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Monday 21 November 2011

Dolmio Days

(AKA: Spag Bol - It Had To Happen Eventually!)

It has been my impression for many years that Spaghetti Bolognese is basically the staple food of single men. Many a time, at work, I'd overhear guys discussing their plans for dinner (at home) after work and, when it wasn't takeaway (Chinese/Indian predominately), it always seemed to be 'Spag Bol'.

It's also something I grew up enjoying fairly regularly (up until the previously mentioned BSE scare) and so, when beef returned to my personal menu, it seemed inevitable that I'd have to try my hand at Spag Bol myself... But I figured that baby steps were in order, and elected to try some of the ready-made sauces available these days.

Of course, the funniest thing about Spag Bol - and particularly Dolmio's 'Italian Muppets' advertising, asking "when's-a your Dolmio Day?" - is that Spaghetti Bolognese as we know it in the UK is about as far from traditional Italian food as you can get while still using ingredients often found in traditional Italian food. Outside Italy, 'Bolognese sauce' tends to be tomato-based, and usually served with minced beef. Proper Bolognese sauce is meat-based... and more often served with tagliatelle, or in a lasagne, while Spaghetti tends to be served with meatballs rather than mince.

So... Where to begin this pseudo-Italiana?

  • Spaghetti (approx 75g per person seems to be the norm, but amazing, high-tech measuring devices are available, just Google 'spaghetti measure', or go here)
  • Dolmio Spaghetti Sauce (1 jar is enough for anywhere between 2-4 people, and they have a range of options)
  • Minced Beef (approx 300g is recommended by the instructions on the Dolmio jars. Fresh is always preferable, but I've tended to use frozen, from Iceland)
  • Salt (just a pinch, for the water in which the spaghetti is boiled).
Preparation Time: About 15 minutes!

Tools Required:
  • 2 Medium-sized Saucepans (or 1 Saucepan for the spaghetti, 1 Frying Pan for the Bolognese)
  • 2 Stirring Implements (because you really don't want to use one for both pans!)
  • Sieve
  • 2 Burners on your Hob!
The Process:
OK, confession time: The first time I attempted to make spaghetti bolognese like this, I got the timing all wrong. I thought the spaghetti would be really quick and the bolognese quite slow, so I started out with the meat, added the sauce, and only then made a start on the spaghetti. The end result was the the sauce was all but boiled away by the time the spaghetti was ready. So... here's how you should do it:

Half fill your saucepan with water, add a little salt and bring to the boil on the hob. Dump the spaghetti into the saucepan and keep it moving. Eventually it'll be flexible enough that the whole of it can be submerged. Meanwhile, brown your beef in the frying pan/2nd saucepan and on a high heat. No extra oil should be necessary, as there tends to be quite enough fat in minced beef. This should only take about five minutes, even from frozen. Once the meat is thoroughly browned, turn down the hob to a medium heat, tip in the contents of the sauce jar, stir it in, and keep it moving. It should be bubbling away nicely within about five minutes.

By this time, the spaghetti should be almost done, so make ready with the seive. Turn off the hob (both burners!), drain the spaghetti through the sieve and serve. Serve out the sauce over the top and lo, your Spag Bol is ready!

The Results:
As previously mentioned, the first attempt turned out rather drier than anticipated, but still quite good, all things considered. The 'Original' sauce is a very rich, tomato-based affair and, in it's standard form, I found it rather too sweet for my palette. It's worth noting at this point that sugar is listed as an ingredient, further proving how far this is from traditional Italian cooking.

For my second attempt, I chose Dolmio's 'Extra Onion & Garlic' version (others include 'Extra Mushroom', 'Extra Spicy', 'Low Fat', etc.), which seemed to me to offer a better, more rounded flavour.

That said, it needs to be pointed out that Dolmio's sauces all include a range of herbs which are not present in a traditional Bolognese sauce, and that most Italians would balk at the mere suggestion of garlic in a Bolognese sauce, let alone 'extra'.

Still, to my uneducated, insensitive English palette, both sauces were quite nice (other than the excessive sweetness of the 'Original' flavour), and the convenience of having a plate of Spag Bol in about 15 minutes cannot be overstated. Making one's own sauce is always going to be preferable but, if this blog has a message, it's all about not overlooking the quick-and-dirty option.

Adding to the convenience is that, once cooked, these 'bolognese sauces' (deliberate use of a lower-case 'B', there) store very well. They can easily survive in the fridge for a few days, and be served with minimal reheating, or be frozen for more long-term storage. Quite handy if you tend to be cooking for one.

Also, by the by, since I'm terrible at doing my washing up, I found that the remnants of the 'Extra Onion & Garlic' sauce grew a fine collection of salt crystals while sitting in my 'to do' pile. The website reckons 1.2g of salt per 125g serving (which the makers equate to a 'single' serving). Other sauces go up to 1.4g, and each jar contains 500g of sauce (enough to serve 4 by their reckoning).

I'm honestly not sure if this says anything about the quantities of salt hidden in everyday foodstuffs, or if it's just a damning indictment of my lazy-arse attitude to washing up after a meal.

Thursday 17 November 2011

The Happy Egg Co. Smoked Salmon & Fresh Spinach Quiche

The Happy Egg Company seemed to pop up quite suddenly. I don't even remember seeing them around last year, and yet now even my small, badly stocked 'local' supermarket branches care carrying their eggs and other products. I do feel that a lot of these companies - particularly those specialising in pies and quiches - are jumping on the bandwagon that started rolling along when Higgidy turned up on the high streets, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Variety is always good and, as long as the competition is all about quality and range, rather than market saturation, we're in for lots of very imaginative fillings.

Which brings me to this salmon and spinache quiche. Neat, huh?

The folks at The Happy Egg Company make a big thing of the fact that their 'British eggs' are 'always free range', and also that the eggs in their boxes are not consistently sized. I suppose this is intended to assure us that the chickens are truly 'free range' and that their egg laying is completely natural rather than coming as the result of battery farm homogeny. Since I can't tell the difference between any other supplier's 'medium eggs' and 'large eggs', all it meant to me was that I saw eggs that were clearly of different shapes and sizes, though their volume appears to be fairly consistent.

Ultimately, though, it comes down to how they work in this particular quiche. Much like any ready made quiche, this can be served hot or cold and, somewhat unusually for me, I decided to try it hot. Possibly due to the smoked salmon...

Now, the first thing that tends to strike me about any quiche that lists spinach as an ingredient is that spinach ends up being the main component. I'm not against spinach in and of itself, but when so much is used it overloads every other flavour in the product, you can tell it's been used as a cheap filler.

Not so with this quiche. There's a decent amount of spinach in there, but not enough to overpower the eggy flavour of the quiche filling, let alone the salmon.

And the salmon? Wow.

Really, just wow.

I know the packaging quite clearly states that it's smoked salmon (though it does have the word 'smoked' in a substantially smaller size than the word 'salmon'), but I honestly didn't expect the smoked flavour to survive either being put in a quiche, or being reheated in said quiche... and yet it does, very well. The saltier, piquant flavour shines through, and is a great addition to almost every mouthful. By comparison, think of how bacon ends up tasting in a quiche - yes, you can taste that it's bacon, but it doesn't compare to the flavour of freshly grilled/fried strips of bacon. This smoked salmon is almost as flavourful as smoked salmon served on its own. The creamy egg filling smoothes out the flavour without in any way reducing it.

On the downside, there's absolutely nothing special about the crust... but then, that just reminds me how spoilt we are by Higgidy's seeded shortcrust pastry. Most quiches tend to have very plain bases so as not to detract from the content, and I'd venture the opinion that a quiche like this one could support a more elaborate pastry, but I'm not surprised the risk wasn't taken.

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Last Course: Burtree Puddings

Ready-prepared cake and bread mixes weren't the only things I picked up at the Real Food Festival early this year; I also picked up some ready-made puddings. Three, to be precise, all from the amazing Burtree Puddings. Being gastronaut of the strictly amateur variety, I had never heard of Burtree, but their puddings are Guild of Fine Foods award winners.

This is where I admit I'd never heard of the Guild of Fine Foods either. Ahem.

Then again, when it comes to desserts, awards rarely figure into my thinking. All I really want is something tasty, sweet and filling. Three cheers, then, for Burtree.

Of course, I've taken so darned long to write up these puddings, I've decided to group them together, rather than giving them their own separate entries, as they truly deserve, but I hope to adequately convey how great these things are.

Chocolate Pudding:
Since there's a grand tradition of fail in this blog, I shall start by mentioning that my first portion of this saucy-cakey delight was somewhat overdone in the microwave. The instructions say "heat for 1-2 minutes (individual portions 20-40 seconds) until the sauce bubbles". Muggins here didn't notice the parentheses, and blasted an individual portion (about a third - have I mentioned I like my puddings?) for the full two minutes.

It's testament to the quality of this dessert, then, that the net result of this excessive irradiation was that the sauce pretty much boiled away, but the sponge pudding itself was utterly unaffected. It remained moist, smooth and incredibly chocolaty.

My second helping (NOT the same day, honest) went better, and so I was then surprised by how generous the topping of sauce turned out to be. In its semi-solid form, it seems like a fairly slim portion but, once heated and fully liquid, the topping goes a long way - not a single spoonful of sponge entered my eager gob without an ample coating of the rich tasty sauce.

Worth noting also is that the sauce is a simple-but-effective mixture of double cream, sugar, butter and Belgian chocolate with a 60.4% cocoa solids content... Truly extravagant, but much appreciated by this particular chocophile.

Ginger Pudding:
Confession time: I really like ginger cakes. I have many fond memories from my youth of gobbling up slice after slice (after slice, etc, etc) of ginger cake, savouring its spiciness and, for whatever reason, particularly enjoying the stickiness of its 'crust'. Burtree's Ginger Pudding is just like that, but with a sweet ginger sauce containing pieces of crystallised ginger. The label mentions 'ginger pieces', but I wasn't expecting them to be crystallised, so they provide an interesting, crunchy counterpoint to the soft sponge and the smooth, hot sauce.

The ginger flavour is probably a little stronger than the average ginger cake - comparable more to the Wrights version - but the sponge is more moist, even without the addition of the sauce.

Like the chocolate version, the layer of sauce doesn't look like much but, once molten, a little goes a very long way, and it adds immeasurably to the overall experiece of chomping through a portion of the pudding.

I'd actually bought a third pudding from the Burtree stand - the Sticky Toffee Pudding - but I ended up taking that over to my folks, and not staying for dinner that day or, indeed, anytime soon enough to have sampled it myself before it was guzzled.

Both of these, as mentioned at the start, are Guild of Fine Foods award winners - the latter received the gold award in 2006, the former achieving a '1 Star Gold' in 2009. I believe the Sticky Toffee won something as well, but no longer have the packaging to confirm this.

On the subject of the packagaing, it's very much functional - none of the extravagance you'd find in supermarket products. Each one comes in a foil tray with a foiled cardboard lid, and are wrapped in cellophane. The labelling is of the stick-on variety, with the basic label being a 2-colour print, and the details added by laser printer. Heating instructions cover both microwave and traditional ovens, and the ingredients list helpfully highlights potential allergens, such as Wheat Gluten. Peculiarly, the Chocolate pudding also notes that it 'may contain date stones', though a closer inspection of the ingredients reveals that dates are present in the sponge.

As a final couple of notes, when I bought these puddings, the guy on the stall told me they keep for quite a while - the Best Before date suggests about a month - but the chances of any of these surviving long enough to meet their BB date are very, very slim. I think the longest either of these lasted (once opened) was about a week. Since they start out in plastic-wrapped foil containers, as long as they're kept according to the storage instructions, I'd guess that a month is a conservative estimate on their lifespan - literally just 'at its best before this date', but still perfectly edible long after

Burtree's products aren't available in the supermarkets, but their website does carry a list of stockists (several in London, thankfully!) and, while they don't (currently) have an online shop, they will accept orders by email, and then phone to take payment (ie. credit card) details. Their website suggests that their products are available at the Virtual Farmers Market, but I couldn't find them today... They are, however, available from Love Your Larder's market.

Friday 11 November 2011

7 Days Months of Baking: Day 5 - Wright's Parmesan & Sun Dried Tomato Bread

When I set out of my 7 Days of Baking challenge, a little voice in the back of my head was telling me "It's going to turn into 7 Months of Baking, you know... you won't keep at it, you're too lazy." And so, here we are, almost six months to the day after starting the challenge, just over two months after my last posting here, and with three Wright's mixes still to bake.

I'd like to say I've been positively rushed off my feet with other stuff and, while I can certainly say I have other things on the go right now, none of it has been consuming a particularly large portion of my time. I've just been very, very lazy.

But I mentioned that I'm lazy, right?

There's plenty of other stuff to be written up, but for the moment, let's get another stage of my baking challenge out of the way.

  • Wrights Parmesan & Sun Dried Tomato Bread Mix
  • Water
  • Butter or Oil (for greasing the baking tin/tray, or just use a tin liner)
  • Flour (only for the kneading part!)
Preparation Time: 1 hour 30 minutes (1 hour 15 if baking rolls rather than a loaf)

Tools Required:
  • Medium/Large Bowl
  • Sturdy Mixing Impliment (a whisk is not appropriate for dough!)
  • Baking Tin (2lb loaf size) or Baking Tray (enough to accommodate 10 rolls)
  • Jug
  • An Area of Clear, Flat Kitchen Surface (for the kneading)
  • Cling Film or Cloth
  • Cooling Rack
The Process:
As usual, Wright's on-package instructions are pretty much all you need. It's a very simple process, and almost impossible to screw up as long as the supplied instructions are followed. I must admit that this, my second Wright's bread mix, left me pining for a food mixer, because mixing 500g of this ready-prepared wonder with 315ml of lukewarm water by hand rapidly turns into an exercise in frustration. Once the water was basically mixed in, there was still a fair amount of the dry mixture lurking in the bowl, so I had to work it in by hand. What with that and the kneading, I must have washed my hands about half a dozen times (probably an exaggeration).

After the kneading stage comes the 'cover it with cling film/damp cloth and leave it somewhere warm for about half an hour' stage, to allow the dough to rise and ideally, according to the instructions, 'double in size'.

When I first started this challenge, I imagined that I'd do impressive things with the bread mixes... While plaiting is probably well beyond my level of skill (and patience), there was the possibility of turning the dough into something other than a basic loaf (Baguette? Pretzel? A single, large, round bun?) but, I confess, I just didn't feel up to doing anything particularly whizzy with the Parmesan & Sun Dried Tomato version. Still, there's always the Cheese & Onion mix...

Once the dough has done its time and is ready to go, an oven preheated to 210C (230C if not fan-assisted) is its next port of call. A mere 30 minutes baking time is recommended by the instructions.

The Results:
As I've come to expect from Wrights, the bread produced by this mix is fantastic. I did a couple of things different, compared to baking the Mixed Grain variety. Firstly, while the instructions suggest 30-40 minutes dough rising time, I ended up leaving it for 50 minutes, just to see how much further it might rise. The answer is "quite a lot". It easily doubled in size, and I only put it in the oven when I did because I was afraid the rising dough might actually spill out of the loaf tin. And I hadn't even left it somewhere especially warm.

The 30 minute cooking time, much like the hour recommended for Wright's cakes, might actually be a bit excessive for my oven. The crust was very thick and tough (not that I dislike crusty bread and, frankly, I'm only comparing it to yer-average Supermarket loaf, most of which can barely be said to have a crust), and just a touch bitter. The bread within, though, is light, moist, and bursting with chunks of sun dried tomato.

Given that one of the components of the mix is Parmesan (1.4% according to the ingredients list), I'm surprised by how little it flavours the finished loaf. While, obviously, the pieces of tomato are rather larger (and less inclined to melt during the baking process), I would have expected a stronger note of cheese. Strangely, though, most of the flavour in the bread comes from the tomato, so perhaps this would have been a good opportunity to add some savoury embellishments. That said, I have no Parmesan in my cupboards or fridge because I'm not that big a fan of cheese.

Had I been hoping for a better balance between the tomato and the parmesan, or just a more flavourful bread, I'd probably have been disappointed by this loaf but, as a savoury bread that is not overloaded by its strong, Italian cheese component, I'm quite happy with the results. I do wonder what proportion of Parmesan would be required to increase its presence in the flavour of the bread...

For future Wright's breads, I suspect I'll be leaving it longer to rise, but cutting the baking time, just to see how that affects the crust and the interior of the loaf.

Iceland Ready To Cook Mediterranean Stuffed Peppers

Let this be a cautionary tale. There are some things that can only ever be made fresh, and certain types of vegetable should never, under any circumstances, be frozen.

Although, technically, they're fruit... because they contain seeds within a soft, juicy outer body.

But let's not get sidetracked by semantics... Leave that for another blog.

I have to say that, when I first set eyes on these, my first thought was "why bother? Something like that would be so easy to throw together from scratch." Basically, what this package contains is half a red pepper and half a yellow pepper, each containing slices or chunks of tomato, potato, onion, green pepper, garlic, carrot and pineapple, along with 'Mediterranean seasoning' and rice (of the white and 'glutinous' varieties). There some kind of 'sauce' thing going on, because the end result is fairly moist and sticky - moreso than one would expect from just mixing all of those veg together with a simple seasoning. Maybe I'm wrong... perhaps I'll have to try it...

In theory, I knew what to expect - the stuffed peppers should have been fairly sweet, on balance, but with a sharp, savoury edge to keep things interesting.

What I actually got, after 25 minutes in the oven, was one of the worst snacking experiences I've thusfar had. Imagine, if you will, a flavour that is equal parts vegetable melange and washing up liquid. Bitter doesn't begin to describe it.

I'm going to blame this entirely on freezing... Freezing, except when done incredibly quickly, increases the amount of water in a product and, when you're talking about peppers, than can only be a bad thing. Freezing will also damage 'meat' of a pepper, making the end result softer and more fragile than it would have been made fresh. Green pepper in particular is a difficult flavour to freeze. The bitterest of the family already, that bitterness is generally the only thing to survive the freezing process, and is often amplified along the way.

Then there's the rice... Very rarely does that come out well from frozen. Personally, I almost never use anything but those handy microwave sachets of rice, because they're so convenient. I've tried rice from frozen, and it ends up either too dry or too glutinous. The rice in this product falls into the latter category.

My only other complaint would be the size of the portions: what the packaging describes as 'pepper halves' seemed far more like thirds. They were shallow and saggy, far moreso than one would expect from a true half, though I realise some of this could be another side-effect of the freezing process.

Overall, I can't recommend trying these... but they did make me want to try making something similar from scratch.

Now if only I could figure out what makes a 'Mediterranean seasoning'...