Eating from what’s to hand, just for fun – Week 5

This week is a real contrast to last week.  Last week was fresh herb week, thanks to my father, and it was delightful to have all those bright flavours to play with.  It’s a good arrangement.  I take him groceries every fortnight and get to raid his garden for vegetables and herbs.  On Saturday and Sunday I used up the last of my booty of wild garlic, sweet cicely and mega-lovage.  I have to ration my own lovage and my two parsley pots are beginning to look a bit sad due to over-exploitation, although I have just given them both some serious encouragement with soluble plant food.  On the upside a pot of buckler-leafed sorrel and marjoram are beginning to get a more substantial grip on life, having been planted out into much bigger pots, my oregano is recovering, and my mint is attempting a world take-over bid.

By contrast, from Monday onwards this has been a one-pot week full of rich flavours, mainly from hotter climes of the world, and largely supplemented with high-carb ingredients.  That’s mainly because I had nearly run out of all vegetables except tomatoes, and by Tuesday had no salad left, but it’s also partly because my dishwasher has broken down, and it is easiest to do the washing up with one-pot meals!

Saturday

Leftovers salad with mustard vinaigrette and herb mayonnaise.  I found myself with some the tail end of a lemon-marinated chicken breast, a slice of ham, the middle bit of a little gem lettuce, some feta, and the end of a cucumber that was rapidly losing the will to maintain structural integrity.  Separately they were a bit of a puzzle but they worked well together as a salad tied together with a fresh herb mayonnaise, some capers, shallot, tomato and herbs dotted around and a bit of vinaigrette, it all worked splendidly.

I do the mayo in a baby food processor that has a small hole in the top for precisely this purpose.  An egg yolk was put into the processor bowl together with a teaspoon of mustard, a couple of squeezes of lemon juice, a teaspoon of white wine vinegar and some rock or sea salt.  The lid goes on, and then olive oil is fed, immensely slowly, through the hole in the lid.  Just the thinnest possible trickle.  Slowly the mixture starts to emulsify, changing colour, thickening.  When the preferred consistency is reached (and it’s fine to keep stopping and checking) add the roughly chopped lovage, wild garlic, chives and a finely sliced spring onion and whirl until completely broken up.  When the preferred consistency is reached (again, keep stopping and checking) turn it off, put in a small bowl, lay cling-film gently on the surface to prevent the surface reacting with the air, and leave in the fridge until needed.  There was plenty for the salad and, as intended, enough left over for another salad.

The vinaigrette is even simpler.  In a jar with a tight-fitting lid (you are going to shake it madly, so it needs to be a good fit), put three parts olive oil to one part white wine vinegar, add French Dijon mustard or German mustard to taste (add, shake, taste, repeat until the desired result is achieved), season with salt an pepper, a good squeeze of lemon juice and, if you fancy it, fresh or dried herbs.  Shake until the mustard has distributed itself throughout the vinaigrette.  Job done.  Lots of variations are possible, like a hit of Balsamic vinegar, or adding French brown mustard to the Dijon, and using different types of oil and adding herbs to achieve different flavours.

In the photo, the little ham tubes were two pieces of leftover sliced ham spread lightly with the herb mayonnaise and rolled into spirals.  The little gem leaves had a mint leaf, a finger of tomato, a finger of feta, some sliced shallot, and a few capers, topped with a mustard vinaigrette dressing.  The cucumber was similarly dressed, whilst the disc of tomato was topped with some of the mayo and a few capers.  Lovage leaves between the little gem boat finished off the salad.

It was too big, of course, but I covered what I didn’t eat with a very damp piece of kitchen towel and put it in the fridge for lunch on Sunday, instead of my usual morning slice of toast.

Sunday

Spinach, rocket, watercress, wild garlic, chive, mint and frozen pea soup.  Another tale of leftovers, another tale of unexpected, wild bursts of flavours.  I am in love with leftover living.  Or at least, I am at the moment, while it retains the charm of novelty.  I had one of those salad packs, with baby spinach, rocket and watercress (a bit of a fib on the latter – there was very little watercress in the pack).  But it’s difficult to eat enough of a big pack as a single person without becoming single-mindedly rabbit-like in one’s eating habits, which would be so tedious.

So I fried a chopped small onion, two small cloves of garlic, a large chopped chive and some chopped wild garlic in a pan, very slowly, til translucent and smelling wonderful.  I then added water that had been boiled and left for a few minutes, chicken stock, frozen peas, the spinach, rocket, watercress and a handful of mint.  I let it almost-simmer for ten minutes and then whizzed it up in the food processor.  A blender would be much better, but a food processor is what I have, so I just let it run for a long time until the right consistency was achieved.  It was still stunningly green, and anxious to preserve this, I poured it into a fridge-chilled glass bowl, tied it into a plastic bag and put it into the fridge as soon as it had reached room temperature.  With a slice of toasted rustic bread, this was wonderful, not because I’m a good cook (I’m a highly inconsistent hit-and-miss one) but because the ingredients were so excellent.

You could add a swirl of cream, sour cream or crème fraîche, and it looks so pretty when you do, but I loved it just as it was and cream can really interfere with pure, super-fresh flavours, softening and dulling them.  A grating of parmesan cheese over the top might work well.

This soup is also delicious chilled.

Obviously you could replace the chicken stock with vegetable stock, and the only reason I didn’t here is that I haven’t any home-made at the moment, and I find that the shop-bought cubes are dominated by the flavour of celery, which I dislike.

Monday

Starting off a high-carb week, using up leftover veg and bits and pieces in the freezer, was this improbable but happy mix of ingredients based on paella rice.  Paella rice is a bit like risotto rice but, in my experience, produces a meal that is not as gloopy. 

The rice part of the meal was a simple mixture of courgette slices, halved, fine-chopped onion, sliced chillis and garlic, with just a little saffron, all of which are fried in olive oil.  Thyme is scattered over the whole lot.  The rice is added and stirred to coat, and cooked for a couple of minutes.  Blitzed fresh tomatoes are then added and heated through and hot stock is poured over the top.  It takes approximately 15 minutes for the rice to be cooked and the water to be boiled off, leaving a pleasingly sleek and cohesive result.  I had a chicken thigh floating in my freezer, so marinated that for an hour in what I fancied, which was zatar and sumac, sea salt, lemon juice and olive oil.  I then put it under the grill.  A simple side order of chopped tomato and cucumber with vinaigrette, and a dollop of the last of the Greek Yogurt rounded things off, with a chunk of lemon to crush over the chicken and rice just before serving.  Happy!  Such a simple meal, and although phenomenally inelegant on the dish it had bags of flavour. 

Chicken is just what I happened to have, but it goes brilliantly with lamb chops, most fish (but especially hake, swordfish steak and sharks fin) or works fine on its own.

Tuesday

Photo from the Italian Cooking Class cookbook. Australian Women’s Weekly series, p.41-42

Sicilian spaghetti.  This was a favourite dish of mine many years ago, and I don’t know why I stopped cooking it, although I suspect that it was a case of failing to scale down recipes that I used to do for a group.   Whatever the reason, it was a mistake because I find that it is still great and easily scaled up or down.

I chose to do double and have it twice this week (because I am by no means confident that the aubergine/eggplant and spaghetti would freeze well).  But what’s not to love about that?  It is so great that the same dish twice in one week is a good thing.  As a change from my normal format, both the photograph and the recipe are scanned from the book from which they came, to give credit where credit is due.

The ingredients are only a few components away from those that make up an anglicized spaghetti Bolognese, but this is all baked together in the oven with an aubergine lining, with peas to provide little explosions of sweetness and cheese to bind it together.  It forms a completely unique culinary experience, a dense, delicious gooey mass, encased within overlapping aubergine that keeps all the flavours sealed in.

Photo from the Italian Cooking Class cookbook. Australian Women’s Weekly series, p.41-42 (click on it to expand it to a readable size)

The recipe comes from the excellent book Italian Cooking Class Cookbook (in the Australian Women’s Weekly series), and from which the photograph here is taken to show it at its brilliant best.  My version was a fraction of the size and lot untidier than this!   I rarely vary from the original recipe, if I can help it, but I did on this occasion have a small portion of leftover pork mince, which I found when sorting out when defrosting the freezer, so chucked that in just to save it from being thrown out.  That’s not as inauthentic as it sounds, because the two are often mixed in Italian cooking – for example, Carluccio uses a mix of beef and pork mince in his Spaghetti Bolognese recipe.  As usual, as I don’t like tinned tomatoes, I peeled fresh tomatoes and whizzed them up in the food processor with a big slug of Big Tom (tomato, celery and chilli) and some sun dried tomato pesto, the latter sourced from the local Spar.

Perfect for al fresco dining with a glass of good, rich red wine.

There was enough of the basic mince mix (pork and beef mince, onion, garlic and tomatoes, before other ingredients were added) to freeze down as a base for another, different meal.  I use Lurpak Spreadable tubs, 250g or 500g, which stack brilliantly in the freezer.

Wednesday

Haddock, shellfish and saffron with chilli, lemon and coriander or parsley.  This is very much a freezer-dependent meal and I had to empty half of the freezer to get to it, because all of the seafood was at the back.  I hate emptying the freezer to find stuff, as no matter how much I remove to cook, somehow I always struggle to get everything else back in!  But after last week’s plaice I had a seafood craving.  Haddock is usually available in local supermarkets in vacuum packs, and I prefer the flavour to cod, which is more widely available round here, but I find very bland. The shellfish was a mixed frozen seafood selection that I bought from one of the big supermarkets when visiting my father a couple of months ago, so I’m not sure if this can be reproduced using local shops.  It was all bits and pieces, so it was great to be able to use it up in a single meal.

The base is made of gently fried onions and garlic, with skinned tomatoes added when the onions and garlic are heated through, herbs, saffron if wanted and whatever else is available on the day.  This meal was more on the fiery side than usual, and a lot more lemony, because as well as some peeled fresh tomatoes, I actually used two leftover sauces from the freezer:  a very small amount of leftover sauce from last week’s chicken Doro Wat (a chilli-infused, highly spiced tomato sauce with dried lime, garlic and onion) and an equally small amount of leftover sauce from a fish tagine that I made before the lockdown, mainly characterized by saffron, garlic, toms, preserved lemons, mint and coriander.  I loved the transformation, which compensated perfectly for the virtually tasteless Dutch supermarket tomatoes, and will invent a recipe that does something of the sort in the future for similarly spicy and fiery seafood stews that can be replicated without being dependent upon random leftover sauces.  I also chucked in salted anchovies and sun-dried tomato pesto for richness, and two chopped chillis for heat.

I used fresh tagliatelle, boiled for a couple of minutes in water, draining off most of the water, but leaving a bit behind.  The seafood mix is stirred into the pasta and served.  Ever since a visit to the Algarve, which was a culinary delight, I have been in the habit of topping seafood stews with coriander.  I had found some rather elderly coriander in the back of my fridge, and although it was too sad to sprinkle over the top, I stirred it in at the last minute.  If coriander is not available parsley is more conventional, more readily available and adds a pleasing fresh look to the dish.  I used it here.  Whatever else you decide, lemon wedges are essential for squeezing over the top. It was a meal in itself, but a smaller portion could be served with a side salad.

That left me enough of the seafood mix for another two meals, so into the freezer it went.  The haddock won’t survive the freezing process and will disintegrate, but of course will add flavour.  Either more fish can be added (I have another haddock fillet) or it can be had as a more liquid sauce over pasta, or consumed as a thick soup.

Thursday

Louisiana Gumbo.  Gumbo, the official state dish of the state of Louisiana in the U.S., is full of flavour, and the level of heat is entirely optional.

This version used slender Welsh Pen Y Lan pork and chilli sausages (because that’s what I had), uncooked jumbo king prawns and a chicken thigh.  The sausage, which is usually very fine in its own right, was all wrong for a gumbo, but in this age of compromise and leftovers seemed worth giving a whirl.  On the whole, I really wish I’d left it out, although it did impart a useful pork flavour to the sauce.   A solid smoked sausage is the best, and if you have access to a Polish supermarket or a Polish aisle one of the big mainstream supermarkets (I used to be able to buy Polish goods in the Tesco where I lived in London), kielbasa works superbly.  Cooking chorizo is a common substitute, but can overwhelm all the other flavours.  A very simple dish. To me, okra/bhindis are essential, but green beans are often used as an alternative by those who are not so keen on okra.  If you are using full-sized fresh okra, top and tail them so that they heat through nicely.  Frozen baby okra can be thrown in as they are.  I also threw in some diced courgette/zucchini, because I happened to have some (courgette soaks up the flavours beautifully) and some slices of dehydrated lemon as an experiment.

Fish works just as well in gumbo, using only fish of the sort that doesn’t break up during cooking (huss, which is also known as rock salmon, monkfish, conger eel or swordfish steak are good choices) and shellfish.

If you are using fresh tomatoes, peel and then blitz them in the food processor/blender before you start.  Otherwise, tinned tomatoes are fine.  You will need a Creole spice mix.  You can either make up your own, which allows you to prioritize the flavours that you prefer (paprika, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, black pepper, dried oregano and dried thyme), or a pre-made mix (good brands are Bart and Seasoned Pioneer).  I could have sworn I had a Creole mix, but it turned out to be a Cajun one, so I used that and added the oregano, thyme and cayenne.  Due to the lack of smoked sausage, I used a heavily smoked Spanish paprika, which worked well.

Just fry the chunks of sausage and chicken breast and remove from the pan.  Fry onion, fresh or dry chillis and garlic until soft and then stir in the creole spices and heat everything through and return the chicken and sausage to the pan.  Add some flour lightly over the top and give a good stir to mix it all in, to help thicken the sauce.  Add the tomatoes with lemon zest, some lemon juice to taste, a good pinch of saffron and a good glug of dry white cooking wine (no point using the good stuff, but the wine does make a difference so use something reasonable). Depending on how much liquid the tomatoes added to the pan, you can add some chicken stock if you want it to be rather more liquid.

Let it simmer for 10 minutes to allow the chicken to cook through and the flavours to blend.   Taste to see if you need more lemon juice, saffron or chilli.  Add the prawns and okra and cook for another 5 to 10 minutes until the prawns have gone pink and the okra are warmed through.

At the last minute stir in coriander and sprinkle some over the top.  This retains all the flavour of the coriander, which heats instantly in the sauce without overcooking it.  Serve with plain boiled risotto or long grain rice, dependingly on preference, with spring onions or chives chopped into it and chunks of lime or lemon for squeezing over the top, together with a jar of flaked chillis or some Tabasco to add additional heat if required.  I also added a dollop of fromage frais, which I bought by accident instead of sour cream, but happily lasts for weeks in the fridge and was a reasonable substitute for the sour cream.

Friday

Sicilian spaghetti #2.  I had the second part of my Sicilian spaghetti, and was very happy.  I simply took it out of the fridge, let it come to room temperature under its clingfilm lid, and then put it in the oven to heat through gently for 30 minutes.  When I removed it from the oven, where I had cut through the aubergine lid and removed a portion of spaghetti, the vertical section of spaghetti had now been exposed directly to the oven heat, and had emerged crispy, which was utterly delicious.  The interior was just as mellow and gooey as it was on Tuesday.

Conclusions

  1. Gathering the ingredients together for the Sicilian spaghetti and the seafood stew, both of which I started off on the same day, leaving the final touches for when I wanted to eat them.

    Right now the use of pasta (and/or rice) seems like a good way of converting ever-decreasing numbers of ingredients into substantial meals, which is defining feature of cucina povera, a style of cooking that emerged from rural peasant kitchens in Italy.  Pasta and rice, being carbohydrates are filling.  It is usually possible to buy fresh pasta locally and although it’s not something I eat much of, I usually have some in the freezer for emergencies and as I found out this week, dry spaghetti is a great substitute for fresh, a good change if you usually have the fresh stuff, different in a good way, with rather more body and a good, eggy flavour.

  2. Rice still seems to be easy to source and is another excellent way of making other ingredients go further.  I did a gumbo and a courgette and tomato risotto-type affair, but rice is a super base for biryani, paella and vegetable pilaf, and rice as an accompaniment (egg-fried, boiled, pilau, basmati etc) are all winners.
  3. Still on the subject of making meals more filling, using breadcrumbs as a thickening agent works a treat.  It was a standard way of using up stale bread in Spain, and it not only works as a thickener, helps to give more body to a meal, but absorbs the flavour of any sauce without imparting any of its own.
  4. Capers give a purposeful hit of sharp intensity to so many fish dishes, herb sauces, cream-based sauces, tomato-based sauces, mint sauce (they are fantastic in mint sauce), tartare sauce and salads.  I have never run out of capers in my life.  Right now, down to the last dregs, I am feeling almost weak-kneed with fear at the prospect of a caper-free existence.  Top of my list for the next time I go shopping, with my fingers and toes crossed that they haven’t sold out. If you haven’t tried capers you should be able to find them in even the smallest supermarkets and you might want to give them a whirl.
  5. As well as the eponymous component of mint sauce, mint adds a real sparkle to green salads, is glorious fine-chopped with diced cucumber in yogurt dips, gives Mediterranean vegetable soups a lift, and adds freshness to Mediterranean and Middle Eastern fish or lamb stews.  A truly versatile herb.  I grew mine from a pot sold in the herb section of a supermarket (Tesco, I think) and it grew into its huge pot, and comes back every year.

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