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.

Cherry and marzipan Madeira cake

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This is how much Bert liked this cake.

On the way home from school last week he reminded me to put the bins out. Yesterday he suggested moving some bright yellow-green accent cushions to my bedroom because the colour would go with the wall paint (he was right). Earlier in the week if asked if someone else would move into the house when we died. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘but that’s not for a long time. You’re a child and me and dad aren’t old.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘you’re not young.’

Forty-five at heart but he won’t eat Madeira cake. Going to royal ice it and try again.

Makes 2 small loaves

6 eggs

250g ground almonds

150g golden caster sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

250g marzipan, grated

100g glace cherries, halved

Pre-heat the oven to 160 and grease and line 2 small loaf tins. (Mine were 15x20x10cm.) Whisk the eggs till very big and fluffy (ideally with electrical help) – about 5-10 minutes.

Fold in the remaning ingredients (yep, no flour or fat) and divide between the tins.

Bake at 160 for 40 minutes. Turn out to cool.

 

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.

Cherry and orange individual Bakewell tarts

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I was lucky enough to escape some of the brutal shocks to our identity and sanity that new parenthood can bring. My hobbies were already pretty sedendary. I didn’t socialise wildly or travel the world (except for work, when I was paid to be that type of person, which helpfully got it out of my system): I wrote or read blogs, wrote or read books, cooked or ate food, or just sat on a sofa and stared at the wall. Of course, all of these are totally compatible with parenthood, particularly the latter.

Bert wasn’t early to sleep through, but when he did he really went for it, with 3-hour naps and 14 hours at bedtime. One Christmas he woke up at 11am and greeted me with  ‘hello gorgeous’. For at least three years I’ve been getting enough sleep to wipe away the smear of tiredness and let the glimmer of small joys shine through.

So even though parenting this particular toddler wasn’t especially hard (well, no harder than having someone shouting mum a hundred times in a minute then pooing on a new speaker has to be), I did think that parenting a school age child would be easier. The age of toileting accidents over. Five days a week to fit work into, with no guilt since he has to be at school. Near-rational conversations. Walking to school.

How wrong I was. What I hadn’t taken into account was the emotional grind of tiny friendships formed and smashed up, piles of ‘optional’ homework that’s nevertheless chased for and rewarded with achievement stickers, the incomprehensible mind-grenade that is the phonics system and the need to get him through next year’s exam so he won’t have to resit it. And the near daily additions to my to-do list that arrive by email – put a pound in a named envelope, dress them in spots and odd socks, sign up to contribute to the Christmas hamper, send in charity money, return library books, fill in a form so they don’t miss out on the school Christmas lunch.

Or make cakes for the Christmas fair. These are a tiny bit of a faff, but delicious, and at last count there were at least 12 left to be dropped off this afternoon.

Makes 20 tarts

2 x 225g sheets ready-made shortcrust pastry

Dark cherry jam, about 20 teaspoons

120g soft butter

120g golden caster sugar

1/2 teaspoon orange essence

1 egg

1 tablespoon plain flour

110g ground almonds

400g icing sugar

4-5 tablespoons water

10 dark glace cherries

Pre-heat the oven to 180/ 170 fan. Lightly grease a muffin tin.

Cut  circles out of the pastry – about 8-10cm diameter – and then line the muffin holes with them, smoothing out any creases. (I had a 12 hole tin, so did two batches.) Crumple up 10cm square pieces of greaseproof (just cut up the paper in the pastry packets), uncrumple and put one on top of each pastry case, weighing down with baking beans or dried pulses. Bake for 10 minutes, take the paper out then bake for another 8-10 minutes, till golden. (I’m a keen but lazy cook and often miss this stage out, but it’s what makes these little tarts soft on the inside but buttery and crunchy on the outside, so worth doing.)

Take them out and let them cool a little. Meanwhile, beat together the butter, sugar and orange essence. Add the egg and flour and then the almonds. Spread a little jam on the bottom of each pastry case, then a generous teaspoon of almond mixture (it rises a little in the oven and ideally you want to see the pastry case around it, so don’t be tempted to over-fill.) Bake for 20 minutes, till risen and golden.

When the tarts are cool, mix the icing sugar and water together and spread a generous teapoon on top of each tart. Top with half a glace cherry. (These would also be good for Red Nose Day.) Protect from scavengers.

 

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.

Manchego and rosemary scones

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Wednesday’s are still scone day!

Bert’s done nearly two full weeks at school and it’s been a roller-coaster. He loves it, he’s exhausted, he’s been told off for trying to scale a fence (either to escape or to impress a girl, it’s not clear), neither Mrs Green nor Mr Green are, infuriatingly, green, he’s cried just out of sight of the school gates, he’s rejected my idea of me kissing a stone for him to keep in his pocket (‘erm, it’s just a stone!’) but asks for a kiss on each cheek to keep all day when I drop him off.

This morning he complained he was ‘so tired’; not because of school, but because he gets up in the night to play.

There’s really only one answer to that, as the doctor says to the patient who complains his arm hurts when he lifts it.

Makes around 10 small scones

225g self-raising flour

55g cold butter

45g finely grated Manchego (Cheddar would obviously work just as well)

1 teaspoon dried rosemary

Pinch of salt

150ml pouring yoghurt (or half and half milk/ plain yoghurt)

Flour for dusting

Beaten egg or milk to glaze

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Crumb the butter and flour, between finger and thumb or in a mixer. Add the cheese, rosemary and salt, and stir to distribute evenly. Pour in the yoghurt and quickly bring together into a wet dough with a knife. Tip onto a floured surface as soon as it’s together and press down gently, to about 3-4cm deep. (The less you touch scone mixture, the better.) Cut out rounds and place on a floured baking tray. Brush the top with egg or milk and into the oven for around 15 minutes, till golden brown. Serve warm, buttered.