By the end of this week’s cooking I was more than tired of my own efforts, not to mention my own company. Planning and shopping ahead means that it is difficult to be spontaneous and go off piste with fridge and freezer ingredients, because that will leave various orphans in the fridge that don’t obviously match anything else and will probably go to waste. Twice this week I really didn’t fancy what I had planned to eat, and as I was desperately trying to avoid cooking randomly, in order to avoid food waste, I simply chose one of the other items on my personal menu. I had built in enough variety to make this possible, but I am beginning to long for the ability to eat what I want when I want it and not feel tied in to something that I had decided on a week before.
I’ve also realized that even though I have always loved one-pot cooking, and have enjoyed what I have done over the last few weeks, I have done far too much of it. This is mainly because the dishwasher is currently broken and my kitchen is so tiny that not having the dishwasher in which to stack things is a nightmare. The state of my kitchen during the cooking of the roast chicken and veg just had to be seen to be believed. I hadn’t realized that my dishwasher actually acts as another cupboard – it is either full of clean stuff or is being filled, which takes the pressure off the rest of the kitchen. So I am longing to get the dishwasher fixed, to recover some of my kitchen space. When we went into lockdown I was looking at how best to organize myself to live within the new confines; now I find myself planning what I will do food-wise the moment lockdown ends.
Slow cooked brisket with mushrooms, back bacon, carrots and and mashed potatoes. I had half a brisket hanging around in the freezer and a bottle of Bishop’s Finger ale in the kitchen, for cooking with. That seemed to decided a one-pot meal of slow-cooked brisket with button mushrooms, dried shiitake mushrooms, carrots, with flavourings of crushed juniper berries, thyme and bay leaves. Brisket is full of flavour, but is as tough as old boots, so needs a long slow cook to tenderize it. I browned the piece of brisket first, and then put everything into the slow cooker to sort itself out for a couple of hours, with half of the bottle of Bishop’s Finger (the rest went into the freezer for future stew) and some beef stock to give it a lift. Fifteen minutes before serving, I took out the piece of brisket, sliced it fairly thinly, and returned it to the slow cooker. I served it with potato, parsley and spring onion mash, with butter and cream mashed in to give it a creamy, rich texture and flavour. I can’t remember the last time I had mash, and it was a great change, made with the rather splendid British Lilly spuds. Probably the most inelegant meal that I have turned out so far, but it was packed with flavour and was very comforting. A slow cooker is not required for this menu – just cook in the oven, in a very well sealed pan, on a low setting.
Watercress, spinach, rocket, leek and feta soup. I needed to use up a mixed pack of watercress, spinach and rocket, which I had bought to use for salad, but hadn’t needed because of the number of herbs in the garden. It was ageing rapidly, so I decided to turn it in to soup, with the help of some leek, red onion, garlic, stock and feta. I wilted the contents of the pack in boiling water for three minutes and drained through a sieve over another pan so that I could re-use the flavoured water. Into this pan I put the the ends of a chopped leek, leaving the middle part to use on another day. The wilted and drained spinach mix was then put into a bowl, and the leeks were then added.
In a little butter I then cooked some diced red onion, garlic and some more leek, allowing it all to go golden before adding a few cubes of feta cheese. I put a little boiled water with a little chicken stock over the top to loosen it up and provide a little more flavour. Whilst that was cooling down, I stirred in a table spoon of crème fraîche into the spinach, watercress, rocket and leek mix, which I put through the food processor (a blender would be much better). I then added the onion and feta mix to the food processor, and let it whizz for several minutes (it would require less time in a blender). On tasting, I also added some white wine vinegar, and quite a bit of salt and pepper. It hit the spot perfectly, very nice with some grated cheese on top and served with a bit of rustic bread. I had it as a meal on its own, and put the other half in the freezer.
Roast tarragon chicken with leeks, tender stem broccoli, carrots and roasted potatoes. I was able to pick up a very small roast chicken when I last went shopping. Whole chicken is always a good option, because I will take off what I want to eat and then use the leftovers for chicken Caesar salad, for chicken, mushroom, carrot and pea pie, and I use the skin and chopped carcass for stock. I always forget, when doing a roast, to just do the vegetables for one, so there were far too many on my plate, but they went into the stock.
I stuffed the chicken cavity with chopped onion, leek and a lot of tarragon and pushed tarragon and a little garlic with some butter under the skin of the breasts. There no were Maris Piper spuds in the Tywyn Coey when I last went shopping, so I picked up a bag of “British Lilly,” which turned out, when peeled, to be a lovely shade of yellow. I chopped a small spud into four, and boiled the pieces for five minutes (seven minutes for bigger pieces) whilst duck fat was melting in a pan in the oven. When the spuds had been drained, they were tossed in the duck fat and the pan was returned to the oven.
I had used up all my fresh stock, so whilst the chicken and spuds were roasting I had to improvise with a low salt stock cube simmered with a lot of chopped leek tops, a big handful of tarragon, a spring onion and some parsley, with a glug of white cooking wine. When the chicken was not far off being heated through, I drained the liquids into the stock and then removed the pan to allow the fat to rise to the top, at which point it was drained off. I then made a roux in another pan, and strained the stock through a sieve, little by little, into the roux. It was desperately anaemic so I added some browning to it, but it could have done with a bit more colour. The flavour was great, with loads of tarragon. I steamed the vegetables together for ten minutes to serve.
The whole thing was a really nice change, a bit of a treat as I always consider doing a roast for one more than a little lavish, even though every part of the bird is used for other meals and for stock. I had the top slice of one of the breasts with the skin, which was wonderfully brown and immensely thin and crispy (achieved putting butter over and under the skin and by roasting the chicken on high for 20 minutes when it first goes in the oven). The chicken was moist and had a lovely taste of tarragon. I was particularly taken with the British Lilly spuds, in spite of the seriously daft name. They roasted beautifully, brown and crispy on the outside, yellow and fluffy on the inside. They were delicious, slightly sweet and a beautiful colour. I hope that I’ll be able to buy them again when things go back to normal.
If you have chicken left over, and I had a lot even with a small bird, just run it under a cold tap in a sieve to ensure that the fat drains off. A roast chicken is inevitably very oily, even if you don’t butter the top and put some under the skin (which I did), because as the skin crisps up, the fat drains all over the chicken. If you make stock with the carcass, I recommend chopping all the bones so that all the goodness of the bone marrow flows into the stock. When the fat is drained off and it is left overnight in the fridge, it becomes jelly-like and wobbly, and has to be spooned into a tub for freezing (as above), a sure sign that it has acquired some good flavour from the bones.
Lamb, aubergine, olives and feta in tomato, spinach and herbs. This is a favourite of mine, and I often do it after a big meal the day before, served in a small earthenware dish without accompaniment. I do this in the slow cooker, but it could go in the oven on a low setting perfectly well. It is a great way of using up odds and ends that have been used in other meals, like olives, feta, spinach, and even bits of salad like rocket. Courgette can be used as well as or instead of aubergine, and par-boiled sliced potato can be used to supplement or substitute for both. It can be done with any type of meat that can be converted into chunks, it goes brilliantly with firm fish that holds its shape, or you can have a vegetarian version by adding extra aubergine, olives, spinach, and feta, and other ingredients like artichokes, okra, hard boiled eggs and of course capsicum (green/red/yellow peppers). I always forget about capsicum because I am allergic to them.
I used a lamb chop, griddled it and cooked it whole in the sauce, cutting it into chunks before serving. I had some mashed up tomatoes in the freezer, so threw those into the slow cooker, fried some finely diced onions and garlic and threw them in with two slices of dehydrated lemon, and poured over a little stock before adding the griddled chops. Capers, chopped salted anchovies, olives and some sun-dried tomato pesto also went in. An hour before serving, with the slow cooker on low, I put in a couple of handfuls of spinach, some whole mint leaves and some oregano. Don’t mistrust the mint – it is utterly divine in this sauce. 15 minutes before serving I griddled a couple of aubergine slices and put those in to the sauce, at the same time removing the lamb to cut quickly into chunks before returning them too to the pan. I like my aubergines with nearly-burned stripes, which has to be done on a very high heat and requires constant monitoring.
I served the finished dish with a sprinkling of coarsely torn basil over the top, although coriander would work too. A grating of parmesan goes superbly with the aubergine if you’re not using feta. For me that was plenty on its own after previous day’s roast, with loads left over as a base for another sauce, but rice, cous cous or a salad would go well.
Chicken Caesar salad with grilled croutons. Caesar salad is one of my favourite dishes on the planet, when it is done well. The best one I have ever had was in the British Museum’s Great Court restaurant, which served (probably still does) stunning dishes, often themed around the museum’s temporary exhibitions, and it was a favourite place of mine when I lived in London, either for meeting with friends or eating on my own. One of the few restaurants in London where lots of people are at tables for one. Having a lot of leftover roast chicken just yelled out for a Chicken Caesar, and it’s one of those dishes that gives a lot of flavour in return for just a few ingredients.
I was going to have a go at making my own salad dressing after watching an episode of Rick Stein’s series about his travels in Mexico, when he visited the restaurant where Caesar salad dressing restaurant was created (Caesar’s Restaurant in Tijuana, now managed by well known chef Javier Plascencia) and talked through how it was made (shown here on the MENU website, if you’re interested). But after a particularly long walk and a late arrival back home, I really couldn’t be bothered to do anything remotely resembling cooking, so fell back on a bottle of Cardini Caesar salad dressing, which I bought a couple of weeks ago in the Aberdyfi Village Stores.
Caesar’s Restaurant serves the Romaine lettuce and the sauce without accoutrements, except for one big crouton (a sliced piece of baguette-type bread, deep-fried) and some shaved parmesan. My mother used to do Caesar salad with the addition of chicken pieces, wedges of hard boiled egg, and little cubed croutons. Having walked past the Coast Deli on the way back home, and inhaled a great noseful of wonderful aromas, I was starving, so I added some leftover roast chicken, half a boiled egg (halved again), two pieces of Romaine, two salted anchovy fillets and some little cubed croutons.
I like little bits of crouton sprinkled around rather than one big one, so did it the way that Mum used to. Rustic bread that’s a couple of days old is cubed (about 2cm in all directions) and then rolled in olive oil. They then go under the grill for a couple of minutes, turned regularly. You have to keep a seriously close eye on them, or they can burn horribly, but as this is the only cooked component in the dish, you can afford to stand and watch them. They emerge crispy but with a bit of give. The last thing to be done is to spread each romaine lettuce leaf with the sauce to coat it, which I did with the back of a table spoon. It’s important to do it at the last moment so that the lettuce doesn’t go limp. It is put on the plate with sliced chicken, the croutons and anchovies are added, and more parmesan is shaved or grated over the top of it.
Dressed crab from Dai’s Shed followed by prawns, avocado, mushroom with parmesan and cream. I only ever eat more than one course when I’m in a restaurant. But when dressed crab is available from Dai’s Shed, I usually either have a salad with it or do something relatively small to follow it. I bought my dressed crab frozen because they had run out of fresh, which I had never done before, but there was nothing to worry about – it was wonderful. I like it with loads of salt, pepper, lemon juice and Tabasco, and it tasted so much of summer. In terms of “living from what’s to hand,” it is of course a cheat. I found that Dai’s Shed was open quite by accident on one of my longer daily walks, and the crab was a spontaneous, happy purchase, although it broke my once-a-fortnight shopping rule. Dai’s Shed, by the way, wash all their coins at the moment.
My second course was a copy of someone else’s work. When I first moved to Surrey Quays in London, there was an Italian restaurant nearby called Venezia. It was there for about 15 years, and although it was modest in its ambitions, its decor a little on the Chianti-in-a-basket side, the food was exceptional and it was one of my favourite restaurants in London. During the delivery of an important project at work over a 9-month period, I used to eat there when I came back very late from work at least once a week. I was right at home there, and got to practice my Spanish, as one of the waiters was actually from Madrid. Then, with no warning, the owners went home to Italy whilst I was on holiday in France. Oh the misery! I wish that I had had the chance to ask for at least three of the recipes before they left. One was a starter that they used to turn into a main course for me, consisting of button mushrooms, prawns and avocado slices in a creamy sauce topped with parmesan and finished off under the grill. I’ve never tried to reproduce it, but why not? So this was first attempt to reproduce that recipe. As I also had my dressed crab from Dai’s Shed to eat, I did a starter-sized portion in a tapas dish and to be honest, given the amount of cream and the oil in the avocado, it should probably only ever be served as a starter.
This is the simplest dish ever. I was surprised to see avocados for sale in the Coey, but it was an opportunity to try this dish, which I was thinking about last week, so I jumped at the chance. I was unable to buy raw prawns, but the Coey had cooked ones (“ready to eat”) in the freezer, so I used those. I fried some button mushrooms, and added a fine-chopped clove of garlic and some pancetta cubes until well cooked. I sprinkled over some flour, just enough to help it thicken, added a small glug of white wine and some water to form a base for the sauce and stirred in some crème fraîche, followed by a glug of double cream and some freshly grated parmesan. I then added the cooked prawns to heat through. I left this to reduce for a couple of minutes, gave it a good stir, seasoned it with some salt and black pepper, and then, right at the last moment, put in the sliced avocado to allow that to heat through. The avocado was very ripe, so I really didn’t want to move it around, and left it to heat very gently. If is more than warmed through, it will break up, so it only needs to be in the sauce for a short time.
To serve, I turned it into a terracotta tapas dish, grated some parmesan over the top and put it under the grill until it began to bubble and brown. I added no herbs or spices, because I wanted to try all the ingredients without distraction, but when I tried it I added more black pepper and a good sprinkling of chilli flakes and I think that fresh oregano or marjoram over the top would have been a distinct plus. It was just as I remembered it and I will now be adding the copied dish to my repertoire, but next time I’ll try to find some low fat crème fraîche instead of the full fat version, which I was unable to source last time I went shopping.
Chicken salad with a herb sauce. A lot of chicken in one week, but it didn’t bother me at all. This was more of my leftover roast, and it went down very well indeed. The salad was simply diced tomato, cucumber, lovage and purple onion with capers and a handful of rocket, all topped with a German mustard vinaigrette. The sauce was basically a herb mayonnaise with sour cream stirred in to make it go further, rather than making twice the volume of mayonnaise. A low fat fromage frais would be better from a healthy perspective, but I couldn’t find any. Make sure that the mayonnaise is really thick before stirring in fromage frais or sour cream, as whatever you stir in will instantly loosen it. You can choose whatever herbs you like, and if I had tarragon I would use oodles of that with chicken, but I had a bottle of tarragon mustard (bought – the Maille brand) and some tarragon vinegar (fresh tarragon shoved into a bottle of shop-bought white wine vinegar for a few weeks), so used them in the making of the mayo, and it worked brilliantly. Alternatively, marjoram or dill would go really well with poached chicken, as would parsley and chives and finely diced spring onions. I added fresh chives and parsley. I squeezed a lot of lemon juice over the whole lot.
- I love cucumber. Although I keep it out of the fridge during the winter, as the seasons heat up I transfer it to the fridge but I used to find that it had a tendency to go soggy in the fridge. In a fridge-full-to-capacity crisis a couple of years ago, I placed one vertically in the fridge door between bottles. It worked really well, and I find that cucumber keeps much better when stood up in the fridge door.
- A whole chicken goes such a long way. As well as the roast, I got two other meals out of it this week and have enough left over for two more next week, and I used the skin and bones to make a chicken and leek stock for the freezer.
- Good quality bottled sauces and packet pastes and gels really are helpful, and although I’ve usually tended to avoid them on an everyday basis, I often have something of the sort in my kitchen cupboards as a fallback. My chicken Caesar salad sauce would probably have been better with freshly made ingredients, but the bottled version saved me time on a night when I was running late. I always have curry pastes in the cupboard, as well as a particularly excellent hot and sour soup gel that I will be doing next week.
- Why, oh why do I keep forgetting to label things I put in the freezer? It’s soon going to be like living out of a tombola.
- I have been enjoying the challenge or pre-planned cooking and eating, but I am craving a return to a less rigidly organized and more spontaneous regime, and a less over-stuffed fridge and freezer.
- The dressed crab from Dai’s Shed was such a treat, not merely because it was terrific in its own right, but because I so welcomed eating something prepared with such skill by someone else! And I would seriously love to eat someone else’s cooking for a change. A raspberry ripple ice cream in a cone, from the newly re-opened Sweet Shop (practising strict social distancing, and using masks and gloves), felt like a very special occasion. The fact that Coast Deli and Dining and Walker’s Quality Fish and Chips are now offering phone-and-collect ordering on certain days of an evening is very promising.
The light that I’m waiting for at the end of this particular tunnel is the ability to go to a favourite restaurant, where all the lovely dishes are delivered by a friendly waiter or waitress accompanied by some seriously nice wine, and one can mellow out until ready to drift home.