Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Swap Our Gluts!

Before beginning with highlights of yesterday, wish to say more about the Shoestring Gourmet Challenge. Perhaps 'Gourmet' was not the right choice of word, for this does tend to lean in the direction of the Chateaubriands, Duck Confit, and Venison, and all too expensive for the likes of us cost-cutters. 'Gourmet' food is 'fine dining', and although my version means definitely smaller portions (with perfect presentation) and not very expensive at all. In a Michelin star restaurant, every last little thing - like the 'jus' (gravy to you and me) will have been made by hand, and reduced down to a drizzle on a plate,- and this can sometimes take hours to prepare. But again, nothing beyond any of us, if this is the route we wish to take.

As am not seeking a Michelin star, will be aiming to serve more substantial meals - made with quality produce - of the type that the top restaurants are now offering. These dishes often called 'Cuisine Grandmere' (like Grandma used to make), where the presentation is slightly more 'rustic'.

Even 'gourmet' food can be easy enough to make at home. Take chicken liver pate for instance. Whether we choose to serve this as a rough 'terrine', or a smooth spreading pate is up to us. But it is certainly an excellent and simply made pate. The top restaurants would probably serve it with Melba toast), and bread is also something that is also easy enough to bake at home.

We home-cooks need to recognise that we already serve good meals, purely because they ARE home-cooked from scratch. All we need to do to lift them up step further up the ladder is to make sure the ingredients we use are top quality. This does not mean we need always buy the most expensive branded of canned foods, for many cheaper brands are still worth buying. But we do need to be selective for a good brand of canned chopped and plum tomatoes is always worth buying (often they are on offer so then a good time to stock up), for however good our own tomato crop will be, the fruits never gain the depth of flavour that the Mediterranean sun will give. Even top chefs use the canned tomatoes. Many also use ready-made puff pastry.

Other additions to a gourmet's 'stores' are Parmesan cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano), double cream, creme fraiche, extra virgin olive oil and butter. Definitely butter. A small cupboard containing bottles of 'cooking booze' (brandy, rum, kirsch, vodka, limoncello...) means that even a simple meal can be lifted into gourmet heights, and myself find a box of red Merlot and a box of white Chardonnay is very handy (open a top cupboard door, and stick a glass under the box tap) to add to certain dishes. As said before, this does not mean extra expense for us - we just ask for 'a bottle of ....' next time we are asked what we would like for a Christmas or birthday present. One bottle of spirit can last many years in a cook's kitchen.

One last thought, home made pasta is infinitely superior to any dried (also takes a lot less time to cook), and cheap enough to make. Although we have a pasta-making machine that does all the kneading/rolling out (although still have to turn a handle), this is not necessary for after kneading by hand pasta can be easily rolled out in the same way as pastry (but need to be much thinner) using a rolling pin, then cut into strips for lasagne, cannelloni, ravioli etc.

When 'eating out' often the cost of ingredients in a dish we are served bear little relation to the price we pay, and this can be because quite a lot of time and effort has been put into preparing the meal and the cost for this has to come from somewhere. The more chefs working in the kitchen, the more wages to be paid.
In our own kitchen there maybe only us to do the cooking, but then we don't have a restaurant full of people to serve. Begin with just one good dish, then when familiar with the making, add more to our 'collection' as the days/weeks go by.

Yesterday made a good start as did allow myself more time than usual. First the bread dough was made in the bread-machine, and whilst that was doing what it had to do, fetched the last of the chicken from the freezer - B having requested chicken for supper. There were three small drumsticks and two chicken thighs and two big winglets. Half-thawed the chicken then removed the flesh from the bones and put these in a stockpot with the winglets plus large carrot cut into chunks, one onion peeled and quartered, and a good two inches sliced off a head of celery. Also four bay leaves (from our Leeds bush, and frozen).
The chicken flesh was set aside and the stock ingredients put over a low light with enough water to cover (two and a half pints), then left to simmer until late afternoon. To keep the heat really low put a heat-diffuser over the flame. This very low heat kept the stock really clear.

My timing was pretty good for the moment the stock went onto the stove, the bread machine bleeped, so my next task was to knock back the dough, put it into the 2 lb bread tin that had been greased and floured, cover and set in a warm place to rise. The way I do this is to place the tin in a roll-top large plastic container (originally bought to hold cheese, but now always used when making bread or as a mini[greenhouse on the window sill) pour in a pint of hot water to surround the base of the tin, roll down the lid and the bread then rises in a warm and steamy atmosphere. Takes about an hour to rise.

While the bread was rising went into the conservatory and did some repotting of geraniums and give all the plants a good watering. Then a quick trip to the living room to do a crossword, then back to the kitchen to bake the bread, then back to do some sudoko, then returning to the kitchen where I tried to find an interesting recipe for chicken curry as this was B's final choice of chicken dish.

Found a recipe that had all the ingredients that were in my stores, and while holding the booklet in one hand and tipping spices into a pan with the other, B wandered into the kitchen and said he couldn't believe I was following a recipe and must confess this to my 'readers'. At least he was interested enough to realise that recipes could be followed, so began to read the booklet himself and was very soon choosing which dishes he would like to make. He began reeling off ingredients and I had to say whether we had them or not.

Having what was needed was only part of the story for then Beloved then asked "how can I find the things if I want to cook something?". That was a problem, especially as I had just asked him to fetch a jar of ground coriander from the spice shelf and he said there wasn't any. At which I got up from the table went to the shelf and immediately picked up the jar. He can look straight at something and swear blind we haven't got it. (Think this is a man thing for many women have said the same about their men).
So said that when he was ready to cook, I would put all the ingredients he needed on the kitchen table, even measure them out if he wished, and he could take it from there.
One day he may cook us both a meal. But don't hold your breath.

Although rarely do this - preferring to make my own adaptations - yesterday did follow the recipe to the letter, and ended up very disappointed. It dish not have the flavour I hoped for - far too bland for the likes of B and me. But at least it wasn't one of my recipes. Nevertheless B cheered himself up by later asking if he could start the loaf baked earlier that day, firstly snacking on yogurt, then a pile of toast, and then....

The above proves that even a home-made meal can sometimes prove unsatisfactory, and in this instance prefer to blame the recipe and not myself. Even if free-range chicken had been used instead of a cheaper one, this still would not have improved the dish. I myself should have tasted, then tasted again, and then added more spices. Maybe my spices were getting too old (that would be my fault), or a dash of lime or lemon juice would have improved it. There is always room for improvement.

Today begins with bringing the stock back to the simmer, then putting it through a sieve, and reducing the stock down by half - at which point it should have good strength of flavour and enough to freeze away a few tubs. Good home-make stock is another 'gourmet' necessity, and although not actually 'food' - things like home-made redcurrant jelly, mint sauce, other preserves and pickles are other 'tracklements' served with quality restaurant meals. Suppose really we should consider making our own mayonnaise, but will probably keep using a quality 'bought' one, and just make salad dressings at home. Same goes for horseradish sauce - that will still come from a jar as there is only so far I wish to go when feeding two of us. With a larger family - old enough to appreciate the difference - then might make more from scratch.

Have a feeling that I'm stuck in a culinary rut and becoming a sad old git. "Get a life" will soon be shouted at me. But is there more to life than good(e) food? If not left too late, one day may find out.