January (and February) in 52 Ingredients

Despite my best intentions, January was something of an inauspicious start to this challenge. I only managed to cook with two new ingredients. If we’re honest, February wasn’t much better, with once again only two new ingredients being tried. That’s almost a trend, but what it also is, is steady progress so we’ll count it as a win and resolve to do better this month. Mostly during February I was finding new and pleasing ways to use up left-over sour cream – I particularly recommend putting a generous spoonful of it into broccoli soup in place of blue cheese.

The problem I’m finding with this challenge is that because I’m only cooking for one person I tend to bulk cook and if you open a jar of something for a recipe it needs to be something that you will use up before it goes off.

Yakiniku sauce
This was a great success. I tried it in various guises in stir-fries throughout January and evolved a preferred method of using it. Two thirds sauce to one third water makes a good consistency for a stir-fry sauce that coats the rest of the ingredients well. It’s a fairly mild flavour, just strong enough to give your stir-fry an unusual but pleasant flavour, without overwhelming the taste of the constituent parts. A little goes a long way when you’re me, so despite being a fairly small bottle I got quite a lot of dinner out of it. Definitely one to buy again, in a bigger bottle next time.

Mediterranean Style Cooking Cheese
Probably the best thing that can be said about this cheese is that it comes in a tub, pre-cubed and with liquid that is surprisingly effective at keeping it fresh. Unfortunately, as I was using it as a feta substitute – some places do feta in the same way but not many of them and usually I loose about a third of my packet of feta – it is disappointingly bland.

Giant Tapioca
This one is a bit of a work in progress. Last year I fell in love with Bubble Tea – hot not cold, and yes, I know, about six years behind the curve – and, on discovering Giant Tapioca at the Chinese supermarket I just had to try making my own. I suspect that my problem is that its not actually the right kind of Tapioca for Bubble Tea because every recipe I’ve followed has turned out poorly. I may have to admit defeat and just make really chunky Tapioca pudding, but in the interim…I still have hope!

Coconut Milk
No, not that kind of coconut milk. I cook with the traditional kind that you get in cans all the time. (Often enough that I know exactly where to go to buy it cheapest and consider it an essential cupboard staple.) This is the milk substitute kind, that you buy in cartons and that is mixed with rice and various other things to turn it into something that works as a substitute for cow’s milk. I’ve been trying it as a milk substitute in various home-made lattes. Particularly in my continuing attempts to master bubble tea. (I tried cooking the giant tapioca in it – that was less than successful.) I doubt it’ll ever replace cow’s milk for me, but it’s a reasonably pleasant substitute if I’m cooking for a dairy intolerant friend, and I prefer it vastly to almond milk.

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Emergency Back-Up Dinners

Back in December, when I rescued dinner disaster from jaws of defeat with a Tortilla Pizza, I mentioned that I was adding that particular recipe to my Emergency Back-up Dinners list. After finding myself making emergency back-up tortilla pizza for my dinner this evening, I thought it was probably high time that I actually wrote about emergency back-up dinners.

I am, and indeed have, if not always been, certainly been my entire adult life, a chronic procrastinator. I can procrastinate anything, some people merely procrastinate on things they don’t want to do or things that are hard, I procrastinate on things I want to do and enjoy. As a student I tried to use food to motivate myself, which was a truly terrible idea, as I’d end up procrastinating eating until I started to feel nauseas. Hence why I ended up turning food prep into a self-care routine. I make detailed plans on what I want to cook, because otherwise I’m capable of standing staring at a cupboard full of food for the best part of an hour, frozen by inertia, unable to figure out what I want to eat and getting ever hungrier. While as an adult, my relationship with food is much healthier, if I’m having a bad day, I’m entirely capable of procrastinating on making dinner until its two late to make whatever I actually wanted to make.

So for those days, I have Emergency Back-up Dinners. Simple, straightforward dinners, that require minimal prep, short cooking times and only a few ingredients. They almost always involve some variety of cupboard staples that I almost always have in the cupboard and can use as a base. Also, because, often once I get started on cooking I’ll feel inspired to do something more adventurous, they’re also recipes that can be easily made more complex if you find yourself with extra energy or ingredients.

Melting Sunshine Rice
This was the very first of my vegetarian appropriate emergency back-up dinners. I’ve made so often over the years that it never even made it into my hand-made recipe-book, instead its ingrained in my brain. It came from a ‘Low-fat cooking’ recipe book I found at the back of a drawer in my mother’s kitchen over a decade ago. I think, technically, it was probably meant to be an accompaniment rather than the main dish, but its pure sunshiny comfort in a bowl all by itself. The main theme of the recipe is yellow. Cook the rice with a generous teaspoon of turmeric. Throw in a couple of handfuls of frozen sweet corn. Chop up half a yellow pepper into small pieces – I don’t think that’s actually in the original recipe but it does taste good – and depending how crunchy you prefer your peppers either add while the rice still has few minutes of cooking left or once you’ve drained your rice. Once you’ve drained the rice, return to the pot and tear up some mozzarella cheese (or any other suitably melt-y cheese you have in the fridge) and stir through the rice so it gets nice and melted. Spoon into bowls and enjoy. (You can put leftovers in a box in the fridge for an edible hug for lunch on a cold day, or eat straight from the pot if it’s been that sort of day.)

Sesame Hot Noodles
This has been in my repertoire almost as long as the Melting Sunshine Rice, and is a recipe firmly in the ‘that shouldn’t taste as good as it does’ genre. Cook a nest (or two) of egg noodles according to the packet instructions. Mix together a couple of tablespoons of sunflower and sesame oils, with a tablespoon of peanut butter and a crushed or finely chopped garlic clove. Once smooth, add finely chopped chilli to taste, three tablespoons of sesame seeds, four tablespoons each of soy sauce and lime juice and mix well. Drain your noodles, dump the gloopy disaster into the pan and stir through noodles until heated through. Serve and wonder aloud why on earth this tastes so good. If you’re feeling fancy, you can always stir-fry some spring onions, mushrooms and the protein of your choice and them to the pot, but its pretty satisfying just the way it comes.
Sesame Chilli NoodlesSesame Hot Noodles
Apparently some people have couscous in their cupboard that isn’t quick cook? I’m not one of those people. Couscous has always been an emergency food for me, whenever I go on holiday or other long journeys I take an emergency packet of lemon and coriander couscous with me in case of food disasters. In more civilised circumstances, I just dump a few ounces of couscous into a pint of vegetable stock, leave until its drunk all the stock, wilt some spinach in a pan with some feta cheese and stir through that and a couple of generous teaspoons of harissa paste. The best part of this dish – aside from being, as far as I’m concerned, the tastiest way to eat couscous – is that when you take your leftovers to work for lunch the following day, your colleagues will act like you’ve made the fanciest of lunches. Especially if you used the giant couscous they sell now. Unless your colleagues are actually from either side of the Mediterranean, then they’ll be on to you…
Harissa Couscous with Spinach & Feta
Emergency Back-up Ramen
Packet noodles – with those little sachets of flavouring – were a staple of my student days that I look back on with mix love and loathing. However, more recently I’ve discovered some in the world food section of the supermarket, that actually lives up to the name. They do in fact attempt to make a semi-decent basic noodle soup. So for ages I kept them in the cupboard as an emergency dinner, when I looked in the fridge and thought, that’s an odd assortment of veggies, and I’ve got some cooked meat and I really can’t be bothered making a stir-fry… These days I can only use the sesame flavoured ones, which handily makes a nice noodle soup all by itself, and I now have to throw in a handful of frozen quorn pieces in a the small frying pan, with a couple of spring onions, and a mushroom or two, and maybe half a pepper you’d forgotten was in the fridge. And suddenly you’ve got enough food for two, and can divide the noodles and accompaniments in two, have noodle, quorn and veg soup for dinner and noodles, with quorn, veg and whatever stir fry sauce has been lurking unloved in the fridge. (In a true emergency mix a tablespoon each of soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, lime juice, corn flour and Chinese five spice together in a pot heat through until it thickens and pour over your leftovers. Despite almost never buying it, I almost always have sticky plum sauce in the fridge. It keeps well.)
Ramen!

Not Remotely Mexican Quesadillas
I love quesadillas. I do not, in any way shape or form, make remotely authentic quesadillas. Generally I make them with leftover veggie chilli and lots of cheese. However I have also been known to fill them with anything that fits the bill of thick, unctuous and spicy. Almost always, when I’ve made a stir fry or a curry in bulk, will end up with a three decent sized portions and one, awkwardly small sized portion. A portion that, if it were chilli, would be the perfect size for quesadillas. And honestly if you’re using up leftover korma or goan curry, and you happen to have some paneer in the fridge, its amazing in fake quesadillas.

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The Joy of Brunch

I love brunch. Possibly the most millennial statement I could foreseeably make, but, as I am both a foodie and a millennial – and, as such, a foodie on a budget – it’s one that I feel comfortable standing by. One of the great discoveries of last year for me, partly, though not entirely, a product of both working shifts and giving up alcohol for several months was the joy of brunch dates. There are specialist places now – a bit hipster, but my goodness the food is great – which makes the whole process feel more like a treat and less like an apology for all involved. A great deal of my foodie-ness is a product of learning self-care as a student – I do a great deal of bulk cooking both because it works out cheaper and also because it makes my life easier in the future. But there are few greater joys for me when I have a day to myself or even just a free morning, than putting together a really nice breakfast or brunch.

In summer I love to make my own yoghurt and find all kinds of tasty and adventurous ways to use it up. My favourite being to make my own little compote pots, gently cooking some summer fruits and berries with a little ginger, toasting some oats and flaked almonds and perhaps adding some to a smoothie that needs thickened up a little. I must confess that when I was younger I always thought that muffins – the American style muffins, not the English ones, those have always been in the category of ‘posh toast’ for me – were too sweet for breakfast. However, once I learned to make my own there was no stopping me. The fact that the second variety of muffins I successfully pulled off were savoury – spinach and three cheese muffins are things of glory, especially if you perk them up in the microwave for 30 seconds before eating – undoubtedly helped.

Spinach and 3 Cheese Muffins

However, it’s in winter – especially wintery Sunday mornings – that I make the truly decadent brunches. Egg-heavy cooked breakfasts have always been associated with Sundays for me. When I was a kid, my dad used to make brunch for us on Sunday mornings and all his brunch recipes involved eggs. (Looking back on it, this was probably largely because we kept our own chickens and if you have plenty of fresh free-range eggs at your disposal, why on earth wouldn’t you?) And what I wouldn’t give to figure out his old ‘toad-in-a-hole’ recipe that he hasn’t made since I was in single digits and therefore can’t remember how he did it. Even in my earliest student days when I barely cooked at all, on a Friday morning, when we’d all been out the night before, I would gather up all the left-over eggs and bread and make French Toast for anyone that wanted it. Cooking eggs for breakfast will always be an act of care and indulgence.

One of the first pieces of kitchen equipment I bought myself after I moved to Inverness was a small omelette pan. It felt like a ridiculously indulgent purchase at the time, but it’s proved surprisingly useful for a variety of things – my other frying pan is a large heavy-duty, oven-safe frying pan – and is the perfect size to make a one-person omelette. Mastering the art of a good omelette and eggs scrambled exactly to my liking were both moments – years apart though they were – that felt weirdly like milestones of adulthood.

Fancy Scrambled Eggs

An awful lot of fancy brunch recipes have the unfortunate tendency to revolve around either salmon – I didn’t eat fish even before I was a vegetarian – or avocados – I like guacamole just fine, but getting ripe avocados here is more trouble than its worth – so I when I find a fancy egg based brunch recipe it is a thing of joy. Eggs in purgatory are decadence personified, but really needs a friend to make cooking it worthwhile. Baked eggs in halved peppers are a slightly precarious but ultimately delicious proposition, while spinach, feta and egg muffins are decadently glorious. Even just treating myself to some soda bread or cheese muffins to toast, butter lightly and serve with scrambled eggs is somehow soothing to the sole. And frankly adding a little paprika to most things makes everything feel that bit classier.

DSC_0387Omelette muffins!

I do sometimes make brunches that don’t involve eggs. I don’t often make my own (English) muffins, or my own lemon curd, but when I have both on hand there are few greater joys. I’ve never quite mastered making my own crepes, so I prefer to leave those to the professionals, but nonetheless I’ve had some fun trying! Just the other day I made what I insist on calling ‘posh cheese on toast’ where you toast some fancy bread (a nice roll, soda farl or muffin halved is particularly good for this) under the grill, then spread with either tomato paste or pesto, and then layer on some nice cheese (those slices of smoked cheese are the perfect size, but any cheese with a low-ish melting point will work, mozzarella is good if you’re in a hurry and/or really hungry) and stick it back under the grill to melt. If you’re feeling fancy you can put a couple of cherry tomatoes on the side or a sprig of parsley on top. While this morning, I made my own take on breakfast burritos, a recipe I concocted out of what I happened to have in my fridge and freezer one Saturday morning, when I needed something reasonably substantial and was distressingly out of eggs. I know that for some people waffles are sweet things, but for me the default setting of waffles is potato, and I like to keep emergency waffles in the freezer – normally the mini ones for both space and versatility reasons.

Breakfast BurritoPosh cheese on toast!

So my breakfast burrito consists of the following, cook half a dozen mini waffles by your preferred method, take one soft flour tortilla and warm lightly, then spread with sour cream, prep a handful of spinach and arrange on the tortilla. Once the waffles are cooked pile them on top of the spinach and sprinkle over whatever cheese you have to hand, and stick the whole thing back in the – now off, but still warm – oven or under the grill for a minute to let the cheese melt. Fold the whole thing up like a burrito and voila! Breakfast of champions! I had some chopped red pepper left over from dinner last night, so I sprinkled them over the waffles too, and they added a delightful crunch. You can replace the sour cream with cream cheese if that’s what you have in the fridge, but I made a big pot of chilli last week so sour cream it was.

There’s just something about having made myself an excellent brunch that sets me up right to have a productive weekend, like a big comforting hug in food form. A reassurance, that no matter what else I may or may not manage to achieve over the weekend; one thing at least has been a complete success.

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52 Weeks in a Year, 52 New Ingredients to Try!

The New Year is upon us, and with it the time for a new challenge to work on here on the blog. I’ve spent the last couple of years working my way through various recipe books, which has been rather fun, but despite having acquired another two recipe books over the festive season, I couldn’t quite face doing the challenge again this year. So instead I’m going for something completely different.

I spotted a challenge a while back that I quite fancy, which is to cook with a new ingredient every week for a year. Knowing the way that my life actually works, I’ll actually qualify that in practice with an aim to cook with 52 new ingredients over the course of the year as some weeks will be too busy to do anything adventurous in the kitchen and other weeks I’ll cook something complicated and adventurous that will require 3 new ingredients. Hopefully that way it will all balance out!

A couple of months ago, when I was down visiting my parents, we took a wee trip to the big Chinese supermarket, so I could stock up on the kind of ingredients I struggle to get up here. (Or are just really expensive, the big 100g bag of dried lime leaves I picked up there costs approximately a pound more than a 10g tub of the same from Tesco.) Naturally, I came back with a selection of shelf-stable ingredients to try out that I haven’t got round to yet, so that should give me a head start on the year while I figure out what else I want to try. For the sake of my own accountability they are: Tapioca Pearls – for making my own Bubble Tea, or failing that, pudding – Za’atar – which I need to decant into its own tub as the packet has a slow leak! – along with some Miso sauce and Yakiniku sauce in hope that I can finally figure out some exciting Tofu recipes that aren’t Thai Green Curry.

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Cooking the Book – The Final Installment

In an odd confluence of events and cooking motivation, I ended up cooking both November and December’s recipes within a week of each other. Making November’s recipe on pretty much the last day of November in a last minute resolution to a culinary disaster and December’s being made the following weekend in a more relaxed state of mind.

First up we have November’s recipe, the tortilla pizza. I’d started the evening intending to make a big pot of veggie chilli and in a comedy of errors (involving picking up essential ingredients on the way home from work that I already had in the house and failing to pick up essential ingredients that I didn’t have) my plans ended up entirely derailed. Finding myself standing in the middle of the kitchen staring mournfully at a packet of flour tortilla and feeling uninspired, I suddenly remembered the Tortilla Pizza recipe in Lorraine’s book. So I grabbed that and was able to knock together something similar from what I had in the fridge, using up sundry left overs – half a yellow pepper, the end of a tube of sundried tomato paste, some tinned pineapple and several kinds of cheese. It tasted surprisingly good, no doubt assisted by the seasoning of triumph that came from rescuing dinner from disaster.

Tortilla Pizza

At the time it felt a bit more like failure of adulting, but various friends have since assured me that it was in fact an adulting success! I rescued successful dinner from the jaws of defeat. Making the point that any aftermath of culinary disaster that ends with something both tasty and homemade – in fact that doesn’t end in either packet noodles with baked beans or a visit to the chippie – should definitely count as a success. So I will be attempting to take the lesson to heart and I’ve added Tortilla Pizza to the list of Emergency Back-up dinners.

Feeling buoyed with my recent culinary success, the following weekend, planning to make soup for my visiting parents, I decided to be adventurous and make a new soup. I’d recently discovered that my landlady has a slow cooker at the back of the cupboard, so I made an attempt at Sweet Potato and Lentil Slow-Cooker soup. The five-six hour cooking time is a bit of an awkward duration as its really too long for an evening or morning around shifts and too short a time to be left cooking while I’m either on shift or asleep. However, I solved it by prepping everything the night before, getting up early to put it on and going back to sleep for a bit before doing the rest of the necessary prep for having guests, while the soup simmered away gently in the background.

It’s a good thick soup, soup you can in fact stand a spoon up in, tasty and stick to the ribs stuff. Though I strongly suspect that Ms Pascale has a rather larger slow cooker than we do, I had to cut down the recipe a bit to bit it all in and I still had gallons of the stuff!

SlowCooker Soup

Overall, despite my initial misgivings that the recipes in this book were a bit too fancy for the kind of cooking that I do, its actually proved a great recipe to work my way through. I’ve really enjoyed most of the things I’ve made from it and had great fun adapting the recipes, both to my preferences and to reflect what I happened to have in the fridge. I’m not sure that it has, as its title claims, made me a better cook but it has made me a more adventurous cook, one more willing to both try new things and to adapt familiar things to incorporate new and exciting flavours and tastes.

Whatever shall I do for a challenge next year?!

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Latte Explorations

It wouldn’t be nanoblomo on this blog, if I didn’t squeeze in a wee entry on hot beverages. Last year, when the annual, parental cry of Christmas present hits went up, I dredged up the idea that I’d like a milk steamer. I’d gotten slightly obsessed with coffee lattes – the only kind of coffee I actually enjoy – over the last few years and had recently discovered the odd sub category of tea lattes, especially the ones that shouldn’t really work. (I know from unfortunate experience that milk in green tea is vile, so why on Earth is a matcha latte so darn good?) Being able to make my own seemed a good way to save myself both time and money of a morning. I got myself a little insulated mug – its got owls on, its very cute – picked out a little milk frother – try to find a non industrial milk steamer outside of a coffee machine proved to be an exercise in banging my head off a wall – and bookmarked a whole bunch of recipes for my favourite odd tea lattes and planned to beat the January blues with them.

Of course, life happened in January and I didn’t have a commute to need to make lattes for, so my careful plans fell by the wayside. Other than a couple of uninspiring attempts at better hot chocolate my milk frother has been gathering dust in my cupboard. However, November has arrived, with driving rain and gloomy grey skies, and in the aftermath of a grinding cold, my commute has been in dire need of a cheer up. So I decided to break out the milk frother and bring myself some much need seasonal cheer.

A while ago, I came across a tub of the instant matcha sachets – on one of those, end of line shelves in the supermarket – and made grand plans to have a go at making my own matcha lattes. (They can be rather hit or miss, either divine or a little…dusty, depending on which barista you get in the coffee shop.) I had delightful plans for comparing and contrasting between those made with the ground matcha and different kinds of green tea bags. Would a Tokyo Fog turn out to be more my thing? What would you call the same thing made with Jasmine tea? (A Beijing Fog? Given the air pollution issues in that city that doesn’t sound entirely appetising.) Yet, once again, I didn’t get around to actually doing anything about my exciting plans until gloomy mid-winter came to call. I’ve been glorying in a seasonal special at my favourite tea shop called a Matcha Maker, which is essentially a white hot chocolate matcha mash-up. It’s utterly heavenly, so once I master the straight forward matcha latte, I need to perfect that one. Though first I’ll have to figure just how they make it!

This week I have, for reasons that don’t need explored at this juncture, been working on perfecting my London Fog. I’m not entirely sure what it is about a well-made London Fog, but there’s something deeply comforting about drinking it. Somehow it brings out the best of the Earl Grey, that deep aromatic flavour and almost floral scent. I suppose in certain ways its my ideal form of tea drinking. My preference when it comes to standard tea is strong with lots of milk (several of my colleagues just leave the bag in for me when they make my tea – as does the lass in my favoured tea shop when she makes me a London Fog) and when you make a London Fog you make the Earl Grey into a highly concentrated brew which you then top up with a decent serving of hot frothy milk. It’s hot, soothing, flavoursome and just a little sweet. Perfection.

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Homegrown Adventures

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything here on a regular basis, but I wouldn’t want you to think that I’ve not been cooking in the interim. Perhaps not cooking as much as I’d like, but certainly cooking and even occasionally being adventurous. This month has largely involved cooking from my garden and the gardens of various friends.

We’ll start with my own garden adventures. In the Spring of this year, I finally got round to starting my own, long wished-for, container herb garden. I started with a basic selection of herbs to see what worked and what didn’t. And more importantly, what I cooked with and what I didn’t. Apple-mint, thyme, rosemary, parsley, purple sage and lavender. I was warned about the prolific nature of mint, so kept it in its own container within my larger herb container, but honestly it was the parsley that nearly took over the world. I have eaten a lot of parsley this year, I had no choice, it was that or watch helplessly as it colonised the entire container. I’ve used it as a substitute for coriander, I’ve used as a garnish on all sorts of things, I’ve cooked it in soups and omelettes. Never has my food been so well seasoned as it was this summer.

Tiny herb garden ahoy

Having only narrowly avoided drowning under the parsley, I didn’t have a great deal of a rosemary crop, but having gone to such effort to save it, I felt the urge to do something special with what I did salvage. So I decided to make herb infused oil. Over the last month or so, a jar of oil has been gently infusing on a sunny window-sill, its burden of rosemary and thyme getting an occasional shake on the passing. Some of it has even been bottled into a pretty little gift bottle. So I guess I better start cooking with my own share, in its rather more prosaiccontainer: a former jar of mayonnaise.
Herb oil

More recently I’ve acquired a Bay Tree, which, as the Autumn as turned, has reminded me that there are other ways to preserve herbs for the winter. As beautiful as my purple sage is to look at, I’ve hardly cooked with it. So I’m attempting to dry some in two different ways to see which works best. One set are being tied up in a cool dark place to air-dry and the other are going in the bottom of the oven on as low a setting as I can get it. We’ll see which works best.

This Autumn has seen the most extraordinary glut of apples. Almost everyone I know with an Apple Tree (and a few more I didn’t even know had one) has been pressing bags of apples onto everyone they know this year. I ended up with unexpectedly red cooking apples – the owner of the tree claims that every other year they’ve been green – that ended up becoming parsnip and apple soup, and several mini apple pies. I also ended up with nearly 3kg of proper tiny crab apples. (I could have had more if I wanted. They’re owner just got sick of picking them she had so many.) The only thing to really do with them was make jelly, so I ended up buying a jelly bag and getting the pure and ridiculous joy of straining them overnight, like a small scale version of my mother’s jelly-making shenanigans from my childhood.

Cooking Crab ApplesStraining the Apples

It took me…a while…to get the jelly to set, but I did finally manage it, so I now have a ridiculous hodge-podge of sizes and shapes of jars of apple jelly. The real mystery of which, now that the excitement and novelty of finally achieving jelly has faded a little, is emerging. Why, if the apples were yellow, the juice that I extracted post straining was yellow and the sugar was white, is my jelly, a bright vibrant red?
Apple Jelly!

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Cooking the Book – Being a More Adventurous Cook

I must confess, the only reason I have anything to write about for this post, is because I wrote the last post. It wasn’t until I was posting it that it dawned on me that I hadn’t actually cooked anything new from my book last month. Which caused me to squash in some extra cooking at the last minute.

However, what it did also do was make me cook something on a day might not otherwise have cooked at all, or eaten remotely well. Instead I ate something delicious and deeply satisfying, like a hug in food form that would keep me going for several days afterwards.

This month’s recipe was a little bit of an adventure. It started with some broccoli. My housemate went away to visit their cousin and left me a note asking me to use up their broccoli. So when I broke open the recipe book, I knew that it needed to involve broccoli in some capacity.

I came across Sesame Beef and Broccoli with a Honey Soy Sauce and that was my original intent, but as I looked further into it and its practicalities and realised it wouldn’t work with the protein I had on hand. (Although the illustrative photo show small lumps of meat that I could easily substitute with the packet of seasoned tofu I had in the fridge, it turned out that you needed a steak, which would be coated in sesame seeds and only later chopped up.

What I ended up making was a combination of that recipe and the recipe for Chicken and Cashew nut Stir-fry with Hoisin Sauce and Five-Spice Rice. I swapped the Chicken out for the tofu pieces – good texture, didn’t fall apart the way most other tofu I’ve tried does – and not having three different colours of peppers or any spring onions on hand, traded those for mushrooms, one kind of pepper, some baby sweetcorn and the all-important broccoli. Handily, par-boiling the broccoli and sweetcorn gave me a vegetable stock to make the sauce with so I felt brave enough to tackle making my own stir-fry sauce. Disappointingly the recipe suggested a bottled hoisin sauce, or using corn flour and soy sauce instead. So I took that idea and combined it with what remains my favourite Chinese sauce that I can actually make myself. It’s a combination of soy sauce, limejuice, rice wine vinegar and mirin. (It should really have brown sugar too, but I don’t think it would have worked cooking the sauce the way I did, in the middle of the stir-fry.) It’s a firm favourite of mine and it did not disappoint here.

I’ve tried making five-spice rice before with little success, where some spices can be thrown into the cooking liquid and give a delicate flavour to the rice, I’d always found five-spice rice to be strangely bland using this technique. However all was revealed to me, if you toast the spice mix first then stir the rice into the toasted spice to coat it and then add the water, you get a much tastier more flavoursome result.

Stir fry of great joy

In a call back to my original choice of recipe I swapped the cashew nuts for sesame seeds for scattering duty. Something that I used to do all the time, but rarely do these days.

So really I was more using the recipes as a set of guidelines for techniques I wanted to try, rather than a set of strict instructions. However, I feel that given that the recipe is literally called ‘how to be a better cook’ I think Lorraine would probably approve of that methodology.

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Cooking the Book – Summer Edition

Despite my high hopes, I failed to keep the momentum going and complete any of my targets during July.

I did however manage to cook quite a bit over the last few months, making variations on a variety of recipes I’d previously written about. June’s Bean and Lentil curry has been made on several occasions to good effect and I made a summery version of Beetroot and Feta risotto with giant couscous, baby sweet-corn and some wilted spinach. If nothing else, these challenges are making me a more adventurous and experimental cook.

At the start of August I made what turned out to be the yellowest curry in creation! I’ve tried to make my own korma on many occasions and they’ve varied from disappointing to tasty-but-not-a-korma. This one the closest I’ve managed to what I expected a korma to taste like – my favourite curry house, in Stirling of all places, is the only place I’ve ever encountered a variety of kormas, and they’ve ruined me for everywhere else. I made it with quorn rather than the suggested chicken, but otherwise I stayed pretty faithful to the recipe as it exists in the book, which was pretty good for me! I do have a tendency to improvise as I go!

September’s Pumpkin and Parmesan Soup was a complete and unadulterated success. Well, I say unadulterated. Technically, it was actually butternut squash and a suitable for vegetarians hard Italian cheese soup, but regardless of the semantics it was delicious. The kind of soup that makes you want to head back for a second bowl and sees you buying really nice bread to go with it and enhance the whole experience. (I recommend a nice sourdough. And a garnish of fresh basil.) As per the recipe’s options section, I did in fact make it with frozen pre-prepared butternut squash, as I could feel a cold threatening and wanted something filling and veg heavy to ward it off. It was quick and it was tasty. I’d never made soup involving cheese before last year, and I do rather feel that it’s a whole culinary landscape that I’d been rather missing out on.

Unfortunately, I’ve not been baking at all this summer. After my June hopefulness, I never did manage to bake anything else. I keep having good intensions but they never quite seem to come to anything.

But you never know, Autumn is well and truly upon us, the season for hot, cosy, comfort food is here. Weather suited to my preferred kind of cooking. I’ve got some cooking apples sitting temptingly in a bowl on the kitchen. Perhaps there will be pie. Or even an Eve’s Pudding!

Categories: being veggie, challenges, cooking the book | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Returning to an Old Friend

Many years ago, when I was first exploring the world of tea, I decided that I wanted to become the kind of person who drank green tea and set about exploring the world of green teas.

(I like to say that my twenties were all about working out who I wanted to be and figuring out how to achieve that, whereas my thirties have been about becoming and being that person.)

One of the problems of being known among your friends, relations and acquaintances as someone who likes green tea is that you get given a lot of green tea. By given a lot of green tea, I don’t mean that people see an unusual green tea somewhere and buy it for you as a present, or keep a box in their cupboard for when you visit – a few people do, in fact do this, and it’s lovely and much appreciated – but rather that you become designated drop of point for spare green tea. There was a while in the late 00s where green tea became the trendy health drink of choice. I’m not sure how or why, but lots of diets and general health improvement articles and advice seemed to involve drinking gallons of green tea. For a while it seemed as though everyone was trying to cut down on their caffeine and trading in their afternoon coffee or tea for a cup of the green stuff. I’m sure some of them found a deeply satisfying replacement or supplement to their hot beverage repertoire.

Now, for most people whose entire experience with tea drinking involves teabags of the kind purveyed by Tetley, PG Tips or Typhoo, served with milk and/or sugar, changing over to green tea requires a bit of getting used to. I would go so far as to call it an acquired taste. There are a lot of terrible green teas out there, that are, to me, the equivalent of those cheap generic tea bags that my dad calls ‘floor sweepings’ tea. Even with decent green tea, its fairly easy to make a terrible cup of tea with them, its very easy to make weak insipid tea and even easier to leave the bag in too long and end up with bitter stewed tea. Which should actually not be a surprise to the average tea drinker, as while most people who drink tea will claim a cup of tea is a cup of tea, given the option they will evince surprisingly specific requirements for their cuppa. (I’m a strong tea with lots of milk kind of person – leave the bag in if you’re not sure – or neart le torr bainne gorm at work.) Learning how other people take their tea is a gesture of friendship and affection. But rarely do people consider this when they try green tea. Therefore the fad for green tea mostly led to those people having a box of green tea lurking in their cupboard, for months, with half a dozen tea bags out of it and then gifting them to me when they discovered that I actually liked the stuff.

For years I never had to buy the stuff, just keeping on top of the forsaken boxes of tea kept me in more green tea than I could face. To the point that I was completely scunnered of the stuff. I had some beautiful Jasmine tea that I’d picked up at one of the Chinese supermarkets in Glasgow and I couldn’t face it. For years. Even when I liked green tea, it wasn’t an everyday drink. It was something I had to be in the mood for, something I drank after some excellent Asian cuisine or as an accompaniment to a good book. I’ve spent most of the last five years refusing green tea anywhere that wasn’t a Japanese restaurant – for some reason, even the complimentary cups they do at Wagamama’s are reliably great – and exploring other teas. I’ve discovered lots of teas I love along the way, but every time I came across some nice looking green tea, I’d feel wistful that I knew I wouldn’t enjoy it the way I once had and so would pass it over.

A few months ago, I was visiting my parents and discovered a small stash of Jasmine tea bags. Out of curiosity I made a cup and a beautiful aroma rose out of the cup, it was a truly gorgeous cup of tea. I gathered up the remaining bags and rationed them out over the following months. Slowly, carefully I’ve been experimenting with green teas again. Mostly Jasmine teas, but with more generic green teas, a flavoured green tea here, an iced tea there, the surprisingly pleasing matcha latte when I’m in the mood. (Why are matcha lattes so good? I’ve accidentally put milk in green tea on several occasions and its vile. It shouldn’t work – and admittedly depending where you get them, it sometimes doesn’t – but somehow, a good matcha latte is divine.) At work the other day, I unearthed a box of green tea, which a Malaysian colleague had brought back for the office from a recent holiday to Korea. It is one of the mildest, loveliest green teas I’ve ever drunk. The box is massive and now lives on my desk, because I’m the only one who drinks it. It’s amazing. I’ve rediscovered my love of green tea.

But I’ll be keeping that to myself most places, in fact lets just keep it between ourselves, because we’re about due for another cycle of ‘green tea is good for you’ and if people find out I’ll start to receive boxes of unloved green tea once more. And I’d really like, to just keep on, enjoying my green tea.

Categories: feeling philisophical | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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