Monday, 30 May 2011

Hoisin Prawns and Marinated Steak Salad

I don’t know about you but I don’t need a reason to cook a lovely meal however sometimes it’s nice to have an occasion as an excuse. My birthday and the coming together of friends was my excuse this weekend.

With an evening confirmed, I scoured my recipe notebook. It keeps all of my tried, tested and approved hand-written recipes as well as being stuffed with a massive collection of recipes torn from magazines and notes jotted down on paper. I (in true Come Dine with Me style) was in the mood to try something new.

Our starter was based on a Hoisin and Apricot glazed prawn recipe by the Greedy Gourmet. Having made this decision, I then had to find raw, shell-on prawns. Cooked shell-on prawns, no problem. Raw, shelled prawnies, easy-peasy. Eventually, we got them at short notice from Rock Fish in Bristol when we were passing by. I suppose we could've ordered them in from a fishmonger but our dinner was a relatively spontaneous affair. They were absolute monsters! Humungous!!
A quicker, easier and safer way to prepare shell-on prawns

When it came to preparing them, Greedy Gourmet suggested cutting through the back of each prawn with a knife but I found this to be far too fiddly - I couldn't get any grip on the knifes blade and everytime I tried to cut, the knife would slip against the shell which seemed like a recipe for nasty cuts. Instead, I took to cutting them with a pair of poultry scissors before dissecting them with a knife. The original recipe suggested using the grill but I was lucky enough to have The Boy on barbecue duty which was fantastic!

Barbecued Hoisin & Apricot glazed prawns with stir-fry
Serves 6 as a starter

Apologies for the slap-dash photography - this was taken in the seconds before these beauties went to the table with no time to 'style' them up.

12 raw shell-on tiger prawns
1 tbsp sesame seeds
1 tin of apricot halves in juice
2 tbsp soy sauce
100g bean sprouts
100g cabbage or spring greens, finely chopped
1 bok choi, finely sliced
2 peppers, deseeded and sliced
2 tbsp sesame oil
For the marinade:
2 tbsp olive or ground nut oil
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 tsp grated ginger
2 tbsp soy sauce
125ml hoisin sauce
125ml apricot jam

 - With scissors, snip down back of each prawn then score through the flesh with a knife. About 5mm down, you'll find a thin, dark digestive tract surrounded by dark cushiony flesh. Remove this carefully with a knife - carefully slice the top near the head and gently pull down to the tail. Rinse the prawns with plenty of running water and pat dry with paper towel. Put the prawns in a large bowl and prepare the marinade.
 - Heat oil in a saucepan over medium heat and fry the garlic and ginger for 2 minutes. Stir in the apricot jam, soy and hoisin sauce. Bring to a simmer then leave to cool.
 - Once cooled, pour over the prawns and leave to marinate for up to 4 hours.
 - Before serving, prepare your barbecue and bring it up to heat.
 - Drain the apricots and reserve the juice.
 - Scatter the sesame seeds into a saucepan and place them over a medium heat to toast. Keep an eye on them and stir regularly to prevent them burning. When they turn golden brown, they're ready.
 - Meanwhile, heat the sesame oil in a wok over a high heat. Add the bean sprouts, cabbage, bok choi and peppers and stir fry for a few minutes. Add the soy and 2 tbsp of the apricot juice.
 - Barbecue for 6 - 8 minutes (ideally get your glamourous assistant - in my case, The Boy - to do this while you're stir frying) until the flesh of the prawns are opaque all the way through and the outside is slightly charred. Pop the apricots on the grill too for a minute or so on each side until caramalised.
 - To serve, place two prawns on each plate on a bed of stir-fry vegetables and apricots, sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds.

What a treat! They were finger-lickingly sticky with the soy and hoisin. Be sure to put paper towels on the table and a finger bowl or two as they can be a bit messy. You'll be wanting a pot to put the discarded prawn shells in too! I found that it was cheaper by volume to buy a little pouch of hoisin which was meant for stirfrys or one-off meals than to buy a bottle of hoisin sauce.

Our main came in the form of an interesting looking steak salad by the lovely Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall. I've been wanting to try it for ages and this seemed like the opportune moment to give it a go as we had a ripe mango and avocado sat in our fruit bowl. The steak was sourced from a fantastic butcher in Weston-super-mare which was very busy even though it was Saturday morning. It's always good to see an independant shop looking busy and is something that I look out for when I'm checking out a new shop - if other people want to buy from there then there's a good chance that it's good quality and worth trying.

Mango, avocado and steak salad

Serves 6 as a main course

Another super-quick snap before serving

For the marinade
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced
1 tbsp oyster sauce (optional)
1 tbsp dry sherry
2 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp light muscovado sugar
1 tsp grated fresh ginger
A little black pepper

For the salad
350g sirloin steak
1 large, ripe mango
1 large, ripe avocado (or 2 smaller ones)
250g rocket leaves
250g edamame or soy beans
6 leaves of Chinese leaf, finely sliced
1 bunch of coriander, stalks finely chopped
1 red chilli, halved, deseeded and finely sliced
2 spring onions, topped and tailed

For the dressing
2 tbsp Thai fish sauce (or Worcestershire sauce)
1 tbsp sesame oil
Juice of 1 lime
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp light muscovado sugar
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely minced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

 - Whisk together all the ­ingredients for the marinade.
 - Add the steak and rub all over with the marinade until it is well coated. Leave to marinate for 30 minutes to an hour in an air tight box.
 - While the meat is marinating, ­prepare the rest of the salad. Cut the mango away from the stone, lay the flat (cut) side on a chopping board or work surface and peel then cut into long, thin slices.
 - Slice around the avocado until you hit the stone, twist and remove the stone. If your avocado is ripe enough, you should be able to gently remove theflesh from skin in one piece and slice into thin strips.
 - Whisk together all of the ingredients for the dressing.
 - Sear the steak on the barbecue for around four minutes on each side, depending on how well you want it to be cooked. You could also do this in a griddle or frying pan as Hugh suggests but I think that the good ol' bbq lends a lovely smokey flavour. The outside will char a little and ours was nicely pink and juicy inside. Leave to rest for a few minutes while you assemble the salad.
 - Boil the edamame beans for five minutes or until bright green and tender then remove from the water. Add the spring onions to the pan and blanch for a minute then refresh in cold water. Slice thinly.
 - Slice the steak as thinnly as possible and add any resting juices to the salad dressing.
 - Plonk the salad leaves and edamame beans on one large platter. Arrange the steak, mango and avocado on top with trickle on the dressing and scatter over the coriander and chilli.

This went down very well with all of our guests and I think that this marinade could work really well for lots of meats. Delish! Since my foray into dinner parties, I found this awesome article by Rachel at What Rachel Ate. I wish that I'd had her guiding me through! A must-read for anyone who's hosting their first dinner or just wanting to update their table.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Review: Bordeaux Quay, Bristol

It had been a busy birthday. We’d been up since 8am for present unwrapped and to look at bikes (the pedal variety rather than the revving sort) with my Papa. Next on the schedule-of-birthday-fun was lunch with friends followed by a show. We knocked back a few post-theatre beverages to toast the anniversary of my beginning and then strolled on to our next engagement.

The Boy had arranged for a table at Bordeaux Quay on Bristol’s Harbourside. As soon as we walked through the door, I could feel myself relaxing. My day had been fantastic, don’t get me wrong, but I found myself looking forward to slowing down the pace and chilling out.

Arranged over two levels, Bordeaux Quay incorporates a restaurant, brasserie, wine bar, deli, bakery and cookery school. Mainly open plan, you might think that it would lack direction or that the various spaces might jar against one another but it works well. In the evening, you can choose from the more informal brasserie and ground floor bar or their rather swish wine bar and restaurant which is situated on the first floor via a grand wooden staircase.

I opted for a Bellini in the wine bar while The Boy opted for a Spiced Orchard – a ‘mocktail’ of apple juice, cinnamon, cloves and gingerbread syrup. Delish! My cocktail came with instructions; the barman served me my drink whilst telling me that it was ‘layered purely for aesthetic reasons’ (the peach purée and champagne were neatly separated) so I would need to ‘stir well’ before enjoying. I duly stirred and enjoyed. I do love Bellini’s.

Our drinks duly quaffed, we were moved through into the restaurant and presented with a menu a piece. Bordeaux Quay is famed for its sustainable and local food sourcing – everything must be seasonal with minimal food miles. This certainly showed on the menu; it’s concise but bursting with West Country ingredients. It’s great to see a restaurant championing such a fantastic mission.

Our waitress, however, was not local. I have absolutely nothing against immigration but I do feel that the person needs to be able to speak the language. Still, she took our order and served us a canapé while we waited. We were presented with espresso cups filled with a soup of gloriously green ground elders. The Boy isn’t a fan of elderflower in any form but we both loved this.

To start, I couldn’t resist the Spiced crab cakes with crab mayonnaise which was garnished with a pretty salad of various leaves and flowers. The crab cakes were served hot and were nicely spiced. The Boy went for an Assiette of pork terrines which was a nice tasting platter of brawn, rillette and paté accompanied by salad and pickled vegetables. It was slightly refreshing to get a ‘proper’ appetiser size portion – they weren’t measly like some establishments but they left us wanting more. Sadly, both of our dishes were over seasoned. Having ordered a glass of their Viognier, I was faced with the sommelier brandishing an entire bottle. Luckily I was able to stop him before he uncorked it though, on tasting it, I realised that a whole bottle would’ve gone down quite well!

We didn't have to wait for long before our mains arrived. The Boy had chosen their Curried Lentils, aubergine and courgette with saffron rice, tomato sauce and coconut which was very fragrant. The delicious scent of cardamom had me drooling across the table. The spiced lentils (a lot like dhal) were laid on a pool of smooth coconut milk which was a pleasing contrast in texture and flavour. After much deliberating, I decided on a Fillet of Bass on a bed of wilted sorrel scattered with wild fennel gnocchi, mushrooms and covered in a luxurious beurre blanc. The fish combined with the beurre blanc was fantastically smooth. Again, both portions were fairly sized but not too big. We came away feeling pleasantly full - neither of us felt like we needed pudding.

Bordeaux Quay is well worth a visit if you like fresh, feel-good food. I haven't sampled the Brasserie but the Restaurant and Wine Bar were a fantastic experience. We were there during peak time - Saturday dinner time - and they were quite full but this didn't impact on the level service (even if their English skills were lacking). Over-seasoned starters aside, the food and wine was very good. I was impressed to see that they mark vegetarian choices on the menu, even down vegetarian rennet in the cheese list. They have an extensive wine list (many are available by the glass) and their menu changes with the seasons.

Starters: £7.50 - £8
Mains: £12.50 - £21
Puddings: £6.50
Bordeaux Quay is on Bristol's Harbourside, opposite the Arnolfini. Restaurant Tel: 0117 9431200.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Bramley Apple Cupcakes

A lovely way to get some of your five-a-day?

Tomorrow is my birthday. I'm not saying this for sympathy or for want of balloons but to justify my late-night baking.

In the British workplace, it seems to be customary for the birthday boy or girl to bring in cakes or biscuits for their colleagues. This, to me, seems like backwards logic; it's your birthday so surely others should be treating you? Anyway, I don't mind because it means that I get to bake.

Bramley apples are in season so you can buy them cheaply in most supermarkets. There's someone in the village where I grew up who has a tree that bears fruit at this time of year and they have so much that they don't know what to do with it so they pile it up on their garden wall for passers-by to get. The fruit is just lovely but has to be cooked as they're a lot more acidic that your run of the mill dessert apples. A lesson learnt from biting into a crisp apple on my way home. Our addiction to sugary foods has extended to fresh fruit with our supermarket shelves are filled with watery, sweet imported fruit from the likes of the USA and New Zealand. Bramleys mellow and sweeten as they are cooked so they're well worth the effort. They're fantastic in crumbles, yummy in apple sauce and add a certain something to mashed potato if you're serving it with pork. Very versatile, very tasty and in season so don't hold back.

For my birthday baking, I decided to treat my workmates to another take on apples. Apple cupcakes! There's very little butter or egg required in this recipe, which makes me feel more virtuous. The grated apple keeps the cake very moist so you won't miss them. I also substituted some of the butter in the butter icing with apple sauce - core a bramley apple and pop it in the oven on a baking tray at 180c until soft then mush up with a fork. So easy and you can put an apple or two in the oven with your cakes as they bake. Now I just need to work on my piping technique!

Bramley Apple Cupcakes
Makes 12 - 14 cakes

2 medium Bramley apples, peeled and grated
170g caster sugar
60g unsalted butter, softened
1 large egg
110g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
2 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp vanilla extract

 - Preheat your oven to 180c.
 - Mix the flour, baking powder and spice in a bowl.
 - In a separate bowl, cream the butter and sugar together then add the vanilla and the egg.
 - Fold in the grated apple. The mixture may look a bit curdled here but worry not.
 - Sift in the flour mixture, a little at a time, while stirring until combined.
 - Half fill your cupcake cases - I use silicone ones because they're easy and reusable (less waste, yay!) - and pop into the oven for 18 - 20 minutes or until they are cooked all the way through.
 - Allow them to cool completely then top with butter icing if you wish.

Seared Tuna with Roasted Pepper Salsa and Asparagus

The Boy and I popped into the shops to grab a few essentials post pilates and, predictably, this turned into a hunger-fulled grab. We came away with about £20 worth of food when we'd only gone in for two or three things. Moral of the story is: do not shop when you're hungry. Saying that, we did pick up about 1 kg of asparagus for the fantastic sum of £1.56 (four 250g bunches for 39p each) which is only 6p more than one bunch usually costs. Asparagus all round!

One of the items that called out to our sore core muscles were jewel-red tuna fillets which sat nestled in the ice on the fishmongers counter. We didn't need to um and ah for long - soon they were in our basket and I was dreaming up a nice recipe to go with.

Seared Tuna with Roasted Pepper Salsa and Asparagus

Serves 2

2 tuna steaks
2 (red) peppers
3 spring onions, finely sliced
1 tbsp pepperdew peppers, finely chopped
½ chilli or to taste, finely chopped
2 tbsp fresh coriander, chopped
2 tbsp white wine or cider vinegar
1 tsp of brine from the peppadews or ½ tsp of sugar in 1 tsp of water
8 stems of asparagus
Olive oil

- Preheat the oven to 180c.
- Deseed and slice the pepper. Coat them in a little sunflower oil, season and then put them onto baking tray to roast for 20 minutes.
- Mix the spring onion, coriander, peppadew, chilli and cider vinegar and put to one side.
- Put a griddle pan or frying pan on the hob over a high heat.
- Boil the asparagus for 2 minutes, cover in a little oil and then add them to the baking tray in the oven. Roast for 10 minutes.
- Rub a little sunflower oil onto the tuna steaks and sear them on both sides. I like mine to still be a little red in the middle which means griddling them for a few minutes on either side but do this to your taste.
- Remove the peppers and asparagus from the oven. Add the peppers to the other ingredients and mix well.
- Serve the tuna topped with the salsa on a bed of the roasted asparagus and steamed jersey royal potatoes.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Shepherd's Pie

When I changed jobs about ten months ago, I swapped my two hour long train journey for an 16 mile bike ride. I don’t do it every day – if I’d been on my bike today, I would’ve been well and truly soaked in the first mile due to the belated April-style showers we seem to be having – but when I do, I love taking in the landscape as I ride. At the moment, I whizz (okay, trundle) past little woolly lambs and, as of last week, clumps of elderflower blossom.

It’s a lovely way to start and finish the day. The stress of the day melts away as I work up a healthy appetite. Seeing seasonal produce in the fields tends to inspire me when I cook and I’ve been trying to banish any issues with last minute meals or attack of the snacks by being organised with our food. Shepherd’s pie combines two fantastic ingredients which are in season – lamb and jersey royal potatoes – and is easy to prepare in advance. I made one on Sunday night and we’ve been eating it ever since.

Shepherd’s Pie
Serves 4 - 6

500g (lean) minced lamb
150g jersey royal potatoes
1 onion, finely chopped
4 stalks of celery, sliced
2 carrots, chopped
1 sprig of rosemary (or 1 tsp of dried rosemary)
2 sprigs of thyme (or 2 tsp of dried thyme)
2 bay leaves
½ tsp ground mace
100ml lamb stock (or whatever stock that you have)

- Put the kettle on with enough water to boil the potatoes and preheat the oven to 180c.
- With a drop of sunflower oil in the pan, brown the lamb in batches over a high heat. The lamb will let out a lot of fat as it cooks so you may need to drain the pan in between batches as it builds up. I pour this into a cup to save for later.
- Remove the meat from the pan, lower the heat and sweat the onion, celery and carrot in the pan for five minutes until they are soft and the onion is translucent.
- Meanwhile, boil the potatoes until they are tender. Drain them and reserve the water.
- Add the meat back into the pan with the herbs and mace and then stir until combined.
- Pour in the stock and top up with the potato water until the mixture is covered. Bring the mixture to a simmer and then pour into an oven proof dish.
- Slice the potatoes and use them to top the pie. I brushed them with a little of the fat from the lamb and then topped with salt and pepper.
- Bake for 45 minutes until the filling is bubbling and the potatoes and nicely crisp. Serve with peas and other seasonal vegetables.

Now I need to find something to do with the elderflowers!

Monday, 23 May 2011

Pea & Spring Onion Risotto

I’ve been seriously cheesed off with my local supermarket for the last month or so. My helpful weekly email from Eat the Seasons has been telling me that spring onions are in season for weeks but all the while, my shop has been stocking ones from Mexico.

Finally, the English ones are on the shelves. Not that I have any against Mexican vegetables but I’d rather have fresher food that was grown closer to home where possible. Now that I’d got my mitts on a bunch of succulent, vivid green stems and I wanted to do them justice.

Risotto is a great base for flavours so give this a go. The flowers are out on the pea plants in many gardens that I’ve been to recently but for the moment, you may have to make do with frozen (which are just as good in my humble opinion). The recipe itself is loosely based on one originally by Nigella which can be found here.

Pea and Spring Onion Risotto
Serves two

150g frozen peas
4 spring onions, sliced
½ onion, finely chopped
4 stalks of celery, finely chopped
80ml white wine or dry vermouth
150g risotto rice (I used Arborio)
500ml stock
75g butter
50g parmesan

- On a low heat, gently melt 25g butter in a saucepan then add the peas and spring onions. Cook for two minutes or until the peas are defrosted. Remove half of the peas and spring onions from the pan and set aside for later. Add a ladle of the stock to the pan, cover and leave to simmer for a further four minutes until the peas are soft.
- Purée the cooked peas and spring onions with half of the parmesan, a grating of nutmeg and some pepper. Have a little taste because it is just divine! Now try not to eat the rest of it while you’re patiently stirring the risotto.
- Melt a further 25g of butter in the pan with a dash of oil and sweat the onion and celery for 5 minutes until transparent and soft but not coloured.
- Add the rice to the pan and stir until it is coated in the juices from the onion and celery. Turn up the heat a little and stir until the rice has soaked up any moisture.
- Pour in the wine or vermouth and stir until the rice has absorbed it.
- Add a ladleful of stock stirring all the time until it is absorbed. Repeat until you’ve run out of stock and the rice is tender (continue the process with hot water if it’s not).
- Stir the purée into the risotto and mix well until completely combined. Fold in the whole peas and spring onions.
- Just before serving, stir in the remaining butter and parmesan. Eat immediately, topped with grilled pancetta or your favourite vegetarian cheese.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Snapshot: Even more eggs

When is a sandwich box not a sandwich box? When it’s an egg box. And filled with bubble wrap. Improvised egg keepers are quickly becoming my forte. It reminds me of the challenges we were sometimes set at school to design something to allow you to throw an egg as far as possible without breaking it. Not that I'm planning on throwing any of these eggs. Oh no.

More and more glorious eggs from my kindly colleagues. In return, I keep my nicest vegetable peelings aside for their chooks - they love the off-cuts of wilty peppers and discarded carrot peel that would otherwise go in the compost bin. They might as well get some use out of them before they go back in the ground. Is that up-cycling? I’m not down with lingo.

After an omelette or cake, you’ll find me washing out the egg shells and popping them into a still-warm oven or on the window sill to dry. These are crushed and added to their feed to give back some of the nutrients that they need to keep laying eggs.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Mushroom & Cashew Stroganoff

We’ve been trying to keep our fridge relatively empty recently. It’s all too easy to lose things at the back behind a jungle of spring greens or troop of jars. This does mean that we’ve been having a few “alas the cupboard is bare” moments of late.

I was greeted with a rather empty and forlorn refrigerator when I returned from work yesterday. There was mushrooms, an onion, some crème fraiche and very little else (apart from our usual parade of jars and condiments on the top shelf). On the countertop languished the dog end of a bottle of red cooking wine. Inspired by James Ramsden’s slutty lunch, I decided to throw our odds and ends together into the best dish possible. You know what? It was actually really tasty. The added bonus being that it was cheap and easy to prepare. It was creamy and mushroom-y (as you’d imagine) but the cashews gave it pleasing crunch to contrast with the soft ‘shrooms. A sort-of stroganoff. Now then, maybe we should think about going food shopping...

Mushroom and Cashew Strogan-something
Serves 4

1 onion, chopped roughly
300g mushrooms, sliced
2 cloves of garlic (or to taste)
2 tsp paprika
1 large sprig of thyme
¼ vegetable/beef stock cube
200ml red wine
100ml reduced fat crème fraiche or sour cream
Generous handful of cashew nuts
Oil for frying

-       Sweat the onion on a low heat for about 10 minutes until softened.
-       Add the mushrooms, cover and sweat for a further 5 minutes until they are soft.
-       Add the garlic and paprika to the pan and stir in. Allow the garlic to cook for a minute or so.
-       Pour in the wine. It should just cover the mushrooms in the pan. If not, add some boiling water.
-       Crumble in the stock cube and add the thyme then stir well until the cube is completely dissolved.
-       Turn up the heat and simmer for 15 – 20 minutes to mellow the wine.
-       Lower the heat to minimum and stir in the crème fraiche and cashews.
-       Serve with rice or with a jacket potato.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

How to make your own delicious hedgerow brew

Our ‘drinks cabinet’ (the top section of our free-cycled side board) holds everything from beers (pre-fridge storage) to a lovely bottle of red wine given to me by my Dad which we haven’t yet had an occasion to drink yet. My most prized bottles, however, are mismatched reused wine and spirit bottles which are filled with a glorious burgundy liquid and dark berries – sloe gin.

My parents made sloe gin and elderberry wine when I was very small and I was reintroduced to the warming wonder of this berry-infused spirit while spending the festive period with The Boy’s family. They drink it straight (in small measures) but it’s lovely with lemonade too. The beauty of it is that it is wonderfully simple to make and the key ingredient – the sloe berries – are free! I see it as my first foray into the world of home brewing though I suppose it’s technically infusing. The kit is cheap (or free too) as I picked up a funnel for a few pence from the supermarket and saved an old spirit bottle.

Fresh sloe berries and my first bottle of sloe gin

The sloe, or blackthorn, bush can be found all over the place but usually in woodland or as hedgerows in the countryside where they are sometimes planted as shelter for game birds. That said, I found mine on the tow path of my local canal which runs through our town and I’ve heard of people finding berry-laden bushes in the middle of cities. Their dark blue-purple berries look a little like hard blueberries but they are actually a drupe, like peaches. Blackberries, their fellow hedgerow buddy of the same season, are the same but are aggregated drupes – lots of small fruits as part of the same berry.

Before you go rushing out with your buckets at the ready, I must interject now. Tradition says that sloe season starts after the first frost of Autumn which is usually around October. Some people hurry up the process by picking the berries when they are ripe and then freezing them at home. Sneaky! You'll start seeing young fruit on the bushes from around next month onwards. A walking stick or broom can be useful for pulling the higher branches down to picking level. I tried to improvise with a flattened out wire coat hanger which sort of did the trick until some nearby fishermen used their net poles to drag them down to my level. Such gentlemen!

Once bottled, the spirit needs to mature so I bottled mine over 6 months ago and it’s just starting to mellow now. It’s getting to the time when I should think about removing the berries and rebottling the gin to allow it to further mature. Apparently, you can then top up the bottles of old berries with cider to make slider!

My sloe gin after 1 hour then again after a day
Although it’s a while until the sloes will be out, Gordon’s do a sloe gin which can be bought from the supermarkets. Bramley & Gage do a delicious organic sloe gin too; I wouldn’t be able to resist getting a bottle of their elderflower liqueur as well if I was ordering from their online shop! I would recommend saving glass bottles as you get them too – I like clear glass bottles (so that you can see how the colour is developing in the bottle) with screw tops and have a stash of them in the back of the cupboard. Just be sure to keep a bottle that will be big enough.

Sloe Gin

450g sloe berries, approximately
750ml gin, or there abouts
350g granulated sugar
A bottling funnel
An empty sterilised glass bottle
- Rinse the berries well and leave to drain in a colander.
- Prick each berry with a sterilised needle or knife and place into the bottle.
- Pour the sugar into the bottle through the funnel.
- Top up the bottle with gin so that the berries are completely covered.
- Turn the bottle every so often. At least once a week but more often if you remember. The gin will gradually become infused with the colour and flavour of the berries.

Coming soon: Sloe Gin cocktails for those balmy summer nights!

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Deconstructed Fish Pie

The Boy and I are currently digging ourselves out of a hole. We have a problem but we’re working our way through it. The truth is... we have a glut of potatoes. This is partly thanks to my dear father who is a talented and enthusiastic home-grower. He doesn’t just grow vegetables; he grows crops. Where a typical gardener might grow three tomato plants, he grows twenty and deals with the consequences of his massive stockpile later (when they ripen). Being the generous man that he is, I will often come away from a visit to see my parents with my tummy full of tea and my arms full of the latest harvest. This week, it was potatoes which were added to our already bulging potato larder.

Funnily enough, the boy and I don’t eat that much potato. I suppose I see it as a winter staple – comfort food which fills and warms you in one hearty mouthful. Truth be told, I lean towards rice and pasta when I think of carbohydrates as they tend to suit my style of cooking more. Plus, the hot weather that we’ve been afforded of late hasn’t exactly had me reaching for my masher. Belated April showers are now returning to the UK so I have no excuse not to tackle our potato mountain. My mind is full of recipes and ideas for soups, bakes and other potato-based creations like gnocchi. You can expect a bit of a theme from my blog for the next week or so!

Last night, I fancied fish for dinner and with my latest obsession, I immediately thought of fish pie. Hunks of delicious fish and seafood in a thick, creamy sauce nestled below fluffy but crispy topped mash. Glorious food but rather time consuming when you take the whole process into account. So instead, I went for a quicker option which includes many of the traditional classic features but can be thrown together in a fraction of the time.

‘Deconstructed’ Quick Fish Pie
or Poached Smoked Haddock with prawns and mustard mash
Serves two

1 large fillet of smoked haddock, skin on
100g shell-on cooked prawns
3 floury potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
1 bay leaf
5 peppercorns
100ml semi-skimmed milk
50ml dry white vermouth
1 tbsp butter
1 tsp whole-grain mustard

- Boil the potatoes for 20 – 25 minutes or until tender.
- Meanwhile, shell the prawns. Put the prawns on one side and place the shells in a large saucepan with the bay leaf and peppercorns. Cover with the milk and vermouth. Add the haddock fillet skin-side down and top up with a little cold water until it is covered by the liquor.
- When the potatoes are almost tender, put the haddock onto a medium heat and gently simmer for around 5 minutes.
- Drain the potatoes through a colander then place back in the pan and mash until they become a little dry. Add the butter and mash again.
- Check the haddock by removing with a slotted spoon. If it is nicely flakey and hot all the way through, remove from the poaching liquor and put on one side.
- Drain the poaching liquor through a sieve and add 1 tbsp of it to loosen the mash. Stir the mash vigorously and add more liquor if necessary. Add the mustard and stir in with a spoon.
- Carefully peel the skin from the haddock.
- To serve, place a dollop of mash onto the plate and top with the haddock then a few prawns. Pour a little of the poaching liquor over if you wish. Serve with seasonal vegetables.

The portion might look a little small but we had a few scallops each to start. Again, I kept it simple by frying finely chopped chorizo until it oozed spicy oils and then added the scallops to fry for a few minutes on each side. Once they were done, I took them out and added a splash of balsamic vinegar and a squeeze of lemon juice to make a sauce to serve.
I then used the same plan to flash fry some blanched asparagus that we had with the haddock which infused it with a lovely flavour.

There’s no rest for the wicked - I’m off to make gnocchi and a leek and potato soup with the last of the poaching liquor!

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Review: Beyond Baked Beans: Budget

Feeding yourself, and others, on a budget can be tricky. With the rising cost of food, many people are having to cut back on their weekly expenditures. I don't think that you need a lot of money to eat healthily. In fact, I'm quite proud of how little we spend in the supermarket considering how well we eat.

Fiona Beckett's Beyond Baked Beans series has been popular with students and home cooks alike for their simpler, tasty recipes. Friends of mine have found it to be a great starting point when they're at uni or when they've just flown the nest. I'm always looking for new ways to save money so when I spotted Beckett's Beyond Baked Beans: Budget during my latest library trawl, I thought I'd give it a try.

The book starts by giving some money-saving eating tips and setting out suggested shopping lists. After that, there are recipes using ingredients from your budget basket, which are split into three sections - recipes for one, meals to share and indulgent treats for when you're in need of some luxury on the cheap. It really shows that eating cheap is versatile and not just baked beans on toast (as the name suggests!).

I like the fact that Beckett suggests eating more vegetarian meals as a way to cut food costs; it's one of our tried and tested methods for saving money at the checkouts too. She doesn't cut out meat all together (though she has a specific shopping list for vegetarians and adapts recipes to suit) but encourages the reader to try more meals that are centred around fresh vegetables. The recipes themselves are straight forward and easy to follow - a great starting point for someone who's new to shopping for themselves and cooking from scratch.

I found some of the recipes a little basic and, for that reason, I probably wouldn't buy the book myself but I will certainly be considering it for my brother when he leaves home. It's a shame that the book doesn't have any photo's to really inspire the reader and get them interested in cooking. I have tried the Carrot Dhal recipe which is a winner with any curry. The lentil, spinach and cumin soup and Bang Bang Chicken Salad will, no doubt, be making it into my lunchbox sometimes very soon too.

Beyond Baked Beans: Budget is one of the three strong Beyond Baked Beans series of cookbooks by Fiona Beckett. The website is a great source of inspiration and recipes as is Fiona's blog.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Volcano Tea and Fire pit Sausages

What better to way to celebrate a birthday than to have a beach picnic? A bit of sand in your sandwiches never hurt anyone but the Birthday Boy had simpler ideas for his festive feast. So we packed up our bags with blankets, bikini’s (In April! Who were we kidding?) and bundles of fire wood and headed to Inch Strand beach.

We set up camp and built a fire pit with rocks and pebbles to fill with dried out seaweed, drift wood and logs from our own stash. With the sun shining, the Birthday Boy installed himself in front of the fire and grilled sausages while everyone else collected pointy sticks (for eating said sausages) and sipped homemade lemonade. When the sausages were declared to be suitably browned, they were spiked with driftwood sticks and dunked into Ballymaloe Country Relish. Delicious!

As more relatives and friends trooped across the sand, cheese on homemade soda bread topped with more Relish was handed out. Now all we needed was a good cup of tea and maybe a slice of cake to round things off.
“Where’s the volcano kettle?” Someone shouted. Volcano kettle!? Had I heard rightly? My hosts produced a stainless steel contraption and proceeded to explain how it worked. Despite its exotic name, the principle is quite simple.

Five Minute Scribble Volcano Kettle

Volcano kettles, sometimes known as Kelly or Storm Kettles, have a central chamber for wood which is lit to boil water in a surrounding chamber. They were first dreamt up by ghillies on the West Coast of Ireland and are ideal for brewing a cuppa on the go. Because the fire chamber is small, you can use twigs, sticks and leaves (or in our case, drift wood and dried out seaweed) to boil your water rather than having the hassle of building a proper fire. The built in spout and attached handles make it easy to pour too. How cool is that?
Teas all round!

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Review: Omnivore’s Dilemma

My last trip to our local library took me past their cookery section. Amongst the various tempting recipe books, ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ caught my eye. Having watched Food Inc, my interest in food production and processing is growing so I decided to give it a try. That’s the great thing about the library – if you see a book that you fancy, you can take it home for free with no obligation.

The book distils America’s food chain down to its key components – corn, chicken, beef, lettuce – before giving you the warts and all truth behind the production and processing that gets food on to dinner plates all around the USA. It’s an intense read (though I’m mostly a fiction reader if I’m honest) as Michael Pollan goes into the chemical composition of common foods, the history of ‘organic’ and the in’s and out’s (s’cuse the pun) of a cows digestive system.

One of the things that struck a chord with me was how the loss of traditional farming techniques is affecting the immediate environment as well as people’s health. For years, the long-established farming practice involved rearing animals and growing crops. Naturally, this meant that the by-product of one stock was used to benefit another – chicken droppings being spread as fertiliser for your arable land, for example. Now, farmers in the US are encouraged to produce single commodities which means that the waste just piles up. Without natural fertilisers, farmers have to resort to increasing amounts of chemicals to encourage the plants to grow which is infecting the water table.

It's a genuinely fascinating book and I would highly recommend it though I did have to take certain parts of it with a pinch of salt. Otherwise, I could see myself turning into a food fundamentalist.

Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivores Dilemma, can be found on Amazon here. Or why not pop down to your local library to see if you can borrow it from them and save you a few pennies...
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