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.