Friday, 17 July 2015

Camping made Easy

You'll notice from the content of this post that is it completely unfood related! I make no bones about this: I'm also a busy mum with a little one which is why the food bits don't get updated as regularly as I'd like and there are other things I'd also like to write about from time to time. Maybe a different blog format might work going forward, but for time time being, if you don't want to read about potties, look away now!

I'm a recent convert to camping and definitely have the bug! A year ago we invested in a proper tent to accommodate the British weather with lots of room indoors for those grey, wet afternoons. Since buying it, though, we have rarely made use of it, as the four or five weekends we've spent away have been perfectly warm, sometimes even hot, and sunny. Yes, it has rained in the night once or twice, and we had to dry the tent out this time after returning, but are learning tips and tricks from other campers along the way. Last time we went, I forgot the potty. Now, this doesn't seem like an important omission. But at three o'clock in the morning, when your pitch is the far end of the site away from the facilities, with a three/four year old who's overexcited, believe me, it is! And a potty takes up so much of that valuable boot space. Luckily, we just about fit most stuff into the boot, with only an odd chair and pillow in the back, but are always looking to save space when we can. So, when Oxo said I could choose something to try from their Tots range, I instantly chose the space saving  2in1 Go Potty which retails at £20. 

It's essentially a small hard plastic toilet seat, with bumps in all the right places, and two side legs like flaps that fold out and lock into place, making it incredibly sturdy. I did worry that, in sleepy mode after not a lot of sleep, my LO might wobble off, or tip it over but, no, it proved to very very stable. The legs lock into place and you need to push the buttons in to fold back down. It comes in it's own bag and with a set of three potty liners. These, again, are much more robust than the standard ones available and are cleverly designed with detachable tags which tuck into the holders under the seat.

Simply put the liner into the 'hole' and fold the edges over the seat, tucking the ends through the grippy holes. When you remove the bag, the handles tie at the top and the bits you've tucked in to secure the liner, tear off easily so there's no spill. And you can definitely fit it more than one wee!

The only problem camping with it, is where to dispose of the full bag. At our campsite, there was no nappy disposal bin, otherwise I'd have put it there, so I ended up tipping the contents down the loo and popping the bag in the bin. 

To use as a smaller toilet seat, push the buttons in while pulling the flap legs out again to the edges and place over the regular seat. Again, this is sturdy and doesn't slip as much as you might think, but ours will be kept firmly in the camping bags, ready for our next trip! As it folds fairly flat, it will even pack in the top of a flight case or small suitcase too if you're looking for something to take away on holiday to a hotel or apartment. 

Disclaimer: Although I was sent products to try for the purpose of this post, all views and opinions are entirely my own, truthful and honest.

Monday, 6 July 2015

No excuses...only explanations.

Ok, so I must be coming to the end of the year I gave myself to complete this challenge and am nowhere near finishing. It hasn't been the cooking that's been the problem so much, as the time needed to write up the posts, insert and edit photos and, in particular, write up the actual recipe to include ingredients and recipes, even though I've cheated and linked to it online. I often find myself having cooked two out of the three dishes, usually the starter and main, and not getting round to the pudding: therefore I have several books on the go at one time, all in various states of completedness! Then it becomes a case of sifting through, seeing which recipes are left to finish off. At the moment, I'm two thirds through 'Jamie does...' With a peach Bellini recipe still waiting, and one third through Jamie's 'Cook', starter and pudding to follow. 

Anyway, there are no excuses here, just explanations. I know many of you find the sporadic nature of posts annoying, and believe me, so do I. If you were certain that every Monday, let's say, there'd be a new post, you'd check in and see what this week was all about. So, with that in mind, let's put this challenge on hold. Come September, I'll find myself with more time than I know what to do with, quickly filled I'm sure, but it will at least give me a few hours to write, edit and blog. I'm going to have Monday as my writing and posting day, ready for the week ahead. 

There will be posts in the meantime, and some may even be Cooking the Books #recipeasy, especially since I still have a couple with outstanding bits and pieces but I'm not going to race to the finish. I've got an Oxo mandolin slice to review, and, completely unrelated to food, a travel potty we're taking camping with us this weekend!! So those will be next in line. I can't imagine the peach Bellini and post will be far behind, especially given the gorgeous weather we've had over the last couple of weeks! 

Keep checking the Facebook page for updates, and if you subscribe to the blog (link's on the right) you'll automatically get updates with regards to new posts. And don't forget to comment below the posts...I'll happily answer any questions, or would love to hear how you've got on with some of the recipes, or your own creations. 

Merlotti x

Monday, 15 June 2015

19–Gino D’Acampo, Fantastico - Cooking the Books


Starter:   Spaghetti rolled in Aubergine with Melted Cheese

Main:      Chicken Breasts in Lemon & Sage Sauce

Dessert:  Sticky Banana & Chocolate Tart

Gino Fantastico

We’re getting ridiculously close to ending up with 6 or 7 Jamie books as the last few in the series, so I’m trying to alternate one Jamie with one other for the next few week so we don’t all become bored! I also seem to have rather a lot of Italian influenced books, so needed to get one of those done quickly! It’s another Gino this week (didn’t know I had two!) I’ve cooked a few from here before, they’re usually simple but tasty, and classically Italian, and most of the ingredients were already in the veg box this week.

Starter: Spaghetti rolled in Aubergine with Melted Cheese

Easiness: 6/10

Taste: 8/10

Make again: 6/10

Cheats & Changes: Used brie and cheddar instead of mozzarella and pecorino


2 aubergines

5tbs olive oil

1 garlic clove, chopped

500g tinned tomatoes

10 basil leaves

350g spaghetti

butter for greasing

mozzarella balls, drained (2)

100g grated pecorino

Extra virgin olive oil

salt and pepper


Slice the aubergines lengthways and sprinkle with salt – leave for 30 mins and allow the extra water to drain away. Dry each slice, then griddle for about 3 mins a side. Set aside

Heat the olive oil, fry the garlic then add the tin of chopped tomatoes. Season and leave to simmer for 15 mins. Remove form the heat, mix in the basil leaves and leave.

Cook the spaghetti, drain, and mix into the tomato sauce.

Preheat the oven to 200 o c. Place a slice of aubergine on a greased baking tray, pop a spoonful of spaghetti mixture in the middle, add a slice of mozzarella and roll up. Secure with a toothpick. Sprinkle each roll with pecorino and bake for 10 mins. Once cooked, drizzle with the extra virgin, remove toothpicks and serve.


Now, this seems like a lot of ingredients, and rather a phaffy method, and it is. There are quite a few pots and pans in use, but it’s worth the effort, especially if you wanted a nice starter or some quick and tasty bites. We actually had them as a pre-main, and I cooked extra pasta and added a few more tomatoes to the remaining sauce, then mixed, topped with cheese and baked as a main.

Main: Chicken Breasts in Lemon & Sage Sauce

Easiness: 7/10

Taste: 8/10

Make again: 8/10

Cheats & Changes: I used leftover cooked chicken and just added to the sauce later, before putting into the oven, only cooking until it was hot all the way through.


2tbsp plain flour

zest and juice 1 unwaxed lemon

2 crushed garlic cloves

4 skinless and boneless chicken breasts

3 tbsp olive oil

1 tsp fennel seeds

300ml chicken stock

3tbsp freshly chopped sage

2 medium egg yolks

springs of sage and slices of lemon

salt and pepper


Mix the flour, lemon zest and garlic into a paste. Coat the chicken breasts with this. Preheat the oven to 180 o c. Take the chicken out of the paste and fry off in the olive oil with the fennel seeds until lightly browned, turning a few times. Stir in any leftover paste.

Add the stock, sage and seasoning. Mix and bring to the boil and pop into the oven until cooked through. Take out and stir through the egg yolk, with 2tbs of the lemon juice, mixing until thickened over a medium heat. Do not allow to boil – you don’t want scrambled eggs! Adjust the seasoning once ready, serve garnished with sage sprigs and lemon slices.


This was really nice, although a little gloopy once thickened – maybe next time I’d just use one egg yolk rather than two, but better than using the usual flour. Very tasty, and different from the usual. I’ll definitely make it again, and it was a great way to use up the leftovers.


Dessert: Sticky Banana & Chocolate Tart

Easiness: 7/10

Taste: 7/10

Make again: 2/10

Cheats & Changes: none

I struggled with this one. So much, in fact, I made the caramel twice, and it still crystallised. But, not one to give up, I persevered anyway. The taste was great – sticky and chocolatey with a hint of banana but this has been renamed ‘poo pie’ in our house! You can see why from the picture. I have no idea what really went wrong, just a combination of things I suppose. It should be simple: Melt 50g salted butter with 120g caster sugar until it turns caramelly. Place whole bananas in the pan and sprinkle with 100g chocolate chips. Press over ready made puff pastry and ‘tuck in’ the bananas. Bake in the oven for 20-25 minutes. Turn out onto a plate and serve – or not in my case. Just give to your husband. I would not recommend serving this to guests!


So, I’ll be looking through these recipes a few more times yet I think – just got to remember not to do the poo pie. If you’re looking for a similar recipe, I suggest you try Jamie’s Tarte Tatin as it works every time, but replace apples with bananas instead!

Anyone know when I need to finish this #recipeasy #cookingthebooks challenge by? Don’t think I’ll even be close to completing it on time!

Monday, 18 May 2015

18–Keith Abel, Veg Box Companion - Cooking the Books


Starter:   Globe Artichokes with Garlic Butter Dip

Main:      Undercover Onion Tart

Dessert:  Rhubarb Compote

abel and cole

My fortnightly veg. box has quickly grown to a veg., fruit, meat and fish box...which eliminates the need for a weekly shop and I just pop into the supermarket to pick up essentials such as bread and milk, making it oh so less stressful and time consuming! Accompanying the initial box came a recipe book to help me use those veggies well…and it’s one I regularly turn to.
The recipes from the free book also include meat and fish, and I find are vital, especially when using up the little bits and bobs you have left, or the more unusual veg, although I’ve also begun to create my own, such as Kohlslaw, which uses a kohlrabi instead of cabbage in a simple coleslaw of grated carrot, sliced onion and kohlrabi mixed with shop-bought mayo.

Starter: Globe Artichokes with Garlic Butter Dip

Easiness: 8/10

Taste: 8/10

Make again: 8/10

Cheats & Changes: none


The start this week is globe artichokes, something I first had aged around 15 whilst in Switzerland on exchange. They family served steamed artichokes with a Dijon dressing, which were absolutely delicious but completed alien! Since then, I've always fancied trying them out myself, but the Abel and Cole recipe gave an easy melted butter and garlic dip. Steam the artichokes until the base stem is soft, crush garlic and melt with butter and salt. Tear each petal leaf by leaf and dip the base, the bit that is part of the heart, into the sauce, scraping off the flesh with your teeth...very animal! Once the leaf flesh has been demolished, remove the hairy 'choke' and quarter the heart, dipping this too. I'll be trying this again, especially since F asked the next day for another one, but with the Dijon dressing as I think the vinegar will really help lift the flavours, but the garlic butter was good too. Recipe here

Main: Undercover Onion Tart

Easiness: 7/10

Taste: 8/10

Make again: 8/10

Cheats & Changes: used half leeks, half onions


Main course is onion tart, mainly because I have all the ingredients to hand and it'll serve well as a lunch dish to take cold to work. This was the first time I’ve made a proper savoury homemade pastry, life’s too short in general, but I’ll certainly be doing it again as it was so simple and worked a treat. The base was crisp – no soggy bottoms here – and the pastry short. I used half leeks as only had one onion left, and it could do with a little more crème fraiche, but really was delicious. As I was making it, I wanted to top with halved asparagus spears too, but refrained, sticking to as much of the recipe as i could to check it worked, and it did. This was definitely a perfect summer-time tea. Check out the Abel and Cole website here for the recipe.

Dessert: Rhubarb Compote

Easiness: 10/10

Taste: 9/10

Make again: 8/10

Cheats & Changes: none


Dessert is a simple rhubarb compote which is very versatile. I’m using mine to top some homemade meringue, something I’m usually rubbish as making, but seem to have the knack if I use the KitchenAid! The recipe is a simple and fast jammy mixture which you can use in many different ways…how about a base for crumble, or as part of a summer Mess with natural yoghurt swirled with icing sugar? Or even a little dollop in the glass before topping with Prosecco? I’ll leave the rest of the ideas to you, the recipe’s here. Put chopped rhubarb, sugar, half a vanilla pod and a little water into the pan and soften for around 10-15 minutes. Drain and retain the syrup to use as cordial. Thanks to Angela and Bella for the rhubarb – I’ll pop a jar of the compote round!


Friday, 15 May 2015

17–Alice Hart, Alice’s Cook Book - Cooking the Books


Starter:   Sticky Tamarind Chicken Wings

Main:      Lamb, Courgette & Halloumi Burgers

Dessert:  Honey’s Raspberry Turnovers

Alice Cooks
I've had this book for a few years now. It was originally sent to me by the publishers as a sample copy, and I've since cooked a few things. The recipes are that little bit different, and unusual, but generally seem to work (apart from a cake disaster I remember!) Anyway, this time, I chose recipes I haven't tried before...sticky wings, lamb, courgette and halloumi burgers, raspberry turnovers served with the simplest vanilla icecream you'll ever make, which I’ll post at a later date.

Starter: Sticky Tamarind Chicken Wings

Easiness: 8/10

Taste: 10/10

Make again: 10/10

Cheats & Changes: none – though I couldn’t find ‘fresh’ tamarind, so used a little pot of it already mixed from Tesco and added the whole pot. Skip the stage in the recipe where the tamarind is mixed with water.

These were a case of combining, leaving and roasting. My only quibble was finding free range chicken wings. The supermarkets tend to see and sell wings as a ‘cheap’ box of leftovers, and are, therefore, usually part of their value range. I did hesitate, and before cooking again, will attempt to find a higher welfare box of wings. Combine tamarind, groundnut oil ( I used olive) , runny honey, dark muscovado sugar, soy sauce, grated fresh ginger, squashed garlic cloves and chilli flakes. Pop into a bag with the wings and leave to marinate after giving everything a good squash together. Roast in a single layer at 190 degrees c for 30 minutes.


I prepped a batch of these and left in the fridge ready to watch the boxing a couple of weeks ago and they went down a treat! So much so that family in Mexico felt to urge for wings as well and had to order some in! The recipe is here, but it’s really one of those where leaving out one ingredients, or swapping for another, won’t really alter the flavours drastically, and it’ll still be delish!

Main: Lamb, Courgette & Halloumi Burgers

Easiness: 8/10

Taste: 8/10

Make again: 8/10

Cheats & Changes: none

Try to use the best lamb mince you can for the burgers as this way you'll get a softer, more 'falley apart' burger. It's a case of combining, then cooking the ingredients, (courgette with the water squished out, lamb, halloumi, mint) so really not a lot to it, apart from grating the courgette and halloumi. The Greek yoghurt dip with mint is a classic combination with lamb and, therefore, obviously works really well. Even my little one wolfed down her burger with dip...the first burger she's actually enjoyed! The link is here.


Dessert: Honey’s Raspberry Turnovers

Easiness: 10/10

Taste: 9/10

Make again: 10/10

Cheats & Changes: none

For the raspberry turnovers, again, it's not hard. Cut pre-bought, pre-rolled puff pastry squares, fill with raspberries and a sprinkling of sugar, glue together with milk or egg and varnish the top before baking on high for 20 minutes. If you need a recipe it's here, but it really is a case of assemblage!


All in all, this little gem surprised me! All three recipes were quick and easy, especially compared to the disaster of a raspberry cake I had previously tried, and all were delicious. I’ll definitely be digging it out again in the near future!

 Alice's Cookbook - Paperback - 9781844008889 - Alice Hart


Friday, 1 May 2015

16 – Nigella Lawson, Nigella Bites – Cooking the Books


Starter:   Halloumi with Chilli

Main:      Salmon with Greens and Shitake Mushrooms

Dessert:  Orange Breakfast Muffins

Nigella Bites

What did the cheese say when he looked in the mirror?

Hallo – me

Anyway, if you’ve got a better cheese joke, then feel free to comment it below! Sure there’s one about a bear in a tree, hiding donkeys, and so on and so forth!

This week was Nigella’s turn. Everything always looks so delicious when she cooks and I’ve never bought or used Halloumi before. The main was chosen simply because I have much salmon available after buying it half price from Tesco and filleting myself – why not have a go? It’s not a difficult as it sounds, I promise, and you get so many fillets which you can cut to whichever size you’d like.

Starter: Halloumi with Chilli

Easiness: 10/10

Taste: 7/10

Make again: 5/10

Cheats & Changes: none


I used a block of Halloumi, 1tbsp extra virgin olive oil and 1tbsp finely chopped red chilli without seeds. Slice the cheese into the thickness of a pound coin. Pop into a hot, dry frying pan and leave to turn golden. Flip so each side is evenly cooked. Meanwhile, combine the chilli and oil. As soon as the slices of cheese are ready, serve on a plate and pour the chilli oil over. Serve immediately while hot.

This last part was where we went wrong. Mine were cooked, drizzled and ready but my husband wasn’t! Therefore, when it came to the eating, the cheese was rather hard and squeaked on the teeth! I’d advise immediate eating in future.



Easiness: 9/10

Taste: 8/10

Make again: 8/10 Very quick and simple

Cheats & Changes: I didn’t have any soy, the main flavouring, but thought it would work well with some Hoi Sin marinade I had in the cupboard, which it did. I added green and purple mange tout too.


The recipe for this is stupidly easy. Fry or grill the salmon, remove from pan and keep warm. Throw your pak choi, Asian greens, stalks and sliced shiitake mushrooms into the pan with a splash of soy sauce to taste. Now, there’s usually a bottle of this hiding, with a sticky lid and sticky base at the back of the cupboard in our house, but this night, it wasn’t to be so. So I improvised and used a similar jar of hoi sin marinade instead! First I marinated the salmon with that and some grated ginger (keep pieces in the freezer and grate straight from there!) then followed the recipe, throwing in some green and purple mange tout that was left in the bottom of the fridge too.

If you’ve got greens and salmon, it’s a really quick dinner. Noodles would be an lovely extra addition to bulk it out a bit more. The flavours I used worked well, but see no reason it wouldn’t be nearly as tasty with the soy, a grating of ginger and a sprinkle of lime.


Easiness: 8/10

Taste: 9/10

Make again: 9/10

Cheats & Changes: I used clementines, also mainly plain flour as I didn’t have enough s.r. flour, so added extra bicarb. Used OJ from concentrate, not freshly squeezed as suggested!

I know, I know…I’ve made it for dessert, but it’s name suggests a breakfast item. Well, yes. It’s cakey, muffiny, and hot with custard for pudding would be perfect. Nigella, however, eats hers warm from the oven, torn open and slathered with butter and jam. I don’t know how she does it, I really don’t! I did have mine for breakfast, gently warmed in the microwave, but I decided they probably already had enough calories without me decadently adding any more!


75g unsalted butter

250g s.r. flour

25g ground almonds

1/2 tsp bicarb of soda

1 tsp baking powder

75g caster sugar

zest 1 orange

100ml orange juice

100ml full fat ilk

1 egg


Preheat oven to 200 degrees c.

Melt the butter and set aside. Tip flour, almonds, bicarb, baking powder, sugar and zest into a large bowl. In a jug, pour the OJ, milk, egg and cooled melted butter. Whisk a little to combine. Pour the liquid ingredients into the powders. mixing with a fork. Don’t be tempted to do this in a processor, KitchenAid, or with an electric mixer…just combine with a fork until the flour is only just mixed in. It should be a little lumpy and never overworked! Spoon into the muffin cases and bake for 20 mins. Voila!


They really were good, and perfect to take into work for breakfast with a cup of coffee once you’re there. (Oh yes, I may have added chocolate chips to some of them by accident – the packet sort of spilled out of my hand into the mixture!)

Saturday, 25 April 2015

15 – Your M&S Cookbook – Cooking the Books


Starter:   Spiced Beef and Orange Koftas with Sunshine Salsa

Main:      Sticky Spiced Duck with Apple

Dessert:  Gingerbread Squares with Lemon Drizzle

m&s cookbook

Starter: Spiced Beef and Orange Koftas with Sunshine Salsa

Easiness: 8/10, especially if you already have pesto

Taste: 9/10

Make again: 9/10

Cheats & Changes: leek and coriander seed instead of onion and coriander leaf

You could easily make a quick flatbread to serve these with if you’re not pushed for time, or else and toasted pitta would do the job. In fact, the pitta recipe is great and works every time, creating a lovely pocket inside to pop the kofta into.


The salsa is grated orange zest added to segmented orange, mixed with chopped tomatoes, chopped fresh coriander, olive oil and salt and pepper. For the kofta, add orange zest, finely chopped onions, minced beef, harissa, fresh chopped coriander, pine nuts, salt & pepper (all to taste) and egg and mix well. Shape around wooden skewers that have been soaked in water first to prevent burning. Pop under a hot grill, turning regularly, for around 12 minutes until cooked through. Serve with the salsa and warmed pittas. DSC_0554

When making, I found that the mixture was already quite sticky before adding the egg, but added it nonetheless to follow the recipe. This meant, however, that the mixture didn’t really stick to the sticks as it should have so just beware. If it’s already a sticky mixture, there’s really no need to add the egg.  As usual, I found myself beginning without the required ingredients, so substituted onion for finely chopped leek, and coriander leaf for crushed coriander seed, but the flavours were still good. These were truly delicious and something I’m looking forward to doing again in the summer months.

Main: Sticky Spiced Duck with Apple

Easiness: 7/10

Taste: 8/10 Flavours were good. The marinade was delicious

Make again: 4/10 (going up to a 7/10 with the right ingredients!)

Cheats & Changes: I used duck legs rather than breasts to save a bit of money!


4 duck breasts

4 tbsp dark muscovado sugar

4 tbsp cider vinegar

4 star anise

2 dessert apples

chunk of butter

egg noodles


Slash the duck skin in a diamond pattern and place in a bag or bowl with the sugar, star anise and vinegar. Leave to marinate for at least 30 minutes.

Give it a good squish to ensure all the duck is coated

Heat a heavy based frying pan til hot and place the breasts skin down until the skin sizzles and begins to crispen. Turn down heat to medium and fry in each side for about 5 minutes. Remove and leave to stand for ten minutes.

Core and thickly slice the apple. Remove the fat from the pan but leave the sticky goodness. Add a chunk of butter and fry the apple slices, adding any leftover marinade, and bubble for a minute until sticky.

Cook the noodles, and serve everything, drizzling any leftover juice from the apple pan over the top.

First off, this would work much better with duck breast: if you’re going to use leg, I suggest a low, slow cook so the meat falls off the bone. I tried to combine the two and failed miserably. I also used rice noodles instead of egg which were disgusting. All in all, not a very successful meal but edible, just about. If you actually used the ingredients suggested, it would have been much, much tastier. The apples were yummy!


Dessert: Gingerbread Squares with Lemon Drizzle

Easiness: /10

Taste: /10

Make again: /10

Cheats & Changes: none



175g s.r. flour

1tbsp ground ginger

2 eggs

100g light muscovado sugar

4tbsp black treacle

4 tbsp milk

4tbsp sunflower oil


Grease and line a 19cm square cake tin and preheat oven to 180 degrees c.

Beat together eggs, sugar, treacle, milk and oil.

In a separate bowl, sift the flour and ginger.

Make a well in the powders and beat in the liquids until thoroughly combined and lumpless.

Pour into the tin and bake for 25/30 mins. Leave to cool for 5 minutes before turning out on a cooling rack.

Mix some icing sugar, water and lemon juice to a thick paste that you can drizzle over the cake.


This was quite a runny mixture, but rose nicely and turned out well. Mine was a little bitter, probably due to the fact that the treacle I used had been half used and in the cupboard for a few years (!) but was good, especially with the lemon drizzle on top. I used real zest and a little juice rather than the extract as per the recipe and gave it a proper coating, not just a few lines. Once cut into small squares, it doesn't last too long so this is a cake for either sharing, or wrapping tightly and cutting one square at a time!

The recipe that lasts, and the one I’ll be making this summer, is definitely the koftas as you can play around with the flavourings according to what you’ve got in the cupboard at the time.

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