On the pulse, with the grain.

One of the key things I’ve learnt about getting creative in the kitchen is that the process of making starts with what is absent. If I had a large, fully equipped kitchen and a well-stocked larder at my disposal I daresay I would never have started this blog.

Limited preparation space and minimal cooking facilities. The unavailability of many familiar ingredients. The effort it takes to source a fresh bunch of thyme. Into this mix I am now stirring the challenge to cut out as many carbohydrates as possible from my diet. It’s a weight-loss thing. I figured on this with a combination of regular exercise and less alcohol.

At least two of those are going pretty well. Where I have to get creative is to think of alternatives to the usual sauce-moppers and solid textures. No longer will my fall-back be a rustling portion of fried potatoes, glistening with salt. Same goes for that lunchtime convenience of two thick slices of bread filled with whatever I can fashion from the fridge contents. No takeaway pizza. Rice and noodles are also out, which excludes me from about eighty percent of the dishes in this country. I’m making an exception, as a once-weekly treat, of pasta, although I haven’t been as tempted as I thought I would be.

Creamed white beans

An inspiration which crept on at me one morning at work and which possessed me for the rest of the day until I could not wait to get on with it. It provided the base for slices of medium-rare sirloin and kale.

  • tin of white beans (eg. cannellini)
  • half a medium onion
  • palmful of thyme leaves, chopped
  • grain mustard, spoonful of
  • stock – I crumbled in about half a vegetable cube to a jug of hot water
  • cider vinegar, splash
  • cream, about 50ml
  • salt and pepper

It was the soothing prospect of this which had me salivating. The vinegar provided a nice sour note, cutting through the richness, although I guess white wine would have done too. I added the chopped onion to a hot pan lubricated with a little oil and then after a few minutes, added the thyme and mustard. Vinegar sloshed in next with the heat turned up to let it boil. Back on the simmer I poured in the beans, well-drained to get rid of that cat-food tin smell. The stock covered the beans and basically I let it bubble away for about fifteen minutes while the rest of the meal was prepared. Near the end the addition of the cream and another couple of minutes’ cooking thickened the dish deliciously. I could probably just be happy with a bowl of this some other time.

Spiced lentil soup

A good late-season warmer. At least a hand-held blender is necessary for the final emulsification.  I eventually made enough for about five separate servings.

  • green lentils – I weighed in about four generous handfuls.
  • chilli flakes, a pinch
  • more stock, enough to more than cover all the ingredients – again, I generally just use cubes
  • one big onion, diced
  • garam masala, a good spoonful of
  • one squash, cut up into chunks
  • spinach or similar, thick bunch of
  • cream, about 100ml

There might have been some other ingredients, but this was essentially it. Always starts with the onion frying in oil until soft. I threw in the spices and chilli fairly early on in the process. Then the lentils and squash were introduced and allowed to take on all the pan flavours. The spinach was wonderfully cold when I washed it under the tap. In it went. Then the stock, up to the boil, cook till everything was soft and in with the cream and, after a bit of amalgamation, the B L E N D. This was my lunch out of a thermos for the next three days.

Chickpea stew

Not meant to stand alone this one although I daresay it could. In this case it was the base for a couple of pollack fillets which originally I’d planned to cook separately but in the end just bunged in with everything else. This recipe is the bastard child of an Aldo Zilli creation. The appropriation is, as ever, my own.

  • tin of chick peas
  • medium onion, chopped
  • capers, spoonful of
  • chilli flakes, sprinkle
  • stock, as for the beans
  • one carrot, diced into small pieces
  • bunch of coriander, chopped

Pretty sure Zilli uses sun-dried tomatoes in his dish. I compensated for the lack of those with the capers – the piquancy is needed in some way. The process remains the same. Onion and carrot, spice, chick peas, capers, stock, coriander, in that order. Cooked until most of the stock reduced to a thin flavoursome gravy. Particularly delicious contrast between the nutty pulses, still with a bite, the sweetened onion and carrot and the hint of spice.

No pictures for this post. How could I visually recreate the sensation of my splayed palm over the pan as it heats, or the squeak the spinach makes when the knife slices through it? How to replicate the rattle of pulses in the colander or the magical mingling of spices in the air? What photo can do justice to the longing I had for a dish of beans or the impatience over a pan of nearly-boiling water?

With toaster

One of the main stimuli for starting this blog was to see what culinary explorations I could make in the limited confines of my kitchen. As the title indicates I was possessed of only two hobs, a toaster and scanty preparation space. In past posts I’ve demonstrated quite effectively how one of my cupboards can act as a kind of proving drawer, something I will be turning to again as the weather starts to get colder over the next month or so. I have an oven too – a portable thing that sits on my fridge, replacing the microwave that came with the apartment and which is now in a bedroom cabinet, under towels. Best place for it.

This week I was to have my meagre equipment tested to its capacity as the hobs were put out of action by the chance discovery of a gas leak. With the kitchen effectively out-of-bounds and my hands restless to prepare some kind of meal I turned to the oven, to see what kind of supper I could fashion. I could bake. I could roast. Roast on toast? I had to do better than that.

My aim was to cook everything together so that it would all do evenly and to this end I decided to wrap it all in foil. Not sure what the science is behind this but I thought that by encasing the temperature would be contained moreover the combination of ingredients would meld into each other and at the end there would be a nice naturally made sauce.

I chose fish. Fillets of frozen tilapia I found at Twin’s. Never cooked with this fish before although I had eaten a much larger specimen at this restaurant in Chiang Mai and knew therefore it could handle some big flavours. I have also subsequently read an article listing the benefits and dangers of this fish, something I should perhaps have taken on board before buying it here. Well, I don’t have to buy it again.

So along with the fish in the foil I added:

  • half of one onion, sliced
  • handful of sun-dried tomatoes (with their juice), chopped
  • scattering of capers
  • twigs of thyme
  • dustings on the fish of smoked paprika and ras el hanout
  • yellow and green courgettes, half of one each, cubed
  • salt and pepper
  • drizzling of olive oil

I fancied a sweet-sour-savoury combination and also to see which flavours punched through the most. The fish lay on the bed of onions with the courgettes casually slung about over the top, thus:

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What would I do about accompaniments? I could roast some potatoes on a separate drawer, but I doubted the machine’s capacity to cope with all of that and in any case I wanted to be a little bit more imaginative. What could I make that didn’t require any hob-or oven-work?

Couscous. I always forget about couscous. Silly when it’s such a super easy thing to prepare and also extremely versatile. I started to think what I could add to the grains once they’d soaked up the hot water. Something with some crunch. I decided I would sprinkle some seeds and pine-nuts on the bottom drawer of the oven, for literally ten seconds. Parsley could also be chopped in, then there would be a squeeze or two of lemon with a knob of butter and a little oil to lubricate. I’d thought about throwing in some sultanas too, but in the end forgot about them.

After about thirty minutes at about 190 – I am nothing if not imprecise – I unwrapped the foil. Coming on lovely, but I decided to uncover it for a ten-minute blast on a higher heat just to get a bit more colour going. Turned out nice. The onions hadn’t quite cooked through and in any case they were one of the more extraneous elements in the mix. If I do this again I wouldn’t bother with them, or else use shallots. The ras el hanout had also got lost; probably next time one not both of the spices or else experiementation with something else. But the courgettes still had a nice bite to them, the fish was meaty and juicy and, as I’d hoped, a delicious sauce had formed from the mingling spices,

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Served on top of the couscous the plate had a very colourful, appealing aspect to it. The aromas were rich in different fragrances and it ate very well. As is my wont, I’d made enough for at least three meals and I can attest to its being equally good out of Tupperware off my knees in a crowded staff break area. Next time no tilapia though: what other fish could I use? I put it to you, dear reader.

 

 

 

Two Thai

Two recent cooking explorations have been influenced by Thai cooking and encouraged by an inclusion in my sister’s spice send of a Thai spice rub. I don’t make any claim to authenticity here and there is no attempt to recreate any kind of dish I found on my recent travels there. Both dishes were concoctions I’d had a hankering for and so set out to make – from where that impulse comes I do not know and am less willing to analyse; that it exists is, I think, enough to make me want to follow.

I had a stick of lemongrass in the fridge I’d included in my luggage when I returned home here after the Christmas holidays. The best before date claimed a time around January but numbers can be deceptive and I’d rather judge things on how they look, smell and taste. Indeed, this particular aromatic showed no signs of having lost too much in the way of freshness. The rest of the staples were relatively easy to obtain: fresh herbs  – mint, basil, coriander – and coconut milk from Twin’s as well as red chillies (which, I have found, keep for ever if left in the freezer), ginger and garlic from the greengrocer’s next door. The owner of which greets me with a slightly sardonic ‘Halloooo!’ whenever I show up. It is the only word of English he knows I think.

Also compartmentalised in the frozen cabinet were salmon steaks and thin slabs of beef skirt, both of which I’d bought at some earlier time with no clear plan of how to use them. With the arrival of the Thai rub I had ideas.

I tackled the fish first. I smothered it in the spice mix, knowing that on previous occasions my lack of liberal generosity had resulted in dishes that were lacking in flavour and intensity. Then I fried it skin-side in a wok, gently, only to crisp up the skin. Removing the fish I tipped out most of the oil and wiped the wok down before pouring in the coconut milk – in the event only three-quarters of the tin – and adding the sliced and chopped aromatics. The idea was to poach the fish in this liquid until pink and falling apart, the flesh taking on the subtle but pungent flavours therein.

Meanwhile I had the rice on. A long time ago a Sri Lankan colleague in the bookshop where I worked taught me the perfect way to cook rice on the hob. A gas flame is essential as is a bold approach to a minuscule amount of it. How much water to rice? The eternal question. Soak the rice first, put it in the saucepan then add the water. The liquid level above the grains should be equivalent to the length of your thumb. Bring it to the boil, add a pinch of salt then after a quick stir turn the heat down to the lowest level possible and cover. Leave it for ten minutes then turn the heat off. Leave it a further ten minutes and then, finally, remove the lid. Result should be fluffy rice and all the water evaporated. Mine turned out more or less like that and I am grateful for that conversation I had next to the Mind, Body and Spirit book section some fourteen years ago.

The dish itself was a success although I think I could have been even more daring still with the spicing. The fish can stand it.

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Note artful attempt at posh presentation; I didn’t have one of those rice rings you see on cookery programmes. At one point I considered a coiled belt.

The second dish involved fewer processes and was essentially about jumbling together things that harmonise naturally. Beef, tomatoes, the usual Thai aromatics, fresh herbs, cucumber, peanuts, lime. The cooking method used to amalgamate all the flavour was stir-fry and before attempting the dish I watched a brief video featuring Ken Hom explaining the rudiments. If I’ve had a problem with this methodology in the past it’s because I’ve been sceptical about frying off the garlic and ginger first in the hot oil; in my experience they’ve just ended up burning really quickly, tainting the oil and therefore the entire dish. But when I watched Hom he didn’t seem to have that problem (dress sense apart, brown does not age well) and I realised that I’d missed a fundamental aspect of the method. The clue is in the name. Stir-fry.

Rather than moving the ingredients around the pan I had simply added them and watched them toast and blacken. So this time I stirred. Another essential is to have every ingredient chopped and ready so there is no danger of any burning. Bigger things get added first and I did not forget to keep things on the move: rotating the pan, thrusting with the spoon, generally getting shaky with it all. I’d marinated the beef with the spice rub and it cooked in no time at all. All the things added at the end gave the dish a zing my head needed.

 

 

Taking stock

Once again at the kitchen confessional. This is my tenth post. Where have I been and where am I now?

I have a habit of starting things but not seeing them through, so that they end unsatisfactorily,  sort of limp to a finish. A failure to commit leads to an unnatural death perhaps.  This shortcoming, as I see it, stems from an ingrained notion of self-doubt, a lack of faith in my own ability. It also comes from a desire to seek others’ approval and a focus on their potential expectations, as I imagine them. So a reason, maybe the main one, for doing this blog is to explore both of those things. Publishing online raises the stakes. There is an audience so I am aware my writing and my ideas are being scrutinised. It’s been interesting to notice how, as I publish, I am concerned (or not) with wanting to please anybody who might be reading, looking at that desire to somehow satisfy a vague and vast collective (and possibly extending my readership at the same time).

Yet the spectators remain, somewhere. I should take care with my prose, and write as well as I can, while remaining true to the ethos of this project which is to be creative using cooking as a springboard. To see where I go and enjoy the uncertainty of not knowing.

During the week or thereabouts between posts ideas simmer away on a low bubble. Last time I mentioned my spice project and what I got up to this time can be an extension of it. I have to follow my instincts and go with my gut. The body rules the mind in my case anyway.

I reckon no self-respecting home kitchen cook can be without a decent stock, freshly-made or ready to defrost. This I found out to my cost recently when I attempted a chermoula-inspired chicken dish which had all the promise of full flavour but was let down by an insipid liquid finish. I used water (bottled – tap water is a no-no here) with a stock cube crumbled in. And while the finished dish looked appetising, rich in red pepper, sweet potato and tomato (judge for yourselves below) all the taste had actually been washed away.

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Appearances can deceive. This was not a delicious dish.

So on Thursday I did things properly. I bought four chunky chicken legs which I roasted in my little oven with lavish slatherings of lemon, chermoula, perfect salt, thyme and rosemary. Once these were cooked I removed all the flesh to use in the next two days’ cooking and put the bones along with shreds of skin and meat and of course all the fragrant, lemon, herb and spice rich juices from the roasting pan into a saucepan. I added a carrot, celery and an onion, filled to the brim with water and let the whole thing putter away for a couple of hours on a low heat. The apartment was filled with its aroma all day and I felt better for having done this.

Some of the meat I have already used. Once, in a curry which I ate with my last flatbread, then, the next day in a well-stuffed sandwich which I took to work. I had intended to make a mayonnaise to accompany the chicken in its bread-cased heaven and yet, having followed this simple video for instructions, I managed only to make a yellowy and ultimately tasteless liquid. A case perhaps of over-frothing the eggs and/or getting the oil-egg ratio wrong. Anyway a lesson learnt.

This evening the last of the chicken will go into a risotto and, yes, that stock will play a major role.

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That stock, looking stocky, ready for its chance to simmer and shine

 

 

Spice of life

Recently my sister sent me a box of spices. It arrived neatly packaged, six jars, all in their separate compartments. I resolved to construct six dishes featuring at least one of the aromatics playing a central role. So far I’ve managed two, one of which I will proceed to document here, the other at a future uncertain time.

One of the spices, or to be more accurate, spice blend, was ras-el-hanout. Perhaps appropriate she should send me a Moroccan mix as we visited this country together when she was still at University and myself a callow youth of fifteen or so. I remember basically nothing about what we ate. We must have eaten something. I do know that I wore the same clothes, unchanged, for four consecutive days.

The trip was memorable for many reasons. Firstly there was the nightmarish crossing from the southern tip of Spain, in a rolling wooden tub of a ferry with water sloshing through the cabins and the sea reaching up and over the portholes at which we were sitting, transfixed with terror, the fear allaying any possible seasickness. Then there was the midnight arrival in Tangiers and the way we allowed ourselves, weary from the journey, to be hustled by a chap who took us to eat and then found us a hostel of some kind. I remember the ornate, high ceilings and the sounds of doors opening and closing through the night, the sound of women giggling. Then there was the English fellow, tall I recall with a moustache, who’d latched onto our party (with us were three of my sister’s Uni friends) on the ferry. John? Peter? Anyway, he became something of a pest, always showing up somehow and dogging us. When we left Tangiers for Fez we lost him – but I also lost my Walkman on that train, snatched by a dashing child as we pulled away from a station. The song playing at the time was this. There wasn’t any time (or money) to get to Marrakesh as we’d planned and we rushed back to Tangiers to find our return vessel a rather more luxurious liner. Hungry, broke, bewildered, the captain took pity on us in his cabin, feeding us fruit.

Also included in the package was something called Perfect Salt, a bird’s eye of which I include below, the idea perhaps to make the mineral even more ‘perfect’ by adding things to it. In the image you can spot flecks of pepper and mixed herbs of which marjoram and oregano are the most fragrant. So far I’ve used it to season virtually everything.

Apparently the word kofta is the noun form of the verb meaning to grind, or pound. So ground meat, made into a meatball. It’s not hip though to talk of lamb meatballs, never mind rissoles…..It’s always lamb kofta. In any case, whatever you want to call them, these are what I made this time. The ras el hanout would go into the aubergine accompaniment.

There’s something wonderful about the way one has to mix the lamb mixture together then toss it into jelly-like balls which then sit in a momentary state of quiver. I combined lamb mince with one beaten egg, chopped coriander, zest of a lime and a rather delicious gently fry of onions and crushed cumin seeds, as well as the aforementioned sodium compound –  all played from hand to hand until spherical then left to cool in the fridge.

Meanwhile the aubergines were chunked and given a very generous dousing of the spice blend (almost too generous, as it happened). On another day I might have salted the veg first to get rid of excess moisture but I was planning a hot treatment for them this time. Into the sizzling pan they went, spitting and greedily hoovering up the oil. Fabulous aroma. Once they’d coloured almost to the point of burning I turned the heat down and threw in a few chopped cherry-like tomatoes, leaving the two things to create a kind of wonderful North African garden fusion.

In the other pan the kofta were sputtering peacefully. As with frittata, it pays I think to set the heat quite low to ensure a gooey, sticky seal on the meat, turning the globules only once. This way meant about 12-15 minutes on either side although I paid no attention at all to how long anything took to cook.

To finish I baked another flatbread – different recipe this with fennel and coriander seeds, and that slightly citrus tang came through – and mixed up some Greek-style yoghurt with a squeeze of lime. I’d been hoping to buy some mint at Twin’s shop but they only had parsley – which came in handy as a sprinkling over the aubergine mixture – and thyme, and something else, neither of which I needed this time.

Probably the best thing I’ve made for a long time. Full of flavour – helped no doubt by the different condiments, the salt being, indeed, a perfect seasoning, although the zest was lost (not that it mattered) – and just as good cold the next day when I ate lunch in front of the kitchen window in the midday sun, straight from the pan with a can or two of Japanese lager.

As for my memory of the holiday, I can look back with fondness, through sunset eyes perhaps. It was my first time outside Europe, first proper adventure abroad, first glimpse of what can be done given the right attitude. It’s taken me quite a long time to let myself go in this respect, to give myself up to new experiences without worrying if I was doing the right thing, whatever that is….When I got back to the UK, my mother picked me up from the airport. At that time I was aloof as a teenager, backward in coming forward, but she said for the entire journey from London to Somerset I talked non-stop, out of excitement from the experience. Here, finally, that narrative continues.