Sunday, 31 January 2010

Brownie Bliss

This weekend I have not been as busy as I could have, but it was not totally without achievement. On Friday night Jel and I went out for dinner. He had been away for a week and it had been a long week of solo cooking, so he kindly chose to whisk me away for a nice Chinese dinner at Tai Pan in Manchester. I had been hearing about how good this restaurant is for the last 18 months and this weekend was the weekend I finally got to go there. I won't go into pages and pages of detail but it was very nice. It was authentic and not too 'westernised'. Saturday night I was planning to cook but a last minute change of plans saw us out again with some friends for a simple burger and a glass of wine and some good conversation. Although good conversation around Jel and Maurice tends to be all about the aviation industry and little else, but I have certainly learned a lot from it and it can be interesting so I won't complain. After all, I do believe that life is too short for complaining.

So todays culinary exploits were pasta with scallops and lemon butter, and chocolate brownie and ice cream for dessert. I have never cooked scallops before as I have always been a little scared of them to be honest. There is all the pressure not to overcook them or they will end up like little balls of fishy rubber. But my fear was rather unfounded. It was a fairly basic recipe, some fresh pasta that I made this afternoon, and some lemon butter. Fresh pasta is some work but it isn't nearly as hard as it sounds. Its a simple ratio of 1 egg per 100g of flour, and 2 eggs and 200g of flour makes enough pasta for about 3 people. That and 8 minutes of kneading and you have pasta dough, and the pasta machine takes care of the rest. While the pasta is cooking, melt 60g of butter and a bit of oil to stop it burning, then add 2tsp f lemon zest and a good grinding of black pepper and cook for a few minutes. Then add the scallops and cook for 30-40 seconds per side and then turn the heat off. Drain the pasta and then toss with the scallops and lemon butter and serve. Its a simple dish but a nice one infused with subtle flavours.

The brownie recipe is one that I found online and that professed to be excellent so I thought it was worth a try. It as chocolate in in, what can ever be wrong? They did turn out very nicely and although it is not the simplest recipe for brownies, it is worth the little extra effort. So here is the recipe and you can try for yourself.  

French Chocolate Brownies

(Source: Dorie Greenspan “Baking: From My Home to Yours pages 92-93)
-Makes 16 brownies-

1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
1/3 cup raisins, dark or golden
1 1/2 tablespoons water
1 1/2 tablespoons dark rum
180g bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
180g unsalted butter, at room temperature and cut into 12 pieces
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
Getting ready: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 150°C. Line an 20cm square baking pan with foil, butter the foil, place the pan on a baking sheet, and set aside.
Sieve together the flour, salt and cinnamon, if you’re using it.
Put the raisins in a small saucepan with the water, bring to a boil over medium heat and cook until the water almost evaporates. Add the rum, let it warm for about 30 seconds, turn off the heat, stand back and ignite the rum. Allow the flames to die down, and set the raisins aside until needed.
Put the chocolate in a heatproof bowl and set the bowl over a saucepan of simmering water. Slowly and gently melt the chocolate, stirring occasionally. Remove the bowl from the saucepan and add the butter, stirring so that it melts. It’s important that the chocolate and butter not get very hot. However, if the butter is not melting, you can put the bowl back over the still-hot water for a minute. If you’ve got a couple of little bits of unmelted butter, leave them-it’s better to have a few bits than to overheat the whole. Set the chocolate aside for the moment.
Working with a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the eggs and sugar until they are thick and pale, about 2 minutes. Lower the mixer speed and pour in the chocolate-butter, mixing only until it is incorporated-you’ll have a thick, creamy batter. Add the dry ingredients and mix at low speed for about 30 seconds-the dry ingredients won’t be completely incorporated and that’s fine. Finish folding in the dry ingredients by hand with a rubber spatula, then fold in the raisins along with any liquid remaining in the pan.
Scrape the batter into the pan and bake 50 to 60 minutes, or until the top is dry and crackled and a knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Transfer the pan to a rack and allow the brownies to cool to warm or room temperature.
(These brownies ended up with a thin crispy layer on top and rose significantly during baking and then subsequently caved in after cooling slightly!)
Carefully lift the brownies out of the pan, using the foil edges as handles, and transfer to a cutting board. With a long-bladed knife, cut the brownies into 16 squares, each roughly 2 inches on a side, taking care not to cut through the foil.

Friday, 29 January 2010

Veggie night #4

I have to confess, my veggie cooking efforts last night were not my main priority. I did make some lovely spinach, ricotta, goats cheese and mushroom cannelloni with a rich tomato sauce, but the dinner faded into insignificance as Jel came home after a week away in Barbados. I know that a week is not very long, but it felt like an eternity and I missed him like crazy!

Back on topic, last night I made cannelloni with tomato sauce. I did deviate from the recipe as it called for another gallon of olive oil to make up a sauce and I am really not sold on that concept. So improvisation was the order of the evening, and I am sure my waistline will thank me for it. I mixed ricotta, goats cheese, wilted spinach and cooked mushrooms with some seasoning and nutmeg to make the canneloni filling. As I have not yet bought a piping bag (I REALLY need one now as it would save a lot of time and mess!) I rather unelegantly stuffed the filling into the canneloni tubes by hand, which is a messy but rather entertaining process. The basic tomato sauce had cooked for around and hour before I poured it over the canneloni and topped with shavings of parmesam, then into the oven for 40 minutes. It would have been a lot quicker if I had made the pasta from scratch rather than using dried, but I simply did not have the time or the energy after getting home from yoga at 18:45 and having an aching upper-body from the shoulder stands and the half hand stands. 

Dinner was delicious, partly because I was ravenous and partly because I love anything with pasta and cheese. I have not used goat's cheese in canneloni before so that was an unusual background flavour and it combined really well with the rest of the filling and the sauce. I did find that it turned out a little dry but that is because the sauce was not as liquid as it could have been and dry cannelloni tend to soak up the sauce like insatiable sponges and I should really remember this when cooking the sauce. But as I was slightly distracted by the presence of my man and the beautiful bunch of flowers he brought me, I will forgive myself.

I am very excited today as I have received the first of my 'Daring Baker' challenges. I signed up on the last month and have been eagerly awaiting the first Daring Cook/Daring Baker challenge. This has been posted today and I can't wait to get started. The Challenge Recipes are for Gluten-free graham crackers (similar to digestive biscuits I believe for us non-americans) and then for a recipe including these which is a Canadian sweet-treat called Nanaimo (Nah-nye-Moh). The picture below is for how they are supposed to look. I can only hope that mine will turn out as pretty, but I am really looking forward to giving it a try. I have had to order all the special gluten-free flours from an online asian food shop as they are not something I will be able to get in the local tesco, but the pricing was very reasonable so I really can't complain. I doubt that I will receive the delivery in time to make them this weekend so it may be a project for next weekend, how exciting! 

Tonight I am going out for dinner (yay!) to a Chinese restaurant that I have heard a lot about since I moved to Manchester so I am really looking forward to it. It will also be a break from my week of vegetarianism :) Tomorrow morning I will curl up on the couch with a cup of coffee and plan my culinary adventures for the next week. I did think that a Spanish week may be fun but I'll see which way the wind blows me tomorrow.

Until then, happy cooking.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Veggie night #3

Last night's vegetarian creation was a simple Spaghetti al Arrabiatta which in its description promised to be one of the most delicious yet simple pasta dishes I had ever tried. The claim of simplicity was certainly a valid one as the dish can be made in around 20 minutes, but the recipe and the resulting dish were not really to my taste. The recipe calls for a copious amount of olive oil. I know it is meant to help form the sauce, but it was just far too oily for me. I do like the use of fresh tomatoes, however I think that the very short cooking time does not allow the flavours to develop sufficiently and the resulting sauce is a bit flavourless and watery even once reduced for 5 minutes. As a rule I will cook tomato-based pasta sauces for at least and hour to allow the flavours to develop and enrich, this is just a personal preference and may be one that is not widely shared, but it is one that left me rather dissatisfied with this dish.

I am looking forward to tonight's dish, for more than one reason. It is a goat's cheese, spinach and mushroom cannelloni with a tomato sauce, which I am sure will be lovely. And, I won't be eating alone for the first time in a week as my boyfriend will be back from his week away. There is something rather demotivating I find in cooking fo one and then eating alone. It takes me a lot more effort to get up and cook when I am by myself than if I have someone to cook for, but I think that I have done well this week and made a courageous effort! It does help that I do really enjoy cooking, and I find comfort and solace in the kitchen in front of the oven or behind the stove. I think it helps me forget what an unremarkable job (I can't honestly call it a career) I have. I can pretend I am living back in the old days when the woman ran the house and had all day to make cakes and biscuits and dinner for their family, and was looked after by her husband and did not have to worry about awful things like money and career and being a professional failure. I know it may sound terribly old-fashioned but feeling inadequate and unremarkable and unaccomplished in my job, which is where I have to spend most of my day from Monday to Friday, is a horrible feeling and I do sometimes wish I didn't have to worry about it. So I try to get my sense of achievement in other ways, in cooking and creating - and sometimes that helps cool the burn of shame I feel from my professional failings.

Time to stop moaning and look forward to my dinner tonight.
Until then, happy cooking.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Veggie night #2

Night 2 of my vegetarian week was another pastry/mushroom creation. This one did not claim to be life-changing but personally I found it a lot more life-changing than Monday night's recipe. Honestly, I don't kow how any dish can claim to be life-changing. It would take something really special to make a significant impact in my life at all, let alone change it permanently. Thinking back over the years of my culinary development there are only 2 things that I can possibly say changed my life in any way. The first was the recipe for lasagne that I learned from an Italian boyfriend many, many years ago. Without the instruction that I had on his granny's lasagne recipe and construction method, I would not be able to make the absolutely amazing lasagne that is my signature dish now. This lesson also opened me up to the idea of adding nutmeg, cinnamon and mixed spice to savoury dishes, a concept that I had never heard of growing up but one that has helped me tranform many a mediocre dish into an aromatic masterpiece over the years. The second food revelation in my life was sushi. I do not remember the very first time I dared to venture into the dark and scary realms of raw fish, but it was around 2002 that I fell in love with it. I have many a fond memory of sushi nights at my favourite South African fish restaurant 'Cape Town Fish Market'. The sense of adventure from selecting little plates of never-before-tried sushi off the little sushi conveyor belt, and slowly relishing a oh-so-expensive but oh-so-worth-it bottle of Kanonkop Cabernet while watching the master sushi chefs effortlessly construct beautiful masterpieces out of the simplest of ingredients. If I had never tired sushi, my life would be a little worse for it.

But I digress... last nights vegetarian dish was a filling of shallots, garlic, white wine and mushrooms with camembert cheese in a puff-pastry parcel, with a roasted red-pepper sauce. The mushroom parcel was very tasty, but I do find puff pastry a little rich, so I would probably have preferred filo. The sauce however was lovely. I do not normally make sauces that are a separate component to the dish, but this one fitting into the cooking time well as I made it while the pastry parcel was cooking, and it was well worth it. The sweetness of the red pepper with the undertones of tarragon and garlic lifted the ratehr simple mushroom-pastry parcel to a whole other level. It was lovely and the combination worked beautifully, so I will happily call this one a success.

Tonight is Penne al Arabiatta, a simple yet wonderfully tasty pasta dish, according to the recipe. I look forward to it.

Until tomorrow, happy cooking.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Veggie night #1

Last night was my first foray of the week into the realms of vegetarian fare. The recipe was for Mushroom & cheese parcels with a red wine sauce from Simon Rimmer's 'Accidental Vegetarian'. The description of the recipe stated that this is a life-changing dish so I thought it suitable that I started with it as I am more than open to having my life changed by a vegetarian revelation. The dish is a mushroom, cream cheese, ricotta and leek mixture baked in a filo pastry shell, and served with an onion and mushroom red wine sauce.

It was a relatively simple dish to make and I managed to do it while on the phone to my brother in South Africa - being a woman capable of multi-tasking comes in very handy sometimes, especially when I am home from the gym and hungry but also wanting to talk to my brother. The mixture for the filling was very tasty and I am a fan of the light-crunchiness of filo pastry so that side of the dish was very nice indeed. However, I was really not sure about the red wine sauce. It was a nice sauce in itself and would go very well with a more substantial dish (like steak!) but the power of the red wine sauce seemed to overwhelm the delicate flavours in the filo shell. I could not really taste the mushroom or leek once the sauce was added which was a pity as I do love the whole cheese/mushroom/leek combination. In hindsight a white-wine sauce may have been a better combination, but that is just to my taste - maybe Simon Rimmer has differently-tuned tastebuds. Another problem I encountered was the fact that the filling started leaking out of the pastry while it was cooking. I did use 3 layers of hole-free filo, and folded it nicely in the way the recipe instructed, but nevertheless, it still started oozing about 15 minutes into the 25 minute cooking time. I'm not sure what the reason was for the filling's rebellious breach of the sanctity of the pastry. Did I not roll it correctly? Did I not seal it properly? Was it rolled too tight or too loose? Was the filling not chilled enough? I don't know, but it was a pity it did leak as it was not quite as pretty as I had hoped.

Altogether is was an ok meal, not as life-changingly spectacular as it had promised but not bad.

Tonight is another pastry-based dish but this time it is a mushroom and hazlenut puff-pastry parcel with no red wine sauce to be seen. I'm hoping that I'll be able to get the puff pastry puffy and not soggy but we will have to wait and see.

Until then, happy cooking.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Cheesecake Take 2

So as not to be disheartened by my monumental cheesecake flop of yesterday, I thought I'd give it another go today. Another 'light' cheesecake recipe, another chance to make or break my opportunity for a guilt-free version of my favourite dessert. So, this time it was Silvana Franco's chance to impress. A ricotta-based cheesecake with baked banana, stem ginger and hazelnuts. So, I baked the bananas until the skin blackened, mashed up the resulting pulp and blended it with the ricotta, a couple of eggs, some cornflour and the ginger & nuts. Then into the oven for 45mins and then open the door to let it cool. It is now in the fridge chilling. I did cut off a little bit to just try it, and the texture is considerably better than yesterday's disaster, but its not like cheesecake. It cannot really be called cheesecake as it honestly tastes nothing like cheesecake - it more like an as-yet-unnamed dessert which vaguely resonates hints of cheesecake, but seems to be crossed with baked egg-custard and omelette. However, it is not unpleasant and may be a decent dessert when you are forcing yourself to abstain from the sinful indulgence of full fat deliciousness. But... and it is a big but... its just not the same. Its just not nearly a delicious as it should be. If I am going to take the lunge of having dessert after dinner, I want it to be good. It would be nice if it was good and not too bad for me, but that seems to be a hard balance to find. So I will enjoy this cheesecake, but the next one I make will be a proper one. It may be my speciality one which is lemon and ginger cheesecake with a ginger-biscuit base. It is sublime and I miss it and this one is a poor substitute. But it is certainly another learning experience in this the year of trying new things.

So this weeks menus are veggie. No meat to be seen. All pulled from Simon Rimmer's 'Accidental Vegetarian'  which I have had for a couple of years but never made more than a handful of recipes from.

So until the next post on Monday night's first veggie adventure, happy cooking.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Cheesecake Calamity

Due to the fact that I can rarely restrain myself around a cheesecake, this week I decided to try a recipe for a lighter low-fat version that came in my latest edition of Delicious Magazine. As this interesting recipe involves mixing cottage cheese and yoghurt and then draining them in a muslin-lined sieve overnight, I thought it would be a new, fun thing to try, while protecting my waistline at the same time. Hmmmmm. I have had lower-fat cheesecakes before that are very nice so I hoped that this one that was so beautifully illustrated in 'Delicious' would be tasty and saintly all at the same time.

So I blended the cottage cheese and yoghurt and left it in the muslin-lined sieve overnight as instructed. So today while combining the resulting cheesey-solids with egg, vanilla essence, stem ginger, lemon juice, pecans and a bit of sugar, it all looked very promising. tasted ok too. Alas, this optimism was rather premature. I manufactured a base out of 'light' cereal bars all blended up into a rather sticky concoction. Then in with the cheesecake cheesey filling and into the oven for 45 mins. All still appeared well and even when I opened the door after the allotted 45 minute cooking time the cheesecake looked browned and plump and rather nice really. So I left it in the oven with the door ajar as directed in the recipe, and returned to my glass of wine and 'How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days'. When I returned to the oven an hour or so later, the pretty, plump cheesecake I had left there had sunken into a rather less-promising looking version of its former self. I tried to recall how much my last baked cheesecake (which was amazingly good) had sunken after it came out the oven, and although I know they always sink a bit, this looked like rather a lot and not just 'a bit'. But, I was not to be disheartened (as I am home alone the cheesecake is my only friend tonight and I did not want to give up on it), so I cut myself a piece and dug in. It is quite hard to describe what it was like really. If you imagine a marriage of quiche, cottage cheese and yoghurt, not sweet and not savoury, but on some kind of previously unknown parallel dimension somewhere in between, that may give you an idea. An interesting and altogether new experience for my tastebuds. I am only sorry that I do not have a dog who in his unrestricted culinary tastes would appreciate it, and as I don't think that there is a human being on the planet who would want it, this experiment is sadly destined for the bin. It was not a totally wasted endeavour though, I now have myself 1.5m of muslin which I sourced from the John Lewis haberdashery department (for a fraction of the price of their special (tiny!) jam-making muslin squares in the cooking department!), and that will come in handy in the future I am sure.

Theres a first time for everything and tonight was my night for flopping cheesecake. I didn't even know that such a thing was possible. Teehee :) Well off to a hot bath with a book and glass of red to soothe my cheesecake-traumatised soul.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Being spoiled

For the last two days my amazing boyfriend has taken care of the cooking with the aid of the slow cooker and a couple of recipes I chose. I do feel very spoiled as I have been able to get home from the gym and dinner is in the pot, smelling amazing and all I need to do is cook some veg and we're done. I do love cooking, don't get me wrong, but it is nice to feel treated sometimes. Both last night's lamb and Wednesday night's pork were meltingly tender and beautifully flavoursome from the long, gentle cooking. These are the first two recipes we have tried out of the slow cooker book I bought a couple of months ago, and I have to really use it more often and try some other recipes as it is simple and worth the bit of effort in the mornings.

As I am being left alone for a week while Jel goes off to Barbados for a week (work? yeah, right! hehe), I have to ponder this weekend what I am going to cook next week. I could do one big pot of something and eat it all week but that does tend to leave my tastebuds feeling rather bored and subsequently they may go on strike by the end of the week. So I'd rather do a couple fo meals and maybe do potrions for 2 and then I can eat one and save one for later in the week, but I won't be in a food coma from the same thing every day. I have experienced this food coma phenomenon before, when I attempted the Special K 'Two Week Challenge'. Thought I'd give it a go to try and lose the Christmas punds that had crept on courtesy of the seasonal over-indulgences. When I'm at work I can normally manage to eat whatever is going - I don't think about it too much, and I then make dinner my main enjoyment-meal, so I didn't think it would be too hard. Week 1 was ok, but in week 2 my tastebuds were just sooooo bored of cereal that they craved, demanded some variety. So thats when the 'cheating' happens and I'd end up eating too much again for the sake of variety. So needless to say that the cereal is now simply for breakfast and today was carrots, peppers, pita bread and hummus for lunch. Still fairly healthy and a lot more interesting.

Tonight I am off to John Lewis to try and find myself some muslin cloth as I have a 'healthy' cheesecake recipe which calls for yoghurt and cottage cheese to be strained in muslin cloth for 24 hours. Sounds like fun and its certainly not something I've ever tried before so I am looking forward to trying my hand at it. And hopefully I'll be left with some muslin for the next time a recipe calls for a 'bouquet garni'.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

No action just plans

I have a confession to make. I went home last night with every intention of baking something, but it didn't happen.

I got home and got to work on the finishing touches to my sister's jewellery box, which ended up taking an hour an a half which was longer than I had anticipated in my plans. Then I had to shorten the new kitchen curtain. I had already tried to do this a week ago but after shortening it based on a measurement taken from the end of the curtain, I discovered to my dismay that the curtain cannot have been the same length all the way across and still dragged on the floor in the middle. I know that I shouldn't grumble as it was a cheap curtain that had been discounted by 75% in the January sale and as it was from Matalan I did not expect it to be John Lewis quality, but WTF?  How can it be a different length in the middle than it is on the end?? So I took it down, re-pinned it with my new guess-timation of what the length should be and then hung it up again to check the length before I committed to using the needle and thread. So the taking down and pinning, and re-hanging and taking down and sewing took me a good hour (I do not have the luxury of a sewing machine so this is the good old sewing by hand). Once the curtain was up and no longer dragging on the floor, I heated up some of my divine 'Cuban Cure' soup and collapsed on the couch for some well-earned chill-time.

I did peruse my cookies, cupcakes & other tempting treats book but due to the lack of (any) butter in the house, I could not get motivated to make anything. Instead I treated myself to a long, hot bath while reading Julie & Julia and dreamed of the Spiced Pecan Cake with Pecan Icing. This cake is mentioned in the book and although I don't want to ruin it for anyone who wants to read the book and han't yet - it sounds like the sexiest cake on earth. To make and to eat and to feed to someone you are trying to seduce. So... although I am in a monogamous relationship and not trying to seduce anyone except my dear boyfriend, I want to make this cake. I am dying to make this cake. However, as it sounds huge, I need a slightly special occasion to justify taking a whole day to make a cake, so I am going to make it in February for a friend's birthday, and I can't wait!

Tonight's culinary adventure is slow-cooker pork & dumplings which has been painstakingly made by Jel, with the occasional MSN-based assistance from me. I have to admit that I am SO looking forward to going home after my gym session tonight and having dinner there, all done, ready and waiting in the slow cooker. Tomorrow morning I will be up early making the slow-cooker lamb with coriander and honey, I'm surely the half hour less in bed will totally be worth it.

Until then, happy cooking

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Fat and Fire

So last night I made Nigella's 'Cuban Cure Black Bean Soup'. In the last year or so I have come to love Nigella's recipes. She is the epitomy of the gorgeous, elegant, talented kitchen goddess that I can only dream of one day becoming. She glides around the kitchen like she was born to be there and every movement she makes is like a graceful step in a dance which she enjoys every single second of. I think the sheer pleasure that she gets out of cooking and out of eating is part of her irresistable appeal. Last Christmas I bought her 'Nigellas Christmas' book and it has some truly wonderful recipes. The Cranberry and White Chocolate Cookies are heavenly and the Gingerbread is sublime, but last night I treated myself to the Cuban Cure Black Bean Soup. Now I know it is not Christmas any more and I was not suffering from a hangover but it doesn't matter, this soup is a warm comfort any time of the year.  It is remarkably quick and simple, but boy is it impressive! I do adore chorizo and it is perfect in this brothy soup complimented with coriander, lime, tomato and spring onion and is a firey, salty and sharp concoction that will make you sink into the sofa cradling the bowl in contented bliss.

It is making my mouth water just to think about it. Luckily for me dinner tonight will be last night's soup leftovers so I can look forward to enjoy it all over again. As I am covered for dinner, I may bake something to keep me busy in between shortening the new kitchen curtain and finishing my sister's jewellery box. The only problem with baking is that there will be cake/biscuits afterwards ready to tempt me into over-indulging in them. I love baking, and even more the act of baking than the eating of the finished product. I will cretinly treat myself to some but then I will need to bring the rest into the office for my dear colleagues to enjoy to avoid the temptation of scoffing myself into a larger jeans-size. I have always had a problem with portion control so I find it best to keep temptation away, but I do so love cooking and baking that I'm my own worst enemy. We will see what mood I'm in when I get home.

Until tomorrow, happy cooking.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Mussel Power

And the weekend is over, but not without another little culinary triumph for me. Saturday night I was not required to cook as we were at a friend's place and they treated us to a late lunch of veggie tacos, and we weren't in need of any dinner after that. Sunday we went food shopping and decided to undertake mussels. This decision stemmed from the fact that we'd had mussels at a restaurant a couple of weeks ago and they were absolutely fabulous. I had not had them for quite a while and had forgotton how much of a treat they can be if cooked nicely. And the 'if cooked nicely' is the operative phrase there. If they are done well then they are tender and tasty with a nice sauce which you mop up with some warm garlic bread. If they are not done well they can be like eating rubber with a sprinkling of grit in a sauce that is not unlike warmed-up seawater. So ordering them at a restaurant is always a gamble, but one that paid off this time. As I have never cooked fresh (i.e. alive) mussels before I was up for the challenge this weekend, and luckily Sainsburys had fresh mussels in stock which must have been a sign as I have never seen them there before. As the nice fish counter man scooped some up for us I could not help feeling slightly guilty that these poor, innocent mussels were being wrenched from their nice, cosy tank and being thrown into a plastic bag for us to carry home and subsequently steam alive. But putting my conscience aside I tossed them into the trolley and went on my way.

When we got home we had to do a little research online about the procedure for cleaning and preparing mussels as we didn't have much clue on what to do with them. After browsing various websites we had a good idea of the process and left the mussels in some cold, clean water so that they could expel any grit that they had inside them. This is an important step as there is nothing worse then biting down on a delicious mussel and ending up crunching down on sand, yuck! So, after an hour in the cold water we proceeded to clean the little guys. Jel pulled the beards out, as this part requires some force and hand strength, and I scrubbed them clean. By the time we had done them all there was a lot of grit and dirt in the water, so their hour-long swim really did a lot of good. After the cleaning they went into the pot with 200ml white wine on a high heat to steam for 5-6 mins until they had all opened. Then I poured them out into a sieve and reserved the cooking water which i strained through a fine sieve to get rid of any remaining grit. After cooking some leeks in butter on the hob I added the reserved cooking liquor and aloowed to boil and reduce for 10 mins or so, then added some black pepper and a good glug of cream. Then back in with the mussels to make sure they are warm and mixed up with the sauce, and into a serving dish. And they were good. Grit-free, tender and the simple sauce was perfect, with a few good chunks of garlic bread it was a lovely Sunday night dinner.

I don't generally make desserts in the week, partly to save my waistline and partly because after getting home from the gym in the evening all my time goes on dinner, but as it was weekend I thought we deserved a treat. If you can't treat yourself on the weekend when can you? I had picked up a few fresh figs on Saturday and I recalled seeing Jamie Oliver cook them in his 'Christmas Special' and they looked lovely, and as I'd never cooked fresh figs before I thought it was worth a go. It is remarkably simple. Cut the figs in half and place in a baking tray, sprinkle with orange/clementine zest, cinnamon and a little sugar and cook for a few hours at a low temperature (110 deg). Serve on Bruschetta with goats cheese and lashings of honey. I love goats cheese and the combination of the creamy, salty cheese with the figs and sweet honey is absolutely heavenly and finished off the dinner with a decadent flourish.

Tonight I have been abandoned by my man so I am flying solo and making myself Nigella's 'Cuban Cure Black Bean Soup'. Its not that I need a cure but I am in love with Chorizo and the combination of fire and flavour in the recipe looks fabulous.

So until tomorrow, happy cooking x

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Cake Calamity

So last night we were out for dinner at Vermillion in Manchester. The decor is certainly as spectacular as I had heard, and the food was something pretty special too. As it is an 'asian-fusion' restaurant the cuisine was thai/japanese/indian, and although they are not combinations you would typically see together, It certainly worked. We chose the set menu as we do love to try a few different things while out for dinner rather than just settling on one dish. Although you do end up with enough food for 3 people let alone 2, it is so much fun to have a selection of little starters, and a few different mains. It is decadently excessive but well deserved on special occasions, like this one to celebrate the fact that my beloved Jel has made it relatively unscathed through the first 29 years of his life. We tried not to dwell on the fact that it is now only 365 days until he is 30, we will think about that closer to the time and plan the appropriate alcohol dosage required to adequately numb the sting.

As I cannot rant on about my own culinary achievements today, I will instead string a few sentences together about my first experience with cake decorating. I have made many a cake before but never have I attempted to cover one in marzipan and fondant icing. The art of fancy cake decorating does fascinate me and I am actually looking for a cake decorating course to do at the moment, but without training or experience, I attempted to go it alone for my darling Jel's birthday.

First I needed to make the cake. As Jel is not a huge fan of fruit cake, I decided to go with a madeira cake. But I did not want a normal, boring, plain flavoured madeira cake so I decided to concoct my own flavour.  So in went all the ingredients and some coffee granules and some Tia Maria and some Amaretto. Into the tin and into the oven. So all was going smoothly on stage 1, or so I thought. You can imagine my surprise when I have baked the cake precisely accoring to the recipe, and I ended up with a brick-cake. A rock-cake. A cake so dry that it could be used to soak up a week's worth of Manchester rain. So that one was chiselled up into bits and thrown into the garden to see if the birds would attmpt to eat it.
Cake recipe take 2 was much better. Firm enough to cut and cover but still moist and tasty.Why couldn't it have been like that first time round? Only the gods of baking know. So after cooling and cutting it into 2 small rounds my mini-cake was ready for marzipanning. I had found what claimed to be the 'best ever marzipan recipe' online and was stocked up with ground almonds and all the other lovely ingredients. It all went well until the time came to knead the marzipan and roll it out. It was just far, far too sticky. It stuck to everything. From the counter top to the rolling pin to my hands and apron. But it was nothing that could not be remedied with much, mucg more ground almonds, icing sugar and caster sugar. The rolling out and covering went without incident, although the marzipan was not very strong and how on earth you'd cover a large cake with it heaven alone knows. I am dying to go on a course to find out how this seemingly impossible task is achieved.

After a day of drying out it was time to make the fondant. Now as a fan of 'Ace of Cakes' fondant has always appeared to me to be magical stuff that with no effor at all transforms a plain looking cake into an elegant, perfectly smooth masterpiece. Ha. Not quite. Not without out lots of practice and/or professional training. In the cake decorating my mom got me for Christmas the cake-covering section has lovely little step-by-step instructions. 'Roll the icing out into a circle to match the size of the cake. The drape over the cake and smooth out.' They do not say that after draping the icing over the cake there is an excess of icing at the bottom of the cake that will not allow it to be simply smoothed down. What are you supposed to do with that excess icing?? I did get the cake covered in the end, but it was far from the gleaming satin perfection that I had imagined. It was rather lumpy and uneven. But it was a first attempt so I will chalk it down to experience, and I tasted good so what the heck.

Happy cooking,

Friday, 15 January 2010

Day 2 and off out already

This morning it is cold and rainy and gloomy outside but the less than perfect weather cannot break through the inner glow I have after an AMAZING risotto last night. I could not settle on one recipe so I ended up combining 2, and wow did it work. I'm not normally one to blow my own trumpet but this risotto was truly a triumph. the sweetness of the butternut combined perfectly with the tang of the white wine, the saltiness of the stock and the creamy yet pungent bite of the Dolce Latte blue cheese. The perfect mix of firmess and softness in the rice, undertones of sage and garlic... Yum!

I wish the same could be said for the muffins that I was making at the same time, but they did not result in the same degree of success. The first problem was that I was making them while making the risotto, and even though I am a woman and naturally gifted at multi-tasking, doing 2 things at the same time tends to result in one not being done 100% right. So after sifting the dry ingredients, beating and adding the wet ingredients, the mixture was rather runny. In fact it was the runniest muffin mixture I have ever seen. But as I was rather focused on my masterpiece risotto, I shrugged off the sense of misgiving I had at the runny mixture and filled my silicon muffin cases and threw them in the oven. After about 30 seconds it dawned on me. The recipe was for chocolate and stem ginger muffins, and there was no chocolate in them. I had forgotten to add the cocoa powder. Cursing not so silently I hauled the muffins out of the oven, scraped the mixture out of the cases and proceeded to add the offending cocoa powder and re-fill the cases. All this was accomplished in record time, and the muffins were back in the oven within minutes. In the end they turned out rather tasty, and with an exciting story to go along with them, at least they cannot be considered boring muffins.

As today is my dear better half's birthday, I am already slacking off and not cooking. Tonight we are off out for a birthday celebration dinner at the 3rd best restaurant in Manchester. Why not the first or second best you may ask? Well, the best restaurant in Manchester is out of my budget range at the moment unfortunately, and we went to the second best restaurant last year. The food at the chosen venue is 'Asian fusion' and as I love anything with a Thai influence I'm looking forward to that. The decor at the venue is reportedly rather elaborate which is always entertaining so it should be a good night. Maybe I'll take a picture and upload it if the lighting is flattering.

As I am not cooking tonight, tomorrow I may regale you with the tale of my first ever attmept at making marzipan and fondant icing from scratch, and then trying to cover my boyfriend's birthday cake. It would have been rather entertaining for anyone who was watching, but for me it was frustrating and messy and confusing. They made it look so easy in my little cake book and on 'Ace of Cakes', but as usual appearances can be deceiving.

Until tomorrow then, happy cooking x

The Risotto Recipe if anyone is interested: (Serves 4, or 1 woman and 2 hungry men)

2 x cloves of garlic
Handful of Sage leaves
Salt & Pepper
1 x Medium size butternut squash
2 Tbsp Olive Oil
2 good knobs of butter
1 x Onion, chopped
400g Risotto Rice
300ml or so of white wine
1l vegetable Boullion (2 Tbsp Boullion powder and 1l boiling water)
Dolce Latte blue cheese (as much or as little as you like)

In a pestle and mortar pound up the garlic, half the sage leaves, 1 tbsp olive oil and some salt & pepper.
Cut the butternut into big chunky wedges and remove seeds from any pieces that have them, then rub the butternut with the pounded up garlic oil mixture. Then bake in the oven at 200C for 50 mins or until soft & starting to brown.
After the butternut has been cooking for 10 mins or so, make the risotto.
heat 1tbsp olive oil with a knob of buter until the butter is foaming. Add the onion and fry gently until soft (10 mins or so)
Add the risotto rice and mix well allowing the rice to become coated in the onion, butter & oil, and to get hot
Then add the white wine (stand back as it may splutter a bit), and mix continuously until all the wine is absorbed.
Then add a ladle full of stock and mix until absorbed. Then add another ladle full and mix until absorbed, etc etc. Technically you are supposed to stir it constantly during the whole cooking time, but i left mine for a few minutes here and there, so don't panic if you have to do that too. Once all the stock is absorbed the rice should be almost cooked, with a bit of a bite (crunch) in it still. This is important as soggy risotto is pretty stodgy and horrible.
Once the butternut is ready, scrape the soft orange butternut out of its soft skin into a bowl and make sure you get all the olive oiley, sagey, garlicy coating as well as this has a fabulous flavour once cooked. Mash up the butternut with a fork and add to the risotto as soon as all the stock has been absorbed, along with a knob of butter. Mix well and allow to heat through well. Then add your preferred quantity of Dolce Latte and mix in until melted and combined.
Serve hot on heated plates with more Dolce Latte on top if desired.
Enjoy! :)

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Time to start

The Plan? Give myself something to do every day, one day at a time.

Over the Christmas period I watched Julie & Julia for the first time, and I do admit, I have become addicted. I have watched it twice more since then and I'm trying to figure out what it is about this movie that has hit such a chord with me. Is it that she is also stuck in a job that is just a job, and not a career? Is it that she loves food and cooking? Is it that she came up with a great idea to write about her self-delegated project of cooking her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking? Is it beacuse she went from being a nobody to being a somebody? Or is it all of the above? Yes, I think it is all of the above. I feel like I am in a job, not a career, and fast approaching the 28th year of my life I really do not feel like I have achieved anything career-wise. I have been in a couple of good jobs but left them for various reasons and as I am not 'degree qualified' I have to start the next job at the very bottom of the food chain and remain rather poor. I do love cooking and love food, and as such have to subject myself to regular gym sessions to prevent the expanding waistline which threatens with every delectable mouthful of Brie and glass of red wine. I have not ever had any great ideas in my life - I am a nobody to all except the tiny handful of important people in my life.

So, I am going to attempt to quit whining to myself about how sad and pointless my life may be, and start a project. I am good at starting projects but rarely get anywhere near finishing them or continuing them for any length of time. I am hoping that this blog posting may give me a sense of accountability, so even if nobody is reading it I can pretend that they are and as I have a real phobia of public humiliation, I will carry on even if my resolve wanes.

What am I going to do? I am going to cook, something new and never before attempted by me, ever night. And I will write about it, the successess and failures and anything else interesting that may pop up in between. So off to ponder tonights dinner plan, of Butternut and Blue Cheese Risotto. Not very challenging I am sure but I've never done anything with blue cheese before as its mouldy look and pungent odour does tend to put me off, but theres a first time for everything and tonight, blue cheese is my something.