Sunday, 28 February 2010

Colcannon soup redux

Yesterday was a leftovers day: the last of the salad and the Belgian groensoep. The soup, in particular, was excellent, even if I do say so myself, and was a nice reminder of our second "home" in Flanders.

For tonight, I'm doing my colcannon soup again, as a single course meal as I think it will be very filling. And it makes use of leftover ingredients, so it's quite economical with the rations, even while I'm putting evaporated milk (got on points) into it.

The soup is made the usual way from an onion roux made with the evap. This is made up with stock from my stock pot, some oats and some pearl barley (for bulk). In goes 4 chopped raw potatoes, a third of a drumhead cabbage (leftover from the salad) and lots of spring greens[Warning: Wikipedia link containing badly-written drivel] leftover from the previous soup. Cover with more stock and half a pint of milk, then bring to the boil, stirring continuously.

Just before it comes to the boil - and being made with milk it can do so suddenly - the heat goes off entirely and the soup will cook, covered, under its own heat for an hour or so. Drain the broth and reserve, then blend the lumps. Reunited the mush with the broth, being back to heat and serve with crusty brown bread.

In the meantime, I can put my feet up and get ready for tonight's Russell Tovey droolfest Being Human finale on BBC-3.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Asparagus and pee soup

If only to make Michelle jealous (the Rational Living household have been reduced to liver - ugh!) tonight is a winter salad: lettuce, tomatoes, new potatoes, shredded cabbage, grated carrot, you know the stuff, with some fresh heavy bread.

I've been desperate for green veg, with nothing domestic in either the greengrocer or the dreaded Morrisons. I've got a solution, though I'm not too happy with it: tinned vegetables. Now these are already overcooked and pulpy before you even start, so aren't worth much. But some tinned asparagus and tinned celery (yes, who knew?) have been added to my attempt at Belgian Groensoep.

When we go to rural Flanders, this is a standard lunch menu item you can get in most cafes, even in railway stations. It's always fresh rather than tinned or rehydrated and I've become a big fan. But I've never had any luck finding out what's in it. Conversations with waiters always run like this:

What's the soup? It's our groensoep. What's in it? Green vegetables. Which ones? Err, green ones. Two bowls, please.

It's clearly a mix of vegetables, probably asparagus, possibly broccoli (not in my version shakes fist) and on that basis, I can make it with what's available. So this is spring greens, asparagus, leek, carrot, parsnip and onion, starting from a paprika roux base. It's a blended soup, and is currently cooking without heat ready to serve at 7pm.

As you may know, there are two facts about asparagus. It's all green; the white stuff is made by putting more soil on the spear each time it grows through, so it never makes any chlorophyl. The other fact is the pee smell. You may not know this one. Asparagus has a chemical in it that, when processed, makes your pee smell odd. But there's a Venn diagram at work here: 50% of the population don't process the chemical and thus don't get smelly pee; 50% of the population can't smell the chemical when it is processed. So you can be in any one of four states: producer/smeller; producer/non-smeller; non-producer/smeller; non-producer/non-smeller.

Now go away and find a method of discovering which one of the four you are. Report back when you're done.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Use yer loaf

Still no green vegetables in the shops, but Marguerite Patten rushes to the rescue with an interesting-sounding cheese, tomato and potato loaf. Yes, there's cheese in there, but I've saved the ration and my (and CJBS's) 2oz each will go into this.

I've had the deep satisfaction of making the breadcrumbs for this (two slices into the food processor, ten seconds later: breadcrumbs. It never fails to brutally please) which are then toasted and put round a greased 2lb loaf tin.

I'm boiling some new potatoes and when they're done I'll let them cool and slice them up. I'm also making a cheese sauce at the same time. Next to slice some tomatoes.

Then it's layering: potatoes, tomatoes, cheese sauce. Potatoes, tomatoes, cheese sauce. And so on until the tin is full. Then 30 minutes in a medium oven. In theory, this should turn out onto a plate. In practice, it will be welded to the inside of the tin. Of course it will. These things always are. They only turn out neatly on to a plate on television, and that's because the food is plastic or otherwise faked (yes it is).

This is a meat-free, pasta-free lasagne in all but name. Have you ever cooked a lasagne and had it come out looking like the photo in a book or on a frozen food packet? Of course not. So I'm ready for this and will have Eduardo, our dishwasher, primed for his "Intensiv Care" setting (that missing "e" riles me) to scrape the remainder off.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

You say tomato, I say potato

The potato ring from last night was a surprising success. It wasn't the most exciting flavour ever, but it was savoury and filling, so I can't complain. The ring was actually two rings, the second being thrown forward to tonight's meal. I'll reheat it in the oven, covered with foil to stop it burning.

With it I'm serving the vegetable mince I invented previously. I've started by halving a dozen tomatoes, sticking some garlic into each one and putting them in a medium oven for an hour or so. This was so successful last time that I'm also doing this with the mushrooms and the carrot.

In a pan, I'll melt a small amount of my combined fat ration - well under an ounce, perhaps just half a teaspoon. I'll fry off some onions, then add the roast mushrooms. A little gravy powder to make a roux, then two thirds of the tomatoes. Add chopped potato and leave to slow cook covered. At the end, I'll add some gravy browning to give it the mince colouring.

With the remaining tomatoes, I'm making cream of tomato soup. I'll melt another tiny piece of fat and fry off some more onion, make a roux, add some stock, the usual. In with the tomatoes and the ubiquitous chopped potato. In with a small tin of evaporated milk (on points but worth it) and top with stock. Bring to the boil and leave to cook (off the heat if I've got time) until the potato is cooked. Strain the veg out and blend (or pass through a sieve). Reunite the soup and the pulp, bring back to the heat and serve.

Meanwhile, the stout from last night was very nice, although I could taste it all day whenever I burped, so I'm having another pint tonight. In further news, I had blood tests the other week for my high cholesterol (due to genetics, not due to a high fat diet). It's much reduced, thanks to six months of statins and the World War Two rationing of fat - the latter making my doctor cry with laughter at the very thought. So perhaps this is insanity, after all: even the medical establishment thinks I'm mad.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Ring a ring o' potatoes

The leek and potato soup continues to provide, now into its third day. It was a chunky soup, but in a desperate search for variety I've now blended it to provide a new texture, if not a new flavour.

For a main course I'm doing a Marguerite Patten dish, prosaically called "potato ring". Her recipe takes three large potatoes, some flour, some seasoning and a little dripping, has you grate the potato, mix in the flour and seasoning, form into a ring and brush with the dripping. Then you bake it in a medium oven for 45 minutes.

As ever with La Patten's stuff, the recipe seems plainer than it needs to be. My version therefore adds a grated carrot and a grated onion into the mix. Because I'm using the grater attachment of the blender rather than doing it by hand, I don't need the flour to bind the ring: the potato is still wet and that does the job. Instead of the seasoning, I've gone with a dusting of the Hungarian paprika I got from Fortnum and Mason's a month ago and some salt. Other than that, it remains the same process: form into a ring, brush with melted marg (not dripping, ugh) and bake in a medium oven for 45 minutes. The result is basically a rosti, but in a ring.

Patten suggests steaming some fresh green vegetables to serve in the centre of the ring, and I really like that idea. But I can't get fresh green vegetables other than cabbage and leek, since I won't buy imported food. I've been craving broccoli (no, honestly) but it's Spanish only in Morrisons and the greengrocer. That forces me into using meat for the middle: sausage for me, but Spam for CJBS, which I'll fry. Onion gravy for both completes the meal.

In other news, whilst booze was not rationed, it was hard to get in 1945, so I'm playing along with that insane idea for some reason. Having had nothing this week so far, I'm allowing myself a pint of milk stout tonight. So, here's to alcohol: the cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Deja vu all over again

And so it begins, again. And, for a project that makes so much use of leftovers, appropriately it begins with leftovers.

One of the main things I learnt from last month is that these meals can be dull and repetitive, but if you always try to serve two courses with each meal, you make up for that. A good trick has been serving yesterday's main course as a starter today; and then doing the same the next day and so forth.

This being Day One, I'm not able to quite do that, but tonight's menu will allow it to happen from tomorrow. We ate out on Saturday, a lovely last cooked-by-someone-else meal in a restaurant in York, courtesy of my mum. But Friday's leftovers are still available for CJBS. Friday's dinner was "a bake", a non-specific title for a non-specific meal; it was also made from leftovers, in this case Thursday's baked potatoes.

I chopped up the remaining potatoes, an onion, 3 sausages and a good helping of mushrooms. I also had a can of celery hearts, which I drained and fried with a little butter. I put the chopped veg and sausages into a baking dish, poured the celery hearts over the top, then cooked the lot in a low oven for two hours.

For CJBS, the remains of his meat version of this will be his main course today (I ate all of my veggie sausage version). For my main course, and as a side dish for CJBS, I'm making something halfway between colcannon (mashed potatoes with cabbage) and champ (mashed potatoes with onion), or perhaps better to call it a combination of both (colchamp? Champcannon?). This must actually have a real name, as I can't be the first to have discovered the possibility of blending the two!

For the starter, it's cream of leek and potato soup, using new potatoes for a change. Since this starts with a roux that uses the same amount of fat if you're doing a single serving or doing a giant pot, I'm doing a giant pot; for tomorrow, this will be the main course with some bread or croutons, and a small salad (or leftover colcannon-champ thing, if any) to start. And so does it begin, again.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Don't snow on my parade

The pasta bake I started prepping on Saturday and completed on Sunday was a great success, if I do say so myself. I'd said earlier in the experiment that I'd discovered that roasting tomatoes was A Good Thing and this serves to prove it.
The tomatoes, roasted without fat but with garlic and basil, gained a very deep flavour that helped when making the mush for the ragu.

The resulting bake is not suitable for when rationing starts again in 6 days, as can be guessed from the amount of cheese visible here (indeed, the way the cheese looks on these two photos is so nice, it's my sole excuse for including them).

But I learned a really vital lesson with the ragu attempt. By roasting the tomatoes, then adding them to dry-frying onions and mushrooms, then blitzing the result in the blender, I accidentally invented vegetarian mince!

Of course, vegetarian mince already exists, in the form of TVP, Quorn and a couple of other meat-like substitutes, some of which are almost very nice. This new mince, however, actually manages the texture of mince without the whole soya/tofu shebang, making the world a better place and reducing household emissions of methane.

The baked version I've done is still much more a bolognaise than actual mince, but when I do it again - and I will - some gravy powder will de-tomato it and some gravy browning will make it look and taste very mincy indeed. In theory, that adds at least two meals with no points or coupons for next month: the Scottish (but still nice enough) mince and tatties and, with a bit of firming up, meatballs! While I think on, I could even make beef sausages from it (roll the mince in breadcrumbs and grill). Or sloppy joes. Or rissoles!

As you can tell, I'm very excited about this idea. Just keep your fingers crossed that there will be no shortages of tomatoes or onions... Bugger. Just looked at a long-term weather forecast. Snow again around here next week. That's not good.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Pasta whilst baked

With a week to go until rationing restarts, I'm doing some experimenting. Last month, I made an anachronistic pasta dish, making a wartime-standards dish out of something that wasn't eaten at the time - although there's no reason beyond British conservatism as to why not.

I'm trying it again, as a bake this time, based on what I've learned from a month on rations and from the last version. This time I'm actually being more authentic, as I used strained tomatoes last time but I've roasted whole tomatoes for this version. I made a tomato soup last month with roasted tomatoes and it really worked well, giving a "depth" to the flavour that tomatoes themselves sadly lack: too many restaurant meals have tomato sauces that taste of - and are - tinned tomatoes warmed up.

Actually, to digress, about 15 years ago I was staying in a hotel in Edinburgh whilst working on behalf of Lloyds Bank to close down and kill off their TSB subsidiaries. On the first night, exhausted by the world's most awful flight (I never flew again), my colleagues decided to eat in. There was a single vegetarian option, which turned out to be creamed mushrooms with mushroom risotto on a bed of fried mushrooms. My boss, the other vegetarian in the party, hated mushrooms and she instructed the kitchen to make something else (this was the reason she was the boss - they did, without question).

The chef said he'd make "penne arrabiata". What arrived was a bowl of spaghetti, still swimming in salt water, with a tin of chopped tomatoes on top. And a basil leaf (which turned out to be a mint leaf). Debs ate it, but refused to pay for it. And also got the wine we had comped as well (she really was a very good boss). It'd be very wrong of me to mention that this anonymous hotel was part of Best Western at this point, and worse still to recommend that people reading this don't ever, ever stay at a Best Western with their singularly unhelpful staff, bowls of rotting fruit in the rooms, damp towels with unfortunate brown stains and televisions with problems with horizontal hold, so I won't ask you to join my 15-year boycott of Best Western hotels and will leave you to decide for yourself whether you want to stay with the awful, awful Best Western chain or not in future.

Back on topic. The last pasta dish I made was simply not as filling as the wartime staples we'd been eating until then. So this one needs to be, ready for next week's hell-month. I took a dozen tomatoes, halved them and pushed garlic into the soft bits, then sprinkled finely chopped basil on top. A very slow oven, 3 hours.

Then I all-but dry fried a sliced onion. I used an almost unmeasurably small amount of butter to start it off - perhaps a quarter of a teaspoon. Unsurprisingly, the onion started to burn very quickly, so I added half a dozen mushrooms (quartered) and started on the unstoppable stirring. If nothing else, this project is giving me a right arm with muscles on it not seen since I was last enthusiastically over-using my right arm when I was 13.

When the mushrooms had softened, I sloshed in half a third-bottle of red wine (oh, the maths... that's half of 1/3 which is, er, one sixth of a real bottle, I believe) and let the alcohol burn off: if you're cooking with wine, don't slosh it in at any old point like in sitcoms; you want the wine in early to get the alcohol content burnt off while you're still cooking at a higher heat. Leave the alcohol still in the food and you're just asking your eaters to inhale fumes.

Then goes in the tomatoes, and more stirring to get them mashed up. Then it's a handful of oats; if I was making a pour-on sauce, the oats would've been before the wine, but I don't need to worry about fat globs in a bake. Finally, a sliced potato, some very very anachronistic black olives and some basil leaves. Bring back to the boil, cover and take off the heat to let everything cook in its own time. I also added a dash of Maggi, but a small amount of Bovril, a smaller amount of Marmite (or none, that's fine too) or even an intense bouillon cube will help at this point.

I'll run the cooked-but-cold mixture through the blender at the end, to make a ragu for my pasta bake. At this point, the rationing fails somewhat, as I'm going to top it with cheese (2oz per person per week does not make for cheese-topped anything from next week). Cook the pasta until it's al dente (literally "at the teeth" but more accurately "slightly underdone"); drain and mix with the blended roast tomato ragu. Put it in an oven-proof dish.

Now for the cheese sauce. White and cheese sauces are easy. There's a mythology that they're difficult because, in very complicated gourmet recipes, they're often sprung upon the unwary cook. Also, that awful Delia woman has published so many "here's a white sauce you can't get wrong" screeds that everyone now thinks white sauces are actually traps set before them. I was lucky: I had my mum to say: don't be scared of it. And she's right: don't be scared of it.

Start by melting some fat. You can't have too much, so don't worry. You will also rarely have too little, but that's not a problem either. It's easier with a lower heat, but with a higher heat it works too, you just need to be quicker with adding the ingredients. Add some chopped onion to the melted fat. It's not essential, but it really helps to know where you're up to. The onion should be allowed to go translucent but not burn (ie, if it starts to burn before it's translucent, turn the heat down).

Now sprinkle in some flour. It really doesn't matter what type. Cornflour thickens quickly, plain is more filling, self-raising may grow alarmingly. Oatmeal or even oats will work here, but slowly. Stir until all the fat is gone. Still some fat? Add more flour and stir. Still some fat? More flour again. Just keep going. You can't add too much (unless you drop an entire bag in, in which case, you're not ready for non-peel-back-and-stir cooking). Eventually, all the fat is gone and the onion is completely coated. Splash in some milk. Stir. The onion-flour combo will absorb it all. Splash some more in. Stir. It'll all go again. Keep at this until adding milk stops making more paste and starts making thick liquid. There's your roux.

For a white sauce or a soup base, you can now start adding your ingredients. For a cheese sauce, start stirring in grated or small cubes of cheese. Feel free to add more milk, water or stock if it starts to go back to being a dough. Remember, you're not scared of it. Eventually, you'll have either ingredients covered in paste or gluey cheese paste. Either way, add milk or stock until it's the ideal consistency. If it gets too liquid, let it cook uncovered for 10 minutes or so until it reduces.

For the meal I'm making, I'll get a thick sauce at the end to pour over the tomato and pasta from earlier ( I hope you were taking notes). Grated cheese on top (now; not when rationing begins, obviously) will provide a crust; and into a medium low oven until the sauce bubbles and the grated cheese browns.

Of course, I'm doing this all as prep for tomorrow. I'm alone tonight and was planning on having hot dogs or something similarly cheap n' easy tonight. But this post took two hours to write, in which time I accidentally drank 3 litres of cheap cider. So I might go to bed instead of having dinner.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010


I finally had the much-craved pizza. With four cheeses. And olives. And jalapeƱo peppers. Oh, but it was nice.

But now it's back to versions of rationed foods before rationing kicks back in in a week and a half. So today it's fish (and faux fish for me) made using the recipe from last month - baked white fish in bacon breadcrumbs.

This recipe won't be possible under the 1945 rations: 8oz of bacon a week becomes 4oz, effectively 4 slices. These 4 slices will feel slightly wasted if two are used just as a breadcrumb flavouring. However, if I ate meat (or fish, for that matter) it'd make more sense: this recipe produces a huge helping, enough for two if you ratchet up the vegetable sides a bit.

This recipe does make very good use of the fat in it - a knob of marg and that in the bacon - by soaking it into the bread and then releasing it into the fish as it bakes. Rationed food often tries to make a lot from a little when it comes to fat. The majority of people in the Western world are either carefully watching their fat intake or should be. Manufacturers also watch fat carefully, trying to get as much in as possible into most foods, often in hidden (and dangerous) ways.

Rationing has had me look at fat from the opposite direction: instead of fearing it, counting its calories or failing to notice it, I have (and this metaphor doesn't work) embraced it. With a need for some fat, if only to start off most recipes, but almost none available, I use it carefully, wisely even, and get pleasure from using the least possible and reusing it whenever I can.

I'm now carefully watching my fat intake, but in order to eke it out or even increase it where possible. This is actually a luxury; but anyone wanting to lose weight should consider such a different view. It'd make a change from the sight of larger people filling a trolley to bursting with "diet" and "low fat" foods: if you buy and eat 5 "low fat" cup soups in one go, you don't lose weight - you still get a lot of fat and don't get filled up. So you snack, getting a still greater fat intake; and next week you buy even more "low fat" food and eat more of it... all without losing weight.

I suppose this is really an argument for cooking from fresh rather than buying ready meals. I know not everyone can cook; and not everyone has time to cook. But food isn't just a refueling exercise. Learn to cook just one meal well and you've learned to cook anything. 90% of cooking is confidence (and the other 10% is presentation).

If only we in Britain hadn't got rid of home economics lessons to save money. It has cost us so much more.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Everyone likes a sausage

After the binge of fried stuff and fats last weekend, we settled down into ration-style food again quite quickly. I made a large cream of mushroom soup, padded out with potato, oats and pearl barley that lasted several days. It had Boursin soft cheese in it, so drifted from rationing slightly, but was back on track in the wholesomeness stakes.

A large winter salad over two nights followed, again drifting because of the large amount of cheese and the Hungarian paprika dressing I made (where has Hungarian paprika been all my life? Thank you, Dave, thank you thank you thank you!)

Tonight it's a sausage pie that would work well in wartime, although, with rationing off until later this month, I've made it more to modern standards. At heart, this pie is actually a sausage casserole, becoming pie only at the last minute.

In a moment of weakness, I bought pre-made pastry rather than making my own, and if I make this during rationing, I'll do the potato pastry I liked so much last month. I peeled, diced and brought to the boil two potatoes, then lined the pie dishes with pastry. When the water boiled, I took the potatoes off the heat and left them in the water to one side.

I finely chopped one onion and roughly chopped another, then melted some margarine in a frying pan. From this point on, I was actually making one vegetarian version and one meat version, but the process is the same and I'll not boast about my amazing skills at multitasking.

I started the finely chopped onion in the melted fat, then added the sausages. These I cooked slowly, on the smallest gas ring, so I didn't need to prick the skins. When the sausages were browned, I removed them with tongs and added gravy powder (which is basically cornflour and onion powder) to soak up the remaining fat, then made a roux with some pureed tomato. I topped this up with more tomato until I had a good liquid base.

If I was making a sausage casserole, this would be the point to combine the sausages, the rough onion, the diced potato and the tomato base and put the lot in the oven. But I wasn't. So instead I chopped each of the sausages into three.

By adding some instant gravy to the tomato base, I caused it to thicken. In wartime, I'd've used some cornflour in water made up in a cup and added that for the same effect.  I drained the potatoes, then added them, the rough onion and the copped sausages to the tomato base, mixed well and put them into the pastry-lined pie dish. I then topped the pie off with puff pastry - a real indulgence in wartime - brushed the top with a little milk and then tried to find creative ways to make sure I had no wasted pastry off-cuts.

These can now sit until I'm ready to cook them - best in a slow to moderate oven for as long as possible. I'll serve with leftover new potatoes from the salad and, depending on how saucy the sauce is, perhaps some onion gravy.

Edit: and here it is cooked and partially eaten...

Oh, and another reason to go back on rations: it saves crushing disappointment. Earlier in the week, I bought some Morrison's cheese-topped garlic bread slices as a treat. If I'd still been on rations, I dare say the cheese would've been downright generous. But I wasn't, and it wasn't. For shame.

Friday, 5 February 2010

We're doing it again

Okay, okay! Quiet down, you lot.

This experiment was a great success as far as I can tell. CJBS lost weight; I lost girth whilst staying almost the same weight (but why??). I used less than every ration and invented or adapted many new recipes. Altogether, it was a success by every measure.

And then I went back to the old ways. We'd both fantasized about chips (fries) and had them on Saturday. We'd both dreamed (literally) of nachos and had them on Monday. We'd both really wanted a full-blooded chilli and had one on Tuesday.

And I paid for it. The fat of the chips came out on my skin immediately, along with a teenager-style crop of zits. The nachos disagreed with me entirely. The chilli... well, just don't ask. A month of wholesome, home cooked, slow cooked, virtually fat-free food had suited my body in every way. The opposite certainly didn't.

CJBS felt the same. We felt far, far worse on the "normal" food than we did on the ration. So we're doing it again. And this time: it's personal.

I still need to poison myself a little bit more - I'm pizza deprived - but we're going to restart the experiment. On Sunday 21 February, rationing will kick in again for a month (first class Eurostar to Brussels in the last week of March will thus be allowed for). And to make things more, er, interesting, we're not doing the 1940 rations this time. Oh no. We're doing February 1945. This isn't the lowest things got - 1942 and 1946-7 were the low points - but it's serious.

We'll each have 8oz (200g) of sugar a week (half of 1940), But the standby of jam, and we had huge amounts on 1940 rations, is down to 4oz (100g) a week - the factories had been bombed out. Fat is 8oz in total - that's butter, marg and dripping, previously 8oz, 12oz and 3oz each. Cheese is 2oz (50g) which is effectively nothing. Bacon is 4oz - half of 1940's ration again. Tea is the same at 2oz a week, and we get just under an egg a week. Our points will be the same, since I did the 1940 points on the only source I had, which was May 1945. Gone is the sweets ration, combined into the points but effectively unavailable.

Red meat dropped from 1s 2d in 1940 to around 1d a week. Allowing for inflation, that takes us from £1.68 to about £1.20. CJBS suggests declaring himself a vegetarian in order to boost cheese and fat. I'm not sure and will need to think on. But whatever I decide, the plan is back on...