Category Archives: Living

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

 

 

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 🙂

 

10 random thoughts since the lockdown

This is a bit of trivia, just random thoughts I’ve had since the lockdown came into effect on 23rd March.

  1. I have discovered on sunny days, when we all have doors and windows open, that I live four doors down from a professional drummer.
  2. Most people out for their daily permitted exercise find a woman with a pickaxe making huge holes in her driveway for the installation of parking posts both odd and unsettling.
  3. Unlike the blue tits and great tits, goldfinches look all wrong hanging upside down on a bird feeder.
  4. It was slightly disconcerting to hear on the radio that the inability of the BBC to shoot episodes of Eastenders is of serious concern to a large percentage of the UK population.
  5. Writing a book proposal is much easier to do if you have an enormous beanbag outdoors in the glorious heat.
  6. Edam is no substitute for a good, creamy Gouda, nothing is a substitute for Taleggio, and a sunny day salad without feta quite simply sucks.  Thank goodness for a local supply of Perl Wen.
  7. Working on a document in a giant beanbag is a wonderful thing, right up until your hayfever meds put you to sleep and you wake up feeling like a sun-dried tomato
  8. I never cared a toss about the Harry and Meghan Show, but was completely taken aback by their decision to announce, right in the middle of a global crisis involving thousands of deaths, that they are no longer talking to the tabloids.  A sense of perspective would go a long way.
  9. I miss my Dad, who is self-isolating
  10. We postponed my March birthday until after the lockdown, whenever that may be, so I’ve decided that, officially, I am still only 55 🙂

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!

 

Eating well from what’s to hand, just for fun – Week 2

Glorious daffodils, the tiniest of the narcissi providing an amazingly powerful and lovely, heady scent.

I enjoyed my experiments with a new approach to shopping and cooking last week and learned a few things about myself.  Chief amongst these is that without knowing it, my basic approach to shopping and cooking has always been very ad hoc, and random, which is another way of saying that as a shopper and cook I am generally a seriously disorganized heap, very unsystematic.  Last week I sat down and planned a week’s worth of menus for myself based on what I had in the fridge, freezer and cupboards.  It’s how my Mum used to organize things, planning a week’s worth of menus, which must be vital when managing family dining, but not something I’ve really ever tried, except at Christmas.

The horrors of the coronavirus are there on the news every day, and I am very aware that this is a frightful, agonizing time for a lot of people.  I am trying not to add to that, and changing my disorganized shopping habits seemed essential, but I was surprised that it was something I enjoyed doing – for which I am deeply grateful.  So, onwards and upwards.

By Sunday I had, over a period of about a month, run out of spuds, carrots, broccoli, cheese, Greek yogurt, mushrooms, cream, cooking wine, bread and milk (the latter not a disaster, as I’m not a tea or coffee drinker), with a single lemon left to play with (sob!) and only a small amount of plain flour left, half a pack of cornflour and no other types of flour in the house.  By Wednesday I had also used up all the fruit but for one pear, salmon, olive oil, the last lemon, the remains of a heroic courgette (bless it, it carried on for three weeks and was still in great condition), asparagus, eggs, bread, and lemon squash (my equivalent of tea and coffee).  So I went shopping in Tywyn on Wednesday, just under two weeks after my previous shopping expedition.  As I used to shop around twice a week, that seems to count as some sort of achievement.  Those purchases, combined with the stuff still in my freezer,  should see me clear of shops for another fortnight, which helps with the social distancing.

Saturday

White wine vinegar, peppercorns, butter, an egg (from which only the yolk is required), a shallot, small bay leaves, a salmon fillet, asparagus tips and sliced courgette.

Poached fillet of salmon served with griddle asparagus, bacon bits, courgette and an Hollandaise sauce.  A small fillet of salmon was one of the unexpected finds when I did an inventory of the contents of my freezer.  A rumble in the fridge produced the last of some elderly asparagus and about a third of a courgette.  Asparagus and salmon are a marriage meade in heaven.  Usually I wrap the asparagus in Parma ham, but I didn’t have any.  So I decided to substitute a rasher of bacon, and slice it into strips after cooking, just to add some additional flavour.  I had a block of Welsh butter that was past its sell-by date, so this was an ideal choice.  Hollandaise is incredibly fattening, but pure luxury, and it ties together the salmon and the asparagus brilliantly.  A reasonable substitute would be mayonnaise.

An impromptu bain marie, at the back, with a glass bowl over a small saucepan of simmering water heats the sauce, reducing the chance of splitting, very much like cooking with chocolate.

Hollandaise is something that my Mum taught me how to do, using a traditional method, and it has only ever split on me once, ironically when I was on holiday in France and using a salt-free butter.  I have since found that you can use salt-free butter, but it must be added far more slowly than salted butter.  It is a bit of a faff doing it the traditional way, although it works, so you might want to have a look around for quick versions using melted butter, which a lot of chefs recommend.

Mum’s method is a two-part job, first reducing a combination of white wine vinegar, lemon juice, white wine, bay leaf and crushed peppercorns to a third of its volume.  Then, the reduced liquid is mixed in a glass bowl with egg yolk, placed over a pan of simmering water, and the butter is then added by chunks, incorporating each before adding another, until it emulsifies into a sauce (about five minutes).  Keep an ice cube to hand if you’re going to try this for the first time, because if it does start to split due to over-heating, you can rescue it by chucking in an ice cube and stirring until it rights itself, whereupon you retrieve the ice cube.  If it gets too thick, stir in small spoonfuls of cold water until it is the right consistency.  This recipe on the Leiths website is pretty much the same as mine, except that my glass bowl sits on a small saucepan of simmering water, ensuring that the bowl does is a good distance from the water (see my photo; the glass bowl sits on a small pan at the back of the hob).

Other than that, it’s dead simple.  I griddled everything in the one pan – the salmon, courgettes, asparagus and bacon, but a frying pan or grill are just as suitable.  In fact, there is always a danger with the griddle sticking, so make sure that everything is lightly coated with butter or oil before it goes on to a griddle, that the griddle pan itself is lightly oiled, and that the griddle is very hot.  It always slightly alarms me to see the griddle pan smoking, but it works perfectly.  The bacon strips were a bit of a wild experiment, and looked out of place on the plate, but were delicious with all the other ingredients.  Lucky!  I forgot to photograph the finished product, but the Hollandaise was a daffodil yellow, thanks to the combined colouring of a particularly rich egg yolk and the butter, and the texture was superbly silky.

Sunday

Chopped pork and laverbread sausages (skinned), low salt stock cubes, parmesan cheese (which I didn’t actually use in the end), garlic, tortellini, chopped onion, chopped skinned tomato, fennel, chillies and black pepper.

Deconstructed sausage, fennel seed, tomato and chilli sauce over pasta.  Years ago I saw this Jamie Oliver recipe in a food magazine and gave it a whirl.  His pregnant wife was addicted to it at the time, and he called it Jools’s Pregnant Pasta.  This version of it has been a quick-to-table favourite of mine ever since, especially when I am feeling lazy. The last of my stock of the Aberdovey butcher’s pork and laverbread sausages were the stars of this meal, although they were deconstructed (the sausage is extracted from the cases) to combine with the other sauce ingredients.  Again, it’s an easy meal, one of the easiest.  It would be even easier with tinned chopped tomatoes, whereas I use skinned fresh tomatoes whizzed up in a food processor.  Tinned ones are far too sweet for me, just a matter of preferences.

I think that Jamie Oliver does it with rigatoni but although I usually use tagliatelle, I needed to use up the tortellini that I used for the wild garlic pasta last week.  So it was just a matter of frying the onion, garlic and deconstructed sausage meat, sprinkling over some dried chillies, ground fennel seeds and some dry thyme (I don’t have dried oregano, but that’s better), and then adding the tomatoes and letting it simmer.  I also added a serious glug of Big Tom, a tomato drink with chilli and celery, because the tomatoes were rather tasteless even though they added useful texture.

Then I boiled the pasta and added it the sauce with a couple of spoons of the pasta water to loosen up the sauce, and it was job done.  I usually sprinkle fresh basil over it, or fresh oregano from the garden, but I have no basil and my oregano plant is looking very sorry for itself after the winter.

I had enough sauce left over for a second meal, so decided to have that on Wednesday, with two days in between to provide a reasonable gap.

Monday

Chicken, bacon and mixed vegetable casserole.  After a rumble in the freezer last week, I found the contents of a chicken, bacon, carrot, mushroom and frozen pea pie (i.e. leftovers).  Happily it worked just as well as a casserole. I made it about a week before the lockdown kicked in.  The chicken is browned with the mushrooms and chopped bacon and the veg.  Once softened slightly, flour is sprinkled over the top and stirred well to incorporate the flour.  White wine, chicken stock or water is then added.  It bubbles for 15 minutes with a large bay leaf, then a dollop of cream, some parsley and oregano.  All terribly easy, plonked into the freezer and ready to plonk into the oven when I wanted it.  I originally intended to top it with mash, but I had run out, so instead I served it with pointy cabbage, which seems to last forever in the salad draw of the fridge, and afterwards munched a beautiful William pear.

Tuesday

Ham horns with a diced salad on a bed of Romaine lettuce.  I bought romaine lettuce the week before last, and it had been sitting obediently in my fridge looking perfect, but I knew that it wouldn’t last forever.  It was perfect salad weather, sunshine and blue skies, so it time to switch gear from cooking hot dishes and getting on with assembling salad materials.

I usually have a slice of toast for breakfast and then something small for mid-afternoon if I feel like it, but often I go from toast to the evening meal without anything in between.  For some reason, on a Sunday I usually have brunch instead, and it is sometimes a simple tomato, raw onion (purple, Spanish or shallot) and caper mix plonked on toasted French or Italian bread (given the current situation, last Sunday it was a slice of Village Bakery Large Tin!).  The toasted bread is brushed with olive oil, and the salad mix is topped with a drizzle of vinaigrette made with German mustard, loads of black pepper, and basil if it’s available.  But that mix also makes a great salad when the bread is replaced by the sort of lettuce leaves that hold the other ingredients, like Romaine or little gem, which is what I did here.  Two Romaine leaves provided beautiful little vessesl for the other salad ingredients, including all of the above, plus chopped mint and cubes of feta.

Ham horns are an invention of my mother’s, and when she did them they were wider at the front an narrower at the back, hence horns, and looked great on the plate.  I can never get it right and have given up, so mine are simple tubes.  I made my own mayonnaise, but often use a good shop-bought mayo that I keep in the fridge for when I’m being lazy or don’t have any eggs.  Then it’s just a case of hard-boiling an egg and chopping it into a bowl of mayonnaise with as much parsley, chervil or coriander as you fancy, seasoning it (salt, pepper, perhaps paprika, cayenne or fennel seeds), spooning it into the middle of the ham, pulling the sides together and flipping it over so that the edges are underneath and the horn holds together.  The ham horns are incredibly filling so, apart from the salad, not much else is needed.

Wednesday

I extracted the second part of Sunday’s deconstructed sausage pasta, and enjoyed it just as much as I did when I first made it.  The chilli packed more of a punch, and the flavours had blended beautifully.   I made no changes, but if I had had a handful of spinach or wild garlic to hand, and basil to tear and throw over the top, I would have included them for both flavour and colour.  Tortellini always expands surprisingly during cooking, and I only just remembered on time, throwing in less than I had initially put out to use, which was just as well or there would have been a lot left over.

Thursday

Cauliflower, mushroom, bacon and pointy cabbage in a cheese and mustard sauce, with a crunchy breadcrumb topping.  It was a gloriously sunny day, and I really wondered whether such a winter-style meal was a good choice, but it all needed using up, so I went ahead.  In the event, at this time of year when the sun goes down the temperature drops dramatically, and a good hot one-pot wonder was ideal.  I always use this particular dish for using leftover vegetables and other odds and ends like ageing mushrooms, bits of ham and bacon, all of which were chucked in.  It can be cooked on the day or the day before.   It’s easy, but the cheese sauce needs a close eye keeping on it, and the cauliflower must be very well drained if it is not going to turn the gooey sauce to liquid.

I fry the mushroom and bacon in advance and let them cool.  The cauliflower (together with cauli leaves), cabbage, and any other leftover veg are steamed or boiled.  The cheese sauce starts with a butter and flour roux, to which chicken stock is slowly added until it is good and thick, making a velouté.  A good glug of milk is added, and then the cheeses go in.  I had some almost tasteless orange stuff (Leicester?  Gloucester?), an excellent cheddar, some very old parmesan and some sharp, citrusy feta.  I diced it all and chucked it in, and a gorgeous sauce emerged.  The cabbage and cauli were drained for 15 minutes to allow the steam to be released.  Then the cauli and cabbage were added with the bacon, mushrooms and sage, and it was all stirred together.  Beadcrumbs were sprinkled lavishly over the top, parmesan was grated over the top of that, chilli flakes were sprinkled, black pepper was grated, and a few dabs of butter were added to the top to help it brown in the oven, for 25 minutes.

To cut through the smooth richness and unctuousness, I made a small salad with cherry tomato, romaine lettuce, sliced cucumber, capers, mint leaves, basil leaves, loads of salt and pepper and an acidic mustard vinaigrette.  I always mean to eat my meal and salad simultaneously, but usually I end up eating them consecutively, with the salad making up a second course.

Friday

Lamb Shawarma.  Another ersatz meal.  It’s a simplified and scaled down version of a Yottam Ottolenghi recipe, from his excellent book Jerusalem, and needs to be prepared the day before you want to eat it, because the lamb needs to marinate in the spices overnight.  I found a disposable bbq in my garage so and was only cooking for one I used a double lamb chop from the freezer, instead of the long slow roast and a leg of lamb in Ottolenghi’s recipe.  The list of spices, shorter than Ottolenghi’s, looks intimidating if you don’t do this sort of cooking often but fear not – the Coey in Tywyn sells a Co-Op branded version of a Shawarma mix that is simpler than the usual mix, but is a good substitute; I like it for seriously cheering up chicken in a chicken salad.  However, here are the spices that I usually use, which are a shorter list than the original recipe:  cloves, cardamom pods, fennel seeds, cumin seeds, peppercorns, fenugreek seeds, star anise, chilli flakes, cassia bark (Ottolonghi uses cinnamon instead), paprika, ground ginger, ground sumac, fresh coriander and garlic.  Most are available, remarkably, in the Tywyn Co-Op.

The seeded spices are dry-fried or dry-roasted for a few minutes, then ground using a pestle and mortar and added to a small roasting tin with the powdered spices, fresh garlic and ginger.  I mix them with a small amount of olive oil and rub into the lamb, and leave in the fridge to marinate overnight.  If you like it hot, a good hit of Tabasco or an equivalent gives it more of a hit.  Then, when you want to eat it, it’s a simple matter of putting it on the bbq or in the oven. I barbecued mine, with chicken and sausages for quick wins during the week.  It is usually cut into pieces and served wrapped in flatbread or pitta, but I think that the bready wrap dulls the flavours and I like it served as it is, well seasoned, with a mixed Mediterranean salad, the same as yesterday’s, with added feta.  Lamb and feta are a blissful combination.  The whole lot, lamb and salad, is sprinkled with fresh coriander but if it’s not available, parsley and a serious squeeze of lemon juice are good.

Conclusions

I replenished my supplies on Wednesday and still have some other ingredients to be getting on with.  All of the older veg that was sitting in the fridge over the last couple of weeks was used up, either to eat fresh or to contribute to meals for the freezer, with some more still in the fridge and in respectable condition, so I think I’m winning so far. The problem for me was always going to be vegetables, as my freezer was already well stocked with meat and fish, and a couple of other odds and ends (frozen peas, ginger, okra, breadcrumbs etc).

My culinary ponderings at the end of this week are as follows.

  1. Substituting ingredients is surprisingly effective.  I’ve never put my mind to it before.  On a normal day, for the salmon meal I would have popped down to the shop and bought Parma ham and baby new potatoes.  But the courgettes were brilliant instead of the spuds, slightly caramelized, and the bacon, cut into strips, was surprisingly delicious.
  2. I used an egg yolk for the Hollandaise sauce, and should probably point out that the egg white can be used in another meal (for example, whisking the egg whites to peaks for cheese soufflé or a puffier French omelette, or for making my favourite, tempura batter).  Alternatively, it freezes perfectly, so it can be frozen down for future use.
  3. Again with the salmon meal, I intentionally cooked too much asparagus, as it as it was on its last legs.  I froze down what I didn’t eat for use in a future soup.  Cooked vegetables often give greater richness to soup than raw veg.
  4. If you don’t have either frozen pastry or the ingredients for making pastry for a pie, good alternatives are mashed potato over the top (as used in cottage pie) or sliced potato (for example in Lancashire stockpot).  In the absence of either pastry or spuds, breadcrumbs can turn the meal into a gratin, and failing all of that, the usual pie contents still make up a great casserole.  All new thinking to me.
  5. Right now, it is a good practice to hang on to stale bread, whizz it up in the food processor to make breadcrumbs and freeze them, and not just for gratins and crumbles or coating fish for frying.  In Spanish cuisine, breadcrumbs are a standard thickening for sauces and casseroles/stews, so if you’re short of flour or cornflour, it might be worth giving it a whirl.  The BBC Food website has loads more ideas: https://www.bbc.co.uk/food/breadcrumbs
  6. Tomatoes are always a problem for me.  I really dislike tinned tomatoes because they are far too sweet for me, so I usually make tomato-based sauces by skinning over-ripe fresh vine tomatoes and whizzing them up in the food processor or finely chopping them, but even doing that, the ones that are sold in the UK are often fairly bland.  Tomato paste, passata or sun-dried tomatoes can give bland tomatoes a useful lift.  More unusual solutions are bottles or cartons of tomato juice, sold in the drinks section, and Big Tom (a bottled tomato drink with celery and chilli).  These would need thickening up for most uses, but they are surprisingly effective as a fall-back, which I’ve used many times before.  Big Tom was used very successfully in last week’s Chicken Bamya and this week’s deconstructed sausage pasta, because the salad tomatoes that I was left with were useful for texture and colour but almost completely tasteless.