on a toasted savoury white muffin.

The curried egg filling is one adapted from the River Veg Everyday Cookbook. Eggs are a great source of protein, and are also known to increase satiety levels by keeping you feeling fuller for longer. Hard boiled eggs are mixed with mayonnaise (I like Hellmans light), curry powder, sultanas and spring onions. Sometimes I spread a bit of mango chutney on the roll or wrap.

Mackerel Pate
2 cooked peppered mackerel fillets, skin removed and broken into small pieces
4 tbsp cottage cheese
1 tbsp lemon juice

Place the mackerel, cottage cheese and lemon juice in a small blender and blend until smooth. Add more lemon juice to taste. Spread on rolls and wraps adding some cucumber, tomato and rocket.

Curried Egg
1 hard boiled egg
1 tbsp light mayonnaise
1/2 teaspoon curry powder
few raisins or sultanas
1/2 spring onion finely chopped
Rocket and mango chutney

Chop the hard boiled egg
Mix with the mayonnaise,curry powder, raisins and spring onion
Season with pepper and salt and add a little more mayonnaise if required
Spread on rolls or wraps. top with some rocket and a dollop of mango chutney (if desired)

There you have it a healthy, delicious, filling lunch fit for a builder or a King!

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Don't Forget Your Pulse !

This week I read an interesting article on Protein. It said many of us are not getting the recommended daily amount in our diet. It should make up a third of our daily intake of food and is essential for the production of muscle tissue. As we age it actually becomes even more important as our muscle tissue deceases. Muscle mass peaks in our 20's and then starts to decrease. At first it is by 0.5% a year, but after we reach 50 it declines by 1% a year. This makes it even more important that we are eating sufficient protein on a daily basis, especially as it cannot be stored by the body. Any protein not converted to muscle or used by the body in metabolic processes will be excreted as waste. When I think of protein, I immediately think of meat or fish, but it is found in a variety of other foods - eggs, tofu, soya products, milk, dairy, nuts, seeds and also pulses. I enjoy using pulses quite a lot in my cooking. They are a really versatile ingredient that can be used in soups, stews and casseroles. They thicken and add bulk to dishes and enhance flavour. They are also cheap, filling, count as one of your five a day and are a good source of fibre. Pulses come in many forms- red and green lentils, chickpeas and a variety of beans (including, butter, kidney, borlotti and cannelini). To be honest I didn't really use to cook with pulses that much. I thought that they were quite boring and bland and just a food for vegetarians in order to get their protein intake. I have since changed my mind and now use a wide variety in my cooking, I enjoy using red lentils in a couple of  different soup recipes. I also put them in a chicken and lentil curry that is made in the slow cooker. Since I have started getting into vegetarian cooking I have experimented with pulses a lot more . There are lots of good curry recipes that use chickpeas, and this week I made a squash and red lentil curry and I am going to try squash and lentil pasties. 

So if you want to get fit or build muscle make sure you get your hands or at least finger on some pulses !

Chicken and lentil curry.

Serves 4

75g of red lentils
2tbsp curry powder
2 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp cumin seeds
350ml of chicken stock
8 skinless, boneless chicken thighs
200g fresh spinach
1 tbsp chopped fresh coriander

Place the lentils in a sieve and rinse under cold water
Drain well then put them in the slow cooker
Add the curry powder, ground coriander, cumin seeds and stock
Cover and cook on a low heat for 2 hours.
Add the chicken to the lentil mixture, stir to cover the chicken in the spices
Cover and cook on low for 2.5 hours
Stir in the fresh spinach and cook for a furthur 30 minutes
Season with salt and pepper and stir in the fresh coriander
Serve with basmati rice and veg

Carrot and Lentil soup

1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 celery stick chopped
1 garlic clove peeled and finely chopped
4 large carrots peeled and thinly sliced
75g red lentils
600ml of fresh chicken or vegetable stock
Freshly ground black pepper

 Heat a tsp of vegetable or olive oil in a large pan over a medium heat
Add the onion, garlic, celery and carrots, stir, cover, reduce the heat to low and sweat for 10-15 minutes until softened
Add the lentils and stock and stir to combine
Bring to the boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 15-20 minutes until the vegetables are tender. 
Add more water or stock if required
Season to taste with black pepper.

Friday, 5 April 2013

I think I'm Turning Japanese !!

Today I made a delicious Japanese soup for lunch. It is from the Yo Sushi cookbook that I was given for my last birthday. I first started getting into Japanese cooking about a year ago when my husband and I learnt how to make Sushi at an evening class run by our local Adult Education Centre. It was an offer we found on Groupon and was great fun. It inspired me to explore Japanese cookery further  The Yo Sushi book has many different recipes. As well as teaching the art of sushi making it also has some some delicious curries and soups. Japanese food is a combination of sweet and salty flavours. It is not as spicy as Thai or Indian but a delicate blend of ingredients like soy sauce, mirin, Chinese rice vinegar and teriyaki. Dishes are simple to prepare and most do not take longer than 15 minutes to cook. The soup I made today is called Farmers Miso and it's hearty and filling. It is a tomato based soup with cannelini beans, bacon, and cabbage. What makes it so special is the Japanese miso paste that you add at the end. Miso paste is a ready made dark chocolate coloured paste that is a combination of soy beans and brown rice that are puréed together. You can buy it in Waitrose or Sainsburys. It really transforms the flavour from what seems like a basic minestrone to a soup bursting with flavour. Today instead of using cabbage I added some curly kale that we have enjoyed from our garden over the winter. At other times I have used fine green beans or broccoli. Experiment with different vegetable combinations and if you are vegetarian omit the bacon and use mushrooms instead. Enjoy!

Farmers Miso Soup

Serves 4-6

1 tsp vegetable oil
1/2 onion finely chopped
2 rashers of back bacon finely chopped (or 4 rashers of pancetta) or 50g mushrooms for vegetarian option
4 leaves of savoy cabbage, hard stem removed finely chopped (or broccoli, kale, fine green beans or courgette)
400g can tin tomatoes
150g cannelini beans from a can, drained and rinsed
600ml (1 pint) boiling water
2tbsp tomato puree
4tbsp chocolate coloured miso paste
ground black pepper

Heat the oil in a large saucepan. 
Add the onion and cook on a low heat until softened and golden
Turn the heat up to medium and add the bacon. Fry until crisp
Add the cabbage, tomatoes, beans and water
Bring up to the boil, reduce the heat, cover with a lid and simmer for 10 minutes
Mix the tomato puree and miso paste together in a small bowl.
Add a ladleful of liquid to the paste and mix together
Pour the mixture into the soup and bring slowly back up to just under boiling point
Season to taste with black pepper 

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Healthy - At What Price?

I have really noticed how much my weekly food shop has gone up in the last few years. Recently I have been looking at this in a bit more detail and trying to see if there are any ways I can cut the cost. I admit we do spend a lot on food as a family. I like cooking and trying new recipes and this can involve buying different ingredients. However I also make all our meals from scratch and so this can be cheaper too. For example it is much cheaper to make a chilli or spaghetti bolognese from scratch using mince, onion, garlic, kidney beans and tin tomatoes than a ready made meal or even using a ready made sauce. I like to buy organic where I can. We always have organic milk and organic vegetables. This is because the vegetables are not sprayed with pesticides and chemicals and the cows are fed mainly on grass rather than on processed food. We do find as a family that the organic veg tastes better. Research also shows that organic milk contains less of the unhealthy saturated fats and more of the healthy omega 3 chain fatty acids. I do my weekly food shop online (with Ocado) and find that it is easier to plan my meals around their special offers.  I also take advantage of bulk buying, such as multi packs of tin tomatoes or baked beans. I like to buy special items such as sirloin or tuna steak when they are on offer and put them in the freezer for a treat at the weekend. I have been trying out more 'own brand' foods. Most supermarkets these days do their own 'no frills' value range which is considerably cheaper than the brands. I have found that bread, tin tomatoes, cream cheese, cereals and natural yogurt really don't taste any different than the branded versions, which is a good way of saving money. I have found that some branded versions are best. Heinz don't make beans for anyone else. The shops own brands beans seemed to be lower in quality and taste. I have found the branded Tilda rice to be less starchy and much easier to cook with. 

So is eating healthily expensive? Can you still eat good quality, healthy food on a budget? I think the answer is yes. It just requires a bit more thought, planning and determination to make it work. There are lots of healthy foods that are not too expensive. These include oats, bananas, rice, pasta, potatoes, baked beans, tinned fish and pulses. Making meals from scratch means that you can bulk out meat curries or stews with less expensive items including lentils, veg or chickpeas. Or you could consider having a vegetarian meal once a week and save money on meat and fish. Buying seasonal fruit and vegetables also helps. Taking sandwiches to work or home made soup is much cheaper than buying lunch out or from the canteen.

This week we are having mackerel risotto for dinner one evening. The Government guidelines recommend we eat two portions of fish a week, one of which should be oily such as salmon, mackerel, sardines or fresh tuna. Salmon fillets can be expensive at about £5 for two fillets. Mackerel is a lot cheaper. I buy the cooked peppered mackerel fillets. These are about £2.50 for four fillets, which if used in the risotto would serve a family of four. The other ingredients (onion, risotto rice, peas and spring onion) are all well priced. 

Mackerel Risotto

Serves 4

1 onion peeled and finely chopped
300g risotto rice
2 pints of fish or vegetable stock
240g cooked mackerel fillets (I like the peppered ones) skin removed and  fillets cut into small pieces
100g frozen peas, defrosted (100g of spinach can also be added)
salt and pepper to taste
4 spring onions finely chopped
1 lemon

Heat a tsp of vegetable or olive oil in a large shallow pan
Add the onion and cook over a medium heat until softened and golden
Add the risotto rice and stir
Add a ladle of boiling stock and stir to combine
Bring to the boil then reduce the heat and simmer, stirring frequently
When the stock has reduced, add another ladle until all the stock has been used up and the rice is tender. (I find it best to keep the stock in a pan on the hob at a gentle simmer)
Stir in the peas, mackerel fillets, spinach (if using) and spring onions. 
Season to taste with salt and pepper
Serve with lemon wedges and greens or a rocket salad