Sunday, 12 January 2014

Cheat's moussaka

My love of Greek food is limitless and moussaka is one of my favourite comfort foods, especially in winter. There's a passing resemblance to lasagne, with its layers of meat, bechamel sauce and cheesy topping, and the pasta replaced with aubergine and potato.

Like lasagne, it's fiddly to assemble if you go down the traditional route and make a bechamel - something I'd only bother with if cooking for friends. This cheat's version substitutes the bechamel with yoghurt and crème fraiche. I also don't bother to fry or grill the aubergine slices first, but layer them straight in uncooked.

Enough for two portions, so you can freeze one (or it'll keep in the fridge for up three days).

What you need: 
300g minced lamb
1 onion, diced
Olive oil
2 tomatoes, finely chopped
1 dsp tomato purée
Glass of red wine
Salt, pepper
Small aubergine, thinly sliced
Medium potato, peeled and very thinly sliced
Greek yoghurt / crème fraiche
Feta or Parmesan cheese
Breadcrumbs (optional)

What to do:
Sauté the onion in a glug of olive oil over a medium heat for about 10 minutes until soft and translucent. Turn up the heat, add the lamb and fry it until it's browned. Add the tomatoes, tomato purée, wine and oregano. Turn the heat down and simmer for 30 minutes. Season to taste.

To assemble the moussaka, put a layer of potatoes in the bottom of two individual-size pie dishes. Put a layer of aubergine on top. Add the lamb, then another layer of aubergine and spoon over enough yoghurt to cover. Finish with a layer of potato. Cover each moussaka with a couple of spoonfuls of the creme fraiche, then sprinkle over a little crumbled feta or finely grated Parmesan cheese. You can layer on some breadcrumbs before the cheese, as some Greeks do. Bake for an hour at 180C until the potatoes are tender enough to put a knife through.
Cook's tips:
Make sure you slice the potatoes as thinly as possible - they should be almost translucent. If they are too thick, they will take too long to cook through and everything else will be overcooked and possibly burned by then.

To make the honeyed thyme carrots in the photo, cut the carrots into batons, put in an ovenproof dish, then add a small amount of olive oil a generous drizzle of runny honey, a pinch of dried thyme (or some fresh leaves stripped off the stalks if you have some) and some seasoning. Bake alongside the moussaka for about 45 minutes. Sometimes I make khoriatiki if I fancy a salad instead.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Some thoughts on eating alone

No recipe today - I'm recovering from New Year's Eve and can only manage toast and coffee today! Social engagements over the next few days mean I won't really start cooking properly again until the weekend - I'll be bringing you some wintry comfort food shortly.

Pic: Table For One, Tumblr
In the meantime, this Guardian article on eating alone - Eating alone: there's no shame in a table for one - struck a chord with me. It was published a week before Christmas but I wanted to post this at the start of a new year.

Eating alone in restaurants in the UK is still seen as rather sad and pathetic. Often enough, it's a guarantee you'll be given a table tucked away at the back and service will be hurried so as to get rid of you as soon as possible. That way they can give the table to two people.

I've experienced the complete opposite abroad. Travelling around Europe, as I do two to three times a year, I've never been given a horrible dark corner and the wait staff have never seemed to mind me lingering as long as I want. I've always felt welcomed.

If I'm on holiday, I don't want to be rushed - I want to relax and enjoy my meal, sip my way through a bottle of wine and people-watch. I usually have my Kindle with me so I can read if I wish. (I'm not the only one - just look at the number of lone diners reading while they eat on the Table For One Tumblr.)

Pic: Table For One, Tumblr
I'd like to see some of that European sensibility rub off on restaurateurs here - after all, our money is as good as anyone else's. As the number of us living alone rises (currently around 9 million), they'd be foolish to ignore the solo pound.

However, I'm not sure I agree with the Guardian article's round-up of ways to make lone diners feel, well, less alone. They do imply that eating on your tod is still a bad thing. I don't think it is. And I definitely disagree that cooking for one is "not easy". That sort of attitude will send lots of people scurrying back to the chill cabinet for ready meals. I and all of you who land on The Lone Gourmet know that cooking for one can be both simple and pleasurable.

The comments below, when you get past the trollish ones, are enlightening, particularly the ones about women who dine solo. It's never been a problem for me but I can see that it could be for other women. 

What do you all think? Do leave a comment!

I'll end by wishing you all a happy 2014 - here's to cooking up a storm for the next 12 months!

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Christmas leftovers... some ideas

So, hands up who bought too much food for one? I manage this every year, always with the mindset that friends might drop by or I might have an unexpected dinner guest on Christmas Night who has nowhere else to go. At the moment I'm looking at a large slab of belly pork on a plate in my fridge - some of that will be simply reheated for dinner tonight, accompanied by some of a lovely savoy cabbage I have and the rest of yesterday's roast parsnips.

If you're stuck for ideas, here's a few.
The quick chicken supreme work well with other poultry such as turkey, if you bought a small crown, guinea fowl or duck. And so will my cheat's chicken cacciatore - just make the sauce without the uncooked chicken, then add the cooked meat 10 minutes before the end, so it's thoroughly reheated.

Pie and risotto will take almost any filling - both are a good way to use up whatever leftover meat and vegetables you have to hand. Try my chicken and vegetable pie or chicken risotto.

My recipe for lamb in date and lemon sauce says uncooked lamb, but cooked will be fine - you'll be basically reheating it in the sauce in the oven. You can do the same with my fruity goat tagine - it doesn't have to be goat meat: leftover lamb or chicken will both be fine. A couple of slices of cooked lamb can also substitute for fresh chops in my lamb chops baked in the oven.

Soup is a go-to for Christmas leftovers. My game soup is ideal for leftover partridge, pheasant or other roast birds. My quick winter minestrone is very adaptable - the tomatoes, greens and pasta are the backbone, then just throw whatever else you have to hand in it.

If you have too many root vegetables lurking in your fridge, the winter root veg casserole is tasty and also simple and light after the richer food of Christmas Day.

If you have leftover cheese, you could make yourself a thrifty cheesecake or use some up in a stilton, rosemary and walnut scone.

Don't forget, quite a few of these can also be frozen once made - handy for those days when you don't feel like cooking but can pull something home-cooked from the freezer!

Friday, 20 December 2013

Christmas dinner for one - 2013

Christmas dinner for one - time for a revisit. I offered some suggestions exactly two years ago, but it never hurts to look at some more options. (This topic is one of the main searches that brings you readers to my blog, all year round!)

Apart from the alternatives to turkey I suggested last time, a spatchcocked poussin will feed one very hungry person, or give you a meal and a bit for leftovers (using the carcass to make stock afterwards, for soup or risotto). You can spatchcock the bird yourself if you have a pair of poultry shears or very sharp kitchen scissors - it's very easy. If not, ask the butcher to do it for you. The supermarkets have them at this time of year, already prepared. All you need to do is oil the skin, add a rub if you like and roast for about 40 minutes at 180C. (I cooked the one above with a rub made of sweet smoked paprika and ate it with a plate of oven chips.)

I wrote about breast of lamb in October - it's cheapish, very tasty and very versatile. I stuffed the one in the photo a couple of weeks ago, with a homemade stuffing of breadcrumbs, a handful of chopped chestnuts, a few dried apricots and a little rosemary - very seasonal. If you opt for this, the October post has cooking instructions.

I can also recommend (again) looking in the freezers in Lidl and Aldi. I've already picked up a cooked, frozen lobster for £6 from Lidl, as I do every year, and both shops have a good selection of small three-bird roasts that will give you 2-3 portions - enough for Christmas Day, plus leftovers for sandwiches, curry, a casserole of some sort, a pie (swap the veg for leftover roast parsnips, carrots or sprouts) or soup.

Fresh ducks should also be appearing now. One duck feeds two people quite well, so you'll have some nice leftovers from that - it makes a good stir-fry if you cheat, like I do, with some bought stir-fry sauce.

What am I having? I don't know yet, is the short answer. I have a nice slab of Cheshire belly pork in my freezer but I'm also tempted to buy either a duck or a rack of lamb next week. A rack of lamb is quick and easy to cook, and cobbling together a quick crust of breadcrumbs and herbs adds extra flavour (I had this last year). These should be in the supermarkets from about now but you should also be able to order one from a butcher - a rack of 3-4 chops should be enough and you can make a pilaf (watch this space) if you can't finish it in one go.

If you have any questions, do post in the comments below and I'll do my best to answer.

Merry Xmas!

Thursday, 12 December 2013

REVIEW: Grey's Fine Foods Spanish gourmet hamper

A hamper is generally a welcome gift in my home, but Christmas ones less so - when you live alone, baskets full of Christmas pudding, family-sized tins of chocolate biscuits and the like seem like a wasted opportunity as well as useless (I hate Christmas pudding and it would take me half a year to get through a tin of biscuits).
Hampers like this, though? Now you're talking. This fabulous package came from Grey's Fine Foods, which imports a huge range of artisan Spanish produce, and is perfect for one person. I love Spanish food - I know my way reasonably round both standard and regional menus, sometimes cook Spanish dishes and am generally influenced by the cuisine. So a truckload of gourmet imported Spanish products is the sort of thing to put a smile on my face.
I tore into the charcuterie for a quick lunch. The Ibérico ham, produced from the renowned Iberian black pig, is a wonderfully dark red colour with a rich, nutty depth of flavour from their acorn and grassland diet. There was a good layer of creamy fat too, which for me is essential on an air-dried ham. The black pig salchiçon has a lighter flavour, with tones of fennel and something fruity that I couldn't quite place. I had these simply on a plate, with a handful of salted Spanish almonds (not in the hamper but lurking in my larder) and some of the roasted peppers straight from the jar. They had a decent, firm texture and a sweet intensity. The only thing missing was a glass of chilled fino sherry. 
I had a quick nibble of the chocolate, which was made with olive oil and sea salt - I could taste both of these, which cut nicely through the sweetness of the chocolate. The turrón I'm saving for when I crave a proper sugar hit - sticky Spanish nougat is always a winner for me because I love the chewy, nutty mix of honey, toasted almonds and egg white. It's a generous pack too, which will last me months. Alarmingly, when I took it out of the box the oils had leached out into the plastic vacuum wrapper so it will need to be opened carefully.
Of the store-cupboard ingredients, I dipped a little bread in the olive oil with my lunch. It was fruity with a distinctly peppery kick, definitely one for drizzling and dipping rather than cooking with. I love the pretty ceramic bottle - I'll be looking to reuse it in my kitchen for something. I was also blown away by the cute packaging of the piquant pimentón, which had a fiery punch beneath its dark smokiness. I'll be using that in my paella.
I'm not a big fan of tinned tuna, as most in the UK are cheap and nasty and taste very unpleasant - my larder tends to have sardines and mackerel instead. This can of bonito tuna (in olive oil, which really marks it out as a cut above) will make a great fallback staple though for a quick tuna and bean salad. I love gazpacho, the chilled tomato and cucumber soup - so easy to make yet never as good as the real thing. This bottle is also a great store-cupboard standby although I'll probably wait until the weather's warmer to eat it.
All in all, this is excellent value. All the products are artisanal and their total worth is slightly more than the cost of the hamper. The only item I missed was a wedge of manchego cheese, which would have rounded it out perfectly. Almost everything was in amounts ideal for one person: the charcuterie packs are 100g, for example. The packaging was beautiful and even the wooden crate - once I'd turfed Nelson out of what he thought was his new bed - was quickly repurposed as a storage box for my home office. 

Now the details... The Grey's Hamper costs £50 from Grey’s Fine Foods, one of a range starting from £35. Delivery is usually 3-7 days but they offer a one-day service too if you plan to order for Christmas (either for yourself - and why not? - or as a present).

Disclaimer: With thanks to Grey’s Fine Foods and Coffeepot Digital. I received the hamper free of charge, for review purposes. All views and opinions are my own and I was not paid nor obliged to write a positive review.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Beetroot and butterbean hummus

My love of beetroot is well documented on this blog. I simply can't eat enough of it. For many people, this fabulous root has been ruined forever for them by being exposed to the pickled variety, which completely kills off the earthy sweetness. You can roast it in the oven, wrapped tightly in foil and with nothing else added, for about an hour at 200C - afterwards, let them rest in the foil for 10-15 minutes then slip the skins off. Or you can cheat, as I so often do, and buy a vacuum pack of plain cooked beetroot from the supermarket for less than a quid.

Beetroot is also incredibly versatile - borscht is famous of course but it also works well in ice cream, for example, because of its sweetness and I recently stumbled across this recipe for beetroot rugelach, which I plan to make very soon.

Hummus takes less than 10 minutes to make in a food processor. This will keep in the fridge for up to a week in a sealed container.

What you need:
2 medium to large beetroots
A 400g can of butterbeans
1 tbsp olive oil
1 dsp tahini
Juice of 1/2 a lemon
Sea salt and black pepper

What to do: 
Chop the beetroot into chunks, drain and rinse the butterbeans and put into a food processor along with everything else except the seasoning. Blitz into a thick purée, adding a dribble of water if you need to thin it a little. Season to taste, adding a little more lemon juice as well if it's on the sweet side.

Sprinkle a little dukkah over the top to finish.

Cook's tips: 
As with traditional hummus, quantities of ingredients are only a rough guide - it's down to personal preference so taste, taste, taste as you go. Beetroot can be very sweet, so I like to add a very generous pinch of sea salt. I also juice a whole lemon, so I have a little extra if the hummus needs more acidity.

Dukka is traditionally made with hazelnuts but you can use other nuts. This one in the photo is made with pistachios - I picked it up at a farmers' market but the recipe in the link is very easy and you can play with the ingredients.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Fresh tomato chutney

Autumn is definitely the time to start thinking of stockpiling food for the cold months. It's harvest time and a good opportunity to use up any excess fresh produce. I eat a lot of tomatoes - at least 500g a week - but an unexpected windfall from a veg box scheme meant I needed to use them up fast.

I've made this a few times and it always turns out well - it's simple to make and doesn't require a huge preserving pan or a thermometer. Because it is a fresh chutney, it will only keep for 6-8 weeks, so keep it in the fridge.

What you need:
250g finely sliced red onions
500g very ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped (including skins and seeds)
2 garlic cloves, finely sliced
2cm/1in piece of ginger root, peeled and finely chopped
125g muscovado sugar
75ml red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp fennel seeds

What to do: 
Prepare all the vegetables and put them in a big, heavy, non-aluminium pan. Add the sugar, vinegar and spices. Bring the pot to simmering point over a medium hob then let it simmer gently for an hour. Stir regularly. While it's cooking, sterilise a couple of jars.*

After an hour, most of the liquid should have evaporated. Now bring it to the boil to get rid of the rest of it - the mixture should turn thick, with an almost jam-like consistency. Don't take your eye off it at this stage. When it's thickened, take it off the heat and spoon carefully into the jars. Let it cool completely, then put the lid on the jar and pop it in the fridge.

Cook's tips:
Feel free to vary the spices. Fresh chilli (just one small one, or 1/2 tsp of powdered) will add some heat. Paprika also works well. If you haven't got mustard seeds, use 1/2 tsp of Colman's English mustard powder. I've also experimented with a couple of star anise, but it's a good idea to try and find them and take them out before bottling.

* To sterilise jars, wash well with hot water then dry out in the oven at 100-120C for half an hour or so. Bottle the contents while the jars are still hot. 

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Thrifty cheesecake

This is a great way to use up bits and pieces from the fridge and larder to make a small dessert. I started making this after I froze a spare packet of cream cheese and when I defrosted much later, I discovered it had split. I hate throwing food away so had to think up ways to use it up. This makes enough for two individual cheesecakes - perfect for when you want something sweet but just a small taste of it.

What you need:
1/2 packet of soft cheese, such as Philadelphia 
A level dsp of icing sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 tsp lemon essence
2-3 plain hobnobs or other biscuits
A small knob of butter

What to do:
Put the biscuits in a paper bag and crush them with a rolling pin. Melt the butter in a small bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Add the biscuit crumbs and mix well. Spoon the mixture into two small ramekins and press it down well to make a firm base. Pop the ramekins in the fridge. 

Put the cheese and sugar into a bowl and mix well. Taste to check the balance of flavours - you want to be able to taste the cheese and it shouldn't be too sweet. Add the two essences and mix well. Spoon it over the bases, pressing it in and smoothing the top, and put back in the fridge. Leave for a good hour to set firmly. 

Cook's tips:
How much biscuit and butter you need will depend on the size of your ramekins. I find2.5 is about right to make a base of about half a centimetre deep. You need just enough butter to coat the crumbs so they'll stick together, but not so much they set rock hard in the fridge - the base should hold together but still be crumble. About a teaspoon should be about right.

I use the bowl over hot water as the amount of butter is too small to melt directly in the pan and tends to just dissipate across the surface without coating the crumbs.

For a slightly posher version, omit the essences and substitute a little grated lemon zest and some seeds from a vanilla pod.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Quick fig chutney

Occasionally when I have overrripe fruit I try to use them up in ways that preserve them, rather than eating them immediately. Bananas get turned into ice cream and I blitz overripe mango into a pulp in the food processor then freeze the coulis in portions.

Figs that are well on the turn make great chutney. The quantity this makes is small - only a couple of tablespoons - but for one person that's plenty. It won't keep, so store it in the fridge and use within a week. It's delicious with roasted or cold meat, or some cheese (especially goat cheese).

What you need: 
2 chopped overripe figs
About 50g leftover blueberries
1 dessert spoonful of raspberry vinegar 
1 heaped dessert spoonful of muscovado sugar

What to do:
Wash all the fruit well - figs can be dusty on the skin and pick out any blueberries that are starting to sprout a soft, white mould. Put everything in a non-aluminium pan. Cook it down over a medium heat until all the juices have thickened and the fruit has broken down - about 10-15 minutes. Pour into a clean (preferably sterilised) jar and let it cool. Put a lid on and keep in the fridge.

Cook's tips: 
This is the sort of fresh chutney you can whiz up with almost anything - very soft tomatoes, wrinkly apples, squishy apricots or nectarines - just stay away from harder ingredients such as carrots, which take longer to cook. It's important to keep the vinegar and sugar in more or less equal quantities - taste as you go to ensure you have the right balance of sharp and sweet, and don't be afraid to add a pinch of salt.

Because it's fresh, it really won't keep long - it simply doesn't have the array of spices, pectin and other ingredients that go into the kind of preserve you can store long-term. 

To sterilise a jar, wash it well in very hot water with washing-up liquid, rinse well and dry out in a hot oven. If you don't have the lid, as I didn't for the jar above, cling film is fine for a cover but it's a reminder to eat up the contents quickly!

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Food banks - no recipe for a caring society

No recipe today. I want to talk about something much more important - food banks.

Two little words that conjure up much of what is horribly wrong in society right now. Please don't switch off - please read this. It matters.

How can it be that we are the 6th wealthiest nation in the world but millions of our citizens can't afford to feed themselves? Many of those going hungry are in work but simply don't earn enough to cover this most basic human need. Many are not working and don't have the money to eat because their benefits have been sanctioned for some reason or another, or payment has been delayed, or because they've had to spend their precious pennies on paying off debts or bills or bedroom tax instead.
More than half a million people in the UK are currently being referred to food banks by social services, GPs or churches. They get an emergency food parcel that will keep them going for a mere three days. Millions more are going hungry but haven't yet reached rock bottom enough to swallow their pride and ask for help. At the moment, food bank use has tripled in the last 12 months. A new food bank opens in Britain every 4 days. We are not a third world country but the Red Cross has started distributing food here to the starving for the first time since the end of the war.

It breaks my heart.

I shouldn't have to, but I consider myself extremely fortunate that I work. That I work enough to feed myself every day. That I earn enough to feed myself beyond the basics and am able to splash out on wine, organic rare breed steaks, obscure ingredients from delicatessens and other treats.

I shouldn't have to but I do because it could so easily be me. It could be any one of us if our circumstances change. In recession Britain many people are only a month's wages away from financial collapse. I have been poor and struggled to feed myself. It was a long time ago but I've never forgotten trudging from shop to shop checking prices so I could save a few pennies on a tin of beans. Once, I was skint enough and hungry enough to nick a pint of milk and a bag of bread rolls at 6am from outside a corner shop where the delivery guy had left them for the shop owner to collect when they opened up.

It was World Food Day yesterday around the world. Here it was being marked as a way to draw attention to the food poverty we have in the UK. Here are some articles you should read to find out the shocking statistics behind the headlines.

Food banks are testimony to the Tories' massacre of hope and dignity.

Food poverty is an attack on society.

The Nasty Party is back, sneering at food banks and those who use them 

Thanks for reading. If you have a few pennies to spare, next time you're doing the shop buy a little extra and donate to a food bank - you'll be helping someone not to starve.
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