Category Archives: Cooking

Eating well from what’s to hand, just for fun – week 8

One of the things I have learned over the last eight weeks is that cooking is a lot more relaxing if I stop trying to follow recipes precisely.  I have always been one of those cooks tied to precise recipes, with all the kitchen instruments for weighing, measuring and otherwise reproducing the exact instructions provided by chefs in recipe books, be they British, American or Australian.  I have a few time-honoured dishes that I have either invented or adapted for my own needs, and those I have always been happy just make up as I go along, but generally I have usually had a recipe book open somewhere nearby.  During lockdown that has all seemed too much like hard work, and I have been going with the flow with most of the meals that I’ve cooked recently.  It has been a case of adding a bit of this, a glug of that, and a splash more of the other, adjusting flavours as I go.  I’m also a lot more relaxed about throwing ingredients together that I have never put together in a particular dish before, or making up new dishes from leftovers.  Those aspects of lockdown cooking have been fairly liberating.

Saturday

Mum’s chicken, spinach and mushroom pancake.  This is a recipe of my mother’s.  It took me a while to start cooking Mum’s recipes again after we lost her, but it feels good to revive some of the things I loved but always relied on her to cook.  Mum didn’t actually use spinach in her recipe, but I have a pack that needs using up, and I adore spinach, so in it went.  I am sure that Mum would have approved.  This is an immensely filling dish. I make one decent-sized pancake and make nothing to accompany it.  I would have done it before, but I ran out of flour.  Miraculously, I was able to pick up a bag the last time I went shopping (one of two that were left).

Having banged on above about being liberated from precise measurements, pancakes are simply not a suck-it-and-see item.  The relative proportions are important.  Hence, for four people, 200g plain flour, 370ml milk, 2 large eggs, lightly beaten, 1 tbsp vegetable oil and a pinch of salt.   The eggs and milk are whisked together with the oil, then poured into the flour and whisk lightly, ignoring small lumps.  After a couple of failures on the pancake front, I was told that being careful not to over-whisk the batter was important, and that leaving the batter in the fridge for a couple of hours, giving it a final stir before using, would increase the possibility of success. I’ve never had one fail on me since, but I have to pay real attention to not putting excessive batter into the pan, which makes the pancake too thick.  A thick pancake results in something really stodgy, where it really needs to be light.  Part of the trick is to make sure that the pan is hot enough to melt the butter or heat through the oil, but not so hot that the moment the pancake batter hits the pan it starts to set.  It needs time to reach the sides of the pan and spread properly before the heat is turned up to allow it to set.  I let it set well on one side before using a big wooden spatula to flip it.

To make the filling, mushrooms, spring onions and garlic were tossed in oil until they began to give off a wonderful aroma, a handful of spinach leaves were thrown in, a hard boiled egg was chopped up and thrown in (an essential in Mum’s version), leftover roast chicken was added, and some stock and crème fraîche (traditionally double cream, but the crème fraîche needed using up) were stirred in, together with some leftover tarragon and a big handful of parsley.  Last time I did this I remember thinking that the filling need to be rather oozier than the one I made, because of course the pancake itself is dry, and requires a bit of liquid to balance it.  I was therefore careful not to simmer off too much of the stock and cream.

The filling is added to the pancake, heaped in a line up the middle.  The pancake is folded to cover the filling, and then turned so that the edges are secured underneath.  Cheese is grated over the top (in my case a mix of Cheddar and Emmental) and it goes under the grill until melting.  Anything that has fallen out of the pancake during the perilous transfer to grill pan and then to plate can be served to the side of the pancake.  I scattered over some fresh marjoram leaves to provide an aromatic edge, which was wonderful.  Leftover filling can be used on toast for lunch, or served on a baked potato.

Sunday

Leftovers: beef mince, aubergine and cheese.  It doesn’t look like a thing of beauty, but it worked so well.  I had a small pot in the freezer labelled simply “beef base, needs tomato,” indicating that it had been cooked with onions and was available as a base for something that doesn’t have tomato, like cottage pie, or something that does, like lasagne.  I also had half an aubergine that needed using, and some time ago had bought, as an experiment, a pack of sliced mozzarella that I hadn’t broached. I’ve never had mozzarella in slices before and was very uncertain about it, but it had a long use-by date, so I thought I’d give it a whirl.

So I added whizzed up toms and sun-dried tomato pesto, fried some garlic, orange chillis (on the change from green to red), fresh oregano, fresh mint and mushrooms and stirred them into to the mince, and at the last moment added the rest of the spinach, about half of the pack (so quite a lot) and stirred it in.  A good shake of dark soy sauce gave it some additional richness.  Leftover heaven!  I topped it with an overlapping layer of the mozzarella supplemented by a small amount of grated cheddar in case the mozzarella was tasteless.  Next, a layer of aubergine slices was arranged on top and finished off with a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.  I lobbed it in the oven for 30 minutes on a medium heat, removing it when the mince mix was bubbling.

Leftovers heaven.  The mozzarella was delightfully stretchy, and between that and the cheddar the cheese layer had a really nice flavour and texture.  The mince mix, with a bit of this and a bit of that lobbed in, was deeelish.   I take no credit for it – lobbing in random ingredients and hoping for the best was a roll of the dice, but I’m glad I remember what the ingredients were.  I decanted part of it from the earthenware bowl into a pasta bowl, keeping the rest for later in the week.  I ate it without accompaniment, but salad would be a good fresh counterpart, balancing the richness.

Monday

Hake, asparagus and baby new potatoes with Hollandaise sauce.  This is not an easy dish to pull together single-handed if you haven’t done it many times before (and even then I had to engage in emergency salvage of the Hollandaise on this occasion).  Each of the component parts is very easy, but each is absolutely time critical, so getting it all to the plate in perfect condition is tricky.

This is also the least healthy main course meal on the planet.  It’s definitely a special occasion dish.  This was not a special occasion, but having found a piece two pieces of hake in the freezer during the last defrost, I was dying to do something particularly nice with one of them, as I love hake.  As asparagus and new potatoes have also come into season, and the three are wonderful with Hollandaise, I blew caution to the winds and went for it.

I halved the frozen hake with a chopper, as it was a big bit, returning the other half to the freezer.  When it had defrosted and just before cooking I dragged the hake in seasoned flour.  The hake is cooked skin-sized down in butter with a little olive oil to stop the butter burning when it is on a high heat.  The cooking time depends on the size of the piece of fish.  Mine was quite small, so was done in three minutes on quite a high heat on the skin side to ensure that it crisps up (loads of flavour in the hake skin) and then flipped for another two minutes.  A good amount of butter is useful for basting the fish as you cook it.

Steamed asparagus is gorgeous at the moment and I was able to get a bag of nice large ones that are only ever worth eating at this time of year, when they are tender and packed with flavour.  It has been far too complicated to worry about concentrating on seasonal ingredients during lockdown, but it was a treat to be able to do so on this occasion.  I also steamed the baby new potatoes, which were lovely.

Looking at this, you may be thinking “Heck, that’s a lot of Hollandaise!” Well yes, it is rather. I screwed up part of the process by taking my eye off it for too long when concentrating on the fish, and had to sling in a second egg yolk to rescue it.  That meant more butter too, to thicken it up.   Any regrets when it was on my plate?  Are you kidding me?  I may need a diet of plain lettuce for a week to compensate, but never mind 🙂

Hollandaise is probably the world’s unhealthiest sauce, consisting mainly of egg yolks and butter.  I described it a couple of weeks ago, in conjunction with poached salmon.  It consists of a reduced vinegar, lemon juice and white wine base, in which shallot, bay and peppercorns provide the flavour.  This is tipped hot into a bain marie and stirred into a small cube of butter, and when the butter has melted an egg yolk (or more, depending on how many are eating) is added, and mixed in.  More cubes of butter are added until it thickens up.  Perfect with asparagus on its own (with a poached egg if fancied) or with a fish dish like this one. I like this dish with lots of black pepper ground over the top.  I don’t need a recipe for it, but I do recommend you finding one if this is your first attempt, as the ingredients, quantities and techniques (there are different approaches to choose from) are important.

You don’t need fish or baby new potatoes to serve top quality asparagus with Hollandaise.  Asparagus and Hollandaise are a marriage made in heaven, particularly if you are not seriously hungry, or are looking for a  starter.  If you’re not vegetarian, wrapping the asparagus in Parma or Serrano ham and griddling rather than steaming it is wonderful.

Tuesday

Brie and oregano on toast.  I was running around like a headless chicken all day, and by the time it came to cooking, I wasn’t particularly hungry and just didn’t want to bother.  Happily, I was in possession of a luscious triangle of Brie that I had had sitting in the warm all day, and had reached that perfect state of gooey, soft, creamy, deliciousness that defines a really good Brie.  On a slice of toasted rustic bread (just a Co-Op white cob, but very nice), with a light scattering of oregano over the top, and some ground black pepper, nothing could have been better, especially when accompanied by a rather delicious glass of white wine.

Wednesday

Aberdovey lamb chop with new potatoes in butter and chives, accompanied by mint sauce and a herb salad.  Today was simple food, very fresh.  A griddled lamb chop from the Aberdovey butcher was topped with freshly made mint and caper sauce and accompanied by chopped new potatoes and chopped spring onion, chopped chives and tossed in butter.  A salad wrapped it up.  Simple, fresh, lots of flavours.  The salad was my usual mix of shop-bought and home-grown:  shop-bought tarragon, salad tomato, red chilli, capers, feta and little gem lettuce, plus home-grown buckler leafed sorrel, lovage, marjoram and parsley.  The last of my current batch of mustard vinaigrette went into it.

Thursday

Leftovers (beef mince with aubergine and cheese topping) #2. This second helping of a meal that I cooked earlier in the week heated up beautifully in the oven.  I spooned the leftovers out of the  bigger earthenware dish into a small one, so that the topping still partially covered the mince mix, although the aubergine and cheese were a bit tangled so that the covering was not absolutely complete.  It didn’t seem to matter much, the result being a good crispy topping and a moist sauce beneath.  I am having a love affair with aubergines at the moment.  I had forgotten how wonderful they are.  I served it with a herb salad, and it made me happy 🙂

Friday

Sea bream with salad and sautéed potatoes.  I rushed into Dai’s Shed just before they closed, whilst slathering anti-bacterial gel all over my hands, and to my sincere delight was offered a sea bream.  It made my week.  Even better, I didn’t have to de-scale it myself!  Oh the gratitude.  It’s not a nice job (I always end up absolutely covered in scales), and it was so lovely to have it done on my behalf.  Thank you!   It is such a long time since I’ve had sea bream.  Such a treat.  Dai caught a lot of sea bass last year, which was beautiful, but I had actually forgotten how good sea bream is.  I hope that he catches many more, because I could see this becoming a sea bream summer 🙂

My main priority was to ensure that I didn’t mess it around and risk disguising any of the flavour, so this was an immensely simple dish.  I invented this approach for some of the sea bass last year, and it worked so well with the bream.   I par-boiled the last of the British Lilly spuds, and fried some onion, garlic and herbs.  The spud is placed on top of the onion and herbs on the bottom of a baking dish, and the fish is laid on top.  The head remains on to contribute to the flavours in the bottom of the pan, and the gutting cavity can be stuffed with parsley, lemon, onion, sliced fennel, herbs, whatever you fancy.  My fish was too big for my pan, so I chopped off the tail and laid it alongside.   A mixture of white wine and stock are poured over the top, just to cover the veg.  It takes about 30 minutes on gas 4 for the fish to reach the right stage, and is flipped over half way through.

The fish is then put under the grill for a few minutes each side whilst the spuds are left to finish off in the baking dish.  By cooking the fish in the oven over a stock and vegetable base, the fish remains moist, very like steaming.  Finishing it off under the grill gives it crispness and helps firm it up a little whilst retaining the moisture and the firm but tender texture.

The juice from the bottom of the baking dish can be used to make a sauce, which is what I did. The sauce is made with butter, capers and lemon juice, and the pan juices, all heated through until they start to bubble.  A lot of chopped parsley is then chucked in.  This is cooled off with a little warm water to stabilize it, and an egg yolk is stirred in.  This thickens the sauce, and if it is too thick just add more water.

When the fish skin was nice and crispy, bubbling slightly, I took it out of the grill, chopped off the head and lobbed that into a pan for making fish stock a bit later.  I served the fish very simply with the oven cooked potatoes and a bit of salad, with the sauce.  By the time the bream made it to the plate, via baking dish and grill pan, it was looking very battered (how do restaurants do it), but the flavour was out of this world.  It is very easy to eat on the bone by slicing down the middle of each side.  The side bones are large and don’t detach from the spine in a hurry, so you can simply fold the fish off the skeleton before turning it.  Super.  I served it with the potato, the sauce and a small side salad.  I kept the bones, head and tail, and the vegetables and herbs in the baking dish to make stock.

However you like to cook your fish, do not neglect to try sea bream if it comes your way.  It is superb.

Conclusions

  1. Last week’s roast chicken proved its value as a base for other meals both last week and this week.  The remainders, having been sliced up and put in the freezer, stretched to another two meals this week – the chicken and mushroom pancake and the hot and sour soup.  Including the roast itself, that was five meals in total.
  2. Fresh marjoram and oregano are very easy to buy in garden centres, and give a real edge to many dishes.  They have a wonderful aromatic quality that works well with so chicken, pork, fish and mushrooms but I find that they work well with cheese too and is superb in salads.  I imagine that this type of aromatic, savoury flavour would also be absolutely perfect with eggs – for example in a quiche, scrambled egg or omelette.  It is worth looking up species that are particularly noted for their flavour.
  3. Sea bream, asparagus, new potatoes and last week’s crab have reminded me how great seasonal ingredients are.
  4. When cooking with egg yolks, egg whites are left over.  They freeze perfectly, so don’t need to go to waste if you don’t have an immediate use for them.
  5. Sea bream rocks.

 

Eating from what’s to hand, just for fun – week 7

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.

Saturday

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.

Sunday

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.

Monday

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.

Tuesday

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.

Wednesday

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.

Thursday

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.

Friday

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.

Conclusions

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

Eating from what’s to hand, just for fun – Week 6

Six weeks in to the lockdown.  What still remains so staggering, so completely difficult to grasp, is that a pandemic should have swept so rapidly across the globe and closed down nearly every nation in its path, taking with it so many human lives.  It is the colossal rampancy of it that is so astounding.

I don’t suppose that I am alone in being somewhat concerned about the dubious wisdom of the partial relaxing of the lockdown, announced yesterday for England by the PM.  It will be interesting to see how these concessions are interpreted by the public, particularly given that people have naturally become very fed up with lockdown restrictions.

Although I have so much sympathy for all businesses, particularly small ones, the re-opening of garden centres seems a bad idea.  I am utterly unconvinced that it would be possible to create a low-risk solution to virus transmission in a garden centre.  As an incredibly enthusiastic garden centre shopper, the idea that social distancing can be imposed on people milling around, randomly searching for plants and other products seems incredibly far-fetched. More worrying is that wherever there is an object and a person in intimate contact, there’s a risk of the virus passing from the human to the object.  Everyone touches everything at a garden centre, picking things up to inspect them or read instructions on boxes, touching and occasionally sneezing and coughing over pots, plants, sacks of compost, seed packets, bottles of anti-fungus and bug-killer, boxes of grass seed, bits of hose fitting, bags of bird feed etc etc.   We run those risks when we go food shopping, but that’s for necessities, not for pleasure.  Disposable latex gloves and masks would seem to be a minimum requirement.  Please stay safe.

I continue to work in my garden, do odds and ends of DIY, go for occasional walks, push forward with re-learning French (which I am enjoying enormously) and forging ahead with various projects on my computer.  Never a dull moment.  And I continue to be busy in the kitchen.  In all my life I have never been so active in a kitchen, although this week I again managed to make meals that would serve more than one portion, only needing to be heated up later in the week.   My herbs continue to do well outside in their pots, and as the summer continues to drift nearer and the herbs look increasingly perky, salads are looking like a very strong regular option – and a lot less effort than cooking!

Saturday

On the way in to the dehydrator

Sausage, white pudding and dehydrated vegetable casserole.  Well I know that that doesn’t sound desperately appetizing.  As I was assembling it, looking at the wrinkled up vegetables, doubts were foremost in my mind, and when I first came to tasting it, I was rather like someone approaching a spoon full of reputedly unpleasant medicine.  But wow.  I have now learned that the dehydrated vegetable seriously rocks.

I bought a dehydrator two weeks ago on the recommendation of my friend Sarah, who had bought one for dehydrating fruit and was very much enjoying it.  Like Sarah, I wanted it primarily for fruit, mainly for the autumn when the best British fruit is harvested and is brilliantly fresh and full of flavour.  My plan was to get used to it before I need it, and reading through the book I bought to accompany it, it turned out that it can also be used for dehydrating vegetables, meat and even fish.  So as well as apple and lemon slices, my first batch in my shiny new dehydrator included sliced courgettes, tomatoes, mushrooms, leeks, onions, and some cabbage leaves.  The dehydrated lemon slices worked superbly when thrown into last week’s gumbo and this week’s chilli con carne, really fantastic, but I seriously lacked confidence about the vegetables.  One forges ahead anyway.

The core components of my casserole were a pork and black pudding sausage, a slice of white pudding (halved to form two discs), some pieces of bacon, all from the freezer, a bay leaf off the tree in my garden and a good amount of diced onion gently fried in oil.  All of the other solid components were dehydrated:  a lot of dried leek, mushroom, courgette, and some cabbage leaves.  Also some sage that I had actually sun-dried earlier in the year during that long hot spell.  The liquid components, which I added as I went along after tasting and re-tasting to try to get just the right balance of acidity and depth, were chicken stock, white wine, mustard, a hit of soy to give it a bit of body, and a small squeeze of tomato paste for just a hint of sweetness.

To my genuine astonishment, it was a great success.  The dehydrated vegetables all rehydrated splendidly and imparted a dense and vibrant flavour to the casserole.  The textures, about which I had been so worried, were great, not even slightly chewy.  It did not look particularly elegant in the bowl, even with the optimistic sprinkling of parsley over the top.  Once again, no Michelin stars or Masterchef awards, but as a completely new experiment in rich flavour and excellent texture it was a real winner.

I didn’t need anything else to accompany it, although mash would work really well.

Sunday

Pitta pockets with herb salad, capers, sour cream and anchovies.  One of those timeless, simple meals that you just throw together with whatever salad stuff you have to hand.

The pitta is simply toasted and then either cut along the side or halved.  I halved mine.  In a bowl I mix whatever salad stuff I happen to have to hand.  Today I chucked in some diced tomatoes, diced cucumber, a bit of lettuce (little gems are my favourite), and fresh herbs (in my case coriander, lovage, marjoram, parsley and mint), capers and some chopped salted anchovies.  Then I squeezed in some lime juice and added two big spoonfuls of sour cream, some ground sea salt and black pepper, and gave the whole lot a good stir.  And that’s it.

You can tackle this in a dignified way, spooning the mixture into the pitta  before eating it, or you can simply spoon in the contents as you go.  Either way, it’s a bit of a messy process to eat it, but who cares?  The flavours are so fresh and the hands-on approach feels very summery.

Monday

Slow-cooked chilli con carne with black beans, rice and sour cream.  Chilli con carne literally means, in Spanish, chilli with meat, suggesting that the chilli is the star of the show.  The carne is beef, and in the UK often minced beef it used, but I like it done with chunks of tougher cuts cooked until tender in the slow cooker.  The slow cooker is one of those pieces of kitchen equipment that I would hate to be without, and I’ve had one since university days.  I had an enormous piece of chuck steak in the freezer, about half an inch thick, and cubed it into 1 inch pieces.  Chuck steak doesn’t shrink much during cooking, so you can be fairly confident that chunks will retain their size.  If you are using one, the slow cooker must be pre-heated.

Finely chopped onion, sliced chillis and finely chopped garlic are fried until translucent and just beginning to brown.  The following are then added:  cayenne, smoked paprika, ground cumin, ground coriander, a good sprinkle of dried coriander, some fennel seeds, a fresh or dried bay leaf and either some cinnamon or a piece of cassia bark (the latter my preference) and some dehydrated lemon slices.  Once heated through they are removed to the slow cooker.  The beef chunks are fried on high heat until browned all over, flour is sprinkled over the beef, given a good stir to coat, then added into the slow cooker, and given a good stir to mix with the other ingredients.  Peeled and chopped tomato are added together with some beef stock to cover, and the whole lot is left to its own devices for several hours for the chuck steak to tenderize and the spices to blend.  I only had a couple of tomatoes, so added the the dehydrated tomato slices that I had donef on Saturday, together with (if you’ve been reading this blog since it started, you’ll have guessed it) a big glug of Big Tom and some sun-dried tomato pesto.  Two whole dried limes were also thrown in, an excellent online purchase.  Half an hour before serving, I put in black beans (from a can).  Kidney beans are more traditional, but I love the flavour of the black bean, and the ebony shine looks wonderful against the reddish mixture and the green of the coriander (or parsley if coriander is unavailable).

The chuck steak was superbly tender, the flavours had merged perfectly and the black beans had retained their structural integrity.  I served it with plain boiled rice and chives, and a heavenly dollop of sour cream.  If you want to bulk it out a bit more, guacamole would also be a traditional accompaniment.  Alternatively, a side salad with lots of cooling cucumber and tomato, and some aromatic coriander and a spritz of either lemon or lime juice would be excellent as a contrast to the rich flavours.

There was another portion left over for another day, which I’ve placed in the freezer and will be anticipated with enthusiasm.

Tuesday

Pork and black pudding sausage, smoked back bacon, baked beans and a fried egg.  If you knew me, you would know that I never, ever eat fried eggs.  It’s a bête noire.  The amount of oil needed to cook them makes my hair stand on end, and I never liked the flavour of the fried egg whites, or the crispy edges.  I griddle or grill sausages and bacon and poach the egg.  However, I screwed up the timing on the meal, so everything else was ready and the egg was still sitting patiently in the bottom of a cup.  The quickest solution was to fry it, and I was quite curious about how it would taste as the last time I had a fried egg must have been about 30 years ago.  The pork and black pudding sausage was divine, with great chunks of black pudding.  The smoked bacon was heavenly.  The Heinz baked beans were just as they have been for decades, although I had accidentality bought a rather bigger tin than usual, so there were far too many of them.  The dollop of Branston small-chunks pickle hit the spot.  The egg, however, simply confirmed my prejudices.  The yolk was gorgeous, but the oily white was just as I remembered it, and the fried egg experiment will not be repeated.  Each to their own, and good to know!

Wednesday

Herb-stuffed and bacon-wrapped baked trout with a tomato and onion salad.  In my massive freezer sort-out, I found an enormous whole trout.  I was slightly taken aback by its size, but since I craved trout, I decided to roast it whole, and remove one side to eat, retaining the other side for a salad.  Baked trout, like poached salmon, is delicious cold, unlike most fish.

I beheaded and gutted the trout and  stuffed the cavity with onion slices, parsley, lovage and bay, and then wrapped the whole thing in smoked bacon slices. If not wrapping in bacon, I would have added lemon slices to the stuffing.  The bacon has the double effect of keeping in the moisture of the fish whilst the fat crisps up the skin of the trout.  Win-win.  I put it on a metal grid in a baking tray and put it on a fairly high heat in the oven to crisp the bacon and cook the trout through.  I served it with a simple tomato and onion salad topped with mustard vinaigrette and given several turns of the pepper mill and a good sprinkling of sea salt.  It doesn’t look very exciting on the plate, but just letting the flavours get on with it without excessive elaboration or accessorizing works so well.  Simple.  Quick.  Full of flavour.  Happy.  I ate half of it, and put the rest in an airtight box in the fridge for another day.

Thursday

Chilli con carne #2.  One pot cooking is a fabulous way of generating enough food for two or more meals, cutting down on the time spent in the kitchen.  I love chilli con carne done with chunks rather than mince, and this was probably even better after a couple of days allowing the flavours to mellow than it was on the day that I actually cooked it.  Spring onions chopped into the plain boiled long grained rice gave both freshness and a good contrast to the richness of the chilli.  A sprinkle of lemon or lime over the top is always a good idea.

Friday

Cold trout with herb salad and tarragon, lovage and parsley mayonnaise.  Cold cooked trout is a heavenly thing.  I had the other half of the trout wrapped in bacon during the week, and removed this half from the bone at the time and put it in the fridge.  I seriously love salad, but I do understand that not everyone is as keen.  For me, it has to have herbs and a great dressing.  I divided my salad into two, the first part slices of cucumber and tomato with fresh marjoram leaves in between.  The rest of the salad, herbs and leaves, consisted of shredded little gem, lovage, parsley, spring onions, buckler-leaved sorrel (which, unlike other sorrel, has a great citrus hit), sliced chilli, marjoram and mint.   I sprinkled capers everywhere, and added some Fragata lemon-stuffed olives in the middle.  I made mayonnaise with tarragon mustard, fresh lovage and parsley, sea salt and a squeeze of lemon juice.  Mustard vinaigrette was tossed into the leaves.  A simple meal, and always such a pleasure to use herbs that are growing outside the kitchen door.

Conclusions

  1. I have mentioned cooking wine on a number of posts, mainly talking about white wine.  I keep separate wines to drink and wines to cook with.  I am a fussy wine drinker, red and white, but my rules on cooking wines are simple.  Where white wines are concerned I don’t pay the earth for them, but neither do I buy at the bottom end.  So I tend to avoid French wines for cooking, because even really poor wines tend to be over-priced, although Muscadet can sometimes be found at a good price for cooking, and is often great for the purpose.  I tend to use Italian dry whites for cooking, unless there is a really good reason for something sweeter, and known grape types like Pinot Grigio or Soave tend to work well.  German or Alsace whites can work if you want a sweeter white wine.   Red wines are different, because you are generally trying to add body and richness to a dish.  When cooking over a long period I like really big, fruity, rich reds, lacking subtly.  A lower-priced Chianti or Shiraz usually works well.  On the other hand, if it is a sauce for steak, cooking relatively quickly, something of superior quality will be a much better choice.
  2. A hit of even the most ordinary supermarket brandy can give a rich red wine casserole a really helpful lift.
  3. Chilli tends to be intensified in the freezer.  Whole chillis pack a real punch when frozen, but even if you freeze down something that has chilli cooked with it, it will usually be hotter when it emerges.
  4. A tip with salads is that if you soak a piece of kitchen paper in cold water (Blitz is excellent for this) and put it over the salad, it will keep it beautifully fresh, even out of the fridge.  If too much salad has been made, placing it in a zip-lock bag with a piece of kitchen paper in the bag, and put it in the fridge, it will be almost as fresh the following day.
  5. Again thinking about salads, I have learned the hard way to leave adding vinaigrette to the last moment before serving.  For one thing it prevents it sinking to the bottom and leaking out, and for another it prevents the salad going soggy.
  6. The new dehydrator rocks (the photo above shows a batch ready for putting into the dehydrator), but one does need an awful lot of airtight boxes! Not to mention the room to store them.

Dai’s Shed – Open and selling seafood on the wharf!

Dai’s shed is open on the wharf, selling freshly caught seafood on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 11am – 2pm.  So miffed that I didn’t know, because they have had flounder in, and had just sold out when I turned up!  But I came away with a frozen dressed crab, so it was still a splendid result.   Fresh live lobster, and fresh dressed lobster are also available.  Lockdown just got a lot fishier.

This card from “Dai’s Shed,” selling superb locally caught seafood from Easter until Autumn, shows Dai’s fishing boat at low tide against a backdrop of the hills over the estuary.

 

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.

Eating well from what’s to hand, just for fun – Week 4

Wild garlic

Four weeks of lockdown.  Donald Trump is wondering whether drinking disinfectant could solve the Coronavirus problem (please don’t try it – it could kill you) whilst the rest of the world works hard to keep normality afloat.

I am hugely conscious that having a garden during lockdown, even a very small one, makes all the difference in the world, particularly when the weather is this good.

Thanks to a local friend of mine who knows about local charity activities, I found myself seated at my sewing machine making simple bags with draw strings for National Health Service workers dealing with Covid-19 patients.  They take off their work clothes, throw them in the bags and put the whole lot, bag and all, in the washing machine when they get home.  Simple ideas, but so practical.  And it is a bit of a relief to be contributing something, if only on a very small scale.  Six made so far.

In the meantime, my fridge-freezer and I are building on a lifetime bond of casual intimacy to form a new, and intense relationship.  It has to be said that this new relationship is not always silky smooth.  Both the fridge and freezer components are far too small for long-term social distancing and, a major huff, I had to defrost it on Friday because its icy growths were like a form of rampant and rapidly mutating cauliflower.  It is, however, saving my sanity and I am truly grateful that it soldiers on in spite of its somewhat geriatric status.  I am only hoping that it forgets that it is around 20 years old and that it continues to hang on with all the grit and panache that it has shown to date.  I pat it encouragingly from time to time.

Saturday

Dry limes. Image source: Spice Mountain

Part 2 of Ethiopian Doro Wat.  The flavours of last week’s doro wat, an Ethiopian curry, had intensified in the freezer, bringing out the chilli with real enthusiasm.  It was just as good as it was before, again served with pilau rice and yogurt with chopped mint and cucumber.  The dried limes, which are a recent discovery (which can be ordered from Spice Mountain, which I used to visit in Borough Market, or Amazon) look decidedly unappetizing but are truly delicious, an intense hit of lime in a curry that is just as warmly aromatic as it is spicy.  They need a long cook, ideal for a slow cooker or long oven cook, but I do recommend them.

Sunday

Avgolemono Soup.  I cooked this a couple of weeks ago, but here it is again.  Avgolemono, which in Greek means egg-lemon, is surprisingly filling. It is made with good quality chicken stock. The traditional way of doing it is to poach fresh chicken to make a stock for the soup, and often the poached chicken meat is chopped into the soup.  I usually use home made stock from the freezer, and today used my last batch.  There is nothing wrong with using a chicken stock cube as a base.  It won’t be as authentic or fresh as poaching chicken or using a home-made stock, but it will still taste great and let’s face it – whatever is easiest has to be the best right now.

The other key ingredients, if you base this on one serving, are three tablespoons of lemon juice, an egg, loads of parsley and (the element that makes it a main meal rather than a starter), a good handful of rice.

The rice is cooked in the stock, with a lid, until ready. Whilst the rice is cooking, the lemon juice and egg are whisked together with a hint of cayenne, a little salt and a pinch of sugar to balance the lemon. I usually do this with just the yolks, but I noticed that Rick Stein does it with the whole egg and a bit of butter, so I tried it and it worked well, thickening the soup more efficiently.  The trick with this dish is to add spoonfuls of the hot stock to the room temperature egg and lemon mix, stir it well, repeat, stir well and repeat until the egg and lemon is warmed through and won’t separate. Then pour the whole lot back into the stock and rice pan and heat very gently with the chopped parsley, being careful not to bubble it, or it will separate. It is so easy to make, and has been a massive favourite of mine since I first discovered it.

Monday

Butter-fried garlic mushrooms, sliced bacon chop, chunks of courgette, wild garlic, wild garlic flowers and parsley on toast.  Oh the bliss.  Slightly aged mushrooms and a time-worn courgette were transformed from almost has-beens into a classy, utterly divine and very simple meal.  The older the mushrooms, the hotter the heat needs to be to brown them, so I added olive oil to my butter to prevent it burning, and throw in the bacon pieces at this point too.  Add the courgettes only when the mushrooms are doing well, because they cook quickly.  When the courgettes are browned turn the heat right down, and then add a very finely chopped shallot and garlic clove (can be done in a mini food processor) to heat them through slowly.  The garlic is a matter of taste.  I like quite a lot.  Once the onions are cooked, a good glug of water cools things down.  Warm through until everything is just simmering and add chopped wild garlic, chopped parsley, heat for a minute or two to heat through and a dollop of double cream.  Stir.  Add a little more cream if required, but not too much or it will damp down the other flavours.  Served on griddled, grilled or toasted bread, a sprinkle with chopped parsley for some extra colour and a squeeze of lemon juice or a tiny sprinkle of balsamic vinegar.

Tuesday

Lemon-chicken and herb salad.  The herb salad was a mad, wonderful pile of flavours, a combination of cuttings from my garden and my fathers.  Lovage, lemony buckler leafed sorrel, aromatic sweet cicely, marjoram, oregano, and wild garlic formed the herb element.  A standard supermarket packet of rocket and watercress, supplemented with a couple of little gem leaves, formed the base for the herb salad.  On top of this, awith all due ceremony, I laid sliced barbecued chicken breast, marinated overnight in lemon, a dollop of Dijon mustard, some crushed garlic, some ground black paper and a good splosh of olive oil.  It caramelizes superbly on the griddle, grill or barbecue, and is a wonder with additional feta, diced tomato, diced cucumber and a creamy lemon and mustard dressing to finish it off.  Wild garlic flowers were added not merely as a garnish, but to add to the flavour.  Edible flowers are a joy.  Lemon chunks were another essential, that sharp citrus edge bringing all the other flavours to life.

Wednesday

French Omelette with diced tomato, chopped wild garlic and cheese.  French omelettes are never categorized as “fast food,” perhaps because the escape the pejorative associations that the term fast food conjures up, but they are so quick to make and full of flavour. My Mum used to do one that was filled with nothing but chopped fresh herbs, and was sensationally good.  Like sandwiches and pizzas you can personalize them ad infinitum and are perfect for using up leftovers, like that last slice of ham, the one spring onion left in the salad draw and those puzzling three mushrooms.

If you have any left-over egg whites from another meal, you can whip them up and fold them into the egg mixture to make a seriously fluffy, soufflé-like omelette.   Some people like to cook all their fillings into the egg mix, Chinese foo yung style.  When using mushrooms I like to slice them and do just that, tossing them into the egg mix, along with a chopped spring onion if I have one, or chives,  but I then add the cheese and any other ingredients to the centre of a part-formed omelette.  I like the surface to be a little runny.  It continues to cook when you fold it, so if you like the folded interior a little soft, you need it to have a well formed base but a runny surface when you take it off the heat.

With this omelette, all the ingredients were thrown on to the half-cooked eggy surface.  This means that the grated cheese melts, the sliced wild garlic wilts, and the diced tomato heats through without cooking.  The egg yolks were sensationally yellow, almost buttercup, making the finished, folded omelette look as though it had been infused with saffron.

I never bother serving anything with an omelette as I find them so filling, but a green salad would go well, or a simple sliced tomato and raw onion salad to cut through the egginess would work.  Perhaps chips if you are seriously hungry!

Thursday

Bacon chop with shallow-fried spud slices and summer herb sauce.  First, sorry for the awfulness of the photos here, but I cooked late, and I am not used to taking photos in artificial light.  I had never had a bacon chop before moving out of London, but it is a wonderful discovery, just under an inch thick and, whilst solid, still has an almost tender texture.  A cross between bacon and gammon, and I usually have one in the freezer.  The bacon chop is griddled (my preference), grilled or fried until it has a crispy texture.

The sauce, which could be a simple parsley sauce, is better with a good mixture of herbs if you are growing them or can get hold of them.  It can be made either as a béchamel (a roux of equal parts of flour and butter, with warm milk added slowly to provide a thick base for a sauce), but my preference is a lighter approach, a velouté (also based on equal parts of flour and butter) using vegetable or chicken stock stirred into the butter and flour mix, finished with a dollop of crème fraîche.

If you are doing a béchamel, I would recommend adding a large bay leaf and some chopped shallot or onion to the warm milk or stock to give it an aromatic edge, leaving it to infuse on a very low heat for around 10 minutes before adding it to the roux.  Warming the milk before adding is key , so that the flour in the roux cooks through thoroughly and doesn’t taste floury in the sauce.

It is just as important with a velouté to ensure that the stock going into the flour and butter mix is just short of boiling, so that it cooks the flour.  White wine is a good addition, but only after the velouté has heated through fully and is thick.

The herb mix I used in this sauce, all fresh, was parsley, marjoram, lovage, wild garlic, sweet cicely, chives and a spring onion.  The spring onion needs to be very finely chopped, but everything else is better for being roughly chopped, so that the flavours shine through.  The lovage is particularly vibrant in this sauce.  I leave my chopped herbs stirred into a little white wine whilst I am preparing the rest of the meal, to release the flavour and retain the freshness.

If you want to bulk the meal out, a vegetable accompaniment, like tender stem or purple sprouting broccoli or asparagus are winners, a hard boiled egg can be chopped into the sauce, or it is excellent with a poached egg on top of the bacon chop, which works splendidly with the herb sauce.

You may think, looking at it, that I went overboard with the sauce because you cannot actually see the bacon chop (should have thought of that before pouring it, knowing I was intending to take a photo), but I love the sauce so much and the bacon chop is so full of flavour that it holds its own perfectly.  Not for me the twin culinary graces of elegance and restraint favoured by Michelin starred restaurants.  And no regrets either.  The flavours, so fresh and vibrant, were perfect.

Herb (or parsley) sauce is incredibly versatile as it goes well with chicken and many sorts of fish. When served with fish, lemon zest is a good addition, and if you are poaching the fish, you can use some of the poaching water as the base for a velouté.  I also used to do a vegetarian version with baked butternut squash, the creamy parsley sauce providing a terrific contrast to the earthy depth and  sweetness of the squash.

Friday

Tomato, chopped wild garlic and grated cheese that had been prepared to to into my French omelette, but I had done too much, so although they were rather meagre in quantity, I had tipped them into a bag and put the bag in the fridge.

Tonight, I wasn’t terribly hungry and I really fancied something simple and quite small, so I griddled a slice of fresh bread on both sides, scrambled an egg, and tipped the cheese, tomato and wild garlic out of the bag and into the slowly scrambling egg.

Everyone has their favourite way of doing scrambled egg, and here’s mine.  I heat butter in the omelette pan until it starts to sizzle.  Then I break in an egg, split open the yolk with a wooden spoon, and stir very gently so that there are huge streaks of yellow threading through the translucent egg white.  Only when the egg white begins to go opaque do I stir it properly, mixing it together, pulling it in to form curds.  As soon as it begins to consolidate I throw in whatever I am intending to add, and cook just until the cheese melts.  I like it slightly liquid, so I remove it from the heat and turn it very quickly on to the toast to prevent it cooking further.   I served it with a small herby salad.

Conclusions

  1. If someone like my father is good enough to provide you with cut fresh herbs, immediately wrap their bases in water-soaked kitchen towel for transporting them, and then put them in water, like a bunch of flowers, as soon as you get home.  Change the water daily and they will stay fresh for several days.
  2. A friend and I, living a 10 minute walk from one another, have decided to let each other know when we have too many vegetables or herbs that need using up. It’s a strange ceremony practised in latex gloves, putting food down in front of the door like an offering, ringing the bell and then backing off for it to be collected, but it works.  I gave her a couple of bunches of fresh herbs, and she gave me some of her spuds that are sprouting, which I will use for soup.
  3. I had to defrost the freezer.  When I eat out of the freezer, I find that I am living out of the front it because I am using its ingredients, combined with fresh veg, to cook multiple portions, one to eat and the others to put in the freezer.  Even though there are lots of more exciting bits in the back, it is a drama to unpack the front to get to them, so there is a high probability that I will find myself eating mainly the things I have cooked recently.  Reorganizing the freezer fills my soul with dread, but I used the need to defrost it as an excuse to re-organize, re-inventory and hopefully introduce some more variety into my cooking.
  4. I seem to have the national collection of sausages.  The challenge will be to use them in interesting and diverse ways.  Or to have them with egg, baked beans and HP sauce 🙂

 

Eating well from what’s to hand, just for fun – Week 3

The weather was stunning last week, sunny with bright blue skies and first blossom on my cherry trees.  Everything looked absolutely normal from up here on the hill, the water of the estuary and Cardigan Bay beyond glistening and twinkling, very beautiful.  Easter weekend and the following week are usually a mad-house, with tourists flooding in, eating ice creams, munching chips and catching unsuspecting crabs from the jetty, with the beach crammed with families, wind-breaks and sand castles.  By contrast, the silence continues to be truly deafening.  The lock-down continues to be observed, and face masks, visors and latex gloves are increasingly commonplace.   I continue to play with my new cooking regime, and it is an interesting challenge that amuses me, but although the tone is light, the reality is very much on my mind. 

Saturday

On Friday I made myself a lamb shawarma on the bbq, along with two sausages and a couple of chicken thighs.  I kept the sausages for brunch on Sunday, dipped cold into Levi Roots Reggae Reggae sauce (we all have our vices!).  I used the chicken thighs, beautifully smokey, to make a chicken Caesar salad.  I cheated.  I have never actually summoned up the courage to make my own Caesar salad dressing, and always buy the Cardini bottle version.  Fortunately for me, the Aberdyfi Village Stores sells it, so I was able to slosh it all over the place as usual.  I like my chicken Caesar salad with Romaine lettuce, salted anchovies and wedges of par-boiled egg, as well as little cubed crutons painted with olive oil and done under the grill.  I forgot to take a photo.

Sunday

Pan-fried plaice fillet with capers, served with creamed leeks, lemon zest, peas and bacon pieces, and some shallow-fried semi-circular “chips.”  I love the distinctive flavour of plaice, subtle but unmistakeable.  I find that any cooking method other than poaching works a treat.  Poaching drains the flavour and does nothing for the texture, whereas frying, grilling or roasting all lend real depth to the flavour and firm up the texture.

Normally I would dredge the fish in egg and then flour, but I am short of both so just fried it directly in butter with a scattering of capers, allowing the butter to go brown and nutty.  The creamed leek part of the meal is so easy.  The bacon bits are gently fried in a little butter, the leeks, peas and lemon zest are added and left soften in a lidded saucepan for a few minutes before adding a splash of wine and a good slosh of single cream.  Heat gently until nearly ready to serve and then raise the heat to bubble the wine and cream, which will thicken it up.  I rarely eat chips at home, because I don’t have room in my kitchen for a deep fat fryer, and I am a bit wary of a pan of boiling oil in my kitchen, but my Mum used to do the following, something that was very like a chip but shallow-fried.  A spud is sliced into oval discs about 1cm thick, and these can be halved into semicircles.  These are  parboiled for 5 minutes, during which time about 2-3cm (1 inch) of cooking oil is heated.  To test if it is hot enough, put in one of the slices, and if that starts to sizzle, put the rest in.  If they have been par-boiled they take about five minutes after the heat has come back up to sizzling strength.

In the excitement of having my first chips in months, I served myself far too many, but the leftovers were frozen down for incorporation into a mash I am planning for next week.

I love all types of fish, but it is remarkably difficult to get hold of here, which seems mad for two neighbouring seaside villages.  The only local supplier of fish is excellent, usually operating in Aberdovey between Easter and October (when the weather allows him to go out in his boat), but obviously has a limited variety of stock, confined to what he can catch locally.  At the moment, of course, he is closed for the duration.  Vacuum-packed salmon, cod and haddock are usually available in the small supermarkets, but anything else is rather beyond their scope.  I got into the habit of buying my seafood in the Chester and Wrexham areas when over in my father’s direction and returning them here to put in the freezer, and today’s plaice fillet was bought elsewhere and frozen down, but obviously that’s not practical right now.  I am still eating my way through the freezer, but when I have enough space I will see if I can buy online from specialist seafood suppliers, although if other online food shopping is anything to go by, that may be impossible.

Monday

Melanzane alla Parmigiana (aubergine in parmesan cheese).  One of my favourites and one of my occasional vegetarian dishes.  Perhaps surprisingly I can buy aubergines locally.  I didn’t have the right ingredients for a classic Melanzane alla Parmigiana in the fridge, but this alternative version worked remarkably well.  The main ingredients missing were mozzarella, which is wonderful in this dish, and fresh basil for the topping.  I replaced the basil with bottled basil pesto, added in blobs as I built up the layers in the ovenproof dish (which I will do in the future, as it worked brilliantly), and added fresh oregano on top, and replaced the mozzarella with leftover feta (which gives a very welcome touch of brightness and freshness to the dish) and cheddar.  It wasn’t as great as mozzarella, but it was pretty good.  Fortunately, I had plenty of Parmesan, purchased on my last shopping trip.  It is cooked in two parts.

First, the sauce.  I put some halved tomatoes in boiling water for a couple of minutes, plunging them into cold water to remove the skins.  Then the garlic and onions are sautéed in olive oil until the onion is soft, about 5 minutes.  The tomatoes, garlic, onions and, in my case, a big glug of Big Tom are whizzed up in the food processor and poured into a pan.  Next, finely sliced fresh chilli or dried chilli flakes, and some serious grindings of black pepper are added to the mix.  The resulting sauce is then simmered for around 15-20 minutes.  At this point pre-heat the oven to Gas 6/200C/390F.

Second, the aubergine needs to be cooked.  Slice the glossy, dark-skinned aubergines into disks about 5mm-1cm thick.  Pour some seasoned flour into a bowl and toss the aubergine in the flour.  Heat some olive oil in a frying pan, making sure that the oil is very hot so that the flour stays on the aubergine and it cooks quickly rather than sucking up all the oil.  Fry til golden-brown on both sides and drain on kitchen paper and allow to cool.

The final stage is to layer the aubergine with the sauce, blobs of basil pesto (if using) and cheeses in alternating layers in an ovenproof dish.  First the aubergine, then the tomato sauce and pesto, then the mozzarella and parmesan if you have it, or other cheeses if you don’t, pushed down into the sauce, followed by the next layer of sliced aubergine. You simply repeat the layers until you reach the top layer of aubergine.  Add a thin layer of the sauce, cheese and a good sprinkling of parmesan.  If you want added texture, you can mix the parmesan with breadcrumbs, which is what I did tonight.  If you have no fresh herbs to serve when it comes out of the oven, you might want to sprinkle some dried herbs in with the breadcrumbs.  Then pop it in the oven for around 25 minutes, but keep checking towards the end of the cooking time to make sure that it comes out when bubbly and golden brown, before the top burns.  Serve with fresh basil on top, or whatever you have as an equivalent.  I put one lot of oregano on top before I put it into the oven, because I like them crispy, and another lot of fresh just prior to serving.

It is difficult to retrieve a portion from the oven dish tidily, and it looks like a disorganized heap on the plate (at least, it does the way I do it), but the flavours are great.  I served it with a small salad of diced cucumber and tomato in a little gem leaf, with ground fennel seed over the top, a serious hit of black pepper and sea salt, and a French vinaigrette dressing based on tarragon vinegar.  The tarragon vinegar is simply made by stuffing a pack of fresh tarragon into a big bottle of white wine vinegar and resting for a couple of weeks for the flavours to develop.  Tarragon is usually available from the Tywyn Spar, which almost always has an excellent selection of fresh herbs.  Feta would have been a good addition but I needed the last bit in the fridge for the melanzane itself.

I often serve this as an accompaniment to another dish when I’m cooking for more than one;  it works very well as a side dish with just about any meat or white fish dish.  I made nearly double what I needed and will be having the remainder with as an accompaniment to Tortilla Española later in the week.

Another version of this dish adds crisped Parma ham layer to the last layer of aubergine, which then has the rest of the top level added to it as above.  Alternatively, the same combination of vegetable ingredients are also very good when finely chopped or roughly whizzed in a food processor and used as a sauce over pasta, with or without meatballs, with the cheese dotted here and there, and baked or grilled until the cheese melts.

Tuesday

Ethiopian chicken curry (Doro Wat).   The Ethiopian national dish is a top favourite of mine, a very simple one-pot meal.  It is made with berbere spices.  The Co-Op in Tywyn does a Bart tin of berbere spice mix, but it is also easy to buy online.  My favourite blend is sold by a third party on Amazon.  Berbere is basically made up of chilli, cumin, coriander, fenugreek, cloves, allspice, paprika, carom, ginger, cardamom, nutmeg and black pepper.  Seeds and pods, rather than ground spices, are used wherever possible.  It has a warm, aromatic punch with a bit of heat, and this permeates whatever is cooked with it, especially when marinated overnight.  As well as chicken, it is traditionally made with hard boiled egg, which is spectacularly good.  The soft but solid texture and blandness of the egg is a wonderful contrast to the rest of the curry’s textures and its rich flavours.  I chucked in a couple of dehydrated limes and some okra into mine, because I love them, but they are not part of the traditional recipe.  I also had some aubergine left over from the melanzane alla parmagiana, so that was also thrown in, chopped, and fried with the onions.  This is a slowly cooked dish, so I do it in the slow cooker (pre-heated for half an hour on high and then dropped to low), but it can be done in a casserole dish on a very low heat on the hob just as easily.

I use bone-in chicken thighs because I like the flavour, but I remove the skin beforehand and render it down for frying the onions.  It’s a simple dish if, as I do, one avoids making one’s own berbere spice mix and Niter Kibbeh (spice-infused clarified butter, although it’s on my to-do list because it looks wonderful).  First the chicken is marinated in the berbere spice mix with olive oil, sea/rock salt, sliced ginger, crushed garlic and lemon juice overnight.

When ready to cook, heat some olive oil in a frying pan, chop an onion, some garlic and sliced ginger and fry it.  When it has heated through and is just beginning to brown, tip it into the pot with a small glass of white wine, a spoon of honey and enough stock to create a sauce.  Into the frying pan, add the marinated chicken thighs and allow the entire dish to heat gently, turning to ensure that both sides are warmed through, and then tip into the slow cooker or casserole.  If it is in the slow cooker, and you are using four thighs that you have warmed through in the frying pan, five hours on low will do fine.  If you are heating on the hob, two hours on a very low setting should be fine.  This allows all the flavours to mature and blend.

Traditionally Doro Wat is served with very thin flat-bread called injera.  It would probably work well with rice or cous cous too.  I am a complete salad addict, so love this served with a fresh green salad, with feta when I have any (unfortunately used up now), as many herbs as possible, with a major mint component.  I also made my usual Greek yogurt, mint and cucumber mix to serve alongside it.

I made two batches, one for me and one for the freezer.

Wednesday

Multi-national tapas:  Tortilla española and melanzane alla parmigiana.  In England a Spanish Omelette is often made with mixed veg, and is very good, nowadays usually referred to as a frittata and great for using up leftovers, but the traditional version in Spain, where my family lived in the 1970s, is made just with potatoes and onions, which is what I have done here.  In Spain tortilla española (pronounced torteelya espanyola)  is eaten hot, warm or cold, and all work for me, usually served with herb salad but here with leftover melanzane.  They are often served in cake-like slices as tapas, which are eaten either singly as quick snacks or with other tapas to make up a meal.  If I am cooking for more than one, I like to make them small in diameter but thick in depth, which is how they were served where I lived.  Every time I make one I am propelled back in time nearly four decades to the hills beyond Barcelona, where we spent many summer weekends riding horses or collecting blackberries in the sunny, dry and deeply aromatic countryside, wrapping up our activities with a deep slice of freshly made warm tortilla, at least 3 inches thick, before returning to the city.

Whether you slice or dice your spuds is a matter of personal choice.  I slice them because I like the laminated texture that it creates.  They are parboiled for around 5 minutes and drained in a sieve until all the steam escapes.  Again, dicing or slicing onions is down to personal preference.  I like them sliced, and quite thickly so that the onion retains its texture.  The onions are fried (with garlic if using).  The parboiled potato slices are then browned.  Eggs are whisked together lightly.  The egg mix is simply seasoned with salt and pepper.  You can either tip the onions and potatoes into the egg mix and pour into the pan, or mix the potatoes and onions in the pan and pour the egg over the top.  The more onion and spud you have, the less egg you need to fill the pan, but you still need enough to cover the contents.  But more egg makes it more of an omelette. It’s a matter of preference.  Milk can be added to make the egg go further, but the resulting tortilla is blander.

The tortilla is made in a small frying pan or skillet.  The traditional method is to cook it through on the hob, very slowly.  When the top is still a little runny, slide it onto a plate, place the empty frying pan over the top and flip the two together so that the undercooked top lands on the bottom of the frying pan.  This will create an evenly cooked tortilla.  When ready, just a few minutes later when you think the base will be golden, slide the omelette out on to the plate.  Job done!

I had a slice warm with the leftover melanzane alla parmigiana from Monday, heated through in the oven.  Two tapas-type portions, and boy did I enjoy it.  Anything tomato-based goes well with anything egg-based, with textures and flavours offering good contrast to one another.  In Cataluña square slices are served in French-style bread, the classic Bocadillo de Tortilla Española.  My school was a lovely old pink villa on the outskirts of Barcelona, and its tiny tuckshop sold the some of the best Bocadillo de Tortilla in the city.  The rest of the tortilla will be breakfast tomorrow instead of my usual toast, and my evening meal on Friday.

Thursday

Burger in a bun with toppings.  Burgers are so personal.  I like mine made of plain, good quality mince, lightly seasoned, with an egg to bind it together, and left for at least half an hour to consolidate in the fridge, so that it doesn’t fall apart.  Other people like onions, Worcester sauce and/or herbs in theirs, even a cheese filling.  Whatever the component parts, the beef must be of very good quality.  Accessorizing a burger with sauces, relishes, pickles, salad etc, is even more of a matter of individual preference.  I like mine with pickled gherkins, French’s American mustard, Heinz tomato ketchup, and raw onion slices, usually in a super-fresh soft or crispy white bun (mine came out of the freezer, but still not bad).  Part of me knows that it is completely disgusting but oh, it works so well!  This is my most guilty food secret, but fortunately I only fancy it very rarely. I sometimes have a salad on the side to alleviate some of the guilt, but today it was pure self-indulgence.  I placed the burger in my George Foreman grill to cook, and the rest is just a matter of assembly.  It is the ultimate fast food, very oozy and messy, which is  usually my idea of hell!  But for some truly bizarre reason it is heavenly.

Friday

Today was a total abdication of cooking responsibilities, even worse than yesterday’s in terms of effort expended, but a lot healthier.  I had cold tortilla española with a green salad liberally accessorized with Fragata olives stuffed with lemon (which I am trying to mete out as I only have two cans left), capers and salted anchovies.  I ate early as I had skipped my usual slice of morning toast and was walking in the sand dunes for over three hours, coming back hungry.  The sun was still shining and was gloriously warm, and it was wonderful to sit outdoors eating my tortilla and salad with a glass of chilled Chablis in the sun.  Bliss.

This week’s conclusions:

There’s not a lot to add to the last two weeks, but here are a few additional thoughts.

  1. Although proper cooking is excellent and rewarding, even when dumbed down for the available ingredients, it turns out that sometimes a burger in a bun is just what’s really needed.
  2. Substitutions really are excellent.  I’m beginning to get into the swing of it, and although I was really not enjoying having to substitute perfectly matched ingredients for whatever happened to be in the fridge, I have found that some of my substitutions have given a real lift to dishes that I had never considered changing.
  3. Store cupboard spices and herbs change the way anything tastes.  You could have a freezer full of nothing but chicken, but if you also had a cupboard with a good mix of herbs and spices you could change how it tastes every day of the week and never get bored.
  4. Making enough for two or more meals has been a life-saver.  I love cooking, but it’s time consuming to do it every day, and making enough for later in the week or depositing in the freezer really lightens the load
  5. Milk, cream, egg whites and soft cheese like Brie and Perl Wen can be frozen.  Cheese doesn’t ripen any further when you take it out of the freezer, so it has to be perfect when you decide to freeze it down.
  6. Thanks to Jan for this thought. If vegetables begin to look sad and old, or you simply have an excess of them, they can be frozen down for making sauces and soups later.
  7. And thanks to Lisa for this thought.  If elderly or excess vegetables are compatible they can be made into a sauce there and then in the blender and then and frozen down to be used over pasta or as a base for casseroles and stews later.
  8. I miss fish!