Friday 27 April 2012

Spice Up Your Life

What’s in your spice cupboard?                                                    

Has anyone seen the Michael McIntyre sketch about spice jars? Every time I make Chinese food I remember his impression of the jar of Chinese five spice and it brings a smile to my face.  If you haven’t seen it you must watch this clip:

Contrary to his sketch I couldn’t manage without my herbs and spices. Somebody once asked me if there was a fire in my house and I had to save one thing from my kitchen what would it be? (a random question I know, but I promise I’m not making it up)! I thought hard and decided it would be a toss-up between my recipe journal, with all the recipes I have adapted and created over the last few years, or my spice rack.
My spice rack started off very modestly. When I first moved into N’s his spice collection consisted of five clear jars full of completely unknown elements and a wonderful thing called a masala dabba (spice box). Now for those of you who don’t know a masala dabba is a round stainless steel box with a lid that contains approximately 8-10 small stainless steel containers. I can almost guarantee you that if you look hard enough you will find one in every South-East Asian household.

It is ingenious, I urge you all to go and get one. It means you can use so many beautiful spices without having to open half a dozen small bottles or jars with slightly grubby hands whilst trying to avoid burning your food. An Indian masala dabba generally contains a combination of the following spices:  coriander powder, cumin powder, turmeric, red chilli powder, paprika, garam masala, dried mango powder, garlic powder, ginger powder, salt, cumin seeds, coriander seeds and mustard seeds (phew!). However, I’m sure my mum and mum-in-law will read this and tell me there’s a few more I’ve forgotten!

N’s dabba was given to him by his mum when he moved out. I think the intention was to make sure her son would remain well-nourished and would be able to re-create all the wonderful meals she had raised him on.  It turns out I’m still waiting for him to make me one! However her hard work was not in vain. I make great use of her spice box and have used and re-filled the containers many times. The bit that touches me most is how she has carefully written the name of each spice on a white label and attached it to the edge of each container. She clearly didn’t have much faith in her son’s culinary skills and, although I am completely ashamed to admit it, I don’t know where I would be without those labels…so I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my mum-in-law for helping to avoid a few culinary mishaps!
Herbs I find are a bit trickier. I do use dry herbs and I keep a lot of them in stock but there’s nothing as delicious as using fresh herbs. I used to buy a small pack of thyme and then for the next week everything I made tasted the same as I had to use up the packet before it spoiled. When I finally learnt that freezing herbs works so well it transformed my life. Some herbs you can freeze whole like thyme and rosemary, but others like coriander, parsley and basil require a little more work so I buy those ready frozen. The Waitrose Cook’s Ingredients range is an absolute blessing!

My spice rack has evolved the more and more I cook.  With each new recipe I try I often end up buying myself a new little jar of something magical. A spice and herb rack doesn’t have to be fancy. You don’t have to by one of those purpose built turntables with clear jars. My rack is just a two tier metal shelving unit which I have lined with card so the jars don’t wobble. Your spice rack should be something that works for you and for your kitchen. Below I have listed the contents of my collection just in case you’re looking for some inspiration. There are still a few things on my wish list that I haven’t got round to buying, such as star anise and fennel seeds, but I seem to be managing pretty well with what I’ve got.

basil; bay leaves; black mustard seeds; Cajun spice; celery salt; Chinese five spice; chives; coriander powder; cumin powder; cumin seeds; dried crushed chillies; garam masala; garlic powder; ginger powder;  ground cinnamon;  herbes de provence; Italian herb dressing; paprika; parsley; pepper; saffron; salt; tarragon and turmeric.
Do add a comment and let me know what your must-have spices are, as I’m always looking for new ideas…Whether you build a small collection or a large one I hope you love the food it helps you create.

Next time, log in for a healthy homemade fish and chips alternative.

Tuesday 24 April 2012

Ode to the Chorizo (Paella)

I always keep some chorizo in my fridge. Unopened, it stores for at least a couple of weeks and is a pretty versatile ingredient to have at home. I know too much processed meat is not supposed to be good for you so I try to only use it now and again or I add it in small quantities to give a meal a bit of a kick. I sometimes use it in omelettes or pastas but I generally reserve it for truly Spanish inspired dishes, the quintessential of course being paella.

The good thing about a paella is you can make it as extravagant or as basic as you like. If I’m going all out I use chicken, prawns and chorizo, but quite often I only use two out of the three. As for vegetables, if I haven’t been shopping I just use peas and whatever else I have in the freezer. And normal tomatoes work perfectly well if you don’t want to especially buy cherry tomatoes…see it’s all very flexible.

There is something so beautiful about the colours and flavours of a paella and I love the fact it’s a one-pot dish. The nature of putting a paella pan (or frying pan) in the middle of a table and uncovering it so your guests can all tuck in means it’s also the perfect social dish for a dinner party. Please don’t let the number of ingredients scare you, you’ll have most of them at home anyway, and as for the herbs and spices, if you don’t have them then go get them! They make the dish really special and they will soon become an essential part of your store cupboard.

My paella recipe has developed a little bit every time I’ve made it so now it works each and every time. I had the validation I needed when I served it to N’s brother, T, when he came over for dinner recently. We all sat down to eat at the same time. N and I were on our third mouthful when T’s fork hit the plate and he asked “is there any more left?” It was then I knew I had finally got my paella recipe right.

Next time on adventures of an accidental cook…what’s in your spice cupboard? Log in soon to find out how to build up an essential collection of herbs and spices.


(Serves 2 | Total prep and cooking time approximately 1 hour – 1 hour 15 mins)


2 tablespoons of olive oil

1 small onion (red or white) – diced

2 garlic cloves – finely chopped or crushed

140g raw prawns

1 skinless and boneless chicken breast - cut into small pieces

100g cooked or uncooked chorizo - sliced finely

1 green pepper – deseeded and sliced

8 cherry tomatoes – halved

80 - 100g runner beans – chopped (can be substituted with peas)

130g paella rice (dry - no need to soak or wash)

1 stock cube dissolved in 1 pint of boiling water (preferably fish, but chicken or vegetable will work too)

Pinch of saffron threads soaked in 1 tablespoon of hot water

½ teaspoon paprika

¼ pinch of turmeric

1 tablespoon fresh parsley – chopped

1 teaspoon tarragon – fresh or dried

½ lemon – cut into wedges

Salt and pepper to taste


·         Heat the olive oil in a large shallow non-stick frying pan or paella pan on a medium heat

·         Dissolve the stock cube in water and soak the saffron threads

·         Fry the raw prawns in the oil until they turn pink – using a slotted spoon transfer to a bowl and set aside

·         In the remaining oil fry the chicken and the uncooked chorizo for about 5 minutes or until golden

·         Add the onions to the same pan and cook for 2-3 minutes until softened

·         Add the garlic, paprika, turmeric, saffron and its soaking liquid. Cook for about a minute stirring constantly

·         Add the sliced green pepper, tomato halves and beans and cook for 2 more minutes, stirring constantly

·         Add the dry rice, parsley and tarragon and stir for about a minute until the rice is coated. You should not stir at all after this as the rice will break

·         Pour in 100ml of the stock and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer uncovered for 10 minutes or until most the liquid has evaporated. Shake the pan a couple of times during this time

·         You can season with salt and pepper at this stage. I don’t tend to add salt as I find there is enough in the stock and the chorizo

·         Keep adding 100ml of water at a time and shaking the pan until the rice grains are plump and almost cooked. Add the cooked prawns you had set aside earlier and shake. If you are using already cooked prawns they should be added at this stage. Cook for a further 2 minutes. If you run out of stock and the rice is not quite cooked you can just add boiling water.  Note – when paella rice is cooked it still tends to have a bit of a bite to it.

·         When all the liquid has absorbed and the rice is cooked remove from the heat immediately to prevent burning. Place the lemon wedges on top and cover with foil or a clean tea towel and leave to stand for 5 minutes before serving.

Sunday 22 April 2012

The Accidental Cook (Garlic Bread)

I never thought I’d be able to cook. But then again I’d never really given it much thought. I grew up with a mum who is an excellent cook so it seemed counterintuitive and frankly quite daft to interfere in something she was so good at and seemed to do so quickly and effortlessly. In hindsight I wish I had started cooking earlier. It would have given my mum a well-deserved break and perhaps I could have found my passion for cooking much sooner.

So how did I end up being an accidental cook? Well it’s a case of needs must. I got married! Getting home from work a good hour earlier than hubby (I will refer to him as N from now on) I thought it was only fair that I should prepare something for dinner. But before I could think about that I had more pressing issues. My first priority was to clear out N’s supply of shop-bought frozen garlic bread. I kid you not, every drawer of our three drawer freezer was filled with every form of garlic bread you could think of – garlic baguettes, garlic slices, garlic pizza – the list goes on. He was mortified to start with, until I made him my homemade version that put all the others to shame. We’ve never eaten shop-bought garlic bread since.
Then came the next issue.  What on earth do you cook for dinner every day? Now, I know I’m not alone here; everyone must have this same problem. But for me this thought opened up a whole new world.  A world I find I am quite partial to. In fact, a world I find I love. 

So here it is, my food blog. Adventures of an accidental cook.  I advise you now, I am not a trained chef. I just have a passion for cooking and make tasty food for regular people. I promise I’ll try and make what I write relevant and I promise I’ll try and make it interesting, but above all I promise that I will write about the things I love. Food and cooking in all its glory.
I hope you enjoy reading this blog. If you do take the time to log on please leave a comment. What you agree with, what you disagree with, what you’re making for dinner, how your day was, anything really. I’m hoping it won’t just be a blog of me rambling on about food, interspersed with some recipes and the occasional rant. I hope we can generate discussion, share ideas and have some fun.

Below is my trusty garlic bread recipe, something simple to get started. Log in at the end of the week for another one of my favourite recipes…a must for every home cook’s repertoire.

Garlic Bread

(Serves 2 as an accompaniment)
4-5 inch portion of ciabatta cut in half down the middle
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves – peeled and crushed
Dried Italian herbs

·         Preheat the grill on low/medium
·         In a small bowl mix together the crushed garlic and olive oil (you can use butter instead of olive oil if you prefer, but I warn you there are a lot more calories in it!)
·         Spoon the mixture evenly over the ciabatta
·         Sprinkle with Italian herbs
·         Place under the grill for 5 minutes or until brown