Friday, 20 October 2017

Pastitsio - The Greek Lasagna

If you've never had the pleasure before, Pastitsio is often referred to as the 'Greek Lasagna' or 'Pasta Pie'. Instead of the thin lasagna sheets of the Italian variety, tubular pasta is used, and a thicker version of the bechamel sauce sits atop the finished dish. 

For me it evokes some fantastic memories of two summers, and countless holidays spent in Corfu in my twenties - great times, and the beginning of my love affair with Greek food, one of my favourite cuisines that I think is hugely underrated. What's more, this is a hearty, family classic, a crowd pleaser, and is devoured every time I cook it.

For my pastitsio I use the typically Greek method of thickening the bechamel sauce, adding a beaten egg once the sauce is off the heat, as well as Greek yoghurt, it just helps the sauce hold together more firmly once baked. I have used penne here, as I simply had some in the cupboard, but it also works with the more traditional bucatini or rigatoni - any tubular pasta.

Also I like to reduce the meat sauce right down by cooking for at least an hour and a half as a traditional Pastitsio is easily distinguishable by it's definite layers, rather that an oozing meat sauce moving into the layers below. I use a lot less pasta for a family sized Pastitsio than in a traditional dish too as it lightens it up hugely! 

Pastitsio

Pastitsio - Greek Lasagna


The below comfortably serves six.

Here's how:
  • 300g tubular pasta - I use penne 
  • 500g steak or beef mince
  • 1 white onion
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 3 large tomatoes
  • 250g passata 
  • 2 tbsp tomato puree
  • 1 tbsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp dried thyme
  • 1/2 glass of red wine
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • Pinch sea salt
  • Pinch black pepper
For the topping:
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 2 tbsp plain flour
  • 200ml milk
  • 1 tbsp creme fraiche
  • 2 tbsp Greek yoghurt (plain natural yoghurt will also be fine)
  • Bayleaf
  • 2 tsp black pepper
  • Pinch sea salt
  • 3 tsp nutmeg
  • 100g Reggiano Parmigiano or other hard cheese

First prepare the meat sauce. Begin by finely dicing and mincing the garlic and adding to a heavy bottomed pan with the olive oil to soften and flavour the oil.

Roughly chop the tomatoes and set aside for the minute. 

Once the onion and garlic is softened add the meat to the pan to brown off. You can season with salt and pepper at this point and also add the cinnamon. Use a wooden spatula to break up the meat as it cooks and avoid any clumps. 

Once browned, add the chopped tomatoes and cook for several minutes, then add the passata, tomato puree, red wine, oregano and thyme and mix well. Now leave to cook for at least an hour, or more if you have the time.

The meat sauce for pastitsio



To make the topping sauce, add the butter to a non-stick frying pan and place on a low-medium heat and allow to melt. Add the flour a bit at a time, and use a balloon whisk or just a wooden spoon to mix thoroughly, repeat until all of the flour is added and then slowly add the milk, in the same process, stirring and pressing the floury bits down, till it all becomes one. Once all the milk is added, add the bayleaf and the black pepper and grate over the nutmeg. Be really generous with the nutmeg this is an important, flavour, and with the egg and yoghurt that will be added later, this delicate flavour can get lost if you're too cautious.

Add the grated cheese, retaining just enough to scatter over the top, and stir through, until combined. The sauce should slowly thicken. Whilst still on the heat, stir through the creme fraiche until combined then take off the heat. The sauce should be thick and glossy at this stage. Now add the Greek yoghurt and stir through, which will bring the temperature of the sauce down. Finally beat the egg in a separate bowl and then stir this through the sauce, which will thicken it further. Now set aside while you cook the pasta.

Cook the pasta according to packet instructions and then drain and allow to cool for a few moments, until cool enough to handle. 

In the dish you'll be baking the Pastitsio, arrange one layer of pasta. It's traditional to have all the tubular shapes facing the same way and be in a pattern, as I have done with the penne here.

Layer one - pastitsio

Once that's done, spread over the meat sauce, make sure all the pasta is covered. 

Layer two - the meat sauce - pastitsio

On top of the meat sauce, add the final layer of pasta, again try to organise neatly, as it will hold together nicer when you serve. 

Once the meat topping is completely covered in pasta, pour over the thickened sauce, and use a knife or the back of a spoon to spread over all of the pasta shapes. 

Pastitsio

Add a final grating of nutmeg, scatter over the cheese and a season again. Leave for at least 30 minutes before baking, again, this just helps to hold the final shape.

Pastitsio

Place into a pre-heated oven at 180-200degrees and bake for 35 minutes or until the top is golden brown. Serve with a salad of your choice and enjoy!

Pastitsio

Some other favourite Greek recipes of mine:
Briam (Vegetable Stew)

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Healthy Chicken Shish Kebabs

I'm as guilty as anyone else of loving my takeaways, and I always think if we have a Turkish takeaway it's healthier than most - although probably not when we have the chips to go with it all! I've been having a go for the last couple of months at different versions of a homemade chicken shish kebab, and this is where we've landed with it. Our very own fake-away!

I always serve it as a platter for the family, as it's just fun; it looks great to look at, and we all love digging in and sharing off of the same platter. I do have to do some plainer chicken, not for the baby, who will literally devour the chicken on these kebabs, but for Bridget who says these are too spicy! They are very mild, but that is toddlers for you! Luckily she does eat everything else on the platter! 

The recipe here is just for the chicken shish, but I serve with toasted pitta, a tomato, red onion and cucumber salad (literally as simple as that with a drizzle of olive oil and sprinkling of black pepper), tzatziki, and either white rice, or couscous, or in this case, both! I'm obviously watching my calorie and carb intake, so couscous is a good option, but Bridget and Beatrice love their white rice, and Glen prefers it over couscous too! For my couscous, I use a basic one, and add parsley, mint, dill and chives plus some chopped up dried apricots - it's delicious with the chicken shish.

The below makes 5 healthy sized skewers and the trick is to marinate the chicken for as long as possible, if you can do overnight for the following evening meal, the chicken will be so flavourful and tender, it's well worth the wait. 

One final note - this is by no means an authentic Turkish recipe, it is in fact, an amalgamation of me trying tons of recipes and experimenting, and this is simply the one we've settled on as our favourite. 


Healthy Chicken Shish Kebabs

Here's how:

  • 3 large chicken breasts
  • 5 tbsp natural yoghurt
  • 1 large lemon
  • 2 tbsp tomato puree
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp paprika
  • 2 tsp cumin
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 2 tsp black pepper
  • 1 tsp garlic salt
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 2 tsp oregano
  • 1 red onion
  • 4 cloves garlic


Firstly open up the container you're using to marinate the meat, this can be a plastic container, a zip up bag, or you can use a large yoghurt container, as I have - I save these for such occasions! 

Pour in the olive oil, yoghurt and tomato puree. 

Now you need to grate the onion, and throw in the result, including the juicy pulp, into the marinade. 

Mince the garlic and add to the mix. Slice the lemon in half and then squeeze out as much of the juice as you can then throw the lemon halves into the marinade. 

Finally add all of the herbs and spices and give a really good stir. 

Now dice the chicken into decent sized chunks, this doesn't have to be exact, but try to get similarly sized pieces where possible. Throw all of the chicken into the marinade, and use a spoon to mix so all of the chicken is fully immersed in the yoghurt mix, then pop the lid on and place back into the fridge. 


Chicken Shish Marinade

Try to leave to marinade for at least four hours, but overnight is better. 

If using wooden skewers, soak these for an hour or so in water before cooking. 

To cook, simply load the marinated chicken pieces onto the skewer, pack them pretty tight together, and leave a good gap at either end of the skewers, and place under the grill for about five minutes, then turn and cook for a further five minutes. If you like a more charred chicken shish, increase the cooking time slightly. Before serving, just use a sharp knife and make an incision into one of the biggest pieces of chicken into the centre, to ensure the chicken is cooked through. If so, turn off the grill, and leave the chicken to rest for a few minutes, before serving.

Serve with your choice of accompaniments: pitta, rice, couscous, tzatziki, hummus, salad, chilli sauce, feta, halloumi - all will work a treat! If cooking for the family, do try and serve on a board to add a bit of theatre and fun to your evening meal, pile it high and let everyone dig in! Enjoy! 

Paprika Grilled Sea Bass with Creamy Saffron Peppers and Spinach

As you'll know, earlier this year I had my second child, another lovely little girl (Beatrice). I gained around 3 stone during pregnancy and managed to shift two stone of that pretty sharpish, the last stone, is being a little more stubborn. I lose a few pounds, and then being the foodie that I am, will indulge with a few nice meals, a meal out, a bottle of my favourite Malbec, and I'm back at that 1 stone over where I want to be. This has been going on for a couple of months now, so I've decided to try to overhaul my (and Glen's) lifestyle somewhat, and for the past 8 days have been adhering to The Body Coach or Joe Wick's philosophy. This is largely making smarter and healthier choices with food, cutting out the alcohol as much as possible, and most importantly introducing exercise, 4-5 sessions a week. I managed it last week, and am on track this week - I'm also a couple of pounds lighter, so will be attempting to stick to this and see where we land after 30 days, before I make a decision as to whether to continue. 

Joe's mantra is that you have to 'work for your carbs', so aside from if you've just carried out an intensive HIIT workout, the idea is to have 'reduced carb' meals. We've tried a selection of Joe's fantastic recipes, and certainly have our favourites, but me being the cook I am, I can't follow recipes continually, I like to get creative myself, and this dish was born off the back of that. We've had several Lean in 15 sea bass dishes, and I came up with this dish as I had a glut of peppers in the fridge.

It's a lovely light dish, takes no time to prepare and the sauce is rich and creamy, but low calorie. The below is for two adults, and a single portion comes in at around 500 calories.

Paprika Grilled Sea Bass with Creamy Saffron Peppers and Spinach

Here's how:

  • x4 sea bass fillets
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1 tsp garlic salt
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • Drizzle olive oil
  • 1 red pepper
  • 1 green pepper
  • 1 red chilli
  • 1 spring onion
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 2 tbsp reduced fat creme fraiche
  • Few strands of saffron steeped in hot water
  • 2 handfuls spinach


First drizzle a tiny bit of olive oil into a frying pan and pop onto a low heat to warm up, while you prepare your vegetables. 

Slice the spring onion, garlic and chilli and place into the pan to flavour the oil and the pan. Whilst they are sauteeing, slice the peppers and throw into the pan also. 

Rip off a sheet of tin foil and cover the grill tray, so no fish sticks to the grates. Now in a small bowl, add the paprika, garlic salt and black pepper and mix. Take each sea bass fillet flesh side up, and drizzle with a tiny bit of olive oil, then scatter over some of the spiced salt mix. Now place each fillet flesh side down onto the foil-covered-grill, and scatter the remaining spice mix over the top. Place the grill onto a medium heat and cook for seven minutes. (You may need to adjust this if you have particularly small fillets to avoid over-cooking). 

While the fish is cooking, the peppers should have softened a bit. Throw in the steeped saffron strands, including the water you steeped them in and allow to cook off for 30 seconds. Now add the creme fraiche and allow to cook down. 

Finally as the fish is almost cooked, add the spinach and just allow it to wilt in the peppers and sauce. Use a wooden spoon to move around, as it shouldn't take too much for the leaves to wilt. 

You'll know the fish is ready once the skin is crispy (the salt will help to make a beautiful crispy skin), and the flesh is a pure white colour, rather than opaque. Serve the fish fillets on top of the peppers. Enjoy!

Monday, 16 October 2017

Easy Chocolate Halloween Biscuits - Cooking with Kids

These biscuits are super simple to make, a fun activity for half term next week in the lead up to Halloween or for any spooky gathering. 

I grabbed a pack of cookie cutters from Poundstretchers which had shapes such as bats, Frankenstein's Monster faces, gravestones, pumpkins and cats, but you could apple the same method to any biscuit. If you only have round cooking cutters, just ice and then write 'RIP' on them or grab some of the Haribo sweeties like I have in the pictures with things such as spiders, bones, skeletons and the like and apply them. The main thing is that this is a really fun thing to do for Halloween with the children.

Bridget absolutely loves cooking and particularly baking anything sweet - this was the first time Beatrice (8 months) got involved in baking too, and enjoyed a little mix with the big spoon plus trying to scoop out the raw biscuit mixture! 

Easy Chocolate Halloween Biscuits

Here's how:

  • 125g butter
  • 110g caster sugar
  • 250g plain flour
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 tbsp cocoa powder
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tbsp milk
  • Flour to dust the worktop and rolling pin

To ice:

  • 3 tbsp icing sugar
  • Few drops of water
  • Food colouring (I just used red to make orange for the pumpkins)
  • Red icing pen
  • Selection of spooky sweeties (I used Haribo)


Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees, then grease and line the baking trays with parchment paper and set aside.

In a large bowl, beat the egg, butter and sugar together with the vanilla extract until combined. Slowly sift in the flour and cocoa, stirring through as you go. Add the milk if the mixture is a little dry. Once satisfied with the dough, cover with cling film and place into the fridge for 20-30 minutes.

Remove biscuit dough from the fridge. Lightly dust your worktop space with flour, and rub flour up and down your rolling pin, then use your hands to pull off a small section at a time, and roll out into a thin dough, about 1cm thick. If it's too thin, it'll be very difficult to handle, unless your a very deft baker!

Now use your cookie cutter, to cut out the shapes that you wish to use, and place each shape onto the baking shape. They can be placed close together, but not touching. They shouldn't expand too much in the oven.

Repeat the process until all the dough has been used and the shapes placed onto the baking sheets. Now place into the hot oven and bake for 12-15 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to completely cool on the baking sheets before moving.

To ice, you can do so however you wish, and decorate in any manner, we used jelly lips, teeth and fangs for the mouths of the bats and Frankensteins, raisins for eyes, I cut up a dried apricot for the ghost mouths, and once iced, we used spiders, bones and skeleton jellies to make the biscuits as spooky as possible. We wrote RIP on the gravestones in a red icing pen.

To make up relevant icing, you want it quite thick, so take 3 tbsp icing sugar, and just a drop or two of cold water, and stir through, you want it runny enough to pour or brush onto the biscuits, but thick enough to not set 'watery' or opaque. We just used simple plain icing sugar for most of the icing, then added a little drop of red food colouring to make an orange hued icing for the pumpkins. 

Experiment though, and most importantly let the kids enjoy this activity - it doesn't matter if the biscuits are the most beautifully decorated, it only matters that you all enjoyed making them together!

Beatrice's first baking experience
If you're having a Halloween get together or tea party, or just doing a fun and spooky dinner for the kids on 31st October, these easy peasy Mummified Sausage Rolls are a winner too.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Weaning Mashed Banana and Oat All-In-One Pancakes

These are a super quick pancake, filled with slow release energy from porridge oats and banana. Perfect for a baby led weaning breakfast, brunch or even lunch - they are super easy to hold and go down a treat with both my 7-month old and my (nearly) 3 year old. Finger foods never seem to go out of fashion the older my daughter Bridget gets. 

I adopt the 'all-in-one' method to most of the ingredients using a 'half a cup' measuring utensil so you get a perfectly close texture each time. They are a 'heavy' and filling pancake so don't dissolve in baby's hand either.

One banana mashed into the batter works well but you could just as easily use blueberries or strawberries. 

The below makes enough for two little ones plus a parent-sized portion, or you can wrap up and pop in the fridge for the following morning.



Weaning Mashed Banana and Oat All-in-One Pancakes

Here's how:

  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup full fat milk
  • 1/2 cup plain flour
  • 1/2 cup porridge oats
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 banana 
  • Little drizzle vegetable oil

Add a little drizzle of vegetable oil into a pan and place on a low heat. 

Into a mixing bowl, crack two large eggs, and add the 1/2 cup full of flour, oats and milk. Stir well with a fork until you gave a thick batter. 

Now drop in the banana and mash into the batter with the vanilla and stir well. 

Use a tablespoon to drop in several spoonfuls of the batter into the now hot-pan, ensuring they are spaced out enough not to combine in the pan. 

Allow to cook for 3-4 minutes and then flip, they should be golden brown, and cook for the same time on the other side. 

Serve with some fruit fingers. Enjoy!


Here are a few other pancake and other breakfast-bite recipes/ideas that are great for the weaning stage:

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Mini Weaning Banana and Oat Breakfast Muffins

These are such a fantastic finger food for babies and toddlers in the weaning stage and I've experimented with a few varieties for both taste, texture and popularity amongst my two girls. These are definite winners. 

The original inspiration was from the 'queen of wean'; Annabel Karmel's, Banana Muffins, but I have played around with the ingredients, quantities, and also added natural yoghurt and energy-giving porridge oats, and am satisfied these are slightly less crumbly (and messy) than her fantastic version. These also work with peach puree and these go down well too!

I've also given ingredient quantities in tablespoon measurements here, because I do appreciate that not everyone jumps up at the crack of dawn, wanting to make muffins and the effort of measuring out and getting out scales might be off-putting. Not so with these, they take less than ten minutes to prepare and 12 minutes in the oven, plus cooling time. Win, win.

These freeze well, but frankly if you have more than one child and another adult in the house, keep them in an airtight container for up to three days - they won't last that long!

The below makes 18 mini muffins. 

Mini Weaning Banana and Oat Breakfast Muffins


Here's how:

  • 1 banana
  • 2 tbsp brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 4 tbsp wholemeal flour
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp porridge oats
  • 2 tbsp natural yoghurt (full fat)
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp bicarb
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract


Firstly pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees and line a baking tray with mini muffin or cupcake cases. 

Peel and mash the banana well in a small bowl and set aside.

In a mixing bowl whisk the egg and sugar together and then add the oil, vanilla extract and yoghurt and mix well. 

Now sift in the wholemeal flour and add the bicarb, cinnamon and porridge oats and stir again till all is combined.

Spoon the mixture into the muffin cases to about even level, about a heaped teaspoon into each is perfect for small bites.

Place into the oven on the middle shelf and bake for 12 minutes or until the tops are golden brown and a cocktail stick goes in and comes out clean.

Mini Weaning Banana and Oat Breakfast Muffins

Set aside and leave to cool for at least five minutes before serving. Enjoy! 
Mini Weaning Banana and Oat Breakfast Muffins



Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Turkey and Charred Vegetable Ragu Pasta Bake

This is another super simple pasta bake recipe perfect for a quick mid-week meal - ideal for working parents or those who's little ones have gone back to school this week. 

For me this is a cheat pasta sauce too - I was making my Thomasina  Mier's Fruity Chilli for me and Glen this evening, which is a little too spicy for the girls, and basically made extra for the basis of the sauce which is a load of charred vegetables - tomatoes, onion, peppers and garlic blitzed to a fine sauce and added a little here and there to jazz it up. It went down an absolute treat with both of my girls this evening. We've started having turkey mince a lot too instead of our usual steak or pork, as it's leaner, cheaper and we genuinely like the taste, 

I added a carrot into the blitzing stage of the sauce too, which will add a little sweetness and a little extra vegetable too which is completely disguised! It's a great toddler meal but also good for the weaning stage - you could of course blitz it up or if you're following the baby led weaning route, it's a great finger food as the fusilli is easy to hold, and just spoon-feed or offer loaded spoons with the remaining meat and sauce mixture.

Turkey and Charred Vegetable Ragu Pasta Bake


The below is enough for 3 toddler meals.

Here's how:

  • 60g turkey mince
  • 2 tomatoes
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 red or green pepper
  • 1 carrot
  • Drizzle olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 1 tbsp tomato puree
  • 2 tbsp water
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 4 close cup mushrooms
  • 75g fusilli 
  • Little grating of hard cheese such as Cheddar


Firstly switch the oven onto 200 degrees, and cut the tomatoes and pepper in half, and peel and quarter the onion, and peel the garlic. Drizzle over a little olive oil, and scatter over some dried oregano.Place all into a baking tray or dish and into the oven for 20 minutes or until nicely charred on the outside, remove from the oven and allow to cool.

Now cook the pasta according to the pack instructions, and drain and set aside.

In the meantime, drizzle the olive oil into a pan, and place on a medium heat. Cook the turkey mince in the oil, and season with black pepper. Use a wooden spatula to turn the mince over and cook all over.

Finely chop the mushroom at this stage - my Bridget 'doesn't like mushrooms' when she can see them, but miraculously eats them all up when they're not visible. 

Now place the charred vegetables into a blender or a Nutribullet  alongside the peeled carrot and blitz - depending on your blender you may need to chop or grate your carrot, I just threw mine into the Nutribullet. Pour this sauce over the turkey mince and add the water, cinnamon and a little more oregano. Allow to cook for twenty minutes on a medium heat to allow the spice to cook out.

Now add the pasta to the sauce mixture and stir well to ensure all is evenly coated. Pour the pasta into an ovenproof dish and scatter over the cheese before placing into the hot oven. Allow to cook for twenty minutes until the cheese is melted and there is a golden brown colour. Enjoy!