Friday, 27 March 2015

A challenge for the week

HomeI've never claimed to have my finger on the pulse so it's not a massive surprise that I only realised it was Meat Free Week after it was too late.  I'd written a shopping list, hauled myself around Asda and stocked up for beef madras, chicken bhuna and pork escalope completely unthinkingly.  Ok, it's all going to be very tasty but I think reducing meat consumption is good on both a personal and a global level.  In fact, I think I'll opt in for it at a later date.  Just need to clear out my fridge first...

However, I have made a small challenge for me and my husband this week: eat a home-cooked meal each night for the next seven days.  Now, I'll admit it seems like a pretty humble challenge, particularly as most people manage this without trying.  We struggle though, partially due to laziness but also because of unstable schedules, work commitments and the like.  We're in the enviable position of being able to eat out or order in without too much angst, but that doesn't mean that it's a good thing to do.  There are some weeks where shopping, cleaning, cooking and every other domestic chore has to be pushed to one side.  This week, I'm hoping to undo some of the damage.

That sounds a bit melodramatic but I can always tell when I've been eating out too much.  It's not like I'm surviving on pizza and burgers (although I've had both this week); it's just that there's something much more satisfying about a home-cooked meal.  It always feels heartier and healthier and you can be assured that you know exactly what's going into it.  After a week of naughty food, I'm practically jonesing for salad or something more nutritious, and my body feels sluggish and tired until that need is satisfied.  It's a bit like exercise: I don't always want to do it but I know I feel better afterwards.  

This week is proving to be a little less frantic workwise than last week.  I've also had a couple of days off in order to do a mental reset, meaning I feel capable of managing domestic duties alongside my work ones.  So far, I've bought the ingredients for the three meals mentioned in the introduction, as well as for pancetta-covered chicken and a mixed bean and prawn salad to take to work.  I'm thinking of having a Friday night beef roast so that the leftover meat can be converted into beef stew on Saturday and rendang on Sunday.  It all makes for a meat-heavy week but maybe my body will be crying out for dhal, falafel and tofu at the end of it.  I'll just have to break it gently to my husband that we're going meat-free for a bit...

(Amusing side note: as I was rereading this, my husband came into the room to tell me that the casserole dish had exploded when he was cooking beef madras.  Not an auspicious start to the challenge)

Sunday, 22 March 2015

My favourite foodie day out

I kept my attendance at this year's BBC Good Food Show in Birmingham a secret for the simple reason that I was going to give my mum a ticket for Mother's Day.  She doesn't read my blog (or even know I write one) but I liked the idea of maintaining the surprise anyway.  Now that Mother's Day has been and gone, the proverbial cat is out of the bag and I can freely wax lyrical about one of my favourite days out ever, food-based or otherwise.

This is high praise indeed, particularly as I have only attended the event once.  I went along last year, again with my mum, and it was amazing.  I'm not usually one for big events – too many people can make my OCD kick-off in a big way – but I helped myself by getting there early, giving myself a bit of time to orient myself before the hoards arrived. 

Trust me, orienting yourself is a big deal at an event like this.  There is a lot to see and the NEC is a big place.  So much so, in fact, that I still felt like there were parts of the exhibition that I hadn't fully explored after a full day there.  The layout is kind of in sections, but very loosely so.  Most of the food stalls are muddled together but there is a cafĂ© and dining area, an alcohol zone (which, as a teetotaller, I largely overlooked), and a section devoted to kitchenware and awesome culinary gadgets and gizmos.  I continue to regret the fact that I didn't buy a whizzy whisk.  Honest to God, I saw someone buy about six of the blimmin' things as they claimed that they didn't know anyone who wouldn't love one.  They were so right.  I'm just crossing my fingers that I can rectify my error this time round.

Lemon and Poppy seed creamy white chocolate
Best chocolate ever
As you would expect, most of the stalls give out samples and freebies, so you can be pretty frugal without missing out on the fun.  The very first stall I saw last year sold brownies and I was in food heaven from there on in.  Personal favourites included the Seed and Bean chocolate company (whose lemon and poppyseed white chocolate is about the best thing I've ever tasted) and a chilli jam stall that allowed you to try everything from tame to blow-your-head-off concoctions in an ever-increasing succession of pain.  You could easily get away without buying a formal lunch but you're a stronger person than me if you can resist the lure of a full pig roast.  My mouth is watering at the very thought of it.

Live cookery demos and the opportunity to meet celebrity chefs is also a big draw for many people.  I had the pleasure of watching James Martin put together the most butter-laden three-course meal you can imagine.  However, as it was a Kenwood-sponsored event, my favourite moment was when the handle fell off one of their branded frying pans.  No sales initiated there.

As a final treat, a free goodie bag for all visitors means that you certainly take away more from the event than you paid for.  I got a whole clutch of food magazines, rice, a Hairy Bikers' curry sauce, posh crisps and other bits and pieces.  Oh, and a baking spatula, which is super cool.

Finding something that my mum and I can both enjoy, all day, in the same place, is a big deal.  And I can't wait to do it all again in June.

Tickets are still available and you can see more on their website.

Apologies for the blogvert but, honestly, it's like Christmas, Easter, my birthday and Wrestlemania all in one. Go!

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

The Hummingbird Bakery's Peanut Butter Cookies

OCD Panic Rating: 1/5
Handwashes: 1

I was honestly going to make a savoury dish this week but, after a day like today, only something sweet would do.  To cheer myself up, I decided to take the opportunity to dip into my new Hummingbird Bakery book.  I've been saving this for the right occasion and, in this case, a crappy Monday was sufficient.

I already have a solid recipe for peanut butter cookies but, as they are a particular favourite in my household, I thought I would give an additional recipe a shot.  That recipe involves replacing all the unsalted butter with peanut butter and it makes for a gooey, nutty treat.  This recipe, however, is much more like a typical cookie and uses a combination of unsalted and peanut butter.  It was easy enough to follow, although I did manage to muddle myself by halving the amounts involved.  The recipe makes 24 but, in all honesty, I'd eat them all immediately, so I decided 12 would do for now.  This would've been fine if I was capable of consistently dividing by two; instead, I ended up having to spoon flour out of the bowl after my attention wandered.  Not smart but I think I caught the mistake in time.

I put the balls of dough onto the baking sheets and cooked for the suggested ten minutes.  They were still quite pale so I gave them longer.  Maybe too much longer, as I got distracted trying to work out why my crappy iPod charger wasn't working.  The finished result is possibly a bit crisper than intended because of this, but they still look decent:
Cookies, plus additional kitchen mess
And yes, they are the size of my head.

They haven't quite got the soft chewiness that I would have liked, and the nutty flavour is more subtle than in my usual recipe.  They're a satisfying treat though, as you could definitely cope with only eating one or two.  I didn't - I ate seven - but a more disciplined individual might have been able to show the necessary restraint.  My usual PB cookies send me into a sugar high that seems to help me tap into my inner potential (I won that pub quiz by myself, damn you); these were tasty but not to the same level.

Key points:

  • Don't let electrical devices distract you from monitoring the cooking time.
  • Sometimes your established recipes are still the best.
Win rating: 4/5

Monday, 2 March 2015

Ranking Your Cookery Books

Where possible, I'm trying to use a variety of cookery books for the recipes on this blog.  I will admit to relying on baking in these early stages but at least I'm taking my recipes from a few different sources.

What's been interesting is that there has been real variability in the quality of the outcomes, to the point that I'm starting to think that it's not all down to user error.  Yes, there is some of that in the mix.  Maybe even quite a lot.  But there's also a noticeable difference in the quality of the instructions.  So what makes a good cookbook and who can I trust with my dinner?

To start with, you need to be able to source the necessary ingredients.  I loved browsing through The Hairy Bikers' Asian Adventure but I would have had to restock half of my kitchen to make most of the recipes.  You also need to think about limiting waste, which is made harder when you buy obscure ingredients.  There have even been a few cases where a recipe has said to buy a certain amount of something before proceeding to only use half of it.  Unhelpful.

Next, and crucially, the recipes need to be well-written.  They have to be detailed enough to avoid confusion but not overly wordy.  You need to be able to read it in small chunks as you move from one stage to the next.  There definitely needs to be a strong and logical order.  I've encountered recipes that get you halfway through before they tell you that you should have been preparing another aspect of the meal at the same time.  Gah!  Granted, if you don't read a recipe through before you start then it's partially your own fault, but the author should factor in reader incompetence.  No matter how trivial a detail might seem, you can guarantee that there are people out there who need to be told.  It's the writer's duty to do so.

Pinterest failsFinally, you kind of want your own creation to look something like the picture in the book.  After all, it's the pictures that really encourage you to buy the book in the first place.  I think we're all realistic enough to know that we won't be able to recreate the exact results (the author will have had five assistants and a specialist food photographer after all) but it needs to be recognisable.  I'm not a coordinated or artistic person but I would not be happy if I came up with something like this:

You can see the whole amazing set of these images here, but I think you get my point.

Of the books I've used over recent years, there have been some clear winners and losers.  Although the Asian book didn't work for me, I've always been able to emulate the Hairy Bikers' recipes otherwise.  Jamie Oliver's recipes are usually very good although his ingredients can be a little tricky at times.  Nigella is the person I've really struggled with.  Her recipes just don't work unless you have the kitchen experience to extrapolate from her rather sparse instructions.  My current favourite cookbooks are from opposing ends of the spectrum.  I've got a real love for Asda's free magazine.  You know the ingredients are available and few recipes are longer than half a page.  Current champion, though, is Gizzi Erskine, whose recipes have the wow factor without requiring huge amounts of experience or unlimited time and money.  Her cookies are delightful; her pasta sauces hearty and healthy; her katsu curry isn't far off divine.  I'm using Gizzi's Kitchen Magic at the moment and it satisfies all three of my cookbook requirements.  Move over Nigella, there's a new domestic goddess in town.  And her recipes actually work.