It’s been school holidays here for the last couple of weeks. Hooray. The fortnight began with swimming competitions (a couple of them back to back), a ballet exam (not involving 2 x teenage sons) and then … all of a sudden … we were free agents. No plans. No commitments. No schedule. The diary was bare. Oh my goodness – what were we going to do with ourselves?
We debated going away for a few days but there just wasn’t anywhere with the right weather, at the right price that didn’t involve loads of travelling – we only had 4 days after all. And then the answer became clear … let’s have a ‘staycation’ – a holiday at home. Let’s be tourists in our own city; let’s do all those lovely Dubai things that we only ever do when we have guests to stay; let’s make the most of the sunshine (because after all in a week or so it will be stinking hot and then we’ll just be sweaty and moaning); let’s get all the benefits of a holiday without the packing.
So where to start?
Tuesday evening – My lovely husband had officially finished work for the holidays. Hooray – let’s celebrate by going en famille to an Outdoor Cinema. Big screen, white twinkly fairylights (that’s sold it to me), beanbags, hotdogs, burgers, popcorn, a bottle of something pink and chilled and ‘There’s Something About Mary’. I’d forgotten quite how funny it was – some may say a little risqué with an 8 year old in tow – but was banking on the rude bits going over her head. A gorgeous way to start our staycation and thankfully no hair gel discussions in the taxi on the way home …
Wednesday – There are lots and lots of fancy hotels in Dubai and even if you aren’t staying at one of them you can often be a Day Visitor for a small-ish fee. The key is to get there early and stay late to get the most for your money. Sunshine, pool (do you know they chill the pools here? … honestly … it’s like swimming in soup otherwise), a couple of iced coffees, lunch at a nearby Mexican restaurant (which #1 teenage son declared to be the BEST FOOD EVER. Note to self – he does gush … sometimes), a bit of a post-lunch walk on the beach and then more ‘doing not very much at all’ in the afternoon. I love it when we are those people who are still by the pool when it’s completely dark and everyone else has gone off for dinner. We were those people. Result.
Thursday – There are also a lot of water parks in Dubai, so it would be rude not to frequent one on our staycation … and Aquaventure it was. The children brought a bunch of friends along so we were a big crowd of water revellers. Apparently the slides and the lazy river and the rest of the adrenalin filled fabulousness were all fabulous. Me – I had a new magazine (nothing better) and a great book and I played the part of ‘base’ for the day … looking after valuables, getting a bit of sun and watching the world go by. Everybody was happy.
Friday – A lazy day with a bit of shopping. My lovely husband had to buy some walking boots for a course that he’s going on next week. We thought the need to ‘break them in’ was something you only did in the olden days but apparently it’s still a thing … and takes a week. Could be tricky. And later, dinner round at our neighbour’s. Mr Neighbour is ‘King of the BBQ’ and his wife is Queen of all the accompanying side dishes, so it was a treat. Not far to stagger home either.
Saturday – Oh no … the last day of our staycation. Quick! Get the last bits of homework done and the packed lunches made so that we can pretend that holidays last forever. A quick drive down to the Creek (the ‘old’ part of Dubai) and a walk through the textile market to reach a cute little café on the water’s edge. My lovely husband took the opportunity to start the ‘breaking in’ of his new walking boots. With the rest of us in flip flops, he looked like he’d just parachuted in from the Himalayas. Draughts and a few card games followed (although Mr Google was called in to help remind us of the rules for both) alongside a yummy breakfast. We saw more tourists in that one cafe than I think we’ve ever seen in our whole time in Dubai – the café must be featured in a guide somewhere. There was one thing for certain, those new walking boots were no longer alone. Should have brought the big camera and a handy foldaway map to completely fit in.
And then before we knew it, it was Sunday … back to school, back to work, a return to blogging, early morning swimming, Mum ‘the taxi’, piano lessons, ballet rehearsals, making packed lunches and feeding children with hollow legs. And to ease myself back into dinner on a school night, an Easy Macaroni Cheese.
There’s Macaroni Cheese and there’s Macaroni Cheese of course. I don’t go a bomb on the ‘little pasta tubes swimming in a sea of insipid, runny cheese sauce’ interpretation of this dish, although my lovely husband does have a soft spot for it (reminds him of his Gran – with sliced tomatoes on the top …. the Macaroni Cheese, not his Gran). This version requires no making of a white sauce (phew) and delivers extra yumminess with a few lardons and mushrooms too. There’s even a dash of wine to add to the flavour. It’s a perfect dish to start the week with a little trumpet voluntary.
And why am I sure that you will be following suit?
- This is seriously delicious. So much more than your bog standard macaroni in a cheese sauce.
- Choose whichever pasta shapes you like the best. There’s no need to be precious about it saying ‘macaroni’ on the packet.
- Two types of cheese? Yes please.
- It’s a great one to get ready beforehand so you are ready to pop it in the oven when it’s dinner time. I tend to get all the parts ready (ie the cooked pasta, the onion/bacon/mushroom mix and the cheesy ‘sauce’ mix (although don’t forget that there is no requirement to make a traditional white sauce here) and combine it at the last minute. This way the pasta doesn’t soak up all the yummy juices while it’s waiting to be baked. It’s not at all a disaster if you get it completely ready beforehand – let’s call it 80%.
- This really is a winner for the whole family.
- Leftovers are great for lunch the next day … if you’re lucky enough to be able to salvage any leftovers. I long for such treats.
So the staycation got a resounding thumbs up from all the family – we’ll definitely do that again. And the Easy Macaroni Cheese? That was an all round winner too …
- 400g (14oz) uncooked dried pasta
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 300g (11oz) mushrooms, cut into chunky pieces
- a few thyme sprigs, leaves stripped
- salt and pepper
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 200g (7oz)lardons
- 75ml (3floz) white wine
- 200ml (7floz) creme fraiche
- 4 egg yolks
- a small handful of parsley, finely chopped
- 150g (5oz) Parmesan cheese, grated
- 150g (5oz) cheddar cheese, grated
- 75g (3oz) fresh breadcrumbs
- a 20cm x 30cm (8" x 12") ovenproof baking dish
- Preheat the oven to 180°C, 350°F (gas mark 4).
- Cook the pasta in a large pan of salted water according to the packet instructions. Add a splash of olive oil to the water to prevent the pasta from sticking together or to the bottom of the pan. Drain and rinse under a cold running tap.
- Heat the oil in a large frying pan and tip in the mushrooms and thyme. Season well. Cook for about 5 minutes until soft and lightly golden. Remove from the pan and set aside.
- Add the lardons and the onion to the pan and cook over a medium heat for 6-7 minutes or until the onions are soft and the lardons are browned.
- Return the mushrooms to the pan and add the wine. Increase the heat and let it bubble until reduced by half. Remove the pan from the heat.
- Whisk the creme fraiche, egg yolks, parsley, half the Parmesan and all of the cheddar in a large bowl. Season lightly and toss this mixture through the cooked pasta along with the mushroom mixture.
- Tip the mixture into a 20cm x 30cm (8" x 12") ovenproof baking dish. Combine the remaining Parmesan with the breadcrumbs and sprinkle this mixture over the pasta.
- Bake in the oven for 20 minutes or until golden and crunchy on the top.