Culinary Gold

It’s strange, looking back, to discover that I’ve only been aware of how good Staffordshire oatcakes taste since this September, as it feels like they’ve been part of my life for considerably longer.

In the last 3 or 4 months, I’ve continued to enjoy oatcakes fairly frequently (probably about once every 3 weeks or so on average), including one very delicious set of homemade ones that were made for me – thanks, Glenys!

Mostly I’ve been sticking to my two basic savoury fillings – either fried egg (with or without extras – recently I’ve been using a bit of onion chutney to good effect here) or baked beans and cheese – and an occasional marmalade one to satisfy my sweet tooth. Last night, though, I came up with another very tasty filling. Traditionalists (and perhaps nutritionists) might want to stop reading at this point in order to avoid being horrified…

I tested my new oatcake idea again last night to ensure that it’s as good as my first impressions and found that, if anything, it’s even better. It’s deliciously simple (and simply delicious): butter and honey. The approach I’ve used so far for preparation is to heat the oatcake in a frying pan (since that’s how I do them with fried eggs, and I was having one of those first), then stick it on a plate, plonk a (relatively) thin slice of butter on top, drizzle honey over the top, roll it up and eat it while it’s hot. The heat from the oatcake warms the other ingredients through and causes the butter to melt nicely to give a lovely, sweet treat for the tastebuds (if not the arteries).

I probably wouldn’t want to eat more than one of these at a time, as they are pretty rich (and perhaps not incredibly healthy), and not every time I’m having oatcakes, but as an occasional indulgence I think this is definitely an idea to which I’ll be returning.

I also have a handy, and hopefully not too hard to complete, New Year’s Resolution lined up: to acquire a recipe (or perhaps several) for Staffordshire oatcakes and have a go at making some for myself.

The Oatcakes of Contentment

Those of you who follow my blog via Facebook will already know that I recently discovered Staffordshire oatcakes and was very excited about them.

Since then (a couple of weeks ago, as I recall), I’ve had several more of these wonderful oatcakes – which are more like pancakes (of the kind eaten on Shrove Tuesday, aka Pancake Day, here in the UK) than the Scottish oatcakes I’m more used to – and have been exploring different ways of having them.

My first experiments were based around zapping them in the microwave, either with cheese (which I gather is quite a traditional Staffordshire oatcake filling) or marmalade (which isn’t). Both were very tasty and handy for a quick snack.

Since Wikipedia (in the article linked above) mentioned egg as one of the traditional fillings I next decided to give that a try. The method I came up with was to fry an egg (seasoned with a dash of salt and pepper), then put it aside on a plate while I used the frying pan to quickly heat through the oatcake (this doesn’t take long, as they are pretty thin) before plonking the egg into the oatcake (perhaps with a dollop of chilli jam or some other condiment) and eating it. Not much more difficult to prepare than the cheese or marmalade fillings, but slightly more substantial and even tastier.

One of my friends, who is himself from Staffordshire, was delighted to hear that I’d discovered the joys of his county’s oatcakes (if slightly disapproving of the idea of putting marmalade in them). He told me about his favourite way to prepare them, which is to sandwich baked beans and cheese between two oatcakes. I tried this last night, with a little bit of pepper thrown in for good measure and zapping the thing in the microwave for about a minute and a half. The result was very successful and I repeated it again this evening with the other half of my tin of beans from yesterday. I’d be hard pushed to say whether I prefer this or my fried egg filling, but ultimately it’s good to have both in my repertoire and I look forward to trying out some other fillings (both traditional and less so) in the not too distant future.

Time for tea

I’ve just got back from this week’s sailing adventure and it was a very pleasant evening. Not only was the weather fine (after a generally miserable day, meteorologically speaking) and the crew large enough and experienced enough to make for a smoother sail than we often have, but we even had time for a quick cup of tea on board before we started.

This was particularly welcome since, as so often happens when I have to go out for things (usually sailing or a band practice) shortly after getting home from work, I didn’t have time to finish the cup of tea I started before I went out.

In recent months, when I’m in the situation of wanting a cup of tea but not really having enough time to make and properly enjoy one, I have tended to go for Russian tea, but I’m beginning to get a bit tired of that pun and it recently occurred to me that green tea has several natural advantages for an occasion such as this. For the sake of this discussion, I’ll restrict myself to considering only green and black tea, rather than other types such as oolong or white tea, or non-tea-based infusions; I’ll also consider them generically rather than thinking about the specific details of particular types or blends.

The first benefit of green tea is that it is optimally brewed with slightly cooler water (around 75 degrees, instead of 100 degrees for black tea), which means both that the kettle reaches the desired temperature quicker and that the tea cools to a drinkable temperature quicker. Allied to this is the fact that green tea often requires only a relatively short brewing time (say around 2 minutes, instead of 3 or 4 for black). All that adds up to a beverage that is ready to drink somewhat sooner than black tea – very handy when time is limited.

The second benefit is that green tea leaves can usually be successfully brewed at least two or three times, and often in fact they reach their best on the second or third brew. This contrasts with black tea leaves, which are generally best the first time round. Hence, if you do run out of time and have to abandon half of your first cup, you can reuse the leaves later on when you have a bit more time to spare. This is obviously less wasteful than having to chuck them away. The cold tea left over from the first cup can be used to good effect for watering houseplants, and I’m not sure that it makes too much difference for this whether green or black tea is used.

Anyway, I’ve just finished my second cup of green tea (and I’m sure my spider plant enjoyed the latter half of the first cup I brewed before I went sailing), so it’s time to draw this musing to a close.

Cold Comfort

For the second week running, I found myself unable to go sailing last night. This time, however, it wasn’t the weather that kept me ashore but the fairly heavy cold I’m currently nursing.

This sprang up from nowhere on Monday morning and steadily got worse as the week progressed, reaching its zenith (I hope) yesterday and rendering me unfit to go sailing. At least, I would have given it a go if the crew had been short-handed but there were enough other people available and I was feeling sufficiently rough to consider that it would be better all round if I stayed at home.

I think I feel marginally better today, but it’s still at a fairly yucky stage (I’m sure you’ve experienced enough colds to be able to imagine the gory details without me spelling them out) and I’m also missing tonight’s band practice, though I hope to be well enough to go to tomorrow night’s.

While I’ve been sitting at home, reading the fictional exploits of Horatio Hornblower and dreaming of a life on the ocean wave, I have been soothing my throat with a concoction that my boss (officially “line manager”, but that sounds too corporate for my liking) told me about this afternoon while I was manfully struggling on with my work and looking forward to the moment I could knock off and head home to hit my rocking chair. (Incidentally, in case my boss or any prospective future employer is reading this, I should emphasise that when I’m at work I don’t usually just sit there looking forward to going home – only when I’m feeling ill but can muster just enough strength to drag myself to the office in the first place.)

The concoction in question is actually a decoction (I think that’s the correct technical term) of ginger, black peppercorns and cloves in water. As such, it bears a certain similarity to the honey, lemon and ginger decoction that I usually make up when I have a cold. It also reminded me somewhat of masala chai, which is perhaps not surprising given that my boss is Indian and is therefore steeped in the same culinary/medicinal tradition from which that fine beverage comes.

My method of preparation was to roughly chop a bit of fresh ginger, crush a few cloves and peppercorns in a pestle & mortar and then simmer the whole lot for a few minutes in a small saucepan of boiling water before straining into a cup. I drank a little bit of it neat but used the bulk of it, while the water was still nice and hot, to brew a cup of coffee (as suggested by my boss).

I can’t speak for the medicinal properties but it was certainly pleasant and soothing to drink (with or without the coffee – I’m sure it would also work as a masala chai mix with a bit of black tea thrown in, without the coffee of course!) and will be a useful addition to my repertoire of brews to make myself feel better (if not actually get better any sooner) when I have a cold.

The Magic of Mushrooms

Normally, grocery shopping is not a highlight of my week. Occasionally, however, I stumble upon a bargain that makes it altogether more pleasurable. Today I found some button mushrooms going for about a third of their usual price, as they were approaching there sell-by date (but still looked in pretty good condition). Needless to say, these came home with me and were cooked up for my tea with garlic, olive oil, butter and a bit of salt and pepper. Very tasty and a great way to show I can write short blog posts if I put my mind to it. 🙂

When life gives you apples…

Over the last few years I’ve been greatly blessed to have a more or less regular annual bulk supply of apples.

At first, it was because I lived in a house with two apple trees in the garden.  The landlords were very happy for my housemates and I to avail ourselves of the crops and since I seemed to be the only one to do so I had more than enough apples for my culinary needs each autumn.

I moved out of that house quite a few years ago now (about 8, I think) but since then I’ve had a couple of friends with apple trees and each year one or both of them give me a nice lot of apples to use.

Originally I mostly used these apples for cider but in more recent years I’ve tended to use more of them for cooking than brewing.  In the past this has usually amounted to lots of apple crumbles supplemented by occasional batches of stewed apple (and in one case when I was feeling adventurous, apple butter) or zapped apples (a microwaved treat that is both deliciously simple and simply delicious), with one or two apples lobbed into stews now and then.

A few days ago I received this year’s (or technically last year’s) batch of apples from one of my friends and I’ve decided to expand my repertoire a bit.  Doubtless there will be a few apple crumbles and zapped apples to come (not to mention apples in stews, and perhaps a batch of cider) but I want to do a few other things as well.

As it happens, I’ve just been getting into another bout of slavophilia, prompted by finally getting round to listening to the CD of Eugene Onegin that I bought several months ago and aided by the fact that the Russian lessons on Duolingo have finally gone live, which gives me a good chance to revive my rather rusty Russian language skills. One result of this is that I’ve had my Russian cookery books out (the one by Kira Petrovskaya that I blogged about shortly after getting it several years ago and one called The Food and Cooking of Russia by Lesley Chamberlain that I got shortly afterwards. Both of these contain several recipes involving apples quite prominently.

This evening I have been trying my first couple of Russian apple recipes, one from each book.

Chamberlain supplied an intriguing recipe for Carrot and apple vzvar. She didn’t seem to explain what a vzvar (or взвар as it would appear in Cyrillic) is, but this one amounted to gently simmering carrots and apple in a minimal amount of water (after lightly sautéeing them in butter). Interestingly, all the Google hits I’ve been able to find for vzvar seem to indicate a kind of beverage, which is certainly not how this recipe turned out or, as far as I can see, how it was intended. Perhaps because of the limited amount of water used, I accidentally burned the carrots a bit but it actually gave quite a nice caramelised effect; there was no mention of this in the recipe, so I assume it’s not how it’s supposed to turn out but it certainly wasn’t the major culinary disaster I first feared.

Petrovskaya’s book furnished a recipe for an apple soup. The idea of cold fruit soups is not new to me, as I came across them on a visit to Hungary and I’m sure I’ve previously seen this recipe (and an equally delicious looking one for cherry soup – all I need now is a friend with a cherry tree) on reading this book, but I’ve never tried to make one. Again, it’s a pretty simple recipe. Basically you chop up a load of apples, simmer them with a bit of sugar and a few cloves in plenty of water until they are nice and soft, then mix in a bit of vanilla extract, leave to go cold and serve. At the moment I’m still waiting for it to go cold, but the taste I’ve had of the still-warm soup is promising.

I’ll probably be returning to Chamberlain’s book this weekend to try a dish of stewed cabbage and apples and there are plenty more apple-based recipes in both books to check out.

Of course, I’m not restricting my Russian cookery explorations to things involving apples (any more than I’m intending to restrict my apple cookery to recipes from Russia). Indeed, one of the other things I’ve been doing in the kitchen this evening is to get another batch of перцовка (pertsovka – (chilli) pepper vodka) going. In case you’re wondering what that’s all about, I wrote about pertsovka in my previous post about Petrovskaya’s book (linked above), although she doesn’t mention it (Chamberlain does, but I didn’t get her book until after that). I wrote that post shortly after my first and, up to now, only previous – and rather successful, if I say so myself – attempt to make pertsovka and I look forward in a few days time to finding out whether my second batch is as good as the first.

Perhaps I should next have a go at making apple vodka!

Two sweet finds

Last Saturday I found myself at the other end of town from my usual stomping grounds.  This gave me a chance to nip into Aldi and pick up some of their pesto sauce, which I think is rather better than the one sold by my regular supermarket.

It was fairly crowded in the shop and I was in a bit of a hurry so I just dived in, grabbed 3 jars of red pesto (noticing that they didn’t seem to have any green in stock – not a problem as I prefer the red anyway) and made for the checkout.

Only later, when I got home and went to stow my purchases, did I realise that I hadn’t actually bought pesto after all.  Instead I’d picked up jars of a “Creamy and Smooth Tomato and Mascarpone Stir-In Pasta Sauce”, which happened to be in very similar looking jars (from the same manufacturer) as the pesto ones, and in the place I’d usually expect to find them.  In fact, outwardly, there was little apart from the writing on the label (which, admittedly, does fairly clearly say “Tomato and Mascarpone Sauce” rather than “Pesto Rosso”) to distinguish the two.

This is probably not something I would normally have bought unless it was on a particularly good special offer (actually it may have been, since it cost me about 50p less than I was expecting for 3 jars of pesto) but I decided that, since I’d got it, I might as well use it.  Like pesto, it appears to be the sort of thing that you can just stir into some freshly cooked pasta, though I’m sure you could do fancier stuff with it as well (I recently discovered that pesto works well in bubble and squeak, but I digress).  That’s what I like about pesto, incidentally, the fact that it’s very versatile and particularly useful for being able to put together a tasty (and reasonably nutritious) dish very easily when you’re in a hurry or feeling tired.

I opened the first jar for lunch yesterday and was very impressed by the lovely, creamy taste.  On that occasion I also threw in some sweetcorn that I had left over from the previous night’s dinner (tuna pasta – yes, I do eat quite a lot of pasta).  This evening I used up the remainder of the sauce jar just with pasta and it was still very delicious.

I found an old pesto jar waiting in my recycling box, so I was able to compare the labels.  To my surprise, the tomato and mascarpone sauce actually contains fewer calories (and also less fat, sugar and protein, though marginally more salt) than the pesto.  I guess that’s probably due to the fact that nuts (well known to be a good source of fat, sugar, protein and energy) are a staple ingredient of the latter.

Now that I’ve discovered this sauce, I’ll probably continue to get it from time to time, though I hope that Aldi hasn’t stopped stocking their pesto sauce since it’s a very useful addition to my food cupboard.

I made another exciting culinary discovery recently too.  I’d been given a little pot of cream cheese (something I don’t usually buy, though I quite enjoy eating it from time to time) by somebody who couldn’t use it and I randomly thought to try it on bread with honey.  It was very tasty and is definitely another one I’ll try to remember for future use.