Nostalgia bubble burst

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
Serves 2-4

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.


Stolen and sacred

There are few things I find more soothing than walking quietly through my neighborhood with my dog. With only a few trees to distract Indy, it's a chance for me to clear my thoughts and appreciate a perfect autumn day. Admittedly, when it's warm and the sun is shining, I can slow my pace and allow myself to enjoy the moment- the leaves changing color and the sweet smell of laundry wafting through a window. When it's cold or the rain is beating against my jacket, we're both in a rush to get home.

It's on a day like today, after a week of below normal temperatures and the fear of winter was running deep, that a warm day feels stolen and sacred. It's just a normal Wednesday. My husband has been fighting a cold all week, and instead of venturing out to a few of our favorite local haunts, I've been trying to fill him with as much home-cooked goodness as I can.

Here is a perfect, comforting mid-week dinner idea; seasonal and wholesome, delicious and moreish. It combines my obsession for smooth, creamy parmesan polenta with autumn kale and wild mushrooms.

The basis of the mushrooms comes from one of Jamie Oliver's recipes in Jamie at Home for mushroom bruschetta. I love these fried wild mushrooms spooned over toasted, garlic ciabatta and a crisp glass of white wine. I added kale and all of a sudden, we have a delicious vegetable sauce perfect for pasta or even better, over polenta.

I am lucky enough to live a few doors down from a dry cleaners owned by a lovely little man and Terragusto, an Italian cafe that makes their own pasta daily and serves the creamiest, most heavenly polenta.

Ground polenta is available at Whole Foods and other grocery stores. I use Bob's Red Mill Corn Grits (also known as polenta) and follow the recipe on the bag for a basic Italian polenta. The mixture can be poured into a cake pan and allowed to set, which you can then slice and grill, but I like the creamy version best.

A typical topping for polenta in Italy is a meat and tomato sauce. It's an extremely versatile alternative to other carbohydrates that you may pair with meat, and I especially like it with a simple roast chicken.

Polenta with Kale and Wild Mushrooms
Serves 4

for basic Italian polenta:
6 cups of water
1 tsp salt
2 cups of polenta or corn grits
3 tbsp butter
1/2 cup of grated parmesan

Bring the water and salt to a boil in a saucepan and gradually stir in the polenta. Simmer for 30 minutes, keeping it covered as it will pop and bubble. Keep the heat low and stir often so it doesn't stick to the bottom. After 30 minutes, season with salt and add the butter. Stir in the parmesan and take it off the heat. Keep it covered until you're ready to serve.

for the mushroom and kale saute:

2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp butter
1 large bunch of kale, roughly chopped
3 cups of wild mushrooms, torn or sliced (crimini, chestnut, oyster or any of your favorites)
t tsp thyme leaves
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 tsp red chilli flakes
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
2 tbsp water
salt and pepper to taste

Tear or slice the mushrooms and heat a large frying pan over medium-high heat. It's important that the mushrooms have enough room in the frying pan to lie in one layer or they will not brown properly.

Heat the olive oil and 1 tbsp of the butter in the pan and place the mushrooms in the pan with the thyme leaves, garlic and red chilli flakes. Saute for a few minutes until the mushrooms are just cooked and remove them from pan leaving the juices behind.

Place half the kale (the pieces with the stems should go in first) in the same pan over high heat and add 2 tbsp of water. Cover and steam for a couple of minutes. Add the rest of the kale and steam again for a few minutes until just wilted and the stems are tender.

Add the mushrooms to the pan with the other tbsp of butter, then add the lemon juice and season with salt and pepper to taste. Take off the heat ready to spoon over the creamy polenta. Be sure to pour the juices over the polenta and grate some parmesan over the top to serve.


Cassoulet not casserole

Cassoulet first made a big impression on me many years ago during a romantic dinner with my husband at La Poule Au Pot, a French restaurant in London. Set in Pimlico on a little square, the candle-lit tables are perfect if you're looking to be transported to France without taking the Eurostar. Thick-accented waiters brought hot plates of garlicky, buttery escargot that started my love affair with the snail. To follow, we split a bubbling bowl of French baked beans with melt in your mouth goose, pork and sausages and then sopped up all the juices with crusty french bread- this cassoulet had me hooked.

After many of my trips to France, it's clear that this country dish is made an infinite number of ways based on local traditions, family traditions and personal preference. Julia Child, who included a recipe for cassoulet in her first volume, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" researched all different types of beans and meats only to be told by her French co-author that her efforts were not French.

Having said that, I felt a little pressure lifted from my shoulders. I wanted my version to be as authentic as possible, but easy enough to make in one day or make ahead. Julia suggests that you can prepare it in one day, but "two or even three days of leisurely on-and-off cooking are much easier." Her recipe calls for dry beans and homemade sausage cakes, neither of which have made it to my version.

The types of meat that are included in a cassoulet is also widely debated, but can include any of the following: goose, duck, game, pork, sausage, lamb and mutton. I've played around with this recipe and decided to use Andouille sausages, duck confit and pork loin. I've added lamb in the past and you can as well, but you can omit it and add more pork if it's easier. I also use canned cannellini beans which takes out the time consuming soaking and cooking process.

To serve this, I make a bistro salad with a zingy mustard vinaigrette and oven-hot French baguettes. The salad does wonders to cut through the richness of the cassoulet.

Last weekend, I made this for our friends Alethea and Philippe and finished the meal with Ina Garten's French Apple Tart for the full on effect. This is perfect for a dinner party in the middle of winter. I served this last year to our friends Karyn and Nick while we polished off several bottles of red wine.

This quick version does not take long at all to put together, and you can bake it ahead, even the day before. You heat it back up in the oven and then top it with breadcrumbs to make the crusty topping.

I would suggest you get your meat from a local butcher- my thick cut bacon, duck confit, Andouille sausages, pork and lamb were all bought from the guys at Paulina and were amazing.
I always call ahead to see if they have duck confit, which they have frozen. If you can't find duck confit, you can omit it, but they add an extra depth to the dish and the meat is so tender it literally falls off the bones.

Use sausages that are available to you- I love the taste of Andouille, but you can use Toulouse sausages if you can get them or hot Italian or plain pork- whatever you like.

Controversially, I sprinkle gremolata on the top of this - it's something that I like on the top of many hot casseroles as it adds a little freshness and depth of flavor to it. It's Italian, so don't tell the French.

Adapted from Small Parties by Marguerite Marceau Henderson
Serves 6-8

1/4 pound thick-cut bacon, diced
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced into half moons
4 large cloves of garlic, minced
1 tsp dried thyme
2 bay leaves
1 pound boneless pork loin, cut into 1- inch cubes
1 pound boneless lamb, cut into 1-inch cubes
4 links of Andouille sausages, cut into 1- inch pieces
2 legs duck confit
1 x 6 oz can of tomato paste
2 cups beef broth
1 cup water
4 x 15 oz cans white beans (great Northern beans or cannellini), not drained*
1/4 cup brandy or cognac
1 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp ground black pepper

For the topping:
2 cups of fresh bread crumbs from a French loaf
4 tbsp melted butter

For the gremolata:
handful of parsley leaves, chopped
zest of 1 lemon
1 garlic clove, minced

*I don't drain the beans until I'm ready to use them- depending on the size of your pot, the liquid in this might come to the top. I add the beans at the end and if I need extra liquid, I drain a few cans and then add one or two with the bean liquid.

Preheat the oven to 350F or 200C. Start with a large, heavy, oven-proof dish with a lid and put it on the stove-top over a medium-high heat. I love this earthenware pot I got in London at Gill Wing- it's perfect for stovetop and in the oven.

Saute the bacon in the olive oil for 3-4 minutes and, then add the onion for another 2 minutes, stirring often.

Add the garlic, thyme, bay leaves, pork, lamb and sausage, cover and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally to brown the meat on all sides. Add the duck confit at this point along with the tomato paste, beef broth, water, beans, brandy, salt and pepper. Stir and bring to a bubble, then cover.

Cook in the oven for one hour. You can make it ahead up to this point.

If I'm serving it that day, I do all this in the morning and then put it on the stovetop. If it's the day ahead, I put it in the refrigerator and bring it out an hour or so before I want to put it in the oven again.

When you're getting ready to serve, put it into the oven, covered, again at 350F, for about 15 minutes. I always reserve a little of the beef broth just in case the mixture has dried out too much at this point.

Meanwhile, combine the breadcrumbs and the melted butter in a bowl.

After the 15 minutes is up and it's nice and bubbly, pull it out of the oven and remove the bay leaves and sprinkle the crumb mixture on top.

Bake, uncovered for about 10 minutes until the crumbs have browned lightly. You may need to keep an eye on it at this point.

Sprinkle with the gremolata and serve.

French Bistro Salad
Adapted from Jamie's Kitchen by Jamie Oliver

2 shallots, peeled and finely sliced
white wine vinear
2 bunches of lettuce- frisee, gem, or other green leafy leaves
leaves from one chicory bulb
1 bunch of fresh chives, left whole, not chopped
1 handful of chervile, leaves picked
2 handfuls of fine french green beans

for the dressing:
1 tbsp dijon mustard
1 cloe garlic, peeled and finely chopped
9 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Put the shallots in a small dish and cover them with the white wine vinegar- leave for about 10 minutes.

Wash your lettuce, chervil and chives and spin dry. Remove the chicory leaves and place them all in a bowl.

Cook your green beans in salted boiling water until tender, but not limp. Drain and cool. Leave these out and serve them room temp. Add them to the salad bowl.

Remove the shallots and add them to the bowl. Put 4 tbsp of the remaining vinegar in a bowl, add the mustard, garlic and a pinch of salt. Whisk in the oil until it emulsifies, taste and season with salt and pepper.

I like to make this in an old jam jar instead of whisking- I just shake up everything except the oil and at it a little at a time, shaking as I go. If you've got leftovers, this will keep in the fridge for about a week.

Dress the salad and serve.


One for the weekend

There's something deeply satisfying about putting something in the oven to roast for most of the day. This slow-cooked lamb salad is a favorite of mine, and one that I cooked on many a weekend in London. It can feed a small crowd, depending on how many sides you make with it.

This is definitely one for the weekend, so pick an upcoming Saturday or Sunday, one that you want to sit down and eat at about 2 or 3 in the afternoon, and this will be a lunch to remember. Last Sunday, I got this in the oven at about 9:30 while I was listening to records and pottering around the kitchen with my cup of coffee.

It's so easy to assemble at the last minute that we took the dog to the beach, stopped for a pint and made it back in time to pull together a late lunch and a lazy afternoon.

Pomegranates have become superfood stars in the last few years, and they adorn this warm lamb salad like bright pink jewels ready to burst open in your mouth. I like to beat the little things with the back of a wood spoon, spanking them until they all splash nicely on top of the shredded lamb. When there's plenty on top, I squeeze the rinds so the pink juices run all over the meat.

This is another of Nigella's recipes, one that I come back to again and again from her book, Nigella Bites. You'll probably need to order a shoulder of lamb from your local butcher- my friends at Paulina Meat Market set me up with a nice 5 1/2 pound specimen that was beautifully trimmed.

The shoulder is typically a cheap cut of meat for the amount that you're getting, and it really does cook down to the point of falling off the bone. Best of all, in my opinion, is the carrot that sits underneath the lamb. When I pull this out of the oven, I fish it out immediately and covet the soft vegetable that's been sitting in gravy all morning. Nigella calls it "the cook's treat," which I have seriously taken to heart. As I pull this out of the oven, my husband appears from nowhere and wants a little taste of carrot, maybe with a little hot lamb pulled from the underside of the shoulder. I know I shouldn't indulge him as he doesn't technically qualify as the cook, but I can never resist his gorgeous, pleading eyes.

I serve this with a platter of roasted peppers with almond and feta (also featured in the same book). If I'm looking to bulk this meal up for a group, I add a carb like couscous with sultanas and maybe some chopped coriander and mint. I've also done a creamy potato gratin with it that works well.

Warm Shredded Lamb Salad with Mint and Pomegranate
Adapted from Nigella Bites by Nigella Lawson
Serves 6

1 shoulder of lamb (approximately 5 1/2 lbs or 2 1/2 kg)
4 shallots, halved but not peeled
6 cloves of garlic
1 carrot, peeled and halved
Maldon salt
2 cups of boiling water
small handful of freshly chopped mint
1 pomegranate

Nigella writes that you can cook this overnight, which does make sense if you'd like it to be ready for lunch time the next day. If you want to do this, just put it in an oven preheated to 140C or 280F and follow the rest of the instructions.

If you're going to do it the day of (which is what I do) then just preheat the oven to 170C or 340F and cook it for about 5 hours.

On the stove top, get the roasting tin you intend to cook the lamb with and put it over a medium-high flame. Put the lamb in, fat-side down, and brown it. This will take a few minutes- you'll get coloring across the middle and that's it.

Meanwhile, fry your vegetables briefly in the fat and sprinkle with a little salt while you're boiling the water. Pour the water over the vegetables and replace the lamb, fat-side up.

Let the liquid come to a bubble and then tent it with foil and place in the preheated oven.

It seriously couldn't be any easier than that....let it cook for about 5 hours while your house fills with the sweet smell of roasted lamb.

In the meantime, I char the peppers on the grill and have them ready to go.

When you're ready to serve, simply remove the lamb from the roasting tin (don't forget the cook's treat!) and let it sit for a moment before shredding it with a couple of forks. At this point, my dog is salivating at my feet giving me his best "I'm starving" look. The meat should literally be falling off the bone.

Get a large platter or a large shallow serving bowl and pile the shredded meat all the way to the edges. Sprinkle with the Maldon sea salt, that should crumble between your fingers, and the chopped mint.

Halve your pomegranate and with the back side of a spoon, pat the rind of the fruit until the little seeds start popping out. This may get a little messy, so an apron may be required. Once each side is complete, squeeze one of the halves until pink juice flows all over the meat. Serve at once!

Nigella also notes that if this is left to go cold, the fat will become a white and congealed, so keep this warm at all costs. If you're going for leftovers, simply pile some in a pita bread and microwave for less than a minute, finishing it with Nigella's suggestion of a bit of hummus.

Grilled Peppers with Feta and Almonds
Adapted from Nigella Bites by Nigella Lawson
Serves 6

8 peppers, your choice of colors
100 g feta cheese
1/2 a lemon
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 handful of blanched or flaked olives
2 tbsp of freshly chopped parsley and mint

Wash and dry your peppers. You can grill these several ways, but the idea is to char the outsides until they are black. My favorite method is on my gas grill, conveniently located just outside on our covered porch. I wack up the heat to high and put the peppers on and close the lid. Every few minutes, I come back to check on them and flip them until they're cooked on all sides.

You can also do this over an open flame of your stove OR in a grill pan if that's easier for you.

Either way, when the peppers are charred, pop them into a bowl and immediately cover with cling film, letting their skins steam away from the flesh. Leave this about 20 minutes minimum. If I'm going out between cooking and having lunch, I leave these in the bowl for hours and come back to peel and de-seed them.

Cut or tear them into wide strips and arrange them on a large platter. Simply sprinkle with the extra virgin olive oil, a little salt and pepper, a squeeze of the lemon juice and then scatter over the almonds, feta and finally herbs.

It's a simple but tasty salad with colors that will brighten your table. Use any leftovers in pasta or with the lamb above.


Foodie in the family

What would a cold snap in Autumn be without a pot of spicy chili simmering on the stove? I ventured from my ground beef chili recipe (which normally includes sweetcorn per my husband's request) to try my cousin Becky's veggie chili recipe.

I knew I had to try it when she said there was Guinness in it, but the fact that she's the Managing Editor at Cook's Illustrated AND on-screen test cook for America's Test Kitchen really swayed me. After talking to her yesterday evening, she's lucky if I don't show up on her doorstep in Massachusetts and beg her to take me to work with her.

Becky grew up watching Julia Child on TV after school with her twin sister, Valerie. After graduating from college, she worked on a securities trading floor in NYC, but when offered a big promotion, she turned it down and went to cooking school. If ever there was a poster child for following your dreams, Becky is it. She's been with Cook's Illustrated for 10 years and even met Julia when she visited the set of America's Test Kitchen, produced by the same people that did The French Chef.

Since trying this chili, I'm not sure if I'll ever go back to my boring old ground beef stand-by. It's superbly seasoned and the addition of cashews at the end makes it so toothsome, I swear you won't miss the meat. The Guinness makes the sauce rich and earthy. In the version I made, I used half light red kidney beans and half cannellini beans, only because that's what I had in the pantry. I've also thought of adding a little pumpkin to this the next time I make it. My mother in-law once served a chili with pumpkin and I think it would make a delicious twist.

One important note- I absolutely adore the smoked cheddar that goes on top of this. Don't be tempted to get a bag of tasteless shredded cheese - you will seriously miss out. I'm a huge believer in the right accompaniments, and this is one that I won't eat chili without again. Using a box grater, I shredded my applewood smoked cheddar from Wisconsin with the paprika rind coming out in flecks of cream with red tips.

Becky's Vegetable Chili with Guinness
Adapted from Grace and Grit by Ken Wilbur

2 tbsp olive oil
2 onions, chopped
2 green peppers, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
4 tbsp chili powder (Becky uses Penzeys mail order- it's worth it!)
2 tbsp ground cumin
1 bottle of Guinness
1 x 28 oz can of whole tomatoes
3 x 15 oz cans of red kidney beans (you can substitute light red kidney beans and/or cannellini beans as well)
1 tbsp freshly chopped oregano
3 tbsp freshly chopped parsley
1 cup of chopped cashews, unsalted
smoked cheddar for grating on top
salt to taste

In a dutch oven, saute the onion, celery and green peppers in the olive oil for about 10 minutes until they are softened and slightly browned. Add the garlic, chili powder and cumin and saute for another minute.

Add the Guinness, tomatoes and beans, breaking up the tomatoes as you stir them in. Salt to taste (using kosher salt if possible- about a tbsp to begin with.) Simmer for an hour at least- longer won't hurt.

This is where I think this recipe goes to extraordinary- about 30 minutes before you're ready to serve, add the cashews, oregano and parsley. Simmer away for the last half hour and you're ready to dish it up.

Sprinkle some of the grated smoked cheddar on top and serve with bread (I made mine with cornbread) and a pint of Guinness!

Becky suggests variations including adding some chipotle peppers which are readily available in cans at grocery stores. She also makes this in the slow cooker with dried beans on occasion.