Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Pear, ginger and chocolate scones

I have a bit of a disastrous track record when it comes to sweet scones. Cheese scones, those I can do quite well, and have gone through a number of recipes to find my favourite. Which funnily enough doesn't contain butter at all, it's a vegetable oil based recipe. But it was my favourite out of several that I tried. And some day I'll get around to post it here. Although, truth be told, my absolute favourite cheese scone I have ever eaten is at our workplace cafeteria. Raisin scones there are nothing special, I have had much better ones at cafes and tearooms around the UK. But oh mine, those cheese scones. They are fluffy and big and absolutely beautiful. Although, it will remain a mystery to me why some days they are the fluffy and amazing things they are, and other days, they are just hard lumps of dough you could use to kill somebody. I can see no other explanation for this than two different bakers. But there doesn't seem to be any kind of pattern to which days you get the really great five star cheese scones and which days you get the hard lumps. Which was ok back in the day when I ate them every day, there were good days and bad days. But now, when I only have them once in a blue moon, I'm really disappointed if it's hard dry lumpy scone day on the day I have allowed myself the indulgence of all those extra calories and carbs.

But this post is not about cheese scones. This is about fruit scones, which I have had notoriously bad luck with. Last time I attempted a sweet scone, it turned into a horrible disaster. Of all days, it was my birthday, and I had decided to spoil myself with some berry scones for breakfast. I was making the batter according to the instructions, and despite it being a bit on the runny side, I got the scones made and into the oven. Ten minutes later I had a peek, and the scones had not changed colour at all, which I found strange. But this was the first time I was making the recipe, so I thought maybe it's just some weird thing with this recipe that it bakes really slowly. The scones had started to flatten in the oven, forming more of one giant scone flatbread instead of pretty individual scones. After another ten minutes I found it very odd that the scones still didn't look at all baked, and there was no smell of baking strawberry and blueberry scones in my flat. Well, after a while I figured out that I had only turned on the fan in the oven, but not the heat. A bit hard to cook scones in room temperature. When I finally figured this out, I didn't have individual scones left, but just one big flat scone. It was edible, but not particularly delicious. So I decided to stay away from fruit or berry scones in the future.

I'm still struggling with my overload of fruit from my grocery shopping order last week. Particularly, my pears are starting to look like they rather be used up now or not at all. And totally coincidentally (I swear!!!) I ran into this recipe from Smitten Kitchen on Pinterest. And if there is something in you kitchen which is about to go off, and you happen to just stumble upon a recipe which contains said ingredient, you are pretty much obligated by the baking gods to try it out. Especially if you have all the ingredients at home, which is very unusual for me. So no need for a visit to the grocery store, I could just get home from work and start baking. With the small added complication of actually having to go to the gym in between. 

I made some small alterations to the recipe, such as not roasting the pears before using them as they were starting to be rather ripe, and didn't need to get any softer in my opinion. Also, the original recipe didn't contain any ginger, but I just bought a pack of candied ginger, and couldn't wait to be able to try it out in a recipe. I also switched cream for skimmed milk, as I didn't have any cream at home.
Pear and chocolate scones (adapted from Smitten Kitchen, makes 6-8 scones):
190 g plain flour
50 g caster sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 egg (plus one optional egg for the egg wash)
1/4 cup milk
85 g butter in small cubes
50 g dark chocolate chips or chunks
3-4 big pieces of crystallised ginger
2 pears

One scone (1/8 of the recipe) contains 250 kcal (12 g fat, 32 g total carbs and 4 g protein).

The howto:
Preheat oven to 175 degrees C. Chop the pears into small cubes. Mix flour, sugar, baking powder and salt a bowl. Add egg, milk and butter, and mix using a electric or handheld mixer. Add chocolate, finely chopped ginger and pears and mix. The dough was so thick that I found it easiest to use my hands for mixing. Pat out on a sheet of parchment paper into a circle, and cut into six or eight wedges depending on the size of scones you want. Brush with egg wash if you want to (I couldn't be bothered...), and bake for about 20 minutes for smaller scones and 30 minutes for larger ones. 

The verdict:
I finally managed to make great scones!! I wasn't too hopeful when I had made the dough as it looked a bit strange, but they baked beautifully. I was assured by my culinary consultant that they were exactly as scones should be, crisp and crunchy on the outside and soft and fluffy on the inside. And he should know, he is British, and the Brits do love their scones. They didn't quite rise as much as I would have liked them to, but they were still quite fluffy.

The pear made the scones wonderfully moist and gave the scones great flavour. And the ginger went perfectly together with the pear. The chocolate was a nice addition, but to be perfectly honest, the pear and ginger alone would already have worked great. So if you don't have chocolate, don't worry and just go ahead with the pear and ginger. I was going to eat one scone when I was baking them, and save one for the next day. Good thing I gave the rest of the scones to my culinary consultant, as I know he will be able to eat them in a more responsible fashion, as I ended up eating three straight out of the oven. I just couldn't resist them. I guess my never ending weight loss project is officially on hold again. At least I did an hour at the gym before inhaling the scones. Now I'm trying to convince myself I really shouldn't bake anything else this week, but I have two over ripe bananas on the table. And everyone knows over ripe bananas only mean one thing... banana bread! 

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Portion control crumble

Crumble is one of those things which you just can't stop eating. I simply cannot make a full size serving of crumble, because I will just eat it all. Last fall when I was visiting my sister, she made a huge serving of apple crumble with frozen yoghurt, and we ended up eating it all. It's the perfect autumn pudding. First of all, fruits are at their best. And it's cold enough outside to warrant a warm dessert. And the combination of hot crumble and melting, gooey vanilla ice cream is divine. Funnily enough, a friend of a friend has this thing that you just can't mix hot and cold components in a dessert. I wholeheartedly disagree. I love how the ice cream becomes almost creamlike when it melts onto the hot fruit. You could serve it with warm custard if you prefer. I recently went (on two consecutive weekends) to this amazing restaurant which is a mere five minute walk from my place called The Oak Bistro. Definitely one of my favourite restaurants in Cambridge. So far everything I have eaten there has been absolutely top notch, trying to pick my personal favourite between lobster pasta and pan fried scallops with celeriac purée. I can't make up my mind which was better. But after these two gems, my second favourite was the blackberry and apple crumble. Which was served with warm custard. Very good. But I think after all, my favourite combo is crumble and ice cream. And for once, and I do feel very weird saying this... It has to be vanilla ice cream. Obviously a good brand real vanilla one. Chocolate ice cream has it's place (mostly in my stomach I would argue...) but on this single occasion I will always opt for vanilla ice cream. And the good thing, vanilla ice cream is something I can actually keep in my freezer, as I am very unlikely to eat it all in one sitting. Whereas a tub of Ben and Jerry's has never seen the inside of my freezer, I will eat it from start to finish, as soon as it enters my apartment. And no, I'm not talking about the small single serving tublets. I mean the proper half liter tub. I have absolutely no problem whatsoever to eat it all in one sitting. I do have problems with NOT eating it in one sitting. Well, actually I don't think I have ever even attempted that. If I sink so low that I buy a tub of B&J, I have accepted the ugly truth that it will all be eaten in an instant. Ok, end of confession now. I guess I have quite a few Hail Marys to do after that. Or should I say Hail Ben&Jerrys...

For this crumble, I decided to forgo the usual cinnamon - nutmeg - ginger spice combo, which is absolutely everywhere right now. Yes, obviously a wonderful spice mix which just screams fall and apples. But this time I went for what I think possibly are the two most amazing spices in the whole wide wold: cardamom and vanilla. Vanilla and pear go so well together. Pear is actually such a great fruit, it is so good to eat just as is, it is great in puddings, but it also goes great with savoury dishes, such as this pear, apple and goat's cheese salad. And I wouldn't be surprised if there would be a pear related Friday quickie coming up sometime in the near future (if I happen to have any Fridays off to myself in the near future...). Ok, after yet another absolutely useless ramble about absolutely nothing of substance, finally on to the good part.

Apple and pear crumble (serves 2):
15 g muscovado sugar (I used dark because I love the molasses flavour)
25 g rolled oats
15 g wheat flour (I used whole wheat)
22 g butter (1.5 tbsp)
1 apple
1 pear
1 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp vanilla paste

Pear, apple, vanilla and cardamom. Mmmm, you
 already know this is going to awesome.
The howto:
Preheat oven to 200 degrees C. Start by making the crumble. Melt butter, and mix with the oats, flour and sugar. Chop apple and pear into small pieces. I couldn't be bothered to peel them as the peel goes nice and soft during the cooking, but you can obviously do that if you prefer. Divide fruits into two single serving ramekins, sprinkle half a teaspoon of cardamom and half a teaspoon of vanilla paste on each of the ramekins and mix. Spoon crumble on top. Bake for about 30 minutes. Serve warm with custard or ice cream.

The verdict:
There is one single secret to a good crumble in my humble opinion. Butter. You need to have enough butter in the crumble mix. There is no point in trying to make it healthy by making it low fat, as the crumble just won't get that nice crumbly texture. And crumble without crumbly crumble on top is obviously quite a disappointment. I rather cut down a bit on sugar and make it more healthy that way. After all, it's not fat that makes us fat, it's sugar that makes us fat. I guess with the sweet apples and pears combined with the wonderful warmth of the vanilla and cardamom, you could probably even make the crumble free from added sugar. But not fat free. And the only fat that will bring not only the right texture but also the right flavour is definitely organic butter. No substitutes. I have started to always buy organic butter. I keep imagining it tastes better and behaves nicer when baking than regular butter. It's probably an illusion, but I use so little butter that the difference in the price is not a dealbreaker for me. In general, I try to buy as much organic as possible. Very unscientific, I know, as there are no scientifically proven benefits of organic produce versus non-organic ones, and the amounts of nutrients in the food are the same in both groups. But somehow it just makes me feel like it's cleaner food. I guess I'm one of those suckers who have fallen for the brainwashing campaigns. Although I have to admit, also the price of food makes quite a difference to me, so it's the difference in price between an organic product and it's non-organic counterpart which in the end determine which one I'm getting.

This pudding was something I whipped up last Sunday night when I was craving something sweet, but didn't have enough calories left in my daily allowance to make it something really unhealthy. It was super-quick to prepare and absolutely delicious. After having quite a bit of puddings with warm fall spices like cinnamon and ginger, I thought the vanilla-cardamom mix made a nice change. And as I already mentioned, they are probably my two favourite spices in the whole wide world. Ideally I would always use vanilla bean seeds when cooking, but for financial reasons that's just not viable. But I have found a great substitute which I like very much, it's a thick syrup type of thing called Vanilla Paste. Of course it's not perfect as it has some ingredients I would prefer to avoid, but I'm rationalising it as the amounts of paste I'm using for any single dish is very small. Also, the paste has some added sugar so it's great for baking and desserts. But I'm very jealous of how people who travel to exotic countries (wherever vanilla beans grow, I have to admit I have no clue) and bring back huge containers full of vanilla pods that they bought for virtually pennies. I wonder if that is just urban legends, or if such places actually exist. And if they do, I hope I will get to travel there some day, as the price of vanilla pods is just ridiculous. Especially for someone who wouldn't mind using it in the quantities that I like. Actually, I don't I have bought any vanilla pods since I discovered the vanilla paste. That's how good it is.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Spooky Halloween almost healthy pops

I have been wanting to make cake pops for ages. If you haven't heard of cake pops, they are intricately decorated small balls of cake, stuck on the end of a stick like lollipops. Just google cake pop images. You will go absolutely crazy. Or look for cake pop boards on Pinterest. That kept me busy for the better part of a whole day. A while ago, I bought a large set of mixed baking stuff, which included, among many other things, a cake pop mould which bakes round small cakes for cake pops. Then there is the alternative way of making them, by first baking a regular cake, shredding it into crumbles and adding cream cheese or frosting to make a mouldable paste and form balls (or any other shapes for that matter) from the paste.

I spent a lot of my Wednesday in my cake pop frenzy, cheekily googling and Pinteresting (yes, I'm sure it can be used as a verb) cake pops and letting my mind jump from one crazy plan to another. I also didn't have any Candy Melts, and had no idea where to get them. Luckily my trusted baking consultant knew a place which was open until late, so I ended up walking several on my hunt for Candy melts on Thursday evening late after my pilates. And then staying up even later making cake pops, and multitasking that with packing for my work trip. And then there was of course cleaning up the rather horrifying mess in the kitchen. After midnight. Getting into bed really late on a Thursday night is not very good given that my alarm clock goes off at 5.40 am for bootcamp on Friday morning. But what I wouldn't be prepared to do when baking inspiration kicks in. And yes thank you, I know. I'm insane.

In my pop-planning frenzy I was faced with one more dilemma. My magically shrunk jeans are still skintight on me, so I'm reallyreallyreally trying to be good with my eating. So I thought, why not make healthier cake pops! There are loads of healthy(ish) date and nut bar or ball recipes online, just pick your favourite. I chose one for date and cashew bars from Minimalist baker which I ran into a while ago on Pinterest, and pinned on my board "Healthy-ish treats".

Date and nut pops (makes about 10):

100g dried dates

50 g sultanas

25 g macadamia nuts

25 g Brazil nuts

A few pistachios (about 20)

35 g dark chocolate chips

For finishing:

For the gosts: White candy melts and white fondant icing, black food colouring

For the pumpkins: orange candy melts, green and black food colouring

The howto:

Pulse nuts in a blender until fine. Add dates and sultanas, pulse until smooth. I then mixed in the chocolate, but the big-ish pieces of chocolate made it difficult to roll the dough into balls, so I would add the chips and give it a few more pulses with the blender. You should end up with a crumbly but sticky dough which is easy to roll into balls. Note that the date dough is quite a bit heavier than normal cake pops, so don't make the pops too big or they will slide off the sticks or bend them. Refrigerate the pops for at least an hour.

Melt a few candy melts (orange for pumpkins, white for ghosts), dip the bottom of the pops and the stick in the candy melts. Place the pop onto the stick, and make sure there is a seal of candy melts between the pop and stick as that will (at least in theory) keep them attached. Then, in theory go on to dip the balls in the candy melt goo. In practice, this is where I ran into trouble. The candy melts were way too thick for dipping. So I scooped it on the pops with a spoon, leaving the horrible uneven surface you see in the pics. My baking guru later informed me that you can thin the candy melts with vegetable oil if they are too thick to ease the dipping.

For the ghosts, roll out fondant icing, use a round cutter to make circles and place on top of the white pops. For the pumpkins, colour a bit of fondant green. Use a flower cutter to cut out the green tops and make a stem out of green fondant, glue them on using candy melts. Colour a bit of the white candy melts black, and paint on eyes and mouths. Note that for colouring candy melts, you need a oil based colour. However, I used normal colour paste, which I mixed with a very small amount of vegetable oil, and that seemed to do the trick.

The verdict:

All the blogs and YouTube videos I have watched about cake pops make it look so easy. Well, maybe I'm just hopeless in the kitchen, but I actually found things quite hard. Especially the candy melts, which I had imagined would melt into the right consistency. Well, it doesn't. It melts into a really thick goo. And I had no idea what the right consistency is, or what you use to dilute it. My baking guru later told me to use vegetable oil. Which makes sense. So next time I'm hoping I will be more successful in producing smooth and beautiful cake pops, instead of these horrible ones which look like they were made by a three year old. Also, I need to rethink what to use to paint the eyes and mouth, as the coloured candy melts are too thick to paint with.

The purpose of this post is not to scare you off cake pops. I'm sure it's not as hard as it was for me. However, if you have never made any before, do a practice round before making them for a special occasion, just to make sure all systems are fully operational. I can't wait to try again, as I stocked up on candy melts. I have a few Xmas designs I want to try out, so maybe closer to Holiday season I'll give it another try.

After all the negatives, I want to end on a positive note. The taste! The date and nut balls were absolutely delicious. I'm never ever buying another Nakd bar again, I'm most certainly making my own ones from now on. The dates form the basis of the gooey paste, and then you can add pretty much anything you like. Nuts, dried fruit, choc chips or fudge bites... Maybe a bit of nut butter as well. Next time I might try to make them in my heart-shaped chocolate moulds to get cute little heart shaped snacks instead of the ugliest cake pops ever.


Friday quickie and more Harissa

This Friday quickie is again a faux Friday dish, as it was cooked earlier this week. Currently I'm away in Norwich for a work thingy, unable to enjoy a Friday quickie. Although it also gave me an excuse not to go to Friday evening bootcamp, so I guess there is something good with the bad. Of course I would rather be home on my sofa slouching right now. 

This is part three in my triptych of recipes specifically aimed at using up the jar of Harissa I have in my fridge to prevent it from becoming one of those things you find in a few months at the back of the fridge growing new life forms. The two other recipes are Moroccan soups, one with chickpeas and quinoa and the other with cauliflower and roasted garlic

Recently I have mostly been cooking chicken legs and thighs as the majority of my cooking has been done in the slow cooker. Breast fillets easily go a bit dry if prepared that way, although I'm sure there are great recipes for chicken breast fillets in the slow cooker as well, just need to bring down the cooking time a bit. But roasted in the oven like this, they are delicious and a very healthy alternative. This recipe has no added fat or sugar and is high in protein and low in fat. Tomatoes also have a carotenoid called lycopene which has been shown to possibly be linked with reduced risk of certain types of cancer. Obviously, the data is far from conclusive, but be it this way or that, at least tomatoes are low in fat and sugar, have lots of good micronutrients such as vitamines. And of course they taste absolutely divine, and make this a beautiful, colourful dish. The recipe is from BBC Good Food.

Harissa roasted chicken (serves 4):
4 chicken breast fillets
2 tsp Harissa paste
1 tbsp oregano
(olive oil, salt, pepper)
300 g cherry tomatoes
olives (I used a 200 g can of lemon stuffed green olives)

The howto:
Preheat oven to 200 degrees C. Food really can't get much easier or quicker than this. Put the chicken fillets in a roasting tin, and rub with Harissa paste and oregano. If you want to, drizzle olive oil on top and season with salt and pepper. I didn't add any of either as I thought the olives would be salty enough and the pepper wouldn't taste very much through the Harissa. Cook for about 10 minutes. The original recipe says to cover with foil, but as you could probably guess, I couldn't be bothered to do that. Add olives and tomatoes, and roast for another 10 minutes. Serve with a green salad, or my new favourite, cauliflower and broccoli mash. Which is simply steamed cauliflower and broccoli blended with a knob of butter and seasoned with salt and pepper. Absolutely delicious!

The verdict:
I always tend to over cook chicken breasts. And although it's important to make sure chicken is cooked through, breasts don't need more than 15-20 minutes in the oven so keep an eye on them. There is a bit of fluids leaking from the olives and tomatoes, so the chicken was cooking in those lovely juices keeping it nice and moist. The harissa brings quite a kick to the chicken and roasted cherry tomatoes get a wonderful sweet flavour. This is truly fast food suitable for any quick dinner. It's also great for the lunchbox, I made four servings and packed in single serving Tupperware to take along to work. 

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Cauliflower and almond soup with Harissa

I'm sure you are all familiar with this dilemma. You find a great recipe, but it contains ingredients you don't usually use. However, the recipe looks so great you just have to run off to the grocery store, buying jars of x, y and z. You open all your little jars and cook whatever wonderful thing you were craving. After cooking that recipe, all those jars get pushed to the back of the fridge and won't get used again. Six months later you find them when you are doing a deep cleaning of your fridge, and realise there is mould in every colour of the rainbow growing in your jars.

Last week I made a batch of one of my favourite soup, Moroccan chickpea soup. So I opened a new jar of Harissa paste. And almost showed the jar into the back of the fridge. Then I decided this time I will be using up all that Harissa, not letting it go to waste. After all, it's quite a small jar, so I figured it can't take too many different dishes to use it all up.

I got this recipe from Best Friend, as we were exchanging recipes over lunch. The recipe is from BBC Good Food although I did add some roasted garlic to the recipe. Roasted garlic is absolutely amazing. I know using a whole garlic sounds like too much, but the flavour gets really rounded and much milder after roasting. So you can easily add a whole garlic to the soup. I originally got the idea of combining cauliflower and garlic from this amazing roasted cauliflower soup featured at Avocado Pesto. And it's such a great combo. So I thought it would be nice in this soup as well. The soup is very quick and easy to prepare, perfect to cook on a weeknight after coming home from the gym. Chuck the garlic in the oven and the cauliflower in the pot, let it all cook while taking a shower, and then hit it up with the old blender after drying your hair and dressing in your favourite jammies. Slouch on the couch, watch an episode of Downton Abbey and enjoy a big bowl of hot soup. Maybe with a glass of white wine.

Moroccan spiced cauliflower & almond soup (serves 4):
1 garlic
1 large cauliflower (I used 1.5 medium sized ones)
2 tbsp olive oil plus a drizzle for the garlic
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tbsp cumin
1/2 tbsp coriander
1 tbsp Harissa paste
1 l vegetable or chicken stock (I used chicken)
50 g toasted flaked almonds

One serving contains 223 kcal (15 g fat, 17 g total carbs, 7.6 g protein).

The howto:
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C. Cut the top off the garlic, drizzle with oil and wrap in aluminium foil. Roast for 30-35 minutes, or until soft. Or if you are lazy, do as me, just toss a whole garlic onto a roasting tray, no oil or foil. Meanwhile, separate the cauliflower into florets, and prepare the broth (i.e. turn on the kettle, and mix the hot water with a chicken stock cube). Heat the oil in a soup pot, add spices and Harissa paste and cook for two minutes. Add cauliflower, almonds and stock, and cook until cauliflower is soft, about 20 minutes. When the garlic is done, let it cool until cool enough to handle, and use a fork to remove the garlic cloves from the shells. Add the garlic to the soup and blend to desired consistency. Serve with some Harissa and almond flakes on top. 

The verdict:
This soup is a bit more spicy than I would usually like, but in a good way. It not spicy enough to hurt my mouth, but it has a bit of a kick. It's great and warming when you sit in your apartment and look out the window at the rain pouring down outside. The garlic goes great with the kick from the Harissa and the smooth mellow flavour of the cauliflower. Almonds were the part of this recipe that I felt a bit ambiguous about as I'm not a huge fan of almonds in general. But in this recipe the almonds really work well, they make a great contrast with the garlic and Harissa. I think this soup would be great served with a drollop of sour cream or yoghurt, or maybe cheesy garlic bread. I had it with rye bread which was also a great combo, especially when I popped the bits of the rye bread into the soup so that they got all soft and mushy. 

This recipe will definitely be a strong contender for favourite cauliflower soup as I'm really into Harissa right now. I don't like really spicy foods especially if they have heat from chilli as I just don't like the flavour of chilli, I like my spicy foods to be a bit on the sweet side. But in Harissa it works perfectly as the chilli is combined with sweeter flavours such as sweet pepper and tomato. So although I will remain a food wimp until the day I die, at least I have found one recipe that lets me pretend I like spicy food.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Moroccan soup

This is one of my all time favourite soups. And we are definitely back in high soup season. I mean, who wants soup in the summer? But when the evenings are getting chilly and it's dark outside, there is nothing like a hot bowl of soup to warm you up after crawling around in the mud for bootcamp, or whatever it is you happen to do out there in the dark and rain. I find soups great when trying to lose weight, as you can have a big bowl and still only have a reasonable amount of calories. It also makes your meal stretch out as you sit there and spoon all that broth. You have time to get that feeling of being sated and not go back for seconds. Although, I pre-define all my portion sizes while cooking, so there is no seconds. Otherwise I would eat a whole pot if this soup in one sitting. As you have probably figured, I'm trying to lose weight pretty much all the time, so there are a lot of soups at the InvisiblePinkHouse. How come it's such a struggle to go down even a few pounds, but it's easy to put on at least double that in just a few weeks of sloppy eating? I think it definitely defines the laws of thermodynamics Soups are also quick to throw together and can be left to cook while doing other things, so perfect to get going after coming home from the gym and left to slowly cook while taking a shower and getting into my jammies.

I got this recipe from my colleague, and have slightly adapted it and it has become one of my favourite soups. I usually make it fully vegetarian as in the recipe below, but sometimes add in stir fried chicken if I want to make it richer. The soup freezes well, I like to pack it into portion sized servings, move it to the fridge the night before I eat it (or take it out in the morning and let it thaw in room temperature until lunchtime). The flavours just get fuller when you heat it a second time.

Moroccan soup (serves 4):
2 onions
2 carrots
3 stalks of celery
2 cloves garlic
a piece of fresh ginger root
1 tbsp oil
2 tsp harissa paste
1 tbsp ground cumin
400 g tinned tomatoes
2 tbsp tomato puree
1 vegetable stock cube
1 can chickpeas (400g)
20 g quinoa (or couscous)

fresh coriander and lemon to serve

One serving contains 210 kcal (6.9 g fat, 29 g carbs and 7.8 g protein).

The howto:
Finely chop onions, garlic and ginger, slice carrots and celery. Fry in oil for about five minutes, add the harissa paste and ground cumin and fry for another few minutes. Add tinned tomatoes, chickpeas, tomato puree and stock cube along with about 500ml water. Let cook for half an hour, add quinoa and let cook for another 10 minutes or so, until the quinoa is done. If you like more of a stew consistency than a soup, just add more quinoa. Serve with a wedge of lemon and finely chopped fresh coriander. 

The verdict:
This is a really warming and spicy soup. I love to have it with some rye bread. Finland meets Morocco. It's funny, this is the soup that has made me like celery. I think I had never bought celery before making this soup, as I really didn't like the taste of it. But then again, the only time I had really paid attention to it was when it was served to me raw. And I still don't like the taste of raw celery, I'm pretty certain we are not meant to eat it raw. But in soups and stews, it has become on of my favourites. The flavour gets nice and mellow when it's cooked and it looses all of that horrible bitterness that makes it so unappealing when raw. Now celery is one of those things I always try to keep in my fridge, in fact right now I have two giant packs of celery in the fridge, waiting to be chopped into whatever soup or stew I'm making next. Basically this soup has everything I like, carrots, onions, tomatoes and chickpeas. Oh how I love chickpeas, sometimes I eat them straight out of the can, that's how much I love them. And I had never had Harissa before trying this soup. I like it because it gives the soup a very warm and spicy taste without being too hot. I have a very delicate mouth and I don't like anything hot like chillies because they just hurt my mouth. But Harissa (in controlled quantities) gives a sweeter kind of hotness, which I absolutely love.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Friday quickie: Super-easy asparagus pie

If you have been following the oh-so-dramatic story about the incident the ladies at my letting agency refer to as Firegate, you know why I ended up with a bit too much puff pastry on my hands. However, the fire did mess with my cooking plans in general, as I was simply too exhausted and stressed to worry about cooking last week. Ok, I might just have used it as an excuse to pig out a little... But the only thing which helps after a major chock is unhealthy food. Everybody knows that. Right? It's not like I'm just making this up to put off going back to my healthy eating routine.

So, one of the things in my fridge which had started to look a bit worse for wear was two bundles of asparagus. And asparagus is one of those expensive foods you just can't let go to waste. Although, over here, asparagus isn't even that expensive. But in general, I think it's wrong to let food go bad, you should try to use it all up. Of course if it has already gone bad, bin it. There is no point risking food poisoning. Talking about food poisoning, I gave myself the worst case of that a few years ago. I was sick for days. Which of course could mean it wasn't food poisoning after all, as food poisoning is supposed to wear off in about 12 hours or so. I think it was from a yoghurt and mint dressing I had left in the fridge for a day or two too long. And oh my, how sick I was. I won't go into more details than that, but just imagine the worst food poisoning you can. And then multiply that by ten.

If you have something in your fridge which is about to go off, and that same day you run into a recipe on Pinterest with that same ingredient, it's food kismet. You just have to cook that. Especially if you happen to have all necessary ingredients at home so that you don't even need to drag your sorry butt to the grocery store. I ran into this recipe from Martha Stewart which featured not only asparagus, but puff pastry as well. And I have seen similar pies before, and have wanted to try it out. And I even happened to have some grated cheese in the freezer waiting to be used up. All the pieces just fell together, so who am I to resist. On a totally unrelated note, I think all my jeans have magically shrunk in the wash. Even those that haven't been washed. Maybe the smoke somehow made them smaller?

Rustic asparagus pie (Serves 4-6):
500 g puff pastry
125 g grated mature cheddar (or some more fancy cheese if that strikes your... well fancy)
300 g asparagus
oil to drizzle on top (I used my garlic infused virgin rapeseed oil)
ground black pepper to taste

The howto:
Preheat oven to 200 degrees C. Roll out the puff pastry into a rectangle if you are really anal, or into a nice irregular shape if you are more into the whole rustic look. The original recipe said to first bake the pastry for 15 minutes, then add on the rest of the ingredients and bake for another 20-25 minutes. I was in quite a hurry when baking my pie, so I ended up doing everything in one step with no fussing about with pre-baking and stuff. I just rolled out the pastry, sprinkled cheese on it, and lined up my asparagus. Then a drizzle of olive oil and some pepper, and into the oven it went for about 30 minutes. Obviously the looks differ quite drastically from Martha's version...

The verdict:
Well, by comparing the pictures of mine and Martha's pie, you can see how one of them is clearly more relaxed and at ease with the world. I have to admit, the true reason for the rustic look is that I was in a crazy hurry when I made my pie. I didn't quite have time to wait for the pastry to thaw properly, which is why I wasn't able to roll the pastry as thin as I wanted. And so I ended with up with this giant cheese and asparagus puff. But I thought it actually looks quite funny! It's more like an asparagus galette. Very rustic, that is the word you are looking for. Not ugly! Rustic!!

How about the taste? If you don't like puff pastry you won't like this. Because it's basically puff pastry with cheese, with a few stalks of asparagus thrown in for good measure. It's not health food, obviously. It's fat topped with fat topped with a few green stalks. But then again, if you don't like puff pastry, what's wrong with you? It's one of those things everyone claims not to like, but secretly love. It's very wrong, but oh so right. And the flavour of asparagus does come through nicely, so it does count as a proper asparagus pie in my opinion. Of course there are ways of making one that contains about 99% less fat, if you make a proper quiche type of pie, but for a Friday quickie that doesn't require you to get any bowls dirty, just a rolling pin and your fingers, I think it's more than adequate. And I admit to eating two pieces of it as soon as it came out of the oven. It's better warm than piping hot, you could eat it cold but I like the flavour of asparagus better when it's warm. I'm really into this puff pastry phase right now. I just bought an cast iron skillet, and am eagerly awaiting it's arrival. And the first thing I will make? Yes, you guessed right. And I promise to share the results with you, no matter how disastrous. 

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Operation smoke smell removal

Last week on the night between Monday and Tuesday at 1.22 am, I woke up to the fire alarm. Which in my building usually means that someone got home from a night on the town, decided to make themselves a toast. We have ridiculously sensitive smoke alarms in the building I live in, and they usually go off at the first molecule of burned toast. This happens regularly. There are no words to describe how annoying it is. Sometimes when I cook so that I'm using both my oven and hob, the apartment just gets so hot it sets off the heat sensors. Even with all (i.e. both) windows open. And nothing burning. Just from the water vapor from boiling stuff and the heat. Which again, I think is inhumaine conditions to live (i.e. cook) in. But believe me, no matter how annoying it is to have to run down all 52 steps of stairs to turn off the alarm, that is nothing compared with what it feels like when the alarm goes off because of an actual fire. 

In this case, my downstairs neighbour had been smoking inside, then set off to paint the town red. Leaving the smouldering cigarette butts to set fire to the apartment. Did I mention, it is strictly prohibited to smoke in the building (the whole building is owned by my letting agency, and therefore all tenants have the same rules to follow). And ironically, only a few weeks ago, there was a letter sent to all tenants about complaints of someone smoking in the building, and that this has to stop immediately. Well, clearly it didn't. It's one thing if you make the choice of ingesting toxins through a burning stick, but seriously, go outside and do it. At least then it's only you who are suffering the consequences, instead of risking the lives of a building full of people along with all their earthly possessions. Just thinking of this still makes me shudder with anger. If I ever run into that guy in a dark alley, let's just say some parts of his anatomy will be running a very high risk of being very violently pulled off. Ok, that might be just a bit over the top, obviously I woud never hurt anyone (consider that a legal disclaimer...) but boy am I angry at him.

So there we were, thankfully everyone accounted for, huddling outside in the street, clutching our computers and watching a horrible cloud of smoke pouring out of the burning flat. There were three fire trucks and probably a dozen firemen. It looked really bad, we were afraid the whole place would burn to the ground. Also, note to self, if fire alarm goes off in the middle of the night, grab something warm to wear. Thankfully I had at least grabbed my coat and a pair of warm shoes, but a girl from downstairs had only thrown a coat on what appeared to be a pair of very skimpy jammies, as her legs were totally bare. At that point I was very thankful for sleeping in a pair of jammies with full length trousers and a long sleeved top. I did make quite a fashion statement standing there on the street in my cow jammies and trench coat.

To make a long story short, we stood there freezing for over two hours while the firemen slaved away at saving our building. After a while the amount of smoke started to decrease and eventually stopped completely. And after what seemed like an eternity, one of the firemen came over to us to inform us about the extent of the damage. The firemen were able to contain the fire to the apartment where it started, which was obviously an incredible relief to us all. And after another hour or so of airing out the worst of the smoke, the people living on the two lower floors were let back in. Me and my next door neighbour however, were not that lucky. Because we live on the top, all the smoke had accumulated in our flats. So there was no way we could sleep there that night.

I asked if I could go up and grab a few things, and I was allowed to do that. The hallway looked like a bomb had exploded, well at least a smoke bomb. There were black markings all over the carpets and floors, and water was dripping from the burned flat to the hallway below. And when I got up to my flat, the smell was horrible. Not just the overwhelming stench of smoke, but a sharp, toxic smell of burned plastic. I grabbed a few things as fast as I could, leaving all (two) windows wide open into the night as I asked the fireman if I could lock the door behind me. Which I was allowed to do, leaving feeling very lucky everyone was unhurt but at the same time worried about how much smoke damage my possessions, particularly my expensive dresses and shoes had sustained. Luckily Best Friend lives literally around the corner, so there I was, past three am, clutching my bag which was stinking of smoke and hoping Best Friend would answer her phone. "Sorry to wake you, but my house was on fire, and I'm not allowed to go back tonight. Can I crash at yours?".

Funnily enough, after describing the main events of the dramatic night, I fell fast asleep in Best Friend's warm apartment, under a huge down duvet, and slept without waking until the morning. Then Best Friend fed me and gave me clean clothes, and off I went to face the damage. I sent off an email to my various bosses to say that I have to sort out the damage to my apartment, and thankfully they were very understanding.

Walking in to the building was like walking into a war zone, in the daylight the stairwell looked even more horrible than it had the night before. And the smell in my apartment was absolutely nauseating. I must not have been thinking completely clearly (well, after a night of quite a shock followed by only three hours of sleep it might be expected that your thought processes are just a tad muddy) because the first thing I did was to do my dishes and wash my bathroom. My only thought was that I would have been mortified if someone from the insurance company had walked into the horrible mess that was my apartment and seen my dirty bathroom. Then I wiped off the worst of the dirt from the firemen's boots off the floor. There wasn't much more I could do, so I left the windows wide open and headed into town to get a few hours of work done from an internet cafe. It felt like a huge relief to be able to breathe in fresh air as I got out of the building.

Now, a week later, the smell is almost gone from my apartment. I currently have three air freshers and a reed diffuser scattered around the apartment, and have been burning scented candles almost every night. The windows stayed open all day and all night for the first four days. Sleeping was a bit chilly, but I think that really helped get the smell out. And I have been trying to cook a lot. Foods that would spread a nice, warm scent which would drive away the disgusting smell of smoke. Which is where today's post comes in. Is there any other scent that is as soothing and enjoyable as cinnamon rolls baking? That was my only thought, I had to make cinnamon rolls. However, in my rather exhausted and stressed out frame of mind, I couldn't imagine making a proper proofed dough, as it involves quite a bit of work as well as a lot of waiting. Back home, you can buy all sorts of ready made doughs and buns in the frozen food section, and just whack them in the oven for that lovely baked at home smell. In this country however, nothing like that exists. Or at least I haven't managed to find any ready to bake cinnamon buns. 

Wow, are you still reading? Ok, at this point I should probably reward you with the actual recipe. After all that word vomit above, the point was that I needed to make something resembling cinnamon buns, and to do it with minimum effort. The only thing I could come up with that was readily available from any grocery store (because this was in the middle of the week, so I didin't have time for a 40 minute track to the nearest supermarket, but had to come up with something I could get from one of my five (!) local tiny grocery stores) was puff pastry. Puff pastry cinnamon rolls... hmmm... I was skeptic to say the least. It seemed a bit like sacrilege. But then the thought of the smell in my apartment versus the scent of newly baked cinnamon rolls was the deciding factor. What the heck, I'll  go for it. If they taste totally vile, I'll just bin them, at least the apartment would smell nice. So I whipped up a cream cheese and cinnamon filling and tried it out. 

Super quick cinnamon rolls (makes about 12 rolls):
250 g ready made puff pastry
100 g cream cheese (I used Philadelphia Light)
2 tbsp light muscovado sugar (or more, depending on the level of sweetness you want)
1 tsp ground cardamom
1 tbsp cinnamon

1 egg for the egg wash
icing sugar for dusting

The howto:
Preheat oven to 200 degrees C. Mix cream cheese, sugar, cardamom and cinnamon until smooth. Roll out the puff pastry to a rectangle, spread the filling on the pastry, leaving a few centimeters of one long side of the rectangle free of the filling. Use a fork to mix the egg to make the egg wash. Brush some egg wash onto the filling free part of the pastry, this will help seal the buns (although as you can see from the picture below, I didn't use quite enough egg was to keep the rolls sealed). Roll into a firm log finishing at the side with the egg wash. Slice the log into individual buns, about 3 cm thick. Place on a baking sheet, brush with egg wash and bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool, and dust with icing sugar. 

The verdict:
It's probably not fair to call this a recipe, as it's more of an assembly of pre-prepared ingredients. But desperate times (like a fire, or any other desperate need for cinnamon buns) calls for desperate measures. I would love to say that the buns spread a wonderful scent which drove away the smell of smoke from my flat, and then I just threw them in the bin, I mean who would eat sugar and fat rolled in puff pastry... Of course that's not exactly how it went. The wonderful scent of cinnamon buns did fill my apartment for a while, and although unfortunately not removing the smell of smoke completely, did do the trick. And as soon as the buns had cooled enough to not mortally wound me, I inhaled several of them before even sitting back down on the sofa. And they did taste heavenly. Obviously, they cannot be compared to real cinnamon buns, as there is nothing as comforting as traditional soft cinnamony buns. But for an emergency bun-a-bies, they actually did the job really well. Just think, from puff pastry to ready made buns in about 30 minutes. How's that for a quick cinnamon bun fix? One technical note though, I would make sure to bake the puff pastry until baked quite well. I usually like my puff pastry a bit under done, but in this case, you want the pastry to be really flaky and well baked. So make sure to bake it until it's a deep golden colour, but obviously get it out before the edges of the buns turn dark brown.

I enjoyed my bun substitutes with some leftover cream I had in the fridge and some chocolate spread. Yes, that disgusting thing you buy from the supermarket which tastes of cheap chocolate and horrible unhealthy fats. But in my defence - my flat almost burned down. I wonder how long I can use that as an excuse to eat absolutely disgusting things? And actually, I would think using the chocolate spread as a filling in the buns would work really well. Maybe sprinkle a few chocolate chips on as well. Or maybe make lemon bun substitutes by doing a filling of soft cheese and lemon curd. Why not go totally crazy and mix some roasted strawberries or some other fruit with the cream cheese. I guess that would result in some kind of weird Danish pastry bun... Just use your imagination, it seems like puff pastry is an empty canvas for a food obsessed mind. Oh, and my local grocery store only had a huge pack of puff pastry available, so expect puff pastry to star in a few future blog posts, although it's something I almost never use. Which you wouldn't believe if you knew what is coming up next. Well, I guess you just have to wait and see. Until then, be careful with any open flames!

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Roasted Figs and Quorridge

I'm always on the lookout for new ideas for brekkie. Muffins, scones, home made bread, french toast, omelettes, smoothies... But sometimes you want something really different. Which is where this lovely post from Joy the Baker comes in. I immediately fell in love with the idea of roasted figs. Figs are amazing, and seem to be so juicy and ripe at the moment. Yesterday I was strolling through the marketplace and the figs just kept calling out to me; "Take us home and make something amazingly good out of us". I totally fell in love with roasted strawberries earlier this year, so I thought roasted figs must be really tasty as well.

I'm sure roasted figs go together lovely with oatmeal. However, I have been making a lot of refrigerator oatmeal during the summer, so I thought something slightly different might be nice. My bootcamp nutrition plan had cooked quinoa as one breakfast option. I hardly ever used to eat quinoa for breakfast, partly because the bootcamp morning quinoa was served with rice milk, which I think is vile. But after finding this recipe on Eat Yourself Skinny, I thought quinoa would make a great porridge with the right spices. And because fall is so clearly here with crispy cold evenings and even the first signs of Christmas appearing (they are selling tickets to our traditional Christmas lunch at work...), I thought some warm spices such as cinnamon and cloves would make a tasty quinoa porridge. 
This could make a great weekend breakfast recipe, but to be quite honest, it's so quick and easy that you could even manage it on a weekday morning. Get out of bed, turn on oven, splash ice cold water on your face, blow your nose to get the smoke and soot out of your nose. Oh wait, that could just be the small minority of people in this world living upstairs from a flat that burned to a crisp. Anyways, after making sure your nose is smoke free, use 10 seconds to cut the figs in half, another 30 seconds to sprinkle with seasoning, and pop into the oven. Measure quinoa and spices into a pan, add water, let bubble away while getting dressed. Add milk to the quorridge, slap on that make up, remove figs from the oven, skip doing your hair and just tie it back in a ponytail. Because who has time to bother with the hair, really... Serve your brekkie, check what's going on in the world (i.e. Facebook), enjoy your hot spicy porridge while having a glance at what horrible disaster awaits you in your inbox, get so lost in the amazing flavour of roasted figs that you almost miss your bus. What a perfect start to a morning!

Roasted figs and quorridge (serves 2):
4 figs
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp pomegranate balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp dark muscovado sugar

90 g (1/2 cup) quinoa (dry weight)
1/4 cup water
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
2 tsp cinnamon
3 cloves
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tbsp dark muscovado sugar
3/4 cup milk
The howto:
Preheat oven to 200 degrees C. Cut the figs in half, and drizzle with olive oil and balsamic. Sprinkle the sugar on top. Roast for 8-10 minutes.

Measure the water, quinoa, spices and sugar in a pot and heat until water is boiling. When the quinoa has absorbed most of the water, add half of the milk and let boil gently until the milk is absorbed. Keep adding milk in small quantities until the quinoa is cooked to your liking. Serve with the roasted figs, drizzling the syrup that has formed on the bottom of the roasting tray on top of the figs.
The verdict:
I'm in love with figs. They are so juicy and sweet just as they are. But roasting them just takes them to a completely new level. They get soft and mushy, and even sweeter. The balsamic adds a nice little sharpness to the flavour. And the quorridge. That certainly is a winner! Cold, crisp fall morning, and all those lovely spices. They make your kitchen (or all of your tiny little shoebox of a studio) smell like fall, gingerbread, sweet buns and all wonderful things. Obviously you can use any spices you like. But I thought ginger, cardamom, cloves and cinnamon would be perfect and very seasonal. Candied ginger might also be worth trying. Or maybe boiling the quinoa with prunes and raisins, a bit of cinnamon. That would also go perfect with the figs. And the great thing, roasting the figs will work perfectly when the best fig season has passed, and the figs are no longer juice dripping ripe. I made a batch and ate half one morning, and re-heated the rest in the microwave the next morning. Admittedly the texture of the figs is not quite as perfect when re-heated, but still very nice. And very practical. It's not like you have time to cook brekkie every single morning. Like those mornings when you have to spend 20 minutes in the shower to get the smell of smoke out of your hair. Oh wait, so that's not what normal people do every morning? Only the people who live in a flat which smells like a smokery. That's probably not a real word. Well, smells like whatever that place is called where things like hams and bacons are smoked. Oh, and if you think this moaning about the fire is getting a bit old. But it's not every day you almost lose all your worldly possessions because your neighbour is too ignorant to put out his cigarette. Which he was not allowed to smoke inside the flat in the first place. But everyone got through it unhurt, as did my shoes. So I will be complaining about it until kingdom come. But I promise, there will always be a delicious recipe attached to my moaning. 

Friday, 12 October 2012

Almost healthy Friday quickie

Well it's been a while since my last Friday quickie. Mostly it's because I haven't eaten in on a Friday for ages. Fridays used to be mine and Best Friend's grocery shopping day, we would head off for our half hour trek to the big Tesco, use at least another half hour, often even more, to browse our way through every isle, and then trek back with a weeks worth of groceries. Carrying it all back home was never an enjoyable task, but gossiping about everything that had happened that week or planning the weekend used to make the trip go quickly. Then when I got home, I cooked something simple but delicious and spent the rest of the night on the sofa.

These days, we spend Friday afternoon crawling around in the mud and grass, do our burpees, press-ups, running and all sorts of other crazy exercises at bootcamp. If we are lucky it isn't raining, but last week we got soaked both during the morning and evening bootcamp. Yes, we are hard core that way, we enjoy bootcamp twice every Friday. And Mike, our trainer, has a very special treat for us to finish off Friday's bootcamp. Two minutes of burpees. When you have pushed your body to the limit for a full hour, those two minutes feel like they are never going to end. Point of all of this, after getting drenched in sweat and sometimes rain as well, then chilled until freezing while walking home through a pitch dark field (we have to carry bike lights to find our way, it's really that dark), the last thing on my mind is to cook something. I jump straight into a hot shower, stand there for ages until the feeling has returned to my frozen toes and then wrap myself in layers of fleece. Boiling the kettle and filling my fluffy pink hot water bottle. And grabbing whatever I can find in the freezer to eat. Gastronomy be damned, after that sort of workout you just need calories in any form or shape they happen to be most quickly available. 

And I have to admit, this week's Friday quickie is a bit of a cheat. Because I prepared the figs earlier, and only quickly heated them up today. But it's the thought that counts, in theory it's still a Friday quickie, as I'm eating it on a Friday and it was very quick to prepare, even if I technically speaking didn't prepare it all on a Friday. And it follows the rules of Friday quickies, it only has a few ingredients. Simple but oh so delicious! The figs were inspired by a pin I ran into on Pinterest which led me to this blog post about figs. Figs and goat's cheese are quite a classic combination, I decided to roast my figs instead of having them fresh, although they were so lovely soft and ripe that I'm sure they would have been absolutely delicious fresh as well. I'm just on a bit of a roasting fad, and I wanted proper food, which to me means it has to be served hot. It only seemed appropriate to serve the figs with a side dish which has been prepared by oven roasting as well. I haven't used kale much, but I fell in love with the idea of kale chips when I saw the beautiful photos on White On Rice Couple. Well, obviously I first saw the photo on Pinterest, but I probably didn't need to mention that, now did I?
Roasted figs and chèvre (serves 1):
4 figs
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp whole grain mustard
black pepper
100 g chevre
handful of pecans

The howto:
Preheat oven to 200 degrees C. Cut figs in half, and drizzle with olive oil. Spread mustard on the figs and sprinkle with a touch of black pepper. Cut the chevre in eight pieces, and top each fig half. Pop into the oven until the goat's cheese has turned golden on top, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with finely chopped pecans.

Salt and pepper kale chips (serves 1):
100 g kale
1 tbsp oil (I used my smoke infused virgin rapeseed oil)
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp ground black pepper

The howto:
Preheat oven to 200 degrees C. Spread the kale onto a roasting tin. Drizzle with oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and toss. Roast for 6-8 minutes, until kale is crisp. The kale will burn very quickly, so keep an eye on it for the last few minutes. I know my baking time is shorter than that indicated in the original recipe, I guess it depends on your oven and kale. And after the fire in our building the other day (the flat underneath mine burned to a crisp...) I didn't want to over-roast the kale and risk setting off our super sensitive smoke detector as that would probably cause one or two heart attacks with the neighbours.

The verdict:
First of all, if you want to have enough kale to actually make it all the way onto your plate, you need to cook more than one serving. I hardly had any left over for a picture as I ate it right off the roasting tin. It's just that good. No, actually it's even better. I had no idea I liked kale so much. I might have slightly over salted the chips, but that just made them a bit more chip-like. Maybe next time I should drizzle some malt vinegar on them as well. 

Figs and goats cheese are a classic combo. And there is of course a reason why they are a classic, because they go together like... well like figs and goats cheese. The sweetness of the figs and the savoury cheese. I'm just crazy for figs right now, so stay tuned for more fig goodiness soon.