Minestrone

This traditional Italian soup is perfect for lunch or a light dinner in the cooler months of the year. Make a big pot at the weekend and serve it for lunch or dinner a couple of times through the week, or take some to work to reheat in the microwave.

There are as many recipes for minestrone as there are for bolognese sauce, so to a certain extent you can just use what you have on hand. Onion, garlic, carrot, tomato and celery are the basic essentials, while the other vegetables are mostly optional. If you have it in the fridge add it, but don’t make a special trip to the shops just to buy one zucchini or one potato.

In the minestrone I made for the photo I didn’t add any potato, zucchini, leek or spinach/cabbage. I did add frozen peas and the kernels from a cob of fresh corn which needed using up. The spiral pasta is bigger than the size I usually use in minestrone, but it’s what I had in the pantry. Vegetarians can just leave out the bacon.

Served topped with grated Parmesan and some crusty bread or toast, it’s guaranteed to warm the cockles of your heart, as my Irish grandmother used to say. In other words, it will give you a warm fuzzy feeling.

2 Tbs olive oil
1-2 onions, peeled and diced
1 leek, trimmed and diced (optional)
3-4 carrots, peeled and diced
2-3 celery stalks, diced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2-3 rashers bacon, diced (optional)
Kernels from 1 cob corn, or one zucchini, diced
2 cups frozen peas
2 cups shredded spinach or cabbage
1 large potato, peeled and diced (optional)
2 tsp dried oregano
2 tsp dried thyme
1 can cannellini beans, drained (or another bean)
2 x 400g cans tomatoes, whizzed in food processor
1 Tbs tomato paste
2 Tbs sherry (optional)
2 litres chicken or vegetable stock (or water + 2 stock cubes)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2-3 tsp sugar
200-250g small pasta
To serve:
Grated Parmesan cheese
Chopped fresh parsley

Heat olive oil in a large heavy-based saucepan, then add bacon and the diced vegetables, but not the frozen peas and spinach/cabbage. Cook, stirring often, for 10 minutes or until vegetables are al dente.

Add the rest of the ingredients, bring to the boil, then simmer until the pasta is cooked. Add more water as required and check for seasoning.

Serve the soup topped with grated Parmesan cheese and chopped parsley, with fresh bread or toast.

Keeps in the fridge for 4-5 days and improves in flavour. Add water as necessary on reheating, if the soup appears to be too thick.

About 8 servings

Chinese Sesame Noodles with Eggplant

These Chinese Sesame Noodles with Eggplant always leave me thinking that if I had to be a vegetarian, this is one of the dishes I would make often. Some vegetarian dishes are satisfying and others just don’t hit the spot.

The original version came from Australian cook Belinda Jeffery, cooking presenter on the TV show Better Homes and Gardens for many years. I’ve been making it for over 20 years and yes I’ve tweaked it slightly (I know, I’m incorrigible) and added the optional pine nuts which were suggested by Matthew.

Served at room temperature it’s perfect for a shared buffet or as a light family dinner. Also great for lunch boxes.

This week’s recipe is especially for Moya and John and my brother David.

2 large eggplants, cut into 1cm thick slices
3 spring onions, sliced finely on the diagonal
125g bean sprouts
A good handful chopped fresh coriander
450g fresh noodles (Hokkien or Singapore)
Lightly toasted pine nuts to garnish (optional)
Basting mixture:
2 Tbs sesame oil
2 Tbs olive oil
3 Tbs soy sauce
2 Tbs vinegar
¼ cup sugar
1 small red chilli, finely chopped (with or without seeds, up to you)
2 tsp finely chopped or grated fresh ginger (I tend to use more, like double!)
1 large clove garlic crushed

Cook noodles according to packet directions and drain. Preheat oven to 200°C. Mix basting ingredients. Arrange eggplants on two large shallow baking trays lined with baking paper. Brush both sides with the basting mixture. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until tender, brushing them again about halfway through the cooking time.

When eggplant is cool enough to handle cut into quarters, halves or thick slices and mix with remaining basting mixture. In a large shallow serving dish mix the eggplants with the noodles, bean sprouts, spring onions and coriander, keeping a little for decoration. Taste and add some extra olive oil or soy sauce, if necessary. Garnish with the reserved coriander and a few toasted pine nuts (optional, but they do add a nice bit of crunch) and serve warm or at room temperature.

Serves 4

Tilly’s Ginger Nuts

My mother-in-law’s sister, Tilly Archer, gave me this recipe for ginger nuts when I was newly-married and recently arrived in Australia.

Tilly was a sprightly lady in her late seventies when I met her and she was always busy – baking, making preserves, gardening and travelling. She said the secret to longevity was that she didn’t have time to die, her diary was too full. This philosophy certainly worked for Tilly who lived to a ripe old age.

Tilly had a fabulous garden and gave me lots of tips on flower arranging, back in the days when arrangements were more formal and less natural-looking. I was very chuffed when I won first prize with my arrangement at the annual horticultural show.

These super-crunchy biscuits are perfect with a cup of tea or coffee or to pack in school lunch boxes. Kids love them. Oh by the way, I made them once and forgot to add the bicarbonate of soda. They don’t work.

125g butter
¾ cup sugar
¼ cup golden syrup
1 egg, beaten
325g self-raising flour
4 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

Preheat oven to 180°C. Using a medium-sized saucepan, gently heat butter, sugar and golden syrup. Stir until butter melts and sugar dissolves. Cool for 15 minutes then add the beaten egg and remaining ingredients, sifted and mix well.

While still warm, pinch off pieces of dough the size of a large walnut and roll into balls. Place on oven trays (greased or lined with non-stick baking paper) allowing space for spreading. Depending on the size of your trays you will fit 12 or 16 on each.  Press each ball once in the middle with a finger or a fork to flatten a bit. Bake for 10 minutes, or until deep golden brown. Cool then store in an airtight tin.

Makes 35-40

Baked Fish Fillets with Barley Stuffing

This recipe is adapted from one I found on the New Zealand website Mind Food, which is linked to the magazine of the same name.

Barley is an underrated ingredient, but we love its nutty texture which lends itself to all kinds of recipes where you might normally use rice.

The original recipe for these stuffed fish fillets (actually they’re sandwiched together rather than stuffed) uses two large snapper fillets and serves 4-6. My version is about half the recipe, using two smaller fillets, which serves 2-4, depending on appetites. If you can’t find snapper, any firm-fleshed fish fillets would work.

Having made this recipe I think you could get away without the string. Just sandwich the fillets together with the stuffing and pack the rest around.

2 fish fillets weighing about 250g each
2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbs lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Barley Stuffing:
½ cup pearl barley
2 Tbs pine nuts, lightly toasted
½ small onion (red or brown), finely chopped
½ preserved lemon, flesh discarded, rind chopped
2 tsp salted baby capers
50g feta cheese, crumbled
¼ cup chopped mint
¼ cup chopped parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

For the stuffing, cook barley in boiling salted water for 30-40 minutes, or until tender. Drain well then mix with remaining ingredients.

Preheat oven to 200°C. Place one fish fillet on a baking tray lined with baking paper. Season on both sides then cover with the barley stuffing. Season the second fish fillet and arrange on top. Use kitchen string to tie the “sandwich” at 3-4cm intervals. Place any leftover barley stuffing around the fish package. Drizzle with 1 Tbs olive oil and lemon juice. Bake for 20 minutes, or until cooked through when tested with a fork or skewer.

Remove string and cut the fish downwards into between 2 and 4 servings. Drizzle the remaining tablespoon of olive oil around the fish. Serve with a green vegetable such as peas or beans.

Serves 3-4

 

Easy Peasy Salmon Sushi

Salmon sushi make a quick and tasty, not to mention healthy meal, especially if you make them using an ice cube tray. I made the rice cakes a bit too tall, so the ratio of rice to salmon wasn’t quite right. Next time I won’t fill the ice cube holes so full.

1 cup sushi rice
1¼ cups water
1-2 Tbs Mirin
1-2 Tbs Rice Wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
2 salmon fillets, skin removed
To serve:
Black sesame seeds
Wasabi paste
Soy sauce
Pickled Ginger
Sliced avocado

Place rice and water in a saucepan with a good pinch of salt and bring to the boil. Cover and turn down the heat as low as possible. If you have a heat diffuser use it under the pan. Cook rice for 15 minutes, then turn off the heat and let it sit for 15 minutes to continue cooking in the steam.

Oil an ice cube tray – I used a spray can. You may need more than one ice cube tray depending on how many holes it has. Fill with the rice, pushing down firmly, then refrigerate for a couple of hours or more.

To serve, tip out the rice cakes and arrange them on a serving tray. Thinly slice the salmon and drape a piece over each rice cake. Sprinkle with black sesame seeds.

Serve with wasabi paste, soy sauce, pickled ginger and sliced avocado.

Makes 16-20 sushi to serve 2-3 as a light meal or more as an aperitif.

Beef and Chestnut Casserole

When I was growing up in England in the 60s my mother regularly made a beef and chestnut casserole in winter, which we all loved.

She found the recipe on the back of an Oxo beef stock cube packet. Apart from beef, chestnuts and Oxo cubes I remember she added sherry or red wine, but I didn’t have the recipe. A couple of years ago I contacted the makers or Oxo cubes to see if they could help, but they couldn’t.

I decided to have a go at recreating this dish and here is the result. Simple but delicious. Served with mashed potatoes and a green vegetable it’s perfect for a winter gathering.

1.2kg lean beef (chuck steak, gravy beef) cut into 2cm cubes
2 Tbs plain flour
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 Tbs olive oil
2 large brown onions, chopped
2 beef Oxo cubes, crumbled (or use another brand)
1 cup dry sherry or red wine
1 Tbs fresh thyme leaves or 1 tsp dried
2-3 carrots, sliced (optional)
2-3 cups water
400g peeled chestnuts (see note below)
Chopped parsley to garnish

Mix beef with seasoned flour to coat thoroughly. Heat 1 Tbs oil in a large non-stick frying pan and brown the meat on both sides. Remove to a large casserole dish with a lid. Repeat with remaining beef and another Tbs of oil. Add to the casserole. Add the last Tbs oil to the frying pan and cook the onions, stirring often, until softened but not browned. Add to the casserole with the sherry or red wine, thyme, and carrots If using.

If you use fresh uncooked chestnuts you have peeled yourself add them now. If using cooked ones add them later.

Preheat oven to 150°C. Mix  2 cups of water into the casserole and bake for 2-3 hours or until meat is tender. Check and stir every hour or so and add more water if necessary. You want the casserole to be nice and thick. If using cooked chestnuts add them about half an hour before the casserole is ready.

If preferred, cook the casserole in a slow cooker for about 4 hours on High or 8 hours on Low. If using this method you will definitely need less water than when using an oven.

I like to make casseroles the day before serving as it improves the flavour. Reheat on the day with the addition of a little more water, if required.

Garnish with chopped parsley and serve with mashed potatoes (with lots of butter added) and a green vegetable.

Serve 6-8

Note: fresh chestnuts are fiddly to peel so I bought two 200g packets of peeled, cooked whole chestnuts made by a company called Cheznuts. At $12 a packet they’re not cheap but they were certainly convenient.

 

Baked Gnocchi with Tomatoes, Basil and Cheese

This is a very quick and easy dish to feed your kids or grandkids, using a packet of bought gnocchi.

It can be thrown together in no time at all, but if you feel like making your own gnocchi, by all means do so. I made it with the packet variety when a couple of the grandkids were coming for dinner and it was really quite tasty.

500g packet potato gnocchi
2 Tbs olive oil
250g cherry tomatoes, halved (or larger tomatoes, quartered)
125g fresh mozzarella, cut into chunks, or use small bocconcini balls
1 cup fresh basil leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup pine nuts (optional)
¾ cup cream
1 cup grated cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 200°C. Place gnocchi in a bowl, cover with boiling water and leave to stand for 2-3 minutes. Drain well. Tip gnocchi into a shallow lasagne-type dish. Add the olive oil and seasoning and mix well. Tuck the tomatoes, mozzarella chunks or bocconcini balls and most of the basil in between the gnocchi. Scatter the pine nuts over, drizzle with the cream and sprinkle with the grated cheddar.

Bake for 20-30 minutes or until golden brown and cooked. Garnish with remaining basil and serve with a green salad.

Serves 4

 

Flatbreads with Minted Yoghurt and Roast Vegetables

This recipe is adapted from one by Yotam Ottolenghi. The flatbreads are easy to make, but you could buy some Naan bread or wraps and use those instead. Any leftover flatbreads can be frozen. Just thaw and reheat briefly in a frying pan.

Flatbreads:
400g plain flour (see note below)
½ cup plain yoghurt
1 tsp salt
1 tsp dried yeast
180ml warm water
1 tsp sugar
Ghee (or oil and butter) for frying
Oven-Roasted vegetables
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp smoked paprika
Mint Yoghurt:
2 cups plain yoghurt
2 Tbs chopped mint
1 tsp lemon juice
1 Tbs olive oil
Good pinch of salt

Place flour and salt in food processor and add yoghurt. In a small bowl, mix yeast with warm water and sugar and leave to stand for 10 minutes until frothy. Add to the food processor and process until mixture forms a ball. If it seems too dry to form a ball add a bit more warm water, a tablespoon at a time with the motor running. Once dough has formed into a smooth ball, tip onto a lightly floured surface and form into a sausage shape. Cut into 8 even-sized pieces, then knead and roll each into a ball and place on a tray. Cover with a tea towel and leave for an hour and a half, or until doubled in size.

Meanwhile prepare the oven-roasted vegetables according to the recipe link, seasoning them before roasting with the cumin and paprika, as well as the oil, salt and pepper. Any mix of vegetables will do. You might like to add some tomatoes as in the photo.

Line a sieve with a piece of muslin or similar cloth (I use a man’s cotton handkerchief I keep for this purpose), scrape in the yoghurt and stand over a bowl so the liquid drains out. Leave for an hour or two or overnight in the fridge. Blitz mint, lemon juice, oil and salt in a mini-blender, spice grinder or use a mortar and pestle. Mix this paste into the strained yoghurt.

At serving time, on a lightly floured surface, roll out each flatbread ball thinly to form a circle about 25cm in diameter. Heat some ghee (or a drizzle of oil and a small piece of butter) in a large non-stick frying pan and cook flatbread on high for about 2 minutes each side. Keep warm in a low oven covered with a tea towel while you cook the rest, adding a little more ghee or oil and butter as required.

Serve flatbread spread with Mint Yoghurt and topped with warm roasted vegetables.

Makes 8 servings

Note: if available use half plain flour and half strong bread flour

Crispy Chicken Tray Bake

A perfect dish to serve at a family gathering. Adjust the quantity of ingredients according to how many people you are serving.

Make a big salad and buy some fresh crusty bread to soak up the juices. A tub of ice cream served with this quick and easy chocolate sauce and Bob’s your Uncle, as they say in the classics. Dinner’s served.

10-16 chicken pieces, bone-in, skin on
½ to 1kg small chat potatoes
1-2 large onions, halved then sliced
1-2 cloves garlic, crushed
150-200g rindless bacon, chopped
1-2 Tbs chopped fresh thyme (or 1-2 tsp dried)
½-¾ cup chicken stock
150-200ml cream
1-2 Tbs Dijon mustard
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
To serve:
Sprigs of fresh thyme

Trim chicken pieces of excess fat. Preheat oven to 200°C. Cut potatoes in half and arrange over the base of a large shallow baking dish or tin. Spread the onions, garlic and bacon evenly over the potatoes. Sprinkle with the thyme. Arrange chicken pieces over the top, skin side up and season with salt and pepper. Bake for 20 minutes.

Mix stock, cream and mustard and pour evenly over the chicken. Return to the oven for a further 30-40 minutes or until chicken is cooked and crispy and potatoes are tender.

Serves 8-12

Chocolate Brownie Cupcakes

A wet Saturday in early autumn seemed like a good time to make some cupcakes for afternoon tea. These decadent little chocolate brownie cupcakes hit the spot.

Cakes:
80g butter
180g dark chocolate, broken into squares
¾ cup sugar
3 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 cup plain flour
2 Tbs cocoa
1 tsp baking powder
Good pinch of salt
100g ground almonds (see note below)
Icing:
200g cream cheese, at room temperature
1 cup icing sugar
2 Tbs cocoa
100g dark chocolate, melted
To decorate (optional):
Chocolates or chocolate almonds

Preheat oven to 180°C. Place cupcake liners in a 12 hole muffin tray.

Cakes: place chocolate, butter and sugar in a bowl over simmering water and heat until just melted, stirring from time to time. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, the vanilla, the ground almonds and finally add the dry ingredients through a sieve and fold in thoroughly. Divide mixture between the cupcake liners and smooth the tops. Bake for 12-20 minutes or until risen and firm on top, but still a bit moist inside. Ovens vary and it’s best to err on the side of undercooking. Cool.

Icing: mix cream cheese with sifted icing sugar and cocoa, then lastly mix in the cooled, melted chocolate. Once they are cold, pipe or spread icing onto cakes and decorate as desired.

Makes 12 cupcakes

Substitutions: use butter or mascarpone instead of cream cheese in the icing.

Note: you can either buy the almond meal or make your own, which allows you to make it coarser than what you buy. Just blitz almonds, with or without skin (I used with) until fairly fine.