Archive | February, 2012

The magic ingredients that never fail

29 Feb

Do you have a go-to ingredient in your fridge – something that you reach for when you know that what you are cooking needs a little pep? I don’t mean spice, although it might be. I’m talking about something that makes you think that there is nothing this ingredient can’t achieve.

I have two and I’m about to reveal them.

Pancetta

Not to be confused with lardons, or ‘bacon bits’, proper Italian cubed pancetta is a miracle ingredient. Pasta, risotto, lentil dishes, stews – it works with and enhances them all. Sometimes it’s the main player such as in my instant carbonara recipe. More often it’s the sidekick, augmenting the principle meat, or adding a saltiness to vegetables. For some reason I haven’t had in the fridge for the last couple of weeks and I’ve really missed it. Why I haven’t had it in stock is anyone’s guess as it lasts forever (slight exaggeration), so there is no excuse for not stocking up.

Chipotle paste

The chili pepper is dead – long live chipotle paste. It’s not appropriate for everything, but the smokey heat of this miracle paste is a quick and easy way to add spice to all mexican food like my chorizo, chipotle and potato wraps. I believe I’ve only scratched the surface of its versatility.

What are your never-fail ingredients? Please use the comments below to let me know!

And the secret ingredient is….pork

27 Feb

Over the weekend I roasted a pork fillet on a bed of butternut squash, red peppers and red onions. It was pleasant, but we pushed it around our plates unenthusiastically.

This post is not about that entirely unremarkable meal.

Surprisingly this post is about what happened to the substantial leftovers.

There was a lot, in fact there was enough veg for another couple of portions, and a fair bit of pork. It was late and I wanted to go to bed, but I knew that if I stuck a piece of foil on top and chucked it in the fridge it would stay there for several days, dry out and get thrown in the bin. It’s like my fridge is a departure lounge at the airport where the plane is heading straight to the landfill.

Almost as quick as finding the tinfoil was putting the leftovers into a pan with a little oil, stirring them briskly as they fried for a few seconds and then pouring over a pint of boiling water and a stock cube. I had time to tidy up the living room, brush my teeth and load the dishwasher before blending the emerging soup into a smooth consistency, pork and all.

The result was a sweet, but slightly spicy soup that was a real surprise. Pork and soup are not easy bedfellows, but with the calming influence of the butternut squash this soup was taken on to a whole new level.

The next day this soup was even given the thumbs up by my sceptical children. “What sort of soup is it?” they asked slightly worriedly.

“Yellow soup,” I replied.

“Does it have chicken in it?” was the followup question.

“No, but it does have pig.”

“Pig?!” they chorused, creasing up. “Pig soup! Pig soup!”.

It seems that even children instinctively know that pork and soup do not go together like a horse and carriage, but it made no difference. They cleaned their bowls and a few hours later, the grown ups did as well.

Duck leg, pomegranate and mint salad

26 Feb

Duck leg, pomegranate and mint saladThis recipe has Jamie Oliver written all over it. The ingredients are tossed casually onto the plate. The meat is shredded coarsely. It’s packed full of colour. It screams summer.

It’s not actually a Jamie Oliver recipe, but it shows that had I been working as a sous chef at River Cafe in the 90s that Sainsbury ad contract could have been mine.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, this recipe came about as a result of having an excess of duck legs in the freezer – not really a hardship – and a vague memory that Nigella Lawson had done something similar in the past.

The duck legs were roasted slowly at a low temperature for around 50 minutes, then shredded over the salad leaves. I included the skin because frankly it’s the best bit. I dressed it with pomegranate seeds and mint. The juice that came out of the pomegranate made the basis of the salad dressing.

It was light, but tasty and the perfect accompaniment for the unseasonably warm end of the winter.

Broccoli and Stilton Soup

22 Feb

Broccoli and Stilton Soup“Soup is really filling,” insisted Mrs G. “It’s ideal diet food.”

This may be the case, but unfortunately tagging something as ‘diet food’ is an ideal way of putting me off eating it. Especially when I’m on a diet.

As this week’s meals were always going to consist of using up slightly elderly vegetables from the bottom of the fridge this was obviously a sign though and so I bravely delved deep into the salad tray and dug out a couple of heads of broccoli.

There is only one thing that can make broccoli soup worthwhile and that’s a heck of a lot of stilton. Unfortunately, stilton is not a common staple in the Lazy Gastronome fridge and so I had to resort to a generic Danish blue.

The results were good, every bit as good as a shop bought soup in fact. By keeping the preparation quick the green colour of the broccoli was maintained as well, making the dish look every bit as good as it tasted.

I used so much cheese that I’m not sure it really counts as diet food, but it was certainly filling and I didn’t have to over-endulge to feel satisfied.

Ingredients

1 onion, chopped
1 medium-sized potato, chopped into cubes, but not peeled
1 or 2 heads of broccoli, roughly chopped
1 pint of vegetable stock
200g stilton (but I cheated and didn’t notice the difference)

Preparation

Fry the onion in a little oil until softened.

Add the stock and potatoes and cook for 5-10 minutes until the potatoes are almost completely softened.

Add the broccoli to the pan along with most of the cheese (best to crumble it in) and cook for 5 minutes, stirring constantly.

Blend the soup in a food processor, or in the pan with a hand-held blender.

Serve in bowls with the remaining cheese crumbled on top.

ASDA Extra Special Slow Cooked Pork Shanks in Wholegrain Mustard Sauce

20 Feb

ASDA extra special slow cooked pork shankI see it as my mission to bring you not only exciting tales from the culinary front line, but also sordid tales of corner-cutting and laziness.

You’ll remember that for me, Saturday night is ready-meal night. The most recent experiment was billed as a notch up on the traditional microwaveable curry. Following a rare outing by Mrs Gastronome down to ASDA in an effort to find a PE kit before the end of half term, the kitchen was blessed with their Extra Special Slow Cooked Pork Shanks in Wholegrain Mustard Sauce.

Excitingly for someone who watches with envy as Masterchef contestants seal just about everything they cook in plastic and dump it into a bath of hot water, this meal was pre-prepared sous vide. In fact you could even carry on the deception by co0king the pork shanks in a pan of boiling water, rather like an exceptionally posh boil-in-the-bag pig.

Foolishly I decided to go for the microwave option which involved cutting a couple of holes into the sealed bags containing the shanks and 6 minutes at full power. Alas, this seemed to result in the sauce exiting the bags under high pressure and what came out of the microwave was indeed a slow cooked pork shank in wholegrain mustard sauce, but unfortunately the shank was still inside a plastic bag which was now sitting in a bath of slightly watery looking liquid.

Removing it from the bag was now a life and death experience as it was super heated and dripping, but remove it I did and presented it with some seared asparagus.

I can’t deny it tasted great. The pork fell off the bone.The sauce would have been good, but most of it was in the microwave, on the kitchen table and conclusively not on the pork so I can’t tell for sure.

I would buy again, but this time going for the boil-in-the-bag cooking option. If you are looking for a quick, but slightly upmarket option for a weekend meal, this is one to look out for.

Cheat’s lightsaber cake

19 Feb

Cheat's lightsaber cakeThe Lazy Gastronome has been living up to his name in the last few days and blog posts have been thin on the ground.

Quite apart from having developed an annoying habit of referring to myself in the third person, I’ve been tied up with planning for one of the microGasts birthday party which involved a headache inducing trip to see The Phantom Menace in 3D.

As the actual big day was a couple of weeks ago I had let some of the essentials slip my mind between then and party time this afternoon.

In other words, I forgot to make a birthday cake.

Fortunately I was reminded of this just in time to put an emergency plan into action.

The theme was Star Wars, so surely a quick trip down to Tesco to buy a Star Wars cake would save the day? Alas not, as Star Wars cakes were nowhere to be seen.

As I stood sobbing quietly in the bakery section, all hope gone, I had a brainwave and thus was born the cheat’s lightsaber cake.

It took around 5 minutes to assemble and by the time the kids got round to it, they were so stuffed with party food that they didn’t notice it wasn’t home-made. Let’s face it, they probably would have preferred it to be shop bought anyway!

Parents’ reactions were generally positive with a high ‘lightsaber recognition quotient’. One person said it looked more like a folded umbrella, but what did they know?

Ingredients

1 ready-made giant Swiss roll
1 pack of ready-made fondant icing
2 drops of green food colouring (any lightsaber-y colour will do)
Icing pens
Jelly tots

Preparation

Slice the swiss roll along its length and place the sections end to end to produce a 2 foot long pole.

Knead most of the icing with the food colouring until the colour is consistent, then roll out on some icing sugar to prevent it sticking.

Cut the icing into a long strip, large enough to cover the swiss roll, but leaving about 10cm at one end to be the handle.

Take the remaining icing and roll out, placing over the remaining portion of swiss roll.

Decorate ‘handle’ with icing pens and jelly tots for buttons.

What I love about…Fondue

15 Feb

Cheese fondueIf I ever had to choose a final meal, there would not be any competition.

It would be cheese fondue.

Nothing can compare to it. It resonates emotionally, for reasons I’ll go into shortly, tastes fantastic (cheese and booze – what is there not to like?) and preparation is lightning fast to  boot.

Let me dig a little more into the ‘prepare’ part of that statement. It’s a cheat, but cheese fondue is one of those dishes where the version you get out of the packet is so good, so authentic, so easy to work with, that I have never, ever seen the reason to start from scratch.

There is a ritual to the fondue preparation.

You chunk up the bread. The purists say it should be a stale baguette. I say, why stale? Yes, it needs some solidity to hold the gorgeous, gooey cheese, but it doesn’t need to threaten your fillings.

Chunked bread, ready for dipping

When this is complete, you remove the fondue from its box. At this point it will still be in its foil vacuum-packed sheath. It will feel colder than it has any right to and when you squeeze the packet you can feel the cheese giving slightly under your fingers like an edible stress relieving toy.

Taking a pair of scissors you snip the top off the packet. Immediately your senses are caressed by the aroma of cheese – Emmental and Gruyère –  and Kirsch. The fondue slips out of the pack easily, dropping into the fondue pot and immediately settling into the bottom of the pan, assuming its shape and waiting to be brought to life.

Fill the fondue burner with your fuel of choice and light, gently warming the fondue through. It takes time. The anticipation becomes almost unbearable, but it’s worth the wait. Half-melted fondue is no one’s idea of a good time.

When it starts to bubble the fun begins. Dipping your bread into the pot you remove as much of the cheese in one go as you possibly can. The strings extend from pot to bread becoming impossibly long as they stretch down to the plate. You spin the bread on your fork, twirling the cheese around and around until suddenly it snaps and you hurriedly scope it up onto to your plate to avoid losing any of it.

Cheese fondue, on the fork

Then the eating. It’s like the best cheese you have ever tasted, but with a kick of alcohol that sends your tastebuds into a spiral. You immediately want more, but in your haste you fumble the bread onto your fork and then into the pot. It sinks below the surface like a man in quicksand and you think “what a way to go!” You scrabble to find it, accompanied by chants of “into the lake with weights tied to his feet” from your fellow diners. And when you do fish it out, it is coated. Fully. It cannot be topped.

Yes, fondue is beyond compare.

It’s become the food background to so many special evenings – skiing trips, birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas Eve – whenever I want it.

I never mix it up. Chocolate and meat fondue are OK (and I had a fantastic meat fondue in New Jersey a couple of years ago) but they are not the same.

Cheese fondue is special and it always will be.

Spicy lamb burgers with sweet potato chips

13 Feb

Spicy lamb burgers and sweet potato chipsEvery Sunday night an illogical event occurs at Gastronone Towers. Mrs G sits at the computer for 30 minutes or so completing what is known as ‘doing the order’. This involves lots of swearing, threats made to the well-being of the MD of a well-known supermarket and lots of purchasing decisions that seemed like a good idea at the time.

Yes, Sunday night is the night we put in our online supermarket shopping order for the week. What makes it illogical is that the Gastronome family have an equitable, but not always successful split in the responsibilities for feeding ourselves. To whit, she shops, I cook.

Although I am, in theory a fully complicit partner in this operation, my heart is not fully in the task on a Sunday night and when I am asked to submit meal ideas for the week, I’m generally bereft of inspiration. It seems that unless there is the real possibility of eating what I’m thinking about in the next hour or so, I don’t want to think about it at all. We often start the week with a full fridge and the head chef havingl no idea at all what to do with it all.

So, it’s Monday and the weekly shop has just arrived. Tonight’s meal, as suggested by Mrs G, is ‘something like lamb burgers’. There is some lamb mince in the freezer, so this seems like a good opportunity to not only make ‘something like lamb burgers’, but actual lamb burgers. I would absolutely rock at the Masterchef invention test.

The signs were not auspicious. My microwave has what it describes as a defrost setting. This is unlike any other defrost programme known to mankind in that it actually has two settings. The first setting appears to involve 10 minutes of the frozen block of food rotating away without any discernible change in its temperature. The second setting, which it flicks into without touching the controls at all, results in the food going straight past defrosted and into totally cooked in about 2 minutes flat. There must be a point in there at which defrosting is complete but cooking has not yet commenced, but blink and you’ll miss it. And tonight I blinked.

So my lamb burgers started life as a pretty well cooked block of lamb. What I discovered though is that this didn’t seem to matter too much, although I wouldn’t recommend it.

The lamb burger recipe I selected was this one from BBC Good Food. My eyes were drawn immediately to mango chutney on the ingredients list. Mango chutney in, not ON, a burger? This I had to try.

The accompaniment was sweet potato chips. I had a job lot of yams left over from my sweet potato and ginger mash meal last week and I’d caught a glimpse of an enticing looking recipe via Twitter a few days back.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find said recipe, so I hunted around and settled on this one instead.

Making the burgers was simple. I stuck fairly rigidly to the recipe at half quantities – I was limited by the amount of mince available. Forgetting to make the accompanying dipping sauce until it was a little late to take much care I threw together some yoghurt, cucumber, tomatoes, ground coriander and lime.

The sweet potatoes suffered from having to start their cook at a lower temperature than strictly necessary and never actually crisped up, but they showed good signs of getting there.

The end result was delicious. The mango chutney made the burgers slightly sweet which was wonderfully reminiscent of a fruity middle-eastern tagine. This was complimented by the sweet potato chips which, although not crispy, were pretty good and well worth the upgrade from potatoes.

This was a great lamb burger recipe and in my mind, so much better than the more obvious lamb and mint combination that seems ubiquitous.

Oh, and the pre-cooked mince seemed to have no impact on the end result. I wouldn’t recommend it, but next time I won’t need to panic.

Charlie Bigham’s Thai Green Chicken Curry

12 Feb

Charlie Bigham Thai Green Chicken CurryI rarely cook a full meal on Saturdays. A few years ago we got into the habit of Saturday night being ‘takeaway night’, and when finances started to dictate that this didn’t fit into the weekly budget, that mutated into ‘ready meal’ night.

The sad thing is that in the space of two years I’ve ploughed my way through just about every meal that Waitrose and Tesco have to offer. I’m not spurning other supermarkets, they just don’t exist in my town.

Ready meal aficionados know that they fall into two distinct categories.

Chuck it into the microwave / oven – minimal effort.

Chuck it into the frying pan and do a bit of mild stirring – tiny bit of effort.

Charlie Bigham’s range falls into the latter category and sits at the premium end of the market, with trendy, quirky packaging (think Innocent smoothies and you won’t be far away) and that ‘pay more, but do more of the hard work yourself’ approach that encourages a feeling of quality. This particular pack costs just shy of £6 for which you get a pre-mixed pack of chicken and vegetables and some thai green curry sauce. What it doesn’t come with is any kind of accompaniment, so whether you prefer rice or bread with your curry, you’ll have to make or buy it separately. Although this is not a huge hassle it does add to the cost.

Cooking the curry could hardly be easier. You fry the chicken mix for around ten minutes and add the sauce for a final two. Hey presto – thai green chicken curry. Of course, you need to juggle the preparation of the rice (if that’s your call) but in my case I took the easy route and dug out a frozen egg fried rice.

Charlie Bigham Thai Green Chicken Curry in the pan with the sauceThe resulting meal was pretty tasty, although my immediate reaction to Mrs G was that could have made it myself. This is, on reflection, probably still the case, but as the meal went on I became more and more impressed with the multi-layered flavours in the dish. This is not something I’m ever aware of having created myself, and certainly not out of a jar.

Ready meals are often let down by the quality of the meat, but the chicken breast in my pack was excellent – the perfect texture.

The acid test is whether I would buy the same meal again. The answer is probably not. The price-point is just high enough to make me either plump for the home-made option as an alternative for the same cost, or to economise and go for an out of the jar option next time.

Charlie Bigham’s Thai Green Chicken Curry is an excellent option for an easy meal, but doesn’t quite stand out enough to warrant the extra effort and cost to its cheaper alternatives.

Adventures in baking – part one

11 Feb

Cake ingredientsI’m not a baker. I never have been. I had beginner’s luck a few years ago when I made a cake for the oldest miniGast’s birthday in the shape of Nemo (the fish, not the Jules Verne character – although that would have been exceptionally cool) which engendered gasps of admiration from fellow parents.

“Wow! You didn’t make that?” they asked.

“Well, yes,” I replied, assuming the air of a man for whom a cake tin is a trusted friend, not an enemy. “Actually, it wasn’t so hard.”

Subsequent cake attempts have seen my success rate drop alarmingly, to the point where I now go out of my way not to bake. They could use my standard sponge output in the discus event at the Olympics, or possibly as the base of a traffic cone.

So, it was a surprise to me as much as anyone when I was hit by the urge to bake a coffee cake this morning.

I planned carefully, researching recipes, checking that I had the required ingredients and priming my helpful assistant (daughter number one) that baking would occur before the rugby, and icing sometime around halftime, or whenever England were playing  badly – whichever came first (in actual fact these two events roughly coincided).

I toyed with Nigella, but most of the comments were vaguely negative. BBC Good Food had a user submitted recipe, but I wasn’t keen. In the end I settled on one from a fellow blogger – I place great faith in the advice of those like me.

It was undoubtably an easy recipe to follow. With my lovely assistant in tow, we had the mixture ready in a matter of minutes and it was into a cake tin and into the oven before you could say “should have sieved the flour”.

There followed a nervous half an hour, waiting for the cooker to work its magic. I followed the suggested cooking time, but the knife test showed it was a little wet inside. Another 10 minutes and I gambled, removing it from the oven. So far so good.

Mixing cake ingredients like marble

One half of rugby later it had cooled sufficiently to consider the icing. This is where things went off the rails a little.

Nine years of parenting have never prepared me for how valued the act of cake icing is with children. For them, the baking is a mere warm up to the moment when you slap on the buttercream and top with hundreds and thousands. I was not playing ball, determined to make this, my first serious cake in a long time, my masterpiece.

“What sweets will you put on it?” I was asked.

“None,” I laughed. “This cake doesn’t need sweets.”

“Can I spread the icing?” was the next request.

“No,” I replied, a little grumpily. “I want this to be a nice cake.”

It didn’t get better. I took control of the cake situation by jealously guarding it from anyone who might want to help. There was a degree of storming out of the kitchen and slamming of doors. It was not my finest parenting hour.

But of course, the cake was wonderful?

Not really no. My icing was abysmal. It ran off the cake in torrents, washing up the sides of the plate like wallpaper paste. Nemo seemed a lifetime ago.

In fairness, the cake itself was lovely. Light and airy, it brushed aside memories of heavy sponge cakes gone. It was a valiant first attempt. In retrospect I should have made a couple and stacked them as it was a little small, but most of all I should have graciously accepted icing assistance. I am not Jane Asher and never will be. A few sweets wouldn’t have hurt and frankly, no one could have done a worse spreading job than me.

Lazy Gastronome will return in ‘The Cake Who Loved Me’.

Coffee cake