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When food gets weird…!

I always find it interesting how dishes and styles of food go in and out of fashion and how, sometimes, food gets weird! The Elizabethans had their sweetmeats while the Victorians used oysters in almost everything. Obviously, recipes reflect the cost and availability of ingredients – oysters used to be cheap, while chicken was a luxury.

I love reading about food and I was chuckling over some funny terms recently…

Fusion
A few years ago, ‘fusion’ cookery was all the rage. This always sounded a bit too much like physics to me, but it was the combination of various forms of cookery, so you might have South Asian and Pacific Rim, or Texan and Mexican (Tex-Mex). This is fine it theory, but chefs do get a bit carried away. I remember reading about curried porridge, spaghetti tacos and Japanese Scotch eggs. Hmmm…

Chocolate soil, copyright www.epicurus.com

Soil
One of the very ‘on-trend’ additions to posh restaurant dishes at the moment is soil. I think our friends on Masterchef are probably responsible for introducing this one! Call me old-fashioned (and people do!) but I instantly think of my flowerbeds, and I’m not sure I want a version of this, no matter how delicious, on my plate. It’s just… odd. Mostly, it is dark chocolate and I’d be a lot happier if we stuck to ‘sprinkles’ or possibly even ‘shavings.’ If you want to have a go at making some chocolate soil, there are recipes online. Here’s one from www.epicurus.com

Hand salad
Yes, I know, weird! Apparently, it’s just a salad you eat with your hands, dipping lettuce and cucumber into dressings. So really, it’s simply an American term for what we used to call crudités – dipping veg into dips and sauces. Here’s a recipe idea for hand salad from www.bonappetit.com

A nice bit of hand salad with buttermilk, grapefruit, and mixed seeds, copyright www.bonappetit.com

There are so many trendy terms out there, I sometimes feel I need a translation app to find out what’s on the menu!

Jus ­– why can’t we call it gravy or sauce any more?

Pithivier of chicken, squash and sage by Sally Abé, copyright www.greatbritishchefs.com

Pithivier – it’s a pie! If you want to make a posh pie, have a look here at www.greatbritishchefs.com

Foam – this isn’t quite as bad as soil, but… Anyway, it applies to things that are full of air bubbles… we used to call them things like whipped cream, meringue or mousse!

Deconstructed – this one makes me smile! All the ingredients of a classic dish, but the chef didn’t want to assemble it!

Big dipper
I had to sneak this one in as it left me speechless! For Easter this year, a certain supermarket was offering ostrich eggs for sale. They recommended 50 mins cooking time to produce a runny yolk, perfect for dipping into, like a large, vegetarian fondue. They even suggested using a baguette as a ‘soldier’ I don’t know why… but that struck me as very peculiar!

 

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We eat with our eyes…   

Mmm… I instantly think ‘yum’ with this delicious rich coloured dish of risotto, the pretty addition of nuts, mushrooms and herbs scattered on top is the finishing touch.

We eat with our eyes… That may sound bizarre but it is true! I think most of us recognise that a bland plate of something a bit beige or white isn’t very appetising, so we add a garnish of parsley or lettuce and tomato. Today’s chefs are taking ‘decorating’ to new heights – did you see any of the Great British Menu on TV recently – I mean, wow! Theatre as much as dinner!

Well apparently, there is scientific proof that food that looks good tasted better. Really. There is an emerging new science called ‘gastrophysics’ – sound like an area of science I might actually be interested in LOL – and Oxford University has been looking into how the appearance of food affects how we react to it. Not only does a beautifully arranged plate ‘taste better’, we are also likely to be happy to pay more for a dish laid out artistically than one just plonked on the plate.

Even more strangely, where things are on the plate matters too. While turning the plate around to a different angle can’t possibly affect the flavour, it does influence our appreciation of it.

We also like things prettily laid out on a plate. The current foodie trend to lay out a dish on one side of the plate is, so the researchers have found, not popular with diners!

Left: A fun and interestingly presented portion of fish and chips that you can’t wait to bite into… or (right) a pile of mushy stuff plonked on a plate. Which would you choose?

So, you are thinking, what has all this stuff got to do with me and my day to day cooking? Well, the same principles apply to what you produce at home. So if you’ve gone to a lot of trouble to produce something delicious, ensure maximum appreciation from your friends and family by taking a moment to make it look interesting on the plate. Even if you are producing something ‘bog standard’, like spag bol or a simple salad, pause to pretty it up a bit and it will, apparently, go down better with your diners!

If you are cooking a special meal for family and friends, you might want to think about what you serve your food on and eat it with as this also makes a difference. White plates and bowls seem to make people rate dishes as being ‘more tasty’, and using heavy cutlery as opposed to light, plastic handled designs also makes people enjoy their food more. What a funny lot we humans are!

What can I say? Seven artfully placed dots and a white pud on a black plate… all wrong surely? Well, I’d still like to eat it though, especially given all the strawberries!

And having said all that… here’s one design idea that you DON’T need to worry about. When I am planting in the garden, or arranging flowers etc. I always go for odd numbers of things (I’ve written about this before), so a cluster of three, five or seven, and so on, it looks more natural and attractive. So, you would think that three, five or seven strawberries or potatoes or whatever would be best on a plate… but no! Gluttony will out and research shows people simply opt for the plate with the most on it! That made me smile :o)

 

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Vegetable spiralizer fun!

Continuing with my little series of kitchen gadgets – I thought I would show you my vegetable spiralizer.

I am quite new to this particular gadget, so I’m sure there’s an awful lot still to discover. However I am having fun with the bits I have played with so far, especially courgettes. My dear neighbour grows courgettes and I suspect is trying for the ‘who can produce more courgettes than all the neighbours combined’ prize again this year! It was so kind to be given so much produce and I want to be prepared this year as he gleefully shows me some amazingly strong looking little seedlings!

I am trying, as part of my healthy living/slimming campaign, to keep carbs under control and making courgette spaghetti or spirals certainly does that. The main key to it all I suggest is not overcooking the courgette. The instructions I read on a recipe suggested 30 seconds and it sounds ridiculous but if the spirals are put into already boiling water that is bubbling away – then yes 30 seconds can be enough – make it two minutes and they are soggy and ‘orrible!

There are many vegetable spiralizers on the market and I spotted this one in Good Food magazine so decided to give it a try. It’s a bit cumbersome but works pretty well. You ‘stick’ it to the worktop with its suction cup feet, choose which of three blades you want and then feed in the courgettes. It comes with pretty good instructions.

There are many different fruit and vegetables you can experiment with. I think on balance my favourites are butternut squash “noodles”. You can use fruit, like apples and firm pears, root veg such as carrot and potato (ordinary and sweet) and parsnips. Finally you could try veg such as squash, peppers and even cabbage.

There are some recipe books out there too – but I just lightly boil the veg and, in this case, added a savoury mince made with homemade stock, baked beans and lean mince. But any pasta type sauces work well whether tomato based or creamy. My next experiment I think might be apples and pears with some nice Greek yoghurt!

 

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Handy omelettes!

I thought I might do a little series of reviews/articles on kitchen gadgets that I love – some may feature gadgets you already know, some may introduce something that may or may not be handy for you in the kitchen. This week I thought I would show you my trusty omelette maker.

Now I know we can all make stunning omelettes using a standard omelette sized frying pan and a little butter to fry the eggs in etc. etc. Well, I am rubbish at flipping and often end up with far more scrambled egg than omelette looking results. So I invested in one of these little omelette gadgets and I have to say I just LOVE it.

The main bonus for me is that you pop your egg mixture in, close the lid and WALK AWAY … yay love the freedom of not standing over a pan and messing up! I bought this particular omelette maker in Aldi and it was only £12.99 – but there are dozens on Amazon at this sort of price or slightly more. I bought a second one for a friend from Amazon (as Aldi appeared to have sold out) and it was £17 or so including postage.

You can add anything you like to the mix. Leftovers are hugely common ingredients for me as I love the idea that I get an interesting omelette for breakfast and/or lunch and am not wasting a thing. Here’s the omelette I made for our lunch today:

Prawn and veg omelette

  • 2 large eggs (if they aren’t large use 3)
  • Few jumbo prawns, best to chop them
  • Leftover cooked carrot and broccoli
  • 1-2 oz of grated cheese (I used mozzarella)
  • Dried parsley (better yet use fresh!) salt and pepper

The method is ridiculously easy – take a bowl, crack eggs into it, whisk a bit to mix yolks and whites. Add seasonings and then all the remaining ingredients. I use a large pyrex measuring jug as this is easier to pour mix into the gadget.

Take your mixture, pour half into each of the two compartments. Shut lid. Set your kitchen timer for 8 minutes, then check if you think they are sufficiently cooked – if not, close lid for another minute or two and check again.

You can serve hot – or leave to get cold. They are VERY easily transported for work lunches and taste like the filling of a quiche when cold and the list of possible ingredients is huge. Curried leftovers, pizza flavoured ingredients, ham, bacon, mushroom, fish or just cheese… you choose!

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Divide and rule!

David Perry demonstrates how to divide a clump of Miscanthus.

This week, I’m handing over to my partner in crime writing, Julia, to tell us about her latest trip to RHS garden Rosemoor where she received some seasonal advice.

It is such a treat to visit Rosemoor on a regular basis, as I am doing this year attending a series of talks, and to see the garden evolving with the seasons. Last week, I went on a garden talk entitled ‘What now? Spring’

The course notes said: ‘Let the RHS experts help you through the gardening year providing a whistle-stop tour of techniques, tips, tricks and advice on seasonal tasks so that you know what you could be doing when. Spring topics covered – dividing and planting herbaceous perennials, spring shrub pruning, cutting back of ornamental grasses, plus other topics of seasonal interest.’

This was exactly what I needed as I am never entirely sure what I should be doing when especially when it comes to pruning. Somehow, I had it firmly in my brain that I had to cut everything back in the Autumn… and was then surprised how many plants I manage to kill off every year! There really is no excuse for such ignorance as there are tutorials online and thousands of excellent gardening books but, somehow, it is always better to be shown how to do something first hand.

Our tutor at Rosemoor was Garden Manager, David Perry. Pruning is always a thorny topic, but within the first minute, David had explained two pruning terms that I had followed but did not know why – prune back to two buds and cut on an angle. Why two buds? If the top one gets frosted and dies, you still have the second one. Why cut on an angle? To provide a difficult surface for water, dust or parasites to settle on. Obvious, really!

The ‘bare bones’ at Rosemoor, beautiful in their own right.

Shrubs grown for their colourful stems or foliage, such as dogwood, need to be cut down in the spring to encourage new growth, known as coppicing. No wonder they hadn’t done well for me before, as I had chopped them off in November! He also demonstrated how to prune shrubs and roses into a ‘goblet’ shape, cutting out shoots that cross over, or were growing inward, to allow free airflow and a general rather lovely shape.

Buying plants can be expensive, so it is really useful be able to identify ones that can be divided to create more. All clump-forming herbaceous perennials, including ornamental grasses, can be divided and, when done regularly, helps ensure healthy plants that will continue to perform year after year. While perennials can be divided at almost any time if they are kept well-watered afterwards, David said it is best to do it when the plants aren’t in active growth. He demonstrated how to divide a substantial clump of Miscanthus using two garden forks back-to-back as levers to loosen and break the root mass into two sections. He made it look easy!

It was interesting to see the ‘bare bones’ of the garden at this time of year. The shape of espaliered and step-over fruit trees were art forms in themselves and it was also great to see the wooden supports staff were creating with coppiced sticks – so much more natural than bamboo poles!

How to divide perennials

Here are simple tips for dividing perennials from the RHS website:

  • Lift plants gently with a garden fork, working outwards from the crown’s centre to limit root damage. Shake off excess soil so that roots are clearly visible
  • Some plants, such as Ajuga (bugle), produce individual plantlets which can simply be teased out and replanted
  • Small, fibrous-rooted plants such as Heuchera, Hosta and Epimedium can be lifted and pulled apart gently. This should produce small clumps for replanting
  • Large, fibrous-rooted perennials, such as Hemerocallis (daylily), require two garden forks inserted into the crown back-to-back. Use these as levers to loosen and break the root mass into two sections. Further division can then take place
  • In some cases, a sharp knife, axe or lawn edging iron may be needed to cleave the clump in two
  • Plants with woody crowns (e.g. Helleborus) or fleshy roots (e.g. Delphinium) require cutting with a spade or knife. Aim to produce clumps containing three to five healthy shoots.

Top photo: Lovely pair of pottery chickens by Somerset artist George Hider.

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