Friday 30 May 2008

The saga of Ina's pancakes

Anyone who thinks that cookery writers effortlessly produce brilliant recipes like a rabbit from a hat should reassure themselves that we struggle like everyone else. Or at least this one does.

I've just spent the best part of two days (sorry, Matt*) trying to recreate some fantastic breakfast pancakes I had in a Chicago diner called Ina's last year. Appropriately enough they were called Heavenly Hots. When I finally extracted the recipe from the proprietor Ina Pinkney (who, as you can see from her picture, looks like a fairy godmother - exactly the kind of person who would make a perfect pancake) I couldn't believe it would work, it contained so little flour. But as they were the best pancakes I'd ever eaten I gave them a go.

I tried three different versions and just couldn't get them to hold together, despite mixing the ingredients ever so gently so as not to disperse the batter. I'm not going to give up, of course, but will have to wait until I hear back from Ina what I've done wrong. In the meantime I've rustled up a batch from the Foolproof Pancake recipe on her website which are almost equally good.

(*Matt, btw, is the book designer. A lovely guy and fellow Liverpool fan.)

Ina's Perfect Pancakes
Makes 6 large pancakes (so theoretically enough for 3, but suspect two would make short work of them)

10g butter + another small slice for greasing the pan
90g plain flour
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp caster sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 large egg
150ml buttermilk
50 ml whole milk (i.e. not semi-skimmed)
A few drops of vanilla extract (optional)
2 tbsp oil
Fresh fruit and honey to serve

You’ll need a medium sized frying pan or griddle.

Set the oven on to its lowest setting or turn on your plate warmer. Heat the butter in a small pan until melted and set aside. Sift the flour, bicarbonate of soda, caster sugar and salt onto a plate. Lightly beat the egg in a medium-sized bowl and gently mix in the buttermilk, milk, cooled butter and vanilla extract if using. Sift the dry ingredients into the batter and fold in with a metal spoon - just enough to incorporate any pockets of flour but still leaving it looking alarmingly lumpy. (Don’t worry, it’s supposed to be like this).

Heat the oil and the remaining butter in a small pan and set aside. Heat a medium frying pan or pancake pan until moderately hot. Scrunch up a piece of kitchen towel dip it in the oil/butter mixture and rub it round the pan. Scoop out a coffee cup or small ladle of batter and pour it into the pan, tilting the pan a little so it spreads out to give you a pancake about 12cm wide. Cook for a minute until the surface is covered with tiny bubbles (about 1-1 1/2 minutes) then flip over the pancake and cook the other side. When both sides are lightly browned transfer to a warm plate in the oven and repeat with the remaining batter, greasing the pan lightly between each pancake. Serve warm with fresh fruit such as blueberries or strawberries and drizzle with honey or (less frugally) maple syrup

By the way, a useful tip. It's easier to get honey to drizzle - or measure it accurately - if you dip your spoon in boiling water first. Applies to golden syrup too.

Thursday 29 May 2008

Loaves and fishes

I've been focussing on the respective costs of buying and making bread this week and must say the gulf between the two came as quite a shock. A 1.5kg pack of strong white flour, admittedly not the best you can buy, costs just 48p in Tesco this week. Strong brown costs 89p and stoneground wholemeal 93p. 1.5kg of flour is enough to make 3 big loaves. Even allowing for the cost of the other ingredients and running your oven at full blast for an hour that's a considerable saving.

I've posted the recipe for the bread I made yesterday (above) on Beyond Baked Beans. The original came from Signe, a young Norwegian post-graduate student (and trained cook) who is currently helping me out with the book. I was a bit sceptical of the idea of adding what amounts to a large bowl of porridge but it gives the loaf a fabulously moist texture. We've just had some toasted with honey for breakfast and it was terrific.

The other bargain buy yesterday was the dabs I bought for a song in the farmers market. Well, not quite a song - they were a pound each but because there was only one left when we'd bought our four they threw in a fifth free. There's not much fish on them so they're a bit fiddly to eat but the flavour is fabulously sweet - just as good as sole at a fraction of the price. We simply dusted them in a little seasoned flour and pan-fried them in butter.

Incidentally I was riveted to read on the site Sea Fishing when I looked up dabs that the recommended bait was 'a slightly stale lugworm'. I wonder how you tell if a lugworm is stale? Any fishermen reading this do tell.

Wednesday 28 May 2008

Couscous is local too

Felt the need for a break from the book so we went down to the centre of Bristol for the weekly farmers' market (where I got an amazing fish bargain, of which more tomorrow)

I'd also heard there was a Portuguese food shop round the back which I thought might be the best place to buy salt cod. There's a dish I remember having way back in Oporto which was a bit like a fishy gratin dauphinoise based on salt cod, potatoes and cream which I thought would make a good addition to the book.

The very nice woman behind the counter explained exactly how to make it but I rapidly realised it wasn't going to be a quick (or, of course, particularly healthy) option. What I should do, she said, was just cook it with potatoes, lots of onions and olive oil which sounds typically Portuguese but not quite so delicious. It'll keep for a few days though so I've got time to think about it.

The whole area is brilliant for adventurous foodies. The Portuguese family who own the shop (O Celeiro) also run a tiny restaurant and takeaway, there's a South African shop called Kalahari Moon (I think, although that does sound more like a place that sells crystals, always possible in Bristol), a Caribbean wrap stall, great cheese and olive stalls and an excellent Moroccan restaurant which serves couscous and - wait for it - o ye felafel lovers, felafel!

Of course we had to try it and I have to say it was very good. Quite different from the Israeli/Egyptian kind - curiously soft so they must have either added a lot of water to the chickpeas or incorporated some gram flour (the latter, I suspect). The spicing was spot on though and they served it with a really delicious yellow pepper and sultana relish I hadn't come across before and which would be good with carrot too, I think.

It also brought home that buying and eating local isn't just about supporting my charmingly old-fashioned neighbourhood shops but the rich variety of different food cultures that Bristol has to offer. I don't think I could live in a better place.

Tuesday 27 May 2008

Global food prices - the sobering reality

My efforts to save the odd pound here and there are put firmly into perspective by a sobering series of reports in the Guardian today and on their website

For millions of people it's not a question of cutting back but of surviving.

While food only accounts for an average 10% of the expenditure of UK households it can account for as much as 80% of that of poor families in the developing world. This Food Diary of a family in northern Cairo shows how prices have nearly doubled in the past year.

Two other things I read really struck home. First that land that could be used for growing food for Egypt's growing population is used to grow out of season crops such as beans and strawberries for the UK market. Second just how much fertile land it takes to feed livestock. According to the Guardian report, one acre of land can produce 138lbs of protein from grain but only 20lbs of protein from beef.

We should all be eating a lot less meat.

Monday 26 May 2008

Mexican salsa chicken

A hectic couple of days testing and writing up recipes. This is the stage of a book I don't enjoy. It's a bit like being 8 months pregnant. You wonder why you did it but it's too late to go back ;-)

However I'm more than happy with the last recipe of today. In fact I can't wait to make it again. It's an idea I picked up from the American food blog Serious Eats on which one of New York's most famous chefs Mario Batali was writing about a meal his Mexican babysitter (well, presumably his children's babysitter) made regularly for the family. It's based on tomatillos, a fabulous sharp tomato-like ingredient it's difficult to find here in the UK but I wondered if you could substitute tomatoes. The answer - happily - is that you can. My daughter, Kate, who is obsessed with salsa is just going to love this.

Mexican salsa chicken
Serves 4-6

1 kg chicken thighs or thighs and drumsticks
750g ripe tomatoes, skinned and chopped
1-2 mild onions (about 200g in total) peeled and roughly chopped
3-4 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
1-2 chillies, de-seeded and roughly chopped
rind and juice of 2 limes (preferably unwaxed)
A good bunch or large pack of coriander, well washed and trimmed
3-4 tbsp olive oil
1-1 1/2 tsp salt
2 spring onions, trimmed and finely shredded (optional)

You will also need a large casserole or deep frying pan

Remove the skin from the chicken thighs and drumsticks. Skin the tomatoes by making a cut in the skin, pouring the boiling water over them, leaving them for a minute then plunging them in cold water. Put the peeled chopped tomatoes, onions, garlic, chillies and rind and juice of the limes in a blender or food processor. Cut the stalks off the coriander, chop roughly and add them to the blender goblet then whizz together until you have a liquid but still rough-textured sauce. (You may have to do this in two batches.)

Heat 2 tbsp of oil in the casserole or frying pan and tip in the salsa. Add 1 tsp salt and the skinned chicken, turning it in the sauce, Bring to the boil then turn the heat down low and simmer for about 45-50 minutes until the chicken is cooked and the salsa reduced and thick. Roughly chop half of the coriander leaves (about 3 heaped tbsp) and add them to the pan. Stir and cook for 3-4 minutes then check the seasoning, adding more salt if you think it needs it.

Serve the chicken with warm tortillas or with brown rice, drizzling over a little olive oil and scattering over some more chopped fresh coriander and some finely shredded spring onions, if you have some. (It doesn't have to look quite as leafy as it does in the picture. I just got a bit over-excited as I usually do when coriander is around.)

Saturday 24 May 2008

Scotch eggs and other yummy things

Just thought I'd draw your attention to Mark Hix' column in the Independent today where he offers some budget recipes including ham hocks in parsley sauce, meatballs and (my favourite) homemade Scotch eggs.

Unusually for a celebrity chef, Mark, who was brought up in Dorset, has his feet firmly on the ground. (Apart from admitting he did most of his shopping for the feature at Waitrose!)

Friday 23 May 2008

Mushroom 'caviar' Mark II

There are some recipes you get obsessed with and have to go on testing until you crack them. This is a fantastic spread that they sell in the takeaway of our local Bristol restaurant, Culinaria.

I asked the chef, Stephen Markwick how they made it and he just rattled off a list of ingredients - as chefs do. I had a go and the taste was fine but it was a bit heavy. This morning I popped by when they were making a batch and found the reason was that I'd used butter and hadn't added enough crème fraîche so hopefully this version will work. Have a try and let me know how you get on.

The only downside is you do need a food processor to chop the mushrooms finely enough. Or I think you do. Tell me if that isn't the case.

Serves 6-8
2 shallots or 1 small onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1 clove of garlic, peeled and chopped
3 tbsp sunflower oil
350g button mushrooms, wiped clean and quartered
200g tub of crème fraîche
2 tbsp finely chopped tarragon leaves
Salt and pepper and a good squeeze of lemon juice
Olive oil

Put the onion and garlic in the bowl of your food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Heat the oil over a low heat in a medium to large heavy bottomed saucepan or frying pan and cook the onion and garlic gently until starting to soften (about 4-5 minutes) Chop the mushrooms very finely in the food processor and tip into the pan with the onions. Stir and cook over a very low heat, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes until the mushrooms have the consistency of a thick paste. Take off the heat, stir in the creme fraiche and return to the pan and cook for another 15-20 minutes until the mixture has thickened again. Stir in the chopped tarragon and season to taste with salt, pepper and a good squeeze of lemon juice. Tip into a bowl and cool, trickle over a tablespoon or so of olive oil to stop the surface from discolouring and refrigerate. Serve at cool room temperature with wholemeal toast.

Thursday 22 May 2008

Standing out from the crowd/Marmite

Walking past the butcher just now made me think there's a lot to be gained by doing the opposite of what everyone else does. Bank holiday weekend coming up - what's going to be in the shops? Burgers, kebabs and marinated chicken. What does the smart frugal cook do? Make a stew. Bake a pie. Use the cuts that nobody else wants (well nobody except the people reading this blog!)

Lamb breast I noticed had come down to £4.76 a kilo - that's about 43p less a kilo than it was last week. There were large organic guineafowl on sale for £4.99 - with care that's enough for six helpings and some quality stock.

Checking out the weather forecast this weekend looks like it's going to be chucking it down in the West Country anyway so it's not exactly ideal barbie weather. What are your plans, foodwise?

Slicing skills

A sharp knife, I’ve realised, is one of the most useful tools for the frugal cook. Being able to slice foods wafer thin not only makes them look more voluminous but often improves their texture and taste.

Take cheese. If you cut yourself a 50g chunk of cheddar - a reasonable sized portion - it looks pretty mean. But if you sliced off 50g of cheese in fine slices with a sharp knife or Scandinavian-style cheese slicer you’d immediately feel you’d got more on your plate.

Same with a tomato. Cut it into four and it looks small. Slice it thinly and you feel you’ve got twice as much.

The Italians are past masters at stretching a joint by cutting meat wafer-thin and arranging it on a platter with some simple meat juices or sauce spooned over. You need to rest a joint to be able to do this so don’t take your roast straight from the oven to the table.

I’ve also recently bought a mandolin (above) a razor-sharp slicer which cuts even finer slices than I can manage with a knife (with a little added finger if you're not careful). Below is a fennel salad I made from a small fennel bulb which was easily enough for two. It’s based on a salad they make in our local fish restaurant Fishworks. You dress the fennel with oil and lemon juice and season it with finely chopped chilli and mint. It’s a great salad to serve with tinned tuna, those tubs of crayfish or thawed frozen prawns (the small North Sea ones are much better value than king prawns)

The authentic Japanese mandolins are not cheap but I found this one in my local kitchen shop for £7.95 - about the price of a decent knife.

Tuesday 20 May 2008

Do you still think in Fahrenheit?

Just a quickie before I shoot off to London - what are the most useful oven temperatures to give in a recipe? I routinely put Centigrade, Fahrenheit and gas but don't include a fan oven temperature which I note many of the food magazines now do. How many of you have a fan oven?

I've also given up listing imperial measurements (i.e. pounds and ounces) so wonder if any of you still like to see those in a recipe? I've noticed a number of the local greengrocers seem to have reverted to pricing their fruit and veg by the pound. Probably because it looks cheaper . . .

Monday 19 May 2008

What happened to the breast of lamb

Confession time. I've never cooked breast of lamb before, having been put off by the decidedly fatty boned, rolled roasts of my youth. But at £5.19 a kilo for organic lamb it's too good a bargain not to try.

Last night I slow-roasted it on the bone, as advocated by Graham the butcher - slightly too long I think. It was so lean that it dried out a little. But with the creamy chard gratin, the beet greens and a few roasted spears of asparagus from the farmers' market it was a feast.

Unusually for me I tackled the leftovers straight after the meal, pulling the meat off the bone and marinating it in a few spoonfuls of garlicky vinaigrette. (Good for the lamb, not so good for the fridge which reeked of garlic when I opened it this morning.) I also saved the crisp outer skin in a separate piece.

Tonight I crisped up the meat and the skin in a little hot oil. I seasoned the meat generously with ground cumin, a little chopped onion and a tablespoon of chopped fresh mint and scissor-snipped the crisp skin into it. I rescued the last of Saturday's salad greens, lightly dressed them with oil and vinegar and tossed in some peeled, chopped cucumber I found lurking in the veg drawer of the fridge. Then I arranged the salad on our plates, topped it with one of the roasted beets, cut into chunks, piled the meat on top, drizzled over some yoghurt and sprinkled over some chopped herbs.

It was actually pretty good - like a deconstructed doner kebab with veg - but one of those dishes for which you can't really give a recipe as it's too off the wall.

It did prove, however that lamb breast is a good buy. The two breasts I bought would have easily served six and were really tasty. Graham told me they're at their best at this time of year because they come from animals who have been grazing on winter grass and which are therefore nice and lean (as opposed to spring lambs which gorge on summer grass and run to fat).

Off to London tomorrow for a couple of days' meetings and catching up with the kids. I'm really looking forward to seeing them but it's hard to break off in the middle of a book especially when a deadline is looming. And the publisher is reading my blog ;-)

PS There's a useful post (I hope) on Beyond Baked Beans today on how to save money on pasta which, as I'm sure you know, has gone up 81% in the last year. Scary.

Sunday 18 May 2008

Eats Stalks and Leaves

This is the bunch of beets I bought at the farmers' market yesterday. Beautiful isn't it? And a few months ago I'm ashamed to say I would probably have thrown two thirds of it - the leaves and stalks - away.

Now I know better. I roasted three of the beets for salads. I saved one which I shaved raw onto a pizza base smothered with soft goats cheese and topped with finely cut fennel (more about the virtues of wafer thin slicing to come . . .)

I cut off the beet leaves, washed them, tore them off their stems and wilted them in a pan with the water that was still clinging to the leaves, drained them and tossed them in a little oil and soy sauce. Fabulous. Even better than spinach. And the stalks are still sitting in the fridge waiting to be turned into . . . what? I'm not sure because they'll turn anything they come in contact with magenta pink. A stir fry? A soup? Probably the former.

I also made a gratin from the stems of the chard I bought on Friday which I couldn't quite bring myself to throw away. I had some recollection that's what the French do - use the leaves as a vegetable or in a paté and save the stalks for a gratin.

I chopped up an onion, softened it in a little oil and butter, chucked in a few thyme leaves, added the chopped chard and cooked it for 2 or 3 minutes. Then I stirred in a spoonful of flour, added about 150ml of milk, brought it to the boil and waited until the sauce thickened. Finally I stirred in a spoonful of crème fraiche (not strictly necessary but it was almost at its use-by date) and about 25g of grated Grana Padano, tipped the whole lot in an ovenproof dish, grated over some more cheese and flashed it under the grill. Again, it worked out really well. I took the remains down to the neighbours downstairs to stop us scoffing the lot.

It made me think how much we needlessly throw away. Parsley and coriander stalks, for instance can be used to flavour any recipe for which their leaves are a garnish. Spinach and watercress stalks can be sweated off along with their leaves for soup. Why chuck them? They taste great and once you've bought the basic ingredient they're free.

Friday 16 May 2008

My final verdict on the veg box

Well, in the end I made it. Just over a week after picking up my box I used the last vegetables. Apart from a few potatoes which should keep for another few days.

This is the soup I made from the last scrubby remains - and they really were quite scrubby

I can't say it was easy. It took a lot of time and thought. I certainly spent more time in the kitchen than I would otherwise have done.

It didn't provide all the veg I needed. Well, fair enough in a way - it's a difficult season for growers stuck with the tail end of winter and not yet into spring. They weren't to know we would have a sudden heatwave. But it was galling to be eating cabbage when I yearned to eat asparagus. And infuriating not to have any onions.

It wasn't expensive, granted but I could certainly have spent less shopping at my local greengrocer. As it was I still dropped in for fruit and fresh herbs. But - a plus - I did spend less on meat and we certainly ate our 5 a day.

More than anything I think it's a question of the way you like to shop and cook. I like to see what's in the shops then make that a starting point for the next couple of days' eating. Usually, I admit, that process starts with meat so I find it restrictive to have to think how I'm going to use up some rather uninspiring veg instead (it wasn't a particularly good box). If I hadn't worked really hard at it and been determined not to chuck anything out I think I'd have been left with half the contents still on my hands.

Maybe you just have to get into the veg box habit? Or is it easier if you're a veggie? If you've been having one for years do tell me how it works for you. But I'm off to the farmers' market tomorrow!

Meat and potato pie

Here's the last but one product of the veg box and my recent trip to the butcher - a meat and potato pie. A bit like a Cornish pasty filling with carrot (by this time quite dessicated) and swede (given away by the greengrocer it was looking so sorry for itself). It should feed 6 though I suspect four would make short work of it. It's equally good cold as hot - if not even better. It would make a great picnic pie.

The downside? It takes a fair time to make because it's best to chop the meat and vegetables by hand. If you had a sophisticated food processor with grating and slicing dish you could probably cut the preparation time in half but don't mince the meat.

Serves 6

400g beef skirt or lean braising beef, trimmed of fat
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 medium carrot, peeled
Half a small swede, peeled
450g potatoes, peeled (e.g. Desiree)
2 medium sized onions, peeled
1 level tsp fine sea salt
1 rounded tsp white or black peppercorns, freshly ground
For the pastry
250g plain flour
90g chilled butter
90g chilled Cookeen or other vegetable shortening
A good pinch of salt
4-6 tbsp iced water
1 medium egg, lightly beaten (for glazing the pie)
You will also need a large round shallow pie dish or a deep flan dish about 24-26 cm in diameter

Measure out the margarine or butter and lard, wrap each piece in foil and place in the freezer to harden for at least half an hour. Cut the beef into very small cubes, put in a large bowl and mix with the Worcestershire sauce. Cut the carrot and swede into similar sized cubes, quarter and finely slice the potatoes and finely chop the onion. Add the vegetables to the meat, season with salt and pepper and mix well.
Measure the flour into a bowl and grate in the semi-frozen fats, dipping each block into the flour as you go. Cut the fat into the flour until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs then sprinkle over 4 tbsp of the iced water. Work in the liquid with a flat-bladed knife, adding enough extra liquid to enable you to pull the mixture together into a ball. Put the pastry onto a floured board, shape it into a flat disc then place in a plastic bag and chill it in the fridge for half an hour.
Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/Gas 6. Grease the inside of the pie dish lightly with butter, tip the filling into it and pack it down well. Moisten the rim of the pie dish with water. Roll out the pastry to a circle slightly wider than the diameter of the dish and carefully lay it over the meat mixture. Press it down lightly inside the rim and trim off any overhanging pieces with a sharp knife. Cut a slit in the centre of the pie and brush the surface with the beaten egg. Decorate the pie with the pasty trimmings. Bake the pie for 30 minutes then turn the heat down to 160°C/325°F/Gas 3 and bake for another 45 minutes to an hour depending on the depth of the dish, covering the pastry loosely with foil if it gets too brown. Remove from the oven and cool for 10 minutes before cutting into it. Or leave to cool and serve cold.

Wednesday 14 May 2008

Why you should cultivate your butcher

You might think as a frugal cook the last place to shop for meat would be an organic butcher. But you'd be wrong. Making friends with your butcher - organic or not - is a sound strategy.

Yesterday I took up an invitation to spend some time behind the scenes with Graham Symes of Sheepdrove Farm, the butcher up the road. We'd been chatting about cheap cuts and he said he'd show me exactly where on the animal they were.

First he pointed out a fantastic upper rib cut on a joint of beef that sells for less than half the price of the prime rib joints (for £6 rather than £15 a kilo). For organic beef! A boned and rolled joint of brisket is almost £7 cheaper per kilo than an equivalent topside joint.

The cheapest pork joints are again from the fore-end which includes the thick end of the belly, the hand (which I bought at the weekend for £3.99 a kilo) and the spring.

With lamb, shoulder is obviously much cheaper than leg (about £11 less a kilo) but there are many inexpensive cuts on the bone such as the breast which make fantastic meals. I ordered one for the weekend which I was thinking of boning and rolling up with herbs but Graham suggested that I cook it slowly on the bone then take off the meat which would be less fatty. (You get cooking tips too)

He admitted that most people turn their nose up at cheaper cuts, a point perfectly illustrated a few minutes later when a customer came in and casually bought four sirloin steaks for £36. I bought a 700g piece of goose skirt (a beef belly cut) for £7.75. We ate about a third of it last night thinly sliced in the French style (like an onglet or bavette) and will make a big meat pie or pasty today - with some of the remaining carrots and potatoes in the veg box - which should serve four, possibly even six.

The other bonus of going to a good butcher (apart from the not inconsiderable advantage that you know where the meat has come from and that it's properly hung) is that they know how to cut and trim it so you're not paying for a lot of waste. What supermarket can offer that?

I know I'm lucky to have a shop like this within walking distance so what's your experience? Do you use a local butcher and if so how does it work out costwise? Do you find them cheaper than supermarket meat? What are your best buys?

Tuesday 13 May 2008

A super slaw

In desperation about what to do with my remaining cabbage in this hot weather I made a coleslaw - and it was some slaw! Recipe below but it also used up one of the veg box carrots, some leftover fennel and herbs and half of one of the two rather sad-looking apples in the fruit bowl. We had it with some cold pork - the remains of Sunday night's roast - and, I'm embarrassed to admit, scoffed the lot. (In the case of my husband with some eye-wateringly hot Hyderabadi chutney)

Ready-made coleslaw is so dire, so over-mayonnaisey, that you forget what a cracking salad it can be. Perfect for a barbecue. Perfect for using up leftovers.

Serves 4

1/2 a good quality cabbage e.g. Hispi or Savoy
1/2 a small onion or 3-4 spring onions
1 medium carrot, trimmed and peeled
Fennel trimmings or 1 stick of celery
1/2 an apple
1 1/2 tsp lemon juice
2 heaped tbsp mayonnaise
2 heaped tbsp plain yoghurt
2 heaped tbsp chopped fresh herbs such as parsley, dill or tarragon
Salt and pepper

Remove the central core and outer leaves from the cabbage and shred finely. Tip into a bowl of iced water and leave while you prepare the other vegetables. Peel and finely chop the onion (or trim and slice the spring onions), grate the carrot, finely slice the fennel (and chop the leaves if you have some), chop the apple and toss it in lemon juice. Mix the yoghurt and mayonnaise. Drain the cabbage thoroughly and put it in a bowl with the other vegetables. Tip in the yoghurt and herbs and toss together. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and leave the slaw in the fridge for at least 30 minutes, preferably an hour then toss again, scatter with a few more chopped herbs and serve.

Monday 12 May 2008

The veg box experiment - days 3 and 4

Managed to make significant inroads into the veg box over the weekend, polishing off the remaining courgettes (as a veggie accompaniment to some baked fish with a punchy tomato and olive sauce), the leeks and a couple of potatoes and half the cabbage (with a roast hand of pork with wild herbs and garlic). I blanched the cabbage then tossed it in a little oil I'd flavoured with yet more garlic and a sprig of rosemary from our neighbours' garden (No, I didn't nick it - they gave it to me!) Cabbage and rosemary is a good combination.

The highlight though was a leek and tarragon frittata (above) which also used up half a bunch of spring onions, some parsley stalks and a couple of sprigs of tarragon I had in the fridge. The problem with this particular veg box is there are no herbs so I've had to buy those from our local greengrocer, Terry.

I have to say it's a lot more fun buying from him than it is interacting with a box. You can see what's looking good and have a bit of a chat. His prices are good and a fair amount of his produce is local. But not everyone has a greengrocer five minutes down the street.

What's left? Quite a lot of potatoes, still - we don't eat many potatoes but they'll keep, the carrots and the remaining cabbage. Not a wildly inspiring selection for a warm May day but I'll find something to make with them to accompany the leftover pork. Coleslaw probably.

Saturday 10 May 2008

Courgette, leek and cauliflower soup with Manchego

We were out last night so the veg box experiment resumed this morning. I discovered that one of the courgettes was already going mouldy at the end (not good) so thought I'd better use a couple of them up along with the rest of the cauliflower. This was the result. The Manchego - another fridge leftover - was a last minute addition because the soup tasted a bit bland. Rather good though.

Serves 4
3 tbsp olive oil
2 medium leeks, trimmed, washed and finely sliced
2 medium courgettes, trimmed and sliced
1/2 a cauliflower cut into florets (cooked or uncooked) or a small potato, peeled and finely sliced
2 sprigs of mint
600-700ml vegetable stock made with 2 rounded tsp vegetable bouillon powder or an organic vegetable stock cube
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3 heaped tbsp chopped fresh parsley
About 20g grated Manchego, Pecorino or other hard sheeps' cheese* + extra for serving
Olive oil for drizzling - optional

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan, add the leeks, courgettes and potato (if you're using that rather than the cauliflower), stir, cover the pan and cook over a low heat until the veg start to soften. Add the cauliflower if using, a couple of springs of mint and 600ml of the stock and bring to the boil. Simmer until the vegetables are tender (about 15 minutes) then rest off the heat for 5 minutes. Remove the mint and pass the soup through a food processor or blender or whizz up with a hand-held blender. Reheat and check for seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste and a little more stock if it's too thick. Stir in the parsley and grated Manchego and recheck the seasoning. Serve in warm bowls with extra Manchego grated on top and/or a drizzle of olive oil.

I have to say this is not the prettiest soup I've ever made but it's quite tasty. Any leftovers can be frozen.

* or parmesan or even good old cheddar. Just don't make it too cheesy and gloopy.

Friday 9 May 2008

Warm cauliflower, egg and anchovy salad

Here's what I did with half the cauliflower in my veg box. Normally my first thought would be cauliflower cheese but the weather's so warm and balmy I fancied a salad instead.

Serves 2

2 large eggs
1 medium-sized cauliflower, trimmed and cut into florets
3 tbsp olive oil
1/2 bunch of spring onions, trimmed and finely sliced or a small onion, peeled and chopped
1 x 50g tin of anchovy fillets
1 tbsp capers, rinsed and chopped
2 tbsp finely chopped parsley + a little extra for decoration
1 tbsp red or white wine vinegar
Salt and pepper

Hard boil the eggs for 10 minutes, drain and leave in their shells in cold water. Steam or microwave the cauliflower until just tender (about 7-8 minutes). Heat the olive oil in a frying pan over a low to moderate heat and fry the spring onions for a couple of minutes until softened. Take off the heat and mix in roughly half the steamed cauliflower. Drain the anchovies (reserving the oil which is good for drizzling over pizzas) and chop half the fillets finely. Shell and chop one of the eggs. Tip the anchovies, eggs, capers and parsley into the cauliflower together with the vinegar, toss together and season lightly with salt and pepper (go easy on the salt because of the anchovies). Tip the salad onto a serving plate or divide between two plates. Shell and quarter the remaining egg and arrange over the salad along with the remaining anchovies. Scatter over a little more parsley and serve with some crusty bread or new potatoes.

If you don't like anchovies or not quite as much as we like them you could save the other half of the tin for topping a pizza or adding to a pasta sauce. The leftover cauliflower will make the base for a curry - as would any leftover potatoes.

Faffing around with falafel

These are the falafel I made last night. Not bad for a first time attempt, eh?

A word of advice, though. Don't even think about it. By the time I'd discovered my neighbour's food processor wasn't up to the task and transferred the mixture to my more powerful blender then found even that wouldn't break down the chickpeas and tipped them into a bowl and chopped the herbs and ground the spices and washed up the mountains of equipment and crockery I had used I must have spent a good two hours in the kitchen.

They tasted good, granted but to achieve that light fluffy texture that the best falafel have I suspect you need to have several generations of felafel-making in the family or be cooking them every day of your life. They're one of those foods like croissants or strudel pastry that you could master if you spent a year or so perfecting your technique but why bother when you can sate your falafel-lust at any halfway decent street stall?

Anyway the good news is that the accompanying salad leaves from the veg box were very tasty and that there were enough for another helping today. Later on I'm tackling the cauliflower . . .

Thursday 8 May 2008

My veg box challenge

Have just picked up my veg box and this is what's in it:

1 medium-sized cauliflower
1 spring cabbage - hispi, I think
A bag of mixed salad leaves (enough for 2)
4 medium courgettes (435g)
4 leeks (450g)
4 medium carrots (445g)
and just over a kilo of potatoes

My first reaction is that even though this is organic produce it's quite expensive for £8.50 - probably about £1 more than I'd pay in a shop. I'd expect to pay that if they delivered it but we had to collect it.

The produce looks reasonably fresh except for the cauliflower which feels a bit limp.

There are no onions which is a bit of a pain as it means I'll have to substitute leeks (for which I can think of better uses) or go out and buy some. And the shops - apart from ever-open Tesco - are now shut

And cabbage is not exactly what I feel like eating in this weather. But it's hardly the fault of the growers that we've suddenly plunged into a heatwave.

The key to not wasting a veg box I've discovered from previous experience is to decide what needs to be used up first - in this case the salad leaves and the cauliflower. The courgettes and leeks should be used next then the cabbage and finally the carrots and potatoes which have a protective covering of earth.

Off to the kitchen . . .

Tuesday 6 May 2008

Musings about falafel and veg boxes

Yesterday we went to the annual Redland Mayday fete - the first time we've been since we moved to Bristol. It was a huge affair, absolutely packed out with people of all ages. A real community get-together.

Inevitably I had to try the food and picked a falafel stall run by the Falafel King. They sold really big chunky flatbreads stuffed with falafel, coleslaw and red cabbage salad topped with tahini and smoked chilli dressings which you could add to taste. I've never made felafel from scratch but it's such a great food I'm thinking I might give it a try.

Only problem is I don't have a food processor in the flat and I'm wondering if my blender would actually cope with dried - or rather cooked - chickpeas or whether I'd have to add so much liquid it would make them too sloppy. Any thoughts welcome.

I've also ordered a veg box for Thursday. Normally I like to go to my local greengrocers or the market and see what's looking good before I decide what to buy but I know many people order veg boxes and then wonder what to do with them so I thought it might be a useful element of the book.

I've had one in the past and always enjoyed it for the first few weeks but then struggled with backlogs of butternut squash and kohlrabi and longed for some more variety. It does make you eat a healthier, more veg-centric diet though. My daughter Jo is passionate about hers.

Friday 2 May 2008

'Premium' sausages - worth the money?

Finding myself with a quarter of an hour to kill before an appointment yesterday I dived into Sainsbury's and had a snoop around to see if they had anything good in the way of bargain buys.(Cheap pineapples, btw)

What was more interesting (to sad anoraks like me who are obsessed with such things) was the pricing on their sausages. They had three ranges - cheap branded, their own-brand Butcher's Choice and their premium Taste the Difference.

The TTD ranges, which tend to be higher in meat at 85%-95%, were (and are regularly) on offer at two 400g packs for £4, a pretty reasonable £1 a head. Those are the ones I'd choose if I were cooking up sausages for friends but a single pack will cost you £2.25

The Butcher's Choice range however was on a BOGOF (buy one get one free) offer of two packs for £1.75. True, less meat (72%) but the traditional British banger always had a fair proportion of rusk. That's a really fantastic way to feed a hungry family.

At £1.49 for 454g Walls' sausages would have been the cheapest but for this offer but they have less meat still (63% in total though they do itemise exactly how that's made up - 44% belly, 12% shoulder and 11% pork fat. 'Meat' always includes fat in a sausage) They also have that ultra-smooth pasty texture that I imagine can only be achieved by adding a fair amount of water to the mix. Richmond (£1.80 for 454g) are similar but with even less meat (52%). I really can't see the point in buying either of those.

I hate to say it but having tasted my way through many sausages in my time (I once wrote a book called Sausage and Mash) I think that supermarket own brand sausages do have the edge over independent butchers' and meat producers. Some of the worst sausages I've tasted have been organic ones. Sad but true.