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.

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.

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.

 

When life gives you lemons…

Last night I had pasta for dinner.

That’s not incredibly surprising as it seems to be one of the mainstays of my diet these days – being a relatively cheap, quick and easy way to knock up a tasty, filling and reasonably healthy meal, with quite a bit of scope for variation.

The problem, though, is that I seem to have got stuck in a bit of a rut for my pasta preparation and there’s been relatively little variation of late, so I’ve been getting slightly bored with it (although, when it comes to the crunch – and I do like my pasta slightly al dente – I still enjoy eating it).

My usual approach is to more-or-less randomly select one of the two or so varieties of pasta I usually have in the store cupboard at any given time (last night it was tagliatelle, the other option being conchiglie), set that going in a saucpan (with, obviously, a fair amount of boiling water, as well as a little salt) and then use the 10 minutes or so while it cooks to knock up the sauce.

The sauce starts with a bit of olive oil in a frying pan set to simmer gently.  To this I add a chopped up spring onion and often some fresh or dried chillis (last night it was small Italian dried red chillis – just a couple to infuse a bit of bite into the oil), a chopped up anchovy fillet, a few capers and chopped up olives (green, at the moment – I usually seem to alternate jars of green and black olives), a crushed clove (or sometimes two) of garlic, some dried oregano and freshly-milled black pepper and, often (like last night) a fairly liberal dose of tomato purée.

By the time the pasta is cooked, this has all simmered down nicely so I drain the pasta, lob it into the frying pan (which I’ve taken off the heat by now), mix it all around and serve it up in a bowl that I previously warmed up either by resting it upside down on top of the pasta pan for half a minute or so towards the end of cooking or by draining the pasta water into it (either way, a quick wipe to remove the excess water leaves a lovely warm bowl ready to receive the pasta), then grate a bit of freshly grated Gran Padano cheese (which is stocked by at least one of my local supermarkets and seems to be pretty similar to Parmesan (or Parmigiano-Reggiano to use its Italian name) but significantly cheaper) on top and eat it, preferably with a slice or two of fresh bread and washed down with either water or, if circumstances allow, red wine.

As a basic method for preparation of pasta, this has (I believe) a lot to recommend it.  However, as previously alluded to, my recent pasta cookings have tended to stick to exactly the same pattern with little of the variation with which I usually like to spice up my cooking (and eating) beyond the shape of pasta and colour of olives used.

Last night, therefore, I was cooking away and thinking how I ought to try to do something a bit different with my pasta sometime soon.

Then I noticed another saucepan sitting on the worktop, in which I’d earlier brewed up some honey and lemon for the cold that’s been bugging me over the last few days (it’s getting a lot better now, thanks for asking).  This is a nice simple concoction which, as the name suggests, basically consists of one or two half-lemons (squeezed a bit to let some of the juice out into the saucepan) simmered in water for a while, with some honey stirred in (and often a bit of chopped up ginger too, if I have any to hand – which I didn’t yesterday) and then transferred into a mug for drinking immediately or a thermos flask to save for later.  The pan still contained the lemon chunks and that gave me a cunning idea.

Seizing one of the lemons, without stopping to think too much about what I was doing or what it might taste like, I sliced off a bit of the rind, chopped it fairly finely and tossed it into the frying pan (this was, as I recall, shortly before I was due to put in the tomato purée and after everything else had gone in).  The initial result was a wonderful citrus aroma that was released into the kitchen, which inspired me further to squeeze a few drops of juice from the lemon into the sauce.  When I came to eat it, I found that the lemon rind and juice had imparted a relatively subtle and definitely very welcome note (unsurprisingly, of lemon) into the taste.

Although this particular lemon had been boiled up in water, with honey, I doubt that the effect would have been significantly different if I’d used a raw lemon.  I might have got some of the effect with just a bit of lemon juice but I think I would have missed the particularly delightful whiff of the lemon rind first making contact with the hot oil, not to mention the lovely flecks of yellow in the sauce (which, admittedly, were somewhat masked by the addition of the tomato).  I’ll definitely be aiming to use lemons in my pasta sauces again in future – though not every time, as that would rather defeat the variation that I was aiming for!

 

Not just for noodles

A few months ago, I coined the term noodlesprucing to refer to the fine culinary art of making simple foods, such as instant noodles, a bit more interesting by the cunning application of spices and stuff.  I mentioned in my previous post on the subject that, name notwithstanding, the same technique could be applied to things other than noodles.

Recently I’ve had a couple of goes at noodlesprucing frozen pizzas.  I’ve occasionally made pizza from scratch (with or without a homemade base) but more often, especially in recent years, gone for the supermarket frozen pizzas that can just be whacked into the oven and be ready to eat within 15 or 20 minutes.  I often add a bit of extra oregano to these pizzas but haven’t, for quite a long time, added anything else until last week when I put some anchovies and black olives on top of a thin-crust four cheese pizza.  The result was very pleasing, if not spectacular.

Earlier this week I went for my second attempt, again featuring olives.  This time the base was a deep-pan meat feast pizza and I decided that anchovies would not be required, since it’s already quite a salty tasting pizza.  I did put a bit of extra oregano on, though, which also worked well.

These particular noodlesprucings have been done prior to putting the pizzas in the oven.  It’s possible that some less robust ingredients would want to be added part-way through cooking.

In addition to the sprucing, I’ve found over the past few months that a good, and very simple, way to improve the results of cooking frozen pizza is to turn the oven up a bit.  The pizzas I usually get, from Morrisons, say (or, for the terminally pedantic, it says on the box) that they should be cooked at gas mark 5.  I found (by happy accident) that I get better results by turning the oven up to gas mark 7 and cooking for the same time.  Having checked my oven temperature with a thermometer, it doesn’t seem to be (entirely) a matter of the oven calibration – the suggested temperature seems a bit on the low side and the base rises a bit more, and is lighter and airier, with the higher-temperature cooking.  I think pizzas are classically cooked at quite high temperatures, often on stones, so this is probably not surprising.

Another food-related find, which doesn’t really fall into the category of noodlesprucing, is my recent discovery that scones and honey make a delightful combination.  This isn’t particularly surprising, in the way that, for example, cheese and jam would be, but I don’t think I tried it until recently.  I’ve so far only tried it with fruit scones but I expect that honey would work equally well with most other sorts, possibly even cheese ones.

Not quite self-sufficient

In principle, I’m very much in favour of the idea of growing one’s one food.  However, I’m glad I don’t have to rely on eating what I’ve grown for myself…

Today I harvested the first-fruits of this year’s yield from my garden – just enough spinach and rhubarb to contribute to tonight’s dinner (fortunately I was dining alone, as it wouldn’t have stretched).  That’s already better than last year, when I don’t think I managed to get anything at all edible out of my garden despite trying to grow several things, but I’m not expecting very much more of either crop and I’m doubtful that my sprouts are going to produce anything at all.  I should get a nice crop of nasturtium leaves if I actually remember to harvest them this year.

I steamed the spinach and enjoyed that as an accompaniment to the pasta con funghi (and other random ingredients, all non-home-grown)  that I cooked up for dinner. I’m sure there are more adventurous ways of preparing spinach but this simple approach works perfectly well and I didn’t want anything too complex to clash with the array of flavours in the pasta dish.

The rhubarb went, as it usually does in my kitchen, into a crumble.  There was only just enough fruit to cover the base of the dish, so I ended up letting the crumble topping mix in with it rather than sit on top.  I also varied this crumble a bit by using honey instead of sugar to sweeten the rhubarb (along with a dash of lemon juice – the citrus seems to complement the rhubarb quite well – and a bit of water) and drizzling a bit more on top, as well as using a mixture of plain and self-raising flour (instead of just plain) to make the crumble.  I’m not sure if that pushes it towards cobbler territory, as I can’t remember whether the use of raising agents is the differentiating factor (if there is one) between cobblers and crumbles, but it certainly helped to lighten it a bit, which was quite useful given the higher than usual crumble-to-fruit ratio.