Sunday, 30 March 2014

Garden update

It's the end of another week, and that means it's time to see what has happened in the garden during the last seven days. The weekend was absolutely lovely and warm, Saturday was sunny and today was ok and warm although not sunny. We spent quite a while both today and yesterday in the garden, I was mostly weeding and cleaning up the borders and the Culinary Consultant was busy in the greenhouse turning the soil and improving it. I'm actually surprised I enjoy gardening as much as I do, I used to hate weeding, whereas now I get such satisfaction from seeing a nice and clean, weed-free bed in the garden. I did my bit in the garden today and thought I had been outside for a bit more than an hour, but turns out I had been out there for over three hours! Time just flies. And there is so much to be done, it's just never ending. This year will just be a year of discovery, to see what grows where and the slowly starting to make decisions of what to keep for next year, what works, what we like, and what will end up going. And seeing the garden change almost every day now that the growing season is in full swing is just magical.

The plum tree is in flower, and I swear the flowers
 appeared over night. Previous day nothing, next day
a tree full of beautiful flowers. 
Can anyone say rhubarb pie!?!
Raspberries are growing strong, and I
spent a good while weeding out things
from the undergrowth to give the raspberries
maximum access to all the nutrients in the
soil. Hopefully that means more berries when
 that time comes around.
Not long before the pear tree is in bloom. 
Basil seedling are going strong. Hopefully I will be able to
keep them alive and will have a load of basil this summer.
I think basil is my all time favourite herb.
These pretty fellows turned up in the flower bed.
The mint is starting to grow, I really need
 to come up with ways to use it as we have
 an almost endless amount of mint.
Looks like we will be having asparagus
 this week as well, and this time more
 than just two spears.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Gratin of mussels

My body's clock seems to be quite well tuned and getting used to waking up at 6 am, as I was fast asleep a bit past ten pm last night. I'm such a party animal! And although I did sleep in a bit this morning, I was still up at quarter to seven. But I don't want to sleep in too late on the weekends, as that will only make it harder to get up during the week. So instead, I have a few hours of crafting and blogging time on Saturday and Sunday morning while the Culinary Consultant sleeps. That lucky bastard gets to sleep until eight in the morning even on working days, and he tends to stay up rather late, so he does take the opportunity to sleep in a bit over the weekend. I used to be able to easily sleep past midday on weekends. I guess I'm officially old now, no longer able to sleep in the mornings. During my holiday, I established a nice sleeping pattern of going to sleep around 11.30 and waking up around 8 am. I think that would be ideal for me, being able to sleep until 8 am. But I guess the next time in my life when I'm able to sleep as I wish is when I get retired. And I'm sure by then I am one of those people who wake up at 4 am, complain that the day feels so long and then I fall asleep on the sofa at 8 pm. Hopefully shifting the clocks tonight won't upset my internal clock too much...

I am also slowly getting used to my commute, I spend some mornings dozing off a bit in the bus, other mornings I plan next week's menu, or just read a book. On the way back home, I try to get some work related reading done, and sometimes I just stare out the window with a completely blank mind. There is no point in thinking about all the time that is wasted sitting in the bus (or as was the case yesterday - waiting for a bus for over 45 minutes). This is the choice I made, and the price I pay for a nicer job is the longer commute. It won't get any better by complaining about it, so I might as well make the best of it. I have now used the car+bus combo for three weeks, and kept a diary of the expense as well as the time it has taken me every day. Next, I will drive in for the next three weeks and compare time and cost, and then decide on what is the best option in the long run. I'm so annoyed we get charged for parking at work. I'm sure that should be illegal...

After all those pointless ramblings, on to today's recipe. You know all that food your Mum used to make when you were a child? And then trying to re-create it years later, and it just doesn't look the same. This is something I remember my Mum making quite often for her and Dad. I don't think I ever tasted it, not sure if it was because we were never served this dish, or because we simply refused to eat it (I would assume the latter is the more accurate). 

Gratin of mussels (serves 4 as a starter):
1 dl (approx 1/3 of a cup) chopped parsley
1 dl (approx 1/3 of a cup) chopped leek
1 dl (approx 1/3 of a cup) chopped chives
1 clove of garlic, sliced
2.5 dl (1 cup) dry white wine
2.5 dl (1 cup) fish stock
2 dl (3/4 cup + 1 tbsp) single cream
2 tbsp flour in 2 tbsp water
black pepper (you can add salt, but the smoked salmon which is added later is salty enough for my taste)
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
a pinch of dill
about 400 g mussels (thawed if frozen, smoked mussels will give nice added flavour)
100 g smoked salmon
150 g grated cheese (or more/less to taste)
chopped parsley

Preheat oven to 200 degrees C. Add the chopped parsley, leek, chives, garlic, wine and fish stock into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Let boil until the volume is reduced to half. Add the cream and bring to a low boil. While stirring, add the water and flour mixture in a thin stream and let bubble for a few minutes. Season with finely chopped garlic, black pepper and finely chopped dill (fresh is better, but dried will do).

In an oven proof dish, or individual ramekins, spread the mussels and salmon. Cover with the sauce. Top with grated cheese and chopped parsley. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until golden brown and bubbling. Serve with fresh bread or baguette.

The verdict:
In my memories, when my mum made this, it looked very different. But then again, she used to make it in individual servings, whereas I didn't have any ramekins which were the right size, my soufflé ramekins were too small. It was very tasty though. I can't remember whether I ever tasted my mum's version of it so I can't compare taste. One warning I have is to be very careful with the salt. I don't think this dish needs any added salt, especially if you use smoked mussels or smoked salmon. This makes a really great starter, and I took the leftovers with me to work for lunch the next day. It felt rather decadent to eat such amazingly good food for lunch at work, but it certainly made my day. To be honest, the dish is definitely best if served right out of the oven, re-heating does make the mussels a bit tough.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Spring interrupted

This week's spring watch is a bit gloomy, as my little seedlings aren't faring very well with all this frigid weather. And to be honest, I'm not faring very well with the cold either, I am sick and tired of constantly being cold to my bones, only managing to get truly warm while driving my car and blasting all heaters on maximum. If the weather doesn't turn more spring-like soon, I will bury myself in my bed and not get out until the sun is shining and it's at least ten degrees in the morning. I have been standing in the icy rain waiting for buses for longer than I care to think of lately. And how come the bus is always late on the rainy and windy days? But keep on believing, and maybe the spring will come eventually. 

I don't know what this is, but it's very
pretty with it's yellow flowers.
I found a few of these little pink fellows hiding
 behind the daffodils in the flower bed.
I have now harvested my first two spears of
asparagus. We enjoyed them the other night,
and I can honestly say it was the best asparagus
I have ever had. Cant wait for more of the same!
The vines are springing to life!
Pollination going on around the rosemary bush.
Some more pretty flowers which I have no idea what they are...

Monday, 24 March 2014

Chicken and leek pie

I seem to be completely out of sync with my blogging schedule. I realise I didn't publish a single food blog post over the weekend! But it all got a bit crazy with a surprise visitor. Well, he wasn't so much of a surprise to the Culinary Consultant, just to me. Can you say communication breakdown? So it all ended with me running around like crazy trying to clean the whole house (which usually takes at least three hours) in less than an hour and a half. To his defence, the Culinary Consultant did chip in when I started to run up and down the stairs with a mop in my hand a completely panicked face. 

Any left over time I had in the weekend was spent crafting. I had a few cards I wanted to finish. Funnily enough, I seem to manage at least from time to time to photograph my cards in daylight, whereas I never manage that feat with my food. I always seem to eat when it's dark. But spring is coming, along with the slim chance that I manage to photograph some food in actual daylight! 

Today's recipe is just a simple an humble chicken and leek pie. I love pies. And I love to get the corner pieces with loads of pastry. Who wouldn't love flaky pastry? And the creamy hot filling oozing out when you cut the pie. I get hungry just looking at the picture!

Chicken and leek pie (serves 4-5):
3 tbsp olive oil
600 g mushrooms
1 leek
500 g chicken (I used thigh fillets as that was what I had in the freezer)
300 ml (1 1/4 cup) single cream
1 egg
150 g cheddar, grated
1-2 tsp mild curry powder
1-2 tsp tandoori curry powder
1 tsp chilli flakes
1 tsp ground pepper
a pinch of salt 
1/2 tsp pilau rice seasoning

1 pack of puff pastry, egg for brushing

The howto:
Start by preparing the mushrooms, leek and chicken. Peel the mushrooms (if you wish, I always peel mushrooms, although the Culinary Consultant thinks I'm crazy) and thinly slice them. Cut the leek in half and wash thoroughly before chopping. Dice the chicken into bite-sized pieces. Heat a tablespoon of oil in a large frying pan, and fry the mushrooms in two batches and set aside in a large bowl. Add another tablespoon of oil to the pan, and cook the leak briefly, I like it to still be green and a bit crunchy instead of limp and pale. Add to the bowl with the mushrooms. Add the last tablespoon of oil into the pan and cook the chicken until cooked through. While the chicken is cooking, preheat the oven to 200 degrees C. Add the chicken in with the mushrooms and leeks. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix. Line a pie tin with puff pastry, and add the filling. Add the pastry lid on top, and seal the puff pastry with a fork or by pinching the pastry base and top. Brush with egg and bake for 45 minutes, until the pastry is golden brown. 

The verdict:
I like the slight twist in seasoning to this otherwise very traditional pie. There is just something very comforting with a good pie. I also love how the leek brightens everything up with that bright green colour and gives you an excuse to pretend there is actually something healthy in there as well. Oh, who am I kidding. But like I said, the point of making a pie in a square instead of a round tin is that you have the corner pieces which have more pastry than you would get in a round tin. 

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Tomato soup

Some days you just need a lovely and comforting bowl of hot soup. I am still not rid of my stubborn cold. Yesterday also turned out to be a day when life once again sent a reminder of how sudden things change without any warning. Life takes you on weird, winding paths, and sometimes it's very hard to see any reason for why things turn out like they do.
Talking about comforting soups, if you have been reading my blog for a while, you could not miss the fact that we had quite a tomato crop this summer. I just couldn't believe how much tomatoes our plants produced. However, as we only moved in in July, the wonderful previous owners grew the tomato plants and all we had to do was harvest the wonderful orbs of red yummyness. During high tomato season they matured so quickly that all I could do was to freeze them whole as I just didn't have time to make tomato sauce every evening after getting home from work, particularly as we were working on the Bachelor pad most evenings during last year's harvest season. And now I have the wonderful task of using up all that produce from our own garden. The great thing about the frozen tomatoes is that when they defrost, the skin is really easy to pop off without having to go through the time consuming process of blanching. 

My sister discovered this tomato soup recipe on the BBC good food website and encouraged me to try it. It's basic and doesn't have any fancy ingredients but it will have a great flavour, particularly if you will have access to really ripe, sweet tomatoes. It makes a great, affordable lunch full of flavour and it's healthy too. Add some (home baked) bread and it makes a perfect lunch.

Tomato soup (serves 4):
1-1 1/4 kg tomatoes
1 onion
1 carrot
1 celery stick
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tsp tomato puree
black pepper
a good pinch of sugar
2 bay leaves
1.2 litres (2 pints) vegetable stock (or less if tomatoes produce a lot of liquid)

The howto:
Prepare the tomatoes by chopping them in quarters and removing the cores. Then chop the onion, carrot and celery. Heat olive oil in a large saucepan, and sautĂ© the chopped onion, carrot and celery. Cook until the vegetables start to soften a bit, about 10 minutes on medium heat. Add the tomato puree and give the vegetables a stir before adding the tomatoes, sugar, black pepper and bay leaves. Cook for about 10 minutes until the tomatoes soften. Add vegetable stock, if there is a lot of liquid from the tomatoes (my frozen tomatoes produce more liquid than fresh tomatoes, so I don't add very much stock at all, just a stock cube and a splash of water). Cook for about 25 minutes. Puree with a handheld blender or liquidizer, and season with either salt, sugar or pepper according to taste. Serve while hot or freeze in individual servings. 

The verdict:
I love the simple favours of this soup. When you cook with tomatoes, you should always add a bit of sugar to balance the flavours. As I'm using my own tomatoes, this soup actually cost next to nothing. It is the perfect way to use the frozen whole tomatoes, as they get a bit sloppy when they defrost. I prefer to handle them when half thawed, it's easy to peel off the skin and cut out the hard stem while they are still frosty, once completely thawed they are a bit challenging to work with. You can blanch the tomatoes or just leave the skins on, as the blending will get rid of any unpleasant bits of tomato skin. 

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Garden update

Just dropping by with a brief post with some updates from the garden. The weather has been so uncharacteristically wonderful (uncharacteristic for this time of year as well as this island in general...) that numerous things have happened in the garden in one short week since my last post. It is so rewarding to see so many changes in such a short time. Here's to hoping it will stay warm and that we will have an early spring and no more cold nights so that my little seedlings don't get hurt!

I am also very excited that we finally got our compost bin delivered and the Culinary Consultant will be setting it up tomorrow and I can finally start recycling both our garden waste as well as select biodegradable waste from the kitchen. According to the forecast tomorrow should be record warm so hopefully it will be a good starting point for the compost to get going, and next year we will have some quality organic compost for our garden.

Currently we are daffodil central. White, yellow,
white and orange... They are so lovely!
First flowers start to appear on the apricot tree. We didn't
get any apricots last year, let's see if there will be any this year.
The teeny tiny asparagus shoot that had just
 made it above ground last week has already grown
 big. I just can't stop myself from being so excited
 about the asparagus, I go out there as often as I
can to have a look.
Several of the seeds I sowed just over a week and
a half ago have already germinated. Rocket, basil, a few
tomatoes, cucumbers, courgettes, onions and radishes
so far. The little seedling in the picture is a cucumber.
Now if I can only keep them alive!!

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Beef and Guinness stew

Saturday morning, 5:20 am. I have survived my first week in the new job, in fact I more than survived it, I had a great time. I was eased in very gently and it almost felt like a holiday with a minimum number of emails and loads of time to read up on background material, a luxury I know I won't have later. But one thing that has been a bit of a struggle has been the early mornings. So I was looking forward to sleeping in today. But as fate will have it, I have come down with a bit of a cold, so I have been waking up for most of the night with a cough, aching sinuses and having to blow my nose a lot. So I thought I might as well get up instead of tossing and turning and constantly waking the poor Culinary Consultant. So I am sitting here in my crafting lair listening to a choir of birds sing outside welcoming the dawn, and sipping a cup of mint tea with honey, made from dried mint from my very own garden. I was really hoping I had managed to avoid the cold, I felt a bit crappy on Wednesday and Thursday with a sore throat, but I went to sleep really early on Thursday night and felt much better on Friday morning so I though I got away easily. Clearly not. But like the model employee I am, of course I got sick on the night between Friday and Saturday so that I can spend all weekend poorly and then be ready to go back to work on Monday morning. But at least I have an excuse to huddle up in bed under the covers for most of the day, and spend the rest of it crafting and blogging. 

Based on the contents of my RSS feed and all the green food that has cropped up over the last few weeks, you can't miss that St Patrick's day is just around the corner (for those of you like me who had no idea when it is, it is in fact on Monday the 17th). So I thought why not, I'll contribute a little something as well. I just pretty much made a regular meat stew as we usually make them, but threw in some Guinness for good measure.

Beef and Guinness stew (feeds 6-8, or 2 people for the better part of a week):
1 onion
1 stalk of celery
2 tbsp oil
800 g beef, diced
salt and pepper
3 giant carrots (probably corresponding to 4-5 regular carrots)
3 large potatoes
3 small parsnips
4-5 large mushrooms (this was what I happened to have in the fridge, you can omit or add more if you want to)
1 can of Guinness
dried thyme
salt and pepper
enough beef stock to cover the veg and meat
4 bay leaves

The howto:
Finely chop the onion and celery. Heat up a large frying pan and add 2 tbsp of oil. Add the celery and onion and let cook for a few minutes. Add half of the beef. Cook until beef is nicely browned on the surface, season with salt and pepper. Transfer to a bowl. Add the other tbsp of oil to the pan and fry the second half of the beef, and transfer to the side as well. If there is a lot of brown goodness stuck to the pan, add a bit of water and let bubble away until the stuff from the bottom of the pan has dissolved into the water. 

Preheat oven to 180 degrees C. Peel and thinly slice the carrots, spuds and parsnips. Slice the mushrooms. In a large lidded ovenproof casserole, add layers of potatoes, parsnips, carrots and meat adding in the mushrooms at some point as well. About halfway through, add two of the bay leaves, and sprinkle with black pepper and some dried thyme. Once everything is layered in the casserole, finish by sprinkling with thyme and black pepper and add two bay leaves. Pour enough Guinness and beef stock to cover everything in the casserole, and cook with the lid on for about 2 hours and 20 minutes. Then take off the lid to allow some of the liquid to evaporate and cook for another 40 minutes. Serve with mash or sweet potato fries.

The verdict:
We often make a big chicken or beef stew for Sunday dinner and then have leftovers for dinner the next week. It is a perfect way to get rid of whatever meat we happen to have in the freezer, or what happened to be on sale, and also to use up any root veg we happen to have around so there is a lot of variation. You can pour some wine in with the stew, and we are often using different varieties of store bought seasoning mixes for stews to change things up as well. Sometimes we have been able to go all the way to Thursday on one giant batch of stew. If you don't like to eat the same food many days in a row, just freeze the stew in appropriate sized servings and pull out later. After defrosting, you can either heat it up in the microwave, or in a smaller casserole in the oven. Usually the stew only gets better after standing a few days in the fridge so it's perfect food for re-heating. The stew itself was tasty and got even tastier over the next few days. If you are worried that it will taste too much of beer, it won't. If you really want to taste the Guinness, I would add more that one can to the stew, but if you add one can it just gives a bit of warmth and flavour to the stew but is in no way overpowering. I served the stew with oven baked sweet potato fries. Just chop up your sweet potatoes into sticks, coat lightly in oil and sprinkle with your choice of seasoning (I used just a bit of salt and pepper) and bake in 200 degrees C for 45-55 minutes depending on your preference of crispiness.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Prawn and udon noodle soup

I am trying to get back into the swing of things. Things being working. I was so spoilt during my holiday, almost two weeks off work, don't know when that is ever going to happen again. Back to getting up ridiculously early. It used to be the Culinary Consultant who had to get up early, now I leave him snoring for another hour and a half when I get up. And I spend those one and a half hours commuting to work. I've always been very lucky, I have had reasonable commutes, so my current commute of over three hours each day is feeling a tad overwhelming. But it's only been two days, I'm hoping it will get easier once I get into the routine. Obviously, now it's not too hard to get up really early as mornings are already light, but I'm dreading what will happen once the summer has gone and it starts getting darker again. But no point worrying about that, as it's many moons away. It's rather ironic that I'm now working really close to where I used to live in my tiny little penthouse studio.

I really need to figure out what to do during my long commutes, so far I've just been sitting there, staring out the window, wasting all that time. The annoying thing is that the buses are usually completely packed by the time I get on, so I can't really do much as I have to stand all the way, desperately clinging on to one of those poles trying not to fall over the other passengers. I've always read all my electronic books on the iPad, but now I'm actually considering getting a kindle as the iPad is simply to big and heavy to hold onto with one hand when standing on a bus. Coming back home is a bit easier as my work is near the start of the bus line, so I should be able to grab a seat most days. I'm thinking downloading a bunch of stuff on the iPlayer, and watching that. And I might finally get around to reading all those Game of Thrones, I've been working on them for at least two years now, and am only a third through the second volume. I would love to use the time productively and blog, but most of my trip is through the rural areas of in-the-middle-of-nowhere, so there is no 3G. The bus supposedly has wifi, but I can't make it work. It's simply so overcrowded by users that it doesn't work at all. I've only ever managed to use the wifi if I'm on the bus in the middle of the day with no other passengers around. I guess I could also take up knitting again, with over two hours of knitting time a day I should be able to produce oodles. We will have to see what happens.

Today's recipe is something I just threw together after reviewing several recipes for prawn and noodle soup online. Let's just say it's an... eclectic... mix. Not really identifying with any country, it's just a mix of whatever I happened to have around along with some things I just wanted to put in the soup. It turned out really delicious. You can obviously use any noodles you like, I like udon just because then you have a lot of noodle in there.

Prawn and noodle soup (serves 4):
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 onion
1 stalk of celery
2 cloves of garlic
thumb sized piece of ginger
2-3 large mushrooms
1 green pepper
1 can coconut milk
1 1/2 cups water
2 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp oyster sauce
2 tbsp hot chilli sauce
2 pak choi
200 g mung bean sprouts
300 g noodles
225 g king prawns
large bunch of fresh coriander

The howto:
Finely chop the onion, celery, garlic and ginger. Peel and slice the mushrooms and chop the green pepper. Add the sesame oil to a large saucepan and sautee the onion and celery until starting to soften. Add garlic and ginger and sautee for a few more minutes. Add mushrooms and cook for a few more minutes. Add the coconut milk, water and sauces and let cook for about 10 minutes. Chop the pak choi, and add to the soup, but don't add the green tops yet. Add sprouts, noodles and king prawns and let cook for five minutes or so. Finally, add the pak choi tops and plenty of chopped coriander. Serve immediately. 

The verdict:
The soup turned out really great, lots of healthy greens all cooked only until crisp and starting to soften, but not mushy or limp. The oyster and fish sauce bring that asian flair to the soup, along with the sesame seed oil. And of course the coconut milk. You could even replace the water with a second can of coconut milk for a more creamy soup. And feel free to adjust the level of hotness to your liking, I have to say I could have added some more chilli sauce as this turned out to be a very mild soup. If you are a friend of hot food, you could also add some sliced chillies in with the garlic and ginger at the start for a bit more kick. The bean sprouts add nice crunch, and if I could afford it, I would double the amount of prawns. I love prawns, and combined with this tasty soup and the lovely noodles, this makes a perfect lunch.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Red velvet cake

Yesterday was a very sad day. The little bunny you might have seen in my previous post, took up residence in our garden but was clearly very, very sick. When we got home on Saturday afternoon he was pretty much in the same position he was in when we left in the morning, and he didn't move anywhere when we got closer to him to inspect how he was doing. We tried calling the RSPCA but only got an unhelpful answering machine message saying they don't deal with small wild animals. After some online research we were quite sure the poor bunny was infected with myxomatosis which is a horrible bunny virus and there is no cure. We didn't quite know what to do, but in the end my lovely Culinary Consultant thought we can't let the poor bunny just die alone out there in the cold, so he made a little snuggly nest in a basket out of a blanket and lifted the poor little soul in there. He really was looking like he was suffering, breathing very shallow and quick and I looked up a 24 hour vet surgery in the area and called them. The nice lady there said they would of course have a look and also if it really was myxomatosis as we thought, they would help end the suffering of the poor little thing. 

When we got to the vet surgery last night we were greeted by a really helpful and friendly vet who examined little Bunny, and said it was certain that it was myxomatosis and also that there was nothing that could be done. So poor little Bunny went to heaven last night. Although it was incredibly sad, I'm very happy he didn't suffer any longer, and the vet also said that he was so weak it was unlikely he would have made it through the night. So I want to thank the wonderful vet who was on call at the Cromwell Vet Surgery in Huntingdon for her friendly help and support. It is always so hard to see animals suffer, and although I realise it probably didn't make any difference to the bunny at all whether he would have passed in our garden, or in the surgery, our tendency to anthropomorphise animals makes me believe he was better off spending his last hours in a warm and safe little blanket nest instead of being eaten by a fox. Funnily enough ZsaZsa, our little Boa, could clearly smell little bunny as he was huddled up in the basket in the corner of our kitchen, she was raising her head up and smelling the unfamiliar smell which probably smelled like food to her. Funny creatures, those snakes.

Rest in peace sweet little Bunny.
So my heart cake is dedicated to the memory of the little soul who went to bunny heaven last night.  Obviously, this was a cake I made for Valentine's day and haven't gotten around to publishing before now. And there is no reason why this wouldn't make a great cake for some other occasion such as a birthday.

I wanted to make this cake in my heart shaped cake pan, and was struggling as most recipes were for a full size two layer cake. So I ended up using this recipe which alledgedly is the Hummingbird red velvet cupcake recipe. 

I used a red paste colour as I don't think the liquid food colourings are very good. The pastes have much more pigment in them, but they don't allow you to make the paste with the cocoa powder. So I added 40 ml of water where the recipe suggests 40 ml red food colouring, and then added a few drops of the colour paste.

Small red velvet cake (or 12 cupcakes):
60 g unsalted butter
150 g caster sugar
1 egg
20 g cocoa powder
40 ml red food colouring (I used 40 ml water with a few drops of red paste colour)
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
120 ml buttermilk
150 g plain flour
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 1/2 tsp white vinegar

50 g butter
300 g icing sugar
125 g cream cheese

The howto:
Preheat oven to 180 degrees C and butter your cake tin or prepare 12 muffin cases. Cream together butter and sugar, and when white and fluffy, add in egg and whisk until the batter increases in volume significantly. In a small bowl, mix the cocoa powder, food colouring and vanilla extract to a thick paste. Mix the paste with the butter-sugar-egg mixture until well mixed. Add half of the buttermilk, mix, add half of the flour, mix and then add the other half of buttermilk and flour. Mix until smooth. Mix the soda with the vinegar and mix with the batter. Pour into the cake tin or muffin cases. Bake muffins for 20-25 minutes and the cake for 45-50 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. 

While the cake is cooling, prepare the frosting. The original recipe says to cream together butter and icing sugar, but I just couldn't get it to cream, the icing sugar just kept flying around the room, so I also added the cream cheese immediately, and then kept creaming until smooth. The icing turned out really great.

The verdict:
The main reason to make this cake is definitely the icing. Don't you dare to decrease the amount of icing in the recipe. The cake is nice, but to me, nothing too special, it's a slightly chocolate-y cake. The buttermilk added a nice moistness to the cake, but next time I would definitely add more cocoa powder. But the icing. Oh my oh my. I loved the thick coat of icing on top of the cake, and I know the Culinary Consultant is a big fan of icing as well, this was a perfect cake for us. 

Friday, 7 March 2014


We interrupt our usual program with this short announcement... Spring is coming!! More than anything I am hoping this is it, spring for real, and no late snow and frosty nights. It has been so nice the last few days, and today it was really nice and warm in the sun. Our garden has sprung to life almost literally over night, and I just had to share some pictures. Can't wait for everything to grow, some of the herbs have got through the mild winter very well, so can't wait for warm weather, lots of fast growth and my own herbs at my disposal at any time.
Rosemary in bloom
Curry plant and tarragon going strong 
I planted quite an excess of seeds just in case the
germination rate would be really low... Time will tell.
Four days later rocket seeds have germinated!!!
Now I need to keep them alive and growing...
I thought the Easter bunny was visiting. Sadly, it turned out
the bunny only had one eye, and even that one was badly
infected. Poor bunny...
Plenty of daffodils 
We have asparagus!!! I almost fainted from
happiness when I found the little bud.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Slow cooker split pea soup for Shrove Tuesday

Split pea soup is traditional Shrove Tuesday food in Finland. It is also served in pretty much every school and workplace cafeteria on Thursdays all through the year. And as delicious as this hearty soup is (and I have come to appreciate it more and more over the years), the best thing is that it is usually always served with pancake for dessert. And that is the Finnish, oven baked pancake, not the thing that is called pancakes over here, which to me are crepes, not pancakes. On Shrove Tuesday the tradition is to serve buns with whipped cream and jam for dessert. Some people prefer the buns with whipped cream and almond paste, why they do that is beyond me, but each to their own.

Usually Shrove Tuesday tradition in Finland is to enjoy the great outdoors, the snow and the sunshine and do some sledging. However, it has been a bit unfortunate that some years there is no snow left on Shrove Tuesday, which obviously makes the sledging a bit difficult. It feels so backward that here I am, sowing seeds in my greenhouse on Shrove Tuesday, which should still be the heart of winter back home. I have been enjoying quite a bit of gardening the last few days, cleaning up the herb beds and discovering quite a bit of oregano underneath the parsley that I removed. The Culinary Consultant did some major digging and removed a big patch of fennel which I didn't particularly like. I want to focus all of the space on herbs I use more, such as thyme, dill and basil. And I want to reserve a patch for rocket and spinach as well. Obviously we will try to fill the greenhouse with tomatoes again this year, with an addition of sweet peppers. One or two courgettes and cucumbers have also been planned. Now it's all up to whether my seeds will grow or not. I just want to go in there and have a peak all the time, although I know there is nothing to see for at least a few weeks yet. 

Anyhow, on to this super easy split pea soup. You just load everything in the slow cooker and forget about it for 6-8 hours while you go on about your business, be it gardening or sledging. It also costs next to nothing, I think it comes out at approximately 63 p per serving (calculated for 4 servings, which means pretty big servings) if excluding the price for the peppercorns and bay leaves (and I have to say at this point, I love love love the bay tree in my garden, I can just walk over and get some bay leaves any time I want! I had no idea bay trees grew in this climate, but we have a big one in our garden, and it makes me very happy!)

Split pea soup (serves 4-6):
500 g split peas
6 cups (1.5 l) chicken or veggie stock
200 g smoked lardons (you can make a vegetable version by leaving out the lardons)
1 carrot
1 1/2 onion (because I happened to have 1/2 that needed using up)
2 bay leaves 
10 peppercorns
2 tsp mustard

The howto:
Add all ingredients apart from the mustard in the slow cooker. To be honest, I can't even be bothered to make the veggie stock separately, I just chuck in the stock cubes and water. Some recipes suggest you should pre-soak the peas over night, I'm sure you can do that if you want, but I haven't seen a need for this as the slow cooking will result in soft peas even without soaking. Also, some recipes suggest to quickly fry the lardons before adding, agin feel free to do that if you want to, but I can't be bothered and also, I'm pretty sure eight hours of cooking will make sure the lardons are cooked through enough as they are. Cook on low for 6-8 hours, stirring a few times. In the end, add the mustard, and some salt if you want to, although I find no salt is needed as the lardons add quite a bit of salt. You can puree the soup if you want to, but to me it should remain a bit chunky with the lardons chunks being great little surprises when eating the soup. This soup gets even better if you let it stand over night and slowly re-heat the next day. You can freeze the leftovers.

The verdict:
This is such a simple but tasty soup. The soup tastes better the longer you cook it, and I love the smoky flavour added by the lardons. Of course you can make a fully vegetarian version by leaving out the lardons if you wish to, but to me they make the soup all that much flavoursome and also more filling (nothing like that animal fat clogging those arteries, eh?). This soup is just so easy, chuck everything in a slow cooker and forget about it for the whole day and then you have a wonderful, tasty meal ready at the end of the day. If you don't have a slow cooker, you can easily achieve the same result in a large saucepan on the stove, just bring to a boil, and then reduce the temperature to very low and let cook for the same amount of time. You will need significantly more liquid though, probably at least twice the amount and keep an eye on the soup stirring from time to time and making sure it doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Mushroom stroganoff

It's finally March, I can't express how much I have been waiting for February to be over, done and dusted. It feels like spring is coming, and also a change I have been awaiting for the last three months is finally here. One more week of wonderful, relaxing holiday and then a new job. Whether it's a good one or not remains to be seen... But at least I feel like it can't be worse than my previous one. I am so relieved that is all over. Sad to leave my wonderful colleagues behind though. I can't believe such a wonderful bunch of people can all work in the same place, it has been such a pleasure to work with them. But onwards and upwards, and hopefully our paths will cross in the future. 

For now, I have been enjoying the most beautiful sunny Saturday. We spent a good few hours in the garden with the Culinary Consultant enjoying the wonderful sunshine. I'm hoping the weather will turn a bit drier soon, as everything was so muddy. I cleaned up some flower beds, it looks so much nicer now with last year's dead and dry bits cleared away and so much more light and space for the new buds to grow. I cleared out the strawberry patch as well, the strawberries are getting a bit old, so I will grow some new plants from seed as well. And we cleared out the bits that will make my herb garden. There already is a great selection of herbs growing, but I removed a big patch of celeriac (I'm sorry, I just can't stand that stuff...) as well as a huge patch of parsley. I use very little parsley, so I wanted to only keep a tiny little bit of it, making much more space for the other herbs. I am planning to shoot off to the garden centre to buy a few plants and then grow the rest from scratch. So tomorrow I will try to get the seeds going, they should be all right in the greenhouse and I will hope for an early spring and no cold or frost anymore. I just can't wait to get all of those herbs growing, although I have to say, this has been such a mild winter that my parsley and chives have been growing all through the winter. Who would have thought, fresh herbs all year round from my own garden!

Finally on to the main subject... today's recipe. I have tried to cook one vegetarian dish every week lately. I seem to be able to get away with cooking non-meat for our weekend lunches as there will be a meaty dinner later. I try to make big servings so that there is enough for both the Saturday and Sunday lunch and some leftovers either for me to take to work for lunch or for us to have as sides with our weeknight dinners. I was thinking about what I wanted to cook this week and for some reason thought of an old friend who I used to discuss plenty of cooking with and he said he makes a mean mushroom stroganoff. I can't for my life remember his recipe, but I did some research on the Interwebs and after combining from different recipes came up with the following which I think turned out rather nice.

Mushroom stroganoff (serves 4-5):
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
3 onions
4 cloves of garlic 
2 tbsp paprika (I used 1 tbsp sweet and 1 tbsp hot)
1kg mushrooms (I used half button and half chestnut)
1 green pepper
2 tbsp tomato puree 
2 tsp Dijon mustard
1/2 beef stock cube
2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
15 g flatleaf parsley
pepper and salt for seasoning
300 ml sour cream (I used half fat)
My lovely jars of sweet and hot paprika from our
trip to Hungary last summer.
The howto:
Slice the mushrooms. Chop the onions, garlic and green pepper. In a large saucepan, melt the butter and add the oil. Cook the onions until they start to soften. Add the garlic and paprika and cook for another minute or two. Add the mushrooms and cook on medium to high heat for about 5 minutes. Add the pepper, the tomato puree, mustard stock cube and Worcestershire sauce. My stroganoff had enough liquid from the mushrooms so I didn't need to add any water, but if yours is dry, add some water. It should not be a soup, but there should be a little bit of sauce. Let cook for 20-30 minutes. Season and add the parsley. Take off the head, and add the sour cream. Serve with your carb of choice, or just with a side salad for a low carb option.

The verdict:
I wasn't quite sure whether this would work or not, but it turned out to be a really tasty meal. My meat eater ate it without complaints. I think the mushrooms makes this dish filling enough to work well as a main course. I served it with rice, but for me no extra carbs would have been required, it would also work great with a side salad. The dish was warm with just a little bit of kick from the hot paprika, but also creamy from the sour cream. There are plenty of flavours from the different sauces and spices but they go well together. Definitely worth a try, and I will be making this again because I really liked it.