slow cookers

Slow Cooker Matchmaking

slow cookers

So you’ve decided to buy a slow cooker? Welcome to the least time consuming cult in the world. We find time to put our feet up (at least metaphorically) and get on with all the other stuff we love in life and then sit down to a proper meal at the end of it. I particularly love the low washing up levels that accompany it.

But what do you do if you’re still standing on the side of the fence with the stove and saucepans, looking forlornly at a dish needing steeped and don’t know which toe to dip in first to join Club Slow Cooker? I’ve got some advice for you here so you’re ready to start using the recipes in Slow Cooked.

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book cover

Creating Slow Cooked

book cover

I’m not sure I’ve mentioned this before now or anything, but I’ve written a book! You’ll have to forgive me getting meta and writing about writing a book but I’m still in post book writing withdrawal and indulging myself with as many blog posts as possible before Slow Cooked comes out on November 6th.

After people congratulated me on the book deal (and believe me, nothing gets people more excited than a proper paper book even in these days of blogs and e-readers), they generally wanted to know two things. Firstly, how do you get published and secondly, how do you actually write a book from scratch?

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pork-fillet-plums-tweaked2

Pork, Plums and Fodmaps

pork-fillet-plums-tweaked2I have a notoriously delicate constitution. My innards tend to react like an angry toddler needing its bedtime over all kinds of things. Some of it is because I am an expert maker of gallstones (despite having my gallbladder removed when I was 18) leading to my digestive system reacting like angrily to say the least. I’ve done a lot of exclusion diets in my time.

There was the post cholecystectomy low fat diet that meant all I could safely eat without a trip to A&E was bread and jam which in turn meant having to do a candida exclusion diet. Not only am I prone to yeast issues in my gut but because it was the mid 90s and it was the current solve all your internal ills idea at the time. I also dabbled with wheat and dairy free for a while and didn’t achieve much effect apart from sending myself gently bonkers around food. I’m sure I’d have excluded gluten too if I’d heard of it then.

I thought I’d just have to put up with feeling terrible all the time and existing on a heavy routine of peppermint oil capsules and mint tea and then I saw a new and wonderful gastroenterologist about some other gallbladder related issues you don’t want to read about over breakfast. While not denying I had a problem, he mentioned that about 80% of his current caseload is down to three things: poor gut flora, Chorleywood bread and Fodmaps.

The first, I know well. The second makes sense since it relies on underproving yeasts and gluten and making bread much harder to digest. The third? I had no earthly idea what he was on about. But I trusted him (I should, he swears like a sailor on shore leave, keeps a sourdough starter in his office for patients and is Michael Mosley approved, all on the NHS no less) so I went off and looked these Fodmaps up.

Discovered by Monash University in Australia, it identifies that there are certain sugars and carbohydrates that the human body finds hard to digest leading to problems. These are the Fermentable, Oligo, Di and Mono Saccharides and Polyols the diet is named for. Often confusing for people because many healthy foods are an issue, it’s a complicated diet that should only ever be undertaken with the help of a trained medical professional, hopefully via the NHS these days,

However it’s worth looking into doing it if you find you have issues after eating wheat or rye, all dairy products not just lactose based ones, certain fruits and vegetables, especially onions and garlic or pulses beyond the normal response to large amounts. Meat substitutes like Quorn can only be a big Fodmap trigger. People are further confused by Fodmaps because everyone’s tolerance is different. I am absolutely fine with wheat (and other members of the galactan family) and have no issue with lactose.

Yet give me a fructan in the shape of an onion or garlic especially and I am utterly miserable. My problems are compounded by the fact I am also fructose intolerant so react terribly to high fructose fruit, any kind of fruit juice and anything like agave syrup that’s high in it. It’s best to only consume fructose when it comes with the natural fibre of the fruit to prevent overloading your system but for fructose malabsorbers like me, any amount is difficult. A glass of orange juice or a whole apple will be both cause my mouth to swell and break me out in a sweat and itchiness. I suspect many people have this issue these days but have simply never heard of it. Innocent times. Literally.

I have to be incredibly careful in what I eat so that I don’t end up lying down feeling faint and bloated at best or triggering off my more intense bowel issues. Fruit and pulses are occasional treats for me (which is why I become murderously annoyed when people tell me how great lentils are when you are poor) and alliums are to be eaten only when I can’t avoid them and can be alone soon after. I will never eat a Jerusalem artichoke or chicory root or take a prebiotic again as they contain inulin, a form of indigestable fibre that is problematic for everyone but triggers debilitating biliary pain for me. Read more

beaters

Dos and Doughnuts in the Kitchen

beaters

As I’ve mentioned in a few posts this summer, I haven’t been spending huge amounts of time in the kitchen. My cooking mojo seems to have taken the holiday I haven’t and I’ve not been venturing much beyond finally getting my (non cream based) carbonara just right, breaking records for the number of frittatas one person can eat and eating lots of salad and fruit. So when I was invited to a Bank Holiday picnic it seemed like the time had come to start making a bit of an effort again.

In between not cooking very much and buying eggs in such numbers my local shop actually laugh at me, I’ve also joined Instagram. I’ve really been enjoying it, finding it complements Twitter nicely. I expected it to be about 50% photos of cats and kids but surprisingly there are few of either. What there are a lot of are photos of doughnuts.

London is in the grip of doughnut mania. I know they’ve been gradually making their way from cop show cliche to food blogger fascination for a while. St John started their journey from Krispy Kreme kiosk to the current in-thing (with a little help from The Faerietale Foodie) but call them beignets, donuts or gravy rings, they are everywhere this summer.

Inspired by the reverence with which doughnut fiends speak of Justin Gellatly, formerly of St John Bakery and now of Bread Ahead in Borough Market and because he’s a fellow Ebury author, I thought I would make his legendary recipe for doughnuts and fill them with a wonderful this lemon ricotta semolina custard by Ruby Tandoh. Her custard slice recipe with this is peerless and I needed an excuse to make the filling again.

I almost instantly ran into a problem with Justin’s recipe. It called for fresh yeast and at 8pm on a Friday night, that’s not something I could lay my hands on easily. I subbed in half the amount of dried active yeast by adding it to 50ml of the water required in the recipe and allowing it to bubble for 15 minutes before I started mixing.

And there in lay the second problem with the recipe: the mixing. It called for a stand mixer or Kitchen Aid and involved almost 20 minutes of active mixing in stages. Thing is, I don’t have a Kitchen Aid mixer and I have a serious hump about the number of recipes by big name authors and cooks these days that assume the majority of people own a piece of kitchen equipment that start at £300 and are the size of a small Sherman tank.

I’ve lost count of the number of the TV chef recipes (yes, I am looking you Ms Pascale and Mister Oliver. Stay behind after class please) that tell you to buck everything into the mixer bowl, turn it on and come back after a certain amount of time. At risk of sounding decreipt and resistant to change, getting a machine to do it all for you isn’t cooking to me, it’s assembly. Where is the education? The cues to look for? The touch, taste and feel of food? The explaining why you do something? The alchemy when it comes together?

It’s as sanitised as those supermarket ‘just cook’ ready meals that feature a chicken breast, a sachet of sauce and suggest the veg on the side. One step up from simply piercing the plastic, they are cooking at the most basic level of the word. I see nothing wrong with a proper ready meal, but something about simply preparing components with emotional detachment but calling it cooking bothers me. Even with the slow cooker, I avoid this style of just warming ingredients up, making simple, quick dishes that are still actively cooked and created in a method that teaches and engages you with your food and a specific method of cooking.

I’m well aware some of this resentment of Kitchen Aid cooking comes from the fact I can’t afford something that cost more than my washing machine (and that I haven’t had the chance to slip onto a wedding list yet) and that I’ve never really found a time when it would be properly worthe the cost and storage space. But most it comes from the annoyance that as I work hard to learn to write recipes that both work and teach people to cook, many big names take the path of least resistance and education (or effort.) It doesn’t take much to do a Nigella and give non machine methods alongside.

This isn’t to say that I’m a Luddite who does everything by hand and owns a mangle (although my dad owned a car that had to be hand cranked sometimes when I was a kid…) I love my stick blender and its little chopper bowl attachment. Clearly I’m a bit obsessed by slow cookers. I can completely understand why people with limited time, energy or grip use food processors or breadmakers. But I still like to get involved with my food and feel and see the changes rather than let something else take all the strain and responsibility all the time.

So having started making the doughnuts, I mixed mine with my electric hand whisk. The beaters simply created something akin to a dough tornado and did little. I used the dough hooks and mixed and mixed and mixed. I’ve made marshmallows quite a few times and they were as easy as falling off a log in comparison. Standing holding the electric whisk and beating the dough endlessly made me consider trawling Gumtree for any unwanted stand mixers as my arm hurt and my hands cramped.

However all the buzz told me Justin Gellatly’s doughnuts are the best in the world, so I thought it would be worth it. The fact the dough was both sticky and greasy wasn’t worrying me too much. It had to chill overnight after all so that would sort the Copydex texture, wouldn’t it?

Sadly no. Next morning the dough was just as greasily elastic and globular as the night before. The only hint in the recipe was that it should be smooth and elastic and as it was both those things as well I was baffled. This is where I needed the explanation of the sensations of cooking not just an instruction manual on timings. I know Justin is a commercial baker and uses machinery, but if you’re writing books for home cooks, that’s not much use to me.

I stickily rolled them into balls and proved them them again. Instead of looking taut and tight like Justin advised they were slacker and softer than one of my thighs and when I obeyed the instruction to cover them with clingfilm, they stuck to it like a clingy child and had to prised apart.

Getting them off the floured trays and into the oil was a disaster. They expanded into strings like cheap mozzarella, sticking first to me, then to the scraper, then to the side of the pan and finally flopping wetly into the hot oil and puffing up momentarily before subsiding into a lopside comma shape. I tried five of them, each one getting worse and more oil logged than the previous one before I gave up.

I’m genuinely not sure which of us was more deflated by the experience. Despite getting my oil to exactly 180℃ as per the recipe, the shape shifting of the doughnuts meant the outside was Snog Marry Avoid contestant tan while the middle was gluey white. The cooked bits were as bready as Mother’s Pride and even dipped in sugar, tasted bland. I threw the other 15 lumps of squish in the bin and went to M&S to stock up on dulce de leche teacakes instead.

Instinct tells me it was probably the change in yeasts that was the problem, compounded by the inability to mix the dough like instructed, but the whole experience left me frustrated. It’s a complicated recipe but relying on a costly piece of kit and a difficult to obtain type of yeast with no allowance for home cooking, irritated me. Quite simply why write commercial recipes for home kitchens without an attempt to adapt?

Am I being harsh? Or should recipe writers have a duty to cater to the majority of their readers without explicitly explaining why you need a certain piece of equipment? And does it annoy you when only the mechanical version is given or am I the only person in town still doing it the old fashioned way?

 

soup scallions and butter

Comfort Eating

soup scallions and butter

I’ve been having a very quiet couple of weeks. The flu found me just as I finished up the book and I’ve been forced to take to my bed with a pile of pillows and paracetamol. Being a delicate little flower healthwise, I take a long time to bounce back from these things. I had been planning a holiday from as much cooking as I’d been doing, but I’ve gone somewhat from the sublime to the ridiculous and all I want to eat is comfort food.

I know my body should probably be repairing itself with plates of lean meat, leafy green vegetables and a rainbow of fruit for the much needed vitamins. Aside from my first kiwi fruit in nigh on 20 years, I haven’t been craving those things, but wanting to eat biscuits and mountains of mashed potato instead. I’ve been disappointed to discover that pink wafers aren’t as nice as I remember but mashed potato hasn’t let me down.

Every Northern Irish kid grows up on piles of champ, that magical mix of scallions, mash and a crater of melted butter. It was essential to dip each mouthful in the butter but not let the butter pool break down the side of the spuds. Nothing makes me feel better than champ. The memory of a friend making it for me on a truly awful weekend not long after I’d moved to London still warms my soul now and it was the first meal I ever cooked in my new flat after being homeless. It reminds me of childhood and security and being loved. Growing up in the margarine obsessed 80s meant butter equalled true love.

A sickly child, I spent a lot of time recuperating and convalescing. Certain things always helped. My mum made me egg beaten up in a cup, the soft yolked egg mixed with broken up wheaten bread and more butter. It was easy to eat in all the ways that counted. Heinz tomato soup made an appearance. I’m not brand loyal to much but there’s only one type of tinned tomato soup for me. Speaking of butter, put a little blob of it on top of the soup and see it in a whole new light.

My other love was jelly. Something about its soft soothing wobble still comforts me even now. My aunt used to give me cubes of ‘raw’ jelly out of the packet on Sunday afternoon walks in lieu of modern day affectations like Haribo and I was always told it was good for your nails. Some thing about the gelatine strengthening them. I grew up to have beautifully shaped nails of steel that people often mistake for the expensive kind you buy, so maybe the old wives’ tale did have truth in it? I do know jelly was one of the things I missed profoundly when I was a vegetarian teenager.

I’ve been eating pots and pots of it recently and kicking myself I didn’t order ice cream in my Sainsbury’s shop to go with it. I thought the pay off from years of tonsilitis as a kid was the promised jelly and ice cream after the op when I finally had my tonsils removed. Few things have ever disappointed me more than being given a plastic bowl of Rice Krispies next morning instead. Snap, crackle and pain. Raspberry jelly and vanilla ice cream it was not.

You can keep your Phish Foods and Choco-loco-doodahs and fancy schmancy ice creams when I’m ill. Nothing cuts the mustard quite like a proper taste of raspberry ripple whether it comes cut in slices from a block or conjured up yourself with the jelly or frozen berries. My mum even had a Yardley lipstick that tasted of raspberry ripple when I was a kid and I suspect the fact lipstick doesn’t taste like that anymore is why I’ve never owned one, reserving my colour love for nail polish instead.

I’ll know I’m on the mend again when I want colour on my plate. I’ll be sticking with my mashed potato, steaming bowls of porridge and fluffy white rice in the meantime. Simple and easy to make when I lack energy, they taste homemade when there’s no one else to make them for me and of course, they can incorporate butter beautifully… What about you? What food comforts you when you feel ill or wearied by life? Does it matter who makes it or food just fuel when life is full of pressure?

PS: here’s a preview of Recipes from Brixton Village so take a trip to the market with this fabulous video and start counting down the days til May 22nd when you can get your copy!