Making Chocolate

As if I needed yet another hobby, we decided to try our hands at making chocolate. From scratch.

After complaining that I eat too much chocolate and he’s worried about all the sugar in it, Ric announced that he was going to try and make me some “healthier chocolate”. He thought mixing cocoa powder with cocoa butter and using an alternative sugar like fruit syrup might work. He tried it. It didn’t. It was really horrible. So he went searching for a proper way to make chocolate. Read more

Moroccan Chickpea Stew

We were a bit short on cash this weekend, but our cupboards were well stocked with essentials, ridiculous amounts of flour and an immense amount of spices, I took the opportunity to challenge myself to feed the family for the weekend using mostly what we already had at home.

I usually plan recipes and shop for them, leaving the kitchen full of left over bits and pieces of store cupboard stuff, oddments of vegetables and a small collection of living herbs on the windowsill, but we never keep things that are used once in their entirity such as jars of sauce, cans of beans or most vegetables that are usually purchased in the amount required for a dish.

On Friday evening we had friends over for dinner and I raided my cupboards and found we had just about enough stuff in to make a vegetable biryani from my one and only cookbook, River Cottage Veg. We also had ingredients on hand for onion bhajis and flat breads. After a lot of cooking involving four people in my crowded kitchen, the bread failed to rise, so we replaced it with indian breads from the local grocery store and enjoyed the biryani and bhajis very much.

By Saturday evening the dough had risen nicely, having been in the fridge over night, so we made the flat breads and a delicous lentil dhal, again courtesy of River Cottage. It was a really nice meal.

Sunday evening was a bit more of a challenge, I didn’t want to make yet another indian dish and I didn’t want to repeat the rice or lentil staple. I didn’t have time to bake more bread so our shopping consisted of a couple of fresh loaves and some chickpeas, and I raided the cupboards to throw together a Moroccan inspired stew off the top of my head. The result was a tasty and filling meal without a hint of curry. Here’s what I did:

Moroccan Chickpea Stew

Ingredients

  • 1 glug olive oil
  • 1 carrot, minced
  • 1 stick celery, minced
  • 1 onion, minced
  • 1 tbsp cumin seeds
  • 2 cans chickpeas
  • an equal quantity of carrots, roughly chopped
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • pinch saffron strands
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste
  • 100g red lentils

Method

  • Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan and fry the onion, celery and carrot over a high heat until browned. Add the cumin seeds a few minutes before the vegetables are ready.
  • Add the carrots and drained chickpeas to the pan and cover with boiling water.
  • Stir in all the spices and the tomato paste and bring to the boil.
  • Turn the heat down to a simmer, add the red lentils and cook, stirring every now and then, until the lentils have broken down and the carrots are soft, adding a little extra water if necessary.
  • When the lentils and carrots are cooked, remove from the heat and serve with a chunk of bread.
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    Delicious bread

    During the last week my oven has seen two batches of freshly baked bread, and they were really delicious so I wanted to share them with you guys.

    The first batch of bread I baked was rustic rosemary and garlic bread from Amanda’s cookin’ using rosemary from my garden. I wish I had taken photographs but it was so yummy that it was eaten before I got chance to get my camera out.

    I followed the recipe almost exactly, I used bread machine yeast rather than SAF and I mixed and kneaded it lightly by hand rather than using a food processor. For the first rise I left the dough under my radiator for about two and a half hours, by which time it had more than doubled in size and smelled fantastic. I shaped the loaves as described and left them for a second rise, which I rushed. I wish I had left them long enough to double again, but we were hungry and I baked them a little too soon. The bread tasted amazing but it was a little dense.

    My second batch was French baguette from them apples. Sadly I don’t own an oven tray large enough to fit baguettes on, so as the recipe suggests, I stopped at the batard stage and baked what looked like blobs. I also forgot to slash the tops which probably added to the blob-ness. Also, again due to lacking appropriate ovenware, I don’t think I got enough steam in the oven when I added the bread. My loaves seemed very crusty when I took them out the oven, but as they cooled the crusty-ness diminished.

    Nevertheless, the bread was delicious. It was quite crusty, fluffy and light inside, and went very well with the butternut squash soup I paired it with. I have two loaves in the cupboard waiting to become garlic bruschetta which I’m very much looking forward to.

    I am also dying to try the no knead bread from steamy kitchen but I don’t own a cast iron casserole. I have my eye on a lovely blue one from Le Creuset but my budget won’t stretch that far just yet.  As soon as I get my hands on one, bread will definitely be the first thing I make in it.

    Veggie chili

    My favourite comfort food, especially in winter when it’s cold and grey and miserable, is veggie chili. I have created and adapted my own recipe over the years and got it just how I like it. I thought I would share it so you can enjoy it too. It’s quick and easy and hot and yummy and easy to adapt to suit your tastes or whatever you have in the fridge.

    You will need:

    • 1 tbsp olive oil (or other cooking oil)
    • 1 onion
    • 1 red pepper
    • 1 green pepper
    • Mushrooms, as many as you like
    • 1 can black beans (or 1 cup dried, soaked and cooked)
    • 1 can kidney beans (or 1 cup dried, soaked and cooked)
    • 1 jar passata (or 1 tin chopped tomato if you prefer it chunkier)
    • 1 tsp chili powder (or more to taste)
    • 1 tsp ground cumin
    • a handful of fresh coriander
    • black pepper to taste
    • rice to serve

    Fry the onion in oil until soft. Add peppers and mushrooms and fry until soft. Add beans, tomato and spices. Bring to the boil then simmer for 20 minutes.

    Cook your rice.

    Stir coriander into chili just before serving, and season with black pepper. I like to stir the rice into the chili too, but you can serve it on top of the rice, or in a jacket potato, or however you like. Enjoy!

    Recipe Organiser

    I previously described a system I had created to decide what to cook for dinner. I was using a combination of a recipe managing software and a rather clunky spreadsheet, which functioned reasonably well but was tedious to use. I suggested to my other half that he build me a web based tool to replace the two bits of software I was using and combine the functionality of both into one easy to use solution.

    He reluctantly coded up a very basic web tool for me to use. Initially he thought of it as just another one of my crazy organising systems that would take up a lot of his time and not be very useful, but as he started to understand why I wanted him to make it for me, he began to see it’s potential. He has started working on creating a website that others will be able to use to help them decide what to eat, encourage them to cook from scratch using recipes and help them to eat a more varied diet.

    The site is in the very early stages of production and is not yet available for you to join, but I am very excited about getting it started and I thought I would share the news and see if anyone out there is interested. The basic idea is that you input your recipes (there are plans for a recipe search so you can find new ones to try as well), then select what you plan to make. The list of recipes is organised so that recipes containing ingredients you haven’t used for a while are near the top of the list and those with ingredients you have used more recently are pushed down to the bottom.

    Recipes you have selected are placed in your shopping basket, and a shopping list is generated, showing the amounts of each ingredient you will need to make your recipes. You will be able to mark which ingredients you already have in your kitchen, and print a list to take with you to the store. You can leave the recipes in your shopping basket for as long as you want so you can easily find the ones that you have chosen to make. When you have made them, remove them from the basket.

    The system will keep track of when you last used each ingredient. If you add a recipe containing an ingredient you haven’t used before this will be given greater priority, encouraging you to try new things and increase the variety of your meals. You will be able to add an unlimited number of recipes.

    Does this sound like something that would be useful to you? Do you want to be notified when it is ready to try out? Please let me know your thoughts!

    Cooking experiments

    I mentioned in a previous post that I was taking steps to improve my health, and one of those steps is to eat a more varied diet based on home cooked meals made from scratch rather than relying on preprepared convenience food.

    I have always had trouble with deciding what to make for dinner, and have a tendency to stick to a small selection of very similar meals using a small range of ingredients that I feel comfortable cooking. Although I really like the meals, it’s not very balanced and it gets a bit repetitive. I have a couple of recipe books and some recipes I have collected from the internet to try out, but there never seemed to be a convenient time to dig them out and try something new. We were in a routine of getting the usual ingredients from the grocery store and trying something new would require a lot of effort and a change to the routine.

    So I made a change to our routine.

    I have collected the all my recipes together into a recipe management tool on my computer (krecipes). This allows me to store my recipes in one easy place, select the ones I wish to use and generate a shopping list, excluding items I already have in my cupboard. I also set up a spreadsheet linking each meal to its ingredients, and giving each ingredient a score based on the length of time since it was last used. This gives me a score for each meal in my list, the higher the score, the more ingredients that meal contains that I haven’t used in a while. Each day I check my spreadsheet and use my recipe manager to generate a grocery list for the meals (lunch and dinner) with the highest score, mark which ingredients I’ll be using for those recipes, and send a grocery list to my other half who happens to pass a grocery store on his way home from work.

    This shakeup to our routine has been very beneficial in many ways. We have broken away from our standard meals and stopped buying so much convenience food. We are eating a variety of meals using a wide range of fresh ingredients. We are trying new foods that we would never have considered buying before, including asparagus, avocado, tabbouleh and barley. I am really enjoying cooking different things each day rather than the same old thing day in day out. We are saving fuel making extra trips to the store that he passes every day anyway. My children are learning about new and different foods that they may not have come across otherwise. Food has become interesting again.

    The recipe manager and spreadsheet combination is a little bit clunky and time consuming to use, but the concept of the system is working well for us. Those who know me know how much I love having complex systems for managing day to day things. I hope at some point to create a more simple way of doing the same thing, possibly as a website based application, but my web guy is already overworked, especially now he has to pick up groceries on his way home from work every day, so that may be a long way in the future.

    Today I am having rice noodles with chili vegetable sauce for lunch, and I will be making mushroom barley soup with whole grain bread for dinner. If anyone has any tasty vegan recipes, please pass them along!

    Winding down and making changes

    After a wonderful summer holiday full of fun activities with friends and family, things are settling back down into their usual states and we’re getting back into our normal routines. It feels like a suitable time to turn over a new leaf and make some positive changes.

    The main things I want to focus on for now are diet and exercise. I have done very little exercise over the summer, partly because I’ve been so busy, and partly because of a lack of motivation. I got out of the habit of doing yoga every day, and I want to get back into that, as well as doing something more aerobic. I also want to stop eating so much preprepared food (spicy bean burgers, I’m talking about you) and replace it with fresh fruit and salad.

    I have tried some healthy foods over the summer that I wouldn’t usually have eaten and I intend to keep them in my diet. I will prepare a salad for lunch instead of throwing crap in the oven, I will keep fruit in the house to snack on, and I will drink more water.

    I will try and do 30 minutes of exercise each day, alternating between yoga and wii fit for now. I would like to start running but I don’t have suitable shoes yet, so that will come later. There are plenty of aerobic exercises on wii fit to get me started.

    Using this time of getting settled into a routine again to build these new habits into my life, I should be able to improve my health and fitness, which will in turn improve my motivation and energy levels and give me a great foundation to make further positive changes in my life.

    I am a completely different person to who I was a few years ago, and I can’t wait to see who I can become in another few years if I keep working on improving things in my life.