Fruit and nut granola

Jar of homemade fruit and nut granola
Homemade fruit and nut granola with yogurt and blueberries
I’ve always been a bit of an odd one when it comes to breakfast. Unlike my SO, who wakes up ravenous every morning (before you get concerned, he’s well-fed at dinner time!), it takes me at least an hour after waking up before I feel like eating anything substantial. I’m much more of a brunch person when it comes to the first meal of the day. I’m all for taking the time to leisurely cook pancakes or French toast on a weekend morning, but let’s be honest this is never going to happen during the week (and it’s probably better for our waistlines that it doesn’t). Something a bit speedier is in order during the week. I’ve also never had a regular go-to breakfast of choice – I remember once going through a cucumber on crackers phase as a kid. I never said I wasn’t a weird child…but then who was a normal child, right?!…

So on to breakfast solutions! Smoothies are a tasty and quick option, and I always have a bag or two of frozen fruit in the freezer. For a more substantial meal, and if I have an extra few minutes when getting ready, then I might make an egg-based breakfast (usually a poached or boiled egg with toast) or if I’ve been even better prepared the night before then overnight oats are very convenient come morning. But for an in-between breakfast, both quick and filling, granola is one of my favourite options right now. As with all my recipes, adjust this granola to your own tastes. Slivers of dried coconut would be a lovely addition, and use any dried fruit you like: raisins, sultanas, cranberries, blueberries, cherries, strawberries, chopped apricots or figs or pineapple, mango, apple, banana chips…

A little note on agave nectar: I’d had a bottle in the cupboard for a couple of years. I think I bought it when it was going through its health superfood phase, but never quite knew what to do with it. In fact, agave nectar is no better for you than other sugar products like honey (it’s actually quite high in fructose), but it works well in this recipe as it’s light and not as sticky as honey. A bit of both seems to do the trick in terms of both texture and flavour. On the other hand, agave nectar is plant-based so perfect for vegans – if that’s your concern then just replace the honey with extra agave nectar.
Ingredients for homemade fruit and nut granola
Ingredients (makes one large jar or tub of granola)
1 tbsp sunflower or vegetable oil
100ml agave nectar
50ml honey
1 tsp vanilla extract
400g porridge oats
100g flaked almonds
150g dried fruit of your choice

Method
1. Preheat the oven to 160C/140C fan/Gas Mark 3. Measure out the liquids (oil, agave nectar, honey and vanilla extract) and mix.
Honey, agave nectar and vanilla extract
2. Place the oats in a large bowl and pour over the wet mixture, mixing well to coat the oats.
Plain oats for homemade fruit and nut granola

Adding the liquids to the oats for homemade fruit and nut granola
3. Stir through the flaked almonds.
Adding the flaked almonds to the granola mixture
Mixing the flaked almonds through the granola mixture
4. Spread the oats out onto two large baking trays – don’t pile them any thicker than about half an inch so they cook evenly in the oven.
Spreading the granola mixture on a tray for baking
5. Bake for 15 minutes until just starting to turn golden brown (keep an eye on the trays while they’re in the oven as they can catch and burn quickly). Leave to cool for 10 minutes on the trays.
Baked homemade fruit and nut granola
6. Tip the granola back into your large bowl, breaking it into small chunks.
Breaking up the baked nut granola
7. Stir through the dried fruit.
Adding dried fruit to the granola
Mixing dried fruit through the granola
8. Pack the granola into a large jar or tupperware tub.
Jar of homemade fruit and nut granola
The granola will keep for weeks in an airtight container. Serve with your choice of fruit, yogurt or milk for a filling breakfast – some accompaniment ideas here (stewed apples and plums) and here (stewed rhubarb).
Homemade fruit and nut granola with yogurt, raspberries and stewed rhubarb
Happy breakfasting!

Toad in the hole with onion gravy

Pouring onion gravy over toad in the hole
Toad in the hole is one of those inexplicably odd British phrases and no one really knows where the name comes from. A lot of people think that it comes from the idea that the sausages look like frogs peaking up through the batter…..I know, weird. But there is not really any evidence for this, and there is not a consensus on the correct origin. In the end, who really cares about the name when basically it gives us an excuse to combine Yorkshire puddings and meat in one dish. That’s all that toad in the hole is: Yorkshire pudding batter poured over golden sausages (or traditionally just cheap cuts of meat). It’s easy and quick enough for a weekday dinner, but also a nice idea for Sunday dinner since you don’t have to make individual Yorkshire puddings, which can be a bit of a faff.

Use whatever sausages you like in this dish – flavoursome types with lots of herbs or spices will give a lot of extra flavour, but whatever you have in the house will work. Apple is the perfect accompaniment to pork and the chunks of apple in the batter soften during cooking to give bursts of soft, sweet flavour. And, of course, we couldn’t have toad in the hole without a rich onion gravy to smother over the top.
Ingredients for toad in the hole and onion gravy
Ingredients (serves 3-4)
1 egg
100g flour
300ml milk
8 sausages
1 apple, cut into wedges
Vegetable oil

1 tbsp olive oil
Small knob of butter
1 large white onion, thinly sliced
1 tsp soft brown sugar
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
Small glass of red wine
1 tbsp corn flour
600ml beef stock
1 tsp red currant jelly

Method
1. To make the batter, mix the egg into the flour with a little of the milk until you have a thick paste. Slowly pour in the rest of the milk and whisk until smooth. Add a pinch of salt and leave aside for later – you can make this a couple of hours in advance and just cover with a dish towel.
Ingredients for the yorkshire pudding mixture
Mixing the flour and egg for a yorkshire pudding mix
Yorkshire pudding mixture for toad in the hole
2. Preheat the oven to 200C fan/220C/Gas Mark 7. In a roasting tray, toss the sausages and apple chunks with a few tablespoons of oil and roast for about 15 minutes until the sausages start to brown.
Sausages and apples for roasting
Pour the batter into the hot oil and put the tray back in the oven for 35-40 minutes until the batter has risen and is cooked through.
Roasted sausages and apple wedges
3. Heat the olive oil and butter in a pan and add the sliced onion. Cook on a very low heat for 15-20 minutes until the onions have started to become golden.
Softening the onions in butter and olive oil
Browning the onions in olive oil and butter
4. Add the sugar and cook for a further 5 minutes.
Adding brown sugar to the onions
5. Pour in the vinegar and wine and turn up the heat a little so the liquid bubbles away for about 3-5 minutes until it’s a syrupy consistency.
Adding balsamic vinegar and red wine to the gravy
6. Mix in the corn flour and cook for 30 seconds. Slowly add the stock and simmer until the gravy has reached the consistency you like. At the end drop in the red currant jelly and mix until it’s all melted into the gravy.
Onion gravy
With meat and carbohydrates combined into one dish, toad in the hole is pretty filling so I think that some vegetables are all that’s needed on the side – along with the onion gravy of course. However, I won’t argue with you if you want to serve up some mashed or roasted potatoes too.
Sunday dinner
Classic comfort food for Sunday dinners or cold winter nights.

Pasta Carbonara

Pasta carbonara served with steamed vegetables
Pasta carbonara is one of our staple weekday meals. It’s quick (it will be ready in the time it takes to boil the pasta), easy (the main techniques here are boiling, frying and mixing) and uses mostly store cupboard ingredients (dried pasta, dried chilli flakes, frozen peas). It’s also a handy meal to make after the weekend when you might have some extra bacon or eggs lying around that need using up.

We were taught this recipe by close family friends and have stuck incredibly faithfully to it ever since. This is a no-cream carbonara, which I gather is a more traditional Italian method (though please do correct me if I’m wrong). The sauce is made purely from beaten eggs, which do not require heating over the stove, but simply cook enough from the residual heat of the bacon and pasta. The only alteration we’ve made to the recipe is to add peas to the pasta water near the end of cooking – a suggestion by Jamie Oliver in one of his books (I forget which one!). The sweet peas are a lovely addition to the salty, creamy pasta and a good excuse to get some extra veggies in.
Ingredients for pasta carbonara
Ingredients (serves 2)
200g dried spaghetti or linguine
4-6 slices of streaky bacon
1-2 garlic cloves, crushed or finely chopped
Chilli flakes
Small handful of frozen peas
A large handful of grated parmesan
2 eggs, well beaten
Salt and pepper
Olive oil

Method
1. Put a pan of water on to boil and season generously with salt. Cook the pasta according to the pack instructions (if you’re using fresh pasta then leave this until the last five minutes).
2. Chop the bacon into small pieces. You can use a sharp knife, but kitchen scissors make the job much quicker and easier.
Chopped streaky bacon for spaghetti carbonara
3. Heat a little olive oil in a frying pan and add the garlic and a pinch of chilli. Mix in the hot oil for a few seconds.
Frying garlic and chilli in olive oil for pasta carbonara
4. Add the bacon and continue to cook until crisp. Turn the heat to low, or even off, once the bacon is cooked to your liking, to avoid burning while the pasta finishes boiling.
Frying garlic and chilli in olive oil for pasta carbonara
Bacon fried in garlic and chilli
5. Add the peas to the pasta water for the final 3 minutes of cooking.
6. Drain the pasta and return to the pan, adding the bacon and a handful of grated parmesan. Mix well.
Mixing the crispy bacon and grated parmesan with the cooked spaghetti
7. Slowly add the egg, mixing as you go – a helper in the kitchen is useful at this point! Season to taste with a little salt and a generous amount of freshly ground black pepper.
Mixing the crispy bacon and grated parmesan with the cooked spaghetti
Pasta carbonara served with steamed vegetables
Serve with a green salad or some steamed vegetables, or if you’re having one of those days when only double-carbs will do then some garlic bread might be required. A little extra grated parmesan for sprinkling on top is nice too.
Spaghetti carbonara topped with grated parmesan and served with steamed vegetables
Once you’ve got to grips with this recipe, which I guarantee won’t take long, you can adjust the taste to suit your preferences. Use smoky bacon instead of regular, add extra chilli or garlic, or throw in some sliced mushrooms that are lurking in the fridge. A perfect weeknight dinner.

Stuffed courgettes

Stuffed courgettes with tomatoes, basil and parmesan
Courgette season is still very much underway, as was evidenced by the gigantic courgette that my dad brought home from his allotment this week. With a glut of regular-sized courgettes already in the house, he offered this vegetable goliath to me, and of course I gladly accepted. Such a magnificent beast needed a fitting recipe, and keeping it (essentially) whole seemed like a nice way to cook it.

This recipe was inspired by a dish that lovely friends of ours made at a dinner party a couple of years ago. I didn’t have the exact recipe to hand, so this is a loose interpretation of the original incarnation, but I remembered the inside of the courgette being stuffed back into the filling, I remembered tomatoes being invited to the party, and I remembered two types of cheeses going in there. Let’s be honest, I mainly remembered the two types of cheese. Then garlic had to be added, as it is to basically all of our food in this household, and then a few herbs which work well with both courgettes and tomatoes made an appearance too. Although it may have deviated from the initial recipe we ate a few years ago, I’m very pleased with the results: a vibrant, vegetarian* dish packed with summery tastes.
*Excuse the parmesan! Use a substitute if you’re very strictly veggie.
Ingredients for vegetarian stuffed courgettes
Ingredients (serves 2 as a main course, or 4-6 as a starter)
1 very large courgette
2 large ripe tomatoes
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp dried thyme
1-2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped or crushed
Small handful basil leaves, roughly chopped
2 mozzarella balls
Small handful grated parmesan
Salt and pepper
Good quality olive oil

Method
1. Preheat the oven to 180C fan/200C/Gas Mark 6.
2. Halve the courgette lengthways, so that both halves can sit steadily cut-side up. Use a spoon to scoop out the soft flesh, leaving at least 1-2cm of skin around the outside, but don’t throw away the insides – roughly chop the flesh and place in a large bowl.
Scooping the flesh out the courgette and leaving aside for stuffing later
3. Use a pastry brush to spread a thin layer of oil on both the outside and the inside of the cut out courgette. Season both sides generously with salt and pepper and place on a large baking tray.
Oiling and seasoning the courgette skins ready for stuffing
4. Remove the seeds from the tomatoes and chop into small pieces. Add to the courgette flesh, along with the oregano, thyme and chopped garlic and basil. Mix well.
Ingredients for the courgette  stuffing
Stuffing for the courgettes
5. Chop the mozzarella into small cubes and stir through the stuffing, seasoning to taste with salt and pepper.
Chopped mozzarella for courgette stuffing
Courgette stuffing with mozzarella added
6. Pack the stuffing inside the courgette skins – don’t be afraid to pile this high, as it will melt and sink in the oven.
Stuffing the courgette skins
Stuffing the courgette skins
7. Sprinkle with parmesan cheese and drizzle with a little extra olive oil.
Topping the stuffed courgettes with parmesan
8. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the skins are tender and the stuffing is golden brown. Cooking times will depend on the size of your courgettes – if your vegetables aren’t quite as giant as this one was then reduce the cooking time by at least 10 minutes (baby courgettes will need as little as 8-10 minutes in the oven).
Stuffed courgettes
We had these as a vegetarian main course, served with some paprika-spiced sweet potato wedges, but this is a great dish to have as a starter. Find some mini courgettes at the shop and serve up one per person for a cute and tasty start to a late-summer meal.
Stuffed courgette served with sweet potato wedges
What’s your favourite way to cook courgettes? Grilled, stuffed, sautéed…?

Fresh Pesto

Homemade fresh basil pesto
There is something utterly intoxicating about the smell of fresh pesto: the fragrant scents of basil and pine nut oil, mixing with the heady smell of garlic and the pungency of parmesan is enough to drive me c-razy. I really think I could eat an entire batch with a spoon, straight from the blender container. Spread it on some toasted sourdough and top with cherry tomatoes: divine. Stir it through fresh pasta and sprinkle with extra parmesan: I’m in food heaven. Obviously you can use whatever pasta you like – fresh egg pasta from the shop or just dried store-cupboard pasta. But if you’re feeling like a real treat then you can follow my recipe for homemade pasta dough. I cut the pasta on the thinnest setting, because it reminds me of the fresh pasta that my parents would always buy from a local Italian deli when we had fresh pesto for dinner, and that makes me happy.

To call this a recipe is really a gross exaggeration. We’re basically grabbing a pile of ingredients and letting the blender do all the work. I’ve given you the rough quantities that I used in our pesto on Sunday, but there’s no right answer here and it can change from batch to batch. This is my mum’s recipe and her classic answer to a question about quantities is “some”, which tells you all you need to know about making pesto. You can make your pesto personal to your own taste by adjusting the amounts of all the different flavours after the first blend. You can even go fancy and toast the pine nuts or add other green leaves like rocket, but in my opinion this is the best version of pesto. Ever. Keep it simple folks.

The only secret here is good quality ingredients: use the best olive oil and parmesan that you have or can afford and it will lift the flavour of the pesto by an unimaginable amount. You will need a surprising amount of basil leaves, and so it’s probably most economical to buy a couple of plants from the supermarket, cut most of the leaves off to use in the first batch, but keep enough on the plant so that you can water it and bring it back to life: hey presto, pesto all summer!
Ingredients for homemade basil pesto
Ingredients (makes a generous serving for 4)
Basil leaves from 2 – 2½ plants (or 2-3 small bunches of basil)
3 small handfuls of pine nuts
2 small handfuls of grated parmesan
3 crushed garlic cloves
4-6 tbsp good quality olive oil
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper

Method
1. Cut the leaves from the basil plant, or from the stalks if you are using bunches of picked basil. Squash the leaves inside the blender container and top with the pine nuts, parmesan, garlic, olive oil and a generous amount of seasoning.
Ingredients to be blended for fresh basil pesto
Ingredients to be blended for fresh basil pesto
2. Blend until smooth. Taste to check the seasoning and adjust as you like.
Blended homemade basil pesto
Blended homemade basil pesto
Use on the day of making, or you can put it in a jar or tupperware container, drizzle the surface with olive oil and store in the fridge for at least a week.
Homemade fresh basil pesto
We had the pesto with my homemade tagliolini, and a simple green salad. With a bottle of wine and some lovely company, it was the perfect Sunday dinner.
Pesto, homemade pasta and salad for dinner
Homemade tagliolini with fresh pesto and salad
Do you have your own pesto recipe? What do you do differently?

Braised Spring Vegetables (La Vignarola)

La Vignarola (spring vegetable stew)
For the last few weeks I have been craving…vegetables. Now, before we fall out, I just want to reassure you that I’m not a total freak and also crave things like pizza, blue cheese, chocolate and salt and vinegar crisps (not all at the same time…probably). But right now, my current craving is for fresh, crisp, colourful veggies. I think it’s because I’m aware that summer is just around the corner, ready to bring with it such glorious presents as lettuce, peas in the pod, asparagus stalks, courgettes and globe artichokes.

One of my absolute favourite food blogs is Manger, written by the exquisite Mimi Thorisson. Literally, exquisite. I haven’t yet made nearly enough of her incredible looking recipes, but each one that I have made has been perfect: rustic, indulgent and utterly scrumptious. I’ve had her spring vegetable stew (La Vignarola) bookmarked for well over 6 months now, and finally had the chance to cook it last week. Unfortunately, in my impatience to make it, I was a little early for the Scottish artichoke and pea season, so I had to improvise with the fresh vegetables that I could get my hands on. Luckily asparagus is already available in abundance here, and our local market store had a large basket of broad beans. It was exciting to cook with lettuce for the first ever time and I completely adored the result. I have to confess that Ross wasn’t convinced, but I’ll put that down to his inferior taste buds…
Ingredients for La Vignarola (spring vegetable stew)
Ingredients (serves 2-3 as a side dish)
Large bag of fresh broad beans in the pod (about 300g podded beans)
1 little gem lettuce
2 spring onions
200g asparagus
1 tsp olive oil
100g pancetta or smoked bacon
½ lemon
Small bunch parsley, finely chopped
Small bunch mint, finely chopped

Method
1. Pod the broad beans and set aside for later. I find podding beans and peas truly relaxing. It’s a slow, methodical task that should be savoured and, ideally, done outside perched on the back-door step. As we don’t have a garden I threw open the windows and put the radio on. To my surprise, as I snapped open some of the pods, inside the velvet cocoons were lilac and deep purple beans. I have no idea why this is –the variety of bean, the stage of picking, or something else altogether…if anyone can enlighten me I would love to know!…
Quarter the gem lettuce, slice the spring onions and chop the asparagus into chunks.
Prepared spring vegetables for La Vignarola (spring vegetable stew)
2. Sauté the pancetta in a little olive oil until starting to crisp.
Frying the smoked pancetta for La Vignarola (spring vegetable stew)
3. Add the spring onions and continue to fry for 30 seconds.
Frying smoked pancetta and spring onions for La Vignarola (spring vegetable stew)
4. Add the asparagus and broad beans to the pan with 4-6 tbsp water and cook for a few minutes.
Adding the asparagus to La Vignarola (spring vegetable stew)
5. Nestle the lettuce amongst the other vegetables, cut side down, cover with a lid and cook for 10 minutes or until the vegetables are all tender. You can turn the lettuce half way through if you wish.
Adding the little gem lettuce to La Vignarola (spring vegetable stew)
6. Sprinkle a little lemon juice over the vegetables and stir through the chopped herbs and some seasoning to taste.
La Vignarola (spring vegetable stew) served with rosemary and garlic lamb shanks and mint sauce
We served this dish as an accompaniment to our lamb shanks with mint sauce. It is the ideal side dish for a spring roast, but is actually generous and tasty enough to be the main event, perhaps served with some soft goats cheese and crusty bread. I think that in the original recipe Mimi served it as a starter, which would be a lovely idea for a special summer meal.

I was blown away by this recipe. The vegetables take centre stage and the last minute addition of lemon juice and herbs brings the dish to life with a zesty, aromatic flavour. I’m hoping to make this recipe many more times this summer, and am especially looking forward to using fresh peas, broad beans and artichokes from dad’s allotment, as the dish was supposed to include. If you’re going to make this recipe yourself, I wouldn’t worry if you can’t find the same vegetables as myself or Mimi – just use the best seasonal vegetables available to you and it will be stunning.

Garlic and Coriander Naan Bread

Homemade garlic and coriander naan breads served with chicken and mushroom curry
Bread can be a little scary. The combination of yeast, kneading, proving and shaping can seem daunting, but for some reason I have always been able to handle naan bread. Maybe it’s the fact that it only needs one prove, the ease in shaping at the end, or just the delicious results that encourage me.

I spent yet another day waiting in for new-flat-related visits (this time for the washing machine engineer) and so instead of serving up rice with our curry that night, I made the effort to do naan breads. And actually, such little effort it was. I haven’t made naans for a while and had forgotten just how easy they are. I used this recipe from BBC Food, but decided to take it that extra mile with some flavoured butter on top. Ross’ dad, the king of naans, always grills his with butter and they end up looking amazing, so I thought I’d give it a go myself. Naughty, I know, but worth it. Ross and I eat enormous amounts of garlic, so maybe just use ½-1 clove if you’re not as obsessed as we are. It does keep the vampires away though.
Ingredients for homemade garlic and coriander naan bread
Ingredients (makes 2 small naans)
½ tsp dried active yeast
½ tsp sugar
½ tbsp warm water
100g plain flour
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp baking powder
½ tbsp sunflower oil
1 tbsp natural yogurt
1 tbsp milk

30g butter, softened
1-2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
Small bunch of fresh coriander, finely chopped
Salt and pepper

Method
1. Mix the yeast with the sugar and warm water and leave somewhere warm for 5 minutes.
Yeast mixed with sugar and warm water and left to activate
2. Measure out the flour, salt and baking powder into a large bowl.
Dry ingredients for homemade garlic and coriander naan breads
3. Add the yogurt, milk and oil and mix with a wooden spoon.
Adding the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients for homemade garlic and coriander naan breads
4. Add the yeast mixture and mix well. Tip the “dough” out onto your work surface – just now it will be a very crumbly texture.
Dough mixture for homemade garlic and coriander naan breads
Dough for homemade garlic and coriander naan breads
5. Bring the dough together into a ball. This may take a while, but stick at it, I promise it will work. Keep kneading for 10 minutes until you have a smooth dough.
Dough for homemade garlic and coriander naan breads
6. Place the ball of dough back in the mixing bowl and cover with cling film and a dish cloth or towel. Leave in a nice warm place for 1-2 hours to allow the dough to rise.
7. Meanwhile mash the soft butter with the garlic and coriander and season to taste.
Flavoured butter for homemade garlic and coriander naan breads
8. Once your dough has risen, cut in half and roll out on a lightly floured surface. I don’t yet have a rolling pin so used a full soda water bottle, but a wine bottle does the trick just as well!
Homemade garlic and coriander naan breads to be grilled
9. Grill the naans on high (about 180C) for a few minutes on one side, then turn and spread with the flavoured butter. Pop them back under the grill for a couple of minutes until the butter is bubbling.

Serve with your curry of choice – we had chicken and mushroom.
Homemade garlic and coriander naan breads served with chicken and mushroom curry
A word of warning: this makes two small naans. Definitely enough as a side to a weekday meal, but if you’re feeding more than 2, or have a big appetite then make sure you increase the quantities. Ross’ one comment on the dish (“feedback for next time”, apparently) was “bigger”. So I guess we’re on to a winner…