I spent last weekend re-visiting my college town of Bloomington, Indiana with my Dad as my husband rode in the Hilly Hundred. On one hand, the entire campus was gloriously bathed in sunshine, mums bloomed from every street corner and the students traipsing through the leaves took me back to a care-free time where the worst thing that could happen was a pop-quiz. Just as my nostalgia bubble burst, I felt incredibly old.
To combat any walk down memory lane, especially one that included too much fast food and pizza, I yearn for uncomplicated food like the dishes I got on a visit back home. I have a real soft spot for the simplicity of a hearty, soul-warming casserole. Here are two of my go-to recipes that are popped into the oven and emerge steaming and ready serve, with no real need for side-dishes other than a crisp green salad or some bread.
The first is a twist on a traditional English cottage pie, the beef-based brother of the perhaps better known, shepherds pie. I like Jamie Oliver's version which adds cheese to the mashed potato. You can add chives and/or horseradish to the mash- ideal with beef. This is the type of fare my mother-in-law would make for my husband when he came home for a weekend's visit while away at college (or university as they would say in England). She still makes the meanest casseroles I've ever tasted. Whether it's creamy chicken with bacon and potatoes, a simple homemade lasagna or her famous lancashire hotpot, her one-dish meals could warm any soggy Manchester evening. I'll definitely be attempting her hotpot in the very near future.
The second is literally a one-pot wonder. This is almost an ode to my own mother's way of cooking. Although I got many of my skills from her, I remember that she used to take any short cut to make a recipe quicker. That's not always my philosophy, but this roasted vegetable and chicken casserole is exactly the type of meal she would have adored when time was an issue.
I like to use whatever veggies I have in the fridge and I do vary it. I've listed everything below that I used, but you can add whatever you've got in stock. Cherry tomatoes on the vine are a great addition as they tend to burst and add a little sauce to the end result. Just mix everything together and place the tomatoes on the top- two vines would be good with this amount of chicken and veggies.
I always have chicken breasts in the freezer, but I've made this with thighs and legs before to make a more robust roast.
If you cut everything the same size, they'll all cook at the same time.
Roasted Autumn Vegetables with Balsamic Chicken
1 butternut squash cut into cubes
1 red onion, peeled and quartered
1 red pepper, cut into fat strips
3 potatoes, cut into chunks
1 small can of sliced black olives
2 chicken breasts, cut into strips
1/2 cup of feta cheese, cubed
1 large handful of fresh basil, torn
1 1/2 tbsp olive oil
1 1/2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp chilli flakes
salt and pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 375F. Combine all of the above (except the feta) and toss everything together in a large casserole dish so that everything is coated equally with the oil, vinegar and seasonings.
Roast in the oven for about 45 minutes until the potatoes, squash and chicken are cooked and tender.
Add the feta and roast for a further 5 minutes until it becomes slightly golden on top and starts to melt.
Serve on it's own or with a salad.
As we left for Chicago, we drove the long way through some old country roads lined with the remains of corn stalks ready to be torn down while some fields were being plowed as we passed.
I remember driving out into the countryside as a kid in high-school to snap some pictures for my photography class. Most of those fields are filled with homes now, but there are still some farms that remain.
After so long spent in another country, it seemed a fitting end to a weekend full of looking into the past.