Carrot, apple and blueberry muffins

Everyone where I live has a Bugaboo. And if they don’t have a Bugaboo, then there’s a good reason why, such as they don’t have a baby, or, more likely, they’ve made a very thoroughly researched decision as to why another buggy is better – the City Mini (“the amazing fold!”) is also quite popular, as are iCandies (“I wanted to support a British company”) and Maclarens (“simple, sturdy, effective”). (My buggy is obviously better than all of these – the Uppababy: upgraded, cheaper Bugaboo, with HUGE basket). But no one just went to Argos and picked up a buggy for £29.99. Not for our babies.

That’s because this is a pretentious neighbourhood with lots of neurotic but style-conscious parents who buy all of this top-of-the-range, probably mostly unnecessary baby stuff.  The plus side, if you’re writing a blog and you need material, is that if you hang around these parents, you hear some funny and cringeworthy things. A few months before Joe was born I was in a local, very expensive baby shop buying a present for a friend, and a couple came in with their baby and asked the shop assistant for “a developmental toy for our very bright 8 month old. He’s already bored with the toys he’s got and keeps throwing them out the buggy. What new developmental toys can you recommend?” Even the shop assistant, who must hear this kind of stuff all the time, looked a bit baffled, but then she realised that these customers were easy marks and she started throwing toys at them (the dad then thrust each toy in turn in front of his son’s face, and then decided whether to buy it based on the reaction he got. Tears meant “this toy is a bit babyish for him”, but a tongue poking out or a grabbing hand meant it was stimulating enough that it went into the shopping basket.)

But a couple of weeks ago, I was out with Jon and Joe for coffee in Primrose Hill, and I heard myself say, “No Joe, please take your fingers out of mummy’s cappuccino, you’ve got your own cappuccino right there.” Cringe. Even worse, a couple walked past as I said it and looked at me with the same unbelieving sneer I gave to the development toy people. Joe didn’t have his own cappuccino, by the way. I’m not crazy. He had his own babyccino, and if you don’t know what that is, well, I’m not sure you should even be reading this blog.

Anyway, the point of all of this was simply to say that there’s lots of things I didn’t imagine myself saying or doing before I became a parent (and it’s not just me: this morning I heard Jon say, “Joe, if you don’t touch daddy’s wee then you can flush the toilet afterwards.”)

Another thing is the constant the singing of annoying children’s rhymes. Not to Joe – we do that of course, but it doesn’t stop when he goes to bed or we go to work. We leave the house to the tune of “Wind the Bobbins” and “The Wheels on the Bus” and, most recently it has been “The Muffin Man”. I know that seems like a really a tenuous link to for a recipe for muffins but it actually isn’t – singing “The Muffin Man” as I sat at my desk (it’s OK, I have my own office) was what prompted me to send Jon my shopping list for the muffin ingredients I didn’t have.

I invented these muffins shortly after Joe started eating real food. They make an excellent, healthy snack and we always have a bag of these in the freezer, as they freeze well and can be restored by putting them in the oven for about 15 minutes, or just leaving to defrost (the oven makes them taste fresher, though). They would also make a tasty, healthy snack for adults and older children.

Makes about 24 mini muffins or fairy cakes

  • 2 eggs
  • 100ml sunflower/canola/rapeseed oil
  • 8 oz self raising flour
  • 2 oz porridge oats
  • 2 carrots
  • 2 eating apples
  • Approx 4 oz blueberries
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon allspice
  1. Grate the apple and carrot or use a food processor to finely grate them.
  2. Put all ingredients into a bowl, mix with a wooden spoon.
  3. Spoon into muffin tins or fairy cake cases Cook on 160c fan, or 180c normal for about 15 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.

*Approximate nutritional values (1 muffin)*

  • Calories: 95 kcal
  • Carbs: 10.9g
  • Fat: 4.9g
  • Protein: 1.8g
  • Sugar: 2.3g
  • Sodium: 9.5mg

Heston’s roast chicken

In my last post, I admitted that I’m a 95% person. I think I should also add that I’m inherently a bit lazy. I’m quite resourceful at being lazy – I’m always looking for the easiest and quickest way to do something, and if that means that the thing isn’t 100% perfect, well, that’s OK. It’s worth taking a hit on perfection if I can make more time to do other things (or just sleep). It’s why I often say I’ve “adapted” a recipe. What I mean is, I’ve tried to cut as many corners as possible (put a risotto in the oven/put all the vegetables in the food processor/add ingredients all together instead of in stages) while still hoping that the recipe turns out vaguely as planned.

Most successful chefs do not do this. Some tirelessly seek out the “best” way of doing something, and the most famous exponent of that is Heston, when he did his series of how to make The Best Chips or Burger or whatever. On one of those programmes, he did a thing on how to make the best roast chicken. I love Heston (as you can see – we’re on first name terms) but I really don’t have the time or inclination to do most of the stages in his recipe. Also, I haven’t had roast chicken the way he is recommending (and I never will, because it includes butter), but I don’t totally believe it is The Best because, in his extensive survey of what makes the best roast chicken, I don’t believe he was invited to dinner at my parents’ house in France, where my mum roasts these amazing organic French (kosher) chickens which are incredible and cannot be improved.

However, I do think he knows what he is talking about with flavours and moisture and sciency things, so I did want to sort of attempt the recipe. Google “Heston’s roast chicken” if you are interested, but i think the principle, in a nutshell, is that cooking it on a very low heat for a long time helps to seal the flavours in and keep the chicken moist, resting it keeps the juices in the chicken and lets them percolate back into the meat, and then roasting on a very high heat crisps it up. Also, obviously Jon loves Heston’s scientific approach, because Jon shouts “that’s science!” whenever he comes up with a plausible rational explanation for something, and because Heston has confirmed some of Jon’s own techniques, such as rinsing potatoes before doing anything with them to remove excess starch.

The stages in his recipe involve:

  1. Brining the chicken overnight. I got all excited about brining, when I first read about it some time ago and was determined to do it. But then I discovered that you shouldn’t brine a kosher chicken (or turkey) because essentially it has already been brined as part of the koshering process. Not to the exact Heston specifications, but the purpose of the brine is basically to lock in moisture through soaking it in a salty solution (my GCSE biology tells me this is through osmosis), and kosher chickens have to be salted in this way to make them kosher. I even read somewhere else that sometimes people buy kosher chickens as a shortcut. I never thought there would be a bonus to buying over-priced kosher chickens, but perhaps this is it. So I skipped several hours of Heston’s recipe without having to do anything at all!
  2. Putting lemon and thyme inside the chicken and rubbing the bird with butter. Well, I don’t agree with this. I’ve tried putting lemons, garlic and other things inside chickens before (dead ones, mostly) and they never seem to give much flavour. Not compared with putting an onion inside, which really does. Herbs, like thyme, rosemary, etc I think do add a lovely flavour and also make it smell amazing. So I put an onion inside instead. Now, on to the butter. Generally, when roasting a chicken I don’t think it needs any extra fat, so I season it but that’s it. However, over the summer, whenever that was, we did a barbecued chicken on a couple of occasions, using a very nice recipe and technique from America’s Test Kitchen. Since that was going on the barbecue, it did require some fat on it, and the recipe used a rub made from olive oil, thyme, rosemary and lemon (see below), and it was fragrant and delicious. So I decided to make this rub again, and put it on the chicken where Heston was calling for butter. I also made a bed for the chicken of sliced onions, as this creates a delicious onion gravy-ish thing that everyone loves.
  3. Cooking the chicken for 3-4 hours on a very low heat. As in, barely hot – about 90C or 70C in a fan oven. You can hardly smell anything while it is cooking, but apparently this is a good thing because when something gives off a strong smell, it is losing the flavour along with the smell.
  4. Resting the chicken for 45 minutes. You take the chicken out, cover it with foil and let it stand. My grandma always “rests” chicken after roasting and we always used to get annoyed about it – “I like HOT chicken”. But, it turns out she was right in this, as in so many things!
  5. Basting the chicken. You melt butter and add white wine and then brush it over the chicken, now breast side up. I didn’t bother with this – partly because I missed it in the recipe the first time round, but also because it just didn’t seem necessary. Next time, I might try it using the olive oil from the rub that I just put on the onions in the base when I did it last time.
  6. Putting the chicken back into a very hot oven. I think this is what makes it excellent. You turn the oven up as high as it will go and put the chicken back in, breast side up, for about 10 minutes, or until it is golden brown. The only problem with this, for me, was that I was juggling putting the chicken in with the other things in the oven, like roast potatoes. So I haven’t actually done this as instructed. I have put the chicken back in at a hot temperature (but not the hottest), and left it in there for about 20 minutes, when it is golden brown.

The result was a very delicious roast chicken. It honestly wasn’t THAT much more amazing than my regular roast chicken, but it was very good and very moist, and the moisture and flavour really stood out when it came to eating the leftovers cold the next day.

This is the recipe for the rub:

  • 75ml extra virgin olive oil
  • 8 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed
  • 1 tsp grated zest plus 2 tbsp juice from 1 lemon
  • Pinch crushed red pepper flakes
  • 4 tsp chopped fresh thyme leaves
  • 3 tsp chopped fresh rosemary leaves
  • Coarse sea salt and ground black pepper
  1. In a small saucepan, combine the oil, garlic, lemon zest and pepper flakes. Simmer and stir frequently over medium-low heat for about 2 minutes.
  2. As soon as it reaches a simmer, add 3 teaspoons thyme and 2 teaspoons rosemary. Cook for 30 seconds more.
  3. Strain the mixture through a fine mesh sieve over a bowl, making sure to push the solids with a spatula to remove all the oil. Transfer the solids to another bowl and set both aside.
  4. Mix together 1 tablespoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Mix 3 teaspoons of that salt mixture with the cooled garlic mixture.
  5. Spread the salt and garlic mixture under the skin that you loosened earlier. Sprinkle the rest of the salt mixture on the underside of the chicken.
  6. Whisk the lemon juice into the olive oil and either drizzle onto the onions or rub on the chicken, or use as a baste before putting the chicken back into the oven at high heat, OR use as a dressing to serve with the chicken.

This recipe is totally baby-friendly – just don’t give pieces which have the salty rub on them.

*Approximate nutritional values*

  • Calories: 240 kcal
  • Carbs: 0g
  • Fat: 12g
  • Protein: 30g
  • Sugar: 0g
  • Sodium: 560mg

Zebra cake

I’m not good at art. I can’t draw and I don’t reliably colour inside the lines because I’m just a bit too slapdash: I’m not careful and (this is the main problem) I find it hard to care enough about it. I’m really just a 95% person. Maybe even 85%. My favourite type of creative thing is something that looks really good but is really easy to achieve, or at least doesn’t require 100% perfect input. For example, the hat I made a couple of years ago as a birthday treat.

I know it was my birthday more than a week ago, so that is practically ancient history, but in the spirit of one of my friends, who doesn’t just have a birthDAY, she has a birthday WEEK, with celebrations designed to drag the event out for as long as possible, I think I can still talk about birthday events. Some years I end up not doing that much for my birthday and I feel like it goes by with barely a flicker. But this year, I managed to extend the celebrations for a bit longer and went out for a lovely dinner with my family and to a special surprise treat evening out with Jon this week too. And a couple of years ago I extended my birthday events even longer, as Jon bought me a day of hat-making which I did nearly 6 months later.

I love hats! Maybe not as much as Dannii, but I love them nonetheless. I particularly love cloche hats because they make me feel like I’m in the House of Eliot (WHY don’t they bring that programme back?) and are just generally cool and beautiful. Anyway, I had a lovely day in an atelier in Soho with a milliner and one other student, and I made a cloche hat from beginning to end – cutting the fabric, blocking it (I found out that I have a smaller than average head, so I had to make it smaller after blocking it too, which is extra skilled), steaming it, and then decorating it. The finished article actually looks really good and I don’t think you would think I made it. This is largely because the milliner “helped” with all the hard parts, but I did do quite a lot of it, and, crucially, I chose to keep the design as simple as possible so that there was less to ruin.

With food (oh yes, that’s what this blog is about) I always want to present things nicely, but it never quite happens because once I’ve made it I can’t be bothered anymore, I just want to eat it and I hope that it will taste good enough that no one will care what it looks like. But I also know that even I think that something that looks amazing tastes better.

With all that in mind, when I saw this cake in a magazine I thought “I’ll never be able to make it look like that” but the instructions did sound quite simple so I decided to give it a try, in case it turned out to be one of those things that makes people go “wow!” but was actually really easy to do. And it was – what a find! This is the cake to make if you have people coming for tea, or you want to take a cake into work and you want people to think you’re really talented and creative (but of course NOT the cake to take to work if you are worried that people might not think you’re busy enough) and you don’t have an electric mixer, because you really don’t need one. I will add though, that the process of putting the cake into the tin took me about 20 minutes, so bear that in mind as you prepare. While it is not baby-friendly, I think that children would really enjoy making this.

Zebra Cake (looks like, not made of) from Lorraine Pascale

  • 250ml sunflower (or other flavourless) oil, plus extra for greasing
  • 250g caster sugar
  • 100ml water or milk
  • 4 medium eggs (at room temperature)
  • A few drops of vanilla extract
  • 300g self-raising flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 25g cocoa powder
  • 1 orange
  1. Preheat the oven to 180C/Gas 4. Grease the bottom of a 24cm sandwich tin with a little oil, line with baking parchment and oil again. Set to one side on a large baking sheet.
  2. Take two mixing bowls. Put half of the oil, sugar, milk/water, eggs and vanilla extract into each bowl and beat everything together well. It is best not to use an electric whisk as it will introduce too many bubbles.
  3. Sift 175g self-raising flour into one bowl, along with ½ tsp baking powder. Mix well and set aside. This is your vanilla mix.
  4. Sift the remaining 125g self-raising flour and ½ tsp baking powder into another bowl, along with the cocoa powder. Finely grate the orange zest in, mix everything together well and 
set to one side. This is your chocolate mix.
  5. Now, put 1 tbsp of the vanilla mix in the middle of the tin. Then, using a clean tablespoon, put a blob of the chocolate mix 
in the middle of the vanilla one. Keep doing this, alternating between vanilla and chocolate, 
so you form a type of “bull’s eye” or “target board” look. Each time you dollop a blob in, the whole mix will spread out on the base. By the time you have used up both the cake mixes, they should have just reached the edge of 
 the tin.
  6. Bake in the oven for about 
35 minutes. Check the cake is cooked by inserting a skewer 
into the centre – it should come out clean. If not, return the cake to the oven for another 5 minutes or so, until cooked. Once the 
cake is ready, remove it from 
the oven and allow to cool for 
a few minutes in the tin. Then carefully remove from the tin 
and leave to cool completely on 
a wire rack (but it is also fine to eat it warm).

There’s no baby friendly version as there’s really no alternative for the amount of sugar this contains. I will do a more baby appropriate recipe next time, I promise!

*Approximate nutritional values (1 medium slice)*

  • Calories: 282kcal
  • Carbs: 29g
  • Fat: 16.2g
  • Protein: 3.8g
  • Sugar: 15.9g
  • Sodium: 28.4mg

The lonely baker – happy birthday to me

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents” is what I say to Jon each year when my birthday draws near. He looks blank because (a) he hasn’t read Little Women, (b) it’s October, and (c) we don’t celebrate Christmas anyway. But what I am cryptically saying is that as much as presents are essential to Christmas, so cake is essential to a birthday. (Wasn’t that obvious?)

My mum always made us amazing birthday cakes when we were little. I had a fairytale castle, a ski run, a doll in a pram, and loads of others. My brother had a football pitch, a hot air balloon, something tennis related, a fire engine, and I can’t remember what else. We always knew there would be a cake, but what it was would always be a closely-guarded secret. We would have to stay out of the kitchen while it was being done, but then before washing up we could come back in and lick the bowls of icing. It was nearly as good as the actual cake the next day.

I loved baking too, and as soon as I was old enough to reach the mixer I would also bake cakes, and sometimes I would make one for mum’s birthday because if I didn’t then no one would, because you can’t make your own birthday cake. When we were a bit older and stopped having “theme” cakes, we always got a perfect and delicious chocolate cake, the recipe for which was in mum’s tatty orange book of secret recipes, with an Evelyn Rose coffee-chocolate icing. It became THE family birthday cake, and then as time went on I would make it as the standard birthday cake for all friends and family too.

But in the last few years a sad thing has been happening. I have been diligently making cakes for Jon’s birthday, for friends’ birthdays and other family members if they are around. But on my birthday, there’s no one to make me a cake. My mum is the only one who would, but we are often not in the same place on my birthday (we were a few years ago and I asked her to make me a cake, even though it’s a bit pathetic to ask for a cake, and she did and it was amazing). When I most recently moaned about it to Jon he suggested that I leave an appropriate recipe lying around nearer the time. So a couple of days before my birthday I scribbled the recipe below on a piece of paper and waved it in front of his nose, saying “I’m leaving this carelessly lying around!” and then quite miraculously, on the afternoon of my birthday, I was presented with my own perfect, amazing and delicious birthday cake. Jon is pretty impressed with what a great cake he made all by himself, too.

Birthday cake

  • 6oz butter or margarine
  • 6oz caster sugar
  • 6oz self raising flour
  • 4 tablespoons cocoa
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp vanilla essence
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 3 eggs
  • 2-3 tablespoons water
  1. Beat all the ingredients together in an electric mixer (or beat thoroughly by hand).
  2. Grease a round tin (around 8 inches), and spread the mixture evenly.
  3. Bake at your normal cake-baking temperature (for a fan oven it is 160) for round 45 mins, or until a fork stuck in the centre comes out clean

The original Evelyn Rose icing

  • 3oz butter, softened
  • 8oz icing sugar
  • 4 tablespoons drinking chocolate
  • 2 tablespoons cocoa
  • 2 tablespoons boiling water
  • 3 teaspoons instant coffee
  1. Put the chocolate, cocoa and coffee into a small bowl and pour on the boiling water. Mix to a smooth cream.
  2. In a larger bowl (or your electric mixer) put the butter and cream until the consistency of mayonnaise.
  3. Add half of the sugar and cream again.
  4. Add the chocolate/coffee and the rest of the sugar and beat again until smooth and glossy.
  5. Spread on the cake and eat the rest!

My more sophisticated icing – coffee chocolate ganache

  • 200ml double cream or soy cream
  • 200g dark chocolate
  • Optional – 1 tsp glycerine
  • Optional – 2 tsp instant coffee
  1. Heat the cream in a saucepan and add the coffee if using. When it is just starting to bubble, remove from the heat and add the chocolate, broken into small pieces.
  2. Stir until it is a smooth cream.
  3. Add the glycerine if using (it keeps the ganache kind of stretchy and stops it from cracking)
  4. Cover the cake with it

I’m not doing a baby-friendly version, and I’m definitely not doing nutritional values – it’s my birthday!

Pappardelle with mushrooms

A few years ago, I considered getting a vegetable box. What can I say? I was just married, living in what the estate agent called Hampstead (it was really Swiss Cottage), working with a whole bunch of well-groomed City types and spending my Sunday mornings in my local coffee shop reading the Sunday Times. A vegetable box would have completed the picture. I looked on the websites of Abel and Cole and Riverford Organic, glossing over the problem of having a weekly delivery to our third floor flat when we were both at work every day, and excitedly told Jon all about it.

He wrinkled his nose. “So each week we get a box of random vegetables, which someone else has picked out, some of which we don’t like, and then we pay more for the privilege of knowing that they are grown on some farm not very near us?” It did sound a bit barmy, then, so we went off to Waitrose (of course) and, crazily enough, picked out a selection of vegetables that we both liked and wanted to use.

I mentioned that episode to a friend and he told me that I had missed the point of vegetable boxes. Apparently the whole fun of it is that you get interesting vegetables (for which read beetroot, or turnip) that you wouldn’t otherwise buy, and then the challenge is to make something out of it that you wouldn’t have otherwise made. It all sounds a bit Blue Peter and not really the way I like to shop or eat. Generally in this house we pride ourselves on not having very much wastage. We bake our bread and then when it is stale, turn it into breadcrumbs. We freeze leftover portions or take them to work for lunch. We use up vegetables in soups and fruit in pies and sorbets. But sometimes we’ll buy something because I have a specific recipe in mind, and then I don’t need very much of it and we have loads of it lying around. I confess that I would probably forget about it and let it languish in the bottom drawer of the fridge for a few weeks, but if there is a loose end in the fridge Jon is on it. “Half a bag of spinach? What are we doing with that?” “There are two leeks and half a swede, what’s happening with them?” It’s like having my very own awkward vegetable from the vegetable box, but I generally choose the vegetable and it’s not a horrible turnip. But the challenge is still on.

That is what happened this week with mushrooms. We had a load of different ones – shiitake, portabellini, chestnut – some of which I’d used to make a mushroom ragu to have on polenta squares as a starter for lunch on Saturday (to be blogged another time). I had a hunt around for a nice recipe to use them up and found a Spanish mushroom and lentil recipe which looked nice, but then I had lentils for lunch and didn’t want them. With Yom Kippur tomorrow, if we didn’t eat them tonight we’d have them hanging over our heads until Thursday and I knew we had to get them out of here before then. I had things to cook for Yom Kippur tonight and couldn’t be bothered with anything complex, and really just wanted something delicious and simple and comforting.

Step forward, Jamie Oliver, with your simple, light and quick pappardelle with mushrooms. I’ve laughed at Jamie on this blog before for his nonsense malteser ice cream recipe, but I know that really, like this pasta, he is a good, simple, hearty fellow, and he means well. This is a super quick, easy weeknight dinner. A bit of a carb-fest, and not massively high in protein (eeeek) but using egg pasta helps, and if you use shiitake mushrooms you get a bonus portion of vitamin D, and the parsley gives you some equally elusive vitamin K. It’s surprisingly filling, too.

Serves 2

  • About 400g mixed wild mushrooms
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 dried red chilli, finely chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • Small bunch of flat leaf parsley, finely chopped.
  • Fresh egg pappardelle for 2 (about 250g)
  • Salt and pepper
  1. Clean the mushrooms and slice them thinly
  2. Put the olive oil in a very hot frying pan and then add the mushrooms, frying quickly. Add the garlic and chilli and some salt and pepper.
  3. Continue frying for 4 or 5 minutes and then turn the heat off, and add the lemon juice and half the chopped parsley. Check the seasoning.
  4. Meanwhile, bring a saucepan of salted water to the boil and cook the pasta.
  5. When it is cooked, pour a little of the pasta water into the frying pan with the mushrooms, drain the pasta and add to the frying pan, tossing to coat with the liquid and mixing the mushrooms in.
  6. Serve, garnishing with the rest of the parsley.

For the baby-friendly version, as above but without the salt (and maybe without the chilli, depending on how your baby deals with chilli). You will have to cook the pasta separately, because the salt in the water is essential for the adult version.

*Approximate nutritional values*

  • Calories: 520 kcal
  • Carbs: 72g
  • Fat: 19g
  • Protein: 19g
  • Sugar: 2g
  • Sodium: 1766mg

Best Chicken Curry

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The worst restaurant I have ever been to was a kosher Chinese restaurant outside Washington DC. It wasn’t just the sticky plastic table cloths, the thin film of grease that coated every surface, the flies buzzing around the Persian buffet, or the fact that there was a Persian buffet in a Chinese restaurant. It was also that everything on the menu was described as being in either white sauce, brown sauce, or, even more alarmingly, “special” sauce. It was so disgusting that we didn’t quite know how to convey our displeasure. I don’t think it was the kind of place where complaining to the manager would have had any effect because we were not just complaining about one dish, we were complaining about the whole ethos, the whole raison d’etre of the restaurant. Jon resorted to saying loudly, as we left, after having ordered and not eaten some questionable meats in some questionable coloured sauces, “Where can we go for DINNER? I’m still STARVING.” My retaliation came in the form of a survey of kosher restaurants and shops of the DC area that I was asked to fill in a few months later. Long after I had left DC I continued to receive the yearly email with the survey, and every year I went to the Royal Dragon’s page and ticked “disgusting” at every available point. Oops, did I just tell you the name of the restaurant? Seriously, NEVER go there.

(I felt a bit bad about posting this about a restaurant that I’d been to 6 years ago – what if they had undergone a major transformation? So I had a quick look on a restaurant review site to see if things have changed. Apparently not: “I have never felt sicker after a meal. The worst, probably toxic, food I’ve ever had. We call it Evil Panda.” and
Over priced Kosher dog food (though I would not feed it to my dog)“)

So for obvious reasons I try never to think about that restaurant, but it came to mind recently when I was surfing through various food blogs and recipe websites, and I noticed that lots of people tout things as “The best X ever” – the best roast chicken, the best roast potatoes, the best chocolate chip cookies. I think that’s OK with certain specific foods – in fact, I might even have written about the “best” chocolate mousse a couple of weeks ago. Oh, and I’ve written about the “best” honey cake too. But it’s a bit crass with something like curry because “curry” just means sauce so what do you mean, you’ve got the best chicken in sauce recipe? The best chicken in white sauce? In brown sauce? In special sauce?

But guess what? I’ve got the best chicken curry recipe! Seriously! I found its inspiration on a website which called it “the only curry recipe you’ll ever need”. Of course there are hundreds of great chicken curry recipes and I have several favourites that I make over and over again, but this is the one that always comes to mind when I just feel like a curry. It’s quick and easy to make (a food processor makes it really fast), low fat, with healthy, delicious tomatoes and spinach, neither of which are over-powering if you generally don’t love those ingredients.

It’s also very popular with Joe – I make his without salt and chillies by following my baby-friendly method below – and it fits into his “anything in tomato sauce” category so I can get spinach down him relatively easily.

Makes 4 portions, or 3 adult portions and 2-3 baby portions

  • 2 large chicken breasts, skinned and boned
  • 2 large onions
  • 1 large knob of ginger
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 3 green chillies
  • 1 400g tin of tomatoes
  • 400g spinach
  • 1tbsp ground cumin
  • 1 tbsp ground coriander
  • 2 tsp turmeric
  • 2 tsp paprika
  • Cayenne pepper, to taste
  • Salt
  • Approx 1 tbsp vegetable oil, such as rapeseed
  1. Heat a large deep frying pan or saucepan (with no oil) and add half of the spinach and wilt. Remove the spinach, draining the liquid, and put the wilted spinach into a food processor, blending until you have a paste. Remove from food processor (but no need to wash it up yet) and set aside until later.
  2. Slice the onions into half rings, add about 1 tablespoon of oil to the pan and fry the onions until golden.
  3. While the onions are frying, cut the chicken breast into small pieces.
  4. When the onions are golden, put in the food processor with the garlic, ginger, chillies (deseeded, unless you like a really hot curry) and tin of tomatoes, and then half fill the empty tomato tin with water, add it, and blend.
  5. Put the blended tomato sauce back into the saucepan, and add the chicken. Cover and let it cook for 10-15 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through.
  6. Add the spices, salt, pepper and the blended spinach, stir and cook for another 5 minutes.
  7. Roughly chop the remaining spinach and add to the saucepan.
  8. Adjust the seasoning, add more salt and cayenne if liked, and then continue cooking for at least another 10 minutes, or to intensify the taste further, for even longer.

*Baby-friendly version*

As above, but at step 4, do not add chillies to the mix unless your baby likes them. Mine does, but his bottom doesn’t, so I do not use them, or only in small quantities. In this case, blend the chillies separately and keep aside.

At step 6, do not add salt.

After step 7, remove your baby’s portion. Add salt and chillies to the remainder.

This recipe, like most tomato sauce-based recipes, freezes really well, so this is a good recipe to batch cook, for both adults and babies.

*Approximate nutritional values (adult portion)*

  • Calories: 224 kcal
  • Carbs: 11g
  • Fat: 7g
  • Protein: 28g
  • Sugar: 9g
  • Sodium: 988mg

Spinach dal

Since Jon and I got together, our tastes have merged somewhat. There are still things we will never agree on, for example, I have always been a believer in that bit from the Simpsons, that one where Homer is dead and Dr. Hibbert pulls broccoli from his corpse. “Yet another broccoli related death,” says Dr. Hibbert. “But I thought broccoli was healthy,” says Marge. “Oh no,” says Dr. Hibbert, “one of the deadliest plants on earth. Why, it tries to warn you with its terrible taste.” Yet despite the obvious truth of everything in the Simpsons, Jon calls broccoli “the king of vegetables”.

Other than this and a few others, we generally agree on most things, food-wise. I’ve mentioned before about my incredibly fussy eating, particularly as a child but to some extent continued today. Jon was never as fussy as me, but he did have some peculiar dislikes (we’ll save the discussion of his cherry phobia for another day) which, in my opinion, were not so much dislikes of the actual food but of the way he had encountered them. He now devours peas like they are going to be rationed, and as he eats, happily says, “I love peas! Didn’t used to!” Similarly, with the various different apple pies and tarts that I make, he wolfs them all down but he still maintains that he doesn’t like apple pie BUT he makes an exception for mine. This is because the apple pie he has in mind, the benchmark apple pie, is one from a bakery in north London called Sharon’s. It’s horrible – an overly sweet crust, with the apples inside in a claggy goo. It sullies the good name of apple pie.

Actually, we once had a whole ridiculous conversation about Sharon’s apple pie. Jon was maintaining that he doesn’t like apple pie, as a general rule. My point, which got slightly obscured in the heat of the argument, was that he does like apple pie, he just doesn’t like Sharon’s apple pie, and any other rubbish apple pies. I was trying to say that, if he’s going to have a general rule about apple pie, it should be, “I like apple pie” and then he could have exceptions to the rule, which would be the various bad apple pies that he doesn’t like. The discussion got more and more heated until I said, “but what if you were sitting here, eating my apple pie, and Sharon came in and said, “but you said you didn’t like apple pie!” THEN what would you say? Huh? Huh? What’s your answer to THAT?”

Yes, I accept that Sharon is unlikely to come over and say anything about apple pie, even if Sharon is an actual person and not just a brand name. Sharon sells hundreds of these inferior pies every day and she won’t care at all if Jon doesn’t want to eat one. But my real point here is that often people think they don’t like things, but they do. It could be that they refuse to eat all apple pies because they’ve had one horrible one, or it could be that they think they don’t like courgettes but when you call a yellow courgette a squash then actually courgettes are pretty nice.

Or it could be lentils. Lots of people (men, mostly, I think) say that they won’t eat a meal of lentils. Jon is now a big fan of the recipe I’m about to share with you, but he admits that a few years ago if you’d suggested that he would eat a plate of lentils and call it dinner, he’d ask what the main course was. My dad is the same, although I’m not convinced that even now he accepts that lentils can make up a nutritious, satisfying meal.

This recipe, though, is really one to try, even if you are unsure about lentils. From a nutritional perspective it is a bit of a super-meal, it is really tasty and, very importantly, really quick and easy and perfect for a mid-week supper.

I adapted this recipe from Tarla Dalal, who is apparently the Delia Smith of India.

Makes 4 or 5 adult portions

  • 3/4 cup of red lentils (I use an ordinary kitchen mug for this recipe, and it works just fine)
  • 3 cups water
  • 1 large onion
  • 3 green chillies
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 1 large knob of ginger (equivalent in size to about 3 garlic cloves)
  • 250g spinach
  • 1 tbsp tomato puree
  • 1 tbsp amchur powder (this (dried unripe mango powder) is available from Indian stores. If you can’t find it, you could use the juice of half a lemon to achieve the sour element, or a teaspoon or two of tamarind paste)
  • 1 tbsp cumin seeds
  • 2 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tbsp rapeseed or other flavourless oil
  1. Put the lentils and water into a saucepan, cover and bring to a simmer. When I make this it nearly always bubbles over, so watch it carefully, and use a bigger saucepan than you really need.
  2. If you have a food processor, de-seed the chillies, and put them in the food processor with the ginger and garlic. If you don’t have a food processor, then finely dice the chillies, grate the ginger and crush the garlic. Set them aside.
  3. Finely dice the onion.
  4. Heat the oil in a second, large saucepan. When it is hot, throw in the cumin seeds and a few seconds later add the onion. Fry on a medium heat until the onion is translucent. Then add the chilli, ginger and garlic, and stir and fry for a few more minutes.
  5. The lentils should be soft and cooked now. If they are not, turn down the heat in the onion saucepan and wait, then tip the lentils and their remaining liquid into the saucepan with the onion.
  6. Stir and add the tomato puree, amchur powder, turmeric and salt.
  7. Roughly chop the spinach and add to the saucepan. Stir and cook until it is all wilted and mixed in. Taste, and add more salt, amchur or tomato puree as needed.
  8. Depending on the consistency of the dal and what you prefer, you could keep cooking to reduce it a little more, or you can serve straight away. It’s good with rice or chapattis.

Baby-friendly version

At 2, do not add the chillies, but chop or process and keep aside.
At 6, do not add the salt.
After 7, remove your baby’s portion. Add the chillies and salt to the remainder, and cook for another 10 minutes to make sure that the flavours blend together.

*Approximate nutritional values (adult portion)*

  • Calories: 169 kcal
  • Carbs: 24g
  • Fat: 4g
  • Protein: 11g
  • Sugar: 4g
  • Sodium: 736mg