Archive | June, 2012

Inspiration

26 Jun

Inspiration is a strange thing. You never know where you’re going to find it. Sometimes it’s from another person, a conversation you have, something they mention. Sometimes it’s from something you read, or hear about. Or with cooking it can be from the raw ingredients, what’s available, fresh and seasonal, or just left over in your cupboard. Or from something else you taste. Or a smell, or a memory, or a piece of equipment, or a serving dish, or piece of crockery. And sometimes it just springs up from somewhere inside you and you have no idea how it appeared.

Much of my inspiration comes from what I read, or what ingredients I have to hand, or spy in the shop/market.

Two books which are inspiring me just now include:

Lucas Hollweg’s Good Things To Eat. A very recent purchase, and bought entirely because I love his regular feature in the Sunday Times, our weekend paper of choice. Today I didn’t bother with inspiration, I just made one of the recipes as it was written: a salad of cucumber, strawberry and watercress. Just divine, with a sharp sweet vinegary dressing and more black pepper to add further bite to it. Let me know if you want the full recipe.

Darina Allen’s The Forgotten Skills of Cooking. I’ve owned this book for several years, and find myself constantly going back to it. Recently it was for a recipe for soda bread and its variations, and before that it was elderflower fizz and vinegar. It’s not just a go-to book for certain recipes it is also the perfect book for browsing – I have a fantasy about making a cold smoker, to smoke my own meat and fish and this book shows me how. She also shows you how to to cure bacon, store fruit, make suet, skin a wood pigeon and writes beautifully about her memories of the local pig killer. In fact, what makes this book is the human element – the memories and the stories bring her food to life. If you’re even vaguely interested in what I would call ‘traditional’ cooking skills and recipes then buy this book. It will delight and inspire you.

I have many cookbooks. I know that won’t surprise you. I love books and I love cooking, so of course I have many cookbooks. And I also live in two different places. It’s taken me a while to admit this, but I do. Through the week I am in a wee flat in Edinburgh, and at weekends I am in the Clyde Valley with my boyfriend. I’m living the dream.

But dreams can occasionally be confusing. I don’t always have the clothes I want or need in the place I want them. Or the right necklace to go with whatever I’m wearing. I know, I know, real first world problems.

One of the confusions I wouldn’t have predicted was the recipe confusion. I’m never sure if I’ll have the right cookbook with the recipe I need in the place I’m cooking at the time. Or if I want to plan what to make at the weekend, I can’t browse a cookbook and plan it till I get there.

Until now.

My new favourite thing is EatYourBooks. It’s a website where you can keep track of your cookbooks. If that was all it did you wouldn’t be very impressed would you? So of course it does more. It has a vast database of indexed cookbooks. And for each indexed cookbook it includes each recipe, and the key ingredients in each recipe. How genius is that?

So, imagine I know I want to cook something with aubergines and chicken. I search ‘my bookshelf’ and I find I have 23 recipes with these two ingredients, ranging from Miso Roasted Chicken (Donna Hay) and Green Chicken Curry (Vatch’s Thai Street Food) to Grilled Breast of Chicken with Provencal Vegetables and Aioli (Simon Hopkinson). And, as I tagged each book as I added it to my shelf, I know which books are in Edinburgh and which in the Valley. And of course the website lists the ingredients I need for each recipe (a straight list, without quantities) so I know if I’ll need to buy an extras to make the dish. Oh, and it includes various magazines as well. I tell you, it is perfectly genius, and I love it.

And it includes cookery blogs. And it highlights new articles from its featured blogs, so today I learnt how to make my own creme fraiche from Food52. You do know Food52 don’t you? It’s food porn. But useful porn, if such a thing exists. Go find out for yourself.

 

Shiny cake

24 Jun

Bear with me here.

This cake isn’t especially shiny, but it is possibly the most delicious cake I’ve ever made. It also can pretend to be healthier than some cakes, as it is chock full of pineapple and banana. So, I think that means I can call it shiny cake if that is what I want to call it, or just because an old girlfriend could never remember that its real name was Cookie Shine Cake, and it was always referred to as the Shiny Cake.

A cookie shine is what Scots used to call a tea party. I’m a Scot and don’t recall ever hearing of a cookie shine, but Sue Lawrence tells me it is so, so it must be true. She does mention that it was mostly used in the 19th century and that it is now pretty much obsolete, so perhaps I’m forgiven for never having used it; I’m not THAT old.

The cake is moist and sweet, like a luxurious, tropical carrot cake, covered in luscious creamy cream cheese icing. Go on, it’s simple to make, uses up that desiccated coconut and the tin of smushed pineapple you have in the cupboard. Oh? Is it only me who has a random tin of crushed pineapple in the back of the cupboard?

This recipe comes from Sue Lawrence’s Scottish Kitchen. She’s a great cookery writer providing foolproof baking recipes for all manner of classic scottish homebaked goods, such as shortbread, bannocks and scotch pancakes. But there is so much more to her books than classic scottish high tea fare – not only does she provide a bit of social history around her recipes, and her travels around Scotland, but she also has great go-to recipes for almost every occasion, from quick weekday suppers to outdoor eating (yes, in Scotland!) and smart dinners. Go on, buy one of her books and see what I mean.

Anyway, here we go:

Shiny Cake

  • 250g / 9oz SR flour
  • 275g / 9.5oz light muscovado sugar
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnnamon
  • a pinch of salt
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 225ml / 8 fl oz sunflower or rapeseed oil
  • 1 432g can of crushed pineapple, in natural juice, drained
  • 2 small ripe bananas, peeled and squished
  • 50g / 1.75oz desiccated coconut
  • 75g / 2.75oz chopped roasted hazelnuts
 Icing
  • 100g / 3.75oz butter, softened
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 200g / 7oz cream cheese (full or low fat, you decide)
  • 300g / 10.5oz golden icing sugar
  • 1 TBsp chopped roasted hazelnuts

Prepare two 8″ cake tins (or one deep loose-bottomed tin) and preheat the oven to 280C / 350F / GM4

  1. Mix flour, sugar, cinnamon and salt together in a big bowl
  2. Add the eggs and the oil
  3. Add the pineapple, bananas, coconut and hazelnuts and mix well together
  4. Spoon the mixture into the cake tin/s and bake for 35 – 40 minutes. You’ll need slightly longer if you are using one cake tin, so do check it’s ready by inserting a skewer into the centre of the cake and if it comes out clean, it’s ready. If not, give it another few minutes and test again.But remember if you are opening and shutting the oven door on your cake, do it gently – you don’t want to blast in any cold air into the oven, or the cake will flop.
  5. Leave to rest in the tin for about 30minutes and then turn out onto a wire rack to cool.
  6. While it’s cooling you can get on with the icing.
  7. Cream together the butter, vanilla extract and cream cheese, using an electric beater, till smooth.
  8. Start adding the icing sugar a little at a time and keep beating till all the icing sugar is added and the icing is smooth and luscious.
  9. If you had one cake, split it in two. Sandwich the two halves together with icing and then cover the top with icing too. Sprinkle toasted hazelnuts round the outside edge of the top, or all over. Or not at all.

Now, get yourself a nice cake plate and serve your cake, preferably with a pot of Earl Grey tea and proper porcelain tea cups.

I have to say that Sue Lawrence is very particular about her half ounce measurements – I am not. I still prefer to cook in ounces and pounds. I know what 4oz of butter looks and feels like; I can measure out an ounce of flour just using spoons and hardly need to use the weighing scales. This recipe, I’m pleased to report, seems to be fairly forgiving – so if you want to round up or down with your ounces please do so. But don’t blame me (or Sue Lawrence!) if it doesn’t quite work.

23 Jun

I love Sara’s thoughts and observations, and am delighted to call her a friend. I too was enchanted by the recent Love In a Library in Edinburgh, our festival city. But she says it so much better…

Que Sera Sara?

Lots of people aren’t into Opera.

I get it. I do.

The endlessly long running times. The ridiculous daytime-tv-worthy plots. The repetitive subtitles.

There is a lot to put a gal off.

BUT, hear me out.

 

Imagine you are sitting in a sunny library. A quiet space full of potential.

A kind-eyed librarian gently bustles about

… until a young man literally bursts into song,unable to contain his passion-from-afar any longer.

A sweet half hour commences where the two chase each other around your local library, conversing through alternating songs – declaring, questioning, and affirming their tentative love.

Cheesy? Maybe. Adorable? Definitely.

With Love in a Library, it’s  opera-lite. Short and sweet; simple and (partially) in English, with lyrics and translations for each song in your lap for easy browsing.

The song selection with which they build this romantic narrative ranges from Wagner to Gershwin (by way of…

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State of Wonder

21 Jun

I love Ann Patchett. I didn’t know I loved Ann Patchett, but really I think I do.

She’s one of those authors who have crept up on me.  I’ll be honest, I’d never heard of her and then I started coming across Bel Canto a few years ago, and it became one of those books that I ended up having to read, or it felt like it would keep cropping up in my life until I did. But let’s face it, it was no hardship to read it was it? If you haven’t been there yet, just buy it this weekend and find a comfy spot and start reading. You’ll thank me.

Then I saw Ann Patchett at the Book Festival in Edinburgh a few years ago. She was with another author, Valerie Martin I think, and I have a feeling that it was the other author I was initially interested in. Anyway, I no longer recall why I was quite so determined to see this event… out of around 800 events with world class authors, thinkers, politicians, commentators, illustrators, historians, philosophers, scientists, et al why would it be this one that I actually go to?  You see, although I worked at the world’s largest (and possibly greatest) book festival for a number of years my attendance at live literature events was woefully low. But I read a lot, and had a great time, so no regrets!

Anyway, back to Ann P. I bought her novel ‘Run’ off the back of seeing her in conversation with Valerie Martin. And it didn’t disappoint either.

So, when I saw that State of Wonder was shortlisted for the Orange, I knew I had to read it. That was all I knew about State of Wonder though – it was written by Ann P and had been shortlisted for the Orange prize. So, two good reasons to read it really.

It’s interesting when you start reading a book with no real idea of ‘what it’s about’. Especially if you read on an e-reader and so don’t see even the front cover as a clue, or the blurb on the back to give you an idea of what might be within. I realise that ‘what it’s about’ is often not what makes a book great – recently I have read about an orphan, shopping malls, the life of Achilles, a second marriage, a child in a poor estate in south London, and so on….

Anyway, I wasn’t expecting a research scientist from a large pharmaceutical company to shlep off to the Amazon to try to get a major research project back on track, and find out what happened to her colleague who had been despatched to do the same job some weeks earlier. But State of Wonder isn’t just about any of those things, is it? It will be about different things to different people I’m sure, but for me it’s about where you belong, and about loss and being lost. And found. And about parenthood. It’s about dreams. And nightmares. About ideals and compromise; about hopes, dreams and desires. It’s beautifully written, evoking the intense heat and sheer ‘foreign-ness’ of arriving in a town on the Amazon. The main characters are all women and all strong women, but each with their own vulnerabilities. Ann P is so good at drawing characters, people you feel you know from the first encounter with them, and then as you read, you just get to know them better.

I studied science many years ago. In my naivety at school I had hoped to be a research scientist, discovering the cures for all the world’s ills, or at least cancer (AIDS hadn’t appeared in our lives at that point. Yes, I’m that old!). So, I studied for a degree in Medicinal Chemistry. And quickly realised that I would never work for a large pharmaceutical company and would never discover any cures. I’d already worked out that scientific research probably wasn’t my vocation in life (really? I have to do exactly the same experiment over and over and over again every day for weeks and weeks and weeks just tweaking at the different components and reporting on any changes? How dull). But when the pharma companies started the ‘milk round’ of recruitment of fresh young graduates the remaining vestiges of that enthusiastic naivety and hope for the future died. They were oh so proud of a drug they had produced which reduced the symptoms of ulcers (and therefore made them lots of $$$ from stressed American businessmen). In the very next sentence they told us they were cancelling all research into a drug which had the potential in the future to eradicate a third world disease (was it cholera? Malaria? Or something altogether different, I can’t recall). But it would never make them any money. So the research was being pulled.

State of Wonder reminded me of my earlier self, and the erosion of my state of wonder. But I’m glad I’m not a research scientist. I would have been pretty rubbish at it, and I never looked good in a white coat anyway.

The cat’s whiskers

17 Jun

Not really, it’s cat’s tongues. Or Langues de Chat biscuits. But I’ll come to them in a minute.

We had some friends over for supper yesterday. We were going to barbecue, which is lovely and simple and just involves prepping a variety of things and then bringing it all together in a communal cook-a-thon on our most excellent portable barbecue (an upcycled old wheelbarrow).

But it’s Scotland in mid-June so the skies opened and it didn’t stop raining all day long. Add that to a cold wind and it was clearly no evening for a barbecue.

Plan B was homemade burgers. So we had a totally retro meal with prawn cocktail to start (with bought-in iceberg lettuce, because when I went to pick lettuce from the garden I discovered the rabbit had been there before me. Grrrr), and strawberry ripple ice-cream for afters, with langues de chat biscuits.

I could get seriously addicted to these biscuits, so it’s just as well that they are ridiculously easy to make. As far as a biscuit goes, I think these deliver the max on Ease of Making vs Tasty Loveliness. And if you’re careful you can make them look utterly professional in a uniform sort of a way.

Langues de Chat

Preheat oven to 200C / GM6. Lining a baking sheet (or two) with greaseproof paper. Find your piping bag, and fit it with a plain nozzle.

  • 100g icing sugar, sifted
  • 100g softened, unsalted butter
  • 1tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 large egg whites
  • 120g plain flour, sifted
  1. Beat together the icing sugar and butter, till it is soft and fluffy
  2. Add the vanilla and then the egg whites, one at a time, beating well after each addition
  3. Fold in the plain flour
  4. Dollop it all into your piping bag (you know that the easiest way to do this is to put the whole bag into a tall container, folding the bag over the edges, a bit like how you’d line a bin with a bin liner)
  5. Squeeze the mixture onto your baking sheets (if you’re a true professional, you might have drawn lines on your paper, so all the biscuits are the same length. I’m not).. you are probably looking for 2″ long squeezes. They expand a bit on cooking so leave enough room for them to spread out.
  6. Bake for about 8 minutes, until the biscuits are lightly golden and going nicely brown at the edges.
  7. Leave for a minute or two on the baking sheet and then transfer to a wire rack to cool.

These are perfect with ice cream. Or a cup of coffee. Or a bowl of strawberries. Or made into sandwiches with jam, or lemon curd, or chocolate ganache (but do this just before you serve them as they’ll go soft after a wee while).

As an aside, the ice cream I made didn’t work. It turns out that if you don’t put enough sweet stuff in with the cream it stays too hard and feels like solid cream with ice crystals in it. Bah. And in the past I’ve made such nommy ice cream. Never mind. The biscuits were great. So was the company.

Note to self These biscuits only help weight loss if you don’t eat them, or any of the raw mixture. Or perhaps if you limit yourself to only one or two. And I mean only one or two in total, not just one or two at a time. They are seriously more-ish!  But seriously, they come out as such teeny wee light wee biscuits that they might be good for some people on a diet – one or two biscuits might give you enough of a wee sugary hit, without breaking the calorie bank.

Not a restaurant review

14 Jun

So I went out for lunch with a colleague today. We have lunch together every couple of weeks or so and this week we were tempted by an offer at a new restaurant, a sister restaurant to a favourite cafe near our work. And their deal was ‘Pay What You Think It’s Worth’. I liked this idea.

The menu was considerably more expensive than we would usually spend on lunch. But then we normally go to local caffs, or other cheapish eateries. It’s not over the top, but when I want a light lunch, I don’t usually spend about £6 on a starter and then £15 on a main course. But in my head it was ‘Pay What You Want’ (as opposed to what it’s worth).

The food was good, slightly richer than I would normally choose, but good, and an interesting Scottish/Nordic menu, with ham hock, veal, skirt steak, duck eggs, kidney, catfish and other lovely seasonal and local produce. Perhaps it’s that I’ve been eating healthily the past few weeks, but I felt slightly as though I had a layer of fat coating my mouth afterwards – the potatoes were swimming in butter, the sauce was buttery, there was a very rich and cheesy-creamy seasonal vegetable gratin. And my colleague’s chips were cooked in dripping. It was tasty tasty creamy-butteriness, but nevertheless much fattier than I am currently used to.

The restaurant was virtually empty and the waiting staff were perhaps slightly over-attentive, interrupting conversations and generally asking us if everything was ok more often than felt necessary. And, it’s perhaps worth noting that if someone interrupts a conversation to ask if everything’s ok, the likely response is ‘yes thanks’ just to get rid of the interruption and get on with the conversation, not because it actually is ok.

Anyway, our total bill would have come to £44 or thereabouts and we decided to pay £20 each. And give a £4 tip.

So, then came the moment of actually paying the bill. The waiter brought the bill, with all items marked £0, and also brought a copy of the original menu, with the usual prices.

On his return we gave him the cash and the tip, explaining which was which.

And we felt slightly uncomfortable; he seemed slightly disappointed. And we made a hasty retreat. It felt awkward. I feel mean giving less than they would normally charge, even though it was only slightly less but now I’m not sure that I would return in the near future.

So, that sounds like it’s a failed promotion!

We discussed this afterwards, and talked about how it’s not very British to haggle, and that this promotion had almost set itself up to create that awkward moment at the end of the meal. Of course some people might wish to pay more than the menu price, but that, I guess, isn’t what the promotion sets out to do – it is trying to lure us in by making us think we can get a bargain. But the reality is that we will only get a bargain if we are ok about disappointing the staff. So perhaps it’s only a good promotion for hard hearted folk.

What would be a more effective promotion? Well, for a start, it would make sense if they had made any effort at all to get us to return – either by taking our contact details to send us an email to invite us back, or by giving us a voucher which entitled us to some one-off deal in the future, eg a free dessert if we have a starter and main in the evening, or 10% off the bill.

 

Chicken chasseur

12 Jun

So, I’m trying to be really organised, planning meals in advance and doing a big shop once a week in Edinburgh. And this week I’ve got some of it right. I did the big shop (online, delivered yesterday evening) and then started the planning once I had the food in my cupboards and the fridge. Clearly that’s the wrong way around, but it’s ok.. it’s coming together. And next week I’ll be better and plan first, shop second.

The other problem with my shop is that I hadn’t been home in my flat for ten days, so the shopping was sort of done from memory. As a result I’ve got LOTS of flour, and am running out of washing up liquid. Ah well, first world problems!

Anyway, this evening my plan told me that supper would be made from chicken, mushrooms, potato. And perhaps carrot and courgette. This was all pointing towards a chicken chasseur. Chasseur recipes are meals that hunters might eat (I think) … although I suspect that no self-respecting hunter would eat the chicken I was going to cook. But I think it is the mushrooms that all chasseurs traditionally have. Or am I entirely wrong and that’s a chicken forestiere? Oh, I really must do some research before I start trying to write about things I think I know more about than I really do.

But this is my version of what I am going to call chicken chasseur. It’s relatively cheap, easy to adapt, and pretty healthy. I’m trying to lose weight at the moment. Trying? I’m succeeding! I’m on weightwatchers, and it’s working really well for me, losing between 1 and 2lbs a week. And this recipe works well on the weightwatchers system. So I’ll be having leftovers for lunch tomorrow with some bulgur wheat!

Chicken Chasseur

  • 600g chicken thighs (between 6 and 8 thighs probably). Either leave them whole, or cut them into chunks… cut off any fat, to keep it healthy
  • a drizzle of olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, cut in half then sliced thinly, in half moon shapes
  • 2 medium carrots, chopped into wee chunks
  • 1 red pepper, cut into chunks
  • about 300g chestnut mushrooms, cut in half
  • 1 tin of chopped tomatoes
  • 1 chicken stock cube
  • thyme – either dried or fresh, or parsley
  1. Brown the chicken thighs in a large frying pan. If you have an oil sprayer, then use that, if you don’t then use a minimum amount of oil so the thighs don’t stick
  2. Remove the chicken from the pan and put to one side
  3. Lightly fry the onion in the pan for 3-4 minutes, then add the rest of the ingredients, and add the chicken back into the pan
  4. Add a half a pint or so of water. Ideally everything should be in the sauce, although it doesn’t need to be entirely submerged.
  5. Stir it gently, then cover the pan and let it bubble away for about 30 minutes. Less time if you cut those thighs into bits before you started.
And that’s it. Serve it with bulgur wheat. Or a baked potato. Or potato wedges, done in the oven with other roasted veg such as courgettes, and onions. That’s what I had this evening and it was super tasty.
And now I’m going to be really geeky and make a list of the foods I have in my cupboard, so I can tick things off when I need them and be more organised with my shopping, and eating. Yeah, go me, I’m so rock n roll!
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