(Re)discovered Noodlespruces

Tonight’s dinner, which I finished eating a few minutes ago, was noodles.  As usual, I subjected them to a bit of noodlesprucing, which improved them immeasurably.

The noodles on this occasion were chicken ones.  Rather, the noodles were plain old instant noodles and the supplied flavour sachet was chicken-flavoured (though whether any of the contents had ever been in sight of a real live chicken is another question).  Most of the treatment I gave them was my pretty standard basic noodlespruce, which basically consists of lightly frying a chopped spring onion and (this time) some garlic in olive oil in the saucepan before adding boiling water, the aforementioned flavour sachet and a few extra spices (on this occasion, a fairly liberal pinch of lemongrass and a dash of Maggi sauce), then simmering for somewhat longer than specified on the packet (around 10 minutes, instead of about 3).

However, in addition to this, I did two other things.  One was entirely new, as far as I can remember, to my preparation of noodles (though similar to a technique I’ve used countless times in cooking stews).  The other was one that I’m fairly sure I’ve tried in the distant past (long before noodlesprucing was so named) but not for quite a while.

The new idea was to throw in a handful (metaphorically speaking – it was actually somewhat less, probably nearer a tablespoon’s worth, though I didn’t measure it accurately) of pearl barley.  This relied on the extra cooking time to ensure that the barley was reasonably soft by the time the noodles were ready to eat. It was – just about – although possibly pre-soaking the grains in boiling water for a few minutes may be a good idea in future.  This helped to make the dish a bit more substantial, and provided a nice additional flavour and texture.

The revived idea was to garnish the finished noodle dish with a generous dollop of mayonnaise, which was allowed to percolate its own way through the noodles rather than stirring it in too much.  This provided a delicious, rich creaminess.  As I ate my way through the noodles, I added a bit more mayonnaise a couple of times.  By the end of the bowl, it had fairly well mixed with the noodle juice (or soup or call-it-what-you-will) and made it a pleasure to drink down to the last drop.

I’m not sure either of those spruces are going to be ones I use too often in the preparation of noodles, but they are certainly welcome additions to the repertoire.

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You say “potato”

My recent burst of enthusiasm for salad has been continuing for the past few weeks and shows no sign of abating just yet.

As well as variations on the two salads I mentioned previously, I have been practising a bit of noodlesprucing on my basic potato salad, with very satisfactory results

Potato salad has long been one of my favourite salads; possibly this is at least partly because it never feels quite as worryingly healthy as many other kinds of salads but mostly I think it’s just because a well-made potato salad is a delight to the taste-buds (well, to mine, at any rate).

My basic potato salad recipe, which I’ve been making on and off for years, is essentially to boil up a handful of roughly diced potatoes (not too small chunks), drain them and let them  cool, then toss them in either salad cream or mayonnaise with a bit of seasoning, most often paprika (an idea I picked up at a party many years ago).  In the past, I think I’ve most often tended to use salad cream but this year I’ve worked exclusively with mayonnaise (shop-bought, although now I have a hand blender I might have another go at making some from scratch, if I can steel myself to the sheer amount of oil involved; last time I tried it I was using a hand whisk and it was very hard work, though produced quite tasty results) and have been enjoying that.

A week or two back, I prepared a potato salad in the usual way but also added a sprinkle of Vegeta (inspired no doubt by the Hungarian connotations of the paprika I was using) and a finely chopped spring onion or two. Aactually, as I recall, I used the white bits of two spring onions, saving the green bits to go in a green salad I was making at the same time.

That worked pretty well, so tonight when I was making up another potato salad I did the same thing (with one whole spring onion, finely chopped, this time) but also added a couple of fairly finely chopped radishes, as I happened to have a few to hand that needed eating.  The result was, I think, even better than before.

I’m not intending to prepare my potato salads like this every time from now on, but I’m hoping that having broken the mould  of my standard recipe I’ll be inspired to find different variations to keep things interesting.

Rice is nice…

My latest experiment in noodlesprucing, a couple of days ago, resulted in a very tasty rice dish with a Hungarian twist.

I wanted to knock up a quick meal of rice and not have to worry about preparing external sauces or stuff like that, as I had limited time and several other things that needed to be done.  It occurred to me that, just as rice can be tweaked with the addition of a bit of turmeric (or saffron if your budget will stretch to it) – mostly for colour effect – other seasonings could probably be added at the start of cooking to infuse both colour and flavour.

Digging not too far into my spice collection I came across a packet of Vegeta that Eszter, my Hungarian former housemate, gave me when she left last year.  I first came across Vegeta on my trip to Hungary half a dozen years ago.  It is a condiment that, apparently, originated in Croatia but is very popular in Hungary and (as far as I know) other parts of eastern Europe.  It consists mostly of salt, with powdered dehydrated vegetables (including carrot, onion and celery), MSG and spices (the exact mix of those not being divulged in the Wikipedia article or, as far as I can tell, on the packet – though mine is all in Hungarian and I don’t know it well enough to be sure).

Incidentally, the Vegeta packet gave me a memorable lesson in the importance of correct pronunciation in Hungarian, especially with regard to paying attention to diacritics.  When Eszter was still around I was trying to read aloud the ingredients list from the back of the packet (which, at the time, was still hers) while she was cooking one evening.  I got to the word zöldség, which I correctly identified as meaning “vegetables” – mainly from remembering that zöld means “green”.  Unfortunately I failed to pronounce the final é sufficiently long (as indicated by the accent) – something like the ‘a’ in “cake”; instead I made it rhyme with the word “egg” (The IPA for the correct pronunciation is /ˈzølt͡ʃeːɡ/ but the end of my attempt came out more like /ˈʃɛɡː/).  That wouldn’t be a problem except that the word segg in Hungarian is a vulgar word for buttocks (roughly on a level with the English word “arse”, I gather), which made my mispronunciation quite amusing for a native Hungarian speaker.  As it happens, I already knew (but had forgotten) about the dangers of saying segg (NB the letter ‘s’ in Hungarian is pronounced as “sh” (or /ʃ/ in IPA), while the “s” (/s/) sound is written as ‘sz’) as, when I visited the town of Szeged, I was warned to avoid saying it with “sh” at the beginning (and why). 

To return from my linguistic digression, I decided to try lobbing a bit of Vegeta (about a medium-sized pinch if you want to be slightly more accurate) in with the rice.  For good measure I also chucked a bit (a large pinch this time!) of paprika in there.  The end result was very tasty, even without any accompaniment. I think it would work nicely, too, if the rice were being eaten with something else.

By the way, my usual rice cooking method is one which I picked up from a Chinese cookery book (one by Kenneth Lo on the art of cooking with a wok, as I recall; I can’t remember what it was called although I think I still have it somewhere – probably on my kitchen shelf if I could be bothered going to look).  Esssentially, you measure a quantity of rice into a saucepan, add boiling water in a proportion of 3:2 (water to rice; I usually use a 1/2 cup measuring cup of rice and one each of 1/2 and 1/4 cup measures for the water when I’m making rice for one meal for myself), put a lid on the pan, stick it on the cooker at lowest heat for 10 minutes (more-or-less carefully times), then turn off the heat and leave it sitting (with the lid still on) for a further 10 minutes (although I often only give it 5 or so for this latter stage and it seems to work fine).  As long as you’re reasonably careful with the measurements the rice comes out consistently well-cooked – moist but not too wet – and it avoids having to either watch your rice like a hawk or risk either very soggy rice or a burned pan.

I’m not sure how much rice features in Hungarian cuisine (though it is mentioned on the Wikipedia page so evidently it’s not unknown there) but I’m under no illusion that this is particular preparation likely to be an authentic Hungarian dish (although I could be wrong about that).  I think it’s one I’m likely to use again, though.

More than one way to spruce a pizza

Since I invented the term noodlesprucing, I’ve practised that fine, gentle culinary art pretty much every time I’ve had a pizza (not to mention noodles and other sprucible comestibles).  Of course, I’ve been doing the odd bit of noodlesprucing for years, but it seems that now I’ve got a word for it it’s become the exception rather than the rule.

My standard pattern for noodlesprucing pizzas seems to have settled down into adding olives (black or green, depending on what I have in stock), chopped up bits of anchovy and possibly a few capers to a standard frozen pizza from my local supermarket (which, sadly, seems to have reduced its range down to about 3 options – pepperoni, ham and pineapple or four cheese; I particularly miss the excellent garlic chicken one they used to do).

It occurred to me this evening that, while these additions do a lot to enhance the flavour of the pizza, going for the same embellishment every time runs rather contrary to the spirit of noodlesprucing (which can be summed up by the saying “variety is the spice of life”).  Therefore I decided to try something different on tonight’s pepperoni pizza.  I sprinkled some caraway seeds and paprika on the top of it before putting it in the oven.

The result was excellent and it’s definitely a combination I’ll use again from time to time — though not every time I have a pizza!

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.

Green eggs (but no ham)

I mentioned yesterday that I was intending to do some more noodlesprucing for dinner.  That, indeed, is just what I did – with quite interesting results…

The starting point was a packet of spicy prawn flavoured instant noodles.  For vegetable content, I had some left over (uncooked) red cabbage and a spring onion that needed using up, so I chopped them up fairly finely and fried them in the saucepan before adding the spicy prawn flavour sachet and boiling water, followed by the noodles themselves.  I also lobbed in a handful of caraway seeds, as caraway is generally a good accompaniment to cabbage.

Having written yesterday about poaching eggs in baked beans as a way of noodlesprucing them (to use the term in its more general sense), it occurred to me that an egg could also be poached in the broth in which noodles are being cooked.  Since I happened to have an egg to hand, I decided to test this theory, putting the egg in about half way through the simmering of the noodles (i.e. about 5 minutes before the end of the cooking time).

When I transferred my noodles into the bowl for eating I was initially somewhat dismayed to discover that the egg had turned a somewhat unpleasant, mouldy-looking greyish green colour.

I then remembered an exciting food chemistry factoid that I learned from a book several years ago, which is that red cabbage juice reacts with egg white to make it turn green.  As far as I recall, there is some enzyme in the cabbage juice that reacts with a protein in the egg; as far as I know, it only works for red cabbage juice.  I remember doing some experiments frying eggs with red cabbage juice and discovering that the result was not a particularly attractive shade of green.  Still, it doesn’t seem to have any appreciable effect (positive or negative) on the taste of the egg and it was comforting to know that this colour change was an expected chemical reaction and not an indication that I’d accidentally used a bad egg or something.

The idea of poaching an egg in my noodle broth seems to work very well and I’ll doubtless try it again in future.  I assume that if (as is usually the case) I’m not cooking up red cabbage with the noodles, the egg shouldn’t come out green.  Who knows, though, what other interesting colour changes I might discover.

Noodlesprucing

Over the years, I have eaten many instant noodles.  Although not quite living up to their name, they are nevertheless quite quick to prepare as well as being cheap and, with not too much extra work, quite tasty and reasonably nutritious.

I don’t generally prepare them quite as directed on the packet (which is usually to boil/simmer them for about 5 minutes in water with the contents of the included flavour sachet added).  The simplest change, which I always make, is just to cook them for a bit longer, usually around 10 minutes. This makes them softer and more succulent than they would otherwise be.

The other way I perk up my noodles, which not only improves the taste but also provides a nice lot of variation on the 4 or so basic flavours sold by my local supermarket, is to add various spices and occasionally other ingredients.  This can be as simple as just a dash of extra paprika or whatever else comes to hand when I reach for the spice cupboard.

As an example of a slightly more sophisticated noodle-enhancement, here’s what I did last time I had noodles for dinner, a few days ago.  I started by chopping up a spring onion and lightly frying it (with a small amount of oil) in the saucepan I would be cooking the noodles in.  While it was frying I boiled a kettle and then added boiling water, the chicken seasoning packet (contents) from the noodles, a bit of extra 5-spice powder and a dash of soy sauce to the pan and let it come back to the boil.  I then added the noodles and simmered for about 10 minutes before serving in a nice deep bowl with a generous blob of salad cream in the middle.  It was very tasty for a meal that took less than 15 minutes to prepare.

The reason I mention this now is that I have come up with a new word for the culinary art of transforming instant noodles into fine dinners without too much work: noodlesprucing (so called as you are sprucing up the noodles).  I’m not sure how long I’ll continue to use that term and I suspect it won’t catch on with the general public, but I submit it now as a humble offering towards the enrichment of the English language (as well as a potential inspiration for any budding chefs, especially those on a tight budget).

Despite the name, there’s no reason why noodlesprucing can’t also be applied to other foodstuffs.  The one that springs to my mind is baked beans (especially when served on toast), mainly because I have been doing mildly exciting things with these for longer than I have with noodles.  Again, it usually amounts to cooking them up with random spices; I quite often like to put some cheese on top as well, or to poach an egg in the baked beans.

I shall probably have noodles for dinner again tonight, so I will doubtless engage in a spot more noodlesprucing.  It remains to be seen what inspiration will strike this time, but I look forward to finding out.