Recipe lab

When I serve up some food at home, I'll often irritatingly ask people for detailed feedback on what they didn't like about the meal. People feel awkward giving specifics, but I like having the opportunity to vary the recipe for the next time. In the hope of being scientific, and sharing my progress with friends who can come up with yet more ideas, I present my cookery logbook.

The most recent updates follow in reverse chronological order. Older updates are archived for the year 2019. Comments are welcome via email.

'Everything in life is so easy when you know the way. It's just a question of the pleasure that I get selfishly out of sharing the ways of the things that I've happened to discover with you'. These are the words of Fanny Cradock, forerunner of the modern TV chefs, uttered during an episode of her 1975 BBC series 'Fanny Cradock Cooks for Christmas' (episodes 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5). They feature her cooking a variety of Yuletide atrocities, typically brimming with saturated fat, mincemeat, food colouring, almond paste and icing sugar. Cooking, that is, in between snapping her fingers, bellowing or making passive-aggressive comments at Sara, her silent, trembling assistant.

I was thinking of suggesting to Jotunn that on my next visit to Yorkshire we watch one of these episodes and try to recreate the results. As I've reported here before, he is a very good cook of vegan food, but I feared that even if we could find a copy of the tie-in booklet she mentions repeatedly, adapting any of these recipes to use solely plant-derived ingredients would be practically impossible. However, there's a blog, 'Keep Calm and Fanny On', whose author has produced an impressive list of Fanny's vegetarian recipes, so perhaps there's hope after all.

She'd been cooking for audiences for at least twenty years by then, firstly her ostentatious demonstrations at the Albert Hall, then later 'Adventurous Cooking with Fanny Cradock: Fish' (parts 1, 2 and 3) and then later 'Fanny Cradock Invites You To A Cheese and Wine Party' (parts 1, 2 and 3), but all of these are more factual and nowhere near as absurd. Having said that, Mademoiselle Lolita Saltina Cradock is an extraordinary name for a dog.

It's been over a decade since Jotunn or I have had a sanshi. The sanshi was invented by Mnki and resembles a samosa but takes the form of a toasted sandwich. In our twenties, we'd go on group trips and a huge quantity of them would be produced by Mnki when needed, and wolfed down in minutes.

Jotunn made three experimental changes to the recipe. The details are over on his blog, Toast etc, but in summary, he cooked the onion first as well as adding it raw at the end, he added a bit of cumin on top of the garam masala, and stirred a handful of red lentils into the mixture.

The two contrasting sauces to dip the sanshis into — one coriander and garlic and one tonkatsu — made a tasty and nostalgic tea time.

Update (2019-07-29): The next day, we had African peanut stew. I also had inexplicably forgotten to mention the excellent crumble Jotunn had prepared for my arrival.

Jamie is visiting and we both like chilli, so there was another chance to experiment with the recipe. He also makes chilli every week and we decided to go with his spice mix instead. It's simpler — two teaspoons of chilli powder, one teaspoon of cumin, teaspoon of paprika, and a quarter teaspoon of cinnamon. Apart from that, we used more tofu in bigger chunks, because I'd got a 450g pack by mistake. We also used five red peppers with seeds, since the recipe has been pretty bland in the past. Finally, to stop it being too watery, we left the lid off the slow cooker as it cooked for the final half hour. That helped.

The level of heat was good, and when you ate a spoonful, that burning feeling seemed only to come on about five seconds after putting it in your mouth. Weird. It also demonstrated how much of a difference the spice mix can make to the dish, so I think it's definitely worth playing around with the mix next time. We also felt there was too much tofu in too big chunks, and the chilli would be fine — and perhaps nicer — without it at all. Jamie thought the half kilo of mushrooms were enough to give the chilli its texture.

I had a go at making a guacamole. In a pestle and mortar, I smashed half a red onion, two jalapeño peppers, a bit of salt and a big handful of flat leaf parsley. I used parsley because Jamie is one of those people for whom — probably genetically — coriander tastes of soap. This is meant to form a nice uniform paste, but I got bored after ten minutes and mixed it with three mashed-up Hass avocados and six small and finely-chopped plum tomatoes. And yeah, no lime juice. It turned out okay, despite the underripe avocados, but I couldn't really taste the peppers, tomatoes or even the onions much. I think the flavours were in pretty poor balance maybe and the guacamole recipe needs a bit of work.

Jotunn has written with some notes on guacamole for me to include in the next iteration. 'I think key is that it be discrete ingredients bound together rather than very uniform paste. Also the avocados should be nice and ripe'. He includes a recipe involving a lot of limes and a lot of coriander, giving it a lot of freshness and acting as a foil for the chilli. There's also salt in this recipe which has been dissolved in the lime juice. The final tip is to mash the avocado with a potato masher.

✅ Success.

My sister doesn't like spicy food and asks for our weekly chilli to be made blander than usual. I do this by removing the seeds from the chilli peppers. She also usually hates the texture of mushrooms but she likes this chilli because I chop the mushrooms quite finely.

Anyway, In the spirit of improving the recipe, I wondered if there was any scope for experimenting with how sweet the chilli was, so I increased some of the sweeter ingredients a bit. In today's chilli there was three instead of two tablespoons of tomato purée, 50g of dark chocolate, and two bay leaves. It's not a very scientific experiment, though, because I only had two red onions today, and let it look for nine hours. The result was definitely an improvement on last week's, though none of us could really detect any sweetness really. I suppose the chocolate is actually there for bitterness.

I'm also now wondering about streamlining the preparation time and letting the slow cooker do some more of the work. I guess I don't need to fry the mushrooms beforehand and the roasted red peppers can go in with the tomatoes and beans to simplify things.

One week I should also try making my own guacamole to go with the chilli, because it looks easy and the result has got to be better than the stuff you get in the supermarket. Am I a hipster yet? It's just avocados, lime juice, coriander, jalapeños, tomatoes, onions and salt, all of which we get in for the chilli anyway.

✅ Needs tweaking.

I made the mushroom chilli but I added 200g of chopped kale and another tin of chopped tomatoes. Hannah got hungry and we dipped into the chilli after six-and-a-half hours, before the beans had cooked, let alone got a bit mushy. I don't think I'd put as much kale in again, though, even if I let it cook the full eight hours. There were just too many flavours maybe.

I've finally made a pot of mushroom and tofu chilli that I'm happy with. I didn't know that portobello mushrooms were the same species as chestnut, button and common mushrooms. The only difference between these is the maturity and colour — people liked the portobello mushroom because it was about the same size as a burger patty and could be used similarly. The name is just pure marketing.

Anyway, the chilli was lovely with a bit of grated solidified coconut derivative on top and a couple of chopped jalapeño peppers.

✅ Needs tweaking.

A kilogram bag of red onions had been in my fridge for a while, so I thought I'd try out another onion recipe. This time, chop up a kilogram of onions, mix with some oil — maybe I used 40ml — and cook on low for eight hours.

After this time, I added two and a half Braeburn apples, 100g of raisins and a tablespoon of cinnamon. I did think about adding a few cloves, because I like the flavour so much, but decided to leave that for another day. After stirring, cook on low for a futher four hours.

The result was much better. The apples were stewed and the raisins were plump. They both gave the mixture sweetness. The onions were still a bit crunchy, so next time I'd cook them on low for twelve hours before putting in the other ingredients for four. One tablespoon of cinnamon for a kilogram of onions is too much, so I'd also reduce this to one teaspoon as one of a mixture of spices instead.

❎ Unsuccessful.

I made the onions but this time with red onions, no vinegar or sugar, but two Cox apples chopped finely, 100g of raisins and 2 tsp of cinnamon, all added at the start. I stirred it a few times as it cooked. Cooking, the smell caused my nephew to gag at breakfast, but I quite liked it. Coming out, it looked like something from Gode Cookery.

The onions tasted a bit bitter. The raisins had long overcooked, the apples had been pulp for hours by this point, and the cinnamon flavour was absent. Next time I'll try adding the extras much later, e.g. at the 18-hour point, and adding some different spices (e.g. coriander) to make it a bit more multi-dimensional. I'd also go back to using brown onions next time. I think red onions are best used fresh.

In another experiment, I think I'll reduce the cooking time to half, just to see if I prefer them a bit less caramelised.

I went up to Yorkshire to visit my goddaughter and her dads. I've recently switched to a vegan diet, and they were all very supportive of that decision by cooking me amazing food all weekend. The dal with curried cauliflower was my favourite, but the mushroom risotto was also great.

Vegetarian hot pot and dumplings with butternut squash, spinach and root vegetables. Ralf appeared to like this. We found it needed a bit more stock, and the dumplings got better the more we left them in there. We extended the cooking time so that the dumplings would have an hour in the hot pot and we thought they were better for it.