A Mid Winter's Night Feast

recipe

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I love eating out as much as anyone else but there are times when we have an inkling that the meal that we are about to have is not going to be great. I usually have a rule, if the meal is more than 50% terrible, I won't blog about it because it means that I open myself up to a potential lawsuit and I don't exactly have a battery of lawyers at the ready. A few weekends ago Mr NQN and I went out to dinner with Gina, Hotdog, Teena and Philippe and their girl Annabel and we had a meal that left us cringing. And it wasn't just the food...

We'd always wondered about this one restaurant, all decked out in its country's national decor and decided that we would visit after years of speculation. It was a chilly winter Saturday night, appropriate given the cold climate cuisine. It was packed to the brim and that was heartening and we took a seat right next to the door which swung open at regular intervals reflexively sending goosebumps up and down arms and legs. Somewhat concerningly, the menu crossed about seven different countries and regions but nevertheless we ordered and and waited, and waited....

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It was over an hour between courses-the food itself wasn't terrible, we'd hazard a guess that it was mostly frozen meat given their enormous steak house sized six page menu. We were yawning and it was about midnight that we finished and the owner came to sit with us. And that's when things got a little weird.

He looked around at the three husband and wife couples and decided to pull out a joke.

"What's the definition of a wife?" he asked.

"Errrm" the menfolk said looking at each other warily. I think they were trying to will him to stop, you know how you look at someone with alarmed eyes. But he wasn't going to stop.

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Holding up four fingers he ticked each one off "Wife stands for Washing, Ironing, F** and Entertainment!!!" he said guffawing loudly. If he'd bothered looking at us he would have seen six horrified faces and I think even four year old Annabel was giving him the stink eye, you know the one reserved with predators or creepy uncles.

"I've got another one! What's the difference between a blonde and a mosquito?" he asked, clearly not noticing or caring that both Teena and Gina are blonde. I think at this point some of the guys put their heads into their hands or shook their heads to signify that they weren't on board with him. I simply tried to ignore him by engaging Teena and Gina in conversation because I knew that there was not going to be any good from hearing the answer. And on he went, with sexist joke after joke-the poor soul probably thought that Benny Hill is funny (and there was a passing resemblance). We decided to make a very quick exit after that and I was the last one out. "Oh no, you're not going to get away without giving me a kiss!" he said and swooped in on me depositing his ruddy cheek somewhere near my head.

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Yes sometimes Dear Reader, it's better to eat at home, especially when you encounter folk like this. And I'll be honest, during winter I love entertaining at home. For starters it's always warm, there's not door constantly being opened bringing with it an Arctic gust of wind, the food isn't frozen and there's no annoying host making awful jokes. I decided to make an Italian themed dinner party because I really wanted to make a warming ragu. I added a few sides to it and made the ragu a few days in advance allowing the flavours to develop although truth be told, it was mainly because I was so busy on the day of the dinner party.

The rest was really easy to pull together, the burrata salad is one of my favourite ever dishes and if you've never tried burrata, I urge you to try this heavenly cheese. It has an outer of mozzarella and a filling of cream and when you split the burrata open, the cream dresses the rest of the salad beautifully. I also served it with some crispy fried white bait that took less than five minutes to cook and some peas with feta and onion which cooked up in about ten minutes, preparation included. Dessert was a steamed marmalade pudding served with cream and apricot jam. These can keep and can be steamed just before serving-I even steamed these in a pressure cooker to hasten the cooking time and the texture was beautifully fluffy with little pieces of marmalade.

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And the best thing of all! No draughts and no real life Benny Hills! ;)

So tell me Dear Reader, what would you do if someone started telling jokes like that in front of you? And do you prefer to eat in or out?

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Whitebait with chilli

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I know deep frying is slightly traumatic isn't it? It's like sparring with someone that might hit you in the face. I'm with you normally but deep frying whitebait is a super quick and once you pat the fish dry, there's little risk of spluttering. It's a great dish for groups to pick at-like the fish version of French fries. If you want to deep fry the parsley as I did, I will be honest and admit that is noisy and spluttery and by all means omit it. I liken the sound of the herb hitting the oil to thunder. And yes I am a drama queen but I promise that I'm not being overly dramatic when I say that...

An Original Recipe by Not Quite Nigella

Serves 4 as a pre dinner appetiser or share entree

  • 450g/1 pound whitebait

  • 1 cup plain all purpose flour

  • 2 teaspoons chilli flakes

  • 1.5 teaspoons salt

  • oil for deep frying

  • A small handful of parsley

  • Lemon wedges and salt to serve

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Step 1 - Wash and pat dry the whitebait with paper towels. Heat oil to 190C/374F. While the oil is heating, grind the chilli flakes with the salt in a mortar and pestle and add to the flour. Dredge the fish in the flour a couple of handfuls at a time. When the oil is ready, shake off the excess flour and place whitebait on slotted spoon and lower into oil making sure to gently swirl a little to make sure that they separate and don't clump together. They cook in about two minutes. Drain on absorbent paper and repeat until all the whitebait is done.

Step 2 - The next time is deep frying the parsley. Take a splatter guard or the lid of the pot and use it as a shield as you lower the parsley into the oil. I say shield because the sound of it hitting the hot oil is akin to a nearby thunderstorm although it quietens down quickly. But just be prepared for that and don't drop the lid like I almost did. And yes I'm scared of thunder. Serve with lemon and an extra grind of salt if needed.

Veal Ragu and Pasta

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This was the original dish that I centered the whole dinner around. I love a good rich ragu sauce and this one with its triple concentrated tomato paste is just that. I bought it at a supermarket in Haberfield but regular tomato paste will also do. If you don't have as much time, you can substitute the veal pieces for mince and it will cook in less than an hour or even half an hour.

An Original Recipe by Not Quite Nigella

Serves 6-8

  • 2 tablespoons oil for frying

  • 1 onion, diced

  • 2 celery stalks, diced

  • 2 small carrots, diced

  • 2 clove garlic, finely chopped

  • 2 slices middle bacon, chopped

  • 1 kg/2 lbs veal (not too lean), chopped into small pieces

  • 1/2 cup tomato paste

  • 125 ml (½ cup) red wine

  • 500 ml (2 cups) beef stock

  • salt and black pepper

  • sugar to taste

  • 750g/26/45 ozs dried pasta

  • Grated reggiano to serve

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Step 1 - Heat a large cast iron pot or saucepan on medium to high heat. Add some oil and fry the onion, celery and carrots until translucent. Add the garlic and a bit more oil and cook for a couple of minutes, then add the bacon and cook again for another few minutes. Add the veal in two batches and brown the pieces. Then add the tomato paste, red wine and beef stock and stir to combine.

Step 2 - Simmer with the lid on for three hours stirring occasionally and checking on the sauce-if you need to add more water then add it as necessary, you want it to be a thick sauce but not too thick or concentrated.

Step 3 - Once the meat is tender, the pieces should fall apart-you can just use a wooden spoon to press the pieces against the side of the pot to help it along. Add salt, pepper and sugar and taste for seasoning.

Step 4 - Put a large pot of salted water onto boil-you may need to do this in two lots if you don't have a big enough pot. Cook the pasta until al dente and then drain. Mix the pasta with the ragu and top with the grated reggiano cheese.

Pea and Feta salad

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I'm an absolute pea addict. You know how people keep peas in the freezer in case of injury or burns? I keep them in case of emergency snacking. Late at night, if I'm hungry I'll cook up a batch of these.

An Original Recipe by Not Quite Nigella

  • 1 onion, peeled and sliced

  • 1 tablespoon oil

  • 3 cups frozen peas

  • 50g/1.7 ozs. feta cheese, crumbled

  • Very small handful mint (optional)

Step 1 - Heat a frypan on medium heat and saute the onion in the oil gently. Add the peas to the onion and saute until cooked through-it only takes a few minutes. Scoop onto a serving plate and sprinkle the crumbled feta cheese over the peas along with some mint. Add salt sparingly (there is salt in the feta) and freshly ground pepper.

Burrata, Tomato and Roasted Beetroot salad

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Oh how I swoon for burrata cheese! Sure, it's not the easiest cheese to find and it's not cheap at around $12 for a single serve but this cheese makes a beautiful salad. Burrata is available at many Italian delis and is usually packaged in a plastic container with one burrata. Burst the mozzarella outer and watch the cream ooze out from the centre and watch your guest's eyes widen - it's as close to food porn as you can get.

An Original Recipe by Not Quite Nigella

  • 2 whole beetroot

  • 1 burrata cheese<

  • 400g/14ozs good quality tomatoes

  • 4 tablespoons olive oil

  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Step 1 - Roast beetroot-the easiest way for me is to place whole, unpeeled but washed beetroot into a cast iron pot with lid and drizzle a little oil on them. Preheat oven to 180C/350F and roast them for 1-1.5 hours (depending on size). Cool in the pot until cool enough to touch and the skins will slip off very easily-just wear gloves as they stain. I usually do as many beetroot as will fit in the pot as it's just as easy to do a lot of them and they're great for salads.

Step 2 - Once cool, quarter the roasted beetroot and place on a place with cut tomatoes. Place the burrata in the centre. In a jug, make a balsamic dressing with the balsamic and olive oil and pour over the burrata and salad. When serving cut open the burrata and dress the salad with the cream contained within.

Marmalade Puddings

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At one stage this winter I found myself with two enormous jars of home made marmalade. One and a half jars disappeared at the hand of Mr NQN who ate it with English muffins and the rest was like an unwelcome, unaware house-guest that had overstayed their welcome in my fridge. It constantly got in the way on grocery shopping day when the fridge was bursting to full and because it was so tall, it could only fit on the top shelf or in the door along with what I might contest would be among the world's largest collection of condiments (yes I'm a condiment and sauce hoarder). So I thought that I'd try and make a marmalade steamed pudding rather than a cake because Mr NQN likes the texture of steamed puddings more than cake claiming quite rightly that they are more moist. It is also the perfect dessert to make for a dinner party because you can mix it up and put it in the mold or molds if you're making individual ones and then steam them. They'll still keep nicely warm and I even made a batch in the pressure cooker and they turned out perfectly.

An Original Recipe by Not Quite Nigella

  • 125g/4ozs butter, softened at room temperature plus extra for greasing

  • 1 cup caster or superfine sugar

  • 2 eggs

  • 1 cup plain all purpose flour

  • 2 teaspoons baking powder

  • 1/2 cup milk (low fat is fine)

  • 3/4 cup marmalade

  • Thick cream or custard and a good quality apricot jam to serve

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Step 1 - Grease eight x 125ml/4 fl oz. pudding molds or one large pudding mold with butter. Have a large pot ready with simmering water and steamer insert-it needs to be large enough to fit the insert and mold/s in completely with the lid on. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time. Whisk the flour and baking powder together and add half of this and then half the milk and mix. Add the remaining half of the flour and milk. Lastly, add the marmalade and mix.

Step 2 - Spoon into the prepared molds until three quarters of the way full. Place a piece of baking parchment on top and then secure the top with a larger piece of foil scrunching the sides to keep it tight. Place the puddings on the steamer insert making sure that there is enough water and it doesn't run dry. Steam for two hours with the lid on or if you're using a pressure cooker, 30 minutes is enough for individual ones. If you're doing it in a regular saucepan for two hours, check on it to make sure that the water has not run dry.