14/04/2013 § 1 Comment

It’s finally in the slow cooker!

I appear to have picked up the irritating habit of selecting recipes that appear simple but in fact take ages to prepare. Take last weekend’s lemon and almond cake from River Café Two Easy. Not only was it not easy, but it used practically an entire kitchen of utensils. The end product was delicious and the perfect pudding to follow up a roast chicken dinner, but still, when I use a recipe book with ‘easy’ in the title I don’t expect to have to make custard from scratch.

Anyway, this weekend’s cooking project is the French classic Coq-au-vin and as my guide I used the Comfort Food Book – one of my absolute favourite cookbooks and certainly my most used given the spattered state it is in.

Despite the fact I’ve owned and cooked from this recipe book for about ten years, I’ve never made the Coq-au-vin recipe.

I commenced by flouting the initial instructions. Great start. The recipe calls for a whole hen cut into eight pieces, but I bought a pack of five chicken thighs instead. So spank me. Also, the recipe recommends the chicken marinates for one-to-three days. Now I was nursing a very bad hangover yesterday (why do so many of my blog posts include hangover suffering in them?) so I could only prepare the marinade and the chicken yesterday afternoon. Nevertheless, I reckon it’s had 24 hours of bathing.

Quick grammatical note, marinade is the noun, while marinate/s is the verb.

The marinade was not fun with a hangover yesterday. A whole bottle of red boiled for five minutes with a chopped onion and carrot. I forgot to buy celery so I added an extra onion. This is then cooled to room temperature and poured over the chicken and left until you’re ready to cook.

Marinated chickenThis afternoon I took the chicken out of the marinade carefully and placed it onto a plate with kitchen roll, patting it dry. Next, I sieved the red wine from the vegetables, keeping both aside.

This next bit is meant to be done in a lovely big Le Creuset pot on an Aga, but instead I’ve opted for a large frying pan and my Breville slow cooker.

I fried lardons of bacon in a little rapeseed oil until crispy, set aside, and then placed the two largest chicken thighs skin side down in the remaining bacony fat, sealing for four or five minutes on each side. I then repeated this with the remaining smaller chicken thighs.

I popped the chicken and bacon into the slow cooker and set about sautéing two minced shallots and three garlic cloves in the same pan. They then went in with the meat. Next I fried off a whole packet of quartered button mushrooms and popped in the slow cooker and finally I rolled 15-18 whole, peeled shallots in the fat until they were catching at the edges and put them in the slow cooker too.Chicken, bacon, shallots and mushrooms

The reason for doing everything one at a time is purely so things cook nicely and it doesn’t all become a mushy homogenous steamed panfull of stuff.

Lastly, I deglazed the frying pan with the red wine marinade, adding it bit my bit and stirring. I then added the beurre manié (butter mashed with flour) to thicken it and popped in the marinated carrots and onions to simmer for five minutes until a little reduced.

Boiling the marinadeAll of this is off-piste because I had to adapt the recipe for the slow cooker. And another thing, who can be bothered making a bouquet garni these days? I just chucked in a couple of bay leaves and some thyme stalks before adding a good grind of black pepper, a couple of tablespoons of chicken stock (not the required 500ml because the slow cooker will generate a lot of moisture) and then finally poured in the reduced marinade.

Now the coq-au-vin is simmering on a high setting in the slow cooker to be taken out in three hours, during which time I will be doing the ironing and making mashed potatoes.

Cooking away

Sunday roast: Silverside in the slow cooker

24/03/2013 § Leave a comment

Slow cook silverside

Slow cook silverside

Apparently, I live in Narnia, and the White Witch’s power is at its most potent.

So as I wait for Aslan to arrive in Cheshire – hopefully before the Easter long weekend – I’ve dug out the slow cooker. After all, if the slow cooker is ever going to be dusted off, it’s going to be dusted off when half the UK is dealing with a foot of snow.

My wonderful mother paid me a visit this week bearing meat. This may be to do with the fact I’ve grumbled about the rubbish red meat at the budget supermarket where me and Mr Spoon shop. So mum rocked up with two packets of minced Aberdeen Angus rump, veal escalopes, chorizo sausage, haggis and a kilo of silverside. And a bottle of wine (love you mum!).

I’ve tried making a few beef roasts here in our flat using joints

from the budget supermarket and each one was flavourless and tough, no matter how gently I braised it or how long I marinated it. This is due to the fact the meat was not hung and was probably butchered at the abattoir – or at least that is the conclusion my dad came to.

This silverside was matured on the bone and is best slow roasted. I have tried many, many times to do the perfect medium-rare roast beef and have failed. Steak: pink as you like. Joints: disappointing. So slow roasting it is.

Slow cooker

Slow cooker


I’ve never put a roasting joint in the slow cooker. My past failings have set a nagging doubt going in my head, as I wonder if the lovely bit of seasoned meat I’ve cuddled among carrots, red onion and strewn with thyme, rosemary and garlic in a shallow red wine bath will emerge from its day-long braise a dry, grey lump.


Full up. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I can confirm that silverside is best slow cooked for an entire day. We’ve just polished off one-third of the joint between us, leaving a lovely amount for two mid-week suppers.

I took the meat out of its delicious savory broth about fifteen minutes before serving and popped it onto a plate under a loose covering of tinfoil. It was at this point I knew the slow cooker had done what it was meant to do because the meat

was already falling away.

During the resting time I mashed my sweet potato and turnip, checked my greens and strained the beef broth into a saucepan, rescuing the carrots and onions and taking out the rosemary and thyme stalks. I popped the carrots and onions back in the slow cooker (now switched off) to keep warm.

Tea time

Tea time

I added a scant teaspoon of cornflour to the broth – which is now boiling furiously on the hob – but it made little difference, staying quite loose. I don’t mind this but I know Mr Spoon

likes a thicker gravy. Quick taste and it’s perfection, so never mind.

I teased the beef apart with two forks and served. It was so good I had seconds and now we’ve shredded the rest of the beef to be used later in the week.

So if you, like me, have failed to make the perfect pink-in-the-middle roast beef one too many times, I thoroughly recommend this method of cooking silverside. Plus, there’s the added benefit of shredding rather than carving, which will come as a relief to the loved ones of cooks such as myself who have one carving setting: doorwedge.



Making a hash of it

16/03/2013 § Leave a comment

Necessity is the mother of invention and on a cold March morning I found myself hankering after a cooked breakfast – but my beloved potato farls were nowhere to be found in my freezer.

I always keep a steady supply of store-bought farls (Irish potato cakes) in the freezer, because you tend to have at least two of the breakfast trinity (bacon/sausage, mushrooms, eggs) to hand of a weekend, thus facilitating a lovely, calorific cooked brekkie.

But I’ve recently started a new job and there’s been a succession of busy weekends, so my shopping routine has fallen out of kilter and unbeknownst to me, I failed to pick up more farls after toasting my last batch to eat with dippy eggs while nursing a particularly potent hangover following my office leaving party the other weekend.

Alas! Woe! Damn and blast it! And no, toast just will not do. Nor will going Atkins on my breakfast. A cooked breakfast without potato in some form just isn’t going to cut it for me. My mother always cooked sautéed potatoes with our weekend grilled breakfasts and ever since then any breakfast sans spuds just doesn’t feel complete.

But before I plumped with sautéing some of the little waxy potatoes I dug out (of the vegetable box, not the ground), I considered hash browns, and consulted my favorite tuber-based cookbook, Potato by Alex Barker and Sally Mansfield.

The recipe calls for 450g of cooked and then grated or finely chopped potatoes. As it’s just Mr Spoon and I, I cut this down to a little under 300g and popped the unpeeled spuds into simmering water to parboil for about 5-6 minutes. Meanwhile, I finely chopped half a medium onion.

I poured the spuds into a sieve and rinsed them with cold water to stop them from cooking.

Grated potato

Grated potato

I did not bother with peeling, firstly because I am lazy and secondly because I like the taste of potato skin. But I’m sure it makes for a tidier hash if they are naked. I grated the potatoes (sticky work as the starch in the potatoes goes gluey – which is desirable for the recipe but inconvenient for the cook) and then set a non-stick pan on a medium heat with a conservative glug of rapeseed oil.

I’m going through a rapeseed oil phase. Not least because it is cheaper than olive oil, but it is supposed to be just as healthy (if fat can be healthy) and it’s pressed in the UK so it’s better for the old carbon footprint and the economy. I’ve heard stories about the Mafia rigging the olive oil business in Europe too, but this could be bollocks.In the pan

Next, after testing a small pinch of grated potato in the oil, I pressed down the potato in the pan with the back of a spoon and sprinkled the onions on the top side of the raw hash along with a pinch of salt and a good grind of pepper.

During this time, I slid my bacon rashers under the grill, popped some sliced mushrooms in a saucepan with a little butter and cracked my eggs into a mug.



After about 5-6 minutes again, I checked the underside of the hash had started to brown. It looked golden but hadn’t caught so I decided it was ready to turn over. Now the recipe recommends quartering the hash and flipping each quarter over one at a time. This is a good method for idiots like me who have little-to-no kitchen finesse. I still managed to make a mess, with bloody sticky potato getting all over my spatula, but the turning over worked. No need for any more fat at this stage, by the way. I gave the cooked side a grind of pepper and then tended to my other breakfast ingredients.

Another 4-5 minutes and the underside was a nice golden brown too. But I was a little concerned about the uncooked bits that had managed to get onto the top of my hash while turning it over, so I popped the hash under the grill on a medium heat while I fried my eggs.

By the time the eggs were done, everything looked right and I served up my first ever hash browns. A faff, maybe, but they were delicious and were more or less inhaled by Mr Spoon who has promised to do the washing up as a thank you for my culinary efforts.



Four things to do with leftover haggis

26/01/2013 § 2 Comments

Today is January 26th and for those who paid homage to Scotland’s national poet in the traditional way last night, it’s likely there will be bowls of cling-filmed haggis and neeps lurking in the fridge.

Obviously, trying to recreate a Burns Supper with just leftovers is never going to be as good as the real thing, so we are forced to improvise and I think there are four great ways of using up these ingredients in ways that are interesting and delicious.

Haggis sausage rolls

I made these for the first time a couple of years ago and every so often Mr Spoon will request them when I suggest making regular sausage rolls for picnics when out hiking. Haggis sausage rolls are the perfect snack when out on a cold mountainside, but as haggis can be difficult to procure in Cheshire when it isn’t late January these are a blue moon treat.

Full Scottish

This isn’t a recipe as much as it is an enhancement – and is particularly good if you only have a tablespoon or so of haggis (although in my book, if it isn’t enough to be a portion in its own right then you might as well eat it rather than save it). To complete your Full Scottish breakfast, just fry off a little leftover haggis in the fat before adding your eggs and then strew the cooked fried eggs with the grains of haggis, completing your breakfast plate and complementing your sausages and bacon. Also, you could fry off any leftover neeps to make squishy little potato cakes to soak up all the egg and fat. *dribble*

Haggis pie for two

Another recipe that can use up some leftover neeps is haggis pie. Preheat oven to 200 degrees centigrade. Fry off a finely chopped carrot, garlic clove and onion in a saucepan. Remove to a plate and brown a small packet of minced beef or lamb. Put the vegetables back in with the meat and crumble in the haggis. Next, a few generous shakes of Worcestershire sauce and a couple of tablespoons of water and a little salt and pepper. Stir together for a couple of minutes and then remove to mini pie dishes for individual portions or a smallish casserole dish. Top with the leftover neeps and add a little cheese if that’s what you fancy. Bake for 20 minutes or until the top of the mash is crisping nicely and the meat underneath is bubbling around the sides of the potato.

Haggis cakes 

Haggis cakes with chilli jam

Haggis cakes with chilli jam

I just made these for my lunch today. Invented on the spot, as many things are in my kitchen, they could have done with more haggis, but it’s my own fault for eating more than I should last night. Heat a little oil in a pan. Mix together your haggis and neeps in a bowl and add a little salt and pepper. Because I’m lazy, I just shaped them into patties of the same circumference as a baked bean tin with two dessert spoons, but making patties using your hands is fine too. Next, I coated them in breadcrumbs (no egg necessary because the potato is sticky enough) and popped them in the pan to sizzle, squishing down so they’re about 2cm tall. They need 2.5 minutes on each side and should be eaten piping hot with the condiment or chutney of your choosing. Mine was a blob of chilli jam.

A royal command from Queen Nigella

07/01/2013 § Leave a comment

Last month, an otherwise dull lunch at work chained to my computer resulted in a distracting, but delirious hour of internet activity.

Yes, Queen Nigella was doing a webchat on the Guardian website and would be working her way down a comment page answering her loyal subjects’ questions. I am among the most devoted of Nigella’s followers and so squealed at the opportunity and knocked together a slightly pie-eyed (no pun intended) question that oozed admiration without sounding too creepy.

It read: “Hi Nigella, I’ve just cooked your delish Asian Braised Beef shin for a festive supper for a few friends and it went down a treat. Making an event out of dinner for 4-6 people is easy, but what would you suggest for making a festive meal for two? I want to treat my other half on Boxing Day when we get back from Christmas at his mum’s house.”

And it may or may not have ended with a shrill-sounding: “Such a big fan! Nigella Express is my weekday dinner saviour. X”

Gradually, I watched her wise replies work their way down the first page of questions and made mental notes of her excellent advice about making sure the roast potatoes and gravy are hot when serving Christmas dinner and was reminded that I want to make her festive pumpkin recipe in Nigella Christmas, which she recommended to a vegetarian fan.

Then, it happened. She answered my question.

“A small shoulder of lamb cooked low and slow wd be my first choice, fork it into shreds and then dress jauntily with pomegranate seeds and some chopped fresh mint.”

After I got over the ecstasy of having cyberworld contact with my heroine, I sought to make this meal for myself and Mr Spoon – it was by royal command, so it’d be wrong not to.

So, on our only Saturday night alone in December (the 29th), I served up a small leg of lamb (was cheaper and smaller than a shoulder) that had been roasted under tin foil for four hours with a carrot, a couple of squashed garlics, salt, pepper and a little olive oil and then left to rest covered for 20 minutes. To accompany the meat (which crumbled beautifully when scraped with a carving fork), I made boulangere potatoes to compensate for the lack of gravy, although I did pour the pan juices over the shredded meat when I served it on my wooden carving board. Brussels sprouts were utterly ignored by Mr Spoon and therefore I gave him the carrot that had been confiting in the lamb fat for the duration of the roasting period.

But, I am no good at being jaunty with pomegranates. I struggle with pomegranates. I do like pomegranates, but I just can’t do the cheffy ‘tap with a wooden spoon’ thing. I have to wrestle with pomegranates with a teaspoon to release the seeds from their bitter, pithy cells.

In the end and to assuage my growing fruit-rage, Mr Spoon dealt with the pomegranate and got the juice everywhere while I poured us a nice glass of red.

Pomegranate and lamb go so well together and rescue you from the roof-of-mouth fattiness that can develop when eating lamb. The meal was great and we ate the entire thing with no leftovers even though it probably should have served four people.

So thank you Nigella. That’s another special meal you have conjured up that we have both enjoyed making and eating, and it was even more special thanks to our brief discourse via the Guardian.

Everything in moderation, including moderation

06/01/2013 § Leave a comment

Moderation is an odd concept for people who enjoy their food very much. There are people out there who find moderation, or even abstinence, extremely easy. These are the sorts of people who look great all the time thanks to a diet of rice crackers and a penchant for writing social media posts helpfully informing their friends and family of whenever they are preparing for, engaging in, or returning from exercising.

I am not one of these people. These people annoy me. But that does not mean I do not know when I’ve overdone it or when it’s time to broach the subject of moderation.

Without going to the Map My Run-addict side of the spectrum, after the over-indulgence, over-drinking and over-doing it in December, I have decided to ease myself back into the habit of using moderation in my weekly meal planner. Yes, I have a meal planner for the week. This is because I live on a reasonably strict budget and we try to keep costs down by doing a big shop once a fortnight at a cheapy supermarket and then top up the bread/milk/vegetables once or twice over the two weeks.

Also, it means I know what I (or Mr Spoon) will be cooking after a tiring day at the office, and for Mr Spoon an omelette just won’t do.

So, for the two weeks between now and our anniversary weekend in a fortnight, we will be following a similar regimen to the one I kept in the month ahead of a charity run I did last year. No booze, no red meat, limited frying, lots of veg, less carbs before bed, less sugar and no fatty/salty/sugary snacks. Oh, and no puddings unless it’s fruit or low-fat yoghurt.

This may not sound like moderation to many of you, but that is because in order to appreciate moderation, I think I need to deprive myself. And this really is deprivation because it means hiding all the sweets from Christmas that we’ve not eaten yet.

Last night, we celebrated our last night of gluttony after taking down the Christmas decorations with a box of baked camembert and French bread, pan fried sea bass with beurre noisette and ratatouille and a lemon polenta cake, all washed down with some leftover fizz. Bliss.

The menu for the fortnight ahead is far less indulgent, but far from austere. This is because Mr Spoon will mutiny if I give him salad and I may mutiny against myself also because the post-work munchies are a powerful force indeed.

So here’s some examples of what I’m making:

  • Cod steamed in tinfoil parcels with spring onions and mushrooms with brown rice (Mr Spoon did not enjoy first time around but my larder of Chinese/Thai ingredients such as fish sauce and Mirin has expanded since then, so maybe they’ll taste nicer).
  • Spicy grilled chicken slices in a pitta with baby leaf spinach and lemon low-fat crème fraiche.
  • Ratatouille with pasta (no cheese).
  • Turkey mince spag bol with brown spaghetti and no cheese.
  • Chicken kebabs, salsa verde and roasted sweet potatoes.

We are not training for the Olympics, nor do we have a red carpet event in the coming months and furthermore, we’re not about losing weight per se, we just need to get out of the habit of big puddings, lots of booze and all the trimmings with everything. So, hopefully we’ll flush out some of the fat from December and get back in the habit of moderation – in moderation, of course.

Hangover cures

04/01/2013 § Leave a comment

Christmas is behind us once more and what could be a more apt subject about which to base a blog on than the humble hangover? Indeed, January is the big hangover after the excess of the festive period and doubltess many of us Christened the first day of the year nursing a sore head or hugging the toilet bowl after a night of celebrating.

I have never been able to escape the clutches of the hangover monster after a big night. I’ve never been one of those people who could drink all night and then go for a run the next morning after tossing together a killer fry up.

No, booze punishes me. If the room spins, I know I’ve gone too far and there’s no going back. A horrible morning, day or weekend beckons. Three particularly memorable days as a student saw me actually muster the strength to attend classes with a hangover rather than skive. I remember being among my peers who were going about their day as though they were tucked up in bed at 10pm with a Horlicks rather than drinking pitchers of godawfulness in Vodka Revolution until closing time. So, I am well-versed in the hangover and with a solid decade of them behind me I reckon I know what helps.

Sicky hangovers are the worst. Too nauseated to eat (or even drink in particularly bad cases) and too hot to sleep, so for the first few hours you’re stuck with bad television and self-loathing punctuated with trips to the toilet/bin/sink.

When you reach the point you can keep water down then the coldest water you can find is like nectar from the gods. Sip slowly with paracetamol. By the time you can handle solids, toast with a little butter and marmite is a good stomach liner. That’s all very hard work and so will require a nap afterwards, perhaps with a gentle comedy on the box. Ginger tea is also good for dicky tummies and period pains, I find.

Headachy hangovers require lots of water and sugar in the form of carbs, carbs and more carbs. Again, starting with toast and water is good.

In either case, when your energy has returned a little, it is time for a lovely hangover lunch. For me, this means a square meal in some shape or form.

Crazy though it may sound, I crave chilli and garlic when I am recovering after a night on the razz, So my panacea for hangovers may sound exotic but really it requires minimal effort.

Here it is:

  • One defrosted tuna steak – grilled.
  • One handful of frozen spinach cooked along with a bowl of noodles or rice. If I have the energy, I melt and cook the spinach with a mashed garlic clove in some olive oil and then toss into the noodles or rice.
  • Plonk the tuna steak on top and season with lots of chilli powder (hot!) and soy sauce.

This works because it is full of flavour and low in fat, satisfying the needs of a hungover pallet without the guilt. PLUS, the chilli punishes those of us with a Presbyterian constitution that is hard-wired for guilt. Seriously, try it. It takes much less effort than it sounds and takes five minutes. And you’ll feel so much better for it!