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.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Malaysia - Ping Coombes

By: Mr Robot

Having already had Ping Coombes' food on one of her Laksa nights, it was inevitable that I'd buy her Malaysia book at the first opportunity, but if there'd been any doubt, two minutes leafing through it in Waterstones sealed the deal. It looks beautiful and has a vast number of recipes that are truly compelling in that they look both instantly appealing and highly achievable. Always assuming one is as highly skilled as me of course. Ahem.

In just a couple of weeks the book had already become a favourite. Idle browsing all too easily turns into a shopping list but that can only ever be a good thing. I probably bought more lemongrass and turmeric in the first fortnight than in my entire pre-Ping life. Again, this is a good thing.

So first up, and I guess predictably, we hit the Beef Rendang. Now, we've had a fair few Rendangs over the years, all of it cooked by people who do so for a living. So the fact that Ping's Rendang - as done by Cpt Ignoramus here - is without doubt the finest we've ever had, by a mile, should tell you all you need to know. It was truly outstanding.

I think the heat distinguishes it: the chilli is almost fierce as a deep, rich background which marries so well to sweet, fragrant coconut, lemongrass and kaffir lime.

And it's not a speedy dish: Ping demands tough, slow meat and it'll take a good 2 to 2 1/2 hours to do it justice.

I've always thought there's too much of the "quick and easy..." kicking around these days anyway.

Anyhoo Ping's Rendang needs devotion and love, but repays it tenfold.

From there I moved to a snack-food double feature. There was Lor Bak, pork spring rolls flavoured with five-spice, and Murtabak, a flaky bread (intriguingly made with condensed milk) stuffed with lightly curried minced lamb, and fried.

To be honest, the Murtabak was a bit of a faff - not least because it wanted to be bathed in oil all night long. Well, yes, who wouldn't, but does the dearest heart who completes your soul do that for you?


Plus, I didn't really achieve the hoped-for flakiness, which I put down to one or more of a) oil too hot / not hot enough, b) too much / little kneading and c) flakiness of my own.

Nonetheless as a crisp outside, gooey inside, meat-n-fats-n-carbs affair it's hard to fault and I sincerely hope to one day arrange for them to coincide with a stinking hangover.

It'll be awesome.

The Lor Bak we were already familiar with since they came as a side with Ping's Laksa and we absolutely loved them.

The recipe in the book didn't disappoint one jot, and they were so good I made a second batch a day or so later.

The fact that most of those were given away to friends says much about my great heart, and tiny brain.

Then came the other inevitability, which was the Laksa itself. To be completely honest it was a, though I have no doubt that was down to me (after all, what are the odds!).

Or rather, I blame Sainsbury's.

When Ping was in charge I raved about the intense but balanced fish note. Well, when I was driving that balance was off.

The base paste calls for  both dried shrimp, and two tablespoons of shrimp paste, which struck me as quite a lot at the time. In the eating it was just too fishy for comfort, and that shrimp paste overpowered the rest of the dish.

I strongly suspect that foil packet of supermarket shrimp paste (two tablespoons was basically the entire thing) was not what Ping had in mind.

Either that or I didn't cook the paste out long enough.

In some ways though, I'm quite glad it turned out that way.  It's been a good and rare experience of having a dish as it absolutely should be, and then failing to reproduce it myself.

An excellent demonstration of why the author has her authority.

Finally (so far) I had a bash at the Captain's Chicken Curry. I don't know why but the name made me sceptical - perhaps it sounds a little contrived - but I had some chicken to use up, so why not?

One reason why not, which gave me genuine pause for thought, was the use of 20 (yes twenty) Kashmiri chillies. Since the already pokey Rendang used 15 I feared it'd be a bit too much, and Mrs Robot might hiccup herself into total shutdown.

Well I needn't have feared - it's an absolutely stunning dish. Yes it's hot but again so perfectly balanced, this time given a real edge by a good dose of tamarind contrasting with the coconut milk, while the chicken itself is brilliantly smokey thanks to marinading in turmeric before frying.

Unforgivably, I failed to get any pictures. It just smelled so amazing, from the first minute of cooking, I didn't even think about the camera. That's how good it is.

In fact I think might even be better than the Rendang. Mrs Robot isn't sure and now demands both together for a proper comparison. I can't wait to do it.

There are so many more things I want to do from this book. We've had so much great and exciting stuff already, and t's a book that gives pleasure equally in the reading and the using. For me that's about as good as it gets.

All images (c) PP Gettins

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Happiness is a bar in Segovia

By: Mr Robot

Actually that's a bit of a fib, since I'm not aware of anywhere called "Happiness" in Segovia, but if you pop into any of the bars in the city's old quarter, there's a good chance Happiness will show up, along with his good friends Oh My God and Oh My Tummy.

Segovia is just north of Madrid, about half an hour on the train, and is the city in which Queen Isabella was born and raised. She's the one who pawned her jewels to fund Columbus's Big Adventure but is more justly remembered, along with her husband Ferdinand, for booting the Moors out of Spain and thereby triggering centuries of forced conversion, bigotry and intolerance.

The Alcazar is where Isabella grew up, and the church in which she was crowned Queen of Castille is on the main square - it's the one that isn't the cathedral.

We're taking our 18yr-old American goddaughter on a tour of medieval Spain, so Segovia has been her introduction to Spain generally, and Tapas in particular. The perfect starting point not only for the history, but also because this is the land of outstanding free snacks

Bar Fogon, just behind the cathedral, is a great example. It's attached to a Sephardic restaurant and with inevitable irony has some of the best ham and shellfish in the city. Among numerous delights we were given was an anchovy and cream cheese affair that was more delicious than it had any right to be, and fantastic prawns cooked the best way possible - simply boiled in salt water, with a bit more salt on the shells.

Bar Infanta Isabella is a lovely place with deco-ish styling and served up little works of art, not least tiny canap├ęs of liver parfait, along with humbler but no less tasty tortilla, tiny filo parcels of I-don't-know-what tastiness and battered chorizo lollipops.

Across the Plaza Mayor, with a name that escapes me, was a corner bar showing ludicrous game shows (great for the language skills!) and handing out ham and vegetable croquettes and some of the best fried chorizo you could hope for.

Down a little alley near the (staggeringly impressive) Roman aqueduct is Bar Duque which is a great place for the adventurous. Previously we've had pigs ears here (a mixed blessing) but this time got a pork and tripe dish that left both Mrs Robot and the adoptive Junior Robot cold, but which I snaffled quite merrily.

Segovia is a much overlooked city, generally considered as a day-trip from Madrid (if at all). It's a lovely, relaxing place to be and while it's true the sights can be "done" fairly quickly, the food never will.

Go there, stay there, eat there. Happiness will find you.

All images (c) PP Gettins

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Retro recipe: Pork in Cider

By: Mrs Robot

Traditional cookery. It's rarely pretty, but it can be very tasty, and this pork in cider is no exception.

I've never seen any food bloggers refer to Susan Campbell's book English Cookery New and Old online. I love old cookery books, and this is from 1981, but looking back for traditional recipes. Campbell wrote several cookbooks in the 1970s but seems to have been largely forgotten as a cookery writer - though she's now the country's leading expert on walled kitchen gardens, so she hasn't lost her love of British food history. This book is divided into menus. Many recipes are preceded by a little paragraph explaining their origins or, if a recipe is 'new' rather than 'old', why it's being included in a book of English cookery.

The recipe that really caught my eye in this book was 'Grassy Corner', a pudding served at Cambridge May Weeks just after the Great War. It's a strange cross between a trifle and a charlotte, and as I love trifle and between-the-wars history, it appeals doubly to me. However as that serves 12 it'll have to wait until we've got plenty of guests coming. Instead, Pork in Cider was what I made. Layers of pork slices, separated by a mixture of onions and mushrooms, splashed with cider then topped with a layer of cooking applees and cooked for a couple of hours before being topped with a mix of Double Gloucester cheese and breadcrumbs and baked to crisp, it's far from the most attractiive thing I've ever made. Oh, but it is good. The juices from the meat, apples, onions and mushrooms combine with the cider to make a delicious sauce that will go perfectly with mash and green veg. I'll definitely make it again.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Retro recipe: hot cross buns

By: Mrs Robot

I love hot cross buns. Even though I'm not religious, they're part of the food culture I've grown up with, so I try to eat them only around Easter time. Things can become boring if you have them whenever you want. That's not to say you shouldn't have something if you really want it, just that it's a shame if everything becomes commonplace and there's nothing to look forward to.

Despite loving hot cross buns, I'd never actually made them until this weekend. I started trying yeast cookery in 2015, and this year felt brave enough to tackle the buns. Also, I have been extraordinarily annoyed by shops bringing out nonsense variations like 'double chocolate hot cross buns.'* The recipe I used was from Julie Duff's book Cakes Regional and Traditional. Oddly, the recipe she gave didn't include the piped-on cross, but the buns in the photo in the book had clearly had a flour/water mixture piped on to make the cross shape. Luckily I'd seen enough other people making them to know that the decoration needed piping on. (Kavey's Hot Multicultural Buns being the most recent example.**)

However, I'm getting ahead of myself. I first attempted the buns on Good Friday and misread the instructions on the yeast, so added a teaspoonful instead of a tablespoonful. Oh dear. After several hours waiting for it to rise, I realised my error and the dough went in the bin. On Easter Sunday I tried again with the correct amount of yeast and, appropriately, this time they rose.

A plate of home made hot cross buns
The buns turned out denser than the sort you get in the shops, though that could be because our house lacks sufficiently warm places to get a really good rise. They were also sweeter than shop-bought ones, possibly because of the sugar in the recipe, possibly because I overdid the glazing. I didn't mind that; they tasted fab and I think I will try to make baking hot cross buns something I do every Easter from now on.

** This I do not class as messing around with tradition as it is taking something traditional and sharing it with everyone, as opposed to taking something traditional and throwing that tradition out of the window for the sake of chocolate.