Tuesday, 29 January 2013

I Like Pie

No, I love pie. But I'm going to disappoint my North American readers. When I think/talk about pie, I mean meat pie.

I grew up on meat pies. England is known for them of course. You can buy them in fish and chips shops, frozen, in a can (yes, a can), or fresh and ready to eat (or re-heat). There are even stores that specialize in them.

My favourite is steak & kidney. It's world famous, I think, and often cited as a weird English food, but I can't help that, I love it. If you don't like kidney, you can have just steak, or steak and mushroom. (Can I just add at this point that if you call it "Kidney Pie" as I've heard a number of North Americans do, you look foolish).

Unfortunately in Canada there is no such thing as edible ready-made pies, commercially. You can buy frozen pies, but they are:

b) They always have vegetables in.

Not that I have anything fundamentally against a meat-and-vegetable-pie, but for pity's sake, it should be optional.

Anyway, the only way to buy a pre-made steak and kidney pie in Canada is from a small European specialist baker or market seller, or online - yep, the canned ones. Canned pies are not as bad as they sound. They are infinitely better than the frozen supermarket ones, at least. Well, anything is.

But, take my advice, bake one yourself. It's good, hearty peasant food. And you can make the filling anything you damn well please.

Pastry is not an arcane art. Seriously. If I can do it anyone can. Use lard, and follow this recipe:

(This is straight off the Tenderflake tub)

5 1/2 cups flour
2 tsp salt
2 1/3 cups lard
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 cup water
1 egg

(The following instructions are MINE)

Rub dry ingredients/lard in together, until fine. Use your hands. Forget any silly idea about forks, knives, or dough hooks. Add wet ingredients (mixed together), gather together and roll out on a well floured surface. Don't knead it. I shouldn't have to say that but I will just in case.

Better yet, teach your kids to do it. I taught Tom. He makes fantastic pastry.

This is enough for 4 pies (8" round, tops and bottoms). If you only need 1 or 2, freeze the other pie cases ready for next time.


For steak(+), sauté cubes of meat* and diced onion in a little oil until meat is browned and onion soft. Add black pepper, thyme, parsley, and anything else you like, and enough beef stock to cover**. Simmer until tender. Thicken with  flour at the end, to make gravy.

For chicken, you can use a similar method, so that the filling is a type of chicken stew, but I don't like stewed chicken, AND this is a good use of pre-cooked leftovers, so I simply sauté diced roast chicken with onion, and create the gravy immediately.

*Mushrooms can be added along with the onion. If you want to add other veggies, add them at the appropriate point, i.e. if they need sautéeing first, add them with the onion, if not, add them with the stock, or if you are adding fast cooking veggies, add them later.

Fill pie case, add and seal top, brush with egg and bake at 200C/400F until golden. Serve with mashed or baked potatoes, or fries, and cooked veggies such as peas, carrots, corn, green beans etc.

**I also recommend making more gravy than you need for the pie so that some can be served separately. It is possible to buy a brand of acceptable instant gravy in Canada (Bisto granules) but it's really NOT as good as home-made, it's expensive, and it's really not necessary when you are making real gravy anyway. I am told that Americans can buy good ready-made gravy commercially. Lucky them.


Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Grow Your Own

I am considering doing a gardening blog elsewhere, but this will do for now, because one of the themes here is economy, and there's no greater economy than growing your own food. It's almost an act of rebellion these days.

I often talk to people who "wish" they had a garden, or "dream" of having a garden, or plan on doing when they have space, or are reading up on fancy ways to do it without space. There are some very creative ideas out there.

Let's have some honesty here. No matter what you do, it requires a bit of dedication. If you decide, for example, that you are going to grow food on a balcony, as my son did, you have to commit to a watering schedule, and stick to it religiously, like he didn't. Plants in containers die very fast if they dry out. Many of the trendy ideas for growing involve containers, and yes, it's doable, but there must be that commitment.

And all these wishes and dreams...fantasy is fun, but this is work. This is real. This is an every day commitment, even if you are busy, tired, too hot, or away. Many gardens are planted, only a proportion are harvested.

So first, sit yourself down and think about how much time you have. Nobody has limitless space or time, in fact the one often limits the other. I have plenty of space, but there's only so much I can do in a day. I restrict myself to a size of garden I know I can manage. I push it a bit, but I have back-up if need be. If you live alone, or your children are too young to help, or your partner isn't interested, be sensible.

All that said, I would encourage everyone to grow something. For example, what's your weakness in expensive food? If it's fresh herbs, grow those. They are very forgiving, take up little space, and the savings can be considerable. One packet of basil seed will supply a family for a whole season. Compare that to $2.99 every time you go shopping (and it's usually wilted).

Salad crops are a good choice generally, especially if you like unusual varieties. Mesclun is a horrible price in the stores, and so easy to grow. You can grow striped tomatoes!

Some crops are better home-grown, they taste better and you know they are organic, but the savings aren't huge. Carrots, potatoes, turnips, cabbages, etc, are cheap in the shops at the same time all yours are ready, and they take up a fair bit of space, which if it is limited, might be better used on something else.

So you have to weigh up all the pros and cons, and be realistic about it.

NOW is the time to plan your garden, at least in the northern hemisphere (I apologize right now to Australian gardeners, although they probably won't even read this or would tell me to shut up, I'm truly sorry about your gardens this summer). Oh yes, before you begin. Figure out your budget, double it, and put that aside for the planting season. Seeds will be in the shops soon, and can already be purchased online or from catalogues such as Stokes. If you have a greenhouse you should be thinking about organizing it ready for the new season.

Now is also the time to pick the brains of other gardeners for tips. Right now, I guarantee any gardener is itching to get at it and would love to talk about it.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Pizza and Friends

So. You need pizza dough, or breadsticks, or calzones, or whatever. Line muffin pans to make little bready baskets? The only limit is your imagination.

Yeast comes in two varieties, the stuff you add to liquid, and the stuff you add dry.

Active or traditional yeast has to be revived in warm liquid with sugar first.

Instant, fast-rise, or special pizza yeast, goes in DRY.

So first ascertain what you have.

(We have yet to figure out if bread machine yeast can be used as a dry yeast substitute. We THINK it can.)

So, for active or traditional:

4 teaspoons of yeast, in
2 cups of hot water, with
2 teaspoons of sugar

Let this go frothy, about ten minutes

Then, add it to:

6 cups of flour
1 tablespoon of salt
4 tablespoons of olive oil (or melted butter)

And knead it WELL.

Leave this to double in size, covered.

For instant, fast-rise or pizza yeast:

6 cups of flour
1 tablespoon salt
4 1/2 teaspoons sugar
7 tsp yeast

Then add:

2 cups hot water
9 tablespoons oil


This can be used straight away.


Take your kneaded dough, divide it up as required and roll it out to HALF the final thickness you desire.

Shape it and leave it aside while you assemble your toppings.

OK, now the fun stuff.

Assuming this is not one of those weird modern white pizzas or something.......

First you'll need some tomato sauce. Any. Add garlic or herbs to taste, and spread over the dough, but don't overdo it. There is nothing worse than too much tomato sauce. I find that 5 tablespoons of sauce on an extra large pizza ( = 1/4 of above recipe) is plenty. Add garlic, herbs, spices etc to sauce. Let it sit.

Then you need veggies and/or meat. Sliced/diced/cut up small. You may want to cook some meats a bit first, e.g. bacon. It's only going to be in the oven 20 minutes so plan accordingly.

We regularly use onions, green peppers, mushrooms, salami, tiny meatballs, tomatoes, etc. but really, you can use anything.

I think artichoke hearts and olives go well, but it's a matter of taste. Most people like pepperoni.

Then cover everything with LOTS of cheese. Don't skimp on the cheese. Cheddar, mozarella, goat cheese, whatever.

Bake it, serve it and SERVE WINE with it.

Bake at 200C for 20 minutes.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Shepherd's Pie

Moved from my general blog

Special recipe request.

Shepherd's Pie, originally Cottage pie, dates back well into the history of English cooking, and was quite possibly one of the first dishes created to make use of that weird new vegetable - the potato. Originally it was any leftover meat underneath, and certainly still can be. Similar dishes exist around the world, and it should be pointed out that there is no standard or "authentic" recipe. As with all peasant food, you make it how you want it.

The basic idea is a layer of cooked meat (normally ground) with onions and any other vegetables you like, in a gravy, with a layer of mashed potato on top. This is then baked to crisp up the potato. In a hurry it can be put under the grill/broiler instead. As it's such a quick, easy dish, it's often a weeknight standby.

This is how I do it:

I take ground beef and brown it, then pour off the fat. Then I add finely diced onion and cook it in with the meat in the residual fat. Then I add black pepper, thyme, flour and finally stock. This is left to simmer for a bit.

I spread the meat/gravy mixture in a lasagne dish and cover with mashed potato. This is then baked.

Variation possibilities are endless. The typical Canadian addition is corn. I often add mushrooms along with the onion. You could add peppers or zucchini at this point too. Some people add carrots, others add tomato, it's entirely up to you, and a great way to use up leftovers. Flavourings could make it more spicy or more herby. You can add cheese to the potato.

A common addition in North America appears to be Worcester Sauce. I confess that used to bother me. There is some idea that because Worcester Sauce is an English sauce, it automatically goes in English dishes. Personally I can't stand the stuff, and in 30 years in England I never saw it added to Shepherd's Pie, ever, but add it if you like. You're the person eating it.

The only thing I will say about Worcester Sauce is that if you are trying to pretend you know a thing or two about English food, you may as well learn how to say it right. It is pronounced Wooster, as in Bertie, with the central vowel as in wood. Nothing rhymes with Wooster, alas. To be strictly accurate, if you want to show off, you should say it non-rhotically as Woosta, but that's probably asking too much.

Audio of the ultra pedantically correct way to say Worcester Sauce:


Martin's Bagel Pizzas

Martin announced lunch was ready.

He'd searched in the fridge for pitas to make quick pizzas, but we had eaten them all (we buy Lebanese pita, it's THE BEST). So he used bagels. It was awesome. Occurred to me that some of you may not have thought of this, so I pass it along.

Turn the oven on. 175C is fine.

Get your half bagels and spread some tomato sauce on. Martin used Catelli "Diced Tomato and Basil".

Then add your veggies. Martin used onion and green pepper.

Top with cheese. Martin used old cheddar.

Bake until melty.

Endless permutations here. Could add salami etc. Different cheese, different veggies. Use up leftovers, why not. Quick, tasty, and nutritious lunch.

The wine didn't hurt.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Back-Engineering Spice Blends

If you like tacos, but end up buying those outrageously expensive little sachets of taco seasoning, you, will be grateful for this recipe:

Taco Seasoning

4 tbs chili powder
3 tbs cumin
1  tsp garlic powder
1  tsp onion powder
1  tsp cayenne
1 tsp dried oregano
2 tsp paprika
3 tsp salt
3 tsp black pepper

This will give you enough for several meals, so store what you don't need for later. I use 3 tablespoons of this to 1 kg of meat. If it's a wee bit too spicy for you, you can reduce the cayenne.

So, how do we do this? How do we figure out what is in those blends, so we can make our own. Well, the label isn't always very helpful. Look at this Jamaican curry powder:

It offers some information, presumably what it needs to with regard to common allergens, to cover their arses from a legal standpoint, but "other spices"? WHAT?

Companies are not required to give away their secret ingredients. This blend is exquisite, and because I buy it in a half-kilo drum, I am not overpaying for it, so it doesn't matter. Still, being who I am it bugs me. I want to know what's in there so I can copy it.

Sure, I can go to any of the recipe websites online and find recipes for Jamaican curry blends. Some of them are good, some are not. None are quite like this.

Here's what I do. First I cook up a little suitable meat. Ground beef is cheap and the surface area is ideal for this purpose. Vegetarians could use potatoes. Then I add just a little of anything I know for sure. In the case of the example above there are 4 spices I can start with, knowing that they are listed in order of quantity. I stir this into the meat, and taste the result. If it's too heavy on the cumin, I add more of the others. You can add, but not take away! I keep notes on what I've added - THIS IS IMPORTANT!

Once the balance of the known ingredients seems about right, I then I have to draw on my experience, or I could cheat and look up recipes to see what they include, for ideas.

Here's one such recipe, with the ingredients listed in order of quantity:

 5 tablespoons ground turmeric
 2 tablespoons whole cumin seeds
 2 tablespoons whole mustard seeds
 2 tablespoons whole anise seeds
1 tablespoon whole fenugreek seeds
 1 tablespoon whole allspice berries
1/4 cup whole coriander seeds

Straight away I see 3 things I can try, mustard seed, anise, and allspice.

I am familiar with the taste of these spices - maybe you aren't and will need to do more trial and error. I am certain my blend does not contain any anise, so I don't bother with that. But, one at a time, I try just a tad of each of the other two. Just a hint. If it seems to improve it, I add a tad more. Gradually I come closer to copying the original blend.

Other recipes may offer other things to try, so you can experiment more, or start over. THIS IS FUN.

When you find EITHER:

1) A recipe that mimics the blend really well, OR
2) Is actually better, WRITE IT DOWN!

And save it. And share it!

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Fish Stock and Bouquet Garni

The bell was sounded, and I hurry to the request. So.

The trick to making fish stock is collection. Unlike meat stocks which can be made from items you can go and buy, if necessary, fish stock calls for garbage. Nobody is going to sell you shrimp tails etc. Old fashioned fishmongers would have done, but good luck finding them. So first you have to collect bits and pieces of fishy.........stuff.

It's not as bad as it sounds. Whenever you eat shrimp, throw the skins and tails (not the veins!) into a ziplock bag in the freezer. Whenever you eat whole fish, do the same with bones and heads. If you are lucky enough to have crab, save the shell. Any trimmings from any white fish (don't use oily fish) can be saved, except for entrails.

Break up bones and shells into small pieces and put it all in a pan, adding just enough water to cover. Cook this very gently, don't let it boil, and don't stir it. You want a clear stock, so as the scum rises up, skim it off. This process takes about an hour, so it makes sense to collect quite a lot and do this in large batches.

Once the scum process is finished, you can add (white) pepper, herbs and vegetables (onions/carrots/celery) as you would any stock, and a drop of white wine if you like, then let it simmer again until the vegetables have softened, about half an hour, skimming off any more scum which the veggies tend to cause. Then strain the whole thing. Cool, divide, and freeze what you don't need right away.

(N.B. I hope you guessed, you don't need to add salt to fish stock)

Now then. The herbs. If you look this recipe up in a book it will tell you to use bouquet garni. The modern way to buy these is little expensive teabag type jobbies. But if you go to an upmarket store where they sell more than one brand, LOOK CLOSELY. What's in there? I guarantee the number one ingredient will be parsley, because it's CHEAP. I don't know about you, but I resent paying that sort of money for dried parsley when I can get a 1/4 kilo drum of it for the same price!

Although it's a bit fiddly, it's fun to make a bouquet garni. You can use cheesecloth (buy it in the dollar store) or a coffee filter. Either way you'll also need string. Tie your herbs inside this, tight, tuck it under the solid items in your stock, and tie the other end to the pan handle. This will ensure your stock gets all the flavour but no bits.

So what goes in? Well in an ideal world, fresh herbs from your garden. But it's January so lets be realistic. You are probably adding dried herbs. Start with a bay leaf, some thyme, parsley, and then it's up to you. Despite what you've heard, bouquet garni is not a recipe written in stone. Any of the common kitchen herbs can be used, and you can experiment. I am particularly fond of chervil in mine. It doesn't have to "match the dish" because you add other herbs for that. The purpose is to bring out the fish flavour while adding aromatics to it.

Note: If you only have black pepper in the house, and it's in the form of whole peppercorns, put them INSIDE the bouquet garni. This avoids black spots in your fish stock. Personally I don't care if I have spots in my stock, but you may as well know this trick.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Fisherman's Pie

When I mentioned to a friend earlier today that Tom was making Fisherman's Pie for dinner, I got a very strange reaction. While I'm tempted to say, yes, it's just like Shepherd's Pie, but now that shepherds are an endangered species, and fishermen are all out of work it's easy to pick up fresh ones.......no, the whole point of this is that IT HAS FISH IN IT. Silly person.

There are no hard and fast rules with this sort of dish. But I've had various types over the years, and frankly, mine's best. So do this.

First bake some fish. Doesn't matter what kind. You'll need about 1kg for 6 people or thereabouts. Or more. Go right ahead if you have more. Fish shrinks when baked. Season it, shove it in the oven. Done. Or you could grill it. You could pan fry it. You could get a dragon to breath on it. As you wish. IT DOESN'T MATTER - so long as it's cooked.

Then, make some mashed potato. I just taught you about potatoes. Use mealy ones. Or if you don't have mealy ones use the other sort. But do use potatoes. Not bananas. That won't work.

Now then. You have some cooked fish, and you have some mashed potatoes. You COULD just put the one on top of the other, and bake it. I have seen this done, and it's perfectly edible. Enjoyable even. Nothing wrong with simple food.

But here's how to make it fit for a king. Get some fish stock. If you don't know how to make fish stock, ask me. Then, make a roux sauce (likewise), and use half milk (or even cream if you are feeling really decadent) and half fish stock. Mix that in with the fish. Add some gently sautéed onions (or leeks, or shallots) and mushrooms if you like. Then add herbs. Now this is where your personal preference really shows. Parsley, definitely. Then whatever. Do you like dill with fish? Add dill. Do you like thyme? I do. Use what YOU like. Then add copious amounts of black pepper. Garlic is optional (I don't). Mix that all in.

So now you have fish AND a yummy sauce under the mashed potato. Bake it, and/or grill/broil it so the top is browned and crispy. (You can add cheese to the potato if you like).

Serve this with salad and/or peas, and the fish lovers in your family will love you.

Monday, 14 January 2013


An Englishman, a Scotsman, and an Irishman are burgling a house. They see blue lights pulling up outside, run to hide in the cellar, and climb into some sacks in the corner, just as the police burst in. 

One of the officers kicks a sack, and the Englishman inside it goes "MEOUW". 

The officer says "it's just a cat".

Then he kicks the sack with the Scotsman in, and hears "SQUEAK SQUEAK".

"Oh," he says, "it's just a bunch of rats."

Then he kicks the third sack and the Irishman says "Po-tay-to".........

Now that I've offended most of my Irish readers, I'll stick the last knife in by referring to their national dish.

There are a few items of food that I never like to run out of, and one of them is potatoes. You don't starve if you've got potatoes. A baked spud is tasty, filling, good for you, and cheap. There's no downside. Life in the old world must have been pretty grim before these earth apples arrived, I tell you. 

I use them a lot. Let's be honest here, it wouldn't bother me if all the rice and pasta in the world just disappeared. And this is quite handy, because rice and pasta are more needy. I can grow potatoes in my garden. No matter how many jokes I tell about certain bits of my land in wet weather, I can't grow rice here, and making pasta requires....... several steps. I suppose I COULD produce my own. I could grow wheat, harvest it by hand, dry it, mill it, make the flour into fresh pasta. It would be very good, I'm sure. But oddly enough I don't plan on doing that. 


Have you ever bought those specially selected potatoes already wrapped in foil, that are perfect for baking? I haven't. What a rip-off they are. About 5 times the price and all you need is a bit of knowledge. Ideally you want a fairly large potato, yes, but the most important thing is the texture. You need a "mealy" potato. Russets are the best North American choice for mealy potatoes, grown in the western United States and the Maritimes of Canada, or the Yukon Gold. In Britain it's the King Edward or Maris Piper. When you cut into them they are floury/dry rather than waxy, and this is your clue. But if you don't have ideal bakers, just generic white potatoes, that may actually be waxy, there's no reason why you can't use them. You can put skewers in them to help them cook internally. 


If you're going to serve mashed potatoes, you can actually bake them first instead, gives a different (some might say better) flavour, but takes a lot longer. A pot on the top of the stove is far more economical, especially if you put a lid on it. What are you planning on doing with them next? If you're going to mash them then the mealy type (see above) is the better choice, but if they are going in a potato salad, the waxy type is better (less likely to break up). 

When using potatoes in soups, curries, and stews you can actually use your knowledge of mealy and waxy to pre-determine results. Waxy potatoes can take considerable time to soften, and may not even be tender if not given long enough. On the other hand if you want to see actual potato pieces in your dish, use the waxy ones. Conversely if you just want potatoes to thicken the liquid use the mealy. If you want thickness and pieces too, you can either use two types of potato, or start them at different times. 


Whether deep-fried or sautéed in a pan, these are best if you use the mealy type. There are endless variations on a fried potato, and some are rather frou frou and posh. In fact I would say this is where the true art of potato cooking comes in. It's something I'd like to get into more, but because of the quantities I have to do for my brood, it's a bit restricted. Maybe that's why fancy pan-fried potato dishes are more often found in good restaurants, where they cook for one or two at a time. SOME of these recipes can be done in the oven. I've found that par-boiling before trying to fake frying in the oven brings better success. Which leads me to...


I'm very fond of roast potatoes but they have to be done right. They definitely need to be par-boiled first, and then baked with some fat. My oven is usually full of a roasting pan at this point, so I deep fry them. They come out perfect. Yes, I know it's not actually roasted at all, but I dare anyone to tell the difference. 

So, I was going to end here by offering you my potato soup recipe in detail. But I'm as lazy as the next person, and when somebody told me about this:


I decided to save myself a lot of work and just make a few observations. 

1. Cheese? In potato soup? REALLY? Well, if you like. I wouldn't, but, if I did, I'd be honest with suspecting diners and tell them it was Potato and Cheese soup, so I would.

2. Not Cajun spice mix. No. Again, each to their own, but I think just black pepper is perfect. 

3. Pioneer woman buys chicken broth in a box? Yes, lots of boxes of broth in pioneer times, oh yes. Give me a break. Not that I have anything against broth in a box, I just think it's really funny how she portrays herself and then uses that. I hate affected people, I really do. 

Still, her basic recipe and method is sound, and the step by step photos would be really helpful for new cooks. So I'm passing her along to you. 

Sunday, 13 January 2013

This Is How It Is

There are those who live to eat, and those who eat to live. There are gluttons, and purists, and conservatives. As far as I'm concerned they're all mad.

Now look. We have no choice, we have to eat. In order to stay alive we have to consume a certain amount of calories every day. We need a certain amount of protein, carbohydrate, fat, and vitamins and minerals. Our fuel etc. We have to do this regularly, so we may as well enjoy it. And, somehow, we have to pay for it.

At one end of the extreme is subsistence living - repetitive, bad food. At the other end, far too much food, and probably not the healthiest. Somewhere in between, where sanity lies, is enjoyable food, on a realistic budget, that supplies a decent nutrition.

I have raised a larger than average family - for the west, in current times. My budget has always been limited, and sometimes so is my time. I have several stipulations when it comes to what we eat, therefore. Really, when it comes right down to it, it's all about getting the most flavour and nutritional value, for the least money.

I don't eat junk. It's not because I'm virtuous, it's because I have better taste, and I don't like wasting money. Actually. If you like McDonald's food, and you can afford it, go right ahead. Not my body, not my bank account, not my problem. I will not preach. If you enjoy eating expensive crap, please carry on as you are. Go right ahead. Don't come to me when you are sick or poor - OK? Good.

So. After years of talking about food all over the place, here is where I have settled to share ideas - to teach and to learn. We will have no faffing about here.