Sunday, 29 April 2012

Fuck-the-supermarket pasta

This is my cookery book collection (note that there are three Nigellas in there, thus proving that I do not hate her).  My cookery book collection AFTER a clear out, I might add, which has relegated about 30 poor souls to the attic on the grounds of being dull, useless or just plain gaudy (I've had to start operating a one-in-one-out system to stop things getting out of control).

I worked out once that the contents of these shelves are probably worth around £1000 or more, recommended retail price, which explains why I haven't had a holiday for two years (woe is me).  Add to this about 4 years of archived food magazines and newspaper cuttings and the entire blogesphere on the internet and you'd think that'd be ample inspiration.  Yet despite this wealth of culinary literature - which I probably couldn't get through if I lived to 100 and cooked an entry a day (and look how bonkers that Julie et Julia woman went, and she was only trying to get through Mastering the Art of French Cookery) - there are some days when I can't think of a single god damned thing to cook. 

I have to say, this foodie's block usually occurs when I am trying to plan what staples I need for the weekly shop.  I try desperately to plan all my meals for the week, to minimise wastage and overspending, but sometimes the chore of choosing seven days worth of food with the correct balance of health, ease and mild food poncery, is a challenge akin to achieving world peace on a bank holiday weekend.

And it doesn't help that when I'm walking the aisles of Sainsburys I take with me a mini Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall in my conscience, who tuts loudly in my ear if I so much as glance at the wrong tin of tuna or a courgette that's travelled more than 6 miles.  I love Hugh, but he's a right bore when you're trying to do the weekly shop in a hurry.

So as a result, usually on a grey and miserable Sunday such as this, I say to myself  'fuck that, I'm going to stay in and watch something featuring Robin Williams'.  The below is an example from one of the many days that I've given up and decided I would rather scrape the mould off a rotting corpse of cheese or have muesli and frozen peas for dinner, rather than go to the supermarket.  This recipe is not exclusive to these ingredients - on the contrary- stick in any old guff which is languishing at the bottom of your fridge.

Fuck-the-supermarket pasta

Serves 2
200g of whatever pasta you have
Handful of stale breadcrumbs (toasted briefly in a dry pan)
1 lemon
3 cloves garlic
Splosh of white wine if you have it
Splosh oil
Handful of chopped herbs (I used some withered parsley, stalks and all)
Pinch of dried chilli flakes
Shaved parmesan to serve

Cook your pasta, as per instructions.  Whilst boiling, fry your garlic in a little oil until starting to brown, then slosh in a bit of wine, your chilli flakes and the rind of the lemon and reduce till most of the liquid is gone.  Once your pasta is done, drain and mix with the contents of the garlic pan, the chopped herbs and juice of half the lemon and at the last minute add the breadcrumbs.  Serve with remaining lemon and parmesan.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Salad days

Every picture I take at the moment seems to have a cat's paw, or nose, or whisker clumsily poking its way in.  Despite his detest of any affection from us, he never wants to be more than about 3' away.  He just sits there, looking cute and squidgy and fluffy, his eyes saying, 'just try and pick me up'.  Cuddle attempts generally result in injury (on our part) and if he even walks across your lap it's a privilege.  Except, that is, when you're on the toilet.  Plonk yourself down on the porcelain throne and within seconds he will have barged his way in, jumped atop your bare and vulnerable thighs and settled himself down for the duration, purring his head off.

He was the last left of his litter.  We really should have guessed something from that.

After two three course meals in the space of 18 hours, this week was deemed by me to be 'salad week'. Salad in the loosest sense of the word that is. In the past I have had near obsessive bouts of calorie counting, twice daily weigh-ins, measurements and avoidance of all sorts of foods, but these days I've come to the conclusion that for the sake of half a stone, I really can't be arsed.  Being on a diet is such a monstrous bore and it turns you into such a monstrous bore.  Nobody wants to hang around with someone who makes you feel full of guilt wolfing down your scone whilst they click a couple of sweeteners into their tea.  And you get colds all the time, and protein is expensive and as soon as you get to the weight you want to be everyone tells you you look ill and you inevitably end up back where you started six months later.  I can honestly say that the thinnest days of my life were undoubtedly the most miserable.

Now, of course if you are eating six cheeseburgers for lunch and can't fit in your kitchen anymore, go on a fucking diet, but I can't think of a single one of my friends who actually needs to lose weight.  Therefore, my general philosophy these days is, if you eat like a biffa one day, you take it easy the next.  And go for a walk occasionally. Whilst you probably won't look like one of the cast of gossip girl, you'll probably manage to fit into the same pair of jeans that you had last summer. 

So, in my book salad counts as pretty much any meal which doesn't have butter on it.  Anything else is swell by me; carbs, meat, cheese, dressings.  Throw a couple of leaves on it and you can call it a salad as far as I'm concerned. So apologies if the below don't sit with your lettuce:tomato expectations.  

Vietnamese prawn and rice noodle salad

I am sure an actual Vietnamese person would question the cultural authenticity of this dish, but I have titled it so as it is my vague attempt to create one of my favourite dishes in the Vietnamese restaurants which were ten a penny where I used to live.  Sadly in Norwich we don't get much more adventurous than Thai.

As ever, the below amounts are guesstimated, in particular the dressing, so add bit by bit to your personal taste.

Serves four, modestly

1 pack rice noodles/vermicelli
1 pack frozen cooked king prawns
Juice of two limes
1 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp soy sauce
1tbsp golden caster sugar
1 red chilli finely chopped
1 red pepper sliced thinly
1 orange pepper sliced thinly
4 spring onions finely chopped
1 small iceberg lettuce shredded
Handful chopped peanuts
Handful chopped coriander

Defrost prawns and cook noodles as per packet instructions.  Whilst the noodles are still warm, dress with the lime, sugar, fish sauce and soy sauce.Once cooled, add your prawns and veg then serve topped with the coriander and peanuts.  

Pesto gnocchi, artichoke and mozzarella salad

I'm sorry, this photo looks like a big pile of green splodge, I was too hungry to improve it.  It tastes better, I promise.

Serves three (or two in our hungry case)

1 bag of gnocchi
1 tin of artichoke hearts
Ball of mozzarella
2 tbsp pesto
Slug of oil
Salad jam (balsamic reduction)
Bag of leaves

You can buy chargrilled artichokes in oil, but it's much cheaper to buy a tin, roughly chop the hearts (I like how romantically tumultuous this sounds) and fry in olive oil for few minutes until starting to brown.  Boil your gnocchi til it floats to the top of the water then drain and dress with the pesto.  Top the salad leaves with the gnocchi, artichokes and torn mozzarella and drizzle with the balsamic.

Jewelled cous cous salad with cumin yoghurt

Serves four

About 300g cous cous (I used a combination of regular and giant cous cous)
Small pot plain yoghurt
1 tsp cumin
6 shallots thinly sliced
Handful pistachios finely chopped
Handfuls dried fruit, finely chopped (I used apricots, raisins and cherries)
Few sprigs of mint, finely sliced
1/2 pack feta cheese, crumbled
Slug of rapeseed/olive oil
Slug of vegetable oil
Juice of a lemon

Cook the cous cous according to packet instructions and dress with the oil and lemon whilst still warm.  Put enough vegetable oil in a frying pan, so that it will cover the shallots.  The oil needs to be hot enough to make the onions sizzle so try one piece first.  Fry the onions until they have gone crisp, but not burnt. Combine the yoghurt with the cumin.  Mix the cous cous, onions, feta, dried fruit, mint and pistachios.  Serve with some leaves and dress with the yoghurt. 

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Wild garlic

I have a bit of a confession to make to you, dear reader.  During my week off, not only did I make cheese, but I also kind of went foraging.  I know, I know, we hate people who go foraging, right?  They're so wholesome and self-righteous and they somehow look particularly attractive when they've just been rained on, unlike the rest of the general populus.  When you're sat on a sofa in North London watching Valentine Warner meandering around the bucolic West Country, digging for truffles with an excitable scamp of a spaniel, you can't help but waggle your fist at the TV.  It hardly gives you inspiration for the impending Morrisons shop.

But these days I live back in Norfolk, and whilst I have less friends than I do saucepans, I have woodland a-cocking-plenty.  It only makes sense to do a bit of scampering and frolicking from time-to-time in these circumstances. Now, I'm not talking mushrooms, I'm not crazy.  I get paranoid enough cooking prawns; I couldn't take the ensuing 24 hours of ambiguity after scoffing down that particular bounty; jumping at the merest stomach gurgle or change in body temperature.  I was useless at spot the difference as a child and I don't fancy playing that game with a copy of Wild Food and an indistinct patch of fungus. 

Wild garlic, however, is pretty hard to get wrong, thanks to its overpowering aroma of - yes you guessed it - sausages! garlic!  We're really talking 'The Dummies Guide to...' level of foraging.  I picked it myself for the first time last year when we went for a walk in a bluebell woods in Essex (bluebells and wild garlic tend to go hand-in-hand so if you know somewhere with the former then you'll be on the right track). I was poncing around, no doubt cursing my unsuitable woodland footwear or something, when Ben and his Mum pointed it out.  I was all like, 'hang on a minute, we're a long way from River Cottage here, are you 100% sure this isn't going to kill me?'. After all, stumbling across a trendy ingredient dotted around your feet seems suspiciously too good to be true. But after picking a few leaves it was impossible to deny this was a member of the garlic family and - having not come prepared with suitable receptacles - I had a difficult time smuggling it out past the warden inconspicuously in my handbag.

We were admittedly a little early in the season this year when we went out cruising (that makes it sound like cottaging doesn't it? We weren't cottaging, honest) the woods at Ashwellthorpe.  When we got there we could see the tips of bluebell plants but no actual flowers, so I was fairly ready to throw a gastronomic strop, assuming there would be no garlic.  Exploring a bit further in, however, we did find a substantial patch.  You're looking for the above, rather unremarkable looking leaves - usually accompanied by a spindly white flower once they've grown a bit bigger than this - and yeah, the smell.
So if you want to get one over on the Valentine Warners and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstalls (praise be to him) of this world, then nabbing yourself a bit of wild garlic is a good place to start. Below are two ways I used it, but you can basically use it in any recipe where you would use regular garlic and herbs.  I'm afraid I've gone and done another annoying thing and used a goose egg in one of the recipes, but there were some for sale on the side of the road when we went to the woods (we don't have regular public transport round here, but we do have a delectable selection of products which you can buy from people's driveways).  If you're sitting there going, 'where the friggin Jesus does she expect us to find a goose egg' - they probably do them in Waitrose, but I also have it on good authority that you can boil chicken's eggs and dip stuff in them too.  Whoduthunkit.  

Wild garlic pesto

Before moving on to the recipe I should probably apologise for the ghastly arrangement above.  The 'jar of green stuff' look wasn't working for me so I decided to try and jazz it up a bit.  What I was left with was the featured 'Cath Kidston burka', which was arguably worse, but I can only take so many photos before I get monstrously bored. 

Pesto isn't an exact science, it tends to be a bit of a taste and adjust type of thing, so the below is merely a guide.

2 handfuls of wild garlic leaves
1 handful basil
1 handful grated parmesan
1 handful of toasted pine nuts
Juice of half a lemon
Big slug of olive/rapeseed oil

Shove it all in a blender and ta-da! 

Goose egg with wild garlic and anchovy soldiers

1 goose egg per person (or two hen's eggs)
Enough softened butter for the amount of toast you want (plus a bit more, cos this is a treat)
One wild garlic leaf per piece of toast
Half an anchovy per piece of toast

To soft boil our goose eggs I did them for about 8 minutes. Whilst boiling, slice your garlic and anchovy very finely - so it's pretty much a paste - and mash into your butter. In the last few of minutes of boiling do your toast (I'm not going to tell you how to make toast, if you can't do that then you're beyond my help).  Remove eggs from pan, spread toast etc. Be warned, a goose egg won't fit in your regular egg cup, so unless you're Verruca Salt you'll probably need to fashion something with a ramekin and a piece of kitchen roll like we did. 

Monday, 9 April 2012

Homemade goat's cheese

Cheese making has had a bit of a bad rep recently.  And we all know who's fault that is....yup, smug, Tory tweed-face, Alex James.  He may have been in a semi-respectable indie band once (who unfortunately refuse to retire gracefully) but that does not excuse his ongoing assault on one of the best products in the world.  First there was the whole curry-ketchup-cheddar for ASDA debacle, which we could have just about moved on from, but then there was this...

There's no coming back from that.  Unless he's looking over his shoulder to signal an armed vehicle.  Even David Cameron's child can see how embarrassing the situation is. 

But luckily cheese is so excellent that it can take a bit of a PR boo boo here and there.  Thus I felt safe to undertake a bit of cheese making myself, without fear of instantly turning into the right-wing bourgeois.  Now, I won't pretend that there isn't a moment where you sit there thinking, 'I'm 28, I'm on holiday and this is what I choose to do with my time?', but once you get over being prematurely middle-aged it's pretty good fun.  Oh, and I will warn you, your house will smell like a goat's undercrackers for a good 24 hours. 

Homemade goat's cheese

Firstly, this requires a bit of specialist equipment in the form of a sheet of muslin.  The first time I made cheese (yes, I have done it more than once) I used one of Ben's bachelor days pillow cases, which works reasonably well, but you'll need to be prepared for that pillow case never to be suitable for bedding use again, and the ensuing row that follows. 

To make about 200g of goat's cheese

1 litre of full fat goat's milk (I could only find semi-skimmed, so I replaced about 100ml of milk with double cream to up the fat content)
Juice of 2 lemons
1 tsp salt
Herbs and spices of your choice

In a pan, heat your milk gently until it comes to the boil, then remove from the heat.  Add your salt and then the lemon juice bit by bit (you might not need it all), until the milk splits into solid lumps and liquid.  This, Miss Muffet, is your curds and whey.  Leave for about half an hour, until it has properly curdled. 

Line a sieve or collander with the muslin and balance over the sink or a bowl.  Pour the milk mix into the muslin, then fold over the edges of the muslin, so you've got a little cheese parcel.  Sit a weight or something heavy on top of the parcel and leave for a few hours.  Basically you want all the liquid to drain off, so you're left with a quite crumbly soft cheese.

So that's your basic cheese, it's then up to you how much extra faffing you want to do with it.  I did some moderate faff, instructions below.

Choose some herbs and spices that you think will go well with the cheese.  From left to right, I used dried chillies, wild garlic, crushed black pepper corns, pink peppercorns and chopped fresh herbs. 

Line a few holes of a mini muffin/cupcake tin with tin foil (push it in very firmly so it takes the shape of the hole).  Sprinkle in your herb/spice topping so it lines the bottom of the hole. Then spoon in your cheese and push down firmly so there are no gaps or bubbles.  When the hole is full, fold over the top of the foil and give it a further squidge down and cover with something heavy.  Leave in the fridge overnight. 

Remove the cheeses from the mould and delicately remove the foil.  Hopefully they will have firmed up and taken on the shape of the tray, as above. 

Now, must dash, the Millibands and I need to get our Lattitude tickets. 

Friday, 6 April 2012

The Gunton Arms and Cromer crab linguine

Firstly, I should just point out that we don't usually fuck off for little jaunts in the countryside on a weekly basis.  It just so happens that such behaviour has occurred twice this month.  Sorry. 

All of my third sector buddies - whose leave is also calculated according to the financial year - will be able to relate to the March panic where you suddenly realise you've been too busy saving the kids/curing cancer/eradicating poverty to use any of it and end up with an unseasonal spring holiday.  This year was the same old story, with one marked difference, a HEATWAVE.  Man were we feeling smug.  Everyone knows that decent weather is only meant to occur when you are sat at your desk, whimpering out of the window.  I'm waiting for the backlash of this stroke of luck, perhaps a local volcano eruption?

After being sent a link by my step father I selected The Gunton Arms; a pub come boutique hotel about 5 miles from Cromer, set in set acres of deer dotted countryside.  It's been open since Autumn last year and is the love child of a pair of art dealers and an ex Mark Hix chef. And with temperatures soaring to a balmy 18 degrees, our decision to opt for one night in a hotel 20 miles from home and 6 days lounging around the flat eating chocolate digestives, rather than a week in Magaluf, proved sensible.

Now, I would like to give this place a total thumbs up - as an independent Nofolk based business which has evidently had a tonne of money thrown at it - but whilst my thumb is creeping towards vertical, I have to say there were a few annoyances.  I'll start with the positives:

This place is beautiful.  Positioned in the middle of a sprawling country estate, with bambis prancing all over the place, it's pretty breathtaking.  And the inside doesn't disappoint either; our room was enchanting festooned in antiques and the sort of wallpaper which you absolutely wouldn't find in homebase, or even Laura Ashley for that matter.

And there was this badboy.  I spent about an hour ensconced in water up to my nostrils.

In the bar and restaurant the decor is a little more eccentric than the Victorian splendour of upstairs but similarly impressive. Again there's an enviable selection of wallpaper, accessorised with pieces of incredibly expensive art. The sort of expensive art which, unless you know art, you could easily confuse with rather questionable art. Think women with legs akimbo, drawn on an IKEA plate with a sharpie marker (honestly, could have been a Tracey Emin or the doodlings of the local regulars, I couldn't tell you). 

The major positive though has to be the food.  Ben and I are both fans of Mark Hix, so there was obviously a high expectation with his name being bandied about.  These expectations were further extended when we came downstairs to an entirely booked-out dining room.  This was a Monday night in a restaurant in the middle of nowhere and there wasn't a spare seat to be seen, which is a rare sight in these parts.  And I'm pleased to say it entirely lived up to expectations.  Reasonable sized portions, local ingredients, careful balancing of flavours and none of the all-too-frequent tendency to cover everything in foams and jus and gels.  This was Everyman Food, done incredibly well.

I started with a mixed beet, binham blue and pickled walnut salad and Ben with lamb sweetbreads.  Both delicious; I think that Ben was about to pronounce the sweetbreads one of the best things he'd ever eaten but then he remembered, for his own safety, that that title is obviously only given to things which I cook him.  Then we moved on to some serious meat; local steak, frites and bernaisse sauce for me and a venison mixed grill for Ben.  One slight criticism would be the lack of explanation of what the grill actually entailed.  After chomping his way through, and at some points looking somewhat confused, he asked and was informed that along with steak, loin etc there was also liver and heart.  Now, Ben is a fan of  all things offal, but I think with a mixed grill this isn't necessarily what one would expect and others might not be so keen.  However, everything was superbly cooked and we ate to the point of severe pain.  Which of course didn't stop us ordering dessert to share - a nut brittle cheesecake - again V yummy. 

And the staff were all charming.  Particularly our waitress in the restaurant, who was all too happy to move us when we blushingly asked if we could move to a table that didn't wobble. 

Now to get to the not so good stuff.  As I said, the setting of this place is stunning.  Which is great, but you're not actually allowed to set foot in it.  When we arrived in the blazing sunshine we were keen to go for a walk and try and cuddle a deer or something, but when we asked where we could go we were informed, "errr, it's a private estate, you can't go anywhere".  Having read on the website that most of the estate is owned by the Gunton Arms owner I can only assume that by 'private estate' they actually meant, 'the owner's don't want the riff raff cluttering up their seven mile garden'.  Our request was met with a slight air of confused amazement, as if we were the only people who had ever asked, but I would have thought that anyone with this on their doorstep would have wanted a bit of a stroll, especially when it is such an advertised feature of the place.  It's a good job the views from the bedroom are so impressive.

My next critique could be entirely attributable to my own numbskullery, but I think is important to mention for other numbskulls out there.  Ben and I live above a pub - a very nice pub and a very nice flat - but sometimes it is LOUD, and we end up craving tranquillity.  So, this craving for tranquillity leads me to book a quaint hotel in the middle of a field....ABOVE A PUB.  Knowing that this place was essentially a pub should have perhaps rang alarm bells to me that it wouldn't be as peaceful as one might hope, but I have to admit that paying £150 for a 'superior' room I didn't expect to be able to hear clinking glasses, clacking pool balls and reggae compilations through the floorboards.  Maybe I'm being unrealistic but it didn't seem entirely inkeeping with the experience and it made me a total mardy arse for the first couple of hours of the evening. 

And there were other black marks stopping this from being the desired calm retreat.  During my mega-bath there was obviously an issue with thrice cooking a chip or something because the fire alarm went off a grand total of six times.  I can tell you, it is hard to decide in these moments, what level of clothing is appropriate to be seen in in front of your fellow hotel dwellers should you have to gather on the lawn outside. After the first alarm ceased I gave up leaping out of the bath and scrabbling around for a pair of knickers and just decided I was happy to burn there. 

Then there was the construction work taking place in the pub garden (the one outside bit which you're allowed in).  The constant circling by JCBs and diggers whilst trying to eat our sandwiches felt almost comical out in a field in the middle of nowhere.  I appreciate that places need to carry out improvements but I think there should be some sort of price reduction considering these guys were effectively writing off the only outside access on a warm day, banging and crashing for the whole afternoon (and from 8am the next day).  And the bread of my sandwich was stale. 

So in conclusion this place is impressive in many many ways, and overall worth a trip, but there are definitely some teething issues to iron out to make it really worth the substantial price tag. 

On departure we went off to Cromer for the day.  We came home with a Cromer crab, as you do. 

Cromer Crab Linguine

1 Medium dressed crab
1 glass white wine
Handful of chopped parsley
2 cloves finely chopped garlic
1 lemon
pinch of chilli flakes
Slug of oil
200g linguine

Fry your garlic in some oil for about a minute, still starting to brown, then add your glass of wine, lemon zest, chilli flakes and seasoning and simmer until reduced by half.  Once reduced add in your crab meat and give it a minute or two to heat through.

Whilst all that is going on boil your linguine until al dente, or whatever firmness you like.  Then throw the pasta into the crabby pan, add another slug of oil, the lemon juice and chopped parsley.