Wow! I cannot believe it's been nine days since I last had an evening to sit down and write a blog post. Life has been happening over here, culminating, you could say, today, with the parent introduction to reception class at Big Tonju's school, which he'll start in September. I've found I've been too occupied with the busyness of running a household and entertaining my children, every second of every day, to even think about what a huge thing this is. I mean, he's in nursery already, it won't be that different will it? I hadn't reckoned on how I'd feel visiting the classrooms in which he'll be installed for a year from September. Suddenly it is very real, and the step from nursery to school feels tangible. God willing, it will really help him, and me, and make the times we do spend together more precious, because being a stay at home mum can take away a little joy, I find, from occasions in which a working mum would delight. I know this is primarily a food and cooking blog, but the premise is that of cooking for my family, and they do have real little (actually, big!) personalities. I also know that many of my readers are at a similar stage in life so will empathise. Any words of encouragement are very welcome!
With family in mind, I created this dish the other week as a way to encourage little (and big) people who maybe have an acrimonious relationship with their vegetables, to give them more of a chance. To show that the state of vegetables can be altered, that they can be combined with other flavours to enhance their own, without removing the inherent nature of the original veg. How anybody couldn't be seduced by a sweet potato is beyond me; that delicious, orange flesh which is full of promise of natural sweetness. Mashed, roasted, fried... it is a winner every time! So does it surprise you to know that sweet potato is a main ingredient in this recipe? Along with another deliciously sweet natural ingredient: dates. In fact, I must admit that this recipe is partially inspired by Ella's Sweet Potato Brownies recipe. I adored the combination of sweet potato and dates, and I added a little maple syrup to capitalise on it. Only a subtle amount, but perhaps enough to make a difference to a veggie hater.
I've had a few conversations recently with mums who really struggle to fit cooking into their lives. I've also heard mums say that they're trying to get their five year olds to start eating vegetables and to be more adventurous with their eating. It is certainly never too late to get your child to start eating healthily and adventurously, but sooner is definitely better. So out with the "children's meals" and serve them what you're having, even if that means they have what you had for dinner last night for their dinner tonight. Some meals taste even better after the flavours have been allowed to combine and settle against each other, particularly pies. I completely understand that many families are not physically able to eat together every night, or even any night, of the week. Husb has been home at the boys' bedtime every night for the last three weeks, and while I'm aware this will sound like a luxury to many, I've found it hard work because he's always here for dinner and it's been a sad dinner table for the boys and me.
So this recipe is dedicated to all the mums who are confused about cooking, unsure about trying new ingredients and generally don't know where to start. All the ingredients are really easy to source, and if you can't find coconut oil, just use olive oil (coconut oil is a flavour enhancer and an incredible oil to use for all types of cooking, but it is also expensive, and might not be easy to find in smaller supermarkets). It's also not necessary to add maple syrup to the sweet potato. It is certainly sufficiently sweet with just butter and seasoning, so please adjust this, and any other acpect of the recipe according to your own taste. The number of ingredients is also small. There are really only four main ingredients, the remainder you are likely to have in your kitchen cupboards already.
Ingredients (for two adults and two children)
2 chicken breasts
2 large sweet potatoes
Bag of baby leaf spinach
Halawi dates (or any other kind of dates you like)
1-2 tbsp maple syrup
1-2 cloves of garlic (according to taste) sliced with a knife
Whole nutmeg (or ground if you have that)
Salt and pepper
Pre-heat oven to Fan 190C.
I'm going to be a bit over the top with obvious instructions in this recipe, to give as many pointers as possible for those who may find this all a bit daunting. Beginning with showing you how I like to cut sweet potatoes if they are going to be mashed following cooking.
This may be a step too far with the simplicity, but it really is an efficient way to cut each slice, and it also means the chunks are small so will take less time to soften. Put the saucepan on the hob, bring to the boil and simmer for around eight minutes until soft when poked with a sharp knife.
Once the sweet potatoes are on the hob, prepare the chicken.
Take one chicken breast, lay it on a chopping board and slice through it across its breadth to create a slice just less than half a centimetre thick. Repeat, continuing to make new slices until you've gone through the whole breast.
Continue with the second one...
...until both chicken breasts have been separated into many flat slices. Set aside.
Prepare the dates.
Taking a short, sharp knife, take a date and slice it lengthways down one side, open the flesh to remove the stone, then continue the cut so the date is cut in half vertically. Make a couple of horizontal slices to chop the date up into three pieces. Repeat until you have as many dates a you want to use. I used the whole box (ahem!) which was rather gluttonous, but we all love dates, and, you know, it's natural sugar and everything (just don't get Husb started on fructose and sucrose!)
Prepare the garlic spinach.
In a large pan, place a generous slab of butter and melt on a medium heat, taking care not to let it burn. Once melted, add the sliced garlic and fry reasonable gently until it is starting to go very slightly golden.
Add the spinach to the pan, probably a large handful at a time, along with four tablespoons of water, and cook on a medium heat until wilted, turning it constantly so it wilts evenly. Keep adding handfuls as soon a there is space in your pan, until the whole bag had been added.
Once wilted, grate over some nutmeg, or add a pinch of ready-grated nutmeg, and season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
By this time, the sweet potatoes should be ready. If you find they were ready a little while ago, just turn off the heat and keep them standing in their water to keep warm until you're ready to give them your attention.
Gather together the drained sweet potato, maple syrup, butter and seasoning.
Add a knob of butter, 1 tbsp maple syrup and salt and pepper.
Mash with a potato masher and check the taste, adding more maple syrup, butter and seasoning to your taste. If you like, you can create an even smoother consisency by using a stick blender on the sweet potato.
Now it's time to assemble the dish.
Gather together the sweet potato, chicken breasts, spinach and dates, and an oven dish.
If you're using coconut oil, you can melt a tablespoonfull in a pan to drizzle over the top of the bake once assembled. This isn't entirely necessary however, as the oil can just be dotted over the top. Obviously, if you're using olive oil, ignore this step.
Put half the sweet potato mixture in the bottom of an oven dish, smoothing over the surface.
Split the pile of dates in half and sprinkle one half over the sweet potato.
Place half the sliced chicken over the dates, taking care to keep the better looking slices for the top layer!
Make a spinach layer using all the spinach mixture.
Add the remaining sweet potato and spread out evenly over the spinach layer.
Sprinkle over the remaining dates.
Arrange the remaining chicken slices over the dates and drizzle over the coconut oil (alternatively, dot it on or drizzle over olive oil) and season with salt and pepper.
Once assembled, place in the pre-heated oven for 45-50 minutes until the inner layer of chicken is cooked through.
Once cooked, the exposed dates will have nicely caramelised.
This meal is great served with a simple green vegetable; I used green beans which I steamed for the eight minutes before the bake was ready. Brocolli would also work well.
When ready, dish up and serve to your expectant family!
We really enjoyed this meal. The combination of flavours is delicious, and it is certainly reasonably healthy. Serving it with a green vegetable just adds a little refreshment to what is an inherently sweet main course, even without the maple syrup.
I know it looks like there are a lot of steps to this recipe, but really they are quick and can be carried out systematically so all the aspects are ready to bring together at the same time. I've used a lot of photos because I wanted to make it as clear as possible for inexperienced cooks, and specified the steps in such a way as to make the process feel as ordered and unconfused as possible.
Let me let you in on a secret. Your finished bake will look a lot more caramelised than mine does in the photos above, and that's because I totally underestimated the cooking time, got it out after 25 minutes and served one portion, only to find the middle layer of chicken hadn't even been touched! I had to patch it up and return it to the oven for double the expected time, so there's a confession for you! Obviously I had to use the original photos I took because it didn't look quite so... good... once I'd tried to reassemble it.
I really hope this dish might inspire someone who's daunted by cooking to step a tiny bit out of their comfort zone to try something a little different, but which hopefully their entire family will enjoy. I also hope I've made it clear enough to follow easily, so please let me know if you make it and how the instructions could be improved, or any additions or changes you make to the recipe.
Here's to trying something new!