Sunday, 27 May 2012

Pepsi? No thank you

Phew! The sun is high and the song about mad dogs plays through my mind, unbidden ...
This weather is wonderful for most of us, but how to cool down? I know from scanning other people's shopping trolleys during my routine shop, that bottled fizzy drinks feature high on the list of thirst quenchers. Full of e numbers, aspartame and other sweeteners, these drinks do nothing for our overall health.

Apart from spending huge amounts of time making your own fruit syrups ( I do it as part of my jam making routine) there are a few easy healthy drinks you can make yourself if you have a liquidiser and a few tricks to make more expensive drinks go further.

Fruit smoothies must top the list of easy healthy drinks. They can be made from an endless list of  fruits and vegetables, can use really cheap past their best fruit, be thick or thin and as cold as you like!

basic recipe

a banana
a small punnet of strawberries
half a dozen ice cubes or a slug of mineral water

Put all the ingredients into a good blender and whizz. Pour into a tall glass and enjoy!

Use any combination of fruit you like. Experiment to find your favourite. I usually start with a banana as it gives body to the smoothie. Combinations I like include pineapple and mango with coconut milk, blackberry with apple juice, peaches and honeydew melon. Use any bottled fruit juice lingering in the fridge, use tinned fruit if you have no fresh, frozen is good too. In fact, if you remember from a previous post, I freeze bananas to use in smoothies!
If you have a chance to buy cheap fruit, peel as needed and slice, open freeze it to keep the slices easy to separate when frozen, pack into freezer boxes or bags and label well. Most fruit will keep for a couple of months, but even if you find a bag lurking at the bottom of the freezer a year later, it won't have gone bad, it just won't be such a good texture. Still worth using.

Did I tell you to try vegetables in a smoothie? Well, yes, I did! Part of a peeled cucumber will disappear into most fruit combinations. Hide vegetables painlessly! Carrot juice is very sweet too and tastes nice with apple juice. You will need to juice these harder items as the blender only deals with soft stuff ;)

Expensive drinks for me are any properly made still or sparkling fruit drinks, where, if you read the label, you actually recognise the ingredients! They will typically NOT be sugar free. That is NOT A BAD THING. Yes, too much sugar is bad for you, but the sweeteners most companies use are counter productive to any health regime. Sugary drinks should be only a small part of your daily consumption. Try WATER! Even better, try mineral water, still or sparkling. 
Add a small glass of fruit juice, or add the juice of a lemon or lime, or a good fruit syrup to still or sparkling water. Add ice if you like. Herbs can be used in drinks too. Try bruising the leaves of  Sweet cicely and add to a bottle of mineral water. Leave it stand (in the fridge maybe?) overnight and strain the water into a glass, then add your lemon or lime. This plant acts as a natural calorie and nasties free sweetener. Mint leaves added to apple, pineapple and/or strawberries tastes great. Lovely and cooling.

a drink for a treat

Using a tall glass, fill to within 2" of the top of the glass with real (not sugar free!) lemonade or ginger beer.
Add a scoop of cornish ice cream, a tall teaspoon and a straw. Get it to the table quickly or it will froth everywhere! This is heaven in a glass. Treat status only, I think, or the waistline will expand.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Last beetroot of the year

I've just found some nice heavy beetroot in my storeroom - I grew them last year and didn't they grow! I had a huge crop to keep over the winter, so I put them into a wooden box and layered them with damp sand. Then I forgot all about them :)

I've just rediscovered them, still healthy and starting to grow pale delicate reddish purple shoots.

I will use the shoots in my daily salads, but the roots will need cooking. They are not tender enough to eat raw, like summer beetroot is.

Don't even think of boiling them to put into vinegar - ugh! So many people are put off beetroot like that.

Bake them slowly, wrapped in foil, whenever you are using the oven anyway, for a roast, perhaps? Then when the beetroot are pierceable with a skewer, allow to cool a while, then rub off the skins.

Eat them hot or cold, with a sauce, maybe, cheese, parsley or tomato? They go well with gammon, carrots, garlic, cream and cumin.

baked beetroot

1 kg cooked beetroot, peeled and thickly sliced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
100ml cream
1tsp ground cumin
salt and pepper
4oz cheese and breadcrumbs, mixed

Preheat the oven to 170 C / gas 3, moderate.

Butter an oval or round shallow baking dish, big enough to take all the beetroot.
Place the beetroot slices in a large bowl  and salt and pepper them. In a small saucepan mix the cream with the garlic and cumin and heat through over a low heat for 15 mins. Put the beetroot into the baking dish and add the cream mix. Cover the dish with foil and bake for 40 mins. Uncover the beetroot,  sprinkle over the cheese mix and return to the oven to bake until brown and bubbling.

Friday, 13 April 2012

What did you throw away today?

Someone has gone to the trouble of compiling a list of the 10 foods most often found in rubbish bins. Recently published, it showed the food most often wasted  is bread. In fact, 37 million slices of bread in the UK are thrown away EVERY DAY. That's a shocking statistic. Did you throw bread away today? Why? Had you bought too much? Did you find it mouldering away in your kitchen?

There are many ways to store bread, but the most efficient is in an old fashioned crock bread bin. But only put in there what you think you will finish in a couple of days. Unless you enjoy feeding the ducks in the park ....
If you have a freezer and take sandwiches to work, did you know that if you made your sandwiches out of slices of frozen bread, your sarnies will taste that much fresher come lunch time and be perfectly defrosted sitting in a cool bag by your desk.

We, that is, Keith and I, don't eat a lot of bread through the week, so if a recipe calls for bread, I might find it hard to rustle up enough to use. I generally buy (or make) just one loaf of bread a week to last both of us. If I am lucky enough to see a couple of small loaves in the reduced section at the supermarket, I might be tempted to buy them just to have bread to use up! We had cauliflower cheese for tea tonight, which called for breadcrumbs. I had some in the freezer from the last loaf that went stale, but before it grew mould!

Cauliflower cheese

1/2 a firm white cauliflower
a few florets of broccoli

2 oz butter
1 oz plain flour
a pinch of yellow mustard powder (colmans, I use)
1 pt full cream milk
3 oz strong cheese, grated. (a good time to use up all the bits of cheese going hard and dry in the fridge)
1 oz cheese, grated and mixed with - 2 oz breadcrumbs, any type or colour of bread.
salt and pepper

Put a large pan of water to boil and sit a steamer on top, into which you've put all your veg. You can boil the veg if you don't have a steamer, but you are more liable to overcook it that way, not to mention losing a lot of the taste in the water when you drain it.

In a small heavy bottomed saucepan melt the butter over a low heat. Add the flour and mustard powder, salt and pepper. Let it cook for a minute being careful not to let it burn.
Put 1/3rd of the milk into the pan all in one go and stir hard until the mixture is starting to thicken, but is still soft enough to stir easily.
Put the next 1/3rd of the milk in all at once as before and stir hard again.
When that starts to thicken, add the last of the milk a bit at a time until you have a mixture that is as thick as custard.
You might not need all the milk. You might need a bit more than a pint. Just go with the flow.

Now add the 3 oz of cheese and stir until it melts. And there you have it, perfect cheese sauce.
Now pat yourself on the back for having made something most chefs agonise about when they are learning their profession. I learnt accidentally when I was 13.

Light the oven and set to gas 6, medium hot.
Drain the veg while it still has some resistance to a fork being stuck into the stalk end of the florets. Drain well by leaving it dripping over an empty pan for 5 minutes. It's amazing how cauliflower hangs on to the cooking water.
Next tip it all into an ovenproof dish and carefully drizzle the cheese sauce all over until you've used it all up.

Carefully sprinkle the cheese and breadcrumbs mix on the top, trying to get an even coverage all over.

Put in the oven and bake for 20 mins, or until golden brown and bubbling.

Serve with a few crispy bacon pieces strewn over, or just as it is.

Once you have tried this recipe you will wonder how you ever thought you enjoyed packet cheese sauce, or a cauliflower cheese frozen ready meal. AND you will have used up some of the slices of bread that statistically you would have thrown away that day, possibly some milk and cheese too ;)

Saturday, 7 April 2012

The Art of Using Up

Have you looked recently into the depths of your fridge? Is it an empty beast, or does it hide lots of goodies?

Have you been brainwashed into believing the "use by" dates?

Are you stumped with what to do with a spoonful of this, that and the other?

I often have saved a few cooked veg portions I can't throw out until they look too sad too eat! Not to mention the 1/4pt of REAL gravy from the last roast that the diners were too polite to finish off.

Tonight I did a fridge blitz. I unearthed a few things that went out straight away, but I was left with a few mushrooms - sell by date 3 days ago ( still fresh and bouncy ), a few spoonfuls of nice looking cooked veg and a full 1/2pt of gravy - riches indeed!

In my freezer I had that most useful of ingredients, a box of mince, lamb mince to be precise, bought at a knockdown price of £1.48 for 400g.

Whenever I see mince in the reduced section, I buy as much as I think I can use in 3 - 6 months. It will freeze well for that time. There are so many recipes you can use it for ; Spag bol, minced meat pie, lasagne, beefburgers, shepherd's pie or cottage pie , to name but a few.

Tonight it's just plain mince and onion ( + a few extras)

Mince and Onions

400g mince (beef or lamb)
2 large or 4 small peeled, sliced onions
1/2 pt leftover gravy
1 tsp dried oregano or thyme
1 tbls oil
Any leftover cooked veg, about a cupful will do
A few sliced mushrooms (optional)
Salt and pepper (about a tsp of the one and a few grinds of the other!)

In a heavy pan, heat the oil over a low heat. Add the onions and let them sweat for about 10 minutes. Slow is king here, do not hurry this dish. Add the mince and break it up in the pan, mixing it with the onions, stirring occasionally. Add the herbs, salt and pepper, all the veg and the gravy. Bring to the boil and simmer over a very low heat for about 45 mins partially covered with a lid.

Serve with whatever takes your fancy. It goes well with potato wedges or chips, also roast parsnips or rice.

It will have more flavour if you add a slug of red wine with the gravy, but it'll still be nice without. 

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Hungry Gap

In the centuries before refrigeration and air freighted foods out of season, this time of year was known as the Hungry Gap. This was the time between the winter crops becoming inedible and the summer crops ripening. If you eat seasonally ( and I hope to persuade you to do so) you will be running out of ideas for a decent meal.

I get around the Hungry Gap by using this time to declutter my freezer in preparation for the summer goodies to come. This is allowable, even under a "seasonal only" decision in my book, as you are not importing or using up out of date tough and stringy foods either.

The parsnips have at last been all eaten up, the carrots have sprouted as have most of the potatoes, but I still have preserves in bottles, garlic and onions (although they are on the edge!) dried beans and, of course, the contents of my freezer. I used a pack of my pasta sauce with some frozen mince, added some herbs and pepper to this for a simple, tasty and very quick spaghetti bolognese

There are signs of life in the allotments - my winter lettuces are getting bigger as are my green herbs. Particularly good at the moment is parsley which has spread rampantly across all areas. Did you know you can make a soup out of parsley? Creamy-parsley-soup

For salad there starts the first leaves of spring. A tad bitter, but good for you after the winter. A bit like a natural detox! My salads this week contained chicory, lambs lettuce, chopped parsley, rosemary flowers, dandelion leaves and land cress. All in season and growing now in an allotment near me!

For pudding you cannot get better than rhubarb. My rhubarb this year is very abundant and delicious. This plant was ignored on the whole for many years after the Second World War as it was the only readily available "fruit" that many people could get hold of and with sugar rationing, none too sweet either. Many people living through those years have less than pleasant memories of it and taught this dislike to their offspring. Times change and at last rhubarb is starting to appear on more people's menus. It is so stupidly simple to grow, I do wonder at the price it fetches in supermarkets. Get to know your next door neighbours and you'll probably find at least one of them has a rhubarb patch. Offer to run errands in exchange for rhubarb ....

Rhubarb Crumble

Heat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4
Rhubarb mix

700g rhubarb, trimmed, sliced into 2cm pieces
2 pieces preserved stem ginger in syrup, finely chopped
2 tbsp stem ginger syrup (from the jar)
25g  caster sugar

Put all these ingredients into a medium sized pie dish and mix well. Top with the crumble mix as follows;

Crumble mix
175g  plain flour

50g  rolled oats
100g butter, cut into small pieces
50g sugar

In a mixing bowl rub the butter into the dry ingredients and mix well. Add 50g flaked almonds. Scatter the mix evenly over the rhubarb and press down firmly. Rough up the top a bit with the prongs of a fork. bake in the centre of the oven for about 3/4 hr or until the crumble is brown and the rhubarb tender. Serve with custard, ice cream or cream. All three if you feel particularly greedy :)

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Keep your eyes open!

Shopping is a chore for some of us, but I find it an enjoyable challenge akin to hunting (shooting and fishing). We may live in an urban environment, but good food and especially good CHEAP food, needs winkling out of its hiding places.

Take a walk down most high streets and you will see the same types of foods offered at different prices. They probably came from the same wholesale warehouse and cost the same initially, but a lot of shops operate a loss leader policy to lure in the shopper.

It works like this ; buy cabbages at 50p each, sell at 49p each when all your neighbours are selling at 75p each. Once the shopper is inside the shop wondering why your cabbages are so cheap, she's filling up her trolley with lots more of your stuff because that's going to be cheap too! - well actually it isn't. It may even be more expensive to make up for the discount on the cabbages.

Even the most mindful of us is going to end up paying more for some things than they need to. Pen and paper are useful if your memory isn't up to the task of remembering what cauliflowers cost at Joe Bloggs and what they cost at Fruity Fruits up the road.

So there I was hunting on the High Street when I noticed that one of the half dozen or so greengrocers had reduced their crisp, fresh cauliflowers to 69p when everyone else was selling at 89p or more. AND they were a larger size! Robinsons, on the other hand had aubergines at 39p each, yes, 39p ..... a curry was beckoning.

Vegetable Curry.

2 onions, chopped
1 cauliflower broken into florets
2 small or 1 large aubergine cut into chunks
1 small butternut squash, peeled, de seeded and chopped
A few button mushrooms, halved
400ml tin coconut milk
400ml home made vegetable stock, or a cube if you must
1- 4 tbls Thai green curry paste (depends how hot you like things)
A bunch of coriander leaves, green leaf part chopped (save the stalks to make stock)

If you have been a frugal shopper, you will have got your green curry paste at about £1 a jar, big enough to last for about 6 good curries. Keep the rest in the coldest part of the fridge.
I grow my own butternuts and onions and still had some in the spare bedroom (best temperature to store them!)
Coconut milk should have only 2 ingredients, so if yours has more - bin it and buy some decent stuff from a chinese grocer.
If you have to use different veg, that's ok as long as you use enough, but be sure to add coriander leaf - that's a must.

Fry the onions in a little oil in a large saucepan until translucent, add all the pumpkin, aubergines and cauliflower and fry for about 5 mins to brown them here and there. The heat needs to be fairly high to do this.Stir to stop them burning. Add the mushrooms and fry a bit longer. Add the curry paste, then 5 mins later stir in the stock and the coconut milk. When the pan comes to the boil, turn the heat down so it just simmers gently until the cauliflower is JUST done. The rest of the veg will be done too, but the cauli takes the longest.

Just before serving, add the chopped coriander leaf and serve with either rice or nan breads in the Balti fashion.
This quantity will be enough for 4 portions, but it freezes well or re heated the next day it is sublime! Why is it that some foods just taste better the next day?

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Bananas, yellow, spotted and black

Just how often I end up with less than pretty bananas, I cannot think. Most weeks, I think.
But I haven't disposed of any of them. If I have no time, I freeze them, in the skin - it doesn't harm them.
Then when I need one for a recipe, 10 minutes out of the freezer I can peel and chop them.

There are any amount of recipes around using bananas as one of the ingredients, but the one I use most often is my own. It's the one Keith likes best too and takes no time to make.

Tropical Smoothie

2 small bananas or 1 large banana, spotty or black, never yellow or green.
1 thick slice of fresh pineapple, peeled, but not cored.
1/2 tin coconut milk
1 or 2 tsp smooth peanut butter
Water as necessary

Put the first 4 ingredients into a liquidiser and whizz. Add water to thin to a drinkable medium.
You can add ice cubes instead if you prefer and if your liquidiser is up to it!
If you have no fresh pineapple, use a tin of pineapple in its own juice instead and cut down on the water.

There are hundreds of banana bread recipes around, but the one that appeals to me and most of my friends, is this one: ( it has the advantage of being very easy - foolproof, even!)

American Banana Bread

8 oz plain flour (part wholemeal is excellent in this cake)
1 tsp bicarb. of soda
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
pinch of salt
4 oz butter
6 oz caster sugar
1 tsp lemon juice
3 tbls milk
2 bananas, mashed (easier if they are black and squiggy)
1 tsp grated lemon rind
2 eggs, beaten
Demerera sugar to finish

Grease a 9" x 5" loaf tin and put some liner/parchment paper in the bottom.
Pre-heat the oven to Gas 4. 180C/350F.
In a large mixing bowl, sift the flour, salt, bicarb and cream of tartar. Cut the butter into the flour and rub in well. Mix in the caster sugar.
In a jug, mix the milk and the lemon juice. (The milk will curdle slightly).
In a small bowl, mix the mashed banana with the lemon rind. Stir in the milk mixture and the eggs.
Mix all the banana mixture into the sifted flour etc. and stir well to combine.
Scrape all into the prepared tin and smooth the top.
Sprinkle the top with demerera sugar, quite thickly.
Bake in the centre of the oven for 1 1/4 hours or until a metal skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.
Allow to sit in the tin for 10 mins.
Turn out onto a cooling rack.

This tastes rather nice whilst it's still warm. It's not too sweet either, so if you need to get away from the saccharine sweet taste of Mr Kipling, et al, it's very moreish.

There is a classical savoury dish using chicken, which includes pieces of banana fritter. it costs quite a lot in good restaurants, so why not make your own one day when you're feeling adventurous.

It goes something like this:

Maryland chicken with banana fritters (c/o  Ready, Steady, Cook  - shamelessly nicked!)

For the chicken
1 chicken breast
50g/1¾oz flour, seasoned with salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 free-range egg, beaten
50g/1¾oz white breadcrumbs
25g/1oz unsalted butter
1 tomato sliced in half

For the banana fritters
100g/3½oz self-raising flour
1 free-range egg
½tsp baking powder
30ml/1fl oz milk
1 banana, diced
2 tbsp unsalted butter

1. For the chicken, dredge the chicken in the seasoned flour, then dip it
into the egg to coat. Finally dip in the breadcrumbs to coat
2. Melt the butter in a frying pan over a medium heat. Add the
breadcrumbed chicken and the tomato and slowly fry for eight
minutes, turning once. Remove from the heat once the chicken is
cooked through.
3. To make the banana fritters, place the flour, egg, baking powder,
milk in a bowl and mix together to form a batter.
4. Add the diced banana to the batter and mix again.
5. Melt the butter in a frying over a high heat. Add small rounds of the
banana batter to the pan and fry for two minutes on each side, or
until golden.
6. To serve, place the chicken on a warm plate with the tomatoes and
fritters stacked alongside

Then of course there's baked bananas, just tucked into a medium oven and cooked 'til they're black.
Serve with a spoonful of rum and some thick cream. and what about my nursery favourite - bananas and custard? So many recipes ....... who would now throw any bananas away? Unless you don't like them, of course!