Farewell, Mr. Floyd.

Sad news this morning from all quarters.  Lost this day are two good men:  Patrick Swayze of snake-hipped Johnny Castle fame and Keith Floyd, the eccentric and irreplaceable television cook and chef.

If asked to pin Keith Floyd down and describe what his niche was, I would attempt to classify him as an adventure cook and nomad, fearless and intrepid.  His programs were essentially culinary travelogues, and he roamed the world, seeking inspiration from different lands, their peoples and their ingredients.  Then, working shoulder-to-shoulder with the natives, he would present his own interpretations of the regional cuisines.  A more flamboyant personality at the helm of a cooking program you’d be hard pressed to name these days.

I was first introduced to the charms of Keith Floyd by Him Indoors, who was gobsmacked that I’d never heard of him.  Not know the national treasure Floyd??  Why, that was tantamount to an admission of an inability to pick  an elephant out of a line up of plums!  …It wasn’t an auspicious start to my relationship with Floydie.   For one, I preferred my cooking programs to be structured and informative, my television chefs to be serious and staid.  The slightly sozzled and irreverent eccentric on our television screen, a glass of red wine ever present in hand, had me flummoxed and disapproving.   But H.I. would continue to tune into Floyd’s programs, and I’d be curious enough to watch, eyes narrowed and suspicious, if only to see what sort of gaffes the white-suited conquering colonial would pull whilst abroad.  And yet, no matter how many orders he would bark at the uncomprehending audiences clustered around his open air stoves, he was always tolerated with good natured humour.  He could, it seemed, get away with anything.

So, slowly I was indoctrinated into the cult of Floyd.  The turning point for me, my irrevocable conversion, came about during an episode of Floydie’s French adventure.  It was the sight of Keith on a cycling tour, with a nice bottle of red wine, obviously purchased for a length of old rope at the vineyard just down the lane, tucked up in his bike’s water bottle carrier.  Although a tiny bit piqued that I hadn’t thought to do that myself, I had to respect the ingenuity of the man.

Sadly, I’ve only ever been a voyeur into the delights of Floydian cooking as I’ve done something for which I am very sorry.  When H.I. and I first merged our lives together, I came across a selection of rather nice cookery books by Floyd on his shelves, which provided a study in striking contrasts in the otherwise spartan kitchen.  Although he denied it, I rather suspected that the books had been gifts to H.I. from a former partner, so, at first opportunity, I ruthlessly excised all traces of them, and Floyd, from our kitchen.  I know, it was a cruel act, born out of insecurity, and I REGRET it, okay?  I did at least ensure that they went to good, appreciative homes…

Whilst the papers might focus on aspects of his admittedly tumultuous personal life, I prefer to remember Keith Floyd as the larger-than-life personality that I was bullied into loving.  Fearless and outspoken, he had a deep and abiding passion for his craft.  He inspired curiosity, not only in the strangers clustered around his bubbling cauldrons in the various countries his travelling cookshow visited, but in the viewers who were disarmed by his charming insouciance.

Cheeky to the last, in Floyd’s last television appearance, his interviewer, none other than Keith Allen, inquired about the wildlife at his rural retreat in France.  “Do you get foxes here?” Allen asked.

Without batting a lash, Floyd quipped, “No, but I’m going to.”

You’ve got to love the man.

A glass of red wine, a toast to Keith Floyd.

Rest peacefully, Floydie.

BBC, you owe me one blender.

Be warned.  What are you going to read is the real life account of murder most foul in my kitchen.  This recipe and its subsequent cake spawn are directly responsible for the demise of my blender.

I can’t resist  a dish with an incongruous or secret ingredient, so when I spotted the recipe entitled, no word of a lie, “Blitz-and-bake Beetroot and Chocolate Cake” in BBC Good Food magazine, I was hooked and wriggling on the line.  Beetroot as the wild card ingredient!  What a Trojan Horse to unleash upon all of the unsuspecting beetroot haters of the world!  No one ever expected the Spanish Inquisition OR the inclusion of beetroot in chocolate cake!  And not only was it a grand old trick to play on small children and grumpy old men alike, it was billed as being DEAD EASY.  Dump everything into your blender and whizz it right up, the recipe read.  Fifteen minutes of  prep and not a single mixing bowl dirtied, it promised.  It was all right there in the title – blitz and bake, no fuss, no mess!  The accompanying photo of a glossy, dense chocolate loaf, reeled me right in.  There was no way I wasn’t going to try this one.  Fool.

The victim:

204

I pulsed the beetroot into a beautiful magenta mush and then, as per the instructions, proceeded to pile on the remaining ingredients.  The blender jug was beginning to look like a cross section of sedimentary rock, and, to be honest, with each new geological layer that I added, I grew increasingly discomfited.  There simply wasn’t enough liquid being added with which to coax the dry strata into a homogenous mixture.  An experimental flick of the “on” button confirmed my suspicions; the rotors just spun around helplessly, while the layers hovering above them remained implacable and intractable.  I opened the lid, prodded the contents deeper into the jug, and tried again.  This time, the motor developed a rather alarming, laboured note, so I switched the blender off to let it rest.  At this point, I was ready to pack it all in, but the tiny demon on my shoulder playfully tickled my ear with his miniature pitchfork and chided my lack of confidence.  Surely the BBC wouldn’t advocate a course of action which would jeopardise the health and well being of my kitchen appliances?!  Once more into the breach, and once more to no avail.  The blender was now groaning as if in pain.

“Sod that for a game of tin soldiers,” thought I as I tipped the contents of the jug into a mixing bowl to finish the job by hand.  Once combined and moistened, the batter looked sufficiently free-flowing and liquid enough to return to the blender for the final step which involved the drizzling of the sunflower oil into the batter, as if making mayonnaise.  Granted, the batter was thick and viscous, but I was no longer concerned that the blender wasn’t up to the task.  I’d done the hard bit, the blender could now take the checkered flag and reap the kudos as the recipe has originally stated.  I switched it back on and the motor roared in protest.  Panicked, I grabbed a spoon and attempted to assist by scraping the batter down the sides.  This seemed to alleviate the symptoms so, breathing a sigh of relief, I switched the blender off to fetch the final ingredient.

I was poised with trembling cup of oil over the yawning mouth of the jug when I flicked the switch for what was to be the very last time.  There was a sudden scream of metal grinding against metal and I realised my mistake.  The spoon, left unattended,  had quietly sunk into the chocolate quagmire and disappeared from sight.  A calm, rational person would simply have switched the blender off in order to retrieve the implement, but I am not that person.  No.  With a yelp that sent all nearby animals running for cover,  I plucked the spoon out of the gnashing machine.  Somehow, I managed to catch the rotors at maximum rotation, which wrenched the spoon from my grasp and propelled it into orbit on a collision course with my face, shedding  meteorites of chocolate in its wake.  Fortunately, I turned away in time, but the chocolate-laden spoon crashed into the side of my head and glued itself into my hair.  Dismayed and disbelieving, I turned to survey the damage. There was chocolate EVERYWHERE.  The kitchen looked like a crime scene, complete with splatter marks that Dexter Morgan would have been proud to analyse.  I looked gratefully at the blender which, at very least, was still chugging away at the thick batter.  Right on cue, there was a brief, angry surge of the motor, followed by ominous silence and a lazily undulating tendril of smoke.

The Culprit:
Looks innocuous enough, doesn’t it?  Well, don’t turn your back on it.  Butter wouldn’t melt in this duplicitous cake’s mouth.

Freshly baked chocolate and beetroot cake in loaf tin.


I was many things at that moment –  mostly just chocolate-covered, but there were also variations and combinations of angered, disgusted and humiliated –  but the one thing I was not was defeated.  Oh no.  This cake was going to see the light of day if only to provide me the opportunity to hurl abuse at it from great heights.  I checked the integrity of the spoon and the rotors.  Both were fine; there were no nicks or gouges to signal the presence of metal shavings in the batter, which are never welcome additions to any cake.  I gave the oil and batter the mayonnaise treatment and resentfully flung the loaf tin into the oven.  I waited the token hour, and NOT ONCE did I sniff the aroma of baking cake appreciatively.  No way, nuh uh, you couldn’t prove otherwise.

To add insult to injury, the baked cake had the audacity, the utmost gall, to emerge from the oven as beautiful and glossy as the magazine photo had portrayed, and, to my eternal chagrin, it tasted delicious.  It had a deep, rich chocolate flavour and it wasn’t cloyingly sweet, lending itself to service with a tart coulis or creams of varying descriptions.     H.I. commented that it would make a great base for something fancier – a chocolate trifle or, layered with a good vanilla ice cream, toasted nuts and a chocolate or caramel sauce, a brownie sundae.

Nevertheless, this recipe is scheduled for immediate termination and deleti – oh, who am I kidding.  I’m going to keep this blender-killing cake recipe incarcerated in my files, if only to protect the world from its evil ways.  Who knows?  It might even become eligible for parole later in the beetroot season.  Just heed my advice.  Do not under any circumstance follow this recipe’s advice to use your blender as a mixer unless, of course, you happen to have one of those iPod-pureeing jobbies. Instead, blitz the beetroot only, and then combine the puree with the rest of the ingredients either in a proper mixer or by hand in a mixing bowl.  I beg you, do not overwork the heart of your faithful, trusting blender.

Chocolate and beetroot loaf cake.

Blitz-and-bake Beetroot Chocolate Cake
Adapted from a recipe in BBCgoodfood magazine, September 2008

Ingredients:

1 large beetroot, cooked and chopped.  (approximately 1 cup)  Make sure that your beetroot is fresh and sweet as the law of silk purses and sow’s ears applies to this recipe.  Unpickled varieties only, please!
pinch salt
1 cup flour
3/4 cup cocoa powder
1 tbsp baking powder
1 cup caster sugar
2 large eggs (3 if they’re small)
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 scant cup sunflower oil
4 oz chocolate, chopped (I used milk baking choccie, as it was all I had at hand)

Procedure:

(Disclaimer!!  Danger!!  Here there be dragons!! The following methodology prescribed by the recipe itself resulted in the death of my blender! Do not proceed as written if you have any doubts about the capability of your blender.  The cake emerges just fine when hand mixed, so don’t take unnecessary chances.)

1.  Preheat the oven to 190C/375F/gas mark 5.  Puree the beetroot in your blender.  Add the pinch of salt, followed by the rest of the listed ingredients, save for the sunflower oil and the chocolate pieces.  Blend the mixture until smooth, scraping batter down the sides as and when necessary, and then add the sunflower oil in a steady stream as if making mayonnaise.

2.  When the oil has been combined, add the chocolate pieces and then pour the batter into a lined loaf tin.  Bake for an hour or until an inserted wooden toothpick emerges clean.  Allow to cool before serving.  This cake cries out for a scoop of vanilla ice cream or a dollop of clotted cream.

Dendrites and Meatballs

I must confess that I am a lapsed vegetarian.  My fall from grace came about during a period of great stress and upheaval.  Archetypal story, really.  Starving student leaps at the opportunity of a free meal at an honest-to-goodness, proper restaurant, orders far too much food with an eye to taking home the leftover spoils of war, (yes, I know, it was rather mercenary of me, but I paid the karmic price!), and then, following a hilarious bait-and-switch worthy of a Benny Hill sketch, takes home the wrong parcel.  Factor in sleeplessness and a heavy workload –  did I mention that I was starving? – and the stage was set for the tragicomedy.  I had managed to plough my way through half of the takeaway carton when the telephone rang.  “NIN!!” shouted a voice down the line.  “You’ve got the wrong boxes!!  I’m staring at your tofu here, so you must have my chicken.  You…haven’t eaten any of it, have you?”

Damn.

I did marvel at the taste of the supposed tofu cubes in between mouthfuls.  Anguished, I waited for my body to reject the food, willing my stomach to clench itself into a angry fist to punish me for my vile transgression.  Surely I’d stopped producing the enzymes necessary to digest animal tissue long, long ago?  In the end, alas, my body betrayed me by running smoothly and effortlessly, without so much as a hiccup to acknowledge that anything out of the ordinary had happened.  The wracking pain and internal flagellation that would burn away my sins never came, and from that moment on, it was a just a long, slippery slope to resuming the ways of the filthy omnivore.  You know how it is – a slice of turkey at Christmas here, a suicide wing at the pub there, a bowl of chicken noodle soup in between.  It probably didn’t help matters that Him Indoors wandered, grinning, onto the scene, as well.  Like a cat, he’s an obligate carnivore, with the biggest set of canines I’ve ever seen on a biped, and I fear that, if deprived of his meatstuffs, he might wither away from a lysine deficiency a la the dinos from Jurassic Park or I might awaken in the night to find him gnawing at my extremities in his sleep.  Neither prospect being particularly appealing, I drew the line at poultry and cautiously re-embraced the carnal.  (Any and all takeaway boxes are now dissected thoroughly for bits of beef or pork that might be lurking in disguise.)

Since I have eschewed all meat save for poultry, I’m always on the look-out for new ways to translate beef and pork recipes into poultry ones, purely for the sake of variety.  There just seems to be a dearth of things one can do with minced turkey and chicken beyond the usual rogue’s gallery of chilis, bolognese sauces, and turkeyherder’s pies.  So, you can imagine my excitement as I watched Simon King prepare a mouthwateringly lovely dish with minced beef on Saturday Kitchen one morning.  Here, I thought, was a worthy dish that would readily adapt to the turkeyflesh.  The meat, once spiced and gently fried, was fragrant with promise.  The sauce, whilst very simple, was vibrant and bright.  It all started going wrong when I parachuted the eggs in.  I don’t know what I was expecting, but, once dropped into the stew, the eggs took on an amoebic appearance.  Maybe it was more like the Crab Nebula, home of Spectra and the evil Zoltar.  No, I know what it looked it – it was the stylised representations of nerve cells, complete with dendrites and nucleus, that we had to draw in biology class.  You’ll pardon me for the expression, but I thought it looked like a dog’s breakfast.  Simon’s looked nothing like this:

Dendritic eggs simmering amongst the meatballs.

H.I. assured me that the meatballs themselves were quite tasty, but I wasn’t convinced.  To my palate, they suffered from the curse of the minced poultry dish in that they were quite dry, and the spicing just wasn’t aggressive enough to lift the meat into the spotlight.  I knew that the sauce was never supposed to be the star of the show, so it’d be churlish of me to find fault in it, but in the face of the bland meatballs, a heavier hand with the spices in the sauce might have tipped the balance in the dish’s favour.  Perhaps I shall just resign myself to the fact that this is just one of those beef dishes that doesn’t translate well to the poultry realm.

Kefta Mkawra Tagine (Meatballs with Eggs on Top) with couscous.

Kefta Mkawra Tagine (Meatballs with Eggs on Top)
Adapted from a recipe by Simon King, one half of the Hairy Bikers, presented on Saturday Kitchen.

Ingredients:

Meatballs
1 lb turkey mince
1 onion, very finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cumin
½ tsp chilli powder
1 tsp paprika
1/4 cup fresh coriander, chopped
1 egg
Salt and pepper to taste

Sauce
2 tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 tbsp tomato purée
400g/14oz tin of chopped tomatoes, drained  (I used 5 small, fresh tomatoes)
2 tsp honey
1 cup peas, fresh or frozen
2 – 4 eggs, dependent on the mouths  you need to feed!

Method

1. In a large bowl, place the turkey mince, onion, garlic, spices,fresh coriander, egg and some salt and pepper and prepare to get your hands mucky.  Mix all of these ingredients together until they’re well combined and then pinch them off into balls the size of walnuts and set aside.

2. Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan.  Add the onion and cook slowly over low heat until they’re translucent.  At this point, increase the heat to medium-high, add the meatballs and brown them lightly. Remove the balls and set aside while you prepare the sauce.

3. Stir the tomato purée, chopped tomatoes and honey into the meatball pan, combine well, and bring to a simmer.  Return the meatballs to the pan, cover and simmer for 10 minutes longer.

4.  Add the peas, then break the eggs on top of the stew.  Turn the heat right down to low and cook covered for about ten minutes, or until the eggs are done to your liking.  (NB!  The 10 minute method produces egg yolks that are as hard as little bullets.  This was NOT to my liking.)  Serve with flatbread and steamed couscous.

Box o’ Treasure

I’ve just received a tiny, treasure box through the post today, brimming full with luscious spices in a range of colours lifted right off the back of the mighty Uluru itself.

I was intrigued by the sound of some recipes featuring sumac as a spice recently printed in the Toronto Star, so I charged off in pursuit of a jar.  My head was positively spinning with questions.  Sumac!  That’s a tree, isn’t it?  Is the spice derived from the bark like cinnamon, or is it a fruit or seed-based flavouring?  Could it really be a foodstuff?   I’ve got very clear memories of the dire warnings that Mum would randomly issue as we headed out of doors as children and there was definitely one that featured the sumac.  “Never eat the berries of the sumac!” she would admonish our retreating figures.  Interests piqued, we’d troop back to her side, the requisite chorus of questions on our lips.  “Because they are POISONOUS”  she would add ponderously, fixing us with a dire look.  Well, that was enough to put the wind up our tiny, developing minds.  There was poison out there, a deadly weapon growing in the wild, practically at our fingertips, and it must be packaged in a fairly attractive form if we were being warned away from it.  Could a person ingest one accidentally, thinking it was a harmless raspberry?  Was there an antidote if someone did manage to eat one?  If the berries were crushed, could the resulting juice be applied to a thorn and flung blow-dart style into the neck of an unsuspecting enemy?  All were pressing questions and ones that occupied my brother and his mates all summer long, as they plundered garden after garden in their struggle to discover the elusive berry.

Sadly, (or fortunately, as the case may be, if you happened to be a person of interest to my brother’s little gang of hooligans)  this particular warning  of Mum’s wasn’t accompanied by a plant identification guide, so the end result was that I studiously avoided all UFOs (unidentified fruitlike objects)  and lived in fear of the deadly sumac.  Apparently, this prejudice wasn’t just held by yours truly as I couldn’t locate a  pinch of it in any of the shops which I regularly frequent, so, although loath to turn to the internet for unknown produce, I had to do just that.  My reluctance was proved to be ill-founded, however, when I stumbled upon Sambava, a spice trading company based in Bath.  It was a simply laid out, easily navigable site, not overwhelmingly high tech, but packed with a wealth of herbs, spices and information.  Not only did I find my precious sumac, but I got my paws on a handful of other ingredients that I’d only ever read about.  Delivered the next day, my parcel arrived wrapped sturdily and securely, as is the custom with treasure, and the contents were fresh and beautiful.  I can’t wait to try them all out!

A boxful of herbs and spices.

Mad Cats, Englishmen and Muffins in the Mid-day Sun

Ahhh, the (brief) return of summer!  For one glorious day, there was wall to wall blue sky, unrelenting sunshine, and even a passing nod at the magical 30 degree threshold!   The first thing that crossed my mind as I listened to the forecast that day was that it was going to be too hot to cook anything.  Unbeknownst to our heroine, however, there was a horrifying secret yet to be uncovered in the kitchen; there was not a single muffin in the h0use.  Muffins, you see, are a staple in our household.  They are portable breakfasts, they fill cavernous holes between meals, and they have on occasion been asked to serve as light puddings.  Clearly, I had to do something and do it quickly.

In our home, we’re fairly laid back.  You can walk indoors with your shoes on and no one will challenge you; you can let your dog curl up on the sofa and no one will bat an eyelash.  Since there are so few rules and regulations to observe, there must be awfully good reason for the ones that do exist.  The cardinal rules, such as they are, are as follows:

1) Always capitulate to the Lioness.  While this may sound rather cryptic, it’s simply a paraphrase of C3P0’s sage advice to his robot sidekick as he faced down his Kashyyykian opponent.  If one wants to survive in our household, one must always let the wookiee win.  While the wookiee in our domestic situation, the most ill-tempered, foul-natured cat in all of creation, lacks the physical presence of her onscreen counterparts, she makes up for it in ferocity.  We suspect she possesses the power to kill us with the merest twitch of a whisker and that she only suffers us to exist as her vassals while she plots the next phase of global domination, so we tread very carefully around her.

2) On pain of death, you do NOT use the oven in the high summer heat.  Neither myself nor Him Indoors are mathematicians, but we quickly discovered the equation, Oven + Summer  = Stifling Heat that Doesn’t Dissipate until October.  Even a sudden movement or purposeful glance in the oven’s direction could get you bound, gagged and exiled.

So, you can see my dilemma that morning.  I hmmed and hawed, I internally debated pros and cons, and I even attempted to convince myself that we could do without our daily fix, but there was nothing for it in the end.  Sustenance effortlessly overwhelmed thermoregulation, and the First Muffin Amendment was drafted.  “Thou shalt not use the oven in high summer heat EXCEPT in the event of a muffin deficiency!”

As soon as I start mashing bananas, the Lioness will materialise to oversee proceedings with a critical eye.  She views these muffins as a form of tithe, and she will wrestle you to the ground for a morsel.  I can’t even leave a tray of muffins out to cool on cat-accessible surfaces.  The one time I failed to relocate a rack of cooling muffins, I lost the entire squadron.  All that was left were the stumps and indigestible paper liners.   I keep telling her that muffin is not considered a prey item in feline circles and that they’d revoke her membership at the Carnivore Club if they only knew, but she just fixes me with her steely gaze, silently challenging me to grass her up.  Not unlike the tradition of the Cornish miners who would save the last corner of their pasty in order to offer it to the knockers or pixies for favours or safe passage out of the mine, we always leave a large crumb of muffin for Her Who Must be Obeyed.

I can’t even remember whence this recipe for Best Banana Muffins came.  I’ve been carrying it around with me for so long,  it could be one of my grandmother’s but it could also be one of Miss Kovacs’ home economics lessons.  Although it has been committed to my memory, possibly even on the genetic level, I still smooth out the dog-eared, stained sheet of paper covered with arcane instructions in a youthful version of my cursive script every time I whip up a  batch.

You can dress these lovely, moist muffins up with a layer of frosting once baked and cooled (cream cheese works well, as does chocolate) or add a handful of chocolate chips to the batter, but you’ll probably find that they don’t need any gilding at all.  In an airtight container, these will keep well for three days at room temperature, but they have a tendency to disappear long before the three days are up!

A pyramid of banana muffins.

Best Banana Muffins

Dry Bowl:

1 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt

Wet Bowl:

3 – 5 very well ripened bananas, peeled and mashed (approximately 1 1/2 cups of banana goo)
3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup butter or margarine, melted
1 egg, lightly beaten

1.  Preheat your oven to 375 C/190 F.  In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.  Set aside for the moment, and turn your attention to the wet ingredients.

2.  In a second bowl, combine the banana mash, sugar, butter, and the egg.  (Always make sure that your melted butter isn’t *freshly* melted and steaming hot, else your egg might curdle.  No, this has NEVER happened to me…more than once.)

3.  Add the contents of the wet bowl to the dry ingredients, and stir until just moistened.  Fill the greased or paper-lined cups of your muffin tray with the batter, and then bake in your preheated oven for 20 to 25 minutes.  (This makes me eight, healthy sized muffins, but it might make more or less dependent upon the size of your muffin cups.)

Fiddly Curry

I’d had a craving for a curry on the weekend, so I nipped into my Untried Recipes File in search of something to fit the bill.  A clipping from the Toronto Star about a local lady, Smita Chandra, cookbook author, food writer and cooking instructor, piqued my interest.  The article included recipes for six different chicken curries, and I selected a contender after a brief consideration of the ingredients lists.

I was happily spooning up the long list of spices into the yoghurt and savouring the aroma of the increasingly fragrant concoction when a kick glance at the recipe sheet stopped me dead in my tracks.  My eyes scanned down further, and my heart sank in tandem.  Ahhh.  It was a *marinade* that I was stirring up and not a sauce.  This deliciously scented proto-curry was revealing itself to be a bit of a diva.  Overnight marination?  Crikey.  The next thing you know, it’ll be asking for 400 thread count bedlinen and bowls of M&Ms with all of the brown ones taken out.  Needless to say, there was to be no curry for ol’ Nin that night.  Ruefully covering the chicken breasts in their blanket of sauce, I tucked them into their icebox bed and began scrounging around for something to drown out the bitter taste of disappointment.

Do you ever do that?  Plunge headlong into a recipe, recklessly disregarding time constraints or ingredient or equipment requirements, only to discover yourself kneedeep in a pile of flummox with a half-baked pie in the oven and five minutes to get across town?  Please say it’s not just me.  Him Indoors has a word for it, and I recoil from the very injustice of it.  He even has a face for it, so I know exactly what he’s thinking without him even having to draw breath.  There are plenty of good, descriptive words that he could have chosen – madcap, impetuous, or passionate – but no, he has me dubbed as….scatty.

Granted, I can’t count the number of times that engagements have been postponed or that the hapless H.I. has been forced to wait, car keys in hand and an eye firmly on the clock, while a pan of muffins finished in the oven or a pot of rice that needed just a few minutes more bubbled away on the hob.  Then, of course, there *was* that time that we had to break all land speed records, roaring up the M25 like Crowley in his demonic Bentley, in order to avert a raging inferno because a loaf of bread, henceforth known as the Fireball Seed, had been left to its own devices by yours truly in a hot oven while we went out larking for an afternoon.  Perhaps I ought to be thankful that that’s *all* he calls me!

This curry, therefore, had a strike against its record from the outset.  I realise that it was a strike not of its own creation, and I fully accept that my disappointment was born of my flagrant disregard for the clearly stated method of preparation. However, you know how it is – you just can’t reason with these scatty types.

Running countercurrent to my impetuousity is my inherent laziness; like water, I will quite often follow the path of least resistance.  In this instance, the path had already been beaten and well-worn by Madjur Jaffrey.  Her recipe for “Oven Baked Chicken” from her BBC series, which has been in my rotation for quite a while now, tasted remarkably like this Kashmiri Curry, without the requirement of marination.  If you’re looking for a “curry-in-a-hurry,”  you’d best look in pastures new, for this dish is not something that can be knocked out of the kitchen on a whim.  If you do have the time, patience and inclination, however, I promise you that you won’t be disappointed by this dish.  The chicken was tender, and the sauce, whilst thicker and drier than I was expecting, was bursting with flavour.  I know that, if I hadn’t already been spoiled by MJ, I would have been warbling this recipe’s praises from the highest rooftops and etching it into my Firm Favourites File.  As it happens, I won’t be carrying this one forward, but I do look forward to trying various others once I get my paws on a copy of the good lady Chandra’s cookbook.

Chicken breast cooked in the Kashmiri curry style on a bed of broad bean pilau.

Smita and Sanjeev Chandra’s Kashmiri Chicken Curry

Adapted from a recipe published in the Toronto Star, January 2007.

The marinade:

1 cup plain, unsweetened yoghurt (not low-fat)
3/4 tbsp cardamom pods
1 tsp fennel seeds
2 tbsp whole blanched almonds
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp cumin seeds, toasted and crushed
1/2 tsp garam masala
1/4 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4  tsp ground black pepper
Several strands saffron
Salt to taste
1/4 cup cilantro, finely chopped
1/4 cup mint leaves, finely chopped
4 skinless chicken breasts (the recipe originally called for 8 thighs)

1/2-inch piece ginger
2 cloves garlic
1 onion, quartered
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
4 plum tomatoes, puréed (I used fresh ones, peeled but the original called for tinned toms)
Dash lemon juice (optional)

1.  Spoon yogurt into a large mixing bowl.

2.  In a spice or coffee grinder, grind the cardamom, fennel and almonds into powder.  Add to yogurt along with the coriander, ground cumin, crushed cumin, garam masala, paprika, cayenne, black pepper, saffron, salt, cilantro and mint.  Mix the spices and yoghurt together well.  Add the chicken, coating it liberally.  Cover the chicken mixture and refrigerate overnight.

3.  In food processor, mince ginger, garlic and onion.  The blended mixture will be fragrant and foamy.  Set aside until the next step.  (I had to add a tbsp or two of water to get things moving in my machine.)

4.  In large skillet, heat oil over medium-high.  Add the cumin seeds and fry until they sputter – about 30 seconds.  Add the foamy ginger mixture and cook, stirring, for 7 to 8 minutes until lightly browned.  Reduce heat to medium, and then add tomatoes.  Cook, stirring, for another 4 to 5 minutes until moisture has evaporated and the sauce has started to thicken.  Add the chicken along with its marinade and mix well.  Cover the pot, reduce heat to low and cook for 30 to 35 minutes or until the chicken is tender.  Add lemon juice if desired, and adjust seasonings to personal preference.

Serves four.

Lentils and Cryptic Liquids

A week without lentils is a week without joy, as far as I’m concerned.  I love lentils, irrationally and unconditionally.   In fact, I would go so far as to extend that love to include all the brethren of lentilkind – beans, pulses, lentils, grains, legumes.  I was that kid picking the kidney beans out of her bowl of chili (or, when the adults were being particularly vigilant for dinner table shenanigans, corralling the plump, burgundy beans into a safe haven) not to avoid them – oh no, heaven forbid – but to savour them at the end, alone and unfettered by any other tastes or textures.

…No….It wasn’t a lonely childhood….Why do you ask?

It will probably come as a surprise to no one, then, when I proclaim my love for this salad.  Oh, I did love it so!  The particular breed of lentil required, the Puy, is meaty and toothsome with an earthy flavour, and it paired nicely with the tangy sweetness of the tomatoes and the richness of the seed oil dressing.  Fortunately, I got to experience this recipe deep in the heart of tomato season – I imagine if I’d attempted it when the tomatoes weren’t so plentiful or flavourful my runaway enthusiasm for it might have been reined marginally in.  For winter renditions, a dab of honey or agave in the dressing should address the insipid tomato phenomenon.

A word or two of warning before you proceed, however.  It’s not the prettiest dish in all the kingdom.  She wears a dress(ing) which is VERY dark and plain.  As I was shaking the oil and vinegar together in the jar, even I felt a moment of doubt.  The beautiful green-gold of the pumpkin seed oil, once rattled around with the vinegar, became an unappetising, muddy brown.  I beg you, don’ t be put off by this!  Once the dressing is tossed into the salad, agaisnt the backdrop of the Puy lentils which are themselves rather dark hued and sombre, you would never know that it began life as a pool of swampy, cryptic liquid.  For those that feel daunted by the seemingly endless vista of brown that this dish presents, the addition of a few extras such as another onion, a few more tomatoes, or even a handful of celery to brighten up the scenery wouldn’t be out of order, but I’d hesitate to tinker about too much with the general design.  This is a very humble, rustic salad, and I daresay it wouldn’t take kindly to any attempts to glam her up.  While it might not be a strong contender on the pageant circuit, there’s something to be said for homespun, natural beauties, too.

It was simple to put together, it tasted lovely and didn’t attempt to overwhelm any of the other flavours on our plates, and it helped me find, at long last, a use for that bottle of pumpkin seed oil that kept waving forlornly at me every time that I opened the cupboard.  I’d mumble excuses or try to avoid eye contact, but I knew it was crouched in there, waiting, and the guilt was starting to weigh heavily on me.

A bowl of Puy lentil salad.

Puy Lentil Salad

Adapted from a recipe from “Sainsbury’s Magazine,” November 2002

1 1/3 cups Puy lentils, well rinsed
2 bay leaves
Water to cover
1 clove garlic, minced
1/3 cup white wine vinegar
1/2 cup roasted pumpkin seed oil, plus extra for drizzling
2 red onions, diced
1 cup tomatoes, diced  (The recipe called for “sunblush” tomatoes, but I used 1/2 cup of sundried tomatoes, soaked for 30 minutes, and a handful of homegrown cherry toms.)
2 tbsp, heaping, pumpkin seeds
salt and pepper to taste

1.  Put the lentils, bay leaves and enough water to cover them by an inch into a large pan.  Bring to boil, then simmer covered for about 20 minutes, or until the lentils are tender.  Drain and set aside in a large bowl.

2.  In a frying pan, gently toast the pumpkin seeds over high heat, watching and stirring them constantly so they don’t burn.

3.  In a separate bowl or jar, combine the garlic, vinegar and pumpkin seed oil with seasoning to taste.

4.  Stir the onion, dressing and tomatoes into the lentils.  Scatter the toasted seeds on top, and drizzle with extra pumpkin seed oil.

A Crisis of Carrots

Okay, I know that I promised to start making inroads into the mountain of recipe cuttings and clippings, but I’ve had to take a slight detour due to an unforeseen circumstance which manifested itself in the shape of a bag of carrots.  You see, I’d recently managed to swamp myself in carrots by inadvertantly ordering multiple bags in the last shop, and since I abhor food waste, especially when caused by my own carelessness, I had to act quickly before they started going bad.  I could already hear rustlings of disquiet and unrest in the crisper, so I started rifling through files for some suitable dish in which to appease them.

I came up with absolutely nothing.  Somehow, in all my travels, I appeared to have overlooked or eschewed any and all carrot-centric recipes.  Oh sure, carrots would make guest appearances in various of the recipes, a sprinking of shredded carrot here, a smattering of diced carrot there, but they were never really featured in any guise that would make my 2 lb bag problem go away.  In frustration, I turned to my cookbooks, rationalising that I’d only ever tried a tiny percentage of the available resources from them, so surely I was still abiding by the spirit and letter of my own law.  Right?  RIGHT?!

When in doubt and in possession of large quantities of produce, opt for soup.  I began scouring indices for inspiration.  Carrot and coriander soup?  No, couldn’t possibly.  I’d done that one to death last summer, and I’m sure that Him Indoors would have started questioning my love for him if I tried to coax a single spoonful more past his lips.  Roasted carrot soup?  As much as I love the autumn, and despite the rather damp and dour conditions we’ve been experiencing of late, I really didn’t wish to hurry the season upon us with a soup that is clearly made for crisp days and chilly nights.  Besides, who wants to spark up the oven on an August evening?  Other than madpersons and Antipodeans, obviously.  Spicy Carrot Peanut Soup?  A ha!  Interest piqued, I took the bait proffered by the good folk of the Moosewood collective from the Moosewood Restaurant Daily Special book.

With all of the ingredients at hand, I was quickly able to throw this soup together.  Given that it’s comprised largely of common pantry staples, this soup blossomed with a complexity of flavours, which I hadn’t really been expecting.  Mildly sweet, nutty, salty, slightly sour – it had a little of everything going on in its quietly unassuming, burnished orange-hued depths.  Who knew that humble carrot soup could scrub up so well?  It was like discovering an exotic blossom in the midst of a dandelion patch.  Definitely more than the sum of its parts, this soup was a very pleasant surprise which I shall be making it again, perhaps with a few extra chili flakes added for good measure.

The lovely Moosewoodies also suggested serving this cold, which I may well try if the Powers That Be reveal the sun to us again any time soon.

A bowl of spicy peanut carrot soup.

Spicy Carrot Peanut Soup

Adapted from the Moosewood Restaurant Daily Special
cookbook

1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 lbs carrots, peeled and diced
1 celery stalk, chopped
1 tsp salt
1 tsp Chinese chili paste (such as Sriracha)
6 cups of water or stock, veg or chicken
2 tbsp peanut butter
3 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp lime juice

1.  In your soup pot, heat the oil over medium heat.  Add the onion, carrots, celery, salt and chili paste and cook, stirring often, on high flame for 5 minutes.

2.  Add the water or stock to the vegetable mixture, cover the pot, and bring it to the boil.  Reduce the heat to low flame and simmer the proto-soup until the carrots are soft, about 25 minutes.

3. Stir in the remaining ingredients – peanut butter, soy sauce and lime juice – and then allow to cool slightly.  In a blender, whizz the soup into silky smoothness.  Reheat if desired, and season to taste.  (I felt that mine benefitted from a teaspoon or two of honey added during reheating.)

Duckbreaking and Blueberry Cake

I’m a compulsive hoarder – less charitable souls have described me as an incorrigible pack rat – of many different and disparate things.  Glass jars and bottles of pleasing shape or colour, talismanic stones and pebbles, Bridgewater pottery, all things ornithological – the list could go on ad finitum.  So far, my mania has not extended to include sprawling colonies of cats in the cupboards, but given room enough and opportunity, well, who could possibly predict what might happen!

One of my more contentious and obtrusive  collections is the ever-expanding drift of recipes which I slavishly clip from magazines and newspapers or cull from various sources online, always with very pure and noble intentions of making them “one day.”  With the saying about roads and good intentions ringing dolefully in my ears, I have, at long last, decided to ensure that my little obsession becomes something more than a pile of paving stones, and with the aid and abettal of my partner in crime/hapless test subject,  the delicious Him Indoors, I am now going to help these recipes make the leap from purely theoretical to fleshed-out  reality.

I desperately wanted the first recipe I tested to be an unqualified success, but, alas, I cannot, hand on heart, claim that it was.  Plucked from my Saved but Unattempted file from Allrecipes.com,  “Melt in your Mouth Blueberry Cake” failed to melt my icy heart.  I admit I tried to stack the deck in my favour; there were reviews, most of them glowing, so I felt I couldn’t possibly go wrong.  All told, the potential for success was great; there was cake, which is almost always good, and there were blueberries, which are the divinities of Fruitkind.  Surely the combination of the two would blow minds, redress global injustices and usher in a new age of peace, love and harmony.  The slight pangs of trepidation that I felt whilst perusing the handful of dissenting voices in the wilderness were brushed firmly aside.  I was not to be deterred.

To be fair, it wasn’t terrible or inedible – the creamy yellow, vanilla-scented cake studded with jewel-bright berries was certainly lovely to behold, the crumb was moist and tender, and the top was slighty crusty with caramelised sugar.  Its downfall was its flavour; it was simply disappointingly bland.  If it were a person, and you you met it at a party, you’d be dumbstruck by its beauty as you stole glances at it from across the room.  Then, once you’d summoned up the courage to sidle up next to it to strike up a conversation, you’d be rendered speechless yet again, but this time it would be due to your companion’s complete and utter lack of effervescence and verve.  Having been promised so much and after all the extra steps I’d taken and bowls I’d dirtied, I expected something more than what Him Indoors aptly described as “an enormous muffin, cut into cubes.”  If I’d wanted something that tasted like blueberry muffins, I would have made blueberry muffins – at considerably less cost, effort and time, I might add.

Because blueberry season is so fleeting, good, fresh berries ought to be treated reverently, and I just cannot help but feel that my two precious punnets worth of rare commodity were carelessly wasted.  This recipe shall therefore be removed from my files posthaste.

A plate of blueberry cake, cut into squares.

Melt in your Mouth Blueberry Cake

1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup white sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs, separated
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/3 cup milk
1/4 cup white sugar
1 1/2 cups fresh blueberries
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1-3 tablespoons white sugar

1.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).  Grease and flour an 8 inch square pan.  ( Alternatively, if you weren’t terribly bothered about presentation, you could line the pan with greaseproof paper and cut squares out of the pan as I have done.)

2.  Cream butter or margarine and 1/2 cup sugar until fluffy.  Add salt and vanilla.  Add the yolks from the separated eggs to the sugar mixture and beat until creamy.

3.  In a separate bowl, combine 1 1/2 cups flour and baking powder; add alternately with milk to egg yolk mixture. Coat berries with 1 tablespoon flour and fold them gently into the batter.  (The batter will be rather thick by this point, so a gentle hand is needed with the berries or else you might be pulling a purple-stained cake from the oven!)

4.  In another bowl, (plenty of washing up for this recipe!) beat  the reserved egg whites until soft peaks form. Add 1/4 cup of sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, and beat until stiff peaks form. Carefully fold  the egg whites into batter.  Pour into prepared pan and sprinkle top with remaining sugar.  Bake for 50 minutes, or until cake tests done.  (Mine was done in 48 minutes.)

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