Thursday, 29 September 2011

Journal Lust

“Let me pencil that into my diary” isn’t a statement that rings true anymore as most people I know don’t keep a paper diary anymore. Generally, the dates in question will be tapped into a mobile phone, i-pad or computer rather than whipping out a pencil and jotting down the information. I’m old fashioned and keep a hard copy that goes everywhere with me – it’s a big factor in organising my increasingly hectic life. The end of the year isn’t all that far away and I’ve already started making plans for 2012 (scary stuff!) so I’m in dire need of another diary.

While perusing new notebooks, I came across this elegant recipe journal made by Moleskine which looks an absolute delight for those who love design and food. It’s designed to be a vessel for your culinary thoughts and has sections waiting to be filled with recipes and ideas. I love the little icons on the pages and the way the blank pages sing with potential. I have a recipe folder where I keep snippets from magazines and where I write down my tried-and-tested recipes for another day but I don’t tend to sketch or jot down ideas. The Moleskine journal makes my recipe folder look really rather sterile in comparison!

I’ve made my own sketchbooks and journals in the past and I wonder if I could better this. I do find the paper that Moleskine favour for their bog-standard notebooks tends to be a little thin for my liking. The format and page size (21cm by 13cm) is slightly narrower than A5 (21cm by 14.8cm) but it’s a nice compromise as its large enough to get a recipe (unless it’s really complicated) on to one page without being too big to prop up in the kitchen.

To buy or not to buy, that is the question! Maybe I should add it to my wish list in the hope that someone will be inspired to pop it in my stocking just before 2012 rolls around!

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Fat-Free Gloop

Fat free yogurt. When will I ever learn? One word. Bleugh! Okay, so maybe it’s an onomatopoeia. Either way, it was grim and I couldn’t bring myself to finish. This was mainly down to the strangely chalky and bitter aftertaste which crept in after the (equally bitter) disappointment at the lack of any kind of flavour had subsided. I double-checked the packaging and confirmed to myself that, logically, there should be at least three flavours present – yogurt, vanilla and chocolate. Alas, all that my taste buds found was an assault of sickly sweetness as the gloop covered my tongue. I’ve said it once but I’ll say it again: bleugh.

My bad experience drew me to consider the ingredients listed on the side of the offending tub. I’m assuming that vanilla comes under the blanket term “flavourings” but I was pretty bewildered by some of the other (alien) components catalogued in micro-lettering.

Acesulfame K and Aspartame are both artificial calorie-free sweeteners which is 180-200 times sweeter than table sugar which, individually, can have a bitter aftertaste. In combination with the other sweetener listed, Aspartame, it takes on a more sugar-like taste where each one masks the others aftertaste and tastes sweeter than the sum of its component sweeteners. Clever but a little Franken-food to me! Especially as it obviously hasn't worked in this case. Both sweeteners have obviously been approved for general used by the powers that be but some critics claim that they haven’t been tested adequately enough. Some suggest that artificial sweeteners of this ilk may be carcinogenic but this has been dismissed by the governing bodies.

You may recognise pectin on the list which will, I think, have been used as a thickening agent. Pectin is the lovely stuff that makes your jam set and occurs naturally in varying amounts in fruits like apples and oranges. In Europe, you'll sometimes see pectin on ingredients lists as E440 (or E440(i) or E440(ii). Strangely, the yogurt also contains gelatin, which would also act as a thickener. Animal skin and bone with your yogurt? Mm-mm! Tastes like mammal! Needless to say, this "delicious dessert" isn't vegetarian.

There's a little note saying “A source of phenylalanine” too which after some quick research tells me that the yogurt is fortified with an essential amino acid which acts as a building block for proteins in the body. Our bodies break aspartame down into its components including phenylalanine. This is good for the majority (as it is an essential amino acid which our bodies can’t make and we have to find through our food) but bad news for people with phenylketonuria, a rare genetic disorder which means that the body can’t metabolise phenylalanine.

I don’t like my food to be fooled around with though I'm aware that the only reason many of us are here today is simply the fact that we can process and keep food for distribution around the country or even world. I like to limit my processed food intake and generally make most things from scratch (as you can probably tell!). I haven't taken this to the level of my parents - my Dad makes his own yogurt! Maybe this is the kick start that I need to try it! Next time, I'll definitely be going for full fat yogurt and adding my own chocolate sprinkles (more than 0.5% too!). No matter what you eat, take the time to become familiar with what's actually in it.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Autumnal Tomato & Marrow Soup

It definitely feels like autumn. The days are starting to draw in and I'm getting forgetful... If you're part of the Facebook revolution, you'll already know that we went away to enjoy some time on our friend's narrowboat this weekend. I'd prepared a warming casserole for our first meal on the boat and promised to share more details with you on my return. Now, I can be rather forgetful at times so I wrote a list for myself. Toothbrush? Check. A little light reading? Check. Camera? Check. All set. Or maybe not because, when I packed away my faithful camera, I didn't check that it had a memory card in it. School girl error! So I had a camera but no way of recording what turned out to be a lovely meal (though I do say so myself). I gave myself a stern talking to, I can tell you. That aside, we had a fantastic weekend with lots of picnic lunching on the roof.

For now, please warm your cockles with another marrow recipe. Come rain or shine - blustery chilling showers or crisp icy sunshine - this soup is rich, flavoursome and easily prepared in far less than thirty minutes. I made it first thing in the morning so that the only thing that stood in our way of a tasty hot dinner was a little heating up. I even took a serving to work for my lunch, which went down a treat.

This recipe was great for using up some of the marrow that I've recently been given by a colleague however there's still half left in the fridge so there's sure to be another marrow recipe popping up on here in the next few days!

Autumnal Tomato & Marrow Soup
Serves 4

½ onion, sliced
½ large marrow, cubed (my whole marrow was about 40cm by 15cm - a whopper!)
1 green pepper, sliced
1 tin of plum tomatoes, chopped
1 tsp of vegetable stock powder
1 sprig of thyme or 1 tsp dried thyme leaves
1 sprig of oregano or 1 tsp of dried oregano
1 clove garlic, sliced

- Sweat the onion in a large saucepan for a few minutes until soft and slightly translucent.
- Throw in the marrow and cook over a medium heat. It will soften, break down and become a little watery in the pan.
- Add the tomatoes, pepper, stock and herbs to the pan. If the juice from the tomatoes doesn’t cover the marrow, top up with boiling water. Bring to a simmer and add the garlic.
- Simmer for 10 minutes or until all of the vegetables are soft.
- Serve with grated cheddar or crumbled goats cheese and a hunk of crusty bread.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Hearty Healthy Pizza Stuffed Marrow

It's not often that I get déjá vu however this particular incidence is unique because it revolves around vegetables. Marrows, in fact. Around this time last year, we had been gifted tons of courgettes and marrows through The Boy's workmates. This year, it's my workmates that are donating their vegetables to us. I've turned to my trusty stuffing technique for the ginormous marrow that's been taking up the best part of an entire shelf in our fridge for the last few days.

Admittedly not my best photograph for this very reason and I very nearly didn't post it for that very reason but I couldn't let vanity get in the way of showing you just how big this beast was! I decided to go for a combination of tomatoes and herbs to bring out the sweet roasted marrow flavour. Topping the whole lot with a little cheese made it quite reminiscent of pizza! The trick with this recipe is to reduce the filling down until it's almost dry; that way, the marrow doesn't go soggy when you stuff it. Slice it up and serve it with wilted swiss chard and wild rice or crusty bread to mop up the juices.

Pizza Stuffed Marrow
Serves 4 - 6

1 marrow (30cm or so long)
1 onion, chopped
1 stick of celery, chopped
1 can of plum tomatoes
2 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp dried oregano
1 clove of garlic, crushed
1 tsp vegetable stock powder
50g mature cheddar cheese

 - Preheat the oven to 190c.
 - Rinse the marrow and cut it lengthways. Scoop out the insides, leaving a 1cm (or so) strip of flesh around the skin. Place the empty halves on a baking tray and put in the oven for 20 minutes.
 - Meanwhile, sweat the onion and celery in a little oil over a medium heat while you chop the marrow innards into chunks. Add them to the pan and let them cook down. They'll express a lot of watery liquid and when they do, turn up the heat to simmer it off. Sprinkle the herbs and garlic into the pan.
 - While the marrow simmers, drain the tomatoes (keep the juices for something else) and roughly chop. Add them into saucepan and stir. Continue to simmer, stirring occasionally to ensure that it doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan.
 - When the mixture has reduced down so that there's no remaining liquid, remove the marrow halves from the oven and spoon the mixture into it until it is level. Top with cheese and pop back into the oven for 15 minutes or until the cheese is golden brown.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

'Sell By' Dates set to expire?

There's a lot of hoo-ha going around the newspapers today regarding the dates that appear on the packaging of boxes, cartons and wrappers that go in our baskets and trolleys. You know how those reporters like to make mountains out of molehills! Some of the headlines make my blood boil - "Sell-by dates to be scrapped to cut food waste" is a prime example from the BBC News website today - as they don't make it clear enough that, although some of the advisory dates are changing, there will still be dates on food wrappings.

Headlines aside, there seems to be a tug of war going on between the government who wants to cut the amount of edible food that we throw away and the food companies and supermarkets who are petrified of getting sued after consumers eating gone off produce. I can see where both are coming from - as a nation, we throw away the equivalent of £12 million a year in food which we've bought but don't eat and during 2010, there were over 84,500 cases of food poisoning in England and Wales. We need to find a happy medium that, at the end of the day, benefits us 'normal folk' as consumers.

Dates on food packaging can be useful; they're used by the supermarkets for stock rotation (whereby the seller takes measures to ensure that the oldest stock is sold first which in itself reduces waste) and many consumers use them as a guide when planning how to use the contents of their fridge or larder. Having a 'Used by' date on packaging for food which is deemed perishable (foods which need to be kept refrigerated) is actually a legal requirement in the UK in order to ensure that the food that we buy is 'safe' to eat.

The change in guidelines which are being publicised will banish 'Expiry' dates on items which won't actually become hazardous to health after a certain date and replace it with a 'Best Before' date. This would apply to things like vegetables, dried pasta or jam and it's like saying "you'd like to enjoy this item to the max, you're better off eating it before Tuesday when it won't make you ill but might not taste quite as good".

Any changes to the way we perceive food is a positive in my book but, to me, this doesn't go quite far enough. Although some bacteria that is present in food that has 'gone off' doesn't change the smell or appearance of the food, I do think that a little common sense and knowledge does go a long way. I feel like this needs to be taught, along with nutrition and cost effective cooking measures, in schools while children are still developing their relationship with food and their ideas about meals. There are a few ways that I would test an apple, onion or cucumber, for example, to see if they were past their best.

Craving more information about cutting down your food waste? Check out Love Food Hate Waste for hints and tips on everything from cutting down the amount that you buy to canny uses of those pesky leftovers.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Healthy Sin-Free Fruit Flapjacks

Looking for a way to use up your egg whites after making mayonnaise or custard? You could make meringues but for a sturdier snack, try these delicious flapjacks. The great news is that these can be whipped up using store cupboard ingredients combined with glorious in-season apples. The combination of egg whites and apple purée aren't detectable in the finished flapjacks but do away with the need for butter and oil like your usual recipes resulting in a guilt-free snack.

We have tons of apples at this time of year, for which we're indebted to to our generous families and neighbours, but I do know that Sainsburys are currently selling big bags of British Bramley apples for a mere £1. One bag will do you well for this recipe as well as crumbles and cakes galore. I've taken to stewing batches in the microwave for a few minutes and then freezing batches ready for later in the year when we're craving hot apple pies when the tree branches are bare. Throw in a few hedgerow blackberries too!

Another idea for freezing or using your gluts is apple sauce or purée. Peel, core and chop your apples, stew for a few minutes until softened and either keep chunky or mash/blitz in a food processor. Add sugar and/or salt to taste and serve with roasted pork or cold cuts. This freezes really well so that you can have a tasty, healthy condiment all year round. Alternatively, make a large batch, freeze half of it and use the rest in this tasty recipe! I tend to leave out the sugar when I'm using it for baking but it depends how much of a sweet tooth you have. They're pretty sturdy bars so they're ideal for throwing into school lunch boxes and into your rucksac for a mid-ride/walk energy boost.

Healthy Sin-Free Fruit Flapjacks
Makes 16 flapjacks

175g rolled oats
85g muesli
100g dried fruit (I used apricots and raisins)
50g mixed seeds or nuts (I used pumpkin, sesame and sunflower)
5 tbsp honey
2 egg whites
175g apple purée or sauce

- Preheat the oven to 180C and line a 20cm x 20cm baking tin with greaseproof paper.
- Gently warm the honey in a saucepan or in the microwave until runny.
- Combine the oats, muesli, dried fruit and seeds in a bowl and pour in honey, egg whites and apple purée. Stir until completely combined.
- Press the mixture into the tin and bake for 20 minutes or until firm.
- Leave to cool and slice into squares.

Fancy flapjacks in with your cuppa but don't fancy these ones? Keep it fruity with Apple & Blackcurrant Crumble Flapjacks but substitute with any seasonal fresh berries that you have such as blackberries. Or maybe you'd prefer sublimely soft Banana Flapjacks which you could top with melted chocolate if you're freely really sinful!

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Summer Fruit Crumble and Homemade Spiced Custard

Autumn commeth. I can feel it in the air; there's a chill breeze (or gale, as it's been in the last few days!), the leaves are starting to turn from lush green to crisp yellows and oranges and every so often you get the faintest whiff of mulching leaves and drying conkers. I must admit that I struggle to keep warm at the best of times so as the weather turns colder, I'm looking forward to warming my cockles with some lovely home cooking.

The days may be getting shorter and darker but, thankfully, Summer's not completely gone (truthfully, I'm not sure if it ever arrived in the UK). The limited amounts of watery British sunshine haven't limited the supply of fruit and vegetables in the garden's, allotments and veggie patches of my family and friends. We've been gifted boxes and bags full of delicious home grown goodies; most recently, my Mother-in-Love filled a box with apples, pears, rainbow chard, mangetout, runner beans and a carton of home-grown home-juiced apple juice. Unfortunately, after a busy weekend, I put the box on top of the car to rearrange the mess on my passenger seat only to forget about it completely. I promptly remembered it after driving a third of a mile and hearing it slide across the roof and land, with a thunk, in the middle of the road. Whoops. Luckily, the produce were a little worse for wear but still edible.

Our bruised and bashed apples and pears were combined with some plums to make a delish crumble. Crumble, for me, is up there with mashed potato and hearty soups as possibly the best comfort foods of all time. It's versatile, quick and easy (prerequisites of pretty much all of my recipes). This time, I decided to challenge myself and try making custard. We often keep a can of the ready made stuff in the larder for emergencies (emergency apple pie, emergency pineapple-upside-down cake...) but I've never tried making it from scratch. Now that I've given it a go, I can say with some confidence that it's amazingly easy. It takes about 10 minutes to make - no more than microwaving a can of the ready made gloop.

Summer Fruit Crumble
Serves 6

For the filling
450g prepared summer fruits of your choice
or 2 cooking apples, cored and chopped
    4 plums, stones removed and chopped
    4 pears, cored and chopped
2 tbsp sugar

For the topping
50g plain flour
50g rolled oats
50g unsalted butter, chilled and cubed
50g caster sugar

 - Preheat the oven to 180c.
 - Place the prepared fruit in a baking dish and sprinkle with the sugar.
 - Pulse the topping ingredients in food processor, or rub together with your fingers, until it resembles bread crumbs.
 - Pile on top of the fruit and pop into the oven for 30 - 40 minutes or until the fruit is bubbling and the topping is golden.

Spiced Homemade Custard
Serves 2 - 4

330ml milk
1 cinnamon stick
1 star anise
1 cardamom pod, crushed
1 vanilla pod or 1 tsp vanilla extract
2 egg yolks*
15g caster sugar
1 level tsp cornflour
grated nutmeg to taste

 - Split the vanilla pod length ways and scrape out the seeds. If you're using vanilla extract, hold your horses - you add this later. Add the seeds, pod and other spices to a saucepan and pour in the milk. Cover and gently bring to the simmer. Keep a close eye on it as milk has a mischievous tendency to boil over as soon as you turn your back. When it's warmed through, remove from the heat and allow to cool a little. This stage can be done in advance - the longer the better as the spices will infuse the milk.
 - When you're ready to serve, whisk the yolks, sugar and cornflower together in a bowl until nicely blended and creamy.
 - Remove the vanilla pod (if using) and the spices and pour the milk over the egg yolk mixture, whisking all the time so that the mixture is lump-free.
 - Return the mixture to the pan (with the vanilla extract if using) and stir gently over a very low heat until it is thickened to your liking.

*Not sure what to do with your leftover egg whites? Make meringues or pop them in a mug in the fridge until tomorrow when I'll be putting up a new recipe that will use them up!
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