Thursday, 26 April 2007

Beer Bread

A few years ago, I had a friend who was a beer bread factory--every potluck or lunch or whatever we had, she whipped up a loaf. She insisted that it was because it was the easiest delicious bread recipe there is. She was right. However, when she passed the recipe along to me, I tried it, and somehow, the beer did not back out, nothing rose, and I ended up with a loaf of dense flour that tasted of stale beer. I was, understandably, put off.

I had pretty much forgotten about the wonderful phenomenon that is beer bread until it randomly came up in conversation with one of my housemates last Sunday afternoon, and I felt inspired to try again. Graeme thought I was nuts, as we had just spend Friday and Saturday doing nothing but baking until we ached for the farmers' market, and we were both so tired of the kitchen. But in the excitement of the market, I'd forgotten to buy my usual quota of bread for the week, so I wanted something, and I remembered that it took not even 10 minutes to prepare beer bread dough, and that we had leftover Old Hooky in the fridge from Graeme's beef and ale pies.

So I returned to the dreaded kitchen, and got to work. The great thing about beer bread is the basic recipe takes almost no ingredients, and the really fun part is adding in some herbs, or onions, or cheese, or whatever, to go with the beery yeasty flavour. At the market the day before, I'd been enchanted by one of the sellers' potato bread with caraway seeds, so I decided to go in that direction for flavouring. I'll post the recipe I made, but if you're going to try it yourself, I really encourage you experiment--you can throw anything into this!

The Recipe:

Caraway Beer Bread

3 cups white flour
1 tsp raw cane sugar
1 tblsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1.5 tsp caraway seeds
1 tblsp linseeds
12oz/350g of a nice ale
some rock salt

Mix up the dry ingredients. Pour in the beer slowly and stir to combine. It should form a thick and lumpy (in a good "rustic" sort of way, not a "I'm not properly mixed" sort of way) dough/batter. Pour/spoon it into a greased bread tin, and sprinkle rock salt on top to give the crust some texture. Bake at 190C for 45 minutes, until it's risen and looks beautiful and wholesome and golden. Your kitchen will smell like beer.

That's seriously it! Best recipe for a lazy baker. This bread tastes lovely with a strong cheese.

What is healthy about this recipe:
There's nothing too healthy or unhealthy about it, although obviously white flour is not ideal (even though we try to use our nice stoneground stuff when we've got it around). The linseeds made a lovely addition though, and added some texture to the bread, as well as lots of omega-3.

What is seasonal about this recipe: Flour is always in season! Although as it's spring and all the nice herbs are popping out of the soil, this is a great time to experiment with different herbs in this bread. I really want to make some with dill.

What I learned from this recipe: That I am, in fact, capable of making beer bread, and that I have a near-psychotic compulsion to bake.

What I will change next time: I definitely want to try and make a wholewheat version. According to the fantastic blog Farmgirl Fare, all that really takes is a little bit more beer to make up for the denseness of wholewheat flour.

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

McDonald's Jumps on the Ethical Meat Bandwagon

They've got an new campaign focusing on the treatment of animals on their farms, the quality of the cuts of beef they use, and natural rearing methods. It's interesting that even the world's biggest fast food supplier is now concerned with proving its meat ethics.

While I'm of course far too skeptical to be swayed by such a move and think the campaign is likely 100% (free range?) bullshit, I do find it really heartening that even a company as powerful as McDonald's is feeling pressured by an increasing public awareness of the ethical issues surrounding meat. That can only be a good sign for how influential this movement is becoming. Although with popularization there is always the danger of the discussion becoming all about stupid lip service and using the right language to prove your ethical cred, and losing a lot of its meaning. Which such a campaign certainly hints at.

Monday, 23 April 2007

Flour, Flour, Everywhere...

...And not a wink of sleep.

This would be an accurate description of our first foray into the world of farmers' market stalls this weekend. Nevertheless, we're pretty sure we wouldn't trade the experience for the world.

I will now run you through the chronology of this venture, during which we went through a good 10kg of flour or so (and sold most of what that 10kg produced!)

February 2007: After one of our usually Saturday early afternoon spent shopping and lounging at the East Oxford Farmers' Market, I remark that I love the community spirit of the market, and that I would love to be involved in it. The East Oxford Farmers' Market is a small local venture that occurs for three hours every Saturday, that is run by the sheer exuberant willpower of a small number of volunteers, and that is one of the friendliest venues I've encounters during my time in this city. It's less than a year old, and every week there are stalls selling: local organic produce, local breads, local organic meats and eggs, local organic cakes, local jams, fair trade products, lunch catered by an East Oxford organic deli, etc. They encourage normal folks like you and me to get involved, and Graeme and I figure we're pretty good bakers, so we took the bait and proposed a savoury baked goods stand. The good people who run the market were immediately enthusiastic about the prospect, and we emailed back and forth for a bit and settled on April 21st as our grand debut.

March-April 2007: Graeme and I settle on our menu (him: scones, and both meat and vegetarian pies, me: corn bread, bagels, pierogi), and start collecting the bits and pieces to make this happen. Graeme gets food hygiene training (did you know that cross-contamination is a Bad Thing?), I steal cute fabric and bread tins from my mother's house when I take a brief trip to Montreal. We discover that eBay seems to be the only place where we can purchase pie tins in bulk. Graeme finds us a wheat supplier and we marvel at how cool it is to have our own "wheat guy" except that then he goes on vacation and we don't get to use him (yet!). Next time.

April 14th, 2007: The week before our debut at the market, I head to shop there and buy lots of ingredients for us to use for our stall. From our friends the farmers we purchase a whole lot of potatoes, carrots, onions, etc. From another local farm, we purchase a dozen and a half eggs, some gorgeous whole milk (bottled!), and local organic honey. It is all quite heavy to carry home.

April 20th, 2007: We spend the day faffing around at a French market that's come to town. Then, towards the late afternoon, we buckle down and collect the million more ingredients we need. As you can see from the photo, these ingredients include: organic hard white flour, hard whole wheat flour, organic plain flour, organic self-raising flour (which we've since decided we hate), strawberries (for the pierogi), the lovely Oxfordshire-brewed Old Hooky Ale (for the pies!), lots of fair trade raw cane sugar, cottage cheese (for the pierogi), etc.

6p.m. We start cooking. I get started on the pierogi, of which I made two different kinds: Ruskie Pierogi, which are filled with potatoes, fried onions, and cottage cheese, and strawberry pierogi, filled with strawberries and sugar. The latter remind me of my childhood, when all I wanted to eat were fruit-filled pierogi, and when I used to spend afternoons with my bubby, rolling out acres of dough to fill with blueberries. Here I am in action with the Ruskie pierogi. Pierogi are a super-easy dish to prepare; the dough is un-fuck-up-able and always lovely and stretchy, and fillings are easily cooked up. It is just a long, slow process. I bagged up these puppies a dozen to a bag, stuck a label on them with ingredients and cooking instructions (particularly useful because pierogi have yet to really make it in the UK and were unknown to most of our consumers), and froze them. Some of them stuck together, and I had to throw a couple of bags out, which nearly made my cry. But other than that, they were delish.

Graeme, at the same time, made his pies. He made a batch of Beef and ale pies, filled with: beef from our local butcher's, Old Hooky ale, onions, carrots, potatoes, celery, and onion gravy. You can see the lovely filling in the photo to the right. Graeme struggled a bit with his shortcrust pastry--the first batch was slightly overworked, and he messed up calculating how much dough he would need to make (and how much flour, butter, and egg that would entail), forcing him to make an 11p.m. Tesco run. That said, I should let it be known that Graeme is a shortcrust pastry genius, and made perfect shortcrust pastry at his first ever attempt at it. So while he was frustrated by the difficulties he encountered, he still pulled off some gorgeous pies. He filled the veggie pies with the same onion gravy and vegetable base, as well as lots of firm and tasty chickpeas, and seasoned it with bay leaves and some thyme. Both sets of pies were covered in cute shortcrust pastry leaves (and my attempts at making birds and flowers which were not so gorgeous). The veggie pies were also marked with a pastry "v".

Midnight, April 21st, 2007: I am done with my pierogi, and even had time to unwind while watching the always-enlightening WAGS Boutique. Graeme is still hard at work, cursing his pies, and exhausted. I help him out for a bit but my eyes get heavy and I retire to bed. He keeps working until 2a.m when he finally decides to call it a night. This is our Darkest Farmers' Market Hour.

6:30a.m. My alarm goes off. I haul ass out of bed, and Graeme follows in 15 minutes or so. It should be noted that neither of us are morning people. I heat up some water so that I can start the morning's work by proofing the bagel yeast, and at the same time put the espresso pot on the stove because the only way that anything is going to happen is through copious amounts of coffee.

I get the bagels started, while Graeme works on finishing, and baking, the pies. Luckily, my kitchen has two ovens, so while the pies are baking and the bagels are rising (two batches of white bagels, one batch of wholewheat), I whip up a quadrupled bunch of cornbread batter, and put it to bake. This is semi-disastrous as our oven has the tendency to bake stuff really quickly on the outside and leave the inside raw, and one loaf has to be thrown out. I also forget that cornbread is very crumbly, and will be difficult to sell by the loaf, so I decide I'll sell it by the slice. This keeps me from bursting into tears at the cornbread batter trickling down one of the counters, mocking me.

The bagels, in the meantime, rise like precocious bread children showing off. I punch down the dough, form a million bagels, and get ready to boil them. Check out my little army of bagels in the photo to the right. For the most part, the bagel process goes smoothly, with the exception of the fact that my baking sheets are old and on their deathbeds, and half the bagels get stuck to them, no matter how much cornmeal I put down to avoid such a fate, and several get ruined in the process of having to RIP THEM OFF of the sheets. This is unpleasant But over three dozen tasty bagels emerge from the oven tasty and perfect, so life is not so bad.

In the meantime, Graeme bakes up three batches of his signature delicious scones, with which he has wowed many a new friend since he learned how to make them last year. The scones behave themselves, which is good, because Graeme's emotional state is a bit fragile after the pie debacle.

11 a.m. As I rush to boil up some pierogi to serve as samples, Graeme puts out bags together to haul to the market. We have two cooler bags full of pies and pierogi, three plastic bags full of bagels, a shoebox full of scones, and a cardboard box full of cornbread. We also bring some big bags full of: knives, plates for samples, a little tape deck to play appropriately cheerful market music on, table cloths, safety pins, our sign, paper bags, labels, plastic gloves, and some other junk I'm sure I'm forgetting. We walk to the market, which normally seems like it's around the corner, but today feels like a long trek, due to the kilos and kilos of baked goods weighing down our arms.

11:15 a.m. We arrive, and start setting up our table as the kind volunteers put up a gazebo to shade us and our goods from the sun. The day is lovely, and I take off my shoes to enjoy the feel of warm grass under my feet. Graeme tries not to fall asleep. It's a bit windy, so stuff needs to be pinned down a lot, but in less than half an hour we manage to cre
ate our cute stall, which inadvertently looks kind of communist:

12 p.m.-3 p.m. Market time! We discover that our stall is next to the lunch cafe stall, and so the smell of BBQ-ign lamb skewers keeps wafting in our direction and making our mouths water.
I last about an hour before I nip over to grab some lamb, and some focaccia pizza slices for us to chow down on. Customers are enthusiastic and help themselves to the many sample we've laid out. We sell out of vegetarian pies pretty quickly. We also sell out of the Ruskie Pierogi, and the sesame seed bagels. I cannot, for the life of me, seem to sell people on the strawberry pierogi, as the British cannot wrap their heads around eating sweet foods from main c
ourses. It seriously seems to disturb people when I suggest it. Most have also never tasted corn bread, but really get into it, and we sell almost two whole loaves of slices. The meat pies are also a hit, and a little girl almost throws a tantrum over her desire for some scones. In three hours, we manage to sell about 3/4 of our stock. This is good news, because it means that the walk home will be with much lighter loads. We buy some beetroot salsa from the dip lady, who is a market newbie like us, and some radishes (spring vegetables, yes!) and fresh apple juice from the farmers. By the end of the market, we are fairly chipper, despite our exhaustion.

3 p.m. We pack up, come home, put stuff away, and scrub the kitchen. I leave some of the leftover goods out for my housemates, and Graeme brings some to his. We discover that we've made a whole 10 quid profit! This is exciting as we were worried that we'd lose money on the venture, and had only really hoped to break even. As lots of our costs this time are ones we won't have to repeat next time, we figure that we can make up to 50 quid profit the next time we have a stall. We spend the rest of the day being fairly social but pass out by around midnight, tired, but happy.

Lessons learned: Prepare more in advance! While bread stuff needs to be baked the day of, the pie dough can be prepared well in advance and frozen, as can the pierogi. And start earlier the day before so that we can get a good night's sleep. Also, properly calculate ingredient quantities, and start acquiring them further in advance so that we can get more local stuff (hopefully we'll be able to use our wheat guy next time). We also learned a lot about what quantities of particular baked goods we should make, and figure we can maybe sleep in as late as 7:30 a.m. on market day. So next time we hope to be less cranky and tired, and more of a well-organically oiled machine.

New things to attempt next time: Graeme is mulling over a new kind of meat pie to make - perhaps pork and stilton, or lamb and mint? We shall see. He'd also like to try and make a couple of varieties of scones (maybe some with raisins or dried cranberries?) and use normal flour with baking powder, rather than stupid self-raising flour, to make them, as they're likely to rise better that way. I'd like to perfect my pita bread recipe, as I think that'd be a popular item, and I think it would be awesome to make my own pita bread. I'm also going to make my corn bread in muffin form, which should make it less stressful to bake and transport, as well as some mushroom pierogi instead of fruit ones, since the latter clearly did not go over well. (We did manage to sell one bag of it to an open-minded lady!) Also, I'm going to buy some new baking trays.

That's enough for this mammoth entry. Our next market day is May 12th, so we'll let you know how it goes! Graeme is not sure he can bear to see flour again until then, whereas I am apparently psychotic because yesterday afternoon I made some beer bread (which will be posted at some point this week) because I guess I have an insatiable thirst for baking.

Thursday, 19 April 2007

Ode to the Sandwich

Earlier today, Graeme was bragging to me about a sandwich shop he'd found that apparently use fantastic breads and assemble lovely sandwiches. Now, a unique personality quirk of mine is that I am very suggestible when it comes to foods; it takes very little mention of a particular tasty morsel before I am obsessively craving it, and can think of nothing else.

So my afternoon was spent daydreaming about sandwiches. Which is not a bad thing--I think we can all appreciate how such a simple, yet versatile, food, adds to our lives. I am a big fan of foods that combine lots of foods I love together in one gorgeous concoction, and a good sandwich accomplishes that just right.

Sadly, I do not make sandwiches very often. I don't know why--they just don't come to mind. But this week I bought a gigantic load of gorgeous malted granary bread from the farmers' market and it was so big that I have been making a special effort to find things to do with it. Add today's conversation and an ungodly craving for raw spinach, and a sandwich was born.

The contents of this baby included (bottom-up):
  • The above-mentioned malted granary bread, toasted (I am not much of a toaster but the bread's getting a bit old and thus I was compelled);
  • Polish mustard, left to us by my former housemate Marie who has since relocated to Germany;
  • Quorn fake chicken slices;
  • Some sheep's milk Gouda that I purchased at Amsterdam's AMAZING Schipol airport a couple of weeks ago--never have I seen an airport so full of delicious cheese;
  • A few slices of red onion;
  • Some cherry tomatoes, sliced (obviously this is an unorthodox tomato to put in a sandwich, and not a very practical one, but I was all out of normal tomatoes and really wanted some in my sandwich);
  • A mountain of fresh spinach;
  • Alfalfa sprouts
  • A teeny bit more mustard, another slice of bread (duh).
It was delicious and filling and now I am craving another sandwich. If I make a second one, maybe I should include the avocado that I'd been planning to put in this one but forgot, because I am a flake? Maybe.

Anyway, I made this post primarily to appreciate simple foods that may not be rocket science, but that nevertheless make us happy during long and cranky Thursdays. I'd therefore like to open up this post to anyone who would like to share recent sandwich concoctions, the more creative the better. I want ideas! Perhaps interesting sandwiches can be a running thread on this blog.

Thursday, 12 April 2007

Lapsang Souchong Chicken with Courgette and Red Onion Risotto

Risotto is one of my staple foods. It's easy to make, relatively quick, versatile, inexpensive, and makes for a great meal. It's also one of those 'kitchen sink' type foods that you can add virtually anything to. For a quick after-work meal, you can add frozen peas. For something fancier, you could equally add in some nice seafood. There are a number of cookbooks dedicated to risotto out on the market, but I think that all you really need is a basic understanding of how to make risotto and then you can do virtually anything with it.

Tonight's dinner was a courgette and red onion risotto served with Lapsang Souchong chicken and oven-roasted red onions, courgettes, and aubergines. I got the idea for the chicken from Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Cooking cookbook. There is a recipe in there for a Lapsang Souchong-based dipping sauce for spring rolls and I liked the idea and figured that a slightly modified version of it would work nicely as a marinade.

The Recipe:

Lapsang Souchong Chicken (serves 2)

2 chicken legs with thighs attached
1 Lapsang Souchong teabag (I used Twinings, though if you use loose leaf tea instead, you should grind it with a mortar and pestle)
1 lemon, juiced
A good glug of olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Cut or tear open the teabag and add its contents to the lemon juice. Add in the olive oil, salt and pepper to taste, and mix. Put the chicken into a container, add the marinade and let it marinade for at least an hour.

In the meantime, preheat an oven to 200C. When the chicken has been marinaded, place it on a baking tray and put in the oven until it's cooked all the way through--about 35 to 40 minutes.

Courgette and Red Onion Risotto

1 red onion, finely diced
1 courgette, finely diced
Arborio rice
Vegetable stock
Salt and pepper
Parmesan cheese

Heat a saucepan over medium heat, add in some olive oil and fry the onions until soft. Next, add the rice and let it cook slightly. Ladle in the stock and stir it in bit by bit, allowing for the rice to absorb the stock before adding in the next bit. When the rice is partially cooked, but not completely, add in the courgettes. The rice will be finished when it still has a bit of bite to it--you don't want to overcook it. Remove the rice from the heat, season to taste, and stir in the parmesan. I also added in some chopped parsley this time.

What is healthy about this recipe: Basically everything! If you're really health-conscious, you could remove the chicken skin before cooking.

What is seasonal about this recipe: Basically everything again! I used veg from this week's organic delivery box and the recipe is versatile so you can use whatever vegetables, fish, or seafoods are seasonal. High Fearnley-Whittingstall has a recipe for a parsnip risotto here.

What I learned from this recipe: I had never before used teas in cooking, but I really liked the result.

What I will change next time: I'd like to experiment with different kinds of teas in marinades. A nice green tea or a jasmine tea would go well with chicken, I imagine.

Homemade Ginger Beer

A couple of weeks ago somebody was at the pub I work at and was asking about the ales we have on. I described the ales to him and recommended Kelham Island Brewery's Pale Rider to him as it is a delicious hoppy ale, and perhaps the best beer I've ever tasted. I poured him a small sample, he had a taste, scrunched up his face and commented that it tasted like homebrew. Later, when trading stories about crazy customers with one of my colleagues, I told him that anecdote and that if I was capable of making homebrew to the quality of Pale Rider that I would be perpetually drunk and would most likely never leave the house. We then talked about people we knew who made homebrew (including a former roommate of mine who tried making "beer in a bag", which was one of the most vile concoctions to have ever passed my lips) and concluded that it really wasn't worth the effort. Except for, my colleague brought up, ginger beer, which he used to make with his mother. Sure, it's not really the same thing as proper beer, but it is brewing on a really basic level. I decided, in the interest of kitchen science, to try it. I followed the recipe from here as it seemed the easiest of the recipes I looked at.

I'm tasting the results of my labour now and while there are a few things that I would change about it the next time that I make it, it is certainly drinkable and fun to make.

The Recipe:

Homemade Ginger Beer

1 2L bottle of still water (tap water is fine if you have a spare 2L container that you can close tightly with a cap or a cork)
1 cup sugar
1/4 tsp fast action yeast
1 lemon, juiced
At least 2-3 tablespoons of freshly grated ginger

Begin by decanting the water into a large container. Funnel the sugar and yeast into the bottle. Mix the grated ginger and lemon juice together and then add that to the bottle. Add about two-thirds of the water, cap the bottle and shake vigourously until the sugar has dissolved. Once this is done, top up the water leaving a gap at the top, cap the bottle tightly and leave it to ferment in a warm space such as an airing closet for 24-48 hours. You will be able to tell that the fermentation process is working by squeezing the bottle--as the gasses build up in the bottle, it will become more difficult to squeeze. Once the bottle is hard, refrigerate it, let it chill, and serve it.

What is healthy about this recipe: This drink has too much sugar in it to be healthy, but you could probably use raw cane sugar or something along those lines instead. That said, sugar is the only bad thing in it, and unlike store-bought soft drinks, you know exactly what is in it.

What is seasonal about this recipe: I don't know? What are the seasons for lemons and ginger?

What I learned from this recipe: Homebrewing is surprisingly easy. This doesn't mean that I'm going to try making real booze, if only for want of space and equipment.

What I will change next time: The ginger beer wasn't spicy enough for my liking, but I like a really hot and spicy ginger beer. I'd perhaps even double the amount of ginger in it. There was also a bit too much of a lemon flavour in it--I'd reduce the amount of lemon in it, maybe by half. I'm not sure how this would work in terms of the brewing--I don't know if the acidity is integral to the brewing process--but it's an easy and cheap recipe so if it turns out to be a failure, there's not much lost. There are also many different ways of making ginger beer and I'd like to try some of those ways to see how those work out.

Sunday, 8 April 2007

I am so sorry that I missed this

The world's first chocolate billboard.

Greedy Londoners devoured the whole thing within hours. Way to leave some for me, jerks.

15 Minutes of Fame

Those who can get their hands on a copy of the May issue of BBC Good Food Magazine most definitely should, not only because it has a wonderful and simple recipe for rhubarb rice pudding (heartiest!) but also because yours truly is in it as a taste tester. This glorious title means that you can see a teeny tiny photo of me at the front of the magazine, and some of my comments on a couple of the featured recipes. Glamourous. I am happy to autograph any copies of the magazine for adoring fans.