Sunday, 23 April 2017

Something fresh!

By: Mrs Robot

We're still around and still cooking - but as it's been three months since I last posted anything, I thought I'd better put something up. Anything.

It's been culinary sadtimes in the House of Robots, as our beloved butcher has closed its Trowbridge branch. We always thought it was a bit odd that a butcher as prestigious as Walter Rose had their second store in Trow, and over the past decade business in the town has slowed to the point where they're focussing on the restaurant trade. They're keeping their shop in Devizes, though, so we're taking a weekly drive over there now.

Leaving aside my sadness about what this means for my town - every time an essential shop closes, all the others lose a little more business - it is nice going to the Devizes branch, as business there is brisker so they have much more stock in the shop; among the things we got this week were smoked mutton and smoked chicken. There's also a fish counter at the Devizes branch (it had to be preordered in Trowbridge, which we were never organised enough to do) and it's been enjoyable having that as an option.

These prawns were absolute monsters, and we wanted to do them justice, so Mr Robot did them following Meera Sodha's tamarind and honey prawn recipe from her book Made In India. Served on vegetable cous cous with a cucumber and yoghurt raita, they were refreshing and delicious. We'll definitely be having them again!

Sunday, 15 January 2017

A Mumbai feast

Dhansak and cachumbarIt's a while after new year, but I thought I'd write about our New Year's Day meal anyway. (Didn't want to do another post too soon after Mr Robot's last one, you might have run away in shock at two in a week.)

Mr Robot gave me a couple of cookbooks for Christmas: Mr Todiwala's Bombay, by Cyrus Todiwala, and Fortnum and Mason: The Cook Book. I don't know if I'd have picked up the Todiwala book myself, but it's really good. My go-to Indian recipe books tend to be by Anjum Anand and Meera Sodha. Meera Sodha is a particular favourite because her food has personality; you can really see how her family history and the ingredients around her in Britain have impacted on her cooking. Mr Todiwala's Bombay also has personality in spades. There's a real sense of place and of the mix of cultures that make up Mumbai as he shares the food that he loves: the street food that everyone eats, restaurant food, and the sort of thing families eat at home. I wanted to go to Mumbai anyhow as I love art deco and it's got some of the finest art deco buildings in the world, but now I want to go there for the food too!

A dish of cachumbar
I decided to make a proper dhansak (or dhaansaak as it's spelled in the book), as made by the Parsee community that Cyrus Todiwalla is part of.

Dhansaks are a curryhouse staple here in the UK, but this was very different from the oily stuff they serve up. You start by making the spicy lamb, which is then added to a pot of dal. I found the dal particularly unusual compared to ones I've made in the past as it contains fresh dill and plenty of sugar – I guess that shows the Persian roots of the Parsee people. The dal is supposed to be pureed smooth, and I did that this time but in future I might leave some of the lentils intact for a bit more texture and visual interest. There's a low ratio of lamb-to-dal. I was really worried about how all the flavours would turn out, as the mix was so unfamiliar to me, but it still tasted like 'a curry' to me, just with different herbal notes to what I'd usually expect. And that's one of the reasons I like making Indian food at home - bought ones always seem to lack the fresh flavour of the herbs.

A bowl of brown onion pulao with sheekh kebab balls on top
A gorgeous brown caramelised onion pulao, seekh kebab balls (raising the amount of meat in the meal to a level carnivores will be happy with), and cachumbar make delicious accompaniments. I'd happily make all three of those to accompany other things. Every Indian chef I own a cookbook by has a recipe for cachumbar; Todiwalla's is heavier on the onion than the others that I've seen but it works really well with the sweet, lentil-heavy dhansak. And usually when a recipe 'serves four to six' there's really enough for two greedy robots plus a little leftover. Not here! Even by our standards this recipe easily serves six. I've put two meals' worth of dhansak, pulao and kebab balls in the freezer.

The Fortnum cookbook is an oddity. I must confess, while I know Tom Parker-Bowles is a food writer, I've never read any of his food writing, I only know him as 'that bloke whose mum is the future Princess Consort.' Mr Robot got it for me because I love the funny old shop, and the history of things, and this book contains little bits of Fort Noms' history. It's also stuffed with illustrations from the company catalogues of the 1930s and 1950s. I'm not sure how I feel about a lot of the recipes in the book as they're really very simple and I have similar elsewhere, though in their simplicity they do mean you need to use the very finest ingredients – replace butter with marge and it'll be all too obvious.
Raspberry trifle

I made the raspberry trifle. I did vary things slightly, using cream rather than milk for the custard, and making a fresh raspberry compote rather than using jam. You're supposed to layer it jam, sponge with chambord, raspberries, custard, whipped cream, sponge with chambord, raspberries, custard, whipped cream, but I have a wide dish rather than a tall one so the layers came out a bit scanty. I left out the middle layer of cream and had a mere drizzle for the second layer of custard, so I think if I made it again I'd use far fewer sponges and only one layer of each ingredient. Still, it was jolly nice. Not over-fussy, just a tasty, creamy, fruity treat.

So, that was our New Year's Day meal. I hope yours was as good, and wish you all the best for the rest of 2017.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Festive Ramen

by: Mr Robot
Christmas in a bowl
Most years we have a goose around Christmas - generally on one of the subsidiary days when we have friends over, because a whole goose for two would just be ridiculously extravagant. This year, however, we decided to go all out and keep Goosey to ourselves, not least because I had this follow-up dish in mind.

I don't know about you, but get l sick of quick & simple easy-peasy ideas for using up leftovers, usually around late October. But don't worry - this isn't one of those. Ramen isn't quick and, if not necessarily difficult, you should be careful. Or at least, full of care.

The first and hardest part for this is, don't eat all the goose. Obvious but trust me it's easier said than done. With incredible willpower we also managed to reserve a couple of pigs in blankets. I know. After depriving Mrs Robot so dreadfully, I really had to make this work.

Goose Broth
The well-scavenged carcass goes in a massive pot with some stock veg, along with a tub of homemade chicken stock and a guinea-fowl carcass I happened to have kicking around. You may consider those optional.

A small handful of peppercorns, a bayleaf and the half-orange I'd shoved up Goosey for roasting also went in, along with about 6-8 pints of water, and it all boiled hard for around 6 hours, scum-skimmed occasionally. Then it was strained and left to cool overnight.

Normally you'd never remove fat from a ramen broth but goose fat is so very oleaginous I didn't want to risk the final broth being overly greasy. So I removed about half the fat and kept it back in case I needed to restore some later. As it turned out I didn't, so that's gone in the fridge for future roasties.

From there I reduced it to about 3 pints in volume, which was the point it hit the richness and intensity I was looking for. I've learned to beware over-reducing so it's always a matter of tasting and judgment now, rather than target volume.

Once reduced I seasoned with a sachet of dashi powder, about 1/2 teaspoon of white pepper, a good couple of teaspoons of salt and, because it felt it needed something, a splash of mirin. I considered a dollop of miso too but in the end opted against - I know I have a tendency to overdo it, so held back. But it was a close thing.

Goose & Pigs
The reserved breast meat and pigs in blankets were sliced about 5mm thick. Half went into the broth for 10 minutes before serving to warm through, the other half fried in a little goose fat. I did that in the hopes of textural interest but frankly we couldn't tell the difference, so that's just washing up for nothing. Some spare goose skin crisped up in the pan and sprinkled on at the end worked a treat though.

Red cabbage
Because a ramen needs some cabbage and Christmas demands it be red. I'd considered pickling but then had a better idea (see below) so simply shredded and braised it gently.

Pickled Sprouts
Oh yeah. Sprouts separated into individual leaves which then sat in a mix of rice wine vinegar, mirin and salt for about 30 minutes brought a very welcome freshness and acidity to what is, after all, an absurdly rich bowl. Honestly I was surprised how well these worked.

Sprout Genius

The Egg
Now, we had a bit of an argument about the egg. My idea, nay my vision, was to take festivity to a new level with a Mulled Egg - steeped in red wine vinegar, cinnamon, cloves etc overnight - but Mrs Robot put her foot down like a steam hammer.

In the end we went with salted duck egg which was great but not, you know, my vision.

So that was all assembled over noodles and scattered with a few sesame seeds.

Things I thought of adding but didn't
I'd have loved to incorporate spuds but really couldn't think how to make it work so in the end had to leave them out. Parsnips, on the other hand, could make a great garnish as tiny crispy shavings.

Cranberry seemed an obvious candidate for garnish but Mrs R gets cross about it. I briefly considered a dollop of apple sauce too but since we hadn't had it with the Xmas dinner it didn't feel right.

I wish I'd done more sprouts because they were delicious and they went all too quickly. But if you've never tried it, separating sprout leaves is what's officially known as A Right Pain In The Arse. It could've done with more acidity though, so some fresh apple matchsticks might have made a nice alternative, or possibly a shaving of orange zest at the last minute. To be really swank, a few chunks of blowtorched orange segments would be cool.

My guide in all things ramen is Tim Anderson's Nanban and I thought long and hard about adapting his spicy miso butter to a spicy miso goose fat but ultimately felt I was already skirting the Fatty Event Horizon and as it turned out, I think that was the right choice.

The end result was everything I'd hoped: a lovely bowl of ramen feels perfect for those chilly, grey in-between days. It's deep and intense, but gentle and comforting. Bringing the Christmas flavours in felt very satisfying and, of course, was kind of fun. In fact I'm already plotting next year's Baked Ham Ramen.

Merry Christmas peoples

 All images (c) PP Gettins

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

'tis the season to be soppy

My happy place
by: Mr Robot

I think it's fair to say 2016 has been a bit of a stinker in many ways, so as I'm sat here reflecting and, to be entirely honest, have had a few, I thought it worthwhile remembering and thanking those who've improved and enriched my life over the last 12 months or so.

First off Tim Hayward, who I only really came across through the BBC's Kitchen Cabinet but have come to worship almost as a god. He has a manner that appeals to me on a very deep level, a casually authoritative voice imbued with kindness and decency - almost the definition of avuncular. I often think he's the culinary answer to Kurt Vonnegut.

Early in the year I tackled the week-long project that was his cassoulet from The DIY Cook. Sadly it didn't turn out to be photogenic enough for a post but was as delightful in the making as in the eating.

Hayward's Knife book was one of the highlights of my year, and may well have triggered a new and vastly expensive hobby. I read it in one enchanted sitting and it has a permanent, if disturbing, home beside the bed.

Always take a Knife to bed

Mr Hayward, I salute you.

Which brings us nicely to Sr Morales of Toledo who produces wonderful knives and was kind enough to sell me an absolutely beautiful Damascus steel blade at a price I'd never even considered paying, but don't regret a Eurocent of. This knife makes me happy to a ridiculous degree. When I can't be arsed to cook, picking up that knife enthuses me. When I'm feeling keen it's like having a superpower.

My lovely lovely Toledo blade

I've used it pretty much every day for six months and it still gives me a thrill.

SeƱor, gracias.

Sticking with the Spanish theme, our trip around Spain with our god-daughter (aka adoptive juniorbot) was more wonderful than we could have hoped. We've loved Spain for such a long time, and always wanted to share that experience with others. The opportunity to show it to her took us right back to that joy of discovery - and the real joy was that she loved it too. We created a tapas monster and are very proud.

Yes those are minihamburguesitas and they are free tapas. Thank you Granada

So thanks to Lillian for taking the (probably quite scary) plunge, and to all those amazing chefs in Segovia, Toledo, Seville and Granada who gave us such happy memories.

At the risk of becoming tiresomely stalkerish, I must always give thanks to MiMi Aye and Uyen Luu who remain our Asian mentors and, certainly in the summer months, are probably responsible for around 30% of everything we eat. This year they were joined by Ping Coombes whose Malaysia book is already shamefully bespattered from enthusiastic usage.

Goes some way to explaining, if not excusing, the waistline

If you're anything like us, there are many cookbooks you like to look at, or the idea of. There are lots that you use occasionally. And there's a precious few that you wonder how you ever managed without. These ladies went instantly and permanently into that latter group. On Mrs Robot's behalf I should add Meera Sodha to the list, and closer to home Tom Kerridge's Proper Pub Food remains essential - as does Katie Stewart who basically taught us to cook in the first place.

It's no exaggeration to say that just about every day, no matter how crappy, ends with happiness for us, and that's mainly down to these folks. That's pretty amazing when you think about it, especially with enough beer.

Of course you can't cook anything without stuff to cook. Walter Rose is our local butcher and gives us such brilliant meat week in, week out. We revel in being the folks they can sell anything to (always up for something exciting) and in exchange they only ever sell us amazing things. Walter Rose won the national best butcher award this year, and it came as no surprise at all. Louie, Ed, Cameron - cheers guys.

Best butcher in the land. Officially

Our veg come mostly from Riverford who likewise bring us outstanding food every week of the year. We're not obsessively green or organic or anything like that, but we very much buy into to the philosophy of growing with care, and for flavour. The first Riverford carrots we ever had were just so damned . . . carroty. Had you forgotten potatoes have a flavour? We had.

Best ever soup recipe: First, kill your Riverford tomatoes....
In fact it's probably Riverford's fault my veg cookery remains so unsophisticated - there's really no need to muck it about. Roasting some tomatoes before souping is about as jazzy as we get. When's the last time you cooed over a boiled vegetable? For us it's less than a week ago, and we're endlessly grateful.

Nearly finally, since they're in large part responsible for all this, I offer up thanks to Bacchus and all His Mates for Palmers Brewery who have made me so very very happy, and sad, and excessively affectionate, and wobbly, and filthily hungover so many times. I love you guys. No seriously, I do. 'ma best mate. y'fugger. ahahahahahaha...

And least last of all, of course my thanks to Mrs Robot for putting up with the failures, the mess, the swearing, the every-pan-in-the-housery and subsequent lack of washing up. For sharing the delicious things we have, and for being the person I gladly go to such lengths for (a WEEK making cassoulet, FFS) because she deserves nothing but nice.

Oh go on then - the 7-day cassoulet. Not pretty but OMFG

So, who's brought you joy this year?

All images (c) PP Gettins

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Retro Recipe: German onion tart

 By: Mrs Robot

In my adventures in vintage, I rarely make it as far as the 1980s. However, it's a jolly interesting decade food-wise, and the recent BBC documentary series The 80s With Dominic Sandbrook made me reach for one of our inherited cookbooks, Mary Berry's Complete Television Cookbook. Sandbrook went on and on about Delia Smith in the first programme in the series, but we're definitely on Team Berry here at Casa Mechanica.

You can tell Mary Berry's Complete Television Cookbook is from the 1980s. In the section on kitchen equipment, it states, 'Microwave ovens are a luxury, but if you can run to one you will find it marvellously useful.' Nowadays most people see them as pretty much essential, and look at us askance when Mr Robot and I say we don't have one. The recipes don't feel fantastically 80s - there's nothing particularly nouveau - though the Asian recipes are more adventurous and feel much more authentic than the ones I've got in British cookbooks from earlier decades.

The recipe I decided to make, German Onion Tart, is somewhere between a quiche and a pizza. Pizza, because of the yeast-leavened base, quiche for the filling of eggs and onion, topped off with bacon. The base actually seemed easier to make than pizza dough, as it didn't need anywhere near as much kneading. I was impressed by how quickly it came together, though I rolled it out too thinly when I assembled the tart and it cooked too fast, leaving me with a darker pastry-bread case than I'd expected.
The filling is very economical, with loads of onions but only three eggs and a sprinkling of bacon. Okay, there's half a tub of double cream in there too. But still. It's very substantial and mostly onions, which are cheap in autumn. The recipe also includes an optional teaspoon of caraway seeds, which I put in as if you're going to make something that's supposed to be German, it might as well taste properly German.

The end result? Highly edible. I probably had the oven too high as the filling wasn't completely set when the case was cooked, but because the onions are softened in advance it was all perfectly edible. 'Carbonara pie' was Mr Robot's verdict. I'll give this another go at some point, perhaps replacing the bacon with sliced frankfurters. Good for autumn evenings.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Still eating salads

By: Mrs Rabbit Robot

I said I was going to make a conscious effort to eat more salads, and so far I've managed it. I think the major revelation for me on my veggie-munching mission so far is that I don't have to eat lettuce. Lettuce was pretty much the base ingredient for every salad I had growing up, and I'm not massively fond of it, so allowing myself to ditch the stuff has made Project Salad a lot more interesting (and easier to stick to). The other revelations I've had are that herbs can be an ingredient, not just things you sprinkle on top in tiny amounts or add to dressing, and that if you make a salad of little chopped bits it's best not to throw too many ingredients in, otherwise it all ends up a bit jumbled, and all your salads end up tasting the same in the long term. These are probaby things hardcore veggie lovers knew already, but they've been amazing to me!

My lunchtime salads are pretty much just chopped stuff in a box – chunks I can easily eat with a fork at my desk. There are usually around five things in the box, and my current favourites include: tomato, melon, mango, cucumber, peach, pepper, sweetcorn, and grated carrot with kohlrabi. I did try grated carrot, green pawpaw and Thai basil, but the basil overwhelmed the other flavours, so I need to use less of that if I use it in future.

Evening salads, which I've been having with my main meal of the day, are where I've got more room to be more complex. For one thing, I have more time to prepare them, and for another I've avoided things like dressing, oil or mayonnaise in my lunches, whereas I am allowing myself those things in the evening. In the case of oil and mayonnaise, it's because of their calorie count, whereas in the case of dressings, I adore east Asian dressings with fish sauce in, but the salt in the fish sauce makes the veggies all watery by lunchtime.

On Sunday I made som tam, a Thai salad based on green pawpaw. Monday's meal is in the photo: koftes from our butcher, Walter Rose, plus a tomato, cucumber and onion salad with a bit of coriander on. (Raw onions never go in the lunch salad, I like my workmates too much to inflict that on them.) The other thing on the plate is just roasted sweet potato, onion and chickpea with a little cumin on, topped with tahini and garlic sauce; I don't class it as a salad as it's been cooked and is served hot, though some people might think of it as one.

I have noticed I no longer get the mid-afternoon sleepy feeling, but I also no longer get the sense of satisfaction I used to get from my lunch. It's hard to put into words; I just get an immediate feeling of wellbeing from carbs, a sense of comfort and pleasure. My biggest wellbeing-feeling foodstuff is tea anyhow, so I'm making sure I keep drinking plenty of that. There really is nothing to beat a good cuppa. It's only been a week or so since I started making an effort to eat more veggies, so there's been no real change on the weight front. It's great to be using more of the vegbox, though, and being more creative with previously neglected ingredients.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Retro recipe: Russian salad

By: Mrs Robot

Growing up, I didn't know a single kid who liked salad, because if you were British, working class and growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s, salad meant lettuce, cucumber and tomato, maybe radishes if you were lucky, all sitting sliced and separate on a plate. As for dressing, salad cream was your lot. This is, of course, a generalisation. Mr Robot's mum was working class but adventurous. He still remembers the cold baked beans she once served up as part of a salad. However, my point remains: nobody liked salad. They were, like the boiled veg served up in winter, the things that padded out your actual food, which was potatoes and meat.

Now I am in my forties, and somewhat fat, and get a weekly organic vegbox, all of which is making me realise one thing: I need to eat more salad. I've learned to enjoy it more over the years anyhow, but over the next few months I'm going to make a conscious effort to be more adventurous with my salads and get more pleasure out of that weekly vegbox. I've decided to kick off with a classic, Russian Salad.

I first encountered Russian salad as ensaladilla Rusa in Spain, served as a tapa. It seemed pretty much to be potato salad with some tuna in. After a bit of googling, I've learned that Russian salad started out as salat Olivier, a very posh salad made in 19th-century Russia by one Monsieur Olivier, which has undergone all sorts of changes over the years, becoming a staple celebration dish in Russia. Nowadays it's pretty much a 'shepherd's pie recipe', by which I mean everyone has their own version and they're all definitely different while being recognisably the same thing.

I based my salad on the recipe in 1080 Recipes, a classic Spanish cookbook. (Phaedon publishes a translated version.) That recipe contains simply peas, carrots and potatoes in mayonnaise. I included a few pods of broad beans in mine, because we've been getting loads in the vegbox lately, and some tuna, because I've only ever had ensaladilla Rusa with tuna in and it would feel wrong without it. I left the veg fairly chunky, and didn't over-flake the tuna, and the result was absolutely delicious. 1080 Recipes suggests putting prawns in, which would also be delicious. This looks like a perfect salad to make in winter too. Is there anything not to like about it? No wonder it's become a classic, in its many forms.