Saturday, January 21, 2012

Measure Twice, Cut Once...

This time yesterday dawn had broken and it was almost light. Today it still as black as pitch, presumably because of low cloud. It was raining last night with another gale, and is still windy, possibly still raining. So another day indoors, and there was me hoping to get out and sort the pots ready for later planting this year. The seed/plant catalogue makes me want to grow just about all the fruit and veggies and a lot of flowers too. Yet - my aim is to sow only the seed saved from last and previous years and make do with those, then that will really be 'free' food.

On yesterday's 'Hungry Sailors', the Strawbridge father and son went to visit a farm that grew microshoots. VERY easy to grow, but not sure they are cost effective, as if sown less thickly, and each shoot repotted, it should then grow into a full-sized plant, so what is better, a shoot (say basil) with a couple of tiny seed leaves at the top, or a plant with a hundred or full sized leaves on it?

Have just about had my fill of Heston Blumental. As well as his current cookery series, this week I've seen him on three different chat shows, each time demonstrating how clever he is blowing cake cover from a paint sprayer. Maybe sometimes he does have some useful ideas - the very bitter dark chocolate tasting much sweeter if sprinkled with salt - for instance. But he seems obsessed with the technology and chemistry of food, fine in a laboratory, but not much use in a domestic kitchen.

But this brings me to an interesting point, one that I hope you will ponder over, and let me know your thoughts, for I can only speak from how cooking seems to me. Twice recently (both read and heard) it is said that men enjoy the technicalities of cooking, whilst women, in general are not so interested in this side of 'catering', certainly not in domestic kitchens. Men like to use as many different 'appliances' as possible ('boy's toys?), and women can be quite content and manage just as well (if not better!!) using just a few labour saving 'gadgets'.

In the old days, oven heat was either gauged by putting our hand inside and counting the seconds before we started screaming, or (maybe the safer way) seeing how long it took for a piece of bread to get brown. Almost certainly it was a man who 'invented' oven thermostats and the regulo 'scale' of Centigrade (now Celsius), and Fahrenheit and for that we should be thankful. But how far do we need to go when it comes to exactness of heat. Do we need all the different thermometers and probes that are now on sale, some even electric? Most domestic cooks (women anyway) know when something is cooked because they can smell it is. Boiling jam/marmalade allowed to drip from a wooden spoon is as good a guide to 'setting point' than any temperature gauge. We can stick a skewer into a cake or chicken to find out if it is cooked through properly. Perhaps we have evolved to be a little more sensitive or aware of such things.

It is debatable whether Heston's 'extreme foods' taste THAT good. It may be showing some artistic skill to make what looks like a potted plant perfectly edible, leaves, soil and even the pot itself. But sampling a spoonful of what looks like soil, yet was in fact crumbled chocolate or biscuit crumbs would give us more a feeling of relief rather than anything else. Methinks it is the deception we applaud rather than the taste.

Why mess around with food anyway? It maybe true that it helps jaded plates by 'feeding the eye', because the more appetising a meal looks, the more we are inclined to want to eat it, but I always think a joint of beef tastes (and smells) so much better when roasted or braised than when cooked in a water-bath. Oven-cooked meats also make their own 'gravy'.

Was watching the first part of Masterchef late last night and they were wrapping a rolled-up piece of meat tightly in cling-film, then steaming it. Looked great, sliced beautifully, but the only flavour it had was itself I would think, and would need a good sauce to complement it. By turning cooking into a science, really doesn't do much for the food, just shows another way it can be cooked, some methods losing (or at least not gaining) the most important part - the flavour. Is tenderness of meat more important than flavour. You tell me.
If we have to slow cook or even slower-cook meat, then at least we should sear it in a hot pan for several minutes before continuing, as this does help somewhat.

Myself tend to not be too concerned if my oven is set at a slightly higher or lower temperature than the one given in a recipe. If too high whatever is cooked then takes a little less cooking time, if too low it will take a little longer. We need to be fairly exact when it comes to baking cakes, but then I tend to 'know' when a cake is ready because I can smell it. Often this is a different time to the one in the book (certainly with one of Delia's fruit cakes mine is done half an hour earlier than she says it should be) As I have checked our oven temperature with an oven thermometer, do know it is correct as per the recipe. Maybe it is cookery writers who have ovens that are not accurate. Of course it does make a difference if we have use a fan oven, we can then reduce the heat slightly.

Having rolled out pastry with a wine bottle filled with cold water, and grated food on an ancient metal grater, baked cakes in empty sweet tins, and bread in terracotta flower pots, and quite often use the top of a wine-glass as a 'cutter' for pastry, scones, and biscuits, am wondering if we really do need all the gadgets we seem to amass. Think it was the Victorians who began to 'invent' just about everything we might find 'useful' in the culinary area (kitchen and dining room).

What I'd like to know is your approach re cooking. We all know the value of fridges, freezers, and certainly the hand-held electric mixer does save a lot of time and labour, but do we really need sandwich toasters, waffle irons, griddle pans, chef's blow-torches, chip pans, pressure cookers, electric steamers, electric jam-pans, microwave ovens, water-baths, dehydrators, vacuum sealers, silicone moulds, tortilla presses etc to get a really good meal on the table?
I've often been tempted, even owned one or two, but feel only those that 'pay-their-way' are the ones worth buying. The others are just for playing with, and who can afford such luxuries today?

I'd love to hear your 'must haves' and whether you found these worth it in the end, and do tell us about those appliances/gadgets you can't do without. Myself find the food processor is used far more often than my electric mixer-on-a-stand, as I tend to prefer my hand mixer (light to pick up for one thing). The electric slicer has certainly paid for itself many times over, as has the bread-maker. Yet my liquidiser blender is hardly ever taken from the cupboard. The slow-cooker is used regularly, the microwave hardly rarely usedfor 'cooking' (other than a jacket potato, and lemon curd), being normally used for defrosting and reheating.
Suppose the electric toaster and kettle are now pretty well part of everyone's kitchen 'equipment', even though remember that in the past we never found it slowed us down much if we grilled the toast and boiled water in a whistling kettle on the hob. Thankfully, if push comes to shove, there are a lot of things we can still manage to do without needing to any modern appliance/gadget at all.
All I can say is that in my experience, none of these make anyone a better cook. At best they can be labour or time saving (usually but not always the same thing), at worst they have lots of bits that need washing up, and when not used regularly are usually a waste of space.

Both B and I watched a late film last night 'Empire of the Sun'. This I found most harrowing, and was shedding a tear at the very end, but it again brought home to me how war prisoners had to manage on so little food each day (a potato and a bowl of rice - teeming with weevils, so suppose these were the 'protein') and it quite made me ashamed of how much everyone in the Western world seems to want to eat today.

Myself often feel that instead of having British Egg Week (where we are encouraged to eat more eggs) or British Sausage Week (ditto), or even British Vegetarian Week (where the hope is all eat less or even no meat that week), we should have a British World War II Food on Ration Week where we all have to make do on the food ration allowed then. No reason why we couldn't do this anyway. Anyone game to try this challenge later in the year?

Although did manage to work through the frozen cabinet in Boris, there were few items that could have been added to my list, but as these were mainly tubs of assorted stock, part-packs of puff and shortcrust pastry, boxes of berries (blackberries, raspberries, gooseberries, blank and red currants etc) - each clearly labelled, so no real need for keeping a record. Several things in bags/tubs that had no name (when will I learn to label EVERYTHING?!!), and did unearth a breast of lamb, this now defrosting in the fridge to cook on Sunday.

There were a few opened bags of veggies (peas, sweetcorn, oven chips), and a few desserts (Summer Pudding, Chocolate Fondant, Chocolate Gateau...). Also quite a number of containers holding ready-cooked stewing steak, brisket etc. Plus others with just gravy. A container or two holding 'cubes' of tomato puree, lemon juice, herbs etc. A pack of filo pastry, some naan bread, and did find two small balls of bread dough that I will soon be defrosting to make a pizza base.

There was no lamb's liver for B's supper, so instead defrosted a container of cooked stewing-beef-in-gravy, added that to some fried onions plus a can of chopped tomatoes and a good shake of Hot Paprika, with a bit of Bisto Best beef granules to help thicken it a bit. Cooked a couple of thinly sliced carrots separately with some halved small potatoes, and when these were tender, added them to the beef. Finely shredded cabbage was steamed and served with the 'casserole'.
This made enough for both B and myself with plenty left over for me to either blitz to make a Cottage Pie, or turn it into a large of Cornish Pasty, or smaller meat pie, or even make - with the left-over cabbage and some added cooked pasta - a type of Minestrone Soup.

Beloved is out again tonight (he was out last night as well), this time going to the Annual Dinner of the dinghy side of the sailing club, this held at a local hotel, so no doubt he will eat loads and gain back the weight he has lost. This means I don't have to cook a meal for him tonight, so might make myself a pizza to munch in front of the TV (memo: cook sausages to slice and put on top of pizza, thaw out tomato puree also for topping, not forgetting to thaw out the bread dough. Frozen and grated Mozzarella can be used from frozen).

We're just about out of bread (AGAIN!), so today must bake another loaf. Still haven't made cakes and biscuits, maybe will do today although these are 'treats' that B will eat as his 'snacks' and not as part of a meal, and already the thought has come into my mind that this would waste ingredients that could have been used in a 'proper meal'. Mind you, have so much flour and sugar, even dried fruit, that making several cakes will not make much of a dent in the pile. More likely I'm using this as excuse not to bother to bake, than concerned about hoarding my stores.

Have suddenly looked up out of the window and see it is now fully daylight - how can that happen in just one hour without me noticing? The dark must have been because of the heavy grey clouds still there, but on the visible 'horizon' (the bit I can see between two houses) there is much lighter, and possibly clear sky to be seen. Let us hope it comes our way.

Only one comment sent in - this from Margie in Toronto. Enjoyed reading this as it shows that when we stop and think, we often find we can do without the food we had originally planned to buy, and carry on 'making do'.

This reminds me of what B used to tell me (of of his many jobs was being a salesman for cloth), that when making a garment, to make sure you get the measurements right, it was necessary to place the patterns carefully so there would be as little waste as possible, In other words: 'measure twice, and cut once'. So by tranferring this to food, we can 'think twice and cook once', pr maybe buy something other than planned because it was cheaper for the main meal, or make sure the food we have bought goes as far as possible.

Even when dealing with something as simple as pastry, there is no real need to make round (say) vol-au-vents, we can make square, oblong or triangular ones, as cutting these from a slab of puff would then use all the pastry, not leave scraps that are not so easy to use up as short-pastry. If we are working on numbers, then a dozen oblong pastry cases would then leave a very usable piece of puff left over, than if cutting 12 circles.
Often we do have pastry scraps and sometimes these can be used to decorate the pie lid, but why do this if we can collect the scraps (store them in the freezer), then later - when we have enough - roll them out to make something 'useful' with them.

Puff pastry scraps are difficult to deal with due to their layers. If possible lay the flat scraps on top of each other and they can then be rolled out to maybe cover something, alternatively, gather them up in a ball and roll out, cover with plenty of grated cheese, fold into three, repeat, roll again and cut into thin cheese 'straws'. After baking they will end up rather oddly shaped, but wonderfully crisp and tasty.

Good gracious! In the space of very few minutes, most of the heavy cloud has disappeared and the sky is now blue with just a few fluffy white clouds dotted here and there. Still blowing half a gale though.

Back to food (sorry I do get distracted). When we are using what we have, we can either use the foods in the normal way, or think twice before preparing. Do we really need two onions when one might do. Or two carrots? Make up any shortfall by including something else that really does need using up (mushrooms for example). Use half a can of chopped tomatoes instead of a full one, decant from the tin and freezer in a container for later use. Use a little less rice or pasta if we can, alternatively use a little more if we feel the dish needs 'padding out'.

We can fry one whole egg, adding the yolk of another instead of frying two whole eggs (there is normally enough white in one egg to allow for this). Reason why is that we then get a 'free' egg white that we can either freeze or use for another dish (even making a few meringues with it).
We can add breadcrumbs when cooking scrambled eggs to make them go further, and by adding one third fine dried breadcrumbs to grated Parmesan, this also means we can use less cheese (good when making Parmesan 'crisps').

Trade mag has just been brought to me by B. Don't like what I see on the cover, so took a peek inside. Seems that Tesco are about to do 'dual-pricing', with some foods sold cheaper in 'less affluent areas', in competition with Aldi and Lidl. Certainly good for those who can't afford to shop anywhere but at the discount stores, but I'm wondering about ME! We are fortunate (because we were lucky enough to buy our home at knock-down price)in that we live in one of the best parts of Morecambe (or said to be - and it really is charming), so would affect my on-line shopping? Will have to wait and see.

Another 'cover mention' has caught my eye. Seems that free-range egg suppliers have been asked to take action as free-range systems are more vulnerable to disease than cages. Possibly it is more the health of the bird than the eggs that is of concern, but the more hens lost through disease, probably means free-range eggs will then be higher priced.
A full read of the trade mag will be done today, so wait until tomorrow to find out if we have anything to be glad about. Or if there is more to come that will depress us.

A 'three-in-one recipe today - starting with the basic, then this leads on to make at least three quite different biscuits, so well worth making them all. The oven temperature: 200C, 400F, gas 6 is the same for all, but the cooking times are different.
Using this recipe you end up with two 'free' egg whites, so with an extra 4 oz (100g) of caster sugar you could also make loads of meringues to dry off in the cooling oven (leave in the oven for at least 8 hours without opening the door).
Basic Biscuit Dough:
6 oz (175g) butter, softened
2 oz (50g) caster sugar
2 oz (50g) icing sugar
2 egg yolks (see above)
2 tsp vanilla extract
11 oz (300g) plain flour
For all biscuits shown below start the same way. Using a wooden spoon mix together the butter, sugars, egg yolks, and vanilla, then mix in the flour half at a time. Then choose your biscuit and continue...

chocolate orange cookies: makes 22
1 batch basic biscuit dough
zest and juice of 1 orange
4 oz (100g) icing sugar, sifted
finely grated chocolate or choc vermicelli
Add the grated orange zest at the end of making the biscuit dough, then roll into a long sausage and cut into 22 pieces. Roll each into a ball and place on baking sheets. Bake for 15 minutes (200C etc) until golden, then leave to cool.
Mix the icing sugar with enough of the orange juice to make a thick, slightly runny icing. Dip each biscuit into the icing so it covers half, then coat the iced half with the chocolate. Leave to dry on a cake airer.

custard creams: makes approx 20
1 batch basic biscuit dough
4 oz (100g) softened butter
5 oz (140g) icing sugar, sifted
2 tblsp custard powder
food colouring
Roll the biscuit dough out thinly on a floured pastry board, the cut into 40 small even squares (each approx 30cm square). Place on baking sheets and bake at 200C (as above) for 8 - 10 minutes until golden.
Meanwhile mix together the butter, sugar, custard powder and food colouring if using (yellow is best, but you could use pink), then pipe or spread this on one of the biscuits, and top with another. When all are done, dust tops with a little icing sugar.

Spicy Spirals: makes approx 20
1 batch biscuit dough
2 tblsp demerara sugar
2 tsp cinnamon
Roll out the biscuit dough on a sheet of baking parchment to a 20 x 30cm oblong. Mix the sugar with the cinnamon and spread this evenly all over the dough, pressing it gently in with the rolling pin. Begin rolling up from the narrow end, pulling the parchment paper over as you roll to keep it tightly together, then wrap the roll in the parchment and chill for an hour (or even overnight if you wish).
When ready to bake, slice thinly into 20 or so rounds, then lay these flat on baking sheets, scattering the tops with a little more sugar, and bake for 10 - 12 minutes (200C...) until golden.

Spoke too soon. Sky now covered with cloud again, but at least not as 'heavily' as before. Not that I'm bothered as will be cosily tucked up front of the TV once I've got my kitchen 'chores' out of the way. Not that there is much on TV on a Saturday, so will probably spend a few happy hours reading cook books. Might even do a bit more clearing up.

Suppose most of you will be too busy to 'have a read' or even send a comment, but hope that some of you will. Already looking forward to our 'get-together' tomorrow morning, and please make sure you enjoy your weekend. TTFN.