Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Skippity Skip

I've moved home and am now at http://distractedgourmet.wordpress.com/. Please direct your browser there.... NOW!

Friday, 4 September 2009

52 weeks, 52 chickens: Week Two - Super Tasty Spanish Roast Chicken

So, week two got off to a good start, after I went to the Hampshire Farmer's Market to pick up a lovely free range chook from Noah's Ark Farm. I was making another Jamie Oliver recipe, also from Jamie's Dinners, called Super Tasty Spanish Roast Chicken - how could I resist, really? There's no 'cooked' photo in the book, and I haven't got one either, as I ran out of light, but the thought of crispy roast chicken skin tinged with the dark crimson of smoked paprika from the chorizo garnish was enough to get me motivated. I had to cheat here slightly as Jamie's very keen that I buy an organic free range bird, but the only ones I found at the market were about double the price of a supermarket one. Why should I pay for a chicken to eat what I can't afford? Pah!

Week Two: Noah's Ark Free Range Chicken

So, here's the bird - £8.41, not too bad. And with giblets... scary! Luckily, these were bagged and were swiftly removed to the freezer. I haven't come across a recipe that needs them yet, but I'm sure I will, and it always seems to be when you don't actually have any... I've had a traumatic past experience with giblets which gives me a totally legitimate reason to get freaked out by them, I'll have you know. As a spotty youth I was charged with making the roast dinner at my uncle's house one Sunday, and, for some reason, this involved me submerging a whole chicken in a sink of water, probably to defrost it. As I did so, the cavity filled with water, and out popped a dishevelled brown bag filled with chicken guts, which promptly exploded and covered my hands and the dead chicken with scraps of heart and liver. Ugh. I tend to keep away from guts now...

Anyway, so. Here's the costing:

Noah's Ark free range chicken, 2.2kg : £8.41
Tesco chorizo sausage : £2.99
2 for 1 baby potatoes, costed for one 1kg packet : 59p
4 lemons : £1.00
Bunch parsley : 79p
Garlic : 20p

Grand total : £13.71

Chorizo is so damn expensive, but luckily, it's totally worth it.

Week Two: Ingredients for Gremolata

So, Jamie wants you to make a (looks it up) gremolata, which is chopped lemon zest, raw garlic and parsley. Never made this before, and it was delicious. I don't know that it will be my condiment of choice for roast chicken hereafter, but a little exploration is what it's all about, right?

Note that Jamie's recipe calls for a beaten egg - this phantom egg doesn't appear in his online version, but it's been confuddling cooks online for a while, because it never gets used in the recipe. I think maybe Jamie just wants you to beat an egg for this recipe so that you can ponder that age old question - which came first? His answer being, presumably, that the egg never came at all. Wow, philosophical...

Week Two: Super Tasty Spanish Roast Chicken

So, here is the chicken all dressed up and ready to party. The cavity is filled with hot lemons and parsley stalks - I definitely will always boil my lemons first before adding them to a chicken to roast. I first came across this in another Jamie recipe and it really helps the lemon scent to flavour the bird - it steams it in lemon scent. Of course, I am an idiot, and I turned the oven off about ten minutes before this step, so the chicken had to sit on the side and generate some delightful bacteria before I could put it in the oven. No, luckily that didn't happen, but obviously hot food + raw poultry + sitting around = bad idea.

Before you pop the chook in the oven, though, you have to cover it in damp parchment paper, which 'seal in the juices'. I have to say, this part didn't work so well for me. The paper got quite burned, and left a bitter taste to the flesh and juices, and charred paper also coloured the stock a muddy grey. I don't know how necessary it is, but I might use foil if I did it again... Which I won't for a WHOLE YEAR. Probably.

Week Two: Super Tasty Spanish Roast Chicken meal

This is the stunt double meal - like I said, by the time I got to serving dinner, the light had totally gone, but luckily there was enough left over for me to take this shot the next day.

I served the chicken with ratatouille and Leon's Magic Beans, and it was delicious.

Week Two: Super Tasty Spanish Roast Chicken meat 'n' taters


M gave it 8.5. He likes chorizo, he likes chicken, he likes potatoes. Altogether, a pretty good combo. The gremolata went down well, so a good success. But he did wonder how it was possible to ever score a 10, and frankly, so do I...

I gave it 8. I really liked it, but it somehow wasn't chorizoy enough for me. I wanted the rich, greasy, spicy taste of the chorizo, cut with the zesty fire of the fresh lemon. It was a lot more subtle than that. Also, the parchment paper really didn't do well on top, and I didn't like having grey gravy... And, as per Jamie's instructions, I sprinkled parsley on the top, which was a mistake, as it pretty much got cremated and turned very bitter. On the up side, it made delicious spuds and we had loads for lunch the next day!

Week Two: Super Tasty Spanish Roast Chicken meat 'n' taters closeup

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Julia Child and Yan Can Cook

When I was a kid, me and my mum would watch the food channel on cable TV endlessly. I really miss those programmes. Nowadays we have loads of UK-centric programmes and British food celebrities like Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver. But when I was little and I wanted to watch a TV programme, who I really wanted to watch was Julia Child and Martin Yan.

Julia Child isn't particularly well known in the UK, but she's hugely loved in America. What I loved about her, apart from her crazy voice, was her slapdash attitude which saw food flicking all over the place. Yet somehow, out of what I perceived to be culinary chaos, she managed to turn out pretty damn good dishes. To be honest, I loved Julia Child more for the comedy value, but the more I've learned about her since I've also come to respect her as an accomplished chef. I'd love to read her book Mastering the Art of French Cooking, especially after starting to read The Julie/Julia Project. It seems as though the foodie world is aflame with plenty of Julia love, thanks to the recent movie based on the blog, starring Meryl Streep. The film hasn't come out in the UK yet, but I don't think it'll make great waves here - as I've said, Julia Child isn't really a big name for the British public. Our equilvalent is, of course, the reliable and slightly fiesty Delia Smith.

Now, Martin Yan. All I really remember is him shouting 'if Yan can cook, so can you!', then furiously chopping some vegetable into ridiculously thin slices, or pulling off some amazing feat of culinary skill totally beyond the realm of normal people. I can safely say, Martin Yan has more skill in the kitchen than I ever will, but his infectious, goofy presenting style also won my girlish heart. Bless him! Completely coincidentally, he's also the author of Chinese Cooking for Dummies, which sits proudly on my bookshelf near Sushi for Dummies, Puppies for Dummies and Cats for Dummies. All fantastic recipe books.

"Set it aside!"

Saturday, 29 August 2009

52 Weeks, 52 Chickens: Week One - Leftovers, hoisin chicken buns

I thought I'd see whether I could adapt a recipe I'd used and loved before - hoisin chicken buns from Cooking Light, by way of Cooking Cute. I tried it, and it worked well, although I'm always a bit funny about using leftover chicken and not cooking the hell out of it. I'm still alive, though... so I guess in that respect it was a complete and utter success. Maybe if I made this again, I'd heat the chicken before stuffing it in the bun, but it does get cooked again in the oven, so maybe that would be overkill.

Week One : Leftovers - Hoisin buns

To make this recipe, I made a batch of white bread dough, which is never any sweat with my bread maker. The original recipe calls for frozen dough, but I've never seen that before here in the UK - and it's just yeast, water, salt and flour after all, so easy to put together.

The filling I stripped from the chicken carcass - I must have used the meat from one leg and two thighs, plus whatever I pulled from underneath. Shred it up, then add it to 3 tbsp hoisin sauce, 1 tbsp oyster sauce, 2 tsp rice vinegar and a bunch of spring onions you've shredded finely. I also added salt to mine, but my hoisin sauce was that terrible cook-in sauce stuff, rather than the proper condiment you eat with duck. If you manage to pick up some real hoisin sauce (why was that so hard, Sainsbury's?) then you should reduce the amount you use down to 2 tbsp.

Hoisin buns on tray

Once you've made your dough, turn it out and cut it into eight pieces (or more if you're making them for bento), and roll each piece into a size slightly bigger than your palm. Place a spoonful of the chicken mix into the middle. Pull four corners into the middle and pinch, then do the same again with the leftover tabs. It's helpful to rock the bun back and forth at this point to shape the top nicely. Set it on an oiled tray and put the rest together.

Hoisin buns on cooling rack

Cover and allow to prove for 20 mins in a warm place. Preheat your oven to 190C and then brush the buns with beaten egg and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Bake for 15 mins, or until golden. You can also bake them for a shorter amount of time (12 mins or so) and then freeze them to bake again another day. (There are great instructions here for freezing and then reheating the buns at Cooking Cute.)

Hoisin bun halved

Allow to cool slighty, then eat!

These also make a great lunch or snack, and can be eaten hot or cold. I really love these chicken buns! But, please make sure that everyone has one before you start to eat... unfortunately, the spring onions are a little whiffy. M ate one in the cinema the other day when we went to see Inglourious Basterds, and it didn't really help the atmosphere, I have to tell you.

In other news, I'm off to the farmer's market tomorrow to pick up my second chicken. Whoo! Wish me luck - I'm leaving really early so hopefully I can bag a good chook!

Friday, 28 August 2009

Dishing the dirt on Thanksgiving 2008

I've already mentioned that I love Thanksgiving. It allows me to, without constraints of expectation, indulge in a huge amount of culinary exploration, cook scores of brand new dishes, obsess for days and days over what I'm going to cook, and buy loads of new cookbooks. Oh, and look at photos of Thanksgiving tables on Flickr for hours to figure out what everything's supposed to look like. None of my friends or family really know what it's all supposed to taste like, so whether it's a disaster or a triumph, it's going to get eaten just the same.

However, I do tend to get carried away.

This is blindingly obvious to you, I'm sure, having read the first paragraph. Gemma's rule of cooking number one, is why cook one dish, when you can cook three? Last year, that was translated into Thanksgiving terms as, why only have roast potatoes, when you can have three kinds? Also, why have two side dishes, when you can have seven? And, why not do it all, barring the intervention of my sainted mother, pretty much by yourself?

My long suffering mother helped here with the cooking, and she laid the table and provided the house and kitchen that hosted these festivities, but when it comes to the kitchen, I'm a bit of a lone ranger. There's no way I expect other people to have the same kind of dogged determination as I do when it comes to these epic feasts. Besides, life's no fun unless you're pitting your very being against the clock. If I ever thought anything to do with cooking was easy, my first instinct has always been to make it harder. More of everything! Double the quantities! Can we fit in another course?

So, mostly for the purposes of self-gratification, here's my menu from Thanksgiving, 2008.

Thanksgiving Menu

Winter squash soup with prosciutto and sage
Seasonal pate and toast

Main Course
Savoury apple-onion turkey with
a selection of American apple-cider gravy or traditional English gravy

Potato Dishes
Traditional English roast potatoes
Classic Thanksgiving mashed potatoes
Thanksgiving sweet potatoes

Side Dishes
Mixed winter vegetables
Lemon-butter green bean casserole
Classic Thanksgiving corn pudding
Cheddar-scalloped baby onions
Thanksgiving dressing
Traditional English sage and onion stuffing
Homemade cranberry sauce

Pumpkin pie
Chunky peanut, chocolate and cinnamon cookies
Both served with cream and vanilla icecream

So, let's break it down.

My soup starter came from Thanksgiving 101, by Rick Rodgers, page 21. It's basically a creamy butternut squash soup with salty, savoury ribbons of pink Italian air-dried ham stirred in, and was really nice. I'd make it again for Thanksgiving, but like a lot of the things I eat for this stolen American holiday, I wouldn't eat it any other time. The pate is a bit of a cop-out, shop-bought and served with toast, a bit of a concession to the fussy eaters in the family. As you can see from the rest of the menu, there's a lot of that going on!

Savoury Apple-Onion Turkey, and the accompanying gravy, came from Betty Crocker's Complete Thanksgiving Cookbook, page 20-1. I don't remember this being amazing, but I think the gravy was a bit of a disaster. I've never made a gravy I've liked that wasn't our family recipe. This is not the fault of other gravy, or particularly an indication of the greatness of our gravy. I just can't get along with other gravies, or I completely have no clue how to make gravy 'properly'. I'd love to make a gravy I liked, but if I want something to satisfy my gravy urge, I have to break out the roast juices, Bisto powder and Oxo cubes. For shame! Other people liked the apple cider gravy, but I could happily never have it again.

The roasties are self-explainatory, but the classic mashed potatoes are another Betty Crocker recipe, same book, page 71. However, since then, I have discovered the ultimate mashed potato recipe in Sheila Lukins' bloody fantastic USA Cookbook. It's called Garlicky Red-Jacket Mashed Potatoes, and it is the only mashed potato recipe I'll ever bother with. It involves cider vinegar (ha ha, a use for that new bottle of Norman cider vinegar I brought back from my holiday), sour cream and red potatoes, and it's glorious. Bless Sheila Lukins and her kick-ass cookery book. I'm slowly reading every single recipe in there like it's my new religion, and I can also whole-heartedly recommend her awesome Tomato Balsamic Vinaigrette, which is so good I don't mind how fiddly it is. Anyway. The sweet potatoes were actually slow cooked, another good old BC recipe (page 79 - I hope someone's using these... who am I kidding?). I don't think anyone ate them.

Mixed winter vegetables were my mum's contribution, which I think were just boiled cauliflower and cabbage or something. Lemon-butter green bean casserole is a Nigella recipe, which has been on the table every year since I started my Thanksgiving tradition. It's not really a proper green bean casserole as I understand it, but it's basically lemon guts and juice, with copious amounts of butter, pepper and salt. Delicious. Also good whenever I get green beans, which isn't often, but I do love them.

The corn pudding is another BC recipe (Classic Baked Corn Pudding, page 83). Really tasty, this is basically loads of milk, loads of eggs, loads of cheese, and obviously sweetcorn and breadcrumbs. It was tasty and heart-blocking. Totally unlike anything else I ever eat, and I might cook it again another year.

Cheddar-scalloped baby onions was equally artery-clogging and came from Thanksgiving 101 (page 81) and was a more elaborate version of Creamed Onions. As I said before, why make the simplest version of anything when you can complicate matters further, especially if that complication comes in the form of cheese?

The Thanksgiving Dressing I have no memory whatsoever of. The English version was Paxo. I love Paxo. Forget the poncy versions they come up with, sage and onion stuffing cannot be bettered. To try is an utterly pointless waste of time. Paxo rocks. For the cranberry sauce, again, a blank. It might very well have been the Fresh Cranberry-Orange Relish from Thanksgiving 101, page 94. But then again, maybe it wasn't.

For my pumpkin pie, I procured a stupidly expensive can of Libby's pumpkin puree, and followed the instructions on that. I read in Thanksgiving 101 that Libby's reckon 55 million pies are made from that recipe every year, so who am I to argue in my pursuit of the real American experience?

Chunky peanut, chocolate and cinnamon cookies are courtesy of Martha Stewart via a Thanksgiving copy of Martha Stewart Living I picked up in New York a few years back. I feel like I have my Holy Trinity of Thanksgiving Gurus lined up here - Martha, Betty and Nigella. (Except, of course, that Betty isn't actually a real person... Fictional gurus are still pretty kick ass, though.) The first chapter of Nigella's Feast is the first time I'd ever read Thanksgiving recipes, which didn't exactly kick-start my obsession, but it certainly added fuel to the fire. These cookies are great to have in the freezer, and wound up lasting me until the next year. Delicious! American cookie recipes always seem to yield about three dozen cookies, which is great if you want freezer fodder. If you didn't freeze them all, though, how the hell would you get rid of them?

As a last minute, why have two puddings when you can have three kind of addition, I also made Dark Chocolate Cream Pie from Thanksgiving 101 (page 121), which went down very well indeed.

So, there's the dirt on last year... I wonder what I'll do this year?

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Not really a gourmet

Although this blog is called 'The Distracted Gourmet', I have to admit to you that, apart from the 'The Distracted' part, I'm nothing of the sort. A gourmet is, after all, someone who has discriminating taste, and although I'm always up for a bit of food snobbery, I can't pretend I have one refined bone in my body. I'm all about everything, when it comes to food, and although my squeamish sensibilities won't induce me to eat offal (I have to throw in 'knowingly' here, because goodness knows how often I've eaten minced floor sweepings disguised as sausages before I put my foot down), I'm pretty easy about most things. In fact, when it comes to anything a little bit foreign, I absolutely delight in the commonplace and the ordinary. How else can you explain my delight in buying cans of French green beans from Carrefour, in the full knowledge that these haricot verts are exactly the same no matter which side of the English Channel you're on? Or devouring ready meals purchased from an am-pm near my hotel when I stayed in Tokyo for a week a couple of years ago?

The food selection at GeraGera manga cafe in Shinjuku, Tokyo. The simple fact I took a picture of this should be enough...

Where ever I go, I always try to explore using my stomach. I use food as a way of peering into strange new worlds. The most exciting thing for me to do in a new country (I'll admit, I haven't been to many, please don't think I'm well travelled) is go to a supermarket. My friends think I'm nuts. Maybe, if you're reading this blog, you know where I'm coming from. There's just nothing more exciting to me than groceries. I stalked every aisle of every supermarket I visited when I went to France this month. And needless to say, I went into every supermarket I saw, even when it involved leaving Sara and Michael in a McDonald's, and dragging Rachel across industrial scrubland, across car parks and down slopes obviously not meant as pathways.

Maybe I am a bit of a food snob in my homeland, but when I'm abroad, I turn into a food hussy. I'll have anything, the lowlier the better. A can of casserole, you say? Is it FOREIGN? Well, I'll try it. In England, if you tried to feed me stew from a tin, I'd gamely eat it and then bitch about you behind your back in a shocked and hushed manner. But abroad, well, it ceases to be crappy food and turns into an archaeological gem, revealing to me the mysteries of these strange alien beings that look a little like me, but are decidedly stranger. At this moment, I have in my cupboard a packet of French mashed potato. When I eat it, no matter how bad it is, I will feel like a culinary explorer. I know that's odd and sad, but really, there are no losers in a situation where a 26 year old woman can get genuine happiness out of box of dehydrated potato.

That's right, fellow food explorers, this is the SAME VARIETY of French mashed potato I have in my cupboard. It has the word 'gourmande' on it. How could I resist?

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

British bacon and asparagus sushi

Even though nobody cares but me, every so often I sort of get myself into this little crusade to link together British and Japanese cooking. Don't laugh, it's actually not completely far fetched. Did you know that some very essential Japanese sauces, like okonomiyaki and tonkatsu sauce, are based on Worcestershire sauce? Did you also know that curry rice came to Japan from India by way of British companies? Come on, you can't tell me you thought that brown gloop came from anywhere but the UK...

So, every so often I come up with something that's sort of Japanese, but using British ingredients, and it's never worked so well as it did with this scattered sushi recipe. It's really simple, and it's really good - and it's great for hot summer days, too. Probably one of the main reasons this works is because the vinegar in the sushi rice dressing mimics the acidity of tomato ketchup. Hey, whatever it is, it tastes lovely.

2 cups Japanese rice (around 430g)
6tbsp sushi rice vinegar (or check label)
1 tbsp sake (optional)
1 piece dried konbu (optional)
2 eggs
1 egg yolk
2 tsp cornflour
Large pinch salt
Pinch sugar
Vegetable oil
Packet streaky bacon (smoked or unsmoked - your choice!)
500g asparagus tips

Make your sushi rice – I recommend you buy a rice cooker, as it takes all of the guesswork and stress out of cooking rice.

Firstly, wash the rice thoroughly and leave it to soak for half an hour. Then, drain and add your sushi rice to the same quantity of water in your rice cooker. Add the sake and konbu if using, then switch on and leave to cook. Once it has finished, leave it to rest for 15 minutes.

Turn the rice out into a damp, flat container (like a pyrex oven dish) and add the sushi rice vinegar. Using a damp wooden spoon, turn the rice gently to coat it in the seasoning. At the same time, fan the rice to cool it and help it to absorb the dressing. Continue until no visible steam rises from the rice, and place it under a damp kitchen towel.

Make thin Japanese omelettes by combining the eggs, egg yolk, salt and sugar in a bowl. Add the cornflour dissolved in 4 tsp water. Heat the oil in a frying pan, and add enough oil to coat the base. Thinly cover the pan with the egg, and heat until almost set. Then, turn the omelette over to finish it off. Do not allow it to colour. Continue until all the egg has been cooked, then roll the omelettes up and shred them finely.

Fry the bacon until very crispy. Snip into small pieces.

Steam the asparagus, and when cooked, remove the tips and slice the stems into small coins.

Divide the rice into four bowls, and top with the bacon, asparagus and omelette.

There you go, a summery fry-up. Well, sort of.

52 Weeks, 52 Chickens: Week One - Leftovers, hot and numbing chicken

So, here we are on our first round of leftovers with the chicken from Jamie's Feel Good Chicken Broth. I don't have very much in the house, so dispensing of the rest of the chook is going to be a real challenge. Luckily, I have the very handy and excellent Sichuan Cookery by Fuchsia Dunlop, which has about four or five easy and tasty recipes for cooked chicken at the front. Today I made hot and numbing chicken (not to be confused with numbing and hot chicken, which mixes spicy chilli oil and toasted, ground sichuan pepper together with soy sauce and sugar to create a really delicious cold dish.

Week One : Leftovers - Hot and numbing chicken and cucumber

You're supposed to serve this with spring onions, but sadly I don't have any in the house, so we made do with half a cucumber. Pretty nice! I'm growing to really appreciate cucumbers as an accompaniment to hot Chinese dishes, as the slippery, refreshing crunch is a great counterpoint to the spicy, salty tastes from Sichuan cookery.

Chicken broth and spicy chicken salad

I served the salad with hot plain rice and the last of the chicken broth. I thought this would make a cleansing balance for the spiciness of the chicken salad, but sadly, I was wrong. The broth was totally overwhelmed by the chilli and ended up tasting of nothing. Shame. But hey, it all looked pretty on the table, and that's all that matters... Right?

In other news, I need new placemats. Look at them. Shabby.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

52 weeks, 52 chickens: Week One - Feel Good Chicken Broth

I'm always one for jumping into things immediately, both feet first. So, after making spreadsheets about chicken prices in supermarkets at one o'clock in the morning and devising a list of chicken recipes I wanted to try out, I decided to make my first chicken recipe on Monday evening.

I've been feeling a bit under the weather for a good few days now, so I decided to make Jamie Oliver's Feel Good Chicken Broth from Jamie's Dinners. At first this was partly because I thought it would be one of the cheaper recipes, because it's basically chicken, boiled with carrots, celery, bacon and rosemary. And it would have been, except Jamie expressly lists an organic, free range chicken in the ingredients. Damn.

I decided to add another rule to my list since yesterday, but I'm perfectly willing for this to be optional, money permitting. The idea is that if the recipe expressly calls for a certain kind of chicken - corn-fed, organic, whatever - I'll hunt that out. That way, I can judge the recipe fairly. After flicking through Jamie's Dinners, it seems as though Jamie is a chicken snob of the highest order - who would have guessed, right? - as every recipe calls for an organic, free range chook. Free range I get, but organic? Organic chickens are significantly higher in price (I know, I did the spread sheet at one o'clock in the morning) than any other kind of chicken, and I have to be honest, I don't know whether that makes any difference to the chicken or the taste. So my cheap mid-week dinner (all right, start of week dinner) turned out to be really pricey.

Week One: SO Chicken

So here's the costing:

Sainsbury's SO Organic Chicken, 1.5kg : £9.16
Two carrots : 10p
Basics celery : 55p
Two rashers smoked bacon : 76p
Three sprigs of rosemary : free, from garden

Total cost : £10.57

Ah, would have been so cheap if I'd been able to get an abused chicken. Oh well. To be honest, I've always wanted to try something like this, to see how good good ingredients can really be if they're cooked simply.

So, I popped into Sainsbury's and picked everything up before borrowing my dad's Nikon D50 to take photos. Only, I'd left it a little too late in the evening, and with the light rapidly fading I was forced to take the final photos today.

Week One: Feel Good Chicken Broth, The Beginning

As far as ease of method goes, this is a pretty simple recipe. You simply simmer the chicken with two roughly chopped carrots, two sticks of celery and 1 rasher of smoked bacon (I used two, because I felt like a dip asking for one rasher at the butcher's counter) for one hour and five minutes, then add three sprigs of rosemary in for another ten minutes, ensuring you skim the white residue off the top every now and then.

Week One: Feel Good Chicken Broth - Broth boiling

So I was very good and followed the recipe exactly, until I got to the end and wound up with lots of vaguely chickeny flavoured water. So I strained it like Jamie said, but instead of serving as it was with salt, I put it back in the pan and simmered it until it tasted stronger.

I ended up finishing this task after 11pm. Good job I'd already eaten a baguette stuffed with pancetta that was going to go off the next day, slathered with French mayonnaise and my favourite mustard ever. With litres of chicken stock and a whole poached chicken sitting in my fridge, it's a good job Jamie posted this about how to use up left over chicken. Another addition I made at this late stage was to sit the chicken in some of the stock in the fridge, to keep it tender and moist. In theory, anyway...

So, today, I got the chicken and stock out and did a test run for tonight to see what the soup would taste like, and to take some pictures before I had to give the camera back.

Week One: Feel Good Chicken Broth - Chook and Saffy

As you can see, Saffy was a fan of chicken au natural. I found it to be rather tough. Maybe I overboiled it, or maybe as this is a recipe for chicken soup and not poached chicken, the point is that the stock is flavourful and not that the flesh is tender.

After all my boiling down, I ended up with about 1.2 litres of chicken stock, which didn't quite set to jelly. After I'd removed all the chicken and flavourings yesterday, including the rosemary, the taste of rosemary was there, but very faint. Today, it was barely there at all. I guess reducing the stock damaged the taste of the rosemary, so maybe it should only be added ten minutes before you intend to stop cooking if you're going to reduce it like I did. So, in order to bring the taste of rosemary back, I added a rosemary garnish, just like the photo in the book.

Week One: Feel Good Chicken Broth - Broth before stock

The end soup is rather greasy, thanks to all the fat given off by the chicken in the cooking process. I had to add a tonne of salt, but when I did, the chicken stock was really delicious and flavourful. The meat, as I said, was slightly tough. I didn't cook it again after yesterday, just put the cold pieces in and covered with hot stock, so it can't be down to cooking it twice. Ah, well.

Week One: Feel Good Chicken Broth

All in all, a tasty, simple chicken soup. But that's all - chicken soup. You can't really get around that this is a simple dish - I would love someone to cook this for me when I'm sick. But whether it was worth a tenner, I'm not so sure.

I'd imagine we'll use all of the stock in our soup tonight, along with maybe a quarter of the chicken. That gives me quite a lot of left over chicken meat to use in meals for the rest of the week, so it's actually not a bad dish, economy wise. Thank God for that. (But of course, it would be cheaper again if you didn't buy an organic chicken...)

So, the scores.

M gave it 6, saying that the rosemary garnish really packed in some extra flavour. But, it's soup. Very nice soup, but soup.

I gave it 6.5, for pretty much the same reasons. It does feel really luxurious to be able to make soup with a whole chicken just to get some tasty stock, and I'm glad I did it. But there's no way this is going to be the highlight of the challenge. I hope! I'd make it again, but I don't know if it's worth making it with an organic chicken.

Monday, 24 August 2009

52 weeks, 52 chickens

So I'm thinking, I need a challenge. Almost instantly I started thinking about cooking a whole chicken every week, for a year. I really can't remember how my thought processes got to this so quickly. I think roast chicken has been on my mind for a while, ever since I found a delicious chicken, ready to cook in an enamel tray, for sale in Jamie's Recipease in Brighton at the weekend.

Probably not the most daring or extreme challenge anyone's ever come up with, but hey... I'm a real person here, and I've got stuff to do most of the time. Like, work, and watch crap TV. But this challenge isn't going to be a walk in the park. I've decided to impose some rules.

1) No cooking the same recipe twice. If I cook the same recipe twice this year, it won't count towards my 52 chickens goal.

2) The recipe must involve a whole chicken. Although I thought about including recipes that involve cutting up the chicken, I'd like to see whether I can keep up a challenge of cooking the chicken whole, to make it slightly more difficult. Spatchcocked chicken is fine!

3) The goal is 52 chickens in a year, preferably one per week, but I'm giving myself leeway to cook two in one week, provided they're different recipes. You know, because I'm going to be jetsetting and terribly busy for moments of this year, I can feel it.

4) The price of the chicken, the origin of the chicken, the recipe and what happened to the leftovers must all be recorded.

5) The overall price of the dish must be recorded, along with marks out of ten from M and I. Obviously, every dish must be blogged, with photos if possible. At the moment, I have no camera, so this should be really interesting...

I'll be really interested to try out different priced chickens. I don't think there's a foodie on the planet who doesn't want to buy high welfare chicken every time they shop, but there are loads of budget ranges for whole chickens out there, so I'll be testing those out along with the corn feds and the organic free range chickens to find out what the difference really is. I figure this will give it a bit of a variety, and hopefully save me a bit of dosh to counteract the cost of the pricey ones.

I'm also really looking forward to scouring my cookbooks for some really unusual recipes, and working hard to ensure that I don't get totally sick of roasted chicken... If anyone knows any good chicken recipes, let me know!

Sadly, today's salt-baked chicken doesn't count towards my total, because I actually made that way back in June. (Still looks good though, after all that time...) For shame!

My Franch Holiday

A while back, in my Economy Gastronomy post, I wrote that I had been living off about £15 a week for food for two people for a few months. Maybe some of you read that and went, "woah, what a liar", or possibly, "why?", or maybe even "£15? She's the lucky one, I have to walk ten miles every day to eat food from a rubbish dump". No matter what your reaction, I feel like I must explain myself.

I decided to go on holiday with my dear beloved to Franchland, so we could visit a few of the places that we used to when he lived there. We stayed in Granville and drove up from St Malo, and had a blast visiting Cherbourg and Mont-St-Michel. But, in order to fund this jolly, we had to seriously scrimp on the shopping, fasting in order that we may feast our little hearts out eating chips and steak twice a day the whole time we were there.

(Mont-St-Michel - like Lord of the Rings meets Harry Potter. Totally fricking awesome, didn't think I'd like it half as much as I did, but it rocked.)

We worked out a budget of £60 per week for food, and then, whatever was left at the end of the week, we put into a pot to save for France. We ended up taking over £700, which should indicate how much we've been scrimping. But, it was worth every single last can of Tescos Value Beans, because I bought everything that wasn't nailed down, including copious amounts of fleur de sel de Guerande and salted caramel everything. My cupboards are now full of delicious French foods from the supermarche, and I am content. AND I'm back up to £60 a week for food, and I feel absolutely rich beyond my wildest dreams. I even bought a sliced white loaf of bread from Sainsbury's the other day, which is the first time in ages I've not baked my own. Yes, baking your own bread is fun to begin with, but when you have to do it three times a week to save money, the novelty soon wears off, even with a breadmaker.

(Picnic on the beach at Granville - worth every scrimping minute)

As far as how you live on £15 a week, it's pretty easy. Bake your own bread, like I said, that saves money. Having a well stocked larder and freezer is obviously a cheat, but also pretty damn essential. I buy huge packets of chicken thighs and drumsticks and freeze them in pairs, which is very thifty. Mince is a massive essential around here, as well. Eating very little meat makes things easy. I make massive batches of chilli and bolognaise when I can. Eggs are great value and Sainsbury's do these great family packs of free range ones which are really cheap.

I reckon it generally just helps if you're really stingy, and your OH doesn't mind eating wheat biscuits and marmite sandwiches every single day of his life (he actually insists on it). Even so often, I'd cave and buy something with my own money, rather than our joint account, so I can't claim to be totally angellic about this, but I'm sure you can see why I feel totally vindicated in laughing my ass off at the fantastic savings to be made from following Economy Gastronomy.

Salt-baked chicken

I've always wanted to try this dish, and it was absolutely amazing. I bought a corn-fed chicken and it made a huge difference. The chicken was fantastic - so tender and moist. Honestly, I never thought it would come out that well, but I was wrong! The only downside is that it was really hard to get a hold of the right amount of sea salt at a reasonable price.

Also, try the dipping sauce, it is amazing. There's really no other word for it.

Chicken, weighing approximately 1.6kg
1 tsp fine salt
3kg coarse salt, or more, depending on your pan
Bunch spring onions
Large piece fresh ginger
2 tsp sugar
Pinch salt
4 tbsp cooking oil
Steamed pak choi, to serve
Cooked rice, to serve

Wash the chicken thoroughly inside and out. Sprinkle 1 tsp of fine salt in the cavity of the chicken and rub in. Add an inch of smashed ginger and one spring onion to the cavity. You can also add dried tangerine peel.

Select a heavy bottomed saucepan with a lid which is slightly larger than your chicken. Ensure that there is not an excess of space around the chicken, as you will need to use extra salt to cover the space.

Place the salt in the saucepan and allow to heat for five minutes, until slightly browned and smoking. Remove half of the salt and nestle the chicken on the top layer of the salt, then pour the rest over to cover. Cover the chicken and cook over a low heat for 10 minutes. Then, remove the pan and place it in a pre-heated oven at 200c or gas mark 6. Cook for 45-60 minutes, or until the juices run clear.

Remove the chicken from the salt, and brush off the excess, and rinse before allowing to cool for 20 minutes. Then, chop the chicken into bite-sized pieces. The traditional Chinese method is to cut straight through the bone of the chicken, but you may wish to remove the bones to serve.

To make the dipping sauce, peel and grate the remaining ginger, and finely chop the spring onions. Heat the oil in a pan until smoking, then pour the oil onto the ginger and spring onions – make sure you use a heat proof bowl for this! Mix in the sugar and salt to taste.

To serve, plate the chicken and allow diners to help themselves, dipping the chicken into the sauce and alternating between the accompaniments of steamed pak choi and rice.

I'm not going to lie, it was scary. It was fiddly. It was pretty expensive. It involved a lot of trial and error, and also I'm still not totally sure about the best way to cover the chicken economically, but I would so do it again. It was that delicious.

Sunday, 23 August 2009


I had to pop into the Choccywoccydoodah cafe, even though all I drank was tea... Of course I had to. Just check out the menu, for cripes sake. M had a delicious peanut butter shake. After stealing a sip, I have to say it was exactly what was called for - a real thin, subtly flavoured shake which was really refreshing in the heat. I'm sure most people would have wanted something thicker and stronger, but we had to save ourselves for Jamie's Italian...

While we were in there, a couple were browsing through a catalouge of cakes,while the waiter hovered over them. This made me prick my ears up because I'd only just been talking about how I used to drool over Choccywoccydoodah wedding cakes a few years ago during my first round of wedding planning.

"This one would be about £800." the guy was saying.

I nearly inhaled the milkshake straw.

K, M and I exchanged glances filled with the agony of being too poor to spend £800 on a cake.

"Or something like this would set you back about two grand," the Choccywoccydoodah man was saying.

I didn't see exactly which cake this was, but I'm sure it was suitably amazing.

"It's not the materials that cost, it's the work that goes into it," he continued.

Blimey. For someone who takes nearly two months of sweating over a keyboard to earn that much cash, that was one painful sentence. I'm definitely in the wrong profession.

To check out the host of chocolatey delights we could have chosen from, follow this link to the cafe's menu.

Jamie Oliver in Brighton

Yesterday I went to visit my lovely friend Katie in Brighton and stumbled upon Jamie Oliver's Recipease, which is a food and kitchen shop that runs cooking lessons and sells kitchen equipment, ready prepared food and other bits and bobs.

I was totally shocked. I had no idea there was one in Brighton, but I'd been lusting over the one in Camden a while back, trying to see if I could fit in a recipe sesh during one of my trips to London. Ach, as if. So when I went into Recipease, I was, as usual, like a kid in a candy shop. I must have walked around that shop about three times, touching everything.

"I want to buuuuy something..." I moaned.

I'm always like this. If I go somewhere cool, and there is a shop, I must buy something. I feel like an explorer gathering exotic artifacts to bring back home - to prove I've been somewhere. Like, if I don't bring something back, I might forget I ever went. It's sort of a way of taking a bit of that coolness and preserving it forever in my house - which is of course what those hard hearted marketing bastards want me to think.

So I wandered around and around, a helpless consumer, past the class learning how to make pasta (I'd love to be in a pasta cooking class!), past all the ready cooked meals, past the mixing bowls and glassware, past all the bread and the jam, and back again. Eventually, I bought a set of measuring spoons, cos I always run out, even though I have three sets already. That'll show those doubters back home I went to Jamie's place!On the way back out I picked up a leaflet about the store, and we retreated to Starbucks to spend M's vouchers - which he turned out not to have, but that's another story. I took a look at the leaflet, and on the inside it had a map of all the foodie destinations Brighton had to offer - including a place called 'Jamie's Italian'.


I knew Jamie Oliver was making a chain of Italian restaurants, but I didn't realise there was one in Brighton. Why had no one told me? I like Jamie Oliver. I like Italian food. I like Brighton. Why did the world conspire against me to hide this amazing combination of pleasing concepts? I'm totally shocked I didn't get invited to the launch party.

So of course, we had to go check this place out, and very nice it was too. We got in about ten past six and waited for about forty minutes - nowhere near as long as the 1-2 hour waiting time we'd been warned about earlier in the day by the host. We were seated right near the entrance, so it was only until someone ventured forth to find the loo that we realised how big this place really was, with loads of tables behind the bar, plus a whole floor upstairs. There was a really fun, foodie vibe about the whole place, generated by the chefs slicing up ham and waiters cutting hunks of bread, plus the chalkboards and Italian paraphernalia about the place like olive oil and legs of dead pigs.

Unfortunately, I only have one very bad photo of my food, which was taken on my phone, so you'll have to forgive the crapness. I had a small portion of 'delicious crab spaghettini' and a 'seasonal antipasti meat plank', which I had brought at the same time as the mains because no one else was eating a starter. In my defence, my whole meal cost less than K's main, so there. It's really good to be able to get a cheaper, smaller main course if you fancy pigging out on a starter. I wonder how long they'll keep it up before deciding it's losing them too much money though...

M had the sausage pappardelle, K had lamb chop lollipops, and I think J had spaghetti bolognaise. We all enjoyed ours - K the most. I think it definitely lived up to the brief of showing Italian food to be a celebration of simple ingredients and flavours. The food was lovely, but not overly 'special' or fancy. I definitely appreciated being able to have a couple of smaller courses without spending a fortune.

Of course, this will be the last time I ever need anyone to make pasta for me, as I'm definitely going to enroll in a course and become a pasta-making guru myself. I don't know if I'll do a TV show about it, I haven't decided yet.

On my Brighton trip, I also managed to fit in visits to Inside Out, Choccywoccydoodah and Montezuma's. More on that in other posts...

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Popular Photos

I've been on Flickr for a couple of years now, and you can check out my photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/bentobusiness. One of the things I like about having a Pro account is finding out which are the most popular photos, because they're certainly not ones I would have thought would be the most popular, especially considering I don't really rate them as photos.

At number three, we have Frugal Potato Soup:

I kinda get this one, I guess people are always trying to save money and it's not a bad photo all round, and it also has a pretty handy recipe listed... but why it's more popular than other recipes I don't know. I feel like labelling all my other recipes with 'frugal' just to see what happens!

At number two, we have Christmas bento:

The appeal of the Christmas bento is obvious - everyone likes bright, colourful Christmassy things. I'm still disappointed that this didn't come out completely the way I wanted it, especially the crappy ham and cheese stars, but there you go. I bought the wooden tree decorations in the shot especially for this photo, but they're brilliant and I totally love them. Good purchase, me!

And, at number one, my most viewed photo EVAR, it's: Chinese spring rolls

Ugh, how embarrassing. But, the most popular in my photostream. I must admit, this has the absolute best, kick ass recipe for spring rolls you will ever eat. My mum can't even eat spring rolls from the takeaway any more, because in comparison, all spring rolls suck. Yes, this recipe is that good that I'm totally unafraid to boast shamelessly about it. And, the credit isn't totally mine, because they were adapted from a recipe I got on an Asian food course at a local college, so it's not even boasting. At the time of writing, the photo's had nearly 6500 views, and let's face it, no one's checking it out for the photography... I totally hope people are actually making this recipe, because, as I may have mentioned, it fricking rocks.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Panna Cotta

I've loved panna cotta ever since my parents bought a delicious cranberry and orange one for Christmas from Marks and Spencer one year. Buying it sort of became a tradition, but for a long time that was the only flavour I'd tried. I'd always thought making it would be too hard, but after browsing through a few recipes, I realised it was pretty simple.

I wanted to make something with matcha for my recipe in NEO this month, after my holiday in France when I spotted a rice pudding recipe with it in in a cooking magazine. As you can see, the results, are pretty good! Getting the recipe right was pretty tricky, and I went through three batches before I got it right, ending up adding more gelatine and matcha powder by the end.

Also, check out my nifty new verrine in the top pic. It seems as though all of foodie France is totally obsessed with these cute little glasses, which you fill with sweet or savoury treats to show off to your guests. First of all, I came across recipe books for them in the Forum, then I found a shop with loads of them on sale. Obviously they were so cute I had to buy them, and once I did, everywhere I looked there were hundreds of the blimming things. Now I've got two sets of spoons specially sized for mini glasses (I should have bought the cute little forks too...) and two cookbooks dedicated to them... I wish I'd bought more, but that's just me...

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Coca Cola Freestyle

Who doesn't love vending machines? More importantly, who doesn't love Coke? I love Coke. Do you love Coke? It's possible that the entire population of the world, with the exception of my fiance, Michael, loves Coke.

So, in this age of consumerism, where everyone wants to do their own thing, and forge their own, brave trail through the mountains of life, what better than a vending machine that dispenses customised drinks? Why drink lemonade like everyone else, when you can make up your own beverage? Why toe the party line when you can be an inventor? A brave discoverer of new culinary frontiers?

You know what, I may sound sarcastic, but this is fricking awesome and I want to go to America right now so I can try one of these babies out.

The deal is, Coca Cola has unveiled this new breed of vending machines, called Freestyle, which are programmed to dispense 140 different flavours by way of a touch-screen interface. You simply select the basic drink you want (Coca-Cola, lemonade, etc), and then you can add further flavours like cherry or whatever. Apparently, you can also choose your drinks by calorie count, or caffeine, and you can even choose how much to put in your cup - I know that sounds lame, but it does mean you can add loads of different flavour combos, so you can add in some limeade on top of that cherry cola to create something a bit more unique - and probably utterly disgusting.

Coca-Cola will be monitoring every transaction (Big Brother, Big Brother, 1984 has come!) and might use the machines to trial new flavours and see what consumer demand is. The vending machines supposedly use some new magical technology which makes it possible for the machines to stock a much larger range of flavours than ever before, and keep everything fresh, so it's mixed right on the spot. So, this is more of a soda fountain than an actual vending machine, but I won't argue.

If you live in Orange County, California, you might have seen one of these in your local restaurant. Lucky b. I hope you like them, because if you do, maybe we'll end up with them in the UK. One day. I can dream.

Economy Gastronomy

I watched a hilarious programme last week, which I'd seen advertised when I was on holiday in France (TV from the Channel Islands, gotta love it) but forgot about until I browsed through the On Demand section of BT Vision, looking for a cooking show. I sort of knew Economy Gastronomy was going to be lost on me when I heard one of the presenters, Allegra McEvedy, claiming you could make three or four meals out of one £16 fish, one of which was evidently composed mostly of bones... Anyway, I watched the second episode, which followed a family that spent £17,000 a year on food, and still managed to eat crap. Magically, Allegra and Paul Merrett reduced their outgoings by something like three hundred quid, down to over two hundred a week. Needless to say, having spent an average of £15 a week on food and household stuff like cleaners, shampoo and toilet rolls, for two people for the last three months, I was unimpressed.

In a way, I feel sorry for the presenters, as obviously their hearts are in the right place, but the concept's had to be jazzed up for TV so it sounds more exciting. But still, when Allegra McEvedy cooked up over £20 of beef for a daube which was supposed to last three meals, and then added in a tonne more other ingredients which surely doubled the price, and then one of those meals turned out to be lunch, I totally lost the will to sympathise. It must be a really hard gig, but surely they could have reduced their weekly bills by a lot more than they did. I want to see suffering. Blood, sweat and tears. And don't even get me started on the marinade recipe which appeared to call for just the juice out of a jar of preserved ginger...

Economy Gastronomy is on BBC2 Wednesday at 8pm, or can be watched on iPlayer at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00m5wtl. If, you know, you want a laugh.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

The Elusive Thanksgiving Dinner

As a Brit with no real American friends - at least, not for years since I fell out of touch with various people - Thanksgiving holds a real fascination for me. Not only because it's at the heart of the American experience, but also because it's both every where and totally evasive at the same time. Thanksgiving episodes parade on the TV all the time, always with a great big dinner slap bang in the middle of it, but precious little is ever really said about what the heck everything is. It's weirdly like a roast dinner, but weirdly not, and this difference has always fascinated me. I remember watching a Thanksgiving episode of Friends where all the characters gather together to recreate their favourite meal, for me, the best part of the episode was learning about what actually went into a Thanksgiving dinner. Even after all that, there's still plenty that mystified me... what the heck are tater tots, etc.

Ever since I started being able to call the shots in the kitchen and spend my own money on food, every year I've led friends and family alike in a crazy crusade to recreate a proper American Thanksgiving. Every year everyone has to suffer through bizarre concoctions which are distinctly unfriendly to the English palette*. And every year I still feel like I haven't quite got to the real American heart of Thanksgiving. But it's around this time of year that I start thinking about it again, and get my books out in order to figure out what I'll be serving up in November.

In reality, I think the part that's missing is the fact that the dinner, divorced of the holiday, is really not the Thanksgiving experience, but I've never been one to turn down the opportunity to roast a big chunk of meat and have my friends around to eat, no matter what the circumstances.

* I fully appreciate that most Americans will want to lynch me for this sentence, but bless you, sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top is pretty bizarre this side of the pond... And should you feel disgruntled, just think about our fondness for eating yeast extract on toast and you'll understand where I'm coming from...