At our family gatherings, there is a long tradition of piling everyone in around the table. This usually also means building a myriad network of chairs and tables, that lead out into other rooms and spaces around the house. Which sometimes, can be faintly ridiculous. Especially when you send a shout out for the apple sauce and discover that must make it all the way from the hall; where Aunt Jilly Jill is sitting; right next to the telephone by the front door.
And really, that is no exaggeration. Space is at premium in most homes, so you just have to make the best of things. Other options do include moving the entire contents of your living room out into the garden, which we’ve done in the past for supperclubs. What a great workout and test of marriage that was. Our guests, as they sat all bunched in, around two patio tables, covered with white organza and flowers; never got a sense of the words that peppered the atmosphere just a few hours earlier. Thankfully. Nor did they ever notice the beads of sweat, as we served up platters of food. My wife and I were always professional. Until it started raining that is and then someone, usually me, would have to go running out and grab some tarpaulin from the shed.
Sometimes, a guest would ask: ‘Is your husband OK? He seems to be in some distress out there.’
To which Mrs FU would reply (whilst casually refilling a glass): ‘It’s fine. If he had done it earlier, like I told him to, he wouldn’t be in that mess in the first place.’
Coming back to feeding the clan though, the whole sense of ‘head, shoulders, knees and toes’ as everyone digs in, has always been par for the course. So, when Alex Dodman, the blogger behind The Food Grinder, sent me a list of ingredients to include as part of Sainsbury’s Table Squish challenge; the aspect of cramming everyone in was always going to be a piece of a cake.
Except, on this occasion, there was birthday cake in the offering and getting the kids to sit down, even for just one second, proved tricky. (Having accepted the challenge, I knew we were going to my nephew’s 7th birthday party the next day, so I called my sister-in-law and asked if she’d would mind me bringing along a selection of grub. Her response? ‘Hell yes! I have only got pizza and crisps in!)
With a budget of £30 to spend, to feed at least eight people, the real eye-opener was seeing how far you can stretch things on that amount. I went to my local Sainsburys on the hoof, with no idea of what I was getting, apart from lamb, cous cous, pomegranate and hummus. A nice selection from Alex by the way, as it helped to build a theme but last-minute thinking on your feet, does take some thinking.
As a result, I am sure that I spent well over an hour in that store, pacing up and down the aisles. I am also sure that this was being monitored on CCTV, as there was lots of muttering over what yogurt to buy. When an old lady passes you by and says - ‘Look, just get the Basics stuff, that will be fine for your tzatziki.’ – you know you’ve been deliberating too loudly and for too long.
However, given the middle-Eastern vibe that was forming in my head, the resulting menu looked like this:
Hummus and caramelised onion dip
Beetroot and thyme dip
With wholemeal pitta strips
Honey, garlic, lemon and thyme marinated lamb (butterflied)
Cous cous salad with spring onion, pomegranate and seeds
Baby spinach, tomato, herb and halloumi salad
Char grilled baby gems and yoghurt dressing
Watermelon wedges, with mint and drizzled honey
All of which came to £29.63, which is not bad value for a family feast.
In fact, it felt quite special, rocking up to the door with bags of goodies to cook. Numerous relatives looked quite sceptical but once I got stuck in, with a bit of whizzing, chopping and blitzing and started loading the plates up, eyebrows began to arch in surprise. The real interest came when the butterflied lamb, marinated in lemon, thyme and honey, got slapped on to the bbq. Smells bring all the people to the yard and as a result, a squish began to form around the coals. Again, in turn, this upped the whole kudos of my delivering a sumptuous, impromptu banquet to proceedings.
‘Ha! Tess! And to think we were all going to be eating just crisps and pizza!” I boomed, above all the tiny heads that surrounded me.
To which one not so tiny head responded, ‘There goes Uncle Dan. Always pretending to be the chef.’
And then they dispersed once more, for the giant trampoline, leaving me feeling quite alone.
The feeling of isolation didn’t last too long though. Once the lamb was rested and carved and brought back outside, and set amongst the salads and dips, the hovering flies came scrambling back, for a very familiar jostling.
But because the weather had been so fine (or dry at least) the majority of bums and plates were all camped around the lawn, rather than at the table. If it had been raining, no doubt we would have all been inside; all squashed up, as per usual.
With Jilly Jill out in the hall again. Taking orders by the phone.
The three following recipes, all of which use Alex’s selection of ingredients are all very straight forward and easy to make. And most importantly, take very little time to knock together. I should add that I took a small liberty of using some store cupboard spices along the way. I am a ‘chef’ after all.
But before we get to that, as part of this challenge, I now have to pass on four ingredients of my own, to Chetna Makan, You Tube spice supremo and author of two books; including Chai, Chaat and Chutney. Knowing that Chetna is very handy when it comes to this cooking malarky, I spent quite a bit of time thinking about this. Secretly, I wanted to make this really quite hard for her. Unfortunately, Sainsburys don't sell Hákarl, Century Eggs or Escamol. At least not yet. So I plumped for these:
Yes, read and weep Chetna. Looking forward to seeing what you come up with.
Simple hummus with caramelised onion
1 tin of chickpeas
1 garlic clove, peeled
75ml olive oil
2 onions, peeled and finely sliced
1 tsp ground cumin
Half tsp smoked paprika
Squeeze of lemon juice
Salt and pepper
First, throw the sliced onions into a frying pan, along with 25ml of oil and place over a medium heat and put a lid on top, to ensure the onion soften evenly and don’t catch. Stir through every now and then and after 20 minutes, remove half the onions from the pan and leave to cool. Continue with the remaining onion, taking the lid off, so that they get some more colour and begin to crisp up a bit. This should take another 10 minutes or so. After which time, remove from the heat and leave to cool.
Pop the chickpeas (water and all) and garlic clove into a saucepan and place it on the hob and bring to the boil, then reduce to simmer. Cook through for 5 minutes and then leave to cool and a touch.
Drain, reserving some of the water. Then place the chickpeas, garlic, the first batch of cooked onion, cumin and smoked paprika into a blender and blitz to incorporate. Then add the remaining olive oil and lemon juice and blitz until smooth. If the consistency is too thick, you can let things down some more by adding a touch of the reserved water.
Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve in a bowl, topped with the crisp onion and an extra sprinkling of paprika and drizzle of oil.
Pomegranate and spring onion cous cous.
350gms cous cous
550ml boiled water
Small bunch of spring onions, white part finely chopped, green part roughly shredded
1 pomegranate, de-seeded (you can do this by chopping in half and bashing each half on the outside with a wooden spoon over a bowl. The seeds will magically drop down, leaving the pith behind)
1 small bunch of mint, leaves stripped and roughly chopped
1 lemon, zested and juiced
50ml olive oil
1 packet Sainsbury's Fruits & Honey Seed Mix (35g)
Salt and pepper
Place the cous cous into a bowl and pour over the just boiled water. Cover with cling film and leave for 5 minutes for the water to absorb.
Then, using a fork, fluff up the cous cous a touch and add the oil, lemon juice and zest, chopped spring onion and two-thirds of the pomegranate. Then mix together to combine.
Season to taste and mix some more, then pour the cous cous onto a serving platter.
Finish by scattering the remaining pomegranate, chopped mintand fruit and honey seed m ix over the top.
Butterflied lamb with lemon, honey and thyme
1 butterflied leg of lamb, 1.2 kg
1 lemon, zested and juiced
2 tbs of honey
Small bunch of thyme, leaves picked
25ml olive oil
Salt and pepper
Place the lamb into a shallow dish and combine the marinade ingredients in a bowl, remembering to season. Pour the marinade over the lamb, turning the joint over so that everything gets mixed in nicely. Cover with cling film and leave in the fridge for two hours (or overnight, if you have the time)
Light your bbq and take the lamb out of the fridge, to come up to room temperature. (It takes roughly 45 mins for you coals to turn glowing white, so this should marry up well for the lamb).
Slap the lamb onto the grill and turn frequently, basting with remain marinade that you might have left. The sugar content in the marinade will mean a bit of scorching but it all adds to the flavour.
Depending on the lamb, a joint roughly 4 cm thick will take 20-30 minutes to cook to medium rare. If you prefer it medium to well done, cook for 40 minutes.
When ready, take the lamb joint off and place on a carving board and cover with foil. Leave to rest for at least 10 minutes.
Cut into even slices and present on the chopping board or on a platter.