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CASA’s Maria Broadbent says being able to get together with family and friends again for a meal is a basic human need. . .



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In 2017, research from the University of Oxford revealed the more often people eat with others, the more likely they are to feel happy and satisfied with their lives. The study and ensuing reports concurred that social eating was a way of forming bonds. The past 14 months of enforced isolation and separation from loved ones has thrown up the two extremes that underpin this theory.

Many people returned or even started eating together as a family. I am fortunate that this was the norm for me growing up and I continued this with my own family. The conversations and catch-ups we have over a meal facilitate the sharing of our lives. It is also a place to pick up any issues your loved ones may be facing as well as a time for lots of laughter.

Conversely, many people who lived alone, worked from home and lived away from their closest family and friends found themselves dining alone. No wonder since the 12th of April CASA has seen more bookings for six people than I have ever recalled! The sheer joy, at times inspite of a chilly breeze, of friends sharing food, drink and friendship has been wonderful to see. The basic human need to socialise is once again on the table. . .literally!

Normandy chicken (46728390)
Normandy chicken (46728390)

From the May 17th, many more hospitality businesses will be opening so the opportunity to go ‘out out’ is on the horizon. Bury St Edmunds offers a huge variety of cafés, bars and restaurants. We as a town, collectively, invite you to meander around our shops and eateries, suspending reality and pretending you are on holiday. By popular demand, we will be keeping our beautiful marquee to provide covered outside drinking and dining space. We are creating a Mediterranean holiday feel in our courtyard to help those of you who can currently only dream of a holiday abroad. Staycations will still be on the cards for much of the summer.

Don’t forget that eating together extends beyond the home. Studies both in the UK and the US have indicated that collaboration at work is improved through shared social dining. For those working from home and the introduction of enhanced flexible working patterns, a working lunch is not just excusable but recommended!

Eating out every day or night for most is a lifestyle/budget impossibility – but you can create a sharing meal quite easily at home. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting anyone cooks a full-blown dinner party menu every night. Shared food can be simple and indeed inexpensive to make at home. I will share some recipes and ideas with you to make mealtimes simple and enjoyable.

Shared mealtimes for family and friends

Traybake is not a term I find very inviting – but what they are certainly is. They are a great idea served with a salad because they can be prepared in advance and constitute very little washing up. Lasagne, moussaka, salmon on a bed of potatoes and Mediterranean vegetables, cottage pie and fish pie instantly spring to my mind.

Casseroles also work very well and can be served with a simple rice or potato side dish. Remember, too, that you can add vegetables into the rice or cook your potatoes adding the vegetables into the pan as you go depending on their cooking times. Chilli con carne, chicken chasseur, beef stew, curry and tagines all fall into this category.

Shared food such as fajitas and tacos where you have all the elements in the middle of the table and people construct their own are great fun. Mexican food also makes great party food – especially if you add in the Mexican beer, margaritas and tequila shots!

With all of the above you can keep it to the basic dish and one accompaniment – or if you are feeling creative you can add in other nibbles and sides to create a ‘spread’. With a curry, for example, you could add a tomato salad, a yoghurt raita, mango chutney along with some naan breads and poppadoms turning it into a special dinner. Involve the family! Children can help when you are shopping and with cutting up and mixing during the preparation of dinner and help lay the table – this helps engage them in the whole dining experience.

MACARONI OR CAULIFLOWER CHEESE (SERVES 2-3 PEOPLE)

Ingredients:

110g macaroni (dried weight) or 1 cauliflower

50g mushrooms sliced

Salt and pepper

50g butter or oil

40g plain flour (gluten free is fine)

1 heaped teaspoon of mustard of your choice (I like whole grain)

450ml milk (full fat is creamy but with all that cheese, semi-skimmed is fine)

175g cheese, grated (most popular is cheddar but you can use whatever you have in your fridge, even a mixture of left over bits works)

1 medium onion or 2 shallots (leftover spring onions can be added, too)

4 rashers of smoked bacon or a handful of lardons, chopped

Method:

Pasta - Boil the pasta as per packet instructions but for 2 minutes less than it says. Rinse the pasta in cold water and set to one side in a gratin dish – stir a teaspoonful of oil through it to stop it sticking.

Cauliflower - Break the cauliflower into florets (you can use a mixture or cauliflower and broccoli if you wish especially if you have blue cheese in your cheese combo) and boil for just 5 minutes as you don’t want them to be mushy. Alternatively, you can wrap them in cling film and microwave for 5 minutes. Place in a gratin dish whilst you prepare the sauce.

Sauce - Gently fry the bacon, onion and mushrooms in the oil/butter till soft. Add the flour and the mustard and cook for 2 minutes. Slowly add the milk, stirring continuously until the sauce thickens. Remove from the heat and stir in most of the cheese – save a little to put on top. Season to taste. Once you are happy with your sauce, mix in the pasta or vegetables and stir until heated through, IF the sauce becomes too thick add a little more milk. . .or a dash of white wine out your glass if you can spare it! Pour everything back into the gratin dish, sprinkle with remaining cheese (you can mix the cheese with breadcrumbs for extra topping ‘crunch’). Put the gratin dish on a baking tray to catch any overspill and pop under a hot grill until the cheese melts and browns slightly. Alternatively, make this in advance and then bake in an oven for around 20 minutes at 200 degrees centigrade.

NORMANDY CHICKEN (WITH CIDER, APPLES & CREAM)

This dish was popular with our meals on wheels deliveries over the past year.

Ingredients:

1 tablespoon olive oil

2kg chicken thighs and legs (you can use breast but this is more expensive and you will lose flavour)

Salt

4 shallots, diced, or one medium onion

1 stick celery, diced

4-5 thyme sprigs

2 cloves garlic minced

125g bacon lardons or 6 strips of bacon, chopped

2 tablespoons brandy

2 tablespoons flour (gluten free is fine)

85ml chicken stock

400ml cups hard dry apple cider such as Strongbow

2 apples peeled, cored and cut into wedges

125ml double cream

Method:

Turn the oven on to 180C/350F.

Pat dry chicken legs and thighs with a paper towel and salt all over.

In a large casserole dish brown the chicken parts in 1 tablespoon of oil over medium-high heat until golden. Remove to a separate platter and set aside.

Discard the chicken fat or reserve it for another use if desired.

Fry the bacon lardons over medium heat until the fat is rendered. (If the bacon is very fatty, discard most of the fat.) Remove the bacon to the same platter as browned chicken.

To the same pan add the shallots and celery with 2 sprigs of thyme and cook over low heat until soft but not coloured for 5-7 minutes. Add the minced garlic and cook for 30 seconds longer while stirring.

Then hit the pan with some brandy and stir while scraping the bottom of the pan with a spatula, continue cooking until the alcohol burns out.

Then add the flour and stir until it’s combined with the fat and turns into a paste, then slowly add the chicken stock and stir until the mixture resembles a thick gravy, then pour in the apple cider and stir to combine.

Return the chicken and bacon to the casserole dish with 2-3 sprigs of thyme and bring to a boil.

Then put the casserole into the preheated oven and cook with a lid on for 30 minutes, then uncover and cook for 30 minutes longer.

While the chicken is in the oven fry the apple wedges in 2 tablespoons of the reserved chicken fat or butter. Watch them carefully as they burn quickly.

Take the casserole out of the oven and stir in the heavy cream and cook for 20 minutes longer uncovered.

Take out of the oven, stir in the cooked apple wedges and serve with potatoes or rice.

Maria Broadbent is owner of Mediterranean restaurant CASA in Risbygate Street, Bury St Edmunds

Tel 01284 701313

Visit casabse.co.uk