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Saturday 30 November 2013

Fishcake Roundup

I have a funny relationship with fishcakes.

And when I say "funny", I mean either they're completely underwhelming or they make me unwell.

But, what's important here is that I don't let that put me off fishcakes. I keep trying them. And so, here's a post about a pair options from The Saucy Fish Co's new range of 'Saucy Centres' fishcakes!

Salmon and Hollandaise
Described as 'Succulent salmon and cod with a creamy Hollandaise sauce bound up with real mash in a crumbly golden coating', these weren't so much underwhelming as a clear disappointment. First off, the ratio of salmon to cod is very much in favour of the cod, almost to the point where it's pretty misleading to call them 'Salmon and Hollandaise Fishcakes'. Even the image on the box shows very little salmon in comparison to the rest of the filling. Worse than that, though, the cod plays second fiddle to the mash. Granted, that's par for the course with fishcakes these days - what was once included for binding purposes has become almost the main ingredient, simply because it makes them cheaper to produce.

The worst aspect of this fishcake is the Hollandaise sauce. I have to confess that I bought the two different kinds of fishcake listed here at the same time, and wasn't really paying attention when I decided to cook these ones first. I knew one had a cheesy sauce and, to be honest, when I was eating these, I assumed I was experiencing one of the most disappointing cheese sauces I've ever encountered. It was only later, when I looked at the packaging again, that I found I had experienced the most flavourless Hollandaise sauce I've ever encountered.

These are a great idea, but the lack of the alleged prime ingredient pretty much ruins the execution.

Smoked Haddock and Davidstow Cheddar
The moment I opened the package, I knew I was dealing with smoked haddock - the aroma is unmistakeable... and reminded me how much I enjoy smoked haddock. Just like the salmon version above, the packaging doesn't show off a mass of haddock pieces and, sadly, the photograph is accurate. Once cooked, the smell of haddock is dramatically reduced, and the flavour is all but overwhelmed by the mash.

When I wrote about The Saucy Fish Co's basic packaged smoked haddock fillet with Davistow cheddar sauce, I noted that the sauce was disappointingly light on apparent cheese flavour. There was some improvement in these fish cakes - the sauce does add to the experience, but it's still nothing special.

Again, it feels like these were made to fit a very strict budget, with mashed potato being the main constituent. It is great mash, but it should only be there to bind the fishcake together, not as a cheap filler.

My area doesn't offer a great range of Saucy Fish Co. products and, while none of the options I've tried have been outright terrible, some of them have been quite disappointing. I like the idea of a piece of fish coming packaged with its ideal accompanying sauce, but when that sauce is underwhelming, the whole product suffers. Their fish fillets can be a little on the small size, but the fish content of these fishcakes is shamefully low, and neither sauce really added a great deal to the experience.

There seems to be a bit of a trend at the moment of putting sauce inside a product (did it start with the likes of Gü puddings, or were similar things available before they sprang up? Could it perhaps be said that these fishcakes were inspired by jam doughnuts?) and, while I like the idea - because it generally means less mess when cooking, unless the product splits open - the end result never quite meets the expectation.

On the upside, neither of these fishcakes ended up making me ill, so they have restored a small measure of my faith in fishcakes...

Home-Made Pizza... From Scratch (ish)

As a long-time pizza lover, I've always wondered what it would be like to make it from scratch. I've tried lots of 'almost' options, such as putting tomato purée and cheese atop pittas, but they're never quite the authentic pizza experience. Ready-made pizza bases are available in some supermarkets, but that's still only 'almost from scratch'. What I really wanted was to make up some raw dough, pile on the toppings, and then watch as it rises and cooks in my oven.

On one of my whims one weekend, I suggested to my girlfriend that we make pizzas using some Ciabatta flour I had in my cupboards (somewhat past its use-by date but, hey...) and the last few dribbles in a tube of tomato purée. All we needed was some Mozarella and then whatever our hearts desired to scatter upon the top. For me, that's an easy choice - Pepperoni, or some variation on the spiced meat theme. My girlfriend tends to be a bit more adventurous...

The most interesting thing to note in this is that different flour mixes - that is to say, the same type of bread, but mixes from different sources - have different preparation/kneading/rising requirements and working with them tends to be a very different experience. The Waitrose stuff, despite being past its prime, worked out well, so we followed up with a second round of home-made pizza, this time using Wright's Ciabatta mix for comparison, and in an attempt to rectify the one obvious problem we had the first time round.

  • 500g bag Ciabatta flour (Waitrose the first time, used Wright's the second)
  • Plain Flour (to coat a work-surface for kneading)
  • Tomato Purée
  • Grated Mozzarella
  • Toppings!
Preparation Time: approx 15 minutes (plus rising time) to prepare the dough, then about 12 minutes to cook

Tools Required:
  • Large Mixing Bowl
  • Baking Tray or Biscuit Tray
  • Rolling Pin (if you wish)
The Process:
As mentioned, the two versions of Ciabatta bread mix had rather different preparation instructions. The best bet, always, is to simply follow the instructions on the pack. If it has a subsection of instructions for making rolls, that's probably the set to follow, since you'll very likely want to divide the dough.

The Waitrose version needed to be mixed, kneaded, set aside to rise (I believe about 50 minutes was recommended, the idea being that the dough should virtually double in size), then kneaded some more before getting it ready to bake. The Wright's version only instructed one round of kneading - prior to rising - and ended up slightly stickier and more difficult to work with, even after being left to rise. Both wanted to be smeared with olive oil for that authentic crust. It's not absolutely necessary for a pizza, but it's certainly worth trying.

The first time, we cut the dough in half and each half became a pizza base. The second time, we cut the dough in half, then divided one of those halves again to make smaller, thinner bases, and used the remaining half to bake a Ciabatta loaf. On both occasions, tomato purée was squeezed onto the dough, spread out, then coated generously (much more generously that a ready-made supermarket pizza, I should add) with Mozzarella.

My topping, in both cases, was sliced German peppered salami - whole slices the first time, then chopped up pieces the second. My girlfriend first went with peach segments, even more Mozzarella (pretty much the remainder of the bag, since we bought ready-grated) and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, then chose tomato and basil the second time.

The Results:
It's just possible that the second round of kneading for the Waitrose flour mix - since it required a floured work surface - is what helped dry the dough out and make it less sticky to work with. The Wrights mix recommends doing all the kneading in one hit, so it's taking on less extra flour. It's also possible that we added just a bit too much water, because the quantity listed in the instructions didn't seem to be enough at the initial mixing stage...

Either way, the first attempt worked out well, but the central part of both the pizzas hadn't cooked especially well, despite the edges of mine being slightly burnt (largely because mine was on the middle shelf, and so one edge was right up against the fan, and I didn't think to turn it!). Where it rose, it rose very well, and the result was a nice, light and very tasty base... but it was basically deep pan, and even the cheese overload on the Peach & Balsamic Drizzle pizza wasn't quite enough to support a deep pan pizza... Hence the reduced quantity of dough the second time around.

While I don't have photos of the second attempt, I can honestly say they weren't as elegant. The stickier dough was tricky to work with - my one attempt to use a rolling pin very nearly destroyed my pizza base entirely - and neither could be called 'round'. Weirdly, the thinner base didn't have a great effect on how well cooked it was at the end, but I'd certainly say it was more thoroughly cooked.

The interesting thing to note is that dough can be frozen, so one could mix up an entire bag of flour, divide it into two, three or four pieces, then store some of it away to make home-made pizza some other time, without all the waiting around and kneading.

Making this almost from scratch was certainly a rewarding experience, and it's one I'm keen to repeat in future... If only because the toppings are limited only by my imagination and, if I put my mind to it, I can imagine pizza with something other than pepperoni/salami.

...Though it probably won't stop me visiting my favourite pizza restaurant from time to time...

Whole slices of German peppered salami
Peach in a great sea of Mozzarella, with a balsamic drizzle

Sunday 3 November 2013

Feta & Griddled Peach Salad (BBC GoodFood '101 Veggie Dishes' Recipe)

This one may sound a bit weird, but bear with me. It was actually one of the first recipes my girlfriend and I tried from BBC GoodFood's '101 Veggie Dishes' book, but I completely forgot to write it up and left it aside for months on end. Oddly, I cannot find this exact recipe on the GoodFood website (the two recipes that are up there both include chicken in one form or another), so hopefully I can get away with listing the ingredients and details of how it's made. We didn't follow the recipe precisely as specified anyway (it was written to serve four!) and it's not as if I'd be reproducing it word-for-word...

  • 1 Lime
  • 2 Peaches
  • 1 Red Onion
  • 1 Bag Mixed Salad
  • Approx 250g Penne Pasta
  • Approx 150g Feta
  • Fresh Mint (enough for approximately 1 tbsp once chopped)
  • 1 tbsp Olive Oil
Preparation Time: about 15 minutes

Tools Required:
  • Griddle Pan
  • Medium Mixing Bowl
  • Kitchen Knife
The Process:
Start the pasta off as per your preference. This should take about 10-12 minutes, so you can safely leave that going while getting on with other bits.

Cut the peaches into wedges and squeeze the lime juice over the pieces. Since I don't have a griddle pan, we had to make do with basically toasting our peach wedges under the grill. The peaches we picked up weren't especially ripe (typical supermarket stuff), so they didn't work out very well. They're meant to go on a high heat for only two or three minutes a side, which should leave them "nicely charred". This is probably easier to accomplished with a griddle pan and with ripe peaches.

Slice the onion thinly, cut the feta into manageable pieces and chop the mint. Mix them all together with the salad leaves, pasta and olive oil in your bowl. Serve up, topping with a little pepper if you wish.

The Results:
Mixing fruit with any kind of traditionally savoury dish always sounds wrong, but gammon has been served with pineapple for years, and my local pizza place offers both pineapple and peach as toppings, so maybe I need to open my mind to fruit in my main course.

This certainly turned out more pleasant than I was expecting. The mint softened the bite of the feta and rocket, either of which can be overpowering under some conditions. The pasta component was not a part of the original recipe, and was included here to bulk up the dish, as it just seemed a bit too light and salad-y... Though perhaps that's because we cut the quantities of the ingredients. We didn't mix everything up quite as well as we could, essentially ending up with a very layered salad topped with pasta and peach, but it's certainly a good dish to try during the warmer months of the year