Thursday, 9 February 2012

Cosy Dishes For Frosty Days

How I love cold wintry days, when we can stay at home cosily together! It is the perfect excuse for us to enjoy lovely warming homespun meals like the ones I've picked for our menu this week. In our home, the kitchen is defnitely where my heart is, especially on crisp snowy days like the ones we have had here recently! Everything seems so much cosier indoors, when it is frosty and white outside.

I did a big food prep on Saturday so that we would have several days' worth of meals ready prepared to eat during this week. It seems to make sense to me to have all the pots, pans, mixing bowls and utensils out all at one time, and do as much as I can all in one day, and then leave time for other things later during the week. So I got busy and prepared all of the following meals on one day. I took pictures of all but the rice salad and potato dish, as this was prepared when we ate it, on Monday.

First of all the sausage and spinach bake that we had today. This is a Taste of Home recipe (like so many, I find, that we enjoy) and you can find that recipe here. For several years I got a subscription to both Taste of Home and Quick Cooking (Simple & Delicious) until about 3 years ago, when they both started to carry a lot of adverts. I found this detracted from the lovely simple homey theme of the magazines, and made them much less appealing, with fewer recipes. Plus the adverts were mostly for products only available in the States, and as we live in England, they were not relevant, even if I had wanted to buy them, as I could not have found many of them here. So I gave up the subscriptions, but kept all my back copies of the magazines. And I am so glad that I did! Those magazines form the backbones of most of the meals that I find myself turning to again and again when I am menu planning. They are straightforward, often use ingredients I already have or can easily buy, are economical, tasty and usually pretty nutritious too. I know people sometimes hesitate when they see a recipe that calls for a can of soup or a ready made sauce. But is a can of chicken soup really that much less good for you, than a home made cheese sauce, loaded with butter and hard cheese? We don't eat recipes like this every day, and I am happy that our diet is pretty well balanced. You'll see from my pictures that our portions aren't enormous either. So I am perfectly content to use the odd can of soup in a recipe, especially if it means my family enjoy the meals that I create with them.

I'll post the ingredients of the sausage bake here anyways for those of you that might not want to click straight on the link above ...

6 oz box herb stuffing mix (prepared as usual)
1/2 pound bulk pork sausage (in England bulk pork sausage meat is a pure ingredient, usually prepared locally, which comes in a tube as pictured. This is NOT the same thing as "tube meat" which is a kind of mince made of more than 1 kind of meat and not anything like as wholesome. If you cannot find bulk pork sausage meat, then use 1/2 pound sausage meat taken from good quality prepared sausages).
1/4 cup minced green onions
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic (I used garlic paste as we do not care much for the strong taste of pure garlic)
1 10 oz pack frozen spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry (I used 2 14 oz cans, as it saved the defrosting step of the frozen version. I made sure to remove as much liquid as I could by squeezing it in a fine mesh sieve until it was dry).
1 1/2 cups grated Monterey Jack cheese (I used cheddar as Monterey Jack is not available as a block cheese where we live)
1 1/2 cups half-and-half cream (this is also not available in England. I used canned half fat evaporated milk instead)
3 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese (I used a little more than this!)

Here is a picture of the ingredients ready to be prepared ... see our big goldfish watching too? I wonder what he thought I was doing, taking pictures of food with our laptop!

To make this dish ...
1. Prepare stuffing mix as directed and put to one side.
2. Lightly fry the sausage meat and onions until the meat is no longer pink (took about 6 minutes). I did this in a large pan, not a skillet. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute longer.
3. Combine the sausage, stuffing and spinach. It should look something like this ...

3. When well combined, turn from pan into a greased casserole dish (I used the one that we had our blueberry buckle in, last week).
4. Sprinkle over the shredded cheese.
5. Next, beat the eggs and half-and-half or evaporated milk. Pour this over the mixture in the casserole.
6. At this stage, you can now bake the dish in a moderate oven for about 30 minutes. Remove to add parmesan and then return to oven for another 5 minutes or until sausage is thoroughly cooked through (160 degrees). I chose to add the parmesan before the dish went in the oven, as I was going to freeze it so that I could then have it defrost and bake automatically in the oven during the day while we have been busy with other things. I also added a pinch of ground nutmeg on top of the parmesan. Here is the dish ready to go in the freezer! And it was just as yummy this evening, when we had it for our tea (evening meal) as it looks here!

The next dish I am going to share with you is this ... tuna loaf. This is sooo easy! We are eating this on Friday, and I made this last Saturday too and froze it in the foil container that you see pictured. I like this foil bakeware as it is much lighter for storing in the freezer (frozen food weighs heavier than fresh) than ordinary ceramic or earthenware bakeware (some of mine is cast iron which is super heavy, like the lovely heart casserole dish pictured above, which sweet Papa Bear gave to me for a Valentine gift last year! I LOVE that dish! There's nothing like cast iron for making tasty stews and casseroles) Also, the foil bakeware makes clean up a breeze, and if you are planning to take home made dishes to potlucks or other gatherings, it means you don't need to worry about keeping an eye on your pan or container when the dish is served. I always have a supply of this foil bakeware, which is relatively cheap and easy to find here in England and comes in different sizes and quantities.

The tuna loaf uses ...
1 7oz can tuna, drained
200g or 2 cups fresh breadcrumbs (I used wholegrain bread, and made these in my mini chopper for speed)
1 carrot, peeled and finely grated (again the mini chopper makes light work of this)
1 green onion, finely grated (I did this in the mini chopper too - watch it carefully or it turns to mush before your eyes!)
2 eggs, beaten
100g butter or 6 tablespoons, melted
Salt, pepper and garlic granules to season

To make this, simply combine all the ingredients together in a large bowl. Pat into a greased loaf tin, and bake in a preheated oven, moderate, for about 40 - 45 minutes or until a knife inserted in the centre comes out clean (you may need to cover it before the end of the cooking time).

I like to serve this with a cheese sauce and mixed salad. It freezes really well and sometimes I'll make double and have 2 loaves, although on this occasion I didn't have enough eggs!

This was the other dish that I made on Saturday - and I did have enough for 2, so this is the one that went in the freezer ... almond chicken cassserole. Again, this is a Taste of Home recipe. I have tweaked this quite a bit, for my fussy eaters, and it is a creamy, mild tasting dish that everyone enjoys.

To make the original recipe click here. I changed a few things, and this is how we like it ... (this is for one recipe, not double)

2 cups cubed cooked chicken (or turkey - I used frozen chicken I had in the freezer, and did not defrost it beforehand)
1 14 oz can mushroom soup (not condensed. We prefer the taste of mushroom soup in dishes like this than that of chicken, although if I can find it, chicken and mushroom together, is our all time favourite. It seems to have a nicer, more savoury taste than chicken on its own)
1 cup sour cream (I use reduced fat)
3/4 cup mayonnaise (again, I use reduced fat with no effect on texture or flavour)
2 celery ribs, very finely chopped (once again, in the mini chopper! What a great buy that has proved to be!)
1 can of my favourite cupboard standby, chopped mushrooms, drained
1/2 cup frozen peas
1 tablespoon finely chopped onion
2 teaspoons lemon juice (or half a lemon thereabouts)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1/4 cup sliced (flaked) almonds

You'll see this is very slightly different to the original recipe. When I make this, I cut the fat and calories a little, and leave out the hard cooked eggs, the water chestnuts (not easy to find here in England) and the butter and cornflakes, to make the dish a little healthier and to appeal more to my crowd of fussy eaters. It also freezes better without the hard cooked eggs in which tend to take on a very rubbery texture once frozen.

To make it...
1. Simply combine all the ingredients apart from the cheese and almonds.
2. Place in a greased casserole or foil baking dish.
3. Then sprinkle with the cheese, followed by the almonds.
4. Bake uncovered in a moderate oven for about 40 minutes (this is longer than the time stated in the recipe, but I find that the chicken in the centre of the dish is not piping hot, after the 30 minutes stated).

Finally the green lentils and rice, and spicy potatoes. I have not taken pictures of these, as it wasn't convenient whilse I was preparing them. These are dishes I've adapted myself over the years so the measurements are a bit flexible!

For the lentil dish ...
About 1 1/2 cups green lentils
1 cup brown rice or barley
1/2 cup quinoa (optional, but very wholesome and nutritious)
1 small red onion, very finely diced (red onion is milder and much sweeter than green onion. We like the crunchy texture it lends to this dish, but if you prefer, rather than add it uncooked at the end of cooking, put it into the pan to cook with the grains so that it is softer and the flavour is less definite).
about 8 large vine tomatoes, quartered
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon prepared mustard
1 teaspoon liquid honey
1 tablespoon lemon or lime juice
1 tablespoon walnut oil (I leave this out to make the dish less calorific with little alteration to texture or taste)
1 teaspoon garlic paste or 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
Parsley to serve

1. The night or morning before you want to prepare this dish, place the lentils, rice or barley and quinoa if using in a large bowl and cover with water. Leave to soak overnight or for about 8 hours. This step isn't truly necessary, but it makes the grains cook faster, saving you time and money.
2. When the grains have soaked, strain the water off them and then place in a saucepan and cover with fresh water. Bring to the boil and simmer, for about 25 minutes or until soft (there will be liquid left). Add the onion at this point, too, if you don't want it to be eaten raw (as noted above).
3. Strain, and turn into a large serving dish.
4. Now prepare the dressing. Combine the tablespoon of vinegar, the teaspoon of mustard, the teaspoon of honey, the tablespoon of lemon juice, the tablespoon of oil if using and the seasonings, in a jar which has a screw top lid. Fasten lid and shake well. Leave to allow flavours to combine.
5. Add the finely diced onion if not already added, and the quartered tomatoes, and turn gently into the grains in the serving dish, mixing lightly.
6. Now add the dressing and mix again. The dish can be served as it is, warm (when it will be delicious) or allowed to chill in the fridge and served cold. It is gorgeous as a side salad with burgers or sausages, or just on its own. However, we like it best served with Mama Bear's spicy potatoes!

For this dish, which is easy and can be prepared well in advance, take about 2 medium potatoes per person (Papa Bear easily eats double this), and slice into quarters or eighths. Place in a well oiled roasting tray, and turn well in a seasoning mix of Schwartz "Simply Shake" Season-All, Engevita nutritional yeast flakes (available in health food stores or online), chilli flakes, garlic powder, salt and pepper, and then bake uncovered for about 40 minutes. I often prepare this dish in the morning, and put it in the oven to cook automatically that evening. It makes the kitchen smell delicious! You really don't need to bother to peel or parboil the potatoes - in fact my family prefer it if I don't, as it seems to add a lovely crispy texture to the spicy coating on the potatoes, but if you want to add this step in then do so and prepare as directed thereafter. I have tried it with all kinds of potatoes, but red potatoes are the most delicious. They are also lovely cold!

I hope you'll be inspired by these delicious, easy and convenient winter dishes! My family loves them, and they are trouble free and quick to prepare. I'm so looking forward to sharing some more recipes with you next week, when you can see what we have for our special Valentine's meal!