Thursday, 31 December 2015

Inspired by Mexico

This may well be the first of several posts inspired by the food we experienced while on holiday recently in Mexico. I have been itching to have a go at using some of our new ingredients - especially the toasted Pumpkin Seed powder, and the proper Masa Harina.

This is one of the best reasons for going abroad on holiday: we always come back with ideas for new meals, even if we don't have any specific recipes. I think Jane and I are sufficiently competent with cooking that we can generally produce a reasonable approximation of most meals we have eaten (the one at Benares excepted!).

In the past the "Mexican" dish I have cooked most often is Pork with Black Beans and Chipotle, which is really very nice indeed, but this time I was determined to do something different. This is what I ended up with:

Spicy Pork grilled on skewers, with Chipotle sauce
Corn tortillas
Black Bean paste
Baked bananas
Tomato and Red Onion salsa

The idea was to wrap the pieces of grilled pork in a tortilla smeared with black bean paste, smother it in chipotle sauce, and eat it with one's hands...

My first task was to cook the beans - which had been soaking in water overnight. It takes about an hour and a half to get Black Beans to go really soft. When fully cooked you should be able to mash them easily with a fork.

 Once they were cooked I blitzed them to a coarse paste in the food-processor, adding a teaspoonful of the toasted Pumpkin Seed powder, and some salt. I used a little of the reserved cooking-water to achieve the desired consistency. I had used 200g of dried beans, which made far too much paste, so I put half of it in the freezer for another occasion.

The Black Bean paste doesn't look very pretty, but let me assure you it tastes an awful lot better than it looks! The texture is nice too: almost creamy. I served it warm, but I will confess that I tried some cold, and it was still very nice.

While the beans were cooking I made my Chipotle sauce. Again, I had anticipated the requirement and put six dried chipotle chillis to soak in warm water for a couple of hours beforehand. When they were soft I removed the stems and most of the seeds, and cooked them up in a small frying-pan with some chopped onion and a few other flavourings - some of the Mexican All-Purpose Seasoning we had bought in the market in San Miguel de Cozumel, some ground Coriander, some ground Cumin and a little of the Annatto seed (again from the market). The latter was mainly to add (red) colour; I don't think Annatto has a very strong flavour.

After cooking this mixture for about half an hour over a low heat, I blitzed it to a thick paste in the food-processor. At this stage it was a bright orange colour and surprisingly pungent. I returned it to the pan and added about 100ml of Elmlea to tone it down a bit (you could use light cream of course). Once the cream was thoroughly incorporated the sauce was complete, so I transferred it to a bowl which I covered in clingfilm and refrigerated for later. Just before serving I warmed up the sauce in a small saucepan, reserving about a quarter of it for basting the pork.

My diced pork was marinated in a mix fairly similar to the Chipotle sauce (I used Chipotle powder this time), but with the addition of chopped fresh Ginger and crushed Garlic, and a couple of crushed dried Mexican chillis (don't know what type - they are small, red ones), all moistened with a tablespoonful of vegetable oil.

Mexican dried chillis - type unknown

I massaged the pork in the marinade to ensure that it was thoroughly coated, before covering it and allowing it to stand in the fridge for about 8 hours.

For the tortillas, I used the same procedure as usual, making a simple dough with Masa Harina and water. The dough should be of a consistency like Play-Doh. And of course I used my trusty "Estrella" Tortilla-press (made in Mexico).

The results proved beyond doubt that my tortilla-making technique had been correct all along, but what was lacking was the right flour. Ordinary wheat flour will just not do.

"Proper" Harina de maiz (corn flour - not cornflour!)

This time my tortillas were really tasty and above all - reasonably soft, which is something I have never previously managed to achieve. I'm already looking around for places to get more Harina de Maiz without having to pay a fortune on postage.

The procedure for cooking the pork was exactly what you would use to make satay or brochettes - thread cubes of meat on skewers and cook them under the grill, basting occasionally with some of the Chipotle Sauce.

When we were in Mexico we ate baked plantains a couple of times and really enjoyed them. Since plantains are quite hard to find here, I tried the same technique with some ordinary bananas. I simply cut them in half, slit their skins, put them in a bowl and bunged them in the oven at 180C for about 30 minutes. The skins went an alarmingly black colour, but inside the fruit was beautifully soft and sweet.

The final element of the meal was some salad. I served a red onion and tomato salad and some home-grown lettuce. A few wedges of lime to squeeze over everything completed the line-up.

So here is the finished meal: notice the blackened bananas, and the pork removed from the skewers (top right). In the foreground are bowls of black bean paste and Chipotle sauce.

You will notice that we were eating off trays. We do this most of the time, not only so that we can watch the TV while we eat (cookery programmes, such as Masterchef, of course) but also because the Dining-Room table is usually submerged in craft materials!

I was pleased with the results of my efforts, with one exception: the Chipotle sauce was really too hot for our taste - much hotter than I had expected. I normally think of Chipotle as being quite mild, but it wasn't this time. In retrospect this is probably because I normally use the chillis as a flavouring, removing them from my dish before serving, rather than eating them. If I do that sauce again, I'll put half as many chillis in it. The greatest revelation though was the black bean paste. This has now officially been added to our culinary repertoire!

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

This and That

There's not much to report upon from my garden just now, just a few odds and ends...

These are Hellebore seedlings.

As you can see, they are still very tiny - some of the seedlings are only just emerging from the soil - but I'm pleased that so many have germinated. These ones were sown on 25th June. I had expected them to take another three months or so to germinate, because I thought they needed vernalization. Maybe they just think it is Spring already (which would be easy to understand).

The Rhubarb also evidently thinks it is Spring:

Last Winter I moved my (2) Rhubarb plants to new quarters in that big deep container, and I didn't harvest a crop from it during 2015, so it has had a bit of time to get itself settled. This coming year I plan to take a few stems from it, though probably not a lot, so that it has the opportunity to build up its strength in time for a big harvest in 2017. Being a gardener requires a lot of patience, you know!

Elsewhere, my potted Hydrangea has also recently produced a lot of new leaf buds. I have left the old flower-heads on the plant in order to give the new growth some protection. This last year a lot of the new growth was damaged by frost and cold wind.

The weather here today is definitely not good gardening weather, though I'm conscious that we are getting off lightly compared with many folk who are being battered by storm Frank. I'm spending the day baking a Sourdough loaf and cooking a Mexican meal, about which I shall probably write tomorrow. Jane has been cooking Bread Sauce, Cranberry Sauce and Sage-and-onion Stuffing, in preparation for our New Year's Day meal.

Having spent Christmas with one daughter in France, we are hosting the other daughter and her family here for a special meal on Jan 1. It will be what we would normally have on Christmas Day - in other words, Turkey, Brussels Sprouts, Potatoes roasted in Goose fat, etc, etc.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Home again

As many of you know, Jane and I spent a few days over in France with our daughter Fiona and her family. We had a really good time together - Christmas is very special when there are grandchildren around - but our return was a real trial. Geneva airport was shrouded in persistent thick fog, and flight operations were severely disrupted. We had been expecting to get home by about 18:00, but in the end it was 01:30! Now, even I don't go out and inspect the garden at 01:30, but you can be sure that I was out there at the earliest opportunity. Even when I have been away only a few days, I always want to see how things are: has anything grown? Is there any damage? Is anything ready for harvesting? etc...

Well, the answer to the first question is clearly "Yes". The sideshoots on the Brokali have doubled in size in a week:

I was going to cut some Brussels Tops for our dinner until I looked closely at the plants. Before we went away I had thought one of the plants was effectively finished, and it seemed that only a few tiny sprouts remained. However, they have grown a fair bit this past week, and although still small, are looking OK. If I leave them a bit longer I think I will be able to get another meal or two from them. [These ones are currently about the size of a Hazelnut.]

When I hold up the leaves you can see that the Whitefly are still very much in evidence too. They have been enjoying the mild conditions, I'm sure.

My next picking of PSB is not far away either. The "Red Spear" plant is looking very promising:

"Early Purple Sprouting" is further behind, but heading-up quite nicely.

It looks as if all of my PSB is going to be over before the time when I would normally begin to harvest it!

As regards damage in the garden, the only casualty appears to be this clump of Parsley. A week ago it looked lovely and lush, but over Christmas it has been reduced to bare stalks. I think slugs are probably to blame. Hopefully it will survive and produce some new growth.

In the circumstances it is fortunate that some of the seeds from my Flat-leaf Parsley are beginning to germinate - as I hoped they would (I gave them a bit of a helping hand by scattering the dried seeds).

The Chives are coming up again too.

This is Winter Savory, a plant given to me by a Facebook friend with whom I met up in London during the Summer. It has decided to put on a big flush of new leaves:

The Rosemary plants are also flowering now - though that is not unusual, they often flower at or soon after Christmas.

So, the garden seems to be fine. The only trouble is, I can't forget that the Christmas holiday is usually the time when I empty out at least one of my compost bins. Maybe this year I'll delay a bit, because I am intending to construct some more new raised beds in the Spring, and the compost will be very useful at that point.

Monday, 28 December 2015

Harvest Monday - 28th December 2015

As some of you will know, Jane and I have been away in France for Christmas, staying with our daughter Fiona and her family - including the lovely Owen (4mths)! We are back home today. For obvious reasons, I don't have much to show off this week, but I do have a bunch of Broccoli:

I managed to get 8 spears of "Rudolph" PSB, and two of the "Endeavour" Brokali.

I cut these on Christmas Eve, just before we left home, but they have been in the fridge in one of those "Stayfresh" bags, so I'm sure they will be OK.

I don't know whether Dave at Our Happy Acres will be publishing a "Harvest Monday" post this week, but it's worth looking! If he does, I'm linking to it...


P.S. My blog got a mention here...

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Season's Greetings

I don't expect to be doing much blogging in the next couple of weeks, so I just want to take this opportunity to send best wishes to all my readers, especially my loyal band of Followers. I hope you all have a happy, healthy and peaceful Christmas. Jane and I will be spending much of the time surrounded by our family, and I expect many of you will be doing the same. I'm especially looking forward to seeing our new grandson, Owen. He was born in August, but I haven't met him yet.

I know that most of you have come to expect a post from me practically every day, but I think for the next two weeks or so I'll only be posting occasionally. This photo will explain part of the reason for this!

That's my Sloe Gin, decanted at the weekend. It is quite pale this year, but it has a lovely strong plum-like flavour. For me this is a very seasonal drink. We only have it at Christmas, but Christmas just wouldn't be the same without Sloe Gin.

So, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all!

Best wishes from


Monday, 21 December 2015

Harvest Monday - 21st December 2015

This past week I harvested the first few shoots from my "Endeavour" Brokali:

For those of you who don't know Brokali, it is a cross between Kale and Chinese broccoli. Its parentage is very obvious here:-

I have pulled up a few Leeks too. I had been hoping they would get bigger than they are, but looking very closely at them I judged them the be full-grown. In fact one or two of them were looking as if they might bolt, so I thought it best to use them sooner rather than later:

Apart from their diminutive size, these were nice Leeks. My deep planting method has worked well and the shanks of the Leeks are nicely blanched.

Some of you will already have seen that this batch of four went into a Leek and Potato soup.

We have had exceptionally mild weather just recently, and there has been no frost to kill off my salad plants, so I'm still harvesting Lettuce and Endive every now and then.

This little batch formed an accompaniment to a mushroom and Pecorino risotto. They are not prime specimens, but still perfectly acceptable.

With yesterday's dinner of roast Goose we ate two whole Savoy Cabbages!

In all honesty, they were truly tiny. You don't get much of an impression of their size until you see them alongside something else - like here:-

The cabbages were some of those that have been growing underneath my huge PSB plants, so they are a bit of a bonus really. Grown in full light I'm sure they would have been bigger!

As you can see, I also harvested some Parsnips and some Carrots. The Parsnips were totally pathetic. Just like the previous batch they were long and skinny with very little substance, and badly affected by canker.

All I can say is "Thank goodness for the Carrots!"

This is my contribution to Harvest Monday, hosted by Dave at Our Happy Acres, so please drop by there and see what other Christmas produce has been harvested.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Rendang Daging - Beef Rendang

A recent exchange of messages via Facebook with some Malaysian friends has rekindled my interest in Malaysian food. Today I'm making "Rendang Daging", in other words slow-cooked Beef Curry with coconut. This is a "dry" curry rather than one served in a sauce.

Just like a British beef stew, there are countless variants of this dish, and everyone has their favourite recipe. There is no definitive version! The ingredients vary from one recipe to another, but most of them agree that you must include coconut, both the milk and the toasted, powdered flesh of it. My version starts here:

My Malaysian friends say this is pretty authentic - so good in fact that one of them says that she always takes some of these packs with her when she travels abroad (i.e. out of Malaysia). This particular pack was bought in our local Chinese Cash-and-Carry - See Woo, in Reading.

Despite the existence of this ready-made sauce, I was determined to "play" with my Malaysian ingredients, and I ransacked the kitchen cupboards and the freezer to see what I could muster! I made a marinade for my beef with these ingredients:

That's a couple of stalks of Lemongrass, some dried chillis, some powdered Galangal, some Tamarind, a couple of dried Kaffir Lime leaves, a few "fresh" (frozen) Green Peppercorns and a tablespoon of my Harissa, which I reasoned would be vaguely equivalent to Sambal Tumis - except without the belacan (shrimp paste). The Peppercorns had lost their green colour in the freezer, but not their flavour, I can tell you. I blended them with a few cloves of Garlic to make a very pungent paste. I broke off a chunk of the compressed Tamarind and soaked it in warm water and then just used the resulting liquid, discarding the pulp. I only used one of the stalks of Lemongrass (I pounded it with a meat-mallet to release the flavour), and I kept the other one for the long slow cooking phase of my dish.

While the meat was marinating (about 6 hours) I made some kerisik. Kerisik is one of the characteristic components of a good rendang. It adds both texture and flavour. I made mine from these dried Coconut Flakes. I used about 75g.

I toasted my coconut in a dry frying pan for about 10 minutes, over a low heat, stirring all the time to ensure that it didn't scorch.

Then I ground it to a powder in a spice-grinder. This is what the finished article looks like - the desired texture of kerisik is sometimes described as being like soft brown sugar, so I think this is about right. If you make it with fresh coconut rather than dried, it will come out as an oily paste rather than the breadcrumb-like substance that mine was.

Deciding when to start cooking the beef is a matter of working backwards approximately three hours from when you want to eat. A rendang does not need a choice cut of meat, because long slow cooking will tenderise even meat that would normally be quite tough. I used diced Stewing Beef from the supermarket.

So, having decided to start cooking at 5 p.m. I drained the marinade off the beef and patted it dry and discarded the marinade, which had done its job by this time.

The next step was to soften a large onion, peeled and finely chopped, in a tablespoon of oil in a large ovenproof pan, without browning it. Then I added the sachet of curry paste and cooked it for a couple of minutes

Then I added the beef and stirred it in well to thoroughly coat the meat. I also put in another stalk of Lemongrass, smashed and tied in a knot so that it would be easy to identify and remove later on.

Cook for about 5 minutes, then put in about 250ml of coconut milk, and bring the whole mix to the boil.

Turn down the heat, cover the pan and simmer for 3 hours!

The aim is to slowly reduce the amount of liquid, so that the texture of the meat is eventually almost dry. Of course it hopefully won't be dry inside, but very tender. This means that you need to check every so often to see that things are going according to plan. A few minutes before serving time, stir in the kerisik.

By this time the sauce should have gone dark and caramelised, and the oil in the coconut milk will have separated out.

While all this was happening, I made a "Gado Gado" salad / vegetable dish. Like the rendang, there are many possibilities here. My version had lightly-cooked carrots, beans and cabbage, with some beansprouts briefly scalded in boiling water, some quartered hard-boiled eggs, some raw cucumber and some fried tofu - all topped-off with some peanut sauce. It's a meal in itself really, but in our house it is an essential accompaniment to any Indonesian or Malay dinner.

Do you see the fried tofu on that salad? It's difficult stuff to work with, isn't it? I discovered the hard way how much it spits when you fry it!

I'll be giving the cooker top a good clean tomorrow... The fried tofu is crispy and golden on the outside, but soft in the inside.

The final element of the meal was some plain Basmati rice, cooked to perfection in our trusty electric rice-boiler. Here is the spicy, nutty beef on a bed of fluffy white rice...

The rendang was more spicy than I had expected - really quite mouth-tinglingly hot! Not that I'm complaining. Whether this was due to the Tean's curry paste or to my home-made marinade I know not, but one way or another it was even better than I had expected.

So there you are then: my version of Rendang Daging. I wonder what my Malaysian friends will think of this....