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Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Experiments with Gousto #6: Sweet Mixed Pepper & Chive Risotto

Of all the Gousto recipes I've tried so far (cooking myself, that is), this is probably my favourite so far. It turned out to be pretty much as quick and easy as the recipe suggests, but there were still a couple of things I didn't get quite right...

For starters, I've got into the habit of doing as much chopping as possible in advance, since I can never be sure I'll be able to keep to the timings if I have to chop on the fly. For this one, I also put the sweet tomato stock together in advance. This almost came a-cropper before I'd started, as my usual jug is far smaller than the 700ml required, so I had to resort to a crappy (but larger) plastic jug from my Ikea kitchenware set. I don't particularly like using it - especially for hot things - but there's really no rational reason for that... I just prefer working with glass/Pyrex jugs where available.

I got my girlfriend to explain how she would go about dicing onion, because my 'method' invaribly ends up making a lot of mess and leaving me with streaming eyes. In fact, in a previous recipe (not one I've documented, as far as I can remember) I diced an onion using our mandoline with the additional blades intended for slicing potatoes into French Fries. This time, I just used a standard kitchen knife, though I did have to sharpen it beforehand.

I was a little concerned by step 4 of this recipe, where smoked paprika, ground turmeric and chopped garlic are added in along with the dry arborio rice, as I don't feel especially confident about adding dry rice to anything where there's not much liquid available. One of these days, I'm sure I'll just end up with Rice Krispies... Not this day, though... thankfully...

Also, to be honest, it's only in the pan for about a minute before the stock is gradually added in, and this stage takes about 15-20 minutes for it to be absorbed by the rice, while the sliced peppers are being roasted in the oven. I think I started this stage a little too late - with only about 17 minutes remaining on the peppers' cooking time - so I ended up switching the oven off for the last few minutes of the risotto's cooking time.

The fact that almost everything for this recipe comes together in a single frying pan is a huge bonus. It means less to keep an eye on, and less to wash up at the end. I do have a few objections to the act of adding cheese to something that's already a hot, sticky mess in a frying pan, because I know from previous experience how troublesome that sort of combination will be to clean afterward. I also found the cheese supplied to be extremely crumbly, which made grating it an absolute chore, and I came dangerously close to grating my fingertips whenever a chunk broke off.

To be perfectly honest, I'm not certain whether or not any pepper was added for seasoning, along with the cheese and chives, but I'm pretty confident - having tasted the end results - that it would work well enough without. The final stage was a bit of a rush, as I had to dish out the risotto, add the remaining peppers, cheese and chives, drizzle on a bit of olive oil (also, I strongly suspect, surplus to requirement), and take some photos before announcing that dinner was ready... and I hadn't even brought the camera into the kitchen in advance this time...

This is the first of the new batch of Gousto recipes that arrived yesterday, so the rest have a hard act to follow now. The next few will be interesting as, after tonight's, I'll actually be cooking for myself for a couple of nights, as Courtney's out for the evenings, then away for the weekend... and I'm not sure keeping some of the ingredients till she's back - even keeping them in the fridge - will be viable. Chances are, I'll be cooking up the whole recipe as usual, but keeping a portion in the fridge (or the freezer) till she's back.

Experiments with Gousto #5: Scandi-style Mackerel & Potato Salad with Spinach

The final recipe of the first new Gousto box didn't really require that much actual cooking, and yet I still managed to balls up one of the simpler tasks on my hob. This is partly due to the wonky timings in the recipe - something of a running theme, I'm finding - but mainly due to me splitting my attention between two small tasks that shouldn't have been attempted simultaneously. Nevertheless, this turned out to be a rather anticlimactic finale to my first foray into preparing evening meals for two again.

It probably would have been a lot simpler to break this up into two entirely separate tasks - the potato salad being one, with everything else in the second.  The potato salad is the most complicated task, in that the potatoes have to be chopped in half, then boiled for about a quarter of an hour, then drained and, ideally, allowed to cool. It's entirely possible, given the length of time it generally takes me to chop things, that the whole point of the recipe as it's presented is that you complete step 1 (cooking the potatoes) before even starting on step 2 (preparation of the spinach salad). However, since I wanted to ensure everything was ready ahead of time, I'd chopped the dill, the spring onions, the garlic and the potatoes as one task, a couple of hours earlier than necessary, and put the results back in the fridge till they were needed.

Then again, this particular recipe was a little 'pre-disastered' by the fact that the yoghurt container had apparently exploded in transit. It was in a small, sealed plastic pot - a miniature version of the average yoghurt pot you can buy in a supermarket - contained within a plastic bag of its own. When we unpacked the box all the ingredients came in, the inside of the plastic bag was coated with yoghurt, so the whole thing had to be thrown away. Thankfully we had a large, open container of essentially identical yoghurt already in our fridge, and we had more than the 80g worth required by this recipe. I was a little worried during the last stage of preparing the mustard dressing, in that it initially seemed as though the lemon juice was curdling the yoghurt. Thankfully a good stir sorted that out. The real problem - but still not the balls-up I mentioned at the start - was that the potatoes were still quite warm when I added them to the dressing, so it immediately got thinner and runnier than it should have been.

Where it went undeniably wrong, and mostly down to my mismanagement of the tasks, was with the almond toasting, believe it or not. It should only take about 2-3 minutes according to the recipe, but it was at this point that I realised I hadn't sorted out the mackeral, so I started to remove the skin and flake the fish while the almonds were still on the hob, resulting in a selection of flakes ranging from 'lightly brown and toasted' to 'utterly burnt'. Next time I do this - and there almost certainly will be a next time for such a simple and delicious meal - I'll make breaking up the mackerel one of the first tasks because, once flaked, it can be put back in the fridge till it's needed. I'll also be sure to boil the potatoes further ahead of time so they have a chance to properly cool, and possibly put them in the fridge at that stage, rather than just after chopping them. Everything else is quick and simple - preparing the entire meal is timed at about 20 minutes, after all - though I reckon a more generous portion of mackerel would improve it no end. The other issue is that the spinach salad seems like a bit of an afterthought - a plate-filler - compared to everything else. It's literally just baby spinach drizzled with olive oil, then seasoned with salt and pepper. A more complicated dressing may have helped but, obviously, you wouldn't want it to clash with the mustard dressing in the potato salad.

The next batch of Gousto recipes arrived yesterday, and I've prepared the first of them already... but expect a slight delay in posting about it as I'm trying to get other stuff done in the meantime.

I just hope I don't leave it too long, resulting in another batch of drafts that I can't finish...

Friday, 11 May 2018

Experiments with Gousto #4: Roasted Portobellos, Garlic Bean Mash & Chimichurri

In an attempt to get back into cooking while I'm not working, I ordered a box of four Gousto recipes but, due to a bunch of 'real life' issues leaving me a little frazzled the week they arrived, my girlfriend ended up having to cook the first two. For the third, since she was headed out around the time we'd normally be eating dinner, necessity dictated that I get my act together and do some proper cooking.

Now, the distinct lack of new posts on this blog over the last couple of years has been partly as a result of a distinct lack of cooking on my part. Lack of practice has left me feeling a little uncertain of myself in the kitchen - perhaps moreso than when I started this blog because, back then, I had the benefit of ignorance. Having done a fair bit of cooking back then, I learned a lot... and a lot of what I learned was how complicated some recipies are, even when they purport to be 'quick and simple'. Hell, when I left my job, one of my leaving gifts was Jamie Oliver's book '5 Ingredients'. Reading through this, it becomes quickly apparent that the five ingredients are normally supplemented by some sort of seasoning or oil that, in any other cookbook, would count as another ingredient. Sure, some can be considered kitchen staples, but I wouldn't think that red wine vinegar, for example, is quite as common as salt or pepper.

But I digress.

Interestingly, while both Gousto and Hello Fresh seemed to be operating a subscription model when I first used them, Gousto now has an additional 'dipping in' option, whereby you can simply pick a number of recipes - four being considered optimal - which will be delivered, along with all the required ingredients (bar kitchen staples like salt, pepper, olive oil, etc.), precisely measured and securely boxed.

Courtney and I picked four recipes more on the basis of how delicious they looked than anything else, but we did also keep an eye on the preparation times, aiming to keep to about 30 minutes, since that often equated to more like 50 minutes when I was doing the cooking.

By sheer coincidence, the first of the four recipes I cooked - since Courtney was working her usual hours today, with an appointment in the evening when we'd normally be having dinner - was centred on mushrooms, just like the first Gousto recipe I ever attempted. It didn't require any particularly fussy chopping, though it did require potatoes to be peeled, and it did require a couple of things to be on the go at the same time, with some fairly precise timing to get everything onto the plate while still warm.

The design of Gousto's recipe cards has changed quite a bit since 2015, with clearer and more detailed nutritional information on the front, along with the inclusion of allergen information, with the trade-off being even smaller images of the individual ingredients. The steps in the recipe, on the back, are now vertically sequential, rather than horizontally, but they're just as clearly numbered as before. I've yet to encounter a recipe that goes beyond eight steps, but I think that's largely down to the creative way they define a 'step' in each process. It's perfectly acceptable to group tasks that need to be done around the same time, and using a specific group of ingredients, but some of these recipes do resort to starting a new step "Meanwhile..." so it's imperative that one read through the full guide and assess the tasks logically, rather than attempting to follow the steps on the fly, which is my usual, carefree method. For example, with this one, I prepared the chimichurri several hours ahead of everything else, and stashed it in the fridge till it was needed. I also peeled and chopped the spuds and garlic well ahead of starting the oven so, technically, I followed the recipe by starting at step 4-5, then skipping back to the middle of step 1, and only really started at the beginning of step 1 when it was time to heat up the oven.

Considering how frazzled I've been of late, and how nervous I was of taking the reigns on an evening meal after relying on my girlfriend to prepare dinner for so long, this actually went really smoothly. It's certainly not the most complex recipe, but it does feature two "Meanwhile..." steps, and it's a little imprecise in some directions - "drizzle with olive oil", for example, is used for preparing the mushrooms on a baking tray and for preparing the potato/cannelli beans to be mashed. I suspect I should have 'drizzled' a little more olive oil into my mash but, to be honest, I'm more used to using butter and milk in mashed potato (when I'm not copping out and using instant mash, to the eternal horror of my girlfriend's family)... It ended up OK... not dry, but not properly creamy either. It's also tricky to judge seasoning, particularly when there's something like this chimichurri involved. I didn't want to add too much salt or pepper to the mash, even, but I could probably have added more than I did without any ill effects.

Another thing I kind of take issue with on these new recipe cards is their wishy-washy guidance on the seasoning, mashing and dressing. The phrase "this is your x" comes up alarmingly often. I get what they're trying to say - that one should make it according to one's own preferences - but I tend to think it's better to follow a recipe precisely the first time, and make alterations the next time based on how it turned out. For example, I've never even heard of a 'chimichurri' before, let alone made one, so telling me to "Season generously with salt and pepper - this is your chimichurri" doesn't seem very helpful. I don't know what it's supposed to taste like, nor do I know what effect salt/pepper will actually have on the end result.

Still, this was fairly simple - easing me back into the kitchen reasonably comfortably - and the end results were delicious. I'm not entirely certain of the merits of the tomato as a component of the meal (hell, it doesn't even rate a mention in the title!), and I think I'll aim to cut the coriander a little more finely next time (perhaps grinding it, and the shallots, a little longer with the mortar and pestle), but I'm broadly happy with what ended up on our plates...

Hopefully I'll be cooking the last of this batch over the weekend, and we have another box of four recipes arriving next week... Round two of my attempts at Gousto recipes is definitely off to a good start.