Sausage and Squash Casserole

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I made up this recipe and it’s become a total winter staple in our house, lasting right through the unseasonably snowy March nights we just endured. It’s also very versatile, so you can use up whatever scraggy root veg you have lying around and it’ll make something really quite hearty and nice. It serves plenty for two and it goes like this:

1 onion
1-2 rashers thick cut unsmoked bacon, or whatever bacon you have
2-3 sausages
1 butternut squash
1 swede
2-3 handfuls fresh spinach
500ml veg stock
1 carrot (optional)
1 sweet potato (optional)

Chop an onion and soften it on a low heat in some oil, in a heavy-bottomed pan (le creuset or GTFO, basically), for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, chop a rasher or two, depending on how healthy you’re feeling, of unsmoked bacon and chuck it in the pan to fry with the onions.

While these are frying up nicely, peel, deseed and cube a butternut squash – the most boring and awkward kitchen task EVER, in my opinion, though a good knife helps. Also peel and chop a small swede or turnip. Optional at this stage: one finely sliced carrot, one peeled and cubed sweet potato, any other chopped up root veg. You can either substitute in or just add every vegetable you can find, if you want to feed more people or if you have a mega starve on. Big carrots are 9p each from my local Tesco, so go nuts with them to bulk it out if you want.

Chuck all your chopped root veg of choice into the pan with the onions and bacon, and give a good stir for a couple of minutes. Then pour in a jug of veg stock – about 500ml. Leave to cook until soft, which will take around 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a frying pan (preferably one of those non-stick ones so you don’t have to use oil or butter), fry two or three sausages (depending on how hungry you are) on a low heat. Chop them into chunks and add to your casserole when they’re cooked through. Leave the casserole to cook for another ten minutes or so to let the sausage flavour make everything delicious. At this stage you can add a can of drained butterbeans, if you like. Salt and pepper to taste, and maybe add a pinch of chilli flakes if you really need warming up, eg if your hot water bottle has sprung a leak or you live in an ice hotel.

Chuck in two big handfuls of fresh spinach, and stir in until they wilt. Serve with crusty bread. We got a lovely gnarly pain de campagne from The Manna House, along with two slices of chocolate cake for afters. Thumbs up.

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Millionaires’ Shortbread

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I am sick of TV reviewers being mean about Mary Berry. When the first half of The Mary Berry Story aired last week, it got mean-spirited reviews in the Guardian and the Telegraph, all because the journalists had decided Mary Berry hadn’t had a sufficiently interesting life to be worth their attention.

I keep finding this problem with reviews of foodie TV shows. Apparently, food TV is boring and samey. But for people like you and me, who love food and taste and baking and being creative with it, it’s anything but. The Mary Berry Story was not just an insight into the life of a much-loved personality, it was a ride through British food TV and journalism history, from the kitsch 1970s to the twee Great British Bake-Off present day.

People who love baking but are unmoved by, say, trains, or property development, are not about to find programmes like this boring. So maybe TV reviewers should bear us in mind.

I made Mary Berry’s own millionaires’ shortbread last week, from my copy of Mary Berry’s Baking Bible, which is rapidly becoming my favourite book ever. It went down a storm with the family (and with me – I took it down to London in a tin and ended up eating a shocking amount of it on the train).

Anyway it’s a success, and pretty foolproof if you do as Mary says, which you always should. Next time I make it though, I might try to make the base a bit crumblier – maybe cooking it for less time, or using darker sugar? I’ll report back.

for the shortbread
250g plain flour
75g caster sugar
175g softened butter

for the caramel
100g butter
100g light muscovado sugar
two 397g cans condensed milk

for the topping
400g chocolate (NB this is double Mary’s quantity, because you’re already doing yourself a serious dietary mischief with this bake, so why not go the whole way?)

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Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees. Grease a biggish swiss roll tin (Mary suggests 33 x 23 cm), or use baking parchment tucked into one of those disposable foil roasting tins like I did.

To make the shortbread, rub in the butter with your fingertips, into the flour and caster sugar. When it looks like fine breadcrumbs and all the butter has disappeared, smoosh it all together so it forms a roughly doughy ball. Don’t panic if it seems a bit too crumbly to smoosh together. This just means your shortbread will be extra short (a good thing).

Press it into your tin so it fills all the corners. Prick it all over with a fork and then bake for about 20 minutes or until lightly browned. Let it cool in the tin.

Caramel time. Put the butter, sugar and condensed milk into a saucepan and heat gently until all the sugar has dissolved. Bring the mixture to the boil, stirring it CONSTANTLY, and then reduce the heat and keep stirring for about five minutes until the mixture has thickened and looks, well, like caramel. I set a timer. Mary warns (and I underline her warning) that you must stir the mixture continuously, because if you stop for even a second it will catch on the bottom of the pan and burn.

Pour it over the shortbread base, spreading it into all the corners. Leave to cool.

Break your chocolate into pieces and melt it slowly in a bowl over a pan of simmering water, stirring every now and then. Pour over the caramel and leave to set.

When I first started cutting my nicely set millionaires’ shortbread, I cut it into big doorstop chunks. This was an error. It wants to be cut into little bitesize squares, a couple of inches across (see top pic), so people can absent-mindedly pop ten of them with a cup of tea while reading a book, which is exactly how treats are meant to be enjoyed.

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Spring!

 

Lemon, Pea and Mint Risotto

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Pablo Neruda wrote a poem about lemons, where he says they have ‘the diminutive fire of a planet’. They freshen up a risotto, at any rate. Risottos are good for late winter, when you still want something hearty but you also need the suggestion of warmer weather.

This is a version of a Jamie Oliver recipe. Heat a tablespoon of butter and another of oil in a pot, then soften a chopped onion in it, slowly, for about 10 minutes. Pour in your risotto rice (allow 100g per person for maximum comfort), turn up the heat and toast the rice grains for just a minute or two. Tip in a large glass of white wine and let the alcohol cook off.

(Top tip: don’t lean over the pot while this is happening, because you may get a little lightheaded. I speak from direct experience in the field.)

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Once you’re starting to get a slightly floral scent off your risotto mixture rather than an alcoholic one, turn the heat right down and ease in a ladleful of warm veg stock. Keep the risotto moving until it soaks up the liquid and the texture loosens up and turns slightly creamy. Keep adding stock until the rice is soft and swollen, tasting to make sure it’s not still nutty.

Five minutes before the end, when the texture of the risotto is just a bit gloopier than you think you want it, pour in a load of frozen peas, enough to stud the mixture liberally but not to overpower it. Let the peas cook through, and then stir in half a handful of chopped fresh mint, the juice of a lemon, an extra knob of butter and some parmesan if you like. Several generous twists of salt and pepper, and spoon it into a large bowl. Sprig of mint recommended for decor.

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