Although I prefer to cook most meals more or less from scratch, I do sometimes like the occasional bit of convenience food. We sometimes have packets of flavoured noodles or the macaroni cheese `Pasta-n-Sauce' and various supermarket brands and copies. We usually add extra vegetables and a meat, such as chicken, tuna or prawns, otherwise they aren't big enough for a meal for two.
The Kraft `Mac and Cheese' is often mentioned in American TV programmes so when I was in Chicago 3 years ago (my God is it really that long ago, time has flown!) I bought a packet to bring home to try.
The British macaroni cheese packets are straightforward to cook: the entire pack of pasta and sauce powder is added to a pan of milk and water and boiled until done.
The American version comes in a box with two packets inside. The larger pack contains the pasta which needs to be cooked separately. The smaller pack is the sauce powder. The cooked pasta is drained and then mixed with butter, milk and the packet of sauce mix.
The British version is smaller but makes more sauce with more flavour. The American version ends up with a pan of pasta with practically no sauce, the milk seems to just get absorbed into the pasta leaving a thin coating. The end result is much less satisfying than a bowl of pasta in a cheese-like sauce.
I recently bought a box of `Tropical Sun' macaroni cheese, which is cooked in the same was as the Kraft mac and cheese. It was also similar to the Kraft stuff in that it was disappointing with very little sauce and was fairly tasteless.
A bowl of proper home made macaroni cheese is much better than any of the above. It's very easy to make but takes a bit longer and is a bit more effort. The hardest part of the job is to grate the cheese. Making the roux is easy, whisking in the milk is easy, adding the cheese is easy. The only real disadvantage of making it properly is the extra washing up it generates.
We had lunch at Feast Junction, which is the re-branded and re-launched `Dragon Phoenix' near the ring road. We were last there back in 2006 and the place has been completely updated since then.
The food looked like fairly standard all you can eat buffet but the range was good and everything I tried was good. The food was split into several areas, with salad, soups, starters, mains and desserts. I had something from everywhere apart from the soups. The various different curries and oriental style meats were all good. I also liked the dahl and the paneer. The only real disappointments were: 1) the crispy seaweed wasn't very crispy, and 2) they had run out of ice cream cones in the dessert section, but the chocolate fountain was running so that probably made up for the shortage of cones.
I regularly walk past some of the 'street food' stalls in the city centre and sometimes think about trying one of the sausages from the bratwurst stall but until this week I never actually got around to it. I decided to give the half metre bratwurst a go, complete with onions and german mustard. The sausage is so long, only the middle half fits on the bread.
It's pretty good value at £4.50 and the sausage is good quality and tasty. I did notice that they advertised chicken bratwurst on the side of the stall so I'll have to try those next time I'm passing.
I used to write about local eateries and review local restaurants fairly regularly but I haven't done that for a while. There are a few places in Coventry which I mean to try out in the next few weeks, including various shops, restaurants or take-aways. I won't promise that it'll be a weekly thing but I'll try not to leave it too long between reviews.
I'll get the ball rolling with my visit to Love Shake in the West Orchard shopping centre. They do a wide selection of milk shakes (made using chocolate bars), fruit smoothies (made using a mixture of juice and frozen fruit) and locally made ice cream. I chose The Immunizer which is a mixture of equal amounts of strawberry, kiwi and pineapple, topped up with apple juice. then liquidized.
The use of frozen fruit means the fruit keeps its vitamin content but also means you get an ice cold smoothie which you can't drink too quickly without freezing your throat. The fruit flavours come through well and you can taste them all within the mix.
I'll have to pop back to try their ice cream next.
Earlier this week I dug up a load of dandelion roots so I cleaned them and dried them so I could have a go at dandelion coffee. I dug out my copy of Richard Mabey's Food for Free and it was very vague so I looked up a few websites for more info.
In the end I roasted the roots at gas mark 6 until they were dry and crumbly (but they hadn't gone very dark), ground them up in a pestle and mortar and ended up with only 1 tablespoon of bits.
I put the bits in a jug, poured over a cup of boiling water and left it a few minutes before straining into a cup. I think I probably needed more roots because the drink was a bit weak but most noticeably it didn't resemble anything coffee-like at all (I am reminded of Arthur Dent and his cup of something which was "almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea").
The flavour was like a cross between unsalted potato crisps and something a bit like parsnips. I'm not sure whether to try again the next time I dig up some roots but my first attempt wasn't great. At least it was better than the cornsilk tea or the hyssop tea, which were my previous attempts at drinks from the garden.
I saw these giant custard cream biscuits in the Costa near work and had to buy one. I photographed it next to a few normal sized ones for scale.
Back in 2010, I attempted to cook a new recipe every week. I am going to try to do the same this year. I received a total of 5 recipe books for Christmas so I will have plenty of scope for finding ideas and inspiration.
My final recipe of 2012 was a turkey pie, made in the style of a pork pie. I first came across the idea a while ago but it was only last week when I finally got around to having a go at making them.
The filling was made using turkey mince, turkey bacon, a finely sliced leek, a pinch of salt and a pinch of mixed spice. I tried to cook the pies in the traditional pork pie fashion, based on the method in a recipe from the Great British Bake-Off. I used well oiled glass tumblers as the 'pie dollies'. Although the pastry didn't stick to the glass, it didn't slide off easily because it formed a vacuum at the base. Even after half an hour in the fridge, the pastry was very soft and it collapsed slightly while I was filling it.
The resulting cooked pies tasted very good. The pastry was a bit thick but had a good 'pastry' taste to it. The filling worked very well too. I'll try again sometime but might use a pie dish so the pies hold their shape a bit better.
24 hours later, the pastry crust had gone crispy on the outside and the pie tasted even better. Apart from their saggy appearance and the soft base, I would have to describe them as a very successful first attempt.
Emma made these muffins, based on this recipe. One of the comments on the original post mentions how vague a 'large courgette' is as an ingredient. Since we had an enormous 'almost marrow' in the fridge, we thought that might be a bit too big. We didn't have any sun-dried tomatoes left but yesterday we bought a huge bowl of cherry tomatoes from the market so I cut some of those in half and put them in the oven for a few hours.
This year we seem to have a house full of chilli plants. There are several on the windowsills in both the upstairs and downstairs front rooms. The upstairs chilli plants get a bit more sunlight during the day and were the first to start to ripen.
This afternoon I noticed there were 3 bright red chillies so I harvested them to add to our regular saturday night pizza. They seem to have a decent amount of heat and flavour. There are a lot of green unripe chillies on the plants so it looks like it might be a good chilli harvest this year.
It has been a long time since I've been to Wing Wah (the all you can eat Chinese restaurant) in Coventry, so when Emma said she was meeting some people there for lunch and asked me if I wanted to join them, I agreed.
The food doesn't seem to have changed in the intervening period but people don't go there for a constantly varying or challenging menu. People go there because it is a great value eatery with good quality food (as good as you can reasonably expect for £7 during the day).
One area where Wing Wah do sometimes get a bit imaginative is the presentation of their desserts. A few years ago I had a jam tart with a sprig of parsley on top so when I saw a jelly with what looked like a green bean on top, I expected the worst.
It turned out to be a sliced jelly sweet - the long tube shaped sweets with a fondant filling.
A few weeks ago I planted two pots of rocket and left them on the windowsill in the front room so they would get plenty of sunlight. I had two different packets of seed and thought it would be a good idea to compare them. Unfortunately I forgot to make a note of which pack went into which pot so now the rocket is grown, I have no idea which is which.
One of the packets is clearly doing better than the other, with the plants growing at roughly double the rate. Unfortunately this is the year when I forgot to label most of the things I planted. I have several different types of chilli pepper and tomato growing in various rooms of the house and in tubs in the garden but in most cases I have no idea what is growing where.
Some of the chilli plants are doing quite well and have a few flowers on them but the tomatoes aren't doing very well. A lot got eaten by slugs and some seem to have been affected by the bad weather and haven't grown an inch in several weeks. The courgettes seem to be doing ok so far so at least there will be some veg from the garden this year. The less said about the strawberries, the better. None of the seeds germinated. Same for the parsley. I will have to buy fresh seeds for next year.
My sourdough bread making experiments are continuing and this week I had a go at this recipe, which sounded interesting. I scaled it down a bit since it called for more starter than I had, and I only have a 400g loaf tin.
My scaled down recipe contained:
- 250g plain flour
- 30g rye flour
- 280g starter
- 1tsp turmeric
- zest of 1 orange
- juice of 1 orange (came to 70g)
- 20ml water
I did not need to add much water since my starter was quite runny. The original recipe called for '75% hydration' starter but I have no idea what the 'hydration' of mine is, since I add flour and water in a fairly irregular manner without keeping track of the exact amounts of each. This is the first recipe I have used which specifies a particular hydration of starter - equal weights of flour and water give 100%, which is how mine started off but over the weeks it will have changed quite a bit.
I deviated from the original recipe with the proving and rising steps too. Instead of putting it in the fridge for 9 hours, I left it in the cold oven overnight. The weather has recently turned cold again and the kitchen temperature is around 18c, significantly lower than the 23-25c specified.
I baked the loaf for about half an hour at gas mark 7 (equivalent to about 250c). The texture was good, with a hard crust on top and soft underneath. The orange flavour came through quite well but the turmeric was less noticeable. The only other times I have made spiced bread has been when I put chilli flakes in a pizza base. I will have to experiment with other spices and flavourings.
A couple of weeks ago I made a German Friendship Cake which was used a sweet yeast based starter. After making the cake I gave a portion of the starter to my mum so she could have a go at making it, and kept the rest of the starter going by repeating the feeding and stirring process.
I had read somewhere that the starter can be used to make pancakes. Since today is Good Friday, and the end of Lent, I thought it would be a good time to have a go at making them, so that Lent started and ended with pancakes.
I poured a few tablespoons of the starter into a hot oiled frying pan and cooked for a minute or so on each side. The pancakes started to bubble nicely and looked quite promising while they were cooking. The end result wasn't quite as good as I was expecting, they were still a bit doughy in the middle. I added a bit more milk to the mixture and gave it a second attempt.
The plain pancakes were a bit sweet but they went well with a bit of lemon juice. I didn't get the cooking time or temperature sorted properly since each pancake was still a bit soft in the middle. It was an interesting experiment but I will stick to the traditional pancake batter in future.
Just over a week ago I exchanged sourdough starters with a colleague in work. I gave her some of my wild yeast starter and in return I was given a tub of Herman starter.
The Herman starter mix is made using flour, sugar, milk and yeast. Unlike the traditional bread starter, which ideally should be fed every day, the Herman starter is only stirred each day and fed on the 4th and 9th days. The feed consists of equal quantities of sugar, milk and flour.
On the 10th day, the cake is ready to make. Take 1 cup of starter and add all the other ingredients, mixing well to make a stiff batter. As usual, I made a few substitutions based on what we had in the house at the time. I used:
- 1 cup of sugar
- ½ tsp salt
- 2 cups of plain flour
- ⅔ cup of vegetable oil
- 2 medium eggs
- 2 tsp vanilla essence
- 2 medium sized apples, chopped but not peeled
- 1 cup of dried mixed fruit
- 1 tsp of ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp of mixed spice
- 2 tsp baking powder
I poured the mixture into a couple of loaf tins and sprinkled them with demerara and a little melted butter. I then covered them loosely with foil before baking them at gas mark 4 (180 °C). One of the cakes was ready after an hour, the other was in a deeper tin and took nearly twice as long.
The apples help to keep the cake nice and moist. I think it would work just as well with pears, and possibly using apricots instead of the mixed fruit.