Mac Attack

Whoever wrote ‘comfort me with apples’* obviously didn’t ever sit down to a bowl of macaroni cheese. The Boy Wonder hates it, thanks to some traumatic childhood experience, so it has attained almost mythic fantasy food status for me because we never have it. In the weekend, when I was working and solo parenting and gardening and cleaning (and everyone else was partying, including our neighbours), I made some as a special treat. The Small Girl, being an avowed lover of all things pasta, adored it, but not as much as her exhausted, cheese-and-carbohydrate-craving, mother.

Instant Macaroni Cheese
This is essentially a Nigella Express recipe, but with a little less cheese – and no macaroni, because I use rigatoni or penne instead. The bigger shapes are better because they fill up with the sauce like miniature cannelloni. This quantity is perfect for one adult and one child, especially if the adult is ravenous. I know the evaporated milk makes it sound like one of those ‘4 Ingredients’ dishes I was snooty about last week, but trust me, it really is good. And there aren’t any dishes!

125g rigatoni or penne
1/2 cup evaporated milk (the ‘lite’ version is fine)
2-3 handfuls of grated cheddar
1 egg
pinch of smoked paprika and/or cayenne pepper
salt and pepper

a little extra grated cheese and some stale baguette, for crumbs

Preheat the oven to 200C. Cook the pasta in boiling salted water until al dente. While it’s cooking, mix all the other ingredients together in an ovenproof bowl big enough to take the pasta. Drain the pasta, then put it in the bowl with the cheese mixture and stir until it’s well coated. Sprinkle over the extra cheese and breadcrumbs. Bake for 10-15 minutes, until golden and crunchy on top. Be careful if giving this to a small child – the sauce is hotter than napalm.

What’s your stress-busting dish of choice?

* I do know who wrote ‘Comfort me with apples’ (for I am sick of love) you know. I don’t just sit around with my nose in a recipe book. (And it wasn’t Ruth Reichl, neither.)

Oh crumbs

The natural by-products of all this breadmaking I’ve been doing are crumbs and flour everywhere, especially when my constant kitchen companion asks if she can “help Mummy?” Flour I can cope with – it’s like silky dust – and crumbs underfoot are a small price to pay. But some weird genetic impulse to avoid wasting food also means our freezer has been filling up with small plastic bags full of crusts and the nobbly bits at the end of a loaf that are too chewy for the Small Girl to eat.

I decided I had enough of these bags in the weekend and blitzed several of them into amazingly delicious breadcrumbs that can be pressed onto thick pieces of white fish or scattered over pasta. You could, of course, use crusts from bought bread, but you won’t feel nearly as smug.

Posh Breadcrumbs
These transform the most boring dish into something a bit more exciting – such as the “emergency pasta sauce out of the freezer tossed through penne and put into the oven” dinner we had last night. They’re the breadcrumb equivalent of dangly earrings or a shiny new lipstick when you’re wearing an old t-shirt and harassed working mother frown.

A few decent handfuls of crusts and bread bits
A couple of cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
A handful or so of fresh parsley (out of your own garden for extra smugness)
Olive oil
Optional: stoned black olives, lemon zest, finely chopped chilli

Throw the crusts into a food processor and blitz them into crumbs (you can do this with frozen bread but it makes a hell of a racket). Add the garlic, parsley and optional extras (if using) and whiz again. Dribble in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and pulse to mix. You want the crumbs to be moistened, not a sticky paste.
Use as directed above. You can also freeze these crumbs and use them direct from the freezer. Bash them against the counter to break them up a bit if they’ve frozen into big clumps.

An unfashionable pasta salad

A couple of days of bad weather and I’ve started to panic that summer is already over – and that I haven’t made the most of it. Ridiculous really, because we should have another month or so of sunshine and barbecues and – with any luck – a proper holiday by the sea to come yet.

In the meantime, I’ve been digging out some old summer favourites. Seasonal recipes can be like clothes – what suited you one season might look terribly outdated the next – but this is still worth another whirl. It might be horribly out of date by the time the northern hemisphere summer rolls around, but the rest of you should give it a bash at your next barbie (mate)…

Nectarine Pasta Salad

Pasta salads might be a bit uncool and I know the ingredients for this sound unlikely, but I urge you to put your prejudices aside. It’s fantastic barbecue fodder as you can make it several hours beforehand and it goes really well with barbecued chicken pieces or pork kebabs. For best results, make sure the nectarines are perfectly ripe and don’t overcook the pasta. Serves six.

500 good quality penne or fusilli, cooked in plenty of boiling salted water until al dente (follow packet directions if you’re unsure) and drained

3 carrots, peeled and cut into julienne strips

1 kg yellow-flesh nectarines, cut into wedges

4 spring onions, sliced

Handful of fresh mint leaves, shredded (strip the leaves from the stems, roll them up into a parcel and snip them into ribbons with a pair of scissors – you’ll feel just like a proper cook off the telly)


4Tbsp olive oil

4Tbsp soy sauce

4Tbsp sesame seeds, toasted in a dry frying pan

4Tbsp finely chopped root ginger

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

Combine the cooked pasta, carrots, nectarines and spring onions. Shake the dressing ingredients together in a screw top jar and pour over the pasta mixture. Stir well, then tip into a serving bowl. This can be made a couple of hours in advance and stored in the fridge, but make sure it has at least 20 minutes at room temperature before serving.

Pasta sorta alla Nigella

I like to think Nigella Lawson and I have a lot in common. We both love cooking and eating and feeding people, we both love buying cookbooks and bits of kitchen kit, we both have brown hair and beautiful daughters. We both have millionaire husbands and live in swanky Georgian houses in Belgravia… oh, hang on, that’s right, I knew there was something that didn’t quite match. For all our similarities, I doubt Nigella has the same sort of slightly sick feeling in the middle of January when she gets her credit card statement. She probably doesn’t look in her pantry and think, oh god, there’s nothing to eat and another week until pay day. But if she did, I like to think this is what she might come up with…

Pasta sorta alla Nigella
This is my entry for Forever Nigella, a new blogging challenge set by the wonderful Sarah of Maison Cupcake fame. The theme for this month’s challenge is ‘Seasonal Sensations’ – which I have interpreted as ‘making something sensational even when you are broke after Christmas’. I’ve taken inspiration from Nigella’s Ultimate Greek Salad (published in Forever Summer), which we have been eating almost constantly. But with no feta or olives left in the fridge, this is what I came up with to sustain us on a night when the cupboard was bare and the only thing we had in abundance was basil in the garden. Actually, the cupboard seems bare quite often at the moment, so we are eating like this a lot (which is no bad thing).

1/2 cup olive oil
1Tbsp red wine vinegar
1 red onion, finely sliced
1 clove garlic, smashed with a little salt
4-6 vine ripened tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp sea salt
handfuls of fresh basil, roughly torn
225g pasta
salt and pepper

At least an hour before you want to eat (preferably two or more), put the olive oil, vinegar, onion and garlic in a small bowl. Stir well and cover.
Just before you want to eat, put the tomatoes, sugar and salt in another small bowl. Stir well and leave at room temperature.
When you want to eat, cook the pasta until al dente. Drain into a serving bowl, then tip the onion and tomato mixtures on top, followed by the basil. Grind over lots of black pepper. Toss well and congratulate yourself on another night of outwitting the bailiffs.

Emergency rations: Pantry Pasta

Across the blogosphere, just like in real life, there’s a kind of Christmas mania setting in. There are lots of lovely people who are describing all the plans they’ve made and all the presents they’ve carefully crafted, sitting up late to embroider children’s names onto hand-quilted stockings and the like.

Reassuringly, there are also lots of people like me, who are suddenly realising that there are just 10 DAYS until Christmas and that it might be a little too late to take on all those festive projects. These people are probably sitting in their kitchens thinking about blogging and remembering to pay the phone bill and realising that they forgot to ring their sister for her birthday. After a while they might notice a slight smell of burning and remember the tray of Christmas mince pies they put in the oven to take to a work party. They will be tempted to shout and scream, but they will instead share a recipe for an emergency dinner – the sort of thing people like them need at this time of year when there is little time to waste and lots of things to do.

Emergency Pasta
When I’m stressed I crave salty, creamy carbs. This almost instant pasta sauce is just the ticket. Add or subtract ingredients to suit your own storecupboard. Whiz it up in a processor and you’ve got a fabulous topping for crostini or a dip for posh crisps.

For two people:

About 100g cream cheese
185g tin tuna, drained
A couple of handfuls of olives, stoned if you can be bothered
1Tbsp capers
4-5 sundried tomatoes
lots of freshly ground black pepper
Fresh herbs – basil, parsley, rosemary – if you have them
zest of a lemon

Throw everything into a big serving bowl and mix well to combine. Cook enough spaghetti for two people (about 220-250g), then drain  and add to the bowl. Toss through the sauce, taste for seasoning and serve. Very good with a soothing glass of rose.