Friday 29 May 2009

Quick chickpea, spinach and turmeric curry

Having been reading a lot recently about how incredibly good turmeric is for you I’ve been devising ways of upping the quantity I use. It turned out particularly well with this super-easy (and frugal) chickpea curry

Serves 2
2 tbsp light olive or vegetable oil
1 medium to large onion peeled and roughly chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1 1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp chilli powder or hot paprika or a shake of hot pepper sauce
1 small can or 1/2 a 400g can of tomatoes or 200ml of passata
1 400g can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 handfuls of sliced fresh spinach leaves (stalks removed if tough and stringy)
1 heaped tbsp chopped fresh coriander leaves (optional)
A small carton of unsweetened plain or soy yoghurt (optional)
Naan or pitta bread to serve

Heat the oil in a frying pan and fry the onion for about 4-5 minutes until soft. Stir in the garlic and spices and fry for a few seconds then tip in the tomatoes and break them up with a wooden spoon, spatula or fork. Bring to the boil, add the drained, rinsed chickpeas, cover the pan and simmer for 7-8 minutes. Chuck in the spinach and coriander if using and cook for another 3-4 minutes. Add salt to taste (you'll need slightly more than usual). Serve with a dollop of yoghurt and some warm pitta bread or naan

Do you have any favourite ways of using turmeric?

Monday 25 May 2009

The lure of old cookbooks

I finally got to post about the two old cookbooks I picked up for a song in Topsham the other day. Do I need them? Absolutely not - the shelves are already bulging with cookbooks but for less than the price of two glossy magazines, how could I resist?

The first - for which I paid a princely £3.50 - is Len Deighton's quirky and original 'Où est le Garlic' first published by Penguin in 1965 (this is the '67 edition). Deighton was a successful thriller writer who turned his hand to cookery writing. The appeal is equally though in the charming comic strip illustrations (below), done not by Deighton but a team of designers

The diagrammatic treatment of the families of French sauces and how they relate to each other are particularly good. I love the sound of the improbably named Sauce Mohammed - a variation on tartare sauce flavoured with chopped eggs, anchovies, capers, celery, cucumber and chopped onion.

There's a useful chart on Measuring Heat and Bulk which tells you what temperature milk boils at (196°, less than salt water at 224°) and that butter burns at much lower temerature (278°) than beef suet (356°) Heston Blumenthal would approve.

There are diagrams showing how to julienne vegetables, make quenelles and create a Chaud Froid, a type of aspic used to glaze boiled chicken (One forgets how in thrall England still was to French cooking in the '60s. Did Observer readers, for whom Deighton wrote, really make such things?)

The writing is also wonderfully lucid. "The most difficult thing to explain in a cookery book is the amount of moisture that should be added to flour mixtures" Deighton writes. "Batter mixtures are like cream; they can be poured. A cake mixture is wet and will almost pour; it will drop from a spoon. Yeast mixtures are moist and plastic like modelling clay" Perfectly put. Who needs photographs, or even videos?

There are forgotten, frugal recipes for making brawn or stuffing a cabbage, all of which would take hours. Even bombes which Deighton says "date from the time when men in long beards with 'ski' at the end of their names hid these gadgets, still, smoking, beneath ankle-length cloaks." As you can see, a great book to dip into.

By comparison Green Cuisine: the Organic Vegetable Cookbook, self-published 10 years ago in my home town of Bristol is a much more modest affair though again I was seduced by the illustrations (above) Unlike Deighton's book I don't think it will become a regular kitchen companion though their are some nice ideas for cooking different vegetables such as Spicy Green Beans, Parsnip and Potato Dauphinoise and Pea and Cucumber Soup and for kohlrabi, a vegetable I admit I've never got to grips with) And at £1 who could resist?

By the way I bought both of these books in a charity shop, a much better-priced source of cookbooks than most second hand bookshops although you can occasionally get good bargains from Abe Books and Amazon. (Incidentally I just looked up 'Ou est le Garlic?' on Abe and the cheapest price for that edition was £40. So it was a bargain!)

Do you share my weakness for old cookbooks? If so which are your favourites and have you picked up any good bargains lately?

Thursday 21 May 2009

So what did you cook when you were a student?

My publisher Absolute Press released details of our new student book yesterday which is called The Ultimate Student Cookbook. It's a big claim but we make it because it combines my 6 years experience of writing for students in the Beyond Baked Beans books and website with that of three current students who have been contributing videos, recipes and tips to our Facebook page this year.

As a bit of fun I thought I'd ask my fellow tweeters on Twitter what they used to cook at uni and got a flood of fantastic replies. There were all the usual suspects such as spag bol (or Slag Bol) as Oliver Thring rather nicely put it), cheese on toast and tuna pasta but also some surprisingly sophisticated dishes such as Helen of World Foodie Guide's tonkatsu and Japanese curry, Lorna Yee's boeuf bourguignon and Catlily's French onion soup

There were also some really weird ones - to me at any rate such as sophiemostly's husband's preference for sweet and sour sausages, Kavey Eats' Sausage Curry and Kerri of Dinner_Diary's tinned Oxtail Soup together with Matt of Absolute's odd weakness for boiled rice and salad cream (ugh).

I loved Becky of Girl Interrupted Eating's lentil fetish, Jessica of Lovely Chaos's Mustard Mash "with sausages when rich" and The Dieter who 'ate a lot of feta cheese' and 'made a jar of pesto last a month' (no need to diet then I would have thought)

The most appealing-sounding one came from an old friend Deb, an eternal student who has gone back to uni at the age of . . . no I won't let on. "Thinly sliced potatoes layered with onions and lashings cheese sauce. Baked. Chuck in mushrooms, bacon etc if feeling flush"

Sounds good to me

So what was your favourite dish when you were a student or just starting to cook. Fabulous or otherwise.

Saturday 16 May 2009

Spring vegetable, herb and goats cheese risotto

I've been editing a new bumper edition of my Beyond Baked Beans student cookbooks recently (of which more later) and once again wondered where to place risotto. Is it an everyday recipe or a special occasion one?

What makes most people treat it as special occasion eating is that it needs pretty much full-on attention. Not that that's problematic - all you need is a glass of wine and someone else to chat to while you're making it but it creates the impression it's difficult. It truly isn't - the two things you need to remember are to cook the rice sufficiently (2-3 minutes) before you add any liquid and make sure the liquid you add is hot.

People also think it's expensive and it's true that risotto rice does cost more than ordinary long grain but not much more than basmatti these days. And if you use ingredients in season, as I've done here, it's not an expensive supper.

This is a version of a recipe I created for Beyond Baked Beans Green (the veggie title in the series) which was originally dairy free. The other evening I made it for three of us with some fresh, young goats cheese but still no parmesan or butter. (The herbs do the job of the former.) It's lighter than a conventional risotto but perfect for showing off the new seasons' spring veg.

Spring vegetable, herb and goats cheese risotto
Serves 6 as a starter, 3 as a main course

A small bunch of asparagus
4 tbsp olive oil
1 medium-sized onion, peeled and finely chopped
250g risotto rice (e.g. arborio or carnaroli)
A small (125ml) glass of dry white wine
1 litre hot vegetable stock made with 1 rounded tbsp Marigold bouillon powder or an organic vegetable stock cube
1/2 a fennel bulb, trimmed and finely sliced (optional)
125g podded fresh or frozen broad beans
100g podded fresh or frozen peas*
150g fresh young goats cheese
3 heaped tbsp chopped fresh dill or fennel fronds, or chervil or parsley plus a little tarragon if you have some
Salt, pepper and lemon juice to taste

Break the tips off the asparagus spears about one third of the way down the stalk and set aside. Cut off any woody bits at the lower end of the stalk and chop the rest into small pieces. Heat 3 tbsp of the olive oil in a medium-sized saucepan or sauté pan and add the chopped onion. Stir and cook over a moderate heat for about 3 minutes then tip in the rice and stir. Let it cook for about 2 minutes without colouring, stirring occasionally so it doesn’t catch on the pan. Meanwhile heat the stock in another saucepan till it’s almost boiling and leave on a low heat. Pour the wine into the rice - it will sizzle and evaporate almost immediately. Add the chopped asparagus stalks and fennel, if using then start to add the stock bit by bit, about half a mugful at a time, stirring the risotto in between and cooking it until the liquid has almost been absorbed. Then add the next lot of stock and repeat until all the stock is used up and the rice is creamy but still has a little ‘bite’ to it (i.e. you don’t want it soft and mushy). This will take about 20 minutes. While you’re stirring away lightly cook the broad beans, peas and asparagus tips for about 3 minutes in the hot stock then scoop them out and set them aside on a plate or a saucer. Add the broad beans* and peas to the risotto a few minutes before adding the last of the liquid. Once the risotto is cooked stir in the goats' cheese and let it melt then stir in the herbs and season with salt, pepper and a good squeeze of lemon juice (about 2-3 tsp). Gently reheat the asparagus tips in the remaining oil. Serve the risotto in small bowls with one or two asparagus tips on top.

* If you want it to look especially beautiful you can take the skins off the broad beans after you've cooked them but at this time of year I wouldn't worry

Thursday 14 May 2009

Another supermarket pricing rant

I was going to blog about the two fabulous old cookbooks I picked up for a song in Devon last week but this week has been so manic I'll have to content myself with whingeing - once again - about supermarket pricing which almost matches MPs expenses claims for its deviousness.

My husband who was cooking supper last night doesn't really believe in veg so I nipped down the road to get some from Tesco (Yes, groan) We were having grilled mackerel and I fancied broccoli and it was on special offer so that seemed the perfect solution. Except for the fact that even with 20p off it cost 79p.

I know this is absolutely par for the course but occasionally you stop and think that that is a ridiculous amount of money to pay for a small head of broccoli for two (particularly if you paid the full price). Since when did it cost nearly a £1 to produce and transport a non-organic, mass-produced vegetable? (Not that I'm sure the grower got anything like that). No wonder we're unhealthy in this country when basic veg cost as much as this. It certainly explains why Tesco continues to earn billions a year and is thinking of setting up its own bank. It's certainly got plenty of money to lend.

Anyway my new quick trick with veg like broccoli is to part stir-fry, part-steam them in a frying pan. I sweated off a sliced leek for a few seconds, added the broccoli florets (the stalks will go into a soup), stir fried a couple of minutes with a little fresh garlic then added half a glass or so of water and stirred and tossed until the broccoli was tender (about another 2 minutes), adding a slosh of light soy sauce at the end.

I also added a tiny handful of living salad leaves from the plants I bought a couple of weeks back. Unorthodox but there were too few to make a salad and the effect was rather nice, like adding a scattering of herbs. One pot is looking rather sickly though. I've either watered it too much or too little . . . Any thoughts?

Friday 8 May 2009

Is cheap food acceptable?

Like many bloggers and food writers I went to the debate at the Real Food Festival on the Future of Food and have to say it was a bit of a wasted opportunity. With one exception (the corporate affairs director of ASDA, Paul Kelly) the speakers - Patrick Holden of the Soil Association, Raymond Blanc, Mark Barthel, director of the Love Food Hate Waste campaign and environmental campaigner Zac Goldsmith - were all of fundamentally the same view: that the way forward must be organic and sustainable. Speaker after speaker outlined the apocalyptic future facing us. No-one really provided any solutions.There was a bit of ritual supermarket bashing but no-one seemed to me to get to the meat of the subject which is how to feed a growing population with dwindling resources.

The figures are scary. There are 6.7 billion people on the planet now: there will be 9.2bn by 2050, it is projected. We need to increase global food production by 50-60% but it's more likely to decrease by a fifth and a quarter due to climate change, land degradation, water shortages and crop damage from pests,

I would have liked to have seen a more structured debate between two opposing views - Holden or Goldsmith, say, interviewing Kelly of ASDA then turning the tables half way through or two speakers actually offering a tentative strategy for tackling the crisis. (It was ill-judged not to have at least one woman on the platform, who, Goldsmith apart, were all white, middle-aged, middle class males. Or an academic who worked in the field of food policy.

My heart is with the 'real food' campaigners but my experience of trying to buy 'real food' is that it's often way too expensive for families on a budget. People end up in supermarkets because it's easy and affordable. They could go to cheaper outlets like street markets but many don't know how to cook.

If the Government really wants a healthier nation it needs to have a much more coherent agricultural policy and regulate the food and advertising industry much more effectively than it currently does. The supermarkets could do far, far more than they do now to get over a healthy eating message. (Look at those full page ads and spreads for their special offers in the tabloids - almost all for unhealthy processed foods).

Like it or not - and I suspect many of the people in the hall yesterday wouldn't - the problem will have to be solved by big institutions rather than small ones and until they change things won't start to improve.

What do you think? Do you think the problem can be solved from the grassroots up or by national or international institutions? And what needs to happen for things to change?

Monday 4 May 2009

Veg boxes revisited

Even though I've decided that veg boxes are not for me every so often I feel I have to give them another try. So many people (including my daughter) swear by them that I feel I'm simply not trying quite hard enough. This time I ordered a box from a local Bristol supplier Wrington Greens whose produce Ive bought and liked from the farmers' market. Only I rarely manage to get there in time to get the salad greens which is what they do best.

I ordered the so-called 'super-healthy' option which meant extra greens and fewer roots - appealing at this time of year. There were baby spinach leaves, mixed leaves (above) and some hot, spicy mustard leaves plus some watercress and mint (superfluous since I've just planted my own) red onions, beetroot, leeks, mushrooms and mixed sprouts.

We've had an unexpectedly busy week - always the way - so I've again struggled to finish it up. I had to chuck half the beansprouts today because they were looking a bit manky (the first half I used in a stir fry of red onions, mushrooms and spinach, an oddly successful combination I posted on my student site

We had three salads, one with roast beets and feta, a leek and watercress soup, plenty of fresh mint tea and an odd but tasty rice dish made with leeks, asparagus stalks (not included in the box but picked up at the farmers' market yesterday) and a couple of courgettes I found lurking in the fridge. We've also been scrumping some sweet juicy apples. There's now just a leek and a few onions left.

I have to say it was a lot better than the boxes I've had before - to have so many really fresh leaves was a real treat - but I still encountered the same old problem that I didn't get exactly the produce I fancy at this time of year. No asparagus. No rhubarb. And you do have to work hard to ensure you use the contents up, turning your back on other ingredients that are cheap and which you might have fancied buying.

On the credit side I'm sure we've eaten more healthily than we would have otherwise done so I'm going to give it another go, probably in two to three weeks' time. I'll crack it eventually!

Friday 1 May 2009

My credit crunch lunch

The one upside of the credit crunch is that there are some amazing lunchtime bargains around currently. I've just had a two course lunch for a fiver at a Bristol fish restaurant called Fishers which was predictably packed.

The first course (above) was a simple but clever salad of mixed leaves and fresh anchovies with a pesto dressing. The second a salmon fishcake with a lemon butter sauce (half eaten before I remembered to take a pic, below). Neither portion was huge but then you don't want a vast lunch if you need to work in the afternoon. I'd say the accompanying 175ml glass of Muscadet while perfectly decent was overpriced at £4.90 but there were cheaper wines by the glass. And they have to make their money somehow.

It used to be the case that we all envied the French their fantastically cheap prix fixe menus but I can't think of anywhere in France where you could get a 2 course meal for 5.56 euros (today's exchange rate).

Have you come across any great lunch - or dinner - bargains lately?