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?)

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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.

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.

Pork and apple meatballs

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Everyone’s got their thing. I was cripplingly shy as a small child, learned to cover it up with bravado and denial (and cider) as a teenager and much, much later in life got brave enough to look it in the face and admit that the anxiety was part of me, not something that the world was doing to me. I conquered it, more or less, by facing it, full-beam.

When Bert was smaller I fretted that he was shy. But not to worry – he’s a massive showman. The sort of bloke that can be convinced to go on a dog walk with the suggestion that ‘everyone will look at you in your Olaf [from Frozen] costume and be shocked’.

It’s rather liberating to realise how little hold genes can have on our offsprings’ demons. But there’s no escaping demons, we just don’t know what Bert’s is yet.

I do wonder, though, how much harder we make it for our children to face their own flaws and accept them when we reward them so much for being perfect – getting the answers right, being good, doing what we expect of them or what’s convenient for us. Bert cheerfully informed his teacher last week that he’s ‘Mr Perfect’ (so, so shy!) And I don’t have a neat conclusion to this train of thought other than hoping that I can help him realise that he’s utterly imperfect but perfectly lovable.

Mr Perfect would eat ‘soupy’ meatballs, but Bert needs the soupiness blotted off on a kitchen towel first, and I’m the sort of indulgent mother who does just that.

Serves 3-4

500g minced pork

1 apple, grated

2 tablespoons breadcrumbs

Salt and pepper to taste

Splash of olive oil

1 carrot, grated

1 yellow pepper, finely chopped or grated (sounds unlikely but is possible!)

1 tin chopped tomatoes

1 teaspoon brown sugar

1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

Salt and pepper to taste

Mix the pork mince, apple, breadcrumbs and seasoning. Heat a glug of oil in a large frying pan, form the pork mixture into small balls (I use latex gloves, but hopefully you’re not here to judge). Brown, shaking the pan now and then to move them around.

Move the meatballs to the side of the pan, add a bit more oil if you need it, and gently fry the carrot and pepper till it’s starting to get softer and paler – you want it to almost be dissolving into the oil. Then add the tomatoes, sugar and vinegar, season, and get your pasta on to boil, adding half a ladleful or so of the cooking water to loosen the tomato sauce when the pasta’s been cooking for about five minutes. By the time the pasta’s ready, so is the sauce.

Serve with grated Parmesan or Pecorino cheese.

Not Heinz spaghetti

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Me to Bert in the bath last night: Was I being grumpy today or were you being naughty?

Bert (with an air of diplomacy): A bit of both.

Me: I wonder why?

Bert (accusingly): You were being bossy.

Me: That’s my job as your mum.

Bert: [doubtful look]

Me: And you?

Bert (carelessly): I was just doing my own thing.

As part of my ongoing, inadvertant project to pointlessly recreate processed food classics, tonight I accidentally threw together home-made tinned Heinz spaghetti – in a good way. We had ours with meatballs (my intention was to veg-up a tomato sauce for meatballs) and grated parmesan. This makes enough for a big bowl spare in the fridge – as a veg-heavy pizza base topping or to start your own canned spaghetti business.

Or just do your own thing.

Makes absolutely loads

Glug of olive oil

2 sticks celery, finely chopped

1 red pepper, deseeded and roughly chopped

2 cloves of garlic, crushed

A dozen or so fresh cherry tomatoes

1/2 tin sweetcorn

2 tins chopped tomatoes

Pinch of salt

Spahetti, to appetite

Add the olive oil to a saucepan on a medium heat, cook the celery and pepper till softened, add the garlic and cook for a minute, then add the sweetcorn, fresh tomatoes, tinned tomatoes and seasoning. Bring to a simmer.

Put the spaghetti on to cook.

Stir the sauce now and then. When the spaghetti’s almost done, puree the sauce and add a dash of cooking water from the pasta. Drain the spaghetti and stir it into enough sauce to coat it, stowing the rest away for another occasion.

Slurp.

Courgette macaroni cheese


We’ve just got back from our holiday where Bert ate, over the course of two weeks, two family-size packs of crisps, the inside of half a baguette, half a jar of nutella, 14 ice creams, 30 yoghurts and one grain of rice.

I’m trying to get him back on decent carbs and protein before he loses his characteristic sturdiness and the dimples on his knuckles.

He also invented a new card game he called Mojo (the opposite of snap – shout Mojo when the cards don’t match) [me, feeling sure I’ve never said the word ‘mojo’ in my life: where did you get that word from? Bert: blank face], learnt to swim with a float vest on [me: you’re really good at that! Bert: yes I am really good at that], and invented a chilling game with the toy sword that we found in the pool. The latter involves stabbing a person or toy repeatedly, then saying ‘it’s cutting time’ and cutting across their jugular with the bottom of the sword, announcing ‘I’m going to eat you’ and then slicing down the stomach and bending over to eat the entrails. [Me, in a high, tight voice: where did you hear those words? Bert: blank face]. Maybe reincarnation is a fact and Bert was once… a cavalier soldier? A cannibal? A zombie? Or maybe nursery carry out some awfully vivid history sessions.

Anyway, it’s courgette time!

Serves 4

1 courgette, coarsely grated (peeled too, if you’re living with a massive veg avoider)

1 dessert spoon each of butter and olive oil

2 cloves of garlic, crushed

Macaroni (about 400g for 4 servings)

1 spring mint, leaves finely chopped

Salt and pepper

300g creme fraiche

125g grated mozzerella

60g grated parmesan

Finely grated zest of a lemon

3 tablespoons of breadcrumbs to top

Gently fry the courgette in the butter and oil with the garlic until soft (about ten minutes) while you cook the pasta. Add salt and pepper to taste, and the finely chopped leaves of a spring of mint (I debated this ingredient since Bert can spot a strand of green a mile off, but I figured he eats pesto so I threw it in). Combine with creme fraiche, mozzerrella and half the parmesan and tip into an overproof dish. Top with the breadcrumbs, lemon zest and the rest of the parmesan.

At this point I left it to finish off later.

Pre heat the oven to 180/ gas mark 4. Cook for 10-15 minutes, if cooking straight from prepping it while it’s still warm, or 20-25 if cooking from cold.

We had ours with green beans; whole, boiled veg being less alarming than those drenched in sauce.

After moaning that he didn’t like it, he ate it all.