Sunday, 23 October 2011

Filling The Freezer

I have decided that the Freezer Is My Friend.  Not in terms of ready meals - yacksville except for fish fingers (do they count as a ready meal?) - but in terms of pre-prepared (by me) delicious meals for one.  The sort of thing that I can whip out of the freezer in the morning, chuck in a pan when I get home from work and serve up in less than 15 minutes with some pasta or rice and a couple of my 5-a-day on the side.

My freezer is a pretty scary place.  It's teeny tiny, yet contains an extraordinary amount of crap including frozen peas, soya beans, quorn sausages (they're blatantly getting chucked out), chicken breasts of a huge variety of ages, an East London Steak Company steak (WIN!), a bag of wine slush, these horrible little scallops (who knew that scallops could actually be actively unpleasant?), some ropey looking chicken livers, half fat coconut milk and a number of bags of entirely unidentifiable "food".  Most of this is going to go in the bin (NOT the steak - never the steak) to make space for my new fad.  Filling. The. Freezer.

So far I've made bolognese and oxtail ragu.  This is all well and good but I felt like I needed something less rich and with absolutely no tomato in it at all and something that goes with a carb that isn't pasta.  I racked my brain...BINGO!  Casserole!  Specifically...

Chicken and tarragon casserole (makes 6 portions)


12 chicken thighs, skinless and boneless
100g cubed pancetta (you can totally leave this out, it's just as good without it)
12-18 whole shallots, peeled (use 18, they go amazingly mushy and delicious)
500g chestnut mushrooms (if you use the baby ones you won't need to do any chopping at all)
A little olive oil
2 tbsp seasoned flour
2 tbsp dijon mustard
500ml chicken stock 
150ml dry sherry (apparently wine works too)
5 tbsp creme fraiche
3 tbsp fresh tarragon, chopped

or, pictorially: 

Before we start, do NOT do as I do.  Unless you have ace kitchen skillz, don't be cheap and buy chicken thighs that are skin on and bone in.  The skinning is easy and weirdly pleasing.  The boning...not so easy.  My chicken thighs ended up a little bit massacred.  I feel really bad about this, they really didn't get the respect that they deserved.  (Will someone buy me some good knives - preferably Kin - and teach me how to bone stuff please?)

Anyway.  Take your skinless, boneless chicken thighs and coat them in the seasoned flour.  Heat a little olive oil in a frying pan and brown the thighs in batches, popping them into the bottom of a large lidded casserole dish as you go.  

While this is going on, deal with your shallots.  TOP TIP KLAXON!!!!!  Shallots are a bit of a fiddly pain in the butt, right?  Not any more.  Cut off the woody root end, put the shallots in a bowl, pour over boiling water and leave for about 20 seconds.  Drain the water off and then peel the skins off - it's SO much easier than regular peeling and you don't get the weeps either.  (Top tip courtesy of @rankamateur - she was also the one that told me about this recipe too.)  Here are the shallots:

Once the chicken is all browned off, fry off the pancetta until it's brown and crispy.  The original recipe calls for 150g - I used less than 100g and I genuinely think that you can leave it out entirely as I made it without for a non-pork eater last night and it was still entirely delicious.  However, if you're using the bacon, get it brown and crispy and chuck it into the casserole on top of the chicken.

In the bacon fat, saute off the shallots so that they look like this:

Once brown, they need to see the inside of the casserole dish too.  The final bit of frying is for the baby mushrooms.  They want a few minutes of browning off and then - yup, you guessed it - they go into the casserole as well, along with the dijon mustard.

Make up the chicken stock and pour it into the frying pan with the sherry.  Let the frying pan cool down a bit first if you want to avoid extreme bubbling, boiling over and a big old mess all over your hob.  Clearly, I did not do this because I am very, very foolish.  Deglaze the pan and pour the liquid over the chicken/bacon/shallot/mushroom mixture.  Give it a bit of a stir around so that the mustard gets mixed in.  Add a bit of black pepper but no salt at this stage - there may well be enough from the seasoned flour and the stock cube.

Put the lid on the casserole and put it in a preheated oven at around 140c.  This is the bit where you go off and do stuff but, unlike last week when I made the ragu, there's no real time for a nap.  You have 90 minutes to kill.  I watched an episode of the West Wing, put fresh bedclothes on my bed and painted my nails.  If I had alcohol in the house, I would have tucked into that instead of doing all these good things.  

90 minutes later, return to the kitchen, remove the casserole and lo and behold!  This is what you have:

The chicken falls apart, the shallots have gone all soft and silky and melty, the sauce is delicious.  YUM.  You're not finished yet though.  Pour the liquid through a sieve/colander into a saucepan.  Put the creme fraiche into a separate bowl and stir some of the sauce into it.  If you put the creme fraiche straight into the sauce, it doesn't really mix in properly and you get little spots of white through your sauce.

Mix it together and then add to the saucepan, whisk it around and then bubble it all up furiously so it thickens up a bit.  Chop up the tarragon and then add that to the sauce, turn off the heat and check the seasoning.  

Pour the sauce over the chicken and serve with either mashed potatoes or some rice.

Voila!  This is pretty much my food heaven, it's just so comforting.  I think that you could easily get away with using significantly less creme fraiche and I won't be using any bacon in it in the future - I think this is the first thing that I've ever cooked where bacon genuinely hasn't added anything to it.  The best thing about this recipe is that it's incredibly easy - you don't even have to chop anything other than a bit of tarragon right at the end.  This is definitely going to be added to my mental list of favourite things.

I still have a bit of space in the freezer though.  What next?  A curry?  Pork?  Chicken again?  Bring on the suggestions but while you're thinking, make this.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Comfort Eating

It shouldn't surprise anyone to learn that I'm a comfort eater.  If I've had a bad day, my first thoughts turn to what I can eat to make myself feel better...and yes, the craving is almost always for salt and pepper squid or something else that is deep fried and ultimately terrible for me.

This is the bane of my life, it's what keeps me fat because more days than I would like turn out badly for a variety of reasons.  Somehow I have to break this sadness/stress/anxiety-comfort eating cycle and that's something that I'm just starting to work on.  Hopefully I'll be able to tackle it but it's incredibly ingrained so it's going to be tough to stop.

In the meantime, Winter is pretty much here and I'm going to try to replace my kind of comfort eating (friiiiiiiiiiiied crap) with good comfort eating - casseroles and slow cooked sauces like ragu.

Last weekend I was invited to have lunch with a bunch of people @ShedLikesFood's flat.  For the record, Shed is a BRILLIANT cook and I constantly steal her recipes.  This one is oxtail ragu.  I bought my oxtail (along with a couple of fresh-as-a-daisy mackerel) from @markymarket who goes to Billingsgate and Smithfields markets in the early hours of the morning so you don't have to and then brings whatever you have ordered to your office/home later that morning.  BRILLIANT.  I strongly recommend him if you're London based.  His website is here: linky.

Oxtail ragu (mine made 9 portions)

Here are the ingredients:

In a large casserole pan that you can put straight into the oven, brown off the oxtail (I had 1.6kg.)  While that's happening, chop up your vegetables - for 1.6kg of oxtail I used 3 onions, 3 carrots, 3 sticks of celery and 6 cloves of garlic.  They don't need to be cut up too teeny tiny so it shouldn't take too long/be too laborious.  Once the oxtail looks like this:

remove it from the pan, add the vegetables and soften until they look like this:

Add the oxtail back to the pan with 1 and a half tins of tomatoes (chopped or whole plum - doesn't really matter), a tomato tin of water, 3/4 of a bottle of red wine,  salt and pepper and the aromatics:

I used 6 bay leaves, a couple of large sprigs of thyme and 1 and a half star anise (the star anise MAKES this - don't even think about leaving it out.  It gives a lovely, warm, gentle spiciness to the sauce.)  Bring it all to the boil and then put it into the oven, preheated to about 120c.  And then go off and do other things.  I watched 127 Hours and took photos of Ralphie and my neighbouring gardens:

 How pretty???

Obviously you can do something else.  Have a bath.  Read a book.  Do the Davina workout DVD.  If you're Shed, you would be putting this together at about 1am and then sodding off to bed and letting it do its own thing (incidentally, Shed cooked hers on the hob on the very lowest possible flame - you can do this if you don't want to put the oven on.)

After 4 hours (you can totally leave it for longer) it will look like this:

Looks grim, right?  Right.  So, now the fun bit!  Whip out all of the oxtail and set aside.  Put the pan on the hob, turn the heat up to max and bubble the crap out of the sauce.  You want to reduce it right down so that it is thick and silky.  This may take around half an hour or you may not need to do it at all (Shed didn't) so you'll have to use your brain a bit here.  While the sauce is reducing, take the meat off the oxtail bones and shred.  You should take a bit of care with this, especially if you are watching your weight, as there are some bits that are a little bit fatty - I was quite fussy with mine and removed all those bits.  There are also some bits that just look like they're going to be really chewy - ditch them too.

Try not to eat too much of this while you're doing it...not easy.  Once the stock has reduced right down, check for seasoning (it needs quite a lot of salt and pepper) and then add the oxtail back into the sauce.  And you're done!  Here is the finished product on gnocchi (shop bought - I'm going to try making my own soon to see if they're vastly better):

It's completely delicious - so comforting and silky and soft and YUM.  It's already one of my favourite things and is incredibly easy, trust me.  If I can do it, anyone can, but make sure you do the following:
(1) Cook it long and on a very low temperature.  If you cook it on too high a temperature, the meat just won't fall apart and go melty in the way that you want it to and it just won't really work.
(2) Reduce, reduce, reduce.  I reduced mine by at least half.  You want the sauce to end up the consistency of single cream at least, maybe even double if you can manage it.  The sauce mustn't be too wet because it won't coat your pasta/gnocchi properly and if you don't reduce it enough, you just won't get the depth of flavour that you're after.  There is quite a lot of cooking liquid which you need in order for it to cover the oxtail, but you need to get it concentrated.
(3) Season it.  Don't be scared of salt and pepper, they're essential and make things taste nice.  Keep tasting and adding but, for the love of god, don't burn your tongue like I did.  It still hurts, 30 hours later.

So that's ragu!  Easy peasy lemon squeezy and tasty.  And the best bit is that I got 9 portions out of it so have 7 in the freezer!  AMAZING.  Next up: chicken casserole.  I want a "white" recipe (i.e. no tomatoes/red wine) so if anyone has any suggestions, please pass them on.

F x

Sunday, 9 October 2011


I think it's clear that the diet isn't going terribly well.  If you glance at the weigh-in page (link here) you'll see that since the weigh-ins started, I've actually put on a grand total of 6lbs.  It's safe to say, I'm being a bit rubbish.  My fellow dieters, however, are doing brilliantly.

This week has been rubbish - I've been in bed for days being a bit pathetic and ill and have had absolutely no energy to cook, so I've survived on toast, eggs and pasta.  I can't remember the last time I ate a vegetable.  Actually, I LIE.  It was last night, I ate a whole bag of sugar snap peas, but you get my point.

So I've been thinking about what the hell I'm going to do about it.  I've pondered trying radical diets, such as the Dukan which the lovely @1mgoldstars very helpfully described to me.  After pondering, I don't think I could eat that much meat and the absolute prohibition on drinking would be a problem...and realistically, I need a diet that I can deviate from occasionally which Dukan/Atkins type diets simply don't permit.

I've decided to go simple.  Plan of action is this: breakfast will be a bowl of cereal.  Lunch will be a homemade sandwich and I will Just Get On With It even if it's crap.  I will also bring in some fruit or carrot sticks or something.  Dinner will just be something on the diet plate.  It's not rocket science, is it?  Effectively all I need to do is reduce calorie intake and significantly reduce the quantity that I'm eating.  No more delicious pasta from the little Italian man for lunch.  No more big fat baguettes filled with prosciutto.  No more crisps.  No more chocolate croissants, although the skinny latte is staying.

I think that part of the problem is that I'm trying to be over-ambitious in terms of actually cooking things.  Don't get me wrong - I CAN cook and I enjoy cooking, but only if it's for someone else.  I just don't have the motivation to get home from work and spend an hour or so in the kitchen, whipping up something for myself.  I just have no interest in it, I can't be bothered and I really don't enjoy it.  So I need to accept this limitation and figure out easy but diet friendly things that I cook that aren't the terminally dull "chicken breast and steamed vegetables".  Suggestions would be very welcome.  VERY welcome.

I'm also quite poor at the moment so am trying to be more sensible with my spending as I'm trying to get myself out of debt (roll on 5 years time...)  This means that I can't just buy myself the things that my heart desires.  And currently my heart desires ACHES for this...

(thanks @miss_jordi for the picture)

This is a Tom Ford lipstick.  It's £36.  FOR SHIZ!  That's an INSANE amount of money.  But OMG, it's a beautiful thing.  And I want it sooooooooooooooooooooooo badly.  I can't buy it, I don't deserve it yet.  But I've decided after I've lost a stone, I will.  So, when I get down to "normal + 3st", Indian Rose will be mine.  OH YES IT WILL.  And then I will choose myself another present that I will deserve at "normal + 2st".  I have no idea whether the incentives will work, but it's worth a shot.  And I might get a beautiful lipstick out of it.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

The Perfect Bolognese

Friday was a BAD DAY.  I weighed in for the first time in 4 weeks and I've managed to put on half a stone.  HALF A STONE!  Yes, OK, I've been on holiday...but we never had pudding, we shared a starter twice and didn't have any the rest of the time...I didn't even have an ice-cream for the love of god!   I guess breakfasts of spankingly fresh baguettes, butter and nutella every day really took it's toll.  I've also had boozy/eaty nights out this week including The Passage Cafe with @misswhiplash (I discovered calves liver - AMAZING - and the Best Bar in London aka The Nightjar on Old Street roundabout) and The Corner Room with my friend Andrew.

Over dinner, Andrew told me about The Perfect Bolognese which was mooted and published in the Guardian (linky here) and I decided to give it a shot.

It should be stated at this point: FatFran does not like bolognese.  FatFran just doesn't like tomatoey things, generally speaking.  My previous method for making bolognese was this: lamb mince, bacon, tomatoes, a whole tin of tomato puree, best part of a bottle of red wine, herbs etc etc.  Incredibly rich, heavy, heady and tomatoey.  A little bit of it was OK and others like it a lot, but it really wasn't for me.

So, if I don't like bolognese, why on earth would I want to make it? you might wonder.  Simple.  I wanted to use my Spong mincer again!

The Perfect Bolognese (serves 5 FatFrans - i.e. pasta with only a little bit of sauce - 4 portions for most people)

The most exciting bit was mincing my meat!  I used 250g of beef braising steak.

I love doing this.  I could happily only eat minced products if it meant I could use it every day.  It's SO MUCH FUN.  I used the coarse mincing plate and I think this was definitely the right thing to do.

Next, I prepared my vegetables, Delia styleeeeeee.  This is one onion, finely chopped, 1 carrot and 2 sticks of celery, finely diced.  I also finely diced 40g of lamb's liver (it's meant to be chicken liver but Ocado had entirely sold out so I made do.  I think that chicken livers would work better to be honest) and 100g of streaky bacon (around 7 rashers.)  Now I know what you're thinking.  Streaky bacon isn't exactly slimming.  However, if you're making 5 portions, that's around 1.5 rashers per portion - I can live with that.

Now for the cooking.  Put a good knob of butter (I used lurpak lighter) into a heavy based casserole (I don't have one so I made it in a regular pan and transferred to a pyrex casserole later) and then very gently fry off the bacon for about 5 minutes, after which you add the onion.  Soften this without colouring for a few minutes, add the carrots, soften for 5 and then the celery.  After a few more minutes, it should look like this:

Then the meat goes in!  Brown off the mince and then add the liver.  It's once the liver goes in that it starts to smell AWESOME. Meaty, savoury, deliciousness.

Once this has cooked out, add 150ml of milk (technically meant to be whole, I used semi-skimmed) and a good grating of nutmeg.

This needs to be simmered very gently until there is almost no milk left - it took around 20-25 minutes and I pre-heated the oven to 125c while this was going on.  Once that's done, season with salt and pepper, pour in 150ml of white wine and a tin of plum tomatoes - add them whole, they will break down as it slow cooks.  Transfer to a casserole and pop it into the oven.  The lid of the casserole should be slightly off so that the steam can escape.

After 4 hours, it should look like this:

And here is the finished dish!  I know, my presentation leaves a bit to be desired:

It's bloody delicious.  It's quite a dry sauce and seriously meaty rather than over-tomatoey so is right up my street.  I really, really recommend that you make it.  YUM.  Next time I'm going to try it with half beef mince and half pork as I generally prefer the flavour of pork mince.  I will report back with my findings.

After working SO hard, I treated myself to pudding: