26 March 2014

Wine testing and tasting : Gallo Family Vineyards' Summer Red

A few days ago, I was asked whether I would be interested in reviewing some of the Gallo Family Vineyards' wine.  Now, I had to come clean and say that I have worked with them in the past - particularly with regard to their utterly fantastic (to my taste) Moscato.  I absolutely adore that wine and it is right up there with Asti Spumante as my favourite.

From which, you will gather that I am no wine buff.

In fact, I am not one of these white wine quaffing, metro, London kinda gals.  I'm much more of a cup of tea, some orange squash or a gin & tonic if I'm pushed, kinda gal.  The sheer fact that I have come to like Moscato quite so much is a complete revelation, to me as much as anyone.

As such, I hadn't shown much interest in the Summer Red.  Well, it was red for a start - and there's only one red wine I've ever had an interest in, which I won't go into here for fear of taking the gilt off of the Summer Red's gingerbread.  Because it does deserve to have its gingerbread gilded.

Now all you wine buffs out there can just leave now, before you start snorting down your noses and saying things about "blended" and "too sweet" and "girly drink".  I just don't care about all that.  In the Summer Red, I have discovered a red wine that I can drink - not in quantity, I can't drink anything alcoholic in quantity - and enjoy.  It doesn't make my toes curl with its tannins and dryness, it doesn't make my face transmogrify into a prune at its sourness.  Yes, it is incredibly sweet, but I like that.  It's very much after the fashion of a dessert wine - and if I want to lengthen the drink by adding soda water, or lemonade, I don't feel as though I'm committing a crime by doing so.

The real joy of this wine, though, is its flexibility.  Let me introduce you to "Summer Red jelly with Cherries".  Oh yes.

Now you know me.  I'll always try to get the most I can out of everything that comes my way - and a bottle of wine is no different.  I didn't want to just neck the whole bottle - which would have been lovely, but not exactly putting the stuff fully to the test - so I had been pondering on how to use it.  To my way of thinking, it is far too sweet to use in a savoury dish.  So I decided to re-create a dessert I used to buy from Marks & Spencers, some 20 years ago - which was a little pot of raspberry jelly with a disc of cake, a few raspberries and a blob of cream.  Sounds plain, but it was really lovely.

What if I were to make the jelly with the Summer Red?  A red wine jelly.  Mmmn .. now you're talking.  The disc of cake would be easily provided from a plain sponge cake that has some robustness to it - a Madeira would be ideal.  Should I go with the raspberries, or would another fruit be better suited to the flavour characters of the wine?  The flavour profile given on their website is "With a ripe and juicy taste, this wine has delicious flavours of raspberry, pomegranate, and cherry."  They're not wrong either, but the one that caught my attention was the cherry, which to me was very "up there" on the palate.  Black cherries - oh yes, mhhmmn.  :: nods ::  That's definitely the one - and I know a local supermarket that sells packets of frozen unsweetened black cherries.  Perfect.

Now right up until the moment of putting the dessert together, I hadn't quite formulated in my mind what I was going to do about making up the quantities for the jelly.  I knew I had 500ml of wine left - which I was using sheet gelatine with - however 500ml of wine wasn't going to go around 3 people as a jelly.  I needed to be closer to 1 litre.  So, do I use apple juice (which might be too sweet) or just water (which might be too bland and wash some flavour away) or some other flavour jelly?  For all that I'd seen cherry flavour jellies in the shops, it was a long old shot that we'd find one - and I didn't want to introduce raspberry (which I'd been trying to get away from), or strawberry into the mix.

For your information!
By some divine flash of intervention, when hubby was mooching around the supermarket, he spied - on the World Food aisle - a sachet of black cherry jelly crystals.  Now, bearing in mind that he doesn't speak Polish (well, apart from one word - "paczek" - meaning "doughnut".  Very important that!), he did well to recognise what it was he was looking at!  He brought it home and we were all set.  (Hahaha!  See what I did there?).

So, crossing my fingers that all would be well, I poured the wine into my measuring jug (500ml, as I'd thought) and topped it up with water, to a litre.  Into a saucepan that went, to be heated to simmering point so as to lose a little of the alcohol and be warm enough to dissolve the gelatine and crystals.  In went the soaked gelatine sheets, which behaved beautifully and dissolved neatly, then the cherry jelly crystals - cross your fingers - which also dissolved beautifully.  *phew*

From there, it was a simple matter of cutting out the cake discs and weighing them down with a large spoonful of defrosted unsweetened cherries.  I used unsweetened owing to the degree of sugar that is apparent in the wine.  I was after a "grown up" jelly here, not one for children's parties.  Pour on sufficient jelly to cover the cake and fill the glass dish, after which it is a bit of a steady carrying job (which it would seem I can't do, so I had a number of goes at it, involving replacing the cherries and cursing the cake disk soundly) to get it into the fridge to set.

Once set, it is an incredibly easy job to just add a small amount of creme fraiche, then more cherries and grate some dark chocolate over the top.

The "cook's notes" I have for you are to aim to buy one of the bar shaped Madeira cakes, rather than a round, complete cake.  The bar sized/shaped ones are just perfect for cutting out the right sized disc without too much waste.  Of course, if you have an obliging teenager, you won't have cake waste for long.  Another tip is to resist buying a cherry Madeira, as there is quite enough sugar in the dessert without adding another sugary dimension with candied cherries.

The chocolate that I used was a fancy schmancy one - dark chocolate with cherries and chilli - but there really is no need to go beyond just a plain dark chocolate.  All that is required is the flavour of the dark chocolate - and there is such a small amount used, that additional flavours tend to get lost.

These jellies are far better made in individual glasses, rather than a big bowl.  I did both - for research's sake - and here's the result of the big bowl ...

.... not good.  In an individual glass dish, you are far more able to weigh the cake discs down with cherries, which prevents them from floating to the top and getting right in the way.

Oooh, I've just had a thought!  This dessert would be truly mind blowing, if you were to use fresh Picota cherries when they're in season!

So how did it eat?

Oh my word.  It was one of those desserts that you take your first taste of and look out of the corner of your eye at your companions, then nod gravely up and down, whilst groaning an appreciative "mmmmmnnnnnn....".  Yup.  It was THAT good.

I asked my son whether he could taste the wine.  He gave me a withering look and said "oh yes, I think so!", by which I take it to mean that my ambition of creating a grown up jelly were realised.

Would I buy the Summer Red again?  Oh yes.  I'd buy two - one to drink and one to make jelly with.  *grin*


Ingredients :

500ml Gallo Family Vineyards Summer red wine
500ml cold water
5 sheets of gelatine
1 sachet (or sufficient for 500ml) cherry jelly crystals
480g defrosted black cherries, juice retained
1 Madeira cake, cut into 1cm thick slices
2-3 squares of dark chocolate, for decoration.

Method :

1.  Pour the wine and water into a saucepan and set over a low heat to simmer for 5-10 minutes.

2.  While the wine mixture is heating, place the gelatine sheets into some cold water to soften.

3.  Remove the pan from the heat and add the soaked gelatine sheets, stirring well to encourage them to dissolve.

4.  Once you are sure the sheets have dissolved, add the jelly crystals and stir again until they have dissolved.  At this stage, you can include any juice that has come with the cherries.  It is worth giving the pack a slight squeeze (without squishing the fruit) just to encourage the juice.

5.  Place to one side to cool slightly, whilst you cut out your cake discs.  Try to size the disc to fit whatever individual receptacle you are using.  My discs were approximately 2" and I used a scone cutter.

6.  Place a disc of cake into each individual bowl and add a generous spoonful of cherries, to weigh it down.

7.  Pour on a couple of tablespoonfuls of jelly, just enough to soak the cake through, which will also prevent it floating to the top.

8.  Continue to fill the bowl to your own personal preference, leaving room for the decorative cherries etc.

9.  Place into the fridge to set.

10.  Once set, add a teaspoonful of creme fraiche, some more cherries and a grating of dark chocolate.

You might also like to serve some additional creme fraiche alongside, for extra creamage!

Printable version

24 March 2014

Knock your socks off Bacon & Herb Stuffing

Why - on earth - haven't I made my own stuffing before now?

I reckon it's a combination of stuffing being one of those things that just floats around as an "also", an "add on" to a roast dinner and also my own bad experience with it as a youngster.  You see, my Mum would often stuff (good old Paxo, the stuffing of choice for the millions) our Sunday chicken, which I remember vividly because I would be vaguely revolted by the colour of the stuffing that had sat in the (apologies) blood while the chicken was roasting.  As a consequence, when the recommendation came out that you didn't stuff your chicken any longer owing to E-coli scares - and my Mum stopped - I wasn't unhappy about it.

So we got out of the habit of eating stuffing.  It became something that we had at Christmas with the turkey - and only in the shape of stuffing balls that were baked in the oven.

When it came to making my own roast dinners, to include stuffing on the menu was just one step too many for a long time.  Well, making a roast dinner is quite an undertaking one way and another.  There's the timings, the vegetables, the roast potatoes, the gravy - everything has to be ready on time and it's a whole lot more complicated than making a spaghetti bolognese!

In fact, I didn't really bother with stuffing (the associations between sage & onion stuffing and hideous discoloured soggy breadcrumbs being too much to bear) until hubby came along and professed an undying love for the dish.  By then, I'd managed to get a small grip on the mechanics of making a roast dinner - particularly a roast chicken - and it wasn't too difficult to mix up a packet of stuffing and bung it in the oven to cook alongside the rest.  I didn't waste any love or attention on it though - and didn't particularly enjoy it on my dinner, either.  Well - sage and onion again, you see.

It wasn't until I joined a couple of Facebook groups and saw other people were making home made stuffings, that I began to foster an interest in doing it myself.

This was a slow burning interest though, I have to admit.  I'm fairly sure that those early days of sage and onion were still colouring the picture of "stuffing" that I had in my memory.  I still hadn't put the idea that I could venture away from sage & onion, together with the concept of "stuffing".  Now everyone knows that home made is very often better than shop bought packet mixes, but I was particularly slow on the uptake where this was concerned.

However, once it had dawned on me - and I noticed that I had half a packet of bacon sitting doing nothing one Sunday morning - the old grey matter got to work.

It was the perfect moment - I had a gorgeously huge, fat chicken to be roasted.  I had my lovely oven dish to use.  I had bacon.  I had a good quantity of Polish Bakery bread to use for breadcrumbs and I had a profusion of both fresh and dried herbs in the house.  Never had a moment been so propitious!

I didn't use a recipe - after all, people have been stuffing things for years by using whatever they had to hand.  Yes, dear reader, I winged it.  In a BIG way - and (pretty much) got away with it.

Even having put the stuffing together and knowing a) what was in it, plus b) how they went together, I still wasn't particularly keen on the idea.  Oh I was interested in how it would come out and concerned that everyone would like it, but I wasn't anticipating liking it much myself.  Oh, how wrong I was.  I not only liked it, I loved it.  I could have eaten the stuffing and dropped the chicken from my dinner - which is truly remarkable.

However, the stuffing came into its own the following day when I put together a cold roast chicken, stuffing and sweetcorn relish sandwich.  Oh .. my .. word.  Shoot me now, I'm all over happy.

I have one cook's tip for you with regard to this stuffing, which is not to use salt unless you are absolutely convinced that the bacon does not carry any of its own.  Because the bacon becomes considerably reduced by the double cooking process, the saltiness of it is intensified.  Additional salt just isn't necessary - particularly if you are using smoked bacon.

So, on the reckoning that where I came from others might follow and if you're one of those who was put off stuffing by - well, let's not go into it again, eh? - then find some lost bacon and give this a go with your next roast chicken.  Then tell me you don't like stuffing.  *grin*


Ingredients :

1-2 tbsp rapeseed or olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
freshly ground black pepper
4-5 rashers of lean back smoked bacon, finely diced
3 slices crusty bread, slightly stale, chopped into chunky breadcrumbs
2 tbsp fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 tbsp fresh chives, finely chopped
1 tsp dried oregano
half a tsp dried thyme
half a tsp dried rosemary
1 large egg.

Method :

1.  Heat the oil in a frying pan and cook the bacon and onion together until the onion is softened and beginning to turn golden.  Add a pinch of black pepper, stir to combine then leave to cool slightly.

2.  Once cooled, stir the breadcrumbs into the bacon & onion pan making sure to absorb the bacon fat.

3.  Decant the contents of the bacon pan into a large bowl and add the remainder of the ingredients, including the egg.

4.  Stir well to combine - until the egg cannot be traced.

5.  Decant into an oven proof dish, level the surface and place into a pre-heated 180degC/350degF/Gas 4 oven for 25-30 minutes or until the surface is baked crispy.

Serve with your favourite roasted meats and vegetables, or cold the following day in a sandwich.

Printable version

20 March 2014

You're all amazing - did you know that?

Well, if you didn't know it - you do now, so consider yourselves told. *wink* 

This morning, the blog has exceeded its all time total for page views for the month. Our previous all time best was 80,149.

As at today, our page views are standing at a whopping 83,686 for the month so far - and it is only the 20th!

Who knows what we'll have achieved by the end of the month.

~shakes head incredulously~

You're all amazing, did you know that? 

18 March 2014

Delamere Dairies' goats milk products : a heartfelt review!

I really like goats.  I like their silly characters, their lust for life and adorable faces.  I even liked old Harvey, a billy goat I used to know who once got free from his pen and ambushed a 3* Hotel in Surrey by getting into the dining room, then refusing to be lured out of the front door by the chef bearing bread rolls, ultimately requiring frog marching down the driveway and back to his pen by myself and a friend.  (Harvey, that is, not the chef).  Yes, I even liked smelly old Harvey.

Somewhere around 35 years ago, I had my first taste of goat's milk and approved.  However, because it wasn't easily available i.e. in the local supermarket, I didn't take it any further.  I wish I had, now that I discover how sensitive I have become to cow's milk.  I could have saved myself all that bother!
Harvey - a legend in his own lifetime

So, fast forward to now and we were in our local supermarket when I noticed a 2 litre carton of goat's milk and decided to invest in it.  I had read how much easier to digest goat's milk is from cow's and how skin troubles such as psoriasis (which I get occasionally) are helped by it.  Well, I had no idea quite how much of a difference it would make.

Immediately, almost all my IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) symptoms upped and disappeared.  I noticed that immediately of course, but was leery of putting it down to the goat's milk until a few days had passed.  Yes, things like beetroot and spring onions can still bring on a full IBS attack, but now I can go for weeks without suffering it.  However, the effect of drinking cow's milk - in a latte or chai, for instance - is startling and something that, no doubt you're comforted to know, I won't go into here.

Goat's milk does still contain lactose - but in much less quantity than with cow's milk.  So if your problem is lactose intolerance as opposed to an allergy, you may find you can do very well using Goat's milk.  Interestingly, Goat's milk is non-mucous forming and can even help to neutralise mucus production.  People with perpetual runny noses and hay fever have been known to experience almost instant relief on Goat's milk.

With me, one other thing that has been affected - and it can only be the change in milk, because nothing else has ever changed it - is the venous eczema that I have on the front of my shins.  This is basically like any other kind of eczema, involving dry skin and itchiness.  Well, since changing to goat's milk, the eczema has improved hand over fist.  It hasn't gone - well, it's been there for so long, I suspect it would take a while and the loss of a significant amount of weight for it to go - but the improvement in it is quite radical - and ongoing.

Spreadable goat's cheese with ham and with cherry tomatoes
So I thought I'd find out more about goat's milk products, which led me to Delamere Dairies and their Facebook page.  Being so enthused about goat's milk products, I offered to sample some of theirs - and give them a review here on Rhubarb & Ginger.  So here we are.

The very next thing to happen, was the arrival of a large polystyrene box.  I opened it carefully, keen to see what was inside - and as I removed the lid, out popped a goat!  Well I wasn't expecting THAT!  Nerys (for that is her name), is however, a plushie goat so should hopefully be cheap to keep as she won't be eating the furniture, curtains or our shoes.

Look out!  Nerys is on the loose!
Once we'd wrestled Nerys into submission, we unpacked the remainder of the box.  Well, what a gorgeous lot of goodies!  A raspberry (for me) and strawberry (for hubby) goat's milk yoghurt - both probiotic - disappeared down the hatch straight away and my goodness but they're tasty.  Absolutely no hint of goat until the very last trace of fruity flavour has disappeared from your tongue - and then it is no more than you would detect in the goat's milk or a soft goat's cheese.

Now I could go through and just tell you how everything tasted, but that'd be dull and not my style.  So I immediately got to work on "doing something with" everything in the box.

First up, was the fantastic probiotic goat's yoghurt with honey.  Oh my word, but this stuff is to die for.  Goat's yoghurt is very like Greek yoghurt, except it is a little bit whiter - as it contains no carotene - and has a much silkier texture.  If you've ever had a "Pearl de lait" yoghurt, that's the closest I can come by way of comparison.  I'm going to run out of superlatives during this review, I can tell.

I made a breakfast fruit plate, involving three types of melon and some passion fruit - all of which would go so very well with honey.  Mmmmmn, starting the day with gorgeous sweet melon, set off with tangy sharp passion fruit and the smooth, silky yoghurt - well you can't ask for better.  It would make a lovely light dessert, too!

Then there were the ubiquitous goat's cheeses, that received my lunchtime attention.  Even here they had a little edge of difference.  There is the silky, mildly flavoured spreadable goat's cheese that is a lighter daughter of ricotta & mascarpone - except goat instead of cow.  This one would be a perfect candidate for making cheesecake, although I haven't tried to yet.  Note the "yet".

L-R The herby, the spreadable, the medium matured and the one with honey.
Then there are the two "logs" of goat's cheese - one with herbs and one with honey.  I seriously can't choose between the two to name a favourite.  The herb goat's cheese goes so well with cucumber, the one with honey is fabulous with a squeeze of lemon juice.  They are both so cleanly flavoured, with a little tang yet so creamy too.

Goat's cheese with honey
Lastly for the cheese, there is a block of medium matured hard goat's cheese.  I just love this one.  I love how the cheese is so white and crumbly - very like Feta - with an intriguing, complex flavour that just lasts and lasts on the tongue.  From being crumbled into a salad, through being toasted for a sandwich, to just appearing on a cracker, there's no job this fantastic cheese isn't capable of doing.

Oh and let's not forget the goat's butter!  Made from the cream of the milk, goat's butter ordinarily comes up less yellow than cow's would do because of the lack of carotene.  It's the flavour that counts though - and goat's butter is so much lighter in texture than cow's.  It doesn't feel so heavy, or claggy - and is just divine on some hot toast.

The herby one.  Mmmmn, good!
I put the butter to use in making a couple of open sandwiches - both with the spreadable goat's cheese but one with honey roast ham (fantastic combination) and the other with some sliced cherry tomatoes with a dash of salt & pepper.  Now the ham one was good - but the creamy, delicious goat's cheese paired up with the sweet tomato, on goat's butter, on some fabulous sourdough bread - now that was a thing of beauty.

I seriously think that I will never drink cow's milk again (which I feel a bit bad about, knowing the trouble the milk producers are having keeping going at the moment), but looking at the health benefits, quite apart from the gorgeous flavour, it just has to be worth it, for me.

Medium matured- crumbly!
As for the goat's yoghurt, goat's butter and goat's cheese - well, they all get a serious "thumbs up!" from not just me, but the entire Eatwell family.  I've even got my Mum over onto the goat's milk!

Even my son has swapped from cow's milk to goat's for his bedtime glass of milk.  Nerys, of course, has a cookie with hers.

Thank you, Delamere Dairies, for being such good sports and also your remarkable generosity.  More power to your goaty elbows - and give the goaty girls a pat from me, the very next time you see them!

Proof - if proof were required.  ;)

14 March 2014

Raggmunkar : or Swedish potato pancakes, to the uninitiated!

Quite some time ago now, I received a standard "keeping everyone up with the news" type of email from my lovely friend Anneli Faiers - the inspiration behind the wonderful Delicieux blog.  In that email was a short piece about Raggmunkar and Kroppkakor, neither of which are ancient Scandinavian gods (although perhaps they ought to be, with names like that!).  No, in fact they are potato pancakes and potato dumplings, respectively.

Being a bit of a fan of potatoes, naturally my ears pricked up and I read on.  Having read the description and the recipe, I decided that - one day - I would cook one or both of these as they both sounded amazing.

Yes, I can hear your eyebrows going up and down furiously because only a second ago I was attempting to establish some alternatives to potatoes as the carbohydrate element to our meals.  I know.  However, this week had become an attempt at presenting a balanced selection of meals that both included and avoided potato.  So our Raggmunkar day was very much a potato day.  And bacon.  And baked beans.  That's better, I can hear all the menfolk amongst you calming down and order being restored.  The rest of you, just attempt to control your leaping eyebrows about the unhealthiness of this recipe, as Raggmunkar are very definitely not going to feature regularly in our diet.  However, they are flipping lovely!

In fact, on this very day, I had been sent a snazzy new frying pan (from the Ceracraft range at JML) to review.  How fortuitous!  Although I did ponder briefly on the wisdom of doing an untried and untested recipe in an untried and untested pan - in the end I figured that what the heck, people do that every day and carried on.  I shall wait until I have tried out the pan on a few more recipes before I write my final review - but let's say that things are looking good so far!

I took Anneli's advice and cooked up some bacon (smoked back bacon) and baked beans to go with the Raggmunkar.  Hubby's attention was immediately caught at the mention of bacon and, contrary to expectation, was pretty darned keen on the idea of the potato pancakes too!  This whole combination - pancakes, bacon, baked beans - is actually right up his street where food is concerned.  Not a healthy iota to it, but flavour all the way and a good belly filler.  Man food!

The pancake mix for the Raggmunkar is simplicity itself to put together.  I used the lovely Jelly potatoes as they're our very favourite of all the potato types available at the moment and they grated up really easily.  I also used goat milk instead of cow's milk in the pancake batter, which didn't seem to make any difference to it whatsoever, which is very good.  Any time I can exchange cow for goat, I'm there - and my tummy is very grateful for it!

Cooking the pancakes was a total breeze - and not just because of my new non stick pan!  They cooked like any other pancake would, apart from taking a little bit longer as you need to hold them in the pan to allow the grated potato to cook through.  They even followed the hallowed pancake cooking trend of your first one being complete rubbish, then the pancakes get better from thereon in.  By the last one, I reckoned I'd got the hang of both cooking Raggmunkar and my new pan.  As you can see, I opted to go for the enormous version, rather than the more dainty, half sized version - or even the "drop scone" sized versions.  Well, if you're eating it with bacon and baked beans, it has to be butch!

With the slight sweetness from the milk, the saltiness of the bacon, warmth from the pepper and the robustness that the potato gives, the pancakes have a surprisingly complex flavour.  Especially considering their lack of ingredients!  However, that's what this sort of cooking is all about - fill up the family for as little cost as possible, as satisfyingly as possible.  Well, it certainly hit the spot where all that was concerned.  I was totally stuffed by approximately three quarters of mine, hubby was the same, but our teenager with the hollow legs managed to put away two of them!  *blink*  Awesome!

Do try and make a moment to have a browse through Anneli's blog (at www.delicieux.eu) as she really is a remarkable cook - nay, chef - who definitely knows what people like to eat!

The link for the Raggmunkar recipe is here : http://www.delicieux.eu/?p=1465, I won't set it out on the blog here as I made no real changes to either the ingredients or the method.  Anyway, if I can send a few of you in her direction, it might serve as a little thank you for such a great recipe.

As she doesn't appear to have a printable version of the recipe however, if you like it you can come back here and grab the printable version!  Can't say fairer than that! 

Printable version

11 March 2014

Slow Cooker Beef Stew with Herby Dumplings

I was shocked to realise, a few days ago, that it was (very) early Spring and I had yet to make a beef stew with dumplings in the slow cooker!  Just goes to show what a relatively mild (albeit horrendously wet) winter we've had.

Now I absolutely adore beef stew - and a beef stew made in the slow cooker (the right way) is right up there amongst my favourites.

I can hear you all asking what I might consider to be "the right way"?  Well, those of you who have been reading along all these years (well done, if that's you - and thank you!) will recall my saying that I went through a phase of getting lackadaisical with the slow cooker and expecting miracles from it - and not getting them.  You see, to successfully cook in a slow cooker is all about what you put into it - and I'm not just talking the quality of your ingredients (although that does feature, but in a rather smaller way than with other situations).  No, what I'm talking about here is your preparation.  Meat has to be seared, or at the very least browned for additional flavour before being added.  Onions need to be sweated at the least and caramelised at the most, all for additional flavour.  The size of the pieces of meat and/or vegetable that you include, makes a huge difference to the flavour of the end product.

I began to think that you could throw a quartered onion in the slow cooker with a sliced carrot and some chunks of beef and expect a stew at the end of it.  Well, I dare say what I got had definitely been stewed - but was it "a stew?".  No, very definitely not.  No flavour, just hot and wet.  Bleugh.

Whatever you are cooking in the slow cooker - pretty much without exception, savoury wise - needs to have the meat seared or browned.  The difference in flavour for such a simple action, is incredible.  I opted to use beef shin for this stew as I knew the slow cooker would be on for best part of the day (we were visiting my parents so would be out for the day) and such long slow cooking is just perfect for beef shin.  Plus, it is one of the least expensive of all the beef cuts.  We managed to pick up around 500g for £5 - which is perfect.  Yes, shin requires a fair amount of trimming - especially when you've got menfolk who are as sensitive about finding "globby bits" in their stews as mine are - but it is so worth it.  Plus dustbins 1, 2 and 3 (the dogs) are always happy to take care of the trimmings.

Below, I talk about "big" and "small" pieces of vegetables and their role in the creation of the stew.  The same applies to the meat.  Pieces of beef that are relatively lean are kept for the "big" pieces - slightly smaller than 1" square - whereas any pieces that are shot through with impossible to remove sinew and/or fat, are chopped into tiny pieces to dissolve into the gravy.  Nothing gets wasted - it all adds to the glorious flavour.

So having said that, whenever I'm including vegetables, I sort them out into the said "big pieces" and "small pieces" - some of which, like carrot, celery, onion, potato and mushroom, will qualify under both categories.  The "big pieces" go into the slow cooker straight away, without any further preparation than peeling and cutting to size.  However, the "small pieces" vegetables get chopped finely with a view to their disintegrating as they cook (which you definitely don't want the big pieces to do!) and adding their individual gorgeousness to the whole that is the gravy.  Not only that, but the "small pieces" get pan fried - most especially the onions - before being added.  Raw onion added to a stew continues to taste like raw onion.  Even when adding whole shallots, I still pan fry them to get some colour on the outside - which lends flavour to the sauce or gravy and prevents them from tasting too "raw" at the end of it.

In the case of this stew, the "small pieces" I included were onion, garlic, carrot, celery, mushroom and potato.  Everything excepting the potato was there to add to the gravy, the potato was there to add to the thickening.

The "big pieces" included potato, carrot, mushroom, turnip, parsnip and butternut squash.

I also added a whole plethora of other flavours, all of which were there to bump up the gravy from just "gravy" to "WHOA! Awesome gravy!".  I started off with a Knorr Rich Beef Stockpot - just invaluable for dishes like this - then included some horseradish sauce, wholegrain mustard, Bovril, Essential Cuisine's veal stock, tomato ketchup, Worcestershire sauce and to thicken the gravy just before serving, some of Bisto's "Rich and Roasted" Best beef gravy granules.  Oh - and a good pinch or more of freshly ground black pepper.  Now, because of ingredients like the stockpot, the horseradish, mustard, Bovril, Worcestershire sauce and gravy granules, the requirement to be super-careful about using salt is paramount.  In fact, I resisted adding any additional salt - and just left it to all those ingredients to do my salt seasoning for me, which turned out very successfully.

As for herbs - can't leave out the herbs! - I used a couple of tablespoonfuls of finely chopped fresh parsley with the stalks included and a couple of bay leaves.

Yes, I threw pretty much everything except the kitchen sink at the stew - and it was fabulous.  The slow cooker went on at 9.30am and we came back late in the afternoon to a house filled with the gorgeous smells of stew cooking and with next to no preparation required other than to mix up the dumplings and warm a few bowls.

So, hopefully, you will see that using a slow cooker - or crockpot - is one of life's Very Good Things, however you can't expect it to do your flavour creation for you.  You get out of it what you put into it.

Now, where the dumplings are concerned, I decided to make them herby as the stew only had two herbs in it.  A chicken stew tends to have more in the way of herbs, so I like a plainer flavoured dumpling in that instance.  With a beef stew, the world is your oyster where flavouring your dumplings is concerned.  Pretty much anything goes - horseradish, cheddar, herbs, chillies - get creative!  I went for oregano, thyme and parsley and they were gorgeous.  The recipe is simple - just 100g of self raising flour, 50g of suet (veggie suet is fine), a pinch of salt and whatever flavours you're using.  Add 4-5 tbsp of water in stages and mix together to form a soft, but not sticky, dough.  Divide into six evenly sized spoonfuls and either roll into balls or simply drop into the gravy with an hour to go, for more freeform shapes.

I haven't written out a stew recipe here, because other than beef, the remainder of the ingredients are entirely up to you.  Just remember the "big pieces/small pieces" rule, the pan frying advice and remember that if you use any tender vegetables like cabbage, peas or cauliflower, to add them half way through the cooking period or they'll just disappear to mush.

Try not to drown your stew in gravy to begin with, as the veggies will give off a lot of liquid.  You can always add more water or stock as you go through the cooking period, which is a lot more satisfactory than winding up with a gallon of gravy!

Now if you've not got a slow cooker, by all means assemble the stew in a large casserole dish and cook it in the bottom of a low oven - but make sure you leave it there for a long old time.  My slow cooker version was cooking for around 9 hours - just to give you an idea of how long we're talking about.  I should think a minimum of 6 hours at 120/140degC would do the trick.  Oh - and don't forget the dumplings.  This stew needs dumplings.

Be aware, you've not got very long until the full loveliness of Spring is upon us - and barring more eccentric weather (please, no!), your window of stew opportunity is shrinking.  So don't delay - your slow cooker (not to mention your belly) needs this beef stew!

10 March 2014

When life sends you rhubarb - make Rhubarb & Custard Cake!

Rhubarb and custard cake.  Now there's a duo of loveliness, embodied in a name.  Firstly, rhubarb and custard - who can resist?  Then, cake!  How on earth do you combine rhubarb, custard and cake, without turning it into trifle?  Well, read on, because it is possible, beautifully possible.

I have introduced you to Ruby, our rhubarb plant, on previous occasions.  We now have two of them, as because Ruby was growing so well (and about to take over the garden), we split her into two.  In this way, RubyTwo was born.  In fact, because a bit fell off and got planted into a pot just to see whether it would flourish - which it did - there was  actually a RubyThree as well.  However, RubyThree has now gone to live with the-neighbour-across-the-road-with-the-caravan and is now happily living in their back garden.  Which means, of course, that we now have one less person to donate rhubarb to when Ruby and RubyTwo are in full production mode.

However (I digress), Ruby and RubyTwo only gave themselves a few weeks off over winter and are back with a bang.  All that water seemed to agree with them and here we are at the beginning of March able to harvest rhubarb that hasn't been forced!  Most unusual - and most delicious!

Hiding its light under a bushel of icing sugar!
During the menu planning round at the beginning of the week, I had put a High Tea on the menu for Saturday.  Son and heir loves a High Tea and it is often an excuse to bake in some way, shape or form.  I had planned to make some yummy sausage rolls to go with coleslaw, but these got shot down in flames for various reasons and, in fact, I escaped doing any baking at all.

I had asked hubby - who is evolving as the Senior Cake Baker of the family - whether he would be able to bake us a cake to go with High Tea, so he set to pondering on what type.  In the meantime, the new BBC Good Food magazine dropped through the letterbox.  Hiding in amongst its plump, luscious pages, was a little booklet of bakes where he spotted the Rhubarb & Custard cake.  The recipe is on their website, at http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/10500/rhubarb-and-custard-cake if you should fancy giving it a go yourself.

Ruby during the height of February's storms - completely unbothered.
Now I had given the recipe a once-over look in the past and registered that it was quite an involved process (by my standards), so hadn't ventured to make it.  Hence, when hubby announced an interest in it, I posed the question whether he was prepared for all the stages involved with it and happy that it wasn't too much "fiddling around".  We both hate recipes that have you doing one process here, then getting out a whole other set of equipment for another process there, then back to the first lot for another process - so dull!  However, he'd read it through and was happy with it - so off we went.

I have to admit, I was still in bed dreaming of fairies and unicorns (a.k.a. snoring my head off) when he ventured forth into the garden and gave Ruby her first haircut of the year.  As I was when he baked his first batch of rhubarb for a bit too long and converted it to rhubarb compote.  He was only following the recipe!  Indeed, I had moved on to dreaming of bacon sandwiches for breakfast (a.k.a. snoring even louder) when he gave Ruby her second haircut of the year and successfully roasted his rhubarb pieces by roasting covered for just 5 minutes, then uncovered for another 5-6 minutes - a change to the original recipe that I have reflected in my version below.

I came to at about the time he was ready to put the cake into the oven, mainly because he brought me one of the whisks to taste the custard infused cake batter.  Mmmmn - it was good!

The process, you see, is to dry out the rhubarb by baking it in the oven, then cooling.  Meanwhile, you make up the cake batter - which has the custard mixed in.  Oooh, interesting!  Then, you layer rhubarb and cake batter into the tin, finally finishing with blobs of custard and pieces of rhubarb on top.

It smelled spectacular as it was baking, but took an awful lot longer than the recipe stated.  Either they got the recipe wrong, or nobody tested it before publishing.  In all, I would say that it took about 30 minutes longer than the recipe states - so be prepared if you decide to make it.

Just baked and smelling sooooo good!
All in all, with the false start, it probably took hubby around 3 hours or so to make the cake.  However, is it worth it?  Oh my goodness yes!

The texture is a very different to that of a sponge-like cake.  Throw those ideas out of the window, as although it has significant substance, its texture is robust rather than heavy.  The custard has given the cakey part that lovely vanilla custard flavour that can't help but go so well with the rhubarb that is shot through the cake like little pink stained glass windows.

This cake is the perfect crossover between a tea time cake and a dessert style cake.  It would be as at home with a cup of tea as it is with a drizzle of additional custard and a spoon, so made an absolutely perfect addition to a High Tea.  However, when you add a spoonful or two of the rhubarb compote to the plate, it transforms into a full-on rhubarb lover's treat.

Cooling ..... is it ready, yet?
Yes, you'll need time in which to make this cake - but if you need rhubarb, you know who to ask!

RHUBARB & CUSTARD CAKE    (serves 10-12)

Ingredients :

400g rhubarb
50g caster sugar
250g butter, softened plus extra for greasing
150g ready made custard (Ambrosia, not home-made)
250g self raising flour
half a tsp baking powder
4 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
250g golden caster sugar
icing sugar, for dusting.

Method :

1.  Heat oven to 200C/fan 180C/gas 6.

2.  Rinse the rhubarb and shake off excess water. Trim the ends, then cut into little-finger-size pieces.

3. Put onto a baking tray, tip over 50g caster sugar, toss together, then shuffle rhubarb so it’s in a single layer. Cover with foil, then roast for 5 mins. Remove foil. Give everything a little shake, roast for 5 mins more or until tender and the juices are syrupy.

4.  Carefully drain off the juices before you let the fruit cool.

5.  Butter and line a 23cm loose-bottomed or springform cake tin and pre-heat your oven to 180C/fan 160C/gas 4.

6.  Reserve 3 tbsp of the custard in a bowl.

7.  To a large bowl, add the butter, flour, baking powder, eggs, vanilla, sugar and remaining custard.  Beat together until creamy and smooth.

8.  Spoon one-third of the mix into the tin, add some of the rhubarb, then dot with one-third more cake mix and spread it out as well as you can - there's no need to be too clinical about this though!

9.  Top with some more rhubarb, then spoon over the remaining cake mix, leaving it in rough mounds and dips rather than being too neat about it. Scatter the rest of the rhubarb over the batter, then dot the remaining custard over.

10. Bake for 50 mins until risen and golden, then cover with foil and bake for 30-40 mins more. It’s ready when a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean. Cool in the tin, then dredge with icing sugar when cool.

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8 March 2014

Slow Cooker Mushroom & Tarragon Chicken

I have discovered that, whilst all these replacements for potato are all very well, I do - and son & heir agrees with me - begin to get a terrible hankering for something potato.  So, as I'd been doing so well with the last seven or eight meals being successful, I thought I'd risk throwing a potato meal into the mix.

Now I didn't chance my arm too far - I mean, had I have dished up a frittata with dauphinoise and chips, it might have been three potatoes too many.  No, I went for a relatively safe bet, which was mash.  Good old, reliable, yummy, comfort food for the soul, mashed potato.

I was, mind you, supposed to have cooked this on the previous day.  However, when my tongue (I know, don't ask me, I haven't a clue) decided to go completely mad (bizarre swellings, weird colours) following a pastrami sandwich and a nectarine, it kind of put me off eating a bit.  So we all fended for ourselves that night (hurrah for tins of soup!) and the chicken got moved on to the following night.

Owing to the fact that we were attending a reading at son & heir's school that afternoon, ("a reading" being where the students were reading from work they had done at that day's Writer's Workshop - which turned out to be really very good indeed), I decided to break out the slow cooker.  Well, it saved me from stressing about getting the chicken cooked in time without paying for it by way of pain and discomfort later.  This is one of the very good reasons why I love my slow cooker.

I put the chicken in to cook at around 12.30pm and fished it back out to eat at around 6pm - and it was perfect.  Still succulent, not dried out at all and as tasty as a tasty thing.  The Marsala wine had contributed lots by way of flavour and aroma, and the mushrooms gave that savoury edge that took the sweetness of the wine down a notch or two.

I used my favourite Essential Cuisine powdered chicken stock in the sauce, so beware if you are using a stock cube and either use a low salt one, or don't include salt at all when you are seasoning the chicken.  Using a combination of seasoning, a salty stock cube and fairly salty gravy granules could be disastrous when all are combined!  Get yourself some Essential Cuisine stock - it's not expensive (£3.95 for enough to make 6 litres) low salt and tastes fabulous, so you never have to worry about salt levels.

Chicken loves Marsala, however the use of Marsala wine is not cast in stone.  A sweet sherry would do just as good a job - or a dessert wine, if you've got one lurking in the fridge.  As long as it's not too dry, it will do the job perfectly.

The mushrooms seem to soak up the sweet wine and become flavour bombs, so make sure not to leave any in the slow cooker when you serve up!  It would be such a shame to lose all that intense flavour.

I used dried tarragon, basically because I find that the small expense of buying a bunch of fresh tarragon just isn't worth it to use a tablespoonful and have the remainder die off in the fridge.  Dried does a perfectly good job - just don't overdo it!  By the time the mix has spent a few hours chuckling in the slow cooker, you won't know the difference between dried and fresh anyway.

A quick word about the use of gravy granules.  Now I don't see any reason to be embarrassed or shady about using them - particularly the really good ones like the Bisto Best ones.  They are a complete boon for thickening gravies and sauces, they can add a bit of oomph to an otherwise fairly uninteresting gravy and you can get so many different flavours of them now, that there is no longer any reason to have to use chicken for pork, or beef for lamb.  However, if you're interested in keeping your meals pure, then by all means go for the use of a little flour when you fry off the chicken, or introduce a cornflour slurry at gravy thickening time.  It all works.

If you have time on your hands, you can always pop the ingredients into a casserole dish and cook it in the oven.  I'd say you'd need a 180degC/350 degF/gas 4 - or moderate - oven, for probably around an hour and a half, or maybe slightly longer depending on the size of your chicken breasts.  You could cut each breast into three pieces, which would speed up the process a little.  However, I must stress that I've not tried this recipe this way - so you'd be trailblazing.

Hubby really enjoyed his meal, commenting that it was "really delicious".  Fine praise indeed!  Son and heir also approved, leaving a clean plate behind him.  I gave the entire meal a big thumb's up for satisfaction, flavour and comfort - the perfect meal for a bit of a tiring day.  So, are you feeling like you need a "meat and two veg with mash" meal?  If so, then this is the one for you.


Ingredients :

3 chicken breasts, skinless and boneless
1 tbsp rapeseed oil
sea salt & ground black pepper
1 onion, chopped fine
2 garlic cloves, chopped fine
1 tsp dried tarragon
6-7 chestnut mushrooms, sliced thinly
100ml sweet Marsala wine
400ml chicken stock
1 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped finely
1-2 tbsp Bisto Best gravy granules.

Method :

1.  Heat the oil in a large frying pan and add the chicken.  Season the side that is uppermost and fry until golden.  Turn the chicken, season lightly again and fry until golden.  Remove to the slow cooker and turn the cooker on to Low.

2.  Add the onions to the frying pan and gently cook until softened but not coloured.

3.  Add the garlic and tarragon and continue to cook for 1-2 minutes.

4.  Add the mushrooms and increase the heat slightly.  Cook until slightly softened.

5.  Add the Marsala and allow it to bubble and reduce slightly.

6.  Add the chicken stock and stir through, then add the parsley.

7.  Add the vegetables and sauce to the slow cooker, replace the lid and cook for 5-6 hours on Low.

8.  Once your vegetable accompaniments are cooking, remove the slow cooker lid and move the chicken breasts to one side.  Sprinkle the gravy granules evenly into the sauce and stir through until thickened.  Replace the lid until you are ready to serve.

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5 March 2014

Sicilian Salmon - getting our fish in!

Well, it's a new week but the alternative carbohydrate experiments continue.  It was the turn of couscous today, however, the first consideration was what type of protein to have.

We had the other half of our bag of individually frozen salmon fillets to use as I don't like to leave fish in the freezer for very long.  It tends towards getting freezer burn so quickly, to make the best of its best, I wanted to use it fairly rapidly.

So, salmon.  We've not been the greatest eaters of fish in the past - although we would have been, given the chance!  Fresh fish is so flipping expensive that it often renders itself out of the equation for my dinner considerations.  However, Asda have recently been selling a greatly improved range of frozen fish - and for an affordable price.  This salmon has been our first foray into sampling some of it and we've been really pleasantly surprised.  Naturally, it's nothing like the quality of fresh salmon - it really doesn't have a chance of being - but it isn't half bad, for frozen.

We have had two meals from the bag and there are two fillets left - which I imagine will go into a fish pie.  It cost around £8 and at £4 for a meal didn't seem too expensive.  That was, until we realised there were 11 (albeit small) fillets in the bag which meant two meals plus a bit!  Even better.

So, what to do with this salmon?  I'd grilled it in a marinade previously, so didn't want to repeat that.  I hadn't really come to any conclusions, other than I knew that I wanted to keep the fish in its fillets and not break it up into pieces.  Historically, we've had "broken into pieces" fish because that's all we could afford, so to have a fillet on your plate was quite a treat.

I was browsing through this month's BBC Good Food magazine and saw a recipe for Sicilian Cod, i.e. cod fillet with a thick tomato and herb sauce drizzled over.  Now that had promise - as the acidity of the tomato sauce would work very well with the oily salmon.

What to serve the fish and sauce with, then?  Potatoes immediately came to mind (I have to get out of that habit!) and got abandoned.  I wanted something a bit more creative and something a bit more exciting.

In this rehash of our diet, I've tried - with every new recipe - to create a meal that has balance across all the food groups without creating huge portions.  There's no doubt we've been eating too much (portion-wise) just lately and I was keen to bring the size back down again.  Portion size is another of my problems, you see.  I can't help it, I seem to channel some Jewish mother somewhere, who just wants to feed the family until their eyeballs pop.  Hence, this portion control was in the back of my mind too.

I'm really not sure what made me think of the Ottolenghi Green Couscous, but I'm jolly glad I did.  We really like this form of couscous - hubby says it's because you can't taste the couscous for all the herbs, onions, chilli and other loveliness that is in there.  I love the interaction between the herbs, fried onion and sea salt that just teases the tongue.

I've made the Ottolenghi Green Couscous a couple of times in the past, but it has been a while since I made it last.  The recipe is on Rhubarb & Ginger, just click on the link on the name above.

I reckoned the fish would go with the couscous with no real problem and the big flavour of the tomato sauce would complement the freshness and richness of the couscous.  Decision made, Sicilian Salmon with Green Couscous was officially on the menu list.

None of the three components are difficult to make, the couscous is really just a matter of preparing the onions and herbs to mix into the couscous, the sauce is simplicity itself to make and the fish couldn't be easier, as I simply grilled the fillets.

It would have taken a bit longer if it wasn't for hubby who jumped into the role of sous chef and fried up the first batch of onions for me.  Well, he had sidetracked me earlier when we were having fun translating various Polish phrases - most of which involved the word "doughnut" - from English to Polish and back again.  I will have to tell you more of the Polish Delicatessen we visited today - but that's another story!

As I suspected, the three component parts - fish, sauce, couscous - went together really well and the flavours were really interesting.  Even son & heir enjoyed his meal, saying that the tomato sauce went really really well with the couscous - and went back to the kitchen to get more!  Now that really IS a vote of confidence.  Hubby was very happy to have another meal that was not only a little bit different, but completely devoid of potatoes.  *chuckle*  It's not going to last - but if I can include a potato every now and then, just to soothe son & heir's and my own potato lust, that'll do.

A little "cooks note" that is worth mentioning, is that both the tomato sauce and the Green Couscous can be made well in advance.  So if you're going to be tight for time one evening - it makes a very good choice!

February 2016 : This time, I paired the salmon up with some spinach fettucine and a side salad, which worked really well.  I also made the following changes to the recipe :

-  swapped a sweet white onion for the red one, which looked better;
-  added 2 rashers of finely chopped bacon to the onions & garlic, all of which I cooked together instead of separately;
-  added 3 sliced chestnut mushrooms and a chopped tomato to the pan once the onions etc were softened
-  added 1 heaped teaspoonful of tomato puree;
-  swapped out the oregano for 1 big teaspoonful of chopped dill;
-  swapped the sugar for 1 teaspoonful of runny honey.

Recipe development in action!  I think the changes and additions make for a more rounded, deeper flavour in the sauce and I'll be making it this way in future.  I have reflected the changes in the recipe below.

31 March 2017 and this time I think I'm getting the hang of cooking salmon!  Served on mushroom couscous, this was by far and away the best incarnation of this dish so far.  :)

SICILIAN SALMON   (serves 3)

Ingredients :

1 tbsp rapeseed or olive oil
2 rashers smoked back bacon, chopped small (optional)
a small red onion (or white sweet onion), chopped finely
a clove of garlic, chopped finely
3 sliced chestnut mushrooms (optional)
1 chopped tomato (optional)
400g tin of chopped tomatoes - the best you can get
1 tbsp tomato ketchup
1 heaped tsp tomato puree (optional)
1 tsp dried oregano (or dried dill)
a pinch of sea salt
half a tsp of freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp sugar (or honey)
100ml water
3 salmon fillets, skinless and boneless.

Method :

1.  Heat the oil in a frying pan and add the bacon, onion and garlic.  Fry until the onion is softened but not coloured in any way and the bacon is cooked through.

2.  Add the mushrooms and tomato and continue to fry until the mushrooms are beginning to soften.

3.  Add the rest of the ingredients (except for the salmon) and stir to combine.  Simmer over a low to medium heat, stirring regularly, until thickened.

4.  Place the fish fillets - upside down - onto a flat roasting tray, season and drizzle with olive oil.  Place under a pre-heated grill for 2-3 minutes.  Turn the fish carefully and replace under the grill for as long as it takes for the fish to change from translucent to opaque.

5. Taste the sauce for seasoning and adjust if necessary.

6.  Serve the fish over couscous or fettucine pasta, with the sauce drizzled over.

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