Tuesday, 30 September 2008

An exciting prize, and the Great Choc Chip Cookie Research Project

I had such a nice surprise this morning: our fridge won Wendy's competition! It was picked out by her adorable dog Marco as the winner - I must send that spaniel a bonio :) Thanks Wendy - you made my day!

I'm also pretty excited to announce the launch of a new tack in my research career: the Great Chocolate Chip Cookie Research Project. I felt that the new academic year deserved a new venture, and so I have determined to find the best choc chip cookie I can, as voted for by my colleagues. So far, after one week, they have risen to the challenge admirably, and in the best possible spirit of peer feedback have commented extensively and thoughtfully on my efforts. I've asked them to rate each week's cookie out of ten, and add any other comments they would like. I am trying not to be actually present watching over their ruminations, though some people did fall foul of me leaping out of my office brandishing baked goods in their faces. In future I will leave them quietly in the kitchen and hope that it catches on (and maybe just lurk behind the door to gauge their faces...).

Anyway, I started with The Classic One. I turned to the King Arthur Flour company for a recipe - not a brand we get here, but since choc chip cookies are quintessentially American an American trademark name seemed like the best way to go. It was very highly rated by readers and I stuck with the recipe exactly as it was written. Actually I was probably a bit light on the choc chips as I used up all the chocolate I had, and I omitted the optional almond flavouring for fear of moving too far from the classic, but it went down well anyway.

Cookie number 1 was quite a hit at work. It rated an average of 7.7, drawn down by one critic who only gave it a 5. The modal value (apologies - I am a quantitative historian!) was 8, which was pretty good. Of course only time will tell whether my colleagues are just extremely easy to please. We don't have a culture of bringing in home-baked goods, so I think that any cookie may elicit cries of pleasure, especially when stumbled upon unexpectedly on the way to the post room. I had a few simple and appreciative comments ('good stuff' and 'Yum!', and one cryptic one from a twentieth-century colleague 'Bit of slight vegetable taste?'. He has recently moved in with his vegetarian girlfriend I can only conclude that he is suspiciously seeing veggies everywhere! A colleague in the English department said they were nice and soft, someone else voted for dark choc chips another time. One person (the 5 rater, perhaps?) said that the flavour was not particularly pronounced. I have to admit that I actually agreed with them on that. I thought that they were nice, but that I would have been a bit disappointed if I'd ordered one in a cafe. Perhaps the almond essence would have been a good addition after all. The Scientist rated them an 8, with the benefit of getting them warm out of the oven :)

It's taken me a while to post about the first round, but it's going to be a regular Wednesday thing (I hope). Tomorrow's batch is already cooling in the kitchen and I'm keen to see what my rigorously-appraising colleagues say!

The Classic One: average rating 7.7
King Arthur Flour recipe here

Sunday, 28 September 2008

A munchkin birthday

It's the munchkin's second birthday today! Happy birthday little man! We're sad not to be with you to celebrate, but we did make you a little cake which we enjoyed in honour of your birthday. It's a chocolate cupcake with vanilla buttercream icing, and it was decorated by a very charming young three-year-old friend of mine who was visiting with his mum and dad last weekend. He said it tasted very nice indeed.

Friday, 26 September 2008

May I introduce...our fridge?

Wendy at A Wee Bit of Cooking has come up with a cute suggestion: people post photographs of their fridges to show what they reveal about themselves. I went and had a look at our fridge to see what it said about us and discovered that it's quite an insight. According to our fridge, we like to feature our close friends and family prominently in our lives, we like to be inspired by little sayings and reminders of holiday times, and we like chess. The former are both definitely true; the latter is true in theory but not really translated into reality. I bought the chess set because The Scientist is a fan but I thought that our temperaments made us completely unsuited to playing each other face to face. He would ponder each move until I was ready to fall asleep and I would be impetuous and fail to think my moves through. We did have one successful game (for which read: I didn't lose immediately), but as you can see, one of the pawns got lost in our house move, and Lego Obi Won Kenobi is having to do stand-in duty. We may play again some time.

The magnets are mainly nice little reminders of holidays. The Australia ones are obvious, and the two coloured oblongs are inspiring sayings bought from the Nobel Museum in Stockholm. The lighter blue oblong which says 'This above all to thine own self be true' was a present from Eco Sis from Stratford a few weeks ago and I was very touched by it because it's something I would have picked out as meaningful myself (have I mentioned that we went to see David Tennant and Patrick Stewart in Hamlet at the RSC this week....no? It was amazing). The banana magnet is a friend of the set I made a few months back to send to friends and the smaller sayings were put together by Eco Sis and she picked out which ones to feature on the fridge just last weekend (she didn't know it was going to be featured on the blog, so no 'which ones make us look the coolest', I promise!).

And the photos - ah, the photos. They're mainly ones which people have sent me, and so any omissions are not deliberate. Of course I don't normally cover up people's faces but I don't like to play hard and fast with their identities. Let's just say that they're people who appear often on this blog (the blue denim jacket-ed sleeve? that's me - and the little guy under the possum magnet -well that's a certain munchkin. He was joined on the fridge after I took this photo by a lovely new picture of his sister the Munchkinette which just arrived from New Zealand in the post).

I suspect that our fridge is exactly the same as everyone else's, but I quite like its little reminders and happy things. Above all, it seems to rather imply that Eco Sis is one of my bestest friends, which is absolutely right! And that I can't shut up and let a photo speak for itself. Stop. No, leave it there. No more words.... Really.

Birthday lemon meringue pie

I’ve been reading all sorts of beautifully lyrical blog posts on other blogs about the coming of autumn. For many people it means a chill in the morning air, lovely orange pumpkins at the farmer’s market, and leaves turning red. For me it has meant abandoning my nice cosseted days at my old family desk at home, and returning to the hurly burly of commuting to Oxford, the steady flow of young people at my office door wearing bemused expressions as to how their degree got into the state it has, and the occasional battle with reluctant technology in lecture rooms. Yes, the new semester has started, and that’s why I have been accidentally AWOL from here. It’s not that I haven’t been cooking; I just haven’t had time to write about it, and plus I tidied my camera charger away so efficiently when we had some friends with young children to visit last weekend that I couldn’t lay hands on it for several days.

I've got several things to post about, but firstly I am ashamed to admit that I am almost a week late posting about my dearly beloved's birthday last weekend. He's not too fussed about birthdays so I'm sure he will forgive me, especially as I did come up with his favourite dessert to celebrate. He was actually slightly more excited about this birthday than usual because he and I are now both binary numbers old, which apparently won't happen again for 32 years. Plus we've been together for a binary number of years and the cats are a prime number in both age and number. We are geektastically numerate in this house. His birthday cake wasn't prime or binary but it was lemony and meringuey, and since none of our birthday guests was too keen on lemon meringue pie, The Scientist got to scoff the lot. I've used various recipes and he's happy with all of them so I won't write out any one in particular. It's surprisingly easy really given how many components it has, and you just need to allow some time for the lemon curd to cool and to make and bake the pastry. We had a proper roast dinner to precede it (baked squash filo parcels for Eco Sis and I), and some all American cake mix brownies for us non-lemon pie lovers, courtesy of Eco Bro's baked goods courier service. It was good though the pre-mixed in chocolate chips surprised me.

Happy binary birthday, my love!

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Happy birthday with jelly and ice cream!

It's blog party time again, and this time we're celebrating Stephanie's birthday! I immediately started thinking of kiddie party food, but for once it was the drink which came to me first. A few weeks ago we went to a local food fair with our friends Vicki and Paul, and saw a company selling old fashioned drinks in old fashioned bottles. I was intrigued by the sarsaparilla but Vicki and The Scientist were both smitten by cream sodas and bought a bottle each. I've only once ever had cream soda at a friend's house - we never had it at home, I'd never heard of it before that day, and I've never had it since. I'd assumed it was an American drink but Vicki says she used to have it as a child at her grandma's house, where it was served with milk (even she thinks this was weird in retrospect, though who knows, perhaps it's delicious). I remembered that I'd liked the taste I'd had all those years ago but had taste-memory of something very sweet and artificial. The drink we bought at the food festival was a very superior version - still sweet, but full of lots of other subtle flavours (vanilla's the only one I can remember but there were definitely more!). A few days later I got round to googling how it was made, and came up with this recipe. It's a cinch! Although possibly one of those drinks you'd rather not know how to make - water, sugar, vanilla, and a surprising pinch of yeast. Shake it up, let it stand, refrigerate, drink. And it tasted just like the artificial but fun drink I remembered from my childhood! I served it in this glass because it reminded me of the glasses my grandparents used to serve shandy in.

Now, what finger food to serve with my cream soda? Well, cream made me think ice cream, and ice cream made me think jelly. And jelly reminded me of the rest of the packet of vegetarian gelatin I still had sitting mournfully in the cupboard after my failed marshmallow attempt. I read various recipes but in the end winged it a bit as I was adapting it to use the veggie stuff, which (so the packet says) has different properties from the piggy-based one. Essentially I dissolved some sugar in some water with some blackberries but then removed it from the heat and stirred in half a packet of the gelatin (it has to be mixed in to cold liquid). Then I returned it to the heat, boiled it, and took it off again. Then I watched it, nudged it with a spoon, wondered how soon it was supposed to show signs of setting, panicked, added more gelatin, returned it to the heat, boiled it and cooled it, and strained it into the funky little party glasses you see in the photo. I don't know whether it would have set with the original amount of gelatin but it certainly did with more, anyway. Science in the kitchen, eh - The Scientist would be proud (if it had a bit more rigour and a bit less randomness).

So happy birthday, Stephanie! Enjoy your jelly and (ice) cream soda!

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Storecupboard eats: spelt with beans and broccoli

We've been eating out of the pantry and freezer quite a bit this week after a week eating out on holiday. I got the idea for this grain and bean dish from Wholegrain Diet Miracle but I made up my own version so feel I can call it my creation :)

Spelt is one of my new forays into grains, and I've now tracked down some dried spelt as well as the tinned sort I used in a salad a few weeks ago. It takes quite a while to cook (an hour plus) so it's not a quick as a flash dinner, but there's hardly any hands-on time, especially the way I did the beans - ie open can, add seasonings, heat. I know, I should be ashamed of myself but I think I can live with it. I like spelt because it's nice and chewy - I think it's quite like barley, but as the barley-hating Scientist says 'without the slimyness' and I can see where he's coming from. I'm just delighted I can put another grain on our joint menu.

I was actually almost as proud of the accompanying broccoli as I was of the spelt dish as I experimented with some different flavours than usual. I cut the broccoli into quite thick slices rather than florets, and then sort of braised them I suppose, in some stock with some finely sliced garlic and some chilli powder. The thick slices made a nice change from florets, and the extra flavours were subtle but definitely present. Another small dent made in the storecupboard box of dried goodies!

Spelt and beans
110g dried spelt, washed
half an onion, chopped
1 tin of kidney beans in chilli sauce
1 bay leaf
cayenne pepper and chilli powder, to taste

Put the spelt in a pan and cover with fresh water. Bring to the boil, then cover and simmer until done (it will still be chewy). This takes an hour to an hour and a half

Near the end of the cooking time fry the onion in a little oil. When it's soft add the beans and sauce, the bay leaf and the spices. Warm through and taste to adjust the flavours. Serve beans on spelt

Broccoli with garlic and chilli
One small head broccoli, sliced into thick slices
one garlic clove, finely chopped
chilli powder, to taste, or chopped fresh chilli

Place all the ingredients in a casserole dish or pan, and add a little stock. I added too much and it got a bit swimmy - I think just to cover the base of the dish would be good, especially if you want to keep it crunchy. Simmer until broccoli is done.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Autumnal joys: Riverford-inspired English apple and leek soup

There's no denying that autumn is well set in here. I was hoping for a last dalliance with summer, but I think that all chances of that are gone. I always get very sad at this time of year in anticipation of losing the long summer evenings, but today the gently crisp September evening reminded me of all the things I like about autumn. In fact autumn is probably my favourite season once I get over summer's passing, and most of the benefits relate to food (English apples and squashes) and clothing (thick tights, boots and skirts). I am already planning what to wear to work once teaching starts again next week, and I've been joyfully buying up supplies of Discovery apples wherever I go.

Usually I just eat my apples as a mid-morning snack, or occasionally put them in a crumble or pie. This soup was inspired by our new Riverford Farm cookbook, purchased after our glorious lunch there last week. It's designed to accompany the veg boxes, and so is organised alphabetically by vegetable (and I've just noticed that it's half price on amazon :) ). Each section is prefaced by a little discussion of how they grow the veg, its problems and talents (problems include badgers getting into the pumpkin patch and rolling them around like balls), and ideas on how to cook them. There are then several good-sounding recipes, and a list of easy ideas. There are also periodic thoughtful reflections on matters like 'dirt', organic farming, food miles and farming. I'm really looking forward to using it for ideas for those tricky vegetables like kale which hang around in large quantities in the fridge and make you sick to death of stir fries. The idea for the apple soup came from one of the 'easy ideas' in the apple section. I wanted something a bit heartier so I did a version where apples (bought from the Riverford shop) were partnered by leeks - another of my favourite veggies. I kept in the originally combination of spices although I was a little unsure as to how they would pair with the leeks, but in fact the resulting soup was very flavoursome. The apples gave it a much lighter taste than the more traditional leek and potato, and the soup had a pleasingly light green hue - think fairy green rather than hearty autumn green. We were both very pleased with the result, and it's been added to our list of standby soups. We ate it with French bread for a simple supper after our long road trip back from Devon. My write-up of the spice quantities is a bit rough as I just shook some from the container into the pot, but it's one that can adapt easily to tastes anyway.

This fairy-green English soup is my contribution to this month's No Croutons Required, which had fruit as its theme this month.

English apple and leek soup (inspired by the Riverford Organics cookbook)
Made three to four servings

1 onion, chopped
2 leeks, sliced thickly
3 apples, peeled, cored and diced
1/2 tsp each of turmeric, cumin and coriander
pinch of cayenne and cinnamon
about 650ml hot stock

Fry onions gently in a little oil or butter until soft. Add sliced leeks and continue to cook gently for a few more minutes. Leeks take on a very nice taste when cooked in butter so that might be a good reason to use that instead of oil. Add chopped apple, all the spices and the stock to cover. Simmer for about 20 mins, then liquidize, season and add a shake of lemon juice.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Quite possibly the best lunch in Devon: Riverford Organics

Hello again. Sorry I went a bit quiet for a week or so. We went on holiday and I didn't get round to doing a final post before we left. We were in Devon for a week, staying in a dinky little cottage on the edge of Dartmoor, and we loved it. We loved the moors, we loved the burnt reds and the subdued greens, we loved the tors and vales, the ponies and the sheep (especially the two getting amorous in the middle of the road) and we loved the quiet. We want to move there directly, although as the University of Widdecome in the Moor has yet to feature in the Russell Group, we may have to wait a few years. Highlights are in the photos at the bottom.

Foodie-wise we ate some very fine local produce, including the inevitable (but very welcome!) cream teas and pasties, and also some mead, some ciders and beers, and some very good and creamy cheeses. The Scientist had some good meaty pub fare as well, but the best foodie experience by a Devon country mile was at the Field Kitchen at Riverford Organics.

My Riverford meal (green beans and roast potatoes are hiding under the salad leaves)

Riverford has become pretty well known in recent years as one of the biggest veg-box companies in England. Its farm is on the eastern edge of Dartmoor, not far from Totnes, and you can go and see them there and eat at their Field Kitchen. They don't call it a restaurant - you all eat together and you eat whatever's on the menu that day - but it's just for visitors, and the food is absolutely top quality. For various planning reasons you can't just go to eat - you have to do a tour of the farm as well, but that actually made the whole experience as it opened our eyes to their philosophy of farming and supplying food. Beforehand I had been a little wary of them as they are now such large-scale suppliers. They work in co-operation with other farms over the country, but our 'local' one is at Nene, near Peterborough, which doesn't exactly count as local in my book. On our way round the guided tour though (you can do a self-guided one too, and I think it shows something about the farm's commitment to accountability to its customers that they do a new recording for the self-guided tour every few weeks), we warmed to the wider ethic considerably. For starters, they are perfectly open about the fact that they would rather the boxes travelled as short a distance as possible, and they're working with more farms to decrease the food miles. They also grow a really wide variety of crops, to keep the boxes diverse, and just to try out new possibilities. And they really seem committed to farming sustainably and organically, using crop rotations and really well informed methods. Our guide, Darren, really knew his stuff, and enthused us all. It doesn't exactly harm the whole business that the farm is set in the most beautiful countryside, and also that they let us loose in the cherry tomato greenhouse and the raspberry field :) Even The Scientist liked the fresh-from-the-vine tomatoes, and he's a tomato hater.

Roasties, salad, beans (still hiding) and the tasty tasty carrots

After our tour of the farm we were taken back to the Field Kitchen for lunch. There were about 20 people eating that day, on three big tables. The food is served on big platters which you share out between you; apparently some people find this a little odd, but we're not so far from undergraduate college life that this seemed out of the ordinary to us! The kitchen is part of the dining area so you can see the food being prepared which is fun. It was all fairly simple but superlatively cooked. The meat-eaters had chicken in sauce, and the veggies got garlic, mushroom and squash roasted parcels, which I would have called a vegetable wellington, accompanied by mixed beans and pulses. I don't like pastry, but the filling was so tender and tasty that I didn't feel I missed out at all. We all had roasted potatoes, cumin-roasted baby carrots, a beetroot gratin, some citrusy oiled French beans, and a leafy, roasted cherry tomato, radish and goat's cheese salad. Each dish was robustly flavoured and perfectly done. My favourite was the carrots though a lot of people were raving about the beetroot, which was slices of vegetable mixed with cream and seasonings (it came out a few minutes after the other veggies and so missed being photographed). We also got home-made bread fresh from the oven, and you could order a variety of drinks separately. The Scientist was extremely happy as our table consisted of four veggies, two children and only three meat eaters for the same amount of food as everyone else. We both ate well that day.

Squash parcels and beans

There were a range of dessert options after the sumptuous main course feast. I had a slice of brownie which I actually found a bit dry, but I was too full to eat it anyway. The Scientist doused it in custard (home-made, of course) and dispatched it without any complaints. He had picked a pear and almond tart which I have to say was quite a lot nicer than my choice. I also regretted not trying the pavlova, which looked amazing. A cup of tea rounded the whole meal off, after which we slowly rolled ourselves off to the car and a quick stop in the farm's shop.

My brownie - a bit on the dry side, but custard was on hand to liven it up...

The whole meal was £15 per head (drinks and coffees on top) which seems really quite reasonable for the amount of food and its amazing quality. We were sitting next to a family of veggies who said they'd been three times before at different times of year, and that it was always amazing. Riverford also runs cooking days there, which I would love to do, and themed meals, and Field Kitchens are also planned at some of the partner farms in the future. They've also just launched a cookbook, of which more later....

So, to sum up: if you're ever anywhere nearby, stop off. You need to book in advance, but it will be the best meal you've eaten in ages. No question. Below are some more pictures from our hols, which fortunately gave us some opportunities to walk off our giant Riverford lunch!

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Foraging for blackberry jam

Blackberries are such a generous fruit. They just explode out of hedgerows and bushes everywhere at this time of year, gleaming lusciously and begging to be picked - for free! I can't understand why blackberry bushes aren't mobbed by foragers, but I'm glad they're not. I was so pleased to find that we had lots of them near us when we moved, as we left a glorious crop behind us when we left Sussex. I've been popping out whenever I need a break from work, and have quite a lot in the freezer already. This time I decided to turn my new pickings into some jam.

The 'ruby-red river'

I've tried making jams before with a reasonable amount of success, but this is a very very easy recipe I tried for the first time last year. It's from Nigella's How to be a Domestic Goddess, and she calls it 'Hands-free raspberry jam' - although I admit that I wasn't quite that much of a jam superstar as to not use my hands entirely. You heat equal quantities of fruit and sugar in the oven in two separate bowls, pour the sugar on to the fruit, and watch as they melt together into a 'ruby-red river' as Nigella says. Of course my version used blackberries instead of raspberries, but the principle was the same. When I made it last year though I found that equal quantities of fruit and sugar were far too sweet. This time instead of 250g of each I used closer to 350g of berries and 200g or even a little less of the sugar - and it's still more than sweet enough. I also smushed the berries and sugar up together a bit more this time, as the last lot was either very berry-ish, or very liquidy according to what spoonful you got. My quantities filled a standard pot plus a small pot and made me feel very domesticated and ready for autumn. The wonders of summer fruits and veggies may be coming to an end, but I'm prepared. TWO pots. That will see me through the cruel winter.

I know - it looks ghostly doesn't it? I couldn't get the lighting right, but I quite like its mysteriousness

Very very easy blackberry jam (adapted from Nigella)

Makes TWO pots - TWO

About 350g blackberries
About 250g caster sugar

Preheat the oven to 180C/Gas 4
Put the fruit and sugar into two separate bowls or ovenproof dishes - I used a casserole dish and its lid. Put the bowls into the oven for 20-25 mins. Take them out carefully and pour the sugar over the berries. The fruit will meld and melt into the sugar, but mash it up a bit with a wooden spoon if you want a more even mix of fruit and sugary liquid. Pour into cleaned jars. Fasten and leave to cool before keeping in the fridge.

Monday, 1 September 2008

My favourite vegetable curry

Johanna at Green Gourmet Giraffe has been doing a series of posts on her versions of staple dishes like lasagne and shepherd's pie. I like finding out how other people cook their favourites, so here is my take on another veggie staple - vegetable biryani. I never even tasted curry until I was 18, when Munchkin Gramps visited me at university and took me to an Indian restaurant. He had learnt his curry preferences the hard way, when his rugby team at college told him to go for a vindaloo 'because it's mild'. He was much kinder to me and recommended a korma. I like the more lentily tomatoey ones now, but I have to admit to not moving much further down the spice scale since my debut.

This curry is so darn easy because you make it in an oven-proof pot on the hob and then stick it all in the oven. The rice gets pre-cooked with stock, cardamom and cloves, but is then put in with the veggies to finish cooking - in fact, that is the definition of a biryani - a casserole with spiced rice. It's not my favourite curry for showcasing particular vegetables, but when you want a good mixed dish that's extremely healthy, this is the one I go for. It's got no oil in it at all which is somewhat unorthodox - in fact this is a very Anglo take on a curry in general - but it doesn't lose out on spice or taste. I got the base recipe from a low fat cookbook and vary the veggies according to season. This time I used parsnip, squash, green beans (grown by Vicki's carshare partner, whom I have never met, but can vouch for his beany credentials), new potatoes and a couple of bits of carrot I had left over from something else. We like it with naan, mango chutney and (for me, the yogurt fiend) plain yogurt. It's pretty filling and very satisfying.

Vegetable biryani (from Low Fat Cooking by Anne Sheasby) [I can't find a link to this book anywhere - weird. It's published by Hermes House)

Serves 4-6

175g/1 cup long grain rice [I use wholegrain]
2 whole cloves
seeds of 2 cardamom pods
450ml/scant 2 cups vegetable stock
2 garlic cloves
1 small onion, roughly chopped
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1/2 tsp chilli powder
3 new potatoes, chopped into 1 inch cubes
2 parsnips, peeled and chopped
handful green beans, topped and tailed, and chopped
Half a squash, peeled and chopped
Or any other selection of vegetables - the original recipe suggests carrots, cauliflower and potato)
2 tbsp chopped fresh coriander
2 tbsp lime juice
salt and pepper
sprig of fresh coriander, to garnish [obviously I left this out as I never seem to have the right fresh herbs for anything]

Put the rice, cloves and cardamom seeds into a large, heavy-based saucepan. Pour over the stock and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer until all the stock has been absorbed. For wholegrain rice I found this took 35 mins or so - nearer 20 for white.

Meanwhile, put the garlic cloves, onion, cumin seeds, coriander, turmeric, chilli powder and seasoning into a blender or coffee grinder together with 2 tbsp water. Blend to a smooth puree.

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4. Spoon the spicy paste into a flameproof casserole and cook over a low heat for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the vegetables and 6 tbsps water. Cover and cook over a low heat for a further 12 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the chopped coriander.

Remove the cloves and spoon the rice over the vegetables. Sprinkle over the lime juice. Cover and cook in the oven for 25 mins. Fluff up the rice with a fork before serving, and garnish with a sprig of fresh coriander if you are more organised than me.