Monday, 13 April 2009

"Mummy, what's that strange lady taking pictures for?"

I'm slightly in awe of the bloggers who photograph their meals in restaurants without so much as a pang of self-consciousness - sometimes I can't even take pictures in my flat without feeling like a prime idiot. Yesterday's Easter-lunch-for-six was a case in point: I'd sort of forgotten that not everyone takes photos of their food before eating it, and that the explanation of "it's for a blog" doesn't necessarily enlighten much. To minimise my embarrassment I took a hurried two photos of each dish rather than my usual eleventy-nine, hence the even lower in-focus rate than usual.

41. Zucchini Crostini (Fast Food)

Mike had been drooling over the picture of these for a while (which might seem mystifying if you've only got my photo to go on, but trust me, the shot in the book is mouth-watering), and when I asked him to pick a starter this is what he plumped for. Isn't "to plump for" a funny phrase? But anyway - the recipe's basically an assembly job: sourdough crostini brushed with olive oil and topped with prosciutto, furls of blanched courgette tossed in lemon zest and seasoning, and a poached egg perched on top. All of which sounds straightforward enough, but the 'Fast Food' label is nonetheless a bit of a misnomer - preparing the courgettes actually takes a fair amount of time. More troublesomely, I couldn't find sourdough bread anywhere. Admittedly by 'anywhere' I just mean Sainsbury's and Waitrose, but still! I ended up getting a ciabatta instead, mainly because I thought ciabatta was a type of sourdough bread, but Wikipedia appears to disagree with me on that one.

These are much tastier than that photo might lead you to believe - Mike and I both thought they were the best part of the whole meal. And Jill's method for poaching eggs is fantastic. If you're thinking "you need a method to poach eggs?" you have clearly never been subjected to my previous attempts - recently I've been using these, which my mum gave me, but although they're fairly idiot-proof (well, if Mike's on hand to upend them for you) there's something almost too plasticy-perfect about the resulting eggs. The Lighten Up approach doesn't involve special equipment, swirling water or 'champagne bubbles' (that's what one of my ex-flatmates used to swear by...): all you do is bring 5cm of water to a simmer in a deep-ish frying pan, add a splash of vinegar, slide in the eggs and leave them for about three minutes. I can only assume that the shallowness of the water is the crucial element - it can't be the vinegar, anyway, as that was always involved in my unlovely specimins of yore - but whatever it is the eggs end up perfectly imperfect.

Mike says: "COURGETTE! These looked exactly like the picture (down to my parma ham arranging skills), good and quick and went down well, way too much courgette though, had to eat it seperately. It is weird eating a lot of courgette on its own."

42. Lamb Tagliata with Oven-Roast Tomatoes (Fast Food)

This recipe pretty much chose itself, lamb and Easter being so inextricably linked (in Britain, at least - come to think of it what do Antipodeans eat at Easter, given that lamb presumably isn't in season? A quick google turned up "for people in Australia no Easter is complete without a bilby or rabbit-eared bandicoot", but I like to think that's not referring to food...). Happily it's a doddle to make: you just press rump steak into a mixture of salt, pepper and finely chopped rosemary, then brown in a pan and finish off in the oven for ten minutes alongside cherry tomatoes on the vine - the meat should still be quite pink inside. Once the lamb's been rested and sliced you squish over the juice of a couple of the tomatoes, then strew with some rocket (quite a lot actually; my lamb looked more drowned than strewn) and the remaining tomatoes and drizzle over some olive oil.

There is lamb in there somewhere if you look hard enough.

I thought this was really nice, and would make a good Summer lunch - the lamb had a thick layer of fat on it though, which in retrospect I should probably have removed after cooking, or at least pared down a bit before. (Jill doesn't say anything about removing fat, you see, and, slavish recipe-follower that I am, it didn't occur to me to jetison it.) Still, the flavours were fresh and the meat was tender, and it all got finished which either means that it was popular or that portions were stingy, take your pick. Incidentally, the recipe's available here.

Mike says: "This one looked very pretty and the lamp was very tasty but very fatty. But it was the lamb's bottom so I guess it is good it was fatty, I wouldn't want my lambs without a padded rear. It also cooled really quick so maybe eat it somewhere hot, like a desert or possibly in a fire."

43. Pineapple and Coconut Soufflés (Special Food)

I'd never made soufflé before (I generally consider life too short to self-induce raised blood pressure), but remembered Sarah making these a while back and finding them inedibly sweet, so I used less than half the sugar called for by the recipe. You start off by popping some desiccated coconut in the oven to toast, completely forgetting about it and burning it an unappetising shade of greige. Once this entirely necessary step is out of the way you toast a fresh batch of coconut, beat some egg yolks, sugar and crushed pineappple together and stir in most of the coconut. Next you whisk egg whites to firm peaks with some more sugar and fold this into the pineapple mixture before spooning the whole thing into heavily buttered 250 ml soufflé dishes. Now, I've been accused of stockpiling more kitchen equipment than your average branch of Lakeland, but even my cupboards don't stretch to individual soufflé dishes, so I just used mugs with the same capacity. You're supposed to fill them to the brim, but there wasn't enough mixture for that - I'd guesstimate mine were only about two thirds full. You're also meant to smooth the tops, but as you can tell from the picture I didn't make quiiite as good a job of that as I could have done:

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder then I can only hope that all beholders are as short-sighted as me - the finishing touches of icing sugar and more toasted coconut didn't do much to obscure the lack of artistry. On the bright side they rose better than I'd dared hoped - they'd all sunk slightly by the time the picture was taken, but still towered above their pre-oven heights.

I was fairly indifferent to these - they were incredibly light, but almost too 'fluffy', and I couldn't really taste the pineapple (then again I did have a horrible cold, so that might not be saying much). They seemed more popular with other people though, and I'd definitely use the method again to make differently flavoured soufflés, though possibly in a parallel life where I'm the kind of person who actually owns soufflé dishes.

Mike says: "I am always against H halving sugar in recipes because she finds them too sweet. Especially when she complains at me for not following recipes and putting in 400g of turmeric thinking it is curry paste. These mug-contained fluffy things were create [?] though, and I really like bountys so win-win all round really."

Sunday, 12 April 2009

40. Spicy Tofu (Tofu x 4)

Tofu again! I know this looks suspiciously like the mapu dofu I made last month, but it's an entirely different dish, honest. This one's made with fresh firm tofu, which is less susceptible to disintegrating the moment you come anywhere near it with a spatula. The sauce is a mixture of oyster sauce, soy, rice wine, sesame oil, chicken stock, garlic, red chilli, spring onion and ginger, bubbled together for a few minutes before the blocks of tofu are added and briefly simmered. Easy peasy! And you really appreciate the firmness of the tofu when the time comes to remove it from the pan and cut it into cubes.

There's not a lot to say, really - no surprises, but very tasty nonetheless. And that dizzyingly in-depth analysis may be the most comprehensive for a while, as I've now got a cold which leaves me incapable of smelling anything much. Happy Easter, though!

Mike says: "Tofu tofu tofu, and spicy, of course if you like tofu this is going to be good; if you don't like tofu eat it anyway and stop complaining."

Friday, 10 April 2009

In the miso soup

Miso soup is one of those things I wish I liked more - some versions hit the spot but others leave me a bit cold. I probably shouldn't be confessing this, but the nicest I've ever had was actually from one of those instant powdered sachets; sadly I have no idea what the brand was so that particular culinary transgression can't be repeated. Anyway, come yesterday the Lighten Up take on miso soup had already been on the cards for a couple of days and the spinach was starting to look rather sorry for itself, so I cruelly insisted on inflicting it on Mike for dinner even though we were both a bit salted-out following a cinema popcorn-fest.

39. Simple Tofu Soup (Tofu x 4)

The recipe's nothing revolutionary - you stir some red miso into a base of dashi, mirin and soy, then add cubed silken tofu and ready-cooked udon noodles and warm through. Finally you throw in a handful of baby spinach leaves, and sprinkle over a smattering of sesame seeds. I played fast and loose with the quantities of added ingredients (by which I mean I increased the amount of noodles and tofu by at least threefold, but then again we were eating this as a meal in its entirety rather than as an accompaniment to sushi, which is what Jill intends it to be). The whole thing takes about five minutes, which is always a plus.

Oishii! As miso soups go, this one was pretty darn good. I'm more or less guaranteed to like anything containing udon noodles - I love their fat unctuousness - but it wasn't just that; the base itself had a much more delicate flavour than those I've made in the past, which I guess is mostly the work of the miso (I used the Hikari brand, which is a reassuringly natural-looking beige colour - the stuff I used last time round was lurid red, so I don't know what I was expecting, really...).

Mike says: "Ah tofu again, my little cubed jellyish veggie friend. I am now quite a fan because of this book, this was a good miso soup, and udon noodles make eating like a game, so thumbs up for this one."

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Curry in a hurry

Yesterday's lunch was meant to be a miso soup, but, in a development which surprised no-one, I didn't get round to picking up any miso in time, so hurridly cast around for an alternative and came up with:

38. Spicy Okra Curry (Spicy Food)

I'd probably cooked okra a grand total of once before yesterday - when I asked Mike to get some in Sainsbury's he came back proudly bearing pak choi, which says it all, really. It's not that I have anything against it, it's just not a vegetable I'd ever really think of cooking in the normal course of things. Still, cutting loose from the 'normal course of things' is largely what the project's about, and as curries go this one was pretty quick to put together: the okra's just simmered for twenty minutes in a tomato-based sauce spiced with fennel seed, ground coriander, cumin chilli and turmeric. Although I halved the amount of okra I left the sauce ingredients in their original quantities for the usual 'arrgg-no-half-onions-please' reasons, and the finished dish wasn't saucy at all - if anything it was quite a dry curry - so I wouldn't have any qualms about doing the same again.

Mike's off the hook for this photo, so I'm going to attempt to blame the steam instead! Though it wasn't really the most photogenic of meals to start with. And not the tastiest either, to be honest - I didn't much care for the aniseed-y flavour which the fennel imparted, and though the dish overall was fine it didn't have anything special going for it.

Incidentally, just in case the recent dearth of Mike's contributions has caused anyone to fear for his well-being, rest assured that I only keep him in the cupboard under the sink between meals, and he's managed to chink away at the door a bit to let some natural daylight in.

Mike, following his spectacular cupboard break-out, says: "Okra is weird, I am not sure if I have had it before this, but it is weird, kind of like eating furry slugs, but in a good way. The fennel is what you could taste mainly in this one. So if you like the taste of fennel then you will probably like this."

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

If a picture speaks a thousand words...

...then this post is already 5,000 figurative words long before I've so much as opened my mouth, which is handy as I'm a bit short on time. Away we go!

34. Spice-Grilled Mackerel (Spicy Food)

I'd actually made this last November but that was before the start of the project, and as mackerel were half price at Sainsbury's (£1.54 for four! Though admittedly on closer inspection at home one of them turned out to be the size of an emaciated sardine) and I had people coming round for dinner (nothing says hospitality like thrift...) the time seemed ripe for a re-make. The recipe couldn't be much easier: you slash the flesh of each fish, rub a mixture of Thai red curry paste, coconut milk and sugar into the skin and grill for ten minutes. I was going to make some coconut mashed potato to go alongside, but luckily remembered in the nick of time that I don't actually like mashed potato, and revisited the Togarashi oven chips instead. The mackerel recipe also includes directions for a very simple salad, which you can see in the background below.

The only explanation I can offer for the poorness of this photo is that Mike, who took it, hadn't slept in over 36 hours. Usually I'm such a control freak that, after plating up, I wrest the camera from him and take a couple of pictures too (not that there as yet appears to be a correlation between this control-freakishness and actual photographic ability, but I live in hope), but I didn't get round to it that night. And thanks to that tangent I almost forgot to say - the mackerel's scumptious! Delicious payoff for minimal effort.

Mike says: "Although puny in size, fish is always fun to eat when it's served with head and all. I can't remember too much about this one as I had been up for a couple of days trying to hit some deadline or other, but I'm sure it was good and had nothing to do with my three day migraine to follow the day after."

35. Little Fruity Puddings (Steamy Food)

These are little steamed puddings crammed with sultanas and currants - think fruit cake mixed with Spotted Dick and you'll get the idea. Again, I'd made the recipe pre-project, but back then I: a) made one large pudding rather than six mini ones, and b) - somewhat more crucially - completely forgot to put the butter in. It actually tasted fine despite this glaring omission, so in an attempt to suck up to my arteries I didn't use the full amount of butter this time round, making up some of the difference with a fruity olive oil. As another healthy bonus, there isn't any sugar in the recipe - instead the puddings are sweetened with honey, which I'm convinced is a gazillion times better for you than sugar, so please don't disillusion me.

The best sleep-deprived-Mike photo of the night! He raises his game a bit when it comes to pudding

I love a good steamed pudding, and these are indeed gooood. It looks a bit plain here - the suggested accompaniment is mostarda di frutta, but I didn't really need another half-empty condiment jar hogging valuable fridge space, so just used up the rest of some double cream we had instead. I tell you what would be perfect with them though - custard! And that's coming from someone who isn't really a custard person (I do quite like fresh custard, but I know Custard People and they would not recognise me as one of their number).

Mike says: "I was actually allowed to eat these even though I was still on my forty day Lent sweet things fast. The reason being that they were only sweetened with sugar, woot. Really tasty these little things, would be good with custard, and in multiples of six."

36. Lemon Yoghurt Cupcakes (Fruity Food)

I made these to take along to a band practice (what do you mean, rock & roll and cupcakes aren't a natural pairing?), not least because I had most of the ingredients to hand. It's a fairly straightforward cake mix, except that in addition to the usual culprits (plus lemon, in this case) it contains a hefty amount of yoghurt, and rather than being simply beaten in the eggs are seperated and the whites whisked to firm peaks. Except - for reasons that I'm itching to go into in a desperate attempt to justify myself, but in order to maintain a semi-sane appearance I will refrain - for the first time ever I overwhisked. (You know how instructions sometimes say things like "if the mixture resembles snow you have gone too far?" I never used to be able to picture what they meant, but guess what? Overwhisked whites really do look exactly like snow! Who'd've thunk?)

The other thing which floored me was the word 'cupcake'. I mean, I know what a cupcake is, obviously, but...well, OK, maybe I don't. I always assumed it was a miniature cake; the kind of
thing you'd bake in a mince pie tray (I realise 'mince pie tray' isn't the technical term, but why on earth are they called bun trays? Have you ever seen a bun that size or shape?). I thought Ms Dupleix and I were in agreement on this - hers look exactly like my idea of cupcakes in the book photo, and I've seen the same recipe in a newspaper supplement where she explained that they were relatively healthy because their diminutive size served as potion control, which you wouldn't really say of a something larger like, say, a muffin. But just two lines into the instructions you're told to "set ten paper muffin cases in a large muffin tray". A muffin tray? A large muffin tray? Is that a tray for making large muffins, or a large tray for making mini muffins? A glance at the sidebar shows that the recipe puports to make only ten cupcakes, so presumably we're not talking mini muffins. But then why doesn't Jill just call them muffins and be done with it? And why do the pictured cakes look nothing like muffins? At this point in my thought process I went "screw it", and spooned half the mix into six (large) muffin moulds and the other half into twelve paper cases lining a mince pie tray.

As it turned out, the difference in size between the 'muffins' and the 'cupcakes' was fairly negligible, but this might be chiefly because the poor things all sank! I imagine my overwhisked egg whites had something to do with it, but our spectacularly useless oven (complete with surprise-opening door) probably didn't help either. Fresh out of the oven the cakes tasted lovely (and incidentally the raw mix was pretty divine, too - sort of like lemon sherbert, but without the tooth-aching sweetness), but as they cooled and sank further they became overly dense - they were still OK, but not nearly as special.

Mike says: "It has been said that I have a sweet tooth, and perhaps over-indulge in sweet things. Rubbish I say, but to prove a point I gave up eating sweet things for lent, and then, to spite me, H goes and makes these, so I wasn't able to savour them, but I am pretty sure that they were absolutely disgusting, and everyone who enjoyed them when I couldn't should admit their foulness. "

37. Nutty Quinoa with Greens (Veggo Food)

I hadn't had quinoa since its first flush of fashionability back in 2004 or so, and I remember never being sure when it was actually cooked. Helpfully, though, Jill tells you that white tails appear on the grains when they're ready (which, in case you're a fellow perennial quinoa-overcooker, took mine just under ten minutes). Anyway, for this recipe , which is essentially a salad along vaguely similar lines to tabbouleh, you take cooled, cooked quinoa and mix it with baby spinach, halved cherry tomatoes, pistachios, sultanas, mint and parsley, then toss through a dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, cumin and fennel seeds. (I used lime juice and carraway seeds as I was out of lemons and fennel, and the culinary gods didn't smite me.)

This was nice, and more flavoursome than I expected, though I'd probably up the quantities of sultanas and pistachios a bit next time. I imagine it'd make an excellent lunchbox food, too.

Mike says: "This salad is definitely unique, and if you have had never had quinoa before then it might feel like eating frogspawn, but it was good, enough said."

And that's all for now, folks!

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Ladies (and gents) who lunch

(Think that's bad? You should have seen my original choice of title.)

Mike and I have recently started trying to cut back financially (only, ooh, five months behind the rest of the world? We're a bit slow on the uptake), and the latest casualty has been Mike's deli lunches: given that his office is a grand total of 64 metres away from the flat it seems a bit ridiculous not to have lunch at home. The only thing is that, left to my own devices, I don't really eat lunch. That sounds more abstemious than it actually is, given that I stuff myself with an enormous bowl of porridge every morning and then snack all day until dinner, but the basic point remains: homemade lunches are relatively unchartered territory chez nous. This next recipe looked like a good place to start though - nice and light and (I thought) quick (ha!). It's suggested as a starter or canapé, so I thought the four-person quantities would be a good-ish amount for lunch for two.

33. Som Tum Rice Paper Rolls (Spicy Food)

Note to self: anything involving julienning vegetables is always going to take a long, looong time: a good hour elapsed between the first shallot being sliced and the last finished roll being plated up. As well as julienned cucumber and underripe mango (you can use papaya instead, but I know from sticky experience that even the least ripe papaya dissolves into a fleshy mess as soon as you get anywhere near the seeds) the filling contains quartered cherry tomatoes, sliced shallots, a sliced chilli, mint leaves, lime juice, fish sauce and a spoonful of sugar. You squelch all of this together (hurrah for gratifyingly onomatopoeic instructions!), then divide between softened rice paper rounds and roll up. This is where I came unstuck a bit - in order to soften the rice paper you dip it in hot water, and I couldn't manage this seemingly unchallenging feat without the damned things springing enormous holes. Luckily Mike stepped in before my frustration compelled me to do regrettable things with various kitchen implements, and the rolls you see above are his handiwork. You're told to slice them in half, but they were pretty delicate so we only risked it with one. Actually, though, whole rolls proved a bit unwieldy, so cutting's probably the way to go. Oh, and we got eight rolls from the recipe rather than the six stipulated. As per suggestion we ate them with sweet chilli sauce scattered with roasted cashews - I did take a photo but won't subject you to it, out of respect for your artistic sensibilities.

Yum yum! (Though come to think of it that's probably an actual sentence in Vietnamese which means something entirely different.) These were very tasty indeed, and - I think I'm right in saying - the first recipe from the 'Spicy Food' chapter to really have a kick to it. Plus it made the perfect amount for a light-ish lunch for the two of us. Success!

Mike says: "I came back to a stressed-out H, swearing at these rice paper thingies trying to soak them and then wrap things in them. After watching her fumbling attempts and feeling the temperature of the room rise a few degrees with angered sweary heat I had a crack at it myself, and voilà, Mike, god of all things good, created perfectly mastered rolls, which look, if I do say so myself, exactly like the ones in the recipe book. When it came to eating them they were also very good and weirdly thirst quenching. Very refreshing, a perfect snack or accompaniment, but maybe not right for a full meal. Warning, high faff rating for preparation."

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

32. Fast Roast Fish with Anchovies (Fast Food)

My mum made this a couple of weeks ago and gave it the thumbs up, so I was looking forward to trying it. It's nice and easy to throw together - you toss some red onion, cherry tomatoes, mixed olives and lemon wedges in olive oil and balsamic vinegar, then roast for a quarter of an hour before topping with your choice of white fish and a couple of anchovies and cooking for another ten minutes. Finding myself tomato-less (do you see a theme emerging of late?) I stuck the onions and lemon in the oven by themselves, dashed out to buy cherry tomatoes, then frantically grilled them to soften them a bit and added them to the tray when the fish went in. (Extremely minor) disaster averted! The oven did make disturbing banging sounds at regular intervals, but all things considered that's an improvement on its usual habit of springing open at random moments. Once time's up you finish the dish off with a grind of black pepper, a scattering of parsely and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. And, if you're hungry like us, you serve it up alongside a mound of golden cubes of baked polenta.

Tasty indeed! I used cheap anchovies, which were a little bit tough, but other than that everything worked really well together to create a flavoursome dish. And the polenta was, in my intermittently humble opinion, a perfect foil for the fish and vegetables.

Mike says: "Doesn't this one look like a good plate of grub? I remember my favorite part being the polenta which wasn't actually in the recipe, but it did complement the fish really well. The anchovies were the secret to this one, I can't remember what the white fish actually was but then white fish has a tendency to taste of not all that much, so the anchovies added back some taste tingle."

Monday, 30 March 2009

My dissertation's done! The weather's getting tantalisingly spring-like! And if I keep ending sentences with exclamation marks it will camouflage the fact that Mike and I were unable to go on our holiday yesterday because I lost my passport! Ahem.

30. Sweet Chilli Tofu (Tofu x 4) was the last B.D. (Before Deadline) meal I made - I picked it because it looked like it would take all of about ten minutes to make, and I wasn't far off. Really the recipe's just for a sauce, which you make by heating together fish sauce, soy sauce, sweet chilli sauce, tomato purée, a chopped tomato, garlic, star anise, sugar and water. I didn't have a tomato to hand so I just upped the purée a bit, handily making this a storecupboard meal. Anyway, once that's taken care of you just fry tofu 'steaks' until golden on both sides, and pour over the sauce to serve. I'd cooked some rice, too, because my appetite's not quite as minimalst as Jill's sometimes seems to be.

Full points for speed and ease, and pretty damned good marks for taste, too. I might use a liittle bit less tomato purée less time, but then again I did boost the quantities of that to make up for my lack of fresh tomato; keeping to the specified amount would probably have been better. Oh, and I made a full batch of the sauce even though I only used about 2/3 of the tofu specified - as you can see the amount of sauce still wasn't over generous, so I'd stick with full quantities in the future.

Mike says: "As some of you more regular readers may remember, I actually used to be a bit of tofu. So I have a certain fondness for it. This is definitely a superb way to get a bit of a tofu fix, even if you are a die hard 'I don't eat anything but meat' bastard."

31. Tuscan Bean Soup (Soupy Food) was the first A.D.L. meal (Anno Dissertation Liberatus - In the Year of Dissertation Freedom. Admittedly this is a form of Latin which exists only in my head). You chop, slice or shred a lot (and I really do mean a lot - even using the food processor, chopping stupor began to set in) of vegetables, add some stock, bay leaves and tomato purée, and finally stir through some white beans, some of which you've mashed to a paste. I had a hazy idea that 'white beans' were a specific variety, but - the selection at Sainsbury's having disagreed with me - I decided it must just mean any old beans that were white, and went for cannellini.

Meh. (With such articulateness at my fingertips how can my dissertation possibly fail to impress?) I was hoping for something along the lines of the flavoursome Winter Greens with Chicken and Beans as many of the ingredients were similar, but this was quite nothing-y. At the time I couldn't think what would elevate it, but now I'm leaning towards slithers of bacon or cured meat to add intensity of flavour and a salty savouriness. Also, I misjudged quantities - having become a bit wary of portion sizes in Lighten Up, and thinking "hey, it's only soup after all, how filling can it be?", I stuck with the original four-person amounts, and even after Mike and I had had two generous servings each there was still plenty left.

Still, hopefully tastier things are just around the corner! I think my subconscious must have been feeling culinarily deprived over the last couple of weeks - the other night I dreamt that I was at Nigella Lawson's for tea, and she was serving us Fox's packet biscuits and a cake from the Co-op. My subconscious is apparently much more tolerant than my waking self, because instead of thinking "what a swiz!" I decided she was being amusingly ironic.

Mike says: "This one could have done with some more colour in it, perhaps cherries? Na, that would be disgusting. Thought it was a bit bland actually, but it had Tuscan beans in which sound cool."

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Tales from a neglected kitchen

I’m still alive! I even cook things occasionally, not that you can tell from this blog at the moment.

25. Raw Slaw (Raw Food)

I made this for a pot luck meal in aid of Comic Relief (well, I say “in aid of” but we didn’t actually raise any money for them. My conscience is blushing now). My cunning line of thought was that making a beetroot-heavy recipe as part of a spread for a group of people would dilute its impact, rather than Mike and I having to plough through the whole thing ourselves. Soooo, the recipe’s a mix of beetroot and red cabbage, which you toss with a spicy dressing which includes, among other things, copious amounts of mustard. On a side note, raw beetroot is possibly the ugliest vegetable I’ve ever seen.

I thought this was…OK. Just. Other people were more positive, but tellingly the plate (well, bowl) didn’t get cleared, and the leftovers sat around in the fridge for almost a week before I accepted that even Mike wasn’t going to eat them.

Mike says: “I like beetroot therefore I liked this. I was surprised to see that raw beetroot is exactly the same colour as pickled beetroot, surprised in a nice way. Refreshing I thought; more people should eat beetroot.”

26. Carrot and Cashew Nut Rice (Steamy Food)

In the introduction to this recipe Jill says that “electric rice cookers are brilliant, but I still think the best way of cooking rice is simply steaming it in a lidded saucepan – mainly because you can throw in all sorts of things and turn it into a complete meal”. Now, I have two niggles with that – firstly, you can throw all sorts of things into an electric rice cooker, too (maybe Jill’s more obedient of instruction manuals than I am, but trust me, you can cook just about anything in those suckers), and secondly I really don’t think this dish constitutes a complete meal. Let us consider: you stir finely diced onion, grated carrot and spices through rice, cook, and top with cashews and parsley. Now, I have nothing against vegetarian food, but when you’re tucking into a big bowl of what is essentially rice flecked with carrot you can’t help but feel that it’s more of a side dish. I kept thinking that if I just kept going I was bound to find a juicy hunk of chicken or suchlike burried in there. The flavours were fine, though possibly a bit over-turmeric-y, but the dish overall just wasn’t exciting enough to be a meal in its own right.

Mike says: “I felt that this was missing a nice curry sauce spooned on top. It was a nice way to do some rice but it was only half a meal. Mmm curry.”

27. Salmon with Rocket and Tagliatelle (Special Food)

I notice that my annotation for this recipe simply reads “not special”, which is a bit of a downer for something from the ‘Special Food’ chapter. I expect it to have an existential crisis any moment now. Nothing fancy or complicated – while the pasta’s cooking away you lightly cook some salmon, lemon zest, capers and seasoning, then add tomatoes, rocket and lemon juice before tossing with the tagliatelle. It was perfectly nice, and lent a healthy glow of virtue, but a bit on the bland side.

Mike says: “I felt good eating this, I think it will extend my lifespan by a couple of years. But a little bland.”

28. Spice-Crusted Venison with Glazed Beetroot (Special Food)

You might remember my abortive attempt to make this last month – getting hold of venison steaks proved trickier than I thought, but I eventually managed to reserve a couple of sirloin steaks from a stall at the farmers’ market. Once you’ve tracked them down, all you have to do is brush them with oil and press one side into a spice rub (made up of black peppercorns, juniper berries, caraway seeds and salt), then sear spice-side down for two minutes before turning and cooking the other side briefly. Instead of scattering all over the frying pan, as per my pessimistic prediction, the spice crust gets pressed firmly into the meat. While the venison’s resting you add some diced cooked beetroot, redcurrant jelly and red wine to the pan, and cook until syrupy. Slice the venison, serve up the beetroot, strew everything artistically with watercress and – tadaaa! – you’re done.

We’ve already established that I don’t much like beetroot, so all I’ll say about it is that the flavourings were pleasant and I imagine this would be a nice way of eating the stuff, if you’re that way inclined. The venison was another matter though – deeeeelicious! And ridiculously quick and easy to boot.

Mike says: “This was amazing, one of my favourites. The spice crust on the venison was immense and I thought the beetroot set it off really nicely. Deer are so damned tasty.”

29. Breakfast Burritos (Morning Food)

I made this for our second supper (hey, don’t judge) on Sunday – it’s reasonably quick to throw together, with a manageable amount of chopping. (I hate chopping. I’ve been known to go without proper meals for weeks on end rather than go to the bother of dicing a vegetable. You’re still not judging, right?) Basically you top warm tortillas with smoked salmon, rocket, tomato and avocado chunks, red onion, lime juice, coriander leaves and Tabasco. I expected the finished product to be nice and refreshing but a little dull, but these were actually pretty damned good, and would make an excellent weekend brunch.

Mike says: “The flavours of this worked really well. It tasted almost like a packet of bacon crisps (in a good way). Would make a really good brunch. I’d like two whole tortillas to myself, though, for a good portion.”

Normal programming will resume once the dreaded dissertation's out of the way...

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Third time lucky

Errk, is it really Tuesday already? Sorry about the paucity and brevity of updates recently; things'll improve once my dissertation's out of the way. (Incidentally, if either of my parents is reading this, my dissertation is going amazingly well. I rise at six every morning to start work on it, pausing only to escort elderly ladies across the road and help golden haired children in distress.)

Anyway, as Mike alluded to in one of his recent comments, we hacked a chicken into its constituent parts at the weekend (it was about as dignified as that makes it sound; my knife skills could charitably be described as "improving"), so expect to see various bits of its anatomy cropping up over the next couple of weeks. One of its breasts went towards:

22. Chicken Tortilla Soup with Avocado (Soupy Food)

A quick, light, tomato-y soup with finely sliced chicken, topped with avocado slices, red onion rings, tortilla chips and all the coriander I could salvage from my rapidly dying plant (I have a theory that they put something in the soil to ensure that potted herbs give up the ghost within two hours of leaving the supermarket. Even my horticultural instincts can't be that bad).

This was nice in an ordinary sort of way. I should probably elaborate on that if only to pad things out a bit, but I made this on Sunday which is sufficiently long ago that my ageing brain cells can't dredge up much more - it was pleasant but not all that memorable. (Clearly.)

23. Kheema with Peas (Easy Food)

Fittingly for something from the 'Easy Food' chapter, this is a very straightforward sort of recipe - you just fry onion, ginger, garlic and spices, brown some mince (the recipe calls for lean lamb or beef; I went for beef as I couldn't find lean lamb), add stock and tomato puree, and simmer for a bit. Simple! Except it turned out I didn't actually have any fresh ginger, so I ended up rinsing off a globe of preserved ginger and using that instead. (Ingenious, no? It's all that Brownie training at a formitive age.) Towards the end of the cooking time you stir in a handful of frozen peas and some garam masala - you're also supposed to scatter with coriander leaves to serve, but having dealt a mortal blow to my plant the day before I made do without.

Again, I thought this was just OK - nice enough but not really special. Mike seemed to like it though, and guzzled his down at impressive speed even for him. Ohh, and the portions were pretty good, even though I commited the Mike-Crime of halving the recipe.

Things really started looking up today though:

24. Smoked Trout Choucroute (Fast Food)

This had been on my 'to make' list for a couple of weeks (indeed it's been bouncing around for long enough to earn its own politically incorrect nickname in our flat: "Kraut trout"), but I had trouble getting hold of smoked trout fillets. Farmers' market to the rescue! Turns out there's a stall which more or less only sells smoked trout; I wonder what business is like.

But anyway! According to Jeffrey Steingarten, whoever he may be, all traditional choucroute recipes include black peppercorns, cloves, garlic, juniper berries, onions and potatoes, which would make the Lighten Up version cheerfully non-traditional as it only ticks three out of six boxes. Here the onion and sauerkraut mixture is flavoured with juniper berries (tick!), cumin and caraway, with some Riesling in there for good measure. Once this has been simmering away for fifteen minutes you add thickly sliced cooked potatoes and season, then lay the trout fillets on top of everything and cook for long enough to heat the fish through. Jill suggests mustard on the side (I'm beginning to suspect that she may be inordinately fond of mustard; it pops up a surprising amount).

Lecker! Don't let the name fool you; choucroute is staunchly Alsatian, i.e. essentially Germanic. But then the sauerkraut might have tipped you off to that. I know the thought of German food doesn't fill most people with glee, but just trust me, this recipe is lovely. And if getting your hands on smoked trout looks to be a problem you could always go down the more conventional route of sausages instead. Even plain old bacon would be delicious - just think of Bratkartoffeln with Sauerkraut and you'll get the idea. (Admittedly one of the commenters on that photo says the combination's an acquired taste, but shhh, ignore her!)

Mike on the soup: "I think tortillas should be left to finger food and dipping and not really put in soup, they were a bit awkward to eat with a spoon. The soup was, as far I remember, just tomato."

Mike on the kheema: "Mmmm comfort food, although not the most attractive of things, it was good and warming and a nice twist on mince and peas."

(Mike's opinion on the smoked trout will have to remain shrouded in mystery, as he hasn't chosen to share it with us.)

Saturday, 7 March 2009

'Lo again! This is a whirlwind update on today and last night to bring things up to date:

21. Fish Saltimbocca (Easy Food)

The literal translation of saltimbocca is, according to good old Wikipedia*, "jumps in the mouth", but to you and me it means "wrapped in prosciutto". And there you have the recipe, really - halve white fish fillets (I used cod), wrap each half in prosciutto, top with a sage leaf and fry. I assumed the sage would fall off during the cooking, but actually it fused to the prosciutto in a gratifyingly artistic way. Once the fish is cooked and the prosciutto's crispy you're meant to arrange them on a bed of boiled peas and asparagus, though I actually chose to roast the asparagus and, as there was quite a lot of it, forgo the peas altogether.

Ahh, if only it weren't for that errant flake of fish!

This was a really satisfying meal - the crisp saltiness of the prosciutto was a perfect contrast to the mild and tender fish, and the asparagus rounded everything off nicely. Better yet, the whole thing took less than fifteen minutes from start to finish, and it would be quicker still if you boiled the asparagus as per instructions rather than roasting it. Even without any carbs I was actually pretty full after this, too.

Mike says: "Flaky fishy loveliness, and the ham makes it."


22. Winter Greens with Chicken and Beans (Slow Food)

Doesn't that rhyme nicely? Despite this recipe's inclusion in the 'Slow Food' chapter it's really not that time consuming to put together - you just brown some chicken pieces, soften some onion and garlic, then add borlotti beans, stock, thyme and seasoning and let the whole thing simmer away for half an hour while you doodle moustaches on your kneecaps, or whatever takes your fancy. When time's up you stir in some green leafy vegetables - I went for kale, but plenty of other things would work, too - heat through and plate up.

I have to confess that I was expecting this to be worthy rather than particularly tasty, but I was pleasantly surprised - the chicken was juicy, the beans were tender and flavoursome, and everything had absorbed the hearty savouryness of the stock and thyme. As a bonus it's impossible to eat that much kale without feeling a glow of virtue.

Mike says: "One of my favourites - the seaweed-y stuff soaked up the sauce nicely and the chicken was lovely and moist, hand-chopped by me. And I've heard beans are good for you also. But not jelly beans, apart from the green ones."

* Wikipedia has risen in my estimation since I stumbled across its article on the oboe earlier in the week which stated that the instrument, "has a clear and penetrating voice which if listened to very closely will sound like a rabid sloth". (It's been changed now, but I wonder how many schoolchildren copied it down dutifully while it was up?)

East meets West

How about that - Jill Dupleix commented on my last post! (Well, I suppose it might just be someone pretending to be Jill, Blogger lacking sophisticated retina-scanning technology, but I'm a trusting soul.) The ultimate gratification for a cookbook geek! I felt a bit guilty that she happened to visit just after one of my more negative posts, though - in fact, I'll come clean: I was mortified. At least two very enthusiastic write-ups are coming your way though, starting with a quick rewind to Thursday evening:

19. Fresh Salmon Burgers (Easy Food)
20. Togarashi Oven Chips
(Spicy Food)

I don't suppose you need me to tell you how to make a salmon burger - for these ones you mulch together (what's not to like about a recipe containing the instruction 'mulch'?) some salmon, shallot, capers, lemon zest, parsley, Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, Dijon mustard, seasoning and an egg white (or in my case half an egg white, because - contain your disbelief as best you can - I halved a recipe for the second time in a row). The thing I found hardest was actually finely chopping the salmon; maybe a better knife would help? Once I'd formed the burgers into patties they seemed very gloopy and I was worried they'd fall apart in the pan (the fate that befalls most of my home-made burgers), but after firming up in the fridge for a bit they were absolutely fine.

The chips, with their Asian spicing, might not seem the most natural partners for the Northern-European favoured burgers, but the serving suggestions did include "pan-fried fish" and "home-made burgers", so I thought home-made pan-fried fish burgers should be a shoo-in. Togarashi pepper, from which the recipe takes its name, crops up a few times in Lighten Up and I'd spent a while brooding on how I was going to get hold of this obscure-sounding ingredient, only to google it and find that it's the same as shichimi, which I'd had in the cupboard all along. D'oh! Anyway, you make the chips by cutting some potatoes into, um, chips (with me so far?), tossing them with a little oil and baking till golden and tender. Once they're done you toss them in the spice mix, which is a combination of togarashi, black pepper, sugar and salt.

The burgers were good - the suggested accompaniment is gherkins, which went extremely well with them (and made Mike deliriously happy; he considers pickles to be one of the major food groups). But the chips - oh the chips! - were bloody fantastic. The black pepper, togarashi and sugar worked brilliantly together, and gave the potatoes a rich, warming, complex spiciness. Actually I sort of cheated and knew in advance that these were going to be amazing - the spice mix makes more than you need, you see, so I'd made it up earlier in the day and had the rest on roasted butternut squash for lunch. I think it'd work well with a huge number of things though; I can see myself sprinkling it on anything that comes within arm's reach of me for a while yet.

Mike says: "The chips were immense, I could have eaten a bucket of them. The salmon burgers were like salmon cakes, but nice and refreshing."

Thursday, 5 March 2009

"You're as pretty as a flower - a cauliflower!"

(Title courtesy of a Rainbow Christmas pantomime circa 1988. Children's TV was like one long stand-up comedy routine in those days, I tell you.)

I seem to have fallen behind a bit on my blogging duties, so today's is a double bill:

17. Barley Risotto with Cauliflower (Slow Food)

Having virtuously put it on my 'to do' list (fuelled by the fear that if I cherry pick all the tempting-sounding meals now I'll be left with a whole batch of dubuious-sounding ones to plough through at the end) I spent most of last week cunningly avoiding actually making this recipe, but on Monday it finally caught up with me. A cauliflower and barley risotto might sound innocuous enough to you, but for someone who doesn't like cauliflower and is unconvinced by the merits of pearl barley it's a bit of a stretch to approach it with much enthusiasm. I nonetheless made full quantities, not because I'm a masochist or because my greed extends even to things I don't much like, but simply because I didn't want to be stuck with half a cauliflower, carrot and onion.

The recipe's a bit time consuming but not too much bother - all you do is fry diced onion, carrot and cauliflower stalks in some olive oil, add the pearl barley, pour in some white wine and reduce and then add the cauliflower florets along with stock and simmer for about 35 minutes. Right at the end you stir through some butter (and parmesan, if you're that way inclined), season, then top with parsley and toasted walnuts to serve.

Did I mention that I don't really like cauliflower? I have a feeling that liking it might be sort of a pre-requisite for enjoying this recipe. The pearl barley had a nutty bite which was pleasant enough, and anything which only costs 35 pence for half a kilo at least wins my grudging admiration, but I'm not convinced by its credentials as a base for risotti - Jill enthuses that it's perfect for the job as it doesn't need soaking, but, erm, neither does rice. And the barley gave none of the yielding creaminess you get from risotto rice. In fairness I should probably mention that Mike, who isn't a big fan of normal risotti, thought this was a decent alternative. I soldiered on for a while but eventually admitted defeat and passed my bowl over to him, and once he'd polished off both our servings he proceeded to finish the leftovers from the pan, too. Eating quantities intended for three-and-a-half people may not have agreed with him:

However, he bounced back in time for Tuesday's dinner:

18. Roast Chicken, Walnut and Tarragon Salad (Salad Food)

While I'm not sure I'd agree with Jill's claim that this is "fast", it's certainly easy - you just chop up some pumpkin or butternut squash and throw it in a roasting tray with a couple of chicken quarters, drizzle with oive oil and roast the whole thing for about forty minutes. Note that I said "a couple" of chicken quarters, because - wonders will never cease - I actually halved this recipe! That must be the first time since, oohh...mid-February? Anyway, once that's ready you tear the chicken off the bone and toss it and the squash with some curly endive, toasted walnuts, tarragon leaves and dressing. Except I foolishly forgot to buy any tarragon so used thyme instead (that being the only herb I had that wasn't dead). The dressing - which, in a Blue Peter moment, you should have made earlier - comprises olive oil, red wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, white wine and seasoning. I actually dreamt about Dijon mustard the night after making this; read into that what you will.

As you can see the ratio of curly endive to everything else is quite high, but maybe that's so that you fill up on the healthiest bits. All in all it was unspectacular but definitely tasty, and a good way to get yourself eating salad-y things in the Winter months. I somewhat surprised myself by feeling full afterwards, too.

Mike says: "What do you get when you combine roast chicken with a salad? Answer: Roast Chicken Salad. This was nice in the same way a roast chicken is nice. There was nothing surprising about it although the chicken was lovely and moist. I did feel a little unsatisfied afterwards, maybe someone should invent a roast potato salad to go alongside it."

Next time: I discover the macro button on my camera, to no discernable effect.

Monday, 2 March 2009

To bean or not to bean

Guess what - my mum bought herself a copy of Lighten Up! I've inspired someone to get the book! Admittedly that person is a) my own mother, and b) the person who gave me my copy in the first place, but still.

Our kitchen didn't see much action over the weekend - we grabbed a snacky Saturday lunch at the farmers' market, then had dinner at Alana's (who, in a feat of co-ordination which leaves me feeling vaguely inadequate, made six separate dishes. Six! Some days I don't even remember to cook vegetables). Sunday evening Mike was away so I reached for my usual eating-alone fall-back dinner: porridge. (Just for the record this is also my fall-back lunch, elevenses and afternoon tea. On occasion I've even be known to eat it for breakfast.) All of which just left Sunday lunch, which, for reasons of complicated timetabling, we ended up eating at 3.30 in the afternoon.

16. Chilli Bean Tofu ('Veggo Food')

I hadn't actually planned on making this on Sunday (do other people make detailed lists plotting out what they're going to cook each day, or is this symptomatic of an unhealthily obsessive relationship with food?), but it was just about the only recipe on the week's "to do" list which didn't rely on crucial components that were frozen solid. I had everything to hand except the chilli bean sauce, and I didn't think getting hold of it at short notice would be a problem because we live round the corner from the aptly named 'World's Finest Foods'. Seriously, this place sells everything - if you have a chickpea flour emergency or a sudden craving for truffle salt, World's Finest Foods will come to your rescue. Unfortunately, though, of the twenty-five different types of chilli sauce they sell (yup, I counted; and that doesn't include stir-fry sauces), not one of them is chilli bean sauce. Foiled! It being a Sunday the local Chinese supermarkets were closed, too, so I ended up just getting minced chillies. Is it still chilli bean tofu if it doesn't actually contain beans?

Ingredients-sourcing sob-story behind me I got on with the recipe, which, in true stir-frying tradition, mostly involves chopping things up. By 'things' I mean one aubergine (which you've previously roasted whole for 40 minutes so it's delectably squishy), a block of tofu, some ginger, garlic and spring onions. I decided to three-quarters the (four person) recipe for the highly scientific reason that my tofu happened to come in a 350g pack rather than a 500g one, and (not to spoil the ending or anything) it was a good-ish amount for the two of us.

The cooking itself is just a question of stir-frying the ginger and garlic, adding the aubergine, chilli bean sauce (or minced chilli, in my case), some sugar, rice wine, soy sauce and a bit of water, then simmering for ten minutes before adding the cubed tofu and simmering for another five - I ended up giving mine a little less as the sauce thickened up pretty quickly. Sprinkle in some Sichuan pepper if you like an extra zing, scatter over the spring onion, then serve ladled over rice and curse tofu for being so woefully unphotogenic:

Oh well, it tasted good! I was quite impressed, actually - I've tried heaps of versions of mapu dofu (including a very tasty one as part of Alana's smorgasbord the night before), and this one had a good kick to it as well as being a great partnering of textures. Pre-roasting the aubergine was a stroke of genius - you get the same gorgeous squidginess which deep-frying gives you (seriously, if you've never had deep-fried aubergine, get thyself to a deep fat fryer! Your arteries will forgive you just this once) but without the fat. The only change I might make next time would be to keep things a bit saucier so that there was more liquid for the rice to absorb. Oh, and I imagine the dish'd be even better made with chilli bean sauce (duh!) to give it extra depth.

Mike says: "I have not told many people this, but I was in fact born a piece of tofu, so when asked to eat some avec chili bean sauce I felt bad. This soon passed and I was overcome with nice flavours. It made me happy about my decision to become human. Yum."

Friday, 27 February 2009

¡Viva Mexico!

Gaaaah, damned Blogger! WYS is most definitely not WYG - you'll just have to trust me that the photos are beautifully aligned on my screen. And, while I'm at it, that they're of professional quality and display familiarity with concepts such as lighting. Hey, it's worth a try...

15. Kickass Chilli Bean Tacos

I'd only glanced very briefly at this recipe before making it and assumed it was going to be a standard vege-chilli, but actually there's not a tinned tomato in sight: the filling's just made from onion, kidney beans, garlic, cayenne pepper, cumin and seasoning, which you simmer with some water for ten minutes and then roughly mash. Meanwhile your beautiful assistant (well, Mike) is tossing together a salsa of finely diced tomatoes, green pepper, lime juice, coriander leaves and seasoning. When it's all done you just spoon into warmed taco shells along with some shredded lettuce and pickled jalapeños, and dinner is served!

Admittedly the kidney bean filling isn't going to win any beauty contests, but it was hearty and pretty tasty. Having grown a bit wary of the spice quotient in the so-called 'Spicy Food' chapter I upped the cayenne by quite a lot, but even so it benefited from the jalapeños to give it a real kick. The salsa was plain but refreshing and went well with everything else. A word of caution about potion sizes though - I know Mike and I are greedy gutses (that being the newly-coined plural of greedy guts), but if I'd halved this recipe we'd definitely have gone hungry - it might be enough for a light lunch, but 'light''s a bit of an unfamiliar concept chez nous.

Mike says: "This was fun to eat, and I find it childishly exciting making your own tacos. The beany stuff was the main part of the meal and although it was nice I dont think it really lived up to the roll of main filling. It felt to me that some classic parts were missing from this recipe that would have given it the extra zing, such as sour cream, guacamole and perhaps, although not necessary, meat. It is recommended that you have your tacos with jalapeno peppers and perhaps add a few extra fillings of your own. End x."

Have I ever mentioned that whenever I make a vegetarian meal Mike's response is, "you know what this would be good with? Meat"?

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Q. What do you get if you cross salad dressing with lamb tagine?

A. Today's post! Fear not, this isn't some sort of ill-advised foray into fusion cuisine; I'm just lumping the recipes together for reasons of laziness. The dressing was made while I was still at my parents' on Sunday and my mum needed something to liven up some lettuce leaves. Or at least, she said she did - she might just have been humouring my unsubtle desire to tick another recipe off. You never can tell with mums.

13. House Dressing

Like the last post's ajvar, this comes from the "Extras" section at the back of Lighten Up, which is a collection of quick suggestions for stocks, condiments and accompaniments. The salad dressing recipe's nothing revolutionary: you just whisk together some red wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, olive oil, salt and pepper, then finish off by thinning it out with mirin, white wine, yoghurt, apple juice, water or the juice of a tomato. I went for mirin as that's what we had to hand - I was a bit worried that it might make the dressing taste overly Asian (not ideal when you're eating moules marinières), but it was fine; a perfectly nice, basic vinaigrette.

I know you don't really need to see a picture of salad dressing, but I'm a completist.

14. Lamb Tagine with Dates

Just before I left Edinburgh I was a bit all over the place (entirely uncharacteristically, I might add. Ahem), and when Mike offered to step in and do the supermarket shop I didn't have time to put together a full list, so dispatched him with Lighten Up and instructions to get the ingredients for a recipe of his choice. Surprise surprise, he went for the tagine! Moroccan is Mike's favourite cuisine, so I'd been planning on saving the tagine for a semi-special occasion, but with a kilo of lamb in the freezer the die was cast. (A kilo because Mike bought quantities for the full four person recipe, but then I didn't need to tell you that, did I? Though by the time I'd savagely hacked all the visible fat off it I expect it weighed closer to 700 grammes.)

So. You cube the lamb, quarter some carrot lengths and finely slice an onion before you get on with the cooking. Jill just says to use a large, heavy based pan, but having received not one but two tagines for Christmas (...I'm not going to attempt to explain that) I thought it seemed a good opportunity to use one of them - I went for the heavy-duty-but-not-particularly-photogenic glazed terracotta as I haven't seasoned the more decorative one yet. But anyway! Having heated up some olive oil in your cooking dish (and be warned, in a tagine used with a heat diffuser this takes a long, looong time) you cook the onion briefly, then add the lamb, carrots, some cayenne pepper, saffron (I only just noticed that you're actually meant to use ground saffron, which I've never come across - I went for pistons), ginger, turmeric, a couple of cinnamon sticks, and enough water to cover the lamb. You're then supposed to stir through some tomato purée, but having gone to all the trouble of arranging the rest of the ingredients in concentric circles (whatever you're thinking, don't say it) I wasn't about to mess it all up by stirring something in, so I dissolved the purée in the water before pouring that over. Then everything can simmer away happily for an hour and twenty minutes (it is from the "Slow Food" chapter after all) - I gave mine an extra hour, partly to allow for everything to take longer in a tagine than in a conventional pan, and partly to ensure really meltingly tender lamb. When the time's up you add some dried apricots, honey, orange flower water (I misread the recipe and used way too much, whoops) and seasoning, simmer a bit more, add a few Medjool dates, simmer for another five minutes, and then - phew! - you're done.

And mmmmmm, it was worth the wait! I was a bit dubious about adding cayenne pepper but it really worked, giving the dish a lovely warmth and heat. The other spices were more conventional and produced a great, classic flavour - a rich, mellow, authentic-tasting tagine. And on that note of authenticity, am I allowed one quick rant? The serving suggestion is "with couscous". The serving suggestion given for tagines is always "with couscous". I get a bit twitchy about this, because although I have nothing against couscous per se, an accompaniment for a tagine it ain't. I think the desire to stick them together stems from the misconception that "tagine with couscous" is the national dish of Morocco, but in fact they're each stand-alone courses. Use bread to mop up your tagines, my friends! As you might be able to make out from the picture I slightly undermined this drive for authenticity by using naan bread and wholemeal pitta, but Moroccan bread's hard to come by in Edinburgh, mmkay?

Just in case anyone was concerned for our collective waistlines, we didn't get through the whole thing; I polished off the leftovers for breakfast this morning. (If you have strong views on what constitutes appropriate breakfast food, this may not be the blog for you.) Oohh, and I almost forgot - the tagine recipe appears in this month's Sainsbury's Magazine, which can be yours for the bargainous price of £1.40! There are three other Lighten Up recipes in there, too.

Mike says: "If I had to say I had a favourite type of food then I would say Moroccan, if I was being more specific I would say a tagine. This dish definitely lived up to my preferences but it was nothing original, it is the classic tagine recipe with apricots, dates and lamb, but it is mighty tasty. Later my peeps."

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

"Zees 'uge sausage ees very suspicious!"

The week of gaping silence is due to me having spent most of that time in the bosom of my loving family (standard greeting from my brother: "What are you doing here?"). Fresh blood for my culinary experiments! My mum picked out "Spiced Cevapcici" for me to make on Saturday evening, presumably because it looked like one of the 0.06% of Lighten Up recipes which aforementioned brother might contemplate eating. As it turned out the little blighter slunk off with some friends and didn't make a reappearance till the next day, but hey ho.

11. Spiced Cevapcici
12. Ajvar Relish

Cevapcici (or ćevapčići, if you're feeling lavish with accents) are sausage-like patties popular in the Balkans. Jill's comprise beef, lamb or pork (I used lamb, though having googled around a bit I think pork might be more usual), garlic, allspice or nutmeg, cloves, paprika, cayenne pepper, salt and black pepper. Basically you just mulch everything together (isn't "mulch" a satisfying word?), then form into small, flattened sausage shapes. Or at least, that's the idea - I found that to end up with the number specified I had to make fairly large sausages; super-cevapcici, if you will. When you're ready to cook you just brush them with olive oil and grill or barbeque them - my mum actually has a barbeque built into her hob, so out came the skewers:

Cevapcici being barbequed, minus the giant flames which periodically englufed them.

The traditional accompaniment to cevapcici is apparently a red pepper and aubergine relish called ajvar. Nope, I hadn't heard of it either, but handily Lighten Up includes a recipe for that, too (it's in the "Extras" section at the back). It's easy stuff - all you have to do is roast the vegetables for half an hour, skin them (admittedly the instructions don't actually say to do this, but trust me, you need to), then add the chopped flesh to a food processor along with some olive oil, lemon juice, cayenne pepper and seasoning, and blend to a coarse purée.

My sister's boyfriend eyed this particularly suspiciously.

I made plain rice to go alongside as I had a vague (and possibly entirely inaccurate) idea that it was somehow in keeping with the Eastern European character of the meal, but actually we felt that both the cevapcici and avjar tasted more Middle Eastern, and I'd probably go for flatbread or couscous next time. I'd also make at least one of the components a whole lot spicier - considering that the cevapcici come from the 'Spicy Food' chapter, and that the relish is described as being "devilishly spicy", they were a bit of a let-down on the heat front (and that's despite me being very heavy-handed with the cayenne). Plus, having seen other pictures of ajvar floating around on the internet, all of which are day-glo orange, I have a feeling that the peppers to aubergine ratio is meant to be a lot higher: the Lighten Up recipe uses equal numbers of each, whereas others I came across tended to go for three peppers per aubergine, which might up the tanginess a bit. Don't get me wrong, the meal was still tasty, but pepped up a notch it would be even tastier.

I tried to get my family to step into Mike's shoes and offer up gripping, insightful comments, but with limited success.

Me: "I need you to say something pithy and succinct to describe those kebab things I made the other day."
Dad: "Kebaby."

And this from a man remowned for his erudition...

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Something fishy

Evening! I hope you all had nicer dinners than we did:

10. Fish in a Bag with Fennel and Orange

Not the most glamorous title in the world; as an evocative phrase "in a bag" lacks a certain something. Still, it does what it says on the tin: you take squares of foil, strew with finely shaved fennel (use a food processor, otherwise you'll still be there half an hour later, laughing hollowly at the recipe's inclusion in the 'Fast Food' chapter); top with seasoned white fish (I used whiting) and arrange orange slices, bay leaves and black olives over the top. After drizzling with a bit of olive oil and some orange juice you seal the foil parcel and pop the fish in a hot oven for ten to fifteen minutes, and you're done! Unless, that is, you're me, and realise only at the eleventh hour that a) you don't have any foil, and b) despite a day in the fridge your fish is still mostly frozen. Am I a paradigm of domestic efficiency or what? I got round the foil problem by using some strangely enormous oven-safe plastic roasting bags, and got round the frozen problem by cunningly ignoring it. (This is my back-up plan for most kitchen dilemas. Indeed, for most life dilemas.) Neither of these culinary hiccoughs appeared to have an adverse impact on the finished dish, although going by the photo you'd be forgiven for thinking that I'd forgotten to include the fish - it's under there somewhere, promise.

I'm beginning to see why there isn't a photo of this recipe in the book...

I think the word I'm looking for is "meh". I mean, there was nothing wrong with it - it wasn't actively unpleasant or anything - but there wasn't an awful lot to say in its favour either. The flavours were fairly insipid, except on the rare ocassions when you came up against a black olive, and the fennel was especially disappointing. If I were to combine these particular ingredients again I'd cook the fennel down to a gorgeous caramelised mush, then top with fried fish (thus abandoning all pretentions of healthiness) and be much heavier-handed with the olives. Mmmm...

In fairness, Mike wasn't as negative about the meal as I was - I wouldn't go so far as to say that he found it wildly exciting, but he did think it was quite nice and even ranked it above two of the other Lighten Up recipies. (The Greek meatballs I can understand, but to place it higher than the delectable chicken satay? Sacrilege!)

Mike says: "I gave this points for freshness and healthiness, but on reflection - having conversed with H - I agree that it lacked punch. An extra twang might be given by substituting pink grapefruit for the orange. Genius."

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

9. Spinach Chana Dal

Now, I make dahl a lot - probably more than anything else - but mine tend to be thick and almost curry-ish rather than light and soupy, and I usually use red lentils. The Lighten Up recipe (from the 'Soupy Food' chapter) uses yellow split peas - or at least I thought it did until I actually read the ingredients list properly two minutes ago and realised I was meant to use split chickpeas. Gaaah! I suppose 'chana' should have been a bit of a clue, but I must have just honed in on the words "yellow split pulse" and assumed they meant split peas. (Which, I was very excited to read on the packet, count as one of your fruit and veg portions! Maybe that shouldn't come as a surprise, what with them being peas and all, but for some reason I've always thought of them as a lentil. )

Anyway, now that I've revealed myself to have the reading skills of a particularly unobservant three-year-old, on with the recipe! You soak the dal for half an hour (come to think of it I remember being surprised that the split pea packet didn't say anything about needing to soak...), then place in a saucepan with water and simmer for twenty minutes. Meanwhile you fry a finely sliced onion with some ginger and cumin seeds, stir through some tinned tomatoes, a sliced mild green chilli, turmeric, cayenne pepper and ground coriander, then tip the mixture into the pan with the dal and cook for another twenty minutes. Mine needed a little bit longer than that, possibly because it was the wrong sodding pulse. Ahem! To finish the soup off you whisk in some garam masala (is it just me or does whisking seem a slightly curious way to incorporate a spice?) and push mounds of spinach into the pan until they're just wilted.
Well, it was tasty (I made the whole recipe for the two of us, and although that did give us seconds I think portions would have been a bit on the mean side if stretching to four). I probably won't cook it again simply because dahl isn't the kind of thing I want a recipe for, but as a one-off change it was very nice indeed. And who knows, maybe it's even better with chickpeas...

Mike says: "Daal is always gooood, and this is basically daal soup with spinach, which is still goood but also perhaps feels more like a meal in its own right over just eating daal. Woot."

Monday, 16 February 2009

The best-laid plans

Well, I think it's fair to say that the Valentine's Day meal didn't go quiiite according to plan. Our repas pour deux was supposed to comprise balsamic pears wrapped in prosciutto, followed by spice-crusted venison with glazed beetroot (because nothing says romance like beetroot), with steamed berry puddings to round things off. Unfortunately, though, I couldn't get any bleeping venison! Two game stalls at the farmers' market and my back-up, Marks and Spencer, all let me down. (One of the stallholders did offer me venison heart, which I suppose would have been appropriate for Valentine's Day in a macabre sort of way...). With my main course languishing in ruins, I ducked into Waterstone's to sneak a look at a copy of the book and pick an alternative recipe. Not only did Marks not have the stuff I needed for said alternative recipe, they didn't even have the ingredients for my alternative alternative recipe! So I did what I'm sure Delia Smith does on these occasions, and retired to the pub. (Several hours and a couple of bottles of champagne later I found myself throwing together a random dinner for four, but that's another story.)

Back to the abortive meal: we ended up eating a truncated version - that is, just the starter and dessert - as a light lunch the next day. Arguably it would have been lighter still if we hadn't supplemented it with conspicuous quantities of Pringles between courses, but hey.

7. Balsamic Pears with Prosciutto
8. Very Berry Puds

The pears come from the 'Special Food' section, and are one of the very few recipes in Lighten Up intended as a starter. Basically you make a poaching syrup from water, sugar, balsamic vinegar, bay leaves and black peppercorns, and simmer the peeled pears in this for ten minutes until they're just tender. After leaving them to cool (Jill doesn't specify for how long - I took it to mean waiting until they could comfortably be handled, but I don't see why you couldn't prepare them further in advance for a dinner party, say) you stand them on a baking tray (having cut a slice from the bases to make sure they stand up nicely) and wrap each in a furl of prosciutto. Then all you have to do is bake them till the prosciutto's crisp - according to the book this should just take three or four minutes, but mine still weren't properly crisp after six; I'd probably give them longer next time. As a final touch, if you're feeling creative, you strew your plates artistically with pine nuts and micro leaves, and finish off with a drizzle of oil and vinegar. Except I sort of forgot that my balsamic vinegar doesn't come in the kind of bottle that drizzles but rather one that pours, and consequently I ended up with a mini vinegary flood. Also, what the bejeezus are micro leaves? The glossary helpfully says that they have "higher concentrations of phyto-chemicals than in their adult form" (yum, phyto-chemicals, my favourite), but that didn't enlighten me much when looking for them in my local Sainsbury's.

Ta-daaa! Impressive, no? If you look closely you can see faint traces of the aforementioned flood, but I'm sure you're all much too polite to do that. The pears were really good - nice texture, delicate but unusual flavour, and the salty, savoury prosciutto went very well with the sweetness of the fruit. The only thing I might change in future is the ratio of ham to pear - they complemented one another so well that it seems a shame only to get to enjoy the combination until the prosciutto runs out; perhaps smaller pears would balance it out a bit.

On to dessert! I can't say I'm entirely sure what this recipe (from the 'Fruity Food' chapter) is doing in a book purportedly about healthy eating, as it contains not insignificant amounts of both butter and sugar, but ours not to reason why. To make delectably cute mini-puddings you need - logically enough - mini-pudding basins, and I made a bit of a blooper by buying plastic ones before actually reading the recipe and realising that they needed to go in the oven. Ooops. Luckily I'm the kind of person who considers a return trip to Lakeland a treat (as evidenced by that fact that that was Mike's suggestion for a Valentine's Day activity). Anyway, once you're pudding-basined-up you proceed as follows: cream together butter and sugar (my heart always sinks at that instruction; it presuposes the existance of muscles in places I'm fairly sure I don't have any); beat in eggs and fold in flour, baking powder and milk. Then you arrange some berries in the bases of your basins (I used blackberries and raspberries, as per Jill's suggestion) and spoon the batter over them until the basins are 3/4 full. Annoyingly, halving the recipe gave me enough for two and a half puddings, though I suppose it depends on how large your basins are. Once they're filled you tie foil over the tops with string, then stand the puddings on an oven tray, pour boiling water into the tray so that it comes about halfway up the sides of the basins, and bake for 35-40 minutes. Meanwhile you whip up a sauce by briefly heating some more berries with port and a bit of sugar, and that's it! When the puddings have had their time you simply upturn them onto a plate and pour over the sauce.

Mmmmmmmmmm! (My eloquence strikes again!) These were scrumptious - very light and airy in texture, but somehow hearty and satisfying at the same time. I'd put out some crème fraîche to serve with them but neither of us touched it; the puddings were delicious just as they were.

And now for the wise words of Mike:

Mike on the pears: "Surprisingly nice combo, thought it would be too sweet for a starter but really nice flavors. Pear was too big and there was not enough ham to go with it. Also it is quite hard to eat a whole pear with a spoon. Perhaps someone should breed mini pears just for this recipe then you could have three per plate. Peace x."

Mike on the pudding: "Although this pudding is lacking chocolate, which is normally one of my requirements for a good pudding, it is still one of my favorites. It wins points for looks and tastes like a lovely steamed pud with sweet fruit, yum yum. Could have eaten double but I guess it is a decent portion if you have a main also."

I would like the record to show that attempting to eat his pear with a spoon was entirely Mike's own decision and not the result of a chronic cutlery shortage.