Tuesday, 16 August 2011

A tale of two halves

I wasn't going to post about my cooking efforts yesterday because they left me feeling utterly deflated and to be honest like a bit of a loser in the kitchen department. But it doesn't seem right to only write about the good stuff and I'm sure there was some learning/character building in my humiliation somewhere. So, pride swallowed, I will proceed.

The reason for yesterday's experiments was that I had in my possession the mother of all courgettes. This thing was ginormous. This, I now realise was probably where I went wrong. When a courgette is so big that it has become a marrow and left it's courgette essence behind, it no longer acts like a courgette. Surprise surprise. Anyway. I got this beast from my friend's dad's allotment, which for the record was one of the best kept pieces of horticulture I've ever seen. (Curses for not taking my camera) Anyway he gave me the beast and suggested a courgette cake, which sounded like just the job. One online search later and I had these two recipes to try and amazingly they weren't from Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall but my other all time favourite Nigel Slater. One was for a courgette cake and the other was for a courgette bake.

Well both efforts were pretty much pants. I don't think it was the recipe's fault, more the fact that I used marrow instead of courgette but made no allowances for this. The cake was supposed to be in the oven for an hour, at which point I checked it and it was still liquid inside. I left it in for another half hour but it still didn't seem right. When it came to cutting it was very crumbly and quick to fall apart. I may have been a little impatient in not letting it cool fully but it seemed to punish me excessively for this.

The bake, which looked delicious in the recipe was disappointing to say the least. I added a bit of lasagna to make it a bit more substantial for my dinner but no matter how long I left it in the oven, the marrow wouldn't soften properly and the sauce just dried out. I stupidly left the skins on the marrow thinking they would soften on cooking but they didn't. The flavours were yum so I'll probably try it again with softer courgettes and a few adjustments. Anyway, one disappointing dinner later and I'd learned my lessons. I hate learning.

What a difference a day makes......

So it was with a heavy heart that I looked forward to today's, what is turning into a very regular, bake date with Rory. This week Gyoza.....and, thank God, they worked.....brilliantly.

...so I haven't given up on it all just yet. One bad day won't get me down...etc.....

This was the recipe. We cheated and bought our own wrappers. Making your own seemed very time consuming and I wasn't up to another failure. The filling is dead easy to make and allows you to do lots of fun chopping!
The actual cooking is the hardest part and just takes a bit of getting used to as I found out. After last week's deep frying success I was totally blaze and unprepared for the gyoza cooking. Sure, the recipe says throw the water in on top of the hot oil, grand, no bother, nothing could possibly go wrong there! Right. So after a gentle reminder that oil and water don't mix so well, we got the hang of it and it was plain sailing from there. The results were delicious and we scoffed about 15 of them in about 30 seconds.

Thanks Rory for another great bake date. Whatever next?

Saturday, 13 August 2011


Thanks to the help of my lovely assistant Rory my first attempt at deep frying was not only a non life-threatening one, but remarkably hassle free yielding a delicious bounty of doughnutty yummyness. I've always been a little scared of large pots of hot oil but I'm quite drawn to things of a deep fried nature so with a bit of encouragement from Rory we decided to explore it together.

The goal for the day: make churros without setting the house on fire. Extra bonus points if they actually taste good.

I think it can be said that the day was a success. So much so that I think I'm going to be having regular bake dates with the lovely Rory in the weeks and months to come. Next adventure, gyoza. But that's for another day.

The churros turned out remarkably easy to make although the timing on the cooking was a little tricky to get the hang of, but after a bit of trial and error with a few slightly on-the-gooey-side doughnuts in the bunch, I think we got the hang of it. Great excuse to gobble them all up as we went along as well.

I got the recipe from (I sound like such a broken record) River Cottage. It was basically a choux pastry for the batter. I was intrigued to find a very different recipe from Nigella Lawson and fully intend on making a comparison between the two sometime in the not too distant future, being the extreme kitchen nerd that I am. Should anyone care about the outcome I will of course bore you with that as and when it happens.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Spanish Suppers

Not surprisingly my favourite kind of holiday is one that involves lots of sitting around with friends, drinking nice wine and eating good food. Usually I don't really get to do this on holiday because, I usually go on city breaks where I stay in hotels, and I have to go out for dinner every night because I don't have a kitchen, and you can't while away the whole night in the one restaurant so there's the inevitable bar hopping that follows .....it's all very exhausting. (apologies for that inexcusable whitewhine moment. I promise it won't happen again!)

Not this holiday however, thanks to the unfaltering generosity of our good hosts, I enjoyed a thoroughly delicious exploration of the fine foods that are to be found in southern Spain's local markets, veg shops and superb supermarkets. Combine these fantastic retail gems with the most splendid rooftop terrace, complete with it's own little plug in grill for outdoor cooking, and you have all the makings of my perfect Spanish holiday.

Staying with friends in their rental apartment in sunny Marbella set the scene for a delightful week of good food and even better company. A stone's throw from our fabulously located apartment was the local fish, meat and veg market, the Mercado Municipal. This is the real deal. This is the kind of thing that I would love to see coming out of the upcoming development of the fruit and veg market in Smithfield. An everyday market selling retail for everyday use, not just selling for special treats. Being the pessimist that I am, I'm not holding my breath for Smithfield. The Irish seem to be of the mind that the more expensive and exclusive something is the more value it must have. Anyway, Spain has it right, the Mercado was fantastic.

display of fish at the Mercado

Each of the fish sellers had their own specialty. From one stall who only sold huge fish such as swordfish and shark, to the man who only had octopus.

And then there was this strange yolk!

Others had large specimens of sea bream and bass while others dealt in the smaller varieties of the same species. There was plenty of shellfish on offer at very reasonable prices. We paid about 6 euro for enough mussels to feed six of us. The sea bream (dorado for those of you who want to brush up on your Spanish) was a little pricier at 27 euro, but for this we got two of the freshest, tastiest specimens I've ever had, all gutted and cleaned in the flick of a knife and the splash of a hose in front of our eyes. Enough to feed six of us for dinner with enough left over for the lunch the next day. The traders in the market were extremely friendly and helpful which of course only made us want to buy more. And for the record the market was so clean and the fish so fresh that there wasn't even the slightest smell of fish, even in the near 40 degree heat.

cockles, mussels and razor clams

The meat counters were just as impressive, although somehow paled into the background when
standing alongside the wonders of the ocean. We came back on a second day to try out their offerings and after being advised by a local who was ordering at the same counter, through lots of gesturing and claims of 'buono', came out with enough steaks for the six of us for 10 euro. The veg section didn't let us down either and for another 10 euro we had enough food to complete a rather special meal, with wild mushrooms, grilled asparagus and a gorgeous salad to go with our fresh rooftop grilled steaks. All washed down by a lovely Rioja, for the grand sum of 2.50 a bottle (we thought we'd splash out on the expensive bottle....no really!)

Giddy with the excitement of the market we explored further and thanks to the impressive reconnaissance of our intrepid host were led to another fruit and veg shop about ten minutes away. Here we bought enough fruit and veg to last us two whole days of snacking, lunches and dinners. Now, I do tend to get carried away in fruit shops and was it was no different here. Fresh white peaches for breakfast, fresh figs to go with the cheese at lunch, pimientos padron to be grilled and salted for afternoon beer snacks, all the veg for the dinners and some delicious almonds, to be toasted with cumin and salt, again for snacks. I was terribly afraid we'd run out of afternoon beer snacks at this stage. All in all three bags of deliciousness. Having been intrusted with the household kitty for the shopping I was getting worried that I had overindulged and was frivolously throwing away the cash. I estimated a thirty euro plus spend on the lot. With some last minute impulse buys at the till the bill came to 11 euro. I fainted.

Honestly couldn't get over this place

I'll never understand why the rest of Europe has this food thing so sorted. They believe in food being available for all at reasonable prices. Ok, the cost of living is generally lower, but they also eat in season and have a respect for produce that we just can't seem to get a handle on. They take time to shop and time to cook. The daily meal is a big deal. Markets are not seen as something trendy and commercial but as a vibrant beating heart of the city. They won't/can't pay exorbitant prices, and so food is priced accordingly. If only we could move on from the concept that good produce doesn't have to be something trendy and expensive, it should be something accessible, good value and available to all.

So, my Spanish triumph was this:

Dorado, fresh from the market that afternoon, stuffed with herbs, fennel, lemon and garlic, seasoned and thrown on the grill. Nothing more than that. And it tasted delicious. Accompanied with a green salad, bean and almond salad and fresh crusty bread. Preceded by steamed mussels courtesy of my lovely sister. There's something about cooking outdoors that makes everything taste better. Can I go back on my holidays please?