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.

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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!

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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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More Adventures in Meat Substitutes

When I first went vegetarian full-time (a year and a bit ago) I did some unsuccessful experimentation with ‘meat-substitutes’. Recently I decided to try again in my quest to manage a varied diet with the need for quick and easy post-work cooking to balance out the more organised bulk cooks that I do. I’m pleased to be able to say that I have finally found a way to eat quorn that I enjoy. The answer apparently is curry.

One thing I miss about chicken is being able to stir fry some protein with some mushrooms, dump a jar of sauce over it, chuck it in a bowl and eat it with poppadoms/naan bread/prawn crackers as appropriate. But, I have discovered that frozen ‘chicken style’ quorn works as a perfect substitute. There’s something about the spices in curries that penetrate the quorn much more effectively than those used in Mexican food. So for example, even a jar of something mild like Korma will mask that distinctive quorn flavour! Success!

I expanded this out in two exciting directions last week. Having had success with the aforementioned jar of korma, I got a little bit more adventurous and picked up a jar of Keralan curry paste, a couple of handfuls of quorn, some mushrooms, spring-onions and half a can of coconut milk later – lots of delicious curry was served. I even managed to knock up a decent pilau with some massive raisins (left-over from the ones I steeped for my quinoa-that-wasn’t dish a few weeks back), some whole spices (carefully counted cardamom pods and a couple of sticks of Thai lemongrass) and some flaked almonds. Tasty, quick and easy and almost entirely made up from stuff I already had in my cupboards. I’ve never had Keralan curry before so that was an adventure but it’s delicious – pleasantly fennelly but not overwhelmingly so.
Keralan Curry
I do love daal best, but sometimes I want Indian food without spending 3 hours messing around with lentils and fried spices.

After the success of incorporating quorn into Indian food, I decided to venture into East Asian food. I made an old favourite of mine, sesame hot noodles. I doubt its remotely authentic but it is very tasty. The sauce is made by combining peanut butter, sesame oil, soy sauce, lime-juice, chilli and sesame seeds. It’s a quick and easy dish and I’d resurrected it because I needed to do a bulk cook and had zero motivation to do so. But while I was waiting for the noodles to cook, I noticed in my notes for the recipe (I have a little notebook of recipes I’ve gathered over the last 10 years) mentioned bulking it out with chicken and mushroom. I’d already stuck a few bits of baby corn, I’d found lurking in the salad box, in with my noodles. Feeling inspired I grabbed a handful of quorn, a couple of mushrooms that need using up (I nabbed them from the reduced section) and a couple of spring onions stir-fried them until everything was cook and threw them into the mix. Voila! Suddenly my super-lazy emergency dinner looked like a proper meal!

Sesame Hot Noodles

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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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Spring Warmers

Until the last week or so, it seemed that spring was not really ever going to, well spring into action. In line with this, my cooking hasn’t quite shifted out of winter gear into its lighter spring and summer guise, and I’ve been making a lot of warm filling meals designed to line the stomach and keep out the cold. It was also shaped by a couple of unexpected windfalls of bulk loads of free food.

My first windfall came in the shape of a bag of parsnips that, for reasons that were never clear to me, were being given away free in our local supermarket. (Some poor shop assistant was handing out bags of them to somewhat confused punters without explanation.) Free parsnips! But what to do with them? Parsnips aren’t something that I often cook with. I spent hours looking through recipe books and browsing the BBC food pages in search of inspiration to no avail. But finally, inspiration struck. My landlady was away for a few days and left me with free reign of her fruit-bowl to save it from going off while she was away. Said fruit-bowl contained half a dozen apples… Parsnip and apple soup was clearly the answer. I’ve not previously eaten parsnip and apple soup that I could remember but while I’m not sure it’ll steal a place in my regular rotation of winter warmer soups, I’ll definitely be making it again. It’s quite a different soup, somehow sweet and strange; it makes me think of autumn for some reason. An unexpected but welcome treat for those unseasonably chilly evenings. (Well, lunch breaks really, but who’s counting.)

My second windfall was a work colleague whose allotment saw a glut of rhubarb and brought it in to work to share. It was a bit greener than I generally like it, but not being one to turn my nose up at free fruit, I happily took it home and stewed it with some sugar and a little ground ginger. (We used to grow rhubarb in old chimney pots when I was a kid, but I’d never encountered, what appears to be a local delicacy round here, breaking off young pink shoots of rhubarb, dipping them in sugar and eating them raw.) I made little rhubarb tarts, which were lovely with custard, but also delightfully hot and filling as breakfast on days that I slept in and needed to take my breakfast into the office with me.

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Cooking the Book – April Edition

In which I attempt to do more writing earlier in the month, so I don’t spend the last weekend of the month frantically cooking and frantically writing. One or the other please!

This month’s first experiment was Feta, Spinach and Basil Omelette Muffins. They’re really just mini baked omelettes but they are little bundles of delicious perfection. I’ve made them three times in the last month and I think I like them more each time. The first time I made them, they were mostly just egg and spinach with a little garlic and chive cheese I had left in the fridge and they were pretty good. But the second time I made them I had feta in the fridge and bought a small jar of sun-dried tomatoes specifically for the recipe – I’m not really a fan of them – and they were elevated to something amazing. In my original attempt the nutmeg was a bit much, but with the salty feta and the sundried tomatoes added to the mix, the flavours balanced perfectly.

Omelette muffins!

You’re supposed to mix the sun-dried tomato in with the eggs, herbs and spinach but I have enough trouble portioning the mix out correctly as it is, so I just put a piece in each muffin tin and then pour the mix over the top of it. Ensuring that I don’t have to fish bits of tomato out to ensure equal tomato distribution. The other advantage of putting the sundried tomato in first, is that a little of the oil it was stored in will seep out and stop the muffin sticking to the tin, removing the need to grease it.

I had great plans for what I was going to make as my second April dish. I was debating between Beetroot risotto and pumpkin & sweet potato gnocchi. But then: disaster! The gas man came to fit a new meter, did his checks and…condemned our cooker. So my elaborate cooking plans for last weekend went out the window. We do now have a shiny new oven (that goes above 190ºC!) but I was forced to scale back my ambitions.

I fell back on my old failsafe and made a smoothie. (Breakfast Green Super Smoothie, to be precise.) A proper green smoothie too, as its essentially pear and spinach. (It was supposed to be kale, but I’ll still not ready for that, and I had a bag of spinach in the fridge just sitting there.) And, well I can see why the turmeric is optional I think I’ll give that a miss next time, but otherwise pear and spinach is really nice – I couldn’t taste the ginger at all. I might add some kiwi next time go for epic greenery!

Super green!

It also meant that I started May will a tall glass of overnight chilled smoothie and some cute little egg muffins – well, I had to check they still worked in the new oven didn’t I?

Spinach and feta omelette muffins with the greenest of smoothies!!

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Gastropods!

I’ve talked about the podcast Gastropod previously over on my other blog, as part of my efforts to write more about interesting sound projects. At the time I thought, really I should save it to talk about it over here but it fitted with the theme of the post I was writing too well. However, as I’d only recently started listening to the podcast regularly, I decided to download the previous six months worth of podcasts onto my mp3 player and was slowly working through the backlog. Then one day, the other week, as I synced my player, instead of my unplayed podcasts number going down it went up: by about 50 podcasts. Some glitch in my iTunes caused it to make all the podcasts I’d listened to on my mp3 player since the last sync appear as unlistened to and every single episode of Gastropod from the last two years (including episodes I’d already listened to and deleted) to download. How? Why? Once I’d cleared out the unnecessary duplication I found I now had 30 episodes of one podcast waiting for me. I decided to make a project of it. Listen to the entire back history of the series over the month of April and blog about it!

For clarity, I should explain, Gastropod is not a cooking podcast, it’s a podcast about the science and history of food – though I recommend listening to it with snacks because I’m regularly really hungry when I finish an episode.

(The first thing I noted, having gone right back to the start of the podcast, is how British Nicola Twilley’s accent is in that episode. I knew from listening to later episodes that she had grown up in the UK, but – to me – her accent’s very American so I presumed that either she’d emigrated while still a kid or that her parents were American and she’d moved back to the states. But she mentions in the very first episode her parents teasing her about her American accent – and using her fork US-style – and when she was interviewing an English contributor her own accent got much more English. Not that that’s particularly unusual but it was rather charming to see that play out as her accent was notably more American when she was interacting with her co-host.)

Having now listened to the entire backlog of the show – they just finished the current series – I can thoroughly and unreservedly recommend the show if you enjoy podcasts and reading/hearing interesting backstories about the food and drink that we consume. It is, however, not a podcast to listen to if you’re the kind of person who likes to be able to enjoy their food in an uncomplicated fashion. While both the presenters are omnivores, they never shy away from the dark side of some of the foods they explore, whether that’s the historical or current exploitation of workers or land that has lead to popularity of certain kinds of foods becoming popular and varieties replacing each other, the problematic relationship between food/agricultural science and industrial agriculture, or animal cruelty. A sizeable chunk of their episode on the history of beef in the US explored the connections between current livestock breeding programs and the eugenics movement in the US at the start of the last century. (About half the history units that I took at university were on US history, it never touched on this at all which is disturbing not just because of the subject matter.) Personally, I love that about the show. I’m quite happy to self-describe as a bit of a foodie, but the inherent classism shown by a lot of foodies and a lot of the food theories in general circulation is deeply uncomfortable to me. It’s preferable to me that people know where the food comes from and that they understand the costs and in some cases problematic issues around particular types of food. I like being informed about what I put in my mouth and this podcast is a brilliant source for that. I’ve learned all sorts of fascinating things about food and eating and the science and history behind both of these things. For example did you know that in Ancient Mesopotamia there was a Goddess who preferred act of devotion was to be given cheese? Or the Mafia got started in the citrus growing boom in Sicily that was caused by the English Navy buying lemons in bulk to fend off scurvy? Or, for that matter, that we have bitter receptors not just as part of our taste buds but also in our gut and respiratory systems, and that scientists suspect this may be why people who don’t like bitter tastes are more predisposed to sinus infections? (I’m one of those people; I was so excited to discover that it was an actual legitimate thing!)

I’m a little biased as they did a double bill on food and sound – going clubbing or to a gig and getting that bass thump in your chest is the closest we get to experiencing sound the way a plant does – and sound is my other great passion in life, but really the show is great, it makes me want to write blog posts on the topics they write about pretty much every third episode. Go listen!

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Cooking the Book – March Edition

Last month’s challenge recipes were completed in reasonably good time so its high time that I got to writing about them, rather than leaving it to the end of the month and risking running out of time!

Instant Karma smoothie was my next adventure into my cookbook challenge. It’s quite tempting to breeze through the smoothies in the book, trying them all but I’m conscious that they make perfect ‘ooops I didn’t cook anything out of the book this month’ recipes. While I’ve been quite organised with this challenge so far, I’m aware that I may not always be! Anyway, Instant Karma is a nice refreshing smoothie featuring kiwi and tart cherry juice. (Unsweetened cherry juice is really hard to find – and health food shops round here only do giant bottles or really tiny bottles, nothing in between.) It’s really very tasty, unfortunately my blender isn’t very good at kiwi fruit so I ended up with little lumps of kiwi core and the seeds remained entirely whole. Which would have been less of a problem if I hadn’t been loaded with the cold – hence making and drinking lots of smoothies in an attempt to force enough nutrients into my system to fight it off – and the seeds kept catching in my throat and making me cough! I made it again after I’d recovered from the cold and this wasn’t an issue, but I did stick a banana in it the second time to off set the tartness of the kiwis and cherry.

The other thing my blender is rubbish at blending are dates. Though as I’m not a big eater of dates this doesn’t normally matter. However, this recipe book is obsessed with dates – Medjool dates in particular – and using them as a natural sugar/sweetener so they’re in pretty much everything remotely sweet in the book. Dates being expensive and something of which I’m not a massive fan, I tend to avoid them and seek an alternative, which is a nuisance. It’s my main bugbear about this recipe book but as complaints go is pretty mild!

Next up I made the Stovetop lasagne. Except that it’s a bit of an impractical thing to make for one person so I actually decanted it into an oven dish and baked it so that I could keep it to eat over several days. Perhaps it’s the difference between cooking it longer on the stove rather than in the stove that does it, but I found that the carrots didn’t cook enough, so if I make it again, I might pre-cook the carrots. Otherwise it was a tasty enough lasagne, but honestly I prefer the butternut squash and sweet potato version in one of her other books. And while I like green lentils I think I’ll stick to using her veggie cottage pie recipe (higher ratio of lentils to veg, I think) as a lasagne filling.

So definitely tasty, but there are other versions of this recipe that I prefer!
Mini lasagne!
I ended up with too much sauce so I made a mini one too, as I forgot to photograph the big one have the mini one instead!

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