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Not all rocket is created equal

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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.

Pancake Day

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Today is Pancake Day (or to be more traditional, Shrove Tuesday). Our pancake tea consists of Curried Chicken pancakes for main course followed by a couple of dessert pancakes which vary depending on what we have in the house but nearly always includes a traditional lemon juice and sugar pancake. This has been our tradition for at least the last 6 or 7 years.

The pancake recipe has varied but the one we usually do now came from Delia Smith's website (original link has gone off-line, this is similar) and is fairly reliable.

In the past we have often used a tin of chicken in white sauce and added some curry powder but this year I cooked it from scratch by finely chopping 2 chicken breasts and frying them in a little oil. I made a thick roux and added curry powder, cayenne pepper and a little turmeric before stirring in the cooked chicken. The pancakes were filled with a couple of tablespoons of the chicken curry mixture then sprinkled with grated cheese before being rolled up and rapidly eaten.

We shared three dessert pancakes this year. They were filled with chocolate coated raisins, traditional lemon juice and sugar, and golden syrup.

Orange Turmeric Sourdough Bread

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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.

Orange Turmeric Sourdough Bread

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.

Orange Turmeric Sourdough Bread

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.

Sourdough Starter Pancakes

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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.

Sourdough Starter 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.

Herman the German: Sourdough cake

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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.

Herman Sourdough Cake

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.

Herman Sourdough Cake
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.

Wild Roots

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Last year I bought a pack of seeds from Garden Organic at Ryton. It was described as 'Edible Leaves, Roots and Shoots' and contained a collection of wild plants which are commonly described as weeds but which are edible. I planted the seeds in a tub in the garden and last year I made some crispy seaweed from some of the leaves, and managed to save some Wild Mustard seeds from one of the plants which grew.

I left the plants over the winter but yesterday I decided to dig them up so I could reuse the tub for a more productive crop this year. I found two large roots:

Wild Carrot
This plant turned out to be Wild Carrot. I washed the root and had a chew on a small piece. It was very tough and fibrous but did have a slight carrot taste.

Common Mallow
It took a bit longer to identify this but I managed to work out that it was Common Mallow. This is a relative of the Marsh Mallow, which gave its name to the soft and fluffy sweet. It is possible to boil the roots to extract a gelatinous substance which could possibly be used to make a version of the original marshmallow so today I decided to give it a go.

I peeled and chopped the root then simmered it in a small amount of water. I then whisked the slightly gloopy water with some caster sugar, vanilla essence and pink food colouring. The mixture was a bit runny and kept splashing everywhere so I cheated by whisking in some cornflour and returning it to the pan.

Not quite marshmallow
The end result was a soft sweet tasting jelly which did not resemble an actual marshmallow sweet at all.

A second go at making sourdough

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I first tried making sourdough a couple of weeks ago but the results weren't completely successful. It tasted ok but the starter didn't rise very well and the resulting bread was quite dense. Shortly afterwards, the starter had begun to smell a bit vinegary so I decided to throw it away and start again.

I took inspiration from a couple of sources, including River Cottage and the Baker Brothers TV series. The starter consisted of half white bread flour, half spelt flour mixed with an equal weight of water. I dropped a grape into the mixture to provide the wild yeast. I fed the starter with flour and water every day (a tablespoon of each).

After a couple of days the starter was bubbling away nicely so I removed the grape and carried on feeding it, alternating using spelt flour and white flour. After a week, it was ready to use.

Sourdough Rising

The recipe I followed had 300ml of starter, 500g of flour, 200ml of water and a generous pinch of salt. I used slightly less water since last time, the mixture was very sloppy. I left the dough overnight to rise, and cooked it this morning for just under half an hour at gas mark 8.

The Finished Sourdough

The resulting bread was much better than my last attempt. It was still fairly dense but had a better texture. I will try to remember to keep feeding the starter and over the next few weeks I'll try some different variations, including a sourdough muffin recipe which I read recently.

Cheese Sauce and Sourdough Bread

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A couple of days ago I had a go at making Heston's cheese sauce. The big difference between his recipe and a traditional one is that you don't start with a roux. The sauce base was white wine and chicken stock, instead of milk. The wine was reduced then the stock was added and heated. The cheese was finely grated then mixed with cornflour before being stirred into the wine/stock mixture.

The end result was a very smooth sauce but the stock flavour was a bit too strong. I will experiment further but next time I might use milk and wine or milk and stock.

My next new recipe was a sourdough bread. This was based on the recipe from the Fabulous Baker Brothers TV series. I made the starter last week using spelt flour, and fed it each day with a bit more flour and water.

I made the dough yesterday and left it to 'prove' overnight before baking it this morning on the pizza stone at gas mark 8. For a first attempt I am reasonably happy with the results. Since the starter was fairly young, the 'sourdough' flavour was quite light but it was a good loaf. I have just realised that this is probably the first loaf of bread I have made completely on my own.

Next time I might make the dough a bit stiffer since I think this one was a bit wet and sticky. The bread had a big hollow bit in the middle, like a giant pitta bread, so we sliced it in half horizontally and made a fried egg sandwich for our breakfast.

Not Following Heston's Roast Chicken Recipe

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We both really enjoy roast chicken so when Heston Blumenthal's latest TV series (How to Cook like Heston) covered chicken in last week's episode, we had to see it. He presented a novel way of cooking a chicken which began with an overnight soak in brine, in a similar manner to cooking a ham. The actual cooking was done at a very low temperature (gas mark ¼) instead of the usual gas mark 6.

We didn't plan our chicken roasting in advance and hadn't done the brining, so today I just did my normal roast chicken recipe. The only real similarity with Heston's is that we both remove the string which trusses the chicken so the heat can get to the legs and side of the breast better. I filled the cavity with a few cloves of garlic and a sprig each of thyme and rosemary to give a bit of extra flavour to the meat. I rubbed vegetable oil on the skin and sprinkled some stock granules all over.

We have a roasting tray with a rack inside and a lid, so I put about half a centimetre of water in the bottom of the tray, sat the chicken on the rack, put the lid on top and put the chicken in the middle of the oven at gas mark 6 for an hour. The water will create plenty of steam which will keep the meat moist while it cooks.

After the hour was over, I removed the lid and let the chicken carry on cooking for just under an hour to let the skin go crispy. The end result was a well-cooked tender chicken with thin crispy (and tasty) skin. The juices which collected in the bottom of the tray, along with the herbs and garlic, will be used later on when I make a chicken stock.

The chicken legs and wings (along with some of the crispy skin) are going to be blitzed with some mayonnaise and a sprinkle of salt to make a sandwich spread for tomorrow's lunch.

Rhubarb, Leamington

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Tonight we joined some friends at a restaurant called Rhubarb, in Leamington. A few of us decided to have Tapas for starters: I had the calamari and Emma had the breaded prawns. Both were very good. The calamari were piping hot, tender, and quite a generous bowlful.

For main course, Emma chose the prawns and monkfish in a thick slightly curried broth, which was ordered from the specials board. I chose the braised lamb shank and chorizo cassoulet, also from the specials. Some people's meals seemed to be a bit on the small side and came without vegetables but I couldn't complain about mine. There was a decent amount of meat, which was very tender and fell off the bone with minimum effort. The cassoulet was very similar to a spanish chorizo and vegetable casserole I used to do years ago, which was based around chicken stock, herbs (oregano and mint if I remember correctly), paprika and chorizo.

Monkfish and Prawn Broth

Overall, the restaurant was ok but the lack of vegetables, side dishes or accompaniments was a bit strange. For example, no bread rolls were served with the starters, even for the people who ordered soup. Prices were reasonable but food quality and serving size appeared to be a bit variable.

Serious Tea Drinking

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One problem with my new office is that you aren't allowed to eat or drink at the desks. Another problem is the nearby communal seating area and kitchen are being refurbished so there's quite a long walk to the next nearest place where I can sit and drink.

My old office was near the department kitchen and I used to keep a good selection of teabags and loose leaf teas on my desk. I am now reduced to keeping a selection of teabags in my bag for those occasions when I manage to take a tea-break.

I found an interesting tea related chart on the Tea Appreciation Society website which lists a number of interesting tea related facts. Among them are the ideal temperatures for different styles. I already knew that green and white teas should be brewed at below boiling, but I didn't realise they only had to be at 65-70°C and 65-70°C respectively.

At the moment I have the following teas in the house:

  • Gunpowder tea: One of the most readily available green teas, and usually a reliable option.
  • King Bladud's Blend: A black tea, named after the legendary king who founded the city of Bath. These first two teas were bought from the tea and coffee stall in Bath market.
  • White tea: from Whittards. A mild refreshing tea.
  • Te Med Blåbärssmak: A blueberry flavoured tea from Ikea.
  • Tesco Loose Leaf Tea: Claims to be leaf but is actually more like tea dust - the contents of a teabag but without the bag. OK for when I want a decent strong cup with milk.
  • Earl Grey: Teabags, made by Clipper.
  • Redbush: Teabags, from Tetley. I have had various flavoured redbush teas but usually prefer the plain ones. A redbush flavoured with orange which I bought from the German Market in Birmingham a few years ago was quite nice though.
  • Darjeeling: Asda own brand 'Selected by you' Teabags. Nice light flavour, better without milk.

Most of the time I drink tea without milk, which is handy in work since at the moment there isn't anywhere to keep any. I first started drinking it milkless when I was at university in Aberystwyth. Milk would go off before I had chance to use it so I just stopped bothering buying any. Now, when I have milk in tea, I prefer it to be semi-skimmed. For some reason, skimmed milk seems to make the tea taste worse, and full milk is a bit too creamy for tea.

Pasta Paella

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The year before last I tried to cook (or at least eat) a new different recipe each week. I probably won't be able to do the same thing again this year but I will endeavour to try more new recipes, since last year we weren't as adventurous with our cooking. I do enjoy cooking different foods but we are both going to be very busy this year, which is why I am not going to make any promises.

Last night we cooked a roast chicken so today I made a chicken stock using the bones, along with some herbs, peppercorns, garlic and the outer leaves from some leeks. Tonight I decided to make a risotto using the stock and remaining chicken. Since we had fish in the freezer and saffron on the shelf, this morphed into a paella. Although we do have some paella rice, I decided to try my normal paella recipe but using the small orzo (or risoni) pasta instead. I tried to stay faithful to the risotto method but I added the orzo to hot stock, instead of the other way round, which is more usual for risottos.

Ingredients and Method

  • Dice and fry some vegetables, including red pepper, leek, courgette, garlic.
  • Put the fish in a pan of boiling water then turn the heat off and let the fish cook in the remaining heat.
  • Add a couple of cups of chicken stock to the vegetables and bring to the boil. Stir in a few strands of saffron and add a cup of pasta.
  • When the pasta is cooked halfway, add a cup of shredded chicken and a squirt of tomato puree, along with any seasoning.
  • When the pasta is cooked, stir in a tablespoon of cream cheese followed by the cooked fish.

To serve, all it needs is a grind of fresh black pepper and a sprinkle of parmesan. I know that isn't the right way to serve a paella but we like it that way.

Carluccio's restaurant, Leicester

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We were in Leicester doing some Christmas shopping, which included a walk around John Lewis. We had lunch at Carluccio's. We started with the Pasta Fritta, which was deep fried squares of herby pasta, and Focaccia All'aglio which was a really nice cheesy garlic bread.

Pasta Fritta

For main course we decided to try the Tasting Trio from the pasta menu, for £20. We had the Penne Giardiniera, with courgette, chilli and deep fried spinach balls, and the Linguini al frutti di mare. Finally, I had the Gnocchi al ragu d'angello (lamb ragu) to myself. The food was good and impressive value.

Tasting Trio pasta selection

The Bear Inn, Berkswell

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Last time we went to the Bear Inn, I had a starter which consisted of an entire wheel of brie. This time I skipped the starter and went straight for the Winter Pie Platter for my main course.

Winter Pie Platter

The platter consisted of a tiny cornish pasty and 3 little pies (venison, chicken & mushroom and steak & ale), along with mash and mushy peas.

Elderberry Syrup

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Elderberry Syrup
Last week I picked some elderberries but I only managed to get one small tub of them. I thought I would have a go at making elderberry syrup since it is supposed to be a good source of vitamin C. I read a few recipes but didn't follow any of them exactly.

I removed all the stalks and put the berries in a pan along with a small splash of water. I simmered the berries and pressed them against the side of the pan to release the juices. I strained the juice into a jug before putting the berries back in the pan with a bit more water for a 2nd extraction.

To make the syrup, I put the juice in a pan with a splash of lemon juice and a generous sprinkle of sugar. I simmered the juice for a few minutes to dissolve the sugar. When it had cooled, I poured it into a bottle and stored it in the fridge.

The first time I tasted the syrup it was still slightly warm and tasted quite sweet but later on when I sampled it again it had gone nice and cold and had a nice strong 'berry' flavour with no obvious sweetness.