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RECIPES: Entertaining on a budget

I love entertaining and feeding people. If I had my way we’d be dining on lobsters and venison and all sorts of weird and wonderful ingredients because I like to try new recipes and experiment. But invariably they come with a hefty price tag and at the moment that’s not a price tag we can afford.

So I wanted to write a few entries here and there about entertaining on a budget, and how by utilising things you already have in your fridge/freezer/store cupboard it’s possible to put together menus that are tasty but don’t break the bank.  Obviously these are based on what I already have in MY house, but hopefully they might provide some inspiration (as well as some favourite recipes).

The first is for a dinner party for 6 people, achieved on just £20, with some extras for my toddler.


Canapé – Meatballs with spicy tomato sauce, grated parmesan and basil on canapé spoons.

Starter – Pesto and mozzarella bruschetta with watercress and a honey and balsamic drizzle.

Main – Fennel and chilli roast pork with butternut squash pureé, olive oil roasted potatoes and a watercress, pistachio, chive flower and viola salad.

Pudding – Vanilla panna cotta with stewed rhubarb and crystallised ginger.


Easy peasy. Buy mini ready made beef meatballs – Sainsburys sell a pack of 20 for £2.85, cook as per instrictions ––8%25-fat-400g

For the sauce just roast cherry tomatoes (I’d stuck some in the freezer before we went on holiday or they’d have gone off), along with some red onion and garlic from the fridge, until soft. Blitz in a blender with some fresh basil (we always have a pot growing on our window sill) and taste. Season and add some spice from your store cupboard if you like – perhaps a little paprika and cumin.

Put a meatball on each serving spoon, trickle the sauce over and top with grated parmesan and a small basil leaf.

I actually cooked 40 meatballs and mixed the majority with the sauce and froze into portions for my toddler (or an easy supper for grown-ups works too). Serve with pasta – they are delicious!


Easy peasy. Make your own pesto –

You can make a big batch and freeze little portions in an ice cube tray for future use too (again perfect for toddler portions or use a few for bigger ones).

Buy some bread of your choosing, something that will slice nicely, and toast lightly. Top with mozzarella and melt under the grill. Drizzle with the pesto.

This is lovely with a few salad leaves on the side, topped with a honey, balsamic vinegar and olive oil dressing – if you’re serving a salad with the main you don’t even need to buy separate salad! We usually have pesto and salad dressing ingredients in the cupboard so this was just mozzarella and bread for the shopping list.


Again easy!

I used this lovely House and Garden recipe, substituting butternut squash for the pumpkin. This was my best utilisation of stuff already in the house with a big loin of pork my parents had brought up on one for their visits from a farm in Kent – which went straight in the freezer for such an occasion! Otherwise I’m always looking for deals on meat at the supermarket for things I can buy on offer and freeze to be used for an appropriate meal – and it always spreads the cost then if you’re cooking for a few.

I served it with some lovely new potatoes roasted in their skins in olive oil and some salt, and a salad of watercress, pistachios from the cupboard, and some home-grown chive flowers and violas. Drizzle with a salad dressing of your choice – something that will cut through the richness of the squash puree. I used olive oil, white wine vinegar, freshly squeezed orange juice and a little sugar.

Watercress, pistachio, chive flower and viola salad.

Watercress, pistachio, chive flower and viola salad.


Easy – honest!

I usually have some vanilla pods and gelatine leaves in the cupboard as panna cotta is a favourite in our house. It’s really quick and easy to make and looks pretty impressive. Other ingredients are just double cream, milk and sugar.

My fail safe recipe is always this one from Simon Rimmer –

We are lucky to grown some of our own fruit, and I am spoilt by a very green-fingered father-in-law and his allotments that send fresh fruit and veg our way for most of the year.

I had some lovely rhubarb in the freezer from the most recent crop which just needed thawing and warming with some sugar to make a sauce – but you could use whatever fruit you like. Serve with the panna cotta. I added a sprinkling of crystalised ginger from my baking cupboard, just for a little crunch.

I only needed to buy the double cream on this occasion.

I hope this just shows what you can pull together on a budget when you raid your cupboards!

Total ingredients needed (* indicates what I didn’t have in the house and needed to buy):

Ready-made meatballs*
Red onion
Olive oil
Spices of you choice (I used cumin and paprika)
Pine nuts
Balsamic vinegar
Butternut squash*
Fennel Seeds
Dried chilli flakes
Chive & viola flowers (or perhaps some spring onion if not available)
White wine vinegar
New potatoes*
Vanilla pods
Gelatine leaves
Double cream*
Rhubarb (or other fruit)
Crystalised ginger (optional)

REVIEW: Le Pont de la Tour, London Bridge

My husband and I snuck in a rare weekday lunch a couple of weeks ago – child-free and everything!  It was a beautiful sunny day and all our Burger Lobster plans went out the window as we decided it would be rude not to sit outside.  So to the Southbank we headed and got ourselves a lovely table overlooking the river and Tower Bridge (although admittedly in the shade!) at Le Pont de la Tour. We plumped for the Menu du Jour, which is £25 for two courses, as we sipped on beer and a very delicious Fresh Peachy mocktail, and nibbled on gorgeous olive bread and soft, creamy butter.

Wood roasted pigeonCured Salmon Gravalax

In the end I deviated from the menu de jour slightly, starting with the roasted wood pigeon, confit leg tortellini, celeriac and pear, which was melt in the mouth, meaty and delicious. The husband had the cured gravalax which arrived pretty as a picture and was quickly demolished. He then went for the ragout of rabbit, broad beans, radish, wild garlic & pea veloute which was spring on a plate, while I devoured pan fried fillet of sea bream, piquillo pepper, courgette ribbons & mussel veloute. My only criticism of the sea bream was that, while the piquillo pepper and courgette ribbons were tasty, it was the unannounced spring onion which lifted the dish and I would have happily had a few more of those, along with lashings more of the mussel veloute (I’m a sauce obsessive). We washed this down with two lovely glasses of Malbec, and ordered some token broccoli on the side.

Ragout of rabbitPan fried sea bream

Surprisingly full (for us!) we shared dessert – a dark chocolate & coffee parfait, hazelnut soil and blood orange sorbet, which had us murmuring with delight. The richness of the chocolate and the sweet sharpness of the orange were triumphant.  A classic combination but no less delicious because of that. A coffee to finish and we were two very satisfied customers.

The service was excellent throughout and all in all it was a lovely way to treat ourselves on a random Wednesday afternoon. The Menu du Jour is great value for the quality of the food (three courses are £30), it’s just the drinks and the extras you have to watch if you are looking to keep the costs down – two glasses of wine were £20.

Our meal was £106 excluding service.




REVIEW: The Leather Bottle, Earlsfield

When the sun comes out and we’re hungry (or just thirsty!) our default South London beer garden is The Leather Bottle in Earlsfield.  Easter Monday was one of these delicious days and we scurried out of the house in search of perfect outdoor sunshine and BBQ food.  Rows of picnic tables basking in the sun greeted us happily, and we were delighted to see that the BBQ was indeed fired up and churning out it’s trademark burgers and chips.

Quickly I was tucking into a cheeseburger with chunky tomato relish, ale onions, and salad, which was so tasty and comforting it was like all the best bits of a Macdonalds (the plastic cheese!) in a poshed up version for the sunglass wearing South London market. The chips are of the yummy skinny fries variety, and there are lots of them.

Pub burgers are often rather hit and miss, but this one nailed it, although it does come with a price to match – two burgers (one with relish, one with bacon) with fries, a child-sized hotdog and chips, a pint of shandy and a large orange juice and lemonade came to £42.

I think the setting makes up for the price hike though – a big suntrap garden with a sandpit for children to run merrily to and from, is worth it’s weight in gold when the sun is shining but you can’t be bothered to light up the BBQ yourself. I hope this is our first visit of many this summer – there are too many other dishes I want to try.

RECIPE: Lobster ravioli

When it works, there aren’t many more satisfying things than homemade pasta.  You feel like an Italian mama turning a quick weeknight carb into something fancy and magical.

On the flipside, when it doesn’t work it’s like all the love that you poured into making it has come back to slap you in the face.  Why didn’t you just open a bloody packet of the stuff?!

I am still learning about pasta making, but I am determined to master it.  Here is my recipe for a rather indulgent and delicious lobster ravioli.

Serves four as a main (as part of a 3 course meal).

For the pasta:

300g ’00’ pasta flour, plus extra for dusting

4 eggs

75g double cream

2 cooked lobster tails

200g scallops, seared

fresh basil leaves

salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the sauce:

50g butter

shells from the lobster tails

1 carrot, chopped

1 white onion, chopped

Few fresh basil leaves

50ml brandy

600ml vegetable stock

6 cherry tomatoes, chopped

90g brown shrimps

up to 50g double cream

1. Put the pasta flour and 3 of the eggs into a food processor and pulse until it forms crumbs.  Then remove the mixture and pull it together into a dough.

2. Knead the dough gently for a few minutes until it is smooth and elastic.  Cover with cling film and put in the fridge for 20mins.

3. While the dough is resting make your ravioli filling. Take the cooked lobster out of the shell carefully and cut into slices – you will need one slice for each ravioli.

4. Blend the scallops and the cream to form a puree and season.

5. After 20mins feed the dough through a pasta machine, starting on the widest setting and repeating through the narrower settings.  The pasta will dry out quickly so keep any you aren’t using wrapped in cling film.

Making pastaRavioli filling

6. Lie a sheet of pasta onto a lightly-floured surface and spoon the scallop puree along it at intervals, leaving a couple of inches between each one. Top the puree with a slice of lobster and a basil leaf.

7. Beat the remaining egg in a cup and brush the pasta with it around the filling.  Top with a second sheet of pasta and press down around the edges of the filling making sure you get rid of any air, or the ravioli might burst.

8. Use a round cutter to cut out the ravioli and lay them on a floured baking tray (in my experience if you don’t flour the tray they stick to it and then you lose your filling!).  Cover with cling film until you are ready to cook them.  There should be 20 ravioli.

9. To make the sauce put the butter and the lobster tail shells in a pan and fry for 5-6 minutes. Add the chopped carrot, onion and basil and fry for a few more minutes until softened.  If you have any lobster pieces left add these also.

10. Add the brandy (you can flambé it if you like) and cook for a couple of minutes.  Add the stock and bring to the boil.  Simmer for 8-10 minutes.

11. Remove the lobster shells and add the chopped tomatoes. Blend the sauce in a food processor (or a stick blender is fine) then strain through a sieve into a clean saucepan to get rid of any remaining lumps.

12. Add the cream to taste – you don’t need much as you want to keep the richness of the lobster flavour in the sauce. Season and keep warm until ready to serve. Just before serving add the brown shrimps and warm them through.

13. To cook the ravioli boil water in a large saucepan (you want space for the ravioli as they will all float to the top), when boiling gently drop the ravioli in, you may need to do this in batches.

14. Cook for 1-2 minutes until the ravioli float to the surface, remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper.

15. To serve, put five ravioli on each plate and spoon the sauce and prawns over the top. Nice served with a rocket, parmesan and toasted pinenut salad.


This pasta was made for our next door neighbours to the sounds of Dermot O’Leary’s Saturday Radio 2 show.


RECIPE: Chocolate Chip Cookies

Chocolate chip cookies have always been a childhood favourite. My Mum used to make us gooey milk chocolate chip versions, and me and my sisters would stand on chairs in the kitchen helping her mix the ingredients. Then, the house smelling of chocolate and biscuits we would gobble them up while they were still warm.

They are quick and easy to make, so a perfect half hour activity for keeping little ones occupied, and for making use of easter egg goodies!

This is my Mum’s recipe for chocolate chip cookies, which I’ve adapted for white chocolate, just because we had white chocolate buttons in the house. You could easily substitute these for milk chocolate, or experiment with your own fillings.

Makes c.15

100g softened unsalted butter

50g light brown muscovado sugar

50g granulated sugar

1/4 tsp vanilla flavouring

1 egg

125g plain flour

½ tsp bicarbonate of soda

150g white chocolate chips (white chocolate buttons work fine if you break them up a bit first!)

1. Preheat oven at 190 C/GM5 and grease two baking sheets with a little oil.

2. Cream butter and sugars together until light and fluffy.

3. Gradually beat in egg and vanilla.

4. Sift dry ingredients together and add to mixture.  Stir in chocolate chips.

5. Place tablespoonfuls of mixture about 5cm/2in apart on the baking sheets and flatten slightly.

6. Bake cookies for 10 to 15 mins until golden.  Cool.


These cookies were baked to the clattering of my 18 month old emptying his toys all over the kitchen.  He’s not quite got the baking bug yet, but he is happy to gobble up the results.

REVIEW: Shackfuyu from Bone Daddies

These days when I’m in Soho I’m usually running between meetings or to the tube in fear of the ‘late pick-up’ charge at my son’s nursery. Last week I was able to amble through at about 5pm, just as everything is gearing up for after work drinks and date nights and girlfriend catch-ups. Given the chance to actually take in my surroundings I noticed many new restaurants which have popped up in the time it’s taken me to stop drinking for long enough to have a baby. It made me remember being young and single, and earning a real paycheck I could fritter on lovely things to eat and drink. And then I felt old and a bit washed up, and definitely lacking a finger (a leg, anything) on the pulse of Soho’s new trendy eateries.

Luckily I was doing a Q&A with Steve November (the director of drama for ITV) later that evening for the March session of the Writers’ Group I run for Women in Film & Television, and I had already decided that this was not an endeavour to be undertaken (glass of wine in hand) on an empty stomach.  I’d read of a new pop-up from the Bone Daddies group – Shackfuyu – which had just opened on Old Compton Street, and headed that way, daring it to make me feel young and cool again.

The concept is that there is one main dish which changes regularly, and then a number of sides to supplement your meal.  The main was beef picanha with kimchee tare butter, which, for some mad reason (I regretted it instantly), I decided against in favour of a number of the smaller dishes.

Instead I ordered prawn toast masquerading as okonomiyaki, mentaiko mac and cheese with bacon and cock scratchings, and roasted beets with shiso and avocado for the token veg.

The prawn toasts were magnificent and were served with a citrus spicy mayonnaise that I think I could have eaten just on it’s own. As well as being beautifully presented the toasts were covered in bonito flakes which danced on the top like burning paper, giving quite a transfixing effect.

The mac & cheese was lovely and creamy and was revolutionised by the cock scratchings, but I have to say I found the (unmentioned on the menu) fish eggs plonked on the top quite disgusting. This is not a good place to go if you don’t like culinary surprises.

Mac & Cheese - and the fish eggs

I can’t complain about the roasted beets as they were what was said, roasted beets, and they did cut through the umami flavours of the rest of the food, but at £4.80 I was hoping for something a little more special.


With my Q&A duties in mind I restrained my drinks choice to a mocktail and went for the bright pink California Dreaming – a mix of cranberry, lychee & lime juice which was sweet, sharp and cold. And very pink.  What’s not to like?  Although I probably couldn’t drink more than one or two.  My tap water was also regularly refilled from an old kettle (a decorative one, not just an old Morphy Richards) which was appreciated (the taste of the fish eggs took some getting rid of).

The restaurant itself smelt, comfortingly, like a bonfire and was nicely dark with bare bricks and a bold green wall with (I presume) Japanese writing streaked across in white.

I would like to go back and try the beef (or whatever the main of the moment is) along with the incredible sounding sake menu, and when I left I definitely felt a little trendier for the ‘pop-up’ experience and unusual food.  But I think in general if being trendier means having to eat a big dollop of unannounced fish eggs then I I’d rather stay old and washed up…

My meal was £21.82 including service.

RECIPE: Portuguese Custard Tarts

As a little girl growing up in Herne Bay in Kent, one of my earliest food memories was the Saturday morning promise of a trip to Dunn’s Bakery on the High Street –  The warmth of the shop, the smell of freshly baked cakes and bread and sausage rolls, and the delight of choosing something from the rows of iced treats. My Mum always had a jam doughnut, my Dad a Chelsea bun, my sister an iced finger.  For some reason my cake of choice was their English Custard Tart.

Recently the delis and coffee shops of London seem to have been over-run with the English Custard Tart’s sexier Portuguese cousin. The pastry a little uneven, more romantic somehow, the custard browned in inviting patches like they’ve been baked in a big old blue Aga, by a happy smiling woman, made more beautiful by the smattering of flour in her hair. Portuguese Custard Tarts, for me, are somehow more than a cake. They say, look at me, look how cool and relaxed and effortlessly delicious I am.

So on Sunday afternoon I decided to give in to the romanticism of it all and make some of my own.

Makes 12:

1 whole egg

2 egg yolks

115g golden caster sugar

2 tbsp plain flour

400ml full fat milk

2 tsp vanilla extract

zest of half a lemon (to taste)

ground cinnamon (to taste)

One sheet of ready rolled puff pastry 

1. Preheat the oven to 220C/180C fan/Gas 6 and grease a 12-hole cake tin.

2. Mix the flour, sugar, egg and yolks in a pan and then slowly add the milk until smooth.

3. Stir the mixture over a medium heat until it thickens and comes to the boil.

4. Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon zest, ground cinnamon and vanilla extract.

5. Pour the custard into a ceramic or glass bowl and cover with cling film (to prevent a skin forming). Leave to cool.

6. Cut the pastry sheet in half and put one piece on top of the other. Roll the pastry, from the short side, into a tight log, and cut it into 12 rounds.

Rolling out the tarts

7. Roll each round into a disc on a floured surface, and then press into the cake tin.

8. When cooled, fill the pastry cases with the custard and bake for 20-25min or so until golden on the top. Don’t overfill the cases – bake any extra in a ramekin for a perfect little treat for a toddler (or a hungry baker!).

These are best eaten warm straight from the oven. Sprinkling flour in your hair is optional.

These Portuguese Custard Tarts were cooked to the sounds of The Stone Roses, The Stone Roses, and David Bowie, Hunky Dory, both on vinyl.

Portuguese Custard Tarts