Friday, April 27, 2012

Always Room For Improvement

Cooking isn't how it used to be. In my Mum's day I remember her having only one cookery book (the Be-Ro booklet). Everything she cooked was cooked from memory. As did most mothers in those days when recipes were passed down verbally, generation after generation.
Now it's all got very silly. Hundreds of new cookbooks are published each year, not to mention countless cookery mags, and all contain mainly variations of the few recipes that have always been around. It's no wonder we can get confused.

In more recent years we do seem to have developed a taste for the 'foreign', and this is not surprising for it can be very flavoursome. Also many countries where these originated have always had cooks making the most of their ingredients as they had little money to spend, so the 'ethnics' can still be some of the cheapest dishes we can make. They are so used to cooking these ingredients that any preparation comes almost like second nature, when to us it can be a real 'chore'. As an instance, in the Far East, just a cleaver is used for cutting/chopping everything, whereas here we seem to have a different knife for each job.

It's also very interesting to see how many countries serve very similar foods. In India they eat the chapatis and puris as their 'bread'. In Mexico the flour/corn tortillas either soft or crispy fried. Italy has its own form of 'flatbread' (incl pizza bases etc), and in the good old UK we have our sliced bread and Scotch Pancakes (boring!). No doubt other regions of the world have their own - and different - versions.
In Europe our 'staple' foods are wheat (that we tend to use mainly for bread, cakes, biscuits and pastry) and potatoes. France probably is much the same as us, but probably eats more 'crepes' (aka posh pancakes) than we do. Italy turns the wheat flour into many different forms of pasta. In the African countries the bulgar wheat and couscous is served with meat dishes. In Asia and the Far East rice is the basic 'carbo', and in the Americas cornmeal often takes the place of wheat flour. As I say, there is nothing really new, just variations of a carbohydrate.

Take any 'basic' foodstuff and we will find the same-but-different all over the world. We have only to think of the endless varieties of cheeses. The UK now has a great number of delicious and recognised varieties of cheese, and France of course is renowned for its cheeses (many quite different to ours), and where would we be without the Italian Parmesan? Having eaten American cheese have to say there is room for improvement, but their fresh produce (seen in their New Jersey supermarket) puts ours (even our imported) to shame. I've never seen such huge apples, oranges, lemons, grapefruit, potatoes, tomatoes etc... and such a wide variety of each.
Having said that, on the day we went shopping most 'locals' in that store seemed to be filling their trolleys with only convenience foods, and I noticed at the checkout that very few had bought 'the fresh'. How sad is that? Even my cousin (an English girl who loves to cook) had bought a packet of 'convenience mix' to make the pancakes that seem to be served at every American breakfast (as seen in films/TV).

Have to say that perhaps I am a bit old-fashioned about whether or not we should use anything 'convenient', so over the years have now changed my mind. After all, custard powder was one of the first of these 'ready to make' that appeared in our kitchens well over a hundred years ago. Now we accept this as the 'normal' way to make custard, and it is only the canned, or 'instant mix to make with water' (or even the aerosol custard)that we now class as 'convenient'.
So we should allow ourselves to use some 'time-savers' as long as the main ingredients are still 'fresh 'n best' and prepared by us. Myself occasionally use bread 'mixes', and prefer to use jars of quality curry sauce (purely to save me time and avoid having numerous jars of spices that never get used up before they have lost all their flavour). I even use (part) packets of some casserole mixes, and occasionally Bisto granules of various flavours.

Yes, I could make all these from scratch, but is there really any need in this day and age? So feel there is no reason why SOME 'convenience' foods should not be stored on our shelves. Just make sure we don't take a step too far and buy everything ready-made (as so many still do today), for then it is not just a very expensive way to eat, not always good for us due to all the additives and preservatives they contain, but by eating the 'readies' we also lose the good flavour that we can gain (far more cheaply) when making the best part of a meal ourselves at home.

All too often these days we hear people remarking wistfully about food that tastes so good it is like 'home-made'. More than one said this to me when they ate at the 'curryfest' the other day. At first I was a bit narked, as I'd hoped my meal tasted more like 'quality restaurant' than 'home-made', but then -when you come to think of it - anything that tastes of 'home-made' could be counted superior to that made in some 'eateries'. Couldn't it?
So - by taking a few short cuts - let us keep on with the home-cooking, and with this in mind offer today's recipes that this time do use a few storecupboard items to save time, but still worth making.

This first uses bought chorizo sausage and passata. The rest is prepared from 'fresh'. So you get the best of both worlds in this dish that is packed with flavour. This can be made in bulk and surplus frozen, so you can feed the five thousand by making more, or freeze in individual portions to serve just one according to your wish.
If you don't have passata, then blitz a can of plum or chopped tomatoes in a liquidiser or food processor to make a tomato 'puree' which can double as passata. We don't mind a few tomato seeds here and there do we? If you don't like the seeds then rub the puree through a sieve to make a 'proper passata'.
Butternut and Chorizo Stew: serves 4
6 oz (175g) chorizo sausage, thickly sliced
1 large onion, chopped
1 x 687g jar passata
1 butternut squash (approx 1kg), peeled and seeded
salt and pepper
Put the chorizo into a large pan and place over a high heat to cook for a couple or so minutes or until the sausage begins to release its red oils. Remove chorizo from the pan, then add the onion to the oil left in the pan and fry for five or so minutes until starting to soften.
Meanwhile cut the squash into half-inch (1cm) chunks (or a bit larger if you wish) then, when the onion is soft, add the passata, squash to the pan, also putting back the chorizo. Bring to the boil, cover, reduce heat and simmer for 15 - 20 minutes or until the squash is tender but not too soft. You may need to ad a little water to the pan if the 'sauce' has become too thick. Add seasoning to taste, then serve in individual bowls.

Here is another storecupboard meal, and one I'm not be ashamed to make because it is so speedy. The only really 'fresh' food is the prawns (and even these would come from our freezer) and you could reduce the amount by (say) 3oz/75g without it making much difference to the dish.
Suppose we can count the herb as also 'fresh' (as long as we grow our own), and as we don't care for the flavour of fresh coriander, myself would substitute parsley leaves only (or omit the herbs altogether).
The curry paste can be either Indian or Thai flavoured and you choose the 'heat'.
Curry in a Hurry: serves 4
2 tsp sunflower oil
3 tblsp curry paste (see above)
2 onions, finely sliced
1 lb (450g) frozen peeled prawns, defrosted
2 x 400g cans chopped tomatoes
salt and pepper
1 bunch coriander, leaves and stalks chopped
Put the oil into a frying pan with a teaspoon of the curry paste. Place over a medium heat and when the oil is hot, add the onions and fry for about five minutes until softened. Stir in the rest of the paste and cook for a few minutes longer before adding the tomatoes and prawns.
Bring up to the simmer and add seasoning to taste. When heated through, fold in the coriander (saving a few leaves to sprinkle on top) and serve with rice or naan bread.

With the bit now firmly between my teeth, am now giving a real 'storecupboard' winner. This time the easiest paella ever (but only as long as you have all the 'makings' already in your larder. The turmeric gives the paella its yellow colour, instead of using the traditional saffron (which is more expensive). If you haven't either then use a drop or two of yellow food colouring. If you have none of any, you will find the red oils from the chorizo still add some colour to the dish. Whether the rice is red, yellow or just white - this dish will still taste just as good.
If you don't have a pack of 'seafood mix', then use oddments of fish you have in your freezer, maybe a 'Fish Pie Mix' (salmon, smoked haddock, white fish) and add some thawed frozen prawns. Or you could use some canned salmon and/or canned tuna with thawed cooked prawns.
Easy-Peasy Paella: serves 4
1 tblsp olive or sunflower oil
1 onion, sliced
4 oz (100g) chorizo sausage, chopped
1 tsp turmeric (see above)
10 oz (300g) long-grain rice
1.75 pts (1 ltr) hot chicken or fish stock
6 oz (175g) frozen peas
14 oz (400g) pack defrosted sea food mix, see above
salt and pepper
lemon wedges for serving
Heat the oil in a large frying pan and cook the onion for 5 minutes until softened, but not browning. Add the chorizo and fry until its oils begin to run freely, then stir in the turmeric and rice. When the rice is coated with the oil, pour in the hot stock. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 15 minutes - giving the occasional stir.
If using a fish pie mix (uncooked fish), add these after 10 minutes so they cook along with the rice, then add the peas for the last five minutes of the cooking time.
If using a packet of frozen and defrosted 'seafood mix', then add these at the end of the cooking time, allowing a further 2 minutes cooking to allow them to heat through. Check that the rice is cooked and add seasoning to taste, then serve immediately with wedges of lemon.

Final recipe today makes use of couscous (often difficult to find an alternative use for this). Again made from foods that many of us do have in store, and a good way to use up the odds and ends of yogurt, cheeses (it doesn't have to be feta) that we have. These 'fritters' make a good light lunch or supper dish, and would also eat well at breakfast instead of 'hash browns' (or similar). Instead of the sundried tomatoes, add a bit more of a 'kick' by using chopped Peppadew.
Couscous and Cheese Fritters: makes 4
6 oz (175g) couscous
7 fl oz (200ml) hot vegetable stock
1 egg, beaten
3 tblsp natural yogurt
salt and pepper
3 oz (75g) feta cheese (or similar)
2 oz (50g) sundried tomatoes, finely chopped
3 spring onions (or one small shallot) finely chopped
2 tblsp sunflower or olive oil
Put the couscous into a large bowl, and add the stock. Give one stir, cover, then leave to stand for 5 or so minutes or until the grain has absorbed all the stock and have softened.
Stir the yogurt and egg into the couscous and mix well together. then add seasoning to taste.
Crumble or grate the cheese, then fold this into the couscous mixture along with the chopped tomatoes and onions, then form the mixture into four and form into 'cakes' or 'burgers'.
Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium heat, and fry the 'fritters' for 3 or so minutes on each side until golden and crispy. Serve hot with a green salad and a spoonful of your favourite spicy relish, salsa or chutney.

It is lovely to hear from you again Kathryn, and although sorry that your depression had returned, do hope that you are now feeling better and enjoying a life that is far less stressful (although in many ways might be very busy - in a nice way of course).
There is no feeling as good as 'managing to cope' when using our own efforts, however tired this may make us feel at times, and at least we make our own 'pressures' and can put our feet up in the middle of the day if we can find time (something we can't do when 'out' at work). We don't need money to be happy, just as long as we can keep our heads above water when it comes to paying the household bills.
It must be lovely to be able to ride 'Dolly' more often, and good to hear how you are getting 'free' eggs (which must save quite a bit of money when it comes to cooking up a meal).

Even if I did suddenly become 'popular' again, there is no way I'd want to do more TV. When involved with this the first time round found it so stressful my b.p rose to sky high, I had nose bleeds, and had panic attacks. Things I don't need to face now. Am happy just writing about my cost-cutting, and maybe (one day) will gain more and more readers.

Did notice the Mexican 'offers' that Lidl were having (from yesterday until the middle of next week) Les. Worth buying now what you might be needing shortly for your 'Mexicanfest'. Do let us know your menu when you have decided, and how you got on with making it all.

As you say Jane, on-line shopping is far less tempting that shopping in-store, although shopping 'from the screen' means we do miss some of the very-much-reduced items that are only discovered when browsing through the 'reduced' section at the end of some of the aisles. At least not having to go to the store does save time and I suppose fuel as even though we do have to pay a delivery charge, the 'points' we amass usually covers this cost. The time saved we can then use to do more home-cooking (which in itself saves even more money).
But then I do miss the fun of wandering up and down the aisles and being very, very tempted.

Catriona's comments re the 'elf and safety' reminded me of another (for once sensible) 'rule' that recently came back. This to do with teaching cookery in schools. It was deemed essential that youngsters should learn to cook (as once taught in schools), and many schools had classrooms fitted with all the necessary kitchen equipment needed. Then - all of a sudden - a U turn, and the idea was shelved. Why on earth this should be I don't know.

There seems to be a rather stupid rule about the necessary qualifications needed to 'teach' people. Unless a 'qualified' teacher, no-one is allowed to teach at (say) night-school even if they are competent in the subject. My friend Gill can knit and crochet for England, but is not allowed to take an evening class to teach these skills.
These 'rules' must be fairly recent as in 'my day' was asked to 'lecture' at both the Leeds University and also teach cost-cutting cookery at night school without any qualifications to my name at all other than 'life experience' (and the TV series to back me up). I didn't even take school certificate or 'matric', so today would be classed as a complete dumbo and not fit to be employed at anything other than mopping floors and cleaning loos.

It does seem that there must be hundreds of people 'out there' who can pass on much needed skills to others, but are not allowed to due to all this bureaucracy, and as I have said before, these rules and regs can do more harm than good. Most skills are learned through practical experience, and often without need of 'certificates of proof'. It is easy enough to prove we 'know' something we have learned through reading books, and can pass exams this way, but when it comes to something like cooking, myself have known several 'certificated cooks' who can't cook a darn thing other than the few dishes taught at college, and the more 'scientific' knowledge gained helps them not at all (in the same way knowing - or in my case not knowing - the members of this particular government's Cabinet, helps me not one jot in carrying on with my continual tirade about how this country should be run. I once said to the practice nurse - when she asked me my date of birth - "it is silly to ask an elderly lady who the Prime Minister is because even I wasn't really sure - it might be Clegg, or Milliband or is it someone else?" (The name Cameron has suddenly come to mind as I write). "And I don't know because I don't really care, not because I (or someone else) am getting senile. It doesn't matter what age we are, if we don't care we often don't know. In other words ask us something that we really ought to know, then if we have forgotten, then time to be concerned". (Now who is my B? Am sure I remembered yesterday).

There was a recent TV programme where people of many cultures lived together in one house for a couple of weeks, and there was a mention of the exams they had to take (re what they knew about Britain) to enable them to gain citizenship of this country if they desired to live here permanently.
To prove a point, in this programme the same questions were a given to citizens of this country whose families had lived here for generations (let's call them 'true' Brits for this purpose), and not one of them could answer the questions, and in many cases very few correctly. Their results were worse than those from the more recent visitors to these shores. Which at least must prove that if nothing else, there is someone 'up there' who makes up stupid rules and regs that never ever are any use whatsoever.

What is it with me? Perhaps the 'curryfest' has given me withdrawal symptoms, for all of a sudden my mind is turning more to how this country should be run, rather than food, glorious food.
At least managed to make a decent chilli con carne for both our suppers yesterday (I love chilli and I ate seconds!). Not sure what to make today, think it may be Shepherd's Pie as I've some cooked lamb mince in the freezer, can add some gravy/flavouring, top with mashed spuds, and cook until the top is crusty, then serve with mint-flavoured peas. Might even make some for me as well.

Now that I've had my six-month 'weigh-in' am allowing myself some leeway as to the amount I eat each day, although still watching the scales to make sure I don't pile back on too many pounds. So far have kept my weight stable - which is good.

Today really must re-pot up my courgettes as they are growing too large for their small pots, but too cold to put outdoors yet. Think that I'll get B (oh yes, now remembered who he is) to put the plastic cover back on the greenhouse after all (was intending to leave it off this year and just use the frame for beans to climb up and over). The the courgettes et al can go in there and leave me more room on the conservatory window sill for other things.

Enough for today. B is out tonight at the 'sailing social' and he can take my amended list of ingredients for the 'curryfest' for which I need to be reimbursed. The final cost was even lower than I first estimated, ending up at around £57 for the full meal (this includes the cost of a good amount of sunflower oil used when cooking, and a bit extra for the foil, clingfilm, disposable gloves and just about a full roll of kitchen paper ...) instead of the £75 that was my budget 'limit'. Am sure the committee will be well pleased with that. This can then be paid into the bank along with yet another £25 that Ernie sent to me this month. One of the most sensible things I did was to buy those Premium Bonds about 18 months ago. Certainly got more back than the bank would have paid me interest on the same money.

Thank goodness it is the weekend coming up (and what a difference to this time a week ago, as now all the pressure has gone, life seems so very easy at the moment. Almost boring). Perhaps it is time for me to think up a new challenge. But before then MUST get my new site up and running. Will let you know when this will be.

We've had a shower of fine rain earlier this morning, but now the clouds are moving away and the sun is beginning to shine. Let us hope the temperature rises - for the last ten years or so this last week in April was one of the hottest of the year. Seems this time we had the 'heatwave' a month early. But there is still time for the weather to improve. On the other hand it has been known to snow in June. But that's Britain for you.

Please join me again tomorrow and keep those comments coming. I love to read every one of them. Even if you feel you have nothing much to say, it is still good to hear from you and know you are 'out there', a member of our happy band of 'cost-cutters'. TTFN.