Finally made it!

Tonight’s dinner was a partial success.

When I was putting together my latest grocery order, to arrive a couple of days ago, I decided to make a chile con carne as my main meal for the weekend (by which I mean that I would cook enough for several days, eat some both today and tomorrow and probably freeze the rest, not that I’d only have one proper meal over the weekend). Unlike the last several times this has been my plan, I actually remembered to add some chilli peppers to my order, so I’d count that as the first successful bit of the endeavour 🙂

When it came to making the meal, things looked promising. As well as the usual minced beef, chillis, onion and suchlike, I put in a bit of finely diced carrot and courgette, as I had some of each vegetable that were in need of using up. I also added a dash of vermouth, and I had high hopes for this being a good one.

Unfortunately I got slightly distracted doing other things while I left it to simmer and got back to the kitchen just in time to find it starting to burn as the liquid, which had seemed ample when I left it, had by now all boiled off or been absorbed. I was able to rescue it from being a complete inedible disaster (or worse, setting fire to my kitchen) but suffice it to say that this chile con carbon was not quite the sumptuous delight I had been anticipating. It will be interesting to see how it is tomorrow, as such dishes are often better on the second day when the flavours have had time to develop but in this case the flavours may be a little on the smoky side!

More successful was the side dish, as I’ve finally got round to having a go at making guacamole almost 30 years after first being shown how to make it.

Back then I was still at school, and it was a different, more innocent era in which teachers could invite their pupils over to their homes for things like extra-curricular computer programming lessons, which I very much doubt any sensible and well-intentioned teacher would dare to do these days (even ignoring the minor issue of a global pandemic). One of my teachers had lent me a computer and was teaching me how to program it, which entailed fairly frequent bike journeys (usually on Saturday afternoons) from my village to his in order to take some lessons. As well as getting a good foundation in programming (I was learning Pascal, not a language I’ve ever seriously used since then, but the basic principles of how to program a computer have largely stuck with me), I was introduced to some seriously good music (the highlight being the Penguin CafĂ© Orchestra, whose music I continue to enjoy to this day) and, on one occasion, was shown how to make guacamole. This was because my teacher, who had spent some time working in Mexico before joining our school, was preparing for a party that evening and was busy making some using an authentic Mexican recipe when I arrived.

Sadly I didn’t write down that recipe and don’t remember a huge amount from it, except that it involved mashing avocados with salt, pepper and a few other things in a bowl (with a fork, IIRC). Fast forward to this evening and I had an avocado that I’d bought pretty much on a whim in my grocery order the other day; rather than do my usual thing of cutting it in half and eating it out of the skin garnished with a bit of black pepper and perhaps some mayonnaise, I decided the time had come to try out making guacamole for myself. Fortunately there are plenty of recipes online, so I was able to get a general idea of how to do it (to supplement my memories from the last millenium) and then improvised from there. I was very pleased with how it turned out.

Basically, I finely chopped an onion and a chilli pepper (carefully saved from cooking my main dish) and stuck them in a pestle and mortar (well, technically just in the mortar) with the flesh of an avocado, a bit of salt and pepper and a couple of teaspoons of lime juice. I then mashed the whole lot down (with the pestle, of course) and enjoyed eating it with a bit of tortilla. It may be worth noting that I had previously used the pestle and mortar to grind up some cumin, salt and pepper for the chile and had only given it a brief wipe out in between, so there was almost certainly a little bit of cumin in the guacamole too.

The other components of the meal also worked pretty well (namely, a bottle of well-chilled Mexican lager – not generally the sort of beer I go for, but ideal in the right context – a lovely bit of brie and then a couple of Mr Kipling’s trifle bakewells, which happened to be on special offer this week, for dessert). So if you count each of the individual components more or less equally, I’d say the whole meal rated about 4.5 out of 5.

And hopefully it will be less than 30 years before I next get round to making guacamole!

A Proper Pasty

If I had to compile a short-list of my favourite foods, I don’t think there’s a lot of competition for what would take first place. It would be freshly baked bread, still warm from the oven, and butter — optionally accompanied by a good, ripe Camembert and some Ardennes pâtĂ©, washed down with red wine or Belgian beer (though the bread and butter are definitely the key thing).

Populating the rest of the list would be a bit harder as there are many contenders. One would probably be the Cornish pasty.

I remember watching an item about Cornish pasties many years ago on Blue Peter, and being particularly taken by a detail they mentioned, namely that sometimes pasties were baked with jam at one end (separated from the meat and veg at the other end by an internal pastry wall). The idea was to provide a desert course for the tin miners who would take the pasties down the mine with them to eat for lunch.

This struck me as being a wonderful idea (I was going to describe it as “deliciously simple and simply delicious” but I’m fairly sure I used that wee phrase in one of my previous posts not all that long ago). Sadly, there are (to the best of my knowledge) no commercially available pasties that include a jam end.

I have once or twice, though not for quite a few years, tried making my own pasties and I did have a go at making them with jam at one end. As I recall it worked pretty well. But I don’t really want to have to go to the hassle of baking pasties from scratch just to get a bit of jam in them.

This evening I was microwaving a shop-bought pasty for dinner when I was struck by inspiration. I was making a cup of tea to accompany the pasty and when I opened the fridge to get the milk my eye happened to light upon a jar of raspberry jam. It occurred to me that I could add some jam to the already cooked pasty.

Once I retrieved the pasty from the microwave, I made a small hole at one end of it with a fork and excavated the filling (which tasted very nice even without its pastry wrapping), before putting a spoonful of jam in the newly vacated end.

I then proceeded to eat the pasty from the other end, and very much enjoyed the jam when I got to it. There was a certain amount of mixing between the sweet and savoury but that actually worked quite nicely.

I probably won’t do the same thing every time I have a Cornish pasty from now on but it’s good to know that I can simulate a two-course pasty without having to do all the hard work myself.

Cutting the cheese

A number of years ago, I made a very minor linguistic discovery concerning the geographical distribution of a certain idiom.

The phrase in question is “to cut the cheese”, a somewhat colourful description of flatulence that was quite common in the parlance of the young people of North West Kent in the mid 1990s (of whom I was one).

My discovery was that this same phrase was also current in Sussex about 10 years later, but evidently not (or at least not very widely known) in either North or South Wales. Admittedly my research was confined to the group of three friends with whom I was having lunch on one occasion when there was an opportunity to make a joke about cutting the cheese, which only one of them understood.

The reason I mention this now is that I was watching an episode of Bones a few days ago and a couple of the characters in that amused themselves with a reference to cutting the cheese, clearly in the same context. The episode was from around 2008 or so, and was set in Washington DC. I assume that the scriptwriters were from somewhere in the USA, not necessarily the DC area, so it doesn’t allow for the particularly precise location of another time and place (other than Kent c. 1993 and Sussex c. 2003) where the phrase had currency. Still, it was interesting to discover that its not a purely British idiom. I wonder whether it travelled from South East England to the eastern seaboard of the United States or vice versa, somehow bypassing Wales on the way, or if it reached both places via other paths.

While I’m on the subject of cheese, I should perhaps mention a surprisingly nice taste combination I stumbled upon a year or two back and still enjoy as a snack from time to time mdash; cheddar cheese and wasabi paste.

The Pleasures of Pitta

I find myself torn between the Scylla of ending up with a blog that only updates once a year (though I suppose at least that would be nice and regular) and the Charybdis of turning into a monothematic food blog, since my last post was on that subject and the thing I’ve just thought about writing is too. Still, since it would seem a shame to put up such a short post just to say I was thinking about posting, I suppose it’s better to steer more towards the latter danger than the former one.

Recently I find myself eating quite a bit of pitta bread. It’s always been a bread product that I have enjoyed but in the last few months it seems to have become my go-to bread and I have discovered that it’s even more versatile than I thought.

A few months (or perhaps a year or two) back, I came up with an idea which is probably not entirely new in the grand scheme of things but I’m fairly sure I hadn’t (consciously, at least) borrowed it from anywhere. This is a tasty snack that I call a zapped cheese pitta and is essentially what happens when pitta bread meets cheese on toast (described by Bill Bailey as the National Dish of Wales). Or rather, what happens when I get a craving for cheese on toast but realise the only bread I have to hand is pitta and then decide that the microwave is quicker and easier than the grill.

Zapped cheese pittas are easy enough to make. First take one or two (or more, if you’re making for several people or feeling especially hungry) pitta breads, cut or tear them open and put in some thinly sliced cheese (as with regular cheese on toast, I usually use cheddar but a whole range of different cheeses work and give some quite pleasingly different results), stick them on a plate and microwave them for about a minute, leaving to stand for a short while and proceeding with caution as the cheese can get pretty hot. I quite often add a little bit of mustard, especially when I’m using cheddar. I’m sure other condiments could be used too. I suspect brie and cranberry would work nicely, and that reminds me of another pitta-related snack that I’ve enjoyed several times in the last few months…

Bacon butties (or sandwiches, if you prefer) are one of life’s great joys (and one of the reasons I don’t think I’d ever entirely convert to vegetarianism) and can be nicely enhanced by a slice or two of brie (and quite possibly some cranberry sauce, though I’m not sure I ever tried that). In recent months, most of the bacon butties I’ve consumed (pretty much all, sadly, without brie – although some have been enhanced by other delights such as maple syrup instead) have been put together with pitta breads. For these I might gently zap the pittas in the microwave to warm them through, and if I’m feeling decadent I may slide a bit of butter into them before piling in the bacon, but actually they work fine with cold pittas and no butter, just letting the heat from the bacon warm them through.

That last one was a bonus, as I didn’t actually have bacon butties in mind when I started writing this post. The thing that prompted it was in fact my discovery this evening of a perhaps surprising combination: a pitta noodle sandwich!

At the moment I am stuck in my office awaiting a meeting later on and don’t have access to my usual cooking facilities and ingredients, so I had a pot noodle for dinner. When I say “pot noodle” I mean one of the nice spicy ones from East Asia – this one from South Korea, I think – that are a bit cheaper and, IMHO, much tastier than the western version (which I pretty much never eat). To go with it, I had a couple of pittas and a chunk of slightly stale cornbread. I started with the cornbread, as that most needed using up, and it soaked up quite a lot of the liquid from my noodles so when I got on to the pittas I decided to try putting some of the noodles into the pitta rather than dipping it into the broth. It turned out to be very tasty (although I suspect not super healthy) and is probably an idea I’ll try again sometime.

Meanwhile it’s nearly time for my meeting, so I’d better publish this and go and wash up my fork.

Best Served Cold

I realised with some shock that it’s almost a year since I last wrote anything for my blog. In fact, when I went back this afternoon to see what was the last thing I wrote here I was confronted with a rather disturbing photo of me without a beard towards the end of last November. It’s strange to think that this time last year I was still waiting with baited breath to see if enough people would rise to the fundraising challenge I’d set to ensure that I would have to endure Movember.

Anyway, having finally been struck with sufficient inspiration to write another post, I should strike while the iron is hot…

They say that revenge is a dish best served cold.

It turns out that it isn’t the only one.

Yesterday I decided to cook myself a Spanish-style tortilla (i.e. basically an omelette with potato and onion) for dinner, and also to make my first apple crumble of the season with some apples that a friend has kindly given me (and also with custard). There was too much of both to eat them all at once and I knew that both can work successfully as cold dishes as well as hot ones, so I decided to have a bit of both for dinner and save the rest for lunch.

I came to the conclusion that although both were very tasty when they were freshly cooked, they were even better today as a cold lunch (including cold custard with the apple crumble). I’m not sure how much it was due to the different temperature and how much it was due to the flavours having had more chance to develop, or possibly even the fact that I was quite tired last night after a busy week and somewhat more refreshed this lunchtime after a nice relaxed morning.  Whatever the cause, the effect was one of the tastiest lunches I’ve had for a while.

Incidentally, I was pleased to see that while it’s probably been nearly as long since I last cooked an apple crumble as it has since I last updated this blog, I haven’t entirely lost my touch. Probably more through luck than judgement I managed to cook this one at just the right combination of time and temperature to get the apples nice and tender but with a bit of bite left in them, with about the right amount of sugar, cinnamon and lemon juice to complement the taste of the apples nicely, while the crumble topping (including my usual addition of a few oats for texture and a bit of mixed spice for flavour) retained just a hint of gooeyness, exactly the way I like it.

Doubtless I’ll be cooking up another crumble (possibly with one or two variations – maybe apple and raisin next time?) pretty soon as I still have a few more apples to use up. It may be a while longer before my next post, but hopefully not another 11 months.

And, in case you were wondering, I’m not planning revenge on anyone for anything. It was just a line (from an old Sherlock Holmes film, as I recall) that sprang to mind as I was thinking about the delights of cold apple crumble and custard.



Dragon Pie

Tonight was one of those nights when I indulged in my passion for experimental cookery.

As seems to happen more often than not, I came up with something that was not only edible but actually quite enjoyable to eat. This one felt like something that’s worth trying again and there’s definitely room for improvement in the basic recipe so I decided to record it here (mainly for my own future reference, though the recipe idea isn’t copyrighted, so you’re welcome to try it — if you come up with some good variations, feel free to let me know).

The starting point was a whole load of leeks, potatoes and onions that I bought on special offer (a bag of each for a total of ÂŁ1) in my local supermarket last week, and which are getting to the point of needing to be used up before they get too far past their best. Initially I had planned to do a leek and potato soup but I wasn’t feeling particularly in the mood for soup this evening and, after a bit of thought, I came up with an alternative plan.

Essentially, my idea was to make a kind of vegetarian shepherd’s pie (a leek-herd’s pie, I suppose, if leeks needed herding in the same way as sheep), with a base of leek and onion topped with mashed potato. I had one or two ideas to make the dish a bit more interesting…

I started by chopping up a leek and couple of onions (fairly finely) and sautĂ©eing them gently in olive oil for a few minutes, adding a roughly minced clove of garlic shortly before transferring them to a lightly oiled casserole dish and mixing in a bit of chopped parsley and thyme from my windowsill herb garden. I would probably have added sage and rosemary too, in honour of Scarborough Fair, but my sage (which I’m growing from seed) isn’t yet quite big enough for harvesting and I couldn’t be bothered to go out and harvest the rosemary that, unlike my other herbs, is growing in my back garden. I also added around 100ml of red wine and then stuck it in the oven (around gas mark 5) for 15 minutes while I steamed some potatoes (prepared, with a little bit of mint, also from my herb garden, while I was sautĂ©eing the leek and onion) ready for mashing.

Once the potatoes were steamed, I mashed them with a little milk and black pepper (not from my herb garden, and alas I don’t have space, time or money to keep a cow), then removed the casserole from the oven and put a layer of mashed potato on top of the leek/onion mixture. After grating a bit of cheese (gran padano, as that’s what I had in the fridge) on top, I returned it to the oven on a higher heat (up to gas 8, I think) while I fried an egg to go along with it.

The resulting pie was rather tasty, though the filling was perhaps slightly on the al dente side (not too much of a problem as I like a bit of crunch, and the vegetables certainly weren’t raw) and the topping could have done with being browned a bit more. I’m not sure if the best thing would be just to cook it for somewhat longer once assembled or to sautĂ©e the leeks and onions for a bit longer and then stick the assembled pie under the grill for a few minutes.

It occurred to me that the ingredients were mostly red, white and green, the colours of the Welsh flag. Since leeks, in particular, are an emblem of Wales, and potatoes (not to mention cheese-on-toast, which bears a certain resemblance to cheese-on-pie) are also a pretty staple part of our national cuisine, I decided to name my new dish “dragon pie”, although the wine seemed to turn from red to purple in the process of cooking so the chromatic effect was slightly lost in the final product.

Apart from the aforementioned tweaks to cooking times/methods, I’d be inclined to use a Welsh cheese (perhaps a local cheddar) next time round, although the gran padano worked fine. The wine was a fairly non-descript, though pleasant enough, cheapish Spanish merlot/cabernet sauvignon from one of my local supermarkets (not, as it happens, the one from which I got the veg) and, since there’s not a huge range of Welsh wines on the market (in fact, I can’t recall seeing any and if there are some I suspect they are quite expensive), I don’t think I’d be too worried about locally sourcing that ingredient; in fact, I think pretty much any reasonable red plonk would do the job ok.

I’ve got about half the pie left over, so it will be interesting to see how it tastes when cold. That, I suppose, I will find out tomorrow.

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.