Thursday, 31 December 2009

Christmas Goodies

Today I had planned to bake some bread, and prepare some food for a small gathering we were planning on having here tonight. Unfortunately, I've been rendered impotent by some kind of stomach bug - I figured food preparation wasn't the best idea. So, here's a post all about the goodies I got for Christmas instead.




Being something of a fan of Nigel Slater, I made it fairly obvious to my fiancé that a copy of this for Christmas would be very much appreciated. It's a rather large tome, but a beautiful one. It is filled with the most stunning photography and contains really useful information on growing vegetables and how to use them in the kitchen as well as some lovely-looking recipes. I've been dipping into it almost every day since I got it and am still not even half-way through! It's going to be particularly useful now we are getting a veg box and I look forward to trying some of the recipes once the Christmas/New Year madness is over! Get yourself a copy!

I also got a copy of The Hairy Biker's Food Tour of Britain, but foolishly left it at my parents' house. Some wonderful recipes in there though, celebrating the rich variety of regional British food. I'll just have to wait a month or two until I get my copy back!

With my book vouchers I purchased a copy of Bread Matters by Andrew Whitley. I have read most of this book already - it is very readable as well as informative. I've known for some time that I don't want to buy supermarket bread anymore because of all the unnecessary ingredients they contain and this book is great for explaining exactly what those ingredients are and the supposed benefits and disadvantages of each one. It also contains plenty of recipes for lots of different types of bread including Sourdough and sweet breads. I'd definitely recommend this for anyone interested in baking their own bread.

Other presents included:

A recipe file - always handy!


Set of different oils. Particularly intrigued by the chilli-infused one!

And, finally, we were given some money with the specific instructions to buy some kitchen equipment we were after, so we also got a pizza/bread stone, a new set of digital scales, a proper chef's knife and sharpening steel and a new set of saucepans, half-price in Debenhams!

 
These are not the most expensive, nor probably the best saucepans in the world, but they're a darn sight better than what I was working with before and were within our price range. (While I like the look of the hard-anodized pans, I fear that once filled with food, they'll be too heavy for me - even with our old pans, once they had food in, I often had to lift them with two hands! I'm only 5ft tall!) They're from the Maxima Debenhams range and the set of four was £37.50 marked down from £75. I also bought a large stock pot from the same range, so we are now pretty well-equipped! I just need a decent food processor and all will be right with the world!

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Chocolate Brownie Cake

Yesterday, I made my very first cake. Ok, I had made some banana and walnut muffins at school once and I used to help my mum make fairy cakes and rock cakes occasionally, but I'd never made one big cake on my own. So, I tried to find an easy recipe suitable for a beginner and I came across this recipe for a chocolate brownie cake, which I thought I might be able to handle.

Seeing as I'd never even lined a cake tin before, I found this video really useful. I was really worried about putting too much butter in when greasing the tin, and I think I might have done because the cake went a bit hard round the edges (or I possibly overcooked it a little because I was also really worried about it being underdone!).

It took forever to melt the chocolate, sugars, butter etc. together. I did what it said and did it on a really low heat - I think it took a little over 20 minutes in total to get it into a smooth paste. Still, once that was done and I'd mixed it with all the other ingredients, it began to look rather more cake-mixture-y.




I duly poured the cake mixture into my beautifully lined cake-tin, and 30 minutes later this was the result!

I'm not sure if it was supposed to rise more than this or if the cake tin I used was big, as it was flatter than I was expecting. However, it still tastes very good - just like chocolate brownie, in fact! - and it's very rich so you don't actually need very much (as I found out after cutting myself a huge slice, while it was still a bit warm, mmmmm).

Not too shabby for a first attempt! I really enjoyed the whole process of cake-making too. I think it's the very concept of taking lots of raw ingredients, mixing them all together and then the finished product looking completely different to what you started with, which makes baking interesting and exciting to me. It makes me feel a bit like an alchemist.

Chocolate Brownie Cake on Foodista

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Purple carrots

In my veg box this week, I was delighted to find some purple carrots! This got me thinking about the history of the carrot, as I was sure I'd heard somewhere that carrots used to be purple like this. That's when I discovered this fabulous website called the World Carrot Museum. There's an awful lot of carrot history on there, although my favourite quote from the website is, "The Carrot has a somewhat obscure history, surrounded by doubt and enigma". So, there you go: the humble carrot has something of a shady past. The wonderful thing I learnt from this website is that carrots also come in yellow, white and red varieties.

It seems a shame that now the only carrots we can buy in the shops are orange: surely, children would love these, and according to the Carrot Museum: "Purple carrots (usually orange inside) have even more beta carotene than their orange cousins, and get their pigment from an entirely different class, the anthocyanins, these pigments act as powerful antioxidants, grabbing and holding on to harmful free radicals in the body. Anthocyanins also help prevent heart disease by slowing blood clotting and and are good anti inflammatory agents." (http://www.carrotmuseum.co.uk/nutrition.html)

In 2002 it looks as if Sainsbury's tried to revive the purple carrot, but I doubt if this was successful considering I don't remember ever seeing purple carrots in the supermarkets.There's a little more information about growing purple carrots in the UK back at the carrot museum. Apparently, we just aren't ready for purple vegetables in this country.

I used some of my carrots in a casserole - they lost their colour a bit in the long cooking time, but still tasted good. I used the rest in a duck stir fry, and the colour they added was great. Taste-wise, I don't think there's much, if any, discernable difference to orange carrots, but I do think they look really quite beautiful and there are apparently greater health benefits too.

And there are more purple vegetables to be had out there. I had some wonderful purple beans from a work colleague's allotment earlier this year (although they turn green when you cook them!), and I recently read about red sprouts on Butcher, Baker's blog. I think we should all embrace our purple vegetables a little more!

Monday, 21 December 2009

Chinese Mini Mart - Market Way, Coventry

 I noticed recently that a new Chinese supermarket had opened in Coventry City Centre and today I actually had time to go in, now that I'm off work for Christmas (hurrah!). It really is a fantastic little shop, stocking a really good range of stuff in quite a small space.

I nearly bought some quail's eggs. I didn't, because I don't need to, but I think I'm going to have to think of an excuse to need them so I can buy some.

They sell small bunches of beansprouts for 25p or larger ones for 50p, which beats the supermarket and I find the supermarket packets far too big and always end up throwing some out. I also spied some giant bottles of soy sauce for £1.50 and if I wasn't walking home, I would have bought some.

I don't normally buy ready-prepared sauces anymore, but I did buy some sukiyaki sauce for dinner tonight, because it sounded good and thought it would be interesting to try.

The staff are really friendly and helpful. If you live locally and like oriental food, it is definitely worth checking out (the shop is located next to Blue Banana and opposite Tesco Express on Market Way).

Sunday, 20 December 2009

My Top 6 Christmas Cookery Shows

Now, I don't usually watch much TV and the TV I do watch is usually all on BBC iPlayer; but in order to bring you my pick of the Christmas Cookery Shows, I've been watching a fair bit of TV the last few days and even fired up 4 on Demand to see what was on offer over there. See how dedicated I am! Anyway, enough preamble, on with the show(s)!

6) Nigella's Christmas Kitchen
 I probably can't legitimately judge this one: I only watched 15 minutes of one episode and gave up. I know this is most likely an unpopular opinion, but I can't stand Nigella. I mean, I'm sure she's a lovely person, but I find her insufferable to watch on the telly. She just looks far too pleased with herself the whole time. But I mainly switched off because the 'Puddini' she was making were making me feel nauseous, both from the name and the ingredients: surely, Christmas pudding, chocolate and treacle would be enough to send anybody into a diabetic coma? Someone also needs to point out to her that not everyone has a dishwasher - when she was telling the viewer how to sterilise jars, she didn't offer an alternative to using a dishwasher. My fiancé pointed out that most people have dishwashers and we are in the minority not having one, but that's not the point. But if that's your kind of thing, then fair enough: happy viewing!

5) Delia's Classic Christmas
I know plenty of people think Delia is past it now and that Nigella has taken the baton of definitive Christmas cooking, but I'm rating her programme above Nigella's because I actually found it compelling enough to watch all of it. It has it's flaws: there were far too many shots of Delia wandering round her GIANT house, and I personally found it unnecessary to hear about Delia's religious views. But some of the food looked like the kind of thing I might want to try cooking at some point, such as the Beef en Creoute, although I did get frustrated with the lack of information about some things - maybe some suggestions on where one can source panforte would have been useful.

4) Jamie's Family Christmas
I haven't always enjoyed cooking from Jamie Oliver's cookbooks in the past, so I enjoyed this much more than I thought I would. I've watched 2 episodes so far, but may go back and watch the rest of the episodes on 4 on Demand when I get time. I like how down to earth it is and that he makes the recipes look really quite simple. My only major problem is that he seems to go so fast with everything, that I did find it hard to keep up with what was happening at some points. The party food episode was great, chock full of great ideas if you're thinking of entertaining over the Christmas period.


3) Rick Stein's Christmas Odyssey
This is really an extension of Rick Stein's Far Eastern Odyssey and an advert for it. But I enjoyed it because it was a bit different from all the other Christmas cookery programmes, offering far Eastern recipes ideal for using up left-over turkey. The scenes from his travels were wonderful because they showed the connection between the food he was cooking and the people and background it comes from. I also liked that Rick Stein confessed he was filming it in June. I was surprised that he didn't know the trick of rolling a lime before cutting it to get more juice out, but at least he admitted it, and it does show as that as cooks we are learning things all the time.

2) Heston Blumenthal's Christmas Feast
Technically, this isn't a cookery show - or at least not one where you can reproduce the recipes at home. I am including it here for sheer watchability. I have had a lot of respect for Heston Blumenthal ever since I saw his series Big Chef takes on Little Chef. I think he does some amazing things with food and it is never boring to watch! It was great to see the diners' reactions to the foodstuffs he provided - it amused me that some of them weren't ok eating a dormouse, but were fine with eating venison after being presented with a pageant of a hung deer skin being shot by an archer, complete with oozing blood. Ironically, I think the thing I would have had most trouble eating would have been the pudding at the end, because it was so beautiful, it almost seemed a shame to eat it! This show certainly isn't for the faint at heart!

1) The Hairy Bikers' Twelve Days of Christmas
And so, the award goes to the hairy bikers! I love watching the hairy bikers - they make tasty-looking food, they make it for people to eat rather than just demonstrating it, they travel around and cook out in the open, and they're funny and silly and down to earth. So, yes, I'm a bit of a fan. The premise of this show was to make dishes related to the items in the song The Twelve Days of Christmas. Some of them were inspired (a partridge served with pickled pears for "a partridge in a pear tree"), others had slightly tenuous links with the song (5 giant pretzels for "five gold rings"). It was a wonderful idea though and made for some interesting dishes, most of them a bit different from your typical Christmas fare. I will most definitely be downloading some of the recipes from the BBC website!


So, there you have it - my top 6 of the Christmas Cookery Shows. No doubt you disagree with all of them - feel free to tell me in the comments.

Finally, please find a picture of some Christmas cookery from my work colleague Vicki: she made each of us at work one of these giant snowflake biscuits for Christmas - I'm glad I got a picture, because it is now no more!


Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Stuffat tal-Laham (Maltese Meat Stew)

It's perfect stew weather at the moment, so this evening I made my very first stew. (Yes, that's right, I hadn't even made a stew before - who says being a food blogger means you have to be an expert?!) I decided to make something out of the Maltese cookbook I borrowed from my mum (I am half-Maltese).

On browsing this book, I commented to my other half that it suddenly struck me how rustic all the food in it seemed. "Ah, peasant food!" he exclaimed. I'll be diplomatic and stick with rustic, but there is a certain simplicity to the food in the book, which is surely not a bad thing: sometimes, I crave simple food. And this particular recipe is simple, but damn tasty.

Stuffat tal-Laham means 'meat stew'- this particular version is made with beef. I have actually found a link to a recipe very similar to the one in my book - so similar in fact, that I suspect the owner of the website has the same book. The only discernable difference is that in my book it gives the very precise measurement of "some red wine" rather than a glass of red wine. When I'm cooking a recipe for the first time I like to follow instructions fairly carefully, then subsequently I might tweak the recipe here and there to suit my own tastes; thus, I duly put "some red wine" into the pot. The recipe doesn't involve any vegetables so I served them on the side, but next time I think I might throw some carrots in as well. The meat was a still a little tough after cooking for only an hour, so I think I'll increase the cooking time (and perhaps buy a better cut of meat) and increase the amount of stock (and possibly wine!) so it doesn't dry out to nothing; I used about 440g of stewing beef because that's all I had, and I was only cooking this for two, but I stuck to the rest of the recipe and found the liquid reduced just about enough within the suggested cooking time of 1 hour (the photo above was taken during cooking not at the end).

I haven't often fried meat in butter, but I did so as the recipe requested and the smell was amazing. The aroma of the whole thing cooking was just wonderful: I'm sure I can't begin to describe it accurately but imagine a mixture of butter, beef, tomato and wine smells all mingling harmoniously and you'll be on your way there. It tasted pretty good too. A simple, but effective recipe!

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Victorian Christmas shopping at Kendall's of Earlsdon

We went along to Earlsdon Street on Thursday evening for late night Victorian Christmas Shopping hosted by Kendall's of Earlsdon. It was very festive and really started to get us in the Christmassy mood! We stopped in a few gift shops and I bought a present for my mum (it was wonderful to see some people dressed up as well; I was boring and went in my jeans!). Of course we had a look in Kendall's, which was fab! They had a brass band outside, were giving out free mulled wine and small samples of Christmas cake and plum pudding. I bought a few items: some panforte, some stollen and some Warwickshire Truckle cheese with black cracked pepper.



Unfortunately, I did not get a picture of the cheese, as I only bought a small piece and, um, well, there's not much left now.

I was really impressed by the range of local and continental produce at Kendall's - I think I'm going to have the best foodie Christmas yet!

Late night Victorian Christmas shopping is being held again next Thursday (17th December) from 5.30pm - 8.30pm.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

The Saxon Mill restaurant review

This review has also been published at itsallboutcoventry.co.uk.

It was with some trepidation that I entered the Saxon Mill on Friday night: I’d been there to eat on one previous occasion and found the food rather mediocre. But perhaps I just ordered the wrong thing. Having checked out the menu online (http://www.saxonmill.co.uk/food.htm) shortly before leaving home, I suspected I was in for a treat this time.

The Saxon Mill has an open kitchen, and you can see meat cooking on the rotisserie from your table if sitting in the right place, which gives it a wonderfully rustic atmosphere.

The food was delivered to us promptly and before our starters arrived we were given an appetiser of bread and some olive oil, which at first was a little confusing as my fiancé had ordered the Rustic Bread + Roast Garlic Bulb + Olives + Extra Virgin Olive Oil + Aged Balsamic at £3.95 (which is supposed to be a sharing plate, but I didn’t get much of a chance to share any with him). He was relieved when his real starter arrived. My starter was a little more expensive at £5.95, but it was worth it for the Mushrooms + Dolcellate + Sourdough + Blistered Tomatoes + Ruccola. Being served sourdough in a pub restaurant was a delight and the mushrooms oozed juice as I cut into them and the rich cheese was perfectly complemented by the wonderfully seasoned tomatoes –it was just enough to whet my appetite for my main dish.

£12.95 may sound a lot for a pork dish (Spit Pork Loin + Truffle Mash + Black Pudding + Roasted Pears + Jus), but it was without a doubt the best pork dish I had ever had, and the best-presented plate I have ever seen in a pub restaurant. The pork was served on a generous bed of truffle mash, topped with black pudding and a roasted pear (a very minor error on the menu there, as it only came with one – although one was enough), and surrounded by the jus. Each element of the meal on its own was tasty, but together the flavours mingled and merged in such a way as to create a kind of euphoria in my mouth. My stomach was grateful too.




My fiancé had the Classic Burger at £9.95 – this was an enormously thick burger and apparently was very good, as were the chips it was served with. It’s good to note that there’s a good range of food and there’s a fair few dishes for those who prefer more traditional pub fare, including steak, and beer battered haddock.
I can’t remember which wine I had other than it was a small glass of Shiraz and cost £4.75 (the cheapest glass was £4.25) and it was pretty good - very warm and fruity.

The dessert menu was a slight disappointment in that there was nothing on there which felt stunning enough to tempt me after such a flavoursome meal. I was half-tempted by the treacle pudding (desserts ranged from about £4 to about £7), but being already quite full I decided to quit while I was ahead – I wanted to leave with the glorious flavours of the Spit Pork Loin still reverberating in my mouth.

The service is generally very good. The staff are polite, helpful and attentive. It’s quite an informal affair, however, which sits slightly at odds with the quality and grandeur of the food. Then again, it is a pub restaurant.

I do see a slight problem with the menu and that is the choice: there is so much tempting food on there that I found it really hard to make a decision. A perfect excuse for a return visit, though! Although the menu gives the impression of some kind of demonic maths lesson with all those plus symbols, this is highly refined food in a warm, homely pub setting, and that to me is a perfectly balanced equation.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Dinner fit for a queen

So, the venison was very good. As you can tell from the picture, I fried it in some oil with some mushrooms. It was extremely tender, full of flavour and all-round generally delicious, and is possibly now my favourite kind of meat. Quote of the evening comes from my ever-lovely fiancé during a discussion about the benefits of local meat: "And what's great about this coming from Charlecote Park is that we may have seen the deer it came from!"

To accompany the steaks, I cooked a sauce from English Food by Jane Grigson called, quite aptly, Venison Sauce, described as, "a simple version of the many varieties of port wine sauce for venison. It was invented by Queen Victoria's chef, Francatelli." There's something quite satisfying about cooking something with such a strong regal history. I wonder if Queen Victoria enjoyed it as much as we did. I bet she didn't have hers served with Aunt Bessie's oven chips (yes, part of me does feel guilty for whacking some chips in the oven when I had fresh, organic, local potatoes in the cupboard, but I really fancied some oven chips. And we have used all the potatoes now, anyway).

It's a simple recipe, with only four ingredients: 2 tbsp port wine, 250g redcurrant jelly, a bruised small stick of cinnamon (cue me trying to work out how to bruise a cinnamon stick: what, do I hit it? Do I physically bruise it or just bruise its ego?), thinly pared rind of lemon. You put them all together and then simmer for about 5 minutes, and stir. The stirring is supposed to break down the redcurrant jelly, which it did (apparently, if you use commercially made redcurrant jelly you might need to add some water, which I did), although there were still some fine lumps left at the end, and I really have no idea if that's how it's supposed to be; you couldn't distinguish these when it was in your mouth and it tasted pretty good, so really, who cares. The recipe does say "strain into a hot sauce-boat". Give me a break, Jane, I don't own a sauce-boat, nevermind the wherewhithal to heat it. And I was hungry for venison and couldn't be bothered to 'strain' it (presuming this means sieve?). Nevertheless, I was pretty pleased with it, but please note this recipe could probably easily serve 4 and I don't recommend pouring the lot over just 2 venison steaks. Just as an aside.

For pudding we had two homemade mincepies and some port, having bought a bottle to use in the sauce. This is when I discovered that I really like port (my fiancé claims I've tried it before and said I didn't like it, but I don't remember). Perhaps I liked the port a little too much that evening.

Venison on Foodista

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Earlsdon Butchers

Today we went to pick up our second fruit and veg box from Down to Earth on Earlsdon High Street (fabulous as ever - got courgette, brussel sprouts and swede this week amongst other things!) and decided to pop into Earlsdon Butchers having been enticed by the sign outside advertising venison from Charlecote Park.

We seem to have stumbled upon a real gem. Earlsdon High Street certainly seems to be the place to go in Coventry for local produce! As well as the very locally sourced venison steaks, I bought some chicken from award-winning Great Farm. These have been matured for longer than most farmed-chickens, so I'm hoping for fuller flavours once they're cooked! I would have loved to have bought more meat, but hadn't really got round to planning all our meals for this week yet and the venison was pretty expensive, as you'd expect, so thought I'd leave it at that for now. But I'll definitely be going again - I'm particularly keen to buy some beef and lamb which comes from Canal Farm just outside Nuneaton. I don't think you could get much more local meat without having your own farm.

I'll let you know how the venison turns out - I've never eaten venison before, let alone cooked it (I have eaten and cooked impala, but that's another story...). But I've found a recipe from one of my cookbooks and plan to serve it with the potatoes and brussel sprouts from this week's veg box!

Friday, 27 November 2009

Mince pies

Gosh, it's nearly the weekend again and I haven't even finished blogging about last weekend's exploits! Not only did I make my very first homemade bread, I made my very first mince pies, using my homemade mincemeat!





I used this recipe and it was pretty easy and they are, without a doubt, the best mince pies I have ever had. The pastry is so lovely and buttery. The only mistake I made was that I was a little too generous with the pastry in each pie, so it was a bit thick, and I wanted to taste more of the mincemeat. So, I will try and rectify this this weekend. Everyone who has tasted them so far want more, so I will have to get baking!

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

For the love of bread

The weekend was a busy one in terms of foodie things. On Saturday I travelled all the way to deepest, darkest Birmingham to attend a bread-making course courtesy of Loaf.

I was a complete novice when it comes to bread-making, as I'd not even attempted it before, not even with a bread-machine! The course really inspired me though and I now feel confident enough to try to make bread at home.




We baked a lot of bread during the 6 or so hours of the course, including a white loaf, a wholemeal loaf, ciabatta, fougasse (see above) and breadsticks. We made our own pizza bases and cooked our pizzas in the earth oven for lunch – there's a basic, primal pleasure in making the very foundations of your lunch, cooking it using a real fire and then eating it (how many of you would make the pizza dough from scratch rather than buying it from the supermarket? I know what I would have done before I went on the course!). I also found the whole kneading process a joy, not just because I got to get my hands mucky (I am a child at heart), but, again, there's a basic pleasure in being such an integral part of the creation of food; and making such a staple food as bread from scratch invigorates the soul: it says I am a maker of things and a provider. Hear me roar! Or something.




Tom, the director of Loaf, also demonstrated how to make brioche and let us take the dough home. I baked it and took it to work. It was yummy.

We also got to take home some Sourdough starter to make our own sourdough breads, which should be interesting.

And now that I've tasted my creations, it's going to be hard going back to supermarket bread, as I know I inevitably will have to at some point (although, I tend to buy from the bakery section – that's got to be better, hasn't it?). The ciabatta in particular was a revelation: it was so moist. And it had flavour.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

My first fruit and veg box


We picked up our first organic, local fruit and veg box this week from a shop called Down to Earth in Earlsdon, Coventry. As well as being a small shop where you can buy organic and local produce, they provide a box scheme. We decided to try it on a one-off collection basis first.

So far, I am impressed! Having researched into other box schemes I think the price is reasonable (we have gone for the £10 one for 8-10 items). I've also done some research on the Tesco website and worked out that the equivalent items bought from the supermarket cost approx. £11.59, so a small saving is made! I love the fact that all the fruits and vegetables are seasonal and locally sourced. In this box we got:

apples
satsumas
carrots
parsnips
red pepper
broccoli
1 large onion
potatoes
mushrooms
2 bags salad leaves

That's my fruit and vegetables sorted for the week!  We're going to see how it goes with these items and whether it's enough/too much to work out how often we are going to need a box (although, I'm estimating once a week).I've even found a recipe on my favourite website, BBC Good Food, for which I already have all the ingredients: Spicy Root and Lentil Casserole - yummy!

We do have a slight problem that both of us work full-time and we live in a flat where there is no access to the building unless you have a key fob - there is nowhere suitable to leave the box if we are out. We're going to ask my boyfriend's parents (who are in much more than we are!) if they'll kindly take a delivery for us, otherwise we can pick the box up from the shop. When we spoke to the lady in the shop, she was very helpful and they are quite flexible in their approach to delivery, if you are awkward like we are!

If you're interested in a similar scheme, I'd suggest going to http://www.freerangereview.com/ and typing in your postcode to find your nearest supplier. I used this and was delighted to learn that there was such a place so close to home.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Fresh beginnings


This is the start of my herb garden! Coriander and mint.

I very much do not have green fingers; usually, plants wither and die as soon as I so much as walk into the same room as them. But I'm trying my hardest to follow the instructions - I've even stuck them to the plant pots! I'm having more trouble with the coriander than with the mint. It keeps wilting - the instructions say only to water it when the surface of the soil is dry, but it seems to start wilting before that, but does pick up when I water it. I do wonder now as well whether I would have been better off buying seeds and growing them myself from scratch than buying the plants already grown. I think I'll have to try that another time.

Other herbs I'd like to grow include parsley, basil and perhaps a chilli plant, but I'll see how I manage with these two first. (I live in a flat and do not have a garden, so anything I grow needs to be able to grow in a pot on the windowsill or possibly on the balcony.)

Sunday, 15 November 2009

A couple of Christmas condiments

Well, I've lost no time in getting back in the kitchen since returning from holiday. Having been away for the past couple of weeks, we've missed a fair bit of the pre-Christmas buzz that begins around this time of year, and it was a little surreal to come home to Christmas decorations everywhere (and the sudden realisation that we need to get on with our Christmas shopping!).

I'd already planned before going away that this year I would make Mince Pies for the first time. My repertoire is sadly lacking in dessert foods at the moment, and mince pies are one of my favourite things ever, so it seemed a good idea. Many people seem to buy mince meat rather than make it, but why buy it when you can make a fun and sticky mess yourself at home?! So, this weekend I got cracking and this was the result:





The recipe I used was from Christmas Made Easy, a BBC Good Food book. I made about half the amount suggested in the recipe as I thought 3.5kg was a little excessive for someone who had never made mince pies before and I'm not planning on giving it to anyone as presents (certainly not now I've tasted it!). The recipe has a good mix of fruit (I really like the inclusion of bramley apple and almonds) and a fair soaking of alcohol - fortunately we already had some dark rum in the house, and managed to "borrow" some brandy from my fiancé's mum, but I had to buy the amaretto, which was fairly expensive at £12 a bottle for something I don't think I'd ever drink. But I suppose I can always make more mince meat with it! I do hope it tastes good when it's cooked in the mince pies - it smells fantastic and it tastes pretty darn good at the moment, so I am hopeful. Of course, I have yet to make the pastry and I have never made pastry before, so that should be an interesting experience. I do suffer from poor circulation, and I'm told that cold hands are a bonus in pastry-creation, so we shall see!

When I was reading through the recipe for the mince meat, I decided, on a complete whim, to also make the Christmas chutney on the opposite page (hurrah for the BBC Good Food website having the recipe for this!). I did this today, despite still suffering from jet-lag, and so far am pretty pleased with the result:



On tasting this once it had reduced I exclaimed, "It tastes like chutney!" I really don't know why I continue to be surprised by the fact that my food tastes of what it is. To be honest, I'm still surprised that I can even cook.

Anyway, as you've probably already guessed, this is my first ever chutney and I'm still a little worried that I didn't reduce it quite enough or that I didn't chop the vegetables small enough. I also, as you can no doubt tell, do not really have the right sort of pans for chutney-making, but I had to work with what I've got (I'm seriously hoping for a nice set of pans for Christmas - what an exciting life I lead, eh?). I'm looking forward to the results after it's matured (preliminary taste test suggests good things to come - I love the spicy kick!) and think it's going to make a perfect condiment for boxing day with all the cold meats and cheeses my parents are guaranteed to provide.

Are you planning to cook anything special for Christmas? If so, I'd love to hear about it! Christmas to me is all about food and family - a perfect combination!

Saturday, 14 November 2009

A taste of India


The few of you who read this blog may have noticed that I've been absent for a fair while - this is because for the past two weeks I've been on holiday in India. We started the trip in Delhi and from there went to Agra, Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, Jaipur and the Himalayas. An amazing journey and one which provided many culinary delights!

Before I continue, I should briefly explain that my intrepid fiancé and his friend were involved in an 'incident' involving a plane and the ground at Heathrow almost 2 years ago (namely, a crash-landing - thankfully, no one was seriously injured), and BA compensated by providing us with a holiday which included business class flights and 5* accomodation - I am not normally in the habit of dining in 5* hotels, just in case you were wondering.

The first hotel we stayed in was the Oberoi, New Delhi: very plush, very posh, GREAT food. The first morning I opted for a traditional Indian breakfast, Aloo Paratha, which is a potato pancake, mildly spiced. Indian breakfasts are a bit strange if, like me, you are used to having toast and marmalade or cereal for breakfast, but I did my best to be adventurous in my choice of cuisine!

The first evening we opted to dine in the hotel's dedicated Chinese restaurant. Oddly, I can now say I've had the best Chinese food I've ever had, in India. For our starter we ordered a whole barbecued duck to share between the four of us. The wonderful thing about this (apart from the beautiful flavours, obviously) is that once the duck is cooked they wheel it near to your table and carve it in front of you. Then they make up duck pancakes for you. Wow. I have never before had duck so delicious. Even the hoi sin sauce was better than any other I had tasted. Once we had devoured the meat of the duck the waiter asked us if we'd like to have some duck soup cooked from the duck carcass. The duck soup was equally delicious and I liked the choice of vegetables used which complemented the flavour of the duck broth (baby sweetcorn, pak choi, mushrooms). I think I'm going to have to learn at some point how to make duck soup for myself.

Of course, I did eat some Indian dinners as well. In fact, I managed precisely two before my stomach gave in and I was officially diagnosed by the doctor as having a classic case of 'Delhi Belly' (ironically, by this time we'd left Delhi and were staying in the Oberoi Hotel, Agra) - apparently, the authentic Indian spices hadn't agreed with me, my stomach not being used to it. The two Indian meals I had were very delicious, and stupidly, possibly thanks to being distracted by my poorly tummy, I didn't write the names of them down. One was chicken in a tomato-based sauce, which was so rich and creamy and filled with the most aromatic and tasty spices - it was heaven. The second dish was made with aubergine, but I think my memory of that particular dish is tainted by the fact that I got to taste it in reverse. That evening though, I also had a traditional Indian Rice Pudding - this is almost completely different from the Rice Pudding I had as a child which came out of a tin and was warm and lumpy. For a start it's cold and pretty smooth. It's fairly sweet with hints of cardamom. Here's a recipe if anyone fancies having a go at making it for themselves - I probably will at some point.

The doctor advised me not to eat spicy food for a few days, but I didn't feel like doing so anyway. It took me about a week before I could face eating anything remotely spicy again! Fortunately, all the hotels we stayed in served a variety of different foods and I got to eat some fantastic things (a deliciously cooked rack of lamb, scrambled eggs with black alba truffle served on brioche, quail, some fantastic ricotta and spinach ravioli).

The foodie highlight of the holiday for me was when we were staying in the Oberoi Vanyavilas, Ranthambhore. In between going on safari to try and spot tigers (unfortunately, we were unsuccessful, but we did see crocodiles and lots of monkeys, deer and all sorts of different birds and insects), we had a tour of the hotel's herb garden given by the chef Deep Mohan Singh Arneja, who has collobarated with Jamie Oliver on some Indian recipes (you can check them out as well by going here and selecting pages 18-19). Chef Deep was a thoroughly nice and accommodating chap and put up with my ignorant questions very well! The herb garden is very impressive (unfortunately I didn't get any photos because my darling fiancé had left the camera behind) - a fairly large plot of land divided into rectangular sections for the different herbs and vegetables. What the hotel does is grow produce which can't be sourced locally, so all the food eaten at the hotel is very fresh and very local. There were some wonderful plants I'd never seen before, including a curry leaf tree, and I was rather taken with the purple basil. Some produce was behind schedule because of the unseasonably warm weather and some had already made a tasty meal for the peacocks! But it was still a fascinating experience and before we had left for India I had already had vague plans to start growing some of my own herbs and the tour really inspired me to get cracking with it, so I shall let you know how that goes.

One of the other great things about this particular resort, is that being fairly small in terms of guests meant that it only had the one restaurant, but the menu was different every day. It made me really wish I had been able to spend more than two nights at this venue. But it was certainly an experience I shall never forget.

Monday, 26 October 2009

My week of not really cooking THAT dangerously



My first week of trying to cook more home-cooked food has gone pretty well. Here are some brief descriptions of what I cooked.

Monday
Chilli Con Carne. A classic and a favourite in my house. I've tried a few different recipes, but I like this one best. It's clearly aimed at people with little cooking experience (which could be a good thing), but it's a tasty, almost fool-proof recipe (I once cooked it with fresh chillies instead of chilli powder and put too many in…oops) and we often have left-overs so it provided me with lunch the next day too. Bonus.

Tuesday
Roast duck legs with sweet potato mash. Good old BBC Good Food website – I'd bought some duck legs as they have been half-price in Sainsbury's for the past week or so and I had some sweet potatoes in the cupboard. It seemed a good idea to put the two together, so I had a quick look on the Good Food website and found this recipe. This was delicious and pretty simple to make. I'm making it again this week, but with mini-roast potatoes instead of sweet potato mash. Yum!

Wednesday
Sausage and mash. My night off.

Thursday
Balsamic-glazed swordfish. I had bought the swordfish after browsing the fish counter and being enticed to try something new and then found the recipe in a cookbook that I own. It was interesting and quite nice but I found the marinade (containing olive oil, harissa, balsamic vinegar and olive paste) a bit strong for my liking and it was an expensive meal (it was served with roasted asparagus), but not wonderful enough to justify the expense. Still, I've now cooked and eaten swordfish which is something I'd never done before!

Friday
Chicken Chow Mein. This is a fairly quick and simple recipe, but an extremely tasty one – perfect for cooking on a Friday night! I have made this a few times before so it was a relief to make something tried and tested after the experiments during the week! It's from my Chinese Made Easy cookbook, but it is also available online.

Saturday
To my shame, we had Chinese Takeaway. I kept away from the chow mein though because I knew it wouldn't be as nice as the one that I cooked.

Sunday
Morrocan-spiced roast rack of lamb (see picture above). Another expensive meal, but tasty. I'd never cooked or eaten a rack of lamb before, so it was interesting. I did it slightly wrong though because I asked the butcher to trim it for me, but he didn't trim the fat off the top, just round the bones and I wasn't sure if I was meant to leave the fat on or not, so I left it on. I realised after I cooked it that I should have removed this. This is another BBC Good Food recipe, which can be found here. The lamb was of course, lovely, but the cous cous was also delicious. I definitely want to try cooking a rack of lamb again, and make sure it is trimmed properly next time, but I think I'll have to wait until I'm feeling a bit richer!

Saturday, 24 October 2009

More Book People bargains!

My regular copy of The Book People catalogue came through the door this morning, and, as usual, I turned the pages eagerly to see what bargain cookery books they had this edition. I was delighted to find this collection of Classic Cookery books. Not only is it a beautiful collection of Penguin books (which I collect, because I am a book nerd) it features a set of 8 great cookery titles for a bargainous £9.99! (According to the website the RRP for all eight of these books is about £70.) I am ordering my set today and thought I'd make a quick post here in case some of you are interested too. Happy cooking!

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Restaurant Review: Sonargaon Tandoori

This review has also been published on http://www.itsallaboutcoventry.co.uk/.

The Sonargaon Tandoori on Daventry Road was the first genuine Bangladeshi restaurant in Coventry, according to the blurb on the menu, and features award-winning chefs with cuisine at competitive prices. I have dined here a few times and had a fair few takeaways from here too.

Being a Sunday evening, the venue wasn't very full, which was good because if it had been, I feel it would have felt very claustrophobic: it is only a small restaurant and as a result the tables are packed in fairly tightly. However, the restaurant has been recently refurbished and the décor is tasteful and elegant and I found the lighting to be clever in that it illuminated the table in front of you without being too bright in other areas, meaning that it remains atmospheric, but you can still see your food!

We started with poppadoms, served with the usual array of condiments – I particularly liked the onion salad which has a mildly-spiced tomato sauce, which gave it an almost salsa-like quality. I didn't order a starter, but my boyfriend ordered the meat platter, which at £5.95 was fairly good value for money seeing as it comes with 2 good-sized pieces of each meat (lamb kofta, beef, chicken), and I of course nibbled on some of his. I found the meat a little dry and perhaps it could have done with a dipping sauce. We were also treated at this point to two chicken and onion kebabs "compliments of the chef", which were very tasty: the chicken was moist and well cooked and the sweetness of the onion contrasted well with the spiciness of the seasoning. And what's even better is that it was free!

As for drinks we ordered a bottle of wine. We opted for Firefly Shiraz which was £15, but very nice – very warm and fruity, which is how I liked my red wines – but had been debating on getting a £9.50 bottle, which also sounded quite nice, so there is quite a range to choose from.

For my main I ordered Prawn Niramish Balti, which for the amount you get is reasonable at £8.50. Niramish is a Bangladeshi vegetable dish (if the internet is to be believed) and has quite a sweet and moderately spicy taste. I think the prawns compliment the vegetables well. I supplemented this by sharing some mushroom rice (£3.50) with my boyfriend and a chapati (£1.15). For those who like more 'traditional' curries, such as lamb rogan josh or chicken korma, there is a large selection of these on the menu – my boyfriend opted for his favourite Chicken Tikka Massala (personally, I don't like the bright red colour of the one at the Sonargaon, but he seems to like it) – as well as a wide variety of chef's specials, ranging from about £8 to about £15 in price.

I didn't manage to finish all of my meal, and was taken aback when the waiter asked if I wanted to take the rest home! As the Sonargaon is also a takeaway, they were more than happy to put my leftovers in a pot and even offered to cook me some rice to go with it! I accepted the offer without the rice – this is something I have never done in a restaurant before, but thought it was preferable than letting the food go to waste.

I would have had dessert if I hadn't been so full; from previous experience I can tell you that the coconut ice-cream is wonderful, though – whoever thought of making coconut ice-cream is a genius.

When we asked for the bill the waiter asked if we'd like a drink "on the house". I declined, but my boyfriend had a brandy. He said it wasn't a great quality brandy, but for a free drink, you can hardly complain. And that willingness to go the extra-mile for their customers really epitomises the quality of the service at the Sonargaon: I would say that that is the one thing that stood out for me.

In conclusion, great service, good food with generous portions at reasonable prices – and 20% off the menu for takeaways – well worth a visit!

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

In Defence of Food by Michael Pollan

This book has changed my approach to food. Sure, there are some things I don't quite agree with (some scientific processes, after all, have made food able to grow in poor soil which has, I believe, meant that in some areas of some developing countries they have been able to feed more of their starving populations – do correct me if I'm wrong on this score), but the book makes some good points and has some sound ideas about food.

So, I am planning to make some changes – to the way I shop, to the way I prepare food and to the way I eat. This is partly making me feel terribly middle-class (some would argue that I am terribly middle-class, but I never really feel like it because I wasn't really brought up in that environment) and almost guilty for that (latent working-class guilt?!), but I am in a position where I am able to buy better food and am able to support local businesses and farmers if I choose to, so being in this position it seems silly not to do these things.

The changes I plan to make are: 1) buy more whole foods, 2) use the supermarket less, and 3) buy produce as locally as possible. I am investigating the possibility of getting a fresh produce box delivered to my home and we are talking about using the Coventry Market more (this will mostly require getting up early on a Saturday, as unfortunately it is all shut by the time we finish work – one of the difficulties with both working full-time!).

These changes will result in two major changes for me: the former will be that I will be cooking more from scratch; the latter will be that it will change some of my dietary habits.

I think sometimes I will find the former hard, but I am trying to make it easier by keeping on the top of the washing up (this admittedly isn't always my strong point!), meaning that I won't have yesterday's washing up to deal with before I start cooking, and planning some meals that are simple and quick to make (but without resorting to processed foods, obviously!).

The latter is going to be hard too. I have decided to buy real butter as opposed to the low-fat spread I currently use (and have done my entire adult life so far) and part of me is worried about the impact this will have on my weight. But I'm going to give it a go because I completely agree with Michael Pollan's views on "imitation food", and I'm attempting to eat less food on the whole.

I will of course document my progress with this in this blog, and perhaps I can inspire others to take up the beacon of real, locally grown food!

One blogger who is already doing this is Tom Baker, who runs Loaf Social Enterprise Ltd., a company committed to promoting locally grown and whole foods in the Birmingham area. I am, all being well, going to be attending the Loaf Cookery School in the near future to learn some bread-making skills! To find out more about Loaf and the courses they run please go to Loaf Online.

Buy In Defence of Food here, or visit www.michaelpollan.com for more information.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Toad-in-the-Hole with a Twist (of bacon)


My fiancé had been away last week with work. He went to St Petersburg and apparently went to a Sausage Restaurant in a microbrewery one evening! Despite this he still wanted me to make him a homecoming present of Toad in the Hole. To make it extra-special I wrapped the sausages in bacon. It was nice, although I felt the taste of the bacon overpowered the sausages, which was a shame because they were my favourite pork and chive sausages from the local butchers. The bacon did give the batter it was cooked in a slightly salty, bacon-y taste, which was quite pleasant though! I think next time I will leave the bacon out, but it gave a nice twist to a classic dish.

All of this got me thinking last night about how much of our relationship revolves around food. For example, the nature and location of my work means that I get home before my fiancé (which is partly why I prepare most of the meals), so one of the first things we do when he gets home is sit down to eat, while we catch up on how our respective days went. Many of our first dates were in restaurants or involved home-cooked food. I think we'd all do well to recognise food as not just fuel for our bodies, but a social event in which we all participate.


On a different note, there's a post over at Teakay's Blog responding to my mashed potato story, with his own tale of mashed potato woe. This one blows my 'mashed potato incident' out of the water!

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

How not to make Dahl Soup

This can be summed up in one phrase: do not overfill the blender.

I had my first cooking disaster since keeping this blog. It happened on Monday, but I have had to let a couple of days pass before I felt I could write about it with enough emotional distance - yes, that's right: ruining something you had your heart set on making, trying to make something nice and nutritious for your family and then having it all go tits up, really can be quite emotional. If you're me.

And what made me feel doubly stupid was that I have made the very same mistake before - you'd think I'd have learnt my lesson.

I was attempting to make Dahl soup from a Weightwatchers cookbook that I own (I can't guarantee how authentic the recipes are, but I've made the lamb rogan josh and the onion bhajees from it and they were both very tasty). It was all going sort of ok (although twice the lentils boiled over coating my hob in scum - I really don't think boiling lentils with the lid on the pan is a good idea, even though the book says this is what you should do), and then I came to the last stage where you blend the soup in a blender or food processor. I have a not particularly large blender, where I often have to blend things in more than one batch, but for some reason, on Monday night (I guess I must have been tired and more than a little absent-minded) I decided to put the lot in there even though it was clearly too much. It didn't take much blending before it starting spilling out of the bottom of the blender. I am somewhat fortunate in that the soup didn't spray everywhere in some kind of recreation of The Exorcist, but trying to remove the jug from the base of the blender over a saucepan only resulted in me spilling the soup all over the worktop, in the sink, on the floor and on my jeans.

I managed to salvage a small amount, but it wasn't properly blended. And do you know what the worst thing was? IT DIDN'T EVEN TASTE THAT GOOD. So, yeah, I made mediocre soup, which I managed to spill everywhere, which I'm still finding bits of in various places, and, you know, it had turmeric in it, so it is bright golden yellow. I think the kitchen has finally stopped smelling of curry though.

Fourty-five minutes of cooking and not enough dinner for two, resulted in a trip to the fish and chip shop. I ate chips with the buttered bread I had bought to accompany the soup. Needless to say, this did not help much with the diet.

We have decided to invest in a nice food processor. And I have decided to be more careful in future.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Sea bass with salmoriglio

On Thursday I attempted to make salmoriglio (I say attempted, as I don't feel I was entirely successful) from My Favourite Ingredients by Skye Gyngell. The recipe in this books suggests using fresh marjoram, which I couldn't find in the shops, so I had to make do with dried marjoram, which I don't believe gave the right flavour or look to the sauce (I didn't take a picture because I knew it didn't look right and would feel slightly ashamed displaying it here). I did enjoy turning the sliced garlic into a paste using a pestle and mortar, though. And it tasted ok, just not brilliant, but I don't really feel inspired to try this recipe again (although I may give the one I linked to a go).

I really liked the way the sea bass was cooked - brushed with olive oil, seasoned and grilled - and will definitely be cooking fish this way again; I haven't often grilled fish in the past.

I am not, on the whole, overly impressed with this cookbook, as not much leaps out at me as being something I'd like to attempt cooking (using pansies in a salad?! Is she serious? Apparently, she is!). I bought it because it was fairly cheap on The Book People website, but am beginning to think I may need to donate it to someone to make room for more books I will make more use of. That's the problem when you can't look through the book you are buying - you can't have a look to see if any of the recipes would be the kind of thing you'd enjoy cooking.

How to Make Mashed Potato (with Paul McCartney)

A long time ago now, a school friend and I, left to our own devices in her parents' kitchen, endeavoured to make mashed potato with quite disastrous results. I presume we must have used too much milk, as it had the consistency of foam and didn't taste much of potato. This has since gone down in legend as "The Mashed Potato Incident", and could often send us into fits of giggles just at the words "mashed potato" as only in-jokes with friends can.

Anyway, if anyone ever suffers similar troubles, here is an instructional video made by Paul McCartney - apologies about the poor quality, but it was obviously made a fair while ago "on the internet". Still, it amuses me.



(Normal service will resume soon - I've been visiting my folks down South this weekend.)

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

My bolognese recipe


This is my recipe for bolognese. It's a family recipe, which has kind of evolved over the years. It's a pretty simple recipe and I have made it so often (my boyfriend loves it!) that I can make it without even thinking about any of it now, which is nice on evenings when I'm a bit tired but we still want home-cooked food, but it's less of a challenge now obviously! Anyway, I hope you like it!

Serves: 2-4 people, depending on how much you eat!

Ingredients
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2-3 garlic cloves, crushed
150g-200g mushrooms, chopped
1 tsp mixed Italian herbs
400g-500g minced beef
400g tin of tomatoes (peeled plum or chopped)
1-2 tbsp tomato puree
1 tbsp capers or chopped, pitted green olives
5 or 6 pieces of sun dried tomato
salt & pepper to season

Method
1. Heat the oil in a saucepan, then add the onion, garlic, mushrooms and Italian herbs. Fry until the onion starts to brown and the mushrooms start to reduce/shrink.

2. Add the minced beef. Fry on a medium-high heat until completely brown. Drain the fat from the meat using a colander if desired.

3. Add the tinned tomato, tomato puree, olives/capers and sundried tomatoes. Bring to the boil and then simmer for about 30 minutes, until the sauce has reduced.

4. Season to taste.

Serve with a pasta of your choice and parmesan cheese sprinkled on top if desired.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Caribbean Lamb Shanks


Yesterday after we got back from Solihull I cooked a dish from my brand new copy of Levi Roots's Caribbean Food Made Easy (I got it for £5.99 from The Book People – bargain!). The recipe I made was the very first one in the book: Caribbean Lamb Shanks. This is a kind of casserole-type dish, and there are two things to bear in mind before I continue telling my story:

1. I had never cooked lamb shanks before in my life.
2. I had never cooked a casserole/stew or anything of a similar nature before.

This recipe also introduced a couple of ingredients which were new to me, including ground allspice and Scotch Bonnet chillies. The allspice was interesting because when I had picked it up in Sainsbury's earlier in the day, I checked the back for the ingredients, presuming that it contained more than one spice, but none were listed. I felt a bit of a fool after getting back home and having a look at the front of Levi Roots's book and reading that allspice is in fact a berry, and it was named 'allspice' by the British when they arrived in the Caribbean and couldn't work out what flavour it was and thought it tasted like all the known spices in existence!

The Scotch Bonnet chillies were a joy to work with – almost like little parcels. I was apprehensive at first when I saw on the packet that they were listed as "very hot", when I have only ever cooked with medium chillies, but I followed the instructions and cooked one whole and one cut in half, removing the seeds from the halved one and making sure the whole one had no sneaky holes where seeds could spill out (Levi says that the green chillies have tougher skins, so are better to use when leaving them whole). I found it much easier to remove the seeds from these than from other kinds of chilli. And the heat was just about right in the finished product. My boyfriend described it as a sneaky kind of heat: it was almost an afterthought and you didn't quite notice it until you felt your face going a bit red.

The meal was fairly easy to prepare – there was lots of chopping vegetables, which is fine and seasoning the lamb shanks was ok, although I'm still never sure if I'm using too much or too little salt and pepper in my seasonings – I suspect, if anything, it's too little, but I think that is preferable to too much. Things seems to taste ok to me, anyway!

You had to brown the lamb shanks "on all sides" before transferring to the cooking pot, which was interesting considering shanks are very uneven shapes, so this involved some careful balancing in the frying pan as I tried to get them as evenly browned as I could!

Disaster very nearly struck at the next stage as I went to transfer them to the casserole dish and I couldn't believe I had been such an idiot. The lamb shanks would not fit in the pot with the vegetables already in there and I still had sweet potato and the sauce to add yet. I went to my boyfriend in a panic, who at first suggested I split it between two different pots, but this was hardly practical and it would be difficult to split the seasonings for the sauce and still get the recipe right. But then he said, "Hang on," and started rummaging around in one of the cupboards and eventually started to pull out the slow cooker. Was he going to suggest I put the slow cooker in the oven? Was he mad? And then, as if by magic, he pulled out from the slow cooker a big round, deep cooking pot, more than big enough for the lamb shanks and all the vegetables and the sauce. I had forgotten that the slow cooker comes with a removable pot – I was initially unsure how it would work in a conventional oven, but it was perfect. I shall definitely be using it again (and one day I may even use it in my slow cooker, which, shamefully, I haven't done yet).

In went the lamb shanks and the rest of the ingredients and then I set the timer and went to put my feet up.

Two and a half hours later, we sat down at the table to one of the most scrumptious meals I have ever cooked. It was just gorgeous. The lamb was so tender it almost melted in your mouth, and the sweetness and spiciness combined made for a very authentic Caribbean flavour, which for some reason really surprised me ("This tastes Caribbean! I know it's supposed to, but it does!"). What equally surprised me was that I'd used quite a vile red wine for the sauce (it came with a Sainsbury's £10 meal deal – a poor pretender to the Marks and Spencer offer) and it still tasted good!

There were a few minor things I could improve on next time: when I put all the ingredients into the pot, the instructions were "add the sauce, then the rest of the ingredients" and I added them as they came to hand, which ended up meaning that I added the tomato puree last; so, instead of it all mixing with the sauce some of it got stuck to the lamb and the vegetables, but this didn't seem to impair the flavour. Next time I would also chop the sweet potato into larger chunks, because I accidently cut some of the slices quite thinly and it kind of disintegrated into a sweet potato mush in places, which I don't think was supposed to happen.

This was a great dish, though, and the recipe had good, clear instructions which definitely helped me to make such a successful meal. I'd encourage anyone even remotely interested in Caribbean food to buy this book. YUM.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

The Handmade Burger Company

Another busy morning for us, this time in Solihull. Having finished our shopping, we decided to grab some lunch and we ended up at The Handmade Burger Co in Torchwood ToUchwood Shopping Centre.

I was very impressed with the creativity and range of food served here, all based on the humble burger (menu and price list is available on their website). There was a good range of vegetarian options and a children's menu. I opted for a Sweet Chilli Chicken Burger, which turned out to be huge and neither of us could finish the side of chips we ordered. Because I am a sophisticated kind of gal, I ordered a banana milkshake to go with my burger - it was yummy. It would have been interesting to try the Gourmet Ice Cream for pudding, but there's no way I could have managed it, not when I was planning to cook in the evening as well (and I am supposed to be on a sort-of diet, believe it or not)!

The staff were very pleasant and helpful and made us feel very welcome, which was a nice surprise considering essentially it's a burger bar - but to be fair to them, they're clearly trying to do something new and different and are using quality ingredients in their food.

The one thing that spoilt the visit for me, was when I went to the toilets afterwards to wash my hands (I managed to get sweet chilli sauce all over my hands. I'd like to pretend I'm a tidy eater, but clearly I'm not). It reeked of stale urine, the toilets themselves were dirty and looked as if they had not been cleaned properly that day, and the sink I washed my hands in didn't drain properly. It's not pleasant walking into that after having just eaten a delicious lunch. And I can be quite fussy about restaurant toilets because if the toilets aren't clean, who's to say they aren't lax about hygiene in the kitchen?

I hope they're not though, and, of course, this could just have been a particularly bad day in terms of bathroom hygiene, so I would like to give them the benefit of the doubt. Not enough to stop me from visiting again, so we shall see how they square up next time!

Pork Pie & an Easy Family Meal

Yesterday we popped into Kenilworth in the morning and on our travels stopped at Andrew Davies Bakery on Warwick Road to pick up a small loaf for lunch. I was immediately overcome with the smell of baked goods and wanted to buy the whole shop. One thing in particular that caught me eye was this pork pie:



I love pork pies. "Are you going to buy it then?" my fiancé asked. I replied that I wouldn't be buying it because I am at the moment (as he knows) attempting to lose some weight, and I didn't think buying a fat-filled pork pie would help my cause much. So, what did he do? The scoundrel bought it for me! He has at least offered to share it.

The trip to the bakery has made me determined at some point to have a go at making some kind of pastry product. Watch this space.


Yesterday evening, I had my future in-laws over for dinner, which can be a daunting prospect. I cooked 'Speedy Beef Noodles' from my Good Housekeeping Easy Family Meals book which I picked up from Sainsbury's for £1.50. It's only a small book, and doesn't seem that easy to find, as I had to Google the ISBN to get any matching results and doesn't seem to be in stock anywhere!

Anyway, this is a fairly easy meal and one that shows you can make tasty food with a few relatively simple ingredients. Unfortunately, I didn't get a picture of the finished product, because by the time I'd plated up four bowls it was starting to get cold and, you know, I was hungry. It's a bed of noodles, mange tout and red peppers, in a toasted sesame oil, lime and soy sauce dressing, seasoned with fresh coriander, with fried strips of beef on top. The recipe says to use 'Chilli Soy Sauce', but I have as yet been unable to find this so I've been using light soy sauce, which seems to work. I felt the finished product could have done with a little more lime juice to give it a bit more kick, but I had only bought a very small lime because there weren't many left in Sainsbury's and many of the others didn't look particularly appealing. Nevertheless, everyone seemed to find it quite tasty, and hopefully the future in-laws still approve of me marrying their son!

Saturday, 3 October 2009

The Old Mill

Last night my fiancé and I, in a concerted effort to spend some quality time together, went to one of our favourite pub-restaurants, The Old Mill, to check out their new Autumn menu. I always remember the first time we went there together - it would have been Summer last year - and we sat outside in their gorgeous outdoor seating watching the sun glint off the river and those white bits of fluff you get from trees gently floating around us. It really felt rather magical. And the food was very tasty too.

Last night, of course, we sat inside, it being dark and cold. I do prefer how their decor used to be before they ripped out some of the walls and replaced them with glass panels, which don't really fit with the rest of the rustic interior, but the food remains good, so I can't complain too much.

My fiancé was very patient with me as I insisted on taking photos of the food for this blog. Here's what I had.

For my starter I had a goats cheese and red onion tart. My only complaint about it was that I couldn't really taste the onion and it would have been nice to have that coming through more, but the tart itself was lovely, and rich and creamy and warm and seemed perfect for a chilly Autumn evening. The simple side salad was very tasty too - the cherry tomatoes were very sweet and it was dressed in olive oil. Yummy.

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For my main I had sea bass with mediterranean vegetables and rosemary roast potatoes. Very tasty, very filling. The fish was cooked perfectly, potatoes were nicely seasoned and the dipping sauce on the side was delicious but I have no idea what it was!

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My fiancé took this picture for me. He also took one of his own dinner but I'm not going to post that because he had the mixed grill, like he does EVERY SINGLE TIME we go there. Hardly an adventurous choice!

To accompany my meal, I had a glass of Montana Unoaked Chardonnay, which was delicious, and I am somewhat taken aback that it only costs £5-£6 a bottle in the shops, considering how much they were selling it for in the restaurant and how nice it was! Having said that it could have been a different vintage from the ones I've found on the internet. The menu described it as having flavours of melon, and these really came through initially, and then you got hit with the taste of wine. I described it last night as, "Melon, melon, melon, WINE!" My fiancé said I ought to be a wine critic.

All in all, a very tasty meal, and I came away feeling warm and happy and satisfied and filled with yummy food. No pudding because I was too full.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Maltese cuisine - an overview

This has to be one of my first topics to write about because I am half-Maltese and grew up with home cooked Maltese food. The Maltese love their food, like most Mediterraneans, so you can probably see where I get it from! I have only visited Malta once myself, but am hoping to rectify this in years to come.

Despite being such a small country, Malta has its own distinctive cuisine, and while some dishes bear similarities to those of its neighbour Italy, it has plenty of its own foodstuffs peculiar to Maltese shores.

Here are some of my favourite Maltese dishes, some of which I've made myself and some of which I've only eaten.

Snacks
Hobz Biz-Zejt

This literally translates as "bread with oil". In Malta, this is a traditional, staple snack and one that can be easily produced with a few basic ingredients.

It is best to use unsliced white bread, which you can then slice yourself into thick chunks. Unfortunately, I don't believe any bread bought in this country can come close to the range of breads available to buy in Malta, but we can certainly make the best of what we've got. The bread is then smeared with either tomato puree or the juice of fresh tomatoes – I prefer the sweetness of tomato puree, myself. Then the bread is placed dipped in olive oil (best to use a plate or a bowl for this and simply place tomato-side down to give it a thin-coating). I would definitely recommend using extra-virgin olive oil – I recently read about the difference between extra-virgin, virgin and normal olive oil, and now I won't buy anything except the extra-virgin stuff: I'll take my oil from the first pressing, thanks. Anyway, we're almost done! Last but not least, garnish the bread with chopped green pitted olives, capers and some fresh mint if you fancy it, et voila! A simple and tasty snack. The contrast of the bitterness of the olives and capers and the sweetness of the tomato, combined with the richness of the oil, is just heavenly.

This is the version I am familiar with, but I found this blog entry from a Maltese blogger and apparently it's common to use tuna fish and all sorts as well. Sounds yummy!

Pastizzi
I have never made these myself and don't intend to in the future, mostly because the idea of making anything with pastry scares me silly. I know I need to conquer this fear one day. Heck, you can even buy most pastry read-prepared these days!

Anyway, if you haven't guessed from the name and my musings on pastry, these are small pastry-based snacks, almost like a small pastie, but with different fillings. When my grandparents used to make frequent trips to Malta, they would often bring back pastizzi. They come in two varieties: ricotta cheese and peas. They are both scrumptious and the next time I do make it to Malta will probably be the first thing I eat. They have a buttery, flaky pastry and a soft warm filling and the whole thing just melts in your mouth. Mmmm. I haven't eaten one in a long time, though, so I hope they are as good as I remember.

Again, blogger comes up trumps, with a recipe by a bonafide Maltese blogger!

Soups
Maltese soup
My mum made this a lot and still does, in fact. We always just called it 'Maltese soup', and I'm not actually sure what it's called in Maltese. It is similar to Italian minestrone soup, containing pasta and vegetables, but sometimes containing meat as well (my mum usually does it with chicken). I have helped my mum to make it, but have never made it on my own, possibly because I have been daunted by having to boil a chicken carcass to make the stock, but this is another thing I plan to do in the future. I'd like to anyway, because despite the fact that I now make lots of different soups of my own (this will be discussed in future entries, I promise!), this remains possibly my all-time favourite soup – probably because I associate it with coming home from school on cold Autumn and Winter days and mum having a hearty bowl of Maltese soup ready for me.

Main Meals
Bolognese

Yes, like Italy a bolognese sauce is not uncommon in Malta (well, it wasn't in my house, at least) and I suspect that in Malta as everywhere else, there are many variations. The recipe I use was taught to me by my mother (in fact this was the first thing I ever learnt to cook), which was taught to her by her mother. Over the years, I have added touches of my own, and I will post the recipe, but I want to make a separate entry for it.

Patata il Forn (Potato in the oven)
I have made this dish myself with some success. It is made with peeled and sliced potatoes, seasoned with fennel seeds and can be cooked with meat (it works very well with chicken) or fish. I really like the herby flavour of the fennel seeds and I think this is a great alternative to an English roast dinner. Again, I plan to post my recipe in another entry!

Drinks
For some reason I am not too familiar with any Maltese desserts, aside from Maltese biscuits. However, there is one particular Maltese drink that I am very fond of and that is Kinnie. Kinnie is a bitter orange drink, which tastes almost alcoholic, but of course it isn't. This is another flavour I strongly associate with Malta and something that my grandparents would frequently bring back from their visits.


If you'd like to know more, I suggest checking out the Wikipedia page on Maltese Cuisine, as it has quite a comprehensive list of dishes. I'm going to have to stop looking at it now because it's making me hungry!

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Some past culinary adventures

Here are some of my past successful, and not-so-successful, endeavours (of things I happen to have photos of!).

Last year for my boyfriend's birthday, I made Toad-in-the-Hole, which is his favourite dinner, with onion gravy. I had never made batter before in my life, but thanks to a chef friend of mine, it tasted absolutely perfect!



I never measure anything when I cook the batter, but go by the texture and look of the batter. According to chef-friend, it should have the consistency of double cream. And a big help in getting the batter to rise is to keep two egg whites aside until you have finished the batter and then pop them in right at the end and whisk in. It is also a good idea to make your batter the evening before and put it in the fridge overnight.

Imagine my horror the first time I did this and took it out the fridge to discover all the ingredients had separated and it looked akin to something not entirely unlike sick. A quick whisk though, and all is right with the world.

Using good sausages is important in any top-class Toad-in-the Hole – my favourite are pork and chive from a local butcher's.

My onion gravy was not quite so successful, however. I can't remember where I got the recipe from but it was somewhere from the internet (this is not always a bad thing as I will reveal in later entries!). I'm pretty sure it was my fault it didn't turn out great, rather than the internet's fault though. This recipe used red wine and unfortunately my gravy tasted more of red wine than of onion, which I'm not sure was right, and it was very pink. And far too thick. I still haven't quite got the hang of caramelising onions properly and I think this is where I majorly fell down. Any hints or tips in this area would be most welcome.

Next, we move onto a very different dish – Ratatouille!

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This recipe was taken from a relatively new cookbook of mine, The Ultimate Recipe Book. I made it with fresh yellow and green courgettes and onions from my work colleague's allotment and fresh red peppers and aubergine from the Asian green grocers/supermarket near to where I work. As you can see, this made for a very colourful concoction and I'd really recommend adding yellow courgettes to the mix if you can find them.

The tomato sauce itself wasn't as sweet as it perhaps should have been, but on the advice of the cookbook I used fresh tomatoes, although they weren't vine-ripened tomatoes as the book suggested, because I only had normal tomatoes in my fridge at the time. Next time I think I will use tinned tomato to get the sweetness – I particularly like the plum tomatoes from the Napolina range, which I've been buying since they've been half price in Sainsbury's for the past few weeks. I really don't think there is anything wrong with a tin of tomatoes – I remember when I was young it was not unusual for us to have peeled, boiled potatoes with tinned tomato on top. I could totally eat that right now.

Speaking of tomato of the tinned variety, my third and final dish is one I made last week. This photo was taken shortly before putting it all in the oven.

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It's a Jamie Oliver recipe taken from his book Jamie's Dinners which I recently borrowed from my brother. This was a tasty recipe and a relatively simple one and it was particularly nice with the basa fillets bought from Sainsbury's deli counter, but I do have some issues with Jamie Oliver recipes in general, particularly the ones in this book. The ingredients are not separated from the main text (only highlighted in bold) and the recipe itself is just a block of text rather than clear stages, with little or no indication of measurements. Maybe it's just me, but on the whole I like clear instructions, laid out in a structured way.

Still, as I said, a tasty recipe and the base tomato sauce can be used for a number of things. I also tried it with grilled polenta, with parma ham wrapped around rocket on the side, which was ok, but polenta is something I feel I have not quite mastered yet. Part of the problem is that my fiancé is somewhat allergic to cheese so I avoid using it in my cooking, so I have been trying to flavour the polenta in other ways by using butter or olive oil. But really I do think it is screaming out for some parmesan or something. I'll have to wait until he's not around and try it. Again, I welcome any other suggestions anyone reading this might have. I have half a packet of polenta grains left and I don't like to waste things, especially not food!