Filling back to school bellies

Meatballs in tomato sauce

Well ‘back to school’ time is almost upon us again. Every year I feel torn at this time between the craziness of summer with the kids and the comfort of the routine of school. I have to be honest and say that there was a time when I didn’t think much of the notion of having a dinner plan for the school week. I used to think that it would take too much time to do and took the spontaneity out of food. Then, of course, as the kids came along and got a bit older, I learn that ‘spontaneity’ was a luxury that ironically, someone with time would have!

This last school year, I found it not only invaluable but absolutely essential to plan the week of dinners in advance. If I didn’t I found that I either had nothing really to cook when I got home or I would spend too much money buying ingredients for one-off meals that hadn’t been properly thought through. This ultimately meant a lot of waste in the kitchen aswell. I suppose this is all just about good housekeeping but for me, I didn’t really learn what that meant until the kids came along. You don’t want hungry tired children finishing school with no dinner in sight. Life is too short for that!

The weekly dinner menu does get predicable but they are all dinners that are made from scratch, made relatively quickly, have plenty of vegetables and flavour at their core and the kids love them. Our meals include the predictable spaghetti bolognaise, chilli, chicken curry, pork meatballs and pasta, homemade fish fingers with potato wedges and veggie frittata (which is basically a massive omelette containing vegetables mainly potatoes).

Monday’s dinner is always based on leftovers from the Sunday roast. If we’ve had roast chicken, the leftover chicken (you’d be surprised how much meat you can get off the carcase) is bulked up with plenty of vegetables to make a chicken curry. This could even be done on the Sunday evening but that’s always been wistful thinking on my part.

The kids’ favourite is meatballs in tomato sauce. We use our own Fennel and chilli meatballs from the shop but you could use a good sausage that has the flavours that you want to taste in the finished sauce. Our hot Italian sausage does the job well as does Jane Russell’s Fennel and chilli sausage. Find a highly flavoured sausage with high meat content that your family likes. You could fry off the sausages directly and roughly chop them or use the sausage meat as follows.

For a meal for 4 there is plenty in 500g of sausage meat. Squeeze the meat from the casings into a bowl – kids love doing this! Smell the meat. If it seems to be lacking on the aroma front you can add some finely chopped red chilli or garlic to your taste, a teaspoon of cayenne pepper and maybe a tablespoon of ground fennel. Mix well with your hands and form into meatballs. Colour the meatballs gently in the bottom of your casserole pot. They don’t need to be fully cooked through but just firmed. Add a finely chopped medium onion at this point. When the onion is softened a little, add a full 700g jar of passata. Find a brand that doesn’t have sugar listed in its ingredients. It should only contain sieved tomatoes and a little salt. Let the pot bubble away for about 30 minutes on a very gently heat. If you have good sausage meat with plenty of flavour either in it or added, these flavours will leech out into the tomato sauce. Finally, to add some extra fibre, strain a 400g tin of Barlotti beans and add towards the end to heat through. Once cooked, taste and check for seasoning. If the passata you’ve used is a bit acidic, you might want to add a teaspoon or two of sugar to balance the flavour. This is actually a very quick dinner to make and there is always a queue for seconds!

 

 

First published in The Western People on 24th August 2015.

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Our appetite for the weather

 

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I always knew Irish people had an unusually extensive preoccupation with the weather, but it didn’t quite sink in until we opened the shop. Maybe it goes back to Oiche na Gaoithe Móire and the terror of that and other climatic catastrophes affected our DNA to the extent that we are now concerned daily about the weather past, present and future. My grandfather used to say he remembered ‘The Night of the Big Wind’ well, despite the fact it happened on the 6th January 1839!

The thing is, I now realise my own preoccupation with the weather and that I do at least, think every day about the coming forecast if for different reasons. I’m probably in the minority but I love the long cold windy winter nights because for me that means comfort food. Stews and braises can be amazing if given their time. My favourite stew is a rich wholesome shin of beef with marrow bone. Long winter nights doesn’t always have to be about slow cooking though. A recipe that we love in our house is the traditional bangers and mash, with compulsory red onion gravy. It is cooked in the length of time it takes to boil the spuds.

We use good herby Cumberland sausage for this but you can also use a traditional one. Buy the best sausage that you can afford. Sausages have for too long, been predominantly seen as a cheap source of meat in this country and the UK. Our European neighbours, on the other hand, have always respected sausage- making as an important and integral part of a butcher’s repertoire and have taken great care in their production.  We have some wonderful sausages in this country now with some butcher shops developing and making their own, farmers making top quality sausages direct for their market stall and also more widely available brands such as Jane Russell’s and of course, Kelly’s of Newport.

Note: The onion gravy recipe is a version of a Jamie Oliver recipe. I would recommend you choose the best stock you can find as some have a lot of salt and flavourings.

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This recipe serves 4

You will need:

Enough sausages for 4 people – 2 jumbo sausages per person should be plenty

Oil such as rapeseed

2kg/4 ½ lb. potatoes, peeled

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

300ml or just over ½ pint of milk

115g / 4oz butter

4 medium red onions, peeled and finely sliced

5 tablespoons of balsamic OR red wine vinegar

Beef or chicken stock

What to do:

Preheat the oven to 200⁰C / 400⁰F / gas 6.

Place the sausages in an ovenproof dish and drizzle with a little olive oil to coat. Place in the preheated oven for 20 minutes or until golden brown.

While the sausages are cooking, boil or steam the peeled potatoes until tender. Drain, and return to the saucepan. Mash until smooth. Add the milk and about 70g/2½ oz. of the butter.

OPTIONAL EXTRAS FOR MASHED POTATOES – You can make an extra special mash at this point by adding a few dollops of wholegrain mustard OR 2 or 3 tablespoons of freshly grated horseradish. Both varieties work well with this recipe.

Season the mashed potatoes well to taste and keep warm.

To make the onion gravy, fry the onions very slowly in a little oil with the lid on for about 15 minutes until soft. Remove the lid and turn the heat up. As soon as the onions start to get golden, add the vinegar and boil until it has almost disappeared. Turn the heat down again, add the rest of your butter and add 565ml/1 pint of stock. Stir well. Let this simmer until you have a nice gravy consistency.

To serve, dollop some creamy potatoes onto a plate, chop your sausages in half and place on top. Finally spoon over the onion gravy.

And there you have a plate of pure rib-sticking comfort.  All that’s left to do then is to talk about how cold it is outside!

 

(This article appeared in The Western People under the title ‘Cold wintry nights mean one thing: Comfort Food’ on 16th March 2015.)