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Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Birds Eye "Stir Your Senses" Tagliatelle con Porcini

Having singularly failed to note the sixth anniversary of this blog (12th September), despite setting a reminder in my phone and receiving several prompts from my girlfriend, I actually have a good opportunity for a quick post this evening. Courtney would normally be out at a Slimming World meeting on a Monday evening, so there's a good chance there will be several ready meal/quick snack posts coming up (not to mention an under-discussion post about Slimming World, if only so I can joke at length about how it comes across as some kind of cult whenever anyone I know talks about it, and there are quite a few Slimming Worlders at work).

The upshot of this is that I was recently vaguely organised and picked myself up one of Birds Eye's new "Stir Your Senses" collection - a range of seven ready-to-cook-from-frozen, bagged meals for one which take about ten minutes (or less) to cook. Given that I generally get home too late to start cooking anything substantial from scratch, that's a very tempting prospect, and I'm always happy to try out something that purports to go from freezer to plate in a very short time and by a very simple process. That is, after all, just one raison d'être for this blog.

According to the packaging, this particular bag invites one to "Be inspired by the truly magical tastes of Tuscany. Our chefs have combined ribbons of fresh egg pasta in a delicately light creamy sauce and the earthy richness of porcini and champignon mushrooms". The cooking process described is nothing more than emptying the contents of the bag into a non-stick pan or wok with two or three tablespoons of water, heating on high until the frozen bricks of sauce begin to melt, then turning the heat down for the remainder of the 7-8 minutes cooking time. The full duration depends mostly on how thick one wants the sauce to be or, at least, a fine balance between that and how hungry one is to begin with. The most complicated part is remembering to keep stirring once the sauce has fully melted, lest the pasta start to stick to the outer edges of the pan/wok. Once the desired consistency of sauce it achieved, the contents of the pan are simply decanted onto the desired receptacle for eating.

I have to say I was very surprised by this - not only was the process of cooking it precisely as quick and simple as the packaging suggests - granted, it's only barely more involved than simply chucking something into the oven for a few minutes at a particular temperature, but it's been a while since I've done much of anything in the kitchen - but it didn't take much effort to ensure it didn't go horribly wrong. I was worried initially that some of it might burn at (or to) the bottom of the pan before the rest had even thawed, but a small amount of stirring kept everything under control. Not only that, but it was a remarkably tasty meal - one tends to expect that mushrooms, in particular, cooked from frozen, will be soggy and pretty much flavourless, but the subtly nutty flavour was not overwhelmed by the plentiful and creamy sauce and their texture retained a certain firmness. The real hero of the dish, though, was the onion, which offset the sweetness of the sauce and added a pleasant bite. If I had a complaint, it would be that the size of this 'Meal for 1' was rather smaller than I'd prefer, but I know I tend to be a bit of a porker. It's likely a healthier portion size than I'd serve myself if I was cooking something like this from scratch.

Looking over the rest of the range, there aren't many others that I'm especially keen to try - "chef inspired" they may be (whatever that's supposed to mean), but they're not incredibly varied or imaginative. Four are Italian-styled pasta-based dishes, the other three involve chicken and one of those adds prawns - one of my culinary bêtes noires. Nevertheless, they have apparently been awarded 'Product of the Year' in a 2016 consumer survey of product innovation, and it's not hard to see why - the simple presentation (bagged rather than boxed, making them somewhat more convenient to store in the freezer compartment of an average fridge freezer) along with the fact that it's so simple to prepare and so surprisingly tasty mean that such plaudits are well-deserved. I'd certainly grab one of these again if I need a quick dinner, and may yet try other options in the range.

I'll also add this to the list of meals I'd like to try cooking from scratch, at some point...

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!"
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