Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Health kick progress report.

Thought I'd just post a quick update on the Healthy New Year Project as I'm aware I've not been exactly verbose on the subject. It's all going well so far although I confess to turning to the dark side (a.k.a The Chippy) last night due to the stresses and strains of caring for a 3 year old in the processes of flexing her 'independence' muscles. I also hadn't taken into account how tired Willow would get with walking to school. We're almost 1.5 miles from school so suddenly walking 3 miles a day in addition to school PE, Dance club and swimming lessons is quite a lot for a 5 year old but we're building it up gradually and will get there eventually.

I'm sticking to the no mid-week alcohol rule despite severe provocation from the afore mentioned 3 year old and I'm polishing my running halo ('tis true I skipped a session on Saturday but it was my birthday) Food wise I'm not doing too badly but haven't blogged any recipes as they're all a bit 'samey' at the moment as I'm leaning heavily on slow cooked mutton, tinned tomatoes and lentils. I will throw in this tomato soup recipe though as I feel it's one of those that's going to become a staple of my repertoire. It's quick and uses just a few store cupboard basics.

Standby Tomato Soup
1 tin chopped tomatoes
1 pack passatta (approx 500g)
A handful of red lentils
2 tbsp half fat creme fraiche
Generous pinch sugar plus seasoning

Throw everything except the creme fraiche into a pan and simmer til the lentils are soft. Add salt only at the end otherwise the lentils will stay hard. You can also add in any other seasonings you fancy such as chilli flakes, dollop of pesto, fresh basil or any other herbs you may have. Stir in the creme fraiche before serving. Tastes much nicer than you'd think!

I'm afraid I don't have a picture of the tomato soup so have decided to post a photo of last night's sunset instead. Beautiful at the time but the clear skies led to a sharp frost and frozen chicken water this morning.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Norfolk Road Trip

As this is a Road Trip, strictly speaking, it should be sunny, I should be in a convertable, I should be sporting Aviators and Roadhouse Blues should be blaring at top volume. But this is Norfolk in January so it's drizzling, I'm in my dilapidated Nissan, the heaters are blasting at top whack and Woman's Hour is cosying me along the A143. We spend a lot of time trundling up and down the A143 visiting the in laws but as we're generally travelling either very early or very late the various enticing looking foody stop offs usually aren't open so today, as I have a rare day to myself, I decided to embark on my Norfolk Food Road Trip.

First on the list is a smallholding which always catches my eye on the trip east. For as long as I can remember I've had a pang of envy whenever I catch a fleeting glimpse of their small pig pens, their chicken flock, the rows of veg. Last year I was delighted when a sign went up announcing their produce for sale although today is the first time I've actually got round to visiting. I now know it's called Waveney Farm and they sell rare breed pork, free range chicken and eggs and Shetland lamb. I came away with a ham hock and a pork shoulder joint, obviously not had time to sample them yet but I'm optomistic they'll be good.

Next stop was the Grain brewery shop. They're in a beautiful spot, in the pretty village of Alburgh, down a lane which twists between picture book farm buildings. Stock was fairly light but I came away with some India Pale Ale and Harvest Moon. Under the January rules sampling is forbidden til Friday night so expect a post full of spelling mistakes around that time.

Third was Waveney Farm Shop (incidentally, nothing to do with Waveney Farm) which was OK but not great in my humble opinion. It felt like an identikit copy of others in the area like Goodies or Stuston it stocks many of the same lines but doesn't have the benefit of it's own usp (like Goodies pork, or Stuston's 25kg sack of potatoes for £3.99!) The products it stocks are good quality and locally sourced, in any other part of the world I'd be in foody heaven, my lacklustre response just goes to underline how lucky we are in this area to have such easy access to this kind of good food. Oh, and one more thing, it was cold in there! I could see my breath, certainly didn't make me want to linger in the cafe. Brrrr.

Anyhoo, last stop was the aforementioned Stuston Farm Shop, my local and purveyor of fine, fine breakfasts. Once loaded up with bargain spuds it was back home for a quick swim before resuming Mothering duties once more.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Ribsticking, warming and healthy.

That's my hyperbolic claim for my mushroom and shin beef casserole! I'm very fond of shin beef because it's cheap and full of flavour. It needs to be cooked long and slow to make sure that it's meltingly tender, my butcher recommends 8 hours in the slow cooker. Speaking of butchers, today I used supermarket shin beef for the first time and wasn't terribly impressed. The butcher will cube the beef for me, whereas the supermarket won't, he will also trim the fat off before weighing it but I was disappointed to discover my supermarket offering was cunningly packaged to hide several large chunks of fat which went straight in the bin.

Admittedly I'd rather be using a bottle of good ale in this recipe, but seeing as we're in healthy January I'm forgoing the alcohol and using other, less calorific, ingredients. Still, chin up, there's nothing diety about this rich, warming, toothsome dish.

Mushroom and beef casserole.
About 1.5kg shin beef, cubed and trimmed of large pieces of fat
About 5 large field mushrooms
1/4 pack Merchant Gourmet dried mushrooms
500g carton passata
1/2 teaspoon chilli flakes
2 heaped teaspoons cornflour
Mushroom ketchup

Bung everything in a slow cooker except the cornflour and mushroom ketchup. No need to mess about with browning etc Jamie Oliver said it wasn't worth bothering with as it doesn't make any difference to the finished product so in the name of brevity I'm happy to believe him. Don't worry if it looks a bit dry, juice will come out of the meat and the mushrooms over the cooking time. Leave it on low for at least 8hrs. Give it a stir, if it looks a bit thin add the cornflour and a generous shake of mushroom ketchup.

I think the key to this dish is not to ruin your good intentions by serving it with a pile of buttery mash or roasted potatoes. Some green veg goes nicely and looks pretty or if you want a carbs substitute, pan fried Jerusalem artichokes, roasted butternut squash or turnip fill the void nicely.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

It's been over a week!

Eeek, the only time I've left it this long to post before was when we were on holiday, I've obviously been resting on my Aspall's laurels rather too much. I did make the pork dish described in the last post (except it was mutton chops) and I'm pleased to say it lived up to my imagined version.

I'm about to embark on my annual health kick. I can never face a sudden lettuce/gym programme on Jan 2nd, too much of a shock to the system after the festive gluttony so I ease myself into it. My usual pattern is to go tee total from New Year to my birthday (23rd Jan if you're wondering) and then around my birthday embark on the healthy eating programme. This year is worse as my exercise programme was halted by the snow so I've hardly run (I say 'run', 'stumble' is probably more accurate) since mid-December.

So, my basic plan is: between meal snacks of fresh fruit only, running 3 times per week, alcohol at weekends only (but not this weekend), doing the school run on foot half the time (Willow not impressed) and, of course, cooking healthy food. Pictured is Pipling Xanthe, joining in with her Waybuloo inspired yoga programme.

My blogging mission will be to report back on the healthy cooking aspect. My goal is to find truly warming, rib sticking, joy inducing food that just happens to be healthy. I've ordered some cook books and I'm fretting about food photography: let the adventure begin!

Friday, 8 January 2010

Proudest jam making moment yet.

You would not believe how disproportionately and ridiculously excited I am by the recipe I found yesterday! I have managed to combine my two major interests in life: cider and jam. Yes - I made Aspall's Suffolk Cyder Jelly, isn't it pretty? I can now retire fulfilled.

Cyder Jelly.
2 pints dry cider (or cyder, depending on how whimsical you're feeling)
3lb 4oz sugar
1 bottle Certo.

Put the cider and sugar into a jam pan and stir over a lowish heat til the sugar has dissolved. Add the Certo, bring to a rolling boil and boil for 1 minute. Pot up in the usual way. Makes nearly 7 jars.

It's soooo easy and quick to make, a really good starting point for jammy novices. I find working with Certo a tad disconcerting. It looks deceptively liquid in the jar, but when you dig around with a spoon (at least 24hrs later) it's actually a gorgeously voluptuous, yielding set. Compare to sloe jelly which has tons of natural pectin but a really glossy, bouncy set.

It tastes quite dry and grown up (unsurprisingly!) In the name of research I ate it with stilton and oat cakes which was delicious beyond description, the ultimate Ploughman's Lunch (providing the ploughman in question didn't have too much to do that afternoon) I'm also imagining pork neck steaks, browned in a pan with onions and apple, splash of stock and apple juice and a generous dollop of Cyder Jelly, cover and simmer til the meat is cooked through. Remove the meat and stir a dollop of creme fraiche into the sauce. Mmmmmm. When/if the snow clears I'll be visiting Goodies Farm Shop to put it to the test.

Now of course, I want to try Mulled Cyder Jelly, Peronelle's Blush Jelly, Red wine Jelly - in the words of Katie Price "It's a whole new world".

Monday, 4 January 2010

Candy Cane Cookies

Maybe I've been wandering around blindfold in the past but it's only the last two Christmases that I've noticed candy canes in the shops. This year, I went a bit crazy and bought loads, festooned a dozen or so on the tree and used the rest to decorate wrapped presents.

While they have a nostalgic aesthetic charm to them they're actually not that great to eat. Place one in the hands of a small child at your peril, within 5 short minutes every surface in the house will be smeared in a sticky, fluff catching layer of sugar and probably best not to think too seriously about what's happening to their teeth.

This afternoon we made Candy Cane Cookies which were a very efficient way to make the darn things actually more edible and use up the remaining tree canes. This is an American recipe but I've anglicised the weights and measures.

Candy Cane Cookies.
200g butter
200g sugar
1 egg
1/4 tsp each peppermint essence and vanilla extract
280g plain flour
Approx 200g finely crushed candy canes
3 tbsp sugar.

Cream the butter and sugar together, add the egg and flavourings, mix well. Add the flour and mix to a sticky dough. Wrap in cling film and chill for an hour (the dough, not you - you've got candy canes to crush)

Mix the crushed candy canes and sugar together. Take walnut sized pieces of dough and roll the cane/sugar mix then flatten onto a baking tray. Bake at GM 5 for about 12 minutes.

Now, these are cookies, not biscuits and this is the first time I've made American style cookies so it was something of a learning experience. They spread like swine flu so don't overcrowd the baking tray. I lined my tray with baking parchment but the pesky blighters still stuck to it so maybe oiling the baking parchment would be a good idea. They're very soft when they first come out of the oven but they harden and crisp up fairly rapidly as they cool, in fact, don't hang around too long or they get even harder to chip off the baking tray.

They are utterly delicious, buttery, chewy, crispy - I seem to have repressed some vague memory about January and, ummm, what was it? H - h - healthy? Healthy eating? Surely not .....

The BEST slow cooked chicken (and stock)

A bit of background info about this post: I was vegetarian for about 20 years but started eating meat again roughly 3 years ago, I've spent the time teaching myself how to cook meat and think I'm finding my feet a little now (aside from beef which I'm somewhat intimidated by).

I've experimented with cooking chicken (free range, obviously) in a few ways but think I discovered my favourite last night. Like most right thinking people I adore chicken rubbed with olive oil, salt and pepper and simply roasted but this has the double edged sword of producing lots of lovely, tasty, fatty, hip expanding crispy skin. Plus making stock from the carcass requires a second cooking process which can be a bit of a faff and often makes stock with an 'overcooked' taste. My solution is to poach the whole chicken in the slow cooker which makes stock at the same time as cooking the bird. It produces achingly tender meat which literally falls off the bone, true the skin is soft and unappealing but at least then it's not a chore to peel it off and give it to the cat.

So this is how I did it:

1 whole chicken
Dried mushroom (I used about 1/4 pack of Merchant Gourmet mixed dried mushrooms)
1 onion chopped
2 roughly chopped garlic cloves (but they were HUGE)
sprinkle dried thyme.
1 Knorr chicken stock pot/cube thingie

Put the chicken in the slow cooker and pour in cold water to about half way up the bird. Add the rest of the ingredients and leave on high for 6 hours.

Carefully remove the bird and don't be surprised if it loses a limb or two in the process. Remove the breast meat to serve Sunday 'roast' style, then once the carcass has cooled the rest of the meat can be removed for stew/soup/tagine the next day.

The stock obviously needs to be strained before use. I got rather carried away with it, last night I used it in the mashed potato, to make gravy and to cook the savoy cabbage in. I stored it in the fridge overnight to allow the fat to solidify which makes it easy to remove. Today I'm using it and the leftover meat to make a chicken and barley broth with butternut squash and savoy cabbage.

I forgot to take any photos of the food last night so in it's stead I've put an ironic shot of an unsuspecting Feathers. I always feel guilty when I'm cooking chicken and catch sight of one of ours through the kitchen window.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Mizuna Miracle

Happy New Year! I don't make new year resolutions so don't expect any of those 'my plans for 2010' type posts around these parts.

I'm getting mighty fed up with the snow, we enjoyed about 10 minutes snow free but by the 2nd Jan big, fat flakes were spattering wetly on the pavements of Diss once more and, yet again, our garden is frozen solid. As I type Adam is pouring warm water over the catch on the chicken coop door to unfreeze it and let poor old Feathers out to stretch her (frozen) legs.

During the brief defrost I was delighted to discover that my Mizuna crop actually recovered really well from it's foray into the deep freeze. I was expecting it to turn to mush after being frozen in the snow but it emerged sprightly as ever, my response was to ruthlessly chop it down and serve it with roasted veg and a wild salmon fillet (wild? It was bloody livid)

Gathering winter crops is a skill quite separate from it's summer equivalent. I find the most difficult part is remembering to venture out into the garden before 3pm as any later it's pitch black and a 3rd hand is required to hold the torch. Yesterday when the snow began to fall I decided to nip out and chop down the mizuna before it froze again, even though it only took a few minutes my hands were numb with cold after ferreting around among the snow and I quickly fled back indoors. Quite different from strolling barefoot on the grass on a balmy summer evening, plucking cherry tomatoes and strawberries at leisure.

As you can see above my mini greenhouse is positively stuffed with winter salad but that won't last forever, the mizuna is now gone and, yes, there are still some Jerusalem Artichokes but come mid-February even the most hardened follower of this blog will be a tad jaded with a diet made up of artichoke anecdotes alone. Bressingham Parish Council - are you listening? That allotment I was promised would be ready in June 2008, I could really do with it right now!