Lasagne

Lasagne

There can be no better comfort food than a meaty, tomatoey and cheesy lasagne. The tasty sauce and the oozy golden cheese on top is something that induces serious day dreaming. I used to shy away from making lasagne because of past failed attempts, the copious amount of steps/pans/sauces one had to make and the seemingly endless cooking of the dish. My cravings, however, soon drove me into the kitchen and I surprised myself by how easy it was. I’m not saying that there are any fewer steps these days, but this dish seemed a little less arduous and a lot more rewarding.

As simple as the recipe is, I was recently served a disastrous excuse of a lasagne at an Italian restaurant. With about 15 sheets of pasta and only cheese between them (a horrible tomato sauce poured over this abomination) I vowed to never order the dish again! I’m sure my recipe is not authentic in any sense of the word, but it is delicious and it is extremely good value for money, making 8 generous serves. I try to use an equal quality of meat and vegetables as it makes the lasagne not only lighter but healthier too (for your wallet and your hips!).

Meat sauce

2 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, diced small
2 medium carrots, diced small
4 stalks celery, diced small
4 garlic cloves, chopped finely
500g extra lean beef mince
2 tbsp dried oregano
1 red capsicum, diced small
250g mushrooms, diced small
690g jar tomato passata
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 ½ cup beef stock
1 dried bay leaf

Cheese sauce

50g butter
2 tbsp plain flour
2–3 cup hot milk*
1 garlic clove, finely minced
100g cheddar cheese grated
50g parmesan cheese, grated

18 instant lasagne sheets

Serves 8

*Tip: To avoid lumps in my white sauces, I heat the milk which seems to make it incorporate faster and more evenly into the flour and butter.

1. Start with the meat sauce by heating the oil in a large saucepan and add the onion, carrots and celery. Sauté on a medium-high temperature for 6–8 mins; you’ll want to soften them quite a bit and wait for the edges to brown. Once lightly golden, add the garlic and cook for another 2 mins.

2. Add the beef and start to break up with a wooden spoon so that you don’t have any big lumps.

3. Once the meat is browned, add the oregano, capsicum and mushrooms. Stir everything to combine and cook for another 3 mins or until the vegetables have started to release their moisture.

4. Add the passata, tomato paste (I prefer to add it at this stage to avoid it tasting bitter), stock and bay leaf and bring everything to a simmer. Turn the heat to low, put a lid on and cooking gently for 45 mins. This cooking time is important for the favours to develop and for everything to become tender. When the time is up season with salt and pepper to taste.

5. To make the cheese sauce, melt the butter in a small saucepan, add the flour, using a wooden spoon to stir it quickly into the butter to form a loose paste, cook for 2–3 mins to cook out the flour. Swap to a whisk and add the first cup of hot milk to the pan whisking vigorously. Once this has been combined (without lumps), continue to add the second cup of milk. Add the minced garlic, 70g cheddar cheese and 30g parmesan cheese to the sauce (reserving the rest) and a grinding of pepper. If the sauce seems too thick, add more milk. Remember that the sauce will thicken further when it is in the oven.

6. Preheat your oven to 210°C. I use a large roasting dish to cook my lasagne in. To assemble the lasagne, remove the bay leaf and place a quarter of the meat sauce in the bottom on the tin to cover. Arrange 6 instant lasagne sheets evenly and cover everything thing with meat sauce. Top with a layer of cheese sauce and repeat two more times. Sprinkle the remaining cheese on top.

7.  Bake for 30–35 minutes or until the top is nicely golden.

8. When the lasagne comes out of the oven, let it rest for 15 mins before serving. This makes it easier to cut and avoids those nasty mouth burns as your loved ones dive in.

This is a great dish to make in advance. I’ve made it the day before up until the end of step 6 and baked from cold. Once cooked you can also freeze the portions for up to 2 months and reheat in the oven/microwave at your convenience.

Lasagne-portion

Rice salad

Rice-salad

Here’s another one of those light summery meals that can double as a lovely side to a barbecue, be equally satisfying as a main meal or is also good for lunches the next day. I like to make this when I want to feel virtuous and I need something that’s going to reward me with flavour. We don’t tend to eat a lot of pasta in our house. I find pasta can be sometimes difficult to digest and though I love it, I also need to limit it. However, that’s not difficult because I love rice, having grown up with it as the main staple.

This is really a base recipe, meaning that you can throw whatever you have left in the fridge into it (hurrah!). In its basic form it is vegetarian. In the past I’ve added roasted pumpkin, spring onions, tinned corn, grated carrot – really whatever you prefer or is convenient. For those who need their protein in animal form, tuna is fantastic in it (I’ve used smoked tuna in the past) and I can imagine that chargrilled chicken breast would also be a great addition. However much you change it to your tastes, what is essential is a variation in texture and flavour, and for that reason the sultanas are not optional. They really the wonderful surprise in this salad, sweet and a little chewy, they are what make this dish work.

Cold rice dishes often ask for the rice to be cooked the day before, but what I do in this dish is cook the rice first, fluff it up and let it cool while I prepare the other ingredients – there’s no need to think 24 hours ahead!

1 1/2 cups basmati rice
2 large zucchini
1 red onion
1 Lebanese cucumber
1 head of broccoli
1 cup frozen peas
1/2 cup sultanas

Dressing

1 cup white vinegar
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
2 garlic cloves, chopped finely
1/2 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
Grinding of black pepper

Serves 4–6 as a main meal

  1. Cook the rice (I use the absorption method which is twice as much water to rice grains) and fluff up leave to cool, re-fluffing occasionally.
  2. Heat you grill pan on high. Trim the ends of the zucchini and slice in half-centimetre strips lengthways. Cut the onion up into rounds, trying not to separate the rings.
  3. Spray the hot grill pan with some olive oil and cook the onions, charring on both sides. Do the same with the zucchini. Roughly chop.
  4. Cut the cucumber in half lengthways and remove the seeds, then dice.
  5. Cut the broccoli into large florets, I also peel the stalk and add that too. Blanch in boiling water for 2 mins and drain and refresh under cold water. The broccoli should still be a little crunchy. Roughly chop being mindful not to break up the florets too much.
  6. Defrost the peas by pouring over some boiling water and leave for 5 mins.
  7. Add drained peas, sultanas and all the vegetables to a large bowl.
  8. Add the rice to the vegetables and give them a mix. It’s fine if at this point the rice is still a little warm.
  9. To make the dressing, add all the ingredients to a jar, secure the lid on tightly and shake.
  10. Pour the dressing over the rice and toss lightly to combine.

Maple and white chocolate fudge

Fudge

So, this was a request for one of my very good friends and I think I’ve just managed to sneak it in time for Christmas. Fudge is not something I’ve ever attempted to make before, probably because it’s such a wicked treat and I was afraid of the consequences of making a batch for personal use. When my friend was living in Ireland and me in England, we would get together and go to farmers’ markets with the aim of looking at the fresh produce but in the end usually would only buy the fudge. That sweet creamy fudge you buy fresh and which has a shelf life (unlike the stuff bought already packaged from supermarkets) is really delicious but difficult for the home cook to duplicate. I’m not quite sure how the method differs, but I think you would need to cool the fudge over a much longer period while working it to achieve farmers’ market results. Anyway, the homemade stuff is excellent too but has a slightly crumbly/grainy texture which melts away in your mouth.

600ml pouring cream
600g castor sugar
3 1/2 tbsp glucose syrup
3 tbsp maple syrup
150g white chocolate

Make 24 squares

  1. Line a brownie tin with baking paper, leaving 2cm overhang on all sides.
  2. Chop up the chocolate into large pieces – too small and they will disappear completely in the hot fudge.
  3. Place the cream, sugar and syrups in your largest saucepan, preferably one with high sides as the mix with bubble up and foam during cooking. My pan was 22cm in diameter and about 13cm tall and it was not big enough. I would say, if you do not have a large enough pan, do not attempt this recipe (hot sugar is extremely hazardous!). Okay, I think you are fairly warned and will avoid any kitchen disasters/third-degree burns.
  4. Gently heat the pan, stirring constantly until the sugar has dissolved. To check this I just drip my index finger into the mix and rub the mix between my finger and thumb to see if I can still feel the grains of sugar.
  5. Once the sugar has dissolved, stop stirring and turn up the heat to bring the mixture to a boil. It will need to boil for about 20–30 mins until it has reached soft ball stage (if you have a cooking thermometer, this is when it reaches 118°C). If you don’t have a thermometer, and I don’t, you can do a simple test to see whether the mixture has reached this stage. To do this, drop a small amount of the mixture into a bowl of cold water. If it is able to form a soft ball (I use my index finger and thumb to pinch the mixture and see if I can mould it or form it into a soft ball – hence the name), then it’s ready. You’ll find that before the mixture reaches this stage it will seem to dissolve in the water and you won’t be able to pinch it with your fingers.
  6. Once the mixture has reached soft ball stage, remove the pan from the heat and stir for about 5 mins or until it starts to thicken and become smooth.
  7. Pour the mixture to your lined baking dish and scatter over the white chocolate, pressing it into the fudge. You can use a butter knife to swirl the chocolate or just leave as it.
  8. Leave the fudge to set overnight – do not put in the fridge as the fudge will become gooey and will never set solid (never keep your fudge in the fridge either!).
  9. Take the fudge out of the tin and cut into small squares and store in an air-tight container or wrap up for gifts.

I’m guessing that the fudge will keep in an air-tight container for about 2–3 weeks, but who am I kidding, it’ll be long gone before then!

Fresh tomato spaghetti

Fresh-tomato-spaghetti

This is a meal I came up with while at work (I often daydream about dinner at work). I wanted something fast, tasty and fresh. This is kind of like a tomato bruschetta with pasta instead of toasted bread. It is wonderfully fast (takes as long as the pasta needs to cook) and very refreshing, feeling more like a salad than a pasta dish. The addition of bacon is purely optional and I think without it would be just as yummy.

400g dried spaghetti
4 large tomatoes (as ripe as you can get)
1 large clove of garlic, chopped finely
¼ cup basil, chopped/ripped
100g feta
150g shortcut bacon (optional)

Dressing
3 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Serves 4

1. Cook the pasta according to the packet instructions.

2. While the pasta is cooking, cut up the bacon in bite size pieces and start to cook in frypan (if using). Alternatively, you can grill the bacon.

3. Chop tomatoes in a 1cm dice and place in a large bowl. Add the garlic and basil. Crumble in the feta.

4. Combine dressing ingredients with the tomato mix. Add cooked bacon and grind in lots of black pepper.

5. When the pasta is cooked, drain and place in the bowl with the tomatoes. Use tongs to toss and combine. Serve.

Spiced ginger cake

Ginger-loaf

I love this cake. It’s so scrummy and warming and Christmassy. It’s also incredibly easy to make and everyone will be impressed with your culinary skills! The beauty of it is that it gets better on the second and third day of eating, the sugars start doing their thing and it becomes stickier and more moist. It’s lovely with a cup of tea or coffee and even better warmed through and served with custard for a dessert to warm your cockles. I recently made this cake for a dear friend of mine as a bit of a challenge as she’d told me she didn’t like ginger. This is a very gingery cake and I’m very pleased to say that she enjoyed it immensely! I divided that batch in two and managed to make 9 cupcakes and one small loaf (approx. 1L capacity), otherwise, you can make it in a 23cm square baking tin or equivalent.

250g butter
250g dark brown sugar
250g treacle
300ml milk
2 eggs (use 3 if your eggs aren’t jumbo – large eggs seems so small these days)
100g crystallised ginger, finely chopped
375g plain flour
2 tsp bicarbonate soda
1 1/2 tsp mixed spice
1 ½ tbsp ground ginger

Icing (optional)

5 tbsp icing sugar
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 tsp golden syrup

1. Butter and line your tin. Preheat oven to 160°C/140°C fan.

2. Put the butter, treacle, sugar into a medium saucepan and heat gently until the sugar has dissolved. Stir in the milk. Allow mix to cool for a minute or so.

3. Beat the eggs separately and stir into the mixture.

4. Place the chopped ginger and dry ingredients in a large bowl and make a well in the centre. Add the butter and sugar mixture and combine until you have a smooth batter.

5. Pour into your tin(s) and bake for 1 hour (about 20–25 minutes for cupcakes; 40 minutes for small loaf) until risen and firm to the touch. A skewer should come out clean when tested.

6. Cool the cake in the tin. Once cool, top with icing.

7. To make the icing, combine the sugar and syrup. Add half a teaspoon of warm water to create a smooth runny icing. Drizzle over the cake.

Ginger-cupcakes

Chinese pork spare ribs

Chinese-spare-ribs_2

I’ve been eating these spare ribs ever since I graduated to solids. My mum used to make this dish every Chinese New Year and a few times in between – now she’s just happy to pass on the recipe. It’s the kind of dish I didn’t really appreciate when I was younger when I preferred meat that was lean, off the bone, easily identifiable and more importantly came with no surprises. I’m still a little like that but these days I love the flavour you get by slow-cooking the cheaper cuts of meat – and I’m now able to navigate my way around a few bones!

These spare ribs are absolutely packed with flavour and require very little work, just a little no-hassle marinating and some slow cooking and you’ve got a meal that will equal or surpass anything you could get in a restaurant. The ribs end up a little sweet, a little sticky and oh so tender. The fat even renders away in the final stage of cooking so that all you’re left with is meat that falls off the bone. The beauty of it lies in its simplicity. For what tastes like a complex list of ingredients, the recipe itself is not an arduous list of spices and specialty items. I’ll be honest with you, there a couple ingredients that you may not have in your cupboards, but once you’ve got them (thanks to the local Asian grocer), they will keep an age and be ready for the next time Chinese New Year rolls around.

1.2 kg pork spare ribs (not American-style), cut into 1-inch pieces

Marinade

2 tbsp ground bean sauce
1 tsp dark soya sauce
2 tbsp honey
1 tbsp Chinese cooking wine
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1/2 tsp Chinese five spice
½ tsp ground white pepper

Serves 4

  1. Place the pork in a heatproof dish and pour over enough boiling water to cover. Leave for a couple of minutes so that the scum can float to the top then remove pork and pat dry with kitchen towel. This step essentially cleans the meat and removes any bone dust.
  2. Mix together all the marinade ingredients in a large bowl. Add the pork and stir to coat evenly. Cover the dish and marinate overnight.
  3. Once marinated, empty the pork and marinade into a large saucepan. Add enough cold water to just barely cover the pork.
  4. Cover the pan and place on a medium to high heat and bring to an aggressive simmer for 20–25 minutes. This stage tenderises the meat.
  5. Take the lid off the pan and allow the liquid to evaporate, stirring occasionally. This will take about 15–20 mins. Test the meat – if it doesn’t yield easily under pressure and start to break up, then add a little more water and continue simmering. Depending on the size of your ribs, it can take 45 mins to 1 hour for the meat to become really tender.
  6. When meat is almost falling off the bone, evaporate off all the liquid. You should be left with a thick, sticky sauce that clings to the ribs. Most of the fat will have rendered out. If you don’t want to eat this (don’t tell mum and I told you), you can easily pour off the fat.

I would serve these simply with steamed rice and Chinese greens as the ribs are quite rich, but if you like fresh egg noodles, they too would be a fantastic accompaniment. Enjoy!

Chocolate fondant

Chocolate-fondant_1

Looking for the perfect dessert? Something you can prepare beforehand, even freeze for up to month and which will only take 15 minutes to bake? Well, I recently tried making chocolate fondants for the first time and I reckon I’ve found a dessert that not only takes the stress out of dinner parties but is equally impressive on the plate as in the mouth. If you’re a chocoholic who is a little jaded because of chocolate desserts that promise a decent hit but only deliver sugary flavourless gloop then this recipe will renew your commitment to the humble cocoa bean.

This is actually a Gordon Ramsey recipe and a whole lot easier than you would first think. There are a few steps and it is a little fiddly but what you end up with completely warrants brushing all those ramekins with butter! I made mine a week in advance and wrapped them tightly in cling film before placing them in the freezer. Then all there is left to do is preheat the oven and whack in the frozen fondants for 15 minutes, perform a dance to entertain your guests and serve! I should also tell you that the recipe can be easily halved, so on those quiet nights in…

50g melted butter, for brushing
cocoa powder for dusting
200g good-quality dark chocolate (70–80%), broken up into small pieces
200g butter
200g caster sugar
4 eggs and 4 yolks
200g plain flour
vanilla ice cream to serve

Makes 9

1. You need to prepare the moulds first. You can use ramekins, dariole moulds or even a muffin tin, but they should be 150ml capacity if you want to make 9 fondants. Using upwards strokes, brush each mould with the melted butter. Place the moulds in the fridge until the layer of butter hardens. Repeat brushing the moulds with melted butter and this time add a large spoonful of cocoa to one mould to coat the inside, tipping the mould to cover completely. Tap any excess cocoa into the next mould and repeat the process. This ‘lining’ of the mould ensures that the fondants will tip out easily on serving.

2. Place a bowl over a pan of barely simmering water, being careful so that the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the water. Place the butter and chocolate in the bowl and melt together gently. Remove bowl from the heat and stir until smooth. Leave to cool for about 10 mins.

3. In a large bowl whisk the eggs and yolks together with the sugar with an electric whisk until thick and pale and the mixture makes a trail; this will take about 6–8 minutes so try to be patient. Sift the flour into the eggs, then beat together.

4. Combine the melted chocolate into the egg mixture in thirds, beating well between each addition, until all the chocolate is added and the mixture forms a loose cake batter.

5. Tip the batter into a jug, then evenly divide between the moulds. The fondants can now be frozen for up to a month and cooked from frozen.

6. Heat the oven to 200C/fan 180C. Place the fondants on a baking tray, then cook for 10–12 mins until the tops have formed a crust and they are starting to come away from the sides of their moulds – don’t be tempted to cook the fondants for any longer, otherwise you’ll jeopardise the runny centre. Remove from the oven, then leave to sit for 1 min before turning out. To bake from frozen, simply add 5 mins more to the cooking time.

7. The fondants should easily come out of the moulds. Being careful not to burn yourself, tip them onto the centre of your serving plates.

8. Top with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream and serve!

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