Leftover roast chicken, pea and rosemary macaroni

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On the way to school earlier this week, I wound down the car windows to clean the rainwater off them so I could see out. Bert burst into tears because he still wanted to look at the dirty water.

I want him to be comfortable with expressing emotions. But do we need to howl to the moon in despair and prepare to die when our mother looks at a toy aardvark at the wrong moment? I don’t see his mates inconsolable over a shoe being put on before a hat. There’s a balance to be had, somehow, and I feel the need to help him navigate this.

So I launched into an explanation that I became more self-satisfied with the further I got. ‘Some sadnesses are like tiny spiders on your shoulder. You have to learn to shake them off by yourself. Others are like big pigs, you need help in lifting them off. This is a small spider.’

But it didn’t go down quite how I hoped. Did you know there are spiders in the Amazon rainforest the size of dinner plates? Well, we both do now.

Yesterday I told him to brush his toothbrush. ‘That’s a sentence but one word is wrong,’ he told me. ‘I do that all the time,’ I admitted. ‘So it’s not a mistake, it’s your personality,’ he summed up brutally.

Tonight he cried because bath-time had come and I hadn’t yet sorted a box of his accumulated randomness into the categories of nature, animals and favourite toys. I brushed the tears off quickly, did a speedy nature sort and popped him in the bath without comment.

No point trying to correct a mistake when you’re just dealing with a personality.

Serves 3

Leftover cold roast chicken and its carcass

1 carrot

1 onion

Sprinkling of peppercorns

2 teaspoons sea salt

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

3 garlic cloves, crushed

200g macaroni

Teaspoon dried rosemary

3 or so large handfuls of frozen peas

Juice of half a lemon

Grated parmesan

Strip the decent chicken from the carcass, set the chicken meat aside and put the bones in a large saucepan with the unpeeled onion, chopped in half, the carrot, the peppercorns and the salt. Cover with water, bring to the boil and simmer for around 3 hours (check the water isn’t running low). Drain (put a colander over a large bowl). Set aside 450ml of the stock for this recipe and keep any more in the fridge for soups. (Of course, you could skip this stage and use a stock cube and precooked chicken, but it won’t be quite as tasty.)

Heat the olive oil in a big saucepan and gently fry the chopped onion, garlic and rosemary till soft. Add the uncooked macaroni, stock and chicken, bring to the boil and simmer for about 15 minutes. Add the peas for the final 5 minutes then squeeze in the lemon juice at the end. Serve with lots of Parmesan.

This is a version of a recipe in The National Trust Family Cookbook.

Beef and mushroom burgers, corn on the cob and potato wedges

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The other day, Bert’s dad mentioned this author to me. ‘I love her writing!’ I said and added, never one to miss an opportunity, ‘That would be a great Mother’s Day present for someone who admired her writing.’ He gave me the noted look.

A couple of days later a book-shaped parcel arrived. At dinnertime, Bert and his dad asked me what I wanted for Mother’s Day. ‘Aren’t you supposed to think of it yourselves?’ I said. ‘Or else there’s a book I want.’

‘Oh, I’m keeping that for myself,’ Bert’s dad said. Bert followed me into the study and said, ‘what thing do you love and want most in the world?’

‘You,’ I said. ‘Or jewelry.’

He reported back and then came back in, while I was Googling bracelets, to say, ‘something cheaper.’

‘I love bubble bath and books,’ I said.

A sign went up on Bert’s bedroom door reading ‘no Mother’s Day presents in here!!!’ and I was instructed absolutely not to look in his room, especially not on the bookshelf, and absolutely especially not on the top shelf.

At bathtime I said to him, ‘I also really like snuggly things like blankets or this bubble bath here.’

‘Mum,’ he said wearily, ‘we already got you a Mother’s Day present. We don’t need to know any more.’

Did I mention there’s a book I wanted?

Serves 3

500g minced beef

2-3 good sized closed cup mushrooms

Salt to season

A slice of cheddar each burger (or on the side if you’re five)

Three brioche buns

A few leaves of cos lettuce and a few sliced baby tomatoes to garnish

Mayonnaise and ketchup

‘Enough’ potatoes

1/2 teaspoon mixed spice

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon onion salt

1 tablespoon sunflower oil

2-3 corn on the cobs

Teaspoon of butter

Sprinkle of salt to season

Pre-heat the oven to 200 fan.

Only you know how many potato wedges are enough. Don’t peel the potatoes, just cut into quarters or sixths, if bigger, lengthways. Put in a bowl, sprinkle on the spices, tip in the oil and mix to coat thoroughly. Lay on a lined baking tray in a single layer and cook for 35 minutes, turning half way.

Dot butter on the corn, season, wrap in foil and put on a tray in the same oven as the wedges for 30 minutes.

Mince the mushrooms finely and add to the minced beef in a bowl. Season, combine with your hands and form into three burgers, about an inch thick however big they are (for adults, aim for a little bigger than the bun, as they’ll shrink in the pan). Get a frying pan really hot, cover the base with a thin layer of oil and press the burgers firmly into the bottom of the pan to form a nice, savoury crust. Cook for 10 minutes, turning and pressing down firmly with a spatula again half way through. The pan needs to be hot enough for you to be nervous of smoke alarms. Only turn once. Do not fiddle with them.

When done, pop the slices of cheese on top, put a lid (or large baking sheet) on top of the pan and turn the heat off. The cheese will melt while you toast the buns, slice the tomatoes and spread mayo and ketchup on one half of each bun. (Or puddle the ketchup in a separate compartment of your plate if you’re five.)

You wouldn’t know the mushrooms were there if you hadn’t been told, but they make the burgers more moist and give the flavour a bit more depth. (And when was the last time a 5-year-old ate a mushroom?)

Gnocchi with tomato and sausage sauce

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Bert has eaten packet gnocchi and loved it, so I thought this was a sure-fire win, especially since it involved him rolling it out like play-doh.

We went round the table listing our favourite puddings (Bert’s: the icecreams that come with a flake in and Revels – all my time making apple pies and crumbles and cakes wasn’t wasted, then.) He ate two gnocchi and looked perturbed, then concerned, then indignant.

‘Let’s play a new game,’ he said. ‘This time the things we don’t like.’

‘Okay.’

‘Bert first.’

‘Okay, what’s on your list?’

‘Number one,’ [points at plate] ‘this!’

As you can see, it was no trouble at all to make so that was absolutely fine with me.

Serves 3

3 baking potatoes (about 1 kg)

3 teaspoons sea salt

150g 00 or plain flour

Salt and pepper to season

1 beaten egg

1 carrot, grated

1 tablespoon olive oil

6 sausages, sliced into bite sized pieces

1 tin chopped tomatoes

1 dessert spoon red pesto

1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

1/2 head broccoli florets

Put the oven on to 200. Get the potatoes wet under a running tap and sprinkle with salt. Bake for around an hour, till soft. Leave to cool slightly.

Scoop out the potato and push through a potato ricer or a sieve and tip onto a board. Add the flour and seasoning. Make a well in the centre, add the egg, and mix it all together with your hands until you have a soft dough (don’t overwork it). It’s important you do this bit while the potatoes are still warm so the gnocchi are tender.

Heat the oil in a sauce pan and gently fry the grated carrot until starting to melt into the oil. Add the sausages and brown. Then add the tomatoes and pesto and vinegar, and cook for around 15 minutes. When there’s five minutes to go steam or boil your broccoli, either stirring it in at the end, or keeping it as a side dish if you have a five-year-old in the house who likes strict food type ghettos.

Meanwhile, bring a large pan of salted  water to the boil and reduce to a fast simmer. Roll the gnocchi dough out into sausages about the width of your thumb (five-year-olds are useful helpers at this point), cut into small pieces and drop into the water. They’re cooked when they rise to the surface – fish them out with a slotted spoon and blot on kitchen paper. Serve with the sausage sauce (with or without broccoli) and cheese.

Sweet potato, butternut squash and Quorn bolognaise

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There is an eternal tug-of-war between chaos and order – a struggle that can have no winner because each state leads inevitably to the other. Peace of mind and wisdom can only be found through acceptance that neither position is permanent and that neither is superior.

Or, as we call it in our house, Lego.

I dream of a vast tool box with small drawers of colour sorted, shape sorted Lego bricks, with a shifting, temporary display of complete pieces, which are then disassembled in an orderly manner (as Teresa May would say), before going off to their individual drawers, instruction manuals filed in alphabetical order.

Bert dreams of a massive pile up of both finished and partly broken items and random bricks, but also  things from around the house that match them, according to a mysterious categorising system in his head where a Bloco dragon and blue shoe are, of course, honourary Ninjago Lego.

We live in flux between these two states of mind, neither of us ever achieving perfection. Though the second he leaves home I’m buying the toolbox.

Vegetable consumption in our house follows a similar pattern. I dream of him eating the rainbox of veg that Instagram accounts I follow assures me is normal for five year olds. He dreams of eating hot dogs, cheese cake, raw plain flour and Kinder Surprise. I’m generally now just letting it go, putting vegetables on his plate then back in the fridge for my lunch or into a soup if they’re uneaten, with just the occasional stealth-dash from the undergrowth, sniper-firing root vegetables at him.

Serves 6

1 dessert spoon butter

1 small onion, diced

2 cloves of garlic, crushed

1 packet of Quorn mince

1 small sweet potato, grated

About twice the volume of grated butternut squash – I’d guess at about 1/8 of a whole one (I made soup with the rest)

2 tins chopped tomatoes and half a tin of water

1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary

Salt to taste

1 teaspoon butter to finish

I thought bolognaise, that classic vegetable hiding place post-children, would be a good place to expand our veg consumption and reduce our meat reliance. I tried Bert on a lovely aubergine and lentil one (nope!). This was attempt number two. He ate it and gave it a ‘medium’ thumbs up.

Pre-heat the oven to 140. In a large, oven-proof sauce pan, gently fry the onion and garlic in the butter then add the Quorn mince and grated veg. Stir to combine then add the tomatoes, water, rosemary and salt. Bring to a fast simmer then reduce to a low simmer for half an hour, put a lid on and put the pan in the oven to slow cook for another 2.5 or so hours (check it at 2 hours). When ready to serve, stir through the last knob of butter and check the seasoning.

Pork, apple and Cheddar burgers

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This dinosaur’s a better veg eater than Bert is at the moment.

I’ve tried faking a meat bolognaise with finely-chopped aubergine and brown lentils (I’ll be eating that for lunch for three days then), puréeing veg into macaroni cheese and offering multiple veg with any meal. Nope. He’s ‘just not that into it,’ he politely points out. I toyed with the idea of grating a mushroom today then slapped myself firmly on the cheek.

Ultimately I want food to be a pleasure for him not a chore, so still-frozen peas and cucumber it is, for now. This burger has grated apple and cheese in, both of which he’d probably eat anyway, but it tastes nicer that way.

It’s enough for four burgers.  I made two and saved the rest for meatballs in four-veg sauce. Mwah-ha-ha-hah.

Makes 4

500g pork mince

1 apple, peeled and grated

50g Cheddar cheese, grated

1 teaspoon dried thyme

Mix together and shape into patties. Burgers shrink so always make them a little bigger than the bun. I make Bert’s Bert-size then trim the bun to fit.

Fry in a little olive oil on a medium heat for about 15 minutes. Check it’s done – no one likes rare pork mince. And tuck in – welcome to the Chinese year of the pig! I’m a pig (literally, Chinese year-wise, and figuratively) so I’m expecting great things.

Easy sausage and pepper casserole

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Bert’s perfectly happy to go back to school after the Christmas break, so long as he can have another hundred years off first. I feel the same.

Today, we walked around the park with Ray, and Bert talked to me with his characteristic laconic earnestness about the problems of swimming (‘water gets up my noz-holes even when I wear my gobbles’). There is a bittersweet gorgeousness to a small child – not just in their malapropisms and bun-plump cheeks, but in the sense that they are not properly living within time yet. They sit solidly in the moment, and everything else is a hundred years away. It feels like there’s a wormhole rush of time around their stout little beings, and your future nostalgia whips you in the face as it passes at speed. It makes some moments so icily sweet that they give you brain freeze.

When we got back in, Bert put back on the pyjamas he’d reluctantly taken off to walk the dog and I put this in the oven and made cheese on toast. Bert ruminated on how cheese on toast was probably Ray’s favourite thing in the world (‘but he eats horse poo and his breath is so bad it makes my ears hurt’) and we made owls out of toilet roll middles and penguins out of Actimel bottles.

Serves 3-4

6-8 sausages

1 red pepper, sliced

1 orange pepper, sliced

1 tin of chopped tomatoes

Olive oil

Salt and pepper

Brown the sausages in a little olive oil in a large saucepan that has a lid. Meanwhile heat the oven to 150. When the sausages are nicely coloured, add the red and orange peppers and the tinned tomatoes, swilling the tin out with water and adding maybe a quarter or a third of that to the pot. Season and bring to a fast simmer. Pop the lid on and slow cook in the oven for 3-4 hours. The sausages will be soft and tender (a winner with four-year-olds – ‘I cut it without a fork, Mum!’) and the sauce rich and sweet. You may need to ladle a little oily liquor off at the end (depends how fatty the sausages are, perhaps?). Serve with mash and corn on the cob, and a game of Bird Bingo,

Red pepper, roast tomato and pancetta pasta bake

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All Bert wanted from the Christmas holiday was to have a day when he didn’t get out of his pyjamas. All he wanted from Christmas itself was a one-metre high Paw Patrol look-out tower, some green pyjamas … and soft toys in the shape of groundhogs, aardvarks, otters and tree frogs.

A week on, the aardvark, otter and groundhog are tucked up next to a sleepy boy in new green pyjamas that are saggy in the knee from playing Paw Patrol. And a frog soft toy is bumped to his birthday list.

He’s at the point where he’s not prepared to eat any more ham or turkey and I’m not yet at the point where I’m prepared to go to a shop. So this is what we ate tonight.

The veg are puréed because he’s four and so vegetables must be raw and look like cucumber or cooked and seem like ketchup. The random cheese mixture is because Christmas.

Serves 3

1/2 bag pasta

1 punnet cherry tomatoes

Slug of olive oil

1 red pepper

1 of those little packets of pancetta or some diced bacon

Sprig of thyme

Grated hard cheese, about 200g (we had pecorino, Cheddar and Gouda)

About a handful of breadcrumbs

Heat the oven to 180. Put the tomatoes, whole, into a medium sized baking tin (say 20 x 30cm), drizzle with olive oil and roast for about 20 minutes. Meanwhile purée the pepper. Fry the pancetta till it’s starting to crisp. Cook the pasta for a couple of minutes short of its cooking time.

Add the roast tomatoes (and any liquid from the tin) to the blender and purée with the pepper. Add the thyme leaves to the bacon pan and fry for another minute or two.

Stir the puréed veg into the pasta, add the bacon and half the cheese and tip back into the (unwashed) tin you roasted the tomatoes in. Sprinkle over the rest of the cheese and the breadcrumbs and bake for about 25 minutes.

Quick crab chowder pasta

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I always saw myself as a mother of a few children, living in a muddle of chatter and clatter. But it isn’t always easy to accurately direct life towards your heart’s desires, and here I am, mother of one.

I still feel the need to apologise to mothers of siblings, going on and on to them about how easy it is to have just one, partly to say it first and partly because I feel like a part-timer, someone who claims to be committed to their job but leaves on the nose of 5.30. Somehow it’s hard to feel like a proper mother when both hands aren’t holding small, sticky ones; when I have a hand free. It feels like proper mothering shouldn’t be too easy.

With the extra time and energy I could really be cooking home made stew and dumplings on a Tuesday night in October, but sometimes it’s nice to pick spending time together over being in the kitchen while your child watches the same series on a loop for the hundredth time on Netflix.

This is proper food. But it’s easy.

Serves 2

3 handfuls of quick cook pasta

3 tablespoons of double cream

1 tin of white crab, drained

1 tin of sweetcorn, drained

3 tablespoons of grated Parmesan cheese

1/2 tablespoons of lemon juice

Salt and black pepper

Dried chilli flakes to serve

Put the pasta on to cook.

In a shallow pan on a medium heat, combine the cream, crab, lemon juice, two tablespoons of the Parmesan, sweetcorn and seasoning. Heat gently then combine with the cooked pasta. Serve with extra grated cheese and, for non spice-avoiders (me not Bert), a scant sprinkling of chilli flakes.

Easy peasy macaroni cheesey

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… pleasey.

This is Nigella’s easy macaroni cheese recipe (I say ‘mac ‘n’ cheese’ for no one), pimped up with peas and mint.

Serves 4

250ml evaporated milk (not condensed!)

125g red Leicester cheese, grated

125g Cheshire cheese, grated

2 eggs, beaten (so you don’t get little clots of scrambled egg in there)

2 handfuls fresh peas

1 small spring of mint, leaves roughly chopped (flavour plus leaves – a massive risk when cooking for eagle-eyed small children, but worth it)

Salt and pepper

Half a bag of macaroni

Cook the pasta in boiling water till 1-2 minutes away from done. Put the oven on to 200 fan/ 220.

Combine the egg, cheese, evaporated milk, peas and mint with a little salt and pepper. Mix into the cooked pasta, tip into an ovenproof dish and cook in the oven for 15-20 minutes, till golden brown with little bits of crunch on top.

If you prepare it earlier and put it in the oven cold, give it 25 – 30 minutes.

Bert’s egg and tomato salad

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Yesterday I took Bert out to dinner and was reprimanded for not being spontaneous enough – always saying I had to cook when he wanted to play and always saying not yet or it’s time for bed. Though I am weary of receiving his driving advice (always involving the benefits of reverse parking), I decided to take this on board. It was approaching bedtime, but we stayed for pudding and when we got in he stripped off and jumped into the paddling pool and I was forcibly encouraged to sit down in it fully clothed.

You know what, maybe he had a point. So in the spirit of our children sometimes being able to teach us something, this is Bert’s receipe, created under the structure (I can’t help myself) of picking one thing to give you energy to play, one thing to help you grow, two different coloured things to keep you healthy and one flavour. He also decided all the bits should be separate, the eggs should be hard and the bread should be crunchy. Over to Bert.

For Mum and Bert

4 eggs

3 tomatoes

1/2 a cucumber

4 slices of tomato bread

Some oil and salt

2 big spoons of cream [creme fraiche]

Squeeze of half a lemon

Salt and pepper

Leafs – 1 big one [little gem] cut into 2, some little ones picked off [parsley leaves]

Boil the eggs till they’re hard then put them under cold water. Turn oven button all the way round to sideways till the oven’s very, very hot! Cut bread into small bits. Put on a baking tray. Sprinkle on a salt! And oil. Mix up with your hands then wash them. Mum puts bread in the oven for five minutes. Cut tomatoes up and cucumber. Mix cream and lemon up with a big spoon and put in salt and and pepper. Put leafs in Mum’s bowl because children don’t like leafs. Roll eggs, peel and then break them into halfs. Get a children’s plate. Put on tomatoes, cucumber, eggs and some toasted bread, on the children’s plate. Rest on Mummy’s plate. And sauce on Mummy’s plate. Then eat at a TV.