Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Gnocchi with chorizo, rosemary and red wine pesto

I was reading a restaurant review in the papers at the weekend, and in it the critic wrote a passage on how the italians had it so right with pizza. Pizza is cheap and quick to make, whilst being elevated by restaurants into glamourous food. The same can be said for pasta, and in this case, gnocchi. Gnocchi is desperately easy to make, and it really delicious, but before making it myself, I have never had it cooked for me outside of a restaurant. 

Homemade gnocchi is so different to the ready made variety that you can buy from the supermarket. The latter tends to be a bulky, heavy dumpling, likely to leave you holding your stomach after eating dinner. Once you have mastered it, fresh gnocchi is soft and light, and you will never want to go back to buying those vac packs.
The key is how the potatoes are prepared. Many recipes direct you to boil the potatoes until tender, but by baking instead, no water is retained inside of the potatoes, helping the mixture stay nice and light. Mixing the dough lightly and cooking while the mixture is still warm will also help get the best results. If you are going to prepare the dish in advance, blanch the gnocchi for 1 minute before carefully draining and storing in the fridge until ready to reheat later.
Serves 2 as a main, 4 for a starter
For the chorizo pesto:
1 ring cured chorizo, skin peeled and cut into large chunks
1 red chilli, sliced
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 red onion, sliced
3 large sprigs rosemary, leaves picked
1 glass red wine
50g parmesan, finely grated
100g blanched almonds, toasted
1 lemon - juice
1/2 bunch parsley, roughly chopped
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
For the gnocchi:
500g large waxy potatoes such as maris piper
150g plain flour
1/2 a beaten egg
Handful of fresh soft herbs such as basil, parsley and oregano, finely chopped
Salt and pepper
To serve:
10 or so cherry tomatoes, halved
Large handful rocket (optional)
Sprinkling of grated parmesan
Preheat the oven to 200ºC
Put the potatoes on a baking tray, sprinkle with salt and bake in the oven until cooked and fluffy in the middle, about an hour.
While the potatoes are cooking, make the pesto. Heat a large heavy frying pan with a little olive oil on a medium heat. When hot, add the red onion, chorizo, garlic, rosemary and red chilli and cook until the onion is soft. Turn up the heat a little and add the red wine, letting it reduce down until thick and sticky. Tip everything into a food processor and add the parsley, lemon juice, parmesan, almonds and seasoning. Blitz until all mixed together into a coarse pesto. Add a little extra virgin olive oil, enough to loosen the mixture up a bit. Taste, adjust and put aside. 

When the potatoes are baked, scoop the fluffy insides into a bowl and discard the skins (or stuff with cheese and grill). Holding the hot potatoes with a tea towel makes this much easier. Mash them up so there are no lumps. Working quickly, add the beaten egg (remember only half), the flour, herbs and a good seasoning before mixing together carefully until everything comes together as a dough. 
Put a large saucepan of salty water to boil.
Split the potato mixture in two and roll each half into a long thin sausage. Using a sharp knife, cut along the sausage on the angle at 3cm intervals, or to the size that you want your gnocchi to be. You can now shape the individual gnocchi as you wish, I prefer to keep them quite rustic. 

When the water has boiled, cook the gnocchi in batches until they rise to the surface. Drain well and keep warm. When on the last batch, heat a large non-stick frying pan on a medium to high heat with a little olive oil. When hot, add the gnocchi and fry for a couple of minutes until the outsides start to crisp. At this point, turn the heat down a little and add the cherry tomatoes, and a minute later a good amount of the pesto (plus a little more olive oil if the mix looks too solid still), stirring to coat the gnocchi. When the pesto is heated through and the tomatoes softened slightly it is ready.
To serve, spoon a serving of the gnocchi and pesto onto each plate and top each pile with a little rocket. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle the parmesan over. Dig in!

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Artichokes, hollandaise and halloumi salads

At last

Finally the sun has come out! It really makes such a difference, and means that the evenings can be made the most of instead of being huddled up inside watching the rain running down the window. 

One of the best things about the summer arriving is that I can eat outside as much as possible. My flat doesn’t have a designated dining room, so when it’s cold it’s mostly eating off my lap, but luckily I do have a good sized balcony. When it’s warm and the evenings are long, I can sneak out and sit at a small table surrounded by plants and the smell of barbecues. 
Globe artichokes with hollandaise 
Like barbecues and picnics, there’s something great about sitting outside and picking at food with your fingers. Globe artichokes are a great way to start any meal outdoors, and they go a lot further than you’d think after scraping the tiny amount of flesh from an individual leaf. Make sure that you peel everything away and get to the lovely tender heart in the middle. 

Hollandaise can sometimes be a bit of a nightmare, but once you find a method that works for you then it can be assembled without too much fuss. It’s definitely worth the effort though, as it works so well with the artichoke, clinging to the leaves much better than a vinaigrette. 
This is such a simple meal, but always looks dramatic and keeps with that interactive outdoor spirit.
Serves 2 as a starter
2 globe artichokes
2 lemons
For the hollandaise:
2 egg yolks
1 1/2 tbsp white wine vinegar 
1 lemon - juice, put the squeezed lemon in the saucepan with the artichokes
120g butter
Fill a large saucepan with water and salt. Squeeze a lemon into the water and chuck the lemon into the water too.
In a large bowl, season the egg yolks then whisk well until they start to thicken. 
Heat the vinegar and lemon juice in a small saucepan until the mixture starts to boil. Pour slowly over the eggs whilst whisking quickly.
Now melt your butter until it starts to foam. When ready, transfer to a jug and pour very slowly - a few drops at a time - into the egg mixture, whisking all the time. As the butter is incorporated into the mixture it will thicken, but be careful not to add the butter too quickly or it will split. When all the butter has been added, taste and adjust with lemon, salt and pepper, which ever is needed. Cover and put aside until the artichokes are cooked. 
To cook the artichokes, trim the stem and peel off any tough outer leaves. Squeeze over half of the remaining lemon to help prevent discolouring. Plunge the prepped globes into the boiling salty lemony water, and use a colander to keep them submerged. Boil for 25 minutes before checking - try an outer leaf, and if the flesh is still tough then cook for another 5 minutes. 
Once cooked, drain the artichokes and squeeze with the last half of lemon. Serve quickly with a bowl or hollandaise for dipping. 

When I last ate these artichokes, I followed it up with this halloumi salad to make an easy to cook but really tasty week night meal.
Broad bean, radish, green bean and pea salad with grilled halloumi and a herb yoghurt dressing
Halloumi almost always gets used as a vegetarian substitute to a meat dish, and I bet vegetarians get sick of unimaginative hosts plonking it in front of them for every meal. However it is fantastic when simply grilled, and the saltiness goes well with a cooling and sweet salad. 

I’m a bit obsessed with fresh oregano at the moment, and luckily my local greengrocer always has loads of it. It adds such a fragrant citrus taste to anything that it’s added to, from soups to marinades and salads. If you can’t find any, any herb combinations will work, but try and use lots of mint. When seasoning the dressing, you want it to be quite strong, so add a touch more lemon, vinegar and salt than you thing you need, as it will be diluted when eaten with the crisp vegetables.
You can prepare everything but the halloumi (although you can have it  pre-sliced and ready), so as much time can be spent outside with a cold beer without the hassle of cooking up a massive meal. 
Serves 2
For the salad:
1 block halloumi, sliced into thick rectangular pieces
300g broad beans, podded and shelled
100g french beans, trimmed and cut in half
200g frozen peas
about 8 radishes, thinly sliced
4 spring onions, sliced
3 sprigs mint, leaves picked and torn
1 lemon - juice
a small handful of rocket leaves
Extra virgin olive oil
For the yoghurt dressing:
400ml natural yoghurt
1/2 bunch mint, finely chopped
1/2 bunch fresh oregano, finely chopped
2 lemons, the zest of one and the juice of both
1 tbsp white wine vinegar, plus more if necessary
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
Put some salted water in a saucepan large enough to hold the french beans, broad beans and peas and bring to the boil. 
While the water is boiling, make the dressing. Put the yoghurt in a bowl and add all of the other dressing ingredients. Mix well and taste, adjusting with lemon, vinegar, salt and pepper as it needs. Set aside to infuse while you prepare the vegetables.
When the broad beans, peas and french beans are all trimmed, podded, shelled and sliced and the water has boiled, blanch them for 2 minutes. As soon as two minutes is up, drain the vegetables and plunge them in a large amount of cold water to stop them cooking. Shake as much water from the vegetables as possible, then add a small amount of extra virgin olive oil and squeeze the lemon juice over. Add the radishes, spring onion and mint, season well and mix together, then set aside until ready to plate up.
To cook the halloumi, heat a non-stick frying pan on a medium-high heat with a little oil. When it is hot, fry the halloumi quickly for a couple of minutes on each side until crisp and brown. 

To construct the salad, place a small amount of rocket in the middle of the plate and top with a large heap of the vegetable mixture. Spoon some of the yoghurt over the top, scatter some more mint leaves around and arrange the halloumi around the plate. Tuck in with a glass of wine somewhere nice outside. 

Monday, 21 May 2012

Store cupboard dinners

Ready, Steady, Cook!

One of the hardest things I find when cooking is making the most out of leftover food. It’s always nice to sit down and plan a meal from scratch, but I sometimes find myself with a fridge full of random bits that need to be eaten, normally thrown together quickly on a weekday evening after a long day at work. Although it can sometimes seem like a tricky prospect, most of the time with a bit of thought you can come up with something good. 
This ‘read, steady, cook’ style of cooking completely relies on the reinforcement of the ingredients in your store cupboards. You don’t quite need the comprehensively bursting Nigel Slater-style larder; just a few good spices, a bit of stock and some dried grain or pasta can turn something out of nothing. Most of these ingredients are very cheap and last for ages, and are definitely worth having just in case you need them.
Planning ahead is also useful to make the most out of your leftovers. If you are cooking a big joint of meat for example, that will have a lot to spare, I always get a few extra things at the same time that will make it stretch for longer. Restaurants and pubs are great at this - you will often see a cottage pie on the menu on a Monday after a Sunday roast, and arancini is used in many Italians to use up old risotto. I really hate to waste food, and leftovers give the impression of a second-rate meal, when a lot of the time they are as good as when the food was used the first time around. 
Rocket and puy lentil salad with chicken, chorizo and goat’s cheese
This salad came about after I was left with a few leftovers from some of the dishes that I have cooked on this blog so far. I found that I still had loads of chorizo and the oregano pesto left from the bream dish, and some goat’s cheese from the mushroom ravioli. As they are good ingredients, I wanted to come up with another good dish to incorporate them without having to buy many more ingredients. 

As with most salads, you can mix and match ingredients as much as you want, depending on what you have available and to your taste. Any lentil can be used, and any spare vegetables can also be roasted up and thrown in. Chicken goes really well with chorizo, goat’s cheese and pesto, and thighs hold so much tenderness and flavour (and are amazingly cheap). If you don’t have any pesto, a mixture of chopped soft herbs with lemon juice and olive oil will also be lovely.
Serves 2, very well


For the chicken:
4 chicken thighs
1 lemon, juice kept separately
4 tbsp oregano pesto (recipe in last blog entry), or herbs, olive oil and lemon juice
A few thyme sprigs if available
For the lentils:
1 cup puy lentils, rinsed well
1 litre chicken stock
1/2 glass red wine (white will also work here)
1 shallot or onion, sliced finely
1 clove garlic, sliced finely
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tbsp smoked paprika
1 lemon - juice
To finish the salad:
2 large handfuls rocket, washed
1/2 ring cured chorizo, cut into rough 2cm chunks
80g goat’s cheese (preferably soft), torn into large chunks
10 or so cherry tomatoes, chopped in half
Pre-heat the oven to 200ºC (fan)
First of all get the lentils on by heating the chicken stock up in a saucepan, and heating a medium frying pan or skillet on a medium heat with a little olive oil. When the frying pan is hot, add the shallot and garlic and cook for a couple of minutes before adding the cumin and paprika. Once the shallot is soft, add the lentils and stir well, cooking for another minute or two. Now add the red wine, and let it bubble up and reduce a little, before pouring in a ladle of hot stock. Wait until the lentils have absorbed the liquid before adding more stock, and repeating until the lentils are tender, about 30 minutes. You don’t want too much liquid left with the lentils at the end, so reduce down until it just holds everything together. Add the lemon juice, season well and put aside.

While the lentils are cooking, cook the chicken. Heat a non-stick frying pan with a little oil on a high heat, and season the chicken well. When very hot, place the chicken skin down and cook until the skin is really brown and crispy. Turn them over for a minute before removing to a small baking dish, along with the squeezed lemons and the thyme if using. Put into the oven for about 25 minutes or until cooked at the thickest part. When cooked, strip the meat from the bones, cut into bite-size pieces and drizzle with some of the oregano pesto or herb dressing. 
When the lentils and chicken have about 5 minutes to go, heat a frying pan on a medium heat with a little oil. When hot, fry the chorizo and cherry tomatoes, until the chorizo is hot and starting to crisp, and the tomatoes have slightly softened.
To construct the salad, spread a large base of washed and dried rocket onto each plate. Use a fork to scatter the lentils over the leaves, and then arrange the chicken, chorizo, tomato and goats cheese on top. Finish by adding more of the pesto in little blobs, spooning a bit of the leftover lemon juice and drizzling some extra virgin olive oil. 
Restaurant Review - The Cafe at Tate Modern
I week ago I met up with my parents to brave the rains and go to see the Damien Hirst exhibition at the Tate Modern. After a horrible stormy walk through St. Paul’s and across the Millennium Bridge, we decided that lunch first was definitely in order. With much of Hirst’s work involving death, flies and ash trays of fag butts, this was probably a good decision! 

The cafe at the Tate Modern is a lovely open space, and had a very welcoming busy bustle to it when we arrived. The menu was also just as inviting, comprising of a simple yet well thought out selection including fish of the day, potted ham hock terrine along with robust looking tarts and sandwiches. I went for the fish, which was Hake on fennel with a white wine sauce, while my mum ordered a roasted squash and beetroot salad, and my dad the ploughmans. So far, so good.
Here came the first problem. It is always slightly alarming when a waiter seems to be writing an essay on their notepad, and here he was going to town. But after we confirmed our order, we sat back with content anticipation that we would be well fed. When the food arrived, mum got her salad, dad got his ploughmans, whilst I got a very gourmet spare plate. Hang on! Somehow, even after we had confirmed the order, the waiter had managed to confuse ‘hake’ with ‘plate’. I actually found the whole thing quite amusing, but although the staff were very apologetic, I was still left watching the others eat their food. 

This in turn didn’t turn out too badly, as I got to have a look at what they had ordered. Dad’s ploughmans looked great; two wedges of cheese, loads of ham, some of that ham hock terrine and homemade piccalilli. Brilliant, and I was left with a severe case of food envy. My mum on the other hand got a worse deal, with a big pile of watercress hiding the tiny amounts of beetroot and squash that had been added. Surely a roasted beetroot and squash salad should be mostly formed of that? It was nice enough, but she was left disappointed. 

When my plate/hake finally came along, I laughed quite a lot. In front of me was quite possibly the most ridiculous piece of garnish that I’ve ever seen. It’s one thing (well, it was 20 years ago) adding a small sprig of parsley or a small lemon wedge to go with a dish, but here on top of the hake they had precariously balanced a huge piece of lemon. The hake should have been the star of the show, but I just couldn’t get over how silly the whole thing looked. Aside from this, to be fair to it the dish did taste lovely, with the hake cooked well and combining with the fennel, wine and cream perfectly. 

So overall it was a very mixed bag, with my dad and I content, mum miffed by her salad, and all amused by the theatrical plate and architectural lemon. Quite apt given the setting I think.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Bream with crispy polenta, oregano pesto, chorizo and broad beans


I love fish, I really do, and I don’t eat nearly enough of it. I think that this is typical of many people, and sadly is resulting in the decline of fishmongers on the high street. This is slowly destroying the connection between the animal source and the finished dish, and it is worrying that future generations might purely associate fish (or meat for that matter) with a bland coloured lump in a vacuumed plastic packet. 
When visiting a decent fishmonger, not only do you get to see the origins of what you are about to eat, but just the spectacle of the different colours, shapes and sizes is inspiring in coming up with what to cook. Many times I have been to a fishmongers with something in mind, only to be completely thrown by seeing something else that looked good. This just does not happen in the monotonous aisles of supermarkets, and even in the bigger ones with fish counters, the fish often look in a sad and old state.

Buying fresh fish can be quite expensive, and I always look at it as a bit of a treat. Fish like monkfish, turbot and brill are for very special occasions only. But in any good fishmongers there should be a wide selection of different fish on offer, to suit all budgets. Mackerel and mussels for example are massively underlooked and cheap, and are really easy to turn into fantastic dishes. 

Fish selection is important, and there are a few signs that you should look out for to make sure what you buy is fresh. Firstly and most obviously, fresh fish doesn’t have that overwhelming fishy smell. Other good signs of freshness are full, non-sunken eyes and red gills.
Bream with crispy polenta, oregano pesto, chorizo and broad beans

The joy of cooking with fish is that you don’t need to do a lot to it to make it taste great. Although in this recipe the polenta takes time to prepare, the rest is pretty easy and quick to assemble. I always make too much of the pesto and of the polenta, as both make great leftover meal components. 
I have chosen to use bream in this recipe because it is delicious, and the crisp skin and soft white flesh go really well with the other tastes and textures in the dish. Very similar to sea bass, it is readily available, sustainable and fairly cheap. I prefer to buy my fish whole and fillet them myself, but you can get the fishmonger to do this if you like.

The key to getting the skin on the fish lovely and golden and crispy is to make sure that you use a non-stick pan, and that it is hot when the fish go in. Always put the fish skin side down and carefully use your fingers to push down a little on the fillets for the first 5-10 seconds to help prevent the fillets from curling. 
Serves 2 as a lovely summer meal

2 bream fillets, scaled and pin-boned
1 knob of butter
For the polenta:
1/2 a red chilli, finely chopped
1 large clove of garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped
75g uncooked polenta (the quick cook variety)
400ml water
For the pesto:
1/2 bunch fresh oregano, finely chopped
1 lemon (juice only)
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
4tbsp pine nuts, toasted
2tbsp pecorino cheese, finely grated
Extra virgin olive oil
For the broad beans:
300g broad beans, podded and shelled
1/3 ring cured chorizo, sliced into 1/2cm squares
First of all, prepare your polenta. Gently sweat down the garlic, chilli and thyme in frying pan on a low heat for a couple of minutes until cooked, but watch out that they don’t colour.
Meanwhile, bring the 400ml of water to boil in a medium sized saucepan.
When the chilli, garlic and thyme has cooked and the water has boiled, add the polenta to the water in one slow pour, using a spatula to stir at the same time. The mixture will start to thicken immediately, and once the lumps have been stirred out, return to the heat and cook for 4-5 minutes. 
Once the potenta has cooked, stir in the cooked chilli, garlic and thyme and season well. Pour the mixture into a lightly greased, rectangular shaped container (I use a tupperware box) and leave to cool. During this time it will solidify, and once cold, cut the polenta into two rectangular shapes that will support the fish. 
While the polenta is cooling, make the pesto. Mix the chopped oregano, garlic, pecorino and lemon juice into a small bowl. Crush up half of the pine nuts roughly and add, along with the whole ones. Pour in enough olive oil to make the mixture quite loose, and season well. Tasting at this point is important, you may want to add more of any of the ingredients to make it just right.
Pre-heat the oven to 180ºC, and take your fish fillets out of the fridge at least 15 minutes before you plan on cooking them
Heat a medium non-stick frying pan to a medium-high heat, and add a good glug of vegetable oil. When hot, add your polenta rectangles and cook on each side until they go crispy round the edges. Transfer to a baking tray and put in the oven to keep warm.
At the same time as the polenta rectangles are frying, heat a frying pan or saucepan on a medium heat with a small amount of vegetable oil, and add the chorizo. When it starts to crisp a little, add the broad beans and turn the heat to low. Season well.
Once the polenta is in the oven and chorizo and beans are slowly ticking over, it is time to cook the bream fillets. Put a large non-stick frying pan on a medium-high heat, and add a good glug of vegetable oil.  When hot, season the fillets well and place them skin-side down in the pan, holding them down carefully for about 10 seconds. Cook the fish for 4-5 minutes on the skin side, checking the colour of the skin occasionally and adjusting the heat. While this is happening, use a metal teaspoon to baste each fillet continuously with the hot oil in the pan, running the hot back of the spoon along the fillets as you do. This will cook both sides of the fish at once, and will give the flesh a lovely pure white colour and really soft texture, while the skin protects the flesh from the direct heat of the pan. After 4-5 minutes the skin will be crisp and the flesh will be cooked, so remove the pan from the heat and add the knob of butter.
To plate up, place the polenta in the middle of the plate, and scatter the chorizo and broad beans around it. Carefully place the fish skin side up on top of the polenta, and drizzle a tablespoon of the pesto on top of each. You are now ready to go!

The best thing about this dish is how flexible it is. If you can’t get bream, any white fish will work, although try and choose one which has the skin still attached. Similarly, the oregano can be swapped for traditional basil, and the chorizo for bacon. 
Restaurant Review - The Island Queen, Islington
This review is short, and is mostly here to express my delight at stumbling into a pub at 2.30pm on Saturday and finding that a brunch menu was in service. As I work on Saturdays until the early afternoon, I often miss out on weekend breakfast trips, so I was very pleased to find that I could still have my breakfast experience well into the afternoon and accompanied by a much needed pint. 

I was also sitting in a very lovely pub. The Island Queen is tucked away in the maze of well-to-do streets between the bustle of Upper Street and the canal, and you wouldn’t know it was there unless you were looking. Well furnished and welcoming, it is the ideal place if you are looking to spend an hour of two somewhere relaxing reading the papers.
The atmosphere is the thing that makes this pub work, the place has a busy bustle to it whilst being serene at the same time. The staff were charming, and happily topped up my pint when I asked. The prices for drinks on the other hand are hideous, and I will always shudder before parting with the best part of a fiver for a pint. Especially one not quite filled up properly.
The menu looks like good pub fare on paper; eggs benedict, traditional and vegetarian breakfasts along with wild mushrooms here and potted something there. In execution however it was a slight disappointment. I was still overjoyed at my breakfast, but I think that I would have been just as overjoyed at receiving the same in an average greasy spoon. My sausage and black pudding had long been forgotten, to the point that ‘well caramelised’ had flown well and truly out of the window. The egg was basically deep fried and hard yoked, and the beans were just beans. With the build up from the menu, I had hoped for something that didn’t resemble Heinz. The saving grace was the addition of bubble and squeak. I really don’t know why it doesn’t appear on other menus more often, when most of the time when cooked at home it’s the best bit.
This all sounds a bit doom and gloom, and perhaps unfairly as I ate it all, and everything tasted like a breakfast should. It was just that it didn’t seem to have been made with very much care. It is a nice pub, and the other food that people were eating also looked lovely (I had moments of food envy), so I would tell others to give it a try. The menu certainly looked nice, and on its day I’m sure (and hope) it’s just as much a treat as the surroundings you sit in. 

Monday, 7 May 2012

Flour and water, pizza and bread

Flour and water
Bread making, and a lot of baking in general makes great use of simple ingredients, and often ones that you have stored up in the cupboard. It does take a little longer than going to the shop and buying a loaf, but the results are often far better, and you can personalise each recipe to exactly how you want it. There is also nothing like the smell of freshly baked bread wafting around the house, and that first buttered slice while still hot is immense. 
I’ve always loved the idea of getting into baking bread regularly, but never managed to get around to it for one reason or another. Recently, quite by accident, I made my first loaf since I was at primary school by using the tail end of some pizza dough.
Following the recipe for Jamie OIiver’s pizza dough one night, I ended up with loads of the dough left over. More out of interest that intent, I kneaded some olives into it and threw it into the oven. After roughly guessing the oven temperatures and heat, I eventually pulled out the cooked dough and hey presto - bread! It basically looked like a cooked slug, with little shape, but once cut open and smeared with butter it was lovely. 
Since then I have got a bit of a baking bug, and every time I make pizza, I always make enough extra dough for a couple of loaves on the side.  
The price of a takeaway pizza at the moment is quite frankly shocking, with a large one being around £16.00. I often have a craving for a big, dirty pizza, but with a bit of planning ahead, making it yourself is really easy and much cheaper. You always seem to have to wait about 45 minutes for a delivery, but once the dough is made and proved, you can roll and cook a pizza at home in a fraction of that time. I like to make the dough and sauce the night before, so it’s all ready to go when I want it. 

Once you know how to make the dough, you can be as creative as you like with the sauce and toppings. I find that keeping to a couple of ingredients is better than pilling on a bit of everything, and also that a tower of toppings will not cook evenly, so moderation is best. 
For the dough:
Makes 2-3 large pizzas
500g strong bread flour or ‘00’ pasta flour
50g uncooked polenta
325ml warm water
1 sachet quick action yeast
glug of extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp caster sugar
large pinch of salt
For the tomato sauce:
2 tins chopped tomatoes
1 shallot
2 garlic cloves
1 red chilli
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tbsp tomato puree 
2 tbsp sugar (or to taste)
salt and pepper
A selection of cheese and toppings of your choice. For this post I went for buffalo mozzarella, parma ham, mushrooms, red onion, chilli and rosemary.

To make the dough, mix the flour, polenta and salt in a large mixing bowl.
In a jug, measure out the warm water, and stir in the yeast, sugar and oil. 
Add the wet mixture to the dry mixture, then knead everything together with you hands. Knead it really well for 5-10 minutes, adding more flour or water if necessary, until you have an elastic ball of dough that springs back when you poke it with a finger.
Give your mixing bowl a quick clean and place the dough back in it. Add a very small amount of olive oil and coat the outside of the dough - this will help it not stick to the sides as it rises. Cover with cling film or a tea towel and leave near to the oven, or in a warm place, until it has doubled in size (about 1 1/2 - 2 hours). 
While the dough is rising, make the tomato sauce. Soften the shallot, garlic and chilli in a large frying pan, then add the chopped tomatoes, tomato puree, oregano and sugar. Season and bring to the boil before letting reduce on a medium heat, stirring often, until it has thickened up. Allow to cool.
Once the dough has risen for the first time, break it into balls for the amount of pizzas that you are making - 200-250g will make a large pizza. Knead the balls a little and then place each one in a separate smaller bowl which will allow them to rise again by double. Add another small coating of oil, cover and leave these for another hour. This may all seem like a bit of a faff, but it makes the rolling of the dough so much easier when you come to it. 
After the portioned dough has risen again, roll each dough ball out to the size that you like it. I prefer a thinner pizza that will crispen in the oven and that has more room for toppings.   Wrap the rolled dough around the rolling pin and transfer to a sheet of greaseproof paper.
Pre-heat your oven to 230ºC.
The pizzas are all ready to be topped now, so spread a thin layer of your sauce on first before adding your cheese and other toppings. 

To cook, place your pizzas and greaseproof paper directly onto the shelf of the really hot oven. Cooking times vary on the thickness of the pizza and amount of toppings, but should be done in 6-10 minutes. Just keep checking every couple of minutes until everything is to your liking - I prefer my cheese starting to brown and the edges nice and crisp.

They are ready to serve as soon as they come out, but at this point you can also add things like rocket, sprinkled hard cheese such as parmesan or pecorino, and a drizzle of olive oil. 
As well as being great for a night in, they are also useful when cooking for lots of people, or getting bored kids involved. 
The above dough recipe can also be used to make fresh white bread. It is really simple, and a good starting point if you are interested in making bread. The finished loaf is delicious and soft, and impossible not to eat whilst still warm. It tastes like a basic white bread, but you can make it more interesting by adding various ingredients before you bake it. For this recipe I have made an onion, garlic and thyme bread.

Makes 1 very large loaf.
1 pizza dough batch from the recipe above
3 medium onions, sliced
5 garlic cloves, skins on
2 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
2 tbsp olive oil
Pre-heat the oven to 180ºC
Firstly, make your dough as instructed above and allow it to rise for the first time.
Meanwhile, roast your sliced onion, garlic cloves and thyme in the olive oil in the oven for about 30 minutes or until the onion is soft, do do not allow it to get crispy. When cooked, drain on kitchen paper and allow to cool before peeling the skins from the garlic and roughly chopping. 
Turn the oven up to 220ºC
When the dough has risen, instead of separating into balls for pizza, leave as a whole. At this point, knead the chopped roasted vegetables into the dough, adding a little more flour if it appears too greasy. Now stretch the dough into a flat, rectangular shape, and then fold in the corners tightly to make a round ball. Turn the dough over - this fold is the base that the loaf will sit on. 
You can now use your hands to shape the loaf to how you want it. Remember that it is going to rise again, so try and keep the dough in as tight a shape as possible. Place on a floured baking tray, cover loosely with cling film and allow to rise by 50 percent.
When risen again it is ready to bake. Place in the middle of the hot oven, and throw a small glass of water in the bottom of the oven to create steam. Bake for 20 minutes, before reducing the heat of the oven to 190ºC for 25-30 minutes. 
Once baked, leave to cool slightly before digging in with lashings of butter. 
This bread keeps really well for a few days providing that it is kept wrapped up. 
I’ve made this bread a few times, and although it’s great for ease, I now want to experiment with more complicated bread recipes. I recently bought Dan Lepard’s excellent new book Short and Sweet, which contains a wide range of bread recipes, along with loads of other baked goods. His style of writing and the layout of the book is really easy to understand, and I cannot wait to get started with some more advanced bread making. 
If making your own bread seems like a bit too much work, or you don’t have time, then I would thoroughly recommend bread bought from these two bakeries:
The Flour Station - Supplying restaurants and delis, as well as having their own market stalls, they produce really lovely artisan bread and pastries. Their Tortano Crown potato bread is amazing.
The Spence Bakery - This tiny little Stoke Newington bakery sells out of bread nearly every day. I always try and get one of their multiseed loaves when I’m nearby, but every loaf (and sausage roll) we’ve tried from them has been delicious.