27 November 2009

Review: Supper for a Song by Tamasin Day-Lewis

When Quadrille Publishing announced they had cookbooks available for review I jumped at the chance to test out Supper for a Song by Tamasin Day-Lewis (let's get it out of the way: she's Daniel's sister). Not only did the book look intriguing but it seemed an especially appropriate choice given the current state of the economy. After all, it bills itself as being "For the clever cook in the cost-conscious kitchen." You can't go wrong, right? Well...

Let's start with the good points. The book is nicely designed with numerous pretty photos and one of the most creative Tables of Contents I've ever seen. The writing is casual and friendly, which always makes for more enjoyable reading. Measurements are in metric and imperial (although even in imperial, measurements are given in weight, not volume--and temperatures are only given in Celsius). There's a chapter called "Happy Food," which besides offering some decadent looking recipes, just makes me smile. And best of all, the book provides tons of inspiration; reading it made me want to get busy in the kitchen.

Unfortunately, the negatives really outweigh the positives with this book. To start, the writing is frequently a little too casual, with vague descriptions and instructions given. What exactly is a "blodge"? How does one "blitz" food? How much is a handful or a knob of an ingredient? Along the same lines, the lack of a glossary might result in confusion for North Americans trying to decipher British ingredients like plain flour and caster sugar.

Although foodies will appreciate the emphasis on quality ingredients, I didn't find that it was a particularly practical manual for economy cooking. Yes, quality is more important than quantity, but I think even small amounts of the expensive ingredients used throughout the book--such as pine nuts, organic meats, and expensive chocolate--would be a stretch for anyone really trying to budget. And telling people to just eat less (but better!) is unrealistic, to say the least. On top of that, this is no book for beginners--anyone hoping to try out the recipes in Supper for a Song will need to start out with a reasonable knowledge of food and cooking.

After trying a few of her recipes, Day-Lewis's claim that this style of cooking will save time and effort is nice in theory if not reality. Not only do many of the recipes involve planning ahead and multiple steps, but some of the instructions are downright unnecessary. The Tahini Cream Sauce on page 33 required no fewer than seven steps (plus the final sprinkle with parsley) when simply mixing all the ingredients together at once (and then adjusting for flavour) would have easily sufficed. And that's on top of the labour-intensive from-scratch falafel it's meant to be served with. What's with all the extra work? It's certainly not warranted by the results.

I ended up trying four recipes. I'd planned on trying five but after three disappointments, I decided I'd had enough.

White Chocolate and Raspberry Truffles started things off brilliantly. Easy to make and delicious (in large part due to the super fresh raspberries we were lucky enough to find), these are sweet nuggets of crack-like addictiveness. Day-Lewis's awkward instructions (e.g., skewering the berries and swirling them in the chocolate to coat) left something to be desired but the idea is pure win.

[Simplified] White Chocolate and Raspberry Truffles

200g/7 oz container of large raspberries
200g/7 oz good white chocolate
up to 10g/o.3 oz unsalted butter

Put the raspberries on a plate in a single later in the freezer for 30 minutes.

Melt the chocolate in the top of a double boiler or in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water, but not touching the water.

Remove the pan from the heat, keeping the melted chocolate over the warm water. Drop a couple of "tiny knobs" [I'd go with about 1/4 to 1/2 tsp each] into the chocolate to stop it seizing.

Drop the raspberries in the chocolate one at a time, rolling gently with a spoon until evenly coated with chocolate. Using a wooden skewer, pierce and lift the raspberries and allow excess chocolate to drip off. Place chocolate-covered raspberries on a foil-lined baking sheet.

When all the raspberries have been coated, place baking sheet in the fridge until the chocolate has completely set (about 20 minutes). Enjoy.

The next recipe I tested was Earl Grey Fruit Tea Loaf. I'm one of those rare individuals who actually likes fruit cake (or at least who will admit they like it) and I love Earl Grey, so there was no way I could resist this recipe. The tea loaf is simple enough to make, which is a plus, although it has to be started the night before. I'm also not convinced that upscale dried fruit (such as the suggested Muscat raisins, unsulphured apricots, strawberries, and cherries), muscovado sugar, and "the best" loose tea leaves are either practical for the average person to find or particularly economical.

The results were okay bordering on nice. Because there is no added fat other than one egg, the loaf really tastes like it's missing something. The SO suggested it could use some icing. I thought it needed butter, as Day-Lewis recommends (buttering really did make a difference, as I'm sure icing would). The texture is also a little rubbery. Would I make it again? Maybe.

I thought the colours of the fruit (which were not the same ones as suggested in the book, partly because I couldn't find any of those) were particularly pretty:

Ready for eating:

I next attempted the Middle Eastern Stuffed Peppers on page 132. First of all, let me just say that if you want people to make more rice than needed for your recipe so that they can save time by using the extra in another recipe, it would be nice if you warned them that was your plan somewhere other than the middle of the recipe! And if you want them to make extra for other uses, maybe you could have them make enough so that there's actually a substantial amount of extra rice, not just a tiny useless portion. Beyond this quibble, the peppers required a lot of work and ultimately were bland. As someone who's had (and made) some damn fine Middle Eastern cuisine, this recipe was just a waste of time.

The last experiment I embarked on was the aforementioned overly complicated Tahini Cream Sauce, which I served alongside falafel from a mix (way less work and nearly as tasty). The sauce was mediocre. That was pretty much when I lost my remaining inspiration to keep cooking these recipes.

I think part of the problem with Supper for a Song is that it frequently seems to lose focus. Is it about creative cooking? Economical cooking? Slow food? Organic fare? There's no reason it couldn't integrate all of those things, but I don't think Day-Lewis quite gets that. Ultimately this is a book to check out from the library. Read it, get inspired, try out a couple of recipes. But don't buy it. Hey, at least you'll save money that way.

Quote: Pleasure comes first, but not at any cost to the environment, the animal, the farmer or the pocket. (p 55)

Supper for a Song by Tamasin Day-Lewis. Published by Quadrille; 192 pp, $27.00 CAD.

01 November 2009

Hallowe'en: The Autopsy

Since Hallowe'en is this household's favourite holiday, I like to extend the festivities beyond just the one day. All week I've been tweeting about what I've been up to in the kitchen, so I thought I'd share some of the results. Enjoy!

Witch's Fingers cookies are a Halloween staple around here. Creepy Hallowe'en treats are one thing, but creepy and delicious ensures a recurring appearance on the table.

Ready to go into the oven:

Baked and decorated (the trick is to not over bake them):

Witch's Fingers recipe here.

Wrapped Mummy Sandwich Loaf was a new addition this year, and one I'll be making again. It's something of an effort but I made my own bread dough--I think it would be a fair bit easier to use frozen dough from the store. Next time I'll try to form a head at one end, so the effect is a little more mummy-like. I'd also love to experiment with different fillings.

Adding the filling:

Ready for the oven (you can sprinkle the bread with grated Parmesan, which I think would have worked better, but I like sesame seeds on my bread so I went with those):

Ready to eat!

Wrapped Mummy Sandwich Loaf
(Better Homes and Gardens Halloween)

3/4 cup chopped green or red sweet pepper
1/2 cup chopped carrot
1 tbs butter
1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms
3 oz package cream cheese or cream cheese with chives
1/2 of a 10 oz package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and well drained
2 oz thinly sliced Canadian bacon or ham, chopped (1/2 cup)
1/4 cup fine dry breadcrumbs
1 tsp dried Italian seasoning, crushed
16 oz loaf frozen white bread dough, thawed (I made my own bread dough and used that)
sesame seeds or grated Parmesan cheese, optional

In a large skillet, cook and stir sweet pepper and carrot in hot butter for 2 minutes. Add mushrooms; cook and stir about 2 minutes more or until vegetables are tender. Remove from heat. Stir in cream cheese, spinach, meat, bread crumbs, and Italian seasoning.

On a lightly floured surface, roll dough into a 12 x 9" rectangle. Carefully transfer to a greased baking sheet. Spread the filling lengthwise in a 3-inch-wide strip down the center of the rectangle to within 1 inch of the ends.

On both long sides, make 3-inch cuts from the edges toward the center at 1-inch intervals. Moisten the end of each dough strip. Starting at one end, alternately fold opposite strips of dough at an angle across filling. Slightly press moistened ends together in center to seal. Cover and let rise in a warm place until nearly double (about 30 minutes).

Lightly brush loaf with milk. If desired, sprinkle with sesame seeds or Parmesan cheese. Bake in a 350F oven for 25 to 30 minutes or until golden brown. Cool slightly on a wire rack. Using a serrated knife, cut into slices.

Makes 12 slices.

Caramel-Marshmallow Apples have become another staple. This year I dipped the bottoms in chopped, salted peanuts and drizzled with melted semi-sweet chocolate. I originally had six apples but the SO (aka @AchillesRage on Twitter) got to them before I could take a photo.

Recipe here.
Zombie brain! Now this was fun: jello + evaporated milk + food colouring + a little red decorator gel for the blood. The reactions to the gelatinous brain was so worth the investment in a brain-shaped mold. It was tasty too (if you don't mind the texture), although I think next time I'll just use one flavour of gelatin (and not raspberry, which I think is what made the brain too purple in colour).

Our yearly dinner on Hallowe'en night is Jack-o-Lantern Pumpkin Soup. Most people shy away from cooking with jack-o-lantern pumpkins. Granted, their flavour is much weaker than pie pumpkins (and I'd never use them for that purpose), but I love the mild flavour, particularly in this soup, which makes good use of something that would otherwise go to waste.

Jack-o-Lantern Pumpkin Soup
(Ancient Ways by Pauline and Dan Campanelli)

pieces of pumpkin cut from your jack-o-lanterns
1 chopped onion per cup of mashed pumpkin
1 1/2 cups milk per cup of mashed pumpkin
1/2 tsp salt per cup of mashed pumpkin
dash pepper per cup of mashed pumpkin
1/4 tsp curry powder, or according to taste, per cup of mashed pumpkin
cinnamon or nutmeg

Peel the outer skin from the pieces of pumpkin and boil them in water until very tender, about 20-30 minutes. Mash pieces with a potato masher.

Meanwhile, in a pot of appropriate size, melt some butter and saute chopped onion(s). When onions are ready, add the mashed pumpkin. Add milk, salt, pepper and curry powder. Cook until heated through. Bowls of the soup can be garnished with a dash of cinnamon or nutmeg just before serving.

I also like to roast the seeds from our pumpkin. Rinse and drain seeds and place in a bowl. Drizzle with oil and sprinkle with salt (I also sprinkled on some cayenne this year). Stir well. Spread on a large, greased baking sheet. Place in preheated 325F oven for about ten minutes, stirring occasionally. Keep an eye on them as they burn quickly. Best served warm.

Chocolate Pumpkin Cake ended up being a hit! It's moist and delicious and definitely worth the effort.

A few notes:

*You'll have to fiddle with the food colouring to get a decent shade of orange (I ended up using more than the "scant 1/4 tsp" the recipe calls for, and I still couldn't get a bright orange hue).

*The recipe makes way too much glaze. Be prepared to alter the quantity or to find a use for the extra amount (shouldn't be too difficult--it tastes like truffles).

*The frosting and glaze stay very soft and creamy--nice for eating, not so nice for moving the cake. I had planned on transferring it to a cake stand or prettier plate, but I couldn't figure out how to do it without messing up the frosting (more than I already did, that is). Next time I'll just frost it on the serving plate.

*I sprinkled the finished product with Hallowe'en candy sprinkles (ghosts, bats, and pumpkins).

Chocolate Pumpkin Cake recipe here.

Because things got so hectic yesterday, I didn't get a chance to make everything I wanted. I'm going to play catch-up today and tomorrow with Haunted Shepherd's Pie (instead of spreading the mashed potatoes over the Shepherd's pie I'm going to form them into ghosts with peas for eyes) and my perennial favourite Bubbling Cauldron:

Bubbling Cauldron

16 oz pkg processed cheese with jalapeno peppers
2 x 15 oz cans black beans, well drained
1 cup medium or hot salsa
2 loaves (18 oz each) round marble rye bread (or pumpernickel), unsliced
pretzel rods
cocktail rye or pumpernickel bread

Melt cheese in medium saucepan over low heat, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat. Stir in beans and salsa. Carefully cut center out of the bread, leaving 1 1/2" shell. Cut bread center into pieces for dipping.

Reserve 1 pretzel rod. Arrange remaining pretzel rods on serving plate to resemble campfire logs. Place bread cauldron on pretzels; fill with cheese dip, allowing some to spill over top of cauldron. Arrange bread pieces and cocktail bread around cauldron. Place reserved pretzel rod in cheese dip; serve immediately.

Serves 18 [If you can find smaller loaves of bread you can easily halve the recipe]

Hope you all had a fantastic Hallowe'en! See you next year...