cooking

Pass the pie

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I am queen of the leftovers. Following last year’s experiment of living on World War II rations, I’ve become terrified of throwing anything edible away. This is A Good Thing and we should all be terrified of waste: in the west, we throw away enough food each year to eradicate food shortages in the whole of Africa. To us, food is a delicious but disposable plaything. To a truly terrifying number of people in the world, food is something you hope your children will have this week.

The waste paranoia is also helpful because we potentially generate a lot of it. The ball-and-chain is makes a specific point of not wanting to know what goes on in abattoirs. I do know and I know very well. He’s a meat-eater. I’ve been a vegetarian since c1989.

This means each meal I cook is really two-meals-with-a-lot-in-common. There’s very little I can’t produce a vegetarian-main-item replacement for his meat-main-item, but our meals can diverge quite considerably at times. Add to that the habit of the supermarkets of not selling logically sized portions of ingredients (you can get a fat-laden ready meal for one, but try getting a single portion of mince and a small bag of old potatoes) and you have a recipe for there being too much in each meal to eat in one day.

As long as you’re creative, and I try to be, serving the same meal for three days running isn’t as dull as it sounds. Take my pie (please!): third day, third different meal.

I had to make two pies, one with vegemince and one with minced-up cow anus. Any pie you make is rarely going to be small enough for one sitting. So this is day three of the two pies.

The first day was the pie served with roast vegetables. The second was the pie with chipshop chips, The third, today, is pie and mash. The only thing they really have in common is the lashings of gravy, and everyone loves gravy so it doesn’t count.

The roast veg is a speciality of my mum’s that I’ve imported. Take virtually any veg you’ve got laying about, plus a good handful of mushrooms, cut them up large, put them in a baking tray and add a glug of oil, salt, pepper, Maggi and/or Aromat if you can get it (curse you, Morrisons) and some mixed herbs and bake in a medium oven for 20 minutes. Reserve the leftover juices at the bottom (add them to your instant gravy and pretend you made the gravy from scratch – nobody will ever doubt you). Courgettes, tomatoes, celery, peppers – all good roasted.

I don’t need to tell you how wonderful chipshop chips in gravy are.

For the mash, a good potato, peeled and boiled, drain, add a stick of garlic butter, add freshly grated nutmeg if you like, add some double cream if you’re feeling adventurous, and mash well.

Now for the pie itself.

Chop an onion and fry it off until soft. Add the mince and fry that off until brown (no need with vegemince). Add gravy granules or powder to soak up the fat. Add Guinness or Riggwelter to dilute the gravy granules. Leave it to simmer. Peel and boil some potatoes. Line a pie tin with bought pastry.

Yeah, I know, but I make terrible, terrible pastry, heavy, glutenous crap pastry. So just buy the ready-rolled chilled stuff.

Line a pie tin with pastry. Take the parboiled potatoes off the heat and let them cool (or cool them under the tap). Put a layer of mince on the bottom. Slice a potato and layer it over the mince. Keep doing this until the pie dish is full of mince and potato layers. Finish with a mince layer. Top the pie with the remaining pastry (if there’s not enough, cheat like I did and make a lattice pie, coz you were always going to do that).

Brush the top with milk, put the pie in the oven and cook on a medium heat for about half an hour. It’s done when the pie is golden on top.

To reheat the leftovers the next day, cover the pie with foil and put it back in a medium oven for half an hour again.

I’m telling you all this, by the way, because I’m experimenting, using my Apple wireless keyboard attached to my iPhone, ready for my holiday in Italy in September, where I intend to blog you all rigid from Turin for a week. So now you know.

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Gourmet bangers and mash

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The ball-and-chain began a tradition back in the 1970s of having friends round on General Election night. Since I arrived on the scene, I've taken this further and made it grander, as one might expect.

For 2001 and 2005, I prepared a great buffet – no mean feat when there wasn't a kitchen to speak of in this house. For 2010, not only was there a kitchen but it was my kitchen, so the food went from 'buffet' to 'hot buffet' – quite a step forward. Whilst 2011 isn't a General Election year, for shame, the AV referendum and the other elections around the UK were enough of an excuse to have friends over and flex my culinary skills.

For the night before, I needed a simple but high-quality dinner for an elastic number of people. I settled on bangers and mash. I made bangers and mash as a main course for Kate and Jonathan last Christmas, so I know it's a popular dish. But I wanted to take it even further up-market this time.

Fortunately, there had been a "Local Food Fayre" in Hoylake last month. Whilst their definition of "local" needed some work (Anglesey: well, perhaps; Birmingham: no) there were some lovely things to be had including a whole stand devoted to taking ordinary food and smoking it. I love smoked food. Virtually all meals can be improved by smoking them, or adding something smoked to them, or just slopping on some Smoked Hickory-Style Bar-Be-Q Sauce concoction.

In this case, the smokers were Derimon of Anglesey. Yeah – it's local as the crow flies, but if you don't want to fly, it's quite a round-trip to get across all of north Wales to Chester, then up the Wirral to here; as I say, the definition of "local" needed work. Derimon had a stall where anything that couldn't run away had been smoked: chicken fillets, herring, mackerel, ham, cheese, butter… yes, smoked butter. I was intrigued. Imagine smoked butter!

Sold vacuum-packed, it would last until I thought of a good recipe for it. As it turned out, that was the mash for Wednesday night. Everybody loves mashed potato. Even crappy mashed potato is good. But good mashed potato… oh, dreamy, smooth clouds of buttery goodness. And smoked buttery goodness too. Lots of smoked butter, a good grate of nutmeg and served steaming for people to help themselves. Fab.

The bangers were high quality too. My favoured local butcher (we have three, within 5 minutes walk of each other, plus Morrisons), Graham Clarke's, has now gone. Or, they went, then they came back, then 24 hours later the landlord changed the locks and they went again. Now it has reopened as Brian Clarke's, although the signage gives nothing away as to what the relationship might be. It's a bit less posh than the old Clarke's, but still very high quality and still with staff who know what they're doing behind a counter – something they've got over Morrisons, where the "qualified butchers" could use also being taught to do more than grunt at you.

I pitched up on Tuesday afternoon and asked for sausages, of which they had a fair few. When I explained the gourmet bangers and mash idea, they sent me away. "Oh, don't have these, they're ordinary! Can you come back tomorrow afternoon? We're making a batch of sausages tonight and they'll be perfect for you!". How could I refuse? I went away and came back the next day, buying 4 different types of sausage (pure pork, Cumberland, pork and leak and 'ordinary' breakfast bangers that I used on Thursday morning for guests' breakfast). I slow-cooked the sausages under the grill at quite a low temperature to bring out the flavour and get the casing crispy but the middle cooked through. People often cook sausages too quickly on too high a temperature, leading to a black outside and a pink (and potentially poisonous) middle; or else leading to the bangers living up to their name and a lot of oven cleaning being required later.

For those wondering – and thank you for your concern – I went to Holland and Barrett on Monday and bought a selection of Redwood veggie sausages for me to have. They were fantastic.

One more thing was needed to make the gourmet bangers and mash very gourmet: a good gravy. I'm sure I could've done something with reduced red wine and herbs and all of that, but I don't think such subtlety is needed, even for a gourmet night. I fried off a sliced onion, then made what was in effect a roux by putting onion gravy granules into the pan (to soak up and bind the fat so it doesn't float on top) and slowly adding hot water. It looks very special, tastes wonderful and takes 2 minutes to do, all a sauce really deserves.

There were no leftovers.

Leeking potatoes

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Anybody who followed my previous blog will know that I have a fondness for food. Or, more exactly, a fondness for cooking food.

This comes from my mum having been an accomplished chef herself and her having taught me the basics of the kitchen. Also, she had a collection of 1950s and 60s cookbooks from the likes of Woman’s Own and Good Housekeeping which were full of recipe collections like “Eating To Put On Weight”, “How To Set A Table For When Royalty Visits” and “Food That Wards-Off Polio”, such is the wonderful way of 1950s and 60s magazines. As an easily-bored voracious reader, I devoured these books as much as I did my Target Doctor Who novelisations.

I get a vegbox every week from Abel and Cole. I got put on to the idea by Scott, who I goaded by Twitter into signing up first so I could hear back whether it was worth it. It was, so I did. And it remains so.

This week’s box had leeks, potatoes and onions in it. Well, it almost always has onions in it, and always has potatoes in it, but the leeks are reappearing after a break. That means, to me, the opportunity to make my mum’s chunky Cream of Leek and Potato Soup. Also, for some obscure reason we’re really not keeping up with the milkman at the moment and if I didn’t find a recipe that could use 4 to 8 pints of semi-skimmed very quickly, by Monday there was a real risk of drowning.

The joy of this soup is that it is so very very filling for so little little money. A huge batch made in a big pot lasts for days and days, because with [cover Lord Woolton’s eyes, someone] a couple of slices of bread, a bowl of it fills you up for literally hours and hours. Have it late and you may not need breakfast. It reheats well for a long time after cooking, and it freezes well too. Who needs anything more?

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Since, it turns out, this new blog is going to keep the foody element of the last one and just add insults and politics, here’s the recipe.

  • 3-4 leeks, topped, tailed and sliced thickly
  • An onion, diced small
  • Potatoes, diced large
  • Lots of milk
  • Knob of butter/glug of oil
  • Garlic, if wanted
  • Couple of stock cubes (veg or chicken)
  • A very large pan, preferably with a heavy bottom

Start by making a roux (a white sauce) from the butter/oil and the onions and garlic. Keep adding more and more milk until it’s as much as you could see yourself eating in the next few days. Crumble in the stock (and salt and pepper if you cook with salt), add the leeks, add the potatoes and very, very gently bring up to the boil.

It’s milk. If you turn your back, it’ll rush up at you and go everywhere, or else it’ll look placid whilst catching on the bottom. Be gentle with the heat but vigorous with the stirring. Once it starts to bubble vigorously but before it starts to rise at you, take the heat off completely, cover and wait. The soup will cook under its own heat in the next half hour.

After half an hour, uncover, give it a stir and put it on the smallest burner/ring at a low temperature and gently bring it back to eating heat – not boiling. It’s done when the largest cube of potato you can find is soft all the way through, but that should’ve happened earlier than now. If it’s not soft, keep it on that low heat, stirring to stop the soup from catching, until it is.

Serve with crusty bread and some brie if you’re feeling flush.

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Cheese whizz

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Since I gave up living on World War II rations at Christmas of last year, I’ve been pleased to find how much of what I learned has stuck with me.

I’m now not so constricted as I was, meat, fat and sugar-wise, but I’m still using a minimum of fat and sugar at roughly WW2 levels. Also, no leftover is thrown away today if it can possibly become an ingredient tomorrow. I don’t eat meat, but the ball-and-chain does, so he has had an increase in fresh and smoked meats and a 100% decrease in tinned Spam and other potted meats.

One thing we’ve both increased is our cheese intake. Previously restricted to a tiny 2oz a week each, we’re now free to raid the fridges of Morrisons and the stalls at local food fayres in search of ever more exotic takes on cheddar. In particular, this has meant the return of fully-flavoured cheese sauces.

I’m a devotee of Nella Last, whose Mass Observation diaries have now reached a third gripping volume. She was a master at taking her tiny stipend from her manic-depressive husband and her small rations and turning in sumptuous meals that thrilled family and visitors throughout the 1940-1954 rationing period. Dotted through her diaries are little tips on how to eke out a small supply of something to make it seem far, far larger.

Cheese was something she seemed to stretch beyond imagination. Her and Will’s 4 ounces could make a cheese salad in the midst of the Blitz, thanks to the very simple idea of buying a crumbly cheese (Cheshire, Lancashire) and finely crumbling it through an ordinary salad. The result is startling: 2oz of cheese crumbled into a salad does indeed produce a flavoursome cheese salad – you wouldn’t know that it was such a micro amount.

Another trick was how to make cauliflower cheese without almost no cheese. This was done by buying a “sharp” (extra mature) hard cheese, making a white sauce and not putting the cheese in it. Instead, the cauli goes into the white sauce and the cheese gets added to two end slices of bread and turned into cheese breadcrumbs. The result is everything you could want in a cauliflower cheese… except virtually no cheese.

As I say, I’m no longer rationed cheese-wise. So for yesterday’s Purple Sprouting Broccoli and Cauliflower Mornay (it’s classier to call it that), I did put cheese in my white sauce. But I also made cheese breadcrumbs for the top. Best of all worlds.

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Here’s the recipe:

  • 8oz of cheese
  • Diced onion
  • Chopped fresh garlic
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower (these two came from my Abel and Cole vegbox)
  • Milk
  • Plain flour
  • Glug of olive or a knob of butter

Start pre-heating your oven to 200°C. Melt the butter/heat the oil on the stove. Fry off the onion until it starts going soft, then add the garlic. When the onion is transparent, add the plain flour a tablespoon at a time, stirring it in, until all the fat is absorbed. Now add a splash of milk, stir until absorbed, add another splash and keep doing this until you’ve got a gluey mess. Then keep doing it more until you’ve got a white sauce.

Cut the cheese in two, about two thirds and one third. Grate or crumble the larger piece into the white sauce and keep stirring as it melts. Now take two end pieces of bread and the remaining block of cheese and whizz them in a food processor or blender until you’ve got medium breadcrumbs.

Add the broccoli and the cauliflower to the cheese sauce, remove from heat and decant into an oven-proof dish or casserole. Coat with all the breadcrumbs, then put it in the bottom of the oven for about 20 minutes or until the breadcrumbs brown.

Serve with your choice of meat (smoked gammon goes well) and, since this has bread in it and we must heed Lord Woolton, another vegetable of your choice that isn’t potato.