Category Archives: Food

Week 8 – easy all-in-one turkey roast

Having picked up a rolled 1.5kg piece of turkey breast at a bargain price the other week, I went in search of a suitable recipe for how to roast it – it needed to be something not too awfully complicated and that wouldn’t mean spending the entire afternoon in the kitchen. After quite some searching around and drawing a blank, M found this recipe (in German) and we decided to follow it. I haven’t found a direct equivalent in English so am going to write up my version of it here, including some modifications to the original. It was amazingly tasty, and the best thing about it was that you had the meat, vegetables and a magically generated gravy all in one roasting tin…

Stuffed rolled turkey joint with vegetables

Ingredients

2-3 cloves of garlic, cut into slivers
75g fresh spinach (we actually used a bag of baby-leaf salad, containing spinach, chard and rocket)
a medium-sized onion, finely chopped
125g mozzarella, diced (I might try feta next time)
1.3-1.5kg rolled turkey joint (the original recipe suggested the piece should be about 3cm thick)
6 slices Parma ham (or equivalent variety)
2tbsp olive oil
750ml chicken stock
200ml dry white wine
1kg root vegetables, cut into largish bite-sized chunks (I used potatoes, carrots, celeriac)
250g shallots, peeled (halved or quartered if larger ones)
several peeled, whole cloves of garlic (optional)
fresh thyme
 

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 175°C or equivalent. Roll out the turkey on a chopping board. Make small incisions in it and push the garlic slivers into these. Then lay the ham slices over the turkey, followed by the spinach leaves (removing any thick stalks beforehand), chopped onion and mozzarella. Season with salt and pepper, and you could also sprinkle over some thyme. Then roll up the turkey as tightly as you can and tie it up securely with kitchen string. Place in the centre of a generously sized roasting tin (any stuffing that fell out during the rolling process can be placed under the joint) and brush with olive oil  – you might not need the whole 2tbsp if the turkey still has skin on it. Mix the chicken stock and wine in a jug and ladle some of this over the meat before putting it into the oven for 45 minutes. You will probably need to ladle over some more of the liquid once or twice during this time so that the bottom of the pan doesn’t dry out and burn.

2. When the 45 minutes have elapsed, add the vegetables to the tin, along with some fresh thyme and the rest of the reserved liquid. Give the veg a good stir in the juices, then return the pan to the oven for another 45 minutes.

3. Leave the meat to rest briefly when it is done, then cut into thick slices and serve with the vegetables and gravy.

turkey

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Quick mango and lemon cake

Yesterday I found myself needing to produce a cake fairly quickly and at short notice. I’ve probably mentioned before that I’m not much of a one for baking, and as usual I spent far too long leafing through cookery books and magazines, only to find that I couldn’t find a recipe that I really fancied and that matched the ingredients I had. The one “must-use” ingredient was a very ripe mango that was getting dangerously close to the point at which it would suddenly become not very appetising any more, but all of the (not very many) mango baking recipes I could find were either very complicated, too rich for my taste, or a bit odd sounding (mango and chilli cake, anyone?).

I ended up having to improvise on both the recipe and the final list of ingredients, though the final result was a great success. And now it’s time to write it down before I forget…

Ingredients

1 ripe mango
1tbsp cornflour
a handful of raisins
a dash of lemon or lime juice
150g self-raising flour (or plain flour with a generous teaspoonful of baking powder)
150g soft butter or margarine
125g sugar (I used fine light cane sugar)
150g ground nuts (I used half almonds, half hazelnuts)
1tsp ground cinnamon
½tsp ground nutmeg
½tsp ground allspice
1 egg
zest of 1 lemon

 

Method

1. Peel and dice the mango, mix with the raisins, cornflour, lemon or lime juice and set aside.

2. Mix the other ingredients thoroughly and divide this mixture roughly in two.

3. Spread half the mixture in the bottom of a greased, loose-bottomed 18cm diameter cake tin.

4. Pour the mango mixture in on top of this, and spread it around a bit.

5. Add the other half of the cake mixture on top of the mango, distributing it as best you can. I put it on in small clumps, and the finished cake had quite a pleasant bumpy look to it – like a thick, almost solid sticky streusel topping.

6. Bake at 180°C (fan 160°C) for about 50 minutes. Check it after about 30 minutes, and if it is looking too brown, cover in foil.

7. I left the cake in the tin to cool, which probably helped to conserve some moisture. It was certainly easy enough to remove it from the tin.

Variations on a theme

  • I love the combination of mango and root ginger, so next time I might add some finely grated ginger either to the cake batter or to the fruit mixture. Having said that, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a cake recipe that asked for fresh root ginger (instead of stem ginger or ground ginger) – is there a good reason for that, I wonder?!
  • The cake would probably work well with any softish fruit; I might use a bit more sugar (say, 150g total) for the cake mixture if using a fruit that was more acidic than mango.
  • I’d love to try the recipe with a fresh dark cherry filling, and grated dark chocolate instead of the spices.

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Great British Food Revival: sardine beccafico

This last week we’ve watched several episodes of the current BBC series Great British Food Revival, and it’s been GREAT fun as well as very informative and mouthwatering watching all the different chefs’ fresh takes on forgotten or out-of-fashion ingredients. The (half) episode on sardines was one of the most interesting so far in that it celebrated this wonderful little fish that is plentiful off Britain’s shores but whose image was marred for many of my generation by it being presented most frequently in tinned form, as pilchards. I was lucky to rediscover it in its fresh form at some point in the mid-1990s but I have to admit that I’d more or less forgotten it again since.

We decided fairly spontaneously that we really NEEDED to get hold of some proper sardines and cook one of the recipes from the programme this weekend. All the Mediterranean-inspired recipes suggested by Giorgio Locatelli sounded great, but we decided that we’d have a go at the sardine beccafico, just because it struck us as more different and unusual than the other recipes included.

First catch your sardines: well, we’re lucky that we have some shops with really good fish counters here (which really doesn’t go without saying in Southern Germany!), but as (bad) luck would have it, we weren’t able to get hold of any fresh sardines. A 500g container of whole frozen sardines would have to do, so into the fridge it went to defrost. The recipe called for 4 medium-sized sardines (and the ones in the picture acompanying the recipe are certainly very sizeable), but instead we had about ten rather itty-bitty ones, which made filleting them a bit fiddly, but we managed it in the end.

I became rather less enthusiastic once it came to assembling the stuffing. The ingredients suddenly struck me as a pretty odd mixture, and after blending my olives, capers, almonds and lemon juice I was left with a rather grey, slimy sludge that tasted quite odd. And the next batch, including raisins, pine nuts, anchovies, parsley, orange juice and some smuggled-in garlic turned out a very unfetching beige and tasted really very strange indeed. All this was mixed with a load of breadcrumbs and I had the distinct feeling that my concoction could best be used to stick some bricks together.

But I soldiered on and stuffed my sardine fillets as instructed, and actually assembling the dish was a lot less fiddly and messy than I’d expected. The fish rolls went into the oven for all of about 8 minutes total, and meanwhile we prepared a green salad and some crusty bread to accompany them.

The end result was – not forgetting all the misgivings and challenges that had crept in during the preparation – actually pretty tasty, and quite different from anything else I’ve cooked. For me, oily fish HAS to be served with something acidic, and from that point of view the strong citrusy taste of the filling was an excellent foil. Overall, though, the citrus taste was probably too dominant (for our tastes at least) in that you couldn’t really detect the normally quite punchy taste of a lot of the other ingredients olives, anchovies, capers etc.). Admittedly, we did use fairly mild, not overly salted olives and anchovies, but even so…

We’ve decided that we’ll definitely use this recipe again, but we want to try it with some different elements next time:

  • some more substantial kind of fish fillets, maybe herrings or mackerel
  • more garlic and maybe some finely chopped shallots in the stuffing, to make it more savoury – the increased cooking time needed by more substantial fish would mean that this could also have a chance to cook through better
  • a bit less citrus: juice and zest of a both a lemon AND an orange was slightly overpowering overall, though we are slightly conflicted as to which of these to leave out
  • this same (modified) stuffing, maybe with a little parmesan or feta added, would also make a great crust for baked white fish
  • depending on the choice of fish, a punchier choice of herb such as thyme might work really well

By the way, I did take a picture of the finished dish, but as it wasn’t a patch on the one you can see on the BBC website I decided not to include it. You can view my latest Flickr uploads via the right-hand sidebar, though ;).

 

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Success!

Just a quick post this week – it was a really mammoth week, one of the busiest I can remember in a long time, but I survived. I’m hoping for rather more peace, sleep and flexibility in the week ahead. Some creative inspiration would be nice, too, though I mustn’t be too greedy, I know…

In a post about herbs that I wrote back in May, I also mentioned some chilli seeds that M had sown. Well, here are some of the results two-and-a-half months later (I think there are two plants in this pot) – I really hadn’t thought that chilli plants could be quite so attractive as they have turned out to be: the blossoms are beautiful! And if you look carefully, you may be able to see that there’s a good crop of chillies coming; in fact, I’ve been quite amazed at how quickly they have developed. I hope they’ll turn red in due course, at which point I’ll take another picture. And then I’ll cook some and dry the rest, and photograph the results. And so on and so forth…

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Goat’s cheese and asparagus quiche

I made this quiche this week, and very nice it was too. When I posted a picture of it, several people asked me for the recipe. And so, without further ado, here it is…

Ingredients

  • Enough pastry to line an approx. 30cm round flan dish (or equivalent)
  • Oil, for frying
  • About 12 spears of green asparagus, trimmed
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 80-100g cubed bacon or ham (optional)
  • 3 eggs
  • 300ml milk
  • 1 tbsp cornflour*
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • Fresh herbs (I used thyme but might try sage next time for a punchier flavour)
  • 120g “goat log” cheese (preferably smallish diameter), thinly sliced
  • Salt & pepper

Method

1. Roll out the pastry and line the greased dish with it. Allow to rest briefly before trimming the edges (do leave enough excess for shrinkage, though), pricking the base with a fork, lining with foil, putting some baking beans (or equivalent) in the base and baking blind at 200C/fan 180C/gas 6 for about 15 minutes. Lower the oven heat by 10C / 1 gas mark  after this period and remove the beans and foil from the pastry case.

2. Meanwhile, fry the onion gently, together with the bacon (if using). Slice the asparagus diagonally into lengths of 3-4cm and add to the pan once the onions and bacon have had a chance to take on some colour. Continue to fry gently until the asparagus has softened and any excess liquid has more or less evaporated.

3. Beat the eggs together with the milk, cornflour and mustard. Add some pepper, plus salt if you feel it is necessary (bacon / ham and the goat’s cheese also contain a fair amount of salt, normally).

4. Arrange the asparagus mixture evenly in the base of the pastry case. Sprinkle with herbs; ham cubes could also be sprinkled over at this stage, if you are using them instead of bacon. Pour over the egg mixture carefully to just a fraction below the upper edge of the pastry case; do not overfill, though. Arrange the slices of cheese evenly on top.

5. Bake at the slightly lower oven temperature for about 40mins. Allow to cool for a few minutes before serving with crusty bread and a green salad, though something tomatoey might also go well with it.

* Quiche purists (if there is such a thing!) might not approve of adding cornflour, but it did prove useful in binding any remaining moisture in the asparagus and thus stopping the quiche from getting a soggy bottom! ;-)

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Herbs galore – now what to do with them?!

Several weeks ago I planted some very small herb plants, and the combination of April showers and quite a bit of sunshine with mild to warm weather since then has led to them exploding. Most of them have now reached the stage where they can be used liberally in cooking, and it’s fantastically rewarding, I find, to have all these fresh flavours so readily available throughout the summer.

I’m determined to make the very best of what’s out there this year, and for that reason I’d like to use this post to ask about your tried and tested favourite recipes or tips for cooking with fresh herbs. Yes, I do have recipe books and (obviously) an internet connection, but over the years it’s been almost always the case that my true favourite recipes have come as a personal recommendation from friends, family or acquaintances. ;-)

The picture shows just what’s outside the french windows in the living room – at the top there’s coriander (l), oregano and tarragon (r), in the hanging pots there’s an aubretia (just for decoration – not planning on eating it!) and a nasturtium (now with a stonking orange flower), then at the bottom there’s a jungle of (l-r) rosemary, sage, Moroccan mint, thyme, lemon thyme and lavender. Upstairs on the roof terrace outside the landing window there’s more lavender, parsley, lemongrass, strawberry mint, Thai basil and some (still very small, grown by M from seed) chilli plants.

The herbs I seem to be harvesting most of at the moment are coriander (curries and Mexican food), thyme (anything Mediterranean), tarragon (great in salad dressing and with fish) and that old stalwart, parsley. There are a couple of others, though, for which I’d be particularly grateful for culinary tips…

Sage advice, anyone?

I adore sage and use it relatively frequently with pork, and it also combines well with olive oil, garlic and parmesan to make a simple pasta sauce or (in greater concentration) pesto. I also love sage tea, though I have a very big pack of dried sage bought during the winter that I’m ploughing through for that purpose. The “problem” this year is that the sage plant has already grown to be absolutely mahoosive, with the biggest leaves I’ve ever seen on such a plant. And for that reason I’d like to extend my repertoire of dishes that call for it.

What shall I do with all this (lemon) thyme on my hands?

M is a big fan of lemon thyme, and I have to say that whatever he cooks with it does indeed taste very good. However, my preference is clearly for the more ordinary variety – if I want something to taste lemony, then I’ll put some lemon juice or zest in it. However, maybe someone out there knows of a dish (or a drink or other use – it doesn’t have to be “food” per se) where lemon thyme works really well and has a definite advantage over its more down-to-earth relative.

Anyone got recipes that are worth a mint?

This is where my German friends are expected to say “But you eat mint sauce with everything, don’t you?” and I roll my eyes skywards and grimace. Asterix has a lot to answer for! In actual fact, I really went off mint at some point after childhood, and it’s only now that I’m really appreciating it. Yes, it IS good with lamb, and I use it a lot in Indian cooking (various curry sauces and raita) and Middle Eastern / North African dishes (e.g. tabboulé). However, that still seems a bit of a narrow palette and I’d be glad if I could extend it somewhat. Tea made out of fresh mint is also delicious – I sometimes also mix it with fresh root ginger for a really zingy drink – but I’m looking for more strictly food-based ideas in this case.

Why are there no bad puns on “oregano”?

Oregano seems to be another of those staples everyone has in their herb and spice rack, but I can’t claim ever to have done anything very memorable with it. I tend to use it mostly in combination with other herbs, sometimes in salads or with Italian and Greek food. It really doesn’t have a strong profile with me, though.

~~~

I’d be really delighted to receive some tips and tricks for the herbs I’m a bit stuck on, and indeed on any of the others mentioned. And now I’m off to cook a curry!

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100 foods to eat before you die

Cutlery (colour)

Knives and forks

Continuing the food-related themes I’ve been writing about of late (not that I intend this to be my sole source of subject matter), I was intrigued to come across this 100 foods to eat before you die list. It’s been doing the rounds as a Facebook app and there are countless blog entries that deal with it, so I can’t reliably say who came up with it, only that I found the complete, unedited list here.

It seems to have originated in the United States: although there is quite a bit of diversity of cuisines and ingredients included, it contains quite a significant number of things that are easily identifiable as quintessentially American, including chicken and waffles, clam chowder, biscuits and gravy, as well as a number of other things I hadn’t heard of and that don’t seem to have found international recognition. Some of these I have looked up in the meantime, but any items that baffled me initially I have marked with a question mark.

I’ve crossed off all the items on the list that I’ve tried, and the grand total is: 54. This compares really very favourably with the predicted average total of twenty items, though I am still some way behind friends who have travelled more widely, grew up with a wider range of these foods or have more adventurous palates.

I’ve also picked out a few of my personal favourites (comments in green) as well as a few items I either don’t like or think are overrated (comments in red). At the end of the list you can find out which further items I’d most like to try, those I’d prefer to avoid, and a few suggestions of my own.

  1. Abalone
  2. Absinthe
  3. Alligator
  4. Baba  GhanoushI adore aubergine, and although I find this dip fiddly to make, the taste is SO worth it
  5. Bagel and lox
  6. Baklava
  7. Barbecue ribs
  8. Bellini
  9. Bird’s Nest Soup
  10. Biscuits and gravy
  11. Black Pudding - one of those foods from home that I miss here (German Blutwurst is similar, but not the same and tends to be served differently)
  12. Black TruffleI can’t really understand the appeal of either black truffle or white truffle. They both seem to add a slightly mildewy note to things
  13. Borscht
  14. Calamari
  15. Carp
  16. Caviar
  17. Cheese fondue
  18. Chicken and waffles
  19. Chicken Tikka Masalapossibly not my favourite curry ever (I prefer ones that are more coconutty and a bit hotter), but definitely one of the best items on this list
  20. Chile Relleno ?
  21. Chitterlings/Chitlins ? (I’ve heard of this but can’t remember what it is)
  22. Churros
  23. Clam Chowder
  24. Cognac
  25. Crabcake
  26. Crickets
  27. Currywurstdefinitely not a favourite: I don’t like sausage and chips, or the sauce, or the sprinkling of curry powder
  28. Dandelion wine
  29. Dulce de leche
  30. Durian ?
  31. Eel
  32. Eggs benedict
  33. Fish Tacos
  34. Foie GrasI’ve written about my dislike of this before – I really don’t see the appeal at all (and it’s not exactly good for the goose or for the person eating it)
  35. Fresh Spring Rolls
  36. Fried Catfish
  37. Fried Green Tomatoes
  38. Fried Plaintain
  39. Frito Pie ?
  40. Frog’s Legs
  41. Fugu ?
  42. Funnel Cake ?
  43. Gazpacho
  44. Goat
  45. Goat’s milk
  46. Goulash
  47. Gumbo
  48. Haggis
  49. Head CheeseI’ve only had this once, in France, in a truckers’ hotel we ended up in at the end of an exhausting 100km+ bike ride. The most welcome meal ever! It’s called fromage de tête in French, which sounds so much more poetic, doesn’t it? ;) (edit: originally had this in red, but could also be green, hence “neutral” black…)
  50. Heirloom Tomatoes
  51. Honeycomb
  52. Hostess Fruit Pie ?
  53. Huevos Rancheros
  54. Jerk Chicken
  55. Kangaroo
  56. Key Lime Pie
  57. Kobe Beef
  58. Lassi
  59. Lobsteralthough I went through the whole of my childhood seeing the piles of lobster pots at the harbour in Aberystwyth, it wasn’t until well into adulthood that I actually tried lobster. Verdict: wow!
  60. Mimosa (I guess a strong Buck’s Fizz counts ;))
  61. MoonPie ?
  62. Morel Mushrooms
  63. Nettle Tea
  64. Octopus
  65. Oxtail Soupin its tinned variety, a childhood trauma (and I haven’t felt moved to try a better version since)
  66. PaellaI got to know and love this dish at a shooting club in Tübingen, of all places. The (public) restaurant there was run by the Spanish wife of the guy who ran the outfit, and a large group of us would often go there on special occasions, when Carmen would serve up these huge pans of garlic-infused goodness
  67. Paneer
  68. Pastrami on Rye
  69. Pavlova
  70. Phaal
  71. Philly Cheesesteak
  72. Pho
  73. Pineapple and cottage cheesecottage cheese is excellent stuff and I could eat it by the carton, but I really don’t like pineapple in combination with anything savoury
  74. Pistachio Ice Cream
  75. Po’ boy ?
  76. Pocky ?
  77. Polenta
  78. Prickly Pear
  79. Rabbit Stew
  80. Raw OystersI’m inclined to say these are highly overrated, though I have had them only once and that was without any kind of dressing (other than a bit of seawater and sand): I’m told a good vinaigrette makes all the difference
  81. Root Beer Floatdefinitely doesn’t float my boat. The two ingredients should be served separately
  82. S’moresIn my case, s’lesses (far too sweet and sickly)
  83. Sauerkraut
  84. Sea Urchin
  85. Shark
  86. Snail
  87. Snake
  88. Soft Shell Crab
  89. Som Tam ?
  90. Spaetzle
  91. Spam
  92. Squirrel
  93. Steak Tartare
  94. Sweet Potato Fries
  95. Sweetbreads
  96. Tom Yum
  97. Umeboshi ?
  98. Venison
  99. Wasabi Peas
  100. Zucchini Flowers

A few things on the list I’d like to try

Borscht – not really sure why I’ve not had it before (I prefer the impossible-looking German “beatbox” spelling Bortschsch)

Crabcake – I’ve got several recipes for Thai-style crabcakes, so this is something I should definitely try making

Dandelion wine – the sound of this has always had a magical quality. I expect you can create your own fairytale world if you drink enough of it. I have recipes for wine made out of various common or garden plants among the old recipes I wrote about here.

Kobe beef – just to see what all the fuss is about

Snails – they’re a fairly local speciality here, so I think I should try them

A few things on the list that I wouldn’t touch with a bargepole

Abalone, bird’s nest soup, sea urchin, snake – these all sound ecologically and/or ethically dodgy in some way (though maybe the same could be said for many of the things I’ve eaten and enjoyed. Hmm)

Chicken and waffles, chitterlings (I have now looked them up), crickets, squirrel, sweetbreads – I find all of these ideas a bit stomach-churning

Items I’d add to the list

Pakistani mangoes – I love mangoes in any case, but the elongated, yellow Pakistani ones – which Kavey introduced me to – are the most exquisite in flavour, perfume and texture

Traditional mature Cheddar cheese – I’ve tried a lot of cheeses in my time, but nothing beats this. It’s such a pity that the mainstream market (esp. outside Britain / Ireland) is flooded with poor imitations

Fresh tuna steak – I know there are ethical issues with particular species of tuna, but if you can get a sustainable, reliably sourced and dolphin-friendly variety (feel free to add any further criteria I may have forgotten), then do try it. I’m happy enough to eat tinned tuna, but the fresh stuff is something else entirely.

Pickled walnuts – eaten with cold meats after Christmas, pickled walnuts remain one of my favourite foods in the festive season (not that there is any reason not to eat them at other times!)

San Daniele ham – this is cured roughly in a similar way to Parma / serrano hams, but I find the flavour superior

Suet crust – another of my favourite comfort foods from home

Morellino di scansano (red wine) – this comes from the same area of Tuscany that produces the prestigious (and pricy) Brunello di Montalcino. It’s a fraction of the price and on almost every occasion I’ve been able to compare the two wines one to one, this one has been the distinct favourite. As the name may suggest, it has a deep cherry flavour, and it’s been one of my favourite wines for years now.

Have you tried any of the more unusual things on the list? Have I missed out on anything spectacular in the dishes I put a question mark next to? I’d love to read about other people’s “scores” and experiences with any of these foods / dishes.

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Digesting last week’s meal plan

Just a very brief post today – I’ll try to get something more substantial out later this week, but I thought I’d jot down some thoughts on the meal plan thing I did last week.

Positive outcomes

  • no messing around spending too long deciding on meals when tired.
  • shopping was quick and easy, even catering for the extra days around Easter when the shops would be closed.
  • varied and tasty meals, no sameyness.
  • fewer not-very-necessary appetite-led purchases, and overall it didn’t seem an expensive week in terms of food shopping.
  • the new recipe – Goan fish curry – was really fantastic, and I’ll certainly use the spice mix as a basis for a range of curries in the future.
  • I also made progress with falafels – they were significantly better than on my first attempt, AND I managed to use up a slightly over-ripe (but still delicious) mango to make a sauce that went really well with them and was a nice contrast to the yoghurt-based sauce.
  • there was definitely less food wastage through being able to foresee opportunities to use up anything I’d forgotten about.
  • the one meal we had out at friends’ made me realise – delicious and beautifully cooked as it was – that I’ve actually done a better job in terms of balancing food groups and general nutrition considerations (on the whole).
  • I had various people commenting on this idea over on Twitter, and a big bonus is that I actually got sent some really tasty looking new recipes, which I will definitely be trying out soon.

Negative outcomes

  • Silly me did rather miss that frisson of “Ooh, what shall I cook tonight?” spontaneity, even though overall it was a good thing not to have the attendant cluelessness.
  • If I do it again, I might want to be a bit less specific about exact components (though I did vary things a bit as it was – we ended up with rabbit on Sunday rather than lamb or chicken, but it was healthy and less pricy than lamb).
  • It’s made me think that I should have thought harder about what I eat over the course of the day, not just in the evenings – my breakfasts are quite variable and I could have done a better job adapting them to complement whatever was on the menu later in the day.

Still, overall the negative points are far fewer and pretty mild, really – I had to think a lot harder to come up with them! I think I’ll carry on with the weekly planning, making a few adjustments based on the points outlined above. I shan’t be blogging it every week, though (that would be tedious), but if I discover any interesting new recipes or combinations I might write about those from time to time.

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On (not) making a meal of things…

I’ve seen a number of bloggers doing a weekly Monday post about meal planning for the week (known as “Meal Planning Monday”) and thought I’d have a go, mainly as an experiment to see whether I fancy sticking to it and to see if it saves me any effort in thinking or ambling cluelessly around the supermarket during the week.

I’ve never got into the habit of planning meals a great deal in advance, mainly because I’ve not felt the need to: I’m not responsible for feeding a horde of people on a daily basis, I manage to shop and subsist fairly cheaply as I don’t buy much convenience or “luxury” food, AND I have five supermarkets, an organic food shop, a health food shop and the local market all within 200m of where I live. I very much value the flexibility and choices that I have and don’t see compelling reasons to give them up. When I was mostly cooking for one, my substitute for daily meal planning was to cook a big pot of stuff that would last me several days; nowadays, though, I quite enjoy cooking almost every day, partly because there are more often than not two (and sometimes more) of us eating together, and partly because I find it somehow creative and therapeutic.

However, there are things about the day-by-day way I subsist that sometimes bother me. Food waste is the biggest one. While I am, on the whole, really good at using up leftovers and using as much as one can of the ingredients I buy, very perishable foods do sometimes get the better of me, for example dairy products such as cream or yoghurt: while it’s no doubt better for the waistline to use just part of a carton of cream in preparing a meal rather than a whole one, there’s no virtue whatsover in letting the other half go rancid and nasty at the back of the fridge, only to throw it out in disgust some time later. I’ve improved a lot when it comes to yoghurt, but there’s still a way to go yet…

As for fruit and veg, you can only feel smug about the “healthy” content of your shopping basket if you actually eat the stuff… I have to admit that a significant factor here is laziness and the time pressure of going shopping after work, at the last minute: a one-stop-serves-all-purposes trip to the supermarket is often all I can fit in, and the supermarket I tend to find most convenient on the way home sells a lot of its fruit and veg pre-packaged in quantities that are frequently a bit too large. I’d do better to buy hand-selected quantities elsewhere (ideally at the market, in season) for the things I find hard to use up in the bulky pre-packaged quantities – mushrooms and spinach being good examples (and frozen spinach simply isn’t the same). I also need to re-programme myself to take some fruit with me to work – I really don’t have a sweet tooth whatsover and don’t see the point of leaving space for dessert – therefore I find it really hard to get a decent amount of fruit into my diet, except perhaps in very hot weather. I do like fruit smoothies, but I seem to labour under a permanent misapprehension that they are time-consuming and messy to make (stupid, I know, but the lazy part of my mind is the most stubborn, it seems).

Better planning of meals might get me to shop better in this respect, but I’m also hoping it might help me to balance my diet more evenly. If I know I’m having meat, cheese or whatever for the evening meal, I can eat something else earlier in the day. Yesterday, though, I had cheese three times, in an example of particularly poor planning, and the fact that I also cycled nearly 60km still doesn’t excuse that lack of variety, even if it means not all of it will immediately land on my hips. I also find that if I’m feeling tired, uninspired or particularly hungry after a day that has not left much time for eating, I am more likely to go for something meat-based that may also be quite fatty. Normally I have no problem using more white / lean than red / fatty meat and having a good representation of fish and seafood, vegetarian and the occasional vegan meal on the menu, but a bit of more careful monitoring might be a good idea nevertheless.

But anyway, enough sounding off about nutrition and food use: what exactly am I going to cook this week? Here is what I’ve come up with…

Monday: Potato and courgette bake

I bought a pack of five courgettes at the weekend and still have two or three left: I’ll certainly use up two in this recipe, as well as some potatoes that are still perfectly good but have been around for a while. Ditto for a handful of wild garlic leaves: I’m going to blend them with some fresh (home-grown!) sage and a small leftover amount of ricotta to add a bit of sauce to the bake.

Tuesday: Baked chicken breasts with asparagus

There was green asparagus on special offer today and I snapped up a pack as it tends to sell out quickly. It’s great baked in a dish in the oven with a little olive oil, lemon juice and garlic (if I still have a courgette left after tonight, I’ll chuck that in as well), and I’ll simply bake the chicken breasts at the same time. I may stuff the breasts with herbs or marinate them first – I’ll see what’s available. This is a quick and easy dish that is really tasty as well as being fairly healthy (depending what you stuff the chicken breasts with!).

Wednesday: Falafel with pita bread / wraps and salad

I love pretty much anything made with or out of chickpeas, and they’re a great basis for a load of meat- and dairy-free dishes (though I certainly have nothing against combining them with those ingredients, either, and will be doing so here). I made falafel for the first time the other week, having found several recipes that appealed to me because they used tinned chickpeas (something I always have in, as opposed to the dry variety) and were done in the oven rather than fried. I think I used this recipe but added a bit of olive oil to the mixture and then simply baked them on baking parchment. To be served with pita bread or wraps, a Greek-type salad, and a mint and yoghurt sauce. At some point I’d like to find a really tasty vegan sauce as an occasional alternative to the yoghurt-based one, but I don’t like tahini, hummus is too samey as it’s made out of chick-peas, and I don’t much fancy a tomato-based sauce with them. If you have any ideas, please leave a comment!

Thursday: Pasta

This will probably be penne, though I haven’t decided on a sauce yet – in all likelihood it’ll be based on tinned chopped tomatoes and whatever fresh vegetables are available – I always try to put plenty of veg in pasta sauce – though possibly with tuna and anchovies, or a small amount of bacon. Whatever it is, it’ll be a fairly simple dish as Wednesday’s and Friday’s dinners will be a bit more fiddly to make.

Friday: Goan Fish Curry

I’ve written before about my love of Indian food, and I was very excited when Dave brought this recipe to my attention. Not only does it promise just the kind of curry I enjoy most – coconutty and hot – but the description talks about all kinds of variants and different ways of preparing the dish. I’m really very excited about trying this and decided that Good Friday – traditionally a fish day – was probably as good a day as any to give it a go.

I’ll probably simply do rice to go with it, plus a raita of some sort, which will use up the rest of the large pot of yoghurt I’ll be buying for Wednesday’s meal (see? I’m getting better).

Saturday: tbd

Saturdays are most frequently a day for entertaining, and as I don’t yet known what is going on, who is around or who will get to do the cooking, I’ll leave this one empty for now.

Sunday: Roast lamb or chicken

I don’t make a big deal out of Easter and definitely won’t be scoffing chocolate all day, but I like the excuse of a special holiday to do a roast dinner. M may want to be in charge of this one and he certainly does a mean roast – I’ll let him decide whether it’s to be lamb or chicken. Whichever of us is chef de cuisine for the day, I think it’s more or less a given that we’ll have the baked/roast potatoes out of the Hamlyn Herb Book (whole potatoes sliced almost through at ~3mm intervals, brushed with olive oil & sprinked with rosemary and sea salt before roasting about an hour in the oven) and something green on the side.

How do you plan your meals, and what are your main challenges when it comes to trying to make sure you’re eating a healthy and balanced diet?

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My top 5 cookbooks

Today I’m taking inspiration from Ruth, whose post on this topic made me curious as to which cookery books I’d select from my largish collection as being my favourites. In the end the choice was quite simple – there really is only a handful of recipe books that I keep going back to again and again. So here are my five, with a brief bit of information about what makes each one  a firm favourite…

1. Good Housekeeping Cookery Book

50th Anniversary edition – published by Random House, 1998

If I had to pick just one cookery book to keep from here to eternity, I think this would be it. Unless I’m looking for something from a particular cuisine (e.g. Indian), this is invariably the place I look first for inspiration. It strikes – for me – exactly the right balance between traditional and modern, familiar and unfamiliar, manageable and challenging, healthy and tasty, text and pictures. It is mercifully free of both pretentiousness and over-simplification while including really helpful selections on buying, storing and preparing everyday foodstuffs as well as more unusual ingredients.

For me, the test of a good cookery book is whether most of the recipes are such that, if they were to appear in a magazine, you would cut them out and keep them. I can open this book at any page and immediately find something delicious.

As a result, it’s extremely difficult to pick out a favourite recipe or two, but the rabbit casserole with red wine and sherry and the filo pastries with feta and herb filling are certainly a couple that I’ve made quite often.

2. The Essential Vegetarian Cookbook

(German edition: Vegetarische Küche)

Originally published by Konemann UK, 1997

I’m not a vegetarian, but I eat a lot of food that is, plus I have several friends who don’t eat meat. Given that it’s not healthy to eat meat every day in any case, I get exasperated at people who either think it’s not a proper meal if it doesn’t contain meat, or whose world order disintegrates if it turns out that one of their dinner guests is vegetarian.

The back story to this recipe book is that M and I originally bought it as a gift for a friend who was finding it hard to find inspiring things to cook for his vegetarian partner and had developed an “awkward” tendency to diss vegetarian food. Sensing that a gentle nudge in the right direction was needed, we chose carefully, wanting to avoid anything that was too reminiscent of his “rabbit food and lentils” stereotype of vegetarian food and looking instead for something that fitted in with his own tastes.

This book ticked all the right boxes – modern, fresh ideas with plenty of Mediterranean influences as well as forays into Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines: exactly the kinds of things our friend loves to cook (and so do we, which is why we ended up buying a second copy of the book). There is also an excellent section on nutrition at the front of the book, which is well worth a read in itself and is certainly not restricted to vegetarians in its scope.

This being a very recent addition to the cookbook shelves, I haven’t actually made any of the recipes yet but have already pored over it for hours working up quite an appetite. I love the look (and the imagined flavour) of the hummus with beetroot, there’s a great-sounding carrot lasagne (yes, really!), and I can’t wait to try some of the savoury scones, muffins and polenta recipes.

3. 50 Great Curries of India by Camellia Panjabi

(German edition: Indische Currys)

originally published by Kyle Cathie, 2004

Funnily enough, this book was a gift from the friend mentioned above, and although I already possessed several Indian cookery books (including The Curry Cookbook, a throwback to my student days…), this one quickly became my favourite.

It’s an almost ritualistic book – each recipe is prefaced by an interesting explanation of any unusual features and about the part of India and/or cultural milieu the dish comes from, and Panjabi cuts no corners in the preparation of each: no ready-made spice mixes, purees or pastes are used, and whole spices form the starting point for almost all the recipes.

The detailed introduction is a real culinary eye-opener and adds considerably to this ritualistic feel, explaining – among other things – the philosophy of Indian cuisine, the impact that the method and order of preparing / adding your spices has on the flavour of the dish (dry-roasting, frying in oil, when to add liquid etc.), the importance of balancing ingredients such as ginger and garlic (the former raises blood pressure, while the latter lowers is), and different ways of using and combining ingredients.

My favourite recipes from this book are the lamb madras, chicken dopiaza, and aubergine curry. The most surprisingly delicious one has to be the watermelon curry, which I thought would be awful but actually works really well.

4. Backen! (= Baking!)

(only available in German, as far as I know)

published by Gräfe & Unzer, 2005

I don’t bake much as I find it quite scary, and the reason I find it scary is probably that I don’t bake much. Nevertheless, I thought it was important to have a good staple cookery book for baked goods so that I couldn’t use the lack of a suitable book as a further reason not to wield the hand-mixer. And this is the one I settled on.

Its 450-odd pages are jam-packed with recipes, usefully subdivided into common or garden cakes, cakes with fresh fruit, gateaux (Torten), muffins and pastries, biscuits and cookies, bread, pizza and savouries, with the odd but welcome addition of a final – and very detailed – section on coffee and tea. Most sections are further divided according to what kind of pastry, dough or cake mixture  (the word Teig covers all of these) forms the basis for the recipe – Rührteig, Mürbteig, Hefeteig, Blätterteig, Brandteig, Plunderteig, Sauerteig, Quark-Öl-Teig or whatever.

I have a friend who is a very proficient baker, and she dislikes this book as it doesn’t have any pictures. “I want to see how it’ll look when it’s finished!” she protests. Given that the stuff I bake only rarely comes out looking as it’s supposed to, I hardly feel that I need see this as a disadvantage. While pretty pictures can be appetizing and nice to look at, there’s nothing I dislike more than cookery books where more than 50% of the entire book consists of pictures. This book contains 888 recipes, and that’s the reason why I bought it.

My occasional forays into baking have seen me make several of the savouries in this book – they’re fantastic for parties, picnics or feeding a crowd in other situations – and there’s a rather fabulous baked cherry ricotta cheesecake with an amarettini base and almond topping. Yum!

5. Farmhouse Kitchen

published by Yorkshire Television, 1975

This is a 1970s cookery book based on the Yorkshire TV series of the same name. It has a glorious naffness to it as a result, but also some hidden jewels that are priceless – please bear with me while I explain.

As the name suggests, the emphasis is on traditional cooking, and as I’m someone who’s interested in the history of food and its part in culture, that’s something I’m all for preserving. Many of the recipes are submitted by viewers from all over the country, so there is a lot in terms of regional variety. There are some pretty odd sounding concoctions in part (there is one recipe called “Love in disguise” which seems to be stuffed sheep’s hearts, and a “Thatched house pie” that requires “1 dressed pigeon”(??) as its main ingredient), including some of those inimitable 1970s attempts at crossover cuisine: sausages in sweet and sour sauce, anyone?

Many of the recipes still bear the signs of postwar thrift – using cheaper cuts of meat, making the most of leftovers, preserving food – and reveal skills and a standard of nutritional value many people struggle to keep up with today. It’s good to have a book like this in the house, to remind you of what home economics really is about.

Despite the oddness of some of the recipes, there are some really reliable ones for traditional favourites such as Yorkshire parkin, old-fashioned puddings (pineapple upside-down pudding – yay!) and a whole range of good, wholesome comfort food. I’m also determined to try some of the pickles and chutneys, maybe even the wine recipes.

The best thing about this book, though, is the fact that it belonged to my grandmother, and I kept it mainly because here and there in between the pages there are scraps of paper she’d scribbled her own recipe memos on (some of these pre-date the book, including one for home made “pietsa” (her spelling was actually very good, but pizza was simply not so common in Britain back then)), or newspaper cuttings, leaflets and so on. The value of the book itself only became apparent to me later.

Snippets from Grandma's cookery book

If you are interested in seeing what other people picked as their top 5 cookbooks, you can find out here.

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