Thursday, 31 March 2011

A Very Belated Valentine’s...

Now, I know that if this was a Valentine’s card, I would definitely be dumped by now. This really is unforgivably late, but please just forget the fact that it’s nearly the end of March, and pretend it’s the hazy morning of the 14th February once more. Because there was just something about this Valentine’s Day, and most importantly the food that came with it that would make it even more unforgivable not to share. We all need a bit of loving now and then after all, even if it is two whole 
months after the day itself...

Battling against Father Christmas and the Easter Bunny for the controls of the money-making machine at Hallmarks, Saint Valentine is often condemned as one of the true evils of Commercialism. As the 14th of February draws near, the whole world seems to become shrouded by a great cloud of heart-shaped confetti, inciting panic into the once rational hearts of many, irrespective of relationship status or romantic credentials.

 It is the only day of the year that the world is divided into two camps; singletons and, to use a word that my own boyfriend does not entirely approve of, couples. Boys across the planet hyperventilate in jewellery shops or have minor panic attacks in the lingerie section of Marks and Spencer’s and end up, predictably, with a heart-shaped box of chocolates and a single red rose that is destined to die in their improvised pint-glass vase the next day. Meanwhile, Girlfriends everywhere are manically gluing red glitter to every surface of their bedroom but the card on their desk, or perhaps wrapping a pair of heart-patterned socks in back-to-front Christmas paper. And then the group for whom the day usually goes one of two ways; drunken and insanely fun, or drunken and extremely depressing, the latter particularly being the case when the only card that falls onto the door-mat is written in what bears a worrying resemblance to your Mum’s handwriting...

The romance seems to be inescapable. As soon as the calendar is turned onto its second month, shop shelves are crammed with all things romantic and many department stores seem to have witnessed the unfortunate explosion of Cupid, which has covered every surface not taken up by bottles of pink champagne and boxes of truffles in roses and hearts. It is the time when cookware shops wheel out trolleys full of gimmicky treats, to tempt all those whose rational thought has been clouded by love. Heart shaped cookie cutters, giant L-O-V-E cake moulds and even heart shaped chopping boards adorn the shelves, mercilessly enticing the loved-up to splash the cash. The connection between food and love has never been so obvious. And I for one adore it.
Valentine’s Day is an excuse to treat yourself, even if you are feeling the post-Christmas pinch. Whether you spend the evening binging on Ben and Jerry’s in front of a film designed to scare every romantic thought out of your mind, or are wined and dined by someone special, the day of love is the perfect time to eat something out of the ordinary.  

This year, the treats started at breakfast time. Or let’s say brunch. Having a bit of a penchant for baking, and not nearly enough excuses to indulge in it, the preparations began the night before. Unfortunately, I was one of the millions that fell for a bit of love themed cookware. This year, it was heart shaped cupcake moulds which, inspired by Cupid once more, were duly filled with sticky, spiced Passion cakes. Artistically smeared with cream cheese frosting and bursting with raisins, walnuts and cinnamon, these really are delicious and a certain way to treat your loved one...Even if that loved one is yourself. And, as a bonus, the mega-easy one-step method leaves plenty of time to wrap the embarrassingly large heart clutching teddy bear, or to paint your nails rose-bud red just one more time.

 And, as no indulgent brunch would be complete without eggs, the cooking continued on the day itself. Huevos rancheros is a Mexican breakfast dish that has always been on my to-make list; and with it being Valentines morning, I felt that a little bit of heat was just what was needed.  Rich and spicy tomato sauce is spiked with lime and coriander before being spotted with whole eggs and served with warm tortillas, sour cream and guacamole. The eggs are steamed in the lidded saucepan, leaving them deliciously oozy and bursting with the flavour of the vibrant sauce. This dish makes a wicked hangover breakfast too, the kick of the chilli righting at least some of the wrongs of the night before, whilst providing a much needed vitamin boost to help you face the day of lectures.

Passion Cakes (makes enough for a very hungry household, about 20!)

300g soft light brown sugar
3 Eggs
300ml Sunflower oil
300g Plain Flour
1 ½ tsp Baking Powder
1tsp Ground Cinnamon
½ tsp Ginger (optional)
½ tsp salt
350g Carrots, Grated
100g Walnuts, Chopped
100g Raisins
1 Banana, mashed

Cream Cheese Frosting:

300g Icing Sugar
50g Butter
125g Cream Cheese

Preheat oven to 170 oc

Beat together sugar, eggs and oil with an electric whisk (Or with a wooden spoon and plenty of elbow grease...) until well mixed.

Add the flour, baking powder, salt and spices and mix well again (Sorry..)

Stir in carrot, walnuts, raisins and banana, until well mixed.

Spoon into (heart-shaped) cupcake moulds and bake for 15-20 minutes or until golden brown and the sponge bounces back when touched!

For the icing, beat together the cream cheese, butter and sugar until completely incorporated.
Smear on top of the cooled cupcakes; EAT!

Huevos Rancheros (Serves 2)

I red onion, chopped
1 Clove Garlic, finely chopped
1 Red Pepper, chopped
½ Red Chilli (or as much as you can handle!) finely chopped
1 tin chopped tomatoes
1tbsp Tomato Puree
2 tsp paprika
Pinch of Cinnamon
1 ½ tsp sugar
I lime
Small bunch of Coriander, chopped
4 eggs

To Serve:
Flour Tortillas
Sour Cream

Fry the onion and garlic until translucent and soft

Add the pepper and chilli and fry for a few more minutes, then add the spices and the tin of tomatoes.

Stir in the sugar and simmer for about 10 minutes or until the sauce has reduced.

Squeeze in half the lime and some chopped coriander and season to taste.

Make 4 egg-sized hollows in the reduced sauce then crack in the eggs. Put the lid on and cook for about 5 minutes or until the whites are set and the yolk is deliciously soft.

EAT with the tortillas, guacamole, sour cream and a squeeze of lime. Yum.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

From Books to Bourguignon...

Like all teenagers finally unleashed into their first student residence, my expectations of food at University were not great. Abandoned in my room, armed only with a box of second-hand pans and a bag full of tins as compensation for the delicious home-cooked food that I was leaving behind, I was scared. Little did I know that the next four years were going to be some of the best of my life, ruined only by the forced demise of my one true love, cooking.

For most, being a student means boozing, books and baked beans, not slaving over a pot of Beef Bourguignon or delicately icing a batch of butterfly buns. The lack of money, time and Mum’s reassuring and all-knowing presence at your side often means that we students survive on alternating meals of pesto pasta and Pot Noodle. For me, with food never far from my mind, this was simply not an option.

After the best part of a year eating and sleeping in Halls that did not even boast a fridge as a luxury, I was begging for Christmas to come around so that I could be in a kitchen stocked full of every ingredient, utensil and appliance possible. And believe me, I did dream of picking jars and pots from jam-packed cupboards, and, even if only in my wildest fantasies, actually being able to cook in something other than a microwave or toaster.

Sadly (if not for the dismal eating arrangements), the residence with no fridge was swiftly bulldozed halfway through my second semester in Sheffield, and with it the dark days of powdered milk and grim canteen food were demolished. Thankfully we were shipped out of the building before it was flattened, and as my second year as a student dawned, I finally moved into a house with a positively palatial kitchen. It was here that I began to rediscover my passion for food.

Now, in my fourth year of University and after a year experiencing the tastes of Provence in France and discovering the world of tapas in Spain (more about that later...) my desire to cook has reached boiling point. It is the time that I look forward to the most. Stirring a big pot of steaming stew or creamy risotto is the ideal way of unwinding after a long day spent lost under piles of books. Lovingly baking cupcakes for my sisters or a huge dish of enchiladas for my housemates is the best way to bring everyone I care about together. Food is the way to the heart and it has taken mine firmly into its grip, irrespective of the very few pennies that jingle in the bottom of my purse, or the endless essay deadlines that loom over my shoulder.

The first meal I remember making at University was true comfort food. Neither complicated nor expensive, it is rather a student classic; which, like many student meals, sounds a lot less appetising than it really is. Corned-Beef hash is like a retro shepherd’s pie, minus the effort, time and cost. And don’t be put off by the concept of beef that can be kept for years in a tin at the back of your cupboard, this really is yummy. Perfect for those days when you can’t be bothered to get out of your pyjamas to nip to the shops for ingredients, it is a real lazy-day dinner that only involves the opening of tins and peeling of potatoes as far as exertion goes. Hangover food it really is, and I love it...

Corned-Beef Hash (Serves 3-4)

1 onion (chopped)
1 tin of corned-beef (chopped)
1 tin of baked beans
5 medium potatoes (peeled and quartered)
Knob of butter

So easy; first, put the potatoes into salted water to boil and preheat the oven to 170oC.

Fry the onion until soft in a little olive oil.

Scatter the corned beef into an ovenproof dish, followed by the cooked onion and then the baked beans. Season with black pepper.

When the potato is soft, mash with the butter and season well.

Spoon onto the beef and beans and spread roughly with a fork. Dot the top with little pieces of butter and then bake for around 25 minutes or until golden. EAT!