cooking the book

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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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!

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Cooking the Book – June Edition

I thought I might have trouble meeting my targets for this month as I was away from home for a substantial chunk of the month. However, it turned out that the spells away from home would end up acting as motivators, as I ended up cooking both my target items out of the need to use up food I had in the house before I went away for a week.

First up I made what turned out to be a massive pot of veggie chilli. The recipe in question was actually Baked Sweet Potatoes with veggie chilli, which was utterly delicious, but I did end up making a variety of other dishes with the leftover chilli. (Or to give the dish its full name – Baked sweet potatoes stuffed with a hot bean and lentil chilli with red peppers and port. Except it was cheap red wine rather than port.) I think I’ve almost mastered the art of successfully spicing my chilli without the aid of one of those packet spice mixes. I’ve been a bit disappointed in some of Lorraine’s other takes on ‘chilli’ but this one is pretty good, though I heartily recommend adding a few large mushrooms and draining your chopped tomatoes before adding to the chilli wouldn’t go amiss. Also the recipe suggests fresh parsley if you don’t have any coriander – or like me, you’re one of those people for which it tastes like soap – and having a glut of the same in my herb garden I was delighted to find that works extremely well.
Baked Sweet Potatoes with Chilli
June’s monthly bake was once again brownies. This time they were pear and dark chocolate. It was an adaption of a raspberry and chocolate brownie recipe. Last month I bought some small pears and though they took a couple of weeks to ripen, once they did they were delicious and I absolutely didn’t mind heating two a day for a week when they all ripened at once. So I bought another bag of the exact same pears and, naturally, after 3 weeks – including one with a bunch of bananas sitting on top of them – they remained brick hard. Unfortunately a lot of recipes that involve pears state silly things like ‘use two perfectly ripe pears’ as though everyone I know who cooks pears is only cooking them because they won’t ripen! So I gave up and poached them (Japanese-style in mirin with star anise) and stuck the poached pears into the brownie mix. I like this brownie recipe better than the one for the beetroot brownies, because you melt everything in a pot rather than trying to blend the room temperature ingredients in a blender – eminently more sensible in my opinion. Though if I make them again I think I’ll add cinnamon – I’d normally use cinnamon sticks when poaching the pears but I couldn’t find any until I turned up a box hiding behind the brown sugar and by then it was too late.
Pear and Dark Chocolate Brownies

They are particularly nice warm with a generous spoonful of leftover crème freche…

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Cooking the Book – May Edition

I hoped, that last month’s post would knock something free in my brain and I would be able to get back to cooking adventurously and writing about it. It did actually knock something loose, because I managed to hit both my targets for the month within a week of writing the post. Hooray!

I manage to combine both my challenges in one during May by baking something from my new cookbook. Technically this is a more substantial variation on a theme from a previous cookbook of hers. I’ve previously made pesto pastry puffs (and for that matter nutella puffs too) from instructions that were a side-not on another recipe – a way of using up left over pastry. This time they’re the main feature and you’re supposed to fill them with chorizo and lemongrass. I chose to make a vegetarian version picking and mixing from the alternate filling option that the recipe offered to some up with smoked cheese and sundried tomato paste puffs.
Constructing the Puffs
With the chunkier filling these are somewhat more substantial than the previous versions I’ve made, but that’s no bad thing, turning them from canapés to a light lunch. They are absolutely amazing hot, but are a bit claggy cold and don’t re-heat well so I’d recommend only making them when you’ve a few people round for nibbles to help you eat them up while they’re still warm. Either that or just make a smaller batch, or maybe a half batch each of the savoury and the sweet?
Smoked Cheese and Sundried Tomato Puffs

The second one is a bit of a cheat. I wasn’t originally going to count it, but its fun so I’m going to mention it anyway. The recipe book that I’m working through at the moment is front heavy on canapés and cocktails and the like. One of those funny little things, was making fruity icecubes for cocktails and summer drinks. As the weather was rather nice for a sizeable chunk of May – it seems a very long time ago, looking out at the June rain – I decided to try my own version with blueberries. Blueberry icecubes, I’m delighted to report, are rather tasty, though I think if I make them again, I might add a teeny amount of blue food colouring to the water to really make them pop visually. The downside of blueberry icecubes, is that if the blueberry is too close to the top of the cube and end up poking out of the water as they freeze, they sort of pop, and look like they’ve frozen mid explosion. Which is kinda comical looking, but not very appetizing if you’re serving them to someone else. There’s probably a reason the recipe suggested raspberries or strawberries.

Blueberry icecubes

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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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