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."