Autumn in the kitchen

There is a new post on my cooking blog: Crystal Cooks, giving an update on progress for for my cooking challenge for March and April. I was away a lot during that time so treated it as one  month.

One recipe book, four new recipes. Two flops! Not a good statistic. Hopefully I will make nicer dishes in May. To read the full post go to March-April Update

For new readers who are wondering what this is about – I have challenged myself to try four or five new recipes each month, working through a different recipe book each time.

Cooking Challenge – February

 In February I worked with One-Dish Winners by Christelle Erasmus. I used it quite a lot when I bought the book a few years ago, and have made a lot of the salads and several puddings.

But now was the time to try another four recipes. Unfortunately this was not as successful as the first month of my challenge. Perhaps partly due to the incredible heat. When it hits 40º cooking is the last thing I want to do.  I ate a lot of salad in February, and as I had already tried most of the salads I had less opportunities to try new things.

I started with a chicken casserole, which was very successful. It took a long time to cook, but made a lot so I had meals for several days. It was rather similar to the chicken casserole I tried in January, but with mushrooms and onions added. This is one I will make again.

Anyone who has been paying attention will realise that on a page of recipes the one entitled “Quick as a wink fish” is going to be my first choice. And it was quick. Even better, it included a microwave option. Supper was prepared, cooked and eaten in under half an hour. I can live with that. The down side was that it called for salmon. I don’t eat fish much, so this seemed a good chance to include a healthy option in my diet. But I realised that I don’t really like salmon. Especially not the tinned version. I know the bones and crunchy bits are healthy. But think I will happily get my salmon oil and other health benefits out of a supplement. I will make this dish again, but with tuna instead of salmon. It has also given me the idea (and the timing) to try my basic tuna casserole in the microwave.

Then I made a pudding. Again, I was attracted by the words “quick” in the title. Quick marshmallow pudding it said. Hah! The end result was very nice. But my advice to any other cooks is this : if a recipe calls for melted marshmallows, just turn the page. Maybe I did something wrong, but I ended up with a stick mass of  sweetness, which spread to just about everything in the kitchen. If anyone out there knows how to melt marshmallows without producing toffee (or glue) please do share the technique.  Until then I will just chop the marshmallows, which is bad enough. Better still, I will just eat the marshmallows.

My final recipe was a noodle salad. This took a while to get to as I kept eating the noodles before I got round to the salad. I finally cooked a large pot of pasta and managed to save the two cups called for. It was an interesting salad, with carrots, onions and pineapple added to the pasta. Unfortunately I was not so impressed with the sauce to put over it all. I am not a great mayonnaise fan, but was intrigued by the addition of condensed milk and other interesting things.  I should probably have just lightly moistened the salad, because to me the sauce overwhelmed everything. I found it too strong, and rather tart (despite the condensed milk). If I make this again I will just add a small amount of salad dressing, or maybe just moisten with the pineapple juice.  (The other down side to this recipe was requiring half a tin of condensed milk. Needless to say the rest of the tin was soon eaten. Sadly I can not claim to have used it in another recipe:)

So there was mixed success this month.  Only two of the four recipes are likely to get made again, and one of them in a modified form. But at least I did try four new recipes, and can return One-Dish Winners to the shelf with a clear conscience.

Crystal Cooks

So far so good. I have survived two months of my cooking challenge. Apart from the new recipes and the interesting meals there have been some unexpected elements to this challenge.

I was not expecting the sense of satisfaction. Not just at actually accomplishing a challenge I had set for myself, but also in rediscovering the delight of cooking from scratch, of filling the flat with the smell of freshly made food, of planning meals and enjoying the results.

I was also not expecting that the cooking entries would start to take over the blog.  Not only have these entries received more readers and comments, but I find myself wanting to write more than just a monthly update. So I have decided to move the detailed blogging about my cooking challenge to another blog, called Crystal Cooks

I will still post a brief overview of the challenge at the end of the month, but will use Crystal Cooks to reflect on insights and experiences as I spend more time in the kitchen, armed with a recipe book.

Cooking Challenge – January

 The recipe book I worked with in January was Mary and Martha’s Recipe Book, a collection of recipes compiled and sold to raise money to supply babies with clothing, nappies and other essentials. Although I did not buy the book, it was given to me as a Christmas present, so presumably some money went to a good cause. The secondary aim of this book was to provide mothers with quick and easy recipes. I am not a mother, but I do also have limited time to cook. So soon found many recipes that I wanted to try.

One of the advantages of these sorts of recipe books is that the recipes are submitted by real people, who have prepared them in ordinary kitchens. So you don’t need to be a professional chef with a team of minions to do the dirty work, to get them to work. Several of the recipes only required two or three ingredients, and most had safely short instructions. So much the better.

Mary and Martha’s Recipe Book became the first in my monthly challenges more by chance than design. I had been bored with always making the same chocolate cake, so had browsed through a few recipe books and decided to try the Three minute Madeira. (Three minutes of beating the cake, not three minutes to make it – but still pretty quick and very nice). So when I started on the challenge it made sense to work with the book I had already started on. I ended up with a nice mix of recipes – soup, chicken casserole, pudding, cake and icing. And five new recipes to add to my repertoire.

The cake was really nice. It was a rainbow cake, with white, pink and green batter swirled together to create a marble effect. I was a bit worried that it would all turn into a grey sludge, but it was very effective. It made a large cake, which claims to keep for up to a week. Very useful for making in advance or baking for big groups. I took it to work for my birthday tea and not one slice was left, so I will have to wait for the next bake to test its claims. The recipe suggested a caramel icing. As I was taking a caramel tart I thought that might be overkill, so substituted vanilla for the caramel essence. It was one of the nicest icings I have made, and will now become my standard.

 Next stop – a real meal. The section on chicken contained some wonderful looking recipes. One appealled by only listing three ingredients (chicken, onion soup, apricot juice), and only needing two lines of instructions. Mix sauce ingredients, pour over chicken, bake. Mere minutes to prepare, then it could be left to bake for an hour and a half while I got on with other things. The casserole was lovely, with a thick, yummy sauce. I was a bit dubious about the apricot, but the flavour was lovely. Even better, it made quite a lot. So for the next few days I could come home knowing I had supper just waiting to be heated up. This worked so well that I made it again the next week. Partly because I still had half a litre of apricot juice that I needed to do something with.

Then we got to pudding. Another definite winner. Sweetened whipped cream layered between nuttikrust biscuits. Quick, easy, and very sweet. I think next time (oh yes, there will definitely be a next time, probably several:) I will add less sugar. I haven’t used nuttikrust biscuits in baking before, but they gave the pudding an interesting flavour and texture.

My final recipe for the month, in honour of the film about French cooking which started it all off, was French Onion and Potato Soup. It would never have occurred to me to use potatoes in soup but it worked well. It was a thick, chunky soup, rather rich but really nice with a bit of grated cheese melted in and a fresh bread roll on the side. It required chopping two onions and I was reminded of the scene in Julie & Julia where Julia Childs chops vast amounts of onion. I have to admit that I am not fearless, so worked a little slower, and a lot more carefully. Two onions and two potatoes got chopped without incident. Again, I ended up with three portions left over which became my lunch for the next few days.

 All in all things went well with the first month of my cooking challenge. I made something new each week, everything I tried worked, and I now have five new recipes to add to my collection. I am now getting back into the habit of cooking meals which require a long preparation time on the weekend, so that I have a stash of meals for busy weeknights.

On the menu for February is One-Dish Winners by Christelle Erasmus. I used it quite a lot when I first bought it, mainly for pastas and salads. But there are many more dishes waiting to be tried. Watch this space to see how things go.