I don’t have a set recipe for my basic casserole, what I put in it depends on my mood and what I have in. That’s what I love about making them; they can be very personal and adjusted to suit you, your budget, what’s in season and what’s in your fridge. I like the chopping, mixing, tasting, adding a bit of this, adding a bit of that, tasting again, the end result being different ever time.

I do however follow a particular, fairly standard method, which I’ll set out for you here.

Meat
Browning the meat first gives a really good flavour and seals in the juices. It needs to be well browned on a very high heat so that it forms a slight crust. Don’t put too much meat into the pan at once or it will just steam and not brown as you want it to. Once the meat is browned I remove it from the pan and then add the vegetables. Don’t use a clean pan – you want all the flavour from the meat!

Meat on the bone is really good for casseroles as you get all the additional flavour from the bones. I wouldn’t make a chicken casserole with chicken off the bone as there isn’t as much flavour as with other meats, such as beef.

Cheaper, less tender, cuts of meat such as shin of beef and neck of lamb work best in casseroles as they suit long, slow cooking and have a lot of flavour.

Chopped bacon can be a great addition; sautéed after the meat is browned and removed.

Flour
I don’t always add flour but it does thicken the casserole nicely. I either roll the meat in seasoned flour before browning the meat or add a tablespoon or two to the casserole before the liquid goes in.

Vegetables
My casseroles always have an onion base, often with carrot and celery. These are sautéed until soft after the meat has been browned and removed and before the liquid is added. I sometimes add crushed garlic which gives another note and depth that I find is particularly good with beef. Other vegetables that often find their way into my casseroles are shallots, leeks, parsnips, butternut squash, new potatoes and mushrooms.

Herbs and Seasoning
I find dried herbs work fine in casseroles, despite what the purists may say. In fact dried herbs seem to give a deeper note, but of course fresh are good too. I personally tend to stick to thyme, oregano or rosemary. Bay leaves are great too, but remember to remove them at the end of the cooking time!

Season when your liquids have gone in and check again at the end of the cooking time once the flavours have developed and the liquid has reduced. Be careful with salt particularly if you’ve added bacon or have a fairly salty stock.

Pulses
Pulses such as chickpeas or lentils make the casserole a full-on, hearty meal.

Liquids
Once the base vegetables are sautéed it’s time for good stock and any other liquids you want to add. I turn the heat up and deglaze the pan with alcohol or just the stock. The meat goes back in at this stage. Sometimes a tin of chopped tomatoes will go in, worcester sauce, tomato puree, beer, guiness, madeira, marsala or wine. There really is no set rule for casseroles, just go with your taste buds. Talking of which, I taste at this stage, once everything has been added to the casserole and the liquid has been brought to a boil, and I add more of this or that as I want.

Heat
Once the liquid is added bring it to the boil on the hob then put a lid on and put it in the oven to simmer slowly for a good couple of hours on a low to medium heat.

Finishing
Sometimes the liquid will need reducing before serving, to thicken it and deepen the flavour. I take the lid off and either put the dish back in the oven or on the hob on to simmer and reduce until I’m happy with the consistency and flavour. I check the seasoning at this point and adjust it if necessary.

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Photograph Ananova

This lowly parsnip is officially Britain’s ugliest vegetable. The parsnip’s resemblance to a deep sea creature won it first prize in the National Trust’s Ugliest Vegetable In Britain competition. The competition was launched in order to ‘celebrate ugly fruit and vegetables, which taste great but are usually rejected for their looks and size’.

So, can you find it in your heart to sauté a twisted leek or roast an elongated potato? Take another look at that forked carrot. Give an ugly vegetable a chance.

National Trust Article

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Roses and Rain

It’s been a drizzly day today. Rain against the windows, drops in puddles, wet pavements. I love the rain and quite like being out in it if it’s not too hard or windy, but I especially love watching and listening to it from inside.

It’s nearing the end of September so we can expect more rain and lower temperatures. The nights are already drawing in earlier and earlier and it will soon be time for central heating and comfort food.

I think I might be coming down with a cold, a sure sign of the time of year. But I’m still happy as I’m sipping wonderful Jewish penicillin (chicken broth) and Rob brought me roses and has just started running me a bath scented with my favourite rose bath oil. He knows how to put a smile on a girl’s face.

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Sundays really are the best take-it-easy days, aren’t they? Today has been lovely and laid back. After a lie-in then a hot shower I read the Sunday paper with my coffee in the garden in the morning sunshine. I cooked a roast dinner and baked some bread, feeling perfectly domesticated. I’m going to finish the day with a long bubble bath, cosy pyjamas and a good book. The perfect end to the weekend.

Bread

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apple
I decided to do some baking the other day but that was as far as my thinking went, so I asked Rob what he’d like. ‘Apple pie’ was his immediate answer, which I thought was perfect given the time of year. I don’t think I’ve ever made this before so I sent him out for Bramley apples – Bramley being the quintessential apple for English apple pie – while I flicked through my recipe books.

Now there seems to be a divided camp when it comes to the filling, some cook the apples first and some don’t, which left me with somewhat of a dilemma. In the end I opted for not cooking them first in order to keep some texture. This may have been fine had I chosen a sweeter apple for my filling, or had I put more sugar in. But as it was the pie I’d lovingly made was pretty much inedible as the apples were far too sharp – they needed much, much more sugar than the 4 tablespoons I had used.

Disappointed, perplexed and somewhat embarrassed that I couldn’t even make a decent apple pie, I had another attempt the following day, determined to get it right this time. Clearly the amount of sugar needed totally depends on the type of apple used and even then they will vary in taste depending on where and when you buy them. It will also depend on personal taste – some people like very sweet pies, others prefer them more tart. So I figured you either take pot-luck with the sugar or you taste the mixture before it goes into the pie – which means cooking the apples first. I’d moved camps.

I was, however, determined not to have mush pie so I decided to compromise and cook the apples just for a few minutes to allow the sugar to coat them and of course I tasted the mixture until I was happy with it.

This time the pie was just right. I was happy, as was Rob as he poured on thick cream and delved in.

Bramley Apple Pie

Apple Pie

Shortcrust pastry – 250g plain flour, pinch salt, 130g cold butter, chopped. Blend together until it looks like bread crumbs (I used my mixer for this) then add a little water (about 6 tablespoons) to form a dough. Chill for 30 mins in the fridge.

Core and slice about 4 Bramley apples and put into a saucepan with a little butter. Add light muscovado sugar and caster sugar to taste along with a teaspoon of cinnamon. Heat until the sugar has dissolved and the butter and sugar are coating the apples.

Divide the pastry into two, roll out one half and line your pastry dish with it. Fill with the apples and pour a little of the sugar butter on top, not too much or it will leak out, then roll out the other half of the pastry and top the pie with it.

Brush with a beaten egg and bake at 200c for 30 – 40 minutes until the pastry is golden.

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Fish Pie

I played around with 3 or 4 different recipes for this pie, taking what I liked best from each. The end result is creamy, rich and deeply fulfilling.

Chop approximately 800g skinned and filleted white fish into bite sized pieces and scatter into a dish.

Sauté 3 finely chopped shallots in butter until soft. Add about 285ml double cream, a bay leaf and a splash of vermouth or white wine then bring to the boil and simmer gently for about five minutes. Turn off the heat and remove the bay leaf. Stir in the juice of half a lemon, a handful of chopped parsley and some grated hard cheese to taste. Season then pour over the fish.

Top with buttery mashed potato and bake at 200c for 30-40 minutes until golden.

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