cooking the book

Can’t Cook, Election Will Eat Me

It’s been that sort of few weeks. You know its bad when your go to de-stress activity is too stressful to contemplate. (Also my laptop broke down and was out of commission for about three weeks, adding a whole extra level of unnecessary stress.) However, I have almost been keeping up with my cooking challenges

In February I hit both my targets, making something from my new cookbook and baking something. On the baking front I made a pie, before there are few things more comforting on cold winter nights than a pie. This was a mushroom and chestnut pie, for which I finally got round to buying an actual pie tin, so I managed to actually get the pastry ratio right to give it a full lid! Though I did end up making too much filling for the pie due to it not being my usual ‘deep-dish’ pie, and I found the filling to be a little dry – I think it would have benefited from a bit of spinach of to keep it moist, or made just a more runny sauce. I have the fear of ending up with a ‘soggy bottom’ but I think my insistence on blind baking my pie before-hand probably means I’m safe on that front.

Mushroom & Chestnut Pie

From my new cookbook I made a variation of the ‘Carribean cups’. One of the alternate versions Lorraine suggests is to fill the cups with chilli con carne and I happened to have some leftover veggie chilli in the fridge needing used up. These are a slightly fiddly but delightful little dish. They make a fun lunch, the kind of thing that with a bit of practice would make a good way to turn leftovers into something a bit different when you unexpectedly have guests for lunch. Though probably only the kind of guests that don’t mind getting a little messy.

Carribean Cups

I was somewhat less successful in March, but nonetheless I managed some other successes. I discovered I had a bag of pearl barley in the cupboard, that had clearly been bought for a particular recipe many moons before and then forgotten about, as it needed used up that month. So I did a bulk cook of the pearl barley and attempted to fork my way through one of the Guardian’s four ways with a bag of what have you articles. In the end I only made two of the recipes but I made the sausage casserole several times and it’s a thing of gloriousness. Finally I’ve found an effective and tasty way to cook quorn sausages so that they a) taste nice and b) actually successfully quash my occasional bouts of sausage cravings. It’s a really satisfying and filling comfort food this dish and I recommend adding a couple of sticks of celery to it if you have them. Add them just before the spinach, so they get nice and tender but still retain a bit of bite to give the casserole more texture. I only used them because I found some lurking under the spinach in the salad box but I now can’t imagine the dish without it.

Sausage Casserole

In April, despite best intentions involving muffins, no baking actually happened. However, I did actually cook something from my cookbook adapting a chilli con carne recipe for quorn mince. Which was, fine. Over the years I’ve evolved my own veggie chilli recipe that I make a few variations on, depending on what I have in the fridge and this recipe couldn’t hold a candle to it. I mean, how much can you truly believe in a chilli con carne recipe that doesn’t involve kidney beans anyway? Perfectly edible, just a bit disappointing.

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January Friends

January ended up being more adventurous than expected in some ways and less in others.

First up, I cooked something from my new recipe book. A lot of the recipes are actually designed for things like dinner parties so aren’t actually that practical for cooking for one, so that was a little bit of a set back. As was the realisation that a lot of the recipes I actually fancy making, are very much summer-time recipes. Hopefully, at some point during the summer, I’m going to have friends round for dinner and knock four things off this list at once in the process.

Anyway, I ended up picking Peanut Soup to make, as soup is pretty much a sure fire win with me. It’s a fairly unusual soup actually, there’s not a lot to it and I found that rather disappointing. It’s designed to be used as a starter and served in shot glasses, so perhaps it needs to be as light-weight as it is for that purpose, but frankly I could have done with some lentils, maybe some celery, to give it a bit more body and texture. The recipe suggests that you can blend it but I found that there wasn’t enough in the soup to actually blend rather than spin round at great speed. All it seemed to do was lose any thickness the peanut butter had given it. It tastes nice enough but I found it too thin for my taste.

On the other hand, my first attempt at baking this year was a resounding success. I made Beetroot brownies from a recipe a friend recommended from the BBC Good Food website. I’ve had Beetroot and Dark Chocolate cake before so I knew the flavour would work for me. They’re actually quite straightforward to make, with relatively few ingredients and they taste amazing. Unexpectedly moist brownies, but that’s no bad thing. The recipe makes loads, even with taking some of them to work with me, I’ve only just finished them a week and a bit later. Also, on a learning experience front, I discovered that my kitchen in January is too cold to bring butter and chocolate to ‘room-temperature’ so that it will melt nicely when blended with the cooked beetroot. I had to make judicious use of the microwave once I realised what was wrong. You’d think I’d have learned that from last spring’s 36 hours to defrost some puff pastry shenanigans but apparently I needed the reminder.

Chocolate & Beetroot Brownies

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New Year, New Challenges

So I think we can call last year on the blog a reasonable success. I wanted to blog twice a month, I wanted to cook 2 things a month from my new recipe book and most of all I wanted to stop myself from being all feast and famine in writing terms. I didn’t entirely succeed, I only made 20 posts last year, but that was an improvement on the previous year’s 15 and while I didn’t cook two things from the cookbook every month, I did cook something from the book almost every month. And most importantly, for the first year ever, I managed to write at least one thing each month! Hopefully I can keep that up, along with writing – and much, much more importantly cooking – more.

This year, I have decided on two separate challenges to keep me writing (and cooking for that matter) on a regular basis. First up, I want to bake something new each month this year, sweet or savoury, it doesn’t matter. Despite us now having a better oven, I’ve barely baked in it. I want to master baking in this oven. I miss it and its an important part of how I relate to my colleagues – I like being the kind of workmate that appears sporadically with home-baking. Secondly, I plan to work my way through the other recipe book I got last festive season – How to be a Better Cook by Lorraine Pascale. As I’m going to be doing two different challenges, I’m only going to try and cook one recipe a month from the book – unless the thing I’m baking that month is also from that book!

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Cooking the Book – November Edition

I had all sorts of plans to cook all sorts of exciting this last month. I had a week’s holiday and everything so I thought I might actually get lots made that week – maybe even do some baking!

The month started well, with some Sweet and Sour Chicken (Quorn again, I did intend to make it with tofu, but there was all this quorn in the freezer needing used up), which, despite a minor disaster, was pretty good. The minor disaster was that it suggested using dried chilli flakes. I normally measure them out before adding them to anything – my tongue is notoriously timid with chilli – but I always end up putting too little in whatever I’m cooking. (I’m better at judging chilli powder, but chilli flakes are what I have in the cupboard.) So, in my wisdom, I decided to shake some into the pan, and you can guess what happened next can’t you? I didn’t quite end up with half a jar in the pan, but there were decidedly more than were necessary to the recipe. It could all have been much worse but that was definitely the spiciest sweet and sour chicken I’ve ever eaten.

Sweet and Sour!

I had two other recipes picked out to make this month, good, solid, winter warmers. Perfect bulk cooks to nourish me through the long winter nights. I even bought vegetables for them. Did I make them? No. I did in fact get to the very last day of November without having cooked anything else from the book. I was really starting to think I was going to fail out for this month.

Handily though, I remembered that there was a recipe for a Porcini, shitake and Oyster Mushroom Pasta in the book and that I had loads of mushrooms that I’d bought for one of the recipes I hadn’t made. (As the recipe name suggests, it requires several kinds of mushrooms, handily I had some more unusual mushrooms in dried form in the cupboard to balance out the masses of Chestnut mushrooms.) I cut down the recipe from its original version, as I always end up with far too much food. There was still a slight excess of mushrooms, but only really enough that I ended up with a small side of mushrooms for another recipe later in the week, rather than an excess of them. An odd side effect of cutting down the recipe was that I ended up with lots of excess vegetable stock – its really awkward to make a small amount of stock out of stock cubes – so I cooked my spaghetti in the leftover stock and it was incredibly tasty. I could have eaten the spaghetti plain, maybe with a little parmesan but perfect just as it was. I’m not sure if it was the intention of the recipe or a product of cutting it down, but the mushroom liquor didn’t cook down as much as I expected – I think if I make it again, I would add some corn flour to thicken up the sauce, I do prefer a bit of body to my sauce.

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Cooking the Book – October Edition

If my cooking in October had a theme, it was leftovers. I felt like I was constantly eating leftovers, that my ability to cook anything was being ham strung by endless little containers of ingredients and portions of previous meals. Normally this would be smashing but when you’re trying to cook up your cupboards, it is less than ideal. (I made curry last night – Keralan Quorn Curry – and didn’t bother cooking rice with it, as I’m still using up the polenta…)

Butter Chicken (well, Quorn ‘chicken’ pieces if we’re being accurate) because I love a curry. I’m sure none of you had the least suspicion that that was the case. Because the take away of choice for my childhood was Chinese food, I never really encountered the classics of British-Indian take away food until I was an adult. And while I’ve eaten a fair few regrettable Chicken Tikka Masalas over the years – when I still ate meat I was much more at the Korma/Pasanda end of the spice scale – I’ve never actually had Butter Chicken. I’ve no idea if what I made was remotely accurate, but I would certainly make it again. Although I would make sure I had plain yoghurt next time. I realised halfway through that I’d forgotten to get plain yoghurt, but courtesy of my yoghurt maker I had a big tub of mango yoghurt in the fridge. Lots of curries use amchoor, and I really like them, so I figured, what the heck, it was worth a shot. And it does work, it makes it a very fruity curry, but it works, though I don’t know that I’d recommend it unless you’re similarly caught short.

It did also lead, as part of my cupboard cookup, to my making Curry Quesadillas. By means of toasting a couple of left-over tortilla wraps in the frying pan, filling them with left over curry, chucking in some paneer – to go with the theme – and some shredded mozzarella. It was actually really good. Not a fusion food combination I imagine showing up on a menu anywhere any time soon, but surprisingly good, quick easy food to make after a back shift.

Mini Chestnut, Apple and Spinach Wellingtons. Which are not, I would contest, particularly ‘mini’. I made them as a sort of test run, as a possible Christmas food dish. I think I’m more disappointed in them because I actually watched Lorraine cook these on the tele a couple of years ago. (While staying with a friend in Belfast almost exactly two years to the day before I made them.) They looked delicious at the time and when I saw them in this book I was really excited and I’ve been looking forward to making them ever since. They’re alright. Not horrible, not brilliant, just alright. I found them very dry, both in filing and entirety. I do wonder if they might be rather better made with puff pastry, if that might make them lighter in a way. However, because I ended up with too much filing – I was using up dried green lentils rather than canned ones, and I over estimated the conversion rate and ended up with cooked green lentils coming out of my ears – and I used it up by means of stirring it up with some passata and sticking it in a baked potato. Which was delicious – really, really good. So I’ll be trying this recipe again at some point but with added passata in the filling as I think that might solve the problem entirely.

Actually I ended up making a third recipe out of the book this month, as I made Shallot and mushroom gravy to go with my Wellingtons one day. Which was…fine. I tried to scale it down to just have enough for one person, but didn’t cut down the shallot enough – they were quite sizeable shallots which didn’t help, I suspect that if they’d been the little round ones it would have been fine – so it didn’t really break down enough during cooking so I ended up with a weird lumpy gravy – I should have stuck to my usual mushroom sauce, that’s considerably nicer.

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Cooking The Book – September Edition

September saw a return to normal service on the challenge front, as I successfully cooked two recipes out my book. I’ve actually been a lot better organised on the cooking front in general in the last month. We’re moving back into the season of soups and stodge, and frankly that’s the kind of cooking I’m best at. Big pots of soup, dals, curries and pasta bakes. Pies, both savoury and sweet. Mmmmm bliss.

First up – because I love the breakfast and brunch recipes in this book that aren’t muffins – I made red pepper egg cups. The recipe also involves those giant beefsteak tomatoes but as the only tomatoes I had in the fridge were the cherry variety and I was only feeding me, I stuck to the peppers. I’d forgotten how fun stuffed peppers are. I’ve not made them for years, not since long before I became a vegetarian and I’ve got a hankering to make them now – perhaps with harissa couscous stuffing? The only criticism I have of this recipe is that it ought to specify small eggs. The peppers I had in the fridge were fairly sizeable and I still ended up with egg overflow everywhere. However once I finally got them back in the oven they were great. I sprinkled a little Parmesan on them for the last couple of minutes in the oven and that worked a treat. Though next time I suspect I’ll either add substantially more paprika or a little chilli powder to give it a little kick and I’ll definitely take them out when the yolks are still a little soft. Regardless, definitely one to add to the regular Sunday brunch rotation.

DSC_0387

Secondly I made sweet potato gnocchi. I feel the name of this recipe is misleading as while you do in fact use sweet potatoes rather than the more standard variety of potato, there is rather more pumpkin involved. Handily I love pumpkin. I also love recipes that acknowledge that for 11 months of the year, you can only get pumpkin in a can on this side of the Atlantic. (I love pumpkin in a can – its too expensive to eat regularly but worth every penny in time not spent wrestling with an oversized squash. I hate peeling squashes with a passion.) Squash gnocchi – as I’ve decided to re-name it – is actually pretty straightforward to make. The hardest bit, as far as I’m concerned, is rolling it out into sausages. The first one worked perfectly, the others stuck to everything so next time I think I’ll add quite a bit more flour. Related to this, you’re supposed to chop them into little lumps, chill them and then drop them into the boiling water. As mine resolutely stuck together (and to the grease-proof paper) I ended up flouring my hands and lightly rolling them between my palms – like truffles – to ensure they stayed together. Which had the delightful effect of making them much more aesthetically pleasing and, for me at least, gave them a more traditionally gnocchi texture. Definitely one to make again – though next time, I’ll not be as heavy-handed with the garlic in the tomato sauce!

DSC_0389

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Cooking the Book – August Edition

Well, August’s attempts at cooking the book were slightly more successful than July’s. I did in fact manage to cook something from the book, even if it was a bit of an adaption. And if some adaptions were more successful than others.

I returned from visiting my parents with a big tub of stewed gooseberries, fresh from the garden. I debated making pie and then remembered that there was in fact a recipe for fruit crumble in my recipe book. Given that I love crumble and it would mean actually cooking something from the recipe it seemed a perfect confluence of events.

(On a side-note about gooseberries, my parents have been growing their own gooseberries for a substantial percentage of my life. However, in the garden of the house I grew up in, the gooseberries never got pink. The slightest hint of pink on the fruit and the birds stripped the bushes bare. So as soon as the slightest blush appeared on them we would strip our green gooseberries from the bushes and they’d be stewed or made into jam and that would be that. I rather like the tartness of green gooseberries. However, in their new house, the gooseberries get a chance to properly ripen. There, they get to ripen not just to pink but rather a rich almost purple colour. In that condition, they become almost sweet and – provided you enjoy tart fruit – you can eat them raw with some pleasure. They’re glorious, it was a revelation.)

So after much procrastinating and buoyed by the success of replacing the forest fruit filling with the gooseberries I attempted another substitution. This wasn’t entirely a good plan. The recipe uses ground almond in the crumble fix – as a flour substitute I think – but there I was with the gooseberries in the oven dish and everything else weighed out for making the topping. Only when I pulled the jar that I thought was ground almond out of the cupboard, it turned out to be Amchoor. Now, I’ve often used one of those things in place of the other in curry recipes. And the recipe called for dates for sweetness (seriously this book is obsessed with Medjool dates) so I figured I’d leave out the dates and the additional sweetness of the amchoor would balance out.

Readers, I’m here to tell you that it did not. Perhaps if I’d halved the amount of amchoor I put in as substitute, perhaps if the gooseberries had been green ones and correspondingly more tart, perhaps… In small portions it was…edible but eventually I gave up and scraped the topping off and ate the rest of my gooseberries with custard.

I should just have made a pie like I originally intended.

Gooseberry Crumble

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Cooking the Book – July Edition

So July turned out to be the first month this year that I didn’t actually cook anything out of my new recipe book. Actually, that’s not strictly true. I did in fact cook several things out of my new cookbook. They were just all things I had previously made for this challenge. Which actually makes it a bit less of a failure I think? Because it means that I’ve established new favourites. New recipes that I won’t just make once and forget about, but things that I enjoy and will cook regularly, meals that have worked their way into my regular repertoire of recipes. When I find myself with an excess of a particular vegetable, I think ‘ooh I could make x’ and x will be a recipe from my new cookbook. (For example, on Monday night, faced with a glut of spinach and a lack of inspiration for my dinner, I made a pot of Saag Aloo soup.) I’m trying things out in different combinations, finding what works and refining the recipes to my own tastes.

In finally got some harissa paste and spiced up my couscous, and let me tell you that was an excellent life choice. I sometimes find harissa paste to be somewhat overwhelming but in couscous it binds and lifts the dish without becoming overwhelming.

Harissa Couscous with Spinach & Feta

I mean, look at this loveliness, I just wilted some spinach and warmed up the feta cheese before I chucked it in and it just looks so fancy and tasty. To think that for years I thought couscous was rubbish because of terrible supermarket couscous salad tubs. Now I get to eat all sorts of lovely couscous based lunches just by making it myself.

Oh and there was that time that I made pasta bake with a sauce that was essentially broccoli and blue cheese soup without the potato, the most unctuous cheesy deliciousness was created.

Broccolli & Blue Cheese Pasta Bake

So I may not have achieved the targets I wanted to last month, I did have some arguably more lasting successes in embedding the recipes into my wider cooking repertoire.

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CB – All About the Blueberries

I made the winter and June joke about Scottish weather this time last year on the blog but it still holds kind of true. The weather last month did make some attempt at being better. Certainly it was warmer, even if it was rather wetter than I – or the tourist board for that matter – would have preferred. So June’s cooking adventures had more of a lighter theme too them and they involved quite a lot of blueberries. In fact it was mostly in service of establishing some more exciting mild weather breakfast foods.

First up, I continued in my fruitless quest for a better breakfast muffin. I think I’m going to officially give up on the notion of ‘healthy’ muffins. Because once again these muffins were a complete disaster. These particular muffins were oat muffins and probably were not helped by the recipe calling for them to be blitzed in the food processor. I don’t have a food processor. I do have a blender and while in many cases they can be used interchangeably – this appears to not be one of those cases…Anyway, they continued the pattern of ‘healthy’ muffins in this kitchen – I ended up cooking them for twice as long as the recipe suggested and they were still practically raw when I took them out of the oven. I officially despair of them.

The saddest of blueberry muffins

My second adventure in breakfast blueberries took the form of those little breakfast granola pots you get. You know the kind: fruit compote on the bottom, a layer of plain yoghurt in the middle and crunchy granola on top. A deliciously decadent breakfast, the kind of thing I buy for breakfast on mornings that I have to get ridiculously early trains. (Or occasionally, to go with my coffee when I’ve slept in, because I tell myself they’re healthier than a muffin.) Given that I already like that sort of thing and I make my own yoghurt, when I saw the recipe it seemed a perfect wee treat. And it was. Cook down some blueberries and brambles with some ground ginger, into a compote and leave to cool. Toast some oats in the meantime (I added some flaked almonds to the toasting pile, which was an excellent decision). Once cool put a couple of spoonfuls into each of your little tubs, layer over some yoghurt, and then sprinkle over the oats/granola and voila! I’d recommend keeping the oats separate from the rest of the parts until just before you eat them/leave the house. Apparently there’s a good reason for you getting your granola in a tiny container when you buy them out places; the oats get a bit soft otherwise. Excellent for having in the fridge for days when you’re disorganised and need a breakfast you can either eat at speed or take to the office with you. Now I just need to figure out how to replicate the peach/mango one that my favoured coffee shop tempts me with…

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Cooking the Book – May Edition

Although the weather definitely started to improve last month, it was still weather that called for some hot and filling bulk-cooking adventures.

First up we had beetroot risotto with feta cheese and mint. Beetroot is a vegetable that I’m trying to rehabilitate into my diet. It’s a vegetable that I associate with summer salads and quiet resentment. I was the opposite of a fussy eater as a child – I loved food and would happily eat pretty much whatever was put in front of me. Which is not to say that I necessarily liked the food in question, it just had to be really vile – looking at you over-cooked Brussels sprouts) for me to turn my nose up at it. Beetroot was always a bit of a minefield, for a start it’s a bit of a marmite substance in my extended family with opinions divided drastically. And then there’s the vinegar issue, as depending on if its been kept in vinegar or not it tastes completely different. Small un-fussy me would eat a couple of pieces for politeness – often baffled by why it tasted so much better/worse than the previous time I’d had it – and otherwise avoid it. It was always served cold. Once I was old enough to form true opinions on food it was consigned to the scrap heap of ‘food that Wendy will eat but would rather not’ along with cabbage, cauliflower, marmalade and chops.

Having successfully re-habilitated cauliflower into my diet over the last couple of years, I felt the need for a new challenge and beetroot seemed a suitable target. (I replaced cabbage with kale in my diet at 9 when my parents started growing their own and now that kale is widely available in the shops, I see no reason to go back.) I did make my own borsht a few years ago and it was…fine. I ate it, but I never bothered to make it again. But digging through my cookbook last month I came across a beetroot risotto recipe that look straightforward and gave it a bash. It came out a truly gorgeous red/pink colour. The recipe suggested using pretty much an entire packet of feta cheese, which seemed to me – having only recently been converted to the joys of feta cheese – to be a little excessive, so I went easy on the feta. But no, it needs the extra feta, which someone how balances the distinctive, slightly cloying beetroot taste. It’s a perfect match of flavours, delicious and filling to eat, really quite pretty to look at. A delightful discovery.

Beetroot, feta and pinenut risotto

My second dish is a little bit of a cheat. As what I ended up making was more inspired by the recipe than actually following the recipe. It was supposed to be quinoa, raisins, walnuts and parsley, but I had some bulgur wheat left in the cupboard so I used that instead. The recipe said that you could swap pinenuts in for walnuts and as I had one and not the other in the cupboard I did that. And then my raisins were a bit dried up looking and needed a bit longer soaked in some fruit juice to revive them so I left them out. I definitely didn’t have any parsley but I did have some left-over cooked broccoli from a pasta dish I’d made earlier in the week so I added that in to bulk it up and add the required green element to the dish. It certainly wasn’t what I intended to make but it was rather tasty.

Bulgurwheat, pinenuts and Broccoli

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