nablopomo

November 52

Of all the various targets that I set myself this month, the one that has been most unexpectedly successful was my determination to cook more new ingredients. I know there’s no physical way for me to catch up, but I hoped I might actually manage a month that averaged out to a new ingredient each week. And lo and behold I was actually successful! It was a bit touch and go there until the last week of the month, in fact I was properly close to the line with the last ingredient being sprinkled into soup yesterday and today. However, despite a shaky start – I made all the chilli in the world at the start of the month and thoroughly scunnered myself of it – and being away for work part of the month, I managed to take reliable dishes from my repertoire and add a more adventurous twist to them with a new ingredient.

Adzuki Beans

I picked these up as an alternative to kidney beans and cooked them much as I would kidney beans, in a veggie chilli. Before cooking they had a similar colour to kidney beans, though they’re smaller and between that and their two-tone colour scheme – that to my eyes makes them look as though they’re bursting out of their skins – they reminded me more of black-eyed beans.

Since making dinner with them I’ve discovered that these are in fact the red beans that make up red-bean paste so I feel I really ought to have done something more exciting with them. Perhaps having a go at making chaat or experimenting with a Japanese dessert!

Whole-wheat Noodles

As part of my plan to try lots of new ingredients this year, I’ve been picking up all kinds of new and interesting noodles to try. These ones ended up being next on the list for the simple – and expedient – reason that they were due to expire at the end of the month. They’re fine. Much like whole-wheat pasta, I feel they need a bit extra cooking, along with a flavoursome sauce, because they taste similar and I find that a bit discombobulating when eaten alongside a stir-fry. I think my issue with them is that you can taste the whole-wheat, and I associate that with self-declared ‘health-foods’ – the kind of thing you only eat because you know it’s good for you – and tastes like it’s good for you isn’t actually a compliment. Perfectly serviceable but not something I’m likely to bother with going forward.

Yuzu Citrus Seasoning

I wasn’t sure how effective this would be, but actually this was surprisingly good. When I don’t have any stir-fry sauces in the house, I make a basic sauce with lime juice, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, Chinese five spice and a little corn flour. If I’m in a hurry I just chuck a good slug of any two of those give it a good stir and hope for the best. The first time I cooked with Yuzu I just slung some rice wine vinegar and a generous slug of Yuzu into my stir-fry and was really pleased with the result. The Yuzu seasoning I’d bought has a little thickener in it, so was just thick enough that it coated everything and didn’t just end up sizzling in the bottom of the pan. It soaked in nicely to the tofu and the baby sweet corn, giving them a mellow citrusy tang, and while the other ingredients didn’t pick it up quite so well, it left the ghost of a tang in the back of my throat on every bite.

Apparently there’s been a bit of a fad for it here among foodies, and I can see why. I look forward to substituting it for lime juice in all kinds of different dishes going forward.

Za’atar

I’ve had this for ages and never got round to cooking with it, though the scent has been seeping out the bag and making me hungry whenever I come across it. I must confess that I was prompted to cook with this because I’d been feeling chuffed with myself for having actually tried four new ingredients this month, only to realise that it was only three when I came to write up this post! However when I was making soup (Cauliflower and Leek) I came across my packet of Za’atar and was inspired. I find that Cauliflower can often be a bit bland, unless paired with a strong flavour, which is why I often but it in curries and prefer my cauliflower cheese to be made with a good strong cheese. So I’ve been experimenting with using it to season said soup, it’s taken a few goes to get the right level of seasoning – too little and while it smells amazing you can barely taste it. It adds an extra level of warming to the soup and gives a little extra kick to an otherwise quite plain soup.

It’s less of a taste on the tongue and in the back of the throat and the nose, but no less pleasurable for that. I make a Cauliflower and Ras el Hanout Soup, and I think substituting Za’atar for the Ras el Hanout would give it a more mellow flavour. One perhaps more suitable for when I make it for my less adventurous relatives!

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Fraught Subjects

Food and health. If there was ever a subject more fraught, I’m not sure what it might be.

(On which subject, this article inspired today’s post, and if you do in fact have food and/or weight issues, neither this nor the article itself may be for you.)

I’m lucky in many ways; the vast majority of my interactions between food and health have been in regard to mental health. I’ve written before about my policy of food as self-care, and the way in which I can track my general mental-health by how regularly I’m cooking and how well I’m eating.

It wasn’t until my most recent temp role that I really had to deal with – on a day-to-day basis – just how dysfunctional a lot of people’s relationship is with food. Most other places I’d worked we had staggered lunches, or we were all skint so were all bringing leftovers for lunch. (Or for a while, they were all workaholics who ate lunch at their desk and rarely took a break.) But latterly I worked somewhere were my cheerful little packed lunches of soup or bagels or leftovers were a subject of fascination. My colleagues seemed to be always on diets. Restricting themselves to a greater or lesser extent in a constant quest for a smaller dress size or a beach body. (There always seemed to be a next ‘thing’ to lose weight for: the next holiday or wedding or dress.) I used to swim before work twice a week, a habit I took up – and gradually built up to – after I stopped playing roller derby and could feel my already dodgy joints seizing up from my sedentary job. Apparently not wanting to seize up wasn’t enough of a reason for the exercise, but as I’d taken to motivating myself for my early morning swims with the promise of a nice coffee and a muffin breakfast afterwards, I found an explanation they could understand. I like cake, since turning thirty I don’t burn calories like I used to so it was either give up cake or take up exercise.

Complete nonsense of course, but it kept people off my back about it. In fact, when I did find myself drifting out of the healthy weight range a couple of years ago – and really I was more concerned that my favourite dress was uncomfortably tight – the dietary change I made the most difference was changing from full-fat to semi-skimmed milk and making my pasta bakes with more vegetables and less pasta. But then, lots of people don’t want to hear that small sustainable changes over a long period make more impact than big dramatic restrictive changes that you can’t possible sustain. The only people I know who’ve cut whole food groups out of their diets and sustained that are vegetarians – who generally cut down and then out types of meat over time before going the whole hog – or people who’ve developed/discovered food allergies or intolerances who are sustained by the sudden relief from the side-effects of the food group in question. And even they have the occasional wobbles when faced with a former favourite – looking at you prawn crackers – or when it’s follow the rules or go hungry.

One of my colleagues is mildly dairy-intolerant, something I only discovered because we’d been working on an Outside Broadcast and he was looking a bit ropey at breakfast the following morning. We’d had a late post-work dinner the previous evening so I knew he hadn’t been drinking – he doesn’t drink as a general rule – but he approached that morning’s breakfast with all the wariness of the queasily hung-over. Cheese, he confessed later, he loved the stuff but it did not love him, and occasionally he would risk the consequences for the sake of a tasty dinner.

The obsession with calorie counts seems both baffling and counterproductive to me. I have a clear memory of reading Bridget Jones’ Diary as a teenager and her friend Tom pointing out to her that her standard calorie count – both the one she aimed for and the one she normally achieved – were lower than the amount that you’re medically supposed to need each day. The only time she actually reached her fabled ‘ideal’ weight, everyone kept telling her she looked ill. Whatever other problems those books might have, I owe Helen Fielding a lot for giving teenage me a big flashing arrow to point out what nonsense the whole dance was. And yet, increasingly I see calorie counts everywhere. They seem utterly counter-productive; I can’t help but feel that if you’re picking your sandwich by whether it has 20 less calories than the other one, you’ve got bigger problems going on. And frankly if I’m having the kind of day where treating myself to a coffee and cream confection is the only way to improve it, the calorie count is the last thing on my mind. And frankly it’s the kind of thing that makes me ask for extra whip.

I don’t believe in mixing guilt and food. Even when it comes to being a vegetarian I try to avoid falling into that trap of pointless self-flagellation. I try not to worry about the trace ingredients – I may make sure that the hard Italian chees I buy for my own cooking is vegetarian, but I’m not going to interrogate the waitress at the Italian restaurant about whether that’s authentic parmesan she’s offering me. (A Mint Aero is a guilty pleasure to me, not because of the chocolate itself, but because Nestle have a bunch of unethical business practices I prefer not to condone, but they’ve also cornered the market in decent mint milk chocolate.) The bad food of the month will change just as surely as the weather; all we can do is eat the best we can with the resources available to us. I’ve known skinny people who ate terribly and have sundry health issues and fat people who are athletes with excellent diets, and I know exactly which of them are getting hassled by their GP.

Food should be pleasurable; you should feel better after you’ve eaten than before. (At the very least, less hungry.) If you don’t there’s a problem. If it’s your only pleasure then that’s a different problem. But in the end it’s usually a symptom of another ill – whether physical, mental or social. And those we can only fix gradually and carefully over time. But we can start, by being kinder about food and bodies, both to ourselves and to each other.

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Why No Meat?

It’s an odd time to be a vegetarian. That may be an odd claim to make, but in a strange way it’s true.

In lots of ways, it’s actually a really great time to be a vegetarian. While it would still be quite difficult to eat out in my neck of the woods if you’re a vegetarian who doesn’t like cheese or mushrooms, things are definitely improving. (Indian restaurants are the saving grace of many a northerly vegetarian.) The range of foods on the menu and options in the supermarket has come on in leaps and bounds these last few years. No longer is the vegetarian the ghost at the feast, indeed I know a fair few non-vegetarians who will go for the vegetarian option because it’s a little more interesting, less bland and uninteresting than whatever is being offered as standard to the carnivores.

The thing is that I’m not a ‘meat is murder’ vegetarian and that status seems to stymie both rampant carnivores and intense vegans. I grew up in the countryside, surrounded by dairy farms, my parents growing their own vegetables and raising chickens. I learned early not to name anything you would later need/have to eat and that you really can taste the difference between a fresh free range egg and one from a caged hen. It made me both unsentimental about eating animals and sharply aware that cruelty in the process was unnecessary. Back when I was eating meat, I never quite got the whole outrage over halal meat, a slit throat seemed a pretty quick death to me – and frankly as long as the death of quick and clean, I was always more concerned with the animal’s living conditions when it was alive than the last ten minutes of it’s life. (Sometimes the greatest kindness you can do an animal is to make sure the blade is good and sharp.) I’m not morally opposed to eating animals; I’m morally opposed to the cruelties of industrial and factory farming.

I became a vegetarian for a variety of reasons. There was no one thing that made me a vegetarian; rather there were an accretion of issues over years that built up until becoming a vegetarian seemed inevitable. I’ve long been cognisant of the environmental impact, from excess methane from cows, to MacDonald’s clearing rainforests to graze cattle, to the damage to the sea floor from deep-sea trawlers. When I began to think about vegetarianism in regard to myself, it was during the initial ‘meat-free Mondays’ campaign; I appreciate that kind of collective action, lots of people making a small change to create a big difference. If you want to change people’s habits, make it easy for them. (When I was a student, my flat-mates didn’t recycle glass until I stuck a bin in the corner of the kitchen with a silly multi-coloured label on it and a promise that I’d empty it. By the end of the term they were washing out their glass jars before they put them in my bin and by the end of the year, whoever was taking the bin out would take the glass to the bottle bank while they were out.) I didn’t really intend to become a vegetarian; I planned to be a flexitarian. I tried out vegetarianism for a month at a time on an annual basis for a while, trying to cut down my meat consumption only for it to slowly creep back up. I always noted an improvement in my health. I felt less lethargic and less prone to bloating and gastric discomfort. (I suspect now that I may have had a mild intolerance to chicken.) I ate better in general because I had to think about what I was eating and plan my meals more efficiently. I never really thought that my own health experience might be more widely applicable but increasingly the science is showing that excess meat consumption is having widespread, long-term health impacts throughout the developed world. Doing something that improved my health and had a positive impact on the environment and meant I could stop worrying about how to access the animal welfare of producing the meat I ate, made it an easy choice to make.

This seems to provoke a particularly intense response from hardened carnivores and vegans alike. My failure to fit neatly into their mental dichotomy seems to provoke a particularly virulent ire, as though their usual arguments not being appropriate to me, is a personal affront. Perhaps I just came to vegetarianism to late or by too roundabout a route to have manifested that zeal and sanctimonious righteousness that seems expected from me from both sides. I just think we should eat less meat, and be more ethically responsible about sourcing the meat we do eat. That doesn’t really work as a campaign slogan or printed on a t-shirt. Perhaps it’s a product of these times; that we seem caught in the politics of extremes, of the black and white argument, where you are either for or against something with no nuanced ground in between.

Strange days indeed.

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52 Ingredients Catch-Up

It’s November, which can only mean one thing – it’s Nablopomo time again. After having got off to a good start to the year here on the blog, life – or work if we’re being entirely honest – has rather got in the way of my food blogging and frankly cooking plans. I’m hoping that Nablopomo will inspire both a return to more regular food blogging and, in turn, more adventurous cooking.

I’ve been falling back on old favourites on the recipe front, as I’ve needed bulk cooks that were guaranteed to work and be enjoyed. Also, as I’ve been travelling a lot for work over the summer, I was reluctant to buy new things to cook with, when I might get sent away for work and have my shiny new ingredient expire while I was gone. Which all goes to show why, since July, I’ve barely tried enough new ingredients to count for one successful month.

Rustica Mushrooms

I was quite excited when I spotted these in the supermarket, as I love mushrooms, and like looking out for new and interesting varieties to try in different recipes. I cooked these in stir-fries, curries and even made a mushroom sauce for pasta with them one evening, and to be honest, if I hadn’t known they were different mushrooms, I would have thought they were chestnut mushrooms. So in future I’ll be sticking to their cheaper cousins as they’re not worth the extra 50p per punnet.

Miso Soup Mix

In my quest for miso paste for my previous attempt at miso ramen soup, I ended up with a box of miso soup mix so I took that as a sign to try it out in it’s intended form. It comes with little packets of freeze-dried veggies – spring-onions and seaweed, which reconstitute in the hot water, but they’re pretty bland and tasteless. Mostly it made me want to experiment with using seaweed in my cooking – it doesn’t have to be this slimy!

I’ve come to the conclusion though, that I definitely prefer my miso soup either full of veg or make with soya milk instead of water. However it does make a decent emergency dinner with a wee nest of noodles and a not quite hard-boiled egg.

Marrow

This was a fortuitous contribution to this challenge, as I spotted giant marrows for one shiny pound in the supermarket and couldn’t resist snaffling one. It turns out that marrows are essentially overgrown courgettes, which was something of a disappointment to me, as I was imagining something rather more squash-like and sturdy. That didn’t stop me making soup with it though. I’m not sure the marrow added that much flavour by itself, but my winter vegetable soup was no less tasty for it’s addition. Based on how much the marrow disintegrated when I made soup with it, I decided against making curry with it – other than cutting it in half and stuffing it with couscous, the most popular recipe suggestion for marrow appears to be putting it in thai green curry – I pictured squelchy soggy veg, and I don’t put courgettes in my curry to avoid exactly that scenario.

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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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Comfort Food

For a variety of reasons, I haven’t been writing as much as I’d been expecting to this last few weeks. I never quite got round to mentioning here that I’ve been doing nablopomo again this year, not that you’d notice if you only you only read this blog. (Due largely to the fact that I’ve actually been blogging regularly here this year, so I didn’t actually have a backlog of posts I’d been meaning to make to catch up with.)

What I have been thinking about a lot lately is comfort food. What constitutes it and why does it hold such an appeal for us. I spent the early part of this week fighting off a head cold and frankly all I wanted to eat was comfort food, preferably comfort food of my childhood. Food and health, or rather food and self-care have a rather straightforward relationship for me. I learned to cook – beyond the basics – when I was living in Bournemouth and doing my Masters, as an act purely and simply of self-care. I was constantly getting throat infections and generally showing the signs of student life having worn down my body. Taking the time to learn to cook well and to feed myself properly was a radical act of self-care for me; that was physically and psychologically healing. Good food became both the fuel for and the reward for hard work. Over the years, I have taught myself that whenever I feel a cold coming on, the most important act of defence is to make a big pot of soup, packed with as many vegetables and pulses as I can get into it. Because if I fend it off I’ll have tasty soup to help me fight it and if I end up coming down with the cold, it’s entirely possible to live off the soup while I’ve no energy to cook anything else.

One of the less fun aspects of being a vegetarian is that much of the comfort food of my childhood that I crave when I’m sickly is no longer available to me as it contains meat. Often now, when I find myself craving childhood comfort I end up just making mashed potatoes or a big jug of custard. However, on Monday night I found myself longing for potato and leek pie, and decided to make my own take on it. I could, theoretically have made it with quorn sausages to make closer to the original, but I knew I had both potatoes and leeks in the house and grabbing a wee pack of puff pastry from the chiller cabinet was about all the complexity I could cope with. I stuck the potatoes on to boil and gently cooked the leek in some butter while the oven heated. While my white sauce will never be a patch on my mum’s, I do make a decent mushroom sauce, and apparently this carries over to leeks too. By the time I had a good consistency of sauce the pastry was in the oven and I was able to mash the potatoes, combining sauce and mash into a soft but firm pie filling of pure comfort. Served with little wodges of puff pastry it both looked and tasted like comfort food straight out of my childhood.

2016-11-27_07-08-17

I ended up with loads of filling so I kept the leftovers to use up with the remaining pastry on Wednesday night ahead of a long train journey. On that occasion I decided to attack my pastry with some little crimped circular pastry cutters I have and that added to the delightfully childish nature of the meal. My mum assures me that I’ve actually amalgamated two separate childhood meals into one here, but I agree with her that it hardly matters if I find it comforting.

Speaking of my mum and comfort food, we were both feeling the need for comfort food when I saw her the other day, so I gave her the excuse to have soup and pudding and call it a meal. (No matter how good I get at making soup, how happy I am with the soups that I make, no other soup, than my mum’s vegetable broth will ever taste as good when I’m sick.) Particularly I gave her an excuse to make semolina with tinned fruit, and I can think of no pudding more stick to the ribs filling and comforting, the true definition of a pudding that gives you a hug!

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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.

Categories: challenges, cooking the book, nablopomo, October cook-up | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dal Be Back…

Over a year ago, when I was attempting to cook up my cupboards ahead of moving house, I made a supplementary list of recipes that eventually was amalgamated with the ’30 Recipes’ list. Partly because certain recipe books were in the wrong cities and also because when I originally compiled the recipe I ate meat and these days I’m a vegetarian. I’ve talked before about my recipe book ‘problem’ that these lists were an attempt to curb.

Being back in Inverness, I once again had access to the Dal Cookbook that I obsessed about last year. (And despite my myriad plans made nothing from…) Since then I’ve made two recipes from the book – Lentil Kutu with Green Beans and Moong Dal with Cauliflower – so it seemed sensible to write about them together. They actually had a few things in common. For a start they both turned out to be different versions of recipes that I’d cooked before. In the case of the Lentil Kutu an inferior version and in the case of the Moong Dal with Cauliflower a far superior version. One of the disappointing aspects of the book was that many of the recipes followed essentially the same pattern. Cook lentils, cook vegetables, grind spice and fry them in oil, combine veg and lentil, pour spiced oil over the mixture and serve. I much prefer the lentils to be cooked together with the spices (even if that does sometimes involve counting in and out the cardamom pods), as I prefer the way the flavours disperse through the lentils. I feel it gives a richer and mellower flavour.

Lentil Kutu with Green Beans sounded like it would be amazing but ended up being really messy to cook and frankly a bit disappointing. Strangely, when I was eating it I thought, I’ve made something really similar to this before and it was much better. But having retrieved the book I thought it was in, I can find no dals involving green beans. (No green beans at all.) I can only presume that I made another similar dal that was meant to use another vegetable entirely, but I used green beans for it because that’s what I had to hand. Which doesn’t help me in the slightest to narrow it down and find the preferred recipe.

Gooey

Moong Dal with Cauliflower, is clearly the dish that the Lentil and Cauliflower Curry, which I found in my mum’s Oxo cookbook, was based on. The flavours are much nicer (and obviously more authentic) though for reasons of preferred spice frying techniques, I may well cobble together a recipe that is a combination of them both for future use. Lentils and cauliflower make for such cheap and tasty bulk curry cooking.

Moong dal with cauliflower

Categories: being veggie, challenges, nablopomo | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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