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Thursday, 27 October 2016

Smoked Haddock Paella (sort-of à la Slimming World)

I'd like to call it a tradition that I cook dinner while I'm off work but, over the last couple of years, Courtney and I have usually been doing something - like taking a holiday - which means there's actually not much of an opportunity to cook, and when I'm off work due to illness, cooking couldn't be further from my mind. This week - coming at a bad time for going away - has presented the first good opportunity (other than, y'know, every frickin' weekend) for me to get back into the kitchen and prepare some meals from scratch... But it didn't happen without a struggle. We'd talked about it a while back but, in the run-up to the week, Courtney became reluctant to pick meals for me to cook. I had previously become a little stressed during other stints in the kitchen and she felt that she wanted to spare me the upset.

Nevertheless, a handful of recipe suggestions were eventually teased out of her and, on the Wednesday, I tried my hand at an adaptation of a 'Syn-Free' Slimming World recipe for a vegetarian/vegan paella, with a bit of fish added because we happened to have it in the freezer, otherwise unused. There were a couple of other changes to the recipe, so I'll give this the full write-up...

  • Smoked Haddock (a couple of small fillets should be enough)
  • Onion (one of a decent size is sufficient, to be sliced)
  • Garlic (a couple of cloves, to be crushed)
  • Peppers (one red, one yellow, to be sliced)
  • Tomatoes (four, to be sliced - the original recipe specifies plum tomatoes, but I used the normal kind)
  • Lemons (one to be juiced, one to be cut into wedges)
  • Peas (200g, frozen)
  • Artichoke Hearts (one 400g tin - equating to about 240g of artichoke when drained)
  • Arborio Rice (largely because we couldn't find anything called 'Paella Rice', 350g)
  • Paprika (2 teaspoons)
  • Cumin (1 teaspoon)
  • Turmeric (half teaspoon)
  • Saffron (just a pinch, however one measures that...)
  • Vegetable Stock Cubes (3 should be sufficient, to be dissolved in about a litre of water)
  • Salt & Pepper (to taste) 
  • Cooking Oil (to lubricate the wok in the initial stages)
Preparation Time: About an hour, less if you're better at slicing and chopping - or generally more organised - than I am

Tools Required:
  • 1 Large Wok or Frying Pan
  • 1 Saucepan (large enough to comfortably accommodate 1 litre of boiling water)
  • 1 Kitchen Knife
  • 1 Mandoline (because it makes slicing the onion far easier on the eyes)
  • 1 Garlic Press
  • Miscellaneous receptacles to contain the ingredients prior to adding to the wok
  • 2 Stirring Implements (one for the wok, one for the stock)
The Process:
This is one of those recipes where it pays to prepare in advance. Before even firing up the hob, I cooked the two haddock fillets (thawed overnight in the fridge, then approximately 5 minutes in the microwave, breaking halfway to drain the excess water, and then removing the skin and flaking the fish at the end), mixed up the spices in a small bowl (since it's easier to mix in the paprika, cumin, turmeric and saffron evenly if they're already mixed up and ready to be dumped into the wok) and chopped up all the veg. While I would never say that I've got chopping things down to a fine art, I do find it easy enough to deseed and slice up things like peppers. Slicing things like onions has become far easier for me since we acquired a mandoline (the Chef'n Pull'n'Slice mandoline from Lakeland, specifically) but, even so, I had to cover over the onion slices once finished to avoid getting all weepy. The tomatoes were slightly more complicated to slice up because they also needed to be deseeded, and that's the gooiest portion of the tomato. On the upside, none of the slicing needs to be especially fine, and all I did with the artichoke hearts was drain them and halve them. I made a lot of extra washing up by using bowls and plates to store things once prepared, so I could simply line them up and add them into the wok as I progressed. The frozen peas were measured out, then stored in the fridge till needed. One of the lemons was juiced, while the other, which only needed cutting into wedges, was set aside.

I also dealt with the stock before the main part of the cooking, putting just over a litre of water into a saucepan, dropping in the three vegetable stock cubes and bringing it to the boil. Stirring occasionally to help the stock cubes break up, I then made a start on the main event.

The wok received a spraying of cooking oil before turning on the hob to a medium heat. As a side note, I'm slowly learning how to set temperature levels on the hob - high and low being obvious, but 'medium' sitting somewhere below the median - so just about every stage of this recipe proceeded as intended. First into the wok were the sliced onion and the crushed garlic, these being cooked gently - and kept on the move to prevent them sticking to the wok - till the onions started turning golden (a little over five minutes). I did splash a spoonful or two of the stock in early as I suspect I didn't spray in quite enough cooking oil.

Next up came the peppers, with the whole lot continuing to stir-fry for about another five minutes. The next stage starts out with a flurry of activity before settling down for a long simmer: the tomatoes, rice (added dry) and the spice mix go in next, along with a small amount - about a tablespoon or so - of the lemon juice and then stirred up. The final part of this stage is adding the stock and, since I wasn't quite sure of myself on this point, I ended up adding it gradually rather than all at once. I ended up not using all of it, as the extra was just a precaution, but very little was left over. This then needs to simmer down for around a quarter of an hour or so, to allow the rice to absorb water and cook. It's worth giving it all a stir once in a while, as I did find that my rice sank to - and then stuck to - the bottom of the wok.

The final stage starts by adding the frozen peas and chopped artichoke, then simmering for another ten minutes or so, leaving you with something resembling paella, rather than a chunky vegetable soup - you want it moist, but not waterlogged. The last thing to be added to the wok, preferably in the last couple of minutes before serving, is the flaked haddock. After that, it's simply a case of serving up, seasoning to taste, then chopping the remaining lemon into wedges to squeeze over the top.

The Results:
Given the time I'd put in to preparation before I started, I was pleased to find this all progressed very smoothly. Because my worktop space is fairly limited, I'd dotted bowls and plates around the available space, piling them up as I emptied them into the wok. My biggest concern was getting the hob temperature right for boiling off the excess water to ensure the correct texture/viscosity in the end result, but the only problem with the simmering stage was that I didn't keep the rice moving, so quite a bit ended up as a congealed, crispy mass at the bottom of the wok... but even that wasn't a complete disaster, as Courtney likes crispy congealed rice.

The original Slimming World version of this recipe suggests garnishing with shredded parsley, but that's not something we tend to have in stock as it's not something we use a great deal of - it seems like a huge waste to buy some only to tear up a small amount to sprinkle over something like this. I seasoned mine only very slightly - a little salt and a touch of pepper - as I wanted to try it with as little extra flavouring as possible. I was a little concerned, for example, that smoked haddock might have too strong a taste in its own right, but that turned out OK - blending in without losing its own flavour. While the tomato pretty much fell apart, becoming part of the sauce and leaving only the strips of skin, the other veg held together well, maintained some of their bite and kept their individual flavours to a degree. Adding a squeeze of lemon juice didn't do much, and I suspect a sprinkle of fresh parsley may have been a worthwhile addition after all. I'm not entirely sure what the difference is between 'paella rice' and the arborio rice I used, but I can't imagine the results would have been massively improved by using the 'correct' rice.

Aside from all the preparation work and small amount of waste due to the rice getting stuck to the bottom of the wok, this was a simple recipe that turned out very well and restored some of my kitchen confidence. The recipe in the book isn't exactly comprehensive, assuming a certain amount of experience, but I was able to read between the lines and keep things progressing, without getting stressed out by re-reading the same lines over and over, trying to discern what I might be missing.

This is, at heart, a vegetarian dish, so it would be perfectly acceptable in its unadulterated form, yet it could easily support other white fish, or perhaps a full-on meaty component... as long as it's not something too strongly flavoured in its own right.

The quantities specified are meant to serve four, but we both had fairly generous servings, and Courtney took the leftovers for today's lunch. She had it cold, and reported that it was still quite flavourful, though she felt a bit of extra salt and pepper would have improved it, and hadn't taken any with her. She also reckoned it had reached the consistency where it could be turned into rice balls or patties, so that's perhaps something to investigate further in future.
Snapped prior to the addition of a little salt and pepper...

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Birds Eye "Stir Your Senses" Tagliatelle con Porcini

Having singularly failed to note the sixth anniversary of this blog (12th September), despite setting a reminder in my phone and receiving several prompts from my girlfriend, I actually have a good opportunity for a quick post this evening. Courtney would normally be out at a Slimming World meeting on a Monday evening, so there's a good chance there will be several ready meal/quick snack posts coming up (not to mention an under-discussion post about Slimming World, if only so I can joke at length about how it comes across as some kind of cult whenever anyone I know talks about it, and there are quite a few Slimming Worlders at work).

The upshot of this is that I was recently vaguely organised and picked myself up one of Birds Eye's new "Stir Your Senses" collection - a range of seven ready-to-cook-from-frozen, bagged meals for one which take about ten minutes (or less) to cook. Given that I generally get home too late to start cooking anything substantial from scratch, that's a very tempting prospect, and I'm always happy to try out something that purports to go from freezer to plate in a very short time and by a very simple process. That is, after all, just one raison d'être for this blog.

According to the packaging, this particular bag invites one to "Be inspired by the truly magical tastes of Tuscany. Our chefs have combined ribbons of fresh egg pasta in a delicately light creamy sauce and the earthy richness of porcini and champignon mushrooms". The cooking process described is nothing more than emptying the contents of the bag into a non-stick pan or wok with two or three tablespoons of water, heating on high until the frozen bricks of sauce begin to melt, then turning the heat down for the remainder of the 7-8 minutes cooking time. The full duration depends mostly on how thick one wants the sauce to be or, at least, a fine balance between that and how hungry one is to begin with. The most complicated part is remembering to keep stirring once the sauce has fully melted, lest the pasta start to stick to the outer edges of the pan/wok. Once the desired consistency of sauce it achieved, the contents of the pan are simply decanted onto the desired receptacle for eating.

I have to say I was very surprised by this - not only was the process of cooking it precisely as quick and simple as the packaging suggests - granted, it's only barely more involved than simply chucking something into the oven for a few minutes at a particular temperature, but it's been a while since I've done much of anything in the kitchen - but it didn't take much effort to ensure it didn't go horribly wrong. I was worried initially that some of it might burn at (or to) the bottom of the pan before the rest had even thawed, but a small amount of stirring kept everything under control. Not only that, but it was a remarkably tasty meal - one tends to expect that mushrooms, in particular, cooked from frozen, will be soggy and pretty much flavourless, but the subtly nutty flavour was not overwhelmed by the plentiful and creamy sauce and their texture retained a certain firmness. The real hero of the dish, though, was the onion, which offset the sweetness of the sauce and added a pleasant bite. If I had a complaint, it would be that the size of this 'Meal for 1' was rather smaller than I'd prefer, but I know I tend to be a bit of a porker. It's likely a healthier portion size than I'd serve myself if I was cooking something like this from scratch.

Looking over the rest of the range, there aren't many others that I'm especially keen to try - "chef inspired" they may be (whatever that's supposed to mean), but they're not incredibly varied or imaginative. Four are Italian-styled pasta-based dishes, the other three involve chicken and one of those adds prawns - one of my culinary bêtes noires. Nevertheless, they have apparently been awarded 'Product of the Year' in a 2016 consumer survey of product innovation, and it's not hard to see why - the simple presentation (bagged rather than boxed, making them somewhat more convenient to store in the freezer compartment of an average fridge freezer) along with the fact that it's so simple to prepare and so surprisingly tasty mean that such plaudits are well-deserved. I'd certainly grab one of these again if I need a quick dinner, and may yet try other options in the range.

I'll also add this to the list of meals I'd like to try cooking from scratch, at some point...

Monday, 4 July 2016

Kanikama Luxury Sushi Collection

I'm quite a fan of sushi, as long-time readers may be aware, so when I popped into my local Iceland today and discovered they now stock a seemingly heretical frozen variety, I was surprised, not to say utterly dumbfounded.

But this is occasionally a blog about convenience foods as well as about making things from scratch, and this appears to be a convenience food (until you read the instructions, that is). It's also a rare day that I'll say no to the idea of eating sushi.

The first thing to remember about sushi is that, ideally, it's prepared fresh, and preferably right in front of you. Most folks in the UK with experience of sushi will have eaten in at the likes of Yo! Sushi, though London is certainly not lacking proper sushi restaurants. The very idea of freezing this form of Japanese cuisine is surely anathema to those who spend years training to prepare it in a restaurant, but I'm hardly going to let that stop me, am I?

Well played, Iceland - challenge accepted.

And so, first, we address the elephant in the room, the disparity, the downright oxymoron that is 'fresh frozen'. The Kanikama Luxury Sushi Collection describes itself as "Authentic Hand Crafted Sushi" and, more specifically "Ready to eat cooked rice with raw salmon, cooked shrimp, crab flavour surimi, wasabi, soy sauce and vegetables." The basic instruction is to "Defrost & Serve", but therein lies the first problem. According to the detailed instructions, it takes 2-3 hours to defrost the product "at room temperature" (and one has to wonder which room, and at what time of year they use for their definition of 'room temperature'). Alternatively - and especially for high summer - the set can be defrosted by storage in the fridge, but this takes between 6-8 hours, followed by 5-10 minutes at room temperature. For those who just can't wait, it can also be defrosted in the microwave, in about 2 minutes on Medium power... followed by 10-15 minutes at room temperature.

All the while, the condiments - wasabi paste, soy sauce and pickled ginger strips - must be defrosted separately "under cold running water for 5-10 minutes" or "at room temperature for 20-30 minutes"... so, even when using a microwave, this is hardly a quick snack. It's also worth noting that the instructions basically caution against using a microwave, on the grounds that it's likely to start cooking the salmon which, as everyone but Sainbury's seems to know, is not what you do with sushi. I used the microwave for mine as I didn't fancy waiting 2-3 hours for my dinner when I got home this evening, and I must confess to deliberately overdoing it in the microwave, just to ensure it was properly thawed.

The end result, perhaps surprisingly, is not as vile as one might expect. The rice isn't waterlogged, the fish has a decent texture though it's very light on flavour versus what you might experience in a restaurant. The salmon is ridiculously easy to overcook by microwave thawing, but that's true of just about any piece of frozen salmon you'd care to risk defrosting in a microwave.

In each pack, you get 3 California Pinwheels (small rolls with seemingly random content), 3 Salmon Nigiri (fairly bland, but not offensively so), 2 Shrimp Nigiri (never my favourite, not least because of the tails), 1 Salmon Hosomaki (which looked suspiciously blobby) and 1 Surimi Hosomaki (essentially fake crabstick pieces in a seaweed-wrapped roll). It's a decent selection, but presents only a light snack for one. The set also includes its own chopsticks, for convenience, and, while there's a reasonable quantity of wasabi (which was, for my preference, of better than reasonable quality), the sachet of soy sauce was insufficient, and hand to be topped up from my own supply. I didn't try the pickled ginger because I'm not a fan... and because I accidentally left it in the packaging during the microwave thawing, so it ended up a bit soggy.

I certainly wouldn't recommend this to anyone as an introduction to sushi. Please, try it first made properly fresh from a halfway decent restaurant (or, failing that, Yo! Sushi). For a sushi connoisseur, this would probably be inadequate in every sense, if not outright insulting... but, for £3, this is certainly better than I'd expected. I'm not sure I'll ever choose to have it again, given that I work near a Yo! Sushi and have access to the myriad sushi restaurants in and around London, but I suppose it's nice to know it's available in Iceland's cabinets, should one find oneself craving a better brand of junk food.
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