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Monday, 4 July 2016

Kanikama Luxury Sushi Collection

I'm quite a fan of sushi, as long-time readers may be aware, so when I popped into my local Iceland today and discovered they now stock a seemingly heretical frozen variety, I was surprised, not to say utterly dumbfounded.

But this is occasionally a blog about convenience foods as well as about making things from scratch, and this appears to be a convenience food (until you read the instructions, that is). It's also a rare day that I'll say no to the idea of eating sushi.

The first thing to remember about sushi is that, ideally, it's prepared fresh, and preferably right in front of you. Most folks in the UK with experience of sushi will have eaten in at the likes of Yo! Sushi, though London is certainly not lacking proper sushi restaurants. The very idea of freezing this form of Japanese cuisine is surely anathema to those who spend years training to prepare it in a restaurant, but I'm hardly going to let that stop me, am I?

Well played, Iceland - challenge accepted.

And so, first, we address the elephant in the room, the disparity, the downright oxymoron that is 'fresh frozen'. The Kanikama Luxury Sushi Collection describes itself as "Authentic Hand Crafted Sushi" and, more specifically "Ready to eat cooked rice with raw salmon, cooked shrimp, crab flavour surimi, wasabi, soy sauce and vegetables." The basic instruction is to "Defrost & Serve", but therein lies the first problem. According to the detailed instructions, it takes 2-3 hours to defrost the product "at room temperature" (and one has to wonder which room, and at what time of year they use for their definition of 'room temperature'). Alternatively - and especially for high summer - the set can be defrosted by storage in the fridge, but this takes between 6-8 hours, followed by 5-10 minutes at room temperature. For those who just can't wait, it can also be defrosted in the microwave, in about 2 minutes on Medium power... followed by 10-15 minutes at room temperature.

All the while, the condiments - wasabi paste, soy sauce and pickled ginger strips - must be defrosted separately "under cold running water for 5-10 minutes" or "at room temperature for 20-30 minutes"... so, even when using a microwave, this is hardly a quick snack. It's also worth noting that the instructions basically caution against using a microwave, on the grounds that it's likely to start cooking the salmon which, as everyone but Sainbury's seems to know, is not what you do with sushi. I used the microwave for mine as I didn't fancy waiting 2-3 hours for my dinner when I got home this evening, and I must confess to deliberately overdoing it in the microwave, just to ensure it was properly thawed.

The end result, perhaps surprisingly, is not as vile as one might expect. The rice isn't waterlogged, the fish has a decent texture though it's very light on flavour versus what you might experience in a restaurant. The salmon is ridiculously easy to overcook by microwave thawing, but that's true of just about any piece of frozen salmon you'd care to risk defrosting in a microwave.

In each pack, you get 3 California Pinwheels (small rolls with seemingly random content), 3 Salmon Nigiri (fairly bland, but not offensively so), 2 Shrimp Nigiri (never my favourite, not least because of the tails), 1 Salmon Hosomaki (which looked suspiciously blobby) and 1 Surimi Hosomaki (essentially fake crabstick pieces in a seaweed-wrapped roll). It's a decent selection, but presents only a light snack for one. The set also includes its own chopsticks, for convenience, and, while there's a reasonable quantity of wasabi (which was, for my preference, of better than reasonable quality), the sachet of soy sauce was insufficient, and hand to be topped up from my own supply. I didn't try the pickled ginger because I'm not a fan... and because I accidentally left it in the packaging during the microwave thawing, so it ended up a bit soggy.

I certainly wouldn't recommend this to anyone as an introduction to sushi. Please, try it first made properly fresh from a halfway decent restaurant (or, failing that, Yo! Sushi). For a sushi connoisseur, this would probably be inadequate in every sense, if not outright insulting... but, for £3, this is certainly better than I'd expected. I'm not sure I'll ever choose to have it again, given that I work near a Yo! Sushi and have access to the myriad sushi restaurants in and around London, but I suppose it's nice to know it's available in Iceland's cabinets, should one find oneself craving a better brand of junk food.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Rouleaux Niçois/Cannelloni Niçoise-Style (à la Khoo)

Another of my little whims while on holiday around Easter was to leaf through Rachel Khoo's delightfully quirky recipe book, 'My Little French Kitchen' for something reasonably simple, but more complicated than the Croque Madame Muffins I tried last time (being almost four years ago now). I've actually tagged about a dozen things that I intend to try but, on this occasion, wanted something not too taxing, but still reasonably adventurous.

Since I quite like Italian food, but the closest I've ever come to actually cooking it from scratch is that staple of the single man's repertoire, Spag Bol (which isn't even really Italian), I thought I'd try this French take on an Italian dish. The recipe called for the purchase of fresh ingredients - even, for preference, fresh lasagne sheets - but, thankfully, didn't require an awful lot of chopping.

Back when I did those Croque Madame Muffins, I noted that the instructions in 'My Little French Kitchen' aren't always presented in the most logical - or strictly chronological - order and, yet again, I fell foul of this foible when working through this recipe. I did most of the prep work in advance, as I strive to do as often as possible, but there was a rather critical instruction regarding the lasagne that is placed as a footnote to the recipe, in smaller type, which I shall quote here:
Les petites astuces - tips if your lasagne sheets are a little dry, pop them in a bowl of boiling water for 30 seconds or so. When they are supple, drain them and pat dry with kitchen towel or a clean tea towel.
Now, considering that 'fresh lasagne' sheets, as bought from most supermarkets, are typically pretty dry, one would tend to think an instruction like that isn't merely one of 'the little tricks', but an integral part of the recipe, and should be inserted more prominently within the main text of the recipe... OK, sure, I remember being taught in High School that one should read through all instructions before commencing (and what a great laugh that lesson was)... but that exercise did not involve footnotes.

And I'm clearly less patient now than I was then.

Unbelievable, I know.

So, having peeled long ribbons of courgette and sliced the cooked peppers and artichoke (both from jars, and not as successfully drained as they could have been), it didn't occur to me to dunk the lasagne in hot water before staring to pile stuff onto them and, consequently, when I started to roll up my cannelloni, the lasagne sheets cracked quite spectacularly.

That wasn't the worst of my errors, though. When we went shopping, the punnet of cherry tomatoes we picked up was slightly short of the 500g specified on the recipe, the parsley we'd bought was soggy and browning slightly by the time I came to start cooking this, and I entirely forgot to spread the black olive tapenade onto the lasagne before adding the other stuff, so that ended up getting dumped into the tomato sauce.

While I wasn't far short of the 500g of cherry tomatoes, it seems I was sufficiently short to ensure there wasn't quite enough sauce to adequately douse the cannelloni so, once in the oven, the dish never reached the 'golden and bubbly' stage, because what little fluid there was seemed to boil off too quickly.

I also forgot to grate any lemon zest or add any lemon juice but, after all my many cock-ups, the end result was surprisingly edible. As learning experiences go, it wasn't half so annoying as my first attempt at that HelloFresh Peanut Satay thing, and I'm very keen to try thing again sometime soon with the right weight of cherry tomatoes (with perhaps a bit of added water, just in case), and remembering to spread the olive tapenade over some freshly-dunked fresh lasagne sheets. It was a remarkably simple and fun recipe, so it's a little frustrating to have ballsed it up so stupidly, but it proves I really need to get more practice in the kitchen...

...and read the bloody recipe more thoroughly.

This is the only dish of the three I cooked recently that I remembered to photograph, so enjoy...
"Green salad? We don't need no stinkin' green salad!"

Friday, 25 March 2016

HelloFresh Revisited: Double Peanut Satay Stir Fry with Thai Holy Basil & Bok Choy

Clearly I haven't been doing a great deal of cooking recently, but I've been off work for most of this week - by choice, this time, rather than through illness - and my girlfriend and I had been discussing for quite some time that this would provide the ideal opportunity for her to take a break from slaving over the hot stove, and for me to get in some more practice over that same hot stove.

Since my last couple of stints of cooking dinner were both sets of three dishes (one from Gousto, the other from HelloFresh), I figured I'd start by looking over their recipe cards, and my eyes naturally fell on my biggest failure from that batch of experiments. I always say that one learns more from a single failure than from any number of successes, but I've yet to put that properly into practice in the kitchen. The first change I made was obvious - using products I already had in stock, or were bought at the supermarket - basically things that didn't have to be wrestled out of weird 'portion-sized' packets and things that I'd gone and got for myself based on the ingredients list.

My biggest gripes about HelloFresh generally were the imprecise and illogical measures they used for some items, and the wonky order of events presented by the instructions. Having cocked it up once, I had a better idea of how and where to start, so I began by mixing the Satay sauce - 2 large tablespoons of peanut butter straight out of my kitchen cupboards, 1 tablespoon of the sweet chilli sauce lurking in my fridge, and a tablespoon of soy sauce (light or dark is not actually specified in the recipe, but the first bottle I picked up was light, so I used that) all stirred together in a small bowl. This was an interesting step, because the peanut butter in my cupboard had separated when I last used it, and stirring it thoroughly still left it roughly "the consistency of runny honey", which description was the source of just one of the issues I had the first time round. Adding the two sauces thinned it out further, but then I left the sauce aside... and while I worked on the other steps, it thickened up considerably. By the time I was doing the noodles, I really did need to add some of the boiling noodle water, but the recipe's estimate of "a couple of tbsp" wasn't entirely sufficient to correct the consistency - I ended up using four or five, and could probably have used a couple more without overly diluting the resultant sauce.

Next up came the chopping of the veg - which, as usual, took far longer than it should have done because I'm still terrible at chopping veg. I did save some time and effort by grating the ginger rather than chopping it finely, because attempting to chop things finely still really pisses me off. I put the grated ginger and the discs of the white parts of the spring onions into one small bowl since they're added together, then the red peppers (sliced not quite to half centimetre matchsticks, but close enough) and the sugar snap peas into a second bowl since they're also added together. Next up, I sliced the bok choy (or 'pak choi', as Morrisons call it) and set that aside in another bowl, then chopped up the green parts of the spring onions and put them an a small bowl of their own.

Finally, in this pageant of proper preparedness, primed to prevent a plural of poor performances, I poured a handful of dry roasted peanuts into the mortar I barely use and lightly crushed them with the pestle I rarely touch. Hey, they look nice in my kitchen, OK?

Then and only then did I start on the noodles. My girlfriend has shown me a neat trick where you boil your water in a kettle before putting it in the saucepan, and that does seem to cut down the cooking time simply because a kettle boils water far quicker than a gas hob, so the noodles could be added sooner, so their four minutes were up sooner. Again, I followed the advice of HelloFresh and put the cooked noodles into a pan of cold water to keep them ready (and loose) till they were needed.

The actual cooking part is very quick - part of the problem I had the first time round was that the fourth step of the recipe, the stir-fry, takes only a little over five minutes, but everything has to be ready and to hand so that things actually happen in the necessary quick succession.

When it came time to add the Satay sauce, I still managed to fluff things up a little: it looked at first as if there still wasn't enough (hence the impression that I could have added more of the noodle water) and by the time it was bubbling, some of it had already stuck to the bottom of my wok. Still, it mixed in nicely enough and everything seemed to get a decent coating of the sauce, so things were looking positive. I had, of course, singularly failed to tear up some basil (the normal kind, as the Thai variety was nowhere to be found in the supermarket or my local grocers), but that was soon enough accomplished. The final steps were sprinkling over the crushed nuts and the green bits of the spring onion. Still no prayers to the gods of Thai cooking, but equally no colourful oaths muttered under my breath... and my girlfriend was pleased to find I wasn't utterly losing my rag over dinner this time.

Oh, and it tasted fantastic... Much, I suspect, as it is intended...

I was especially pleased with the sauce, as I really could taste the note of ginger and the sweetness of the chilli sauce in the Satay - even the shredded basil wasn't utterly overwhelmed by the large quantity of peanut butter. The red peppers and sugar snap peas had retained some bite and the noodles were nice and soft without being gooey or gummy. It may have taken me most of a year, but I feel that I've managed to turn what I very generously considered "a kind of success" in retrospect, into the success it deserved to be, without half the stress I'd expected considering how long it's been since I last cooked. It all proceeded far more smoothly than the first time, I felt calmer, more confident and in control all the way through... the only downside was the mess left over in the wok... but most of that will come off through soaking.

This is definitely a recipe that I'd like to try again sometime, making a few subtle changes: the ginger was possibly grated a little too finely, almost to a paste, and I'll probably add a bit more water to the Satay sauce as I cook the noodles... maybe even use different veg.

My biggest regret with this second attempt at the recipe is that, yet again, I didn't take any photos. To be honest, though, what I served up wasn't as tidy-looking as the photo on the recipe card, so it still wouldn't have looked half as good as it tasted.
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