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Wednesday 30 January 2013

Quorn Bacon Style Slices

Without intending it, the latter part of this month has become something of an exploration of Vegetarian food. There are a couple of other things I'm intending to write up in future but, for now, I'm going to finish the month with one of two Quorn products I picked up recently in Waitrose.

The one I'm going to gloss over is their 'Ham Style Slices', affectionately know as sHam. Those slices don't smell like ham, they don't taste much like ham, and the texture is a bit spongy... but if you're a Vegetarian, yet unaccountably hankering after a ham sandwich, they're probably about the best you can do.

The one I'm going to go into more - but not much more - detail about is their 'Bacon Style Rashers' because, being a fan of both bacon and puns, I decided to make myself a very basic all-day-breakfast for dinner this evening... So I give you... Scrambled Eggs & Faken (Facon? I'm not sure of the best spelling for a contraction of 'fake bacon').

What you get in the pack is eight rectangular slices of flavoured, coloured mycoprotein that just don't look like food. Certainly not like bacon. I can understand why they wouldn't go to the trouble of marbling the colour, to look more like streaky bacon, but if the idea is to replicate bacon as closely as possible, they're certainly missing a trick.

Another issue with this stuff is that it has to be fried... No grilling allowed (though I'll probably give that a try, just to be sure). OK, frying is an option with regular bacon, but there are several other options too. Add to that the fact that the instructions state that the frying pan should be 'lightly oiled', when bacon - technically - needs no additional oil since it's own fat will generally suffice. The other drawback to frying-only is that if, like me, you're aiming to serve these strips of meat substitute with scrambled eggs, you basically need two frying pans, and need to be simultaneously operating two burners on your hob. Still, it's very quick - the instructions reckon only one minute per side, or until it's lightly browned.

Once it's done, what you have is a bunch of strips of a very strange substance that looks uncannily like a cross between leather and cardboard. Appetising it ain't. It doesn't crisp the way real bacon does, so it just as floppy cooked as it is when 'raw' but, equally, it doesn't dry out... Swings and roundabouts, I guess.

Flavour-wise, it's very subtle. Compared to your average supermarket-own-brand bacon flavour crisps, there's very little flavour at all, but what's there tastes more like real bacon than the aforementioned baked snacks. That said, just to give you an idea of how subtle the bacon flavour is, I served these up with basic supermarket eggs - the kind which are never renowned for their flavour - and yet the flavour of the eggs overloaded the bacon substitute in each and every mouthful.

That said, what it lacks in immediate flavour, it makes up for (if you can call it that) in aftertaste and... er... repeat value.

Overall, this is a bit of a failure... it doesn't emulate bacon well enough in any area, least of all strength of flavour. The fact that it's molded in a shape that's not dissimilar to streaky bacon, yet is coloured a solid pink means that it looks completely (and suspiciously) artificial. It might fool someone who turned vegetarian many years ago and misses bacon - just not enough to, y'know, cook up some bacon - but it's a pale imitation in every sense.

Well... at least the eggs look appetising...

Sunday 27 January 2013

S&M Rodeo #11: Linda McCartney Vegetarian Sausages

I can remember trying vegetarian sausages many years ago, during my 'vegetarian' phase, and not really liking them. There's something unique about the humble sausage which necessitates that they contain meat. It doesn't even have to be pork, just some form of meat. In many ways, it's the fat, not the meat, that makes the sausage... depending on recipe, and your mileage may vary ;)

Vegetarian sausages, back in those days, were made from a fairly dry and dense mycoprotein which was packaged as a substitute for anything from chicken to beef, with varying degrees of success. The early attempts at sausages looked, felt and tasted like something you might use to get a log fire started. I steered well clear of them after that.

Cut to earlier this year, out shopping with my girlfriend (who's vegetarian). She pointed out some meat-free Lincolnshire sausages, noting that they were "a bit dry". While I was nonetheless tempted to give them a try - not least because the vegetarian sausages I tried all those years ago weren't made with any particular recipe in mind, let alone the illustrious Lincolnshire recipe - they were not among the products in my basked at the checkout.

That must have stuck with me because, while doing one of my semi-regular spins around my local Iceland, I espied their (very slim) offerings from the Linda McCartney range of meat-free foods and, in particular, the sausages. In the photo, they look fantastic - succulent, well-browned... and tossed in with lots of onions.

And it was only a matter of time before S&M Rodeo tried batting for the other team, so to speak.

Like most Iceland products, these are to be cooked from frozen, yet still only require the same time and temperature as normal sausages, purchased fresh. Moreover, they can be grilled or baked, though baking somehow takes longer, and requires a higher temperature (which reminds me - why do baking instructions always specify a precise temperature, while grilling is either "low", "medium" or "high", when lots of conventional oven/grill combos use the same kind of temperature dial for both?), so I took the usual route of grilling my sausages.

Here's where it gets a bit weird, though. Normal sausages will tend to be packaged in sixes or eights... Linda McCartney sausages are boxed in fives. This is highly irregular, and causes a significant problem in creating the right portion size: Normally, I'd have either three or four sausages - half a pack - but that option wasn't open to me with a five-pack. The package even defines a portion as 2 sausages, but that's the sort of portion my niece gets. No matter how many times I crunched the numbers, no matter which complex formulae I chose, I still came up short...

...So I cooked all five.

What I noticed during the grilling was that these sausages, like their meat-filled cousins, were giving off fat and, yes, the ingredients list vegetable oil. This suggested to me that the dryness issue had been solved, though these sausages are wheat protein-based, rather than mycoprotein, so there's likely a difference anyway.

After about 15 minutes, I served up my five meat-free sausages with a nice portion of mash and, just in case, a small serving of gravy. As it turned out, the gravy wasn't necessary but, as with plain sausages, it was a source of more flavour as opposed to the source of all flavour.

The texture of these things isn't quite what one would expect from a sausage - it kind of reminded me of spring rolls in that, when dipped into the gravy, bits of not-sausagemeat dropped out, needing to be mopped up later. They cut very well, however, and are without the tough, occasionally rubbery skin that can often ruin an otherwise excellent sausage. The flavour isn't particularly sausage-like either or, at least, I couldn't pin down a particular variety they tasted like. As far as the ingredients go, flavourings are listed as containing dextrose (AKA sugar), salt, onion, yeast extract and, just for fun, iron oxide (AKA rust) as the colouring. These sausages also contain what's called 'rusk', which is used as a cheap filler in all kinds of sausages... So... Fairly authentic, even if they don't really taste that much like a proper sausage.

I must admit that I really enjoyed these and, for £1 a box, it's nice to be free from any concerns about meat quality while eating a plateful of sausages. Quantity is certainly a issue, as I'd basically have to buy two boxes to ensure a proper portion each time but, then, at only £1 a box, that's hardly going to be a problem.

STOP PRESS: a brief perusal of the shelves at my local Tesco revealed that, weirdly, 5-packs are an Iceland exclusive. The more widely available 6-packs are vastly more expensive, however. £2.25 at Tesco, £1.89 at Sainsbury's, £1.75 at Waitrose (who, strangely, have an alternate entry on their website, listing as £1.99). This means that's it's more economical to buy two of Iceland's 5-packs than it is to buy from any of the 'big three' alternatives and while Asda are, at this moment (29/1/13), offering 2 for £3, it's still more economical to buy from Iceland, as your £3 there will obtain 15 sausages, versus 12 at Asda... and that's a whole extra portion!)

Saturday 26 January 2013

Sainsbury's 'Italian': Spinach & Ricotta Tortelloni and Tomato & Basil Sauce

Normally, I tend to avoid pasta dishes that aren't basically ready-meals because they always seem like such a waste of effort to make, since the timings tend to be so delicate that each component has to be dealt with separately yet simultaneously. Such concerns tend to become less important when (a) I just really fancy some pasta and (b) such products are on special offer.

Just to keep things simple, rather than use two different saucepans and deal with the resultant extra washing up, I decided to take advantage of the microwave option for the sauce. This turned out to be quite a worrying option, because the microwave started to sound as though it was possessed - thumping and groaning for no obvious reason (the hissing could be explained - lots of steam came out of the tub) - and, predictably, the sauce did start to spit out all over the interior. Still, it was easy enough getting it heated up - requiring only a bit of stirring halfway through - and my microwave didn't explode, so I'd call that a win, overall.

The tortelloni was of the 'fresh' variety, which is to say it wasn't completely dried out or frozen, so that was equally quick to prepare - a saucepan of water (plus salt and, strangely, olive oil, as recommended by instructions) brought to the boil before adding the pasta, then just stirred around as it simmers for less than five minutes. Then it just needed to be drained, dumped out onto a plate, and then slathered in the sauce.

I had a feeling when I bought these two that the sauce was something of a mismatch to the pasta, and that could well be the case. It didn't completely overpower the pasta, but it was very strong and sweet compared to the more subtle flavour of the spinach and ricotta filling. I suspect something lighter, possibly cheesier, might have been more appropriate, but the tomato and basil sauce was the only one available on the shelves at the time.

Another drawback to the sauce was that it was quite oily - it had a very visible sheen in the pot. Sure enough, just like the Lentil & Bean soup I wrote up recently, olive oil is listed as an ingredient. With this one, however, it's third on the list, and there's no percentage shown to give some idea of how much is in there. I'd guesstimate that it's a significantly higher proportion for one main reason: the soup didn't set off my stomach acid afterward... this sauce did. A lot.

Still, it's not bad, just something I need to be a bit more cautious about next time... I used the whole 300g pack of tortelloni and about three quarters of the 350g tub of sauce and, to be honest, that was probably a bit much. A bit more of the former, and the whole of the latter could have made two portions though, bizarrely, the pack states that 300g is pasta "for 2", so I can only presume it's supposed to be served with more than just a sauce.

On that note, it's worth pointing out that the packaging offers no 'serving suggestions' - no recommendation is made for a sauce or anything else to accompany the pasta, and the photo on the main label simply depicts the main ingredients. Unless you know your pasta dishes, this is liable to leave you as puzzled as I was.

Of course, it's just possible that I should have searched the internet before lumping these two products together, since it was only my assumption - based on the in-store special offer - that led me to conclude they could/should go together.

Ah, well... You live and learn, eh?

Tuesday 22 January 2013

New York Soup Co. Fully Loaded Chunky Lentil & Bean Soup

It's only been in this last year or so that I've occasionally bought soups for myself. I'm not a huge fan of soups - be they thick or thin - though I will gladly consume them if they're offered. It's certainly unlikely that this blog will ever feature a home-made soup (that said, knowing me, my very next post will be a recipe for a home-made soup!), but now my local supermarkets are stocking more than their own-brand cartons, there may well be more posts like this...

The main problem with lentil and bean soups, I've found, is that they tend to be very soggy. Lentils have to be soaked thoroughly before they can be used or it's like eating lead shot. Cook them just right, and everything's dandy... cook them wrong, however, and they're just mush. Beans, meanwhile, when fresh, are already soft, yet each kind has its unique texture. When making something like a bean and lentil soup at home, it's all too easy to create mush... and, by and large, most of the ready-made kind I've tried have been at the mush end of the spectrum. Better that than crunchy pellets, I guess, but surely there's a balance to be had?

My local shops seem to carry only two varieties of New York Soup Co. 'Fully Loaded' soups, while they have a range of four, along with two other ranges of three each, and the occasional Limited Edition. Given the choice between Tomato & Meatball and Chunky Lentil & Bean, then, I picked the latter due to my inherent distrust of meaty chunks drowned and disguised in sauce. The packaging claims that their products are "inspired by the fresh delis of New York", but this soup seems to be New York via Texas, labelled with the following: This hotpot is inspired by the cowboys of the Midwest who would stop for a feast of beans during vast cattle drives. This soup is packed full of protein and antioxidants... "ta keep ya full o'life boy!"

Seems to be a confusing case of multiple identities or just one of those situations where a company doesn't let their corporate identity get in the way of a good recipe.

But all this is just the packaging... what about the contents?

First impressions weren't good. Despite the packaging's insistence that "no artificial ingredients are used in our soup", the colour looked that little bit too vibrant... and the moment I dumped it into the saucepan (you didn't think I'd use the microwave for this, did you? I mean, sure, it's an option... but it's always better to heat a soup on the hob), I noticed the kind of oily sheen that I've learned to dread, since that's precisely the kind of thing that sets off my stomach acid.

A mere five to six minutes of warming on the hob later, I decanted the soup into a bowl, grabbed myself a couple of slices of bread, tucked in... And was very surprised.

It's difficult to say which surprised me first or most, but the main surprises were the sheer spiciness of the soup - bearing in mind that spiciness is not mentioned at all on the packaging - and the texture of it. It's called "Fully Loaded" and "Chunky and Hearty" and it really lives up to those epithets. The lentils are just firm enough that you know they're in there, and the skin on the beans is just tough enough that they feel substantial... and the innards are soft without being squishy, moist without being sludge.

The aforementioned oily sheen remains when the soup is heated, but it comes from what the ingredients list calls "Extra Virgin Olive Oil (1.5%)" and, even coupled with the spicy kick, my stomach had no complaints afterwards.

The spiciness isn't overpowering, then, but it adds a welcome kick to the hot soup, and keeps it from being the kind of flat, bland, almost woody soup that puts me off anything involving beans. In some cases, a substantial tomato component in this kind of soup would be enough to prevent it from becoming a flavourless mess, but that's only if you're especially fond of tomato... Since I'm not, the addition of garlic, black pepper and red chilli turns it into exactly the kind of soup I'm likely to pick up again in future.

Friday 11 January 2013

S&M Rodeo #10: Iceland Chip Shop Style Battered Sausages

It's a well-known fact that, once in a while, I like my food dirty.

No, not unhygienic, just unhealthy. Actually, long-time readers of this blog might get the impression it's not so much 'once in a while' as it is 'more often than not'. Ahem. Time for an anecdote!

Some years ago, I worked in Kensington. The office complex had an on-site bar/restaurant which was OK, but nothing special and, outside the complex, we weren't exactly spoilt for choice in eateries. There was a good Indian buffet in one direction, as well as a decent greasy spoon, a good Chinese and a nice Greek place in another direction. Slightly further afield, there was a decent Thai place, but that sometimes chose not to open. Even further away along that same road was a small fish and chip shop which seemed to do mainly takeaway business, though it had a poky little seating area up some stairs in the back.

Now, being from the suburbs of London, fish and chips is pretty much a staple food for me, so I'm always up for investigating a new chippie... and this one was one of those places that battered more than just fish. In particular, it battered sausages.

What could be more perfect, right?

The used the usual greasy spoon, all-day-breakfast kind of sausage, only slightly larger and glided with a fairly unremarkable batter, but the sum of the parts proved to be remarkably addictive, and I ended up defaulting to that if I couldn't decide on a (new) fish to order.

Now, one of the significant downsides to where I live is that there isn't a local chippie anywhere nearby. Certainly there's at least one within walking distance, but the one I know is takeaway only and, if judging 'walking distance' as 'close enough that the food is still hot/warm by the time I get home', it's actually not within walking distance. Plus, even if it was, since it's connected to a proper fishmonger, it seems unlikely (though not impossible) that they would do battered sausages, so I've been hankering after them for a good two years now.

But, lo, my local Iceland recently (it would seem) added frozen battered sausages to their list of chilled meat products and, suffering from withdrawal as I am, I picked up a bag to give them a try. Naturally, since these are sausages covered in batter, I can't exactly serve them up with mashed potato (well, I could, but it wouldn't be right), so this is only loosely part of the S&M Rodeo series.

The first thing to point out is that these sausages are comparatively small. They're fairly fat, but not very long... maybe a little more than 3/4 the length of the Waitrose gourmet sausages I pick up once in a while. This isn't ideal, obviously, and for £1.50 for a bag of eight, they're not such great value when compared to Iceland's other sausages, which are £1 for ten (pork, pork & beef, etc), or for twenty of their 'Thin Sausages'. Still, if you're after cheap and cheerful, these certainly still fit the bill.

As with any frozen battered food, the obvious drawback is that, since the oil needed to 'fry' them is contained within the frozen, partially-cooked batter, what you end up with is never going to be as crisp as the freshly fried version would be, nor does the batter cook as evenly. Couple this with the fact that there's a fair bit of fat within the sausages and the end result, whether baked or grilled, tends to be soft, bordering on soggy. In fact, when cutting through these sausages, one can pretty much guarantee that the batter will simply fall off.

Nevertheless, the combination of batter and very basic sausage remains pleasant and, while it's some way off the authentic chip shop experience, it has satisfied my cravings for the time being. I can see myself keeping a stock of these for those moments when I need some serious comfort food.

Awwww, yeah... all it needed was a generous dollop of brown sauce, and it was good to go...

Apologies for the silence...

Not quite sure what happened to cause such a big delay in posting. Sure, I've been working solidly since September, but I still have my evenings and weekends... Perhaps after working during the week, I'm more inclined to just veg out over the weekend rather than put any real effort into my efforts in the kitchen.

I have photos of foodstuffs I'd been intending to write about but, as has been the case in the past, I can barely remember how they tasted, so I'm just going to have to try them again sometime and resolve to write them up immediately afterwards. There's no 'grand plan' for posting more frequently in 2013, so expect updates as sporadically as always.

In other news, the name of this blog is now only technically accurate...