Posts Tagged ‘cooking’

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table for two.

June 16, 2012

Tonight I cleared the table (on which I keep my printer, laptop, books I’m currently reading and other paraphernalia I use on a daily basis) in order to serve up a proper dinner for two – I laid the table and served up a bowl of prawn crackers, a plate of spring rolls, a bowl of Thai green chicken curry, a bowl of Thai red chicken curry, along with some drinks. The reason why I wanted to do this tonight was because I had been doing chores on and off all day, Toby had been watching TV and playing Pokémon White on his DS for most of the time, and I felt that it would be nice to turn everything off and just eat and chat in a civilised manner for a short while. It was really nice and although it was by nature somewhat romantic, it wasn’t like I lit candles and dimmed the lights (though I did turn off the television and had some Roberto Fonseca on in the background). I just wanted to make dinnertime a time to chat and reflect on our day. To have some good conversation.

When I was younger (at a guess, about 14 years old), I remember listening to the radio on the way home after my mother had picked me up from school. There was a news item on the fact that less and less families were eating a sit-down dinner at the table. Now, apart from when we would have Sunday lunch at my nan’s (which was an infrequent affair), generally I would eat my meals in front of the television, and later on my mum would have something to eat in front of the tv, and eventually when my father would come home from work / the pub, he would eat something too.  We didn’t eat as a family very often in my youth, except for when my dad would bring home Chinese takeaway (which I always loved). Partly because our schedules rarely meshed, but also partly because we didn’t really find mealtimes conducive to talking – we didn’t have much to share with one another as a family. I was a youngster who enjoyed my privacy and I didn’t get on with my father that well in my childhood, so anything I wanted to share with my parents, I would share with my mother because generally my dad didn’t show much of an interest and I certainly didn’t want to let him in very often either. My parents were often at loggerheads with one another, and even when they weren’t, my mum didn’t really want to wait for my dad to get home just to have a meal she could prepare for herself two hours earlier, and my dad wouldn’t make much of an effort at conversation because he was already tipsy / drunk.

After my dad had his final cycling accident and decided to ultimately give up cycling (or otherwise lose his family, because my mother and I had both had enough of picking up the pieces at Frenchay hospital), he began to find more enjoyment in cooking. My mother also had a hand in this, as she was tired of my dad complaining about the food she had bought to cook with – so she essentially said “if you don’t like what I make, then make something yourself!” Fair enough – and fair play to my father, he went ahead and did it. As I became older, my tastes in food matured, and I found that the meals my father would make (albeit often quite spicy-HOT) would be quite enjoyable. So we started to eat together more often. It was ironic that as my parents needed to be less disciplined with me because I was demonstrating my own sense of self as an adult, we began to happily and willingly eat meals together and make conversation – when I was listening to that radio broadcast, what came to mind was families forced to eat together by an overbearing patriarch or matriarch while everyone else squirmed in their seats in near silence. When I was younger, that’s what a family meal meant to me. And now I am older and a grown man in my own right, I enjoy sharing a meal with loved ones, catching up about one another’s days, and making conversation and sharing opinions on a range of topics, both current and perennial. It was a symbol of each member of our small family finally learning to accept one another, learning to argue less with one another and see other points of view, and becoming close knit and more loving towards one another – although I must stress that I don’t think family dinners of this type can cause or force a family to bond – the love and understanding has to be there already!

I feel that the most important thing is not having a strict family rule to eat together – while I understand why some families do this (during our conversation tonight, Toby said that his family would always eat meals at the table together) and I think it’s a nice idea in theory, in practice I definitely feel that an eating situation should be comfortable for all concerned. If it’s not convenient to eat together, or conversation and relations are strained, then it’s better to eat in front of the TV or in your room or wherever you feel happiest and safest. Mealtimes, like all other times, should feel comfortable and flow comfortably. In life, we go through enough awkward social occasions that I don’t know if it’s really necessary or advisable to inflict more upon ourselves. But I am now old enough and happy enough to appreciate the value of good shared food, good shared conversation and an easy feeling of camaraderie. Eating at the table with Toby tonight was an absolute pleasure, and the extra few minutes of preparing the table, serving the components of the meal individually, and washing up the extra used crockery and cutlery afterwards were absolutely worth it for a relaxed meeting of minds and hearts.

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Cooking in 2012 – May: Chicken satay stir fry

May 21, 2012

Yesterday after a wonderful walk around Holland Park, Toby and I were stuck as to what to cook for dinner. Wandering around Tesco on Kensington High Street and picking up items for the weekly shop, we hit upon the idea of something simple and quick, involving chicken and satay sauce. And thus, this month’s chicken satay stir fry was born.

It was good revision for me in slicing onions (1), carrots (1) and peppers (1, red) into fine, fine slivers, and then it allowed me to use the wok that has been living in my kitchen cupboard for the first time. Basically, once you’ve cut your vegetables into thin slices, and you’ve sliced your chicken breasts (2, for two of us) into thin strips, you put the heat on your hob to maximum, put the wok on top, add a slug of cooking oil, and add the chicken. Have a spatula at the ready (and avoid the spitting oil – although it wasn’t too bad when I did it) because you need to stir, stir, stir!  Everything happens hot and fast in a stir fry (that’s why you need all your ingredients to be thin) – stir the chicken, ensuring that both sides get a chance at touching the wok and thus cooking. Once there’s no more pink, raw-looking parts on the chicken and all of it looks white, then add the rest of your ingredients. Stir stir stir! (This recipe is good for your arm muscles, but incredibly annoying if your hob is at shoulder-height, like mine.) After a few minutes, add a whole jar of satay sauce (i.e. 500g) and keep stirring. Eventually, once all of your ingredients are nicely coated, you can relax with the stirring and turn the heat down a bit, to keep things bubbling along.  Stir the whole mixture from time to time.

We also had some rice, but we just used microwaveable egg-fried rice – 1 sachet of Uncle Ben’s per person. This takes 2 minutes in the microwave, and I love it for that very reason. Once your stir fry has been bubbling along for about 10 minutes, it should be ready – taste and check! Then dump everything on your plate, and you should have something that looks as unappetising as this:

yes, I have new dinner plates!

Unappetising, but yummy! Toby loves satay sauce, but obviously you can use whatever sauce or flavouring you want. I liked this meal because it was easy, I got to practise my ingredient-preparing skills, including prep time the whole thing was done in about 30-40 minutes, and it made plenty of food!  I couldn’t actually finish all of mine (there was enough for both of us to have two portions), but if you’re hungry then this should do you. Plus you get an arm workout along the way. Enjoy!

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Cooking in 2012 – March: Omelette.

April 2, 2012

I know, I know, so technically it is April. But after the traumatic making of the lasagne in February, I needed a great deal of recovery time! And I will attempt to catch up and do another dish this month to bring me back on track.

I must first and foremost give thanks to Starbucks (mi amor cafeinado!) for providing me with the app that made the omelette possible: How to Cook Everything. Since I cannot cook anything (by this point you should be well aware that I am not exaggerating), when I saw this app available as the free download of the week instore, I had to get it. You search for what you want to make, it comes up with a list of ingredients you need, a step-by-step recipe, and away you go!

Also, after the first couple of meals that I made, I felt that I wanted to do something simpler and more essential (read: quicker). An omelette is a very basic thing – you don’t need many ingredients (eggs, milk, a bit of cooking oil – and then I added chopped ham and pieces of mozzarella), and it takes about 10 minutes. Essentially, what you do is:

  • Break 3 eggs into a bowl,
  • add a tablespoon or so of milk,
  • beat them together with a fork until the mixture looks of a uniform colour and texture (i.e. not blobby),
  • put in a hot frying pan,
  • fry until the side of the omelette facing up at you is no longer wet,
  • throw in your ham and mozzarella,
  • use a fish slice to fold the omelette in half and over the filling you’ve just added,
  • smoosh it down and fry it a bit longer so the ham is warm and the cheese gets melty

– et voilà! Omelette ready. This is what it looked like:

Om nom nom. Add some salad or some bread on the side, and away you go!  Although it wasn’t up to the standard of Balan’s (but then, little is), it was pretty tasty, quick and easy. Just how I like my cooking to be! Plus, it wasn’t too expensive, and I didn’t end up left over with loads of ingredients that would ultimately end up in the bin. Although part of me feels I should learn to make scrambled eggs with the remaining eggs. Seriously, they should sell eggs in packs of 2 or 4 (if not singly). But after February’s severe erosion of my confidence and patience, I am feeling a bit stronger and more satisfied with myself – this was a good success under my belt. Toby helped me, as usual, but this time I did not lose my temper and I don’t think I made him bang his head against the wall!  Progress!

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Cooking in 2012 – January: BBQ chicken sandwich with roast potatoes.

January 7, 2012

In my previous post, I mentioned that Toby had baked some bread today. This became the foundation for tonight’s dinner, which evolved as we shopped in M&S and picked up chicken breasts, barbecue marinade and salad. Under Toby’s patient tutelage, this became BBQ chicken sandwiches (with salad, caesar dressing and sliced red peppers), and a side of roasted potatoes:

I have never marinaded chicken, roasted potatoes (although in my last cookery post, I did learn how to boil them, so I am becoming quite potato-adept!) or even sliced a red pepper, so I couldn’t have made this dish without Toby’s help. I discovered that the previous tenants in my flat had left behind loads of really useful kitchen utensils, including big knives and various-sized baking trays and oven tins. One of my new aims for this weekend is to make an inventory of the kitchen cupboards and find out exactly what exciting cooking tools I possess! So first of all:

  • The oven was pre-heated to 200° C.
  • I took out the four chicken breasts we had bought, and cut 3 diagonal slices halfway down each one. These slits were to ensure that the BBQ sauce would get right inside the meat and imbue it with flavour.
  • Then I took the red pepper, sliced the top off, grabbed the white middle structure and pulled that out. I then turned my hollowed-out pepper upside down, put my hand underneath, and banged the top to get most of the seeds out. I then cut my pepper shell into quarters, and sliced it. I found out that this really is quite straightforward!
  • In a square baking tray with sides, I laid the sliced peppers to make a bed for the four chicken breasts. I then added about two-thirds of the bottle of BBQ sauce marinade, and worked the sauce into the chicken, ensuring that it got into the slits I had cut earlier. This was frankly quite horrible, as I hate my hands getting sticky and messy. But I did it!
  • Then I cut about 8 smallish potatoes into thirds / quarters (depending on size), and put them on a flat baking tray. I seasoned these with salt and black pepper, and drizzled some sunflower oil over them. I then turned all of the potatoes over in the oil to ensure that the surface of each potato fraction was oiled and seasoned.
  • I put both baking trays into the oven. After 20 minutes or so, when the potatoes started to brown on top, I took both baking trays out of the oven and using a fork (I tried it with a spatula the first time but things got a bit messy!) I turned all four chicken breasts over in the red pepper and BBQ sauce marinade, followed by turning all the potatoes over. I put everything back in the oven for another 20 minutes.
  • After this, the potatoes started to sizzle. I gave them a vigorous shake on the baking tray, and turned some of them over again. I then turned the four chicken breasts over once again. Everything went back in the oven!
  • 10 minutes or so after this, the potatoes started to look brown on top and the chicken looked cooked, so everything came out of the oven.
  • We then sliced four reasonably thick slices of Toby’s bread and laid them flat on two plates. I put salad leaves on the bread, and drenched these with a good amount of caesar dressing. I then sliced the chicken breasts into thin slices, and arranged these on top of the salad leaves. I covered the chicken with the sliced peppers, added a couple of dollops of the leftover BBQ sauce, and put the final slices of bread on top to make the sandwiches.
  • I served the roast potatoes in a bowl as a side dish. (In other words, there wasn’t enough room for the potatoes on the plate, next to the giant sandwiches.)

Et voilà!

Quite honestly, this meal was delicious, and so delicious that I felt almost overwhelmed that I had made it myself. I could not have done it without Toby telling me what to do, but I made it with my own two hands and cooking utensils, and I am really proud. On top of this, it really wasn’t that difficult, and I have learned how to do new things. It’s confirmed to me that this cooking idea that I had at the top of the year really was a good one that I should continue to pursue. I’m not used to taking so long to prepare and cook a meal, but neither am I used to feeling such a sense of pride at the end of it. 🙂

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Learning to cook – the journey begins…

January 4, 2012

In my New Year resolutions for 2012, my first resolution was to learn to cook a new dish every month. Now, I haven’t decided what the month of January will hold yet, but just to give you an idea of what starting point I’m at… it’s basic. Things that I can cook include lasagne, mushroom risotto, pasta, a range of ready meals, sandwiches and toast, and combinations of microwaveable foods. I’ve never been very inspired to cook anything more complicated than this because a) I find the process of creating a meal frequently tries my patience, and b) why should I cook a meal for one which takes longer to make than it does to eat?

I am in the very lucky position of being in a relationship with a fantastic cook. He is in the equally lucky position of being in a relationship with someone who enjoys cleaning and household chores. So why should I even bother learning to cook? Well, I’m an adult now – no longer a student, or living at home; Toby comes round my place nearly as often as I stay at his, and I want to be able to make meals that are tasty, interesting and also occasionally healthy. Eating out is expensive, and eating takeaways can get unhealthy and uninspiring. Perhaps I’ll lose some weight and get healthier along the way? I also want to add to my skill set, and I kind of feel that cooking is something I really ought to learn, as a worthwhile (and sociable) human being.

I’m not a natural chef (see: lack of patience; lack of understanding what foods go together; issues around eating and weight), but I did have some cookery lessons at school. I made things like pasta carbonara, quiche, bread, triple chocolate upside-down cake, and they always turned out well – however, I might attribute some of this to my desire to succeed in a classroom setting, rather than any potential I had as a cook. The only thing I ever did mess up was crème caramel, because I burned the caramel in the oven. (I later found out that I didn’t really like crème caramel anyway.) But for the most part, I had a recipe which I always followed to the letter, and things always turned out fine. However, Toby has discovered that there are some basic things that I didn’t know. For example, don’t lick your fingers when you have been handling raw chicken or raw egg – this is bad for you. He asked me, “didn’t you have food technology lessons at school?!?” To which my reply was “No, we studied Latin instead.” I think I was due to have 6 weeks of cookery lessons in 6th form, but instead I was chosen to be a peer mentor and had 30 hours of training in mentoring and listening skills from a psychologist.

Moving on… Last month, I made a lovely meal of honey and mustard roast chicken breast (courtesy of Waitrose), with chips, salad and croutons with caesar dressing. I was pleased with this meal because I picked the ingredients in the supermarket myself and created the dish in my head as I walked through the aisles. It was delicious. Tonight (and this is not counting towards my dish per month resolution), I had a go at making steak pie (courtesy of Sainsburys) with steamed baby corn, beans and boiled potatoes. This presented some challenges to me as I have never steamed vegetables, and I have never boiled potatoes.

The easy part – I shoved the steak pie in the oven for 35 minutes. This gave me 35 minutes to:

  • discover that one of the hob rings on my mini oven doesn’t work when the oven is on;
  • boil the potatoes on the other hob;
  • realise that supermarket estimates for cooking are not always to be trusted;
  • learn how to steam vegetables in the microwave (thank you Google);
  • find out that it’s not worth using tablespoons to measure out water.

After accumulating all of this knowledge, dinner was served:

steak pie, potatoes and steamed vegetables

It was yummy! The pie and potatoes (after the initial panic that they weren’t cooking on the hob) turned out very well. If I could do it again, I would have steamed the vegetables for longer in the microwave, as the beans were quite crisp and fresh-tasting; but the vegetables were still perfectly edible. The whole point of this, and my cookery journey, is that I am going to learn skills I didn’t know (however basic they might be) and improve my culinary capabilities. I am not ashamed of being such a novice cook, because I am doing something about it. And if you are reading this and thinking that you can’t cook either, then let’s take this journey together. I will be completely honest about my failures and lack of knowledge, and hopefully the fact that I will be able to make successful dishes in spite of these will be proof that even though we aren’t all born chefs, we can all learn to cook something simple, yet tasty and interesting.