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.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Walk on the mild side

6. Greek Meatballs with Tomato Sauce

I was slightly dubious about trying this one - Jill boasts that it results in "big, light, bouncy meatballs," which is all very well but I'm not sure that I want my meatballs big, light and bouncy. (Is bouncy a desirable quality in food? Have you ever complimented a meal with an enthusiastic, "mmmmm, bouncy!"?) But moving on! Despite its inclusion in the 'Slow Food' chapter the recipe isn't actually all that time-consuming; it took me maybe 45 minutes from start to finish, and that included a fair amount of thumb-twiddling. The meatballs (beef mince, wine-soaked bread, onion, garlic, cinnamon, cumin, parsley, seasoning and a little egg to bind) are first baked and then simmered in the tomato sauce (passata, red wine, ketchup, tomato purée, olive oil, garlic, bay leaves and a pinch of sugar. Yup, that's three different types of liquidised tomato). I made the full amount of sauce (which is meant to serve four), as I thought I remembered Sarah tring the recipe and saying she'd found the sauce a bit on the stingy side. That might have happened only in my head though, as I can't find a mention of it anywhere on her blog, and as for the sauce quantities, see for yourselves...

And this one was positively restrained compared to Mike's (there is rice somewhere under there, honest).

Erm, yes, if I were to make this again I'd probably halve the sauce along with the rest of the recipe. It's pretty unlikely that I will make it again, though, as it was a little bit disappointing. Perfectly nice but a bit...bland. The meatballs were indeed light and bouncy (and I remain unconvinced that these are traits I'm after in a meatball), but somehow not all that meaty-tasting, and the sauce wasn't wildly exciting either. Hmmph! Oh well, hopefully tomorrow's dinner will be more memorable - stay tuned for a three-course Valentine's extravaganza!

Mike says: "Was excited at the portion sizes, but the meatballs were bland and not meaty enough for my tastes, though saying that I'm sure some people like light fluffy meatballs. I think pasta would be a nicer accompaniment than rice. Until next time gentle readers. xx"

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Q: What has four breasts and no legs? A: The chicken we've been eating this week.

I had a presentation to give this morning on the Berlin smoking ban (don't worry, I'll spare you the details), so naturally I managed to make the preparation of last night's meal stretch out for a good three hours, thus rendering working on said presentation impossible. It's a gift, I tell you.

5. Chicken Satay with Cucumber
So, this recipe, which comes courtesy of the 'Spicy Food' chapter, comprises three parts: a bed of cucumber ribbons, grilled marinated chicken strips, and a satay sauce. I made the sauce first (in full quantities even though I was halving the rest of the recipe, as the amount didn't look over generous) which just involves stirring together oyster sauce, peanut butter (you're meant to use crunchy but I only had smooth) and sweet chilli sauce, with a dash of lime juice to taste.

Next up, the chicken: you cut your chicken breasts into strips and give them a good whack to flatten them (disturbingly satisfying), then marinate them in a mixture of soy sauce, lime juice, vegetable oil, cumin, coriander, garlic and cayenne pepper. I missed out the salt, sauce plus salt? Finally, the cucumber's pretty self-explanatory; you simply use a vegetable peeler to slice it into ribbons and arrange on a plate. Then it's just a question of threading the chicken onto skewers and grilling - gratifyingly quick thanks to all the theraputic bashing - before piling the skewers onto the bed of cucumber.
Yum yum! (Marvel at my eloquence! And reconsider the intellectual benefits of a university education.) I thought this was delicious - the chicken was beautifully tender and the sauce complemented it perfectly. I'd cooked some noodles to flesh out the meal a bit and tossed them with tori kara age sauce, which went well enough with everything else but was waaay too salty (this is a recurring theme with sauces from the Wagamama cookbooks, approach with caution!).

Mike says: "Good party food, but perhaps not filling enough to constitute a meal. The thin cucumber was really nice against the spiciness of the satay."

Ahhh, Mikeland, that place where a chicken breast plus a bowlful of noodles per person constitutes a canapé...

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

I will not make a cheap joke about the name of this dish, I will not make a cheap joke about the name of this dish...

Apparently your typical Brit has pasta once a week, but Mike and I must be dragging the national average down a bit as I make it about twice a year. I think I just never find it particularly inspiring - in my first year of university I did the usual student thing of buying it by the bagful as I was constantly being told what great value it was, and then never got much beyond eating it unkooked for breakfast. (Yes, I am too impatient to wait for water to boil. On the bright side, I can report that those rumours about dried pasta expanding in your stomach and causing it to explode are spurious.)

There only are two pasta recipes in Lighten Up, so this project isn't going to up my average all that much, but I ticked one of them off last night in the form of:

4. Spaghetti alla Puttanesca

Just in case you're not up to scratch on your underworld Italian, the name of this dish translates as "spaghetti the way a whore would make it". According to Dupleix this is because it was quick enough for prostitutes to throw together between clients, though another school of thought holds that the name refers to the pungent smell. (Well if that doesn't whet your appetite...) The recipe's from the 'Easy Food' chapter but it'd fit happily into 'Fast Food' too, which is just as well as Mike was off at a wood carving course for most of the evening and I didn't start cooking till almost 10 o'clock. All you have to do is put your spaghetti on to cook, and while it's simmering away you soften some garlic and anchovies in a pan, then throw in the rest of the ingredients (tinned cherry tomatoes, black olives, dried chilli, capers and dried oregano) and cook for five minutes. I know anchovies fall into the love-'em-or-hate-'em camp, but even if you can't normally stand them you might be OK here as they melt into the sauce. Besides, as we all know, anchovy oil is the most effective robot lubricant. But anyway! To finish off you stir in a splash of the pasta cooking water, some chopped parsely and black pepper (Jill actually says to add salt as well, but who wants extra salt in a sauce containing both anchovies and capers?), then drain the spaghetti and toss it all together.
Not the most exciting-looking meal in the world, but it's incredibly flavoursome, and so quick to put together that it might even overcome my pasta inertia. Maybe.

Mike says: "Tasty tasty tasty, I always fancied myself as a prostitute and if I get to eat this dish as part of being in the profession then win-win. The quickness was amazing, so quick that when I requested seconds H made me some. Brilliant. Really nice rich flavours, I think this is what Italians must eat normally."

Monday, 9 February 2009

Chick chick chick chick chicken!

3. Grilled Chicken with Salsa Verde

I was planning on making this for dinner on Saturday, but have you tried finding skin-on chicken breasts recently? Faith n' Begorrah! We eventually tracked some down at the butcher's counter in a big Sainsbury's, though technically they were breast supremes, which include a bit of the wing. Once you've tracked down your chicken all you have to do is brush it with olive oil and grill it for 15 minutes or so, while you get on with making the salsa verde to serve with it. This just involves whizzing parsley and basil together (Jill says you can use coriander instead of the basil, which seems a bit peculiar for an Italianate sauce), and then adding garlic, capers, red wine vinegar, black pepper, olive oil and a little water to thin the whole thing to a pouring consistency. When the chicken's ready you slice it and arrange on top of a pile of green beans, then drizzle over the salsa verde. Like lots of the recipes in Lighten Up this one doesn't include any carbs, so I roasted some chunks of polenta and piled them up beside the chicken.
Now, Dupleix describes the sauce as one flavoursome enough to make "anything taste interesting - even an uninspiring chicken breast," which might not sound like the hardest sell, but is actually one of the reasons I wanted to try the recipe. You see, I never cook plain ol' chicken breasts - we don't actually eat all that much chicken, and when we do it's generally camouflaged by strong East Asian flavourings, so I thought this'd be a refreshing change. And it certainly tasted good, probably helped by the fact that the chicken I got was free range and corn-fed, which always makes for more delectably moist meat. The polenta went fantastically with it, too, though I might cut it into smaller cubes next time. In fact, my only criticism would be that for something in the 'Fast Food' section it's a bit of a faff to make - it doesn't take all that long, but you're required to be doing something for most of the cooking time. Moving on, though, to the bit you've been waiting for:

Mike says: "The sauce was a goody and made the dish. Without the sauce it would have been just a cooked chicken breast. Perhaps wrapping the chicken in parma ham or stuffing it with something would make it more interesting. The polenta went well as an accompaniment and also made the plate look pretty. Being in charge of trying to find chicken breasts with the skin on is like the hunt for Osama, I failed in the end and H got them from the butchers counter at Sainsbury's. Maybe forget the skin if you want to do it from your local shop."

The eyeballs have spoken!

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Shepherdless Pie

I actually made this almost a week ago, and am only getting round to posting it now because I have the organisational skills of a flip-flop. So, rewinding back to Monday: it was freezing, windy and blanketed with snow (incidentally, if you're from somewhere where it snows more than once biannually, feel free to laugh indulgently at the absurdity of our unpreparedness - public transport ground to a halt, and apparently we're now running out of grit. Who'd have thought grit was even something you could run out of? Doesn't it sound like something there should be a limitless supply of, like dirt?). Anyway, I'm rambling - the point is, comfort food was in order, so step forward:

2. Sweet Potato and Lentil Pie
Yes, we ate spinach two days in a row! We truly are gods among men

This one's in the "Slow Food" chapter, and bloody hell, she wasn't kidding - we didn't sit down to eat till half eleven at night. OK, this might be partly due to the fact that I didn't actually start cooking till 9:45, and then lost a good twenty minutes when the oven decided to switch itself off (our oven seems curiously indifferent to its supposed purpose in life), but still! It's not difficult to make, but there are a couple of stages: you make a soffrito of onions, celery carrots and garlic, then add tomatoes, bay leaves, paprika, Puy lentils and some water, and simmer it all together for a good half hour. I'd never used Puy lentils before - I actually thought they were the same as green lentils before I went to buy them - and I wasn't sure how tender they were supposed to get, so gave them an extra ten minutes or so cooking time. The pie topping's basically a sweet potato mash, jazzed up a bit with nutmeg, and parmesan too if you're not cheese-phobic like me. The whole thing goes in the oven for twenty minutes and then - ta daaa! - dinner is served:

Your eyes do not deceive you, it really was that orange

I'm not going to try to defend this meal aesthetically - for a start I'm an exceptionally lazy masher and the topping looked suspiciously lumpy in places, but luckily it's nigh on impossible to make sweet potato taste bad so it didn't really matter. As you can see, though, there wasn't quite enough mash to cover the whole pie, so I might up the quantities a bit next time. I'd made the full recipe, which is meant to serve four, even though it was just the two of us eating - I think I had a vague idea that it wouldn't be all that filling and there were unlikely to be any leftovers. Ha! The pie was enoooormous - it could easily have served six, and though we valiantly went back for seconds and thirds we eventually had to admit defeat.

And how did it taste? Surprisingly good, actually - I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but it was very savoury and satisfying, and the nutmeg in the sweet potato really made a difference. It worked well with ketchup, too, which is Dupleix's suggested accompaniment. As for Mike, he's specially requested a 'Mike says' slot, so voici:

Mike says: "Good portions and feels do-goody, the addition of excessive ketchup makes you forget about the lack of meat and makes it amazing. Great re-heated the next day."

I bet he's wishing he'd chosen his own photo now...

Monday, 2 February 2009

Ready, Steady, Cook!

Well, the Lighten Up challenge is officially underway! Lunch yesterday was the inaugural meal, and my friend Alana came round and gamely submitted herself to culinary pot luck. Which turned out to be:

1. Singapore Chilli Prawns

This recipe's from the 'Spicy Food' chapter, and apparently uses the same sauce as the 'famous' Singaporean chilli crab, which neither of us had ever heard of. What can I say, Singaporean food isn't one of Scotland's major cuisines. Anyway, you just stir fry some ginger, chilli and garlic, add the prawns, and finally throw in some ketchup, sweet chilli sauce, a little bit of chicken stock, caster sugar and a spoonful of cornflour to thicken everything up. The whole thing takes about five minutes, though admittedly that doesn't include chopping up the chilli and ginger before you start, which would probably take a normal person about 30 seconds, but always seems to take me the better part of a lunar cycle. But I digress - behold the finished product!
It's a bit hard to get a sense of scale from the picture, but the prawns were huuuuge - certainly the biggest I've ever cooked, and possibly the biggest I've ever eaten. Come to think of it, it might have been the first time I'd cooked shell-on prawns at all - supposedly leaving the shells on helps to keep them moist and flavoursome, both of which they indeed were. As for the sauce, it was tasty though not particularly spicy, but then again we've both got pretty high spice tolerances; maybe (despite the chapter title) the recipe's aimed at less hardened palates. I cooked some rice to go alongside, and at the last minute realised that I'd sort of forgotten to make any kind of vegetable component, so stir-fried some spinach with garlic and sesame oil, too. (See, I am a responsible adult - I eat spinach! Which, it is well documented, entirely cancels out any penchant for champagne truffles one might have.)

Erm, anyway, I don't know what else I can say, really! It was scrumptious, quick and easy, and I'd certainly make it again, though possibly not all that often as the prawns cost a horrifying, cardiac-arrest-to-wallet-inducing amount. The next Lighten Up meal is not only worthily frugal but is in the oven even as I type, so stay tuned for how that one turns out!