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Sunday, 13 March 2016

Seriously Slow Fast Food

I made this meal for our dinner on Saturday night.

As beef burger meals go it was pretty amazing and I basked in the glow of having created something I would have happily paid a premium for in a restaurant. With such a popular and obvious restaurant sort of a dinner it was inevitable that I found myself comparing it to meals I have had when eating out or even fast food I have taken home. For a moment I scoffed - after all the burger had only taken 15 minutes to cook from frozen (whilst I busied myself with chopping salad vegetables) and yet the end result was so much better than something I could have ordered at a fast food place.

As I sat down to eat, I found myself analysing the meal to work out why it was so much better than a McDonalds. Slowly it began to dawn on me that although it had taken only about 20 minutes to cook and assemble, it had in fact required a good deal more time and effort than the finishing flourish may have suggested. Like a swan swimming effortlessly over the water, the time to make dinner belayed the hours of background effort this meal had taken.

Earlier that day, with dinner in mind, I had made a batch of purple coleslaw. This is made by chopping up red cabbage, a small red onion and grating in some raw beetroot. A little salt and pepper and several generous heaps of mayonnaise are then stirred in to finish the job. It keeps well in the fridge for several days so it is a good one to make ahead.

Even earlier in the day I had measured ingredients into my bread machine, set that off for an hour and half and then proved and finally cooked 8 bread rolls. I had sprinkled 4 with sesame seeds to have with dinner and bagged up the other 4 to have with soup for lunch on Sunday.

It had been last week when I had mixed some minced beef with some salt and pepper and a little umani paste and then carefully formed them into pasties. I had frozen the eight beef burgers to have a quick and convenient meal at a later date.

It was the micro leaves salad on the side of the plate that had taken the most amount of forward planning. It being winter and not the ideal growing conditions, these tiny leaves had finally become big enough to eat some 6 to 8 weeks after I had sown the trays of seeds in my greenhouse. They are a new venture for me and a bit of an experiment but they made an interesting and nutritious addition to our evening meal.

So there it was. Where exactly should I place my time-marker to work out how long it had taken to make dinner? At the 20 minutes it had taken to cook and assemble? At the beginning of the day when I had made the bread and coleslaw, or as far back as when I had batch made the burgers? Or was it reasonable to stretch it as far back as when I had sown the seeds for the salad leaves? Even McDonalds could claim time for growing salads in their production line, time for making their buns or chopping their chips. It isn't something the customer troubles themselves with when waiting for their order on a Saturday night. So maybe we should only go back to the 20 minutes I spent in the kitchen making dinner. It's amazing what you can do in just 20 minutes!

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Tarte Citron (avec rhubarbe et confiture de framboise)

Whilst reading a magazine article in January about how the latest gadgets could help you achieve your "New Year New You", I came across Duolingo - a free app that can help you learn a new language. I have for a while wished my French wasn't quite so embarrassingly awful so I wondered if I could use the app to polish it up a bit. I do have a GCSE in French but given that that was achieved some 25 years ago, to say I am rusty would be an understatement. When my daughter is doing her French homework I like to "help" just to see how familiar the words are but I can't begin to string a sentence together. This is evident too when we travel to France and have to mainly get by with a good deal of arm waving with the occasional word thrown in. It is not elegant and certainly not something to be proud of.

So, for the last 34 days (it keeps count), I have been spending 20 minutes a day using Duolingo to practice French. Sometimes when it comes up with sentences along the lines of "The cat eats when the cow eats" I wonder where this is getting me but on other occasions when I come across a sentence that means, "It is difficult to choose," I think, wouldn't it be nice to have phrases like this on hand when pondering which cakes to buy in one of the many amazing patisseries in France. Some days I feel as if I am making huge progress and on other days I still struggle to string a coherent sentence together. Still, come June when we next go to France I shall have a better idea if my efforts have been worthwhile.

With this daily focus on French, I now find myself often thinking about our trips to France - both past and future and I have to admit that shopping for food is one of the aspects I love the most. We do particularly enjoy visiting the patisseries and each of us has our favourites. My husband's favourite is Tarte Citron so when I was staring at the lemons lurking in the bottom of fruit bowl, wondering what I should make with them I suddenly thought of Tarte Citron.

A quick search of the interest and I got to grips with the basics and realised I had everything I needed to make 6 individual tarts. Because it required me halving a recipe, I was left wondering if I should use one and a half lemons (what to do with the remaining half?) or if I should just use one. In the end I decided to use one lemon and compensate for the missing half with two generous spoonfuls of Roasted Rhubarb Curd from the fridge. Traditionally a Tarte Citron is decorated with dark chocolate - sometimes spelling out the word "citron", sometimes just as a sort of chocolate button in the centre with the word written on it in edible gold and sometimes just in a zig-zag drizzle. As Steve isn't a huge fan of dark chocolate and I couldn't be bothered with the faff of melting and piping chocolate, I decided to use Raspberry Jam instead. As it happened, I was making a fresh batch of jam this afternoon anyway so I drizzled it whilst it was still warm and it turned out to be an amazing flavour combination. A curl of homemade lemon ice-cream on the side and, although not as perfect in presentation as a French patisserie, it was a lovely dessert. Apparently I am currently 41% fluent in French and I guess I'm similarly competent in patisserie making.

Individual Tarte Citron (makes 6)

165g plain flour
45g cold butter
15g icing sugar
Splash of milk
2 eggs
50ml double cream
70g caster sugar
1 lemon - zest and juice
2 heaped teaspoons of rhubarb (or lemon) curd
Some raspberry jam or dark chocolate to decorate

Rub together the flour and butter until it has the consistency of fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the icing sugar and add a splash of milk to bind. Wrap the pastry in Clingfilm and chill for about 15 minutes. On a floured surface, roll out the pastry until about 5 mm thick. Grease 6 tartlet cases. Use a small dish or bowl to cut around to make pastry circles to line each tartlet case. Place in the fridge to chill again. Preheat oven to 180°C then put a piece of greaseproof paper into each pastry case and weight it down with baking beans. Blind bake the pastry for 7 minutes then remove the paper and beans and bake for another 5 minutes. Leave to cool completely. 

Turn the oven down to 170°C then make the filling. Start by whisking together the two eggs then add the cream, caster sugar, lemon and curd and whisk again until smooth. Place the pastry cases on a baking tray and put the tray on the oven shelf. Carefully pour the filling into the cases then carefully push in the oven shelf and close the door. Bake for 15-20 minutes until just set. Remove from the oven, cool completely then chill. Drizzle over the jam or melted chocolate then serve.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Cream Horns Connecting the Generations

It was a day in February when I was stood in my parents' kitchen helping my mum put the finishing touches together for a family meal in honor of my birthday. The kitchen, although changed slightly from my childhood, is a familiar one and I can still move around it, reaching for the right drawer or cupboard to find whatever utensil I require. I can't remember what it was that made me open "that" drawer. You know the one, the one that every kitchen has. The one that contains all those useful but not daily used, oddly shaped, impossible to categorise or stack neatly utensils.

I would have pushed the drawer closed after retrieving whatever it was I needed except my daughter had her nose in it, fascinated by the array of odd and sometimes alarming looking utensils inside. They were things that my mum had collected over the years. Some dated from gifts from her wedding day, others she had bought and more still that she had inherited from her own parents or in-laws. She took delight in spending a few minutes with my daughter, holding up objects, asking her if she knew what it might be used for and then explaining or demonstrating it.

It just so happened that in this drawer were a neat stack of 6 metal cones which my mum explained were cream horn moulds. My daughter is, of course, an avid Great British Bake Off fan and had enjoyed watching the contestants making cream horns in the last series so her eyes lit up at this. "Here," my mum said to her, "have them, you are more likely to make cream horns than I am." She couldn't remember ever making cream horns herself and suspected she had inherited these from her father-in-law who was a pastry chef by trade.

Back home I chucked the moulds into my own version of "that" drawer, knowing it wouldn't be long before they were out again. Then, as Mother's Day approached I suggested to my daughter that I would enjoy a cream horn or two for that special day.

We looked up GBBO winner, Nadiya's recipe and bought some puff pastry, cream and mascarpone then on Mothering Sunday my daughter set about the task of making them. As we only had 6 moulds (and there are only 4 of us), we halved the recipe. We used bought puff pastry too as it is perfectly good and a lot less time consuming. I was required now and then for holding various things as they are a little fiddly but other than that my daughter got on with it on her own. She decided she didn't fancy the "mocha" aspect of the recipe so she splashed in some homemade raspberry cordial instead to have a raspberry cream filling.

I'm pleased to say that the end result was both delicious and beautiful and I am proud of my daughter's cooking skills and willingness to tackle a recipe. I emailed a photo of the cream horns to my mum and she too was impressed and said that my granddad would be very proud if he knew his great-granddaughter had used his moulds to create such a lovely Mother's Day gift for his granddaughter. Mother's Day is a special day to think about family members and these simple utensils, passed down the generations, made me feel a link to my family both present and past.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Learning to smoke food in Milton Keynes

When one of those A5 flier magazines drops through my letterbox I always make a point of flicking through it from cover to cover. Admittedly, often after a quick flick the magazine ends up in the bin but on some occasions my attention is caught by an article that seems worth reading or an advert for a local service that strikes a cord of relevance. It was on one such flick in January that I came across an advert for the Coldsmoking Cookery School. Stopping to read further I discovered that it was based in Great Linford in Milton Keynes and that they offered day courses on how to smoke food.

I have dabbled in smoking food for a couple of years now. I bought myself a small "stove top" hot smoker and I have experimented with using it to smoke things such as cashews and almonds. I have also used it to smoke both plums and tomatoes in order to create my Smoky Plum Chutney and Smoked Tomato Chutney. This limited success made me want to learn more about the possibilities of smoking. However, I was equally motivated by my failures. Despite smoked cheese being one of my favourite foods, I soon discovered that it is not something you can hot smoke! And, having had a conversation with Chris from Upton Smokery, I was intrigued by the possibility of smoking things such as salt and maybe even sugar.

With these ideas jostling in my head, I decided to look the course up on the internet to find out more. It was here that I discovered that the course would cost £125 for the day so I figured it would make the perfect birthday present for me from my husband. Steve isn't one for picking up on subtle hints so rather than leaving the magazine open on the advert I just came out and said, "Can you get me this for my birthday?"

My place on the course was booked for Saturday 5th March so I drove up to Great Linford and parked in the lovely setting of Parklands near to the arts center and Linford Manor. The course is held inside the "North Pavillion", an historical looking building on the outside but holding a purpose built kitchen on the inside. I was greeted warmly with a smile and a question about which flavour of soup I would prefer for lunch. Then inside I found a place at the large central table whilst the remaining delegates trickled in and helped themselves to tea and coffee. In all there were twelve of us booked in that day so every seat was taken.

The course got underway at 10am, with Turan introducing us to the basics of smoking food and outlining what to expect from the busy day. As smoking food is a lengthy process, we had to quickly get stuck in to some food preparation in order to have things in the smokers by 11am. Soon we were chopping up such tempting delights as various cheeses, peppers, olives, dried tomatoes, eggs, chirozo and salmon. Then it was time to go outside to assemble a couple of cardboard box smokers. It is around this point in the course that you begin to realise a couple of things - 1) creating a coldsmoker is not an expensive or difficult thing to do, and 2) cold smoking really is done at cold temperatures (cold enough not to set fire to a cardboard box).

Before the morning was out we had set up a hot smoker with a chicken and a bulb of garlic inside and had spent some time smelling the surprising range of different aromas released by different wood types. Oak, apple and hickory are all familiar to anyone who likes to eat smoked food but others, such as mesquite, pecan and bay were new and intriguing. There were lessons too in the art of curing, giving a glimpse into areas of the other courses Turan runs in meat curing and charcuterie, and sausage making.

With all the talk, sights and smells of food all morning, lunch was very welcome. It was a simple but tasty soup with bread.

After lunch there were more techniques to learn as Turan demonstrated how simple it can be to smoke cashews and almonds and he put a couple of trout on to smoke whilst we went back outside to check on the cold smokers and to learn more about the principles of creating a gentle smolder rather than a rapid burn.

Back inside it was time to taste some of the food that had been tantalising us all day. It is fair to say that the cashews and pecans were better than the ones I had smoked in the past. Not a keen fish lover myself it was hard for me to judge the smoked trout but it was beautifully cooked and the smoking was evident but subtle - perfect for this naturally mildly flavoured fish. The chicken was amazingly moist and tender as well as beautifully smoked. Even in the absence of a smoker,  in the near future I shall be using the brining and slow cooking techniques I learnt to try to recreate that kind of perfectly moist roast chicken.

Finally the cold smokers from outside were unloaded. Even after all I had learnt during the course of the day I still somehow expected the food to come out too hot to handle and showing signs of being cooked. But that, of course, is to miss the whole point of cold smoking. Inside it came out looking as fresh as it did when it went in, having never got hotter than 10°C, just now with smoky aromas.

The food was laid out for us to try and to take home tasters. It was a beautiful sight and the flavours were amazing. Having started the course with smoked nuts and cheeses being my favourites, I ended it having reconfirmed these foods as my favourites but certainly having had my eyes opened to numerous other possibilities and the potential for many food/smoke combinations that I would like to experiment with.

Back home, and smelling very much like a kipper myself, I jumped in the bath to freshen up then cooked dinner. As it happened I wasn't particularly hungry, having eaten well on the course, but the rest of the family expected dinner and were keen to try some of the tidbits I had brought home. I used the smoked Cheddar to add an extra dimension to the flavours of our homemade burgers and then I added little tasters of other foods to the side of their plates. There were definitely murmurs of approval throughout dinner.

Having been lucky enough to bring home the bones of the smoked chicken, the next day I boiled up the carcass to make a smoky stock which then used to create a smoky flavoured minestrone soup.

So what now? There is no doubt that I want to take what I have learnt and apply it to creating some smoked food of my own and to build on what I have previously done. I think I shall be visiting Turan's shop in order to buy some essentials such as a smoke generator and some smoke dust. I now need to decide if I want to use the instructions provided in our information pack to construct a cold smoker out of a cardboard box or whether I want a more permanent and robust structure in my garden. Smoked chutneys will be back in the autumn for sure but I shall also be enjoying my own home smoked cheese, nuts and maybe even fish.

It is such a delight to have discovered yet another amazing food place in Milton Keynes and I would urge anyone with an interest in food smoking, charcuterie, sausage making or cheese making to seriously consider booking themselves on one of the Coldsmoking Cookery School's courses - you will not be disappointed.

Smoky Minestrone Soup

Smoked chicken carcass
2 red onions
2 cloves of garlic or 1 elephant garlic clove
Pinch of mixed spice
Olive oil
1 pint (500ml) sieved tomatoes (passata)
Half stick celery
1 large carrot
1 medium potato
50g spaghetti - cut into small lengths

Put the chicken carcass into a large pan and pour over boiling water until just covered. Bring to the boil then simmer for an hour or so. In the meantime, preheat an oven to 180°C, gas 4 and peel two red onions and chop into quarters. Place in a small ovenproof dish and add the garlic, mixed spice and a dash of olive oil. Stir well until the onion is well coated then place in the oven and roast whilst the chicken boils. In another large pan, pour in the passata and add the drained stock from the smoked chicken. Add the vegetables and bring to the boil then reduce the heat and simmer (uncovered) for 45 minutes. Tip in the onion and spaghetti and continue to simmer for 5 to 10 minutes (with the lid on) until the spaghetti is tender. Add more water if necessary and taste and season as preferred. Serve hot with bread and butter.