In Which I Make my Signature Mac ’n’ Cheese

My signature mac ‘n’ cheese

I love homemade mac ’n’ cheese – especially if it’s mine! This is one dish where I will always prefer my own homemade version – or my mum’s – over anything from a restaurant. I learnt the basic cheese sauce recipe from my mum and I have adapted it over the years, experimenting with adding various different ingredients. I have had my fair share of disasters as I tried to perfect it (such as this blitzed kale for a ‘superfood’ – an unappetisingly green – one).

Green cheese is healthy! (Sort of)

My ultimate goal cheese combo is gruyère, hard grated mozzarella and Cheddar for extra ooziness, but as this is more expensive (and we’re now low on funds having just bought a flat), I use Cheddar here. You’re doing several things at once here, so it can be overwhelming at first. If you struggle, you can cook each part individually and then combine them all at the end and give it a little longer in the oven to ensure everything is hot. Just heat the cheese sauce through a little before combining to melt in any skin that might have formed.

I usually mix up the additions depending on what I happen to have in the fridge, but it generally involves tomatoes, mushrooms and peas – so that I’m getting in at least a few veg! It’s a bit non-traditional in this way – plus the fact that I almost never use actual macaroni pasta! I’ve indicated weights for the ingredients, but you don’t have to be precise – I usually just bung in half a packet of pasta, a whole packet of cherry tomatoes, a whole packet of mushrooms and however many peas I fancy, or I’ll just use however much I have.

Tomatoes and red onion here – yum!

My Signature Mac ‘n’ Cheese

250g pasta (any smallish shape will do – fusilli, conchiglie, bows, etc.)
150g frozen peas
knob of butter
150g mushrooms, sliced
300g cherry tomatoes, quartered
50–100g grated Cheddar
100g asparagus spears, trimmed

For the cheese sauce
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon flour
300ml milk
100–200g Cheddar
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pre-heat the grill to a medium–high heat.

Fill a large saucepan with 1 litre of water and bring to the boil over a high heat. Add the pasta and cook according to the packet instructions (usually somewhere between 8 and 12 minutes). About 3–4 minutes before the pasta is done, add the peas. When the timer is up, drain in a colander. If the other elements aren’t ready at this point, the pasta and peas can sit in the colander for a few minutes while you finish everything else off.

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat and then mix in the flour with a whisk or spoon (a whisk helps prevent lumps later on, but a strong arm and wooden spoon will do the same). Keep mixing over the heat for 1 minute to ‘cook’: this mixture is called ‘roux’. Turn off the heat and very gradually, a small splash at a time, add the milk, continually whisking to avoid lumps: this is now white sauce. Season with a little sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. (I highly recommend sea salt, as it tastes so much better than table salt, isn’t bleached, and has more nutrients [from the sea!]. If you do choose to use table salt, use only a tiny amount, as it’s so much stronger in taste. That goes for any dish.) Place over a low heat and keep an eye on it whilst you cook the veg, stirring frequently to stop it catching on the bottom. Watch for little bubbles as it starts to simmer, then simmer for a couple of minutes – or just heat and stir until it gets thick. It’s fine either way.

While the white sauce is heating, melt a knob of butter in a large frying pan over a medium heat. Add the sliced mushrooms and fry for about 4–5 minutes, then add the cherry tomatoes and fry for another 2–3 minutes, until both the mushrooms and tomatoes have released their juices and the juices have begun to evaporate. (You can eat the juices and it tastes fine with then, but it can make the cheese sauce look a bit grey and unappetising – up to you.)

Once the roux is thick, add the cheese gradually, tasting as you go and adding more if you want it more cheesy. (I usually end up using an entire packet of cheese for this dish, including the topping, but I really love cheese.)

When all three elements are cooked, mix them all together in the big saucepan you used for the pasta. Taste and add a little more salt and pepper if you fancy, then tip everything into a roasting dish (pyrex or ceramic are both fine – don’t use a metal roasting tray). Top with the remaining grated cheese and then the asparagus.

Place under the grill and grill for about 5–10 minutes until the asparagus is starting to catch and the cheese is bubbling and starting to brown.

Tip: if you don’t have a grill (or the patience to wait), you can serve it straight out of the pot once everything is mixed together. Fry the asparagus in the pan for a few minutes and serve on top or do without.

In Which I Make Nutty Museli/Granola

This was inspired by wonderful food stylist Natalie Seldon’s recipe for Maple-roasted Nut & Seed Granola in her book The Goodness of Nuts and Seeds. I’ve simplified it and cut out the maple syrup, so it’s really more of a muesli. It also means I can choose whether or not to eat something sweet with it, depending on how I feel. It’s great mixed with yogurt and a little drizzle of honey or agave nectar (choose plant-based yogurt and agave to keep it vegan).

Oats and dried goji berries – yum!

In the recipe pictured I use pecans and cashews with pumpkin and sesame seeds, but the recipe is very versatile, so you can use whatever you have in the cupboard or fancy buying at the shop. Every time I make this I’ll use up to four different types each of nuts and of seeds to keep it interesting. You can buy pre-mixed bags of both if you can’t decide.

Chop, chop, chopped up nuts and seeds

If you’d like a lower-carb or gluten-free version, then swap the oats for more nuts and seeds. I used to make it without oats all the time, but nuts can be pricey so now I add the oats to bulk it out a little. Apparently they’re good for low cholesterol (according to the Tesco packaging), so they’re not ‘empty’ carbs. Plus, if you mix them with the dried fruit before combining everything it helps prevent the fruit sticking together. Swap for another dried fruit if you don’t like or can’t find goji berries.

Ta-da!

Nutty Muesli

Makes 400g/enough to fill a 500ml jar

125g mixed nuts
75g mixed seeds
100g Scottish porridge oats
30g dried goji berries
20g ground seed mix, such as linseed, hemp seed and chia seed (optional)

Preheat the oven to 200˚C.

Chop all the nuts. As nuts can roll around when chopping, it’s easier to do this in small batches. Tip the chopped nuts along with the seeds into a deep baking tray, mix together and spread evenly. If you only have a shallow tray, you may find it easier to mix together the chopped nuts and the seeds in a bowl before putting them in the tray.

Bake for 5–10 minutes, remove from the oven and leave to cool for a few minutes.

In a bowl mix together the oats, goji berries and seed mix (if using), then add the baked nuts and seeds once they have cooled.

Store in a jar or other sealed container. It should last a few months (probably longer, but eating it for breakfast every day it’s usually gone in about 2 weeks!).

In Which I Make Courgette and Pea Pesto Pasta

This recipe was inspired by a dish I saw online/in a recipe book/heard someone mention (read: somewhere, which I then immediately forgot, hence no credit) that featured courgette ‘ribbons’ with spaghetti. Now, I don’t have a spiralizer or specific ribbon-cutting machine (knives can do just as much as any 137-use device!), so I just pulled out my bog-standard peeler (so not actually knife here, though you could probably use one if you’re good at cutting thinly. I am not…). It looks quite nice if you can peel away evenly enough with a little strip of skin showing on the side, but it’s all the same.

The pesto I created from vague memory of various recipes I’ve tried over the years, and the fact that I just cannot seem to keep a basil plant alive. If you are able to keep basil alive (or just want to buy some pre-cut fresh) then use a big bushy handful of the stuff. Or go half-and half with fresh and dried if you prefer. Taste as you go and experiment a little; too much dried ingredients and the consistency can become grainy.

Poor dead basil

Nutritional yeast (not the type used for breadmaking) is what makes this pesto vegan; it’s a popular substitute for cheese amongst vegans, as it has a similar salty/sharp flavour profile as strong cheese. You can buy nutritional yeast from health-food shops (Holland and Barrett) or online. In all honesty, I was pretty sceptical of it at first (and my SO still calls it ‘vegan fish food’ thanks to its flakey appearance), but it’s a great store cupboard food as it lasts for ages. You can leave it out if you wish, or if you eat dairy you could swap it for some grated strong cheese. (I don’t use DOC Parmigiana Reggiano, as it contains rennet so isn’t vegetarian).

Nb: dried pasta is almost always vegan, but do check the label

Courgette and Pea Pesto Pasta
Serves 4 (or 2 very hungry people, plus a bit left over for lunch the next day)

250g/half a packet spaghetti
2 courgettes
100g/2 big handfuls frozen peas

For the pesto
3–4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
50g/3 tablespoons pine nuts
1 tablespoon dried basil (or 1 big handful fresh)
2–3 tablespoons nutritional yeast flakes
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Fill a large saucepan with 2–3 litres of water and bring to the boil. Add the pasta and boil for 10 minutes (or according to packet instructions), stirring infrequently to stop the pasta sticking together.

Meanwhile, trim the top off the courgettes and using a peeler peel long strips (or ‘ribbons’), rotating around all sides until you reach the seeded middle. You can keep the middle for another use (or throw it the food waste bin if you really can’t stomach it) or, if you wish to use it in this dish, slice into thin discs.

3 minutes before the pasta is cooked, add the frozen peas.

For the pesto, add all the ingredients into a food processor and blend for 1–2 minutes. Taste, check the consistency and add more oil/basil/nutritional yeast as needed. I prefer it with more basil and more ‘cheesy’ flavour from with yeast flakes, which requires more oil as there are more dry ingredients. It should have a similar consistency as shop-bought pesto.

1 minute before the pasta is cooked, add the courgette ribbons (and slices, if using). When the pasta timer is up, drain everything then return to the saucepan. Tip in the pesto and mix into the pasta and vegetables with a spider spoon. Serve immediately, with some more nutritional yeast flakes sprinkled on top if you like.

In Which I Make Almond Pancakes

Almond pancakes

As I mentioned in my last post, with all this free time I’ve been cooking a lot more lately and I promised more recipes, so here’s one to start off the day. It’s nice to spend a little more time of breakfast when you can; over the weekend, or if you have a day off (or work from home, as I do now). When I was commuting into the city breakfast would be a scrambled bowl of cereal or porridge at my desk, or a sugary muffin on the way in, or just a latte, because the work whirlwind started as soon as I sat down at my desk in the morning. I’ve learnt that it’s important to take care over your food – and consequently over yourself.

I’ve also been cutting down my milk intake recently (because I can’t bear to cut out cheese – cheese is life!), as drinking all those lattes for breakfast used to bloat me out in the morning so I got into the habit of trying non-dairy milks in my lattes. Loads of the chain coffee shops have started stocking them, so it’s easier than ever now. My favourite for drinking is oat milk (tastes like a cuddle for my stomach – or not; just ignore the weirdo here), but it’s quite difficult to find in the supermarket so at home I usually get almond or coconut milk. I use the latter in the recipe below, as I find it’s better for sweet foods, but you can substitute with any other plant milk you like, or even regular cow’s milk if you’re happy with dairy.

Coconut milk pancake batter!

I use dairy-free butter to fry the pancakes; I find some kind of butter is the best thing to fry pancakes in, but you can use oil if you prefer; it might just not sizzle or brown as much as butter/butter-substitute would. I’m using almond flour (also called almond meal or ground almonds, depending where you buy, though you’ll find from some producers it’s a little finer/courser), which cuts down on the carbs and increases the protein – if you’ve not had almond-flour pancakes you might find the texture a little too mealy for your taste. If that’s the case (and you’re fine to eat gluten), try starting out with a half-and-half mix of almond flour and plain flour and slowly changing the ratio until you have 100% almond.

On to the recipe –

Almond Pancakes
Serves 2, or 1 hungry person (makes 4 small pancakes or 2 large)

6 heaped tablespoons almond flour
1 organic egg
6 tablespoons coconut milk
3–4 knobs dairy-free butter
Fresh raspberries (or other fresh fruit; I used half a punnet here)
Honey (or agave nectar)

Place the almond flour in a jug or mixing bowl. (I use a jug as it’s easier to pour.) Break in the egg and mix together with a fork or small whisk. Add one tablespoon of the milk at a time, stirring each time to incorporate. (This helps it keep from going lumpy.)

Heat a non-stick pan over medium heat and add a knob of butter. When the butter has melted and is sizzling, give the mixture another quick stir then pour in a quarter. Twist the pan the move the mixture around if you prefer a wider pancake. Fry until starting to brown on the underside (about 2 minutes), then flip. The almond flour makes the pancake a bit less flexible and more brittle than regular pancakes, so I’d advise flipping with a spatula rather than tossing it, to avoid a broken cake (and disappointment first thing in the morning). Fry on this side until golden brown (about 1 minute), then deposit onto a plate.

Repeat for the remaining batter, adding additional knobs of butter as needed, until you have 4 pancakes. I like to add a little drizzle of honey on each layer, but dress the layers how you fancy – you can squeeze raspberries in each layer or reserve them all for the top like I did here. Top with a handful of raspberries each (or more if you want) and drizzle over with honey. Serve immediately, eat, then make more if you’re super hungry!

In Which I Talk About Recipes

So, I’ve been pretty quiet lately for a few different reasons. Namely moving home… and career (more on that in another post, possibly). As a result of this, and the fact that we now have an entirely new set of crockery (whoop whoop), I have been experimenting with new recipes. I recently bought Rita Serano’s Vegan in 7, which is an amazing book (though I’m pretty biased as I worked on it) – vegan recipes all using only 7 ingredients or less. This week alone I made her courgette noodle salad and lentil ragu (which I’m pretty sure could have convinced any meat-eaters, so sumptuous were the flavours). I’ll probably be posting a few more recipes on here as I discover new ones and adapt some of my own. For now, I’ll leave you with a couple photos of what I’ve been making recently, most which have already made their debut on my Instagram page (please excuse the shoddy camera work – I am not a photographer).

This was one of the first meals we cooked with the new crockery, cooking courtesy of the SO. We have spicy mushrooms, fried tenderstem broccoli, white rice and peanut satay sauce.

Movie night! All homemade except the tortilla chips – guacamole, the SO’s trademark salsa (which I actually don’t like as I hate coriander!), garlicy yogurt dip and nacho cheese, recipe from Fifteen Spatulas: https://www.fifteenspatulas.com/homemade-nacho-cheese-sauce/.

And, to finish, Courgette Noodle Salad from Vegan in 7, will lots and lots of pine nut ‘Parmesan’, which is super versatile.

In Which I Make Mushroom Burgers

So, I’ve decided to post up my signature recipe for mushroom burgers. I make this one frequently in the summer (and often in the winter) and it’s my favourite from-scratch recipe since I became vegetarian, though I sometimes substitute pre-made alternatives if I’m particularly tired – usually the wedges. At a first glance, it may look like a lot of ingredients, but this recipe is so versatile you can swap and change almost every element with whatever is in your cupboard/fridge; usually all I really need to buy is mushrooms, buns and potato.

Below I’ve given my core recipe and the one I make most often, but I’ll often swap things; switch the sweet potato for regular potato, or courgette; pick any cheese you like (even cream cheese – we had it with Boursin the other day, mixed into the stuffing, and it was delish); swap the avocado for hummus, or leave it out altogether.

Serves 2

For the Wedges
2 medium sweet potatoes
1 tablespoon oil
1 tablespoon paprika
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon smoked paprika

For the Burgers
2 Portobello mushrooms
1 tablespoon breadcrumbs or 1 teaspoon flour
handful basil (optional)
2 slices/handful grated cheese

To Serve
Knob of butter
2 brioche buns
1 avocado
½ lemon, or 2 teaspoons of lemon juice
3 tablespoons Greek-style yogurt
½ teaspoon harissa

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 200˚C.

For the Wedges
Peel the sweet potatoes and cut into chunky wedges, or chips as you prefer. Place in a glass bowl (you don’t want to use a plastic one, as it will stain), pour over the oil and sprinkle over the spices. Feel free to experiment with different spice blends as you prefer. Mix together thoroughly, adding more oil if needed to coat the wedges. Tip into a large pan and roast in the oven for 30–40 minutes until cooked through.

For the Burgers
Meanwhile, remove the stems from the mushrooms and place in a food processor with the breadcrumbs or flour and basil, if using. Season and pulse a few times to dice (don’t blend to a paste). Alternatively you can finely dice by hand. Spoon this mixture into the cups of the mushrooms and press down, then top each with a slice of cheese.

Place in the oven to roast for 5–10 minutes until the cheese has melted (if you’ve picked a melty cheese) and the mushroom is cooked. If you’re super speedy, you might want to wait until the potatoes have 10 minutes left on the timer, so everything in the oven is ready at the same time.

To Serve
Halve the brioche buns. Melt a knob of butter in a large frying pan and lightly toast the brioche on the cut side. Alternatively, spread with butter and toast in a toaster, or just have plain.

While everything is in the oven, prepare the avocado. Scrape the flesh into a food processor and add a squeeze of lemon, pinch of sea salt and a few twists of freshly ground black pepper. Blitz for a few seconds until chunky but not smooth. Alternatively, mash by hand or, if you prefer it unsmashed, simply slice and dress with the lemon juice and sea salt.

Spoon the yogurt into a small bowl, add a squeeze of lemon and the harissa, then season. Mix together roughly.

By now the wedges and mushroom should be done. Assemble everything on two plates – I like to smear the top and bottom buns with the yogurt mixture, then put a mushroom with avocado on top. I’ll usually spoon some extra yogurt on the side as a dip to have with the wedges. Enjoy!

In Which I Minimalise

I bought Fumio Sasaki’s Goodbye Things (Penguin Books, translated by Eriko Sugita) two weekends ago on a whim in Foyles as they were offering BOGOHP (Buy One Get One Half Price) and I’ve been trying to clear out old possessions before we move into our new flat. We last moved 18 months ago and donated a lot of stuff to charity then, but I still seem to have so many things! I didn’t think I’d bought that much stuff, as we were saving to buy a flat, but apparently not.

On to the book; I’ll admit I did skip straight to chapter 3 for the ‘55 tips to help you say goodbye to your things’ section, but Fumio says it’s okay to read the chapters randomly and even suggests a quick look at chapter 3 will help someone looking to reduce possessions they already have, so I rolled with it. Having already managed to part with four bin bags of things to charity all on my own, since reading chapter 3 I have managed (in about 3 sessions of minimalising) to accumulate another 6 bags of things that I never used, no longer use or just plain don’t like but forced myself to use because I felt guilty not doing so.

It’s been quite liberating actually; freeing myself from the guilt of under-usage of unnecessary items, such as the ridiculous number of socks I had (48 pairs – I am a secret sock hoarder; I still have a drawer full in my old room at my parents’ house), particularly those with holes* that I was still wearing because they were my favourites. (I have repaired socks before, but if I’m honest with myself, this is probably a one-a-year event, if that.). And getting rid of the, frankly gross, expired beauty products such as face creams and sun-tan lotion, which is frankly dangerous – 2-year-old suntan cream is going to help no one, particularly not my pasty skin. It also helps that I’ve been trying to not buy any beauty products that aren’t cruelty-free and vegetarian, so being able to purge some of these old products has taken away that extra guilt.

So the next stage will be trying to keep my minimalism, which I’m hoping the following chapters and those I skipped will help me do. I’ll either update this post or write a new one once I get there.

*(I’d like to note that whilst usable clothes can be donated to charity shops, many of them can’t accept worn out clothes, but these can go to textiles banks to be re-used and recycled for other purposes.)

Poem

Warning: I seem to have been in a pretty negative mood space when I wrote this. I considered not posting or re-writing, but I started writing another post over the weekend that I’ve not finished and I’m too tired to finish it right now. I’ve also not posted this week (I guess it is a weekly blog?) so why not? Why obscure reality? This got super deep for me at the (tipsy, again) time, but you may think it’s just superficial (or just rubbish), so I’ll frame it with a note that today’s negativity was the fact I just tripped over my Easter egg going to grab my laptop. Considering that was the worst thing that happened today, I think I’m okay. Very different levels of mood here.

Anyhoo…

We Flecks

We are but flecks of paint
On the chessboard of life
Not even pawns
The sacrificial pieces
Neither queens, knights nor castles
Not even full squares
Yet flecks make up a whole
As small and unseeable
Unimportant, seeming
But if all unimportant things are erased
Erasure is all that’s left
We may be flecks
But proud flecks shall we be
As much passion as has a nation
Can within one person be
The fleck is not an insignificant
And seems so all the same
It is determined by we flecks’ own perception
All encompassing and unobserved
For we flecks
We shall not forget
Or, yet, we shall try

I just re-read that and not such a negative ending after all. I clearly went through a process here – slewing out the bad thoughts and then my shy positive mind had a chance to spin it around. Maybe I should try to give her more space to breath. She’s not so bad.

Adieu

In Which I Write a Poem

I had dinner with a good friend last night who has recently moved away from London. Luckily she hasn’t gone too far (Kent), but as I live in Surrey it seems particularly far to me. I always have really good chats over dinner with her and last night was as engaging as ever, so on my (tipsy) train ride home I pondered on the nature of friendship, particularly those special ones that remain strong in spite of distance and time. Here it is:

Two Hearts

Two hearts as one
Distant in time
Yet not in essence
Friends, old and new
Both, simultaneous
Helpful and helping
And selfish and selfless
Love, innocent, childish
Adulterous but pure
Necessary but wanting
Equally mutual
Forever
And for now

 

In Which I Announce Myself to the World … Again

I have had two blogs in the past, both which have fallen by the wayside. My first, called Blogger’s Block, reads pretty disappointingly. It starts with the hopes and dreams of a twenty-something English Lit and Creative Writing university student trying to find her way back to the love of writing that essays and deadlines had overborne. It was witty, with footnotes, and signing off with ‘Toodle pip’. I wrote once a month or so for over a year. Then I finished my Master’s Degree, decided I needed to ‘find myself’ and went to Australia for a month. In November. It was 40 degrees. In ‘new-year-new-you’ January I resumed blogging, writing about discovering publishing as a wondrous career option, and getting a post-graduate piece published on The Independent online (which I totally forgot about until I just re-read my last post – how did I forget that?), and then it stopped.

I’d begun another blog of book reviews called Behind the Words (recognise the name?). I got my own webspace and URL, personalised a blog template and tapped away bi-monthly reviews as I finished books (13, to be exact). I was doing work experience in the rights department of a non-traditional publishing company where I could get my hands on books from all over the world and my reading portfolio was expanding. I went to London Bookfair and proudly asked interesting stands if I could take photos ‘for my blog’, sharing the link enthusiastically and networking. Then I got a job. I saved the full website (with much help of my SO) in case I ever wanted to start it up again and let the URL go.

A year or so ago I rediscovered Blogger’s Block, which I’d managed to completely forget about, re-wrote the About Me section, explaining how I was going to try to start writing again and how the blog would be the place where ‘only you and I will discover if I fail or succeed.’ The last post is still February 2012. I failed.

But failure is a part of life, so I’m not going to pretend like this shiny new blog is going to be the savior of my creativity or the start of something long-lasting. It will probably not last very long at all, but if it does I’m not going to pretend like it was my first try. We all fail. We try again. We fail again. Then we try again. If we didn’t, we likely wouldn’t have many impressive inventions such as antibiotics, mobile phones and the internet (disclaimer: I have not looked this up, but it sounds legit). That’s why I’ve not deleted my old blog and have linked to it here – I’m not ashamed of having tried. I’d have kept the book review blog online, too, if it hadn’t cost money to host and I was earning near minimum wage in my first job.

I don’t know what this blog will be (if it comes to anything). I asked my SO what I should write about – writing again? (Because that worked out so well last time.) Cooking? Book reviews? He asked why I couldn’t write on them all, or anything else that I wanted, and he had a good point; it is my blog after all. So that’s my plan – I’ll write whatever I fancy writing about. Perhaps I’ll recycle my old reviews, too. If no one reads it, then that’s fine, because this isn’t a writing portfolio, or a blog I’m using to get a job (let’s face it – that’s why I started the book review blog and then stopped when I got a job), it’s a blog for me. (How cliché.)