april recipe spring-clean

Goodness me, it’s nearly June, and I’m hurriedly writing up April’s recipe challenge so that you won’t notice the short time-lag when I smoothly write up May next week…will you promise not to notice? Pretty please??

I went a little off-kilter for April and, being in the mood for a spring-clean, decided to have a good sort out of all my loose recipes. You know the ones – those you cut out from food publications and supermarket magazines and odd recipe cards and things you’ve picked up from friends. They all sit in a little box on my kitchen windowsill until I get round to making them. Which is usually never. So, instead of cooking from one recipe book, I decided to cook from one recipe box, using up as many of these recipes as possible.

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It was an interesting challenge because, unlike the other months, of course all the recipes were coming from different sources. I found the Co-op magazine to be, largely, brilliant. A fantastically quick, yummy sweet-and-sour marinade for fish, an easy oregano and lemon chicken traybake, decent falafel, and sweet potato pies: a surprisingly flavoursome veggie dinner to add to our repertoire. Pudding-wise, the hot cross bun pudding with salted brandy caramel was immense – a scrumptious combination of everything good about Easter and Christmas cooking.

The Waitrose magazine was a winner too. We enjoyed a quick but delicious one-pot roast chicken supper, Scandinavian chicken, banana and coconut bread ‘n’ butter pudding, and Moroccan meatloaf. The latter fell apart, but I think I know why and it was entirely my fault. All of these I would make again in a flash.

When distant friends visited for an evening, we tried zaalouk, a Moroccan aubergine and tomato dip, with (shop-bought) flatbreads. This recipe had come on a Riverford recipe card, and was definitely one I’d try again with it’s gorgeous flavour combinations and kick of harissa. They also provided us with another curry recipe for our growing portfolio of Indian dishes – this one a lemony chicken and spinach curry with enough flavour for us grown-ups but not too much spice for the littlies. And they encouraged us to use leftover tahini to make a dressing for stir-fried greens. As people who try to avoid salad at all costs, it’s great to have a dressing which works excellently on cooked veg.

Three-cheese soufflés
Photo credit: BBC Good Food magazine

These three-cheese souffles from the wonderful Barney Desmazery at Good Food were SO rich and SO good that you must all follow the link and make them right now. (Or, at least, the next time you need a starter.) Mine looked exactly like the one in the picture.*

From some old Green ‘n’ Blacks packaging, I tried a chocolate sorbet. Unsure whether this would work or not, actually I found it to be a total winner – it may become my new failsafe ‘special’ dessert. Much quicker than making ice cream, and simple enough to be served just with a few berries, the sorbet melts in your mouth and thus turns to something rather like a cold hot chocolate. I cannot explain it better than that – you’ll have to try it to see what I mean. Bring 250ml water and 150g caster sugar to the boil and bubble for 4 minutes. Meanwhile, melt 100g dark chocolate, then add 100ml water to the sugar syrup and whisk in the cocoa, then the melted chocolate. Freeze. It will make enough for 4 (or 1 with relationship problems).

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All these recipes have made it into my recipe scrapbook, to be enjoyed again in the future. Those that didn’t include beer doughnuts (yes, really), Co-op fruit ‘n’ nut brownies (standard problem of bad brownies: too dry and cakey) and hummus. I’m sorry, but I don’t get on well with homemade hummus, as long-standing blog readers will remember from a Sabbath week disaster two years ago. I’ve tried at least three different recipes, none of which have turned out anything close to edible, and life is too short to try a fourth when there are absolutely NO PROBLEMS with supermarket hummus. There, I’ve said it. Just call me a food slob.

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* I’m sorry I’ve been rubbish at providing any photos since this challenge began. I’m not in the habit of photographing food but resolve henceforth to remember. Failing that, I’ll continue to provide professional food pictures, so that you can imagine I live a life of immaculate presentation.

madhouse march (it’s another GIVEAWAY!!)

I’m the first to admit that this blog is not a very useful one. I don’t teach you how to braid Afro hair, give you numerous recipes for gluten-free vegans, explain some complicated piece of computing, or provide numerous rainy-day activities for hyperactive preschoolers.

If you’re new to the blog and haven’t yet sussed the vibe, it is this: I witter on about something or other for around 800 words and people read it and sometimes comment and then get on with their lives regardless. This blog does not change lives.

But, dear friends, now I want to repay you for your loyalty and commitment to my various rants. This blog is about to change your life. Get ready for it: I am about to share with you my one biggest secret to organising your family’s meals forever. Some of you may remember that way back in the distant past of January 2015, I made a resolution to cook from a different cookbook each month. Hands-down, the best and most practical family cookbook I have ever come across is the one I was lucky enough to cook from throughout March.

Madhouse Cookbook

Madhouse Cookbook, by Jo Pratt, is a pretty apt book for me – the fact that I’m writing up what I did in March when it’s nearly May should be evidence enough that we qualify under the ‘madhouse’ moniker. I have two kids to feed, as well as a husband with an odd working schedule and a lodger with an aversion to lamb, fish and meat-on-the-bone – not to mention sundry others who pop in, sometimes planned and invited, sometimes unplanned, sometimes uninvited, but always welcome. There has to be food on the table by 6pm (or else our kids will flip) and there has to be enough to feed whoever God may bring to our door that day. Jo Pratt’s recipes are flexible, child-friendly, quick, easy and yummy. I’m telling you: buy this book. It will change your life. (Get to know Jesus first though – He will change your life more. But, after that, buy this book.)

What makes this book stand out? First, nearly every recipe is pure gold in terms of flavour. Quite outstanding. From Chinese to Mexican to Italian to Indonesian, Jo Pratt has produced a stellar selection of meals which will give your kids a hugely varied diet without them even realising, whilst the grown-ups enjoy food that is in no way ‘dumbed down’. Second, there are virtually none of those recipes that you might just throw together yourself with no need for guidance. (I always get so disheartened flicking through a recipe book and seeing titles such as ‘tomato and courgette pasta’ or ‘roast chicken with garlic’ – why pay good money for recipes you don’t need?) Those few recipes which do fit this category are briefly summarised in categories, e.g. ‘Very, Very, Very Quick Pasta Dishes’ or ‘Stir Crazy’, a collection of stir-fry sauces.

Third, the book is just so comprehensive. Section one is ‘Monday to Friday survival: the need for speed’ – and it does what it says on the tin. Quick recipes, yummy flavours, great for kids and adults alike. We loved the Very Special Fried Rice, the Chicken, Cheese and Corn Quesa-d-easies and the Mediterranean Baked Chicken and Rice – all great, none of them time-consuming. We regularly use Jo’s Risotto Primavera recipe – sometimes following to the letter, sometimes varying with whatever veg we have to hand, always scrummy. Section two is ‘The Busy Weekend’ – great (but still quick) recipes to improve your weekend, from lazy brunch ideas, to baking-with-kids projects, to relaxed family meals. The Sticky Sausages with Sweet Potatoes and Peppers is a work of genius – 15min prep, then bang in the oven for an hour. Rich Vegetable Lasagne was a winner too. (And did I mention that we found plenty of new vegetarian recipes to suit our half-vegetarian diet?) Section three is ‘Cling on to your social life’ – a selection of slightly smarter recipes for when friends come round. But of course nothing takes ages to make because Jo realises you have Kids Who Are Not Tired to put to bed and All The Chaos to clear away and Unidentifiable Hardened Food to scratch off the dining table – in addition to cooking for your guests. The Beef Rendang and South Indian Chicken Curry were amazing, and the Chocolate and Ginger Brownies were so good I made them three times in one week. (Beach-ready body? Er…)

Add to all this the accurate preparation and cooking times, guidance on how many adults/kids the meal will feed, ingredients lists which don’t require a trip to a specialist deli, and plenty of tips for leftovers or how to vary the meals for fussy eaters – and you’re left with an incredible resource, not only for family life but for anyone who likes to cook. Honestly, if you want decent recipes which don’t take long to prepare, buy this book, whether or not you have kids, a spouse, a lodger, or a dog – and prepare to weep over its sheer ease and yum factor.

But don’t buy the book just yet. Because I think it’s such an invaluable aid to anyone’s cooking repertoire, I’m going to give away a copy to a commenter picked at random this Saturday at 7pm (OK, you know that this means sometime during Sunday or Monday…). This time I’d like you to comment on the most mad thing you’ve ever cooked. I once made a Marmite, sweetcorn and squid sandwich. Fire away.

THIS COMPETITION IS NOW CLOSED. CONGRATULATIONS TO CHARLOTTE WHO WAS THE LUCKY WINNER!!

feb express

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Continuing with my one-cookbook-per-month challenge, for February I chose Nigella Express. This is a book I use regularly, but there were still plenty of recipes I wanted to try. So we stocked up on sugar, butter, cream and wine, and were ready to begin.

Oh my word, was this a wondrous month. Flavoursome Coq au Riesling, Macaroni Cheese (with a clever trick to avoid making a white sauce from scratch), Buttermilk Roast Chicken and New Orleans Coleslaw (made for a shared lunch at church) and Festive Fusilli served with Halloumi Bites (the best accompaniment to an evening catching up with a vegetarian friend).

There was not a single pudding which let us down in any way, shape or form: Caramel Croissant Pudding, Flourless Chocolate Brownies (served with ice cream), Orange French Toast, Instant Chocolate Mousse, Chocolate Chip Cookies (made for a friend’s baby shower: said baby is still in there, guzzling away), Glitzy Chocolate Puddings and Ice Cream Cake (made for my birthday). I would happily eat any or all of these puddings at any time of the day or night. I swear: not one of these puddings will be absent from the Kingdom of Heaven.

It was a magical morning when we discovered the ease and deliciousness of Oeufs en Cocotte. The baked egg definitely improves upon the boiled egg for (predominantly) lack of shell, but also for the possibilities of adding chopped ham, diced mushrooms, or pretty much anything small and complementary. This and poached eggs have become my new Favourite Ways with Eggs for 2015. (Hashtag, anyone?)

The ‘Get up and Go’ chapter – a range of more interesting breakfast ideas than cereal and toast – proved popular in the Desert household. We had a Valentine’s Brunch with Smoothies, Chopped Fruit Salad, Breakfast Bruschetta, Green Eggs and Ham (pesto pancakes) and Breakfast Bars. The Pear and Ginger Muffins were sadly not as more-ish as the other options.

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Mediocre was the Red Prawn and Mango Curry – I mean, any curry is a good curry (right?) but this one wasn’t up there with my favourite curry recipes of all time (and I do have a few, so I’ve every right to be picky). The Potato and Mushroom Gratin was OK as an accompaniment, but not so good that I’d remember to get the book out again for it. Sweetcorn Chowder was a good option for a veggie dinner, served with toasted nachos and cheese, but I’m not sure I like sweetcorn enough to have a whole bowlful of it in one sitting.

The Naan Pizzas were a let down. OK so it’s a clever idea and, yes, I’ll accept that naans make better pizza bases than shop-bought pizza bases, but the suggested toppings (chiefly mushrooms) were rather lacklustre. I left these for Desert Dad and the kiddoes one evening when I hopped off to a meeting, and they were Not Impressed.

The Brandied Bacony Chicken was just not Brandied or Bacony enough to warrant the addition of these ingredients to a simple roast chicken (which, let’s face it, is one of the most Express things you can make, and tastes flippin’ fantastic with it). The Croque Monsieur Bake – basically a baked ham and cheese sarnie – was a disappointing dinner. And I just couldn’t get the Cheese Fondue to work. I mean, I did leave it unattended for an hour while I went out (accidental) but even before this, the gloopy cheese and simmering wine just didn’t want to be friends.

I think the Maple Chicken ‘n’ Ribs would have been nice, but I managed to overcook these just a little:

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Sorry Nigella.

However, on the basis that the good recipes were really, seriously good, this book is a definite keeper. And you know the best bit?

There are still loads of recipes left to try!

january with james

Before you go thinking that I’ve gone and got myself another man for 2015, let me bring you back onto the track of my actual 2015 resolutions, one of which was to cook from a different cook book each month. January was the month of James Martin. So, yes, I did enjoy another man for a month, but not in the way you thought.

Slightly awkward introduction over, what did I learn this month? I’ve set myself this challenge in order to widen my cooking repertoire and decide which cookbooks are worth keeping. Did this book break my cooking rut? Is it a keeper or a bleeper?

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I think this book was a Christmas present a few years ago. The burnt cover might suggest it has been well-used – but, in actual fact, I think we’ve only tried one or two recipes. The rest of the time, the book appears to have been used as a rather unsuccessful trivet. So, with ‘comfort food’ written all over it, what better month to try this book than cold, unforgiving January?

The food, the bad and the ugly

Caramelized braised beef, with a strong flavour of balsamic, was a hit with all of us, as an alternative to a traditional roast. We cooked the Paillard of Chicken – cooked chicken breasts topped with mozzarella, Italian ham, sage, and chutney – when friends came for dinner, and it had that great appeal of being both easy to cook and special to eat. The Roast Cod with Smoked Garlic and Vanilla Mash was a revelation – not the cod, which I often find rather flavourless, but the idea of adding vanilla to mash, which I’ll certainly do again.

Believe it or not, I was keen to try the Calves’ Liver with Port-flavoured Pan Juices. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I know, but we used to eat liver fairly regularly prior to having the kids, and felt now was the time to educate them. Perhaps it was that the butcher only had pigs’ livers available – but this recipe ended up a little more mediocre than one might have expected. Not awful, just mediocre. I would give the same rating to the Chicken with Plum- and Sun-dried Tomatoes.

I wasn’t surprised that a Yorkshire-born batchelor chef hadn’t included a Vegetarian section – but, as we try to eat veggie food three or four nights a week, I had to look a bit more closely to find any ideas on this. The search was rewarded with a few dishes which could easily make it into our regular repertoire: one, beer-battered red pepper fritters – incredibly quick and easy, but very scrummy. I think they were meant as a starter or snack, but padded out with some chips and lots of veg (because, try as I might, I couldn’t really justify deep-fried veg as being one of our 5-a-day), they proved a more-than-adequate evening meal. The next day I used leftover batter to fry some courgettes, and they worked well too.

Another unlikely veggie main course was a Rustic Tomato, Bread and Basil Soup – thickened the Italian way with chunks of ciabatta, and cooked in white wine, it made a very hearty and tasty main course. Then there were a couple of veggie pizzas – red onion and creme fraiche (a combination I’d never have dreamt up in a million years, but surprisingly good), and anchovy and rosemary. OK, so this one isn’t strictly veggie. But you could change the toppings easily – the main difference here was that the pizza was made on a ciabatta, sliced horizontally. A quick and easy solution to home-made pizza when there’s no time to make a base.

Besides the main dishes, I tried a lovely Olive Focaccia with Rosemary Oil – which worked brilliantly in the bread machine – and several puddings. The Banana Tarte Tatin was good, but I always find these a bit of an unnecessary faff, so not sure I’d try it again. The Lemon and Goat’s Cheese Tart divided those who tried it, and the Hot Walnut Tart was only average, like the Lemon, Pine Nut and Brown Breadcrumb Cheesecake. However, everyone who tried the Chocolate Ginger Cheesecake and the White Chocolate, Whisky and Croissant Butter Pudding (served alongside each other at a Sunday lunch gathering) agreed that they were keepers. The latter sounds sickly, but no, it really worked!

Is it a keeper?

For a restaurant chef, James Martin’s recipes – many of them, at least – have been pared down to dishes that are easy to cook. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by how little time some of them took to put together – useful for a weeknight, which is when most of my cooking happens.

But there are also quite a few recipes in this book which feature ingredients that would take a lot of effort to source – duck and game, random fish and specific brands of goat’s cheese, for example. Not to say you shouldn’t bother with these ingredients every so often, but the amount of these sorts of recipes in the book didn’t really tally with the ratio of how often you’re likely to cook them. Which was a shame, as it means that the book isn’t quite as crammed full of helpful recipes as I’d like it to be. However, there’s enough food in here that I’m likely to crave miserably if I give the book away – so, on that note, it’s a keeper!

2015: the year of books (part two)

Wow, thanks for so many recommendations of books for 2015! Here is my list – you’ll notice it’s a little short of 12, to allow for a couple already on my bedside table, and any book reviews which may come up this year. I’m grateful for such a diverse array of fascinating-sounding books – thank you! They are (in no particular order):

Better than Sex – Hunter S. Thompson

Compared to her – Sophie de Witt

The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde

The Secret Life of a Lonely Postman – Denis Theriault

Hands-free Mama – Rachel Macy Stafford

Bread and Wine – Shauna Niequest

A Praying Life – Paul E. Miller

Attention All Shipping – Charlie Connelly

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle – Barbara Kingsolver

The night circus – Erin Morgenstern

I suspect some of these titles will take me much longer than a month to really digest, so it might be that I start overlapping titles, in order to savour them for longer. But……….

……..how exciting is it, to have a tailor-made list of ten books which your friends love??!! I can’t wait to get stuck in!

The second challenge

My second challenge for 2015 is to make better use of my cook books. For a keen cook, I don’t have a huge selection, but I have more than I use. So, each month, I’ll take one book, and cook through it as best I can, using as many recipes as possible over 30 days or so.  Why do this?

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* I love to be adventurous with food, but feel that my cooking got stuck in a bit of a rut in 2014

* I want to know whether chefs’ recipes actually work in practice, for quick and easy midweek meals, as well as longer weekend menus. Do they deliver on flavour, or just look pretty?

* I want to get to know my cooking library better, to know which books to keep and which to charity-shop.

I’ll blog about this each month, recommending cook books and pondering just how ‘workable’ recipe-book recipes actually are.

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So there are my challenges. If I only read six books this year, I’ll not feel that that’s been a waste of time. And if I discover just two fab new recipes, likewise, I won’t complain. There will be no guilt, and there will be a good amount of celebration during 2015 – because if you can’t keep up previous resolutions, then what’s the point?