Tuesday, 19 July 2011

A pasta supper to reward tired walkers.

For the longest time, I've been desperate to undertake a long distance hike, and there's been one trail in particular that I've wanted to follow: the Southern Upland Way, which sets off from the Southwest coast of Scotland, and ends up 212 miles, or 341km away, on the East coast.

I don't have any hiking friends, though, and am not the kind of person that could be so completely alone for the length of time that it takes to complete a walk like that. I was incredibly lucky, therefore, that last summer I bumped into a hiker in the beautiful city of Dresden.

My darling friend David was mad enough to come with me to Scotland and hike with me. Thank God he did, because just a few days ago, aching, sore, sunburnt and bitten, we staggered into the sea at Cockburnspath, 16 days after setting off from the West coast. The walk was the best and most rewarding experience of my life.

It looked something like this.

I learnt a lot on the Southern Upland Way. I learnt about distances, and how far one kilometre is. I learnt that my body can do a lot more than I ever gave it credit for. I learnt that when ants bite, they really bite. I learnt that olive oil makes everything better, and I learnt that a broken Spork can be a disproportionately demoralising event.

Hiking certainly taught me to appreciate food. After 16 days of high calorie, lightweight dinners, everything tastes very strange. I'm craving salt and fats like mad, and upon my return I needed something really delicious, but very quick to prepare, (did I mention how much my ankles are hurting?).

This pasta dish is something else. It's so much more than the sum of its parts.  It's really cheap as well, try it.

Pasta with bacon and breadcrumbs.
Adapted from Nigel Slater's "Appetite"

Enough long pasta to feed you, (I used tagliatelle, but you could use spaghetti or similar too)
A glug of olive oil
A few slices of streaky bacon
A nice chunk of white bread, (I used a two inch piece of baguette, which was easy to prepare)
About 5 cherry tomatoes
2 cloves of garlic
Some mozzarella
A handful of fresh basil

First things first. Get some water boiling for your pasta and chuck it in. Cook it for as long as the packet says.

Meanwhile, cut the bacon into little pieces and fry them in a little olive oil, until they are beautiful and golden and delicious looking. While they're doing their thing, get out your cheese grater and grate your bread into breadcrumbs, honestly.

Try and aim for different sized crumbs. It's nicer that way. Once your bacon looks good, throw the breadcrumbs in the pan too and toss them until they're golden and toasty and crispy.

Halve your tomatoes and add them to the pan, also add the garlic; just crush it with the palm of your hand and remove the skin. Fry it all off, it'll start looking lovely now.

When your pasta's cooked, just toss it with the breadcrumb mixture and throw in your mozzarella, and your basil leaves, all torn up. Season with salt and pepper, add a glug of olive oil, and your dinner is ready!

This is a combination that just works. It's very good, I promise. Also, it costs around £2.30 to make the entire meal, which is perfect for when one is returning from a holiday that cost a bit more than one may have anticipated!

Thursday, 9 June 2011

An aromatic and very special soup for a friend.

As I'm sure you all know, there are some dangerous types on the internet. We've all heard horror stories about foolish types who have been too trusting and got themselves into a pickle with a stranger that they've met online.

With this in mind, I was suitably cautious when posting a Gumtree advertisement for a new flatmate in January 2009. I waited anxiously, having described in detail the available room and my personality, hoping that I would get a response - preferably from someone on the right side of sane.

When I answered a call one afternoon, from a breathless and excited woman, I didn't realise that this person would become one of the most valued and admired of my friends, someone that I would grow to love, and to consider one of my very best friends.

I showed Gemma around the flat as she sold her personality to me in what I later recognised as true Gemma style: effectively and without pause for breath.

She moved in with me a few weeks later, and history was made.

Gemma and I live separately now. We both moved in with our lovely boys earlier this year: she stayed in East London with her man - and I moved to North London with Mr Meat.

So nowadays, we obviously don't see each other as much as we did when we were flat mates. I know though, that we share special bonds with those with whom we have lived, and I still feel very close to my friend Gemma. For this reason, I know that I will be weeping with happiness for her and her new husband when she gets married next year.

I wish them both every happiness, and hope that their future is the place of sunshine and laughter that they deserve.

A few months ago, I had Gemma over for dinner. I cooked her an aromatic fish soup, with apple tarts for dessert. She was kind enough to compliment it, as she is always kind about my food, and asked how to make it herself.

Here's the recipe, a special treat fish soup. You'll need a food processor, stick blender or MagiMix for this one, sorry!

Gemma's fish soup.
(From Nigel Slater's Appetite - my favourite book)

For the spice paste:
1 or 2 chillies
2 or 3 cloves of garlic
An inch of root ginger
About 2 stalks of lemongrass
A few coriander seeds
A handful of fresh coriander
1tsp ground turmeric
A glug or two of sunflower oil, (or something else with no flavour)

And the rest:
500ml stock, (make it homemade or very good quality, this dish relies on a tasty stock)
1 tin coconut milk
1 lime
About a teaspoon of Nam Pla, (fish sauce)
A handful of mint
1 medium sized piece of cod, or similar white fish
Enough noodles to feed you
1pkt of king prawns

Prepare the bits and bobs for the spice paste. Halve and seed the chillies, peel the garlic, peel the ginger, chop it up and slice the lemongrass into disks. Throw it all into the food processor with the rest of the ingredients for the paste. Don't forget a few glugs of oil to lubricate it all and to let the blade spin properly - but not too much!

Once blended, the paste will be a beautiful, rich shade of green:

Put a deep saucepan onto a high heat and fry half of the spice paste, (put the other half in the fridge for another time), moving it around the pan. After a couple of minutes, throw the stock and coconut milk in there and bring it all to a boil. Turn the heat down and allow the soup to simmer for about ten minutes.

Meanwhile, cook your noodles according to the instructions on the packet, and cut your cod into bite sized pieces. Once the soup has simmered for its allocated time, add the fish and then the prawns. Remember that they don't need long to cook, just a couple of minutes.

Season the soup with salt, lime, the fish sauce and the mint leaves, divide the noodles into bowls and ladle the hot soup over the top. It will be delicious and aromatic.

This is not a frugal supper. It's a very special treat.

Congratulations on your engagement, Gemma and Gary!

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Something silky.

Summertime usually means one thing for Mr Meat and I: we're skint.

There are no student loans to see us through, (especially not since Mr Meat is about to graduate, congratulations to him!), and we've shelled out for holidays, sunblock and sandals. The summer months are tight ones for us. Never mind - I suppose that this means that my posts will have to become more creative and frugal, by necessity!

I did a reasonably frugal spaghetti carbonara for dinner tonight - using up various odds and ends from the week. I chucked a courgette in there, used up the bacon that we had at the weekend, grated up some pretty hard parmesan and chopped up slices of a sprouting onion. Now my fridge is clear for the big shop tomorrow night, and I can rest peacefully in the knowledge that I have wasted nothing.

This dish is great for gather-up dinners. As long as you have two eggs, some cream, milk and some kind of cheese - as well as pasta in one shape or another - you can't go wrong. Use any cured meat instead of bacon, (ham, for example), and throw any vegetables into the sauce for bulk, mushrooms would be good, but you could also use wilted spinach, chopped green beans or even fried aubergine. 

What I like about this recipe, (adapted from the Sainburys' £50 meal plan), is the use of low fat milk in place of half the cream. Adding egg yolks to the cream and milk mixture ensures that the eventual sauce is silky and rich tasting, without being quite so naughty as a sauce that uses only cream, with no milk.

This was a cheerful, tasty dinner, and one that satisfied Mr Meat's meaty cravings, (without breaking the bank or actually containing much meat).

Spaghetti Carbonara
(Adapted from the recipe included in Sainsburys' £50 meal plan)

1 onion
A few rashers of bacon, chopped
A courgette, very finely sliced, (I used a potato peeler - great tip!)
A few cloves of garlic
2 egg yolks
100ml single cream
200ml skimmed milk
Some cheese, (I used a few grates of parmesan and a handful of grated mozzarella)
Enough spaghetti for your appetites
A handful of frozen peas, if you like

Get your onion and bacon frying with a glug of olive oil - you want the bacon golden and crispy and the onions golden and soft. Once that's done - about 8 or 10 minutes, on a medium/high heat - throw your courgettes in there, and any other vegetables you're going to use. Fry them until cooked through and delicious looking.

Stick your pasta on to boil with a good amount of salt and get cracking with your sauce. In a large bowl, whisk the two egg yolks with the cream, milk and cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper and wait for the pasta to cook, adding a few peas before the time is up...

Once the pasta is al-dente, pull it straight out of the pan and into your milky creamy mixture. Don't bother putting it through a colander - this just adds washing up and the pasta water actually helps the sauce to stick to the spaghetti. Add your cooked vegetables and meat to the pasta and mix it all through. I found that at this stage the sauce was still quite liquid, and so I broke the one rule of carbonara that I remember from school. I put the sauce back on the heat.

I assumed that the eggs in the sauce would scramble and go horrible, but actually the sauce thickened and coated my pasta nicely.

I make this meal out as costing £2.88 in total. Sainsbury's reckon about £5, but theirs feeds 4 people, and mine just does two. Pretty good going either way!

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Fruit that's too good to be good for you.

I always seemed to have nectarines in my lunchbox during the last few weeks of school. Now, one bite of this tender, aromatic, delicate fruit communicates an unmistakable message to me: summer is here.

Summer seems to have been here in Britain for ages - it's been coming and going. This weekend though, I bought my first punnet of summer fruits for 2011. There were about 9 nectarines in there, just beginning to soften. Being the frugal foodie that I am, the thought of these little bundles of deliciousness going mouldy and being wasted brought me close to tears, so I delved into my books in search of a way of using them up without losing any of their flavour or summeriness.

I found the perfect solution in my favourite book, Nigel Slater's Appetite: poached fruit.

Nigel suggests using peaches, but I thought that with few tweaks in flavouring, nectarines would work just as well. This is a very simple way to use up summer fruit - I actually feel that the fruity experience is improved with the addition of a sticky pink syrup.

Poached summer fruit.
(Adapted from Nigel Slater's Appetite)

Some sugar
Flavouring, (I used a couple of pieces of lemon zest and a little vanilla paste - but Nigel also suggests lime leaves, cinammon, or a few pieces of root ginger. It's up to you and your judgement.)
Some summer fruits, (nectarines, peaches, plums...I could go on)

Cover the base of a deep frying pan with sugar, and pour about four times as much water over the top. Put the pan over a low to medium heat and allow it all to dissolve. Let the syrup cool down a little and give it a taste. Is it too sweet? Add more water. Is it not sweet enough? Add more sugar and allow that to dissolve too. While the sugar is dissolving, use the time to prepare your fruit - half it and remove the stones.

Bring the syrup up to a boil and add your chosen flavourings. I found that the citrus of the lemon zest complimented the nectarines beautifully, while the vanilla paste added warmth and a little depth to the flavour. Put your fruit into the sugared water, turn the heat down and simmer for about twenty minutes.

Serve with a scoop of ice-cream for dessert, or with yogurt for breakfast. What a treat. My packet of nectarines was £2, everything else was in my kitchen anyway - and worth pennies. Make these tomorrow.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Something impossible.

I'm British. I can't help that.

It's an affliction which means that I shout at contestants in The Apprentice once a week and then delightedly discuss their mistakes with my colleagues, with my friends, with my Mother.

My nationality is also apparent through, (what I like to think of as), my good manners. I know the difference between a soup spoon and a dessert spoon, thank you very much. Furthermore: I apologise when strangers bump into me.

Incidentally, being a Brit also means that I have a weakness for curry that I've made from a jar. Yes, I know that I could make something more authentic with a tin of tomatoes and a few onions, and yes, I should know better since my lessons with Beena, (my cookery teacher in Jaipur, I talk about her here). Sometimes, though, I just want some miscellaneous curry. Sometimes I want something made with non-specific meats, vegetables and spices, that I can ladle on my plate and munch on while I watch Lord Sugar lay into some big-headed business bigots. (I could have called the contestants boring - just to continue this alliteration charade - but we all know that's not true.)

You may have heard, and possibly disbelieved, the legends of 9p curry sauce from the Sainsbury's Basics range. If you did believe the stories, then you probably wrote the product off as something disgusting and probably toxic. I'm here to show you that you were wrong. You can make a tasty and altogether enjoyable dinner out of curry sauce that costs less than ten pence.

Using a cheap sauce does mean that you need to put a tiny bit of extra work in, though. I like to think of Basics curry sauce as something that I use instead of tinned tomatoes, (and at 1/3 of the price). I still fry onions, garlic and chilli, before adding a few spices and my vegetables - followed by the 9p sauce. While the curry simmers down, I add water, tomato paste and yogurt, and I season the food thoroughly with pepper before serving it, (the sauce doesn't need much more salt, you can just add that to taste).

Try not to judge before you sample this recipe. After all, if you really don't like it, you've only wasted 9p. Look down the back of the sofa and you'll probably replace your lost money.

Super cheap curry.

A glug of sunflower oil
1 onion
3 cloves of garlic
1 chilli, (I used 1 cube of frozen chilli)
Various vegetables, (I used 1 potato, 4 mushrooms, a few green beans, spinach and peas)
Whatever spices you have knocking around, (for example, cumin, coriander powder, cayenne pepper, turmeric...)
Leftover meat, (I used leftover roast chicken)
9p curry sauce (!)
1tbsp tomato puree
A few globs of yogurt

Get your onion, your garlic and your chilli chopped up and cooking happily in a frying pan. Get them looking beautiful and golden before throwing your veg in there, cut up however you like.

Allow it all to cook down a bit, get it looking tasty and golden, then add whatever spices you have to the pan. Curry spices obviously, not the allspice you used for your christmas cake. Fry them off - this allows the essential oils in the spices to warm through and impart their flavour to the rest of the ingredients.

When you think you're ready, take a deep breath and get the cheap curry sauce out of the cupboard. This dinner will be nice, I promise.

I hate sultanas in curry, they remind me of school dinners. Unfortunately this 9p sauce has got sultanas in it, so I normally sieve them out. This adds an extra step and a little bit more watching up for Mr Meat to do, but it greatly adds to my enjoyment of my dinner. If you pop a little bit of water through the sieve, you'll ensure that you don't waste any of the sauce that's stuck to the sultanas.

 If the sauce looks too thick, add a little water and allow everything to simmer until your vegetables are cooked through. Add your tomato puree and stir it in, then take the sauce off the heat and chuck the yogurt in there too. Hopefully your pan isn't so hot that the yogurt splits, but even if it does, it doesn't affect the flavour.

Serve with rice, I hope it's nice!

I make this meal out at costing £1.95. That's ridiculous.

P.s: I hope, dear reader, that you have noticed my literary prowess in this blogpost - namely, my use of rhyme and alliteration. I'm rather proud of it.

P.p.s: I hope that my generalisations about what being "British" means don't cause anyone any offence, they were merely added for dramatic effect.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

A summertime stew and a week in Almeria.

Phew...it's not half been warm! All over Britain last week, women donned their bikinis and men turned their legs pink. There are rumours that we've already had the hottest day of 2011. All of the idiots that went abroad for their Easter holidays ended up with less sunny memories than those that stayed behind.

Well, my mother and I were among the idiots the jetted off: we spent Easter week hiking in Almeria, on the south coast of Spain. We had an incredible time, walking through desert mountains, breathing the thyme scented air that surrounded us, and falling in love with that beautiful part of the world.

I don't regret missing the sunshine here in the UK.

So having filled you in, oh imaginary reader, on why I haven't posted for over a week, I am free to tell you about today's recipe.

Anyone who has ever been skint knows that beans are the best friend of the frugal cook. They're filling, full of protein and cheap. Not only that, but sometimes I get a real and significant craving for them. Frequently, these days, I seem to lust after the creamy, earthy texture of pulses.

Following the lead of my Father, who seems to do nought these days but cook pork and bean stews, I satisfied my craving for beans with a rich and tomatoey dish, full of flavour and texture.

I helped to make this stew a little cheaper by buying a pack of pork shoulder steaks for just over £2.50 and chopping them up myself. The marbling in this cut of pork is perfect for a stew, (all the fat melts away and leaves the meat tender and juicy), and it's always cheaper to buy and chop, as we know.

Pork and bean casserole.

1 onion
4 pork shoulder steaks - chopped
1tbsp flour
1 tin mixed pulses
A glug of red wine
1 tin tomatoes
A squirt of tomato puree
A handful of spinach

Chop the onion into wedges and chuck them with a glug of oil into a reasonably deep pan with a lid. While that's happily sizzling and softening, start cutting up your pork steaks into sizeable chunks. Throw them in with the onions and let them brown.

Once that's done, add the flour to the pan and stir, to coat all of the meat. Drain the pulses and add them to the pan, along with a glug of wine, if you can. Allow the wine to cook off a little and add the tin of tomatoes, a squirt of tomato puree and about a mug of water. Mix well and bring to a simmer. The flour should cause the liquid to thicken but everything will still look a little thin. That's fine, just pop the lid onto your pan and leave the whole thing on a fairly low heat for about 45 minutes.

Because the lid's been on, the sauce should look quite thin still, so take it off and turn the heat up to a simmer again. Let the liquid reduce, once it's looking the sort of consistency you want, chuck your spinach in, allow it to wilt and season. Your rich and meaty stew is ready! I served mine with pasta, which was delicious.

This dish is comforting and warming, but not too heavy, which makes it a great summer dish. The amount served Mr Meat and I for two dinnertimes and one lunchtime, with generous portions all round. I calculate that it costs around £5 to make this whole thing, which works out at £1 per portion: get in.

Friday, 15 April 2011

An apology, and a special treat.

I've not been posting lately, and for that, I'm sorry, oh imaginary reader. My only excuse is that April is a terrible time of year. For students I mean.

Since I'm studying full time, but also working in a University, I'm acutely aware of the academic calendar. Easter-time is always manic, with late nights in the library, huge piles of exam timetables and mountains of essays to get through. This week I've written three, and I've not got a big workload.

But I'm sorry, reader, to have let you down. It's been beautiful and sunny in Britain, spring is finally here. We seem to have all spent the last couple of weeks in parks and green places, desperately trying to soak up as much sun as is humanly possible. We're such stereotypes aren't we?

So I expect everyone's been cooking beautiful spring-y dishes and I've not been here to jump in with a recipe or two. I'm sorry, but I will be updating you on my kitchen antics in the next few weeks, I promise.

So just a quick one for today, and it's a fish recipe. Fish is a bit of a treat for Mr Meat and myself, it's terribly expensive lately, and there are rarely leftovers, which I don't love. It's a very important part of our diets though, and it would be stupid to turn down all of the brain-assisting properties offered by our fishy friends at this terribly academic time of year. So if you've splashed out on a lovely bit of fish, here's a way of really showcasing it's freshness and it's fishiness.


Simply cooked fish

A beautiful bit of white fish, (I used one 400g bit of cod, which I cut into two bits for me and Mr Meat)
A lemon
A bit of butter
Root ginger

Although it's not an ingredient, you need some tinfoil or greaseproof paper for this.

Pop your bit of fish onto a square of tin foil or greaseproof, about a foot across. Grate over some salt and pepper, squeeze over the juice of a quarter of a lemon and top with a couple of slices of lemon, the chopped up ginger and garlic and a slice of butter, (I used olive oil in this picture because I'm on a health kick, but butter is tastier).

You know that dinner will be brilliant when it looks that beautiful and the process is so simple.

Crunch up the sides of the wrapping, whether it's tin foil or greaseproof. Screw up the edges nice and tight; you don't want any of the steam to escape when your dinner is cooking.

Give it 20 minutes in the hot oven, the fish should be crumbling and flaky. Delicious. Serve with salad and new potatoes. If you've paid around £4 for the piece of fish, like I did, then I think it's important to cook it in a way that shows off the flavour and freshness of it.