Tuesday 29 November 2011

Food Bloggers Unplugged

I've been tagged by Suelle of Mainly Baking, for this fairly nifty questionnaire that is doing the rounds at the moment. Initiated by Susan from A Little Bit of Heaven on a Plate, it's a little Q&A designed to get to know your fellow food bloggers a bit better. And it gives me a post without requiring actually cooking anything, which is a nice change.
So. Your first starter for 10...

What or who inspired you to start a blog?

I think it was my husband. He is much more internet savvy than me and thought it was a good idea. I think he may have thought it would stop me from talking about food so much, but if that was his aim he has sadly failed.

Who is your foody inspiration?

I couldn't possibly narrow it down! My mother, other bloggers, cooking shows, magazines, restaurants where I eat, books that I read, ingredients that I come across. They all inspire me to cook and eat and cooking and eating inspire me to write.

Your greasiest, batter-splattered food/drink book is?

Australian Women's Weekly Italian Cooking Class Cookbook
. The page that has both spinach with spirali and pasta puttanesca on it. Plus I am onto my second copy of Elizabeth David's French Provincial; I read the first copy to rags, although I don't really cook from it.

Tell us all about the best thing you have ever eaten in another country, where was it, what was it?

There's good food everywhere! How can I choose? Chilli crab in Singapore, garlic soup in Switzerland, chawan mushi in Hong Kong. But having spent most of my life in Australia it has to be something there, but I couldn't say exactly what!

Another food blogger's table you would like to eat at is:

I think Leaf, the Indolent Cook. She has this lightness of touch and extraordinary originality with ingredients that I find awe-inspiring.

What is the one kitchen gadget you would ask for this year (money no object of course)?

I'd really like a microplane nutmeg grater.

Who taught you how to cook?

My mother.

I'm coming to you for dinner, what's your signature dish?

I don't have one. When I have people over I try to cook something that fits with what I know of their tastes. But dessert will probably be something cold and creamy, like a pannacotta or a fruit fool, and if artichokes are in season there will definitely be artichoke fritters with cava to begin.

What is your guilty food pleasure?

I don't feel guilt about food. I think it is unhealthy to attach those sorts of judgements.

Reveal something about yourself that others would be surprised to learn?

I'm not very picky really. People say they are scared to cook for me, but it is totally unnecessary - I am just happy to have a night off cooking myself!

Now, in theory the next step is to tag 5 other bloggers - which I am not going to do. I want to hear what all of you have to say, so please consider yourself tagged!

Sunday 27 November 2011

Cooking the Books: tisane for Harlot's Sauce

Harlot's Sauce: a memoir of food, family, love, loss and Greece, by Patricia Volonakis-Davis, is the current Cook the Books bookclub selection.

Patricia's account of her marriage to a Greek man is really quite something. I couldn't put it down. This, unusually, is not a recommendation. I kept turning the pages waiting for things to get better for her. I held out hope for a while that she wouldn't marry Gregori, although I could see from her name that she'd been married to a Greek at some point. Then I held out hope that the marriage wouldn't last long so she could be happy. No luck. Just when things start to look up, the book ends.

One bit I did find amusing, though, were all Gregori's cousins, because it reminded me of the 1980s "Con the Fruiterer" sketches on Australian TV, where he talks about his daughters Roula, Toula, Soula, Voula, Foula and Agape.

Unusually for a "food memoir" I can't think of a single positive association with food in the book. This is not a book of lavish feasts bringing families together. Constipation from toasted white bread sandwiches on her first trip to Greece, food used to control and manipulate when Patricia and Gregori's families first meet, Gregori's dismay at the story of the puttanesca recipe, Gregori's friend being rude and dismissive over hamburgers, etiquette dances surrounding biscuits at his uncle's name day, Gregori cooking beans every day in protest, criticising her salad making... it is all food as a weapon, lacking joy.

What, then, to cook to represent this book? I thought about making some good Greek food. A delicate and delectable galaktoboureko, a nourishing, cheesy spanakopita, a life-enhancing platter of meze to share with loved ones.

But finally I decided to make a simple tisane. Dried lemon balm and fresh mint, infused in boiling water until fragrant and served with a touch of honey. Good for the digestion, soothing for the soul.

Friday 25 November 2011

Product review: Colman's Instant Gravy

I'd seen the extremely irritating TV ads with the gurning gelatinous bull dancing around the kitchen counter before diving into a gravy boat. It did what a good (if irritating) ad should - made me recognise the name and have a passing curiosity about the product - so when I was offered a chance to try them, I was keen. Or rather Colman (that's a mustard joke, for those playing at home).

*Usual disclaimer*: product was provided free of charge, no other compensation was offered or accepted, views are my own and the PRs don't get to vet my copy before I publish.

Firstly, the beef flavour: this was an extremely thick paste, really difficult to squeeze out of the tube. I had a moment where I was concerned that the top of the tube was actually going to explode, but eventually I got a portion out.

The aroma of the paste itself was pretty indistinguishable from Bovril, but there is nothing wrong with that. I like Bovril.

Made up as per the instructions on the tube (add boiling water and stir) it made a very thin gravy, so I had to add quite a bit extra to get it to the thicker consistency I prefer.

The colour was good, and it had a strongly beefy, "clean" flavour. An excellent accompaniment to steak and veg and a very good substitute for home-made.

Paul has been promising for some time to make me a beef pie, with handmade shortcrust pastry, so this seemed like a good opportunity to put him to the test. He made a beef, ale and mushroom stew, using the beef gravy paste to add body to the sauce. He made a butter shortcrust, in a 2:1 flour:butter ratio, and it was absolutely divine. He has a much better pastry hand than I do, so I throw in the towel and will stick to bread.

The onion flavour: Also very difficult to squeeze from the tube, slightly ruddier colour than the beef. Slightly acrid, dried onion aroma, which unfortunately took me back to pot noodles.

When made up, the dried onion note was less evident, but still there. Made the dinner of deconstructed toad in the hole and frozen veg taste even more institutional than it looks. My Yorkshire puddings are coming along nicely though.

I gave the onion gravy a second chance, cooking down a sliced red onion with some thyme and black pepper and then adding the gravy paste and water. We had the onion gravy with celeriac and swede mash, and faggots, for a really hearty winter meal. Unfortunately the dried onion flavour couldn't be disguised.

The chicken flavour: Softer and easier to squeeze than the other two. On its own the paste has a slightly "roast" chicken aroma, pleasant.

Made up, the gravy was much thicker than the others, I needed to dilute it more to avoid a really gelatinous texture. There was a bit of a herbal scent to the gravy, maybe a bit of rosemary and thyme? It also had a faintly floury texture on the tongue, although this wasn't evident when it was served. It made a very good accompaniment to roast chicken thighs, potatoes and baked gem squash.

In short, the onion flavour is not worth bothering with. I don't like wasting food but I will be throwing the remains of that tube away. The other two are worthy of house space. These pastes really do have a better flavour and texture than granules or powder. All the ingredients are pretty innocuous, with no E numbers to scare you off, which I like. Making gravy from scratch is hardly arduous, but this is a useful product if you don't like gravy or don't like making gravy and others in your family do. I am a much bigger fan of gravy than Paul is, so I can see myself using these to make a little pot for one sometimes.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Home Smoked Paprika

I did say there was one more chilli post! I think this has really been the most exciting discovery of the 2011 chilli season - home smoked paprika.

We'd decided that we wanted to have a crack at smoking and drying the ripe Hungarian Hot Wax chillis. I gave them a rinse (to get rid of clinging cat fur - a natural hazard in our conservatory) cut a slit in each one to help the smoke penetrate and the flesh dry out, then hot smoked them over beech smoking dust for an hour.

After smoking them, they had a lovely aroma, but they were still very fleshy and "wet" - not good for keeping. I laid them on baking parchment and dried them out in the lowest possible oven, turning them a couple of times, until they were thoroughly desiccated. I let them cool before packing them in a net and hanging them up - so that air could continue to circulate around them.

I cut the stem off one and ran it through the spice grinder, in order to do a direct comparison with commercial pimenton. Other than the texture, which wasn't as fine, and the colour, less of a vibrant red, ours was a definite winner. It had a richer, sweeter, smokier aroma (very much, in fact, like really good bacon) and a more well-rounded flavour with a subtle heat to it. The commercial pimenton had a slightly acrid note at the back of the throat. Ours really is lovely stuff.

We tend to use a lot of pimenton, so we've been using our own wherever we would normally use commercial pimenton. A whole, smoked chilli, deseeded and sliced, makes a glorious addition to Nigella's bacon and tomato hash. Served with an omelette stuffed generously with pesto.

Sprinkled onto potatoes rubbed with olive oil, strewn with garlic and fresh thyme, it makes pretty much the best roast spuds ever...

... and better yet with chicken thighs nestled into the spuds and also sprinkled with the wondrous powder. With Jamie Oliver's tomato and chorizo salad on the side. An utterly perfect combination.

We have also been using our own chillis whenever a recipe called for chipotles. I got this carne con chilli recipe from Kavey, although I used ox cheeks (and didn't sieve the sauce - it was too good to waste!). I used a mixture of bought ancho chillis and smoked and dried hot wax. Divine flavour. The first night we had it with green rice (made from Tommi Mier's recipe - according to the blogosphere the proportions in the recipe are wrong, but mine turned out perfectly) and the second the leftovers were rolled into enchiladas. Delicious and comforting. And very superior, due to my divine chillis, naturally.

Monday 21 November 2011

Meat Free Monday: Pea & smoked cheese bruschetta

I've been watching the latest Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall series, River Cottage Veg Every Day. Lots of very good ideas for meat-free meals and some interesting looks at the way different cultures use veg in their diet. The thing that makes me less enthusiastic about it as a series is that so far it has all been focusing on summer veg, and as I try to eat with the seasons that's a bit tricky in November.

One dish that did catch my eye, however, was this lovely broad bean and smoked goats cheese bruschetta.

Shortly after I watched the program, I found myself standing in front of the Artisan Smokehouse market stall, and was able to buy some smoked goats cheese. I knew the bruschetta could become a reality.

I couldn't get fresh, local broad beans, and I don't like frozen ones, so I made it with frozen peas instead. I toasted slices of sourdough, then rubbed them with a clove of garlic and drizzled with a little olive oil. I piled on my pea puree and topped it with crumbles of the lovely smoked cheese. A grinding of black pepper and lunch was ready.

Friday 11 November 2011

Cinnamon buns, cornbread and plum cake, oh my!

I've been quite up front about my love of a good breakfast. I have never denied my passion for bacon and eggs, eggs benedict, omelettes and the gamut of savoury dishes that can be eaten with piles of buttered toast and copious coffee.

But from time to time I have an itch that bacon can't scratch. I want something sweet and if at all possible sticky and a bit, well, cake-y, for my breakfast. Something more like these:

I have a spreadsheet of recipes that I intend to try, ideas that I am working on and themes or events for blog posts. It currently contains 182 dishes that I haven't yet written about, and 8 of those are variations on cinnamon buns. Every time I see someone blog about a cinnamon bun I am helpless before it and add it to the sheet. This, actually, doesn't follow any of those recipes. It's Paul Hollywood's iced fingers dough with some vanilla bean paste kneaded in, spread liberally with freshly ground cinnamon, butter and dark muscovado sugar & sprinkled with the zest of a lemon before rolling and slicing into 12. The glaze is a variation on Peter's cream cheese glaze, using the juice of half a lemon instead of vanilla.

They were delicious.

They were also surprisingly well-behaved and kept very well. We ate the last buns 5 days after baking and they were still soft and tempting.

This buttermilk-blueberry breakfast cake recipe has also been sitting in my spreadsheet for ages, waiting for a good moment. My only variation for this recipe was to use some lovely little plums (I think they were Marjorie's Seedling) cut into quarters, instead of the blueberries. The usual tossing-them-in-flour trick didn't work, so the fruit was all down at the bottom but the flavour was excellent.

This not-very-promising-looking bowlful is a classic example of not judging a book by its cover. This is Marion Cunningham's custard filled cornbread, as written about by Orangette. I can't find that recipe on her site, so you'll have to buy the book. Anyway, it's one of those magic things, where you pour cream into the middle of a batter, and it all floats into the middle while it bakes, creating a thick, rich, custard layer. It begs for maple syrup. It's divine, but next time I think I will add a good grating of nutmeg to the batter, to really play up the glorious custardyness.

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Steak & chips

There are some days when only red meat will do. While you could argue for roast lamb or slow-braised osso bucco, for me, on those red meat days, it really just has to be a steak. There is something about cutting a slice off a big hunk of dark red meat, slightly crusted on the outside but yielding in the middle, that is deeply satisfying.

I hardly ever order steak in restaurants because we cook steaks at home better than most of them do and, it has to be said, at a more reasonable price.
Notable exceptions, where the steaks are always good: the Rose & Crown in Harefield, Gaucho in Hampstead and Hawksmoor (my new favourite).

How you take your steak is very personal, it has as many variations as how you take your tea. The cut, thickness, the precise degree of doneness, the seasoning: all must be judged to a nicety. And that is without addressing the question of sauces, marinades and rubs. My sister in law, for example, loves steak. But if you were to serve her a lovely rare t-bone, with the outer edge of fat melting and the inner flesh just warmed, she would run away screaming. Her steak is a filet, not too large, cooked beyond medium but not absolutely well done.
Until recently I would have said I was a confirmed rib-eye girl, with sirloin as a back up. I like a strong beef flavour, but "melt in the mouth" is not really a selling point. While I have all my own teeth I want to take advantage of them and enjoy a steak I can actually bite, although I don't want meat so stringy that I need toothpicks at the table. Rib-eye has a nice balance of flavour and texture, plus it is usually the mid-priced steak which is good.

Then, I discovered the onglet. I can't remember what triggered it, but Paul announced that he was interested in trying some of the more obscure steak cuts. He felt it was a challenge to his skill as the family's chief wielder of fire and knives to take on a cut that is often described as difficult to cook.

When I went to place my order, I was delighted to discover that onglet is actually very affordable, which was pretty damn exciting in these economic times, but it also added an incentive for cooking it nicely.

As we'd decided to push the boat out on a steak dinner, we felt that it should be really, really nice. Our potatoes were pretty much the only outdoor crop that worked for us this year, so home grown maris piper chips seemed to fit the bill. Skin on, blanched for a minute in boiling water then allowed to dry out a bit before being fried twice in duck fat (once at 120C and once at 180C), then sprinkled with salt and chopped rosemary, these chips were superb. Particularly since I'd never made chips from scratch before...

We opened a bottle of wine from the cellar. In the years we've been carrying it around it had developed into something much finer than anticipated, all butterscotch and soft cherries.

The steaks were cooked for 4 minutes a side in a hot blue steel pan (Paul wants me to say good things about his pan. He really likes it) then seasoned simply with salt and pepper and allowed to rest with some finely diced red onion pressed into the surface (would have been shallots if I'd had any) while we made an onion and red wine reduction to serve with them. We sliced the steaks across the grain to serve them.

They weren't melt in the mouth, but they were much more tender than I had anticipated, with an excellent, long beef flavour. This is now definitely my go-to steak at home, but it is more challenging to cook than a regular steak, so it'll take a while before I order one in a restaurant.

Saturday 5 November 2011

Hot and sweet: more chilli sauces

I promise you that this is my second last post about this year's chilli harvest! Even though I still have 2kg of Twilight chillis in my freezer, they will all end up as one of 3 sauces, so after this there is nothing more to say on that subject. The very last chilli post is going to be exciting though. Really.

So, I think it is already pretty well established that my hot smoked chilli sauce is awesome. It is. You should try a drizzle of it on fried eggs and fried rice. However, it is also very, very hot and not everyone likes things quite that incendiary. I wanted to make a sauce that was punchier than the gloopy commercial sweet chilli sauces, but mild enough to be slung around with wanton abandon.

It's with some chagrin that I admit that this sweet chilli jam recipe is awesome, because it is a Rachel Allen recipe and I really cannot stand her on TV. My only changes to the recipe (and you knew there would be changes!) were to use 4 unseeded chillis instead of 2 seeded, and to cook it for a shorter time so that it was a pouring sauce consistency rather than a spooning jam. If you were making this with a vegetarian in mind, I'd use light soy sauce instead of the fish sauce, but you could just use some salt instead.

Each batch makes about 2 jars, and I am about to make my third batch - it'd be terrible to run out.

Of course, once you have a supply of sweet chilli sauce, you need vehicles for eating sweet chilli sauce. I do love the kitsch old block of Philly, topped with sweet chilli and coated in coriander leaves, served with Jatz crackers if at all possible. I adore the Australian pub way of serving potato or sweet potato wedges with bowls of sour cream and sweet chilli. But you can't live on dips and wedges alone, or so I am told. We have also dunked delicious chicken and courgette fritto misto in ramekins of this sauce and added a layer with the sausage meat in home made sausage rolls.

Eating sweet chilli also provided a very good excuse for making cheese croquettes (to access the recipe you need to be of legal drinking age. Weird). These cheese croquettes were one of my very favourite things at Epoque, the Belgian beer cafe in Sydney that I used to frequent. I recently found out that Epoque has gone into receivership, which is really shocking, so I urge you to go and buy a beer and some croquettes to show some support for an institution.

Having nailed the regular sweet chilli, I was lying back feeling pretty smug when I was hit by inspiration. My veg box had presented me with a punnet of plums, but we'd been eating too many desserts so I didn't really want to bake anything with them. Using the same recipe, with the same alterations, but also substituting plums for the tomatoes, would give me something good, I thought. When the plum puree, which was a pale yellow colour when raw, hit the saucepan I realised that there was something missing and chucked in a couple of star anise. Pretty quickly as it cooked the colour from the skins spread through the sauce to make it the appetising purple/red colour that you want from a plum sauce.

Again, very successful. Nicely balanced between sweet, hot, salty and tangy, with a subtle spice from the ginger and star anise. A piece of cinnamon wouldn't go astray either. And do you like my new jam labels? They were a birthday present - you'll be seeing more of them!

Served with barbecued pork shoulder steaks (the ones, leftovers thereof, that ended up in my miso stirfry) and a green salad with a vaguely oriental dressing, it is absolutely delicious. With spring rolls dunked in, sublime.

Wednesday 2 November 2011

Pork miso noodle stirfry

This bowl of noodley goodness came about by happenstance. Paul had bought 3 packs of outdoor-reared pork shoulder steaks because they were cheap. We barbecued them with some lapsang souchong tea leaves on the coals for a gentle smoke, and then had an enormous amount of leftover meat.

I decided I wanted to make a stirfry, but I didn't want to do my usual soy/cornflour based sauce for it. A tub of shiro miso was sitting in the fridge. There was baby bok choy in the veg box. I love it when a plan comes together.

This stirfry was extremely good, and an excellent use for leftover meat, but I actually think it would have been as good or even better with some crispy tofu puffs through it. As ever, the important things about a stirfry are to have everything prepared before you start and have the wok/pan really hot before you add the oil.

Pork miso noodle stirfry (made 3 hefty portions)

Splash of veg oil
1 onion, sliced
3 cloves of garlic, sliced
1" knob of ginger, julienned
2 carrots, peeled and sliced into planks
1 red pepper, cut into chunks
1 bunch baby bok choy, sliced
1 handful sweet potato noodles, soaked in hot water
500g leftover pork steaks, sliced across the grain (or leftover chicken, turkey, tofu puffs, or just add a big handful of roasted peanuts at the end)
2 tbs shiro miso
2 tbs mirin
2 tbs reduced sodium soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil

Combine the miso, mirin, soy and sesame oil in a small bowl.

Heat a wok or large frying pan, then add a good splash of oil. Add the onions and stir fry until beginning to catch and take colour. Add the garlic, ginger, carrot and pepper, keep it moving until the peppers are beginning to soften. Add the stems of the bok choy, because they need a little longer than the leaves, then add the drained noodles, bok choy leaves, leftover meat and the miso mixture. Stir fry until everything is well-coated in the sauce and it's all cooked through but with a bite to the veg and piping hot.

I am sharing this with Ruth at Presto Pasta Nights! It's too good to keep to myself.


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