How to Chop a Cherry Tomato

If you haven’t already, please make sure you’re familiar with basic knife safety before starting this tutorial. (link)

While I love tinned tomatoes for cooking with, my favourite tomatoes for salads or finger food are sweet little cherry tomatoes.

Hand drawing of three red cherry tomatoes with green leaves still attached

Like onions, tomatoes have smooth, slippery skin that can make them a little tricky to chop. So it’s important to use a good, sharp knife, preferably with a serrated blade. If you’re using a smooth knife I would start each cut by piercing the tomato with the tip of your blade – a great place to do this is the little green spot at the top of the tomato, where it would connect to the vine.

You can eat cherry tomatoes whole (minus the vine), but I find most of them are just a tiny bit big for my mouth. So for finger food, I like to halve my cherry tomatoes.

To halve cherry tomatoes, hold your tomato steady with a thumb and finger, and cut straight down between them.

Hand drawing of a red cherry tomato with cutting guideline (grey dotted line)

For mixed salads, though, I like to dice my tomatoes so all the flavours mix together. The easiest way to do this with cherry tomatoes is to cut them into eighths. Start by cutting them into halves just as above. Then, place each half on its cut face to cut into quarters.

Hand drawing of half a red cherry tomato with cutting guidelines (grey dotted lines)

Tomatoes are a great way to add pops of colour and flavour to plates of salad. And these sweet cherries are often popular with kids too!

How to Chop a Cucumber

If you haven’t already, please make sure you’re familiar with basic knife safety before starting this tutorial. (link)

Although it’s mostly been hidden behind rain clouds today, the summer sun has arrived here in England! With hotter weather comes the desire for more refreshing foods like salads and sandwiches. One of my favourite ingredients for both is cucumber.

Hand drawing of a dark green cucumber

Cucumber has dark green skin, paler green flesh and translucent seeds in the middle. You can basically eat the whole thing but the end parts of the cucumber, which don’t have any seeds in, are often a bit bitter. (I usually chop off the ends and feed them to my guinea pigs!)

Depending on what you want to use your cucumber for, you may want to cut it into slices, sticks, or cubes.

Slices of cucumber are best for sandwiches, and they’re very straightforward to cut. Simply work from one end of the cucumber, cutting off slices as thin or as thick as you like! Although, if you are going to use them in sandwiches, I’d recommend slices thinner than ½ cm (¼ inch).

Hand drawing of a dark green cucumber with cutting guidelines (grey dotted lines)

Sticks of cucumber are perfect for finger food. I especially like them with some fresh hummus. To cut a cucumber into sticks, start by chopping off a chunk of cucumber the same length as you want your sticks. (You may remember this method from my post on carrot sticks here.) Then just keep halving until your cucumber sticks are as thin as you like.

Hand drawing of a chunk of dark green cucumber with cutting guidelines (grey dotted lines)

Cubes of cucumber are perfect for mixing into salads. You can also use slices, but I personally think cubes let you mix all the ingredients together better. You can cut cubes of cucumber from either slices or sticks, but my favourite is using a sort of grid pattern like we did for diced carrot (link). This is the fastest way of cutting cubes I’ve found.

Start with a chunk of cucumber like for sticks, and cut it into long, thick slices as in the picture below.

Hand drawing of a chunk of dark green cucumber with cutting guidelines (grey dotted lines)

Cut each thick slice into sticks, then into cubes about 1cm (½ inch) square. Try and hold the sticks together for faster cutting.

27.6 cucumber diced 6

And there you have it! How to chop a cucumber, for all your summer dishes!

How to Make Chicken & Mushroom Gratin

I’ve been wanting to make a gratin since reading sweetness & lightning… Gratin is pretty much all about the cheesy topping and, after a little experimenting, this is what I came up with. It looks quite fancy, but once you break it down it’s really quite simple!

You will need:

  • a sharp knife
  • a chopping board
  • two pans
  • an oven-proof dish

and the ingredients (for 4 people):

  • 4 chicken (or Quorn) fillets
  • 8 medium, or 16 small, mushrooms
  • 300-350ml milk
  • roughly 1tsp cornflour
  • 1/2 chicken stock cube
  • 1 onion
  • hard cheese such as cheddar
  • crackers or oatcakes, the kind you like with cheese

 

Start by putting your chicken on to fry. (We’re using the same technique I wrote about earlier this month, so if there’s anything you’re not sure about, see my earlier post here.)

Hand drawing of a frying pan containing four pink chicken fillets

Chop your mushrooms into cubes, or slices if you prefer (you can find instructions for both here). Then, add them to the frying pan.

Hand drawing of a frying pan containing chicken fillets and chopped mushrooms

Let the chicken and mushrooms cook while you work on your sauce. (This is a white sauce, so if there’s anything unclear, check out my post on white sauces here.) You can also turn on the oven to Gas Mark 6, 200°C (180°C fan), so it has time to preheat.

Place your saucepan on a gentle heat, and dice your onion. (You can find more detailed instructions here: onions). Add a little oil (less than a teaspoon is fine), followed by your diced onion.

Hand drawing of a saucepan with a thin layer of onion on the bottom

Give your onions a few minutes to gently fry, and soak up the oil, then add the milk. (If you want to save on washing up, you can use your serving dish to measure – you want about half as much milk as you’re going to have filling.)

Hand drawing of a saucepan filled with white sauce

Crumble half a stock cube into the milk, and add the cornflour to thicken the sauce. (Remember to mix the cornflour into a little cold liquid first to avoid lumps!) Let it gently simmer (you should see small bubbles, but no large ones) for 5-10 minutes.

During this time, crush your oatcakes or crackers. My favourite way to do this is to put them in a plastic bag, squeeze out the air, and smash them with a rolling pin. Or you could use a food processor. Grate your cheese, then mix it with the crushed biscuits.

 

Taste the sauce (this is why I like to cook it separately from the chicken). If it tastes like it’s lacking something, you could try adding a little salt, pepper, or grated cheese.

Make sure the chicken is cooked and chopped into chunks. Mix together the chicken, mushrooms, and sauce, then add to the oven-proof dish. (I like to use individual dishes for serving – to make them easy to take in and out of the oven, pop them all on a baking tray.) Try and flatten the chicken mixture roughly level.

Hand drawing of a small oven-proof dish filled with chicken and sauce

Top with the mixture of cheese and crumbs. To crisp up the top, place them in the preheated oven for 5-10 minutes. If you’ve forgotten to preheat the oven, you can do this under a hot grill instead.

26.6 Topping

And it’s done! This is quite a rich dish, so a simple side of steamed or boiled vegetables or even a salad is perfect. And if you’re looking for more variations, there are plenty! You could add blue cheese to the sauce, swap the mushrooms for bacon, or simply add a little parsley to the sauce.

If you make chicken and mushroom gratin with this recipe, I’d love to see a picture of your finished dish!

Also, what did you think of the different style of pictures for this recipe?

How to Chop a Mushroom – into chunks or slices

If you haven’t already, please make sure you’re familiar with basic knife safety before starting this tutorial. (link)

We have a bit of a love/hate relationships with mushrooms in our house. By which I mean, two of us love them, one is indifferent, and one of us hates them.

Hand drawing of a pair of chestnut mushrooms, with the stalk and cap labelled

 

 

Mushrooms are a type of fungus, and there are actually a lot of different varieties. However, the ones you’ll see most often in supermarkets are closed-cup, chestnut, or button mushrooms.

These mushrooms have already had some of the prep done for you. All that’s left are the stalk and cap, so you can eat the whole thing!

 

 

 

You don’t even need to wash mushrooms; in fact it’s best to avoid getting them wet. Not only will it make them feel kind of slimy, it makes it very easy for mould to grow on mushrooms. (Mould growing on mushrooms has always amused me, a little fungus growing on a big fungus, but I digress.)

Hand drawing of the cap of a chestnut mushroom, showing the inside

 

 

 

If your mushrooms are getting a little old, however, you may want to peel them. It’s actually easiest to do this with your fingers! Start by pulling the stalk off the mushroom. You can then reach into the middle of the mushroom and get hold of the edge of the skin, close to where the stalk was. Then, gently pull it off.

 

 

 

To chop your mushrooms, it’s easiest to start with them lying on their caps. For chunks, you can just quarter them.

Hand drawing of a chestnut mushroom showing cutting guidelines (grey dotted lines)

If you’d rather have sliced mushrooms, start by chopping them in half. Then place the mushroom on its cut side as you slice it. I like slices about half a centimetre (1/4 inch) thick.

Hand drawing of a halved chestnut mushroom showing cutting guidelines (grey dotted lines)

Mushrooms can be eaten raw or cooked, but an overcooked mushroom is rubbery and chewy. To fry mushrooms, simply heat them in a frying pan for anywhere between 5 and 20 minutes! It really depends on how well-done you like your mushroom.

How to Pan-Fry Chicken

Chicken is a popular (and tasty!) source of protein, but it’s one you have to be a little bit careful cooking because of the risk of salmonella. Luckily, chicken undergoes a very helpful change in colour and texture from raw to cooked.

Like fish (which I wrote about baking here), raw chicken is translucent, or kind of see-through, and has a kind of jelly-like texture. Once cooked, the colour fades from pink to a kind of off-white (though this does depend on the part of the chicken). The texture also changes, becoming firmer and more stringy.

If you’re going to be handling raw chicken, make sure to wash your hands (and utensils) with soap and water afterwards. Don’t wash the chicken though – this can actually spread harmful bacteria. You can find out more on food safety in my post here.

Pan-frying chicken is a great way to cook it quickly, and you can even cook it from frozen!

To start, add a little oil to your pan, and put it on a medium heat. You don’t need a lot of oil to fry chicken, just enough to coat the bottom of the pan. We like to use a silicone brush to get a nice, thin layer.

Once you’ve added your chicken, putting a lid on your pan will help it to heat up quicker. It can also help to keep moisture in. (You can even add a little water if you want – this can help distribute the heat more evenly, as well as stopping the pan from overheating and burning your chicken! A little water is especially helpful if you’re cooking from frozen.)

Now chicken usually comes in quite large chunks – breasts or thighs for example. This means the heat reaches the outside of the chicken much quicker than it does the middle. This can lead to the outside being overcooked while the inside is undercooked. To avoid this, I like to chop my chicken into cubes a couple of centimetres (a little under an inch) on each side. You can even do this while the chicken cooks, as long as you don’t have a non-stick pan! Doing it in the pan also helps you to check whether the chicken is cooked right through to the middle.

It takes about 20 minutes to pan-fry chicken, but it does of course depend on how high you turn up the heat!

Pan-fried chicken is great for salads or sandwiches as well as hot dishes, but if you’re looking for a hot chicken recipe, why not try adding it to my curry (link) or stir-fry (link)?

How to Make a White Sauce

A white sauce is a sauce made using milk. It has a mild, creamy flavour that complements a range of ingredients, including mushrooms, chicken and fish.

The first thing to decide when making a white sauce is what kind of milk you want to use. If you’re using dairy, using skimmed milk will give you a very thin sauce, so I would recommend at least semi-skimmed. If you’re using a non-dairy milk, you need one with more fat and protein than sugar. This means that soy and nut milks will work, but things like coconut milk won’t. And, if possible, use an unsweetened milk.

The next thing to decide is how to flavour your sauce. I like to start a white sauce by gently frying some diced onion (cutting tutorial here) or crushed garlic in a little oil before I add the milk. You can also add a stock cube directly to the milk as you heat it – try and match the flavour of the stock to the ingredients you plan to put in the sauce. You could also add a little grated or cream cheese for richness, nutmeg for a little spice,  or some dried parsley.

Finally, you’ll need to thicken your sauce. There are two main techniques you can use here.

The classic technique to thicken a sauce is called a roux. A roux starts by frying a spoonful of wheat flour in a little butter or oil. You have to be careful at this stage that the flour is cooked, or the resulting sauce will taste floury. You also have to be careful to avoid lumps – one way to do this is to add the flour to onions, rather than directly into the pan. After a few minutes of frying, you can add your milk. To avoid lumps (again), you need to add it very slowly at first, and keep stirring!

It can be quite easy to get a roux wrong, so the thickening method I prefer is cornflour. Simply mix together one spoonful of cornflour with one spoonful of cold water or milk. Then, add the cornflour mix to your sauce. The great thing about this method is that it can be done last-minute, there’s no floury aftertaste, it’s a lot easier to avoid lumps, and it’s even gluten-free!

Whichever method you use, a white sauce is really versatile. You can use it with all kinds of fish, in pasta dishes like lasagna, or in a chicken and mushroom pie…

One final thing though – if you have leftover white sauce you may find that it sets when chilled, especially if you used cornflour as a thickening agent. This is perfectly normal and doesn’t mean the sauce has gone off; it will go right back to liquid when you heat it up again.

How to Make Porridge

It’s not what I had planned, but after a slightly rough week I thought I’d teach you how to make one of my favourite comfort foods – porridge!

Porridge can actually be made from a lot of different grains, but for me it has to be oatmeal. Oats are quite high-protein, and release the energy they contain nice and slowly. Plus they’re really good for your gut!

My favourite way to make porridge is in the microwave. (In fact, it’s one of the few microwave dishes I can make!)

You will need:

  • a microwave-safe bowl
  • a microwave

and the ingredients:

  • porridge oats (sometimes called rolled oats)
  • water or milk

First, you need a bowl. It needs to be microwave-safe, and it needs to be bigger than you think! While everything expands when you heat it, porridge is especially prone to boiling over and making a sticky mess! I recommend a bowl that can hold at least twice as much porridge as you want to eat.

Add your porridge oats to the bowl. Porridge is very filling, so I usually only use a couple of spoonfuls.

Now porridge can be made with water or milk, or even a bit of both. Porridge made with milk is a little creamier in texture, but it tastes just as good with water. Either way, add roughly as much liquid as oats, and give it a quick stir.

Set your microwave to high power, and set a timer for 5 minutes. Unlike most microwave dishes, however, you need to keep an eye on porridge as it cooks. When porridge boils, it bubbles up and does its best to try and escape the bowl. When this happens, simply stop the microwave and let the porridge settle back down.

Once porridge has boiled, it’s cooked and ready to eat. If you’d prefer softer porridge you can of course put it back in the microwave. Just be aware that it will boil up very quickly the second time.

Plain porridge isn’t the most exciting flavour, but you can add a whole range of things to it. Two of my favourites are golden syrup, and raisins. In fact both dried and fresh fruits go well with porridge. Or if you want something more savoury, why not try a little ham or bacon?