Almost perfect gluten-free mac and cheese

15 Jan

Gluten free macaroni cheese

Regular readers will remember that last year the profile of my kitchen changed forever with the diagnosis that my youngest daughter was suffering from coeliac disease. Since then we’ve embarked on a gluten-free odyssey that has seen us come to the conclusion that:

  • however well meaning, the knowledge of the UK restaurant industry about the illness is pretty patchy
  • a two year old who needs a gluten free diet will actually try to eat her own body weight in chips before she eats a carrot

Macaroni cheese was a Saturday lunchtime staple before the diagnosis. I felt I had it down to a fine art, producing a gourmet mac and cheese with the minimum effort. We liked it and the kids liked it. Considering I still suffer night terrors about what passed for macaroni cheese at school, this was pretty amazing. In fact, school macaroni was surpassed only by the ‘pastry-free cheese and carrot pie’ in its foulness.

When you need to avoid wheat, macaroni cheese is one of the first dishes to go. There’s gluten in the pasta and there’s gluten in the cheese sauce. If you like to top your dish with breadcrumbs, there’s gluten in that too. Making it gluten-free is tricky and what I had learnt so far about gluten-free alternatives suggested it wouldn’t be particularly nice either.

But I missed my mac and cheese, so I resolved to tackle a gluten-free version head on and present it to the family as a Saturday lunchtime treat.

There are obviously two components to the dish – the pasta and the sauce.

There are countless gluten-free pastas and they are generally pretty good. The cooking time is much quicker than a wheat-based pasta and they go from crunchy, straight through al dente and into soggy in a matter of seconds. Constant checking is the order of the day.

Making a cheese sauce is also not quite as simple as it would be with wheat flour. The general principle is the same, but potato or rice flours, purely because they are lacking in gluten, do not bind together to produce a creamy sauce, but instead remain runny. The answer is a setting agent – xanthum gum – but you need to ensure you don’t over do it as the gum has a tendency to produce a slightly blamangey texture.

So, the big moment came. I served up my gluten-free magnum opus to the assembled hungry hoards.

“This is gluten-free?” asked my eldest with a slight look of worry on his face. He used to be the most enthusiastic advocate of macaroni cheese in the family, so he had the most to lose.

I took his concern as a compliment. It certainly didn’t look like it was gluten-free.

Most of the family were significantly less suspicious and dived right in.  There was a satisifed silence as macaroni cheese was devoured.

There was a big problem though.

My youngest, the coeliac light of my life, took one look at what was in front of her and pronounced “don’t like pasta”. This was news to us. Pasta is one of the staples. If I was coeliac (and for all I know I may be as it’s a genetic disease) I would live off pasta. She was obviously confused by the presence of a cheese sauce, something that we had avoided giving her for the last eight months.

We protested, cajoled and prodded, but there was no changing her mind. She dined on yoghurt that afternoon.

In contrast, everyone else cleared their plates, and I returned several times over the next few hours to pick bits of pasta out of the dish until long after it went cold. I make that a success.

My coeliac daughter will come round eventually. Now I’ve discovered that you CAN make a decent gluten-free macaroni cheese I won’t be leaving it long before I make it again.

I won’t write out the whole recipe as I don’t want to insult you by suggesting you don’t know how to make a cheese sauce, but for the record I used Doves Plain Flour, Sainsburys own-brand olive spread, xanthum gum and bog standard cheddar (lots of it). In my mind a good macaroni cheese also needs onions and garlic so I fried some up with some ham and mixed it into the pasta before pouring over the cheese sauce.

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The only way to eat turkey at Christmas

28 Dec

Turkey wellingtonChristmas Dinner is not one of my favourite meals of the year. The combination of a roast dinner (never understood the fuss) and turkey (the most boring of birds) always leaves me cold. It’s a traditional, and for that I endure it, but I’ve gone through a few years of trying anything I can to make the meal more special – particularly trying different meats (goose and duck have all graced the plate recently, although the curse of the Christmas duck has resulted in a broken oven on two occasions).

However, last year I had a revelation and it came in the form of Jamie Oliver’s turkey wellington. It was so good that I didn’t even consider something different in 2012.

What makes it so special? It’s a real presentation piece, with the puff pastry rising to create something that would grace the centre of any table as a piece of art. The meat inside is moist and packed with flavour. When was the last time you heard that about a piece of turkey? The mushroom stuffing, which is slightly misnamed because it coats the bird rather than filling it, is wonderful.

A little goes a long way as well. A 1kg turkey breast easily fed a family of five and there was enough left over to form a substantial part of a Boxing Day buffet. And unlike most Christmas leftovers, this had guests lining up to try it.

If you are reading this in December 2013, wondering what you can do to make Christmas dinner a treat rather than a trial, then look no further.

Another piece of pumpkin? Don’t mind if I do.

6 Nov

Normally we are left with a fair amount of pumpkin flesh after the annual Halloween carving. This leaves me with enough of a problem at the best of times, but this year Mrs G had excelled herself in the garden and produced three behemoths all of which needed using up so we could reclaim the kitchen from their mighty bulk.

This took a fair amount of willpower as I don’t find pumpkin to be the most exciting fruit in the world (it is actually a fruit isn’t it?).

The result was a three meal pumpkin marathon, using them in a slightly different way each time to try to trick the palate.

Day One: Pumpkin soup

Day Two: Roast pumpkin and red onions (to accompany a rack of lamb)

Day Three: Pumpkin risotto

This felt a little  bit like pulling this blog back to its roots as a frugal (but good) eating guide, so it appealed as a challenge. I can’t say I really revised my opinion of the big orange blighters though.

Pumpkin soup

I stuck to a well-reviewed Good Food recipe here, but followed the advice of one of the commenters and added some cumin and cayenne pepper to spice it up a little. This didn’t go unnoticed by Gastronomes Junior who did an impression of people who had been force-fed a chicken vindaloo, but they did pronounce it ‘OK’. Mrs G was more charitable and volunteered the opinion that it was ‘great soup’ on more than a few occasions. We had it with a chunky seedy bread and it was very pleasant. I wouldn’t go out of my way to make it again, but it consumed an entire pumpkin and for that reason alone deserves a place in the recipe folder for next year.

Roast pumpkin and red onions

This is a Bill Grainger recipe from his ‘Everyday’ book. I thought it would go nicely with a rack of lamb that was in the freezer and as the recipe called for a honey dressing for the pumpkin I though the rack would go well with a mustard crust. In the end the pumpkin was actually the star of this dish as the lamb turned out to be very disappointing. Even I can’t blame that on the pumpkin though – the meat was just too fatty to be pleasant. I would definitely make this again with a better cut of meat, or even as a one pot with some pancetta if I upped the quantities. As a side dish this hardly dented the pumpkin though.

Pumpkin risotto

Enthusiasm fading, but pumpkin surplus still weighing on my mind, the final (or so I hoped) recipe was a risotto. Googling ‘pumpkin risotto’ served up a plethora of options, but there was a common theme running through them all – sage. This was a problem as I was without sage. Remove the sage, and there was very little consistency in the recipes. Some involved puréeing the pumpkin, some frying, some boiling. Some added mushrooms, others were remarkably plain. I realised early on that not having the right ingredients for any particular recipe was going to involve some creativity, or to put it another way, making it up as I went along.

I fried some onion and garlic, then added some chopped mushrooms and pumpkin. Next in went some white wine and the risotto rice, followed by vegetable stock. The secret ingredient was tarragon and a sprinkling of parmesan which added a little flavour to this beyond a plain risotto, but to be honest I was slightly unnerved while eating it. Something just wasn’t right – I couldn’t say what, but I didn’t really devour it eagerly.

…Special bonus pumpkin pasta

I’m too good to you. Before this post was even published I decided that you would feel short-changed by only three ‘delicious’ pumpkin recipes and so I am bravely tackling day four of the endurance test.

This time pasta is to be the pumpkin vehicle of choice, but I’m not leaving anything to chance here and making sure I include a large helping of the Lazy Gastronome’s ingredient d’année – chorizo. With any luck it will mask the pumpkin blandness…read on for the results.

5 easy steps to the best pumpkin recipe of the week

1. Pan fry some onion and garlic for 5 minutes

2. Add a handful of diced pumpkin and fry for a further 5 minutes

3. Add a handful of diced chorizo and keep on frying, but with the heat turned low

4. Boil some pasta to taste and toss with shredded mozzarella

5. Eat – hurray, a great pumpkin recipe at last!

So after all that did I shift the pumpkin mountain? Actually I hardly scratched it. The last three recipes alone were serviced by less than one-third of a single pumpkin. They really are a pain in the neck to get rid of. Alas, I will now be getting rid of the rest in the compost heap which is perhaps the most fitting end. Back into the soil, ready to contribute to the growing of yet another ridiculous haul of pumpkins for next year.

Cheesesteak, an excuse to make cheesewhiz

13 Oct

CheesesteakIf ever there was a dish that sums up American food excess, it’s the cheesesteak.

There couldn’t be a more aptly named plate. There is steak and there is cheese. There is also a slab of bread which effectively makes it a cheesesteak sandwich, and that is how you will often find it listed on diner menus.

Officially the cheesesteak must be made in the vicinity of Philadelphia, its spiritual home, but that’s like saying that a pasty can only be made in Cornwall. My first encounter with this monstrous pile of protein, fat and fibre came in New Jersey – not a million miles from Philly, but kind of like enjoying a Cornish pasty in Wiltshire. This didn’t make it any less decadently delicious. The beef was so tender it melted. The onions and cheese became as one. Unlike most meals on that trip I finished it easily despite being oversized.

So back in England and with a pack of frying steak in the fridge I decided to recreate my cheesesteak experience.

First thing was a bit of research. My reference for all things US and greasy is Man Versus Food and in a recent episode Adam Richmond takes on the mightiest of cheesesteaks.

 

This lead me to a related question (which if you watch the video you will have as well). What in the name of all things that are holy is ‘cheesewhiz’?

If processed cheese is one short of the devil, then this yellow liquid is Beelzebub himself.

I had to have some.

In the USA cheesewhiz comes in a jar. In the rest of the civilised world this stuff would probably be considered a class A drug and so if you want it you are going to need to make it yourself.

I won’t dignify cheesewhiz with a proper recipe, but it contained mustard, evaporated milk, a dash of tabasco and…cheese. This is supposed to be processed, but as I didn’t have any in the house, I had to ‘resort’ to real cheddar. Microwave this concoction for a couple of minutes and you have the amber, dairy-based nectar.

Assembling the cheesesteak itself was then a simple task. I sliced the frying steak as thinly as I could and flash-fried it with some sliced onion. I packed as much of this as I could into approximately half a baguette and topped with cheesewhiz.

You can see the results above. I think you will agree this is a fine looking steak sandwich in its own right. Add the sweet and sour cheesewhiz and you have a thing of beauty.

I didn’t tell Mrs G what went into the cheesewhiz and she thought it was pretty good. After she finished I told her the ingredients and she gagged, but don’t let that put you off as you have probably just pushed through the gagging stage yourself when you realised I was mixing evaporated milk with cheddar.

This was far from an authentic cheesesteak. A resident of Philadelphia would probably be upset I’m even making the connection, but for me it was a delicious reminder of happy times in American airports, and those are pretty thin on the ground.

Sweet and sour crispy chilli beef

26 Sep

Crispy chilli beefThis is a quick and easy meal which tastes a lot better than it looks in the photo above. It’s also a meal that requires you to be dressed in an oil-proof smock to prepare as it will spit like nothing you’ve ever seen before as it cooks.

We replaced the broccoli from the original BBC recipe with sugar snap peas which worked well. I also didn’t bother pre-mixing the soy sauce and the sugar which saved a bit of washing up, and it really didn’t need 5cm of oil. A fingers-depth was plenty to fry the beef.

It’s not quite the crispy chilli, sticky, beef you would expect from a Chinese restaurant, but it was light and quite moreish.

I haven’t yet worked out how to get the oil out of the shirt I was wearing as I fried the beef, but if you don’t yet have shares in Stain Devil, then now’s the time.

For the full recipe see BBC Good Food.

 

 

 

 

 

Warm blue cheese, chorizo and cucumber salad

10 Jul

Ah, Saturday lunches….

An opportunity to experiment. Or to just slap a pizza into the oven.

At the moment I’m on a carb-free couple of weeks while I try to recover from the waistline exploding effects of two weeks in the USA (see my foodie exploits in New Orleans and New York to understand why adding just shy of a stone was almost inevitable). This makes eating pizza, or pasta, or bread for that matter, a complete no no.

I’d made a Greek salad the week previously and my inclination was to repeat this, but there was a glut of ageing vegetables in the fridge which were screaming out to be gently fried and added to the obligatory cucumber, and a slab of blue cheese that was about to see better days.

This became warm blue cheese, chorizo and cucumber salad. It was unconventional, but simple to prepare and worked well. Who needs carbohydrate when there’s something like this on offer instead?

Ingredients for two

Half a cucumber
7 or 8 mushrooms
Half an onion (red or white)
1 yellow pepper
Handful of cherry tomatoes
2 inches of chorizo (roughly chopped)
150g blue cheese

Preparation

Gently fry the onion, chorizo, mushrooms and peppers in a little olive oil, until lightly browned.

Meanwhile chop the cucumber into small chunks, mix with the tomatoes and crumble in the blue cheese. Set aside and wait for the frying to be done.

Once cooked, mix all the ingredients together and marvel at how colourful it all is!

Eat.

Adventures at The Spotted Pig

3 Jul

Spotted Pig burgerIt’s the darling of the New York gastropub scene (if indeed the Big Apple has enough to call it a scene) and it had the distinction of being the one and only New York restaurant I had ever heard of.

This makes it more than a coincidence that when looking for a dinner venue in a recent stopover near Manhattan that a colleague suggested we give The Spotted Pig a try.

Having only read about this place a few weeks previously after idly following a foodie tweet I was aware of a few key facts.

1) This was a genuine pub, in the heart of Greenwich Village.

2) It had a Michelin star.

3) You either loved it or hated it.

4) Chef April Bloomfield is British and a River Cafe peer of Jamie Oliver. He described her as ‘cooking like a ninja’.

The facade of the Spotted Pig was so anonymous that half our party walked straight past it without noticing. Inside it was small, cramped and kookie. It reminded me of a favourite pub of mine in Bristol (from the early 90’s), the Victoria, with nooks and crannies, small tables and not an inch of visible wall space that wasn’t covered by a picture.

A Girl and Her PigPride of place above the bar was April Bloomfield’s recently published cookbook – A Girl and Her Pig.

Excitement built. When we realised we could just forget the table waiting list and order at the bar it reached fever pitch.

If you are sitting at the bar you need to start with bar snacks.

We ordered a selection of starters to share – deviled eggs, devils on horseback (there’s a lot of devil in NYC) and chicken liver toast.

The bar staff were knowledgable, friendly and…Scottish. This was the most laid back Michelin star I’d ever encountered. Compared to JSW, my local Michelin starred venue in Petersfield, Hampshire, this felt like popping round to a friend’s for a mid-week dinner. I’m not knocking JSW and its contrived formality, but the Spotted Pig was so laid back that I felt like could sink into the bar stool and stay there all night.

Back to those snacks. The verdict was that they were pretty good. I wouldn’t have classed them as fine dining – that’s not Bloomfield’s style anyway – but her famous ‘anal rustic’ techniques shone through. It was detailed informality.

She has a signature dish and I was determined to try it. The Chargrilled Burger with Roquefort & Shoestrings (fries that is) was famous for its simplicity and the fact that Bloomfield refuses anyone the right to customise the dish. No salad, no ketchup, no mayo (unless you are Bob Dylan who by all accounts got given some by a starstruck waiter one night in error). This was a burger that was confident enough to say ‘I am brilliant, take me or leave me’.

I took it and  I took it medium rare. Some colleagues were more adventurous and went for pork belly or octopus. Not for me such extravagance. I wanted that burger. I wanted it even more when I saw one go past the bar on its way to a lucky diner.

The Spotted Pig burger is a triumph. It is served on a brioche bun with a perfectly crafted criss cross of griddle marks. It is accompanied by a mountain of shoestring fries which are perfectly seasoned, with salt and a significant portion of fried rosemary. I looked and it and thought that I would not be finishing it. A few mouthfuls in and I knew I had to. Initial impressions were that the fries were like posh chipsticks, but that wasn’t fair. These were not fries in any traditional sense and once I got my preconceptions about chips out of my head I realised that the Spotted Pig was doing something pretty special.

I’m usually a fast eater. I wasn’t aware that I was taking my time with this simple, but enormous, burger, but 30 minutes in I realised that everyone else had finished. I still had a fair few shoestrings to get down me. Part of this was because the fries were hard to eat. Most of it was because it was worth savouring.

We wandered off into the New York evening for a less salubrious few hours in a variety of bars, but the Spotted Pig was a fantastic start to the evening.

I can understand the critiscism that it doesn’t deserve a star, but as a gastropub, and a not particularly expensive one at that, it stands out head and shoulders over anything I’ve ever tried before.

New Orleans – a humid Harvester

20 Jun

Work took me to New Orleans last week. I had some pretty romantic pre-trip notions about what the city and its cuisine would be like. In the end none of those notions turned out to be true.

Creole cooking, at least the version we get in the UK, is not subtle at the best of times, but it’s flavoursome and unique. This was not a budget trip, so I expected I might be surprised about what the real thing presented.

My first exposure was ‘biscuits in sausage gravy’. This was not a dish that I was queueing up for. Actually technically speaking I was, but I was intending to skip the biscuits and go for the stack of pancakes at the end of the buffet. A US colleague had no intention of letting me play safe. ‘You gotta try the biscuits,” he said. “It’s a Louisiana tradition.”

I noted that he was not loading up on this dish himself, but as a good guest I obliged.

The biscuits in question are actually a fairly tasteless scone. It’s a good job that they are tasteless because the ‘gravy’ is not. Salty and sausagy, this stuff was a breakfast nightmare – a real heart attack on a plate. I honestly could see no appeal in this stodgy mess. Oh, how I wished I had stuck to my guns and hit the pancakes.

I’m aware that McDonalds incorporates local specialities into its menus around the world (it draws the line at roast pudding burgers in the UK) but I didn’t expect to be walking past a Lousiana MickeyD’s the next day and see the dreaded biscuits and gravy advertised for a dollar fifty. I didn’t drop by.

So, breakfast was hit and miss. Global breakfast conventions one, Southern specialities nil.

Later that day I had the opportunity to visit a New Orleans institution – K Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in the French Quarter. Made famous by chef Paul Prudhomme,this place is a fine dining introduction to Creole and Cajun. It has a waiting list. It has a dress code. When I told people where I was going there were gasps of jealousy.

Before I get to grips with the food, I need to make a few points.

1) I was pleased to get the chance to visit K Paul’s

2) I loved the atmosphere

3) The service was fantastic

4) Perhaps I just don’t get it

The starter I ordered was popcorn battered crab fingers. I was used to US sized portions. I offered to share it with my dining companions, fully expecting that I would struggle to finish it.

Where on earth did they dig up these crabs? You know the soldier crab, the one with one huge claw and one tiny one? K Paul’s crab fingers have left a huge number of soldier crabs wandering around with one large claw left attached. They really were tiny. (Disclaimer – I have no idea what type of crab it was. K Paul’s is not mutilating soldier crabs and then abandoning them to their fate.).

They were tasty, although the dipping sauce helped, but I was ready for my main course. I would have been ready even if I hadn’t given half my dish to my colleagues.

I chose blackened fillet and sweet potato mash. The waitress sold me on this in no uncertain terms. “It’s just….oh. Just….oh.”

I asked for it rare which was possibly a mistake. It was rare to the point of bleu. However, what distinguished it from your average rare steak was the thick layer of charcoal that encased the raw meat. This was blackened fillet after all, but had I been served this in any other environment I would have been unimpressed with the contrast. This could only be achieved by a grill set to nuclear.

Having said those uncharitable things there was a lot to like about this dish – notably the obscene amounts of beef on the plate, but in particular the delicious sweet potato mash. Yams are rapidly becoming my favourite vegetable.

I obviously hadn’t had enough of them because I ordered a sweet potato and pecan pie for dessert. I expected a large portion and I got a large portion. My dining companions looked on in pity and I struggled to down this monster slice of pie. Every bite was great, but the sheer volume created an ordeal. This was Man Versus Food, UK style.

Food in New Orleans is like the city itself. Exuberant, slightly sleazy and something you either love or hate. I was much closer to hating both than I expected. Spending a few days there was like being trapped in a giant US version of Harvester, only without the salad bar.

Spanish crusted rack of lamb

29 May

Spanish crusted rack of lamb

Never one to turn down the opportunity for a spoonerism, I made the mistake of calling this a ‘lack of ram’ which possibly reflects how a rack can often be an exquisite, but small, treat.

This rack appeared fresh from the reduced section at Tesco which meant it had to be cooked almost immediately so some quick Googling was in order

There was a small chunk of chorizo in the fridge which I had been planning on using for some Spanish potatoes, but perhaps that could be the inspiration for a different take on a crusted rack.

I came across a recipe from the New York Times that was just what I was looking for. The writer had replaced the traditional, but ever so slightly dull, crust of parsley and garlic, with what was described as ‘vegan chorizo’ because of its paprika base.

This was a breeze to knock up. There was a slightly stale burger roll in the bread bin that provided the breadcrumbs and the rest was store cupboard fare. The food processor had the crust prepared in moments and the lamb was coated before you could say “how will you use up that chunk of chorizo then?”.

Once I get an idea in my head it’s hard to get rid of it, so the chorizo was diced and fried up with some potatoes as an accompaniment. If that sounds like too much of the good stuff, then perhaps it was, but the crust and the potatoes were just different enough to compliment rather than overwhelmed with paprika.

This is a great new alternative to the traditional rack of lamb approach and rivals garlic and parsley as the crust of choice.

Mexican squash and chorizo salad

22 May

Squash and Chorizo salad

With a recently diagnosed coeliac daughter it’s all too easy to forget that the rest of the family can eat gluten to their heart’s content. I even found myself dusting a plate of courgette cakes that the children would never be touching with gluten-free flour instead of the real thing. My creativity seems to be reserved for making suitable gluten-free meals instead of delicious new meals for me to enjoy. So here’s an exception.

This salad was not trivial to prepare, but it was delicious – moreish, spicy and filling (if something can be moreish and filling all at once).

It’s based on a recipe from Thomasina Miers Mexican Food Made Easy – fast becoming my culinary bible, but I did go a little off-piste. This food is so simple it’s wonderfully easy to improvise and adjust.

I turned it into a one-pot dish, roasting all the ingredient together, although I staggered them a little to avoid burning.

Ingredients

1 butternut squash, de-seeded and cut into chunks
2 red onions, sliced
1 handful of baby tomatoes (red looks best)
10cm of chorizo sausage
1 handful of baby spinach
Grated parmesan
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 pinch of flaked chilli
1 tablespoon of chopped oregano or marjoram
Bunch of coriander leaves

Preparation

Heat the oven to 190°C.

Roast the chilli, cumin, oregano and squash in a tin for 15 minutes with a large splash of oil.

Add the onion and continue to roast for 10 minutes.

Add the tomatoes and chorizo and roast for 10 more minutes.

Meanwhile pound the coriander in a pestle and mortar with some salt and olive oil until it makes a chunky paste.

When the roasting is complete, assemble the salad on each plate – a serving of the roasted vegetables, some spinach, a drizzle of the coriander paste and some shavings or gratings of parmesan.