Thursday, 31 October 2013

Fast fish pie

Happy to report another success - a quick and easy meal that's turned out delicious and, this time, healthy. BBC Good Food's Fast Fish Pie lived up to its name.

The recipe starts with celery and garlic, adds fresh cherry tomatoes, then stock (or wine) and tomato puree along with the fish, plus tarragon to finish. I used mixed fish (hake, smoked haddock, salmon) rather than the white fish plus prawns in the recipe, and dill rather than tarragon as I had none in the cupboard. My stock is baby-friendly (low salt) Heinz but with the smoked fish it was fine. A good grinding of fresh black pepper finished things off beautifully.

I made cheesy mash without spring onions (again, none in and not worth buying just for one recipe), and served it with the fish mixture rather than making a pie. It means forgoing the crispy top, but you get your dinner quicker and have one less dish to wash up, so that's a win in my book.

I have to say that the 10 mins prep was a bit optimistic for me. Chopping celery, garlic and tomatoes, making stock, and prepping potatoes were just about quick enough, but skinning the fish and checking for bones was time consuming for a non-expert.

Update: to make it even faster I used fish pie mix and a tin of tomatoes, and swapped the normal tomato puree for a sun dried one (Sacla). I also chuck in some frozen peas.

In general it's a pretty healthy and diet-friendly dish. I didn't use as much oil as suggested, but braised the celery with some of the stock, and I could easily have omitted the cheese from the mash - in fact I mashed in some leftover cheese sauce from another dish, giving it good anti-food-waste credentials too. On that note, as the tomatoes and celery are cooked, you can use up ones that might be a bit too past their best to eat raw, and other veg such as carrots or broccoli stems could go in too. To give it a trio of haloes, it's also pretty budget-friendly as you can eke out the fish with more veg, and/or choose cheaper fish or even offcuts.

Overall, an extremely tasty dish, and one that can easily be batch cooked into larger portions. Definitely a keeper in our menu rotation!

Wednesday, 30 October 2013


Time for a bit of fun! I just could not resist this for my Whovian husband's (WH) birthday - when friends got a Dalek cake mould and said I could borrow it, it had to be done. I did a bit of Googling to see what I was up against, found a couple of blog posts, and Operation Secret Dalek Cake was on (hat tip to the second of those for the blog post title...)

Now, I'm the first to admit that a detailed silicone cake mould is not exactly the stuff of Great British Bake Off dreams, but with a 9 month old in tow, practicality wins every time. For the same reason, I was not planning to go all-out on decoration either! I'd seen my friends' results and hoped that the cake mould would give me a recognisable chunk of sponge that was also edible, and anything else would be a bonus.

Right. WH went to work, Small went down for a nap, and with the possibility of only 40 minutes to get the beast into the oven, I rolled into cake baking action and turned on the oven at 180°C then greased the cake mould liberally with butter using a pastry brush. The back of the cake mould box said to use an 8-egg sponge mix so I turned to my much-used Hannah Miles book and chose a 4-egg mix to double. The quantities were: 2 x (4 eggs + 225g each of  butter, sugar, self raising flour) - a pretty consistent ratio in her book.

Rather than struggle with a massive bowl of mixture, I decided to make two separate mixtures (mint and chocolate) and create a marbled Dalek, so prepped two mixing bowls with butter and sugar, cracked and beat two lots of eggs, and weighed out and sieved two amounts of flour. I then replaced 2 tbsp of one lot of flour with about 4 tbsp of cocoa, or maybe more - there was only a smidge left in the tub after that so I chucked it all in :)

The method was the usual creaming method - beat the butter and sugar to pale creamy fluffiness, add eggs gradually, then fold in flour. For the mint sponge I added green colouring and mint flavour to the butter/sugar mix with the eggs, so I could blend them in evenly before carefully folding in the flour.

I then had a brainwave and decided to use an icing bag to pipe some of the mint sponge into the details on the cake mould. This is where I fail any kind of Whoviometer test, and say the mint batter went into the blobs, the ears, and the grille bits on the head. Geeks, please correct me in the comments. (I do know the flashing things are not ears, but you knew what I meant :)  It went in fairly well, and stayed, but I then found I had to spread chocolate sponge mix up the sides of the mold behind the details, which was trickier. Of course, the mixture doesn't fill the mould before baking, but rises up in the oven, so if you decide to try this method then focus on the details that are lowest in the mould and let the top ones take care of themselves - they'll be at the back/bottom of the finished cake, depending whether you let it stand or lie. I finished off by scooping the rest of the mint sponge into the centre of the mould, and tried to make an indentation with the spoon to allow for more rising at the centre of the cake.

The big unknown was the baking time. After much skewer testing, it seemed to be done, taking 40 mins at 180°C plus another 40-50 turned down to 150°C (fan oven) when I was worried about it burning on the outside before the inside was baked. Although I'd made an indentation over the fattest bit it still rose too much there at the expense of elsewhere. So my Dalek had a fat arse and I was forced to cut that bit off and eat it for quality control. Shame... I heeded the various warnings and let the cake cool completely before trying to turn it out, and it came out like a dream. A slightly greasy, crispy-at-the-corners dream, but hey.

The idea of piping the second cake mix into the blobs and other bits kind of worked - the head bits were good and the blobs less so, as it looks like it oozed down before it baked. I'm 50/50 as to whether it was worth it, especially as the cake baked so long they are just slightly different shades of brown! However, the green came out well when cut.

With the cake cool, it was time to decorate during afternoon nap time. No time for fancy fondant and complicated marzipan here! I brushed on blue lustre powder to highlight the low-contrast minty details. Lurking in the cupboard I also had chocolate icing in a tube, so added some freestyle detailing with that. The 'ears' had shrunk to tiny crispy blobs, during baking, so I augmented those with icing. The weapony bits (sorry...) are all made from tinfoil and toothpicks, augmented with a sharpie pen, black writing icing (since I already had some of that too), and a solitary blue mini Smartie. I had to buy a Smartie-filled chocolate Hallowe'en pumpkin to get the one blue one, and was then stuck with chocolate I didn't need for the cake. Another shame...

With only about half an hour to go before WH was due home, I took the cake upstairs and hid it in a big box with a 'keep out' sign on it. It worked :) The big reveal was done at work after I took the cake in as a surprise tea-break delivery, and the cake seemed to go down very well with the assembled company of geeks. It was even done in the middle. Hurrah!

All in all, a fun and interesting adventure in cake making, although it would be more fun without the time pressure and surprise element! Hopefully the above may be useful to someone else as well as jogging my memory if there is a next time. If you find any of the info helpful, please leave a comment!

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Spinach and coconut dal

I have found a new blog I love - Tinned Tomatoes. On name alone it should appeal, since I use a lot of said ingredient, but there are over 500 vegetarian and vegan recipes on there, many of which I am very keen to try. And they don't all feature tinned tomatoes... like this one:

Spinach and coconut dal is the easiest thing I have cooked in ages. And one of the tastiest! At 600 cals per portion (using the whole lot as 4 portions) it's not the lightest, but once in a while does no harm. It would also be great as part of a thali-type mixed meal.

First wilt 200g fresh spinach: wash, then in the colander pour over boiling water, then cold water. Squeeze out the excess moisture (keep it - see below) and then chop. Or use frozen spinach :)

Put 400g red lentils, 400ml coconut cream, 600ml stock and spices (1 tsp each coriander, ginger, tumeric and chilli powder, 2tsp cumin) together in a large pan. Bring to the boil and simmer for 15 mins, stirring occasionally. Add the spinach and simmer 5-10 mins more. Serve seasoned with black pepper, accompanied by breads or rice.

I didn't keep the spinach liquid, and wished I had. It looked like I was pouring good stuff away, and then I needed to add more liquid to the dal. Sigh. Also I used some coriander I had previously blitzed and frozen, rather than fresh (must do that more often), and there was some extra water in that, so if using fresh you'd almost certainly need to add water.

I had mine with rice and mango chutney, but to be honest some chapattis would have suited it better. Later this week I might try blitzing it down with more stock to make a soup, as suggested on the blog - I think it would work really well. Finally, I might also freeze a portion and then make more before too long, but use less-calorific coconut milk instead of cream. Then I can do a taste test!

Friday, 25 October 2013

Chickpeas and spinach with ginger

Another veggie (vegan, in this case) one-pot recipe, chickpeas and spinach with ginger is very similar to the spinach and chickpea curry that we already do, pretty much just swapping curry paste for ginger. I don't think I've blogged the curry, since it hardly counts as a recipe, so this post covers both.

The ginger recipe is from Serious Eats, and part of a whole series of vegan recipes. Since it took a bit of searching to confirm the can sizes for chick peas and tomatoes, I'll just add that I used 2 of each, normal sized cans (~400g, or ~240g drained in the case of the chickpeas). Needless to say, I did not use the massive amounts of oil called for, but if your diet allows, by all means leave a comment to tell me what I am missing...

Fundamentally the recipe blends half the tomatoes with a good amount of fresh ginger, and adds it to cooked onions and garlic, then adds spinach, and finally chickpeas. Bay leaves, salt and soy sauce ramp up the flavour, although I omitted the suggested vinegar and oil for serving. I will say that I simmered mine for a lot longer to further soften the chickpeas, and ended up with beautifully silky spinach and a richer sauce. There wasn't really enough spinach as I thought the large bag I bought was big enough, but it really could take more. I didn't use the can liquid from the chick peas as suggested, and I think it would have been too runny if I had.

I served this on its own, and we demolished the whole lot in a greedy-pig-portion each, with some left over for Small. Next time I'll do it with rice or another grain, or possibly some sort of bread, plus more spinach, and make it last two meals. The flavour was excellent with the ginger, something I never would have thought of adding to tomatoes, and I can see it becoming a regular on our menu.

The curry we already do is very similar, without the blending. Cook the onions slowly in curry paste and some of the juice from the tomatoes. Add the rest of the tomatoes, chickpeas, and spinach, and simmer for as long as you want to. Butternut squash is another common addition if I have some already cooked (I often roast a squash, just cut in half, to use in various recipes through the week such as risotto, macaroni cheese, cous cous, etc.), but it takes too long to cook from raw in this recipe.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Hairy Bikers' lean lamb hotpot

I find the Hairy Bikers quite entertaining, and have seen some of the buzz around their Hairy Dieters series and the inevitable book(s) that sprang from it. As part of my effort to do more batch cooking, I fancied lamb hotpot this week, and their lean version came up in a search so I thought I'd give it a go.

As a special bonus, this time I even remembered to take photographs of the finished dish. Alex will be proud.

It was easy enough. Brown the meat, cook the onions and carrots a bit, add flour, herbs and stock, then cover with sliced potatoes and slow cook in the oven.

My main difficulty with this was the lack of a hob-to-oven casserole dish. I should have used a deep pan for the stove bits, so as to be able to combine the meat, veg and stock with the flour before transferring to an oven dish, but in a minor brain fade moment I didn't. So they didn't really get well mixed.

This may have been why the dish was disappointingly runny once its allotted time (and more) was up. I wanted thick and unctuous, and got what was more like a very chunky broth. The potatoes were a bit lacking as well, just a bit sad and limp - probably should have whacked the oven over to grill for a bit for a crispier top. Perhaps it's also down to the type of potato, which in this case I don't know as we bought a bag of unnamed ones from the greengrocer. I have a feeling they were waxy and probably should have been floury. We didn't peel them as the recipe said, but (a) I'm lazy and (b) that's where the goodness is anyway.

Another omission, this time on my part, was lamb stock - I thought I had some, but it turned out to be vegetable, which I combined with beef to try and get a darker, meatier flavour. The lamby flavour was therefore not as good as it might have been. Fresh thyme was a good call, though, and next time I might sneak out for a walk around the block, past a couple of houses that happen to have a big bay bush and rambling rosemary in the front garden (whistles innocently)...

I used lamb neck fillet instead of leg steaks, although I am not sure it made much difference to the taste. The meat was lovely and tender, although perhaps there was more fat from the neck than the suggested leg cuts, and I did find this made the potatoes quite greasy. Finally, in the absence of leaf greens (kale or savoy cabbage would be ideal), we had ours with peas, which added greenery but wasn't quite right taste and texture wise.

(Yes, you can see potatoes in the casseroley bit as well as the slices - I chopped up the ends into chunks so I could just have neat middle slices on the top!)

I know it's sacrilege, and apologies to any Lancastrians out there (sorry, Rob!), but next time I would not only mix the veg, meat, flour and stock more thoroughly but probably omit the potato topping as well, letting the hotpot bubble and reduce a bit more, and serve it with mash or even pop some dumplings in. Would be interesting to see if a proper lovely casserole dish a la Le Creuset would make a difference, but I don't think my blog is popular enough for me to start getting sent freebies :)

Sunday, 6 October 2013

A taste of HFW's Veg Everyday

Continuing my journey to find more meat-free meals, I borrowed Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Veg Everyday! (exclamation mark is his) from the library. It's a hefty tome, and despite good recommendations from a couple of friends I thought I'd take a look before I thought about buying. He also has a Baby & Toddler cookbook which isn't in the library, so out of the two I'd be more likely to buy that one, I think - pending a sneaky flick through in a bookshop first of course.

Anyway. Digression alert.

The first recipe I tried was Spiced Carrot and Chickpea Pitta Pockets. The full recipe is here on the Guardian site, along with some others from the book but it really is pretty simple. Soften some thinly sliced carrots in butter along with cumin seeds and smoked paprika, add chickpeas, garlic and lemon juice, and serve in a pitta. Job done - healthy (depending on the amount of butter, perhaps), tasty and meatless.

Of course I can't leave well enough alone. I know from experience that the smoked paprika I have is hot, despite not being labelled as such, so I used sweet paprika with a dash of smoked, and added some ground cumin for luck. Next time I would allow a bit more heat, then cook for longer and add a bit more liquid (maybe water and a blob of tomato puree, or low-salt stock), as I found it all still a bit al dente when it would have been fabulous if it had been softer - and our 8 month old daughter would have been able to eat it more easily too.

So far, HFW's book looks good, and it's as well the library reservation slip was very long as I've torn it into several temporary bookmarks. Sweet potato and peanut gratin (another one on the Guardian preview), carrot houmous, most of the soups (reimagined as stews), and most of the curries. There might be a few renewals before we get through all of them!