Unprocessed Lent – a food challenge

I’ve been thinking for some time about giving up processed foods – at least as an experiment. The time has never seemed right, but with Spring on the way, and Lent around the corner, it seemed a very Lenten sort of exercise in food discipline.

Hang on, what do you mean by processed food?

When I’ve discussed this idea with friends in the past, one question arises, sooner or later. ‘What do you consider to be processed? I mean, all cooked food is processed. Even flour is processed!’ And this is a very fair question. Everything apart from raw fruit, vegetables, meat and fish has been processed to some extent – arguably, even those have, unless you start with a live chicken or dig the potato from the ground yourself.

unprocessed-lent_7What I’ve tried to do is construct a logical ‘traffic light’ system that categorises foods purely by their degree of processing. I’m not making any moral judgement here, or asserting that one category of foods is healthier, better, or more environmentally sound than any other. This isn’t by any means a ‘clean eating’ thing (I think that’s a rather pernicious fad, and well past it’s sell-by date). It’s purely a list of categories sorted by – if you’ll forgive the expression – increasing ‘buggered-aboutness’.

There are definitely other criteria that we might want to be considering, as thoughtful, ethical consumers, and I refer to some of these in the annotations to the categories. They will colour the degree to which I’m inclined to be militant about the degree of processing. For instance, freezing, drying, and canning foods – all undoubtedly forms of processing – significantly increase the shelf life and preserve the nutritional value of foods, reduce food waste, and allow us access to fresh produce all year around without needing it to be flown half way around the globe. I would rather eat frozen peas or tinned tomatoes in February than fresh ones flown in from Kenya or produced in an artificially lit and heated glasshouse somewhere.

I’m not making an argument here that additives / preservatives / flavourings and so on are necessarily and axiomatically bad (though many undoubtedly are) – just that they are more likely to disappear invisibly into certain sorts of food than others, along with trans fats, invert sugar syrups, and artificial sweeteners, and I like to know what’s on my plate. For me, the most worrying thing about the 21st century food chain is that it introduces black boxes, and unknowns, into what we’re eating. When food is a commodity, we lose touch with our food and our farmers. As a planet, we have never been more divorced and isolated from the origins of our food. Making a point of starting from simple ingredients, and shopping, cooking, and eating thoughtfully, is a great place to start in reconnecting ourselves to the food on our plates.

Embarking on this challenge at this time of year means that I can’t cheat by drawing heavily on my veggie garden – we’re fully in the ‘hungry gap’ and there’s pretty much nothing growing just now. Where I will be benefiting from our usual lifestyle is that I have a good stock of home-made preserves – pickles, jams, chutneys and so on – which, assuming they were made from simple ingredients, I consider absolutely fair game.

unprocessed-lent_6

Why are you doing this?

As thoughtful consumers, there are plenty of important questions we might want to ask about the food we eat –

  • Where was it grown, and how was it stored and transported?
  • What resources – water, soil etc – and other inputs such as fuel, insecticides and herbicides were used in its production?
  • What are the consequences of that for the local and global environment?
  • Who produced it, and were those farmers able to work safely and be paid fairly?
  • Is it good for us, or will eating it have negative consequences for us as consumers?
  • Is it good value for money?

Different people will have different priorities. But whatever is important to you when it come to food, we are deluding ourselves if we think we can start to answer any of these important questions without first being able to answer a much more basic one. And that question is –

 “WHAT AM I EATING?”

When we eat processed and highly manufactured foods, we cannot possibly answer this question. And without that answer, any attempt to answer any of the others is meaningless. Stripping out processed foods from our diets is the first, essential step towards being able to make good decisions about food. If we don’t know what’s in the food on our plates, we can’t possibly make good choices about it – whatever ‘good’ means for us, at any given time in our lives.

It’s not Lent until the 1st of March, so why the preview? 

Well, I’m asking you to argue with me, I guess. Point out important food groups that I’ve missed, or places where you think my categories are not working or where I’ve introduced false-equivalences. I think it’s very unlikely that I’ve got this right first off. So, folks, what have I forgotten or got wrong?


Unprocessed Lent – food categories


Green
 – Fresh foods
unprocessed-lent_4Permitted – first choice if home-grown or locally produced and in season, otherwise substitution with yellow or amber items may be preferred.

  • Fresh whole fruit & vegetables
  • Fresh whole identifiable pieces of meat or fish
  • Fresh egg
  • Honey

Yellow – Single-ingredient foods simply processed for preservation purposes
Permitted – in my view these are no ‘worse’ and in some respects more desirable than fresh – they make foods available out of season without causing dramatic food miles, without significant deterioration in food value, and reduce food waste.

  • Frozen meat, fish and vegetables (otherwise as above)
  • Pasteurised whole milk
  • Whole grains (brown rice, pearl barley etc)
  • Un-roasted seeds and nuts
  • Dried pulses (peas, beans, lentils etc)
  • Cold-pressed (extra virgin) vegetable oils

Amber – these are still primarily single-ingredient foods, but have been processed more heavily.
Permitted – these foods may be starting to lose some food value compared to their fresh or unprocessed equivalents, or have had small additions of other ingredients. In exchange, they often store better than fresh, reducing food miles and food waste. I can’t see how we can do without them and there’s nothing here that would have bothered my grandmother.

  • unprocessed-lent_9Tinned vegetables in their own juice (eg tomatoes)
  • Dried fruit & vegetables
  • Roasted nuts and seeds
  • Lightly processed whole grains – white rice, rolled oats etc
  • Wholemeal flours
  • Fruit juices (fresh or pasteurised, but preservative free)
  • Skimmed & semi-skimmed milk (pasteurised)
  • Cream
  • Unsalted butter
  • Animal fats (lard, suet)
  • Natural unsweetened yoghurt
  • Maple syrup
  • Coffee beans roasted (& ground)
  • Loose-leaf tea
  • Unsweetened cocoa powder
  • Dried herbs and spices
  • Sea salt

unprocessed-lent_5Amber+ – similar to amber but more processed
Substitute – where possible

  • White flour
  • Refined sugars
  • Minced meats

Orange – foods created by traditional preservation techniques such as fermentation, curing and smoking. These are foods with amazing, complex flavours; the very stuff human food culture is made of.
With Care – source is everything here, so buy carefully, from small – ideally local – makers using traditional techniques (actual smoke, rather than liquid, for example), look for PDO products, consider alternatives & home-made. The industrially manufactured versions of these foods fall into the ‘black’ group.

  • unprocessed-lent_8Cheese
  • Cured and/or naturally smoked meats & fish (anchovies, bacon, smoked haddock)
  • Real ale & cider
  • Wine
  • Natural wine and cider vinegars
  • Lacto-fermented foods (kimchi, sauerkraut)

Red – multi-ingredient manufactured foods. These are foods that our grandparents would have recognised, and may have bought from outside the home (at least some of the time). They can often be a source of hidden ingredients (salts, sugars, fats & additives)
Avoid – unless home-made

  • Bread & bakery products
  • Fresh & dried pasta and noodles
  • Prepared ‘deli-style’ meats ready to eat
  • Sausages, burgers
  • Jams, pickles, chutneys
  • Tinned fruit and vegetables in brine or syrup
  • Tinned fish
  • Squashes, cordials, and flavoured syrups
  • Manufactured condiments (mustard, ketchup, sweet chilli sauce, mayonnaise etc)
  • Tea bags

Black – convenience, industrially manufactured foods. Our grandparents would have been mystified by many of these, or, while recognising them, would never have thought to buy them ‘off the shelf’. These sorts of foods are where all the hidden sugars, salts, and oils (not to mention invert sugar syrups, trans fats, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, flavour enhancers, and so on) sneak into our diets. Obviously, all of these foods made at home from lower category ingredients are fine!
Off-limits

  • unprocessed-lent_3Any ‘orange’ food produced industrially
  • Ready meals (including prepared sandwiches)
  • Convenience fruit & veg (bag salad, peeled / chopped fruit & veg)
  • Prepared pizza
  • ‘Chorleywood process’ bread
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Prepared sauces (pasta, curry etc) and raw foods coated in them
  • Tinned prepared foods (baked beans, pasta in sauce etc)
  • UHT or homogenised milks
  • Solvent-extracted vegetable oils
  • Margarine and similar non-dairy spreads
  • Non-dairy creamer
  • Sugar-free sweetners
  • unprocessed-lent_1Fruit juices containing preservatives
  • Prepared soups (fresh & tinned)
  • Instant noodles & soups
  • Sweet & savoury pies, scotch eggs
  • Crisps, biscuits, prepared snack foods
  • Sweets, chocolates, etc
  • Carbonated drinks
  • Spirits
  • Instant coffee
  • ‘Coffee pod’ coffee (Nespresso, Tassimo)
  • Stock cubes & gravy granules
  • Packet sauces & seasoning mixes
  • Take-aways

 

‘Tricky’ foods – additives and additions traditionally used in kitchens, and manufactured condiments in small quantities.

Additives / additions – our grandparents would have been familiar with all of these, even though, as kitchen ingredients, some have fallen out of common use. I plan to continue to use them when appropriate. Yes, some of them even have E-numbers.

  • Bicarbonate of soda
  • Baking powder
  • Dried yeast
  • Citric acid [E330]
  • Sodium nitrite [E250](saltpetre, used in tiny quantities in curing salt)
  • Sodium metabisulfite [E223] (Campden, used as a preservative and sterilising agent in brewing)

Condiments – while noting these are ‘red’ foods, they may be used occasionally, while looking for home-made alternatives.

  • Soy sauce
  • Mustard
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Ketchup, brown sauce, sweet chilli sauce

It’s just under a week until we start. Looking forward to your comments!

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A Basket of Adorables – the chicks have hatched!

It’s surprising how long three weeks can seem, when you’re waiting for eggs to hatch! But by day 18, it definitely feels like you’re getting there. It’s time to go into ‘lockdown’, switch off any automatic turning devices, and increase the humidity in the incubator for hatching. Then, you just have to wait for the longest three days you can imagine.

As it happens, a couple of our chicks seemed in a bit of a hurry to get hatched, and we had our first external pip – the crack in the eggshell the chick makes to help it breathe before the real hatching effort takes place – on the morning of day 20.

eggscapade-3_1  eggscapade-3_2

You can imagine, I was checking the eggs every five or ten minutes! The excitement and anticipation was better than a childhood Christmas. The first cheeping sound from an as-yet unhatched egg was a magical noise. It suddenly seems plausible that, inside an egg which three weeks ago would have made a perfectly good omelette, there might be a tiny, perfect little creature. The hatching process from external pip to the chick finally emerging from the egg will commonly take 12-18 hours. An eternity! But by that evening, the very first chick – a Light Sussex – had hatched. We were on our way!

eggscapade-3_3

It is advised to leave newly hatched chicks in the incubator – which after all is perfectly warm and comfortable for them – for around 24 hours after hatching. This allows them to get all nice and dry and fluffed up, from their rather bedraggled initial state. They don’t immediately require food and water, as their internal egg sac continues to supply their needs for around 48 hours after hatching. The less often you open the incubator during hatching, the higher the humidity stays, which is important because if the egg membranes dry out during hatching they become stiff and crispy and can effectively ‘shrink wrap’ the chick and prevent it hatching, a tragic fate so late in the process.

Somehow, despite the excitement and anticipation, we managed to get some sleep that night. By the next morning, we had a second egg hatched, and a third making real progress. Day 21 – ‘hatch day’ – had begun.

We had 21 eggs in the incubator at ‘lockdown’, from the 24 we had started incubating – three eggs appeared infertile when we candled them at 10 days, so these were removed at that stage. By mid-morning on day 21, things had really got going.

eggscapade-3_4  eggscapade-3_5

At various points I was rather confused about how many chicks were hatched or actively hatching, and eventually the incubator became so full of chicks that it was impossible to keep track. A quick dive into the incubator to remove the first batch of fluffy chicks made a bit of space – and revealed a problem. One egg, which I had noticed pipping on the evening of day 20, over 18 hours ago, wasn’t making progress. I could see the chick moving inside, but there was only quite a small hole rather than the progressive line of chipped open shell that develops during an active hatch, and the membranes I could see appeared worryingly dry.

I had a decision to make. Most of the advice on hatching chicks will tell you not to intervene, and for good reason. Fiddling about with the incubator reduces the humidity and will increase the risk of hatching problems. Not only that, but hatching chicks are very fragile little creatures and the risk of causing catastrophic injury by interference is significant. Assisting a chick which isn’t quite ready to hatch is likely to lead to potentially life threatening bleeding from an umbilicus and from the blood vessels lining the shell which have not properly shut down yet, something that happens in the final hours before hatching. These are all extremely good reasons to leave well alone.

Another reason is also often given – that chicks which are not hatching correctly are probably ‘wrong’ in some way, and are as a result better left to die. This reason, I’m not buying. Animals of all sort can struggle to be born normally for all sorts of reasons, but many of those reasons are just plain bad luck – they find themselves positioned wrong (in the case of chicks, they fail to wriggle themselves around in the egg so that they can get their beak into the air cell, and start to breathe before hatching), or get tangled up somehow (with littler-mates, cords, or membranes). After speedy but considered soul-searching, I decided that this little chick needed my help, and that I was willing to go against the advice and try to assist the hatching.

Very gently, using my fingertips and a cotton bud damped with warm water, I enlarged the little hole the chick had made, until the cap – the bit of the shell overlying the air cell – was completely removed. I could see the little chick – a russety-coloured Rhode Island Red – tangled up tight in a rigid dried egg membrane, which had stuck to its downy feathers. Let me tell you, I was terrified of hurting the poor little thing and even tearing its skin as I eased the membrane away with my wet cotton bud. But very slowly, I was able to tease the membrane away without any damage to the little chick, releasing it from its entanglement. Having seen what was going on inside the egg, I have no regrets about helping – I can’t see how the chick could have got out on its own, it was well and truly welded to the membranes, had no way to rotate around to remove enough egg shell to complete its hatching, and would rapidly have been running out of the energy it needed to keep struggling. But I can also see quite how delicate, and risky, the process could be – and I might have been wrong, and taken those risks unnecessarily.

The rescued chick was popped back into the incubator. Meanwhile, we transferred the first batch of hatched chicks to the brooder cage which was set up in the corner of the living room.

eggscapade-3_9

The brooder set-up is a bit ‘make do and mend’. I had bought a second hand Brinsea Eco-glow ‘electric hen’ style brooder, rather than use the more traditional hanging heat lamp, both because it has far lower energy consumption than a lamp, and because it seemed to me a more natural thing from a behavioural point of view – chicks would likely feel more comfortable and reassured by a dark warm place to snuggle under than a mysterious warm light in the sky. The brooder cage is Dave the dog’s old puppy crate, wrapped around with cling film to prevent drafts at chick height, with cardboard baffles around the edges, and bedded with newspaper and a thin layer of clean dust extracted wood shavings.

Hatching continued at great pace. By bedtime on day 21, we had 15 hatched, with six eggs still in the incubator showing no sign of activity. While I was delighted by the little fluffy bundles, if I’m honest I was feeling a little disappointed with these numbers – which would have given us a total hatch percentage only just over 62% from the starting 24.

eggscapade-3_7  eggscapade-3_6

Patience is a virtue, and I was planning to give the eggs at least 48hrs after ‘due’ just to make sure no one was running behind. The following day (day 22) two more eggs had pipped, one hatched but the second failed to progress. We noticed that the water reservoir had run dry, which made me worry that perhaps it was another ‘shrink wrapped’ chick. After watching for a while, it looked like we were getting nowhere. I decided to intervene again, and carefully peeled this final chick out of the shell. The membranes were a bit dry but not quite as crispy as the little Rhode Island. This little chick had a visible umbilicus which seems to be some sort of a congenital abnormality. Maybe it isn’t quite ‘right’, but we’re giving it the benefit of the doubt for now.

With a total of 17 eggs hatched, there was no further activity in the final four, despite leaving them another couple of days. I candled the remaining eggs and three had clearly stopped developing at some point in the last week or so. The final one seemed to be absolutely packed full of chick, as you’d expect from a fully developed egg. But there was no sign of a little beak pushing into the air sac, and no sound from within the egg. Perhaps this was the unlucky one – positioned wrong and not able to get a breath to start the hatching process.

Our final statistics, by breed, for those of you who are curious about the nerdy details –

Our eggs originated from two batches, a dozen Buff Orpington eggs from one source, and dozen mixed breeds (RIR, Light Sussex, Vorwerk and Barnevelder) from a second. Both sets of eggs arrived in the post, he mixed breed eggs came about four days earlier than the Orpingtons and had probably been stored longer.

Breed – Initial (Removed – infertile) Hatched – %

  • Buff Orpington – 12 (0) 10 – 83%
  • RIR – 3 (1) 1 – 33%
  • Light Sussex – 4 (1) 3 – 75%
  • Vorwerk – 4 (1) 2 – 50%
  • Barnevelder – 1 (0) 1 – 100%
  • Mixed breed overall – 12 (3) 7 – 58%

Considering both batches of eggs went through the post, the significant difference between the two batches goes to show the value of obtaining the freshest possible eggs for incubation.

Two days after hatching, the little treasures look like this.

eggscapade-3_10

And they’re developing at a remarkable pace. After three days it’s quit clear you couldn’t cram them back into the egg, no matter how hard you tried. Wing feathers started to become visible within a couple of days, and the chicken behaviours are all coming along, eating and drinking, pecking and scratching, preening, dust bathing, and even bickering for pecking order.

eggscapade-3_12

Ten days after hatching, all 17 chicks continue to do well, including the weaker little final chick. Fingers crossed!

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Don’t Count your Chickens – incubation, day 10

On January 5th, I put my first ever batch of eggs into my incubator, after each one was weighed, numbered, and recorded. The instructions I’ve read all recommended candling after 7 days to check for evidence of development, which would have been this past Thursday.

Unfortunately, at short notice, I had to go away for a few days on Wednesday morning. Not knowing quite when I’d be back, I couldn’t resist sneaking a quick peek with the candling lamp on Tuesday night, at only 5 days incubation. I quickly picked four eggs at random from the 24 in the incubator and was delighted to see clear evidence of developing blood vessels in every one of them. Now, four was a small sample of the total, but it was a reassuring result!

I asked my husband to check all the eggs on Thursday, and let me know his findings. He emailed me his list, with ‘question marks’ over six eggs and definitely nothing in two. For a batch of eggs that had been through the post, these weren’t too bad, amounting to a failure to develop of 1/3rd of the total batch. But it was his first time candling and he wasn’t that confident, so we decided to leave all the eggs in the incubator, and I would double-check when I got back, whenever that happened to be.

A word or two about egg candling – this is a really simple technique which quite literally allows you to see inside the egg, by shining a very bright light through the shell while sitting in a darkened room. I’m afraid I haven’t got any photos from my candling session – I was far more concerned about getting it done carefully and quickly than about documenting the process – but there are plenty of good guides online, and any book about the hatching process should also be a good resource.

Fertile egg during candling [Creative Commons licensed image by Graibeard]

This photo gives an idea of what the developing embryo looks like within the egg at around 7 days. You can see the developing blood vessels inside the shell, the dark shadow of the embryo, and the bright air cell at the pointy end of the egg. Unfertilised eggs just look bright, with a bit of a shadow from the yolk. Darker-shelled eggs are harder to see detail in.

When I got home yesterday, I couldn’t wait to double check the eggs. To my delight, while I agreed with Hubby on his two ‘definite’ infertile eggs, only one of his six ‘question mark’ eggs appeared not to be developing. That means that, as of yesterday, I have 21 of my original 24 eggs still in play.

While I had them out for candling, I also weighed all my eggs. Tracking the weight loss of the eggs through incubation is really important because eggs need to loose around 14% of their total weight by evaporation during incubation. That way, the air cell is the right size at hatching so the chick is able to breathe without drowning during the hatch process. If the incubator has been too humid, there will be too little evaporation; if it has been too dry, then too much moisture can be lost, resulting in weak, undersized chicks. There are reported ‘target’ humidity ranges for hatching eggs of different species, but only really expensive incubators directly control and monitor humidity. What’s more, cheap electronic humidity meters (hygrometers – not the same thing as a hydrometer, which measures the density of a fluid) are notoriously unreliable, particularly outside normal room temperature ranges.

Egg recording spreadsheet 2

In most cases, then, we’re making a best guess at the humidity levels in the incubator. My incubator has two water channels in the base, and the instructions recommend filling one of them during incubation. (The second is filled later, at the 18 day mark, when we want to ramp the humidity of the incubator right up to help with hatching.) But the resulting humidity in the incubator has as much to do with the ambient, climatic temperature and humidity levels. The colder the outside air, the less moisture it can hold within it, resulting in lower humidity levels inside the warmed incubator. So how do we know we’re getting it right? Well, if we can compare the weight loss from the eggs with the target of 14% over 21days, by graphing, we can get a good idea if we’re in the right area.

This is what my weight loss data looks like.

Egg hatching weight loss graph

The long lines are the upper, middle, and lower bound of my expected weighs and weight losses. The shorter lines each represent one of the eggs in my incubator. As you can see, they aren’t quite all neatly parallel but all of them are within a reasonable variation of the target weight loss. One or two are more steeply angled down than the target. When I looked to see which eggs these were, they tended to be the ones located more centrally in the incubator. This makes a certain sense, as my incubator is a ‘forced air’ style incubator with a fan which circulates the air around. The fan is in the centre of the incubator lid, so while all the eggs in the incubator should be broadly at the same temperature, the ones in the centre are getting more of a draft, and that air movement will increase the evaporation from those eggs.

Bearing this in mind, I have ‘reshuffled’ the eggs in the incubator today to bring the eggs from the corners and sides in to the middle, and from the middle out to the edges, making sure to keep them pointy-end down at all times. This should hopefully equalise the water loss from the eggs during the second half of the incubation process.

At 10 days, now, we’re approximately half way there. A lot of things can still go wrong, and I’m certainly not counting my chickens just yet! But the excitement is definitely increasing…

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Ready, Set, Go – incubation has begun!

Last Thursday, I set 24 eggs in my incubator. We ran the incubator for 24 hours to check and stabilise the temperature before-hand. I think we have it all set up right – fingers crossed!

Eggs loaded into incubator

The eggs are made up of 12 Buff Orpingtons (I’ve been wanting a little breeding group of Orps for some time), sent to me by a very kind friend, along with a little ‘lucky dip’ selection including Rhode Island Reds, Light Sussex, and Vorwerk. All of the eggs have been through the post, which is reported to reduce their hatchability. So I have no idea at all how many little fluffy chicks we might actually be expecting at the end of the process!

Before being put into the incubator, I numbered and weighed each egg and dipped them in warm egg disinfectant, which is meant to reduce the risk of contamination causing infection which would kill the developing embryo. I have a spreadsheet (which will come as no surprise to those of you who know me) where I will be tracking the weight loss of the eggs and recording fertility and candling outcomes.

Egg recording spreadsheet

Our first idea how things are going comes after 7 days, when we should be able to candle the eggs – shining a bright light inside them to see if anything inside is casting shadows –  to find out which eggs are fertile and developing, and which are not.

So, here goes. Wish us luck!

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Hugh’s on the Warpath – but is bin-shaming really the way to tackle food waste?

Last night the indefatigable Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall launched onto British television screens with a new crusade, ‘Hugh’s War On Waste’. After taking aim in previous campaigns at factory farming of poultry and against the practice of discarding fish catches at sea, this time his target is the vast scale of food waste in our homes and in the supermarket supply chain.

Let me start by saying, first of all, that I completely agree with Hugh’s view that food waste (and waste generally in our society, whether that’s disposable fashion or indiscriminate upgrading to the latest electronic gadget) is a disgrace. Perfectly edible food is wasted in the supermarket supply chain, downgraded for failing to meet the ‘Stepford Vegetable’ cosmetic standards the supermarkets insist that the British Housewife demands, or thrown in a skip when past the sell-by date. The food that makes it home with us is scarcely better off, discarded from our kitchens by the bag-full, whether this is misguidedly premature, led by confusion about food safety advice and the best-before date conundrum, or genuinely putrid, neglected and forgotten in the back of our fridges and the bottom of our fruit bowls, the victim of overbuying and poor meal planning.

Processed meat selectionThese two things, it seems to me, are very different problems; I think naming and shaming supermarkets (and other food businesses) for abusive contracts and wasteful supply chain practices is entirely worthwhile – they’ve shown that they don’t like having daylight shone on their dodgier business practices in the past – and has potential not just to reduce waste, but also to improve the situation of their farm suppliers, but I’m not all sure that rooting through people’s wheely bins on telly and shaming them for throwing away food is likely to have any useful effect on waste from homes.

Why? Well, people throw away food essentially for one reason – because they believe it’s ‘off’, and not good to eat.

Sometimes they’re right, as the hairy, slimy green peppers that I occasionally discover at the back of my fridge bear witness. But often they’re mistaken – much the food being discarded from kitchens is perfectly sound and being discarded on a precautionary basis by worried families without the food knowledge to tell the difference or the cooking skills to make great meals from ‘bits and bobs’ or ingredients which may be past their best, but remain perfectly edible.

People up aren’t throwing away edible food because they’re stupid, thoughtless, or enjoy throwing money away. They’re wasting food because they’re afraid of it. And the reason they’re afraid of it is, fundamentally, because of a huge gap in food skills that has developed in this country (and, I suspect, in many countries in the developed world).

Young adults in the UK today, if they’re unlucky, could be two generations away from the last person in their family who regularly cooked at home from fresh ingredients. Their grandmothers will have entered the workplace during WW2, and in many families, never left it afterwards. The war years with food rationing would have been inconceivably difficult, and the advent in post war years, first of domestic freezers, and then  of ready meals, would have seemed an incredible boon to these working families. As a result, many baby-boomers grew up in households where meals were rarely if ever cooked from scratch and their children, in turn, are now raising families of their own, stripped of the skills and knowledge that their grandmothers would have taken for granted, and with no obvious way of bridging the gap. It isn’t a matter of money, class, or even of general education, but rather a family-by-family lottery.

People I’ve known and worked with over the years illustrate this issue vividly. Lovely, intelligent ladies, all, and half a generation older than me for the most part. One refused to have anything in her fridge that wasn’t a sealed packet – anything, once opened and not consumed, was thrown away. My enquiries about leftovers were met with a look that I can only describe as alarm. Another fed herself, and her family, almost entirely on take-aways and what she called ‘ping-meals’ (microwave ready meals). Any jar she opened was labelled in permanent marker with the opening date and disposed of no more than seven days later – including very stable foods like jams and chutneys. Another admitted – and readers who grow their own veg might want to look away now – to furtively disposing of vegetables given to her by her allotment gardening neighbour, because they were ‘dirty, and had holes in’.

I genuinely don’t know how we solve this problem – but until we do, no amount of telling people it’s wrong to throw out food is going to make them eat something they suspect will harm them – quite probably wrongly, but nevertheless, or that they can’t see how to make into a meal. The lady with the bacon and eggs, shamed by Hugh into taking them back inside, is not, I suspect, going to eat them, no matter what she’s told. This skills gap, of course, has implications for problems beyond waste, including, most obviously, on heath.

I was incredibly lucky to have a grandmother who taught me a lot – not just about food and cooking, but in her attitude to life. Grandma, like many of her generation, considered wasting food to be almost sinful – I do wonder how we’ve come so far from this view now that we so often think of it as a normal part of life!

In the meantime, here are my top five tips for reducing kitchen food waste –

1) Buy the smallest fridge you can survive with, and the largest freezer you can find space for. And freezer baskets.

This makes sense when you think of how much perishable food goes into fridges only to be pushed to the back, forgotten, and allowed to go rotten. We have a much smaller fridge here in Cornwall than at our old house, not, initially, by choice. But by reducing the amount of fresh food we can keep to a couple of days worth of meat or fish and less than a week’s worth of green vegetables, we have dramatically reduced the amount of it that gets a chance to become inedibly past it’s best before we manage to eat it.

Sliced lemon and lime, bagged for freezingA big freezer gives you the capacity to freeze anything that you’re not going to get the chance to eat before it goes off, as well as freezing leftovers into home-made ready meals for later use. It also means you can keep a good variety of frozen vegetables which are a great, healthy, and low-waste alternative to perishable fresh vegetables.

Having access to a large freezer also means you can buy in bulk when you get the chance, and save money – but always remember to break large packs into sensible sizes before freezing – in our house packs of four chicken thighs are much more useful than trays of 20! But things can easily disappear into the back or bottom of large freezers, not to be seen for years – freezer baskets and a spot of organisation are essential to keep your frozen foods accessible and easy to find.

2) Don’t buy fresh meat, fish and vegetables from the supermarket. Definitely don’t buy ‘prepared’ vegetables.

Supermarkets sell fresh, perishable produce in pack sizes to suit themselves, not you. Then they often price them – with the help of 3-for-2 style offers – to encourage shoppers to take more home than they bargained for. The extra food may seem like a good deal, but unless it’s thoughtfully frozen, it will often end up going uneaten and ending up in the bin.

In addition to this, fresh fruit and veggies in supermarkets have sat in their supply chains for an awfully long time, far longer than you might expect in some cases – apples are stored in temperature controlled, oxygen-free warehouses which dramatically slows their deterioration, but that process cracks right on with a vengeance just as soon as the produce emerges from their enforced hibernation. Fruit and veg ‘fresh’ from the supermarket shelves often just doesn’t keep the way you’d expect.

Prepared fruit and veg – trimmed beans, peeled apples, diced mangoes, and the worst offenders of all, washed and bagged salads and stir-fry mixes – are some of the worst culprits in the food waste stakes. Despite the ‘protective atmospheres’ that these products are packed in, peeling, dicing, slicing and shredding vegetables dramatically reduces their shelf life (take two apples, slice one in two, leave the other whole, and stick them both in the fridge for a few days if you don’t believe me) making them much more likely to go to waste. And that’s without even considering the huge amount of packaging waste that also results from ‘prepared’ products.

A final reason not to buy fresh produce from supermarkets, is that their purchasing practices are pretty universally awful, full of waste and focused on supply-chain characteristics and cosmetic appearance far above flavour or nutrition.

So what are the alternatives? Well, find your local butcher and fishmonger, and buy from them. You’ll be able to get exactly what you want, in exactly the quantity you want – the quality will almost certainly be better than the supermarket, the butcher will likely be able to tell you about their origins, and you won’t end up paying over the odds, either. As for fruit & veggies your local grocer, if you have one, is ideal. That way, you can buy what you want, when you want. Veg boxes are great, but require a flexible approach to cooking and a willingness to try new things depending on what arrives in your box, so if this doesn’t honestly describe you, they may not be the right answer.

3) Meal planning

I admit, I’m bad at this one! But if you’re the organised, list-making type, it can save a lot of waste, not to mention a lot of money! If you can’t manage that, then try to keep a close eye on the contents of your fridge, bearing in mind what you’re going to eat today, and tomorrow. If there’s anything perishable in there that you’re not planning to eat in the next day or two, consider freezing it now – you can always defrost it again if you change your mind!

Not every food in your fridge will lend itself to freezing, but most will if you learn a trick or two. Meat and fish will usually freeze fine as it is. Milk, cream, butter and cheese, incidentally, can also be frozen – cream will often need to be whipped after defrosting, but is absolutely fine for cooking with. Vegetables often won’t freeze straight from fresh, but many will freeze really well after simple cooking such as dicing and roasting in the oven, or par-boiling.

4) Make and grow your own

I know this may seem impractical if you’re short on time and space, but even if you only grow a few salad leaves, some fresh herbs, or a single strawberry plant in a sunny window box, there’s something transformative about growing your own food.

Once you’ve planted the seed, cared for it, and watched it grow and ripen with anticipation, the idea of letting it go to waste is almost inconceivable. I go to great lengths to make sure I use every last thing I grow in my garden and polytunnel – freezing, pickling and preserving what I can’t use fresh – because the idea of wasting any of it makes me feel awful. That feeling can’t help but extend itself to food I buy, which, after all, has been grown with care and attention by someone else.

Tear & enjoyThe same principle extends to baking your own bread – one of the most wasted items in our kitchens. Once you’ve made your own glorious fresh loaf, believe me, it won’t be wasted. And you’ll go off the spongy supermarket rubbish pretty sharpish, too!

5) Up-skill!

Take every opportunity to improve your food and cooking skills and knowledge. I don’t mean by watching celebrity chefs on telly – that’s just sight-seeing. And you don’t need to go to expensive masterclasses or kitchen-school weekends.

Indian kebabs, servedKeen cooks are usually keen to share what they know – just look at the number of food bloggers out there! They will exist amongst your friends, your family, and your colleagues, so why not ask if you can cook with them? Perhaps there’s something else you can offer to teach them in return?

Practice. Experiment. Buy a few good cookbooks. And seize any opportunity to learn from others – from your grandparents, if they’re still with you, and other peoples’ Grannies, should the opportunity arise. Seek out older members of your family and learn what you can about your family food traditions. You never know, you may learn about a lot more than food!

Have you got any top tips on reducing food waste at home? Any bright ideas on how to close the food-skills gap? What do you think of Hugh’s approach to solving the food waste problem? Please comment below!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Indian-Style Kebabs with Yoghurt Sauce, from The Complete BBQ Book – Cooking the Books, week 23

BBQ weather returned this weekend (hurray!). This challenge is getting really difficult just now, because we’re due to move in just under a fortnight so not only is there stacks of other stuff I should be doing, but I’m trying really hard not to buy anything that’s going to be wasted when we go. So we really are down to store cupboard staples and creative substitution!

These kebabs are actually kabobs, in the recipe, as it’s a US-published cookbook. ‘Kabob’ is one of those words that just makes me laugh. I don’t know why! But let’s get on.

To serve two (four kebabs), you will need –

  • Kebab ingredients300g of good minced beef
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1″ length of fresh ginger
  • 1/2 tsp paprika
  • 1 tbsp curry powder
  • 1/2 tsp ground coriander
  • Pinch of chilli powder
  • 1 egg
  • Salt and pepper

Complete kebab mixMince the garlic, peel and grate the ginger, and add these with all the dry ingredients to your beef and mix well. Then add the egg, and mix this in. It will look to start with like there’s far too much egg, but keep mushing the mixture with your fingers and eventually any wetness from the egg will be absorbed it will all combine into an even dough-like mixture.

If you’re worried about this, you can always beat the egg first and add it in increments, but I suspect you’ll end up adding less than the mix would have taken – and if your egg is particularly large, or your minced beef particularly un-absorbant, you can always throw in a handful of breadcrumbs to rescue the situation, should it come to that!

Shaped kebabsSet aside your mixture in the fridge for 5 – 10 minutes to firm up a little, and then split into four even portions, and form each of these these around a BBQ skewer. The disposable wooden kind is just fine, I’ve long since given up on soaking them before use. I find rolling the mix around the stick doesn’t work very well and tends not to seal back up properly, so I form a sausage shape in my hands, first, insert the skewer into the centre, and then squidge the mixture around the stick to spread it out evenly. There’s no polite-looking way of doing this job, so feel free to giggle as you work!

Wrap up your kebabs and return them to the fridge for an hour or more before cooking – you could make these much earlier in the day, if you’re having a party.

Once the kebabs are made, prepare the yoghurt sauce, for which you require –

  • Yoghurt sauce ingredients2/3rd cup of plain greek-style yoghurt (conveniently, this is about 160ml, or give or take 1/3rd of a standard 500ml pot – eyeball it, the exact quantity is pretty unimportant here)
  • A sprig of fresh mint (about four leaves)
  • 1 tbsp of chopped fresh celery leaves (this replaces 1 tsp of dried fenugreek leaf from the recipe)
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • Yoghurt sauce mix1/4 tsp of honey
  • 1/2 tsp dried coriander
  • 1/2 tsp paprika (plus extra to garnish)
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Chop the mint and celery leaf finely, and mince the garlic. Mix all of the ingredients together and cover and refrigerate until it’s time to cook.

Kebabs after turningWe ran out of charcoal, so these were cooked on the BBQ over wood, which is a nice treat anyway! Be very gentle with the kebabs as they’re quite soft-textured and could easily fall apart if you handle them too soon after putting them on the grill. They cook nice and quickly – three or four minutes per side should be enough, depending on the heat of your BBQ and the thickness of your kebabs! You could do these indoors under an electric grill, if you preferred.

I served my kebabs with a crunchy salad and fresh home-made pitta bread, a big dollop of the yoghurt sauce and a couple of wedges of lemon.

Indian kebabs, served

These are decent recipes, by and large. I’d like to try the yoghurt sauce again without the celery-for-fenugreek substitution. I also think it would really benefit from perking up with a little bit of lemon or lime zest and / or juice.

The kebabs had a lovely flavour and aroma but could have taken a little more heat. Whether you agree with this will depend very much on your palate and on the precise characteristics of the spices you use. I thought mine was a hot paprika, but tasted it later and discovered it wasn’t. My curry powder was a medium madras type – again, a hotter curry powder would have done the trick I think. I suspect next time I make these, I’ll use the same spices but add a finely chopped fresh red chilli to the mix, as this will add some good fresh flavour as well as the extra heat.

For a BBQ party, these would be great served in a toasted pitta or wrapped in a flatbread with just a squeeze of lemon and a dollop of yoghurt sauce, which makes them great standing-up food!

Complete BBQ - cover**
‘The Complete BBQ Book’
Chancellor Press (Octopus Publishing Group Ltd), 2003
ISBN 978-0-753-708088
Hard cover with spiral binding, 368 pages, black & white. No RRP.

[Full disclosure: This is my book, which I bought. I have received no payment or sponsorship for this post, nor have I accepted a review copy. I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]

What can I say about this book? Well, it’s a collection, again. I hunted front and back and I can’t find an authorial or editorial credit at all, which is rather sad for the poor folk who put it together! I also can’t trace it on Amazon, so presumably it’s gone out of print now.

With over 500 recipes here, they’re inevitably going to be a bit hit-and-miss. The two I tried were competent, but could both do with some gentle refining. I suspect that’s likely to be the tone throughout. Then again, with this many recipes to choose from you’re probably going to find something to suit your tastebuds and the contents of your store cupboard!

Complete BBQ - page viewThere are a couple of highlights – a good section at the front contains a wide array of marinades which could easily be pressed into service for all kinds of different uses, on and off the BBQ, and there is a good selection of side dishes.

As it’s a US book, a set of American cup measures will save you a fair amount of mental arithmetic! Overall, I would rate it as competent but a bit uninspiring. I’ll keep it, but I don’t think you should all dash out and buy it at once.

‘Cooking the Books’ is my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – I’ll be trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Wish me luck!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Mustard and Rosemary Chicken, from Chicken Meals in Minutes – Cooking the Books, week 20

Hurray! I’ve rescued the pictures from the faulty memory card, so we can skip back and catch up with The Missing Episode!

This is rather a neat little recipe, which makes a great quick supper. It’s full of flavour, quick, fresh, and (whisper it) healthy.

To serve two, you will require –

  • Mustard chicken ingredientsTwo chicken breasts, skin on (my preference)
  • A whole lemon
  • 2 tsp grain mustard
  • 2 tsp chopped fresh rosemary (you could substitute about 1 tsp of dry)
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 300g potatoes (small new-type potatoes would be ideal)
  • 125g baby spinach leaves
  • Butter
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

A quick note on chicken, first – if you buy chicken portions from the supermarket, stop it right now. Dividing a whole chicken into portions is so easy, with a little practice it can be done in a minute or two. You will save money, and get better portions (the chicken breast portions you buy are woefully under-sized and over-priced compared with buying a whole roasting chicken), and also not be participating in the stupidity that sees the UK import white chicken meat from places like Thailand and Vietnam, while at the same time we’re net exporters of chicken leg meat. Madness. Right, rant over, and on with the recipe!

Make marinadeIn a bowl, coat the chicken breasts with the mustard, rosemary, crushed garlic, a pinch of pepper, a squeeze of lemon juice, and a little glug of olive oil, and set aside to marinade for half an hour or so, if you have the time – don’t worry if you’re in a rush, though, you can go ahead and cook straight away. I had two wings from my portioned whole chicken, so I put those in, too.

Chicken in roasting dishThe recipe calls for cooking the chicken on the BBQ (it’s an Australian recipe, after all), but for UK convenience, on a slightly drizzly evening, I chose to roast it in the oven. Preheat your oven to 180C. In a roasting tin or tray, arrange your chicken pieces. Once the oven is up to temperature, slide in the chicken, and roast for 35 – 40 minutes.

Buttered boiled potatoesAfter about 10 minutes, cut your potatoes into bite-sized pieces (or use small new or salad-type potatoes, which you might just want to halve) and boil until tender. Drain, and mix in a good dollop of butter. Your potatoes can wait now with a lid on until the chicken is ready, which shouldn’t be long.

Once the chicken is done, remove from the oven, and rest, covered loosely with foil. Pop the buttered potatoes back on the hob, and add the spinach to the pan with a tiny splash of boiling water. It will look like far too much spinach, but don’t worry, it will wilt down quite dramatically. Shake & mix the veggies from time to time, with the lid on, until the spinach is all wilted down. Season with plenty of black pepper, and a little salt to taste.

That’s it, it’s ready to serve, with a slice of lemon on the side.

Mustard and rosemary chicken - serve

There are some peculiar features to this recipe. Presumably they can be explained by the whim of the publisher, which is The Australian Women’s Weekly. I’m the last person to over-season with salt – I find it quite intrusive, if done to ‘cheffy’ levels – but the recipe mentions seasoning nowhere, and if you skip the black pepper, particularly, I think the flavours will be the weaker for it. I presume there’s a salt-avoidance rationale behind it somewhere. Likewise the recipe expects skinless breast fillets, which is bound to be down to fat-reducing, but compromises on flavour and texture for me. Make up your own mind!

The combination of mustard and rosemary flavours works really well – I say this as someone who is not historically a great fan of mustard as a dominant flavour – and the chicken does go very well with the potato and spinach side dish. It was quick and simple to prepare but the flavours are big, fresh, and quite bold without being overpowering or unbalanced. This is healthy everyday food that doesn’t set off ‘diet food’ alarm bells. I recommend you try it!

Chicken Meals in Minutes - cover**
Chicken Meals in Minutes, The Australian Women’s Weekly Cookbooks
ACP Publishing Pty Ltd, 2002
ISBN 978-1-863-962605
Soft cover (magazine binding), 120 pages, full colour. RRP £5.99.

[Full disclosure: This is my book. I have received no payment or sponsorship for this post, nor have I accepted a review copy. I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]

This is an odd little book, and one of a series. I can’t rightly remember how it came into my possession, whether it was a gift or a bargain bin purchase, but unlike many ‘collection’ books, it’s rather better than you might expect from the outside!

Chicken Meals in Minutes - page viewAs you might suspect from an Australian mass-market recipe collection around the turn of the millenium, it’s quite heavy on asian-influenced dishes without requiring a larder full of specialist ethnic ingredients; this makes it refreshinly easy to shop for in our local village Co-op! The food is light, fresh, and very suitable for summer eating. There are a variety of BBQ dishes which I will definitely return to during the course of the summer.

The lack of seasoning follows through all the recipes, and can only have been an editorial decision. Fat and kJ values are given for the recipes, but the collection doesn’t appear to have been selected on this basis, which is refreshing! All in all, it’s a nice surprise, then. Better than expected. I wouldn’t suggest you all dash out and buy it, but if it happens to be hanging out on your bookshelf, perhaps give it another look?

‘Cooking the Books’ is my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – I’ll be trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Wish me luck!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Cannelloni al Forno, from ‘Pasta’ – Cooking the Books, week 21

Apologies, first, for the late running of this blog series! Those more observant souls among you will have noted both that we’ve arrived at week 23 of the calendar and only managed to reach week 21 of the series, and that we seem to have skipped inexplicably over week 20 (technical difficulties, I’m afraid – I’m waiting for an SDHC card reader to come so that I can hopefully recover the images from a corrupted memory card!). I’m doing my best to get caught up, despite life happening in the form of an imminent house move, so please bear with me!

Apologies also for the quality of the photography in this (and subsequent) blog posts – until I’ve sorted out the memory card issues on the dSLR, we’re on iPad photographs I’m afraid!

Pasta - cover viewThis recipe is another Hubby-request. ‘I fancy cannelloni’, he said, when I asked what I should make for dinner. Now, I don’t believe I have ever made cannelloni in the eight years of our marriage (or before, for that matter), and I have no idea what put the idea in his head, but any excuse for a new cookbook is a good one, so I dived straight for this rather thick paperback tome, titled ‘Pasta’, which surely would contain the answer?

To make things all the more interesting, I’ve unearthed our recently-neglected pasta machine in the course of pre-move tidying, so why not really push the boat out and make a batch of fresh pasta, just for the occasion?

I must warn you, before you’re tempted to wade in and make this recipe – it takes an inordinate amount of time (about three hours), will make just about every pot, pan, bowl, and gadget in your kitchen dirty, and the end result is… well, read on, we’ll get to that bit!

For the fresh egg pasta, you will require –

  • Pasta ingredients300g ‘type OO’ flour (or strong white bread flour, if you can’t get the proper stuff)
  • Three eggs (please ignore the photographs only having two!)
  • A teaspoon of finely-ground sea salt
  • Semolina (optional but helpful)
  • A hand-cranked (or electric, if you’re posh!) pasta machine

Of course, you can skip the fresh pasta making and either use fresh lasagne sheets or prepared cannelloni tubes from the shop, if you prefer!

Make your doughIn your roomiest mixing bowl, add the flour and make a well, and break the three eggs into the centre. Sprinkle the salt and mix it into the eggs, breaking up the yolks, before slowly incorporating the flour. If you have hens like mine who tend to lay rather large eggs, you may need to add a little extra flour to stop the pasta dough being too sticky.

Once all the flour is incorporated, remove the dough from the bowl and kneed for about five minutes on the countertop. The dough will be much denser and firmer than bread dough, so don’t worry if you’re used to this. Then wrap the dough in cling film and set it aside for 20 – 30 minutes.

[You should start cooking the mince now, but for the sake of clarity I’m going to stay with the pasta and come back to the filling in a minute!]

Pasta machineFix your pasta machine firmly to a table or worktop using the clamp, and spread the surface generously with semolina. On the widest setting, run the pasta through the rollers. It will look like a complete dog’s dinner, torn and lumpy. Don’t worry. Fold the resulting mess in half, dust with semolina. If you haven’t got semolina, it’s not a big problem, just use flour – but you’ll miss out that characteristic texture. And repeat. And repeat. You’ll probably want to push it through the thickest setting at least ten times (this is essentially part of the kneading process) until what comes through is even textured, silky, and has relatively neat edges.

Single sheet of finished pastaThen, one step at a time, start to narrow down your rollers. The pasta sheet will get longer as it gets thinner (obviously, I suppose – but quite dramatically so!) so if it’s becoming difficult to handle, you can cut it in half. Keep the surface well dusted with semolina or the pasta will tend to stick to itself if you fold it over to handle it. As the sheet becomes thinner it should become really soft and silky – it’s really great stuff!

Finished pasta sheetsIn the end, it should be somewhat transparent (you can see the print of this oilcloth table cloth straight through it), silky and flexible. Cut out 12 lasagne-sized sheets and dust these generously both sides with flour or semolina, cover with a tea towel or cling film, and set aside. Any extra cut into sheets (or into ribbons if you prefer) and dry to use another day – hang them or lay out well spaced on a baking sheet lined with grease-proof paper and well dusted with flour or semolina.

For the meat filling (to serve four) you will need –

  • 300g of good quality minced beef
  • 50g of cold cooked ham or sausage. I improvised and used a Cumberland sausage along with a thick slice of smoked pancetta, because that was what I had available. I don’t think it matters!
  • Half an onion
  • One clove of garlic
  • Dried mixed herbs
  • 100ml of stock (I used vegetable bouillon powder, but beef stock would be better)
  • 2 tbsp bread crumbs
  • A handful of freshly-grated parmesan cheese
  • 1 egg
  • Salt and Pepper

Fry beef with onions and garlicStart by frying off the beef, finely chopped onion and minced garlic in a little olive oil until lightly browned. This will take about 5 – 10 minutes. Then add the stock, a teaspoon of dried mixed herbs, and a good pinch of pepper, cover with a lid, and simmer for about 20 more minutes. By this time most of the stock will have been absorbed and the onions will be extremely tender. Set aside in a bowl to cool.

[Now, you’ll want to start on your tomato sauce – but for the sake of clarity, again, I’ll follow through the beef filling first. Don’t worry, I’ll add a timeline at the end – yes, it really is that sort of recipe!]

Filling ingredientsChop up your cooked, cold ham or sausage, and add this to the cooled beef, along with the parmesan cheese, breadcrumbs, and egg, and mix well. The recipe tells you to taste this for seasoning, which, given you’ve just added a raw egg, probably isn’t advice that many people ought to follow – I would trust your seasoning to date, remember your ham / sausage, parmesan and stock are likely to contain salt, and just add a little black pepper.

Take each sheet of fresh pasta, spoon on some of the beef filling, and roll. Set these aside for now. Now to the tomato sauce.

Fill your cannelloni    Set filled cannelloni aside

For the tomato sauce –

  • Half an onion
  • Half a carrot
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • A celery stick (if you like – I really don’t so I don’t keep them in the fridge!)
  • 1 can of chopped tomatoes (400g)
  • 1/2 tsp dried basil
  • 1/2 tsp dried oregano
  • Olive oil, salt and pepper

Finely chop the onion, carrot (and celery, if you’re using it) and mince the garlic, and fry these gently in a little olive oil until softened.

Tomato sauceNow add the can of chopped tomatoes, herbs, salt and pepper (I used a little vegetable stock powder instead of salt to season, to compensate for the lack of celery – this is something I often do when making sauces, actually!). I also nearly always add a little splash of vinegar to tomato sauces – balsamic is good, but I prefer the fruity character of my home-made elderberry vinegar. Add about half a can of water, too.

Mix well, cover and simmer for about 20 minutes. Once it’s cooked, blend with a stick blender or in a food processor so it’s (nearly) smooth.

Assemble dish with tomato sauceYou can start to assemble the dish now – put a thin layer of tomato sauce in the bottom of your oven dish, then arrange the filled cannelloni (in one layer if at all possible!) followed by the rest of the tomato sauce on top.

But we’re still not there yet! Preheat your oven to 190C.

Now you just need the white sauce…

  • 30g butter
  • 30g plain flour
  • 600ml milk
  • Nutmeg (whole, ideally)
  • A handful of freshly grated parmesan

Ready for the ovenMake your white sauce – melt the buter gently in the pan, add the flour and stir in, and cook the butter and flour mixture for a minute or two (keep stirring). Then add the milk, a little to start with and whisk it into the roux, then add the rest and cook until you get it about the thickness of double cream. Add in some freshly grated nutmeg to taste.

Pour  the white sauce over the top of the cannelloni, and then sprinkle over the parmesan. Put the whole thing in the oven for about 40 – 45 minutes until rich golden on top and the pasta is tender.

That timeline, for clarity (you really do want to do it this way, if you do one at a time the whole thing will take closer to five hours than three!) –

  1. Make pasta dough, set aside to rest.
  2. Cook off beef with onion and garlic, add stock and cover
  3. While the beef is cooking, roll out the pasta into sheets and cut up
  4. Once the beef is done, set aside to cool
  5. Start veggies for tomato sauce
  6. Add tomatoes and set to simmer
  7. Make up the meat filling with additional ingredients
  8. Assemble your cannelloni with their filling, set aside
  9. Blend tomato sauce, assemble tomato & filled cannelloni in oven dish
  10. Set oven to 190C
  11. Make your white sauce, pour over, sprinkle parmesan
  12. Put in oven
  13. Finally pour yourself a well-deserved glass of wine.
  14. But don’t relax too much, you should probably tackle the enormous mountain of washing up!
  15. Serve and enjoy!

Cannelloni al forno

*Phew*! Exhausting or what?

So, what about the recipe? Well, I scaled it down from serves-6 to serves-4 by reducing the quantities by 1/3rd – all apart from the tomato sauce, which I really couldn’t be bothered with, since it used a whole can of tomatoes, and sensible quantities of other things. Despite this, the cooked cannelloni is really very dry – tastes good, but all of the moisture in the tomato and white sauce was completely sucked into the pasta.

12 cannelloni between 4 is too many, I think – I would probably reduce to 8 cannelloni but keep the same amount of filling. I think you could easily get away with doubling the volume of the tomato sauce, though if you reduced the pasta by 1/3d you may get away with increasing by 50%. I would add some extra stock, or maybe some wine, and increase the carrot to a whole one. I might also consider adding some ricotta cheese to the beef filling, to moisten it a little.

The recipe proofreading leaves a lot to be desired. The onion appears in the ingredients list for the beef filling but is never mentioned in that part of the instructions, so I just had to guess (I can’t see that you would want to leave it out, it seems essential to me). While I personally am willing to eat raw egg, advising tasting for seasoning after this addition in a recipe without caution is probably inappropriate.

Re-heated with extra stockI re-heated the second half of this for lunch today (adding about half a pint of good rich stock made from roasting juices) covered tightly in a medium oven. It was improved by the extra liquid, and reheated well.

I don’t think I would ever re-make this recipe just for the two of us. It’s far too much time, trouble and washing up! It is quite a promising recipe, but I wouldn’t call it good, as it stands. There are some interesting flavours and textures. I think a few rounds of trial and error and you could create something really fabulous from this starting point, starting by correcting the obvious deficiencies above – but I’m not convinced I wouldn’t be better off just finding a better cannelloni recipe!

Modulo the above, it *could* be a really good meal for feeding a large crowd, especially as you could make the cannelloni and the tomato sauce ahead of time – the day before, even (keep them separate, and in the fridge, until you’re ready to bake).

**
Pasta, Jeni Wright (contributing editor)
Hermes House (Anness Publishing Ltd), 2003
ISBN 978-1-843-099-277
Soft cover, 512 pages, full colour. No RRP published.

[Full disclosure: This is my book. I have received no payment or sponsorship for this post, nor have I accepted a review copy. I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]

Pasta - inner page viewThis is a cookbook with a ‘contributing editor’ instead of an author, and as I’ve worked though the cookbooks on my shelf, that’s becoming more and more of a red flag. Admittedly on a sample size of a single recipe (out of the 350 ‘inspirational recipes’ promised on the cover), there are mistakes, omissions, and the result, while it shows definite promise, is moderately unsatisfactory as-is.

The frustrating thing is that, due the highly-illustrated style of cookbook, someone has clearly cooked this recipe in order to photograph it – if they noticed the problems with the recipe, nothing was done about it!

I may give this book a second try, but I think there’s a good chance of this one ending up in the charity-shop pile in due course. I’m learning my lesson, though – at the end of this year of recipes, I think I’m going to be a much more discerning customer of the bargain bin!

‘Cooking the Books’ is my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – I’ll be trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Wish me luck!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

Lean Lamb Hotpot, from The Hairy Dieters – Cooking the Books, week 19

This little cookbook was an impulse purchase when it came out a couple of years ago, like many impulse purchases soon relegated to the shelves and mostly ignored. But I was looking for something to help me empty the freezer and this hotpot was just the job to use up a couple of lamb chops!

[Yes, I know I’m running behind with these blog posts! Life is a bit doolally just now, I’m afraid. But if everything goes well there might even be two further ‘Cooking the Books‘ posts before the end of this week!]

To make this hotpot for two, you will need a casserole dish with a lid (or some stout tin foil) and –

  • Hotpot ingredients350g lamb chops or leg steaks, deboned, trimmed, and cut into pieces 2-3cm in size
  • 1 onion
  • 3 carrots
  • 250g potatoes
  • Lamb stock cube (enough for 300ml reconstituted)
  • Fresh or dried rosemary and thyme
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Oil
  • Plain flour
  • Salt and pepper

Preheat your oven to 170C. I’m not on a diet (if you read this blog regularly, that hopefully goes without saying!) so I was less than entirely fussy about trimming ‘any visible fat’ off the lamb. I did trim off the biggest chunks, though!

Brown off the lambSeason the lamb a little and fry brown it off in batches in a frying pan with a little oil (just a single teaspoon, if you’re following the recipe!) before transferring to the casserole dish. I also softened the onion and *whisper it* added a crushed clove of garlic, which may not be quite traditional for a proper Lancashire hotpot!

Mix ingredients in casserole dishPeel and cut the carrots into chunks. Add the carrots and onions to the meat in the casserole dish, sprinkle over 1.5tbsp of plain flour, and mix well. Make up 300ml of lamb stock with the stock cube (mine made 450ml, so I used 2/3rds) and add this to the casserole dish, along with a generous pinch each of dried rosemary and thyme and a tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce. Finally add a big pinch of black pepper, and mix well.

Arrange sliced potatoesPeel and slice the potatoes about 5mm thick, and arrange them decoratively over the top. Add an extra sprinkle of pepper over the top, cover snugly and pop in the oven for 1hr.

Browned on topAfter an hour, take off the lid and return to the oven for a further 45 minutes. The hot pot is done when the potatoes are beautifully browned.

Serve with lovely seasonal steamed vegetables, and enjoy!

Tuck in!

**
The Hairy Dieters, by Dave Myers and Si King
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2012
ISBN 978-0-297-86905-4
Soft cover, 192 pages, full colour. RRP £14.99.

Hairy Dieters - cover[Full disclosure: This is my book, which I bought. I have received no payment or sponsorship for this post, nor have I accepted a review copy. I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]

I think I’ve been a bit unfair to this cookbook – it was bought with ‘good intentions’, particularly because I hoped it might contain some packed-lunch inspiration. The ‘lunchbox’ section at the back turned out to be rather short and a bit disappointing, and so it went to live on the shelves, more or less ignored until I got it out again last week for the blog challenge.

Hairy Dieters - page viewUnusually – particularly as I’m having to be especially fussy about using what I’ve got and not buying random ingredients just now – I had a choice between several different recipes, and didn’t need to substitute creatively, either!

These recipes are, first and foremost, good decent food, selected because they happen to be lower in fat / calories / whatever. Now, I fundamentally don’t like diet recipes, because they tend to include a raft of nasty ‘cheats’ to con the flavour back into food which has been lost due to removing fats, oils, and carbs. There’s none of this here, just normal store-cupboard ingredients; if you soft-pedal on the slightly obsessive fat-avoidance, there’s some great stuff here. From Si and Dave of ‘Hairy Bikers’ fame, I suppose that should come as no real surprise!

There are plenty of recipes here that I’m going to want to make in the future – from the cassoulet, to a selection of ‘fake-away’ curries and Chinese meals, stews, pies, and one-pot suppers. Ignore the ‘diet’ marketing, and add this little cookbook to your collection – this is a (coincidentally healthy) weekday-supper goldmine!

‘Cooking the Books’ is my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – I’ll be trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Wish me luck!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

BBQ Tikka Chicken, from Feasting on Flames by Annette Yates – Cooking the Books, week 18

BBQ season is here! The evenings seem noticeably longer, almost every day, and it’s warm enough to hang around outside until sunset. And as if that wasn’t enough, it’s a bank holiday weekend here in the UK. So really, I had to go to the cookbook collection to find some BBQ cooking inspiration.

Finally insert skewers to hold shapeI have modified this recipe slightly – the original calls for six bone-in breast pieces, but I much prefer to do a whole bird. You could portion it up and cook the pieces separately, but I think doing it whole, as a spatchcock, is much more fun!

To make this, you will require –

  • One whole chicken, prepared as a spatchcock or divided into portions
  • 6 tbsp natural yoghurt
  • 1 small onion
  • Tikka BBQ ingredients2 large garlic cloves (I used smoked cloves, as I had them)
  • 2 tbsp garam masala
  • Zest and juice of one lemon
  • A thumb-size piece of fresh root ginger
  • 1 tsp malt vinegar
  • 1 tsp paprika (I used quite a mild, smoked paprika – you could use a hot paprika for a spicier result)
  • 1 tsp salt

Ingredients before mixingFinely chop your onion, mince or crush the garlic cloves, remove the zest from the lemon with a grater or zester (or use a vegetable peeler and slice the peel finely), and grate the root ginger finely. For a smoother result, you could put the onion, garlic, lemon zest and ginger through a food processor to get a thick paste.

Combine all the ingredients in a large wide bowl, and mix.

Make incisions into chickenTake your chicken, and make several deep slices into the breast and thigh meat, to help the marinade permeate. Before you start rubbing the marinade into the chicken, it can be useful to set a small bowlful aside for basting onto the chicken during cooking – it’s important to set it aside now, if you’re going to do this, as the rest of the marinade is going to end up mixed with raw chicken juices, and probably shouldn’t be put back on later in the cooking process!

Rub in marinade and set asideRub the marinade all over your chicken, top and bottom, and into all the slices, cover, and set aside in the fridge for at least a couple of hours (longer is fine!).

You can either cook this chicken entirely on the BBQ, or do most of the cooking in the oven, and then finish it off over the coals.

Cook over charcoalThe latter is a great idea if you’re not confident in cooking large items on the BBQ – I would roast it on a rack for about 1hr at 180C before finishing it over the coals. You can check that it’s essentially cooked with a meat thermometer before transferring to the BBQ grill. For a crispy skin, BBQ the ‘inside’ first, and then finish it skin-side down. Dividing the cooking like this is also really handy if you’re cooking for lots of people, as it leaves the BBQ grill free for cooking other items in the meantime!

Beautiful crispy skinFor full BBQ cooking, I like to start skin side down, turn over after about 20 minutes, and then turn back skin-side down to finish. Keep the chicken covered during cooking, with a tent of heavy tin foil or a BBQ lid (if you have one). We have a big old aluminium wok lid which is great for covering things while they cook on the BBQ. Keeping the chicken covered means it cooks much more quickly and evenly.

Divide up into portionsIf you’re going to cook this way, do use a meat thermometer to make sure your chicken is properly cooked through – you’re looking for a minimum internal temperature of 75C at the centre of the thickest part of the breast. If you’re at all unsure of your ability to find the thickest part, then shoot for a slightly higher temperature to give you a margin of safety.

Once your chicken is cooked, divide up into portions using a sharp knife – for me, half a breast portion and a thigh or drumstick per person is a nice serving size. Serve with rice and a green salad dressed with a nice mustardy vinaigrette.

Serve your tikka chicken

This is a really subtly flavoured, aromatic tikka and will suit those with spice-sensitive tastebuds. If you like yours a bit hotter, use a hot paprika and add a whole finely chopped fresh or dried chilli (or the appropriate amount of dried chilli flakes).

**
Feasting on Flames - coverFeasting on Flames, by Annette Yates
The Apple Press (Quintet Publishing Ltd), 1998
ISBN 978-1-85076-954-0
Soft cover, 128 pages, full colour. RRP £8.99.

[Full disclosure: This is our book, which we bought. I have received no payment or sponsorship for this post, nor have I accepted a review copy. I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]

This paperback cookbook pretty much does what it says on the tin, with a good variety of fish, poultry, meat and vegetable dishes, and even some deserts, for cooking on the BBQ. These are accompanied by a collection of side dishes, and some menu suggestions, making this a pretty decent one-stop shop for anyone who wants to extend their BBQ cooking beyond the classic sausage, burger and drumstick fare we’re all so familiar with!

Feasting on Flames - page viewI like the fact that these recipes (like the tikka recipe above) are based on fresh ingredients, rather than taking the short-cuts of using prepared sauces and pastes, but it does mean the ingredient lists end up being quite long. They’re not unusual ingredients, though, on the whole, and should be in most people’s store cupboards. These are pretty quick, simple recipes, which cover a wide range of tastes and cuisines.

Is it a must-have book? No, probably not. It does what you’d expect, pretty competently, without any real ‘standout’ moments. There are, I imagine, many like it. If you get the chance to pick it up cheaply, by all means do, but I probably wouldn’t specifically seek it out. If it’s already on your shelf, and has been a bit neglected, maybe dig it out again and give it another look?

‘Cooking the Books’ is my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – I’ll be trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Wish me luck!

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>