Thursday, 29 January 2009

Dissertation woes

The dissertation is looming, and I haven’t had much time this week. I’ve even resorted to taking a packed lunch to uni so I don’t have to lose an hour of study time walking home for lunch!

I’ve still found the time to make a few things, mainly to cheer me up between the seemingly endless bouts of reading government strategy papers.
- Tea bread, mainly to use up loads of dried fruit that had been in the cupboard too long. I think next time I might soak the fruit in Lapsang Souchon to give it a different spin.
- Roasted vegetable and feta tart. I still don’t like feta cheese though.
- Lemon Buttermilk pie. My flatmates were having a chilli evening, and we wanted an authentically tex-mex dessert. Google told us buttermilk pie. It was a bit like an English egg custard tart, but lemony instead of flavoured with nutmeg.
- Canadian pancakes. We had vast quantities of buttermilk left over from the chilli night, and buttermilk is not an ingredient that crops up much in British food.
- Lentil, bacon and roasted winter vegetable stew. Took this in to uni in a thermos flask and looked like a total nerd.
- Raspberry and vanilla muffins. This was to use up some raspberries I had in the fridge, as well as the seemingly endless amount of buttermilk. They were a tad dry so I topped them with some sweetened cream cheese.
- Chicken, lemon and tarragon soup. One of the success stories for the NCG book of soup.
We still have some buttermilk left, so I might make some scones, or marinate some chicken drumsticks with herbs.

I also enrolled on a sugar-paste modelling class, partly with the idea of making some kind of topper for D’s wedding cake. At the moment we are learning to make carnations and lilies. I need to practice with icing too, although she hasn’t worked out what flavours she wants yet so I can’t choose which type of icing would go best.

I’ve only got 25 days of my dissertation left and I cannot wait!

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Peanut Butter and White Chocolate Blondies

I finally got round to making the Peanut Butter and White Chocolate Blondies I'd bookmarked in Rachel Allen's "Bake" over a month ago.

I changed the recipe slightly as I used unsalted butter and added a little sprinkle of vanilla salt at the end.

Mixing the blondies

As I'd left the butter and peanut butter at room temperature, it was soft enough to mix with a spoon rather than get the electric-whisk out. As I didn't want to make it too bread-like, I was also keen not to over-process the flour too much.

Fresh out the oven

Blondies are like brownies but without cocoa powder or chocolate to make them dark. I baked them for 30 minutes, but I think on reflection they were a bit biscuity around the edges. Next time I'd go for 22-25 minutes so they go fudgey instead.

The other problem with them was the white chocolate. I'd chopped it to a medium size but it melted away and you didn't get the discernible chunks that I wanted. I'd make it with bigger chunks next time, perhaps just breaking the bar in to squares and then halving them.

Finished product

I served these at a dinner party held by my flatmate, and they would have been great with some ice cream on the side. Unfortunately it was a bit of a last minute thing so we hadn't stocked up on ice cream and other goodies. I saved a few to have to myself, and fed some to T when he came round to do some DIY for me. They tasted best warm straight out of the oven, but they held up pretty well stored in some tupperware for a couple of days. I really liked the crunch of the peanuts compared to the soft cake, and it would have been better with some creamy bits of white chocolate thrown in there too!

As I'd made my own vanilla salt from sea salt crystals and an vanilla bean, there was an occasional crunch of salt too. I am a big fan of the salty/sweet combo so I really liked this element, although as the peanut butter had salt in it I only put a little in as I was scared of making it too salty. I'm sure you can get low-salt peanut butter at the health food store so next time I might buy this and control the salt myself.

They are probably pretty unhealthy but they were tasty so I don't feel too bad...

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Jerusalem Artichoke and Carrot Soup

I have become slightly addicted to the Oxfam bookshop, and frequently go in to the one by uni to check out the cookery book selection. The one in Morningside has a better selection of fancy books though, I guess because the people of Morningside have a bit more cash to splash and will give away books that are still pretty current and in good condition. The other day I nabbed the Green & Blacks' Chocolate book for £1.50!

About a year ago I got the New Covent Garden Soup book. My dad has it and I had been trying to decide whether to buy it or just steal my dad's copy, but it was in Oxfam for £2 so I went for it. I've been trying to work my way through but I've probably only done about 10% of the book so far.

I got some Jerusalem artichokes at the famers' market on Saturday, and I'd never eaten them before, so I didn't really know what to expect. As I was making the soup, I sneaked a piece out and tried it. It had the texture of a potato, but a nuttier taste. I still have a couple left so I might make them in to a mash or a mixed vegetable gratin.

I have had mixed results with the NCG book, with some being totally delicious (Chicken, lemon and tarragon) and some being quite disappointing (pappa al pomodoro). This one was quite successful, and I liked the flavour of the Jerusalem artichokes sweetened with the carrot. It also uses milk so it wasn't overwhelmingly creamy.

Recipe (adapted from New Covent Garden Soup Co's Book of Soups)

25g unsalted butter
1 small onion
1 clove of garlic
400g Jerusalem artichokes, peeled
240g carrots, sliced
50g carrots, finely grated
1l chicken stock
110ml milk
salt and pepper

Saute the onion and garlic in the butter on a low heat for 5 minutes until soft, but do not colour them. Add the chopped artichokes and carrots, and give it all a good stir.

After a couple of minutes, add the stock (I used the chicken stock I'd frozen earlier, I used 600ml stock and 400ml water as the stock was quite strong) and simmer for 20 minutes.

Blend it all up, and then add the milk. Stir in the grated carrot to add to the texture. Season the soup to taste.

Et voila!

I found this made about 5 smallish portions, but mine was quite thick, so you could probably water it down a bit if you prefer a thinner texture or need more portions.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Farmer's Market and Scallops

Bright and early on Saturday morning, E, H (two of my flatmates) and myself ventured to the weekly farmers' market in town. Although it was freezing cold, it was better than last time we went as it wasn't raining. It's very rare that you don't encounter some kind of precipitation in Edinburgh, and it did rain later in the day.

I took this photo while we ate breakfast. We did consider the Stoats Porridge van (I am particularly in love with the cranachan variety, although the cold on Saturday was tempting me toward the whisky and honey flavour), but in the end we went for a roast hog roll, with crackling and apple sauce from the Oink van. I love the way they only have one product (a big pig, complete with head and trotters, that slowly gets eaten at the market goes on) and that your only choices are crackling and sauce. No vegetarian option, no low-carb rolls, just pig. Delicious.

We went round the stalls and picked up quite a few goodies. E got a massive red mullet, weighing in at almost half a kilo. He's planning to stuff it with fennel and roast it whole. H got some lemon curd from the dairy woman, and I bought some butter in preparation for the impending butter tasting session.

I also got some Jerusalem artichokes and carrots. I'm planning to make them into soup. I've never had Jerusalem artichokes before so I wonder how they will taste. All the vegetables were still muddy from the field, so when I got home I gave them all a good scrub. It was very satisfying to scrape off the mud and dirt to reveal bright orange carrots underneath. The Jerusalem artichokes were less handsome to look at but they are getting pureed so it doesn't matter!

Lastly, H and I bought 8 scallops to have for lunch. I love scallops but have always been too scared to cook them myself in case I poison someone or just make them taste horrible. We fried off a little garlic in butter, and then added it to some more butter to make garlic topping. The left over garlicky butter in the pan was used to fry the scallops. I was terrified of overcooking them, but also eager to get them a bit brown and warmed through.

We served them on a little bit of pesto with the garlic butter topping. The pesto went well with the corals, and I had my scallops really garlicky, as I love garlic a little bit too much! It was great to have really fresh seafood, and I was pleased that we managed to sear the scallops without making them all rubbery. I think next time I would get the pan hotter as I felt they were a bit too cooked, but some of them weren't caramelised enough.

There are a couple of really good fishmongers around here, plus the farmers' market has 3 or 4 stalls that sell seafood (some of it still alive), so there is no excuse for not eating more fish. It's a shame Scotland has such a bad reputation for food, a lot of the produce is amazing, especially the seafood and game, but it all seems to get exported in favour of deep fried Mars bars...

Scallops with garlic butter and pesto

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Crispy Tofu with Shiitake and Edamame

I had one last piece of tofu left last night, and some edemame beans in the freezer. A quick google revealed this dish: crisp fried tofu with shiitake and edemame sauce.

I don't know how healthy it is to deep fry tofu, but I went for it anyway.

I really liked this meal, particularly the sauce. My main problems with it were the usual tofu textural issues. The mushrooms and edemame were both quite soft, and the tofu, even though some of the smaller bits were crispy, was now chewy instead of squidgy. I think I should have sliced it smaller or cooked it longer to get a bit more crunch in there.

I also didn't have any sherry, so I used some white wine and some vinegar, and I had birdseye chillies, so I only used a small amount.

I usually have some tofu lying around, and there's still loads of edemame in the freezer, so I'm sure this one will be cropping up again, next time I will try and get a photo!

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Raspberry and Cinnamon Wholewheat Muffins

I am trying to be a bit health conscious at the moment, as well as not spend too much money on baking supplies! Last night I was pondering what to have for breakfast this morning, as I don't really eat many dairy products, and I have given up bread for the moment too, as the stuff I can afford tastes rubbish. Therefore, the breakfast staples of toast and cereal are pretty much out, and I didn't have any yoghurt left either. I was on the verge of baking a loaf of bread myself, when I found a recipe on Serious Eats for Raspberry-Filled Cinnamon Muffins.

I had all the ingredients in my baking drawer, apart from low-fat spread and buttermilk. I've noticed buttermilk pops up quite a lot in American baking, and it is not easy to get hold of in the UK. You can only really get it at well-stocked delis or huge supermarkets. As it was 10.30pm, I didn't fancy a late night shopping trip to the 24 hour Asda out of town, so I improvised.

Instead of low-fat spread, or unsalted butter, I used 30g of salted butter, and 25g of Anchor spreadable. To replace the buttermilk, I put 1/2 cup of milk in with 1/4 cup sour cream, and a couple of drops of vinegar. It wasn't a perfect replica, but the batter seemed the right consistency and had a bit of a tang to it. I also used wholemeal self-raising flour, instead of plain, so I omitted the baking powder. I also left out the salt as I'd used salted butter.

I made the muffins in my silicone pan, so I didn't need to line the cups, although on the first batch I forgot to grease the bottoms of the cups, so the muffins broke up a little at the bottom. My flatmates were pretty happy when I surprised them with the slightly misshapen first batch! They might not have looked pretty, but straight out the oven they were delicious, and moist without being greasy or sickly. Although I don't think wholemeal raspberry muffins go that well with beer...

The second batch were more successful, and I ate them for breakfast this morning. Although they weren't as tasty when cold, the texture was still good, and they didn't have that syrupy, greasy mouth-feel that you get with commercial muffins.

I am definitely bookmarking this recipe for an easy breakfast/snack bake, that's not too bad for you either.

Raspberry and cinnamon muffins

Monday, 12 January 2009

Spicy Tofu Stir Fry

I bought a bunch of coriander the other day, which is probably my favourite herb. I have been known to sit there and eat it straight off the plant.

The first meal I made with it was beef chilli, with coriander topping. I found some mince in the freezer and used tinned tomatoes and kidney beans that were in the cupboards, so it was a good meal for a bare fridge and not much money.

Next up was a tofu stir fry. Tofu is so cheap compared to meat, but I have spent a lot of time trying to make myself like it. I don't mind that it doesn't taste of much, because that means you can flavour it with whatever you like, but I really don't like the squidgy texture.

To avoid the texture, I cut the tofu into tiny pieces (cubes about 5mm across) and marinated it for a few hours.

Chillis, ginger, spring onions, shallots and garlic

I mixed up 2 green chillis, a big wedge of ginger, 4 spring onions, a shallot and 3 cloves of garlics with the tofu, and added a few splashes of toasted sesame oil, soy sauce, lime juice and nam pla.

When it came time to cook the stir fry, I heated up a wok until it was smoking hot, then added some sunflower oil, and then put in the tofu and marinade. I find getting the oil really hot helps get the tofu a bit crispy around the edges.

Once the tofu was starting to crisp up, I added in chopped red peppers, shiitake mushrooms, and pak choi. To contrast against the tofu, I wanted these to be quite firm, and only wanted them warmed up as opposed to cooked.

Now everything was hot, I added a teaspoon of water and another splash of soy sauce to get some steam going, and also to create a sauce. Finally, I added the rest of the lime juice, and served it up, with the coriander sprinkled over the top. Yummy!

Friday, 9 January 2009



This week I finally got to do some baking from Dorie Greenspan's "Paris Sweets". I'd got the book for my birthday, but the craziness of Christmas and New Year meant that I'd only been able to read through the recipes, and hadn't tried any out yet.

I didn't have much time, so I did the very first recipe in the book, butter biscuits from the Poilane bakery (home of the famous pain Poilane sour dough loaf). They are called "punishments" as a bit of a joke, as the blurb leading up to the recipe explains. I even attempted to make them in the same way Greenspan describes Lionel Poilane making them, in a flour fountain. I got the dough together eventually, but the counter in our kitchen is too small to get a proper sized fountain going.

I baked these in T's gas oven, which I am beginning to think is a little cooler than the dial suggests, so I was worried that they weren't throughly cooked. I have frozen half the dough though, so I can test the other half in my oven which is electric and a bit more predictable than T's.

From the perspective of a resident of Scotland, where shortbread is pratically a staple food (and as someone who also managed to acquire 500 sticks of shortbread last summer after a charity raffle gone wrong) I found the texture of these a bit odd. The addition of an egg meant that they weren't as "short" as shortbread, but they were some how crispy yet soft at the same time. Reading the post by Greenspan on her blog, I am intrigued by the idea of butter tasting. I used Country Life (unsalted) to make these, but they didn't taste that buttery to me. I have been eyeing up some Italian cream butter, buerre d'Isigny, Bridel Sea Salted butter and goat butter in Waitrose recently. I think next time I have some spare money (and have been to the gym lots) I shall spend an afternoon eating bread and butter and seeing which one I think is best.

Star Shaped

Having delved in to "Paris Sweets" my opinion is now slightly altered from my first look at it nearly a month ago. Although most of the measurements are in American cups, there are gram measurements next to it, so that makes life a bit easier. The annoying element now is that most of the recipes are based around using a stand mixer, which I don't have. I'm sure most Parisian pastry chefs didn't have stand mixers until recently either, so it's a bit of a pain to reconvert the recipe back to something that can be done by hand. My initial assessment that it was a book for special occasions also has changed, and I can see myself attempting most recipes in this book at one time or another.

(I also charged the batteries on my dSLR so prepare for slightly better pictures from now on!)

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Pizza Hut

We went to the cinema last night, and T wanted to go to Pizza Hut. I haven't been for over two years, and wasn't overly thrilled at the suggestion, but eventually I agreed to go.

The decor was still as cheesy and early nineties as I remembered it, but they'd tried to jazz it up a bit in places. The hatch where the food comes out the kitchen had been decorated with exposed brickwork to look a bit rustic. They also serve alcohol now, which I wasn't expecting, although that might just be because the last time I frequented Pizza Hut I was under-18.

We ordered barbecue chicken wings and a large pizza to share. I was pleased we could get a thin crust pizza, as I am not really a fan of the pan pizza. I don't get why you would want loads of dough and not that much topping.

The chicken wings came first. I've noticed on TV and in food writing, they often talk about buying free range or organic chicken because it tastes more "chickeny". I haven't really ever noticed this, I guess because I never buy battery chicken to compare with. Once I'd got through the overly sweet barbecue sauce, the chicken underneath tasted of... nothing. I finally realised what Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has been going on about.

In another faux-rustic touch, the pizza came on a wooden paddle, although one that was far too weedy to venture in to a pizza oven. T's side was pepperoni, and mine was "vegetable supreme". Even though we'd ordered thin crust, the pizza was still quite doughy, and the crust wasn't crispy, which was disappointing. I was also expecting the vegetables to have been pre-cooked, so they weren't still raw. Although 10 minutes in the oven had softened up the mushrooms, the peppers were still a little to crunchy, and the onion was noticeably pungent. T seemed to enjoy his pepperoni, although he paid for it later with my onion breath!

Given how much we paid, I think you could get a much superior pizza for not much more. Even my last venture to Domino's was better. While T argued Pizza Hut had its place as a "quick snack before the cinema" kind of eatery, there are plenty of places in Edinburgh that serve better food for a similar price. Unfortunately for them, they aren't 30 seconds away from Cineworld.

Monday, 5 January 2009

The £7.42 Chicken Challenge: Part III

We've had two dinners this week with the left over chicken from the roast dinner, including some very tasty home-made fajitas. They were probably not very authentic, but they tasted good and there was enough left over for my lunch the next day too.

Next up was some pasta sauce with vegetables. As I am feeling a bit unhealthy after Christmas, I decided this would be a good way to use up some of the chicken and have a fairly well-balanced meal.

Roasted Vegetable Pasta Sauce
Serves 2

1 small aubergine
1 medium courgette
1 green pepper
3 cloves of garlic
1 onion
1 tin of chopped tomatoes
Sprigs of rosemary
Some cooked chicken
olive oil
salt and pepper

First chop up the aubergine, the courgette and the pepper into largish chunks, and put them in a roasting tin. Sprinkle over some salt, pepper, rosemary and the garlic cloves (still in their skins) and drizzle with a little olive oil. Roast at 200C for about 40 minutes. They should be starting to turn black around the edges, but soft on the inside.

Cut the onion up into small pieces, and fry it in a small amount of olive oil. Add in the roasted vegetables, except the garlic. The garlic should be soft enough to squeeze out of the skins into the pan as well. Add the canned tomatoes straight away, and stir it up! I also added some more rosemary, some tomato puree and some pepper at this point.
(You could use real tomatoes in this step, but as the ones in the shops at the moment are pretty rough, tinned was a better option.)

Once that is bubbling away, cut up the chicken in to small pieces. Add it in at the last minute, as you don't want to cook it, just reheat it. The amount of chicken you use is up to you, as I was trying to make this cheap and healthy I didn't use much, but if you put in lots you could probably stretch this to 3 or 4 portions instead of two.

I served this with tagliatelle, but I think it would work best with a chunkier shape like giant conchiglioni, as that would catch the larger vegetables.

Tagliatelle with roasted vegetables and tomato sauce.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

The £7.42 Chicken Challenge: Part II

I used the saved carcass from the chicken the other day to make stock. I boiled the carcass and skin with an onion, some celery, loads of garlic, some cloves and a bay leaf. I meant to leave it for 2 hours, but ended up leaving it for four!

I got quite a thick, aromatic, concentrated stock, and managed to get exactly 2 litres out of it. I think I'll probably water it down to 4 litres when I use it, unless I use it in a curry, in which case the spicy element will probably work quite well.

I should make stock more often, once you've chopped things up and put them in the pot, you don't have to do anything to it, apart from skimming off any scum or fat that comes to the surface. I think I spent about 20 minutes working on the stock, and the rest of the time doing other stuff while it bubbled away.

A quick look at online supermarkets reveals that you'd pay about £4 for 2l of fresh stock so worth the effort I think!

Friday, 2 January 2009

The £7.42 Chicken Challenge: Part I

I think one of the worst things about the food culture in Britain is cheap meat. Traditionally, meat has been a treat. It is meant to be more expensive than other ingredients.

When you look at how meat is produced, it's obvious why meat is expensive. To grow some vegetables, fruits, grains or pulses, I can sow some seeds, and then just leave them until harvest time. Rain will water them and birds and insects will help fertilize the plants and eat pests. A totally natural approach probably isn't the most reliable, so I might invest a bit of time and money in putting down compost or soil nutrients, or weeding the field. I might also water the fields, or use pesticides to maintain my crop. By ultimately, I can pretty much leave the plants to their own devices and they will produce food for me.

If I want to get some chicken, beef, pork or lamb, then it is much more complicated. I have find a shelter for the animals at night, and protect them from predators. They might need a lot of land to roam on, with special plants growing on it, or special areas like dirt baths or muddy patches. I have to ensure the animals are fed everyday, and look after their health. I also have to make sure they breed, so I'll have some animals to farm next year. Animals take up a lot of time and effort, and eat the plant crops that I could be eating. Therefore, the yield of meat from animals will be more expensive than plant based food.

In the supermarket the other day, I had a choice of three chickens. One was organic, free range and expensive. For a 1.8kg bird, the price was over £11. There was a value chicken, that at for 1.8kg, only cost £3.40. There was also a free range chicken, that was corn fed, for £7.42. I went for the free range one. I would have paid around £7 just for 2 free range breasts, so paying an extra 42p for the legs, wings and carcass was a good deal.

While I am not totally convinced by the benefits of organic produce, I am convinced by free range. I don't think animals have rights per se, and I would never become vegetarian for ethical reasons. However, I do think animals should be looked after, and not made to suffer just because we are top of the food chain. A quick look around small holder websites reveals that you can't really even feed a chicken for £3.40, let alone look after it properly. Commercial farmers will buy in bulk and have lower costs, but still, it does not bode well. If an animal is going to die so I can eat it, I want it to have had a decent life, with good quality food, outside access, and enough time to mature properly and not killed as soon as they are heavy enough to go to the supermarket.

I know to some extent that you can't be sure about what you are eating unless you have farmed it yourself, and I would prefer to buy all my meat from the farmer's market, where you can talk to the people that raised the animals about the conditions in which they were kept. One of the few good things going for Britain in terms of mass market food is that we do have stricter farming regulations than most of Europe, so a cheap British pork chop is better than a cheap European one, but I still think most forms of intensive farming should be banned, and people should be forced to accept that meat is not cheap.

So now I have my mid-price happy chicken, I need to make sure I get the most out of it. First off, a roast dinner!

We ate most of a breast and a leg with the roast dinner, and shredded the rest of the meat for use later in the week. I also saved most of the fat, skin and all the bones to make stock with.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Roasted Red Pepper Soup

For New Year's Eve, I made roasted red pepper and tomato soup. I based it on this recipe from BBC Food. As it was by the Diabetic Society I thought it would be a healthy dinner to help us get through that large amounts of alcohol we were planning to consume later that night!

I grilled the peppers until they were blackened, and then put them in a plastic bag to sweat. At first, I found them quite hard to peel, although once I got to the bottom of the bag they were much easier. Next time I think I will get them really black, and then sweat them for quite a while, and they should be really easy to peel. At this stage they were really soft and although the blackened parts had burned through to the flesh, it had only caramelized it instead of burning it. They were so soft I was able to tear them up instead of slicing them.

I then added them all to the pan, with 2 onions and 2 cloves of garlic. Next time I would probably use 4 cloves of garlic as 2 didn't seem to add that much taste. I also substituted the vegetable stock for half chicken stock, and half homemade vegetable stock. I liked that it was thickened by a potato, as I find that soups thickened with flour don't always work very well. I used tinned plum tomatoes, but next time I would go for passata instead. I also let it stew for about 30 mins while I cleaned up the kitchen to try and deepen the flavour before blending. Although the recipe says it serves 6, I got 8 portions out of this (4 are now in the freezer).

I served the finished product with a slice of toasted french bread spread with pesto. The pesto went really well with the red peppers, although the flavour wasn't as deep as I wanted. However it was pretty technically easy to make (although the skinning was time consuming), and looks quite impressive, so a win overall.

Dinner is served