Saturday, 31 December 2011

Beef Wellington

It was 31st December 1999 that I realised that I didn't much care for being in groups on New Year's Eve.  We had gone to a circus themed party at a friend of a friend's house.  It was fancy dress.

Those of you who know me will know that I love fancy dress.  This time however, I had different ideas.  This was the millennium, the dawning of tomorrow.  The future, including hover-cars and food in pill form, started at 00:00 hours.  I wasn't going to spend that night dressed as a clown.  Not when I had already found a pukka silver shirt and blue hair dye.

The party went as house parties do.  I was found mostly in the kitchen, chatting to those I knew (about 30%) about stuff*.  This was fine, until 9:30pm when the assembled guests were ushered into the living room, I had a bad feeling about this.  I asked my "friend" what was going on.

"We're going to do our acts now." he uttered matter of factly.  "What acts?"  "You know, we all have to do a circus act as part of the fun." My heart sank faster than the Belgrano.  I had no idea about this part of the party.  Z and I quickly cobbled together a shonky high-wire mime.  Fortunately we'd drunk enough to be truly wobbly on the wire and we didn't need the safety net.

To add insult to injury we then had to brave the elements to watch the fireworks.  This was so badly timed that we missed the big count down to the year 2000 and nothing happened.  Aeroplanes were meant to drop out of the sky, ATMs should have been chucking money onto the streets and Walt Disney was scheduled to raise from the grave.  The Millennium bug didn't strike, a bulb on the Christmas tree went out and that was it.

We have since had the majority of New Year's Eves at home, just Z and I with superb food, wine, company and Jools on the telly Hootannanying through the wee small hours.  This year we're going for beef wellington as the good food.

Not everybody likes their beef cooked the same way**, so individual wellies are the way forward.   Tis the season, and all that, so we are having sprouts.  It's the only time of the year that I get to eat them.  Served with boulangere potatoes, a grand way to see out 2011.

For the record I have enjoyed NYEs in the presence of others since 2000, mostly with my old school friends from Milton Keynes and Z's from Windsor. Whoever you are with, whatever you are doing, happy new year. 

*Stuff is great, I could waffle on about stuff for ages.
**I like mine to remember mooing and pastures green.

Friday, 30 December 2011

Friday Night Take-away Chicken with Cashew Nuts

Chinese has always been my family's go-to take-away.  Mainly because you couldn't drag my Dad into an Indian restaurant.  He didn't even like the smell of them never mind the flavours.  His dislike of curry was so great that when he had to visit India on a business trip he took packets of Hobnobs* so that he wouldn't starve.

Having returned from the trip Dad was a changed man and curry was on the menu, but we still had Chinese, why fix what isn't broken?

The family favourite was chicken with cashew nuts.  No matter what else was being ordered it would be included.  Mum is staying with us over New Year, so I decided to try and cook it for Tonight's Menu.  The feedback was that it tasted like it came out of a foil container, in a good way.

Stock is added to velveted chicken stir fried with onions, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts and carrots.  Bean sprouts are then added along with soy sauce.  The dish is finished with spring onions and the all-important toasted cashews.  Serve with egg fried rice.

*other biscuits are available

Thursday, 29 December 2011


What a fantastic day.  I can't think of a better way in Leeds, to tire out a toddler, than a trip to Tropical World.  Highlights were; the Meerkats (of course), the huge fish from the Amazon, and the Tree Shrews.

A sleeping toddler was the order of the afternoon, which left me plenty of time to crack on with making a bolognese sauce for tonight's lasagne.  Purists will tell you the exact sauce for lasagne and every house will have its own twist.  No matter what you add to your beef and tomato sauce the most important ingredient is time.  A slowly cooked sauce will have a more rounded flavour and better consistency.

The sauce is layered up with sheets of pasta and white sauce (thanks again to Z) and finished with grated cheese.  I prefer a strong cheddar, it melts better than parmesan and gives a nice topping.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Pork Chops with Cream and Mustard Sauce

Z came to the rescue for the second time in two days.  I was on an errand to Yeadon International Airport, picking up my Mum en-route from Southampton.  I'd been clever and checked in advance to make sure that the flight was on time, to my utter amazement it was scheduled to land 20 minutes early. 

I jumped in the car and sped across Leeds (sticking to the speed limits).  I arrived with moments to spare to see the arrivals board flash "Holding".  I know Leeds Bradford International Airport has a reputation for being windy and a bit dicey on landing but between Beeston and Rawdon the wind had picked up.  One flight had already been diverted to Manchester.  Three quarters of an hours later Mum's flight landed at its intended destination and we drove back to South Leeds.

Back at the ranch Z had cooked pork chops with a cream and mustard sauce, boiled potatoes and broccoli.  After a bumpy landing, its creamy comfort was just what the Doctor ordered for Mum, that and a large glass of Pinot Grigio.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Pasta with Tuna, Pesto and Green Beans

"Parting is such sweet sorrow".  Shakespeare tells us that Juliet utters these words to a departing Romeo after he has wooed her on the balcony.  I can only agree with her today.  It's wonderful to be back home, after a long weekend with the in-laws.  But it was great to see them and we always have a good time and eat like kings. However, there's no place like home.

The sorrow at parting was amplified by six hours at the wheel.  The trip should have taken three and a half hours, possibly four with a snack break, but every man and his dog was on their way home from visiting family for Christmas.  I like driving, even along the M1 (the most tedious road in England), but crawling along after four days of three course dinners tried my patience and belt buckle.

We had expected to be back in good time to do a spot of food shopping.  That didn't happen.  We needed a quick, light meal (I need to consider my figure).  Z managed to pull together a cracker, filling, healthy and without the richness of the festivities past.

Green beans cooked with some pasta and then tossed in pesto, tuna and cherry tomatoes, was just what we needed.  We now have a couple of days before the next big food event; the final one of the year, during which time I intend to eat a lot of veg and less meat.  Let's see what happens.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Swedish Spiced Roast Belly Pork

Boxing Day; a lie in, late breakfast, buffet lunch and a long walk.  Then back to the food.

As we had goose not turkey on Christmas Day there wasn't a scrap of bird left in the house.  Not for us the risotto, curry, sandwiches and pie, that a turkey forces on us all. Fortunately, tonight's menu is Roast Belly Pork.  I normally just season the pork and roast but P has found a Swedish spice rub that sounded so Christmasy it would have been rude not to use it.

Our leftovers from yesterday were all of the vegetable variety and I couldn't resist making some bubble and squeak using the roasties, parsnips and sprouts.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Christmas Dinner

Today, of all days, is one of eating, drinking and being merry.  We've decided to stretch the main meal over the course of the day.  A breakfast of croissants with bacon has kicked us off.  Lunch is our three course meal starter: Smoked salmon with home made blinis served with crème fraiche and dill.

The main course is served at tea time (4:30ish).   This year*, for a change, goose is on the menu.  Still having all the trimmings; parsnips, sprouts, roasties, pigs in blankets etc. But we're also having red cabbage as it goes so well with goose and three different stuffings.

The final meal of the day is dessert, and having had a good couple of hours away from the table, this year I can face some Christmas pudding.  I've made sure that there is plenty of room for cheese, after all, blessed are the cheese makers.  Merry Christmas to you all.

*to save us from tears (sorry).

Saturday, 24 December 2011


It's Christmas Eve and a chance for a sit down.  All of the presents have been loaded onto Santa's sleigh, the reindeer have been fed and watered and the big man is having a massive bowl of pasta (something has to soak up all that brandy).

Food prep has already started for tomorrow's cook-athon.  Two of the three stuffings have been made and the chipolatas have been wrapped in their bacony overcoats.  The veg will have to wait until the morning as will the bird as tonight, we are having coulibiac.

Coulibiac is a Russian pie stuffed to the gills with salmon, rice and mushrooms.  I first heard about coulibiac watching Anthony Bourdain's A Cook's Tour.  He was visiting St. Petersburg and his researcher had lined up a cosy vignette of Anthony visiting an elderly Russian lady as she lovingly prepared this festive dish for him.  It took her roughly 4 hours and, by the time it was served, Bourdain was on his second bottle of vodka.

It's Christmas, so of course we have had the odd tipple or two but not to the extent of AB.  Fortunately our coulibiac was prepped yesterday and only the veg needed seeing to, so we were sober enough to enjoy it.

Venison Casserole

We're away from home for Christmas, visiting Z's family in Windsor.  Chris Rea sings about Driving Home for Christmas, but he also warns of the Road to Hell.  In an attempt to avoid motorway madness on Christmas Eve we made the journey down the M1 today.

As the season demands, the feasting starts today, just as soon as Grand-Phil gets home from work.  Although there will be a lot of food, I doubt I'll be doing much of the cooking.  I'll definitely be acting as sous chef, chopping, stirring, washing and generally doing what I'm told.  I'm fine with this, it will leave more time for drinking and less responsibility if things are late or a tad "caramelised".

To get the ball rolling  A&P have made a venison casserole. It was cooked yesterday to save time and then finished off today.  The cooking sauce was reduced and red current jelly and chocolate were added before serving.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Today's Lunch No.4 Chorizo and Scrambled Eggs

It's been a very busy morning.  One that did not go exactly to plan.  The plan was flawless and fool proof.  An early walk into Leeds to visit Millies to choose the last of the Christmas cheeses.  Then to the Blood Donor Centre on The Headrow, as their doors opened, to give them my festive pint of A-.  Finally to Cornucopia, an independent food fair in The Corn Exchange, to hand deliver a gift to the organisers.  This would see me back home by 10:30 and leave me with plenty of time to pack for the holidays and pop for petrol before having a nice lunch and going to work.

No plan is fool proof.  Millies was awash with cheese and it probably took me too long to decide what to buy.  By the time I had left it was already 9:30, Blood Bank opening time, and by the time I had got there the next available slot wasn't until 10:45.  Giving blood is important to me and today was my only chance to donate before the new year so I booked myself in and went for a coffee.

I needed to go to the Corn Exchange anyway so I headed to Primo's for an Americano, thinking I could spend the time typing this up.  Coffee ordered and table chosen, my phone died.  Losing the internet these days is like having your prise carrier pigeon "Speckled Jim" shot over Flanders Fields.  I was lost and so I resorted to a pen and paper to pass the time.

Back home, one pint of blood lighter, I had just enough time to cobble together lunch.  Scrambled eggs with chorizo served on a bed of rocket and tortillas.  Not the kind of lunch I could eat in the office but I would have liked more time to eat them.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Today's Lunch No.3 Cauliflower Soup

We're visiting Z's parents for Christmas and so the "What needs using in the fridge" game has started.  This would be simpler if I was at home in the evenings this week but alas, no.  Z is doing her best at using up leftovers, but she is only one person.  Half a cauliflower is a bit of a mountainous task for a single serving so soup it is.

We cook soups a lot, they are a good way of using up leftovers but, more importantly, they are also a good way of preparing and storing gluts of food.  We are often faced with more veg than we can eat in one go and soup is simple and versatile.

Our cauliflower is cooked in chicken stock until tender and then blended until smooth.  Stir in some cream to finish it off. If I were a TV chef I'd now be telling you to drizzle with truffle oil and a few shavings of white truffle.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Today's Lunch No.2 Pastrami on Toast

Our last holiday abroad was a long weekend in Amsterdam.  We had been before, as students, but had only visited the tacky side of this wonderful city.  What we wanted to do was to peel back some of the history and check out some of the art and architecture.

We based ourselves close to Rembrandtplein, so that we were close to the old and new parts of the city and then, we walked.  We walked along each of the semicircular canals taking in the wonky houses and stopping of for Poffertjes and the odd beer or two in some of the fine brown bars.

We had a guide book which, as well as pointing out good museums, had a really good restaurant guide.  Over the Holiday we ate in Tibetan, Thai, Argentinian, Vegetarian and Dutch restaurants.  We ate well, we always do.

The food memory that came away with was from none of these.  It was a pastrami sandwich that we had for lunch in the Jordaan district.  The cafe was called Daadler and it was heaving, partly due to the market that was on that day, but I also like to think that it was due to the quality of food and drink on offer.

Z had introduced me to the pleasures of the pastrami sandwich at Uni.  The traditional sub, piled high with meat and pickles, is still a favourite.  But the people at Daadler had their own interpretation.

A grilled open sandwich was served to me consisting of (from bottom to top); bread toasted on one side, wholegrain mustard, pastrami, sauerkraut and melted cheese.  We now had good reason to buy one of those massive jars of sauerkraut.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Today's Lunch No.1 Ham and Cheese Sandwich

Due to having to work late this week, Tonight's Menu is having four days off.  In it's place I'll be telling the stories behind Today's Lunch.  My standard weekday lunch consists of a filled roll and a couple of pieces of seasonal fruit.  Not very exciting but it means that I don't have to shell out on shop bought sarnis.

I like a good sandwich.  The rolls I take to work however, are constructed with eating Al'desco in mind.  Nothing that is likely to fall apart or leave my hands in a sticky mess.  There is nothing worse than answering the phone with pickle and mayo all over your mits.

But I'm at home for lunch all this week, so today I'm celebrating with a proper two-handed sandwich*.  I'm not going to go daft and try to recreate a towering Scooby snack, complete with an olive on a cocktail stick.  I have the morning off, not all day, and my jaw isn't fitted with a 180o hinge.

My sandwich is fully loaded though.  Dijon mustard, Wiltshire Ham, Strong Lincolnshire Cheese**, tomato, cucumber, rocket and mayo.  All between two slices of home made wholegrain bread.  This would be all over my keyboard in the office.  At home I can take my time.

*a sandwich so mighty you need to eat it with two hands or risk losing its contents over your lap.
**grated, it just tastes better.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Miso Soup

Schadenfreude \SHOD-n-froy-duh\ , noun: satisfaction or pleasure felt at someone else's misfortune.
I know that I have had the odd pop at supermarkets, that Z works for one is irrelevant.  I dislike a handful of companies having too much power and influence.  I long for small, independent, greengrocers, butchers and bakers in our streets.  I am also aware that the convenience of supermarkets, is super.  
There are reasons why I revel in supermarket shopping.  I get excited by the range of food and the possibilities of how I'll cook them.  Also, we live in an area that is not known for its affluence and people around here know what they like.  These two things combined mean that the local supermarket always has high-end and interesting ingredients in the "reduced to clear" section.  I'm talking about venison, duck, celeriac, chicory etc.  I'd think twice about paying full price for items like these but reduced?  I'm in!
A trip to the shops yesterday, lead to the discovery of some reduced Japanese White Beech Mushrooms.  There was, and is, nothing wrong with them.  Due to an obsession with use by / sell buy dates, good food is being chucked away.  The reduced section in shops is where I get most of my inspiration, such is my desire to not waste food.

I know that I said, just a couple of days ago, that soup wasn't an evening meal.  However, a Japanese Miso soup with fresh vegetables and udon noodles, served with Gyoza and Edamame (dumplings and soy beans) is a feast.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Butternut Squash Risotto

One of the great things about butternut squash is that a good sized one will do you for couple of meals.  Earlier this week I used half a squash in a middle-eastern casserole and tonight I'm cooking one of my favourite meals, butternut squash risotto.  I would cook this more often, but it takes some time to prepare, so it's currently off the midweek menu.

The reason for the long cooking time is you have to roast the squash before you can even think about cooking he risotto, doubling the cooking time.  I don't normally go into detail about recipes but I feel that I need to open my heart with this one.  The flavours aren't your standard risotto fare but you can do what you want with risotto, honest.

Start by rubbing wedges of squash with oil, garlic, oregano and chilli flakes and roast them for 45 minutes until they have charred at the edges.  Remove the skins and eat them whilst cooking, these are some of the best chefs treats going.

The chopped roast butternut squash gets added to the risotto after the first ladle of stock so that it can collapse into the finished dish.  To finish add feta and pumpkin seeds for freshness and texture.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Friday Night Take-away. Pizza.

It had been decided, well in advance, that tonight's adventure into the Take-away at home would be pizza.  Had it not been for Christmas Shopping, I would have considered making my own base from scratch.  Alas time is finite.

I am not adverse to frozen pizza, some of them are great.  A lot of them however, are a whole lot worse than the pizzas you can order from the take-away joint at the end of your road.  Making your own, even if only pimping a bought Margarita with the toppings of your choice, is so much more satisfying than dialling that number for delivery.

Fortunately, one of my chores for the day, was to visit Millies to pick up cheese for Christmas Day.  Whilst stood at the counter, ordering Port soaked Stilton, I noticed some glorious parma ham.  Then and there I knew what we were having.

Too often, pizzas struggle under the weight of too many ingredients.  Tonight the ham was the star.  A simple tomato sauce topped with mozzarella, parma ham and basil served with a rocket salad, was better than anything you could choose from a menu pushed through your letter box.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Gammon, Egg and Chips

Back in November, when I started this blog, I penned a post about Roast Pork Shoulder, in which I mentioned the tastiest gammon I have ever eaten.  The gammon came from Swillington Farm and it is the reason we have started buying their monthly meat boxes.

Unlike your average shop bought gammon, this was a substantial piece of cured pork that didn't shrivel to half the size during cooking, leaving behind a milky scum.  The rind crisped up like good crackling should and you could taste the pig, not just salt.  Gammon hasn't always been like this for me.

I remember family trips out for Sunday lunch to The Bowling Green Inn, Euxton, where I'd invariably choose gammon.  It's the first place where I remember getting to choose from the real menu, not the kids menu.  It was like a whole new world had been opened up to me.  To give you some idea of the era in which this epic, life changing event happened, the Bowling Green had a Pacman video game and Findus had launched the French Bread Pizza.

The most exciting topping of these superheated, jaw-breakingly crisp pizzas, was the ham and pineapple.  I know now that this is a combination that should be locked into Room 101, but back then the salty sweet combo was a winner. 

The gammon at the Bowling Green came with pineapple.  Tonight, the gammon came with a fried egg, chips and peas.  

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Lemon Peppered Mackerel

Unlike the the screaming hoards that line up to grab their 15 minutes of fame, I don't actually want to be on TV.  The potential for disaster and embarrassment is far too great.  An old class mate of mine turned up on The Great British Bake Off and I had to watch.  It was great until the disaster. But you won't catch me in a "forgetting to put eggs in a soufflé" situation on the telly.  I can see it happening all too clearly.

There are elements of shows however, that I would like to try my hand at.  The name the ingredient challenge on Masterchef looks fun, as does getting drunk with James May and Oz Clarke.  The one that really gets me though, is Ready Steady Cook.  I'd rather be the cook than the contestant.  The challenge of coming up with a good meal without knowing what's in the shopping bag excites me.

One of these days I'm going to do it.  Invite some friends over and test my ccoking-chops to the full, without a TV crew in attendance.  Not today however.  Today Z has been fighting the Christmas shopping crowds in Leeds.  The world and his wife is going mad for tat, which the final recipient probably doesn't want.  Z had a torrid time but managed to pick up some Mackerel and a lemon along with some stocking fillers.

A black pepper and lemon, bread crumb crust was quickly knocked up for the fish and served with new potatoes and buttered white cabbage.  The whole meal took longer than the prescribed 20 minutes, but then I'm not a professional chef and I wasn't trying to ignore Ainsley Harriott.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Middle-Eastern Sausage and Butternut Squash Casserole

Since taking on the allotment we have tried, with limited success, to grow a few varieties of squash.  Courgettes are no problem at all, they are too generous at times, but this isn't courgette season.  No matter how the shelves grown under their weight, I won't be eating any until my first harvest next year.

The winter squashes are still abundant and in season.  Each variety has a different texture and flavour and my favourite, Crown Prince, is huge and keeps well.  A decent one will happily provide four meals for a small family.   Despite this variety, our choices at the tills are less bountiful.  At least butternut squash is the one that has taken hold.  It is very versatile and has great flavour and texture unlike the harlequin squash which is sweet but granular.

For some reason the traditional "What are we having for dinner?" question was met with blank expressions all round this morning.  I wont bore you with the full inventory of the kitchen shelves, suffice to say a butternut squash* was in attendance.  We still have a surfeit of meat in the freezer from our last meat box delivery from Swillington Farm.  So in some stolen idle moments at work I trawled the internet for inspiration.

What I found was a shed-load of curry and soup** recipes.  Soup doesn't stand high in my evening meal charts and we've had curries lately.  I kept clicking my mouse until I found a recipe that I'll be returning to next summer, Middle-Eastern Broad Bean Stew.  It included butternut squash in the ingredient list.  A few tweaks later and tonight's menu emerged.  The Sausages from Swillington are Pork, Sage and Apple.  A savoury and sweet sausage that works well with the squash.  Sweet heat from harissa acted as a great foil for the two.

*in this house, also known as a pumpy-squash-fruit. Don't ask.
**check back next week for Today's Lunch if you are interested in soup.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Chicken Chow Mein

The stir fry has been a kitchen standby for as long as I can remember.  As a student it was the easy way of using up the sad collection of vegetables in the bottom of the fridge.  It helped that a wok was on my going to Uni shopping list.  The early attempts were tasty, but about as authentic as a Lorex watch.  Worcester Sauce was often added to the pan along with with soy.  It was that bad.

Back then the shops didn't have the wide variety of oriental ingredients that we are spoilt with now.  A jar of Uncle Ben's sweet and sour was about as good as it got.  These days even the smallest supermarket has a Chinese section, with pre-packed noodles, rice wine vinegar and mountains of sauces.  None of them are that great, but its a step in the right direction.

In Leeds we have a good hand full of Oriental Supermarkets, all of them stocking good authentic ingredients.  One small store, on Leeds Market, stocks the best noodles I have ever cooked at home.  They retain their texture and bite without being slimy or breaking up as they are added to the wok.

Of course, one of the reasons that we keep coming back to the stir-fry is its speed.  As long as you have everything prepared before you start cooking nothing can go wrong*

For the Chow Mein, I marinade chicken strips in soy and chilli and dust with cornflower.  This is then fried for a couple of minutes before adding ginger, garlic, more chilli and a sweet pepper.  Once the veg are cooked but still crisp, stir in your precooked noodles that have been tossed in sesame oil to stop them from clumping.  Serve with raw spring onions.

*Famous last words.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Leek and Blue Cheese Cannelloni

Following Thursdays cheese tasting I find myself with a surfeit of blue cheese. 

Oh no, I hear you cry.  Well yes.  I am only human and I try (even in the season of over eating) to maintain a healthy food regime.  This means that my meals are one course, not two or three, unless it's a special occasion.  The cheese board will have to wait for an other day.  Unlike cheddars or more generic cheese that our beloved chain-stores like to peddle on us, blue cheese does not lend it's self to the sarni, so lunching my way out of this glut is out of the question.

Fortunately, this is the season of the leek.  It is also the season of the-mound-of-steaming-hot-food straight from the oven.  Leeks are on my to grow list, so for the time being I'll trust in green grocers.  The combination of leek and blue cheese is wonderful.  The addition of ricotta, garlic and thyme, creates a marriage made in oven.

The cheese was added to softened leeks and spooned into the cannelloni shells.  A layer of tomato sauce as the base and a bechamel top make for a glorious baked pasta dish.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Friday Night Takeaway - Fish and Chips

Fish and Chips. This, above all things*, is the most quintessential British meal.

I know there are arguments about where it started.  People will tell you that the Belgians made chips first and that Polish Jews were the first to batter fish.  But it was here, on these sceptred isles, that the wonderful British mind brought the two together, doused them in acid and wrapped them in yesterdays newspaper.

There is something about the ritual of Fish and Chips that I adore.  Peeling back the paper to let loose the steam and the intoxicating smell.  I'm always disappointed, and seldom go back to a chippy, if my takeaway is served in a polystyrene tray.  In an ideal world, every portion I eat would be by the seaside.  Particularly, on a harbour wall when the boats are in.  No cutlery, just ripping at the battered fish with my hands.

I'm not at the seaside, I'm in Leeds, about as far from the coast as you can get.  Neither am I opening a paper parcel.  It's Friday so I'm cooking the takeaway meal we would order at home.  I have tried to get a deep fat fryer for some time but all of my requests have been vetoed.  I can think of numerous things to do with the fryer of my dreams; samosas, wontons, Mars bars.  I would of course use it for fish and chips but alas, no.

Thanks to Joe and Jo, I can now make home made oven chips.  Shallow fried fish in breadcrumbs is lighter and just as crispy as batter.  The finale is mushy peas.  Z didn't understand / like mushy peas until we hit the North.  Now she's a convert.  I will take the dried pulse challenge one of these days but tins are so convenient and soaking veg over night just seams a bit odd.

*with the possible exception of Sunday Roasts and Chicken Tikka Massala.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Cheese and Biscuits

My family has had an odd relationship with cheese over the years.  Schisms existed that would have put the Catholic church to shame.  My Dad was all in favour of strong cheese; parmisian on his spag boll, and blue cheese; stilton with celery after Sunday lunch.  My Mum on the other hand was milder in her cheese appreciation.  Edam was her go-to cheese.  The stronger cheeses didn't get on with her and vice versa.  They all lived in solitary confinement in tightly sealed tupperware boxes in the fridge.  When they were released, they were placed at the far end of the dinner table so they didn't offend Mum's nose.

I took allegiance with Dad on the cheese front.  I love strong and blue cheese but not exclusively.  There is, like wine and beer, a cheese for every occasion.  Soft and mild, salty, runny, firm and of course the legendary two handed cheeses (so called because you need two hands to eat them, one to hold the cheese the other to hold your nose). 

Unlike most of my food discovery, I was well into cheese before going to Uni.  I thought I knew it all.  A good cheese board should be inclusive with cheese for everybody.  Some blue, a soft cheese like brie, a hard cheddar and something from left field.  I'm thinking about yarg, manchego, stinking bishop*, something a bit different that might just get people talking.  But I still had a lot to learn.  Mostly, I knew very little about the variety of cheeses on offer to me.

My cheese epiphany came about on the day HRH Diana Princess of Wales died.  I was in Windsor visiting Z's family and the Sunday lunch had been booked at Michel Roux's Waterside Inn.  I was a fresh-faced, ill-fitting-suit wearing, food novice, who had never eaten as much as a seared scallop. 

I was out of my depth in a restaurant with three Michelin Stars.  The number of courses, the number off glasses, the number of knives and the number of staff!  The whole experience was mind boggling.  Fortunately I was at a table of proper old-school gourmets.  They guided me through the correct way to eat a thimble of chilled asparagus soup without embarrassing Terry Wogan (sat at the next table).

I don't have a particularly sweet tooth, if there is a cheese option on a menu my mind is made up, even before I know what the main course will be. And I noticed, while the excited throng were procrastinating over their amuse bouche, tucked at the bottom of the menu, the cheese board.  The rest of the meal was a bit of a blur, but the cheese, the cheese.  I'll never forget.

My own waiter arrived (I was the only one having cheese) and stumped me with his opening gambit. "What kind of cheese would you like?" All of it, I thought, cheese boards in my experience came with three or four cheeses, don't they?  From behind my waiter appeared a three tear, wooden hostess trolley, groaning under the weight of dozens of cheeses.  He then regaled me with the list of cheese styles.  I was flumuxed but managed to get a selection that ran from mild to strong through creamy, the likes of which I'd never seen.  I even had a ewe's milk cheese on a stick!**

Tonight I should be at Homage 2 Fromage, a cheese club that has been set up in Leeds.  It's now three months old and so far cheddar and goat cheese have been the stars of the show.  Tonight is blue cheese and I'm not there.  It's Z's work's Christmas outing so I'm home holding the baby.  Luckily for me I have three blue cheeses to keep me company.  I picked them up from Mousetrap Cheese in Ludlow on my recent travels.

Blue Monk, is a mild, soft blue cheese made by the Monkland Dairy, the owners of the Mousetrap.  It's unpasteurised and therefore unsuitable for pregnant women, fine for me.

Perl Las is a blue Welsh Cheese.  The literal translation is Blue Pearl.  It is strong and delicate, not a full flavoured as a Stilton. 

Picos Blue is a Spanish Mountain Cheese, aged in caves and wrapped in maple leaves.  I tasted this one in the shop and fell in love.  It's sharp and powerful as a big blue should be.  Not crumbly like most standard blues you'd pick up in a supermarket.

Clockwise from the back; Blue Monk, Perl Las, Picos
I've been asked to pick the Cheese for the Family Christmas Meal this year.  I wonder if I'll be able to please everybody?  I know I'll be happy.

*Stinking Bishop gets its name from the variety of pear that is rubbed on the rind, it does not refer to a smelly clergyman.
**This is how it is produced, not some sort of Hestan Blumanthal cheese experiment.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Dining Al-desko

Due to circumstances beyond my control*, I find myself at work this evening. 

We all, including those who work out of office hours, need to take days off.  That is precisely what Mr L has done this evening and is why I'm still here.  Still, after taking two weeks of holiday myself I can hardly complain.

I didn't really think about what I was eating this evening when I got up this morning.  I busied myself with making my lunch and then realised the additional food requirement.  In the past I've gone for the nutritious "noodle in a pot" but I'd neglected to buy one.  I raided the fridge and fortunately found half of a spinach and goats cheese quiche wanting to be eaten and a bag of salad.  That was easy and should keep me going until I get home.

I'll be doing the late shift again in a few weeks time.  So from Monday 19th to Thursday 22nd December, "Tonight's Menu" will be "Today's Lunch".  Until tomorrow, I will share with you a view of my dining table ce soir.

Not Poodle

*This is not true, I approve all anual leave.  Tonight is totally my fault.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Penne with Kale

Long before Jamie Oliver took up growing his own vegetables (got a gardener) we took the plunge and signed up at our local allotment.  Clarksfield Allotments on Dewsbury Road, Beeston.  They have an annual show, where the good diggers go up against one an other in the usual categories. Onions, potatoes, cucumbers and radishes (one for the kids) have rullers passed over them to see who's is best.  The event is open to the public and one September Sunday, five years ago, we went along for a giggle.

We wandered through Cross Flatts Park hoping to find some of the spectacle that graces almost every episode of River Cottage.  What we found was a small Scout hut style classroom, in the middle of a veg patch.  Our first impression was not good.  The displays on offer wouldn't have troubled Hugh Fearnley Whittingtsall and his cronies.  The courgettes were in a category called "Exotic Vegetables" and no four onions bore the slightest resemblance to their counterparts.  Also, none of the exhibits made me want to eat them.

We left the shed and took a wander around the rest of the site.  It was a sunny day and the rows of veg shone.  This was more like it.  My appetite was growing, as was my appetite for having a go a growing my own.  The clincher was the fine array of jerry built sheds on display.  Pallets, doors, windows, road signs, you name it they were cobbled together, keeping tomatoes warm and watering cans safe from prying hands.

As we were ahead of the trend, there was no waiting list, unheard of today.  That day Z and I became the new gardener(s)-in-chief of plot 135 and started to get stuck in.

We almost lost the plot (literally) last year, when the arrival of our bundle of joy left us time limited.  We just couldn't get it together to spend time allotmenteering.  With full time jobs we had spent at least a day per weekend tending to our plot.  With childcare thrown into the mix the allotment went feral.  It was all we could do to pop down and mow the paths.  Fortunately our neighbours took petty on us (unlike the committee) and kept a watch on the worst of the unwanted weeds.

We were determined to keep growing some veggies, so the front garden bought the farm.  We'd never profess to having a well kept garden, the regimented blocks of salad leaves actually improved matters.  Sadly, all that is left in the ground now that December has set in properly, is red kale.  Fortunately, we have red kale growing in our front garden!

Roughly chop the kale and mix it through fried garlic and chilli until the leaves have wilted.  Stir in some cooked pasta and supper is served.  Add cheese is you like it.  I do.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Murgh Gobi - Chicken and Cauliflower Curry

I feel sorry for the cauliflower.  I've heard various reports recently that state that the cauli-market is in decline.  Fields of tight-white-headed brassicas are going to waste.  I have a funny feeling that the old adage "eat your greens" (and more recently "taste the rainbow") is partly to blame.  Cauliflower is no less good for you than broccoli but just doesn't get the press.

One bonus to all of this is that you can usually pick up a cauliflower the size of your head, for less than a bag of chips (I have literally no idea how much a bag of chips costs). 

Today was my first day back at work following a two week holiday.  I'm not going to make any apologies, food was far from my mind.  I needed to cook something that I knew I had the requisite ingredients for and there, sat in the fridge, was a cauliflower.  I knew we had chicken in the freezer and my spice rack is never empty.  Curry it is. 

There are, of course, secrets to a great curry and I am no expert.  If you seek guidance to authenticity then you're in the wrong place.  Having said that I do know what I like.  With a hearty, wintry, earthy curry I love mustard seeds fried in hot oil until they pop before any onion is added.  After that the world's your balti.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Pork Chops with Sage and Onion Crust

I love food, right. You get that.  Why else would I have started this blog?  I also like free.  Who doesn't?  So when I get the chance to combine the two, I do so with gusto.  We are often found nosing around the verges and woods of Leeds looking for seasonal edibles that we can share with the local wildlife.  Often the birds beat us to it.  We never take more than we need and we never strip an area bare, that's not the way it works.

The act of foraging is covered in law and it's a little complicated as it changes from country to country within the UK.  A good rule of thumb is don't take from private property and don't harvest to sell.  This includes making and selling jams etc. from your gathered goodies.  We enjoy sharing our finds with others in the area, so much so that Z started a facebook group where people can show off their latest finds.  There are now 65 members and we don't know half of them so we can't be the only ones enjoying the free harvest,

Yesterday, as it is that time of year, we went to three Christmas Markets.  One in Holbeck, one in Holbeck Urban Village and one in the city centre.  Leeds isn't that big, the weather was cold but in a good way and the parking in Leeds is legendarily bad, so we set out on foot.  Between the first two markets we stumbled on a road we hadn't previously walked down, in the heart of Holbeck's industrial past.  We were actually looking for interesting photo opportunities, not foraging, but we noticed a planter full of thyme.  We stopped to take a snap for the FB group and my eyes started to wander.  They fell on yet more thyme, the verge was full of it.  The only plants that weren't thyme were sage.  I couldn't believe our luck.

I did a quick check through the inventory in my mind and remembered that we still had some Swillington Farm Pork in the freezer.  Thyme stood still but the sage came with us.  A little down the road and the food Gods once again smiled on us.  There, growing in the lea of a derelict warehouse wall, stood an apple tree.  It was as if Holbeck had wanted me to eat the pork the whole time.

Back home I softened half an onion in butter, added the chopped sage and mixed in a couple of handfuls of bread crumbs.  Once the chops were fried on all sides I topped them with the crumb mix and put them in the oven until crispy and cooked through.   Served with boiled potatoes, peas (the best frozen veg) and the Holbeck apple sauce.  Delicious.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Fish Pie

Yesterdays journey to Leeds Kirkgate Market not only furnished me with the Sea Bass for the Thai Curry.  I also picked up the bits and pieces needed for Tonight's Menu: Fish Pie.

Fish Pie is an other one of those recipes that everybody will have an opinion on.  Do you add boiled egg?  Peas in the sauce?  Cheese in the mash?  The variants are almost as numerous as there are fish in the sea.   I once lived with somebody who insisted on putting crushed ready salted crisps on top of the mash before baking.  It worked, the added salty crunch was good, but I'm not going to suggest you do the same.

I only have one rule when it comes to Fish Pie and that is to have at least three types of fish.  One white; Coley, Cod, Haddock, Monkfish, etc.  One pink; Salmon, Sea Trout, Dog Fish, etc.  Shell fish also pop into this category so Prawns, Crab, Lobster and the like can be substituted here.  The third type of fish is probably the most important: smoked.  Not your florescent yellow nonsense, but naturally coloured lovingly smoked fish.  I'll let you work that one out yourself.  You don't need much but it does make a better sauce (in my opinion).

I have Dover Sole (left over from a previous meal), Salmon and Smoked Haddock.  For some reason I always get a bit excited when buying fish and get home with more than I bargained for.  for this reason I keep a Fish Pie bag on the go at all times.  The Sole was all that was in the freezer today.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Friday Night Take-away: Thai Red Curry

Today we had a trip into Leeds to nose around Kirkgate Market.  If you live in Leeds and don't use the market for at least some of your food shopping, you should.  If, for some reason, you think that markets are full of knocked off trainers and rotting fruit, you'll be in for a shock.  Kirkgate is a hive of quality butchers, green grocers, fishmongers and game sellers.  These stalls all nestle in with clothes, pets, toys, Polish and Chinese shops and fast food bars selling everything from sausage rolls to samosas.

I was, as always, looking for inspiration for what to cook.  For once however,  I had an additional source of inspiration.  I looked back over the past weeks posts on Tonight's Menu and noticed an omission.  You don't have to be Raymond Blanc to realise that I haven't eaten fish since I started the blog.  This is an unusual happen stance but I'll blame the holiday.

So with fish in mind I trotted off to Row 1, The Fish & Game Row, and wandered up and down, eyeing up the denizens of the deep.  I couldn't help myself.  I bought three different fishy treats for this weekend but more of that tomorrow.

I'd also realised that we had eaten a lot of comfort food recently.  What I was after was lighter, but still hot, and that was when Thai hit me.  We normally cook Green Curries at home.  Fresh and herby but most importantly hot.  Now that we're officially into winter I decided that red curry was the way forward.  There are more earthy spices in Red Curry so the heat goes further.

Once made, all it took was to steam the Sea Bass fillets in the sauce and serve with sticky Jasmine Rice.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Chilli con Carne revisited

We're finally home after our week long road trip.  Three destinations, two hotels, one spare bedroom and 600 miles.  Dorothy was right, there's no place like home.  The first thing to check on getting back was the fridge, what joy, the remains of last weeks chilli and some perfectly chilled beer.  It's not an exciting meal but chilli does get better with age and after struggling with the rush hour traffic around Manchester, I wasn't in the mood for a big cook-off (that can wait for tomorrow).

In the mean time I have a couple of evening meals to let you in on.  The last leg of our holiday took us to a Shropshire village on the Welsh border, to stay with the Father-in-law.  The trip was great.  Lots of country roads.  Motorway driving can be very dull, but winding country roads are just one wrong turn from disaster at any time.  Tight corners, oncoming tractors in the middle of the road, death-wish wild animals.  I love the lot.

The disaster came in the shape of my directions, who'd have thought that Kington and Knighton were different places?  A quick detour later and a roaring fire awaited our arrival, as did a mass of antipasti followed by Risotto.  I love risotto so all was good with the world.

The following day we took a trip to Ludlow, a foodie Mecca.  Wandering around staring into butchers, green grocers, purveyors of fine cheese and stores run buy local farmers, is my kind of day out.  But it was cold.  After a couple of hours we headed back to a Beef and Guinness stew that had been simmering in the slow cooker since the morning.  The evening was rounded off by a cheese board which included a local cheese coated in hops that was both bitter and creamy.

So now a night in my own bed and tomorrow, a trip to Leeds Kirkgate Market to look for inspiration for Tonight's Menu.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Steak and Chips

The highlight of today has been a visit to Farmer Palmer's, a fun farm in Dorset whose main audience is the toddler in all of us.  I had a blast playing with tractors, bouncing on inflatable cows, racing go-carts, climbing straw bails and sliding down slides.  All of this activity was in the interest of entertaining my son and my niece.  At no point was I having fun or enjoying myself (honest).

There was also the farm element with feeding and milking demonstrations, animal handling and goats who were akin to a crack team trying to escape from Stalag Luft III.  Two pigs in particular were keen to make our acquaintance, almost vaulting out of their pen to say hello.

The educational aspect of the day wasn't lost on me.  Teaching children where their food comes from is important if we are to break away from our convenience food culture and get back to respecting what we put on our plates.  So having seen Kate, a five year old cow, delivering three gallons of milk in under five minutes I had an urge for beef.

Kate was not harmed in the posting of this Blog.

Steak and chips is an almost elemental meal.  So simple and yet so fulfilling.  It is still high on my last meal list and is the go to meal for birthdays.  For personal preference I like rump, medium rare, with bearnaise sauce and skinny chips (french fries) but I'll take the Pepsi challenge and have what ever is on offer.

The real treat tonight was to see the two cousins devouring their food.  They had spent the day running / toddling around the farm and had really built up an appetite.  Children, sat quietly in restaurants, in front of clean plates, are the best type of children.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Spaghetti and Meatballs

We have all seen the moment in The Lady and The Tramp when the two dogs share an intimate, romantic diner, in an alleyway strewn with rubbish.  Even if you haven't seen the film, the iconic imagery of the love stricken pooches nosing meatballs at each other and sharing a stolen kiss is embedded in our collective minds.

The scene was already messy, with dumpsters and cardboard boxes littering the floor, before the hounds inevitably smothered the place in tomato sauce.  I can lose my eyes and picture the alleyway behind the restaurant with pasta up the walls.  I can see remnants of the meatballs trampled under foot.  I can even  see cutlery at the other end of the alley next to a tomato stained bib.  Hold on, somebody has changed the channel.

I'm no longer sat in my local multiplex, popcorn on my lap, bucket of generic soft drink by my side.  I am sat at my brother's dining table where my son and niece have just finished their evening meal of Spaghetti and Meatballs.  The similarities between the film and real life are staggering.

My niece is older than my son and she was keen to show him how to suck the individual stands of spaghetti in one go.  The resulting last flick of sauce from the pasta had a different trajectory each time.  Noses, foreheads, cheeks, tables: you name it, nowhere was safe.  Toddlers know how to be messy at the best of times, but there is something about spaghetti.  It lets them go the extra mile.

For the record, there was no kiss between the cousins.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

The Wedding Breakfast

I am now of an age where most of my friends are either married or having children.  I have therefore been to a fair few weddings and no two of them have been the same. 

I've run across London not to miss the ceremony.  Watched Z stand on a street performer's chest whilst he was laid on a bed of nails.  There was the obligatory fight on the dance floor.  The chief bridesmaid was evicted from the building after she was caught letting herself into the hotel cellar and liberating a couple of bottles of wine (the cheap stuff too, some people have no class).  These events were all at separate weddings, I was at them all, and none of them were mine (I hope).

The process of getting married, for those of you that haven't or won't, is extraordinary.  The day itself is over in a flash.  I was told to take time out, stand back and try to take in as much as I could.  I only wish I'd taken that piece of advice more seriously.  The months of planning on the other hand seemed to stretch on for ever.

Choose a wife.  Choose a church.  Choose a minister.  Choose a great big venue.  Choose toast racks, pottery, DAB's, crockery and cutlery. Choose flowers, cake decorations and a colour scheme. Choose a car sent by lorry from the other side of the country. Choose your guests. Choose your family and friends. Choose evening wear and matching luggage.  Choose marriage . . . But why would I want to do a thing like that?  There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you've got a menu to select?*

We spent a great evening at our chosen venue going through the dishes we could serve to our guests. We'd already crossed half the options off the list due to prior knowledge of our guests allergies and foibles. Great Aunt So-and-so, doesn't eat thingamy (not after you-know-what) but the chefs weren't to know and it was free as part of the package.

We picked what we thought was a well balanced three course meal, one that would soak up the pre-meal booze and yet not hinder the post-meal indie-disco.

I'm the one in the middle in the skirt, not the white one.

Today I have been to yet another wedding and I can now count cars, coaches, double decker buses, boats and trains in my wedding modes of transport list.  The hovercraft is still to be achieved!

Over these various weddings I've eaten three course meals, finger buffets, pizza, hog roasts and chips from a port-side vendor.  I have also managed to live the dream of drinking champagne whilst stood on the footplate of a route master double decker bus.

I am not about to become a food critic and tell you blow-for-blow about the meal I have just eaten, unless I have cooked it, that's not what Tonight's Menu is about.  I'm not going to run my fork of truth through dishes I've eaten in restaurants and friend's houses.  I want to tell you the stories behind what I'm eating and today I had the pleasure of eating a Wedding Breakfast.

If you are planning a wedding don't get bogged down but do pay attention to everything, try watching Father of the Bride (I forced the In-laws to watch it) it breaks the ice.

To Jane and Andrew, congratulations. May all of your dreams come true.

*Kinda Trainspotting, but you knew that.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Steak and Kidney Pudding

At last, a holiday, some time away from the day-to-day.  A chance to see some of the family and be free of the concerns of work.  When we book a holiday, we tend to book a flat in which ever city we are visiting.  They normally work out cheaper per night.  The breakfast is always better, who in their right mind is willing to shell out €12.00 a day for a stale croissant and a slice of ham while staying in the middle of Paris?  The place is crawling with boulangeries selling freshly baked croissants, filled baguettes and good coffee for a fraction of the hotel prices.

This is not one of those occasions.  We are now travelling around England and popping into Wales, seeing family and staying in Hotels.  For the foreseeable future Tonight's Menu is more or less in the lap of the Gods.  I can only hope that the Gods of my travels are feeling generous in their hospitality and not vengeful at my desire to be in my own kitchen.

To add to the mockery that the Gods are serving up I have offered to baby sit tonight so that Z can have some quality time with her family.  This means that I have eaten with the boy, much earlier than usual.  Our hotel has a bar (yey) but no restaurant or bar snack menu (boo).  This left us wandering around looking for somewhere to eat.  We all ended up in a pub which saw children as valid customers and I scanned the menu for something that we could share. 

My eyes landed on steak and kidney pudding and between us we devoured the lot.  I now have a goal for when we get back home.  I need to learn how to make suet puddings and convince Z that offal makes great gravy.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Chilli con carne

"When life gives you lemons, make lemonade."

It's an old saying and people have read into it various meanings.  To me it reads as a recipe, don't let the glut you have go to waste.  I know it is probably meant to be read as 'make the most of a bad situation' but that would surly lead to making lemoncello not lemonade.

Thank you Clemens

So when my colleague gave me one or two chillies I had to make chilli con carne.  Its one of those stand by recipes that we all have knocking about our own cookbooks of the mind.  We all have our own tweaks that make our chilli better than everybody else's.

Although, I don't think I have ever made the same chilli twice.  Different spices and heat levels.  Additional vegetables that have needed using up.  I also use different cuts of meat, from different animals.  It depends on what I can lay my hands on and how much time I have.  If I have plenty of time I prefer to use some beef skirt or shin or even some belly pork (the traditional dish uses pork not beef).

Due to my current experiment in only buying meat once a month, I can only use what I have in the freezer.  So Tonight's Menu contains; minced beef, onions, peppers, celery, garlic, a tin of tomatoes, a tin of kidney beans and plenty of time.  Herbs and spices include; coriander, cumin, cinnamon and oregano.

There will also be a whole load of chillies in a number of forms.  Dried, fresh, powdered and sauce.  They all add different flavours as well as adding heat.  Balancing lots of them is much more fun than adding shed loads of one type and much tastier.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Broccoli and Cauliflower Bake

I think I may have chosen an odd week to start a daily food blog.  Normally, I do the "big" food shop over the weekend and then shop for "bits" the rest of the week.  This is pretty standard.  This week however, the bits have taken a knock on the head in favour of emptying the fridge before we go to a family wedding in the Midlands.  I hate wasting food so I'll be spending the next couple of days making cake and soup.  These will last longer than the bananas and carrots that are already threatening to walk out of the fridge.

Next to the carrots in the crisper sits a full head of broccoli and half a cauliflower that also need some attention.  My mind starts to wander but I can't shift the idea of a huge mound of delicious Cauliflower Cheese.  Mixing both brassicas won't be a problem, I'll just cook the broccoli for less time than the cauli before adding the sauce and baking.

My dilemma comes in the form of the cheese sauce. Importantly, which cheese to use.  For a Cauliflower Cheese I always use the sharpest Cheddar I can lay my hands on.  Broccoli however, goes so well with blue cheese that it's almost a moral duty to combine them.  Recently, for one reason or another, I have been having lots of conversations about blue cheese and so subliminally my mind is made up.  Stilton it is, and plenty of it, there is little worse than an uncheesy cheese sauce.

I love cooking.  Selecting the ingredients, chopping and peeling veg (including onions).  Judging the quantities and tasting to get the seasoning just right.  All culminating with the satisfaction of giving someone you love a well deserved good meal regardless of the occasion.  The gratification of a satisfied look, conversations stopping and a cleared plate, drive me to cook.  I am honest enough however, to admit when a little help is needed or to bow to a better chef.  Cheese sauce is one of the things in the kitchen that I will readily admit that Z can make so much better than me, that it's not worth me bothering.  Thank you for my gorgeous meal.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Gnocchi in Tomato Sauce

I first cooked fresh gnocchi a few years ago after a bumper harvest of potatoes from the allotment.  We had six varieties from first earlies, salad spuds, roasters and my favourite, a variety called Picasso, presumably because all the eyes are on one side*.

We already had two bags of potatoes in the cellar when the fourth and fifth varieties were harvested.  So I started to scratch around for something that I could cook and freeze using the potatoes, which wasn't soup. 

That was when I found gnocchi.  Making them is as simple as mixing mash with half as much flour then cutting the dough into small pillows.  This was also when I bought one of my favourite kitchen gadgets, the potato ricer.  If you haven't come across one before, think garlic crusher on steroids.  To freeze the gnocchi, lay them on a baking tray so that they aren't touching each other and place in the freezer.  Once they are frozen you can pop them into a bag and they wont clump up and turn into one massive potato dumpling.

You really can serve gnocchi with any pasta sauce that you fancy (I know purists have rules about pasta shape and sauce combos but I don't care).  Tonight I fancied a tomato sauce to which I added a few bits and pieces from the fridge, including some of the leftover pork shoulder from Sunday. 

I won't tell you how to suck eggs, or make tomato sauce for that matter however, I think that a pinch of chilli flakes instead of black pepper when seasoning your sauce makes all the difference.

*Joking aside, Picasso is a great variety of early main crop potato.  If you are wondering what to grow next year, give them a pop.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Mushroom Risotto

I love risotto, risotto rocks.  It's creamy and comforting like a hug on a plate, but the best thing about risotto is its infinite versatility.  Once you have the cooking method down pat you can add more or less what you like and you'll always end up with a meal that people will rave over.

Rick Stein tells a story about a small cafe in Italy where he asked the waiter what was in today's risotto. The waiter replied "Toady we have some good stock." And I believe him, even without any other ingredients a white risotto is great.  The creamy texture comes from the starch that is released from the rice as you continually stir in ladle after ladle of stock, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Without this post turning into an homage to TV chefery I need to lay my cards on the table.  My rosotto comes courtesy of Jamie Oliver.  His first book, The Naked Chef, contains a number of risottos, all starting the same way but with tweaks here and there (roasted butternut squash anyone).

Tonight's risotto comes courtesy of a punnet of mushrooms at the back of the fridge and the inevitable question "what are we going to do with those mushrooms?"

A finely chopped onion, a stick a celery and a clove of garlic are sweated in oil until golden.  Now add your rice, this is your first chance of knackering your risotto.  Arborio rice is what you need, its short grains contain all of that lovely starch I mentioned.  Sure, if you only have long grain, go ahead but be warned, you just wont get that oozy risotto that I crave.  For the record I have of six varieties of rice on the go and they all do different things and are used in different dishes, I could probably pair down to 3 but rice is an inexpensive food stuff to obsess over so I'm not going to lose any sleep over it.

Meanwhile your rice should have taken on a nice sheen from the oil, pour over a glass of wine (you can't cook risotto without wine, all right you can but I'm not going to) and start your next 20-30 minute stir-a-thon.  Once the wine has evaporated add your first ladle of hot stock and keep stirring.  Add some of the mushrooms while your doing this to make sure that the whole dish is good and  mushroomy and again, once the stock has evaporated, add another ladle.  Repeat this until you have no stock left and the rice is cooked.  Your final ladle of stock will be going into a cooked risotto so you can stop stirring now.  It's often a good idea to have a willing sous-chef around just in case you need to stop stirring for some reason, an under stirred risotto is a sad thing.

To finish off add butter, parmesan cheese and parsley, put a lid on your pan and leave it to melt together for 5 minutes.  Enjoy, I know I will.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Roast Pork Shoulder with Leek & Parsnip Gratin

I mentioned Swillington Organic Farm in yesterday's post but was too distracted by the task in hand (cooking liver) to wax lyrical about why I am now a meat box customer.  I had heard of Swillington but not bothered looking into what they do, I'd assumed that it was just an ordinary farm, with a shed acting as a shop, selling nice dirty vegetables and an assortment of jam at twice the price of your average supermarket.  Then earlier this year I found out that they were holding an open day as part of Open Farm Sunday with demonstrations, guided walks and a barbecue (they had me at barbecue).

The day was a washout, all three of us were soaked and the barbecue sold out of burgers (not before I had one) but I was hooked.  Swillington is a magical place with veggies growing in an old walled garden, chicken so free range you need a boot scraper to stop you from taking one home with you and some of the happiest looking pigs I have ever seen.  We popped into the shop (it is a shed) to see if we could buy something for the evening meal and made our first purchase.  I have never tasted gammon like it, the thought of eating it again is making me rethink tonight's menu as I have two packs in the freezer, but it's Sunday, I'm British and therefore a lump of animal needs to be roasted.

This months delivery contained a boned rolled shoulder joint from one of their rare breed, outdoor reared piggies and I'm doing nothing to it. No airs, no graces, just salt, pepper a hot oven to get things going and a nice long slow cook to finish things off.

I don't know about you but at this time of year I love the vegetables that are on offer and I love them cooked simply so that I can taste each one, however I have a relative that refers to our standard way of cooking and serving veg with a roast as "boring English vegetables".  With this in mind (as it has been since the revelation that veg alone isn't enough) we're having a Leek and Parsnip Gratin, steamed Chard and boiled potatoes.  The crispy cheesy top of the gratin is fantastic with sweet parsnips and in my opinion chard should be the country's favourite veg, if only the "super" markets would stock it.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Pig's Liver with Oloroso Sherry, Pine Nuts and Raisins

We have started buying Organic Meat Boxes from Swillington Farm in Leeds. Once a month an exciting delivery of a variety of meat is unpacked on to the kitchen table and I start to dream up how it will all be cooked.

This month a curve ball was thrown in, in the shape of Pig's Liver.  Fine, not a problem, I've never cooked pig's liver, I'm not certain that I've ever eaten pig's liver (other than in pate) but I'm a firm believer that every part of an animal should be eaten to make its life worth while.  Z on the other hand, while sharing my "whole animal" mentality is an ex-vegi and still has some bete noires when it comes to meat and offal is high on the list.  I wanted to cook more than the traditional liver and onions but wanted to do something a bit more special that would make the liver shine.  I was stumped and so I went to the library (kitchen shelf) for inspiration.

Now, I know I said that I don't follow recipes but I needed this to be a success otherwise at least one of us would go hungry and the other would have egg on their face. I trawled through my eclectic cookbook selection and finally found a calves liver recipe with so few ingredients it was all I could do not to follow the instructions to the letter (apart from the animal in question).

All that I needed now was a bottle of Oloroso and I was away...

Dear Leeds, where do you keep your supplies of Oloroso?

Turns out M&S have a cracking selection of Sherry, who'd have thought it!

The liver is fried hot and fast, only a minute on each side, and then softened onions, garlic, toasted pine nuts and raisins are added to the pan before adding the booze and cooking just long enough for the alcohol to burn off.  Served with a bitter salad and home made pitta bread.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Friday Night Take-away

Some time ago, a bright spark noticed that we were getting in late from work every Friday and, lacking inspiration, digging out Take-away menus and ordering in our dinner. "What's wrong with this?" I hear you ask, well nothing apart from the standard of our local pizza/curry houses is far from wonderful.  Some would say because they all share the same complete lack of quality you at least know what you are going to get.  I was getting fed up.

I wanted the food that I was ordering, but not the quality I was receiving so I took it upon myself to rectify the situation and our new tradition of the "Friday night Take-away" was born.

First, choose your desired meal from your standard take-away menu, realise that you can cook it better and cheaper at home then cook it.  I realise that the spontaneity of stumbling across what you want after a few post work drinks with your colleagues has now been removed (unless you have a truly well stocked larder) but knowing what you want to eat tomorrow is no hardship.

There are few things more satisfying than a home made pizza.  Egg fried rice will never taste the same again.  You can choose how much cardamom to put in your favourite curry. You get the idea.

Which brings me to Tonight's Menu. It's Friday and so there will be no Take-away. Instead there will be:

Tandoori Chicken with Chana Saag and Basmati Rice.

The chicken is marinated in yoghurt, garam masala, turmeric and chilli powder and roast in as hot an oven as you can manage. If you have a tandoor in your kitchen use it, after all that is what it's for.  Also, if you DO have a tandoor in your kitchen WOW, please let me know how you got it in through the front door.

Spinach and chick peas are a wonderful accompaniment to any curry and don't take too much time or skill to prepare. Soften onions, garlic and ginger in a little oil and add the spinach until it has wilted, tip the whole lot out onto a board and chop as if your life depended on it.  Put the spinach pulp back into your pan and add the chick peas (I use tinned) a few tomatoes salt and garam masala. Bring back up to a simmer (there will be plenty of liquid in the spinach) and finish with a few tablespoons of yoghurt.

For an authentic experience you can spill half of your curry into a foil container and let it go cold before serving, I prefer mine piping hot with rice and a cold beer.