Category Archives: Cooking

Alyson’s Top Ten Ingredients of 2015

The end of the year is always seen as the perfect time to reflect on the year that’s just gone by, and look forward to the next year. Since we’re a food blog, it’s only fitting that we look at the past year in terms of food and its impact on my life. So here are my top ten ingredients of 2015.

Garlic

1. Garlic 

The smell of garlic has always reminded me of the best kind of home cooking. It was my uncle who first inspired me to cook, letting me sit at his butcher’s block as he chopped and fried, throwing together the most delightful array of tasty little dishes in seemingly no time at all. Now I’m older and can look back on it, I suspect he lost whole mornings making lunch!

Garlic always featured heavily in his cooking, and was the predominant smell in his house, but in a “welcome to the nourishing bosom of our home” kind of way. So that’s what got me into garlic. And I just can’t seem to look past it. If it’s a pasta sauce, curry sauce, marinade, soup, roast or stir fry, garlic is the starting point. It’s good for you and it does so much flavour work!

 

2. Ginger

This year has been a turning point for me in terms of food and nutrition. I’ve finally had the willpower to make a few healthier changes which have helped me to drop the dress size I wanted to shed before our wedding, as well as helping me to realise that eating healthily is a lot less difficult, and much more tasty, than you might think.

Soups for lunch and stir fries for supper have played a massive part in this, particularly when I learned that it’s pretty easy to keep stocked up with the makings of a great stir fry marinade, delicious enough to forget about those calorie stuffed sachet sauces. Ginger is a big hitter for me, and I always have a knobble in my fridge (especially since Charles told me off for resorting to ginger purée!).


3. Soy Sauce 

For similar reasons to the above story about stir fries, soy sauce has been hugely helpful in letting me throw together healthy but filling suppers, satisfying enough to stop me rescuing for a takeaway menu or a bag of pasta. Even if it doesn’t feature in your stir fry, it’s a slightly heather way to ass on your Asian food, so stick it on the table in case there isn’t enough salt on your noodles or rice.

The legend says that light soy is for flavour, whilst dark soy is for colour, but I just prefer dark soy sauce – it seems a little less bitter to me.

 

4. Honey 

Honey has been getting a bad rep, recently  – “oh it’s not as healthy as you think”, “it’s as bad for you as sugar”, yadda yadda, but everything in moderation.  A teaspoon in your marinade isn’t going to kill you, but it will give you the perfect dash of Asian sweetness, as well as the most beautiful sticky glaze to your stir-fried meat (see my Chicken Teriyaki for the evidence!).  I like to buy the runny kind in a squeezy bottle for easy dispensing, but I’m not at all fussy about brand so don’t take the photo as a specific recommendation – whichever is on offer will be the bottle which makes it into my basket.

 

5. Fresh Fruit and Vegetables

Really, I could be giving you a top ten rundown of my favourite/most eaten fruits and vegetables, so I’m afraid the title of this item will have to be as general as this!  You may remember (if you’ve followed my blog from the beginning) that one of my major resolutions for 2015 was to do my darnedest to eat my 5-a-day.  And, for the most part, I’ve achieved this (apart from the odd Saturday and Sunday, but that will change in the Brooker household).  It’s really much easier than you think.  I’m sure I’ll eventually get round to a post about the little changes you can make to the everyday to make your diet that little bit healthier, but generally melons and grapes have replaced my lunchtime packet of crisps, homemade soups and salads take the place of M&S sandwiches, apples and clementines float around my handbag in case I get peckish mid-morning or mid-afternoon, and bulking out my suppers with lots of fresh vegetables helps me to cut down on the carbs.  It can seem like an expensive way to eat, but once you’ve figured out your favourites, your weekly shop becomes a lot easier and a lot better for you.

 

6. Ribeye Steak

Charles has the credit for introducing me to this one.  The lovely, succulent, tasty ribeye.  It has more flavour that a sirloin or a fillet, and it’s generally pretty easy to trim out the excess fat.  It just has more…steakiness about it.  We had ribeyes from my butcher for our first supper as an engaged couple (I didn’t know we would be an engaged couple but we were otherwise celebrating heading off for a wonderful week together on Skye, it just worked out quite well) and Charles has also introduced me to the wonders of Aldi steaks.  Seriously. Try them.  They beat the butcher hands down because they are hung for a bit to tenderise and mature the beef, and yet they are sourced locally from farmers who meet the highest standards.  When I’m not celebrating, however, I love these Tesco ribeyes, which, at £3 a pop and big enough to make two stir fries, are my protein-packed best friend for a tasty midweek supper which will help my muscles to recover from HIIT and Pilates.

 

 

7. Brown Rice 

My name’s Alyson and I used to be a brown rice sceptic.  Until I bought a bag, learned that it took forever and a day to cook it, and tasted it.  It’s easier to prepare than basmati (provided you have 20+ minutes to let it simmer),it won’t turn stodgy on you, it tastes beautiful and nutty and delicious enough to eat alone, and it has a low GI, which means it takes longer to break down in your body and is therefore less likely to turn to fat.  Sorted.  Although you should definitely stock up when i’s on offer as it can get fairly pricey (£2.50 from Tilda in Tesco right now ….on the shelf you will stay).

Olive ou


 

8. Olive Oil

Everyone, surely, knows the benefits of olive oil.  It’s a staple. It’s always kicking around somewhere in both of our kitchens.  If I’m stir frying, I prefer groundnut oil as it can handle a higher heat without burning (be careful if you’re allergic to nuts), but olive is still a great starter for dressings, marinades, pestos, and getting a gently sweat or fry on the go.  Let’s try some new oils in 2016…

 9. Tinned Tomatoes 

Such a staple, even my Mum keeps them in the house, tinned tomatoes are a must-have store cupboard ingredient.  They’re a great start to a pasta sauce, a curry base or a casserole and they help to make an excellent minestrone.  Buy a four-pack when they’re on offer.  I used to be all about the chopped tomatoes but I think I’ve convinced myself that tinned plum tomatoes (or cherry tomatoes if you’re feeling flush) give you a better flavour and texture.

image

10. Stock Cubes and Stock Pots

I’ll probably be breaking a “foodie” (yeurgh) law by telling you that I swear by Knorr stock cubes.  Chuck two or three in some boiling water and add to some vegetables in a soup pot and you’re halfway to a week of nutritious hot lunches.  They also give a great savoury backbone to sauces, and one beef stockpot added to a stew or casserole will hit all the right notes.  By all means, make fresh stock if you have leftover bones and the wherewithal, but don’t be too much of a snob to reach for reach for a helping hand from your cupboard.  Cooking loses it’s shine a little if make things too difficult for yourself, so take shortcuts when you can!

Let us know which ingredients you haven’t been able to keep out of your shopping basket this year, and have a great time at New Year!

Butternut Squash Risotto

The last few weeks have been a bit of a festive whirlwind with present-buying and wrapping sitting alongside Christmas baking and work, of course. But at last (hooray, hurrah) I’m off work until 29th December, so finally I have a chance to breathe.

Roasted squash risotto recipe

My first free evening was largely spent in the kitchen and on the floor wrapping presents, but I was feeling a bit more chilled than I have been and I’d bought a butternut squash at the weekend as an antidote to lots of meaty meals, so I thought I’d throw together a wholesome risotto for a bit of relaxation (yeah, I do actually find that sort of thing therapeutic!). This tasted so wholesome, comforting and filling without having to cook up any meat. You could so easily make this fully vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free by using vegetable stock instead of chicken stock, and if you use 80g of each vegetable, it can also make up 4 of your 5-a-day. Add whichever veg you fancy – it’s also great with roasted sweet potato.

Squash risotto recipes

As a bit of a warning, though, you’ll need about half an hour and a great deal of patience to make this dish. Once the liquid hits the rice, you’ll need to constantly stir it until it’s ready. Be prepared! I forgot about this part when I thought I’d be able to get a batch of mince pies ready for the oven at the same time!

How to make risotto
You will need:

Half an onion or a few shallots

1 clove garlic

Dash white wine or vermouth (optional but delightful; essential on a Friday evening)

80g carnaroli rice (or however much you care to pour in by eye – who has time for scales?!)

Chicken stock (a good cube dissolved in hot water and standing by or fresh if you’d like – I have a stock recipe coming soon)

A few florets of broccoli

Half a small butternut squash

Olive oil

A cupful of peas

1/2 tsp mild chilli powder

1/2 tsp ground cumin

Salt and pepper

How to cook butternut squash

1. Pre-heat your oven to 200c, line a baking tray with tin foil and get ready to roast. Carefully cut the squash in half from top to bottom and scoop out the seeds. If you need a hand with how to tackle one of these beasts for the first time, there’s a quick rundown in my squash soup recipe. Once you’ve done that, place one half of the squash on the tray, sprinkle on the chilli and cumin, season and drizzle with oil, then shove it in the oven.

Chop the onion and garlic
2. Finely chop the onion and garlic.

Making a risotto baseI
3. Drizzle a little oil into a medium saucepan and place on a medium to high heat. Chuck in the onion and garlic and allow to soften, stirring every now and then.

Carnaroli rice recipes
4. Tip the rice into the saucepan to join the rice and stir around for about 30 seconds or so, until you hear the rice start to crackle and pop, then pour in the wine.

Winter risotto recipes

5. Cook out the wine until the saucepan is nearly dry. Now comes the stock. This needs to be added a ladleful at a time, cooked out whilst stirring the rice, then repeated. This process will take 20-30 minutes – risotto is traditionally served al dente, but I would recommend tasting it before serving up because home cooking is all about what you like. The stirring process is really important because it helps the starch to be released from each grain of rice, and it’s the starch which will give you a really creamy, unctuous risotto.

Why do you have to constantly stir risotto

6. About 5 minutes from the end, cut up the broccoli into fine florets and boil it up in salted water. When the rice is ready, add the broccoli to the saucepan, then stir in the frozen peas. A couple of minutes in the risotto should be enough to defrost and cook them.

Vegetable rice recipes
7. Check the squash. It should take 20-30 minutes to cook as well. It should be tender throughout and browning on the edges.

Easy squash recipes

8. Chop up the squash into chunks. You can remove the skin before or after cooking, but, like many vegetables, a lot of the nutrients the squash offers are in the skin, plus it turns sort of sticky and marshmallowy when roasted. So yes, you definitely can eat the skin on a butternut squash!

Can you eat the skin of a butternut squash

9. Serve up the rice and add the squash chunks on top so they stay crispy on the edges. Then enjoy! If you want this to be extra creamy, you could stir in a tablespoon of crême fraiche before serving, or even grate some Parmesan over the top, however that would seriously bump up the calories, and of course remove the dish’s vegan and vegetarian credentials, but the world is your rice bowl.

Roasted butternut squash risotto
I’d love to hear about your favourite risotto and your favourite way to prepare and eat butternut squash.

Saucy Tips

As you may have realised , I am no expert but have picked up a few things that might be helpful to you. Most of them are mainly common sense but a some were a bit of a revelation to me. I will update this page when I come across new gems of information, which I will no doubt learn from making a pigs ear of things! More importantly, please leave a comment if you have any of your own.

Be patient – A sauce splitting is because you have either heated it too quickly or added things too quickly. The same with lumps, if you take your time you are much less likely to have a problem.

The longer the better – Similar to being patient, the longer you can cook a sauce the stronger the blend of flavours will be. Try and let a sauce simmer as long as possible. It is the best way to make a good sauce a very good one. Keep an eye though.

Thickening – If you want to thicken a sauce, there are a couple of options. The easiest is to just it reduce with heat but this can take an age and you have to keep it moving or there will be sticking/burning issues. The other option is to add flour as a thickening agent. Adding flour (plain or cornflour) straight to the pan will lead to a lumpy mass of disaster so the trick is to mix a paste of a little flour – a little goes a long way – then gradually add a little water and stir to a paste. Add a bit more so it becomes a bit wetter and then pour this into your sauce. Make sure you cook it out for a few minutes to get rid of the raw flour taste and it will take a minute or two to thicken the sauce so don’t be disheartened!

Preparation is key – If you measure things out first then it is just a case of throwing them in. While it might create a bit more washing up it will save you losing track of time while chopping and scorching something. Or in my case, rummaging around in a cupboard trying to find something.

Don’t pour straight from the pot – When adding herbs or seasoning, I always pour things into my (clean) hand first. Not only does this act as a measuring method but also it prevents an unscrewed lid disaster. Also, it prevents condensation getting into pots of herbs and it all getting gummed up and disgusting.

Tried and tasted – Taste whenever you think you should. Don’t miss an opportunity to add more of something because you didn’t try it.

Match your sauce to the dish – If you are cooking a fillet steak the sauce should compliment it and not overpower it. However if you are using something cheap or less flavoursome you might want the sauce to be the focus of the dish.

Experiment – Everyone’s taste is different. If you see a recipe you like always ask “what would make this better for me?” Unless of course you are doing something classic, messing with the classics will upset the food gods!

Fat isn’t the end of the world – While it isn’t overly healthy, a bit of fat is needed in things. It adds flavour and also plays a part in texture. As they say, everything in moderation. A bit of butter as a sauce is nearly finished will give it a healthy gloss.

Waste not want not – You might not be making a sauce that day but you might have some water you have boiled veg in or some juice from some meat. Pour it into a bowl and put it in the fridge. Things will last a few days and will be better than any stock cube.

Cheat ingredients – Everyone has their own cheat ingredients. Marmite is one of my favourites. I often use it as a substitute for salt as it adds a savoury boost giving things a bit extra. Some use smooth peanut butter or a squeeze of honey. HP Sauce is a good one for BBQ Sauce. My aunt swears by a teaspoon of mayonnaise in soup just before serving. Mushroom ketchup is amazing in small quantities, it adds something that you don’t notice what it is but it is good.

Why?

Why write a food website/blog? 

Well, I used to write a football blog for the team I support when I graduated from university and was looking for a job. It was relatively successful and getting about 5000 hits a day but as I got busier with real life things I found the level of abuse people gave if you had a slightly different opinion to you was totally irrational and gradually lost enthusiasm for it as the blogosphere got more and more saturated I just let it slip away. Since then I have had a few articles published on sites and fanzines but miss writing. My wonderful fiancée Alyson started writing a blog a few months ago and I am sort of jumping on the bandwagon, it means I can justify spending more money on photography equipment and tech – and of course it is something we can do together when we get married and live together.

Cooking is something I enjoy and while I wouldn’t say I was the world’s best chef – I wouldn’t say I was a chef actually – I seem to be able to produce things that people quite like but I make a solid promise that I will try to avoid anything too pretentious. I am certainly not the sort of person who goes around describing myself as a “foodie” I hate that term. I just want to share good recipes and help make people make good food. I live in a beautiful part of the world but we lack the endless farmer’s markets and delicatessens that you find in bigger towns and cities so don’t worry, you won’t be having to scour the back streets of tuscany for bizarre cheeses or to Mexico for some obscenely rare chilli pepper. Almost everything will be available from supermarkets or relatively basic Delicatessens

Why Sauce?

Sauces are great. Take some chicken, spring onions and peppers. On their own, they are ok, but it is the sauce that defines them. The same basic ingredients can be transformed from Chinese, to Chilean or anywhere between. They give your food an identity.

Sauces are the key to a great meal, they can raise a cheap cut of meat to be excellent or complement the finest Aberdeen Angus fillet steak. Hell, I know you shouldn’t talk about McDonalds on a food site but I admit it, I have a guilty pleasure, ‘The Big Tasty’, I know it is a burger made of the standard of beef that can barely be considered meat, but I love the sauce – I am also quite partial to Big Mac sauce too. But it just shows what a sauce can do!

The great thing about sauces is that nothing is particularly complex, any cook can produce almost all sauces with a bit of knowhow and the right direction, without requiring elaborate equipment like blast chillers etc.  also things are so easy to customise, it isn’t like a cake that will collapse if you make the tiniest adjustment. It is the intention of The Source of Sauce to help create idiot proof, well balanced recipes that can enhance just about every meal.

The other great thing is that the majority of sauces can just be knocked together with things that will last for a while – vinegars, oils, herbs and spices can sit on the shelf dormant for months ready to jump into your food and transform them.

It is surprising how much people will pay for pots of sauce, pumped with all sorts of flavour enhancers and yet they never taste as good as something you can knock together in a few minutes with the added satisfaction that it is home made and you know what is in it!

I will try to create a system of recipes that will work for everyone whether you operate in millilitres, fluid ounces, cups or gallons to make things easy. All things being equal, we can keep the scales in the cupboard as long as possible and keep washing up to a minimum and that really is a victory.

We won’t just focus on sauce, but also:

Dips,

Condiments,

Salsas,

Relishes,

Dressings,

Marinades,

Pastes,

Jus,

Emulsifications,

Stocks,

And maybe even Soups and things, lets see how things go!

I hope you enjoy reading but more importantly, I would love it if you could comment with suggestions. I would also love to build up a bit of a social media community. If you have any recipe requests let me know too!