I enjoyed my experiments with a new approach to shopping and cooking last week and learned a few things about myself. Chief amongst these is that without knowing it, my basic approach to shopping and cooking has always been very ad hoc, and random, which is another way of saying that as a shopper and cook I am generally a seriously disorganized heap, very unsystematic. Last week I sat down and planned a week’s worth of menus for myself based on what I had in the fridge, freezer and cupboards. It’s how my Mum used to organize things, planning a week’s worth of menus, which must be vital when managing family dining, but not something I’ve really ever tried, except at Christmas.
The horrors of the coronavirus are there on the news every day, and I am very aware that this is a frightful, agonizing time for a lot of people. I am trying not to add to that, and changing my disorganized shopping habits seemed essential, but I was surprised that it was something I enjoyed doing – for which I am deeply grateful. So, onwards and upwards.
By Sunday I had, over a period of about a month, run out of spuds, carrots, broccoli, cheese, Greek yogurt, mushrooms, cream, cooking wine, bread and milk (the latter not a disaster, as I’m not a tea or coffee drinker), with a single lemon left to play with (sob!) and only a small amount of plain flour left, half a pack of cornflour and no other types of flour in the house. By Wednesday I had also used up all the fruit but for one pear, salmon, olive oil, the last lemon, the remains of a heroic courgette (bless it, it carried on for three weeks and was still in great condition), asparagus, eggs, bread, and lemon squash (my equivalent of tea and coffee). So I went shopping in Tywyn on Wednesday, just under two weeks after my previous shopping expedition. As I used to shop around twice a week, that seems to count as some sort of achievement. Those purchases, combined with the stuff still in my freezer, should see me clear of shops for another fortnight, which helps with the social distancing.
Poached fillet of salmon served with griddle asparagus, bacon bits, courgette and an Hollandaise sauce. A small fillet of salmon was one of the unexpected finds when I did an inventory of the contents of my freezer. A rumble in the fridge produced the last of some elderly asparagus and about a third of a courgette. Asparagus and salmon are a marriage meade in heaven. Usually I wrap the asparagus in Parma ham, but I didn’t have any. So I decided to substitute a rasher of bacon, and slice it into strips after cooking, just to add some additional flavour. I had a block of Welsh butter that was past its sell-by date, so this was an ideal choice. Hollandaise is incredibly fattening, but pure luxury, and it ties together the salmon and the asparagus brilliantly. A reasonable substitute would be mayonnaise.
Hollandaise is something that my Mum taught me how to do, using a traditional method, and it has only ever split on me once, ironically when I was on holiday in France and using a salt-free butter. I have since found that you can use salt-free butter, but it must be added far more slowly than salted butter. It is a bit of a faff doing it the traditional way, although it works, so you might want to have a look around for quick versions using melted butter, which a lot of chefs recommend.
Mum’s method is a two-part job, first reducing a combination of white wine vinegar, lemon juice, white wine, bay leaf and crushed peppercorns to a third of its volume. Then, the reduced liquid is mixed in a glass bowl with egg yolk, placed over a pan of simmering water, and the butter is then added by chunks, incorporating each before adding another, until it emulsifies into a sauce (about five minutes). Keep an ice cube to hand if you’re going to try this for the first time, because if it does start to split due to over-heating, you can rescue it by chucking in an ice cube and stirring until it rights itself, whereupon you retrieve the ice cube. If it gets too thick, stir in small spoonfuls of cold water until it is the right consistency. This recipe on the Leiths website is pretty much the same as mine, except that my glass bowl sits on a small saucepan of simmering water, ensuring that the bowl does is a good distance from the water (see my photo; the glass bowl sits on a small pan at the back of the hob).
Other than that, it’s dead simple. I griddled everything in the one pan – the salmon, courgettes, asparagus and bacon, but a frying pan or grill are just as suitable. In fact, there is always a danger with the griddle sticking, so make sure that everything is lightly coated with butter or oil before it goes on to a griddle, that the griddle pan itself is lightly oiled, and that the griddle is very hot. It always slightly alarms me to see the griddle pan smoking, but it works perfectly. The bacon strips were a bit of a wild experiment, and looked out of place on the plate, but were delicious with all the other ingredients. Lucky! I forgot to photograph the finished product, but the Hollandaise was a daffodil yellow, thanks to the combined colouring of a particularly rich egg yolk and the butter, and the texture was superbly silky.
Deconstructed sausage, fennel seed, tomato and chilli sauce over pasta. Years ago I saw this Jamie Oliver recipe in a food magazine and gave it a whirl. His pregnant wife was addicted to it at the time, and he called it Jools’s Pregnant Pasta. This version of it has been a quick-to-table favourite of mine ever since, especially when I am feeling lazy. The last of my stock of the Aberdovey butcher’s pork and laverbread sausages were the stars of this meal, although they were deconstructed (the sausage is extracted from the cases) to combine with the other sauce ingredients. Again, it’s an easy meal, one of the easiest. It would be even easier with tinned chopped tomatoes, whereas I use skinned fresh tomatoes whizzed up in a food processor. Tinned ones are far too sweet for me, just a matter of preferences.
I think that Jamie Oliver does it with rigatoni but although I usually use tagliatelle, I needed to use up the tortellini that I used for the wild garlic pasta last week. So it was just a matter of frying the onion, garlic and deconstructed sausage meat, sprinkling over some dried chillies, ground fennel seeds and some dry thyme (I don’t have dried oregano, but that’s better), and then adding the tomatoes and letting it simmer. I also added a serious glug of Big Tom, a tomato drink with chilli and celery, because the tomatoes were rather tasteless even though they added useful texture.
Then I boiled the pasta and added it the sauce with a couple of spoons of the pasta water to loosen up the sauce, and it was job done. I usually sprinkle fresh basil over it, or fresh oregano from the garden, but I have no basil and my oregano plant is looking very sorry for itself after the winter.
I had enough sauce left over for a second meal, so decided to have that on Wednesday, with two days in between to provide a reasonable gap.
Chicken, bacon and mixed vegetable casserole. After a rumble in the freezer last week, I found the contents of a chicken, bacon, carrot, mushroom and frozen pea pie (i.e. leftovers). Happily it worked just as well as a casserole. I made it about a week before the lockdown kicked in. The chicken is browned with the mushrooms and chopped bacon and the veg. Once softened slightly, flour is sprinkled over the top and stirred well to incorporate the flour. White wine, chicken stock or water is then added. It bubbles for 15 minutes with a large bay leaf, then a dollop of cream, some parsley and oregano. All terribly easy, plonked into the freezer and ready to plonk into the oven when I wanted it. I originally intended to top it with mash, but I had run out, so instead I served it with pointy cabbage, which seems to last forever in the salad draw of the fridge, and afterwards munched a beautiful William pear.
Ham horns with a diced salad on a bed of Romaine lettuce. I bought romaine lettuce the week before last, and it had been sitting obediently in my fridge looking perfect, but I knew that it wouldn’t last forever. It was perfect salad weather, sunshine and blue skies, so it time to switch gear from cooking hot dishes and getting on with assembling salad materials.
I usually have a slice of toast for breakfast and then something small for mid-afternoon if I feel like it, but often I go from toast to the evening meal without anything in between. For some reason, on a Sunday I usually have brunch instead, and it is sometimes a simple tomato, raw onion (purple, Spanish or shallot) and caper mix plonked on toasted French or Italian bread (given the current situation, last Sunday it was a slice of Village Bakery Large Tin!). The toasted bread is brushed with olive oil, and the salad mix is topped with a drizzle of vinaigrette made with German mustard, loads of black pepper, and basil if it’s available. But that mix also makes a great salad when the bread is replaced by the sort of lettuce leaves that hold the other ingredients, like Romaine or little gem, which is what I did here. Two Romaine leaves provided beautiful little vessesl for the other salad ingredients, including all of the above, plus chopped mint and cubes of feta.
Ham horns are an invention of my mother’s, and when she did them they were wider at the front an narrower at the back, hence horns, and looked great on the plate. I can never get it right and have given up, so mine are simple tubes. I made my own mayonnaise, but often use a good shop-bought mayo that I keep in the fridge for when I’m being lazy or don’t have any eggs. Then it’s just a case of hard-boiling an egg and chopping it into a bowl of mayonnaise with as much parsley, chervil or coriander as you fancy, seasoning it (salt, pepper, perhaps paprika, cayenne or fennel seeds), spooning it into the middle of the ham, pulling the sides together and flipping it over so that the edges are underneath and the horn holds together. The ham horns are incredibly filling so, apart from the salad, not much else is needed.
I extracted the second part of Sunday’s deconstructed sausage pasta, and enjoyed it just as much as I did when I first made it. The chilli packed more of a punch, and the flavours had blended beautifully. I made no changes, but if I had had a handful of spinach or wild garlic to hand, and basil to tear and throw over the top, I would have included them for both flavour and colour. Tortellini always expands surprisingly during cooking, and I only just remembered on time, throwing in less than I had initially put out to use, which was just as well or there would have been a lot left over.
Cauliflower, mushroom, bacon and pointy cabbage in a cheese and mustard sauce, with a crunchy breadcrumb topping. It was a gloriously sunny day, and I really wondered whether such a winter-style meal was a good choice, but it all needed using up, so I went ahead. In the event, at this time of year when the sun goes down the temperature drops dramatically, and a good hot one-pot wonder was ideal. I always use this particular dish for using leftover vegetables and other odds and ends like ageing mushrooms, bits of ham and bacon, all of which were chucked in. It can be cooked on the day or the day before. It’s easy, but the cheese sauce needs a close eye keeping on it, and the cauliflower must be very well drained if it is not going to turn the gooey sauce to liquid.
I fry the mushroom and bacon in advance and let them cool. The cauliflower (together with cauli leaves), cabbage, and any other leftover veg are steamed or boiled. The cheese sauce starts with a butter and flour roux, to which chicken stock is slowly added until it is good and thick, making a velouté. A good glug of milk is added, and then the cheeses go in. I had some almost tasteless orange stuff (Leicester? Gloucester?), an excellent cheddar, some very old parmesan and some sharp, citrusy feta. I diced it all and chucked it in, and a gorgeous sauce emerged. The cabbage and cauli were drained for 15 minutes to allow the steam to be released. Then the cauli and cabbage were added with the bacon, mushrooms and sage, and it was all stirred together. Beadcrumbs were sprinkled lavishly over the top, parmesan was grated over the top of that, chilli flakes were sprinkled, black pepper was grated, and a few dabs of butter were added to the top to help it brown in the oven, for 25 minutes.
To cut through the smooth richness and unctuousness, I made a small salad with cherry tomato, romaine lettuce, sliced cucumber, capers, mint leaves, basil leaves, loads of salt and pepper and an acidic mustard vinaigrette. I always mean to eat my meal and salad simultaneously, but usually I end up eating them consecutively, with the salad making up a second course.
Lamb Shawarma. Another ersatz meal. It’s a simplified and scaled down version of a Yottam Ottolenghi recipe, from his excellent book Jerusalem, and needs to be prepared the day before you want to eat it, because the lamb needs to marinate in the spices overnight. I found a disposable bbq in my garage so and was only cooking for one I used a double lamb chop from the freezer, instead of the long slow roast and a leg of lamb in Ottolenghi’s recipe. The list of spices, shorter than Ottolenghi’s, looks intimidating if you don’t do this sort of cooking often but fear not – the Coey in Tywyn sells a Co-Op branded version of a Shawarma mix that is simpler than the usual mix, but is a good substitute; I like it for seriously cheering up chicken in a chicken salad. However, here are the spices that I usually use, which are a shorter list than the original recipe: cloves, cardamom pods, fennel seeds, cumin seeds, peppercorns, fenugreek seeds, star anise, chilli flakes, cassia bark (Ottolonghi uses cinnamon instead), paprika, ground ginger, ground sumac, fresh coriander and garlic. Most are available, remarkably, in the Tywyn Co-Op.
The seeded spices are dry-fried or dry-roasted for a few minutes, then ground using a pestle and mortar and added to a small roasting tin with the powdered spices, fresh garlic and ginger. I mix them with a small amount of olive oil and rub into the lamb, and leave in the fridge to marinate overnight. If you like it hot, a good hit of Tabasco or an equivalent gives it more of a hit. Then, when you want to eat it, it’s a simple matter of putting it on the bbq or in the oven. I barbecued mine, with chicken and sausages for quick wins during the week. It is usually cut into pieces and served wrapped in flatbread or pitta, but I think that the bready wrap dulls the flavours and I like it served as it is, well seasoned, with a mixed Mediterranean salad, the same as yesterday’s, with added feta. Lamb and feta are a blissful combination. The whole lot, lamb and salad, is sprinkled with fresh coriander but if it’s not available, parsley and a serious squeeze of lemon juice are good.
I replenished my supplies on Wednesday and still have some other ingredients to be getting on with. All of the older veg that was sitting in the fridge over the last couple of weeks was used up, either to eat fresh or to contribute to meals for the freezer, with some more still in the fridge and in respectable condition, so I think I’m winning so far. The problem for me was always going to be vegetables, as my freezer was already well stocked with meat and fish, and a couple of other odds and ends (frozen peas, ginger, okra, breadcrumbs etc).
My culinary ponderings at the end of this week are as follows.
- Substituting ingredients is surprisingly effective. I’ve never put my mind to it before. On a normal day, for the salmon meal I would have popped down to the shop and bought Parma ham and baby new potatoes. But the courgettes were brilliant instead of the spuds, slightly caramelized, and the bacon, cut into strips, was surprisingly delicious.
- I used an egg yolk for the Hollandaise sauce, and should probably point out that the egg white can be used in another meal (for example, whisking the egg whites to peaks for cheese soufflé or a puffier French omelette, or for making my favourite, tempura batter). Alternatively, it freezes perfectly, so it can be frozen down for future use.
- Again with the salmon meal, I intentionally cooked too much asparagus, as it as it was on its last legs. I froze down what I didn’t eat for use in a future soup. Cooked vegetables often give greater richness to soup than raw veg.
- If you don’t have either frozen pastry or the ingredients for making pastry for a pie, good alternatives are mashed potato over the top (as used in cottage pie) or sliced potato (for example in Lancashire stockpot). In the absence of either pastry or spuds, breadcrumbs can turn the meal into a gratin, and failing all of that, the usual pie contents still make up a great casserole. All new thinking to me.
- Right now, it is a good practice to hang on to stale bread, whizz it up in the food processor to make breadcrumbs and freeze them, and not just for gratins and crumbles or coating fish for frying. In Spanish cuisine, breadcrumbs are a standard thickening for sauces and casseroles/stews, so if you’re short of flour or cornflour, it might be worth giving it a whirl. The BBC Food website has loads more ideas: https://www.bbc.co.uk/food/breadcrumbs
- Tomatoes are always a problem for me. I really dislike tinned tomatoes because they are far too sweet for me, so I usually make tomato-based sauces by skinning over-ripe fresh vine tomatoes and whizzing them up in the food processor or finely chopping them, but even doing that, the ones that are sold in the UK are often fairly bland. Tomato paste, passata or sun-dried tomatoes can give bland tomatoes a useful lift. More unusual solutions are bottles or cartons of tomato juice, sold in the drinks section, and Big Tom (a bottled tomato drink with celery and chilli). These would need thickening up for most uses, but they are surprisingly effective as a fall-back, which I’ve used many times before. Big Tom was used very successfully in last week’s Chicken Bamya and this week’s deconstructed sausage pasta, because the salad tomatoes that I was left with were useful for texture and colour but almost completely tasteless.