The Tomato Monster.

Tomatoes are one of the best foods you can eat regularly.  They contain lots of lycopene which behaves in a similar way to antioxidants and can help fight cancer.  Eating ten servings of tomatoes each week can reduce the risk of lung cancer by up to sixty per cent.  The good news is that those ten servings can be in a variety of forms.  We can enjoy the benefits of lycopene by eating pizza, adding ketchup to food and even including tinned tomatoes in our diet.  This is because the cancer-fighting qualities of lycopene are not reduced by exposure to high temperatures.  In fact, cooking tomatoes in olive oil increases the amount of lycopene that is absorbed by the body.  French, Italian and Greek cooking feature numerous tomato-based dishes, so it’s no wonder that cancer is less prevalent among the mediterranean population.  Tomatoes feature heavily in our house too.

I’ve nicknamed our boy, The Tomato Monster.  He eats everything in sight and has yet to refuse any type of food that we’ve offered him.  However, tomato dishes provoke extra approving groans and lip-smacking from him.  He just loves tomatoes and we love watching him eat plenty of dishes containing that most glorious of fruits!  Today, I’m going to share two great recipes full of tomatoes that are brilliant for a family meal.

On a day when the sun was splitting the trees and a summer atmosphere prevailed in this normally rain-soaked region, I decided to cook up a tomato storm to enjoy in the garden.  N and the boy were out for coffee and cake (or water and baby rusks) all afternoon.  This left me free to make a complete mess in the kitchen and play my music as loud as I liked.  By the time the family was assembled for dinner, I’d managed to make a herb bread with tomato and a baked orzo dish full of tomatoes, beef mince and a cheesy, golden bechamel topping.  Me and N enjoyed a glass of wine with the food and felt like we were somewhere on the Northern coast of Crete.  The Tomato Monster savoured every bite of bread and every mouthful of orzo with extra satisfied grunts and spent the rest of the evening beaming.  In my book, that’s reason enough to put tomatoes on the menu every single day of the week.

Herb bread with tomato

400g chopped tomatoes

250g plain flour

120ml warm water

5 tblspoons olive oil

3 tblspoons chopped fresh herbs (mint & Greek oregano)

2 tblspoons tomato puree

2 tblspoons tomato ketchup

1 tblspoon honey

1 and a half tspoons dried yeast

1 tspoon dried oregano

1 tspoon Dijon mustard

This recipe will make a flatbread that can be torn and shared.  Put the flour, salt and dried yeast into a medium-sized bowl and mix in the dried oregano.

Create a well in the middle and pour in the water, honey and one tablespoon of olive oil.  Add all of the fresh herbs.  Mix gently to form a soft dough.  Brush with olive oil and place the bowl in a warm place for the dough to increase in size.  About half an hour will do it.

Mix the tomatoes, tomato puree, ketchup, the remaining oil, mustard and some dried oregano together and heat in a frying pan for a few minutes until you have a thick sauce.

Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface and press it into a baking tray.  Add the tomato mixture on top and spread it evenly with the back of a spoon leaving a small gap around the edges.  Leave the bread for about fifteen minutes and then sprinkle some more oregano on top.  Bake in the oven at 200C for about twenty minutes until lightly browned.  Serve with a fresh salad, or even better, why not pair it with the awesome orzo recipe below?

Orzo & tomato bake

400g chopped tomatoes

250g minced beef

1 onion (chopped)

2 tblspoons tomato puree

3 tblspoons chopped fresh herbs (mint & Greek oregano)

1 tblspoon dried oregano

2 tspoons dried cinnamon

olive oil

salt and pepper

(For the topping)

150g mature Cheddar (grated)

2 tblspoons butter

2 tblspoons plain flour

milk

1 tspoon Dijon mustard

1 pinch of grated nutmeg

salt and pepper

Orzo is pasta that looks very much like rice.  Boil it in lightly salted water until cooked through and set aside.

Brown the beef mince in some olive oil and mix in the cinnamon and dried oregano.  Add the onion and fry gently until it is cooked, but not yet browning.  Add the tomatoes and a little more olive oil and stir thoroughly.  Bring to the boil and then stir in the tomato puree.  Lower the heat and cook gently until the liquid reduces.

Drain the orzo and mix it with the beef sauce in whichever pan is bigger.  Stir in the fresh herbs and transfer it all to a deep, ovenproof dish.  Set aside while you prepare the sauce to go on top.

The orzo, tomatoes and beef before being topped with a cheese sauce.

Begin by making a roux.  Melt the butter in a milk pan and then add the flour.  Stir immediately with a whisk for a few seconds until the flour and butter become a loose paste.  Don’t panic.  Now you can pour in a little milk and continue to whisk.  Keep adding a little milk at a time until you have a thick sauce in the pan.  Now it’s time to add flavour!  Stir in the Dijon mustard, grate a little nutmeg in and then tip lots of grated Cheddar in for good measure.  You don’t really have to measure the amount of cheese you put in.  Add however much you need to achieve a full cheesy flavour and make sure there are no lumps.

Season the sauce to taste and then pour it over the orzo.  Spread it out evenly and then grate a load more cheese on top to cover.  Place the dish in a hot oven until the cheese is bubbling.  200C for about ten minutes is a good start.  I like to finish the dish under the grill to get the cheese golden and crispy on top.  You can serve this dish immediately or play the long game and eat it the next day.  I’d made enough to feed us for two days and I’m so glad that I did.  It tasted even better the next day.  Am I becoming predictable?  Maybe a little.

Note:  I’ve included guidance on seasoning, but I didn’t add any salt when I cooked this dish recently.  Instead, we added salt to our own portions once I’d served it.  This meant that our little Tomato Monster could eat the same meal as Mummy and Daddy without added salt.

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Clash of the Classics.

We shouldn’t take food too seriously.  Even if we love it and feel passionate about where it came from, how it was made and where the ingredients were sourced.  We should still take time to enjoy it and have some fun.  If you don’t believe me, take a look at the photograph above.

Having made a delicious, new cake, I could have finished it off with a light dusting of icing sugar and posted the photograph knowing that readers would be greeted by the sight of an elegant creation.  It would be the kind of image gracing only the most refined food blogs.  You know the type; minimalistic, tasteful and effortlessly sophisticated.

Instead, I went for squirty cream and sugar balls.  It sounds like a comedy double act, but in fact, it was just what I needed to lighten up a very tasty combination of custard, cream and fruity jam between vanilla sponge.

Soon, British people all over the world will be celebrating the Queen’s Diamond  Jubilee and this will cause an outbreak of Union Jacks, the like of which has not been seen since the end of the Second World War.  For some, it may prove too much.  For me, it’s an excuse for making cakes, as if I needed one.

I thought I’d post my offering for a jubilee celebration cake before the craziness began in earnest.    It’s my very own recipe inspired by two British favourites: the Victoria sponge cake and custard cream biscuits.  Both are close to the hearts of Brits and both are delicious.  I made a vanilla sponge and cut circles to construct miniature adaptations of the classic Victoria sponge.  I used Morrelo cherry jam and a custard cream made with not only custard, but custard cream biscuits too!  The results were fun and I’m not ashamed to say that the cakes didn’t see the afternoon.

If you decide to forego the squirty cream and sugar balls, you’ll still have a delicious set of cakes that have all the best elements of a classic cake and the morish custard cream biscuits.  Food should be fun.  Seriously.

Jubilee custard cream cakes

(For the sponge)

125g self raising flour

125g softened butter

125g caster sugar

1 tspoon vanilla paste

2 eggs

(For the cream)

2 tbslpoons double cream

2 tblspoons custard

6 custard cream biscuits

1 tspoon vanilla paste

You will also need 3 tblspoons Morrelo cherry jam

Squirty cream and sugar balls (optional)

First, make the sponge.  Cream the butter and sugar together with an electric whisk and then beat in the eggs.  Stir in the vanilla paste and then fold in the flour to finish.  The batter should be able to drop off a wooden spoon.  Add some milk if you think it is too stiff.

Pour the batter into a baking tray (with high sides) lined with greaseproof paper and bake for about twenty-five minutes at 180C.  Let the sponge cool on a wire rack before using a cookie cutter to cut six discs.  These will form the top and bottom of three cakes.

Whisk the double cream until it begins to stiffen and then add the custard and the vanilla paste.  Continue to whisk until the custard is combined and the consistency is thick.  Stir in the custard cream biscuits.

Top one of the sponge discs with a spoonful of cherry jam and then carefully drop a spoonful of custard cream on top.  Place a second sponge disc onto the cream and press down gently.  At this point, you can choose to dust the cake with icing sugar for a classic finish, or get the squirty cream and have a giggle.  Repeat with the other sponge discs and if you have any custard cream leftover, get a spoon and tuck in!

No chocolate, no smile.

Some people are just great bakers.  I am not one of them.  It’s an effort for me and I have to concentrate to achieve anything approaching average or good.  This only makes me more eager to try new recipes and get better each time.

It can be disheartening when N’s good friend comes round with a gorgeous coffee and walnut cake and says, “Oh, I just threw it together before I came round.”  You “threw it together”?  I’d have spent the best part of an afternoon trying to make it and would probably have thrown it in the bin at the end.

Well, fear not!  The recipe that I’m sharing with you today is one that anybody could follow for a successful outcome.  I know this to be true because I managed to get a tasty result without any gnashing of teeth or pulling of hair.  This chocolate pudding is fool-proof and packs plenty of chocolate too.

I know what you’re thinking: Why a chocolate pudding when it is spring in England?  Honestly?  I’ll tell you why.  A week or so ago, I went for a meal with colleagues and was outraged to find that the set menu we had booked for did not contain a chocolate option for pudding.  To clarify, the puddings on offer contained not one ounce of chocolate between them.  There was souffle, sorbet and the like, but no chocolate.  There was more fruit than anything else and you know how I feel about fruit rearing its healthy head in a pudding menu.  Disgraceful!  I was sick to the stomach, but not sick enough to put me off my starter and main.  Jamais!

To be fair, I don’t always want a chocolate-based pudding after a meal, but I feel it is only fair to have the option.  Feeling disappointed, I returned home and decided to make a chocolate pudding that was quite traditional, but easy to make.  Steamed puddings were not in my repertoire, but now that I’ve had a go, I will definitely be making more!  What follows is my recipe for a chocolate pudding that is uncomplicated and satisfying.  The texture is pretty is dense, but I won’t apologise for that.  It’s a pudding that will stick to your ribs and finish your meal with a chocolate thud.  Hurrah!

What’s your favourite pudding?

Chocolate pudding with Bailey’s chocolate sauce

100g melted butter

100g melted dark chocolate

100g caster sugar

3 eggs

75g plain flour

50g cocoa powder

(For the sauce)

100g dark chocolate

50g butter

5 tblspoons water

50ml Bailey’s Irish Cream Liqueur

1 tblspoon caster sugar

This recipe will make four steamed puddings.  Begin by putting the eggs and caster sugar into a glass bowl over a pan of simmering water.  You’ll need to whisk the eggs and sugar for about ten minutes until they are light and frothy.  It’s not fun, but it’s good exercise.

Once this is done, take the bowl off the heat and gently fold in the cocoa powder and the flour with a spatula or wooden spoon.  Once combined, do the same with the melted butter.  Repeat with the melted chocolate until you have a luscious, dark liquid that is begging to be steamed into pudding glory.

Grease the inside of four pudding pots with a little butter and pour in the chocolate mixture.  Cover the puddings with foil and seal tightly around the edges.  You could use baking paper and string for this, but I didn’t and the results were good.

Pop the pudding pots into a big pan on the hob and pour in hot water.  The hot water should reach just over halfway up the sides of the pudding pots.  Keep the water simmering and steam the puddings for about forty minutes.  You can do this with the lid on the pan, but be careful not to let the water bubble up and into the puddings.  Alternatively, you can simmer the water without a lid on and just top up the water as it evaporates.

The puddings will rise up (and take over the world) and become firm on top when they are done.

To make the sauce, put everything except the Bailey’s into a small pan and melt together.  Stir the sauce, take it off the heat and then stir in the Bailey’s.  If you prefer not to have alcohol in the sauce, simply omit the Bailey’s and you’ll have a very nice chocolate treat to pour over your puddings.  You could use a liqueur of your choice.  I served mine with the sauce poured over and some coffee beans for decoration.

These steamed chocolate puddings are cute, but be careful.  I had stomach ache after finishing a second pudding.  Perhaps it’s best to eat just one.  Hmmm…an interesting idea.  I’ll certainly consider it.

They might be gigantes.

I love me some beans!  In fact, the population of the UK loves beans too.  Baked beans in tomato sauce have come to dominate the tinned food market and most people here would count them as an integral component of a cooked breakfast along with bacon and eggs.

Heinz produce the most famous tinned beans, but those who want the tastiest should go for those made by Branston.  They have a superior flavour that the bland Heinz variety simply can’t compete with.  Still, whatever people choose, the motivation seems to be the same:  All kinds of people want inexpensive, convenient food that can be eaten at any time of day with other food.  It’s no wonder that baked beans in tomato sauce appear in every cafe from Edinburgh to Plymouth.  They appear in fry-ups, on jacket potatoes, with chips, under melted cheese and more recently in pasties.

The recipe that I’m sharing today is also for beans in a tomato sauce, but it’s a little more refined and it comes from where I was born.

Gigantes are beans baked in a tomato sauce with herbs and served alongside meat and other dishes in Greece.  The dish is made with giant beans (I use butter beans) unlike tinned beans in the UK which are usually haricot beans.  It’s such a simple dish and so full of fresh flavours that make these beans perfect for all kinds of meat and fish.  It’s a real taste of summer and one that transports me back to the hills and villages where this dish is still prepared.

My recipe is very different to the recipes you may find online elsewhere.  To begin with, I don’t bake the gigantes.  Neither do I use parsley as many seem to suggest.  Fresh dill takes centre stage and brings a delightful freshness to every mouthful.  If you’re looking for a side dish that everyone in the family can tuck into as you eat in the sunshine, then look no further.  Gigantes knock the socks off any other baked beans.  Try them and you’ll see!

Gigantes (Dimitri’s way)

400g chopped tomatoes

400g tin of butter beans

1 onion (finely chopped)

1 clove garlic (sliced)

15g fresh dill (chopped)

olive oil

 half a lemon

1 tspoon dried oregano

sea salt

black pepper

Before you begin, a word of advice.  Don’t be tempted to use dried dill.  The flavour of the dish hinges on the use of fresh dill chopped just before it is added.  The dried oregano is for background flavour, but you could use fresh Greek oregano if you want a stronger one.  It’s best to pick the fronds off the main stem of the dill and make a little pile that you can chop with a sharp knife.  Discard the thick stems.

Heat some olive oil in a pan and gently fry the onion and garlic until they are softening, but not brown.

Next, add the oregano and the tomatoes and stir everything together.  You may need to add more olive oil, but do so a little at a time so that the dish does not become greasy.

Bring the tomatoes to simmering point and then stir in the beans.  Push the beans down with a wooden spoon so that they are covered by the tomatoes sauce.  This will help to cook them.  You may wish to cover the pan as it simmers gently on a low heat.  Don’t let the tomato sauce reduce yet.  The beans need to cook in the liquid.

Once the beans are soft, take the lid off and begin to reduce the liquid by turning the heat up a little and stirring until you have a thick sauce.  It’s time to season the beans to taste.  Add salt, grind some black pepper into the pan and squeeze a little lemon juice in.  Taste the sauce and add more if necessary.  The lemon juice is there to lift the dish and make it lighter, but too much will spoil it.  When you’re happy with the seasoning, take the pan off the heat and add all of the chopped dill.  Give it a good stir, put the lid back on and leave it to cool slightly and let the flavours develop.

If you’re dying to tuck in, then go for it.  These gigantes can be served right away.  I like to serve these beans the next day once all of the flavours have had a chance to mingle, but that’s just me.  As I’ve said before, Greek food is always better the next day.  We ate our gigantes last night with some grilled courgettes, potatoes and some lovely basa fillets.  Drizzle extra olive oil on the beans if they need a lift.  Enjoy!

For the love of garlic.

Garlic frying in butter.  It announces that something special is taking place in the kitchen.  It draws you in, makes your imagination create wonderful possibilities, secret hopes of what the dish might be.  It’s the very beginning of something savoury and full of depth and irresistable flavour.  Garlic does all of this, and that’s before you even taste it.

When my French father-in-law visits, his suitcase is filled with all manner of food delights and this includes the ubiquitous garlic bulbs.  They’re three times the size of the puny bulbs available in English supermarkets and their flavour is wonderfully rounded and smooth.  If you want quality British garlic, you’ll have to look for it somewhere other than your local, friendly, giant, faceless, monopolizing supermarket.

With several bulbs of garlic from southern France, I felt charged with the responsibility of making something worthy of their quality.  My first thought was of garlic bread.  However, first ideas are not always the best and garlic bread is hardly an earth-shattering revelation.  Consulting colleagues didn’t yield any new ideas and I was beginning to scratch my head when suddenly, I had an earth-shattering revelation: garlic bread!

You may laugh (and possibly cease reading this altogether), but my first thought was not as silly as I’d judged it to be.  What better way to showcase the wonderful flavour of this garlic than to combine it with fairly bland, but satisfying ingredients?  I’ve enjoyed garlic soup in the Czech Republic and some wonderful chicken dishes with heaps of garlic in Thailand, but honestly, I wanted something with origins closer to home.

What follows is a recipe so full of garlic, that casual admirers of garlic may wish to turn the volume down on this one.  My recipe is for those who love garlic, I mean really love it.  Can you have too much of a good thing?  Probably.

Killer garlic bread

half French tiger stick (or plain baguette)

1 bunch fresh parsely (chopped)

10 garlic cloves (finely chopped)

150g salted butter

1 tblspoon olive oil

salt

It’s a killer garlic bread for a number of reasons.  Reading the ingredient list gives you a clue to at least one of them.  You can use more or less butter according to your taste (and lifestyle choices).  Copious amounts of butter, however, will guarantee a rich flavour and a moist end product.

After chopping all of the garlic finely, I heat the butter in a milk pan and fry the pungent cloves very gently.  If you burn any of the garlic, it is ruined.  The bitter taste of burned garlic is a real spoiler for any dish, so do take care to add enough butter to let the garlic float a little and give the pan a shake to make sure nothing sticks.  I often tilt the pan so that the butter gathers and cooks the garlic evenly.  I usually add a drop of olive oil to prevent the butter burning too.  Don’t add too much oil or you’ll end up with greasy garlic bread which is not pleasant.

The reason that I use a lot of butter is not just so that the garlic can be cooked evenly.  I need to mix the garlic butter with lots of parsley and spread it onto the bread.  Predictably, the bread soaks up the liquid, so there needs to be plenty of topping to cover the surface of the bread and also to soak into it.  We really want the flavour to seep through instead of sitting on the top.  I use a wooden spatula to mix in the parsley and then I season the buttery paste with some sea salt before spooning it onto the bread.

Tiger bread is very tasty, so when I spotted a French tiger stick, I was excited about using it to make the garlic bread.  You can use a regular baguette for the same result.  I only needed half and I cut through the length of the bread and opened it out to spread the verdant garlic butter onto the soft surface.  The parsley is essential for countering the strength of the garlic.  It also brings a fantastic colour to everything.  I left the bread for a few minutes to let the butter soak in.

I then lined a baking tin with foil and put the bread into a hot oven at 180C for about ten minutes or until the bread was crisp and golden.  Spreading the butter and parsley to the very edges of the bread ensured that nothing burned.  I ate mine with some cream cheese on the side which was a cool companion to every bold bite of this bread.  It’s delicious on its own and would go down a treat at a barbecue!  Just make sure you warn your friends that this garlic bread is the real deal.