It’s January, so time to come up with a new challenge to write about here on the blog. Preferably something a bit less ambitious than last year’s challenge of cooking a new ingredient a week for a year.
The problem with trying out these kind of challenges is that they pre-suppose a certain amount of stability, even staleness, in the lives of the participants. They’re meant to shake things up and challenge the participants. However, last year saw my life get thoroughly shaken up – in a good way! – as I changed jobs and with it, my lifestyle completely changed. From March onwards, most weeks I was just pleased if I managed to cook something reasonably nutritious never mind trying anything new or exciting. All things considered, I’m amazed that I actually managed to try 17 new things, no matter that I got nowhere near my target of 52, just getting near to two new things a month feels like an achievement.
Instead, this year I want to cook with two new ingredients each month and try one new recipe a month, as I gained a couple of new recipe books that have been sitting forlornly unloved on my shelf. I’ve even sort of succeeded on the cook a new recipe front already this month! I made tomato soup from an amalgamation of two different recipes this afternoon! I’m once again suffering from the need to cull my store cupboards of excess of cupboard staples so this month I’m trying to do as much bulk cooking from things I already had in the cupboards. So far this month I’ve managed a nice Cauliflower Daal, quesadillas and the aforementioned Tomato Soup. If this last year has proved anything, it’s that if I’m to eat properly and not waste food in this new job, I need to get back to being as organised and pre-planned about my meals as I used to be when I lived at home.
Part of the problem is that I don’t keep all my food in the one cupboard, so things are scattered between three different cupboards so I completely lose track of what I do and don’t have in there. This then backfires in various ways from the difficulties caused by discovering at an inconvenient moment that I don’t have an essential part of a particular recipe, or at the opposite end of the scale I bring home several cans of chopped tomatoes that were on special, only to find I already have four cans in the cupboard and nowhere to put them. (Hence tomato soup, which handily used up three cans of chopped tomatoes and a can of butterbeans I’d forgotten why I bought but keep getting in the way at inconvenient moments.) So it’s high time I had a clear out, figured what I do in fact have in there and sat down with the recipe book to figure out what to cook with them before they all expire on me! Hopefully, this will lead me to trying even more things as I actually have cupboard space to fill with new things.
There’s a little bit of a vegetable crisis in the UK at the moment. While the weather here has been suspiciously mild, Spain – where something like 80% of Europe’s salad vegetables are grown – and Italy have been experiencing flooding and snow. Hence, the noticeable lacks of things like lettuce, spinach, courgette, aubergine and broccoli.
My main question is, who’s eating all that salad at this time of year? It’s cold here, what are they playing at? On the other hand, not being a fan of either aubergine or courgette, the news of a shortage gives me a surge of relief, perhaps I’ll see more ‘vegetarian options’ on the menu that aren’t centred on either vegetable!
This winter appears to be one that is determined to make me think more actively about seasonal vegetables and seasonal eating more generally. I suspect there must either have been a bit of a cauliflower shortage earlier this year, either that or there’s been a glut of the stuff the last few winters. Since becoming a vegetarian, I’ve grown used to buying a big cauliflower cheaply to bulk out winter curries and soups. At the start of the season there appeared to be very few of them around and once they did appear they were twice the price they’d been the year before. Handily beetroot was plentiful and reasonably priced so I’ve been continuing my experiments in rehabilitating it into my diet with some enthusiasm.
It wasn’t until spinach disappeared from the shelves that I realised quite how dependent I’d become on it as a source iron and general colour in meals. I also hadn’t noticed, quite how often kale could be found on special offer, or just reduced at the end of the day. I still need to pump up my iron levels, so I’ve been experimenting with substituting kale for spinach. Now that I’ve learned the trick to quickly and effectively steam cook my kale it’s proving surprisingly versatile. I’m still a bit dubious about trying it in muffins or on pizza, but so far it’s been delicious in dal and a perfect substitute for broccoli in many a meal. Weirdly, on the broccoli front, while there’s been an utter dearth of those familiar little trees around the place, I’ve been able to pick up packets of broccoli florets (or mixed broccoli and cauliflower florets) in the reduced section on a regular basis. So broccoli and cauliflower cheese has become a regular treat for me (I made it a few weeks back with leftover Xmas cheese, brie makes a really very decadent sauce) and sweet potato and kale bubble and squeak is an unexpected delight.
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.
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.
The other week, I had a particularly productive weekend on the culinary front. As part of that productivity I knocked another recipe off my 30 recipes list, making Lazy Mini Sausage Rolls on Friday night. (With, I must confess, shop bought puff pastry, because as much as I want to learn to make short-crust pastry, having watched lots of different chefs make puff pastry I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a faff and life is too short to make your own puff pastry.) Afterwards I went to update my recipe list and realised that I’d actually made a few other things off the list that I’d never written about here, and felt it was high time I rectified that. This winter I appear to have been making a serious attempt to rehabilitate the humble cauliflower. I have a bit of a mixed history with Cauliflower, as generally whenever I get it – unless my mum makes it – it’s either under-cooked and a bit ‘teugh’ or so overcooked it fall apart and tastes bitter and watery. Cauliflower cheese is usually safe from overcooking but can be disaster if someone decides to skimp on the sauce. Yet done right, its delicious – plus its really cheap at the moment, you get a lot of veg for your pennies – so with a couple of tasty sounding recipes in hand I set out to rediscover the joys of cauliflower. First up I went back to basics. Years ago, when I was first teaching myself to cook beyond the basics, my mum loaned me one of her OXO cook books which I cooked my way through during my masters with…varied success that was more to do with my inexperience than the quality of the recipes. Recently I’ve been working my way through her other OXO cookbook, which is essentially the comfort food of my childhood. Something that definitely wasn’t a staple of my childhood is the lentil and cauliflower largely because it calls for the inclusion of a couple of their ‘Indian Herb & Spice’ cubes. Which, as much missed and lamented as their Italian and Chinese cubes are in our household, the Indian ones were, well, a crime against the subtle nuances of good Indian cookery is harsh and not a little poncy sounding, but you get the idea. So without that particular sledgehammer to hand I had to make up the spicing as I went along. Not withstanding the need to refine the spice usage, curry is an excellent way to eat cauliflower; the slow simmer ensures it’s lovely and tender, while the flavours and spice ensure it is far from bland. Next up, I made cauliflower soup – I’ve tasted a decent number of tasty cauliflower and cheese soups over the years so I reckoned soup was a safe bet. At the start of last year I read an interesting piece by Nigel Slater – reading the food section of the Guardian on my lunch breaks at work has been a feature of many of my less exciting modes of employment over the years – on interesting new ingredients to consider adding into your repertoire. This particular soup was included in the article as an example of a different way to use Ras-el-Hanout – better known for its role in Moroccan cooking, particularly in tagines – and having been given a tagine for my birthday and purchased this not cheap spice mix it seemed a good confluence of elements. It turns out that boiling cauliflower in milk is an excellent plan, and depending when you add the Ras-el-Hanout depends whether you eat a rich and spicy soup or a smoother soup with a pleasant kick to it. The toasted flaked almonds to garnish are worth the effort, but croutons would work just as well if you had them in the cupboard instead. Not involving cauliflower, but no less tasty and warming, I also made Poached Pears in Sake. I have a long and affectionate – if idiosyncratic – relationship with Japanese food. (For example, one of my friends, with whom I have a longstanding monthly arrangement for Monday night sushi, regales her workmates with tales of going for sushi with the friend who introduced her to sushi and who doesn’t eat fish…) My attempts to cook my own have been mixed, but I came across a Wagamama cookbook in my local Oxfam bookshop and decided to take the leap. I keep planning to make things out of it and either chickening out or not having the time to make all the little bits. However, there was an unexpected glut of pears in January – why? Who can tell, but my dad and I came home from two separate supermarkets with large bags of pears like bricks for 20p – and that seemed a sign to poach some pears like nothing else. I confess to being a little excited to finally break open the mirin and star anise I had in the cupboard and use them in a tasty fashion. I’ve never made a chocolate sauce and it was rich and glorious with the pairs, though I should note that they work equally well served with cream if you enjoy the hot pear with cold accompaniment sensation. I personally prefer a hot accompaniment but I suppose if you wanted a less rich accompaniment custard would make a tasty, if less authentically Japanese version.