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Saturday, 21 May 2011

Home-Made Veg & Bacon Bake

Yes, for the first time in far too long, I've made something from scratch, by randomly throwing stuff together and hoping for the best... The very essence of snacks & the single man, and yet I've spent months just writing up ready-made foodstuffs I've picked up from the supermarket.

Not so, today.

I'd been considering my options on this for quite some time. I wanted to make something like a shepherd's pie or cottage pie, predominantly vegetable-based, but with the addition of bacon. I definitely wanted onion in the mix, and looked at different shepherd's/cottage pie recipes for the other components. To begin with, I wasn't sure whether I'd need to add any liquid, since frying bacon will free some of its fats, and onion tend to release some of their fluids in the pan as well, but eventually I decided that addition a stock would be a good precaution. Other than that, I was essentially winging it - working out the timings by eye, and keeping my fingers crossed all the while. Daring, huh?

Now, I cannot stress this enough, but all the veg really needs to be fresh rather than frozen. Sure, you could use frozen, but you'd have to ensure it was fully thawed (and not overly saturated with water) before starting. The other advantage to using fresh is that you can be sure every component is in much the same state when you begin, which should make judging the stir-fry easier.

Serves 3-4! Wow!

Ingredients:
  • Grated Cheese (either buy a pack ready-grated, or grate some from a block)
  • Bacon Pieces (the chunks, often called 'lardons', though rashers can be cut down and the cooking time adjusted. I used a 150g pack of chunks from M&S)
  • Instant Mash of choice (I'm still running with Sainsbury's)
  • Knorr Vegetable Stockpot
  • Baby Corn (4-5 cobs)
  • Broccoli Tips (4-5 sprigs)
  • Carrots (two of a decent size)
  • Garden Peas (I used about half a 200g pack of M&S 'Fresh and Prepared')
  • Onion (one of a decent size should be sufficient)
  • Sugarsnap Peas/Beans (I used about 1/4 to 1/3 of a 200g pack from M&S)
  • Garlic optional
  • Salt & Pepper to taste

Preparation Time: About 30-45 minutes for the stir-fry, then 30 minutes baking

Tools Required:
  • Sharp Knife
  • Chopping Board
  • Frying Pan
  • Spatula
  • Saucepan
  • Pyrex Baking Dish
  • Cheese Grater (if grating your own)
The Process:
Start by chopping the onion, baby corn and carrot. They don't need to be chopped particularly finely, so it's very much according to your own preference - large chunks or small - but smaller chunks will probably mean the first phase of the stir-fry will be quicker. Put the bacon chunks into a frying pan on a medium heat, and add both the carrots and the onion. Keep it all mobile, as this will better distribute the bacon's fat around the pan.

As it begins to cook, prepare the stock by mixing the Knorr Stockpot in with 400-500ml of boiling water. When the bacon is becoming crispy and the onions are golden (about 10-15 minutes), add the stock into the frying pan, then add the baby corn pieces and broccoli tips (and garlic, if you so desire - a couple of cloves chopped or crushed should be sufficient). Turn the heat down low, and allow to simmer gently, stirring occasionally for another 15-20 minutes.

Finally, add the beans and peas (along with salt and/or pepper if desired) and simmer for a further 10 minutes. During this time, ready the mashed potato according to the instructions provided.

Preheat the oven to 200C. When everything is ready, pour the stir-fry mixture into the baking dish, then scoop on the potato and spread it evenly over the top, raking with a fork to break up the surface. Sprinkle grated cheese over the top, and place the baking dish into the oven for 30 minutes. Allow to cool briefly before serving, as it's going to be very hot.

The Results:
As usual, I managed to forget a few things I'd intended to do - the garlic was left out, and I didn't put any pepper into the stir-fry, so I was expecting something rather bland at the end. Thankfully, it was anything but. The bacon maintained much of its flavour, but it also mingled with the stock, enriching it somewhat. The veg that was added later on in the stir-fry remained fairly crisp, though the onion was almost undetectable... Next time I try this, I shall probably add it after the stock. I chopped all my vegetables quite chunkily, which almost certainly helped it survive the cooking time, and enabled the pieces to keep their individual flavours. The cheese topping may have been a touch overdone after 30 minutes, but it did add some extra bite to the potato. The biggest downside was that the stock/sauce ended up soaking into the mash during the baking phase (and moreso, when the leftovers went into the fridge overnight), so I wondered if perhaps I should have thickened it up with a little cornflour... Something else to try next time.

The vegetable component can be altered pretty much as you please - peppers of all colours would work, for example - and even leaving the bacon out altogether isn't out of the question, should you wish to prepare a more vegetarian-friendly bake. Also, the topping doesn't have to be mash... I can't remember what it's called offhand, but there's a 'potato slices in creamy sauce' product that would also be suitable for this recipe. If sticking with mash, though, you can sprinkle with breadcrumbs rather than cheese for a more crunchy topping, leave it as unembellished mash, or use a seasoned mash.

A final note - having stored it overnight in my fridge, I reheated the leftovers in the microwave for lunch the next day (3 minutes on high in a 700watt machine). The mash and the stock/sauce had blended further, but the flavour was still good.

M&S Apple Soft Brew

I can't remember when it began, but there has been a trend for many years of creating non-alcoholic versions of alcoholic beverages. I guess one could include so-called 'virgin' cocktails in this phenomenon. I can dimly remember trying Kaliber, the 'Non Alcoholic Premium Lager' from Guinness (sorry, 'Diageo') way back when it first launched amidst a flurry of TV advertising featuring Billy Connolly, and finding it utterly foul. Then again, I found any 'Premium Lager' utterly foul and, for the most part, still do.

Since then, many more have come (and gone, probably), but non-alcoholic drinks generally are springing up all the time. One such example is Marks & Spencer's 'Alcohol Free Apple Soft Brew', otherwise known as "the soft drink born in a brewery".

The blurb further explains that it is a "Carbonated soft drink made with Apple, Lemon and Pear juices from concentrate", and that it is "Traditionally brewed using English hops & malt for a full fruity flavour without the alcohol."

Now, I'm not a big cider drinker. Partly snobbery, because it's such a popular (read: cheap) drink with students, and partly because it always strikes me as an unfathomable waste of good fruit juice. What can I say? I have a sweet tooth. Search your feelings... you know this to be true.

Ahem.

The thing with this drink is that, based on my rare samplings of fermented apple juice, it has a fuller, and far more musty flavour that your average cider... but that's just the immediate hit of flavour. It's aftertaste is dry, but far more fruity than a true cider. It's also very lightly carbonated, and so probably far less frothy and gassy than the 'grown ups' version.

Now, certainly, some might argue that giving a drink like this to underage kids will encourage them to seek out the alcoholic variety sooner but that arguement is for another blog. All I have to say on the matter is that a family that take these on a picnic, rather than cider, will probably have a better picnic, and a safer drive home. The flavour isn't quite a substitute for the real thing, but it's close enough (albeit sweeter and fruitier overall) and doesn't have the obvious downside of alcohol.

Addendum 4/7/11: This stuff also generates a very satisfying head when poured into a glass or mug (275ml is just over a pint, so be prepared to drink the last mouthful straight from the bottle!). It doesn't last as well as a beer, but does last slightly longer than cider.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Poll on Facebook

Just for jollies, I would urge readers of this blog to pay a visit to the snacks & the single man page on Facebook, to participate in a poll to decide which of the remaining six Wright's Baking mixtures I try next.

Assuming I get a decent amount of feedback, there may be a follow-up poll to decide how I embellish the process. For example, if the winner is Chocolate Cake, I'll ask if I should add Willie's Cacao Venezuelan Black 100% Cacao chocolate chunks, Cadbury's Buttons, After Eight mints, etc. If the winner is one of the three breads I'll ask if I should do a simple loaf, a sub, some buns, or try some interesting knotwork with the dough. Who knows, it might end up as a Mixed Grain pretzel-y thing.

And, hey, while you're there, Like me...

7 Days of Baking: Day 1 - Wright's Carrot Cake

First in the range of Wright's ready-made cake mixtures is their Carrot cake. The moment you open the pack, you can smell all those spices (unspecified, but I certainly detect a note of cinnamon) that add to the rich flavour of a good carrot cake. It's almost tempting to just eat the powder by the spoonful (or, God forbid, try snorting it).

Or maybe that's just me.

In my younger days, the mere thought of a carrot cake was repellent. Cakes were meant to be sweet and full of sugar, sugar and more sugar. Carrot was a root vegetable normally served up with Sunday lunch. How could it possibly become a component in a cake? I cannot recall when I first tried carrot cake, but I think I was swayed by an unfeasibly thick layer of exceptionally tempting icing and possibly a little carrot-shaped/-coloured sugary treat stuck on top. Good icing goes a long way toward masking potentially weird cake flavours.

However, the cake itself - soft, moist, redolent with spices - was a revelation and, now, the only thing I object to in a carrot cake is the addition of walnuts. I mean, really? Does it need that crunch? That bitter, nutty note?

Icing will sometimes fix even that, though.

But anyway. Here we have the opening salvo of Wright's attempts to make baking simple. Everything from wonderful, sweet cakes to amazing savoury breads, supplied as 500g of ready-made mixture, requiring only the addition of fluids and a small amount of effort in mixing/kneading. The only way it could possibly be easier is if you buy the things ready-baked.

Gentlemen readers, stand by to impress the hell out of your friends and colleagues with your baking ninja skills.

Ingredients:
  • Wright's Carrot Cake Mix
  • Water
  • Cooking Oil
Preparation Time: About an hour

Tools Required:
  • Medium/Large Bowl (for the mixing)
  • Whisk (or electric mixer, if you're lazier than I am, also for the mixing)
  • Baking Tin (2lb loaf size - paper liners optional)
  • Measuring Implements (jug for the water, tablespoons or similar for oil)
  • Cooling Rack

The Process:
Preheat the oven to 140-160degrees (160-180 if not using a fan-assisted oven). Measure out 200ml of water and 60ml of cooking oil into the bowl, then add the Wright's cake mix. Since 500g is rather a lot, you might have better results by adding it gradually and stirring each portion in, rather than dumping in the whole 500g, but each to their own. The larger the bowl, the easier it will be to mix either way... The instructions reckon only a couple of minutes mixing with a hand whisk, but I was at it for about 5 minutes, just to be sure I got rid of as many lumps and clumps as I could. It's certainly easier with a whisk than with a fork, which would be my usual mixing tool, so I'm glad I now have a decent whisk (good old Lakeland!).

To make the baking tin ready, either add a paper liner or grease the inside thoroughly with butter. After my dry run with the Ginger cake, I'm using paper liners - they save on effort in washing up afterward - but the cakes seem to come out easily enough with buttering.

Pour the batter into the tin - it's thin enough that it'll settle evenly - and place into the oven for 50 minutes to an hour. I have a timer that gives me 10- and 5-minute countdown warnings, so I set it for an hour and checked at the sound of each alarm.

When it looks ready, remove the tin from the oven and allow to stand for 10 to 15 minutes to cool, then tip out the loaf onto a cooling rack for a few minutes.

The Results:
A whole fifty-five minutes after placing the tin into the oven, I extracted the finished loaf... and what a loaf it is. The crust is golden, the inside is light, fluffy, moist and, twenty minutes out of the oven, still tantalisingly warm. The dried carrot pieces are little crumbs, rather than the long gratings you might find in a ready-baked cake, but this just means you'll never have a strip of carrot hanging out of your gob after taking a bite out of a Wright's carrot cake. The spiciness of the finished loaf is far more subtle in its aroma than it was in powder or batter form, but this is complemented by a smoother, more balanced flavour, and a cake that's free from any of the stodginess or gumminess of a carrot cake that's been sitting on the shelves of a supermarket, wrapped in cellophane for who knows how long.

I have to say, also, that using a new loaf tin (£9 from John Lewis, rather than my quickie purchase from a local pound shop) and the paper line has done wonders. My dry-run ginger cake rose well only in the centre. The outside edges, while still light and fluffy inside, barely rose above the original level of the batter and so were a little denser than the middle, and had a harder, drier crust. This one, however, rose evenly and just looked fantastic as soon as it came out of the oven. Just goes to show that you get what you pay for, even when it comes to metal loaf tins! Baking for five minutes shy of an hour left the loaf with a soft crust, but one which is firm enough, and suggests a loaf baked to perfection - not too sticky, not too dry.
Photobucket Photobucket

Alternatives: 
It doesn't take a genius to realise that these mixtures can be embellished, with the addition of fruit or - if you really must - nuts. Or that you don't actually have to use a 2lb loaf tin. Take a similar capacity circular tin, chop the result in half laterally, and you have a 2-tier cake that can be filled with a jam/marmalade or icing, and possibly even coated with icing if you really want to show off. The possibilities of these things are almost infinite - which I'm hoping to demonstrate to some extent as I continue this series...

Friday, 13 May 2011

snacks Challenge: 7 Days of Baking

OK, so I popped over to the Real Food Festival at Earl's Court last weekend and came away with a selection of ready-make mixtures for baking all kinds of cool stuff from Wright's Baking. I have:
  • Ginger Cake
  • Chocolate Cake
  • Toffee Cake
  • Carrot Cake
  • Parmesan & Sun-Dried Tomato Loaf
  • Cheese & Onion Loaf
  • Mixed Grain Loaf

I'd like to say "It is my intention to bake one every day for the seven days from Monday 16th May" but, frankly, I know myself better than that. I ain't kidding when I call myself lazy. Despite giving this posting a title that suggests I'll do one every day, I know that's highly unlikely. Despite my best intentions, even if I wanted to bake one a day, I know I wouldn't. Despite making it easy on myself by buying liners for my loaf tins (I could actually bake three at a time if I fancied washing the bowl three times before getting anything in the oven... or, y'know, buying two more bowls), I know there will come a point (probably Tuesday) where I decide I can't be bothered, and spend the day playing videogames instead.

And no, that wouldn't even include WiiFit.

So, instead, what I shall say is this:

"It is my intention to bake all of them soon."

I'm not saying when, just that I'll do it. Maybe there will be other postings in between, maybe there won't. One thing you can be reasonably sure of is that I'll decide to embellish at least one of them. For example, I have some large chunks of 100% Cacao chocolate sitting in the fridge, waiting to find a suitable home. Did you see the phrase 'Chocolate Cake' up there? Hmm? You see where this is going?

You know you like the suspense.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Findus Chicken Fajita Wraps

OK, look, I know the expressed intention of this blog is to avoid microwave crap, but every so often you will discover microwave crap that's just too tempting to pass up... And, let's face it, when it comes to convenience food, and for the purpose of a blog called snacks & the single man, I've pretty much gotta try anything once, right?

Right?

Good. Glad we're on the same page.

Findus not only describe this 2-pack as "our delicious tortilla wraps filled with tender chicken, peppers and onions in a mild spicy tomato sauce" but they have a little flash on the front claiming this is "Britain's No.1 Mexican Meal". All that, and they reckon 2 minutes in the microwave to cook. Now that's really starting to sound tempting isn't in? Be honest, now.

Well, here's the thing... They're not really that good.

They're not terrible by any means, and as a cheap, very quick snack meal, they work pretty well... But even compared to the simplified, faux-Tex-Mex stuff you'd be served at a branch of Chiquito's, this is a bad attempt at Mexican food.

The tortilla is not half bad but, chances are, even if you follow the cooking instructions to the letter, part of at least one of them will have gone dry and crusty by the time the microwave goes ping. Other parts of it, naturally, will be a little soggy due to (a) the ice within the product and (b) fluid seepage from the filling. There's really no way to avoid this with a ready made, cooked-from-frozen product, so it's hardly worth considering. The biggest problem is that, by the time the insides have cooled enough to eat (and, yes, the packaging does bear the legend 'Caution: Filling will be hot'), much of the tortilla will be so soggy, it won't be very appetising.

The filling really does seem to be the big problem because, for all its fluid seepage, it's more of a gel than a sauce. I don't just mean that it's thick, I mean that it congeals quickly once liberated from the wrap, and ends up quite nasty. Looking at it, it just doesn't appear to be tomato-based to any significant degree - it's very yellow - and, while it's described as 'mild spicy', I personally would venture the opinion that it contains only the suggestion of mild spiciness. The flavour is good - if the tomato component is invisible, it's certainly noticeable in the flavour, as is the pepper... the onion, though, gets a little lost.

Again, comparing it (somewhat unfairly) to something you'd be served in a restaurant, it looks as though the pepper and onion component of the sauce were put through the blender, while a 'normal' tortilla would keep the fillings nice an chunky. The chicken comes in reasonably-sized chunks, but there's precious little of it within the wrap.

But, let's not forget that this is a cheap-and-cheerful, microwave snack. As far as they go, they're well-filled, to the point where some of the filling will inevitably burst out while cooking, but they are a little on the small side. They're sold two to a box, and the both of them were not quite enough for a truly satisfying lunchtime snack, but they'd certainly work well as part of a more extensive faux-Mexican feast, as long as one of the other components more ably fulfills the spiciness requirements.
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