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The first time I heard that phrase was when watching the two greedy Italians. I just love the interaction between Antonio and Gennario, the scenery, not forgetting the food or the sounds. At times I really miss living in Bella Italia, the markets, the restaurants. Oh, the weather too. Just now I’m sitting listening to the tail end of a storm, my weekly delivery of groceries became a click and collect. Luckily, for me, Stephen was at work. At least the power is back on, I spoke too soon, the lights are flickering on and off.
L’arte d’arrangiarsi, as a concept, I was already very familiar with. My mum was a teenager in war torn Britain, being raised in a rural community did help, there was no real shortage of eggs, milk and butter, even so rationing meant that nothing could be wasted. One of the most useful things that anyone, responsible for feeding a family, can pass on is the art of making something out of nearly nothing.
I find it fascinating, to take very little and turn it into something utterly mouthwatering. To do this you have to be able to cook, it helps if you actually like cooking. Which if you have read any of my blogs, or know me you may have guessed I rather like cooking. Everyone can cook though. One thing that really bugs me is the ‘chefification’ of food. I know it isn’t an actual word: it’s towers of food, squiggles and smudges on plates, jenga stacks of chips and don’t get started on the noughts and crosses board arrangement of asparagus on a rissoto. Mama mia! The delicious asparagus should be flavouring the rice not decorating it. It really saddens me people say they can’t cook; what they’re really saying is that they can’t make dishes that can pass for fine dining. That’s not what cooking is about.
How many students, despite having passed through several years of doing Home Ec are clueless about how to cater for themselves? Why? Whoever designed the curriculum, i.e. the government, hasn’t a clue about what students really, really need. The day that Joseph gave up on cookery at school was when he had to poach pears and make a raspberry coulis . His personal tutor had told him the course would help him to cope with catering for himself. Several years later he still hasn’t poached another pear. He can make a really good ragu, is adept at making fresh pasta, has a wide selection of Asian dishes he is confident at making and can make a selection of traybakes. I digress.
L’arte d’arrangiarsi, or making the most of what you’ve got it now is consciously at the heart of my cooking. It is turning a large onion, a couple of carrots and some celery into an Umbrian minestrone; with the addition of some brown lentils and leftover gravy from Sunday’s pulled pork. It’s never ever throwing chicken bones out before making a stock. It is using a left over portion of a roasted butternut squash to make a curry to go along with some plain basmati rice and a garlic loaded riata.
Above all it is not wasting anything. I had to throw an aubergine out yesterday and I can’t tell you how much that hurt, especially as they seem to make infrequent visits to the supermarket shelves in lerwick. We are moving to live near Glasgow and the idea of having access to things like an Italian delicatessen, a Chinese quarter, a variety of Asian shops and perhaps even being able to get a veg box delivered to where I live, is just too much. It doesn’t take much to please me.
Before you go shopping take a last look around your store cupboards and fridge; do you really need to go shopping today or even tomorrow? Or can you use that last head of broccoli to make a pasta sauce, along with some olive oil, garlic and chilli powder or flakes? Have you got something put by in the freezer you should use up? Do you have half a cabbage wilting away Have you tried Madhur Jaffrey’s cabbage and red lentil dal? It’s delicious. Once the fridge looks really bare then it’s t ime to go shopping.
I’m glad to say that normal service will be(is) resuming. Going back to work in May was harder than I thought it would be and two weeks later I was back in the nest rather bruised and dented. I’ve now had a wee while to recover and with Samuel about to leave, is Glasgow ready for him I wonder? I thought it was time to make sure that he could cook a meal fit for McCormack family fayre. Sorry, I just can’t resist the chance to add a little alliteration.
Sunday was the first time I had cooked a meal for weeks, which may also help to explain a lack of posts about what I’ve been doing in the kitchen. All the meals over the last three weeks, perhaps longer, have been chosen, prepared and cooked by Joseph and Samuel. The only thing we’ve done is pay for the ingredients! Oh and I have been a speaking recipe book. Stephen has had the dubious pleasure of tidying up after the kitchen has been reduced to something that looked more like a war zone. I just wonder how often prawn toast made with 450g of king prawns will feature in Samuel’s meal plans? Not too often I suspect. Perhaps a few less dishes will also be used; unless his kitchen is an unusually well stocked for a halls of residence kitchen. He is now in a halls of residence in Glasgow and is getting a reputation as, ‘The Chef’. Result.
Since the weans, who both now tower above me, have been old enough to wield a wooden spoon they have been involved in preparing food. Samuel’s first bread making exploits are truly the stuff of family legends. Joseph is just amazed that anyone else actually ate it. The smarties in the bread were the least of his concerns; the number of times the dough hit the floor was a little more bothersome. Spinning dough is an art that not many six year olds manage to master, enough said!
I digress. What have been my aims, apart from making sure he can actually cook a meal? Obviously I wanted to make sure that he could use his limited resources wisely, so he doesn’t end up wasting either money or ingredients. Hopefully he will check his store cupboard before he restocks
them it; those wilted veggies lurking all lonely and unloved could become a tempting meal. The lunch we had yesterday was the result of spotting a pair of aubergines that were no longer plump and shiny. They became Melanzane Parmigianino, an aubergine bake with tomato sauce and parmesan, cheddar or Wensleydale depending what I discover in the fridge . The alternatives were – an aubergine pasta sauce or a Keralan curry sauce from ‘A Girl Called Jack’. Talking about food, as well as preparing it, has been part of this process too. I also wanted both Joseph and Samuel to see that cooking can be fun and that delicious meals can be made quickly and simply.
I know I’ve enjoyed sharing the kitchen with them and taking on a more advisory role. We’ve had some splendid meals too. This week we had a surplus of cannelloni beans that had made there first appearance in a green pepper and bean goulash, courtesy of Rose Eliot’s Complete Vegetarian. There was also some meat left on the skeleton of a chicken that had been lurking in the fridge with malicious intent. If it wasn’t used up very soon it would have to be binned. A Capital offence in this household. In the salad drawer a pepper was looking limp and lonely. After a brief discussion, some surfing the net and browsing through our collection of cookery books we decided to make enchiladas. Having no wraps in the house we would have to rustle some up, simples. To make life easier I just made up a standard white bread pizza dough and after the first rising just divided it into 60g balls. These were rolled out nice and thinly and quickly cooked in a lightly greased moderately hot skillet or heavy frying pan. Once you get a few brown spots on each side they’re done.
What I hope they have learnt is the skill of doing ‘roll – overs’ and stretching the more expensive ingredients to make follow on meals . With just small tweaks truly the phoenix of one dish can rise from the ashes of an old one.
My initial starter was 500g of cannelloni beans which I placed in a pan with twice as much water so they had tons of room to expand, which I boiled for five minutes and then turned the water off and left for one hour. You can change the water, I don’t bother, then boil the beans for 10 minutes and simmer until tender usually about another 35 minutes drain and rinse.
For the goulash you will need
500g onions, peeled and sliced
2 tbsp oil, if a meat eater I’d use dripping or large for added unami
1 clove garlic, minced
2 peppers, deseeded and cut into chunky strips
2 × 450g tinned tomatoes
500g cooked beans. Or 2 × 450g tons cannelloni beans
1 heaped table spoon of smoked paprika
Sour cream to serve, I added a tablespoon of chopped dill to it and 1 tbsp of olive oil.
Heat the oil in a large sauté pan, add the onion and cook until softened.
Add the garlic, don’t let it burn so we’re talking about one minute.
Add the peppers, cook until softened 4 or 5 mins, add the paprika.
Bung the tomatoes into your pan, simmer uncovered for fifteen minutes.
Serve with rice or a baked potato, drizzle the sour cream over your goulash with a crisp green side salad dressed with a tangy lemon dressing
The next day we served the left over goulash with a little leftover roasted chicken which I fried with an onion, a red pepper and some ‘Slap yer Mamma’ – an authentic cajan spice mix.
I made same wraps using a basic white bread dough recipe allowing 60g of dough
Next I made a simple tomato sauce by heating 3tbsp of oil adding copped clove of garlic and a finely chopped red chilli, cook briefly before adding 500ml passata and salt to taste. Cook for about 5 mins. Simple.
Oil a shallow casserole dish, take a wrap and place a few table spoons of your bean, pepper and chicken mixture in a wrap. Roll it up and place in your dish.
For a lunch allow one enchilada per person, dinner two.
Continue filling and rolling your wraps until you have used them all up.
Next pour your simple tomato sauce over your wraps. I sprinkled some i.e. lots of cheddar cheese over them all at this point.
Bake at 175°c fan oven or 195°c in a standard oven until piping hot, about 15-20 mins.
I like to serve a salad with them and sour cream.
Now you should still have heaps of beans left.
I used half of them to make a lamb and bean casserole which I served with creamy polenta.
The last batch became Boston(ish) baked beans. I use my simple tomato sauce but add a couple of table spoons of molasses to it. One spoon is probably enough for most folks though.
Add your cooked beans and simmer for a few mins. These I served for brunch on sourdough toast, a poached egg with a salsa made from diced tomatoes, diced chilly, parsley, finely sliced shallot and a little olive oil.
The possibilities are countless. I think both Joseph and Samuel have got the idea of using a base ingredient and making it into several different dishes.
Life living on the edge – of a large rock we call home.
Sundays, in my imagination anyway, are lazy days to be taken at a leisurely pace. Starting with a mug or two of freshly ground, freshly brewed coffee. Gentle music helping to create a relaxed atmosphere, the dogs curled up on the couch. Breakfast will follow, preferably prepared by someone else. Alas we can all dream. The reality is often rather different. In truth Sundays can be just as hectic as any Saturday; Samuel works in Niela’s knitwear studio every Sunday. Joseph on the other hand frequently has band practice on a Sunday afternoon. Now he works every other Sunday and breakfasts at 4:30am! Trying to find time for those leisurely long family breakfasts will have to remain an idea that is pleepsing on the back burner for awhile longer.
However; I’m not one to be defeated by the practicalities of the hurly burly that is family life. Our day begins early, usually around 6am at the weekends. Why? Doesn’t the duvet’s alluring attraction prove too much? In the week we, well Stephen and I, get up at five every morning. Times change. This used to be so that chickens could be fed, dog walked, washing machine fed with a never ending supply of clothes, the dishwasher unloaded and reloaded all before breakfast. Sadly the last of our thirteen assorted hens has met its maker. Our pair of brindle terrors are generally walked later in the day. Our internal alarms seem permanently set for the wee small hours. To make the most of this: we get settled on the settee; mull over mugs of fresh coffee; listen to some gentle music and slowly wake up. It’s just the relaxing family breakfast that’s missing from this rural idyll. Due to the fact that young Heath is a whirlwind on four paws at the best of times we usually try to snatch a quiet hour before we let them disturb our peace.
Sunday breakfast just can’t be toast, even if its homemade sourdough. Or even homemade muesli, it just can’t. Even if we don’t often manage to sit down all together I like to make something that seem more special than our usual breakfast staples of either something on toast or porridge with a fruit compote. When we had thirteen laying hens, eggs had to be included. Even I, an obsessive cook and baker, couldn’t manage to use that many eggs every week. Now, hen less the tradition continues. I like to make something that adapts itself easily to being served in several sittings or is very quick to prepare. This week I decided to make ‘Bombay Eggs’ using Meera Sodha’s marvellous book ‘Made in India’. This is the recipe that has been tickling my imagination. It consists of a spicy tomato and spinach sauce with eggs gently poaching in their vegetable nests. There are various similar versions of this; the two best known are probably Huevos Rancheros and chachukka, I’m going to have to check the spelling.
To make this delectable delight you begin by roasting cumin seeds in a large frying pan that has a lid, you’ll need that later. I usually use about two teaspoons of coriander and one of cumin seeds. Sometimes the proportions vary, depending on the state of my store cupboard and whether the boat’s come in. Once they’re is a lovely aroma in the air and they have turned a couple of shades darker carefully tip the spices into a grinder or use a pestle and mortar and gently crush them. I love the smell of freshly roasted spices. Now heat four tablespoons of oil, I’ve now switched to rapeseed oil, tip your spices back into the pan fry for about one minute and add the onions and cook until they are floppy and are beginning to turn golden at the edges. Don’t rush; this will take about eight minutes.
Next add your crushed garlic and ginger. If I’m feeling lazy I use a couple of heaped table spoons garlic and ginger paste, it’s not the same but I like the pungent hit you get when the paste meets the heat. I think its the acetic acid. Otherwise use four large cloves of garlic, finely chopped, and a small thumb length of ginger about four cms. Cook for two or three minutes before adding two 450g tins of chopped tomatoes. Meera Sodha says 1kg of chopped fresh tomatoes. Early on a Sunday morning that seems a bit too much chopping for me. So tinned toms will do. Maybe fresh ones would have not involved a trip to casualty, but that’s another story entirely.
Leave the tomatoes and onions pleepsing away for fifteen minutes. Such a wonderful word for gently simmering. By now they should be thick and the sauce should still be vividly red. Add a tablespoon or so of tomato purée and salt to taste, my default measure is usually one tsp, add a tsp of sugar, about half a tsp of chilli powder, I usually use chilli flakes and up the cumin seeds and a good couple of pinches of turmeric. If you don’t want to stain your fingers its about a quarter of a tsp.
You will need to add the spinach gradually, letting each hand full wilt before you add the rest. Once it has all wilted you can add the eggs. If anyone is eating later I just take a portion of the sauce out of the pan and reheat it in a smaller pan before adding the eggs.
Now if your not happy about cracking the eggs directly into the pan, crack them into little preparation dishes or ramekins and carefully slide the eggs into the pan. Usually its two eggs per person. Put the lid on and cook on a very gentle heat for ten minutes. The yolks should still be runny and the whites cooked.
Garnish with lots of freshly chopped coriander leaves, a generous sprinkling of black pepper and serve with toast or any Indian bread of your choice. Homemade soft nans are a McCormack favourite.
Sometimes if I’m in a hurry I use hard boiled eggs then it is so easy to feed the minions later in the day. Sam will normally rush in for a quick lunch. He usually gives me a ring and by the time he has; locked up the studio, walked a couple of hundred metres, a plate of eggs in a spicy sauce is on the table, the nans have been warmed up in the microwave and one smug mum looks on. Sometimes, if I’m really pushed for time, I make up a simple tomatoes sauce just by sautéing a couple of cloves of garlic in the oil add the tomatoes and a few mins later some good quality balti paste, then the spinach. While this is reducing, hard boil your eggs or just plop your fresh eggs into little nests you’ve made in the sauce. Pop the lid on and in less than fifteen minutes you have a lovely light lunch or a brilliant breakfast. Just don’t tell anyone about this short cut. Needs must at times.
Things have moved on since I started this post. Mental health issues have plagued me. Ironically I have had plenty of time to write these posts. However, it just didn’t happen now I’m feeling much more on top of things so look out for a few more posts. Samuel is a student living in a shared student flat. Joseph is working in a local bakery and getting up at five seems like a unheard of luxury and we will be upping sticks and moving of this remote rock we’ve called home for 11 years.
I just had to sneak in a photo of Filska and Heath.
Brenda has been by side for more years than I can remember. She has never let me down, she’s plain and honest and I would hate to be without ever trusty Brenda. I know that the day I got married my mum was doubly sad; not only had I left home, but I took Brenda with me. Who actually is Brenda? What role does she play in our lives.
Let me begin in the beginning. I’m not sure how old dear Brenda is. One day I was looking through a book of facsimiles published by the Ministry of Food, circa 1941, and I spied a picture of Brenda. I was astounded. I knew she wasn’t exactly in her prime; my maths failed me. She can’t be that old, she is still working. I showed the photo to Joseph and Stephen, they were both as shocked as I had been. ‘She can’t be that old.’ Stephen sounded concerned.
Joseph was worried ‘shouldn’t we… Is it safe to…?’ He was concerned for our safety. I had to think hard. Was it time to retire lovely Brenda? I just can’t. She is working as hard as ever. Just this weekend she proved to be invaluable, as always, when I made a huge batch of haggis ragu. More of that later.
Now I think it’s time to reveal the true identity of this marvellous workhorse we have lovingly named Brenda. She was given to my mum by an elderly friend. Now that her own family had grown up and flown the nest, she had no use for a pressure cooker, without the weights which had been lost years ago. Mum was delighted with the gift and we named this pan after its previous owner; so meet Brenda the ancient, Presto, pressure cooker. Yes her handles may be a little loose and I’ve no idea what she’s made of but every time I use her I smile when I think of the real Brenda, who was funny, unreliable, always in debt, generous, sometimes care worn like many who had lost their youth to a war. Once she saw how useful ‘Brenda’ had become I think she regretted ever giving her away. However, she went to a good home and the real Brenda shared many meals, days out and friendship with my cookery mad mother; have you ever tried making a cheese cake icing with cottage cheese? Just don’t go there. It was one of Mum’s hare brained ideas that just didn’t work on any level.
I digress. As we were buying the chicken for Sunday’s dinner, in Scalloway Meat Company, Stephen spied a haggis that took his fancy. In the car home I hatched up a “cunning plan” to turn this fine haggis into a Scottish style ragu this would mean that the humble haggis would probably form the basis for at least three meals for four adults. This is where beautiful, big Brenda fits in. Just what is a Scottish ragu? Basically it is a bolognese sauce using haggis instead of mince. At New Year, we always make a cottage pie using haggis. It all started when Joseph and Samuel were younger and the thought of eating offal didn’t inspire them or appeal to them. Not being content to let prejudice overcome flavour I thought if I made up a ‘Scottish lasagne’ they would eat that. It worked! Now Joseph says he prefers cottage pie made with haggis. Result!!!
Returning to work after a break is always difficult which is why I decided to do a batch cook at the weekend; making a haggis cottage pie, a haggis chilli with rice and a haggis and pasta bake. This was inspired by Nigella’s Venetian lasagne and a recipe I’d recently seen @ Elizabeth’s kitchen diary. I took the idea of layering a meat ragu with pasta tossed in a cheese sauce, instead of the spiced lamb Elizabeth uses, which is delicious by the way, I made use of my haggis ragu. As well as being very economical this ragu is very flavoursome.
Once you have made up your batch of ragu it is a doddle to make up this pasta bake. This is a two part recipe :- the ragu and how to assemble the pasta bake. I used a 750g haggis but I’ll give the quantities for the more usual 450g one.
For the haggis ragu
2 medium onions, finely diced
2 large carrots, peeled and finely diced
2 sticks celery, finely diced
2 tbsp sunflower oil
2, 450g tins chopped tomatoes
450g haggis, casing removed and coarsely chopped
Salt to taste
Heat the oil, on a moderate heat, in a large pan add the onions, carrots and celery and cook for 5 mins, stirring from time to time.
Add the tinned tomatoes, stir and cook for a few more minutes until all the veg have softened. This could be up to fifteen minutes.
Add the chopped haggis, continue to break up the haggis in the pan. When you are happy with the texture of your sauce cover your pan and cook on a low heat for 45 minutes.
Test for salt and season to taste. You probably won’t need any peppers as haggises are usually well seasoned.
Now your ragu is ready to use.
It can be served with potatoes and vegetables, it makes a superb cottage pie base. I use it just as I would a beef ragu, with pasta, in a lasagne or in jacket potatoes or with polenta.
The haggis pasta bake
Half quantity of the above sauce
500ml cheese sauce- I make it in the microwave
120g ball mozzarella, ripped into small pieces
500g pasta shapes, fusili works well
100g freshly grated parmesan
Butter your shallow oven proof dish and preheat the oven 190°c (170°c for fan ovens)
Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Tip the pasta in, when the water comes back to a rolling boil follow the timings on the pasta packet. 9- 12 mins
Drain and run under cold water to stop the pasta cooking any further.
Make your cheese sauce
Mix 75g cornflour, in a microwave proof jug, with a little milk until it is a smooth paste. Make up to 500ml with milk, or a milk and yogurt, or milk and single cream depending on how decadent you feel. Stir to combine.
Place in the microwave for a minute, stir and cook for another minute, stir. It should be starting to thicken now. Cook in blobs of 20-30 seconds until the sauce has thickened. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Add half the cheese.
Combine the pasta with half the cheese sauce in a large bowl until the pasta is well coated.
Place half of the pasta in your dish and scatter half the mozzarella over it.
Cover this with your meat sauce, in this case haggis ragu.
Cover this with the remaining cheese pasta. Pour the rest of the cheese sauce over. Scatter the mozzarella over it and the other half of the parmesan.
Bake for 30 mins until golden.
Serve with a crisp green salad and some crusty bread.
Brenda is used on a regular basis and I hope when I’m the same age as big, beautiful Brenda I’m still cooking up a storm!