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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October Cookup

I should say at the outset, that I totally underestimated how much dried goods I had in my cupboards. I have, for example, an awful lot of lentils. And lentils, as you’ll know if you’ve ever cooked with them outside of soup go a long way. It’s one of my favourite things about lentils, that a few ounces of dried lentils will transform into a big pot of dal that will feed me all week. Which is great, especially at the end of the month, when you need to make things stretch that wee bit further. When its not great is when you’re trying to cook up your cupboards and you cook a few things with lentils, they stretch far enough that you’re sick of the sight of the darn things and you still have lots of them left.

I’ll not talk about the two recipes I made from my recipe book – I’ll save them for their monthly post – though one of them was picked specifically as a cookup recipe. But other than that I did actually do quite a bit of cooking this month. There was lots of soup, curry, pies and Mexican food. I actually kept to my challenge quite strictly, and the purpose of cooking up stuff in the cupboards shaped the cooking that I did, forced me to be more adventurous and experimental to work with what I had. But frustratingly I don’t actually feel that there’s that much less in my cupboards than there was at the start of the month. I mean, realistically there is, for a start my Mexican food binge at the start of the month means that I no longer get attacked by that pack of tortilla wraps every-time I open the cupboard and I did empty out a decent number of half used packets and tubs – and most of the later were even in a good way into another recipes rather than into the food waste tub under the sink.

You would think that after the best part of two years of cooking only for myself on a day-to-day basis I would have accustomed myself to the idea that I don’t go through food as fast as I used to. But no, I still often forget that if I make a meal that the recipe says serves four, then that isn’t one meal for the family and one serving for me later in the week (or one meal for me and my mum and two servings for me later in the week if it involves chillies), its four servings for me. Which would be fine if I had a decent size freezer, but as it is I have an icebox at the top of my fridge – standard contents: pint of ice-cream, tray of ice-cubes, packet of pastry, pack of frozen quorn and some emergency veggie burgers – there’s not a lot of room for leftovers. I really need to internalise that knowledge when I’m standing in the supermarket contemplating the pulses.

Back when I was living at home with my parents, my own food cupboard was a small and tightly organised cupboard, and in order to keep things from getting forgotten about and expiring, I kept a list of my staples on the door, scoring things off as they got used up and adding them on as I bought replacements. I suspect I may need to reinstate that habit, because I this month I kept coming across things that I’d forgotten that I had – that while not yet expired were certainly getting perilously close to their dates – I do wonder what else is lurking about in there. Such is the joy of having more than one food cupboard – I now have to remember where everything is. I think I’ll be keeping up this challenge, it may not be particularly showy or dramatic but it is quite useful.

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The Return of the October Cupboard Cookup!

A second post? This early in the month? Must be challenge time!

For some reason, as the seasons turn from Summer into Autumn, my thoughts turn to my store-cupboards. Perhaps it’s a hibernating instinct to ensure that we have enough food in hand to keep us through the sparse winter months ahead, but there’s something about this time of year that makes my tendency to hoard cupboard staples particularly powerful. In an attempt to keep it in check, I’m setting myself a challenge this month. To cook up my cupboard staples ahead of the winter. There’s far too many packets – of pulses, rices and other dried carbs – and tins that have been lurking there since last winter, time to use them up and start afresh.

So that’s the challenge this month, to only buy perishables and to let my diet be shaped by the stuff I already have in the cupboard. Naturally, I’ll be blogging about. Recipe suggestions – especially for what to do with that packet of polenta – gratefully received.

(ETA Make that 2 packets of polenta. One loose, the other ‘ready made’ – why? Who can tell.)

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Cooking The Book – September Edition

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

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

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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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