Beans and Egg on Toast – the Bear’s favourite homecoming meal.

The Bear travels a lot.

All over the world. And wherever he travels  he eats. He has a great time sampling different foods and styles of cooking but whenever he gets back from his travels he always asks for one thing in particular. I would and could cook him anything at all, no matter how involved or time consuming, because I am so pleased that he is home again….. and all he ever wants is his favourite.

I think it happens to us all when you have been away from home for too long. All you want is something that is inextricably tied to memories of home, something that can only be made at home… you’d never be able to get a restaurant to make it for you. They could try but they’d never get it right. Restaurants are fine… they are great in some cases but eating out every night? After a while you need something simple. Once when I had been travelling round the south of India for weeks, eating the most delicious food and learning to make dal, I was preparing to come home and all I could think about was my mother’s cooking.  In an internet cafe in Bangalore (this was only a few years ago but BlackBerry’s weren’t on the market yet) I emailed work and asked the lovely Lolly to phone my Mum and tell her I was on my way back and to please make fish pie for my homecoming! And when I eventually got back, there it was, delicious and perfect and exactly what I needed after so long away.

Homecoming food should be comfort food. It should make you feel surrounded with love. It shouldn’t be – it can’t be – challenging, it has to be familiar.

So that’s what he gets.

And what is it? It’s beans on toast with a fried egg. But, like the advert says, it’s not just ANY beans on toast with a fried egg… it’s the Bear’s Beans on toast with a fried egg!

There are specific ingredients, though, that make this special. It wouldn’t be the same if I used supermarket bread, no matter what premium range it came from. It wouldn’t be the same if I used any old beans and just plonked them on the toast. And it certainly wouldn’t be the same if I used ordinary eggs and just fried them any old way.

The bread has to be made by me and it has to be No-Knead Bread because that not only tastes good but it has the perfect texture. It doesn’t dissolve when you pour the beans over it. Go and follow that link for a step by step look at making it. I have to start it the day before I need it but that’s good, when I start the bread I know my Bear will be home soon.

Those eggs? They are the gorgeous free range eggs from our local farm shop. Free range makes such a difference and the quality of their eggs reflects this. They are large with golden yolks and taste simply delicious.

And the beans? Well, they just HAVE to be Heinz.

So far so good.

And now to start it. The thing about beans is that they can – even the best of them – be a bit watery. We don’t like that. We like them heated gently and slowly till they become rich and thick.

….. and with a knob of butter added to them to make them taste even better.

The bread has to be cut thick, but not too thick and toasted

…..before being spread with salted Normandy butter

…. and piled high with beans. See how thick they are? How tasty they are too…..

The eggs are cooked in oil with some chilli oil poured in (ohhhh… how good that makes the eggs taste. Just a bit of a bite to them!)

And then you put the eggs on top.

It really is delicious. The yolk spills out and mixes with the beans and the toast mops up all the delicious dribbles.

It still needs just one extra thing though for the ultimate, homecoming comfort food….Heinz tomato sauce……

And that’s why you can’t get that in a restaurant. 

There are so many specifics and the biggest of them all is that the cook has to make a tomato sauce heart over the top.

Perfect homecoming food that says welcome back and come on in, you’ve been missed.

Dal. Delicious dal.

It’s obviously the weather for comfort food…the cold and damp and gloom affects everyone’s mood and general levels of happiness.  I am still working as a temp and that is not helping matters either. It’s good that I have work, but how I long for a real job with some sense of security because working week by week means I can’t plan anything. The uncertainty just nags away at me.

Ho hum.

I seem to have been working my way through my favourite comfort food recipes…recipes that can be relied upon to make me feel safe and happy. I was reading one of my friend’s blogs, Anne’s Kitchen, and her take on dal reminded me just how much I love it… and how long it had been since I served dal for supper.

One of my favourite things to eat (and, now, a favourite of The Bear’s, too) is dal. Beautifully soft and fragrant lentils, or split peas, chickpeas or beans, spiced with chillies and assorted spices and served with steamed basmati rice.

 There are hundreds of recipes for dal but this one is one I have developed over time and one that we love.

I travelled round the south of India (surely one of the most beautiful places on earth?) before I met him and ate dal all the time…

and what follows is  an amalgam of all the lovely dals I ate on trains, in cafes,  in railway stations….at  beachside huts

I saw some brilliantly fresh coriander in my local Asian supermarket. It was a sign, I felt, that I had to buy it and go home straightaway and start on dal.

Before you do anything else, you need to get the spice mix right. I love the slight popping effect of the mustard seeds in the finished dish. I start by heating the frying pan with a splash of chilli oil and adding chopped onion to soften slightly before adding heaped teaspoons of kalonji (black onion seeds, or nigella), brown mustard seeds and fenugreek seeds.

They pop slightly as they heat and add a delicious fragrance and flavour to the finished dish.

A teaspoonful each of tumeric and cumin powder add a deep rich smell and taste… and a pinch of asfoetida gives it a pungent, almost garlicky hit

Just put them in and stir them round mixing everything so the ground spices cover everything

I adore coriander and I have that lovely big bunch, so I like to chop the stems and add them at this stage too – layer upon layer of delicious herbs and spices transform a simple dish of lentils into something truly marvellous

I do need to add heat, of course, and I have some fantastic dried chillies

That can bubble away in the dal as it cooks…..

So, to the mix, add a cup full of yellow split peas

And a cup full of lentils.

Two different sizes, you’ll notice, which adds a delicious variation in the finished dal…

Add two cups of water and stir it round….

and add a tin of coconut milk

Look at that lovely rich cream…. stir it round…

and just leave it so simmer away… will take about an hour.

While that is chugging away gently, I make the rice, the way I was shown by an Indian friend

I heat some the indispensible chilli oil and throw in 6 cloves. Count them, don’t just thrown in a handful, because at the end, it is a good idea to know how many you are looking for. Cloves are marvellous but biting on one, unexpectedly, suddenly makes you think of the dentists, not of comfort and happiness.

Throw in a cup full of rice and stir it round so it gets a coating of chilli oil and the slight scent of cloves, then add a scant cup and a half of water a decent pinch of salt  and bring it to the boil.

Turn down the heat and let it cook until the water is absorbed.

Now, all you do is take it off the heat and lay a clean teatowel over the top of the pan and put the lid back on

What this does is absorb any extra steam and moisture and your rice turns out beautifully fluffy, with each grain separate and perfect.


All you need now is to serve up the dal….with fresh coriander

Look at those little mustard seeds… the split peas and the lentils…but to make it absolutely perfect and in homage to my love of the south of India, some shavings of raw coconut add the finishing touch

Utter, absolute luxury from the most basic of ingredients.  Utter and absolute comfort food, costing pennies.

What more could I want?  (Well, apart from a job!)

Crushed potatoes

Working full time is, as most of you will know, a pretty tiring business.

Working as a temp in an office is actually not that lucrative, so there’s always a fine line to be drawn between saving money and making things taste good.

This cold, dark winter seems longer than usual and it affects everyone’s mood. We get up in the dark, go to work in the dark and come home in the dark. If it’s not snowing then it’s raining or just bone-chillingly cold. The street lights come on mid afternoon and the freezing fog just hangs about.

I feel permanently exhausted and everything seems so much effort. Even cooking – my great joy – seems to be suffering. I want to come home and do the minimum…. the minimum, that is, until I have to eat it. I want something to cheer me up and make me feel marginally more special than a cold, dark and miserable Thursday warrants.

The answer is, of course, make something that takes the least effort imaginable, in the shortest time, with the loveliest taste.

When your mood is low then the thing to do is to get some potatoes… life always seems better when spuds are involved

The answer, therefore, is….. crushed and roasted (sort of) potatoes.

You’d be happy, I take it, with something that takes less than half an hour to make and serve? Some of those packet meal things take 40 minutes.. so something fresh and easy would be better? Surely?

So, you get some potatoes, peel them and cut them into manageable pieces… put them in a microwavable bowl with a sprinkle of salt and some water.

Put the oven on at 180 degrees.

Cover it with a plate and cook on high power for 6 or 7  minutes. (I say cover it with a plate because that is quicker and more economical than covering it with cling film and then throwing it out. Besides, that’s what I always do)

That’s just enough to mainly cook them but them still to keep their shape. Jab them with a knife to check there’s give in them.

Drain the spuds and put them on an oven tray… and get out your potato masher.

(Funnily enough, when I make mashed potato I won’t use the masher, I always use a potato ricer to make sure the mash is as smooth as can be. The masher is, however, perfect for part crushing the potatoes)

Now, don’t go mad. You aren’t mashing… you are bashing.

The potatoes need to be broken down around the edges… not flat, just bashed about.

Drizzle oil over it… garlic oil is good… as is chilli oil if you want your potatoes to have a bit of a bite … then shove them in the oven on a top shelf for ten minutes or so.

See how the littler bits have gone golden and crispy?

And the bigger bits have crisped up round the outside?

And there you have it… perfect to serve with (as I did) some roast lamb…. or maybe left over sausages, heated through, or maybe some roast chicken.

Sometimes, it is just enough to have a bowl of potatoes.

That really did take just about 30 minutes to make. 

And it really did take the edge off a bad day.

Beef and Ale Casserole with dumplings

I’ve been craving big meaty dishes  recently. It’s the bad weather of course. That and still feeling sorry for myself after I fell on the ice and banged my head so hard. I still have a bump you know and  I just hope I don’t go bald because I have a very odd shaped head now.

When you think about it, that could have been a really nasty accident, so the best thing to do is to celebrate…. not with champagne… but with dumplings!  There’s something rather lovely about a dumpling, don’t you think?

I used to hate them – as I did anything that reminded me of a school dinner.

How on earth could a mixture of suet and flour possibly taste half way decent? My friends talked of the joys of a decent dumpling, all crisp on the outside and soft and fluffy on the inside, bobbing merrily about on a luscious stew or casserole but I still refused to have anything to do with them.

I have no idea what changed my mind but one day I thought it couldn’t possibly be as bad as I thought. I think I’d been to my favourite butcher and seen fresh suet for sale at a ridiculously low price and thought I had to give it a go. I knew that I had managed to conquer other fixed dislikes…. it really does come down to how things are made.

So if I was to experiment, then buying some suet for 33p wouldn’t break the bank, would it?

33p? For 282g? That had to be a bargain and I had to be able to make something decent with it. So I did. I looked up recipes and thought about what I wanted to achieve and then I made my first dumplings.

I’ve never looked back. I’ve made apple and chive dumplings to go with a chicken and cider casserole.

I made minty dumplings to go with lamb. I’ve made all sorts of dumplings and, do you know, I have enjoyed every one.

Now I fancied a beef and ale stew…and what would I do with the dumplings? I thought I would mix beer in them…

I had some lovely beef, just crying out to be made into a stew, and some incredibly beautiful looking carrots from the farm shop….

And I had some ale – Theakston’s XB. It would be the work of moments to get everything ready the night before and then just set it off in the slow cooker when I went to work. I’d be able to sit at my desk all day, knowing that while I was working, the supper would be cooking, and, best of all, when I opened the door of the apartment, I would be greeted by the smell of a rich and delicious stew. I love coming home to the smell of supper waiting for you. But until I become independently wealthy and can afford household staff, it is only going to happen when I sort things out by putting something in the slow cooker the night before…….

I really do think the slow cooker has been worth every penny I paid for it. I was always too cautious to go out leaving the oven on all day but I feel quite safe with the slow cooker. Maybe it is because I grew up with a gas oven and there was always the potential for explosion… I don’t know.

Anyway, fast as you can, peel and chop carrots and put half of them in the slow cooker

Sear the chopped stewing steak in a hot pan with some oil.

Put that in on top of the vegetables

Cover the meat with the rest of the carrot and onion, give everything a quick but generous shake of Lea and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce and then pour in a bottle of ale.

That pan that you seared the meat in? Look at the lovely meat juices in there…

Add a spoonful of flour and stir it round to mix with the meaty juices

That will thicken the gravy beautifully while it chugs away when I am at work, so there’s no need to worry about cooking it out. Just get a smooth mixture

And pour it over the meat and vegetables in the slow cooker.

And that’s it till the next morning. Maybe ten minutes work, including wiping up.

One word of advice though… if you do this, as I did at 11.00pm, you will go to bed with everywhere smelling of fried meat. Maybe it would be better to do it earlier in the evening.

I wished I’d done it earlier as I lay there, trying to get to sleep, smelling meat that overpowered everything else, including the  lavender that I normally sprinkle on my pillow. Serves me right, eh? I should have got everything done sooner instead of leaving it till the last minute.

See that? Pitch black at 7.15 am and I am on my way out of the door – but not before I have turned on the slow-cooker. I use the Auto setting, which means it starts it off high and then turns down to low for the rest of the day.

And off I go to earn my pennies….

On my return, there’s a glorious smell of meaty loveliness… and all I have to do is mix up some dumplings.

Now, I would have fancied putting some horseradish in the dumplings to give them a bit of a zing, but the Bear hates horseradish (I really will have to do something about that…. ) so I think tonight I will mix the dumplings with beer, instead of water. That should give them a lovely beery, malty kick. Perfect for beef in ale….

120g of self raising flour and 60g of that lovely suet … mix it together with

a teaspoon of stock granules… I need to put some seasoning in – salt and pepper is good,  but I thought this might round the flavour out ….

 And instead of mixing it with cold water, a couple of tablespoons of beer will do just fine.

That does, of course, leave you with the rest of the bottle to deal with…..which might not be considered a hardship.

Anyway, roll that slightly sticky dough into dumplings (remember they will expand in the stew)  and pop them in, but because I am using a small two-person slow cooker, I can only get four in… so the rest go into the oven alongside some little potatoes which are baking….

they will  crisp up beautifully… while the others baste  in that gorgeous meat and gravy

They swell plumply as they bob about…..

And the baked ones have a gorgeous crispy crust…

Look at that – steaming, savoury beef in ale with dumplings that make you laugh with pleasure.

Can’t ask for anything more, can you?

Jansson’s Temptation

While we were in the north I had high hopes of being snowed in and had made sure we had the makings of lots of delicious comfort food recipes  to see us through what could be a seige situation.

Of course, while there was snow we didn’t exactly get trapped by it. It showed no sign of melting, though, so I felt entitled to think about something warm and sustaining. Calorific, even. After all, if it did turn nasty, we wanted to be able to fend of hypothermia.

It really was cold, though. Colder than I have known in a long time. We went to the beach nearby and, even though it hadn’t snowed for three, maybe four days, there was still snow on the rocks that are piled up for the sea defences.

Now these rocks are lashed by the sea daily. The waves often crash onto the promenade and you can taste the salt in the air. You’d expect, then, that the snow would have either been washed away or to have melted.

There was even snow on the beach.  Nothing was melting.

Faced with all that, I knew I had to make something to cheer us up, warm us through and fill us with each decadent mouthful.

It had to be Jansson’s Temptation.  I was always told that it was called that because it is so delicious it caused a Swedish clergyman to break his vow not to indulge in earthly pleasures. If you haven’t made it, try it. It will be something you dream about.

It is an oven baked dish of potatoes, onion, cream and Swedish sprats, anchovy style.

Now before you start scuttling backwards, shrieking that you don’t like anchovies, bear with me. They are actually sprats, cured in the Swedish fashion, which means they are a beguiling mix of sweetness and saltiness. The best place to get them? That famous Swedish home furnishings superstore – Ikea.  And the tin to look out for?

Right. First things first. Peel some potatoes and slice them, first one way and then the other until you have matchstick sized pieces of potatoes. I used two potatoes per person because, somehow, this just slides down.

That’s probably a bad thing in terms of diets but a good thing in terms of sheer, unadulterated pleasure.

Parboil them for 3 or 4 minutes, then rinse them in cold water

While that is going on,  peel and slice thinly, a large onion

Butter an oven proof dish

And then put a layer of potatoes

Followed by a layer of onions

Then scatter your sweet and salty sprats

They are so pretty – pink and silver…. quite unlike Mediterranean anchovies.

I pour some of the liquid sweet brine over the potatoes as well

Then cover the lot with some single cream. A large pot should do it.

And then… well, what the heck… just put a few dots of butter on top of it….and then into an oven  at 170 degrees

……….until you have a golden brown,  delicious dish. It takes about 40 minutes or so.

 A bit longer, if you have other things to do. Just cover the top with tinfoil to stop it burning .

Then… heap your plate with what is probably the most delicious potato dish in the world. The sprats have dissolved completely into the cream and give a beautiful sweetly, savoury flavour. Unless you’d been told there were sprats or anchovies in there, you’d never know. This has everything you could wish for – the softness and comfort of potatoes, a creamy, mouth filling texture and that umami type of taste – all sweet, salty and deep.

You would just swoon with the first mouthful.

I serve it with plain roast meat – lamb is good… but the star of the meal really is the potato.

No wonder poor old Jannson succumbed.

Macaroni Cheese

Well… it’s cold outside…. I wake up and go to make coffee

… it’s been snowing… and more snow is forecast. If this is the morning

What will the evening be like? I want to be snowed in.

I know I have enough food for an army and I can think of nothing better than being made to stay in. It wouldn’t be my fault, would it? Just imagine the bliss…. not going to work, just tucked up, nice and warm, looking down on the city below us. 

We have an enormous sofa and it would be so lovely to be sitting, curled up with the Bear, both of us clutching a lovely bowl of…. what?

I want something savoury and soothing… soft and warming….. comfort food at its finest. And then I thought of macaroni cheese. That would be perfect – pasta, all soft and oozing cheese sauce, the top crisped and brown… I dare say an Italian would look on this with horror but it is truly an English dish now.

“…we can establish the venerableness of the dish we call macaroni cheese from the following recipe which must have been introduced from Italy… into the court cookery of Richard II [1367-1400]. Macrows. Take and make a thin foil of dough, and carve it in pieces, and cast them on boiling water, and seeth it well. Take cheese, and grate it, and butter, cast beneath, and above as for losenges, and serve it forth.’ It was apparently not made in England during the next few hundred years, but it returned from Italy in the eighteenth century…when Elizabeth Raffald published a very good recipe entitled “To dress macaroni with Parmesan cheese.”
Food and Drink in Britain: From the Stone Age to the 19th Century, C. Anne Wilson (p. 252)”

So, macaroni… lots of it

Into a pan of boiling salted water to bubble away until it is cooked. Now real Italian pasta meals are served al dente but this is macaroni cheese.. it is going to be baked after this… it is going to be soft and gorgeous.

While that is cooking, get started on the cheese sauce… you need good butter, some cream

some onion and some cheese. I had a big slab of Farmhouse Cheddar just  asking to be used

Now, I always add onion. I like the contrast between the slight roughness of the pasta and the smoothness of the onion. It lightens it up just a fraction.

First thing is to chop the onion and gently saute it in butter until it is translucent

When the macaroni is cooked, drain it and put it into a lightly buttered dish with a knob of butter to melt over it

and then stir in those soft onions

Now back to the sauce – melt two tablespoons of butter and stir in two tablespoons of flour.  Season it well with Maldon salt and fresh ground white pepper.

You need to cook the flour properly so stir it round until it all comes together then start stirring in a mixture of milk and cream

It becomes a smooth and silky, glossy looking sauce.. which is when you add the cheese

If you have some parmesan or Gran Padano then add that, too… it adds an extra hint of cheesy sharpness

Stir it all round till the sauce becomes smooth again and then… well, then  you pour it over that glistening bowl of macaroni and stir it round so all the cheese sauce can seep into the macaoni, filling the little tubes…

An extra grating of the two cheeses on the top makes a lovely, golden bubbling crust

All that needs now is maybe 30 minutes or so in the oven at 175 degrees until the top is browned and you can smell that it is ready.

In that time, plump up the cushions on the sofa, pour a couple of glasses of wine… look out of the window and be glad you are warm inside…..

Look at it…….

Of course, a true romantic like myself likes to make sure the Bear feels loved. Well, with macaroni cheese, a tomato sauce heart, a glass of red wine and someone to cuddle with on the sofa, he definitely feels loved.

That was lovely…we were in our top floor apartment, with three walls of windows, watching  the snow whirling about all around outside,  while we were inside with the  best comfort food in the world.

What could be better than eating a bowl of that with the one you love?

So simple and so right for days like this.