But I’m back! Sorry if I’ve left anyone hanging in food-related limbo, awaiting important information regarding deglazing or flour sifting (not that I pretty much ever bother to sift flour because frankly, who has the time? And anyway how do you even effectively wash a seive, honestly, how?) but the important news is that I’m back within arm’s length of a laptop and ready to hit you all with more culinary excitement.
Since last I wrote I’ve been dabbling in all sorts of things including waitressing, WWOOFing, Foodcycle-ing, Helpxing, excessive bin-raiding and Couchsurfing which has involved lots of my favourite things – being outdoors, hanging out with animals and plants as a legitimate use of my time, getting muddy fingers, socialising, cooking and of course EATING! My adventures whilst working as a waitress and living out of supermarket dustbins and then cycle touring round the South of the UK staying on couches and helping and working in people’s homes and small holdings have been interesting to say the least and my food adventures have been, in some cases, even more so!
Every single home has a different expectation of a “normal” evening meal, a different perception of the baseline ingredients that one might expect to find in a cupboard or fridge and a different idea of when to eat. I’ve never been served the same dish twice, which as a (pretty much) vegetarian is impressive considering that within my living memory, vegetarian food was always soggy quiche or vege-mince lasagne. I’ve eaten with food writers, foragers, carnivores, artists, bankers… people who are deeply, almost disconcertingly, normal and people who are intoxicatingly outlandish and every meal has been an utter pleasure. When I’ve not been eating with people, I’ve been foraging out of their fridges and store-cupboards to cook for myself or diving in dustbins and coming up with 30 out-of-season out-of-date courgettes, and it has given me a real kick to never know what I’m going to have available to me when I go to making dinner. Every day is ready-steady-cook!
Here’s a photo of me milking a goat to tide you over, but now that I have a laptop, kitchen and camera all in the same building at the same time, I think it’s about time we got down to some cooking fairly soon, too!
Normally at this time of year I’m feeling very greedy for lots of warming stodgy carbohydrates and rich heavy food. But this year I’ve felt a little overwhelmed and although I merrily tucked into three successive platefuls, followed of course by Christmas pud, cake, and mince pies on Christmas day I feel in the mood for a salad. I want something crisp and tangy, something filling but fresh. Luckily I’ve been working on a little project for Part-Time Carnivore, called Come Veg With Me and I’ve spent the past few days cooking up some exciting vege treats for meat eaters so I’ve got all sorts of things lurking in my fridge waiting to be enjoyed. One of my favourite things is the pomegranate – admittedly I’m really fascinated by folk tales and myths so its symbolism always kind of excites me but the seeds are just so beautiful, like little garnets and I love the fact that they’re these little prepacked juicy fruity nuggets that you can sprinkle with abundance to add colour, flavour and cheer to winter dishes.
I have previously been served some rather mad dishes containing pomegranate by some charmingly potty hippies, and I would certainly not advise you to garnish a cheese toastie, or leek and potato soup with pomegranate seeds (yes, honestly that’s what I’ve been served) but sprinkled over salads or Baba Ghanouch these seeds add a lovely popping freshness.
At the moment I’m really obsessed with a fruity festive salsa of diced cucumber, pomegranate seeds, olive oil, orange juice and toasted coriander seeds. With a little snip of onion in there too (I used chives) its really juicy and lovely with something a bit heavy and has a lovely fragrant depth to it from the orange-y coriander seeds.
I’m also really enjoying sprinkling the seeds on my muesli with a splodge of natural yoghurt and a drizzle of honey it’s lovely fruity heaven.
I’m a breakfast person, wholeheartedly so, and in amongst the deliciousness of day-to-day breakfasting there’s something really special and decadent about an elaborate breakfast. When I stay with one particular friend our whole weekend is frequently based on our breakfasts which we carefully plan – fluffy american style pancakes with fruit in them and honey on top, home made granola with natural yoghurt, crispy crunchy multigrain toast soaked in butter, rich coffee, fragrant tea, sharp fresh orange juice… At the weekend you can make breakfast last til lunch with the right company and a supplement-laden newspaper!
But my philosophy is that every day can be the weekend if you want, so if you’d like some mid-week decadence but don’t have the time to create quite such an epic spread you can easily treat yourself to something else. Breakfast doesn’t have to be cereal or toast, and it doesn’t have to be an expensive pastry from your local chain coffee shop! I strongly believe that you can have whatever you damn well want in the morning. I love traditional breakfast foods like porridge, pastries, cereals, toast, bagels, eggs, fry-ups, but I also revel in apple pie for breakfast, or lasagne, bicuits, potato salad… But if you’re a bit more of a traditionalist, why not indulge in some crepes tomorrow morning, to kick off your Monday in style? You can make the batter tonight in ten minutes and with a quick stir up tomorrow you’ll be ready to fry and flip in no time.
You will need -
A mugfull of plain white flour
A mugfull of milk
A sprinkle of salt
Any kind of topping you want, and I mean ANY. Keep it traditional with sugar and lemon juice (brown sugar is always nicest), go a bit Canadian with some bacon and maple syrup, a bit Italian with some pesto, mozzarella, tomatoes and salad…
To make your batter, fill a mug with plain white flour and pour into a mixing bowl along with a sprinkle of salt. Then break in two eggs and use a fork to mix them into the flour. Now, take a mug full of milk, and slowly add a bit at a time to the flour, stirring it in, until you have a nice smooth batter. You can add the milk all at once but you run the risk of the flour clumping and leaving you with lumpy bits in the batter. Now add a splosh more milk, give it a stir and you’re ready to go!
If you’ve made the mixture for the morning, cover it in cling film and pop in the fridge if not get yourself a ladle or a tea cup – something that you can use to scoop up a bit of batter. You’ll also need a frying pan (duh! non stick is best) some kind of spatula and some vegetable oil or a little butter.
Your first pancake will always be a bit rubbish, so persevere! Oil your pan lightly, then put on a high heat and wait until it’s heated up fully before pouring in your first scoop of batter. Crepes should be nice and thin, so don’t pour in loads, just enough to coat the bottom of the pan, whilst you pour in the batter, use your other hand to turn the pan to get the mixture spread about the pan. Once the top of the pancake goes dull and looks as though it’s set, and the edges start to curl up slightly, use your spatula to gently ease it up from the pan and turn it over. If your first one sticks, don’t worry. The next one is very unlikely to!
Just one more thing – please eat them when they’re hot! I know that on American TV shows they make a stack of pancakes and all sit round eating them but they’ll get soggy, cold and a bit horrid – eat them fresh from the pan!
I promised a little while… ok, long while… ago that I would divulge the secrets behind this -
And then, of course, promptly didn’t and instead wandered off and started making shortbread and suchlike. However with some very damp days over this weekend and lots of parsley to make some accompanying tabbouleh I got excited about the prospect of making some bread and actually documenting the process rather than my usual rather haphazard way of operating which owes much to the “slosh it all in and leave it” school of cookery. The thing is, bread is such a wonder that you really can just leave it to its own devices. A few hours here and there mostly doesn’t hurt and bread is such a part of my routine that I always think – “I’ll photograph it doing its thing next time”. And we all know when “next time” tends to be…! So I decided that I would do two things – firstly I would update my previous blogs about bread and secondly I would make some enriched bread doughs to demonstrate the versatility of this marvelous stuff.
Bread holds a great fascination for most people and when someone discovers that I make my own they tend to be overwhelmingly impressed – which is warming to my ego but completely disproportionate to the actual skillset involved. I think that because good bread takes a long time to make, the general assumption is that it is complicated, however the time involved is not spent caring for the dough or supervising it in any way – it’s bread, not a toddler – and in fact it’s pretty low-maintenance!
Unlike the long, delicious, flavour-filled process of home baking, manufactured bread is made with a high yeast content so that it has an incredibly short rising time to fit in with the busy schedule of commercialism. This diminishes the quality and flavour of the bread to the extent that there is now such disgusting pap on the shelves that I strongly believe it doesn’t warrant the title “bread” at all. I was unfortunate enough to have a slice of Waitrose white farmhouse loaf recently, “fresh from our bakery”, and I can honestly say it was one of the most disheartening and offputting experiences my tastebuds have had for quite some time.
However enough complaining, onwards to the bread recipes -
One of the joys of bread is that you are not restricted to using water, you can allow your yeast to ferment all manner of things. This recipe is made from “enriched dough”, ie. dough with more to it that your standard water/flour/salt/yeast combination and in this case is made by fermenting a tin of chopped tomatoes instead!
If you have never made bread before, it’s certainly worth getting some practice in by trying a basic bread dough here, first to get yourself used to the general process.
So, munching on a slice of delicious multigrain with a spot of Crab Apple Jelly on it, you’re now armed with the knowledge, experience and full stomach required for a foray into foccaccia!
Whilst you’re having another slice of multigrain (because it really is too heavenly to leave alone!), sprinkle some crumbs round the kitchen as you assemble the following -
one tin of chopped tomatoes
dessert spoon quick action dried yeast
1lb/ 454g flour (i tend to use 20/80 proportions of wholemeal/white)
handful of fresh rosemary
good handful of sundried tomatoes (dried are better for this than the sunblush ones in oil)
nice handful of olives, either from the jar or from the deli depending on your budget
coarse sea salt
3 tablespoons of Olive oil (plus a good chug more for baking)
You will also need a large baking tray.
So what to do with all these lovely ingredients? Well, firstly you’ll need to get your yeast going. It’s a live organism and it is its respiration that produces the carbon dioxide necessary to make your dough rise so make sure you keep your yeast happy. Take the tin of tomatoes and empty them into a bowl, sprinkle a little sugar on the tomatoes and a dessert spoon full of dried yeast. Leave them to do their thing.
Maybe have a cuppa or check your emails – when you return your yeast should be growing merrily on the top of your tinned toms. As it eats the sugars in the tomatoes it not only respires it also procreates which is super duper if you want some bread for dinner. So, with your frothy yeast growing away on your tinned tomatoes, get the flour, a mixture of wholemeal and white is always preferable I think, and stir your tomatoes and 3 tablespoons of the best olive oil you can afford into the flour until you have a rather wonderful mess. Flour your worktop, tip out your mess, using a spatula to scrape out all the inevitable sticky bits clinging to the side of the bowl, and sprinkle a little flour on the top of the messy splodge, then knead. At first it will seem like an impossible task but persevere. Use the heel of your hand and squash and stretch the dough, everyone kneads slightly differently, but you’ll find your own rythm and it becomes rather soothing! You’ll be able to feel the texture of the dough change, and it will become stretchy and pliable. The kneading process stretches the gluten fibres and strengthens the dough, allowing it to support itself when the yeast pushes bubbles into it. Later, in the oven as the carbon dioxide expands in the heat the gluten supports the air bubbles in the bread and creates the lovely texture we want.
Once you’ve kneaded your dough, sprinkling a little more flour on your hands if needs be, and you’ve got a nice pliable springy handful pop it back in the bowl, and cover it in cling film or a damp teatowel. This protects your dough from the outside world of dog hair and flies, and also helps to keep the moisture in.
Leave it in a warm place, a windowsill, airing cupboard… Don’t put it anywhere hot though, you don’t want it baked! I sometimes fill a small bowl with warm water and balance my dough-bowl on top, or use a hot water bottle with a little warm water in it. There’s all sorts of ways and means.
Your dough will now rise. Hopefully to twice the size. If it begins to overflow your bowl give it a slap which will knock some air out of it and it will sink back down. This takes around 3 hours, but you can leave it longer – I often forget I’m making bread and leave dough overnight so don’t worry too much about it.
When your tummy starts rumbling and you’re feeling that dinner really should be rather soon and that this was all a stupid overambitious idea go and grab your bread dough, and scrape it out onto a floured work surface. Give it a little knead and then use your knuckles to work it out into a large rectangle, about the size of your baking tray.
Chop up your rosemary, olives and sundried tomatoes and then sprinkle them over two thirds (taken from short end to short end) of the dough and press it all into the dough a little. Fold over the empty piece of dough, to cover half of the filling, then fold over the remaining visible half of filling-covered dough. If it sounds complicated imagine folding a three sided leaflet.
Place this onto your olive-oiled baking tray and use your knuckles and fingers to work it out to the very edges of the tray. Don’t pull the dough, squash it from the middle and work it outwards, pour some olive oil on top of it too to make it nice and slippery. Eventually you should have a big flat dough, with bits of filling poking out and with lots of dents and dimples in it, if there aren’t that many use your finger tips to to prod more into it – it should look like the worst kind of cellulite imaginable!
Now take your sea salt, sprinkle it all over the top, make sure the dough is lovely and oily and then leave it on the side to rise again a little (about 10-15 mins) before you whack it into the oven at 200C Fan/220C/425F for half an hour.
I always enjoy serving this bread warm and whole, on a large wooden bread board so that everyone can tear off their own piece. But it’s also lovely ripped into large chunks and served in a basket or on a platter. However you do it though, you can guarantee a feeling of warmth when everyone present says en mass – “you MADE this? WOW!”
I was going, in true British style, to mention the weather in my opening gambit but then I realised that it I’m tired of hearing about it, and presumably you are too, so I will simply highlight the fact that current growing conditions have left me with quite a lot of spuds!
Well, actually the key problem here is that I tend to get carried away when digging, or rummaging with my hand, for potatoes – it’s such a soothing and satisfying activity that I keep poking around and finding another all lovely and gleaming bone white tucked into the cool pungent soil and then suddenly, whoops, I’ve got too many again. To be honest, when it comes to carbs I always overestimate and frequently end up looking at a huge mountain of pasta and wondering how on earth I managed to miscalculate so outrageously.
Once I’ve eaten my fill of spuds my wild miscalculations as regards portion control invariably leave me with a mighty cairn of them which I duly put in a bowl in the fridge for “another time”. Often “another time” is when I feel lazy and cut the potatoes into rings, fry them and eat them with some baked beans and an egg – perfect. This year though the sheer size and quantity of spuds has led to me really truly going overboard and there is a serious potato situation in my kitchen, every time I open the fridge door, bowls of cold spuds look sadly and accusingly up at me. This has stressed me out slightly – don’t get me wrong, I love fried potatoes, and I also love eating cold boiled potatoes just dipped in salt, straight from the fridge (don’t judge me, it’s delicious) but there really is a limit to how much my metabolism can take and I abhor wasted food. Luckily this tale has a happy ending as my Mother has a copy of Elizabeth David’s Italian Cooking which I have always loved, and having recently been given my own copy I decided it really was high time I gave her potato Gnocchi a go. In my head the idea of Gnocchi seems terrifying and complex, and despite having read the recipe more times than I care to admit I’ve always had an irrational fear of it. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was absurdly easy – I made it for lunch and it took as long as one might spend lovingly constructing a sandwich – it was also yummy, especially cooked with a bashed garlic clove, and tossed in a little butter and home made pesto.
Alongside the wisdom of Elizabeth David I did a little freestyle cooking/constructing and made a potato salad. Not the claggy mayonnaise-y type but one with pretty much anything that I could find. Lettuce, rocket, peas, asparagus, radishes, chives, spring onions, gherkins… all tossed together with cold boiled spuds and a grainy mustard vinaigrette – perfect!
Not only is this great for lunchboxes through the week, it’s also perfect to go with an omlette as a light dinner, or with an array of other salads (such as Prickley Green salad – perfect for using your beetroot up!) for a big salad-y dinner with a bit of flat bread or pitta.
The joy of both of these recipes is that you need remarkably little to transform your potatoes from a fridge-burden to a summery delight!
For a 2 person serving of Gnocchi you will need -
2 0z/ 55 g of plain white flour
8 oz/225 g of mashed potato (you can mash up cold boiled potatoes as I did)
1/4 oz/7 g butter (I just used a dollop and hoped for the best, life’s too short to measure out 7 grams!)
-plus a sauce of your choice, pesto is always a nice one and traditional for potato gnocchi but you can use anything you fancy!
Take your mashed potato, and mix into it the flour, egg and butter. Then on a floured surface, work it into a dough and knead it. You will probably need a fair bit of flour to stop yourself sticking, especially at this time of year as the potatoes are new and stickier, and with the current weather, they’re quite a bit wetter too.
Once you’ve made yourself a slightly springy dough, cut it into 4 pieces and then using your palms and fingertips roll the dough on the work surface to make a long thin sausage. It should be about as thick as your ring finger. Then use a knife to cut the sausage into pieces about 3/4 inch (2cm) long, use your thumb, index finger and middle finger to make a dent in one side of the dough so that the gnocchi has a curl to it. Once you’ve done this to all your dough, drop the gnocchi into boiling water. It’s particularly nice if you put a bashed garlic clove into the water too.
When the gnocchi rises to the surface it’s done, so scoop them out with a slotted spoon as they come to the top and put them into preheated dishes, then toss in pesto, sprinkle with parmesan and enjoy!
For your potato salad you will need -
Cold boiled potatoes
spring onions/chopped red onion/chopped shallots/chopped white onion
mangetout or sugarsnap peas
a robust lettuce such as Cos or Romaine. I use Bronze Arrow from the garden.
White wine vinegar (although I sometimes use cider vinegar or lemon juice)
This recipe is a great deal more “chuck it all in and hope for the best”, mostly because it’s about using up leftovers and enjoying what’s in season. The key elements to this salad are that you will want the potatoes as the base, a pickled flavour, something a bit hot such as rocket and/or radish, something crunchy and leafy, something a bit oniony such as chives, onion or spring onion and a vinagrette. So you could easily put asparagus in this, although it is now out of season, so please please don’t go and buy some from Kenya, please! You can throw in some cooked french beans or some cooked mangetout, some crunch raw sugar snaps… Also think of colours and textures. You can maybe jazz it up a little by serving this with marigold petals sprinkled on tip, or by using different lettuce to add depth of colour and texture. I chopped the ingredients in different sizes to add interest so why not slice your radish thin but leave your gherkins chunky, or vice verca?
Once you’ve made a bowl full of yumminess, prepare your vinaigrette with 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar. Then use the same amount of grainy mustard as you did vinegar and a good grind of salt and black pepper, whisk it all up and then sprinkle all over your waiting salad.
I’ve taken a little break from food this week (don’t worry though, there’s some ideas …*ahem* fermenting… for next weekend!) and instead I’ve done a little post on the Country Living Magazine blog about Open Farm Sunday which looks as though it will be a fantastic opportunity to get down to your local farm and have some fun – find out more on the blog, and I promise I’ll be back soon with maybe some flat bread.. or bagels… or both…