Wednesday, 26 September 2012

An amazing reason to eat dark chocolate - go on, give blood

This evening, I have selflessly consumed 100g of 85% cocoa solids dark chocolate. I say selflessly because I am trying to lose some weight, and I actually feel a little bit sick just now. I could have done without eating quite that much, but I have a purpose, and, yes, you guessed it, I'm going to tell you about it. Tomorrow, I am giving blood. Assuming my corpsucles are acceptable, this will be my 6th pint. Annoyingly, my iron levels are sometimes too low for it to be safe for me to donate and I am turned away - hence my consumption of dark chocolate this evening.

Two more pints to go and I will have replenished the stocks that my son received - 8 precious pints - during the first year of his chemotherapy treatment for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia. I have written before about the shock of his diagnosis, at the age of 2, on our wedding anniversary in 2006, and the heartache and tears of the 3 years 4 months of his treatment; the effects of the chemotherapy drugs and the steroids that he had to take, the birth of our daughter, 3 months after his diagnosis, and the relapse monster, who lurks at the back of our lives, occasionally rearing its ugly head. Thankfully, though, as I type, our funny, lovely, deep-thinking, healthy, nearly 9 yr old boy is snoring contentedly upstairs, free of the disease and with less than 2 years to get through before he will receive the all clear.

Before he became ill, blood donation had never featured in my life. The Husband donated regularly throughout his Army career, but I simply didn't appreciate the need for blood and how it can absolutely save lives. The 'do something amazing - give blood' tag line is no exaggeration. In Blue's case, the chemotherapy that he received not only wiped out the mutant cells that packed out his bone marrow, suffocating his system, but all the healthy blood cells. It became part of our routine - the chemo, a course of steroids when his appetite increased to gargantuan proportions followed by a lapse into lethargy. Regular - sometimes daily - blood tests would monitor his red blood cell count and as it dipped, the need for a transfusion would be debated with us by the angels Community nursing team and doctors treating him.

On 8 occasions, including the night of his diagnosis when he was ravaged with the disease and an infection that he had picked up, and very seriously ill, he needed blood. 8 precious pints. I cannot begin to describe how grateful we were - and still are - that the blood was available. Over 4 hours, our boy would slowly fill back up with healthy blood - you could almost see it glugging in to him as his demeanour changed from pallid lethargy to chirpy 2 year old. Frequently, by the end of the transfusion, he would have a Rudolph red nose and be full of beans. He also had to have platelet transfusions on a number of occasions to prevent him bleeding to death. It sounds extreme but that's what we were facing. The disease is brutal, but the treatment is also cruel, and without blood and platelet transfusions, he would quite possibly have died,

Now, there are many reasons why people can't or won't give blood. You can't donate for a number of months after childbirth or an operation. There are a number of safety precautions in place to protect the blood stocks from contamination, and potential donors are asked a number of detailed screening questions. Some people who may otherwise be able to donate may have personal reasons for not wishing to donate, and that's fine by me.

The purpose of me writing this is not to make a judgment about, or change the minds of those who have decided not to give blood, but hopefully to touch people who, like me, have never really considered blood donation before, or have thought about donating but never quite get round to it because it always falls lower down the list of things to do. Only 4% of the population give blood, and looking at the National Blood Service Website, there are only blood stocks for 12 days in the case of AB positive blood type. In the case of O negative, there is only 3.5 days' stock.

Imagine if there wasn't enough. Imagine if it was your child, your husband, your mother who needed a pint and there wasn't enough. So if you've thought about it, but never quite got round to it, - go on - please - do something amazing.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Egg Surprise Grows Up

A long time ago, the Husband and I regularly consumed a dish with the exotic name of Egg Surprise. It consisted of a tin of chopped tomatoes, and anything else that was a likely candidate for an evening meal, bubbled up in a saucepan. The surprise was whether there was an egg cooked in it or not. I have blogged about this before.

Our tastes have of course developed over the years, and money is not quite so tight, but sometimes, the simple and basic things are the best. Roll on a decade or so, and Egg Surprise still appears reasonably regularly on our table, although it might come bearing an exotic moniker such as ‘chachouka’ or some such. Delicious? Yes. But the bottom line is that in our book, meals like this will forever be known as Egg Surprise.

And what do you know? Even the Goddess herself, Nigella, cooks Egg Surprise – I saw it with my own eyes on Nigellissima last night – billed as a post-night out feast to be gobbled greedily from the pan as only la Lawson can, in a LBD and killer heels, I defy you to tell me that was not, essentially, Egg Surprise.

In a recent post about Jamie Oliver’s 30 Minute Meals, I mused on the fact that my culinary heroes have changed as I have grown older. In the same way, what we have in the store cupboard as a base for Egg Surprise has changed - we have our own chickens, so the eggs are more of a given than a surprise. The ‘surprise’ now tends to come in the form of which vegetable glut from the garden has been chucked in to the pot… And yesterday, quite by chance, and, I can assure you, before Nigella graced our screens last night wafting nutella cheesecakes and other deliciousness in front of us, including her own version of Egg Surprise, guess what I had served up for supper, faced with the spinach in the veg patch?

Grown Up Egg Surprise

1 onion, finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
1 dried red chilli, chopped (or a pinch of dried chilli flakes
400g tin of chopped tomatoes
100g roasted red peppers from a jar, drained and chopped
150g spinach leaves
½ tsp smoked paprika
400g tin chick peas, drained
2 large eggs

Crusty bread to serve

Pre-heat the oven to 1800C.
Heat ½ tblspn olive oil in a pan and fry the onions and garlic gently till softened. Add the chilli, the tomatoes and swill out the can of tomatoes into the pan with 100ml water. Stir in the chopped peppers and bring to the boil Simmer the mixture for 10 minutes, when it will have started to thicken up. At the same time, wash the spinach leaves, shred them and put them in a pan (or steam) till wilted. Drain and squash out the water.

When the tomato mixture is thickened up, stir in the wilted spinach, smoked paprika and chick peas, and add everything into an oven proof dish. Make 2 hollows in the mixture, crack in the eggs and transfer the dish to the oven. Bake till the whites are set – but if possible, the yolks are still runny. It will probably take around 10 minutes if the tomato mixture was hot when you cracked the eggs into it. 

Serve with crusty bread (LBD and killer heels optional)

Monday, 24 September 2012

A fresh herb salad

Rather than moan on about the weather, the fact that we lost the dog AGAIN yesterday (I was going to post about Dogsearch Soup, but there’s only so much mileage you can get out of a joke, really, isn’t there...), or anything else, I am thinking back to the lovely meal we had on Friday evening.  Bloody Mary Mussels from Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals. 

One of the things that made it so gorgeous was this herby salad that we ate with it. Often, if I serve salad with a meal, I don’t really think about what leaves are going in to it – it’s just salad...right? We usually have a couple of varieties of lettuce in the garden during the summer along with some rocket, and that does for us. And sure, a salad like that would have been fine with this meal, but the salad suggested by Jamie was a revelation in t he context of the meal as a whole. It included celery, which can sometimes be a little ‘crunchy’ – I wouldn’t normally include it in a salad with leaves – if I do use it like that, I tend to put it with apple and walnuts in a kind of Waldorf salad type thing – but using the leaves set off the celery in the sauce. The flavours of the dill and tarragon really brought out the flavours in main dish too.

I didn’t quite follow Jamie’s mix of leaves and herbs – I used a mixed salad bag rather than just rocket, because I really LOVE watercress, and I didn’t use the mint because I was really dubious about it with the other flavours, but it was so delicious that I couldn’t not pop it up here to share. I think it would be lovely with any fish really, and chicken.

A lovely herb salad

3 large tomatoes
Leaves picked from the heart of a head of celery
1 bag of watercress, rocket & spinach leaves
Small bunch each of dill, tarragon and basil (you need 5 sprigs of each so if you are buying, you don’t need much)
Good olive oil, juice of ½ a lemon, balsamic vinegar and freshly ground salt & pepper

Chop the tomatoes and scatter on a serving dish with the delicate leaves form the celery heart if using. Season and drizzle over some olive oil, a little balsamic vinegar and the lemon juice. Add the leaves from 5 sprigs each of the herbs and salad leaves. Add a little more olive oil and vinegar if you think it needs it, toss together and serve.

I’m linking up with Herbs on a Saturday  hosted by Karen at Lavender & Lovage – the use of the herbs in this dish made a brilliantly fresh and simple salad that went so well with the dish it was meant to accompany.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

30 Minute Meals Revisited - Bloody Mary Mussels

30 Minute Meals – have you tried it? Obviously, it’s been around for a while (not just in the library – it was published in 2010) and I have been a little slow on the uptake. 

I like Jamie Oliver. The Naked Chef came out the year we were married –  1999. After our wedding in February, and 3 days in Barcelona on honeymoon, the Husband went out to Bosnia for 6 months. I stayed in London, then on his return, we moved into married quarters down near Salisbury and I began commuting. 2 hours each way if the trains ran on time, I’d get home, knackered, the Husband would have cooked, and I would fall asleep on the sofa. 

You can see why the lifestyle Jamie, Jools and their mates were offering appealed - the gorgeous trendy flat that some location monkey had tracked down, the scooter, the mates, the effortless socialising with cool food served up to a chirpy Britpop soundtrack...

We remained loyal through the Return of the Naked Chef, and Happy Days. A version of one of his pasta dishes involving savoy cabbage and bacon will forever be 'Jamie pasta' in our house. I have Jamie’s Dinners, and Jamie’s Italy – all of which I use, but as the Husband and I grew up, our aspirations changed. We followed the school dinners campaign, and Fifteen, but having moved out of London, our tele-visual destination of choice shifted to the Dorset/Devon border in the company of Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall, and if I needed a fix of something urban, well I preferred the company of a certain glamorous brunette with a penchant for eating noodles on a London bus (when she wasn’t raiding the fridge in a silk dressing gown...)

So I hadn’t really been aware of 30 Minute Meals, or its fundamental premise, which is to put a whole meal on the table in less than 30 minutes. “Not just one dish, a whole spread of beautiful things”. Sounds good?  It did to me, but as I read through the recipes, I became more and more nervous of actually trying it out. The use of words like ‘efficiency’ and ‘choreographed’ and orders to ‘Sort out your equipment...Arrange it sensibly...Clear as you go’ are pretty much anathema to me.

Do these look like the cupboards of an efficient cook? 


Didn't think so...

When I first got it out of the library, and read the recipes, I felt exhausted. I planned a 30 minute meal a couple of times into our weekly meal plan during the initial loan, but couldn’t quite bring myself to take the 30 minute challenge (as I’d mentally come to think of it). In the end, I made the Portuguese Custard Tarts and left it at that.

To be fair, I am probably not 30 Minute Meals’ target audience. I do cook from scratch most nights anyway, and working from home gives me slightly more time in my day to prepare things in advance. I am not the person dumping the shopping bags on the table after staggering home on the tube to start cooking, but on the other hand, I am finding more and more that time is at a premium. 

Fast forward to last week and I saw it again on the shelf in the library. It called to me, so I decided to give it another go. The Husband and I have been trying to take at least one evening a week to cook and eat together, so I decided to schedule the 30 Minute Meal in for last night – Friday night – after a week when we have been in and out and hardly seen each other. In the interests of forcing the issue, I decided to go for something that would be difficult to deviate from, so chose the Bloody Mary Mussels followed by Rhubarb Mille Feuille. I ordered the mussels from the local butchers, so no turning back. Unfortunately, I rather over achieved on the wine front on Thursday night for a friend’s birthday and mussels were really not what I was wanting to eat. As I crawled my way through the day, I really did wonder about chucking in the towel, but we are out this evening, and the mussels – well, they needed to be eaten.

Well, I am really glad that we gave it a go because the meal was absolutely delicious. The mussels are cooked in a fiery bloody mary mix (but of course), served with a lovely herby salad – the tarragon and dill really set off the flavours of the mussel dish. The pudding was equally lovely – we had a slight malfunction in that the puff pastry didn’t puff, but once it was dolloped with custard crème fraiche and rhubarb, well, that was never going to be a problem.

Puff pastry, rhubarb stewed with ginger, 
custard and creme fraiche - what's not to like??

The meal does rely on a few ‘shortcut’ ingredients – passata, jarred horseradish (as a result of shopping list fail, I didn’t have any but found a jar if hot horseradish sauce at the back of the fridge) bagged salad, readymade custard and puff pastry (although I am unlikely to have made my own puff pastry for this – or anything in fact). This is the one thing that makes me shy away from the book - not so much the passata and jars of horseradish, but the recipes do rely a lot on the quick fixes meat wise - chicken breasts particularly, which thanks to Hugh F-W I have come to regard as one of the scourges of the meat aisle - they are so expensive, and I rarely buy them these days.

In terms of the instructions, well there is a lot of jumping around between pudding, mussels and salad, but actually, it’s just a sensible approach. If I’d sat down with the 3 recipes separately, I’d have probably worked out that the elements had to be prepped/cooked in that order, but not until I’d already realised that the pastry should have been in the oven 10 minutes ago... You definitely need to read through a couple of times to do it ‘right’, and it would have helped if I’d done that!

And 30 minutes? Really? Well, probably not quite. The actually cooking time was just less than 30 minutes, from the moment we cracked open the pastry to sitting down with the steaming bowls of mussels, and a bottle of exceedingly alcoholic Belgian beer (as specified), but I had spent some time during my afternoon potter in the kitchen digging things out of cupboards. I’d given the mussels and extra soak in some fresh water just to make sure, and I would have been nervous of cooking them without. Finally, because I could, I had made my own bread (a plaited white loaf which I was rather proud of).  

I’d also spent some time trying to create the clear, efficient workspace that Jamie demands. 

Reader – I failed, but I did try.

Bloody Mary Mussels – serves 2 with lots of soupy sauce

1kg of mussels, cleaned and debearded
300ml passata
1 heaped tablespoon of hot horseradish sauce (you can tone this down to taste)
1 small dried chilli
3 stalks of celery , finely chopped
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
A good glug of port
An even bigger glug of vodka
1 lemon, juiced
Bunch of flat leaf parsley, chopped

Soak your mussels in a large sink’s worth of water for an hour or so, then drain.
Put a large pan (with a lid) on the hob on a medium heat (yes, really, I was worried the house would burn down too, but it didn’t).

Mix together the passata with the Worcestershire sauce, horseradish, crushed up chilli and garlic and the chopped celery. Stir in the port, vodka and the juice of the lemon along with freshly ground salt & pepper.

Make sure the mussels are closed – if any are open, give them a tap. If they do not close, they are dead so chuck away. If you’ve bought them fresh and from a reputable source, you should only lose one or two. Put all the good mussels into the large pan, tip in the bloody mary mixture, put the lid on and give the pan a good shake. Increase the heat and leave the mussels to steam. Give the pan a shake every now and then. They probably only need 3-4 minutes – enough time to make a salad and get your mille feuille pastry out of the oven according to Jamie. 

When the mussels have opened, remove them from the pan with a slotted spoon and leave the tomato sauce to bubble away a bit on a high heat to thicken and reduce. While this is going on, check for any mussels that didn’t open during the cooking process and throw them away – again you shouldn’t lose many this way. Pour the sauce over the mussels and scatter with the chopped parsley.  

Serve in big soup bowls with crusty bread and a salad, and some extremely alcoholic Belgian beer.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Fairtrade chocolate cake with honey glaze icing*

I made this cake to thank some friends for helping me find my dog after he had run off chasing deer. You can read the full story here, if you like tales of errant spaniels and their hapless owners...

However, if you are more interested in cake, and in particular how to use fantastic fairtrade ingredients to make a delicious cake, read on. Foodies100 is running a competition to highlight Fairtrade issues, to remind us that there are many farmers in the third world, struggling to get a fair price for the crops they produce and which we all love to use in our baking. You can read more about the competition and the challenge here  

This is a simple and easy cake that tastes wondeful. Lovely and chocolatey without being too sweet, while the honey glaze icing (adapted from a Nigella recipe in Feast) adds a sweet chocolatey, sticky-ness.

It's delicious (my dog-finding friends let me have a slice!) - and while you don't need to lose your dog to make it, I suspect the name is there to stay...

Dogcatcher Cake (with honey glaze icing)

150g unsalted butter
 200g Fairtrade dark chocolate (I love using Divine, and did for this recipe)
4 eggs
220g Fairtrade caster sugar
150g self raising flour

125ml Fairtrade runny honey (e.g. Steenbergs)
60 ml water
150g Fairtrade dark chocolate
25g Fairtrade white chocolate
150g Fairtrade icing sugar

Pre-heat the oven to 180C and butter and line the base of a 20cm spring form cake tin.

Melt the butter and dark chocolate in a bowl over a simmering pan of water. Separate the eggs and whisk the yolks with the sugar in a large bowl until light and foamy. Whisk the egg whites in a separate bowl (I used my Kenwood) till they are doubled and airy. Pour the melted butter/chocolate onto the whisked yolks/sugar and whisk together. Sift in the self raising flour, fold in the egg white with a metal spoon, then pour carefully into the tin. Bang the tin down a couple of times to get the mixture to even out in the tin, and bake in the oven for about 45 minutes.

Allow the cake to cool completely, then make the icing. Put the honey and water into a smallish pan and bring to the boil. Chop the chocolate finely, take the honey/water off the heat and add the chocolate. Swirl the pan around a few times to get the chocolate melting, leave for a couple of minutes then whisk. Start sifting in the icing sugar - start with half, whisking the mixture, and carry on adding the icing sugar till you get a thick glossy icing. Allow the icing to cool down till it is thickened and spreadable - and spread it on.

Allow to cool and serve with lashings of gratitude.

 (* and yes, if you read my post about the Dogcatcher Cake, it's the same cake, just this is the short version to enter the Foodies 100 Bake it fair Fairtrade competition)

Review - Scanpan CTX frypan

Have you ever realised that sometimes, cheap is not always effective?

In our life together, the Husband and I have accumulated some lovely bits & pieces of kitchenware – a Dualit toaster, some le Creuset pans, and a couple of really good knives. However, when it comes to that necessary item, the small frying pan, we have always taken the view that ‘non-stick’ never actually is, so we buy a cheap one in the supermarket, use it till it is thoroughly useless and get another one. The handles usually start to wobble fairly early on, and once my mum’s been to stay and applied her own special approach to the washing up, you know that it’ll have a limited life – limited more or less by the number of pancakes it is required for. Despite our best intentions, we have never got round to getting a proper pancake pan (I’d love one – there we go – that little nugget is out there now) – so the little frying pan is the one that gets pancake duty.

Anyway, that’s all well and good and then something comes along to shatter your little pre-conception that really there would be no point spending any more money on a little frying pan that’s going to be used from everything from eggy bread for breakfast to crisping up chorizo for a smart salad, and trying out a new way for fried green tomatoes.

A local cookware company, BayTree Cookware recently gave me the opportunity to ‘test drive’ a Scanpan CTX  8”/20cm fry pan . They already stock most of the Scanpan ranges and have just added this induction compatible pan range.

There is lots of technical information available about the pan on the BayTree Cookware website, and I won’t go into details about that here – you can look it up easily enough. What you want to know from me is what it’s like to cook with – and I can tell you that it is a gorgeous thing to have on your stove, both to look at (because let’s face it, that might be all some people do with it) and to create lovely things with.

Looks wise, the brushed stainless steel exterior is very strokeable, and the pan has a good weight when you lift it by its beautifully shaped, tactile handle. The handle, by the way, looks very firmly riveted on – there wasn’t a hint of loosening over the few weeks that I have been using it. Nick at BayTree did advise me that it was better to use a medium flame (I have a gas hob) than high, and though I followed this advice, some slight tarnishing has occurred to the base of the pan – but quite pleasingly so. I am reliably informed that this will easily clean off with any stainless steel cleaner. I didn’t test the assertion that the special coating on the interior of the pan was such that you could also use metal implements (on a non-stick pan – yes really, it says that), although I did prod the pork steaks with a fork a couple of times.

And is it non-stick? Is it ever. It has cooked me through any number of slices of eggy bread, pan fried pork steaks, crispy bacon, and green tomatoes without a hint of a stick or a burn, and then washed up like a dream. Although I have only been using it for a few weeks, I have reason to believe it would carry on in the same way for a long, long time.

Now in terms of price, you’ll appreciate that we’re not talking cheap here. It’s not something you could just go and pick up (or chuck in your shopping trolley in Sainsburys because it was there), and it would definitely be an investment – and on the basis of my experience, a worthwhile one!

Overall, therefore, if you are looking to spend money on a good quality, hard wearing small frying pan, I would say this was a good buy. Good looking and practical – definitely an investment.

The views expressed in this review are my own – I was not required to provide a positive review.