Saturday, 17 September 2011

Stuck on the Kitchen

Over the summer I’ve been doing a whole number of procrastinatory things that can loosely be described as ‘bugger all’. I didn’t really fancy getting a job and after the rigours of my time in Australia, I felt like some downtime. So I’ve been watching and playing cricket, doing rugby preseason, writing a bit, reading a lot, playing video games, watching TV and consuming a not insubstantial amount of alcohol, as I said, pretty much bugger all. Oh and I went to Spain with my parents for a 10 days as well. Anyway, point being that, after a couple of months of this, I started getting bored, so I’ve been trying to fill my hours with some more productive things and also tried to get some creativity flowing, which I’ve been sorely lacking for most of the summer.

Combined with this is the fact that my parents have both gone back to work after their summer breaks, so I’m home alone most of the day. Not only does that mean that I can wander around in my undies all day, it also means that I’m free to do what I like with regards to eating lunch. Given that I’m about to head of to uni, where, while I will be in catered accommodation, I would like to do a fair bit of cooking, I thought that getting some practice cooking meals for one with everyday ingredients would be handy, both so that I could work out what sort of food I would need to have lying around for an impromptu snack, and so that I can impress all my new friends by not fucking up everything I try to cook.

So, this week, I have cooked three meals for myself and one for the whole family (well, just me and my mum, but it ended up being enough for three, so we froze one portion). I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it and decided to tell you all about my cooking exploits, just to round off the ridiculously diverse nature of this blog! Before launching into the different dishes, I’d like to preface the following with a few notes.

Firstly, I’m sorry there’s aren’t any pictures, I didn’t take any because I wasn’t planning to blog about the meals until after I’d cooked most of them. Secondly, these meals are not perfect, there are many things I would change about them and probably will, whenever I do them again, so don’t take these as recipes, just an account of my experiences. Use these dishes if you like and feel free to message me with any variations you use. They’re all pretty simple, every day meals, so it’s not like you couldn’t find them anywhere else. Lastly, a warning, cooking is, for my, very creative. I don’t really use measurements if I’m making something up on the spot, I’ll just guess and go by feel most of the time. Cooking with me is hectic and messy and chaotic, but usually tastes pretty good. I’m not terribly experienced so everything part of a learning process.

Ok, now on with the meals!

1. Macaroni Cheese

As I said, they’re all pretty simple! The beauty of macaroni cheese is that you can put pretty much anything in it (aside from macaroni and cheese, which you have to use). It’s incredibly versatile and you can make it differently every time. I was loosely following a recipe that said to use nutmeg, so I did, but I also added in some garlic and Worcestershire Sauce, to give it a bit more flavour. I also used Red Leicester cheese, rather than Cheddar, which worked to an extent, but a strong cheese is needed really, so the Red wasn’t the best choice, we just didn’t have any Cheddar!

Anyway, the nice thing about this dish is that the timing of the macaroni is not important at all, just put it on at the start and forget about it until it’s cooked, then drain it a leave it aside for when you need it again. I used about 2oz (sorry about the use of imperial, that was just what the recipe book gave me) of macaroni, which was fine for a smallish (by my standards, and I am a rugby player) meal.

The interesting bit is the sauce. You need to start by making a white sauce, which is margarine (or butter, depending), flour and milk. I melted the margarine (half an ounce) and added a tablespoon on flour. I probably used a bit too much flour on reflection, because it instantly rolled up into a massive dry-looking ball when I stirred it, rather than staying more separate. It will clump up a bit, but this did so too much. Anyway, you’re supposed to cook it for 2-3 minutes, but I ended up whisking it off the heat after about 30 second and adding the milk (quarter of a pint) then. You’re supposed to add it gradually, stirring it in so that the sauce doesn’t end up lumpy. I added it all at once in a panic and stirred mine like mad, and it ended up just fine. Put it back on the heat and stir until the sauce thickens.

At this point you can add your flavourings. As I said, I used nutmeg, garlic and Worcestershire Sauce. If you do use garlic, use garlic paste, or crush the garlic, so you don’t end up crunching on a big old lump of garlic later one (not a mistake I made, I’m not that dumb). Make sure you’re careful with the nutmeg, it’s very strong, so only a little bit is needed. You can always add more, but taking out again is a little harder! I probably used too much (only a couple of pinches really) and it tasted very nutmeggy, which is no bad thing if you like nutmeg, but you don’t want it to be overwhelming. At this point you can add in basically anything, maybe some meat, although best to cook it before hand if it’s raw. Something like bacon is good in this regard because you can just throw it in the microwave for a couple of minutes. If you want to throw in some vegetables for colour and vitamins, then cook them before hand as well and make sure they’re fairly small. Peas are great in this regard. As are onions, but they’re harder to cook before hand, because you have to fry them.

Then add your cheese. As I said, I used Red Leicester, but you can use pretty much anything you like, maybe even a blend if you’re feeling fancy. Cheddar is always good. I grated about two ounces, but you need to leave a little back to spread on the top before you oven it, so add one and three quarters ounces of it. You can always grate more if what you have left over isn’t enough, which I did. Add the macaroni at this point as well, which should be cooked and drained by now.

Finally, stir the sauce so it all mixes together and put it on the heat to make sure it’s fairly hot, then pour the mix into a oven proof container. Spread the rest of your cheese and breadcrumbs (if you want to, I didn’t) onto the top. Put into a preheated oven (which you will already have put on by now, so it will already be at the right temperature) at 200 degrees C (400 Fahrenheit, Gas Mark 6) and leave for 20 minutes, or until it is brown a bubbling away nicely.

And that’s my first meal of this blog! Overall, I was pretty happy with how it turned out. Next time, I would add some more variety, probably in the form of bacon, peas and less nutmeg! As I said, you can throw in basically anything, so go nuts. It might be quite nice with some paprika or maybe some chilli if you’re feeling adventurous.

2. Thai Red Curry

This meal was actually an evening meal for my and my mum, although this actually ended up serving 3. This is one that I’d make a fair few changes too, if I did it again, but it was the first time I or my mum had tried a Thai curry, and we were making it up from a number of different recipes. The inspiration for it was the fact that my brother had bought some Thai curry paste and then left it in the fridge, so we felt duty bound to use it.

Aside from the curry paste, in theory, you need coconut milk, but we didn’t have any, so I improvised a substitute, a mixture of different vegetables; green beans, baby corn, carrot, peppers/capsicums and onion did the trick for us (I don’t know exactly how much of each one, sorry), but you can use whatever you want, bamboo is a popular one for Thai curry, and some meat – I used chicken, but pork or beef would work fine.

The recipe on the back of the curry paste said to fry the paste in oil for 30 seconds, then add 400ml (metric this time!) of coconut milk, cook for 2-3 minutes, then add the meat and vegetables and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. I did things a little differently.

I was using raw chicken, so I wanted to cook that for a little before hand, and onions, which always taste better when fried, so I threw half an onion and the chicken (two fillets, sliced into thin strips) in with the curry paste (three healthy teaspoons) and the oil and fried them until the outside of the chicken was white, then added my coconut milk substitute.

I’d read on the internet that you could use stock and make it into what is called ‘Forest Curry’, which is a little more rustic. So I made up 200ml of chicken stock and added that to the mixture, along with 200ml of skimmed milk to make up the 400ml (I’d also read on the ‘net that you could use milk as a coconut milk substitute), simmered it for a couple of minutes, them added the vegetables. If you’re using baby corn, it’s worth putting into the microwave (with some water) for a minute before hand to soften it up a little. Make sure all the vegetables are chopped up nice and small, so they cook better.

Leave to simmer and cook some rice to go with it and voila, Thai curry. And not bad Thai curry either, although it could have been better. For a start, it was really watery, even between three (the recipe said to use 400ml between two). I think you could halve the amounts of both stock and milk and it would be just fine. All the liquid made the flavour very light and shallow. You can also use more curry paste for additional depth of flavour – if I did it again I’d probably use four teaspoons. It was nice with some sweet chilli sauce drizzled on it, so I might try cooking it with that as well. I probably use too much vegetable, and probably too much of the wrong vegetable. The baby corn and carrot was nice, but there was too much of it and not enough pepper/capsicum or onion. I would certainly love to experiment with the paste a bit more, maybe make a stir-fry with it, or a more simple meal for one.

3. Pizza!

Ok, I admit it, I cheated, I used a pre-bought pizza base, because making your own is a waste of time unless you like baking, which I don’t, really. Anyway, I still needed a topping for my base, so I made a tomato sauce to go as a base layer and threw on some cheese and meat as a topping. You don’t need me to tell you about pizza toppings, you can make that one up yourself.

As for the tomato sauce, I drained a can of chopped tomatoes (you could use fresh ones, but that’s too much effort) and simmered them in olive oil for a bit. To this I added crushed garlic, Worcestershire Sauce, oregano, thyme, rosemary and basil. Simmer it for a while, stirring thoroughly. This will be more than enough for one pizza, but you can always put what’s left over in the fridge and use again.

I spread about half of this sauce onto my pizza, added some sliced ham and lots of mozzarella, then drizzled it with olive oil. All I needed to do then was throw it into the oven for 10 minutes at 220 degrees C and wait for 10 minutes until was a crispy and delicious.

I think the sauce could have done with being more like a paste, but I’m not sure how to do that. It worked out ok, so who cares? I’d probably use some different topping next time, but that was all I had to hand.

4. Fried Rice

Last but not least, fried rice! Probably the most successful meal of the week, because you can’t really mess fried rice up! This is another one you can have a lot of fun with because it really doesn’t matter what sauces you use, or what you put in it. I made a pretty basic one, but I will likely experiment with it in the future. The only real difference between what I cooked and conventional fried rice is that I don’t really eat egg, so I didn’t put any egg in.

The first thing you need to do is cook some rice. I used about half a cup (a pretty generous half). Like the macaroni, you can cook it and then leave it for as long as you like, because it will be heated up again at the end. While the rice is cooking, you can prepare whatever else you want to put into it. I used a small onion, two rashers of bacon and some peas.

Note that I made loads of fried rice for one person. Probably better to use less than half a cup of rice, half a medium sized onion and only one rasher of bacon. You could also add some pepper/capsicum, garlic, any other meat or fish you want, pretty much any vegetable, although again, cut it small. It’s really up to you. Egg is a common one, but I don’t like egg, so I don’t use it.

Start by frying the onion and bacon (or whatever else you’re using that needs to be fried, like meat or some vegetables, like peppers/capsicums, although things like peas are better added later), fry them for a few minutes until they’re pretty well cooked, then add the rice (which should by cooked and drained by this point), other vegetables and sauce and stir well. Put the heat down and leave for a few minutes, stirring occasionally. Don’t leave it too long, but don’t worry about it too much. Serve it whenever you’re ready.

The sauce is the other fun part of this meal. You can use any sauce you like. The usual is Soy Sauce, but I also added in some Worcestershire Sauce. You could use Oyster Sauce, Sweet Chilli Sauce, or anything you have to hand. In terms of how much, I didn’t measure it, but just put in whatever feels right. Be conservative though, you can always add more if it’s not enough.

And that’s what I’ve been cooking this week. I hope it was informative or at least entertaining. Please feel free to recommend variations on these meals, or advice on improving them, or other dishes you recommend that are quick and easy to do. Next time I’ll try to remember to take pictures so it’s not just a wall of text!

1 comment:

  1. In #1 you should use equal amounts butter and flour for a roux, and yes, it should be solid-ish and pasty. That's fine.
    For pizza sauce, I use a tin of tomato paste, thinned out with a bit of water, and add dried and fresh herbs and a pinch of black pepper. Maybe some garlic. I have to try simmering my own sometime, though.
    Good show.