Category Archives: Health and fitness

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.

Another beach walk, nothing special, but so nice to get out

Walking along the beach seemed to be the safest of all the outdoor exercise options yesterday, because the beach is so huge that it is easy to avoid other people doing their similar constitutionals.  The Panorama walk is probably the next safest option.  I would love to do the walk along the estuary and back, but for a lot of that walk there would be incredible difficulty in keeping a safe distance if one met someone coming the other way.

I wanted to take a photograph on the sea front to match up with a vintage postcard, so I opted for the beach.  I was breaking in a new pair of shoes, and was fully armed with blister-treating gear, but happily they were spectacularly comfortable.  The light was particularly beautiful.  Looking over the estuary, the clouds were gathering over Ceredigion, as they so often are.  Looking north up the coast, the sky was completely clear, an endless unblemished ceiling of pure blue.  There was nothing much to see in the dunes.  The evening primroses are in flower, and are dotted all over, but there is nothing else in bloom at the moment.  The very high strandline trailed along just in front of the sand dunes, and contained an unusual number of small crab remains but nothing else of note.  There were a few jellyfish washed up, as usual for this time of year.  The tide, on its way out, had clearly been remarkably high, nearly reaching the long row of steps that run along the top of the beach along the front of the car park, with a pool of water left behind by the retreating tide also showing how high the tide was.

Common evening primrose

Sea holly

Beautiful colours on a crab claw

After the yellows and blues of the dunes and the beach, it was fun to walk back up Balkan Hill, where lush green dominated, and the gardens were full of yellow falls of laburnum and wonderful lilac-coloured rhododendrons.  Even the verges were on full alert, with a lovely display of colour.

Red Valerian

Fuchsia magellanica

Speedwell

Common Stork’s-bill

Sea Mayweed

 

 

Regrow your supermarket spring onions / salad onions

The latest crop from a shop-bought packet of spring onions that I planted last year, still providing me with lots of lovely flavour.

I’ve been regrowing shop-bought spring onions / salad onions for about 10 years.   If you buy a pack that has those spindly little white roots still attached (most of them have them) you can place them in water and regrow them.

It occurred to me today that at this particular time, this can be done very easily even if you are self-isolating, to make your spring onions go further.  Kids would probably love to do it. Best of all, after you cut your first crop, they will grow back!  You should get several crops in a single season.  They will be dormant in winter but will come back in spring.

Note that these will not grow into the same solid spring onion that you originally purchased, but they will produce giant, hollow chives, which are utterly delicious in salads, mashed into spud, or fine-chopped and sprinkled over stews and casseroles.  You can see mine in the photo to the left.  I first planted them last year and they are still going strong in their pot this year.

I don’t actually have any shop-bought spring onions at the moment, or I would photograph the process, but it’s dead simple and here’s how I’ve been doing it for years:

Buy spring onions that have their little white hair-like roots still attached, such as the ones in the picture on the right (which I’ve borrowed from the Ocado website).  If they have been cut off, this won’t work.

As soon as you have your spring onions home, cut off the last 3-4cm (a bit over an inch) that have the roots still attached.  Place these in glass or jar of cold water (a glass or jar is better than a cup so that you can watch what’s happening).  You only need enough water to cover the roots and a bit of the stem.

In a couple of days new, healthy white roots will appear and start growing.  When the new roots reach a good size (I find that anything over 3-4cms / an inch long works) you can plant them out into your garden or into pots (or the bottoms of used plastic bottles, with holes made in the bottom for drainage).

When you plant them, make sure that whilst the roots are under the surface, a bit of green remains, sticking up.  Water well, and keep moist, but don’t drown.  In only a couple of weeks they will begin to grow and when they reach a good height you can cut them and eat them.   Best of all, they will regrow!  The photograph at the top of the page shows the ones I planted last year and am still eating today (quite literally – they are going to be sprinkled over tonight’s home-made curry to give it a bit of zing in the absence of any coriander).

 

Giving it a whirl and going with the flow: Zumba and Tai Chi at Neuadd Dyfi

I had seen the advert for Zumba and Tai Chi at Neuadd Dyfi “especially for older active participants”on the Neuadd’s website whilst booking online for an event in October.   As I am both older and active, that seemed to hit the spot.  Unpacking removals boxes, DIY and gardening only get one so far after a life that was nowhere near as sedentary as the one that I am now leading, so I decided to take the plunge and see what Zumba and Tai Chi are all about.  I phoned the number on the advert last week to see what I needed to do to join a class, and was reassured by Sandy, who runs both classes, that all would be well on the day.

The main conference hall at Neuadd Dyfi. Photograph from the Neuadd Dyfi website.

Fortunately in one of the packing boxes I found a pair of leggings that I had used when I used to run in my local park in London, and a pair of trainers.  I had my £6.00 ready to pay (which covers both the Zumba and the Tai Chi),  took a deep breath and headed on in.  Sandy had warned me that the front doors would be closed so I duly entered by the side door.  The place smelled pleasantly as though it had been recently cleaned, and it has a slightly Tardis quality to it – it seemed substantially bigger on the inside than it did on the outside.  Having arrived very early, I was just wandering down the main corridor when a lady in gym gear emerged from an office, and this was Sandy.  We walked down to the room where the Zumba was to take place, a bright, light room, with tall ceilings and a real sense of space.  A complicated-looking sound system was tucked into a corner.  Des George, the Chairman, walked in and I was lucky enough to be given a guided tour.   There are three main spaces along the length of the building, including a big stage, a meeting room, a kitchen and even a small garden area.  They have a new central heating system and are although they are planning on cosmetic improvements to bits of the interior it looks great.  I’ll write much more about the Neuadd Dyfi in the future, but for the time being suffice to say that I was truly impressed and have now signed up to the email newsletter to see what will be on in the future.  People began to turn up, and Sandy introduced me as a newbie, and it was super to be so warmly welcomed.

I’m not really a joining classes or group activity type of person, and I’ve never done group exercise before, so I was by no means sure what to expect, but I loved it.  There were 10 of us for the half hour Zumba Gold class.  Zumba, if you are new to the concept, is a Latin American exercise phenomenon based on dance and Latino music.  I had never seen it, never mind tried it, so it was a real voyage of discovery, and such fun.   I’m not terribly well co-ordinated but my feet eventually got the message, and I was able to follow along without much difficulty, although my arms seemed to be unwilling to join in.   The classes are aimed at an older clientèle (the “gold” in the title of the class), and is low-impact.  There were various levels of aptitude and fitness there, but we all threw ourselves into it with gusto, helped on by some great music and Sandy’s clear lead.  It was impossible not to have a good time.  At the end of the class it was great to chat with the others, a really friendly bunch, and it turns out that most of them only signed up this year, having decided to do it together, all members of the Aberdovey golf club.  The classes themselves have been going for the best part of a decade.   I hadn’t realized that there is another, hour-long class on Friday, so I’ll be going to that too.

After the bounce and verve of the Zumba, Tai Chi was something completely different.  I knew nothing about it, and much of the lesson was about introducing me not merely to the moves, but to the history and the concepts.  It’s not easy because it’s a matter of retraining the brain to relax into moves rather than powering into them.  Luckily the one other class member, lovely Jane, was happy to demonstrate along with Sandy, and I slowly caught on to the idea that movements flow from one to another, that the upper body follows the hips and legs, and that the discipline lies in learning to move slowly, with control, but to relax the upper limbs completely and allow the lower limbs to relax as soon as they are no longer required for support.  It seems contradictory at first, but it really is a matter of learning to take command of one’s body whilst at the same time letting go.  I have done yoga, but this is far more about a combination of slow movement and discipline combining to build up a sequence that is completely seamless and all-absorbing.  It is going to take me a while to be proficient enough to stop thinking about each individual move, and to quite literally go with the flow, but it is a terrific feeling and will be worth the work.  God knows what it would cost to have a nearly one-on-one session with someone of Sandy’s calibre in London, and this is a terrific opportunity.

For full details about the Zumba and Tai Chi classes that Sandy runs see: http://www.neuadddyfi.org/Regular%20activities.htm.
To see more about the Neuadd Dyfi and what they have to offer (which is a lot!) visit their website at http://www.neuadddyfi.org/index.html.