Ordinary things: a lamb stew, without a story

I’ve been thinking a lot about ordinariness recently. I was recently writing a spontaneous, off-the-cuff piece about being an ordinary person living an unremarkable life which descended into a strangely anguished cri de coeur that surprised me with its sincerity and its turbulent momentum. But it was also self-indulgent and first-world-problem-ish in a way that was embarrassing to read in the cold light of day, and I decided to keep it private. In a way the writing of it was sufficient for me to consider and reflect without needing it mirrored back at me through the lens of blogging or social media.

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Lamb stew at my dinner table. Overhead lighting, photo taken at night, because that’s how it rolls

But I also think about ordinariness in the context of food, and food writing, too. I read a lot of beautifully written cookbooks, memoirs, blogs and articles where writers describe their lives – especially their childhoods – as marked by distinctive food experiences, memories, and culinary comings of age. Or I will read an evocative and heartfelt piece about a lesser-known cuisine, and get a powerful sense of a heritage being actively preserved.

Like everyone, I have a history when it comes to food and eating, but it’s often a very prosaic one. I was a painfully fussy eater as a child, the kind who causes great anguish (or at least additional work) for parents, and for many years basically ate steamed cauliflower in bechamel, spaghetti with garlic and olive oil, and cheese and tomato sandwiches. I grew up in Singapore, a foodie hotbed, but for most of my childhood I was equally repulsed by hawker food, with its lingering smells of belacan (fermented fish paste; it smells stronger than fish sauce), and the local wet markets, with the watery floors and strong scent of raw meat mingling with durian. I came round to Indian food earliest, after many years of rejecting the fragrant heat of chillies, but an attempt at an authentic (albeit vegetarian Buddhist) Chinese meal made me tearful well into my teens. In my late teens I became interested in cooking and started a food blog (Musings on Dinner is, I think, my second or third); my palate broadened because I wanted to cook new things. Even today I find myself discovering new things to enjoy simply because I thought that I should really get round to trying this or that recipe.

This lamb stew is a good example of ordinary cooking. The recipe isn’t dredged from childhood or inspired by a favoured restaurant dish: like so many things I invent, it’s based on what I happen to have in the cupboards and fridge that I would like to see the back of. To this end: the remains of the diced lamb I bought in excessive quantities because I could only find a double-sized pack at the supermarket; the last of the celery; the tomatoes which had been lingering in the fruit bowl and were past their best for eating out of hand; the bag of new potatoes which were threatening to sprout angry and green; the parsley which, ignored at the back of the fridge, was wilting to show her displeasure. I added the spices because I like them, they go well with lamb and they are always in my house.

Continue reading “Ordinary things: a lamb stew, without a story”

Fin-de-siecle carrot, cabbage and beef stew for changeable seasons

Here in London we swing from chilly, bright mornings to warm, light-filled afternoons, and back into evenings cool enough to make hot water bottles a tempting prospect. Weather like this requires an arsenal of recipes in one’s back pocket, from cool noodle salads for evenings drowsy with humidity to warming recipes that provide ballast against the creeping coldness of a surprisingly crisp spring night.

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So to this recipe. It’s inspired by one I found in a magazine…nothing out of the ordinary there, except that the magazine in question is one from 1914, just before the outbreak of the First World War. It was published in the early, rather than high, summer, a reminder that British summers, too, can run to cool. The recipe as it was printed would, I’m sure, confound many stereotypes about British food: it read surprisingly modern with its combination of beef, tomatoes, carrots, cabbage and macaroni, a veritable one-pot meal sprightly with tender vegetables. The magazine in question was a penny a week and so accessible to upper-working or lower-middle class women with a bit of extra income, and was most explicitly directed at the kind of woman who had servants, but usually no more than two (a cook and a maid); sometimes the imagined readers’ income could stretch to no more than a charlady (“the woman of the future will even have to scrub” was a particularly cautionary phrase mid-way through the First World War).

I put this together based on some shredded cabbage languishing in the fridge after a recipe called for only half a head and the vague memory of this recipe, buried under the many, many magazines I read for my MA dissertation in the summer of 2014. What I mostly remember is the serialised romances – the mill-girl swapped at birth, the man who loses his arm at Mons – but some of the recipes stood out too. I didn’t have any macaroni in the house so served it with boiled, unpeeled potatoes, but I think the pasta would be a great addition; simmering in the tomato sauce, it will absorb the flavours and add a slip of silky starchiness to the stew, subtly thickening it.

Continue reading “Fin-de-siecle carrot, cabbage and beef stew for changeable seasons”

Video: April 2016 Food Favourites

It’s Sunday the 15th of May today, so pretty much bang on halfway into the month, but I have put together another video of my favourite food and cooking items from the month of April (see my first video of March favourites here). I talk about things to read, a fabulous recipe for a wonderful white loaf, my new breakfast obsession (handy hint: it’s skyr) and a lifechanging cooking implement (hint: I’m holding it in the thumbnail). I hope you enjoy it!

Friday Food Things, Part IV: gadgets, gizmos and jam, served with a bit of ranting

026 028The Bank Holiday weekend was all about jam for me. Our computer monitor broke on Friday night and we didn’t get a replacement until Wednesday, shattering my plans to catch up on emails, write an overdue report for work, and finish some research for a project. Instead, jam-making came to the rescue, and I’m now the proud home preserver-mother of jars of simple, sweet raspberry jam; lemon marmalade; rhubarb and strawberry butter; and kumquat and passion fruit marmalade (exotic, fragrant, unusual). The first three recipes are from Thane Prince’s Perfect Preserves; the latter is from Diana Henry’s Salt Sugar Smoke. I was deeply resistant to buying preserving books for a long time, but now I feel something of a bug coming on. I recently purchased Kylee Newton’s The Modern Preserver and now have a Do Preserve kind of feeling…

 

Moving on, I’ve recently discovered The Angry Chef blog – a blog that claims to expose lies, pretensions and stupidity in the world of food. There is a lot of all three out there – I tend to avoid media outlets and blogs on the ‘lies and stupidity’ spectrum, but pretension is pretty difficult to avoid. The writer is a self-proclaimed balding, middle-aged chef with ‘a mind trained in scientific investigation’, which means his writing is clear, logical and well thought out. But it’s also just really funny. The blog first came to my attention with the post ‘An unfashionable defence of convenience

Angry Chef unapproved
Angry Chef unapproved

– read it if you’ve ever felt slightly guilty about feeding yourself/your partner/your kids/anyone food out of a packet, even though you’re absolutely shattered and the only way you can hold on to your sanity is through the microwaveable ready meal in your shopping bag. A recent post on ‘The Irritating Superstars of Health and Fitness’ has sent the blogosphere/ Twittersphere/ foodiesphere on fire. However, the post I shared with my decidedly non-foodie boyfriend was ‘Has anyone seen my Ayurvedic tongue scraper?’, a savagely funny, yet at heart deeply concerned, take-down of the glossy, photogenic advocates of cleaning eating, whose diets of choice are centred on the unecessary elimination of food groups the vast majority of people are perfectly fine eating. Particularly in his sights in this article are Jasmine and Melissa Hemsley, whom he criticises for their promotion of the comtroversial, dubious GAPS diet. In addition to being informative and intelligent, it’s a darkly humourous piece that absolutely skewers his subjects.

Let’s leave things on an equally funny, but considerably frothier, note. I’ve been a regular reader/dipper into and out of Rhik Samadder’s slightly whimsical Inspect a Gadget columns in The Guardian. Samadder reviews kitchen gadgets from the outer realms of probable need (even from the perspective of a dedicated kitchen-clutterer like myself), from a self-heating butter knife to his take-down of the Egg Master, which is a bit of a classic and has turned many an idle reader of the column into a rabid fan. In short: he goes there so you don’t have to. Fun stuff, and the below the line comments, rarely for a Guardian article, are equally joyful.

Me and my cookbooks – musings on recent acquisitions

If you’ve seen my Food Favourites video and want more, there’s some excellent news because you can watch me blather on about recent cookbook acquisitions!

Featuring Signe Johansen’s ‘Scandilicious Baking’, Gizzi Erskine’s ‘Skinny Weeks and Weekend Feasts’ and ‘Itsu 20-minute Suppers’ right into the zone of clean eating, with Ella Woodward and Madeleine Shaw (and my sceptical thoughts on their nutritional philosophies) and right back into pleasure with Nigel Slater’s ‘Thirst’.

It’s not exactly a short one so you might want to be drinking tea or ironing or something while you watch…

Friday Food Things, Part III: of magazines, portion sizes, and tahini cookies

Good Food magazine

075This month, Good Food magazine launches its new look, and the May issue’s dazzling front cover showcases beautiful eclairs dressed in spring-bright shades of icing. There’s also a 16-page Nigella collection (though I doubt it will be anything new for me as I actually already own all of her cookbooks). As a further bonus, if you buy the magazine from Sainsbury’s, you will receive a Lakeland duo-colour icing kit, which will enable you to pipe two different colours at once and comes with 6 nozzles, 8 disposable icing pages amd a coupling set. This is an extra exclusive to Sainsbury’s so it’s worth holding out on your purchase to get it from there.

 

Portion control

This postcard from the Imperial War Museum is affixed to my kitchen cupboards
This postcard from the Imperial War Museum is affixed to my kitchen cupboards

When I decided to reassess my diet and work towards losing the weight I’d progressively gained over the course of work and, especially, my part-time MA, the first thing I took in hand was portion sizes. For the first time in my life, really, I started paying attention to the portions of a recipe and limiting myself to a single share; no longer would I consume half a recipe of something which said ‘serves four’. At first it was difficult and I was very hungry, but it’s become much easier. I feel like I now have a much more intuitive grasp of how much I should be eating of any given food. These – I hesitate to call them insights, but I suppose they are – meant I read this Guardian article on portions with interest. The article is written by Bee Wilson, who is a fabulous writer, and thanks to my avid and greedy reading of her books, a lot of the information wasn’t new to me, but I still enjoyed it and it’s a very useful summary of what has happened to portion sizes in the last 50 years (they’ve gotten bigger). Jay Rayner, Gizzi Erskine and Tamal Ray’s contributions on how they approach portion control were engaging, too; of the three I’m most sympathetic to Gizzi’s approach but none of the three experiences overlaps exactly with how I approach food.

Cleaving

078I’ve been reading Julie Powell’s Cleaving. I remember when Julie Powell was a huge deal in the food blogging community, though I was never an avid reader of her Julie and Julia blog back in the day (I was a Chocolate and Zucchini girl). I did read Julie and Julia when it came out and found it riveting; she’s a compelling writer and I missed Tube stops reading this (which resulted in missing a train to my station and having to trek back in the dark). Cleaving was not such a success, partly I think because it’s about adultery, which I am, I realised, not really comfortable with, but more importantly, I think the central conceit of the book – that butchery, adultery and the ties of love and obsession are interconnected – does not work. I could have bought the elaborate metaphor in a work of fiction, where suspension of disbelief in these things is essential, but not in autobiography. It stretched my credulity to imagine that, as Powell sliced pork or beef, that the elaborate thoughts and memories of her marriage and obsession with her lover came as perfectly to mind as she portrays.

Salted tahini chocolate chunk cookies, via My Name is Yeh

050I have baked two batches of the salted tahini chocolate chunk cookies I found via Molly Yeh’s beautiful and considered blog; to my surprise my boyfriend adored them too. I thought that perhaps the tahini would put him off, because he doesn’t tend to like nut butters, but he is as obsessed with them as I am. They are utterly delicious: crumbly, salty, absolutely packed with chocolate.

My observations: the recipe states that you must not skip the step of resting the cookie dough overnight in the freezer. The first time I made these, I chilled the dough for about half an hour. The cookies baked up crisp, crumbly and short, which is how I like them actually. For the second batch, I rested the dough overnight in the fridge and only then scooped the dough out onto the baking tray to bake. My fridge is tiny and I don’t have a freezer, so this is how it has to be. The rested batch is indeed softer, slightly doughier and cakier, though not in an undercooked way. My boyfriend prefers them this texture; I like them crunchier, as per the first time, without resting.

The recipe has salted in the title but I thought 1 teaspoon of Maldon salt flakes a little too much. Three-quarters of a teaspoon, as per the second batch, is much better. The recipe also supposedly makes 12 but I find this inconceivable, since I made at least 18 large cookies using a pretty sizeable cookie scoop. If making 12 I can only imagine they would be unreasonably large.

Finally, cup measurements are annoying. If you want to make them the metric measurements (I weighed as I went) are as follows (I haven’t included the full list of ingredients, just the ones that benefit from being weighed out rather than measured in cups):

  • 113g butter
  • 140g tahini
  • 120g sugar (I did reduce this from the original recipe, which calls for a whole cup; I measured out three quarters of a cup because I thought the ratio of one cup sugar to just over a cup of flour to be excessive)
  • 190g flour
  • 260g dark chocolate chunks (I didn’t use the Valrhona feves; I just used Sainsbury’s dark chocolate, cut up into squares to retain the spirit of very large chunks of molten chocolate striated through the dough)

 

Baking challenge: mocha-caramel millefeuille

This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the signature challenge for week eight (the final) of series two: layered millefeuille.

Layers of puff pastry, mocha patisserie cream, drizzled caramel, hazelnut praline
Layers of puff pastry, mocha patisserie cream, drizzled caramel, hazelnut praline

Sometimes, if you want to impress your friends and sicken your enemies (a phrase I have unashamedly stolen from Marian Keyes, FYI), you need to put the time and effort in. Making millefeuille is one of those things: it will delight the eye, bring joy to the palate, and inspire awe in your guests. But, because millefeuille is not a single recipe but a set of deliciously-assembled components, it does take work. Fortunately for you, and your dinner party guests, pretty much every component can be made in advance and put together before serving. This is why plated desserts are such a staple of restaurant kitchens: it’s no more effort, after all the baking, than putting together a few Lego blocks. But in the home, all the baking is done by one person, and that person is you.

Hazelnut praline, ready for crushing
Hazelnut praline, ready for crushing

Component number one is the rough puff or full puff pastry. How time-consuming and difficult you will find this process depends entirely on how often you make regular pastry. Although I had some mishaps (detailed in the head notes to the recipe), on the whole this was straightforward.

Component number two is the creme patissiere. I decided I definitely wanted my creme patissiere filling to be coffee, because I love coffee in dessert and it is just not featured enough, in my view. The feedback from my friends was that the liked that the coffee flavour was quite gentle and not too strong – so if you want it stronger you should increase the coffee extract to taste or perhaps infuse the cream with coffee grounds (straining before use) or add dissolved instant coffee.

Component three was the caramel, for drizzling, and number four was some

Hazelnut praline, crushed. The ground up, caramel glazed nuts add textural contrast to the plated dessert
Hazelnut praline, crushed. The ground up, caramel glazed nuts add textural contrast to the plated dessert

hazelnut praline, crushed into powder, for textural contrast and smokey, nutty depth. Someone brought some raspberries to my party (where I served this dessert) so later that evening I dotted each millefeuille with them in the spirit of pure opportunism. And actually I think it really lifted everything, introducing a slightly sharp note and a splodge of colour that lifted the beige, brown and buff elements of cooked pastry, drizzled caramel and mocha creme patissiere.

When it comes to making caramel, I have a secret: I very rarely use recipes or even measurements anymore. Usually I throw a fistful of sugar into a pan, cook it until amber, and then pour in glugs of cream until it’s the consistency I want. I finish it off with salt and butter to taste. This happy state of throwing caution to the wind comes after many years of carefully following recipes, swirling my pan of measured-out ingredients and reading the instructions as I went. I mention this simply because I think making caramel is a bit of a stressful endeavour for a lot of people, but do it enough and it can really come to feel quite natural. As with anything, the impression of ease, fluidity and instinct is simply the result of many years of practice. I decanted it into a plastic squeezy bottle but you can drizzle (or splatter) the caramel over using a spoon or piping bag as you prefer.

Overhead shot
Overhead shot

I hasten to add that sometimes my sugar does burn and occasionally the whole thing seizes up to a grainy paste – but this is usually when I have decided to leave the kitchen to watch TV or something. Don’t abandon your caramel!

Continue reading “Baking challenge: mocha-caramel millefeuille”