The Egg and I: Flippin’ delicious

So I have a glut of eggs. Combine this with a hatred of waste and the acknowledgement that they are nutritional power-houses, and it makes for a rather cheap and healthily satisfying set of meals.

I could do a cheesy, herby, spinach omelette, I could boil them and serve them with hot, buttery soldiers or I could poach them, breaking open the wobbly white sacks and watching the ooze of the yolk as it cascades down (all of which I will do later in the week, of course)– but instead, on this occasion, I made pancakes.

A traditionalist when it comes to pancakes and wholly influenced by the European ‘crepe’ variety, I decided, in a moment of experimentation, that it was time to cross continents and go state-side for a change. Cue a batter so thick, creamy and gloopy that it was heavenly to stir. And very simple, too – one cup of flour, one cup of milk and one egg and within minutes you have a catalyst for so many flavours and combinations that it’s almost overwhelming.

Also a traditionalist when it comes to toppings (lemon and sugar without doubt), I seized the moment to switch to savoury. Why? Just because. That, and I had some blue cheese and spinach to use up, and I never let anything go to waste.

So into a small frying pan went a ladle of batter on top of a knob of melted butter (never margarine) and after a few moments, in went a few squares of British Stilton. A flip in time plus a spot of seasoning and onto the plate it went, topped off with a generous slather of blue cheese mixed with mayo, above which lands a big handful of spinach and a sprinkle of walnuts. Repeat with a second Stilton infused pancake and subsequent cheesy, spinach-laden layers, finish with a drizzle of olive oil and you’re in for a treat!

Spinach and Stilton Pancakes

And the most joyous outcome of this flipping frenzy? Having enough batter left over to enjoy a couple of fluffy, golden brown pancakes with fruit and yoghurt for breakfast the next morning.  Happy days.

How to be truly frugal with food? It’s on a knead to know basis

So what else has been concocted in my kitchen this week to create a frugal feast? Home-made bread, for starters (and for breakfast, as a sandwich, for dipping in a supper-time boiled egg and much more).

Ah yes, I have discovered the joy of baking bread from scratch, so much as to the point where I have developed a point-blank rejection of all processed and shop-bought varieties as a result.  Sounds a bit extreme? Maybe, but if you’re anything like me, once you’ve absorbed the smell of a warm loaf as it emerges from the oven, the crunch of the crust as you plunge in the knife and tasting your first slice, you’ll never go back.

I recently discovered the skill behind making bread on a day-long course at a local community cookery school and have since turned my hand to making every loaf that has passed my lips.

From fougasse to pitta, wholemeal baps to white dinner rolls, sourdough to brioche and ciabatta to pizza, once you know the basics, you’re set up for life. And all of this is born from just four ingredients (and the only four ingredients you should ever need to make quality bread at home): flour, yeast, water and salt.

In a bid to clear out the chemicals, pass up the preservatives and banish the baddies from our diets as part of The Pinny Project, it feels rather comforting to know how pure and how beneficial it is to make your own bread from scratch. This, alongside the satisfying “squidge” between your fingers as you first start to knead (it’s all about the kneading, don’t you know), is a sign that you’re doing something rather virtuous.

You’re not saving lives or fixing the economy, but you are creating something worthy of your time and a place in your everyday life. And it’s really not that hard.

Let’s not forget the undeniable, essential factor in bread-making at home: time. A wonderful bi-product of learning to make bread is the requirement to really slow down and savour time itself as an accessory, not an obstacle. It’s about taking your foot off the pedal of life’s prevailing accelerator and allowing the passing of minutes and hours to be savoured and enjoyed as a necessary cog in the handmade bread-making machine.

Talking of a bread maker, I must admit I’ve used one for years! So why am I moving away from a mechanical genius to a truly hands-on approach? Fundamentally, apart from an excuse to don my pinny, roll up my sleeves and get stuck into some dough, it’s about going back to puritan basics.

So whether it’s brioche for breakfast, sourdough with soup, ciabatta with grilled chicken and spinach or pittas on a picnic, there’s much to be said for making a decent crust…and making life taste a little better, too.

Seville success!

Such is the way with a busy life, I’ve not blogged since my marmalade-making escapades, but rest assured this not a reflection of a lack of activity in Pinny Girl’s kitchen.

In fact, it is quite the opposite, whereby I’ve been so busy in the kitchen, that I’d rather ran out of time to pour out my musings into the blogosphere.

So what on earth could have kept me away? Not wild horses, you will be pleased to hear (hmm; best not to talk horses at the moment!), but instead, a ransacking of fridge, freezer and cupboard in a bid to really come up trumps delivering delicious dinners from very little expenditure!

So much to share! Where to start…

A memorable moment from the past week is daring to open a jar of marmalade to unearth the result of two days’ of full-on attention…and you’ll be pleased to hear it’s an outrightly sweet-yet-sharp, solidified success! All those moments of doubt, anguish and endless rapid boiling and the blessed concoction has delivered on all counts: taste (addictively delicious), colour (like a burnt-sienna sky at dawn), texture (just the right balance) and satisfaction (pleased as punch that it worked).

Whether it’s on toast or dolloped lavishly on top of fruit and yogurt, you can’t help but love it. And now, I eagerly await the moments ahead when I will be boiling and bottling the amazing fruits that the spring and summer seasons will bring!

Lady Marmalade

Seville, the Spanish town famous for its sunshine, its architecture (and its barbers, according to the composer Rossini), but perhaps more humbly, it’s renowned for its bitter oranges – the type that befits the joyous pleasure (or so it is described) of being turned in to the burnt-sienna tones of the morning wake up call for the senses: marmalade.

Today was my first ever attempt at making marmalade, and whilst I would like to say it’s been a stroll in the park, it’s been more of an uphill slog across undulating ground in chronic rain.

All seemingly started well – the last of the season’s Seville oranges were mine for the taking at the local market yesterday; indeed, the stall-holder congratulated me on taking home the last of his bounty and I felt coyly smug in the knowledge that I was going to turn these seasonal short-livers into the most glorious rays of bottled sunshine.

Well, that was the plan in any case. And the enthusiasm was most certainly there. So after juicing, slicing, de-pipping and soaking overnight, today heralded the start of my marmalade marathon.

Out came my mother’s old pressure cooker (cheaper than a Maslin pan and much more comforting to the soul, bringing back happy childhood memories of that whistling sound from the kitchen that always preceded a Sunday roast). Although of course, any heavy-bottomed pan will suffice, I’m led to believe, whether it comes with memories or not.

Upon bringing the mix of water, pulp, pith and all to the boil, it was time for it to simmer down for 2 hours until it had reduced (which took a lot longer than I expected, and in fact, it didn’t reduce). The first in my catalogue of marmalade errors. It’s at this point where you question your intuition and the recipe individually then pitch the two against the other to see which prevails.

My instinct was telling me that there was no way the orangey mass had reduced by a third in two hours but the recipe said it should take two hours. On virgin marmalade-making territory, it’s a battle of will versus word. So the question arose – continue to simmer in the hope of a reduction…or plough on knowing it’s had its time? The latter won and so in went the sugar and lemon juice.

That’s when the panic started – the mixture had now increased by a third (well, naturally it would, owing to the dissolving sugar) and the volume of the pan was now worrying me. Maybe I should have kept it going on the simmer? Ah well, too late now. So I read on and the recipe says to bring to a rolling boil for around 25 minutes until the marmalade has reached setting point (cue much reading about setting points and how to test). A minefield of options.

Twenty-five minutes go by and we’re still a long way off the setting point – at least in the eyes of the time-old ‘crinkle’ test. Had it been a ‘trickle down the plate and drop off the edge’ test, it would have been done and dusted. But no…so I continue to boil it beyond the recommended time. And then I move onto test number two and get the sugar thermometer out. Hurrah – it’s reached its 104.5 degrees! Bingo.

Hmm, but it’s still very watery, I say to myself. But the jars are ready and I start pouring the syrupy gloop in. And then, in steps husband to say ‘that doesn’t look like marmalade!’. And he’s absolutely right. It tastes like marmalade, it’s the colour of marmalade, but by nook and by crook, I can’t get it to set like marmalade.

Now it could have been my total ignorance and naivety talking, as it might be that the real magic happens when you put it into the jars and leave it to cool – but who is to know when it’s your first go?

Back in the pan went the contents of the jars and the consensus was: turn it off, have dinner and then boil it again later to reduce it down. And that’s what we did, for another hour. By now, the marmalade had endured over three times the amount of heat that it should have, along with numerous bouts of prodding with a spoon, measuring with a thermometer and countless crinkle tests. By this point, I was ready to chuck the lot down the sink, but that’s not the point of The Pinny Project…so I jarred it and now I’m hoping for the best.

So here I present the fruits of my labour, or rather, the toiling labour of my fruits:

Three of the ten jars of marmalade I made today

Three of the ten jars of marmalade I made today

If there are any fellow marmalade makers out there who can shed some divine inspiration on my wrongdoings or share your Seville successes, I’d love to hear from you. In the meantime, I’ve booked myself on a summer-time jam-making course. That ought to do the trick.

Pinny Girl

A week with Ainsley Harriott

I’m enjoying the fact I’m giving each of my cookery books their chance to have a moment in the spot light.

Ainsley Harriott’s Low Fat Meals in Minutes proved to add a nice little dimension of difference to our meals this week and I can recommend the recipe that smothers chicken in mustard, lemon, garlic and marjoram then wraps it in filo and bakes it. Very nice.

I’ve got to admit however, that this is the only recipe I’ve managed to try from the book this week, despite there being one on almost every page that I’d like to give a go to. This is, of course, in addition to all the meals I’ve made from the book before (you can tell it’s a well used one, owing to the splatters on many a page). So despite the cover only having been bent back once this week, I feel that it’s had a good innings so far and is enjoying being one of those great books that you can just pull off the shelf and feel inspired by when you’re planning a dinner for friends.

Naturally, all good things must end and so I move on to the next volume of wonder in line on my shelf: Dough by Richard Bertinet (which is right next to Pastry by Richard Bertinet, so I’m being a maverick and combining the two). It’s going to be a good week!

A daily defrost

This week, meal planning proved fruitful, or perhaps rather veg-full! In a bid to start from a clean sheet with The Pinny Project challenge, I thought it wise to begin with a clean freezer.

Over the Christmas period, we popped a lot of leftovers in there, knowing that come the New Year, they will serve as a supplementary bonus to our weekly shop (thus cheapening the bill and adding an element of surprise!)

Digging through the draws we’ve found Cottage Pie from Christmas Eve, bacon from the butcher that we’d batch frozen, chicken legs and, rather wonderfully, a tub of my homemade vanilla ice-cream!

So other than buying a few fresh veggies and throwing in a spot of the usual fruit bowl and fridge essentials (milk, eggs etc) for good measure, we’re practically on a daily defrost! From roast chicken with salad and couscous to bacon, poached egg and grilled tomatoes, we’ll be enjoying a veritable medley of delights. Most certainly an economical and purse-friendly week!

I also made my first ever loaf of handmade bread at the weekend, leaving my trusty breadmaker untouched and looking on as I mixed, kneaded and shaped, wistfully wondering if I’d ever open its metallic jaws and feed it flour ever again (fear not, my mechanical marvel; you’ve much to accomplish  yet).

So now, with dinners sorted for the week, I can put my feet up, crack open the cook books and start thinking about what I’ll rustle up for the weekend ahead and the days that follow it.

Oh but what a task that is…when you have over one hundred cook books in your kitchen…in their own, exclusive bookcase…in alphabetical order by first name, no less.

A collection of over 100 cookery books in Pinny Girl's kitchen

Ah yes, my true weakness has been revealed. Never a shelf goes untouched in the cookery section of a bookshop. What can I say? I find them hypnotic; almost to the point of being that one step beyond addictive.

With every book I hold, I have a wanton desire to peel open the cover, leaf through the pages, pour over the pictures, stare longingly at the recipes as they hardwire my brain into saying ‘make me’ until finally, I think ‘Well, what’s one more?’ and swiftly make my way to the counter…it’s very rare that I ever put one back.

And so I find myself standing in my kitchen, eyes feasting on the rainbow of spines that face me; an explosion of colour, a cornucopia of ideas waiting to be explored, ingredients crying out to be poached, baked, pickled and devoured, and as I survey the scene each and every day, I can’t wait to read them all.

But of course, with so many, the very thought of reading them all and trying every single recipe that each beholds, feels a nigh-on impossible concept. ‘But they’re all so wonderful; I’ve got to try everything!’ I say to myself. And then the voice of reason mutters something about pipedreams and then I put the kettle on.

But no, it’s time to grab the bull by the horns and build my culinary skills and recipe repertoire – delving deep in to the shelves and pulling out a medley of seasonal, exciting, virgin recipes.

But where to start? Naturally, I have my favourites; my ‘go-to’ guides that I rely on week-in week-out: Nigel Slater’s The Kitchen Diaries II (heaven in a hardback), Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course (of course!) and Nigella Lawson’s How To Be A Domestic Goddess (because every kitchen needs a Nigella), but there are some real gems in there that don’t often get a look-in, and it’s these lovingly-owned but left-out little beauties that I want to bring to the fore by giving them the attention they deserve.

So my challenge now is evolving. Not only will I be following The Pinny Project pledge, but I’ll be doing so by working my way through the books on my shelf, taking one book in turn each week and picking out the recipes of the season that I’ve never cooked before (and to be honest, there’ll be a lot of them that I’ll most likely have never seen before, or at least have no memory of ever having read – a travesty on my part, but a thankfully now short-lived one).

Like teaching a child the alphabet, it’s often a good idea to start with A. So, Ainsley Harriot’s Low Fat Meals in Minutes, come on down. Now let the challenge REALLY begin!