Wednesday, 12 September 2012

The Year Gone By

The arrival of the first big bag of rainbow chard in last week's veg box gave me pause for thought.  Could it really be a year since I ordered that first box?  And could it really be a year since I tried to institute Experimental Thursday and began this blog?  Surely not.  But a quick look here confirmed that indeed it was and, more importantly, it was also a very long time since I had written here at all.

I don't intend to apologise - it's been a busy year and since I'm writing this for myself rather than anyone else (and noone's really read it anyway), all I intend to say to myself is "Life has been busy this year and blogging is meant to be fun, not a chore".  What did make me a little sad though was the realisation that our second attempt at ET, which we kicked off in the New Year, lasted a lot longer than the blog suggests as we definitely made it all the way through February and a little way through March too.  Not covered here are such treats as Upside-Down Vegetable Cake from Leith's Vegetarian Bible, a Morrocan vegetable tagine served with giant couscous, which I sort of invented myself, and Ina Garten's fruit soda bread (all of which were delicious) and then the surprisingly disappointing Eli's Asian Salmon from the same book, which I did with orange-honey glazed carrots and noodles.  It all sounded great in theory but didn't quite work in practice.  There was also the wonderful sweet corn and salmon chowder from Cooking for Baby and the tasty corn and red pepper muffins from Kitchen Classics: Soups and Breads, the lovely Battered Amritsari Sole from Anjum's New Indian and a very tasty Marzipan Fruit Cake that Baby Bird and I made for Daddy's birthday at the start of March. That was lots of fun although I can confirm that marzipan is very hard to wash out of a toddler's hair and you should never leave them playing with the mixing bowl while you turn round to pop a cake in the oven!

Later in the year, the idea has occasionally resurfaced and we've had a random little experiment. We've made homemade pizzas with the help of Linda McCartney, something which has become a family favourite, and have also tried out Valentine Warner's langoustine risotto and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's roasted squash with shallots and merguez chickpeas (the latter proving more popular than the former) and just the other week I tried out a couple of really tasty courgette tarts, one with tomatoes and the other with ricotta.

It's a shame the stories that went with the recipes have largely been lost as so many day-to-day moments are.  Still, there's a few pics to mark these simple meals and if this is the worst thing I can thing of in my life to complain about, things really are pretty great.

However, standing in the kitchen, wondering what to do with that bag of chard, I did think that it might be nice to come back here and start up again.  Maybe it will be third time lucky?  We certainly cook more adventurously now than we did a year ago, so in one sense, Experimental Thursday has been a great success, even if we did not manage to maintain the discipline necessary to make and write about something every week.  What we have done has been fun though, and it's time once more to come up with something interesting to do with chard.  So let's step into this new season with renewed purpose and see what happens.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

52 Cookbook Challenge, Week 4: Annabel Karmel's Family Meal Planner

Annabel Karmel: annoyingly perky
This book was a gift from a well-meaning friend with older children.  It was very thoughtful of her (and also no doubt served to clear some space on her shelves, relieving her of a book that I doubt she will have used in about ten years!) and I didn't wish to appear ungrateful.  I was also pretty new to feeding Baby Bird and had heard so much about the guru of UK babyfood.  "Everybody" swore by her.

All I can say is, I can only imagine that those who swear by her don't eat her food themselves.  I'm not in the least bit in love with her recipes.  I started off with the Complete Baby & Toddler Meal Planner and made a quite a few of those recipes in the early days.  Some were ok, others were pretty bland but, hey, I thought babyfood was meant to taste that way.  Then I did a bit more reading, and a bit more thinking.  I did a bit more experimenting and found some far tastier recipes that followed the more conventional approach to babyfood, but I also embraced baby-led weaning.  I have to say, since then, I haven't looked back.  Life is much easier now I cook one meal for all of us and Baby Bird is proving adventurous in her eating at the moment.  I think I've said before that she tends to only eat quite small quantities of food, but she seems enthusiastic about trying new things and will generally take at least a mouthful before dismissing a meal.  It also turns out that she enjoys far stronger flavours than I expected.  I'm now firmly of the view that children prefer bland food because that is what we feed them as babies.  We condition them to eat food that tastes like wallpaper paste, then they hit 4 or 5 and we suddenly decide they can eat what we eat and wonder why they balk at the overwhelming array of strong flavour on offer.  I'm realistic enough to realise that an adventurous eater now may not be an adventurous eater in a few months or years time, but I do hope that by at least giving her a chance to try things now, it will sow the seeds for a broader palate in later life.

The more I cooked for my daughter, and the more I discovered what she was capable of enjoying, the more I realised why I had been so uninspired by those early Annabel Karmel recipes.  Everything is so bland.  It's like eating watercolour paintings of family favourites, rather than the family favourites themselves.  I'm sure there are plenty of people who will disagree with me (if you do, please tell me all about it, I'd love to hear), but I'm going to come out and say it: I don't care for her recipes.  While Popeye Pasta continues to be popular and Annabel certainly gives you the bones of a great cheese sauce, I haven't returned to her books other than to glance through the lists of foods that can be introduced at different stages and, occasionally, when I'm struggling for ways to introduce meat to my small person's diet.  In fact, now I come to think about it, I haven't even stuck to her Popeye Pasta recipe (I do a hearty cheese sauce and then stir loads of frozen spinach into it and season with pepper and nutmeg and sometimes some garlic powder).  Still, I knew I was going to have to use some of my less popular books at some point (that will teach me for hoarding things I don't like and never use) and I figured I may as well get one out of the way early on.  No sense using all the good books now and being left with the run into Christmas being the boring, the unloved and the unlovely.

 I, too, am entertained that our meal matched
our tablecloth this perfectly!
So, trying to keep an open mind, I pulled down Annabel's Family Meal Planner.  It is freezing cold today and I wanted a quick, simple soup to serve for lunch with some Red Leicester and Onion rolls that I had picked up in Sainsbury's.  I also wanted to squeeze in one last challenge recipe before the end of January, to make up for last week having passed me by before I even realised what had happened.  So what if technically I missed last week completely - if I do two books this week, one in January and one in February, I think we can call it good.  After all, it's my challenge and I can fudge the rules a bit around the edges if I want to.  The lentil soup looked promising: Baby Bird is a fan of lentils, Lovely Lentils was one of the few meals that we both enjoyed, and I had everything I needed hanging about in the fridge and pantry.  Score!

Hmm.  Maybe not.  While you certainly have the bare bones of a good lentil soup here, the addition of parsley doesn't really cut it for me.  I think lentils needs bit more oomph.  The flavours were clean and fresh, which I enjoyed, but there was nothing particularly memorable about this soup.  It perhaps needs a touch of fennel to really play up the freshness, or a touch of spice to play up the earthy lentils, or perhaps the addition of a handful or two of green lentils for added depth and texture.  I'm tempted to melt some cheese into it next time, as it definitely tasted best when we dunked the cheesy rolls.  I'll give it one last skim in the morning, but I'm planning to send this book to the charity shop I think.  Someone else may love, I never will.

52 Cookbook Challenge, Week 3: Ursula Ferrigno - Real Fast Vegetarian Food

I've had this book for years.  I bought it back in my hardcore veggie student days and it has seen good service. However, despite owning it for about 14 years and being a massive fan of it's Mediterranean style, there's still tons of things I haven't made.  I do highly recommend the mushroom tart (I've spoken of this before, when talking about quiche) and there is a delicious fennel soup recipe that I love - it is soothing, piquant and, ahem..., very cleansing, perfect if you are feeling a little under the weather.  There's a lovely spicy aubergine pasta that has been up several mountains with me (tastes great cold, even better kept hot in a Thermos, and is a great source of energy on a long walk), and I've made a bunch of the other pasta sauces and the melanzane a few times too.  However, as so often with a long-used book, I find I go back to it for the same few recipes, rather than taking it down to browse a-fresh and see if things grab me now that didn't previously or to remind myself of the many things that almost made it onto the plate but were passed over in favour of something else.  (one of the nice things about the challenge so far is the first two books are now littered with post-it notes to remind us of the other things we wanted to try but for various reasons didn't choose for our Experimental meal.

Anyway, the decision to pull this book down off the shelf was partly due to wanting something quick and easy for Thursday's supper.  It had been a busy week and it was just me and Baby Bird so I also wanted something appealing to my little bean-muncher.  I opted for Bean Hotpot.  A delicious blend of three types of bean (butterbeans, cannellini and kidney beans went into ours), with tomato, garlic, onion.  It was great.  We covered it in Parmesan and both happily tucked in.  The leftovers reappeared for Saturday's supper, this time with Hubby in attendance and a garlic bread accompaniment.  Again, massively popular with all family members.  We will be making this again.  It will make a great packed lunch for Hubby on those days when he is unlikely to make it home for dinner and can't face another take-away and it is so quick and simple to make that I can make it while Baby Bird potters around without too much bother.  I'd love to show you a pic so you could see how tasty it was.  Sadly, they were lost in The Great iPhone Update Debacle of January 2012, which has taught me a valuable lesson about the importance of regularly backing up my phone to my PC, and also about how wise it is to just get on a blog about things before I have a chance to get distracted (or to lose things).  If I hadn't got three weeks behind, you'd be looking at a pic of a bean hotpot right now.

52 Cookbook Challenge, Week 2: Rachel Allen - Bake

So, week 2 saw me baking.  Hubby's team at work were all putting in massively long hours dealing with year end and were in need of a little motivation.  This is usually furnished in the form of cake, and this week was no exception.  Hubby selected two tempting treats from Rachel Allen's Bake: Finnish cake with crystallised ginger and Dutch Apple Cake.

I spent a very pleasant evening cooking up both recipes after I had put Baby Bird to bed (always much easier to concentrate).  The Finnish cake was very easy to make - it is basically a sponge cake recipe with a few small adjustments and lots of chopped crystallised ginger.  Unfortunately, I slightly overcooked it so the top was a little scorched and had split in a couple of places.

Still, it went down ok with a cup of coffee the next morning.  I wouldn't say this was a favourite - I personally don't like crystallised ginger (it reminds me of soap for some reason) and it wasn't as popular with Hubby's work colleagues as some of my other offerings have been.  However, the cake was light but with good texture and I liked the spiciness (cinnamon and mixed spice feature prominently in the mix as well as ginger).  I'm thinking I will try this again but with cherries instead of the ginger pieces.

On to the Dutch Apple Cake.  This was a bit fiddly to make and involved eons of hand whisking.  I'm very glad I have an electric hand-whisk as otherwise I think my arm would have fallen off.  I'm not convinced I quite got the mixture right.  I'm not sure if I underwhisked or if I didn't understand the comment about whisking until the beaters traced a figure of eight properly (should the figure of eight remain visible?).  Either way, I found it a little fiddly to make the batter.  I'm more from the school of lump it in a bowl and mix it up and this called for a little more finesse.  I'm not entirely convinced it needed to be as complicated as it is though, and that is probably a comment I would level at many of Rachel Allen's recipes.  (Her buttercream recipe, for example, is significantly more complicated and involved than any other recipe I have ever seen, and I'm not at all convinced the added complications result in a better flavour than my granny's tried and tested "mix butter and icing sugar until blended, add flavour and/or colour, ice cake" approach.)   Still, I persevered and followed the recipe as carefully as I could.  Here is my cake before baking.

The recipe informed me that the apples would sink but not to worry, they were supposed to.  I was therefore more than a little concerned to remove this from the oven.

Hmm... I tweeted Rachel herself seeking guidance.  (Yes, I'm that sad!)  Where had I gone wrong?  The response?  "Don't worry, sometimes mine don't sink either".  Well, it was comforting to know the cake wasn't likely to kill anyone, but did leave me rather questioning the consistency of both recipe and cook...  The book is beautiful to look at and has some very tempting recipes, but I think I may be a little more willing to go off-piste and to simplify them in future.    I very much want to try the red velvet cake though - that looks divine - but I shall have to leave that to another week.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

52 Cookbook Challenge, Week 1 Part 3

We were really gripped with enthusiasm this week so Sunday supper was another Experimental offering from Feed Me Now. This time, Baked Whole Fish and Lemon Potatoes.

We opted to use fillets of plaice rather than a whole fish, on account of the number of us vs. the size of whole fish and also the bones - it is far less faff to check a fillet for bones before giving it to the little one than it is to debone a whole fish. This was another really easy make.

The style of cooking the potatoes was interesting and new for me: add them to a roasting tin with olive oil, garlic, stock and lemon juice and then cook in the oven for about an hour.  The result is part roasted, part steamed and very, very lemony. Olives and herbs are stirred through at the end, cutting through the lemon and giving a pleasant, flavoursome punch.  I think this would be a great addition to a summer BBQ in place of a more traditional mayonnaise-based potato salad.

 The fish was similarly easy.  Coriander, spring onions and chilli flakes (dialled down a little as Hubby doesn't like too much spice and Baby Bird is interested in spice but i didnt want to put her off by going too nuts) are blended with a little olive oil and then rubbed all over the fish.  I put some of the paste between the fillets, which I rested on top of each other, skin-sides out. Then pop the lot in the oven and bake until just cooked.We added some steamed broccoli and then both adults happily tucked in.
Baby Bird was more sceptical. I had expected her to like the potatoes (she usually adores roasties) but I think she found the lemony flavour, which thanks to the style of cooking permeates each chunk completely, a bit over-powering. She did eat some of the fish and seemed to quite enjoy that, but mostly ended up with cheese and breadsticks again.Overall, this one was less popular than the previous night's filo pie, but I will definitely make the potatoes again and will be experimenting with different fish.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

52 Cookbook Challenge, Week 1: Bill Granger, Feed Me Now

We decided to begin with our most recent Bill Granger purchase. I think Hubby bought me this for my birthday or maybe our anniversary a year or two ago but (shamefully) I don't quite remember. Either way, we haven't actually made anything from it yet, despite taking it down and salivating over the pages on a number of occasions.

This is a lovely coffee table sized book filled with gorgeous photos. Bill's intro and chapter headings are as warm, inviting and encouraging as in all his other books and I found myself commenting to Hubby as I do whenever I see his TV programmes that I both love and hate him. The mixed feelings are born entirely from envy: he seems so at ease, so comfortable and thoroughly blessed, with his cute wife and his cute kids and his lovely beach house and, well, you get the picture.

Setting aside his practically perfect "Mary Poppins" persona, which could border on smug if he didn't seem like such a thoroughly nice guy, the guy knows how to cook. His style is relaxed, family fare; the kind of thing I would serve in the imaginary picnics that I create in my head where all my friends and family somehow appear and the sun shines long into the evening and we all sit around nibbling on this and that and everyone laughs and... Oh, yes, the imaginary picnics where all of us, including me are other than we actually are and the weather comes from the mythical "olden days". More realistically, Bill offers a tempting mix of Mediterranean and Oriental/Pacific Rim flavours, with lots of perfect BBQ foods (as you might expect if indulging Australian stereotypes). His ethos is healthy, balanced eating. Just leafing through his books inspires me to eat better, lose weight and generally get outdoors. The Tabbouleh recipe from Simply Bill has featured at most of the summer parties and BBQs I have hosted over the last three years and I've already blogged about his healthier take on fish & chips, which was popular with all three of us.

 So, we were pretty excited about this week's challenge (this may have had something to do with Hubby's suggestion we start with this one...)It took us quite a while to pick what to make. It was tempting to start with breakfast, it being our favourite meal of the day (more on this anon) and it took a lot of willpower not to dive into the afternoon tea and dessert chapters. A number of post-it notes have been left in the book from the shortlist for this week's challenge in the hopes of reminding us to look in here again and we have already worked out the menu for the next time our best friends and their kids come to stay!

What did we end up with? Well, we wanted something for Saturday dinner that would be satisfying but not too heavy as we had already eaten a fairly big brunch. We also wanted to use up some veggies from the latest box, so we ended up choosing the Cheese and Mixed Greens Filo Pie from p.166.

With only two and a half of us, I halved the recipe which gave us enough for dinner and a small amount for Monday's lunch. If I had space in the freezer, I would have made the full amount but in two small tins rather than one big one, as Bill informs us you can freeze this before baking and I think it would be pretty great to have one of these lurking in the freezer for when you need an impromptu lunch for guests (these things DO happen!), especially in the summer.

It is an easy make. The only snag I hit was with wilting the mixed greens (we used spinach and Swiss chard). I'm not quite sure what happened but I must have been a little too thorough with drying the leaves after washing as some of them stuck and charred a little in the bottom of the pan.  I made one slight tweak to the recipe, using Philadelphia instead of ricotta, owing to the latter not being available in the supermarket this week while the former was in the fridge. I was really pleased with the finished result. It looked and tasted great. When sliced, it held together well and was moist without being watery (a problem I've had with previous pastry/spinach combinations). The feta and mint gave it a pleasant flavoursome punch, while the filo added crunch and the greens gave it peppery substance. We accompanied it with a simple roast pepper and tomato salad as suggested by Bill. This meal will definitely reappear as we head into summer. We could practically feel the warm sun on our backs and taste the chilled white or iced rosé that would accompany it. Hubby was incredibly enthusiastic about a meal that lacked any meat at all and included a large amount of very healthy veg. I had expected to like this, but was surprised when he agreed to try this over a host of very tempting meaty and fishy alternatives.

 The only slight black spot on an otherwise lovely meal was Baby Bird's reaction. To say she was underwhelmed by dinner would be an understatement. She played with a tomato slice, sucked a roasted pepper and ate a few tiny morsels of the pie filling. She ended up with breadsticks and carrots for dinner. I'm torn between recognising that his was a pretty grown up meal to offer her (Hubby commented that she probably needs to be about 14 before she will appreciate what we served her on Saturday evening) and being surprised, since everything on the plate is stuff that she has consistently enjoyed, including one of her favourite foods (yep, my baby is really quite fond of spinach!). Still, I will definitely let her try some again. We prefer to feed her the same stuff we eat and to stretch her tastebuds. Besides, she is only consistent in her inconsistency so there is every chance that next time, she will wolf it down.Overall, a very satisfying start to the 52 Cookbook Challenge. It's going to be a fun year.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

52 Cookbook Challenge: Week 1 Part 2

Spurred on by the success of the filo pie and the enthusiasm of a new endeavour, we made not one but three recipes last week. We continued with cinnamon crunch muesli (I told you breakfast would be a recurring theme).

This was easy-peasy, involving melting butter, sugar and cinnamon in a pan, combining it with rolled oats and chopped almonds, and baking the whole lot in the oven for half an hour, stirring regularly. I whipped it up while waiting for the filo pie to cook and baked it while Baby Bird and Hubby watched Waybuloo.

Handsight tells me I should have chopped the almonds in the food processor. Not quite sure why foresight didn't tell me that, but there you go. div class="separator"style="clear: both; text-align: center;">
You may well smile Bill Granger. These almonds cost me 20 mins and one cut finger! In case you are wondering, didn't buy chopped almonds as I wanted the skins on for flavour.

Cut finger notwithstanding, this was a big success. We've added it to yoghurt and fruit for breakfast, stirred it into rice pudding, vanilla custard and apple purée for quick desserts for Baby bird and even sprinkled it on Carte d'Or Cinnamon Caramel Waffle icecream for a naughty treat for the grown-ups after she has gone to bed. I can see this becoming a permanent store cupboard fixture. Might add dried cranberries next time...