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Tadpoles in the Hole

toad in the hole

It’s been cold and grey recently with even snow on the ground and a chill in the air and I’ve wanted warm, filling food, rich with carbs and comfort to see me through. A recent trip to Waitrose to get ox cheek from their butchery counter to make Mister North’s famous tongue and cheek pudding also resulted in the purchase of a lovely jar of beef dripping and so my mind immediately thought of Yorkshire puddings or a proper toad in the hole. But sadly my house was sausage-less and I thought such delights would have to wait for another day when I suddenly thought ‘could you make it with meatballs instead?’

My dinner companion assured me that would work very nicely indeed and because he’s wittier than me, named it Tadpoles in the Hole before I’d even rolled my sleeves up to roll the meatballs. How could you not want to eat a meal with a name like that? The oven went on to get lovely and hot to make sure my batter rose well and I turned my attention to the meatballs.

I used turkey mince for mine as it was the first draw on my game of freezer roulette, but any relatively lean meat would work well. I mixed the meat with some breadcrumbs and added lemon zest and tarragon as I had both to hand, but your seasonings here are only limited by your imagination. Some chilli would have been just the ticket here actually and I do love black olives and parmesan in a meatball. Whatever you go for, roll your meatballs nice and small so you get one in every bite of batter and chill for at least half an hour first. You’ll also need to leave your batter to sit for about this long so plan ahead slightly and then this is a very simple dish to assemble and cook.

It also works fabulously well with a caramelised onion gravy which if you have a bit of extra time to spare, but is extremely good served naked as well. I tend to slow cook a big batch of onions at a time and then freeze them in portions so you don’t need to wait on them turning sticky sweet and golden every time you need them.

Tadpoles in the Hole (serves 4)

For the meatballs:

  • 250g lean mince
  • 125g breadcrumbs
  • zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 25g chopped tarragon
  • salt and pepper
  • pinch cayenne pepper
  • 1 egg, beaten

For the batter:

  • 200g plain flour
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 150ml milk
  • 1 teaspoon mustard powder
  • 2 tablespoon beef dripping

For the gravy:

  • 2 onions, sliced
  • 25g butter
  • pinch demarara sugar
  • 2 tablespoons plain flour
  • 300ml stock (vegetable or animal, depending on your meat choice)
  • 100ml vermouth or wine (replace with more stock if you don’t have any)
  • generous dash of Worcestershire sauce
  • seasoning

Start with your onions for the gravy. Slice them into half moons and cook in the butter on a low heat for about 30 minutes on a low heat or until soft and just starting to colour. If there is liquid coming off them, drain it and keep for the gravy as it’s pure onion flavour. Add in the sugar and leave to cook for about another 45 minutes. They need no attention (I went off and watched an episode of Breaking Bad which meant I wouldn’t have noticed the kitchen going on fire) but to properly caramelise an onion til jammy and golden takes time. If you do extra, they freeze well and take only a few seconds in a microwave to defrost.

Try not to become utterly fixated by the do it yourself meth trade while your onions are cooking, and start on your batter instead. Resting it really does make a difference, making it much lighter and fluffier and rise better. I presume this is something to do with the gluten. But I like to think it’s a reward for patience. The batter is easy, put everything but the beef dripping into a bowl and mix til the consistency of double cream. The odd slight bump in the batter doesn’t matter as mixing it too much can make it flop. Leave to rest on the worktop til needed.

Your meatballs also like a rest before dinner and are similarly simple. I love rolling them, I find it very relaxing and the longer you chill them for the less they fall apart when cooking. They are so easy to make, it’s also worth doing a freezer batch while you’re there. Basically put everything but the egg in a bowl and mash together well with your hands to combine everything. Then add the egg a bit at a time, making sure the mix isn’t too wet and mix well. Then roll about a fork’s worth at a time into a meatball and chill til needed. Doing them with this proportion of breadcrumbs makes them very light and stretches the meat a longer way making this great value.

raw meatballs

When you’re ready to eat, put the meatballs in your dish and add the dripping and heat for at least ten minutes or until it is smoking hot. Hot fat may be mildly terrifying, but it’s the secret of a pillowy billowing batter. Pour your batter in carefully from the edge so you don’t cause the meatballs to float and pop into the oven as fast as possible and leave it to cook for 40 minutes. On pain of death, don’t open your oven door again before then or you’ll end up with a giant pancake with meatballs poking out forlornly.

Make your gravy about 10 minutes before by adding the plain flour to the buttery onions and cook til quite dry. Then add in the warm stock, including those onion juices and the wine if using, and stir until it starts to thicken. Season and add the Worcestershire sauce. Add more liquid if you like it less thick. This gravy can be adapted to be veggie or vegan if you use oil and tamari instead if you need a meat free gravy at some point.

When your tadpoles are completely cooked and the hole is puffy and golden and slightly quivering with its own self importance, serve big slices of it with lashing of gravy and heaps of peas (garden or mushy) on the side and give fervent thanks for cold weather. As comforting as eating a hot water bottle, this is deliciously decadent with the meat to batter ratio and a great twist on a old favourite. It’s just as well we’ve got a north wind coming in…

portion

 

Turning Japanese: a simple vegan meal

Shirataki to kinoko no ni-mono

Some time ago, a mate pointed out most of my blog posts are consistently carnivorous. I hadn’t really given it much thought – and I’m no hater of all things vegetarian – but a quick scan through recent posts suggested a certain preponderance towards pork, game and other meaty delights. So I’m hoping this might redress the balance a little … a simple but exotic meat-free and dairy-free meal.

We recently had some friends over for dinner – she’s vegan, he’s not – and I relished the challenge of cooking vegan-friendly food. I hoped to serve up something a bit different to my standard fare, celebrating interesting new ingredients, and which didn’t rely on meat substitutes. It’s always good to use a dinner as an excuse to try out some new dishes.

As for what to cook; after some deliberation the best choice… or at least the natural choice for me… was to go Japanese. Famed for their creative and delicious uses of veg and seaweed alike, and less dependency on dairy than many other cultures, looking eastwards gave me loads of options. And, having cooked Japanese at dinner parties before, I know it’s also a lot of fun to play with new ingredients and flavours! Read more

Polishing off Polish Pierogi…

Several things are guaranteed to bring a tear to my eye: the episode of ER where Mr Mark Greene dies, posters for lost stuffed animals and family pets and the thought of ever having to go low carb and stop eating potatoes.

I really don’t care how big an Irish cliche I am. I love spuds with all my soul. What other foodstuff is so versatile, so easy to work with and to grow yourself? There is just no thing as too many potatoes in my life and that is why I love pierogi so much. A dumpling stuffed with mashed potato? Hello there! Dumpling is the magic word in my world, especially when you can fry them in butter to add even more of my favourite things to one dish.

There are as many recipes for pierogi as there are types of spuds and Polish families, but I used this one from Post Punk Kitchen as I wanted a dairy free recipe for a friend with intolerances. (I find specifically dairy free sites seems to rely heavily on soy or nut ‘milk’ based products and I would sooner die than use soy cheese. Vegan sites tend to seek other options and skip the processed stuff most of the time so I prefer them.)

I cannot pretend to have solved the eternal dilemma of translating American potato recipes to our varieties and found a total replacement for Yukon Golds, but find that if all else fails, a Maris Piper is the answer, although I used the last of my own Pink Fir Apples from the veg patch. I also won’t lie to you. This recipe is time consuming, but actually very easy to make. So stick Radio 4 on, roll up your sleeves and get pottering in the kitchen this weekend.

First up, choose your filling. Pierogi can be stuffed with anything. You can do some with spud and some with just about anything of your choosing. Sauerkraut is popular. I fancied pumpkin and sage to be seasonal. Black pudding would be brilliant. But feel free to use anything you desire. Leftovers would be perfect here. I went for sauteed mushroom with tarragon and mashed potato. Just cook as you normally would, but make your spuds are nice and dry before you mash them.

Once the filling is decided on, you’ll need to get going with the dough. This is dead easy. An American cup is approximately 240ml which equates to about 110g of flour, but if you’ve got measuring cups, stick to those. I used plain flour here and needed to add all three full cups of flour to stop the dough being too sticky to get out of the bowl. I added another two or three handfuls to it as I was kneading too.

After about ten minutes of kneading, the dough will be smooth as anything and lovely and elastic. This requires little skill, just some concentration and a bit of time. At this point, you can either store the dough overnight covered in the fridge until needed or get on with making dumplings.

Flour the surface and dough well and roll it out as thin as possible. Mine needed to be a tad thinner than they were, but I still got 45 pierogi out of them so be prepared to have an invasion of dumplings! Cut out circles of dough with a cutter or glass and then get filling. I put about a dessertspoonful of mushroom and potato in each one, brushed the edges with water and pinched shut, making sure the ends are nicely closed. That’s it. Super simple. Easy enough for little hands to do too.

Once I’d cut, filled and pinched half the dough, I boiled six or so pierogi in a big pot of water for about four minutes or til they float. You can served them simply boiled or you can take it up a notch by frying them off for a golden crunch. Drain them onto kitchen towel if you’re doing that and then pop into a pan of hot fat. While they fry, deal with the other half of the dough. I used up the full 500g of spuds I mashed and half a punnet of chestnut mushrooms to fill all of them, but could have done with twice the amount of fungi.

Once your dumplings are fried, pop in the oven to keep warm and keep going in batches until you’re ready to eat. I served for dinner, sprinkled with truffle salt and fresh tarragon to keep them simple but dairy free, although they’d be great with sour cream too. The other half went onto lined baking tray to cool and go into the freezer until needed.

So after all that time and pinching, were the pierogi worth it? Oh yes! With bells on. Surprisingly light dough with the smoothest creamiest mashed potato possible, despite not a drop of butter, oil or milk in it, all made better by frying them off. I managed 9 of them before passing out in a carb coma, but managed to go back for more for dinner the next night, adding some pan fried breadcrumbs for extra crunch.

A super easy, surprisingly relaxing recipe to make, I urge you to get your dumpling on as soon as. You’ll have a great meal that will impress anyone straightaway and enough to do several quick dinners when you can’t be bothered to cook another night. Dumplings don’t get better than this!

Stuffing rolls

I think I may have mentioned this before but I’m fond of Christmas. Presents are lovely, family time is great, but a holiday that exalts stuffing is my idea of heaven! If there’s one thing I like more than stuffing things, it’s actually making stuffing itself. So imagine my glee when I was invited to a seasonal soiree with lots of people who don’t eat pork and I got the chance to try out my idea of vegetarian ‘sausage rolls’ using stuffing as a filling instead…

Inspired by last week’s Christmas doughnuts, it was essential that the stuffing would be based on chestnuts for a festive feel. To compliment their slight sweetness, I decided to pick up a parsnip and a sharp-sweet Bramley, both of which are in season and useful to have round the house anyway at this time of year. The kitchen essentials of some rye breadcrumbs from the freezer, an onion and some kale would complete the recipe nicely and make a delicious and fast stuffing when seasoned with mace and nutmeg.

 

While the finely diced onion caramelized down and the chestnuts roasted in the oven, I turned my attention to the pastry for the rolls. I’m a relative newbie to pastry having only made it a couple of times and never having tried to make puff or flaky pastry so I turned to the recent thread on the perfect sausage roll over at the Word of Mouth blog on the Guardian from a few weeks ago for some pastry tips and decided to follow Felicity’s recipe as I realised how awkward puff pastry really is to make.

I had no mustard powder to add to the pastry, but otherwise this was to the letter and very straightforward to make. Five minutes later it was resting in the fridge and I was adding grated parsnip to the onion mix and letting it cook down a bit while I peeled and grated a large Bramley, finely chopped some kale and turned my attention to peeling the chestnuts. This isn’t difficult, but it a bit time consuming and must be done while the chestnuts are still a bit warm, otherwise it is a nightmare to do. I then blitzed them in the hand blender with the remains of the chestnut puree from the doughnuts and then combined everything together with a beaten egg and some seasoning. It would be an excellent idea to mix and season everything, taste it and then add the egg, otherwise it’s difficult to sample the stuffing. I, of course, didn’t do this so this was a bit of a risky recipe as I just made the quantities up as I went along!

I left the stuffing to cool and got cracking rolling out the pastry. It’s a stiff pastry so didn’t need too much flour and rolled nicely. I did end up with some oddly shaped sections so trimmed them down to proper strips and re-rolled the trimmings. I then wet the edges with egg wash and rolled the pastry round the stuffing, sealing the edges with some serious crimping. I then cut the giant stuffing roll into bite sized sections, egg washed the top and popped them in the oven. With a bit of practice, this would be extremely quick and easy and since the stuffing and the pastry can be prepared well in advance, you can make these fresh when needed.

They take about 15 minutes in the oven which is less than the meat version and stops the edge of the stuffing becoming unpleasantly crispy. I left them to cool on a rack in order to carry them more easily, but you could serve them oven fresh as they are much nicer warm. We reheated them at my friend’s house and they were pretty good. The stuffing was quite sweet, more than I usually go for and when making them again, I’ll probably swap the parsnip for some mushrooms instead, but it’s a minor quibble. The pastry was lovely and short and crumbly, but overall they were a little dry and would definitely be lifted from nice to brilliant with a dip on the side. I’d go for something with chilli and in fact ate my leftovers with some crabapple and chilli cheese!

Team these with a lovely sauce or selection of condiments and they make a great meat free canape that everyone will enjoy. You’ll also look very impressive having made them from scratch, but you could use pre-bought pastry as long as you roll them yourself for an authentically wonky look!

A little taste of Lancashire

Boiled Onions with Lancashire Cheese and Poached Egg

I bought Simon Hopkinson’s new book, ‘The Vegetarian Option‘ at the start of the year, in an attempt to broaden my culinary outlook and provide new dishes to keep my veggie friends happy. Well, that was part of the reason: Hopkinson’s one of my very favourite food writers, and the next best thing to sitting down with a warming meal in the winter is curling up with a great cookbook. Happily this is as good I as expected; chock-full of wonderfully simple recipes, evoking tastes and memories of warmer, more verdant seasons. That’s not to say he neglects winter staples in favour of summery salads: there are some rib-stickingly good sounding suggestions to tantalise the reader’s imagination.

One recipe in particular caught my eye: Boiled Onions with Cheese and Poached Egg. Aye, you read that right… it sounds like the kind of food you might feed an Edwardian invalid, but Hopkinson absolutely raves about it, and the photo next to the listing beckoned invitingly. He’d come by it via the Three Fishes in Mitton, a Lancashire pub with a fine reputation which has been on my ‘to-visit’ list for years. I’ve still not made it there, but tonight I made the dish, and it was everything I could’ve hoped for, and more. Rich, savory, silky and oh-so-comforting. You’ve got to try this.

  • 250g onion
  • 25g butter
  • 175ml water
  • 1 bay leaf
  • a good portion of cheese (preferably tasty or crumbly Lancashire)
  • generous pinch of sea salt
  • light pinch of pepper
  • curly parsley to garnish

Chop the onion into small, regular-sized pieces, then add it to the water, butter, seasoning and bay leaf in a saucepan. Bring this to the boil, then down to a gentle simmer, covering for 20-30 mins. When the onions are soft and silken, transfer them to a small dish, sprinkle the grated cheese on top and melt under a grill. Don’t let the cheese brown, just let it become molten and coalescent in the broth before garnishing with chopped parsley and a freshly poached egg. Eat while hot.

One last thing: the recipe calls for white-skinned onions and white pepper to keep a traditional appearance and texture. I had neither to hand, but it still tasted and looked great.