Saturday, 26 February 2011

Store cupboard 2: Easy meals

This time it's mostly tinned stuff and packets

My last post on the store cupboard turned into a bit of a diatribe about herbs and spices and they are all very well but you can't rustle up a quick meal out of nothing but herbs. So I thought this one might be a bit more substantial.

The idea of a storecupboard (well MY idea of a storecupboard) is that it should help you to create good food when you need to. Everyone has those days when they don't fancy what they planned to eat, or they didn't get to the shops or someone turns up unexpectedly and needs to be fed.

That's when the storecupboard comes into play. Some of the things I keep in my cupboard are:

Dried spaghetti and pasta shapes
As long as you've got these, some decent olive oil or butter and your herb selection you can always eat.  Pasta is simple and you can throw almost anything on top of it to make it fancy.  At the least you can boil it, sprinkle olive oil over it and give it a good grinding of black pepper. Anything beyond that is a bonus. Got dried oregano and basil? Chuck them in too. Tail end of some parmesan cheese in the fridge? Grate that over it as well. (And never EVER use that nasty ready-grated stuff in the tubs. It smells of vomit and adds nothing to a meal except unpleasantness.)

Also included in this section are dried noodles. Medium egg noodles are always good and are perfect for under a stir fry of leftover veg.

Basmati is good if you like curries and it's also a good stand-by for most rice dishes. Risotto rice is handy because you can turn practically anything into a risotto. Tin of peas. Browned onion. Mixed leftover veg. Chicken bits. Fresh tomatoes.
Otherwise just plain old long grain will do. 

Tinned tomatoes
Now you're talking. At their simplest you can chuck them onto a couple of slices of toast and give them a good slosh of brown sauce or worcester sauce. But if you've got them and pasta you're made. Simmer a tin of toms with a few Italian herbs and flavours (basil, oregano, few chilli flakes, garlic salt, black pepper) and, if you have them, any of the following: some sliced mushrooms, chopped cooked veg, leftover cooked meat such as ham, olives, anchovies or other fish, handful of prawns, fruit at a pinch, pineapple might work. Give it about 10 minutes or so on a low heat and if the tomatoes are staying too whole give them a bash with a wooden spoon.
Chuck it over cooked pasta. Yummy.

They also brighten up lots of mince-based dishes like cottage pie, chilli, lasagne, bolognese, moussaka etc. It's a great way to hide veg in meals if you have reluctant eaters too.

Baked beans
They're a staple. On toast with a little cheese grilled over the top. Over a baked potato. Used in chilli in place of red kidney beans. Added to mince to bulk it out and make it a little healthier.

Tinned olives can be added to pizza or baked into bread or just served on their own as a nibble if people turn up unexpectedly.

Other tinned veg
Whatever you like really. Some pulses are handy - chick peas, borlotti. You can use them to bulk out other things or as the base for a curry. They take ages to cook from dried so a tin or two is much easier.
Sweetcorn: Tinned sweetcorn is wonderful stuff and unlike a lot of veg it doesn't lose its flavour. Goes into salads, fritata (like an omelette), served on the side of practically any 'meat and two veg' kind of meal, mixed with leftover chicken bits and some mayo for a sandwich filling.
Something fancy is always handy too. I keep artichoke hearts and palm hearts. They make wonderful starters with a bit of virgin olive oil and a hunk of bread. They also go well on pizzas and the Italians also put artichokes in ham sandwiches.

Tinned fish
A tin of tuna, mackerel in some sort of sauce, smoked oysters or mussels, white crab meat, prawns.  Open the tins. Put the contents into a load of small dishes and you have tapas almost straight away. Jug of wine, loaf of bread, tin of olives, bowl of mayo. You're made.

Tinned meat
I don't care what anyone says you can't beat a Spam fritter. But a tin of corned beef is always handy too. Mash it up with some leftover spuds and a bit of fried onion, fry it gently until the mixture browns a bit and you've got corned beef hash.

Extra bits
A couple of pints of "plastic" milk

You know the sort I mean. The stuff in boxes. It lasts for ages and you've got the making of custard (as long as you have custard powder in the cupboard too. I always have). In fact here is a recipe for quick steamed sponge pudding to go with it.

The base for lots of things - not least soda bread, which can be made in about 40 minutes and is so easy you wouldn't believe! But you can also rustle up pancakes as long as you've got an egg and some milk, or buns, or all sorts of stuff. And it's good for thickening soups and sauces.  If you can only run to one bag make it self raising.

Baking powder
You can't make scones without it. Or soda bread. Or quick steamed jam sponge. It's cheap and handy.

Dried yeast
Be brave. Follow the instructions on the back (there's almost always bread instructions on the back of yeast packets) and make some pizza bases. You'll love yourself for it.

Well it goes without saying really doesn't it? And besides - we covered it in storecupboard 1.

Good extra virgin olive oil
If you've been paying attention you'll have noticed olive oil mentioned a couple of times already. There is virtually nothing you can eat that won't be enhanced by a drizzle of good olive oil over the top. (OK - maybe not chocolate cake, but you know what I mean)

Buy in a medium sized jar and keep it in your fridge. Goes really nicely under cheese on toast. Great for sandwiches. Wonderful with a tinned veg as a starter. Egg mayo - retro but yummy. (Boil an egg. Peel it. Slather mayo over it. Sprinkle lightly with cayenne pepper. Serve with brown bread.) Mixed half and half with yoghurt as a cold sauce base.  Add more or less anything you like. Finely chopped onion, curry powder, anchovies, use your imagination.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Auntie Anne's quick steamed sponge pudding

You remember those gorgeous gooey sponge puddings you used to have when you were little? Well they haven't gone away.
What's gone is the old way of making them. Back in the day you used to have to plan about three hours in advance because they needed hours to steam. Not so any more.
And if you insist on using those nasty gram things you can work out the maths yourself!

Home made jam - perfect for sponge pudding!

You will need:
3 oz self raising flour
1.5 oz white bread crumbs
Pinch of salt
Teaspoon of baking powder
2 oz margarine (low fat spread is fine)
2 oz sugar (or equivalent in substitute if you aren't allowed it)
An egg
A bit of milk

Sift the flour and baking powder and salt together into a bowl. Add the breadcrumbs and sugar and stir.
Rub in the fat. Break the egg into a small dish and beat it a bit with a fork. Add it in and give it a good mix.
Now add the milk a little at a time until you get a mixture that will drop off your spoon easily.
Grease a small bowl or a couple of mugs. Put a large dollop of jam in the bottom and put the pudding mixture on top.
Now stick it in your microwave. If you've got a fancy 1000 watt one it should take about three minutes. If it's less than that, adjust your time accordingly.
The mixture will rise nicely and you'll be able to see when it's cooked.
Turn out the pud onto a plate and add extra jam if you like it very sweet.
Pour custard over it and enjoy.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Weekend soup

Yesterday morning we went shopping and when we came back from the supermarket we put everything away, as usual. Of course, as always happens, we had to move out the old bits to make way for fresh food.

As usual I turned the leftovers into soup for lunch. It's quick, easy and, if you were planning on throwing the old food out, free!

You can make weekend soup out of any old raw and cooked vegetables but this one consisted of:

Half a head of chinese leaf (it was Chinese New Year during the week and it didn't fit in the stir fry)
The tail end of a swede
An onion

I chopped it all up then threw it into a saucepan with a tablespoon of oil and a couple of cloves of garlic. (Start with raw vegetables only. If you're including cooked ones they go in later.)

First thing to do is sweat it all down until the veg starts to wilt and the onions start to go translucent.
 When you've done it right it will look sort of like this: (That dark green stuff is lemon thyme that I happened to have around.)

Then you need to add some thickening.  If your leftover vegetables included potatoes you won't need to do this bit because the starch in the spuds will do it for you. If not, add some flour and then cook it for a couple of minutes longer, stirring it all the time so it doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan.

Once it starts to look thick and sticky you need to add liquid. You can add either water or stock. Add the cooked veg at this stage if you're using them. Add enough liquid to cover the veg. Bring the whole thing to the boil and then turn down the heat to a simmer. Let it cook for about 10 to 15 minutes then taste it. If it's short on flavour add something to make it tastier.  This one was a bit thin so I added a sprinkling of Chinese five spice powder and a good splash of soy sauce. (But you can add chilli, curry powder, herbs, Worcester sauce, leftover meat, tomato puree, celery salt, anything you like.)

Once you're happy you can blast it through a blender. You might find you need to cool it down before you do, then heat it up again before you eat it. Pour it into bowls and if you want to be really swank you can swirl in some cream or yoghurt and sprinkle it with a few fresh herbs (like in the top picture).

You see - there IS such a thing as a free lunch!

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Make your own stock cubes

I made a fish pie today. I'll give you instructions for that sometime in the future. But I just thought I'd offer this tip that cropped up during the process.  I'd bought some whole prawns as part of the fishy bit.  I shelled them and kept the meats for the pie but I made a stock out of the shells by boiling them up with a half a stick of celery, a small onion, a squeeze of lemon juice and some freshly ground black pepper. I let it boil for about 20 minutes then strained it through a sieve and let it cool.

I had loads more than I needed for sauce for the pie so I reduced down the remainder (that means boiling it rapidly until it's only a quarter to a third of the original volume) and then poured it into an ice cube bag and froze it. Next time I need some fish stock all I have to do is break out an ice cube and drop it into whatever I'm cooking.

You can do the same with any stock you make. Ensure you label it well if you do. It's a bit difficult to tell the difference between chicken and fish once it's frozen!

Feeding your freezer

Well, after yesterday's post I thought it might be a good idea to give you some follow-up on how to add all those lovely things to mince in order to make some yummy meals. I'm a great believer in saving myself time and effort so I will make up batches of food and freeze them in advance, in portion-sized containers and have them as ready-meals that I can defrost any old time that I can't be bothered.

Weekdays we tend to have something from this list on at least a couple of nights a week so that we can take it out of the freezer in the morning, stick it in the oven at night and, 30 minutes later, there's dinner!  So bear in mind that these instructions are for a household with two people who are trying to eat healthily. If one of you is a roadmender or hod carrier or any other kind of heavy work you might need to increase your portions a bit. Use your imagination and a bit of common sense.
Anyhow. You will need a bit of time (no more than an hour though) and the following ingredients. This will make three different meals for two people.
Three freezer-proof food containers. (If you want to microwave them you'll need plastic ones but I find that metallic ones like you get from a Chinese takeaway are perfect. They sell them in supermarkets.)
Three medium sized saucepans
A cooker with at least three rings on it
Three wooden spoons (or any other kind of large stirring implement)
500g turkey mince
2 tins of tomatoes
At least 6 onions
Tomato puree
A couple of carrots
Half a dozen sliced mushrooms
A tin of red kidney beans or any other kind of ready-cooked pulses
A red chilli
Worcester Sauce
Salt and pepper
Basil and oregano
Thyme and sage
A bit of cooking oil
Some water or if you really want to be posh - chicken stock

The first bit is called "mise en place" by fancy chefs. It's French for put in place.  It means that if you do all your preparation first it saves a lot of time and hassle later. Some people like to have dishes for each ingredient but you'll find you can get away with keeping most of them on the chopping board if you're a tidy worker.  (I'm not - I use lots of dishes!)

Start by peeling your onions and chopping four of them up fairly finely. The other two can be chunky.
Peel and dice your carrot (cut it into small chunks, or cross-wise slices, doesn't really matter)
Peel six cloves of garlic (for those of you who don't cook regularly a clove of garlic is one of the bits that go to make up the "head of garlic" that you buy in the shops. I really did know someone who thought they needed three heads of garlic in a recipe. It was awful!) and chop them finely or splat them under a wide bladed knife.
Chop up the chilli.

Now put three pans on the stove with about two teaspoons of oil in each one. Put a low heat under each one. I'm going to call them Pan One, Pan Two and Pan Three. Novel, huh? Pan One is going to turn into bolognese sauce. Pan Two will be chilli and Pan Three will be the base for a cottage pie. (or just good old savoury mince!)

Put half of the finely chopped onions in Pan One, half in Pan Two and the chunky bits in Pan Three.  Add two splatted garlic cloves to each one. Add the chopped chilli to Pan Two and the diced carrot and sliced mushrooms to Pan Three.  Give each one a stir and listen for the sizzle. If they aren't sounding like they're hissing gently at you, turn the heat up a bit.

Now add basil and oregano to Pan One and thyme and sage to Pan Three. How much is a matter of taste really. For your first go just imagine that you're sprinkling salt on some chips. Give them another stir. 
The onions will start to look slightly translucent as they cook. Try not to let them brown. If they start to turn brown at the edges take the pans off the heat and let them cool down a bit. Turn down the gas/electricity.
Once they start to look a bit like they're blending together divide the mince into three and put a section into each pan. This is about the only busy bit. Give them all a good stir to break up the "strings" of mince.  Keep stirring until it starts to look like the mince is mixing in.  You don't have to stir all three at once (You've only got two hands). One at once, in turn, will be fine. When the mince has gone grey, rather than pink, you can stop stirring.

Add a tin of tomatoes to Pan One. Add a tin of tomatoes to Pan Two. Give Pan Three a good squidge of tomato puree.  Now add a good dash of Worcester Sauce to Pan Three.  They might all look slightly dry at this stage, depending on how juicy the tinned tomatoes were. If they do, give them some water (or stock) - just enough to cover the meat.

Now adjust the heat until they all start to bubble gently. Put lids on them and walk away for 10 minutes.  Come back and give them another stir . Check they're still bubbling nicely and they aren't drying out, then put the lids back and leave them for another 10 minutes.

When you come back, how do they look?  Do they look like food? Taste them. Add salt and pepper if necessary. If the chilli's a bit bland add some chilli powder. When you're happy with them turn off the heat. Stir the tin of kidney beans into Pan Two and leave them all to cool down.

When they're cooled lower than body temperature you can put them into the freezer containers, label them and stash them away for later.  If you like, you can layer the bolognese between sheets of lasagne. End with mince or it'll be very dry!  Make some mashed potatoes and cover the top of the cottage pie, or it's quite tasty if you sprinkle grated cheese on it too.

Happy eating!

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Store cupboard 1: A taste of things to come

Auntie Anne's kitchen has a well stocked store cupboard and I don't know what I'd do without it. As long as you have a few key ingredients you can always rustle up a meal at short notice. So I thought I'd do a few posts on what I keep in my store cupboard to give you a helping hand.

Writing about my herbs made me think about what else I keep around that can help me make my cooking more interesting. As more and more of us are trying to save money we're being forced increasingly to buy less meat or go for the cheaper cuts.

Now some cheap cuts have plenty of flavour but in other cases they need help in the taste department. Consider mince. It's cheap and cheerful and extremely versatile but it can be horribly bland, especially if you go for the low fat option. Fat is where meat keeps its flavour (which is why belly pork is so yummy) but it's also really not good for you.

In our house we use a lot of turkey mince because it's very low in fat, relatively cheap and easily available. But it's pretty low on savour too! I use mince for its potential to be the base for a lot of really nice dishes. Think spaghetti bolognese, lasagne, meatballs, chilli, cottage pie. But that means having a good range of herbs and spices available to me.

As you've already read I grow my own herbs and keep pots on the shelf so they are in easy reach but I also have a good selection of dried herbs too.

So what do you need?

Well that depends entirely on what your favourite meals are. If you love curry but hate Italian you're going to need coriander but won't have much use for basil. But if you're like the majority of us and enjoy a range of different cuisines you'll want a varied selection of flavourings.

So where do you start?

Let's assume that you're setting up your kitchen from scratch and you currently have nothing in store. There's a few flavourings that you really need to buy up front. If you really are starting from scratch it can be an expensive business so you need to know what's essential and what can wait.

You will definitely need:
Don't mess around with separate table salt and cooking salt. Buy what's cheap and use it for both. You might like to buy sea salt if you feel the need for iodine but it isn't necessary for your cooking.
Can't have one without the other really. If you can only afford one I'd suggest black peppercorns and a grinder (buy one you can refill). If you add black pepper to white sauce you'll get visible specks, of course, so have a small pot of ground white on hand as well if you can afford it.
If you can only afford one go for a white wine or cider one. Malt's best for chips but it isn't all that great in anything else, like sweet and sour sauce or salad dressing.
A tin of dried mustard powder is a wonderful thing to have. It adds heat and spice to lots of foods and will perk up sad curries or chilli. Don't buy the ready made stuff in a jar. It goes off. And you can always mix a bit of your own if you fancy some on a ham sandwich - the instructions will be on the side of the tin.
OK so you probably have this anyway if you take it in tea or coffee but you'll still need a small bag, even if you take your beverages as they come. It's handy for sweet and sour, freshening salad dressings and some people even put it on tomatoes. (Honest!)

Stage two
Got your first few items? Still got some money left? Let's go for stage two then.
Worcester Sauce
Or Yorkshire relish if you're in that part of the world. Not the thick stuff like ketchup - the thin stuff like vinegar. A dash of this will perk up the most boring of dishes and you must have seen the adverts where they throw it over all kinds of stuff like cheese on toast. A dash in tomato soup does wonders for it.
Tomato ketchup/puree
If you like tomato ketchup buy it and let it earn its keep off the table as well as on. If (like me) you're not exactly a ketchup fan, buy tubes of puree. A good squidge helps the colour of stews no end. It's also a great start for pizza.
Soy sauce
No it isn't the same as Worcester Sauce. It's distinctively Chinese and you can't do Asian food without it. Buy a low salt version if you can.

Stage three
We're getting a real start now! Onto the herbs and spices. Like I said earlier - it depends on what you like to eat. If you really love Mexican food buy chilli powder. If you really love curry buy a curry powder- how hot is up to you - and some ground coriander seed. For Italian fans buy dried oregano and basil. Chinese? Then it's five spice powder and star anise.

You can do that over the space of three weeks so it doesn't break the bank but you'll still be able to make some good tastes from day one.

Moving onwards
After that the world's your oyster. Buy as many as you can afford each week. Even if that's just a single new spice each shopping trip you'll soon see your store cupboard growing.

My suggestions? For the curry fan you'll eventually need black mustard seed, fennel seed, cumin, dried ginger, turmeric, garam masala, cardamom and fenugreek.

Just love aromatic spice? Cinammon, nutmeg (buy whole ones and a grater), allspice and cloves.

Herb fan? Parsley, bay leaves, tarragon (great with chicken) mint, marjoram, sage, rosemary, thyme.

Other great flavours? Celery salt (you can't make a Bloody Mary without it apparently) Carraway. Cayenne pepper. Paprika. Smoked paprika. Garlic powder (for real emergencies when you don't have fresh) Juniper berries. Lemon grass. Anything you particularly like.

Now's also the time to start buying extra vinegars - a good balsamic, red wine, now get your malt for your chips!

Above all - enjoy cooking with all the different flavours and make sure you experiment to find your own style!

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Fresh herbs, dried herbs and pots on the windowsill

I'm a bit of a gardener - only a little bit - but I have potted plants in most of my rooms. The kitchen is not spared because, for one thing it's one of the few south-facing bright rooms in the house and, for another, it's the ideal place to keep fresh herbs handy.

There's a trough just outside the back door with a selection of herbs in it too, but in winter they look a little tatty and it's a lucky day if I can manage to get a few useful leaves off them.

However, I have a tiny bay tree in the kitchen and a few pots of parsley at various stages of growth and harvest. These have all come from garden centres or supermarkets, bought growing in the pots, because I'm useless at growing herbs from seed. Don't know why, but there you go.

Meanwhile, if I want to indulge in something that bit special I'm not above buying a bunch of cut herbs when I go shopping. Trouble is, unless you eat curry every day you can end up with a lot of waste coriander that doesn't keep too well.

So what do I do with the leftovers? Dry them of course! It's so easy, and much better than watching them rot on the compost heap.

How to dry herbs

Any time that you've used your oven there will be residual heat that would otherwise go to waste. If you've got fresh herbs about you can preserve them with no trouble at all.

Get a baking tray and cover it in kitchen towel. Spread out your herbs as thinly as you can over the towel.  They dry much better if they don't overlap.

Switch off your oven and place the baking try in on the bottom shelf. Close the door and leave it for several hours, preferably overnight.

Next day check that they are dry. If not, just leave them on the side for a while. (As long as your kitchen doesn't get too steamy) They'll finish drying over the next day or so. If you have a naturally steamy kitchen you might need to warm the oven up again and repeat the process. 100C should be plenty.

Then all you have to do is put them in jars and label them.