R.R. 8/52 – Scalloped Cabbage au Gratin!

As I sat down to write this entry, it only just occurred to me that my lamentations for the Milk Calendar had not fallen on deaf ears.  The proof, which is currently hanging on a cupboard door in the kitchen, is a culinary calendar filled with photos and seasonal recipes, that Him Indoors made for me for Christmas just past.  Of course, he had a little administrative and technical help from the folk at Lulu, but all the content – the photos, the text, the recipes – was the sweat of his brow and callus of his hand.  Sorry, Him Indy!  There are none so blind as those who will not see, a wise man once said!

With the signs of spring defiantly bursting forth all over in spite of the bitter cold,  I chose to celebrate the arrival of the first seasonal vegetables, the spring cabbages, by trying out the recipe offered by the comely Miss February in my calendar – Scalloped Cabbage au Gratin, by name.   I thought it was very magnanimous of H.Indy to include a recipe based upon cabbage at all as he loathes it with a passion that burns as brightly as a ribbon of lit magnesium.  (A quick check of the calendar’s particulars didn’t reveal any disclaimers or get-out clauses based upon authorial discretion either.  Oversight, perhaps?)  To H.I., cabbage was school food,  a grey, rubbery punishment meted out by Headmaster and his hench-dinnerladies.  To me, although it has already been established that I was an odd child, cabbage was all kinds of *wonderful*.  It was coleslaw in the summer and sauerkraut in the winter.  It was bubble and squeak, it was colcannon.  Boiled in thick slices and slathered with butter, it was Mum’s and my secret indulgence when the boys weren’t home to pull faces.  It was the slightly translucent wrapper for fat bundles of holubtsi, or cabbage rolls, which Bud would slit open like the bellies of  fish (sometimes smeared with a little tomato sauce for realistic effect) in order to scoop out the rice and meat innards, before quietly palming the emptied cabbagefish skin off to his Nin-conspirator.   How could anyone not like cabbage?!

Perhaps this recipe might go a little way towards making reparations for this much maligned vegetable.  H.I. reluctantly admitted that it was “all right” for a cabbage dish but added the disclaimer that its edibility was directly correlated to its top layer of cheese and crumb. Gratiné, he pronounced loftily, makes anything edible.  I’ll file that information away for further exploitation later!  The end result was a simple, warming and fresh-tasting side dish, easily prepared and homey.  In my opinion, it’s perfect for this time of year as the new season desperately battles to gain a foothold in winter’s domain.  Winter’s implacable resistance to change can make these early days of spring a treacherous and chilly time, so we may not collectively be ready to sit down before bowls of warm-weather slaw.  This dish offers a compromise; you get your fresh, seasonal (and preferably local) veg only recently plucked from its bed and you get it prepared in a manner usually reserved for wintry fare, for the express purpose of cockle-warming.  Just don’t boil your cabbage until it’s as grey-faced as old dishwater.  Try it as a part of your St. Patrick’s Day feast!  I mean, you’ve got to invite someone from the cabbage family ’round for St. Paddy’s – I reckon it’s a law – so it may as well be this hooligan!

Scalloped Cabbage au Gratin
(from H.Indy’s Calendar of Seasonal Food)

Ingredients

2 lb cabbage, coarsely shredded (savoy, pointed or white cabbage)
2 cups tomatoes, blanched, peeled and chopped (tinned tomatoes also works a treat)
2 tsp sugar (white or brown)
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp oregano
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
2-3 tsp butter
1/2 – 1 cup cheddar cheese, grated
1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs

Procedure

1.  Preheat your oven to 350F/180C/Gas Mark 4.

2.  Cook the cabbage in boiling, lightly salted water for about 5-6  minutes, or until slightly wilted but still lovely and green.  Drain well, and then plunge in cold water to stop it from cooking further.

3.  In a separate bowl, combine the tomatoes, sugar, paprika, oregano, salt and pepper.

4.  Place the drained cabbage into a greased 2.5 pt/1.5 L baking dish.  Dot the cabbage  with a few teaspoons of butter and then cover it with the tomato mixture, followed by the cheese and then the breadcrumbs.

5.  Bake uncovered for 30 minutes or until heated through and the cheese and crumb topping is golden and bubbling.

R.R. 6/52 – Pumpkin and Barley Risotto

I’ve always appreciated a well-made risotto, but I’ve never been able to produce a good one, myself, and this drives me around the bend.  The method appears simple and straightforward enough and the ingredients usually aren’t terribly exotic or prone to sudden destabilisation, so I don’t understand why my every foray into this arena of cookery results in gluey, stodgy messes that even the dog turns his nose up at.    I’m not talking about a finicky, pampered, handbag-dweller of a dog either – you wouldn’t believe some of the corruption that the Schnub has willingly wolfed down, usually just after rolling in it.

It’s been a source of some angst for me.  One of my mothers-in-law gave me a recipe for a risotto, and, sheepishly, I had to explain that I probably wouldn’t be able to do it justice.   She looked at me uncomprehendingly for a few moments and then smiled in that “Ahh-you-almost-had-me-there-you-old-joker-you” fashion when one is convinced that one is being teased, but a look of concern quickly replaced her smile when it dawned on her that I was being earnest.  Bless her, she regained her composure, but I knew what that look meant.  “How on earth,” the unspoken text in the chat bubble which floated above her head read, “can Nin manage to keep my son sustained and properly nourished when she can’t even manage to churn out a simple risotto?”  She continues to offer advice on the subject and I continue to regard the veritable smorgasbords of Him Indoors’ favourite foods which suddenly grace the table for even the shortest of our visits as purely coincidental!

With enough time having passed since my last attempt (they say the memory is the first thing to go) and my tastebuds still ringing from the most delicious pumpkin risotto I had at one of Ramsay’s Plane Food restaurants, I decided to have another crack at it.  I selected a victim from my files and then promptly discovered I lacked a particular ingredient.  Nothing major, really, surely I could make a sneaky substitution and no one would be any the wiser!…Okay, fine.  It was the star of the show, the arborio rice, that I didn’t have in the pantry.  Deflated, but not enough to run to the shops to get a packet of the rice, I began sifting through files and clippings again, hoping to find something else to pique my interest.  A clipping from the Times waved shyly at me, so I tugged it out of the stack.  Hello, what have we here?  A risotto made from barley, you say?  I cook with barley all the time!  It’s a cheerful, forgiving little grain, happily absorbing any flavours and liquids thrown at it, and, best of all, it’s never transformed itself into gluey sludge in my presence.  This was the one for me!  Quickly scanning the lines of the recipe, I noticed that the method was certainly different; I wasn’t required to hover over the steaming pot constantly stirring and spoonfeeding it ladles of stock.  Favourable grain + low maintenance method = Triumph!

Despite the early signs being auspicious, I ensured that there was a Plan B meal waiting in the wings as a form of disaster recovery before cracking on with the recipe.  Having learnt from bitter experience,  I would never dare offer up just a plate of risotto for dinner.  No.  In that direction, madness – with its disagreeable companion, hunger – lies.  And good, bloody luck that I had, as it turns out.  You guessed it, sports fans.  My incredible losing streak remains unbroken.  In my own defense, though, I don’t think that this should be considered a risotto, not only in terms of the featured grain but in method.  If anything, it was more of a pilaf than a risotto, so this dish, this barleyotto – barlotto? –  will not be included on my Roster of Risible Risottos.  In my opinion, which was echoed by H.I.,  the dish wasn’t unpleasant or inedible – it was simply a bit bland and not robust enough to stand on its own, but it might make a nice accompaniment or side dish for a winter roast dinner.  In all likelihood, I won’t be making this one again, but I pass the baton to my brother Bud, who has a magical way with barley.  If anyone can transform this dish into a beautiful butterfly, it will be him.

Pumpkin and barley risotto
(adapted from The Times, November 2008)

Ingredients:

5 cups pumpkin, peeled and cubed (800g by weight)
2 tbsp vegetable or olive oil, divided
1 large red onion, finely chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
2/3 cup white wine (you could also use more stock or a little lemon juice diluted with water)
1 heaping cup pearl barley
3 cups stock, vegetable or chicken
Salt and black pepper to taste
1/4 – 1/2 cup hard cheese, like parmesan or Grano Padano, grated – a little reserved for sprinkling atop
3 tbsp flatleaf parsley, chopped (optional)

Procedure

1.  Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6.  In a fairly deep roasting tin, toss the pumpkin with a tablespoon of the oil, coating it thoroughly.  (I splashed a bit more oil on the pumpkin at this step as I felt that 1 tbsp didn’t provide much coverage, but this is up to you.)    Pop the tin into the oven and roast the pumpkin for at least 20 minutes, until the flesh is softened and starting to brown.  Mine took a bit longer than the requisite 20 minutes, so just watch yours and remove from the oven when you deem it ready.  Set it aside.

2.  Rinse the barley and leave it to drain in a sieve.

3.  In a medium to large saucepan, gently fry the onion and celery in the oil, cooking for about 5 minutes or until the onions begin to soften.  Turn up the heat, add the white wine and let it boil vigorously  for a couple of minutes, which will evaporate the alcohol.  Stir in the barley, then pour the stock over it.  Give it a stir and then reduce to heat, bringing the liquid to a simmer.  The barley can now be left to its own devices for about 20 minutes, but do check on it occasionally to give it a stir to prevent any sticking at the bottom.   The barley should need a further 10 to 15 minutes of cooking to soften up completely.  From this point onwards, you will need to check the liquid levels quite frequently.  If the barley is starting to get dry, add some splashes of boiling water to the pot.  If, on the other hand, you’re left with a surplus of stock at the end of your final 15, simply boil the pot a bit harder until it’s gone.

4.  Stir in the roasted pumpkin and grated cheese.  Check the seasonings and add salt and pepper to taste.  To serve, sprinkle with a little of the reserved cheese, and the parsley if you’re using it.

Resolution Result 5/52 – Macsween’s Vegetarian Haggis

A few weeks ago, I thought I had made an acceptable homemade substitute for a vegetarian haggis by Hall’s which I’d tasted some years earlier.  Well, I’ve recently been taught a lesson in humility by the “guardians of Scotland’s national dish,” Macsween.  The recipe for their vegetarian haggis is apparently very closely guarded, and I would like to assure the good thanes of Macsween that their secret is in NO danger whatsoever of being divined by me – my skills as culinary alchemist appear to be sorely lacking.  Either my memory is getting faulty or my tastebuds are, for my concoction  could only have been described a reasonable facsimile if one had never, ever tasted a vegetarian haggis before in one’s life.  In my own defense, however, I maintain that, if this haggis were stocked all year ’round, I wouldn’t have to resort to such drastic measures or be prone to such wild, and ultimately unsubstantiated, claims of success.

For you see, my local grocers don’t stock this delicacy with any discernable pattern or timetable (unlike the meaty versions which are available any time of the year…), and I don’t understand why.  These aren’t Easter Creme Eggs, for crying out loud!  Don’t limit our access to them!  (Speaking of the devil, Cadbury’s Creme Eggs are now in season – January 1 – April 4th – so, if they’re your sort of poison,  get ’em while they’re hot!  Who knows what the Cadbury-Kraft merger will mean for our sickly sweet ovoids.)  Imagine my delight, then, when I spotted a precious few vegetarian haggis  (haggises?  haggisii?  haggeese?) wearing a livery I didn’t recognise just around the time of Burn’s Night.  Weevil-like, I snapped them up and squirrelled them away in the freezer, determined that they would be apportioned out sparingly – some might say stingily – until a reliable supply of them could be found.  Later, when road-tested on the toughest critic of all, my tame, obligate carnivore, this haggis received the coveted two fangs up.   I’d love to be able to describe the flavour  beyond the catch-all terms of “savoury, nutty, slightly spicy, and substantial”, but I fear I’d be doing it a disservice.  You’re just going to have to hunt some down for yourself!  And if you do manage to locate some in the wild, buy a metric feck-ton of them and send the message to your grocer that it’s in his best interest to keep these chubby little beauties in stock.  They freeze very well and are a doddle to prepare.  Vegetarian Society approved, these haggis do contain nuts, so do ask your guests about any allergies before serving.

I had a thought – perhaps the weak link in the supply chain was Macsween itself.  Maybe the mighty Mac didn’t want to share their lovely wares so freely with the southerners and sassenachs!   A quick look at their website put paid to my conspiracy theories as there were plenty of stockists from all over the country listed.  No, it was just another example of the cruelty of the post code lottery for me, alas.  If, like me, you have trouble sourcing these as well, the Macsween site did provide a link to online retailers Aubrey Allen which sells the vegetarian version in large, catering sized sausage format, as well as a wide range of ethically sourced meats and poultry – squeamish vegetarians be warned.   To date, I’ve not used their services, but stay tuned – I’ll probably have something to say about them once I have!

The Macsween site also listed a handful of alternative ways to use and serve their haggis, several of which hadn’t even  occurred to me.  Once cooked, it could be used as a filling for pakoras,  a stuffing for peppers or a topping for jacket potatoes.  Spread some on crispbread or crackers for hors d’ouevres.  Try slices of it in a sandwich.  Fancy a change from bread-based stuffing for your poultry?  Stuff the bird with haggis!  Slice it into rounds and lightly fry it as a sort of bloodless black pudding for your full English breakfast.  I think I’m just going to have to try them all.

A Tale of Tourtière

Happy New Year!  I’ve been seriously remiss in my month-long hiatus, but I plead for leniency on account of being ambushed by Christmas.  Honestly, I only just got the mincemeat bottled in time for the festivities, and I was still madly baking cookies well into the wee hours of Christmas Eve.   Grovelling aside, I do hope that everyone had a lovely, peaceful holiday, full of good cheer, scintillating company, and, above all, excellent food.  H.I. and I did, thank you very kindly, and, as we head into the New Year, I shall relate some of the new and delicious things we experienced during the break.  As a general rule, I don’t participate in the resolution game, but, for the dawning of a fresh, new decade, I have relented – to a certain extent.  As a nod to the great tradition of self-deception, my oath, delivered smirkingly, is to be more adventurous, culinarily speaking.  I shall sample at least one new thing a week –  be it a new recipe, product, ingredient, utensil, shop or restaurant.  So.  Fifty-two new things.  How difficult can that be?

For my first post of the year, I’m not starting with New Thang #1, but I’m harking back to Christmas.  You’ll see why, if you bear with me!  For me, Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without the tourtière, which is a savoury, French-Canadian meat pie, typically served at the Christmas Eve Réveillon after midnight mass.  Each family has its own version of this pie – some are filled simply with spiced meat, whilst others boast a mixture of meat and winter vegetables, some use puff pastry, others rolled – and each one will passionately defend the authenticity and general righteousness of its version.  I’m not here to dispute the tastiness of anyone’s Grand-maman’s recipe (although Mum’s vegetable-studded pies would rock your world), so no defensive, angry words for ol’ Nin, pretty please.  No, my mission was to bring the elixir of tourtière to the uninitiated.  During my years as a vegetarian, I remember feeling like such a martyr on Christmas Eve when they passed the tourtière around the table.  I tried not to show it, but the smell of the spices wafting from my Mum’s flaky pastry cases drove me to distraction and nearly broke my resolve.  I’m not naive – I’m sure it was all part of a carefully orchestrated covert operation to turn me back to the dark side.  

Well, as I knew we’d be having Christmas lunch with a vegetarian or two, I decided that my contribution to the feast would be a meat-free version of tourtière.   Most of them, if not all, hadn’t ever experienced the magnificence that is the tourtière, so I wanted to give them the opportunity to taste as close an approximation of it as I could muster.  Before I plunged headlong into the task, I browsed for vegetarian versions of the pie’s filling in my cookbooks and online, but I wasn’t terribly inspired by what I found.  There appeared to be an over-reliance on TVP (textured vegetable protein) as the main ingredient, and I just didn’t want to go that route.  This is by no means a denigration of TVP;  I completely understand why it would prove a popular choice for a veggie tourtière.  As a meat analogue, TVP is cheap, versatile, quick-cooking,  low in fat, and it provides a familiar, meaty texture.  Not only is it an excellent protein source, but it can used to introduce non-vegetarians to meatlessness in unthreatening shapes and forms or even to offer fledgling and transitional veggies the support of familiar dishes as they learn of new ways and ingredients to cook.  The people for whom I was making this tourtière, however, were rarefied creatures who no longer needed to be weaned from the texture or mouth-feel of meat.  Indeed, one of our guests, the glamourous Raoeme, has never consumed an ounce of animal flesh in her life, so I didn’t feel that I could, in good conscience, set a dish made to resemble the original as closely as possible before her.  No, it had to be made of lentils, and it had to be made of Puy lentils.

After much hovering, stirring, muttering and adjusting, I was satisfied with my vegetarian tourtière filling.  In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the brightest idea to prepare the poultry version of the tourtière filling at the same time, but at that moment, it appealed to me as good sense.  If made side by side, I reasoned, the two disparate mixtures could be sampled for comparison and contrast throughout their constructions.  I’d be able to adjust the seasonings of the veggie version to approximate that of the turkey one.  What it actually did, sadly, was alter my perception so radically that I had all but convinced myself that the vegetarian version was a DEAD RINGER for the meat-based one.  Pleased with myself, I baked up a handful of each sort and set them before Him Indoors.  He chewed in silence and avoided eye contact.  Heart sinking, I plunged a fork into a veg pie for a confirmation of the worst.  “They are edible,” he said tactfully, “but they are nothing at all like tourtière.”  Sighing, I had to agree.  In terms of what I was trying to achieve, namely giving my vegetarian friends an approximation of the flavours that I loved and associated with Christmas, it was a dismal failure.  Needless to say, I didn’t bring the vegetarian course to Christmas lunch; I spared the guests that much.   Upon further reflection, however, we both decided that the taste was reminiscent of a store-bought vegetarian haggis made by Hall’s, which I had tried my level best to replicate in the past but never seemed able to accomplish.  So, ha!  I shall declare this a backdoor success!  It makes a terrible tourtière but a rather nice vegetarian haggis substitute, just in time for Rab Burns’ Night on January 25th!

Depsite this relatively happy ending, I was left with far more “raw” filling than I knew what to do with.  I wouldn’t countenance throwing it away, but I also knew I couldn’t keep offering it apologetically up to H.I. if I wanted to remain happily married, so for lunch one day, I flattened a ball of filling into a patty, coated it in breadcrumbs and sautéed it until golden.  Served on a roll with spiced plum chutney, it tasted pleasant enough, but the texture was so loose and crumbly, it had the look of something that had been dragged sideways through a prickly hedge. My last salvage attempt involved the addition of some tomato paste and several more dashes of seasoning to the leftover lentil mix.  I reheated the entire mess, spooned it into a casserole dish, topped it off with mashed Maris Piper tatties and a crown of grated cheddar and baked it for 40 minutes at 180C.  Presto!  Veggieherder Pie!  It was unrecognisable as its former incarnation and it was delicious.  I set the plates in front of H.I. without so much as a grunt by way of explanation and tucked wordlessly in, fully expecting him to suss out the culprit.  To my surprise, he nodded appreciatively and declared whatever it was we were eating quite good.  So, as I said before, it’s not a unmitigated disaster but a work in progress  to which I shall definitely return.

Veggie Tourtière/Substitute Veggie Haggis/Veggie-herder Pie Base

Ingredients:

1 1/2 – 2 cups puy lentils, soaked overnight
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup raw millet
1 cup cooked brown rice
1-2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 onions, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2-3 stalks of celery, chopped
1 cup very finely sliced mushrooms – as close to minced as one can get
1 tsp sage
1-1 1/2 tsp savory
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp cloves
1/8 tsp cayenne
1/8 tsp allspice
1/2-1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
2 tbsp tamari or soy sauce
1 1/2 – 2 cups vegetable stock
1 tbsp  vegetarian Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp yeast extract, such as miso or Marmite
1 large carrot, chopped/diced and cooked
1 large potato, peeled, diced and cooked (preferably a waxy variety)
(Optional!  I used 2 potatoes in mine: one floury potato, peeled, cooked and mashed, to further thicken up the texture of the lentil mixture, and one waxy potato, cooked and diced, to stud the lentil mixture.)

Enough of your favourite recipe for pastry for a double crusted pie OR about 6-8 individual pastry shells

* 2 T tomato paste (only used in the shepherd’s/vegherder pie)
* salt and pepper to taste

Procedure:

1.  Soak the lentils overnight.  After their all-night bath, drain and rinse them off, cover them with fresh water in a medium saucepan and, adding the the bay leaf, bring them to a boil.  Reduce the heat and simmer until the lentils are tender.  (Mine didn’t take very long at all – 20 minutes tops – but they could take up to 45 minutes.  Always make with the checking!)  Drain and rinse them again, remove the bay leaf, and set aside.

2.  While the lentils are simmering, prepare the millet in a separate, small saucepan.  Combine1 cup of water with the grain in the pan and bring it a boil.  Reduce the heat and simmer until the millet has absorbed the water, which should take about 20 minutes.  Set aside.

3.  In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepot, heat the vegetable oil.  Add the onions, celery and garlic and fry until the onions have softened but not started to brown.  Tip the mushroom mince in next, and cook, stirring, for 1-2 minutes.  Next for the pot are the herbs, spices, and seasonings:  sage, savory, cinnamon, cloves, cayenne, allspice, salt and pepper.  Stir well to combine, and cook the mixture for a few minutes until the spices are fragrant.

4.  Now add the drained lentils, cooked brown rice and millet to the onion and spice mixture.  Stir to combine all the components well.  Add enough of the stock to keep the mixture from sticking to the bottom – I added the liquid in 1/2 cupsful at a time, as needed.  Along with one of the 1/2 cup stock additions, stir in the Worcestershire sauce and Marmite.

5.  If your carrot and potato are not already prepared, now is the time to do so.  Steam, boil or microwave your diced vegetables to your desired consistency, drain them of excess moisture, and stir them gently into the lentil mixture simmering on the hob.  (At this point of my own preparations, I decided to include a floury, mashed potato for a little extra thickness to the filling.  It didn’t affect the flavour significantly, it was just padding and probably entirely unnecessary!)

6.  Preheat your oven to 350F/180C/Gas Mark 4.  Roll out your pastry to fit your pie pan, and then pour the lentil filling in.  Cover with the second layer of pastry, and then pop it in the oven to bake until golden – about 30-35 minutes.  Serve with winter vegetables, preserves, and a thick slice of cheese.  (Some folk would have you smother it with gravy, but they would be WRONG.)

Tea-Soured Chickpea Curry

In search of a new and exciting hit of my narcotic of choice, the chickpea, I’ve recently rediscovered an unassuming little softcover cookbook that Him Indoors tucked into my stocking one Christmas, and what a little cracker it’s turning out to be.  More fool me for neglecting it for so long!  If you can get your hands on Sumana Ray’s Indian Vegetarian Cooking you won’t be disappointed.  Well, that said, you *could* be disappointed, and bitterly so, if you were simply looking to replicate the Bombay Potato that they do at your local curry-house; you won’t find very many of the recipes from this book on the menus of your locals, unless you’re very lucky indeed!  If, however, you’re looking for simple, straightforward and authentic dishes, food that you could easily imagine Asian families tucking into at home, then this tiny, perfect gem of a cookbook is for you.

I selected Ms. Ray’s recipe for “Chole” to try first.  It was, in a word, delicious.  Given the relatively high amount of chilli incorporated into the dish – and I’m never one to defang my chilli peppers  – it was a mild, beautifully spiced curry.  Although described as soured chickpeas, this dish, to my palate, wasn’t sour in the conventional sense of the word.  Granted, there was a mild, tangy flavour which I attributed to the amchoor powder, which is customarily used as a souring agent, but there wasn’t the mouth-puckering punch for which I had prepared myself .  Perhaps it’s a metaphorical sourness; the peas has been soured or ‘ruined’ by the rogue, polluting teabag.

This got me to imagining how this dish came about.  Was it a fortuitous mistake?  Did some young daydreamer, asked to put a batch of chickpeas to soak overnight, accidentally drop a teabag into the soaking pot?  The following morning, realising her mistake at the sight of the amber-hued peas but feeling loathe to explain to an irate chef/parent/spouse how they had been ruined, did she simply cross her fingers, mutter prayers and promises under her breath, and plunge ahead with preparations?   And after the meal, where her peas had been lavished with praise, did she smile serenely, like the cat that got the cream, when asked how she had made them so delicious?   What *was* her secret ingredient?

Do be warned!  This curry will perfume the entire house  given half a chance.  Him Indoors claimed he spent a very restless night after eating this curry, as he kept waking up convinced that he could still smell it simmering away on the hob.  It might all be speculation on my part, but perhaps his restlessness could be attributed to the method of preparation.  I mean, I’m sure that the derisive laughter from those haughty espressos would still be ringing in this curry’s ears if ever it tried to present itself as a viable option of caffeine delivery, but there’s got to be SOME residual caffeine contribution from the overnight tea infusion.  Chickpea and Tea Curry – it gives you wings!!  Nah, it’ll never catch on…

Tea-soured Chick Pea Curry with Couscous.

Tea-soured Chickpea Curry
(adapted from a recipe by Sumana Ray in Indian Vegetarian Cooking)

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups chickpeas, sorted and rinsed
4 cups water
1 teabag
2-3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 cup onions, diced fine
2 cups cooked potatoes, peeled and diced (use a waxy variety or they’ll disintegrate into mush)
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 inch fresh ginger root, peeled and minced fine
2-3 fresh, green chillies, chopped (remove seeds if less fire is desired!)
2 tsp ground coriander
1 1/2 tbsp amchoor powder
1/4 -1/2 tsp  cayenne (entirely dependent upon preference!)
1 tsp salt
1/2 – 3/4 cup water
1 1/2 tsp garam masala

Procedure:

1.  Place the chickpeas, water and teabag into a bowl and leave them to soak overnight.

2.  Once they’re soaked, fish out the teabag and discard it.  Do not drain away the soaking liquid, however, as the chickpeas will be cooked in this liquor.  Tip the peas with their soaking water into a medium saucepan and then bring them to a boil.  Cover them and let them simmer until they’re soft and tender – anywhere between one to two hours, dependent on your chickpeas.  (Mine tend to be obstinate and tough, requiring more time in the hot seat.)  Watch the pot carefully so the peas don’t boil dry.  Add a little extra water if there’s any danger of this happening.  When they’re cooked to your liking, drain them and set them aside.

3.  In another saucepan, medium to large, heat up a couple tablespoons of the oil, and fry the cubed potato.  When it’s lightly browned, remove the potato with a slotted spoon and set aside.  Using the same saucepan, add the last remaining tablespoon of oil if necessary; the potatoes may have absorbed too much of the oil to make the next step, the frying of the onions, a bit difficult.  Heat the oil, be it residual or new, and then add the onions .  Fry them until they’re a golden brown, and then stir in the garlic, ginger, and chillies for a final 2 minutes of cooking.  (I might try to combine these stages in a future attempt.)

4.  Add the chickpeas, potatoes,coriander, amchoor, cayenne, salt, and water to the onion mixture, stirring to combine them well, and cook for another 15 minutes or so to combine the flavours.  Since the curry isn’t a “saucy” one, it will now be rather dry and prone to scorching, do watch it carefully, and add water in tiny increments where necessary.  Once heated through, remove from the heat and stir in the garam masala.  Serve as a side dish or with the grain of your choice as a main.

Swede and Palatability

Brrrr!  I’m not sure what it’s like where you are, but it’s getting awfully nippy here.  There’s no denying it now – the season of soups is well and truly upon us!  Dark mornings, chilly days, and frosty nights – is it any wonder we turn to warming, comforting foods at this time of year? And to inaugurate the occasion, I have discovered a cracking new soup to add to the autumnal repetoire:  a gorgeous, creamy swede (or rutabaga) chowder from Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Soups book.  Now, before you turn your noses up in disgust, hear me out.  On paper, the swede has a lot going for it.  Right now they’re fresh and seasonal, they’re good sources of vitamin C and calcium, they’re cheap and plentiful, and they keep for ages in the larder.  One couldn’t put a foot wrong!  I sense that you remain unconvinced.  Okay, fine.  I realise that swede isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and it can be a bit of an acquired taste, but, in this soup, it manages to rise above and beyond its humble origins as famine food and childhood terror.  Give it a try; I think you might find yourself pleasantly surprised.  I certainly was, and I’m a card-carrying swede worshipper!  (I remember one family gathering when, as a punishment for being a smart-mouthed little madam, my uncle heaped my plate high with steamed rutabaga and, smirking, announced to all seated that I was not to be excused from the table until I had finished all of my swede – and possibly everyone else’s if I wasn’t careful…and then watched with undisguised horror as I gleefully polished off the lot.  It was a good lesson to learn.  Apparently, not only does no-one like swede, but no-one likes a smartpants or a show-off either!)

I felt a pang of conscience mid way through preparations.  Him Indoors, who is one of those super-taster types for whom certain foods, (particularly the brassicas such as brussel sprouts, cabbage, kale, and *swede,*)  taste overwhelmingly bitter, might have been unable to eat any of the fruits of my labour, and I hadn’t laid on any back-up plans or food if he dug in his heels and refused to get past the first spoonful.  I tried not to telegraph my tension as I covertly watched him take his first tentative sips.  To my delight and relief, however, he raised his eyebrows in surprise, nodded appreciatively at the soup and proclaimed it very good.  Success!

The result was a beautiful,  pale gold soup, creamy in texture and flavour despite not having a scrap of dairy in it (unless, of course, you opt for the butter) and delicate of flavour in spite of the strong cast of characters present.  No one flavour dominated the other, and all blended together harmoniously.  The croutons were, I must stress, an essential component of the experience, so do try to include them when and where possible.  I also chose to follow Ms. Madison’s route by only partially blending my batch as I like my soups to be chunky, substantial and textured, but I imagine that, if this soup were pureed to smoothness, it might be the kindlier introductory option for dyed-in-wool swede-spurners.

It occured to me that this soup would make a perfect starter for either a Thanksgiving or Christmas feast, especially if you find yourself surrounded by an Anti-Brassica Brigade and you’re one of those souls who insists upon serving up all of the traditional foods in spite of overwhelming opposition.  Why do we continue to serve up foods we don’t like simply in the name of tradition?  Like a westernised version of the Yoruba naming ceremony, where the new baby is introduced to a selection of different tastes ranging from the bitter to the sweet, as a  symbolic representation of the trials and triumphs of life, do we still dish up the dreaded sprouts or the loathed swede in tacit acknowledgement of life’s occasional bitterness, just before we heave a sigh a relief and give thanks for life’s sweeter aspects in the shape of moist turkey and custardy pumpkin pie?  Whatever the reason, any dissenters might find it harder to simply consign this rendition of the swede to the scrapheap.

A bowl of swede and leek soup with croutons.

Swede (Rutabaga) and Leek Soup with Paprika Croutons
Adapted from a recipe in Vegetable Soups from Deborah Madison’s Kitchen

Ingredients

1 1/2 pounds of swede, peeled and diced (about one, whole medium sized head)
2  tbsp butter or margarine
1/4 tsp dried thyme
1 bay leaf
2 medium leeks, cleaned and chopped, both white parts and green
1 -2 medium sized potatoes, peeled and diced into cubes
1 tsp salt
6 cups of stock, vegetable or chicken, or water
salt and pepper to taste
(Optional:  1-2 tbsp butter or margarine, melted, mixed with 1/4 tsp smoked paprika)

Croutons:
2 tbsp olive oil
1 cup bread cubes
1/2 tsp smoked paprika + extra for serving (regular, unsmoked paprika will not have the same impact!  Do not attempt this without the smoky variety!)
1/2 tsp salt or to taste

Procedure:

1.  In a large soup pot, melt the knob of butter.  Add the thyme, bay leaf and leeks, stir to combine them, and allow to cook for a few minutes.  Next into the pot are the swedes and potatoes along with the teaspoon of salt.  Stir to mix everything thoroughly and then cook, partially covered, for about 5 minutes or until the leeks have wilted.  Add the stock to the vegetables, and bring it to a boil.  Once at a boil, reduce the heat, cover the pot again and allow to simmer until the swedes are just cooked – between 20 to 25 minutes.

2.  Remove the bay leaf from the soup pot, so it doesn’t get caught up in the liquidising step!  Transfer approximately  half of the vegetables (with some stock for ease of blending) into your blender and puree until smooth.  Stir the puree back into the soup, and adjust the seasoning to taste.  Keep warm while you make your croutons.  (If you choose to include the optional melted margarine and smoked paprika, add that into the soup now.  Ms. Madison offered the suggestion as an alternative for those not wanting croutons, but I added it as well as the croutons to good effect.)

3.  I never buy packaged croutons any longer.  If there’s a lonely bagel in the house or the heel of a loaf of bread hanging about, it’ll get transformed posthaste to either crumbs or croutons.  They’re a doddle to make, they take minutes to knock out, and they beat the stuffing out of store-bought croutons in a blind taste test.  In a small bowl, combine the cubes of bread with the olive oil and seasonings.  Fire up the broiler or oven grill and spread the now-seasoned cubes in a single layer on a baking sheet.  Grill them for a couple of minutes, until they start turning fragrant and golden. Remove from the oven, give them a shake to expose paler, ungrilled surfaces and stick them back in the oven. Repeat until the cubes are uniformly golden and crisp.  Don’t leave them unattended in the oven, however, as they can scorch very easily.

4.  To serve, ladle the soup into bowls, place a handful of the warm croutons atop, and lightly dust the surface with some of the extra paprika.

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.

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