Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sickness Soup (Spinach and Pea)

I've had a fascinating new experience over the last few days: I think I've had 'flu. For the first time. I've tried to view it as a learning opportunity, but honestly, these are lessons I could have happily lived with out.

So, I had a cold which incorporated aching and exhaustion, which probably makes it 'flu, though I didn't have a fever, so didn't bother with the Swine 'Flu helpline. Anyway, the other astonishing symptom was - take a seat - loss of appetite. I'm not kidding, I missed quite a few meals, and didn't even think of having a snack. But yesterday, when I was marginally better than on Friday night, I thought I ought to have something. We have fresh spinach from this week's box, so I made a very simple soup, supplementing the spinach with frozen peas. Obviously, being sick I didn't measure anything, so this will be as vague as me when I made it. If you're fully -functioning, you might like to add some herbs (basil or mint would both be good), but really it's pretty tasty as-is:

  • Fill the kettle and turn it on
  • Put a couple of teaspoons of Marigold Vegetable Bouillon in a saucepan
  • Chop a handful or so of fresh spinach into about 1-2cm strips
  • Pour the now boiling water from the kettle into the saucepan - probably about 750ml-ish?
  • Turn on the heat under the saucepan, add the chopped spinach and some frozen peas - say half-to-one mugs-worth
  • Cover and bring to the boil
  • Check a pea and a picee of spinach stalk to check they are softened, and turn off the heat if so
  • Puree in a blender
  • Ladle into a bowl, grate over some hard cheese if you feel up to it, and return to your nest on the sofa to eat
  • Thursday, July 16, 2009

    Caprese Salad Filo Bites

    On Saturday night I gave a dinner party. We were five in the end, which makes for a comfortable table (eight around our kitchen table was a squash, I have to admit) and also expands the menu possibilities a little. This is both from the cost and ease-of-execution perspectives. The former needs no explanation, and by the latter I mean merely that I wouldn't want to do anything "tricky" for larger numbers. Cooking something on the hob at the last moment - say pan-fried fish or individual lamb noisettes - is fine for a few, but I'd find it intimidating to have to produce lots of perfectly-cooked individual portions with the recipients sitting by waiting - it'd be too much like a practical exam, and I've always sucked at those. As usual though, I opted for a menu done mainly in advance, other than a bit of last-minute assembly. Here it is, followed by an outline of my time-management:

  • Mini filo baskets with pesto, tomato and mozzarella
  • Polenta cubes with olive and chargrilled peppers
  • Cheese straws (always!)
  • Fillet of beef with red wine, anchovies, garlic and thyme (from How To Eat)
  • Pointed cabbage and green beans
  • Hasselback Jersey Royal potatoes (a.k.a. hackelback or hedgehogs)
  • Blackcurrant sorbet with peach coulis and hazelnut biscuits*
  • British cheese board

  • The canapes I made up from scratch, and the baskets were by far the best. An outline of the recipe is below, but basically they can be filled with anything that you might otherwise use as a crostini topping. Rough schedule:
    Friday night: Make filo cups, cheese straws and polenta cubes. Toast hazelnuts. Cook the blackcurrant mix and refrigerate it overnight.
    Saturday morning: Clean bathrooms (sigh). Shop for everything - food, wine, flowers, the lot. (After carrying which, my arms ached - I blame the wine.)
    Post-shopping: Make blackcurrant puree, set to churn, place in freezer. Make hazelnut biscuits. Tidy lounge and half-heartedly hoover, arrange flowers (badly). Skin, core and chop tomatoes, dice mozzarella. Prepare potatoes and vegetables. Make peach coulis. At some point, eat for lunch exactly the same as you had for your last three meals, feeling thankful that it is finally all gone and glad the monotony will be broken soon.
    6.00pm: Shower and dress. Wish you had a slave/well-trained partner/Sarah at home commis chef.
    Last minute: Tidy kitchen and lay table. Prep ingredients for beef. Greet first guests, pour delicious sparkly wine and point one guest in the direction of laptops and router so he can sort out wireless before dinner. Set the other (who you have only just met) to construct filo baskets. Accept you won't be winning the World's Best Hostess award just yet. Get cheese out of the fridge and transfer sorbet from freezer to fridge. Finish prepping main course.
    Second couple arrive: pour more drinks, serve nibbles, set main course to cook and enjoy your guests' company!

    Caprese Salad Filo Bites (24 of them):
  • 12 sheets filo pastry
  • 100g unsalted butter, melted
  • Small tub fresh pesto
  • 4 large, ripe tomatoes
  • 1 ball buffalo mozzarella
  • Black pepper

  • First get a clean tea-towel and dampen it. This is to wrap the filo pastry sheets in whilst you are working, as, if it dries out, you're stuffed. Preheat the oven to 190°C. Lightly grease two twelve-hole mini muffin trays.

    Take your first sheet of filo, placing the remaining inside damp tea-towel. Cut into six squares of about such a size as to line a mini-muffin hole with some overhang - about 2.5" - 3". With the pastry I had, this meant that I had about half an inch wastage along the edges of each sheet - unfortunate, but unavoidable. Brush one square lightly with melted butter and lay another on top at an angle (i.e. corners off-set). Brush this second square lightly with butter and place a 3rd one on it, off-set from both of the first two. Brush lightly with butter and then lift the little stack, which should hold together easily due to the butter, and place over a hole in the muffin tin. Ease it down into the mould, trying to get it as central as possible and with the folds of pastry fairly uniform around the entire circumference to ensure even cooking. Repeat with the remaining 3 squares from that filo sheet. Continue with the rest of the pastry sheets. Try to work as quickly as possible, while maintaining accuracy, so the pastry doesn't dry out and become brittle and/or likely to burn. When you have filled the first muffin tin, pop it in the oven. Check after 4 minutes, then at 1 minute intervals. Take them out when the top edges are golden and crisp and the bases are dried out (you won't get the base coloured before the tips are burned as they are so much thicker and heavier with butter).

    Once cooked, leave them to cool for a few minutes in the tin, then when cool enough pop them out of the tray and on to a wire rack to get completely cold. Store in an airtight box if you are not using them straight away.

    To assemble, first prep all the filling ingredients, have them all lined up and then construct immediately before they are going to be eaten, so there is no time for the pastry to get soggy. (As has been said before, nobody likes a soggy bottom!) So, the tomatoes: fill the kettle and turn on. Place the tomatoes, stalks removed, in a large, heatproof bowl. When the kettle boils, pour the water over the tomatoes and leave for five minutes. Empty out the water and pour over plenty of cold - the colder the better. When the tomatoes are cooled down somewhat, take a sharp knife and score the skin into quarters from pole to pole. You should be able to easily get hold of a corner and peel the skin off in four neat pieces. If not - good luck! Once peeled, chop the tomatoes open and discard the pulp along with the skin. Finely dice the flesh and set aside until assembly-time. Finely dice the mozzarella also. When just about ready to serve, layout the filo cases on the plate or whatever. Take one, drop in a blob of pesto to cover the bottom - about 1/3 of a teaspoon. Add a layer of tomato pieces, a few tiny cubes of cheese and a fine dusting of pepper. (You should have leftover filling, but better to be safe than sorry.) Serve quickly.

    *I actually don't really recommend this recipe - it was a little bland, even with toasted hazelnuts, and the dough was a bit of a nightmare to deal with - it "bruised" like none I've used before (i.e. you couldn't touch it without leaving a mark).

    Friday, June 26, 2009

    Cocktails and Dreams

    Remember that film? If you're lucky, not well. But the title seems apt to introduce the culinary contribution of Cocktail Party Physics. Go to the site and scroll way down and you'll find the "Physics Cocktails" in the left-hand sidebar, including the Black Hole (5 liquers, with the tagline "so called because after one of these, you have already passed the event horizon of inebriation") and the Quantum Theory (guaranteed to collapse your wave function). Well, it is Friday, after all.

    The Quantum Theory:
  • 3/4 oz Rum
  • 1/2 oz Strega
  • 1/4 oz Grand Marnier
  • 2 oz Pineapple juice
  • Fill with Sweet and sour
  • Pour rum, strega and Grand Marnier into a collins glass. Add pineapple and fill with sweet and sour. Sip until all the day's super-positioned states disappear.

    There are also lots of interesting posts to read. Enjoy both! But probably not at the same time - the posts deserve more focussed attention than you'll be capable of after drinking one of the cocktails...

    Tuesday, June 23, 2009

    Muesli - not too sweet!

    I like muesli, but increasingly find that they are too sweet, even those without added sugar. So, I did the obvious thing and mixed my own!

    I didn't find any guidance online for relative proportions of ingredients (admittedly I didn't look too hard, but how wrong could I go?), so I did a taste-test of the cereals to find which I liked most individually, and determined that, actually, they don't taste all that different (with the exception of oats). The bigger differentiator is the texture: wheat flakes are softest, rye flakes are hardest. Oats are far softer and flourier. So decision made: equal quantities of wheat, barley and rye flakes, a bit more of oats. This is also appealing as oats are significantly cheaper than the others. Win-win! On the subject of buying the cereals individually, I found them in Whole Foods.

    After that, it is just a question of determining what extras one is going to add. Well, this is simple - just think about what you like! I am partial to lots of nuts and seeds and, as I've already implied, only a bit of added sweetness. I toasted the almonds and hazelnuts to intensify the nutty flavour and really bring out the crunch, but not the cashews as I thought that might be a bit much, and some slightly waxier pieces make for more varied mouthfuls. Note that toasted nuts go rancid faster than raw ones though, so if you aren't going to eat your muesli up within a few weeks - say, a month - then it is probably best to skip this step. I used flame raisins, which are big, plump and full of flavour. You can add anything you like though - if you like sweeter museli add more fruit and less nuts, and try different fruits, or different nuts or seeds. The shelves at Holland and Barratts should provide ample inspiration. Next time, I would probably go for slightly less additives to cereals (a bit too nutty), and cranberries are very tempting...

    To almost fill a tall Kilner jar (825g total weight):
  • 100g wheat flakes
  • 100g rye flakes
  • 100g barley flakes
  • 200g rolled oats
  • 75g almonds, roughly chopped
  • 50g hazelnuts
  • 50g cashew nuts, roughly chopped
  • 100g flame raisins
  • 25g pumpkin seeds
  • 25g sunflower seeds

  • Preheat the oven to 200°C. Spread the hazelnuts and chopped almonds out on a baking sheet and toast for 10 minutes, until fragrant and slightly coloured. Set aside to cool completely. Once cold, measure all of the remaining ingredients in a large bowl, stir in the nuts and decant into an airtight jar or tub to keep it fresh.

    Saturday, June 20, 2009

    Rye Bread

    So, the bread using the starter was a fail. I'm not even going to go into the humiliating details, just believe me that it was bad. We are now on take two with the starter. If this is also a dud, I'm going to abandon the friendship bread and go for straight sourdough. I'm a bit afraid to go down that route, as I have assumed that this is (even) harder to get going, as you don't give it a pile of yeast and lots of sugar to start with but rely on just yeasts in the air (or a tiny smidgen of packet yeast) and the flour as the food, but it's conceivable that I am wrong. Some might say likely, but if they do they won't get any bread. And since I am entertaining (and feeding) myself with rye bread made the usual (for me) way until the next starter experiment is ready, that would be a great shame for them. Because it is delicious. This was the best bread that I can recall making. It was packed with flavour and rose beautifully to give a crumb which was soft but tightly woven and perfect for sandwiches. We are going to make it again at the first Anglo-Asian Bakeathon tomorrow - I can't wait!

    See how much it has risen in the oven? The above picture was immediately before it went in. And you can see too the "stretch marks" along the fissure where the long gluten chains are all lined up and give the bread it's structure. This is what kneading prepares them to do. The shape of the loaf (high on one side vs. the other - most obvious in the top picture) is yet another demonstration of the uneven temperature distribution in my oven. Le sigh.

    Makes one 1lb loaf:
  • 250g rye flour
  • 250g white bread flour
  • 7g sachet dried yeast
  • 1.5 tsp salt
  • 300ml warm water
  • 2 tbsp olive oil (I used 1tbsp strongly flavoured extra virgin and 1tbsp very mild as I'm out of regular)

  • Mix the flours, yeast and salt in a large bowl. Make a well in the centre and pour in the water and oil. Mix with a round-bladed knife and then your hands to form a soft ball of dough. If the dough seems too sticky to knead, add a bit more flour; if it won't form a cohesive, soft ball add a little more water. Rub your hands with flour to remove all of the stuck on stickiness. Turn it out onto a floured work surface (ideally around hip height for maximum leverage) and knead until smooth and springy. Wash out your mixing bowl, oil lightly, put the ball of dough in and give it a couple of turns to get the surface lightly covered with oil too. Cover the bowl with cling film or a damp, clean tea towel and set aside until doubled in size (about an hour, depending on the temperature etc.).

    Preheat the oven to 200°C. Punch down the dough (literally, punch it! SO fun!), turn out on to the work surface and knead again briefly. Press out to a rectangle three times the size of your 1lb (500g) loaf tin. Fold one end in and then the other (imagine folding an A4 letter to go in a business-size envelope) and then put in the tin seam-side down. Leave to prove for about 15 - 30 minutes, until it has risen to above the top of the tin. Bake in the oven for about 40 minutes, or until it looks done on top and sounds hollow when you rap on the bottom with your knuckles. Sit on a wire rack, out of the tin, to cool before trying to slice it.

    Friday, June 19, 2009

    Red Salad: Radish, Beetroot and Kohlrabi

    Total crunch fest! When I made this (weeks and weeks ago - I am not efficient about writing these up, which is a pity as when I eat them they are seasonal. Note to self: stop faffing), I had in mind something along the lines of the Carrot, Avocado and Cashew Salad, though here the contrasts are more about the flavours than textures. And it's so pretty! White, white and pink, and deep purpley-red. With little yellow flecks. What more could you want? Oh yes, as fork. Just don't try to eat it curled up in a chair, straight out of the pyrex casserole in which you mixed it, because you will drop it down your front. And on the pale green chair. And then on the floor when you stand up trying not to get more on the seat. Trust me. I know.

    One very greedy (but so healthy!) portion, or perhaps more sensibly, two:
  • 5 radishes
  • 1/4 kohlrabi
  • 1 small-medium beetroot
  • Juice of 1/2 a lemon
  • Pinch of cumin seeds
  • 1/2 tsp yellow mustard seeds
  • 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

  • Dry fry the spices in a small frying pan then tip out on to a plate or sheet of kitchen roll to cool. Top and tail the radishes and chop in to quarters. Peel the kohlrabi and slice into short, thin batons. Peel the beetroot (wear gloves if you don't like having vibrant magenta hands) and dice or julienne. Put all the vegetables and spices in a bowl, add the lemon juice and oil and mix thoroughly. Gobble. It might improve of steeping, but I wouldn't know.

    Saturday, May 30, 2009

    Starter started!

    Shortly before heading off on my second holiday to Morocco, I saw this post at Asymptotia which introduced me to Amish Friendship Bread. The idea is one starts with a bread "starter" - a live yeast culture - which must be loved and nurtured and fed for a few days, after which you give some to a friend(s), make bread with some and retain the rest to replenish for future use. Being on the wrong side of the pond to even bother asking if I could have some of Clifford's starter, I Googled to find out how to make my own. It's not hard! Just flour, sugar, milk and a bit of yeast, all mixed together and left to ferment. If you want to make sourdough, the process is very similar except that you are not supposed to add any yeast (or a tiny pinch at most) but let the naturally occurring yeasts in the air colonize the mix. There are some cute articles on the science of bread-making (plus recipes) at The Science of Cooking for the uninitiated.

    Instructions for making you own starter are below. Think of it as a pet: it has to be taken care of each day. Note the quantities given are the total you will need for the 10 day cycle. On the first day you only need 1/3 of it, so don't let shortage of ingredients stop you. I give US cup measures as this makes the formula simple: equal measures of flour, sugar and milk. Weighing it out obscures this symmetry - a cup of flour is not the same weight as a cup of sugar or milk. If you don't have proper cup measures, just use a measuring jug: 250ml of each.

    Another important note is that metallic bowls and implements are best avoided as they can be reactive and kill off the yeast. Use plastic, glass or ceramic bowls and a wooden spoon.

    When my batch reaches maturity I will post how I used it to make bread - assuming it is successful! And of course, at the same time I will be giving some away to my friends! In the interim, I'm making rye bread for the first time.

    For a 10-day cycle (another cup each of flour, milk and sugar will be required on day 15 and every 5th day thereafter if you want to keep it going):
  • 1 sachet dried yeast
  • 1/4 cup warm (NOT hot*) water (60ml or 4tbsp)
  • 3 cups flour (or 750ml)
  • 3 cups sugar (or 750ml)
  • 3 cups milk (or 750ml)
  • *if it burns you it'll burn the yeast too - remember, it's alive and you want it to stay that way!

    Mix the yeast with the warm water and let stand until a bit frothy - about 10-15 minutes. Thoroughly mix the flour, sugar and milk to a smooth, thick cream then stir in the yeasty liquid. Cover with a clean tea towel and leave to sit. This is day 1.
    Day 2: stir starter
    Day 3: stir starter
    Day 4: stir starter
    Day 5: add another cup each of flour, sugar and milk and stir until smooth
    Day 6: stir starter
    Day 7: stir starter
    Day 8: stir starter
    Day 9: stir starter
    Day 10: Congratulations - your starter is ready! Remove 1 cup of starter to make bread, put 1 cup in a ziplock bag and give to a baker-friend. To the remainder add another cup each of flour, sugar and milk. You are now back to day 1.