Monday, 27 August 2012

Chilli con Carne

This will surprise exactly no one who knows me, but I live my life by lists. At any one time, I have at least six different lists on the go - and I'm not talking entry level stuff like "milk, apples, washing powder". 

I mean serious listage. There's an overarching to-do list divided into three categories - things to do within the next day, week and year. That last category, incidentally, contains all the serious stuff like write a will, sort out pension - things which I'll never get round to doing, but which I write down to make myself feel better. I have a list of things I want to achieve in life (from "buy a house" to "fly something other than economy on a plane"), and things I want to make sure I don't forget to do right now. "Summer 2012" is almost complete, by the way - just a trip to the riverside terrace at the White Hart to go - and "Autumn 2012" is already taking shape. There's a whole google doc for our house, listing everything we want to do/make/buy/paint/fix/move/change/hang in every single room - further subdivided, of course, by timeframe and budget. A list of books I want to read, wardrobe essentials I want to buy, a rolling list of Christmas/birthday present ideas for my nearest and dearest (including things I want for myself) - and, finally, a list of things I want to cook for this blog. I say "finally", but I'm sure that's not all the lists, ridiculous as that sounds. I do feel deeply, deeply ashamed of myself right now for being such a list-loving freak.

The thing is, I don't think I'm particularly unusual. Lots of my friends seem to carry lists around with them, in their head, on their phones or on paper. Frankly, as soon as you start thinking about goals or ambitions, coming up with more than one means you've got a list on your hands, sucker. And while my particular degree of categorisation may be a bit more Cuckoo's Nest than most people would like to admit to, I'm sure one or two of you will be nodding your heads in recognition. God, I hope someone is. I really hope it's not just me.

Of course, like all these compulsions, it all comes down to control and fear. Fear of forgetting something (and waking up in a damp sweat, four or five years down the line, realizing I never sent a thank you card for that lovely dinner on Friday night). And fear of pissing time away without taking the time to make fun happen. The other evening, I met up with a couple of friends whom I worked with a few years ago - the only other survivors from a soul-crushing hellhole of the evil and the damned. It was absolutely brilliant, a perfect evening of gossip and prosecco, and as we said goodnight, we all said "let's do this again SOON!". But you know how long it had taken to organize? Over four months. Everyone's busy, everyone works hard, evenings are scarce and weekends are scarcer, so you end up batting dates backwards and forwards until someone doesn't get round to answering an email and the plan quietly drops. And that brilliant, sparkling evening just never happens.

So at least with my lists, I know things are getting done - both the boring things (take back library books) and the fun things (go out for afternoon tea). And even though I worry slightly about my dependency on my lists - like a mantra, I go around Boots chanting "shampoo, nail varnish remover, mouthwash" - I'm still sure that I'm a better, calmer person with them in my life. Not to mention more polite, more fun, better travelled, groomed and read, more thoughtful as a gift-giver, more ambitious as a person. So what if I'm a junkie? These lists are the secret to life.

Which prompts a hamfisted segue into today's recipe. This recipe ticks off two separate items - a longstanding entry on my "blog this" list (old standbys we love, but haven't got round to photographing yet), and an item on my immediate to-do list, "make food for this week". August is coming to an end and I know for a fact that this week is going to be busy. So busy that I'm anticipating late nights, early mornings, and more than one occasion when I'll walk through the door knackered and ravenous. In an effort to stave off the pasta/pesto cycle of doom, I took some time out of a Bank Holiday cliche of decorating and DIY (no joke - I'm wearing a paint-splattered man's shirt and a perky ponytail AS I TYPE) to prepare one of our favourite comfort foods. It's Nigella, it's easy, it's chock-full of vegetables and needs nothing more than a bland starch and a blanket of melted cheese. I know I've sung the praises of our beloved butternut chilli (not to mention a disappointing pinto bean and courgette one, and a frankly bizarre Christmas version) but this is the real meaty deal. Next time you're powering through your to-do list and you need proper sustenance, I can thoroughly recommend it. After all, I'm the biggest list weirdo in the world, so I should know.

Chilli con Carne
Adapted from Nigella's recipe in How to Eat. As with all these classic recipes, it's flexible - fiddle around with the quantities of vegetables depending on what you've got in the fridge.

- 2 onions (red if possible)
- 2 cloves of garlic
- a teaspoon of dried chilli flakes
- a teaspoon of ground cumin
- a teaspoon of ground coriander
- half a teaspoon of smoked paprika
- 2 red peppers, finely diced
- 2 carrots, also finely diced
- 500g of mince (beef, pork, veal, whatever you want - we normally use beef and no more than 10% fat)
- 2 tins of tomatoes
- 2 tins of kidney beans
- big squeeze of ketchup
- another big squeeze of tomato puree
- salt and pepper
- heaped tablespoon of cocoa powder

Finely chop the onions and garlic (so much quicker in the food processor, if you've got one) and get out a huge, deep frying pan. Something wok-y is your best bet. Add a little oil and the onion and garlic, stirring until they soften slightly.

Scatter in the spices, stir around then add the carrots and peppers. Give it a few minutes for the carrots and peppers to start to soften, then chuck in the meat. Break it up and stir it around with your spatula, trying to brown it all - it'll take a while to do this, but just be patient. 

Once it's all brown, add the tomatoes, kidney beans, ketchup, puree, half a tin's worth of water, and some salt and pepper. Bring to the boil, then scatter the cocoa over the top and stir it in. 

Turn the heat right down to a simmer, and partially cover the pan - if you don't have a lid that size, foil will do. Cook for an hour and half, stirring once or twice, or until it's all thick and saucy. This freezes really well.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Cauliflower and Chickpea Curry

I'm sorry, this is a boring post. We cooked something from Hugh F-W's Veg Every Day, yawn. We added extra vegetables, zzzz. The pictures are by no means what you could call aesthetically pleasing, sigh. Inspiration has packed up its old kit bag and buggered off in search of the last scrap of summer before the leaves start to fall.  

You see, between going away for the weekend, wilting in the hot weather and sneaky trips to the pub, I just haven't been fired up in the kitchen this week (geddit? fired up? Oh, forget it). On the rare occasions when I've had dinner at home, my criteria were not "ooh, what do I feel like? what rare and tempting morsel will trip across my finely-tuned palate today?". I was thinking "gah, that cauliflower is almost dead. And I need something healthy. For the love of god, resist the ice cream". What can I say? We've been trying to seize every bit of pleasure from these dog days of August and if that means mini ice cream Mars bars, I am not sorry. 

So, I found this in my new favourite book, thought it looked healthy, and cooked it. We'd made a cauliflower curry before and liked it, so it seemed like a safe bet. And you know what? It was perfectly nice. You wouldn't immediately call your mum and insist she tries it, but nor would you send it back in a restaurant. In fact, despite sounding so distinctly lacklustre about it, I can predict that we will probably make it again - some other time when we've been over-indulging, and want to feel virtuous. But last time we cooked a Hugh curry, we made it again two days later and raved about it for weeks (aubergine, green bean and cashew nut and wow, now I really want that again). Oh Hugh, I'm sorry. It's not you, it's me. Just let me get out of these doldrums and we'll be back on track. I wonder if more ice cream will help?

Cauliflower and Chickpea Curry
From Hugh F-W's Veg Every Day
Serves 2
- half a cauliflower, cut into smallish florets
- 2 onions, roughly chopped
- half a teaspoon of grated, fresh ginger
- 2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- sunflower oil
- a teaspoon of ground coriander
- a teaspoon of ground cumin
- pinch of dried chilli flakes
- one star anise
- salt and pepper
- a tin of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
- a tin of chopped tomatoes
- a teaspoon of garam masala or curry powder
- a handful of fresh spinach (optional but we liked them)
- some frozen peas (ditto)
- if you like it (which I don't), some fresh, chopped coriander
Start by putting the cauliflower into a large saucepan, cover with cold water, add a pinch of salt then bring to a rolling boil. Turn it off, drain, and keep warm in the covered saucepan until you need it.
While the cauliflower's coming to the boil, put the onion, garlic, ginger and a splash of oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat. Stir frequently for 10 minutes. Chuck in the coriander, chilli, cumin and star anise, along with some salt and pepper, and cook for another five minutes, stirring all the time. 
Pour in the chickpeas and tomatoes, then add the cooked cauliflower and 100ml of cold water (until the cauliflower is mostly covered). Stir in the peas and spinach if you're using them, and let the whole lot cook for around 5 minutes. Scatter in the curry powder or garam masale, and give it all another 5 minutes, or until the cauliflower is tender. If you like coriander, stir it in. Serve with rice, naan or both. 

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Courgette and Feta Fritters

Before anyone gets any ideas about green thumbs around here, let me clarify that the recent preponderance of courgette recipes has nothing whatsoever to do with any home grown glut. We do have a couple of courgette plants, true - where else would we get the courgette flowers? - but so far we've harvested precisely one courgette. Another rotted in the rain, and a slug or snail got the third, while any teeny tiny babies were snapped off and deep fried weeks ago. But, you know, the farmers seem to be more successful than us and in recent weeks we've been buying courgettes by the armful. If our own production ever comes up to speed, I'll let you know.

In fact, despite great enthusiasm, we're still total garden novices. Plants die with serial killer regularity. My mum and aunty are the only ones who ever weed or prune, and it looks set to stay that way (when I ask my mum how to tell which are weeds, she says "well, I just know". SHE may well know, but I ain't got a clue). The only digging in our garden is done by our friendly neighbourhood fox, the bastard. 

But green thumbs aren't everything, and shop-bought courgettes are just as tasty in this recipe as home-grown. I tried this out the other day and it made a delicious, light dinner - perfect for hot days and crisp white wines. Of course, I say light, but it was fried and cheese-stuffed. Still, I'm sticking to my guns. Anything this green can't possibly count as heavy. 

The base recipe here came from Jamie Oliver's website and, I'll be honest, I chose it because unlike a few others I saw, it didn't tell you to salt and drain the courgettes. By the time I got home from work I really could not be bothered with all that faffing around, so I let laziness win again. And you know what? It was totally fine. The mixture was quite wet, but it still worked, and the finished fritters were lovely. So put that in your pipe and smoke it, people of the internet. Another victory for slapdashery.

Of course, as you might have guessed, the main reason for cooking this was to get rid of any lingering feta before my anti-feta-husband came home. The flavour in the finished fritter wasn't overpowering at all, so I think even he would like them - but, ahem, they'd all disappeared long before that. If our garden comes up trumps, they may make a reappearance before the summer is over. But I don't think any courgette recipe can trump the courgette and chilli pasta with crispy spinach balls. If ever a recipe would inspire us to get a-digging and a-weeding, that would be the one. 

Courgette and Feta Fritters
Loosely based on this recipe from Jamie Oliver's website
For one person's dinner, or a starter for two

- 10g flour
- 35g feta, crumbled
- 1 courgette, grated
- 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
- 1 teeny chilli or half a bigger one, ditto
- 1 spring onion, also finely chopped
- an egg
- a good grating of parmesan
- pinch of ground black pepper
- lemon zest (although mine didn't have any zest left so I added a squeeze of juice)
- a few sprigs each of parsley and mint, chopped

In a large bowl, mix together the courgette, garlic, chilli, spring onion, egg, parmesan, pepper, lemon zest and herbs until well blended. Crumble in the feta, and mix carefully to combine. 

Get a large frying pan over a medium heat, and add a sploosh of olive oil. Add the mix in dessertspoonfuls, and cook for about 3 minutes (or until golden). Carefully turn over with a spatula, and cook for another three minutes or until golden again, squishing down the mix gently into a flattish patty. Serve with chilli sauce for a bit of a kick.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Feta, Pea, Broad Bean and Mint Salad

Mr Dine at Mine (you may have seen him around here before) has been away for over a week. He's jetsetting abroad for work, swanning around in posh hotels and fancy airport lounges, and left me behind in sole possession. Although this is the longest we've been apart since we moved in to our new home, since we married - in fact, since god knows how long ago - I have truthfully reassured both my mum and his that yes, I am fine. The house is still standing, I haven't started talking to myself, and I am still managing to get up and get to work in the morning. Of course, that doesn't mean that I'd want to do this for much longer. There are now just 9 hours to go before he gets back, and I cannot wait.  

So what have I been doing with myself? Pottering around, mostly. Replanting our window boxes. Staying late at the gym, then feeling knackered but virtuous. Making and eating elaborate cakes, watching the Olympics and trashy, girly telly (Sex and the City film, I can confirm that you are still rubbish). Some time with family, some time with friends. Some time snuggled up with my DVD of the National Theatre's production of Oklahoma, starring dreamy, dreamy Hugh Jackman (I heart him). 

And, of course, indulging in the foods which the absentee doesn't like. See this plate of salads, grilled mushrooms and Tuscan tomato salad? All normally frowned upon. Ditto feta, something I really love and he really doesn't. So I took the opportunity to recreate one of my favourite salads as made by my brother-in-law's girlfriend - feta, pea, broad beans and mint, along with any other green veg knocking around, all dressed with olive oil and lemon. It's light, bright and refreshing, perfect for a sunny day and great with a barbecue.  I made a huge batch and ate it over a few days, and it held up surprisingly well - although the cooked veg did start to turn grey rather than green. But it's all gone now, and the fridge is cleared of feta. Attention, passenger in seat 68K! It's safe for you to come home. So come quickly.

Feta, Pea, Broad Bean and Mint Salad
Based on a salad made by my brother-in-law's girlfriend. Hers is more delicious than mine, but I'm working on it.

- a handful of frozen peas and broad beans (or fresh if they're in season and you feel like podding them)
- other green vegetables - I used sugarsnaps and raw courgette, but green beans or broccoli would also be good 
- feta cheese, crumbled (as much as you feel like)
- zest of a lemon (I had to use the juice because it was already zested)
- big pinch of freshly ground black pepper
- good drizzle of extra virgin olive oil
- small bunch of fresh mint, finely chopped

Blanch the vegetables by boiling or steaming quickly until just cooked, then dunk into iced water to keep the colour bright. I didn't bother with this bit, which is why some of the photos look a bit grey - but it still tasted fine, so the laziness/aesthetics trade-off is up to you.  

Add the zest, pepper, mint, feta and olive oil and toss around with your hands. Done.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Olympic Cake

Quick! There are a few hours left until the Olympic flame is doused, which means that there's still time to make a themed cake. What do you mean, you'd rather sit out in the sunshine with your feet up and a drink in hand? That's not the Olympic spirit! That's not the dedication and tenacity which took this country to 3rd place in the medal tables! Rightly or wrongly, I couldn't let the Olympics end without marking the occasion in cake batter. This has been my afternoon's work, to accompany this evening's Closing Ceremony, and I don't regret a second of it. 

I take no credit whatsoever for the idea, which I shamelessly copied from my husband's brother's girlfriend's cousin (come on, keep up). She brought a beautiful, innocuous looking white-iced sponge cake to an Olympics barbecue last weekend, cut it open and blew our minds. Honestly, I can't even tell you how amazing this cake was, nor how intense our sugar rush was after eating it. It was far and away the gold medal winner of the day and I pay homage to her with this teeny version. 

It's a variant of the ombre cake, which is itself a variant of my basic vanilla sponge with double cream buttercream. As there will only be three of us eating it, I used a 6inch tin and as with the ombre, the food colouring does all the work - blue, yellow, green, black, red, all in perfect Olympian order. On that note, you really don't want to see the state of my tongue after licking out five different cake bowls. 

Enjoy the ceremony, and the last few hours of London 2012 - at least, until the Paralympics start. 

The all-important slice shot will follow just as soon as the deed has been done! Edited to add: as promised, here it is. Wonky, out of focus and totally unstyled but I blame the excitement. Or, ahem, the wine. 

Olympic Cake

As discussed above, this is basically the ombre cake, which is itself the basic vanilla sponge with double cream buttercream. For a little 6inch tin, I used 3 eggs (and therefore 6oz of butter, sugar and flour), and divided the mix into five, each coloured to match a ring. The cakes took about 15 minutes to cook in a 180C oven. 

Friday, 10 August 2012

Cheesy, Garlicky Grilled Mushrooms

Phew, thank god for that. All through Wednesday - otherwise known as "what? haven't we won anything yet?" day - I thought I'd jinxed it. All that talk about medals and golds and astonishing success on Tuesday; a deafening silence from Team GB on Wednesday. Every time you checked the telly, or looked for an update online, tumbleweed blew through the nation. It was as though we'd become accustomed to winning, to a constant stream of metal and medals - and somehow, no one could quite believe a victory-free day. But yesterday team GB returned to form. With prancing horses, boxing gloves and some form of pyjamas, Britain's sporting women were on fire. There's just three days left until the closing ceremony (which, as far as I'm concerned, is all about the rumoured Spice Girls reunion - what? I'm a child of the 90s) and surely, surely, we can't muck it up now. I'm still touching wood, though. Is it safe to celebrate properly yet?

Yesterday evening I went with my mum to see my cousin in action as a volunteer Games-Maker. Dressed in luminous pink and purple, armed to the gunnels with specially-learned facts, she spent the afternoon wilting in the heat outside City Hall, distributing maps, brochures, information, directions, advice and general good cheer. The rings were hanging from Tower Bridge; a male choir was singing "Clang Clang Clang went the Trolley"; people were smiling and waving and chatting and happy. A huge crowd picnicked in front of a big screen, and the flagged and buntinged South Bank was swarming. How can anyone say that London has become a ghost town? I've never seen it so busy.

But before this blog becomes all-Olympics, all the time, let me tell you about these mushrooms. My husband's not a huge fungus fan so we don't tend to eat them as much as I'd like, but I took advantage of his absence the other day to try out this recipe. It's so Jamie Oliver, it's not even funny - all his favourite flavours (lemon, chilli, garlic, fresh herbs - tick, tick, tick, tick), quick and simple to prepare. I thought it would be nice. I didn't realise it would taste AMAZING. Honestly, I know this looks simple - but it's one of the most mouth-watering things I've made for months. I'm going to make them again today, and even considering springing them on the anti-mushroom man. Delicious, cheesy, easy, juicy, meaty, yum. I won't insult your intelligence by pointing out their resemblance to a gold medal (come on, yellowish and round), but you know I'm thinking it.

Cheesy, Garlicky Grilled Mushrooms
From Jamie Oliver's 30 Minute Meals
I leave the number of mushrooms per serving between you and your conscience. Except to say that I ate two without any trouble whatsoever.

- 2 portobello mushrooms, washed or peeled, with the tip of the stalk trimmed
- a clove of garlic, crushed
- a quarter of a red chilli, finely chopped
- few sprigs of parsley
- zest of about a third of a lemon
- salt and pepper
- olive oil
- 2 slices of cheddar (or, frankly, any hard or squidgy cheese - I cannot think of a single one which wouldn't work)

Preheat your grill and put the mushrooms bowl-side-up in a tray or ceramic dish.

Scatter the garlic, chilli, parsley and lemon evenly over each mushroom, followed by some salt and pepper and a good drizzle of olive oil. Place the cheese on top, then put under the grill for roughly 10 minutes, or until the cheese is golden and bubbling. Serve with bread to soak up the mushroomy juices, yum yum yum.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Courgette Flowers Stuffed with Mozzarella, Mint and Lemon

So I was busy, then ill, then busy again and then, whoops, ill again (turns out R&R isn't such a waste of time). But let's come to the real reason why I haven't said anything here for over a week - the Five Ring Circus. 

Who saw that coming? Not me, for one. I'm famously non-sporty, not interested, never have been, never will be. Never before have I knowingly watched shooting, diving, running, jumping or swimming - at least, not by choice. But I have been totally and utterly engrossed. Any moment that I had free from being ill and busy and ill blah blah, I have been glued to a screen, genuinely excited and moved by what I saw. I even wish I had tickets to something, just so I could see inside the park! I don't know what's come over me either. 

I think it all started when the Queen became a Bond girl, aka the best moment of the whole opening ceremony. Do you think she just thought, "it's my Jubilee, I'm 86 years old, why not?" Well, I quite agree. Huzzah for her Maj! Maybe she has a soft spot for Daniel Craig. Maybe she has just always wanted to see her stunt double jump out of a helicopter with a Union Jack parachute, handbag clasped firmly in hand. 

But my enthusiasm snowballed when Team GB just kept winning. Gold after gold after gold! Inspiring stories flying at you thick and fast, from collapsed lung to alopecia to dead mum to broken neck to 56 years old to missed out on gold four times to only started doing sport four years ago to just 20 years old and 2 gold medals. I can't believe that Britain is third - THIRD - on the medal table. Is this real? Aren't we too small, too unsporty, too good at not quite being good enough? Did you see that Brit winning a final at Wimbledon, defeating Roger Federer in straight sets? Did you know that Yorkshire alone would outrank Australia in the official medals table? These Olympics are blowing my mind.

So even though we made these deep fried courgette flowers well over a week ago, it's taken me this long to write them up. Far too long considering how delicious they were, and how incredibly, specifically seasonal. And far longer than they lasted on our plates.

But don't worry, I understand. No matter what I say about them, you're not going to go out and stuff courgette flowers any time soon, are you? You're too busy watching the Olympics, like me. Getting hooked on the golds, defending the bronzes, debating the outfits (I'm pro), and deploring the tacky bouquets. 

So when it's all over - when we wake up and realise that actually, we don't know the rules of dressage, nor understand why the gymnasts wear such ghastly makeup - this recipe will be waiting. It's not difficult, but it's fiddly, perilous (anything with deep-frying makes me nervous) and a bit time-consuming. But you know what trumps that? Delicious. These are delicious. Take a Gold flower, fry until Gold, and eat. I can't promise that it will give you abs like Jessica Ennis - well, that's the understatement of the year - but I guarantee it'll be tasty. 

Courgette Flowers Stuffed with Mozzarella, Mint and Lemon
Adapted from Jamie Oliver's Jamie at Home (recipe available here)

- 4 courgette flowers, really well-rinsed. I mean really - I found 4 ants after I thought I'd rinsed them the first time.

For the filling
- 100g buffalo mozzarella (or ricotta, if you can find it in your local shop - unlike me)
- a handful of fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
- half a red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
- a good grating of parmesan
- salt and pepper
- zest of half a lemon
- a pinch of nutmeg, if you want to - I didn't.

For the batter
- 70g self raising flour
- pinch of salt
- 150ml sparkling water (or white wine, but why waste white wine?)

- cooking oil

In a small bowl, mix up all the filling ingredients until well combined. Whisk together the batter ingredeints until smooth and thick, adding more flour or more liquid until dipping in a finger leaves it well coated.

Carefully open up the courgette flowers and snip out the central stamen with scissors, then rinse again (just to be sure there are no lurking creepycrawlies). Fill the flower with the cheese mixture, then try to furl up the flower again, squeezing it gently together. 

Heat up the cooking oil in a medium saucepan until a bit of potato or bread sizzles and turns golden. If you've got a fancy thermometer, he says 180C - but we just guessed. One by one, dip the flowers in the batter and carefully add to the oil, lying them in away from you so that the oil doesn't splash. Fry until golden and crispy all over, then remove with a slotted spoon to a plate lined with kitchen towel. Scatter some sea salt over the top, and serve with lemon wedges to squeeze over. A sunny day is optional, but preferred. 
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