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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

Warming winter insulation

Squash and cauliflower soup

Ah, how I love the simple, comforting nature of a good home-made soup on a cold day. As the mercury’s plunged again this week after the unseasonal warmth over Christmas and New Year, I’ve been slipping back to the wintery cycle of roasting, making stock, and then cooking up quick and delightful vats of soup. As well as being a simple, wholesome task, it’s also a great way of using things up in the kitchen.

I rarely follow recipes for soups… you can’t go far wrong with most combinations as long as you use your taste and nose… although an exception to the rule was a fabulous Butternut Squash, Ginger and Apple soup. This was from my favourite Parlour Café Cookbook (which has just been awarded ‘Best First Cookbook in Scotland’ at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards… congratulations!) and was sweet, velvety and savoury all the way. Generally though, I make it up as I go along, but when the results are really good, I do note them down… so here are a couple I’d like to share.

One lazy Sunday lunchtime a couple of weeks ago, when it was freezing outside and the kitchen windows were all steamed up, I decided we needed some warming soup. We’d had a gloriously rich evening meal the night before, so something a little more simple was the perfect foil to this.

I’d bought one of those cute wee striped squashes around Halloween, and it had sat patiently on the sideboard, imploring me to use it in something. Squashes are great emergency food, lasting for ever. Today was its calling, so I cut it into eighths, and placed it and the florets of about half a cauliflower head on baking tray, drizzled some olive oil over the top, and placed it in a mid-temperature oven (the oven had already been on for a spot of baking a quick wheaten bread.)

Cauliflower and squash

Cauliflower’s been making a comeback in Mister North’s kitchen recently. When we were kids cauliflower only came in two ways: boiled (normally something we’d have at our granny’s) or as cauliflower cheese. I loved both, but it’s a veg which I realised I’d been sorely neglecting when the Hairy Bikers shone a spotlight on the humble cauli in the first series of the Great British Food Revival. I’d made a cauliflower purée the night before, so had a spare half a head to use.

As the veg was lightly roasting, I sweated down some shallots in butter, then added a couple of chopped potatoes to soften. Braving the rain, I nipped out and cut a good sprig of rosemary off the bush; washed it and threw the leaves into the pan. Everything sizzled and softened – the heady aroma of rosemary oil and shallots pervading all of downstairs – and once the spuds felt soft to touch, I threw in five home-made hare stock cubes. Some cooks think life’s too short to make stock ice cubes, but for me it’s a boon to be able to lay my hands on a selection of real stock in small, easy-to-measure quantities.

Taking stock

By then the veg in the oven was looking and smelling pretty fine too, with the cauli florets taking on just a hint of roasted colour, so they got tipped into the pan while I cut the skin off the squash and cubed it. Stir it up, simmer it down. A good shake of smoked paprika was next, the warming scent wafting up from the pan. Finally a decent splash of double cream, and a quick garnish, using up the last of the garlic chives which had grown lackadaisically on my windowsill since late spring, added a flash of colour. I paired it up with some freshly-baked wheaten bread, still warm from the oven: just perfect for wiping the bowl clean.

Winter soups 4

 

A couple of days later I bought a duck from Lidl – specifically so I’d have a decent stash of duck fat for roasting veg over Christmas – roasted it simply, made a load of stock from it (which set into the most wonderful lustrous thick jelly) and enjoyed the meat in sarnies. When that was suitably diminished I used up the rest in one of my standby big noodle soups: duck, rice noodles, cucumber, carrot and spring onion, shot through with star anise and chilli.

Duck noodle soup

And finally, here’s one of my favourites. When I posted this a few weeks ago on Twitter, the consensus was that it’s not worth making your own, as the tinned version is just perfect. Just add a swirl of cream or a knob of butter, and a generous helping of freshly ground black pepper. What is it? Heinz Cream of Tomato Soup… a true taste of childhood and still one of the best quick standby meals I can call upon…

Winter soups 1

Duck, or strange love (adventures with a homebrew sous-vide)

Duck or strange love (or how I learned to stop worrying and love the (flavour) bomb that’s cooking very low and slow).

I’ve become increasingly intrigued by the concept of sous-vide cooking over the last few months, but I’ve been put off by the extreme set-up costs associated with this oh-so-trendy way of cooking. Sous-vide, incidentally, means cooking under vacuum, at a low temperature for a long time. The idea is to preserve flavours and cell structure better through super-slow cooking. It’s actually a pretty simple concept, and in theory one can’t go far wrong with the ‘low n slow’ cooking style. However if you look online there are a lot of very expensive pieces of kit designed to relieve you of your hard-earned cash along the way.

That’s the thing: it’s one of the those ‘art vs. science’ techniques. I’m definitely more artistic than scientific, although I’ve watched as a more technical style of cooking has become more popular, thanks in part the Hestons and Ferrans of this media age. However I’m also a pragmatist. It was reading a review of ‘Modernist Cooking‘ that made me think, dammit, I should have a go at this malarkey. So I decided to rig up a rather Heath Robinson-esque DIY sous vide cooking kit. Take one slow cooker (rather a kitchen favourite, cost under £20 when I bought it a couple of years ago.) Add one inexpensive electronic cooking thermometer/probe from Clas Olsen (a tenner to you and I). Finish with a lot of cling-film and some zip-lock plastic bags. There were promising reports of similar setups on the net. But would it actually work?

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Udon at Koya, Soho

Oooh-don

As I may have mentioned in previous posts, I seem to be on a massive kick for Asian food at the moment and while I’ve been enjoying my meals out, I realised I seem to have been sticking to Chinese food above all else. Good reviews and a nudge in the right direction from A led me to branch out this week and try Koya in Frith Street for some honest-to-goodness Japanese noodles. Read more

Mister North’s souper noodles…

I was out with some friends in Manchester yesterday and we decided to eat in Wagamama, previously a reliable and solid choice for utilitarian Asian food. Their first branch in Manchester opened a decade ago, and provided good competition to local chain Tampopo. Wagamama tended to be more Japanese-oriented, and I credit it as being the place to get me interested in expanding my knowledge of Nipponese nosh. I and my companions were, however, massively underwhelmed by last night’s meal: I think the chain has become more focused on homogeneity and profit margins in the last few years. Either that or my palette has become a lot more discerning…

So today I resolved to make up for my mediocre yaki soba with something a lot more delicious. When I go to Manchester, home of one of the biggest Chinese populations in Europe, I like to stock up on Asian goodies from one of the many fabulous Asian supermarkets. Fresh udon noodles, green Asian brassicas, random sauces, and staples of my store cupboard such as bonito and kombu seaweed. So yesterday I filled several bags with the above and other delicious morsels – wasabi peas, roast duck, Chinese sausages – and revelled in the prospect of a fresh and filling bowl of goodness for my tea.

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