Friday food links – 12 Feb 2016

Camellia in the gutter. A casualty of yesterday's storm, a sign of spring.

This week has been powered by a big joint of pork shoulder that my mum slow-cooked on Saturday. It has been served with baked potatoes, in burrito bowls and in tortillas. It would have made it into pasta too if I’d remembered. I also made some freezer supplies for E: muffins to toast and banana date cakes. As it’s been a long time since a recipe featured anywhere on here, I’ve included the recipe for these below.

Recipes:

Without a recipe:

  • Pulled pork
  • Pasta with red peppers and mushrooms
  • Pork and black bean burritos
  • Pork burrito bowls
  • Slow cooker chicken curry
  • Carrot and sweet potato soup

Reading:

A bit light on reading this week. I’ve been working through Anne-Marie Slaughter’s ‘Unfinished Business’, on the challenge of the work-life balance and the low value we place on care.

Banana date cakes

Recipe: Banana and Date cakes

Adapted from a banana cake in the Baby Led Weaning Cookbook, these little cakes have no sugar, but are still sweet from the bananas and dates, especially if you use really ripe bananas. They make great toddler food, or a good breakfast or mid-morning snack.

  • 100g self-raising wholemeal flour
  • 1/2 tsp mixed spice
  • 50g unsalted butter
  • 2 very ripe bananas (200g peeled)
  • 1 egg
  • 75g dates

Prepare a muffin tin by greasing or with paper cases. Preheat the oven to 180C/160C fan.

Chop the dates. If they are somewhat dry, cover with hot water and leave to soak for about 10 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Rub the butter into the flour. Stir in the mixed spice.

In another bowl, mash the bananas and mix in the egg. Add to the flour with the drained, chopped dates and mix everything together.

Spoon into cupcake or muffin cases and bake for 15 – 20 minutes.

Friday food links – 5 Feb 2016

Bread

I’ve been trying to follow my own advice from my post about easy weeknight recipes and plenty of leftovers. First there was pizza on Saturday, with some leftover dough baked on Sunday as a (sort-of) foccacia. Then a sausage traybake on Sunday night, which reappeared as a frittata for lunch on Tuesday. Sunday also saw meatballs being mixed and made, chilled in the fridge on a baking tray and baked Monday evening for a simple dinner with rice and spring greens. And then Tuesday I made a big pot of sweet potato and chickpea curry, with some Thai flavours and coconut milk, and served with the rest of the spring greens on top.

I haven’t totted up the totals, but I suspect this was a very frugal week too. The sausages were stretched with lots of veg, and the mince beef for the meatballs stretched with lots of breadcrumbs.

Recipes:

Without a recipe:

  • Grape foccacia – using the leftover pizza dough
  • Meatballs from the freezer, served over rice
  • Sausage traybake with potatoes, red onion, apples and broccoli – inspired by an Instagram from Five O’Clock Apron

Reading:

Are recipe boxes the answer to easy weeknight cooking?

“Quick cooking rarely comes from a recipe so much as it does from intuition built over the course of hours and hours mucking around in a kitchen.”

Elizabeth G Dunn, ‘The Myth of Easy Cooking’, The Atlantic, Nov 2015

Last year, a piece appeared in the Atlantic called ‘The Myth of Easy Cooking‘. I recognised a lot of the emotions in the article, and the idea that ‘easy’ recipes are often anything but. It was thinking about how to make weeknight meals easier and yet more interesting that led me to try out ‘Hello Fresh’ a couple of weeks ago.

I have been curious about this model of cooking for a while. Some time back, I tried out the Riverford recipe boxes, which are based on a similar idea: deliver recipes, along with all the ingredients to cook them, in the exact sizes needed, so there is no wasted food. Hello Fresh have been conducting a very intensive marketing campaign, so that I can’t seem to open a magazine, a parcel, a newspaper or a browser tab without seeing a promotion from them. Finally, I succumbed and redeemed one of their vouchers to see what it was all about.

The three recipes I chose for this week (with their Classic box, you can choose three from five recipes – the others have no choice, but you can change boxes or pause a box) were Firecracker prawns with chinese leaf, butterflied chicken with leeks and feta, and a Jamie Oliver recipe for stir-fried steak with broccoli and noodles.

My experience with the recipes themselves was not bad. The cooking times given were generally accurate, and the results were mostly good, although not that interesting. It was useful to have things like chili bean paste premeasured and in a small portion, when normally that’s the sort of thing that ends up with yet another jar taking up space in the fridge.

However, far from making cooking easier, I feel like these sorts of meals are more effort than I normally make on a weeknight. They generally involved 25-30 minutes of continuous cooking. I think that if you bought these as a novice cook, and followed along, it might give you confidence that you could follow other recipes. But it also might give the impression that an ‘easy’ evening meal should involve 25 minutes of non-stop work. And I don’t think that’s fair.

Most of my evening meals require much less intensive effort than that. Perhaps it’s the same amount of preparation and cooking time, but with long periods of things being left unattended in the slow cooker or the oven.

I don’t think that cooking has to be this hard. As a way of trying out new ingredients and cuisines, without having to invest in lots of new bottles and jars, it seems like a good approach. But for someone who cooks fairly regularly, this just makes my dinner preparation more frantic, not less, and gives me lots of individually portioned things that I generally already have in the kitchen.

So if recipe boxes might not be the answer, what are some other strategies for weeknight meals?

Batch cooking at the weekends

Dinner tonight: meatballs, rice and spring greens. I've been thinking about what 'easy' weeknight cooking looks like. This fits the bill for me: meatballs made last night and finished in the oven this evening. A microwave pack of brown rice. Spring greens

There is no shortage of advice on this tactic, especially from American food blogs, where giant freezers seem to invite this sort of approach. Take a look at pinterest, and you will see lots of examples of recipes you can make in advance. More generally, this approach works well for any soups, stews and pasta sauces, especially those that you can dress up in different ways with different side dishes and accompaniments. I tend to find a degree of boredom sets in if I stash too much of the same thing away, making me reluctant to get it back out again. What does work well is to freeze curry, bolognese, meatballs and soup.

Weekly ingredients prep

Lunch prep

This is what Tracy at Shutterbean calls ‘meal prep’. Not quite preparing all the meals, but doing a lot of the chopping, cooking some grains or pulses, and boxing up snacks and salads for the week ahead. This gives a lot more flexibility than traditional meal planning, and boxing up snacks is a good move for kids. Some things that are easy to prepare in advance in this way: burrito bowls, big salads, soup and roasted vegetables.

Slow Cooker

White chili from the slow cooker ready for dinner - both baby's and ours.

The thing about slow cooker food is that it doesn’t often look pretty…

When I bought my slow cooker, I thought there was a risk it wouldn’t earn its place on the worktop. I am very happy to have been proved wrong here. It is invaluable for hands-off cooking, and the ability to have hot food ready as soon as I get in from picking up E at nursery is brilliant. Things that work best are large pieces of slow-cooking meat: pork shoulder, beef shin – and pulses. I’ve found it’s not necessary to brown things in advance in most cases. Depending on the amount of liquid you add, you can get some browning in the pot, and things like mince or bolognese don’t seem to suffer much from not having the meat browned, especially if you use pre-caramelised onions (which can also be prepared in the slow cooker!). I do sometimes chop onions, and get out ingredients the night before, to minimise the time needed in the morning. Even having a few cans and tins set out on the chopping board can remind me of what I need to do before leaving the house.

Tray bakes

 https://flic.kr/p/DgGf8o

You don’t have to do a lot of preparation in advance to cook a hands-off dinner. One easy strategy is to put everything onto a large baking tray and cook it all together in the oven. Start with the protein if you’re using meat – a couple of chicken breasts or thighs, maybe sausages. Then add vegetables, tossed with some oil and vinegar and seasoning. Add leafy vegetables towards the end, and fish or prawns will just take a short time. Some variations on this theme: broccoli and prawns; fish and sliced potatoes; chicken with potatoes, rocket and yoghurt sauce; sweet roasted courgettes with crispy chickpeas.

One pan pasta

Starting as I mean to go on with @rachelaliceroddy 's broccoli pasta. Lick-the-bowl-clean good.

By the same token, you can cook vegetables and pasta in the same water and drain it all together. This works spectacularly well with broccoli, but you can also use an absorption method of cooking to put all the pasta sauce ingredients into a pan with the pasta and just enough water to cook it, and heat the whole thing until the water is absorbed and the pasta cooked through. This requires more attention than the other methods, as you need to keep stirring as the water reduces, to stop it sticking. Martha Stewart’s One Pan Pasta is the most famous/pinned version. Food52 have a range of variations, as well as the story behind the Martha Stewart version.

 

Friday food links – 29 Jan 2016

Some days are all about muddy puddles.

Last week I experimented with Hello Fresh, getting three of the week’s meals delivered as one of their meal kits. This week, I took a different tack, relying on batch cooking, some quick fixes, leftovers and the slow cooker to get us through the week. This week was the decidedly easier cooking week. It was also more satisfying from my perspective, allowing me to try a few recipes from new cookbooks, and to work with the ingredients in the fridge (more or less).

So a leftover piece of whole roast cauliflower, and some cooked potatoes were combined with flat beans, butternut squash and red lentils to make a big pot of vegetable curry on Sunday. This was served with a small portion of leftover chicken curry from the freezer, and supermarket naan. Monday was the same, but with rice and a little of the leftover bread. Tuesday was an Anna Jones-inspired traybake of grated courgettes, chickpeas, cherry tomatoes and red peppers, with roast chicken pieces. Wednesday was the leftovers of the veg, with leftover rice from Tuesday. Thursday was a piece of pork shoulder, cooked all day in the slow cooker, and served with baked potatoes and a broccoli pesto. Tonight we’ll have the rest of the pork with tomato sauce over pasta. It probably amounts to about the same effort as the three meals from the previous week, but from my point of view, divided up in a more sensible way.

Recipes:

  • Bakewell tart – from ‘How Baking Works with a raspberry-cherry jam filling.
  • Slow cooker chickpeas – from Slow Cooked, but the recipe is just chickpeas and water!
  • Baking tray ratatouille with chickpeas – adapted from ‘A Modern Way to Cook‘ by Anna Jones
  • Sweet and savoury slow cooked pork – Food52 – but done in the slow cooker rather than the oven.
  • Broccoli pesto – The Green Kitchen: an approximation of their recipe, using blanched broccoli, garlic, lemon juice, a few chickpeas and olive oil. A bit too garlicky in the end, but good on top of baked potatoes.

Without a recipe:

  • Vegetable curry with lentils
  • Pasta bolognese
  • Quick tomato sauce, with meatballs from the freezer

Reading:

Friday food links – 22 Jan 2016

Lunch: Sunday vat of soup with cooked chicken added, leftover Zuni bread salad with extra radicchio and crumbled Lancashire cheese #leftovers

I’ve been trying out a Hello Fresh box this week. [disclosure: I haven’t been given anything for free by Hello Fresh, or been approached by them to write this post. I don’t do that sort of thing here.] If you’ve been lucky enough to avoid their marketing bombardment, they are a recipe box delivery company. You get three recipes delivered each week, along with all the ingredients to make them, in just the right quantities. This means everything from fresh prawns to leeks to sachets of balsamic vinegar and tiny bottles of oil. The only things missing from my box were salt, pepper and vegetable oil.

I’m still not convinced by this model, especially for already competent cooks, but I will write another post when I’ve thought about it some more. My first impressions are that it is useful to have the decisions about which recipes to make made for you, and it’s also useful to have just enough to make the recipe and no more. For instance, one recipe came with a mini-block of feta. Normally, I would end up with half a packet unused, which would gradually go off in the fridge. But the recipes themselves tend to require more attention and steps than my usual weeknight fare.

Apart from those three recipes, the rest of the week was all about slow and patient cooking: salting chickens for roasting a day and a bit ahead of time; roasting a head of cauliflower for an hour on a weeknight; making a big pot of soup to last the week. For me, that’s a much more satisfying form of ‘easy’ cooking, and not much more time consuming.

Recipes:

  • At the weekend:
    • Zuni Chicken bread salad
    • Five O’Clock Apron apple flapjacks
    • Honeyed rye bread and a Sunday Vat of soup (sweet potato and butternut squash) from Anna Jones’ ‘A Modern Way to Cook’
    • Ham, cheese and leek scones from ‘The Violet Bakery Cookbook’
  • Three from Hello Fresh:
    • Firecracker prawns with Chinese leaf and rice
    • Butterflied chicken with leeks, feta and tomatoes
    • Steak stir fry with broccoli and noodles
  • Whole roasted cauliflower – from the New York Times. Served with meatballs (from the freezer) in tomato sauce.

Without a recipe:

  • Chicken, cheese and avocado quesadillas
  • Meatballs in tomato sauce

Reading:

Friday food links – 15 Jan 2016

Butternut spelt risotto with bacon

Most weeks I start with something substantial, like a roast, on Sunday, and then make meals for a couple of days in the week from the leftovers. This week we started with some leftovers on Sunday evening, and then I made braised beef in the slow cooker on Monday to eat up the rest of the week.

The other anchor meal this week was an accidentally converted risotto recipe where I substituted pearled spelt because I had run out of risotto rice. The recipe uses a thin puree of cooked butternut squash as the cooking liquid for the grain. I steamed the squash before pureeing half, and roasting the other half to give it a bit of colour. The result was much more satisfying than a normal risotto, with the chewy spelt, but without the richness that result from a dairy-heavy finish.

Recipes:

Without a recipe:

  • Beef tacos – leftover braised beef, shredded with a bit of fajita seasoning, plus rice, red onion, guacamole and creme fraiche and tortillas.
  • A hybrid hash/fried rice by frying leftover rice with a bit of onion, leftover cabbage and some braised beef.
  • More leftovers – Chicken Pie and lasagne
  • Pizza on Saturday – bacon, courgette, sweet corn and roasted red onion and peppers

Reading:

Roasting chicken and salting meat

Roast chicken with vegetables

I’m thinking of a gloomy grey Sunday. Rain pattering on the skylights in the kitchen. The Viburnum outside the window scratching back and forth. The distant rumble of the motorway carrying on the wind. It was the last day of the Christmas holidays, the eve of work beginning again. It felt like a good day to put a roast on the table.

For me, a Sunday roast means dinner, not lunch – prepared in the afternoon and eaten about 6 or 7pm. That was how it always was at home. Sunday afternoons meant mum in the kitchen, making dinner. Gran peeling vegetables and doing the ironing. Dad would probably be in the garden, or engaged in some DIY task. The veg would be peeled and put into a dish of water. The main might be roast chicken, often done in my mum’s old enamel roasting tin, which had a lid with dimples on. It could be roast beef, with slivers of garlic studded into the meat. A leg of lamb was my mum’s favourite, served with jellied mint sauce. But I think it’s the smell of roasting chicken that’s the most evocative. The scent of crisping skin and sizzling fat permeating the kitchen. Steam from the vegetables fogging the windows.

When I roast a chicken, I have a few different approaches I use, none of them very complicated. I might follow Laurie Colwin and sprinkle the top with paprika. I might scent it with a pierced lemon, approximating Marcella Hazan or Nigella Lawson. Or I might use herbs and onion in the cavity. But always, I will sprinkle the whole thing inside and out with salt. And if possible, I’ll do this a few hours before putting it into the oven.

Judy Rodgers’ ‘Zuni Cafe Cookbook’ is probably the best expression of salting a chicken in advance. Her roast chicken bread salad is hard to beat, but it does require a small chicken, and salting a good two days ahead. But why salt in advance at all?

Behind the recipe: salting meat

Recipes for roasting or braising meat often ask you to add salt to it some way in advance of cooking. This might be in the form of a rub or marinade, or just a sprinkling on the surface either a little or a lot of time before it goes into the oven or pot. What is the point of doing this, and is there any advantage to doing it a long way in advance?

Cookbooks will often describe salting in advance ‘to draw out the juices’, especially from cuts like steak and chops. Yes, salting will do this, through a relatively simple process of osmosis, where the concentrated salt on the outside persuades water to come out of the meat cells to dilute it, making the salt concentration more similar to that on the inside of the cells. However, this isn’t the only thing that happens.

As water is drawn out, salt is drawn in, to balance the concentrations. This extra salt inside the meat attacks some of the proteins, breaking them up, and making the solution of salt + protein in the meat more concentrated than the now more dilute brine on the outside.

So now the operation works in reverse, drawing water back in from the outside. So we have both salt and water being drawn into the meat. This doesn’t really change the weight of the meat – the juices being drawn back in came out of it in the first place, and not all of them will go back. But now extra salt has been added to the meat, and the proteins have also been damaged a bit, making the meat a bit more tender, and also less able to squeeze out juices during cooking, as the proteins cook and contract.

Osmosis is not a very fast process, so the further in advance you add the salt, the more likely this is to happen and to penetrate deeper into the meat. Do it too far ahead, or with too much salt and the meat will become overly salty and unpleasant, or the proteins will become too damaged and be dry when cooked.

When it comes to roast chicken (and also to other cuts with the skin, such as pork with crackling) the other benefit is in drying and seasoning the skin. By helping to create a dry surface to the skin, it makes it easier to get the surface temperature hot enough to crisp the skin. When there is water there, the temperature is limited to around 100C, but as soon as all the water is driven off, where there is fat in or under the skin, the temperature can go up and up, which allows the skin to crisp and crackle.

Further reading:

Serious Eats: the truth about brining turkey and the burger lab: salting ground beef

The Zuni Cafe Cookbook – containing Judy Rodgers’ recipe for roast chicken, and lots of other discussion about brining and salting meat in advance.

Smitten Kitchen has also written about the Zuni chicken.