As I came home from college today, with the freezing wind stripping layers of skin off my cheeks, I stopped in the veg shop just before Newington Green and all was well with the world. It’s a fabulous shop – full of all manner vegetables, all colours and textures, beautifully arranged in a rainbow cascade of inspiration. It’s the kind of shop that makes you wish you knew how to do more exciting things with vegetables and make your head buzz with the endless possibilities: Moroccan vegetables tagines, Indian spiced curries, soups, side dishes and salads a riot of colour. Today, when I got home, I was tired and desperate for food, quickly, with minimum effort and maximum taste. Lengthy and loving preparation was not the order of the day. Happily, when I opened the fridge I found I had surprise halloumi, which answered all my prayers. I cut a few slices, threw it in a hope, dry pan with a few cherry tomatoes and fried it until it was brown and smelling as saltily delicious as I knew it would taste. Meanwhile, washed rocket, half a chopped yellow pepper, olive oil, pepper and balsamic vinegar got chucked in a bowl, the hot cheese and tomatoes followed and voila, one happy Amy. Even if my cheeks were still burning from the hot/cold horror combo.
As someone who used to suffer the most evil of pre-menstrual tension (the crying, the temper tantrums, the despair) I have rules around cooking and being pre-menstrual. As a teenager, still getting to grips with the vagaries of being a woman, I was often unaware that, what appeared to be the imploding of my life, my hopes, dreams and self-respect, was in fact a hormonal merry-go-round. While still in college I was put on Microgynon – the first choice pill – reliable, well tested, not massively expensive. My mum came home one day to find me rocking in the corner of the kitchen, clutching a torn piece of bread in one hand and the butter knife in the other. Streaming with snot and tears I tried to explain that I was such a pointless person that I couldn’t even spread bread without TEARING THE BREAD WAAAAAARRR SNORT SNORT I JUST DON’T KNOW WHY I’M ALIIIIIIIIVE etc. I dropped the pills and felt fine in a day but vowed to remember and to learn that this feeling was hormonal, not the emotional apocalypse it felt like.
However, sometimes knowing you’re pre-menstrual when you’re pre-menstrual is not enough and averting the more serious tantrums requires a few basic rules, especially around food and its preparation, my own personal root to happiness and despair.
1. When you are pre-menstrual it’s ok to eat whatever you want to eat. Even if that’s a whole packet of sliced Jarlsberg straight out of the packet standing in front of the fridge. Because frankly, at this point you have no control over yourself, physically or mentally or emotionally, so you might as well roll with it and not try to beat yourself up.
2. Drink lots of water. It helps.
3. Do not attempt to cook anything new, anything elaborate or anything that takes more than 10 minutes to prepare.
4. Emotional instability is not a good time for gastronomical experimentation.
Now that I’ve had the coil fitted (too much sharing?), this PMT stuff is mostly a thing of the past. So when last week I turned into King Kong on gin and beta-blockers I wasn’t ready for it. I even went to go and see a counsellor in case I was actually falling off the road to sanity into the undergrowth of serious mental health issues. Unfortunately, I hadn’t read the signs and attempted to cook something that was a) something I’d only tried once before b) complicated to prepare c) something I didn’t have all the necessary ingredients for. This made for a tumultuous afternoon with mixed results.
I was trying to make Momos – Nepalese steamed dumplings. They are fiddly and require several stages of preparation. Here is the original recipe which comes from the SOAS Cookery Book Mark 1.
For the dough:
350g plain flour
150-200ml warm water
pinch of salt
For the filling (vegetarian):
2 medium onions
5cm piece of ginger
3 cloves of garlic
(this is not in the recipe but I cannot resist the urge to tinker so I added it and was tasty: soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, fresh coriander)
Dough: You can probably guess. Mix it all together to make a dough. Umm… Knead it for a bit until it’s smooth and then wrap it clingfilm and set aside.
Filling: Grate the cabbage, sprinkle with salt and set aside to draw the liquid out (this is what it says in the recipe but I didn’t do this but in retrospect I think I had the wrong kind of cabbage). Grate or chop everything else and put in a bowl. Add soy sauce and sesame oil to taste. Give it a good mix.
Construction: Either, roll out the dough and cut out circles of dough about the size of the mouth of a teacup OR pinch off pieces of dough and roll them out individually to the same size. The dough needs to be quite thin, so you can almost see through it. Put a spoonful of filling in the centre and then draw the edges together to make a pasty shape. It says in the book that you then draw the two corners together ‘to make a small pinch’ and then flatten the bottom slightly - please do do this if you can.
Oil a steamer and set over a pan of boiling water and steam them for about 12 minutes. Eat with sauce.
Here is the recipe I made. I recommend not trying this one (although, in fairness, they were quite tasty).
Amy’s Reject Momos
Some warm water
Half a courgette
Half a kohlrabi
One small onion
Zest of half a lime
Put the flour in a bowl and add a pinch of salt. Mix in enough water to make a soft and elastic dough. Knead for five minutes. Marvel at how the texture of pasta flour is different from normal flour. Feel worried that this may be a bad thing. Set aside, covered in cling film.
Look in fridge for carrot, onion, cabbage, coriander, garlic and ginger and find only old courgette, a vegetable you cannot remember the name of but turns out to be kohlrabi, a wrinkly red pepper, a lime, garlic and goat’s cheese. Consider that it may be better to make proper Italian egg pasta. Find there are no eggs. Have a tiny cry holding the fridge door. Feel despairing of empty fridge but incapable of putting on shoes and venturing out. Have only got 27p.
Resolve to make the most of crappy fridge contents. Grate courgette and kohlrabi into bowl. Try and fail to grate wrinkly pepper, grate knuckles. Chop pepper inexpertly and angrily and add to bowl. Slice onion and garlic thinly and grate the rind of half the lime into the bowl. Feel concerned about lack of flavour. Add grated goat’s cheese to bowl even though unconvinced by lime/goat’s cheese combo.
Look around kitchen for inspiration. Add chilli powder. Think about goat’s cheese and think that adding something sweet maybe a good idea. Discover three very old dried apricots. Slice finely and add to bowl.
With a wine bottle attempt to roll out dough. Remember that last time you failed to make neat little dumpling parcels by hand. Consider the Italian technique for making ravioli. Roll out dough into square. Imagine accolades in national media ‘Hackney Cook Wows World with Fusion Cooking’. Make little piles of suspect filling on square. Roll another matching square, finding that second piece of dough is not big enough. Roll out thinner. Lift square off surface only to find that it then rapidly shrinks before you can get it onto the patiently waiting bottom sheet and filling. Feel bottom lip trembling. Attempt to do it piece by piece. Find dough does not stick together well and holes appear. Find that bottom dough is stuck to deck. Feeling rising panic/anger/frustration. Take knife from drawer. Attempt to lever sticky mess of surface. See red. Draw veil over following events.
Steam messy piles of dough and filling for 12 minutes. Eat whatever can be rescued from the ruins. Buy take away.
Suffice to say this was not a runaway success but they were edible. Even better, I did find the goats cheese and lime combo surprisingly tasty, even though everything was slightly marred by the liberal seasoning of blood, sweat and tears. Just remember next time, Amy, if the dough being slightly sticky is enough to make you cry, back away from the dough, Amy, back away from the dough.
As you can see, I struggled to take a photo of this pudding before I had eaten most of it. Just me. Yes, I ate nearly all of it, on my own. I intended to take it next door and foist a portion on Jane, but I went over, she wasn’t there, I had a spoon… You know how it is. Neil didn’t like it because of the coffee and lack of marsala wine but, despite agreeing on the marsala situation, I managed to force it down.
400g Mascapone cheese
200g ladyfinger biscuits (at the risk of being lynched I’m going to confess I don’t really like these and tend to use madeira cake instead – you choose)
4 tbslpnbls Marsala wine or sherry or booze of preference
350ml filter coffee
4 eggs, separated (but no arguing about custardy of the children ah ha haaa humph)
125g granulated sugar
pinch of salt
Line the bottom of your dish with half of the madeira/lady fingers and then spoon over half the coffee and booze.
Beat together the egg yolks and sugar until it’s smooth, thick and pale. Add the mascarpone and stir until its evenly mixed. Whisk egg whites until stiff and then add a pinch of salt. Gently fold into the yolk mixture and then spoon half of it over the biscuit/cake base. Make another layer of cake/biscuit/coffee/booze and then another of the mascarpone. Finally, sprinkle a layer of cocoa over the top – but keep it thin – see above for adding too much cocoa and having to scrape it off into the dish to avoid the cloying, dusty mouth event that follows.
Invite friends and wow with pudding making skills.
I bought stuff to make a chocolate cake to sell at the market last week. I didn’t quite get round to making it in time (we went next door to Robin and Georgie’s and got drunk on Belhaven Best and stories about creepy paintings of children in the attic). So I made chocolate cake on Monday instead. I used the same recipe as last week and, I’m telling you, it’s a killer. It also makes one massive-ass cake. Too big for my cake tin, so I put the extra in a wee tin and make two.
Chocolate cake (with cocoa and no actual real life chocolate in)
80g good quality cocoa
300ml boiling water
250g butter (yes, a whole pat)
550g of light muscavado sugar (it’s a big cake)
4 eggs beaten
400g plain flour
1/2 tsp bkaing powder
1 tsp bicarb of soda
Put the cocoa in a big saucepan and add enough of the hot water to make a thick, smooth paste. Add the rest of the hot water (the two water adding stages are to avoid the frightening ‘pan of hot water with floating cocoa sheen on surface and large and sinister coagulations of cocoa lurking toad-like beneath the surface’ incident I experienced first time round). Put the pan on a low heat and add the butter and sugar. Stir until it’s all melted. Marvel at gorgeous, black-brown gloop, shiny and ever so inviting. Lick spoon. Have whole spoonful.
Take the pan off heat and go out until it’s cooled down a bit or you’ll find it hard not to eat enough to make yourself sick. Maybe that’s just me?
Come back from walking the dog. Add beaten eggs. Sift flour and raising agents (imagine men in black suits and dark glasses policing your cake/upbringing) and mix into the chocolate/egg mixture until evenly combined.
Manhandle vat of chocolate goodness into cake tin. Cook for about 1 hour and 15 mins at 180 degrees C – keep a close eye on it after an hour as it’s easy to slightly over cook and make it dry – whip it out as soon as a skewer comes out more or less clean.. Leave tin to cool for 10 minutes then release cake and cool on a wire rack.
Ice with chocolate ganache (equal amounts of dark chocolate and double cream heated to simmering point. Add slosh of favourite spirit for added oomph) and I filled mine with whipped cream and red grapes, just for shits and giggles.
Invite friends and eat much cake.
Having unearthed this beauty at Leckmelm Farm with the help of Simon (my erstwhile WWOOF host)
I wanted to steer away from parsnip soup (tried that last time with bad bad results) and was in a baking mood so decided I would try Delia (God love her) and her Parsip, Parmesan and Sage bread. It’s not really bread, as such, as it has no yeast and rises with self-raising flour so it’s more like a cake, I s’pose, as it has eggs in it too. With cheese. And vegetables. Mmmm. It’s bakethisoneeverydayisthereanyleftnowe’vealreadyeatenthewholethingwithoutgettingaplateoranything good. Reccommend for tastiness and quickness and easiness apart from the parsnip grating but I’ve always struggled with graters – I have the scars to prove it.
6oz parsnip (after peeling)
8oz self-raising flour
2 oz parmesan cheese (real parmesan for preference)
(I just have to go and chase the sheep out of the garden back into the field – back in a second – somebody’s left the gate open)
1 rounded tblspntb of fresh chopped sage (ok, I didn’t have any, I used dried, don’t tell Delia)
1 1/2 tblspns salt
2 large eggs (see picture – I choose the huuge one – double yolker!)
1 tbplsbn milk
So, sift the flour and salt into a big bowl, grate the parsnip into the bowl (be especially careful if having vegetarians to tea). Give it a mix then cut the parmesan into 5mm cubes, add that with the sage and give it a quick stir to add happy and even distribution. Lightly beat the eggs with the milk and add bit by bit , stirring (apparently) with a palette knife. If you don’t have one of these (like me) just use a wooden spoon or a stick or whatever you feel like. Just don’t feel inadequate in your sad, bereft and palette knife-less life, dammit. You should end up with a rough-looking, sticky dough – that’s perfect, well done. Flump it onto an oiled baking tray, into a preheated 190 degree oven for 45-50 mins. You’re supposed to put oiled sage leaves and parmesan shavings and everything else on top. I didn’t and it was still great.
It was so good, I forgot to take a picture before we devoured the whole hot loaf with tomatoes… Mmmm
Found a bumper plum bargain at the evil supermarket so bought a job lot and went ‘ha! I laugh in the face of you corporate rape of the local economy, the world and its resources! I buy only your bargains – you will make no profit from me!’ and then bought the rest of my groceries there as there is no greengrocers, no health food shop and no bakery in Ullapool. Sigh…
However, I then made much plum jam for the first time ever. In the book it says that plums contain a lot of pectin so you have to watch carefully for a set or you’ll end up with jam you have to cut with a knife. So I espied my jam intently, peering into the frothing pan like a bird of prey on the prowl.
The net result was that I panicked and jarred my jam before it was cooked and thusly had four jars of plum and cinnamon syrup. The second batch turned out better but I’ll have to reboil the first one. Still, we live and learn.
When I left Neil with a jar of the said plum and cinnamon jam and a spoon the outcome can be seen below…
Plum and Cinnamon Jam
1kg plums (any kind will do, I used red ones)
Couple of teaspoons of cinnamon to taste (you can make it without but I think plums have a great affinity with cinnamon)
Half and stone the plums, chuck in a jam pan with the sugar and spice and about 200ml water. Cook over a medium heat for 10-15 mins until the sugar is dissolved, then turn up the heat and boil the hell out of it for 3-5 mins, test for a set. If setting point is reached put it in hot jars, if not boil for another two mins then test again. Repeat ad infinitum/until boredom sets in/until you’ve used it all up testing for a set….
Eat on toast. Yum.