birthday bonanza

I have had a bit of a break over the past few weeks. Partly because I’ve felt a bit bored and demotivated with cooking for just myself, partly because I’ve had some things going on around me, and partly because I just haven’t felt like writing. I guess with a steady readership of two (you know who you are!) I can take that luxury without upsetting people.

But now I’m back and so with a bang. I have written up a new meal plan for the coming two weeks (and the plan is to keep deciding what to eat two weeks at a time) with five new recipes in it so far and I technically have five recipes for you in this post. That’s right, five. And one of them has three variations to it.

The company I work for offers each employee a complete health check once every three years. Because it’s my first year with the company, I was offered one this year. They did a blood test which checked all your blood levels, iron, glucose, the health of your liver, etc. etc. and then there was a follow-up with a doctor where you got to check your weight, BMI, muscle and fat (percentage), lung capacity and ‘age’, eye sight, hearing, EKG and more. It was really interesting and I was happy with most of my results. The doctor said I was very healthy and I had a higher muscle mass percentage than the average woman (who apparently lies within a range of 24-30%) but I would like to improve my fat mass. And that brings me back to food – so now I’m going to renew my efforts of making good, and preferably healthy, meals as well as trying to keep myself accountable through keeping track of what I eat. I might, however, try not to make 2-4 portions rather than 4-8 so that I don’t grow bored of what I’m eating – especially if it doesn’t turn out the way I thought it would.

But before we get to all that we need to look back at what was my birthday dinner party a little over a week ago. S and I had invited my oldest friend and her boyfriend over for dinner and they are such foodies. I was terrified lol! Definitely had some major performance anxiety going on.

Anyway, I knew I wanted to make a main in the slow cooker, because it saves time and space. I also knew I wanted something warming and wintery, and preferably a slow-cooked piece of meat, and as I was googling ‘slow cooker dinner party recipes’ something popped into my mind: beef/ox cheeks. I found a recipe for slow cooker beef cheeks in red wine and decided to pair it with a garlic mash potato recipe I had seen before but never tried.  Dessert was already decided – I definitely knew I wanted to make something with Nigella Lawson’s salted caramel sauce and I decided that something was going to be scooping the sauce into the middle of a chocolate fondant and hope for the best. (Not really though – I did two practice runs beforehand.)

Then there was only the starter left. I had looked at maybe making some pick and mix bruschetta style bites, but then S came and said why don’t we make gravlax? We decided on doing three versions; traditional dill, the beetroot and gin one from Christmas, and a citrus one he found online.  Both the starter and the dessert also worked in well with my ‘do-as-little-as-possible- while-they’re-here’ approach, since the salmon needed to be cured for three days and would be ready to slice upon their arrival, and the chocolate fondants could be made and kept in the fridge for up to 24 hours before baking. All I would really need to do once they were here was slice some salmon and bread, make mash potatoes, and put the fondants in the oven.

So from the top down, here are the recipes (including the beetroot gravlax – slightly modified). Unfortunately for the blog I didn’t take any pictures since it was a party after all, so you’ll have to make do with pictures of the leftovers in the case of the starter and main and the trial run for the dessert!


Traditional gravlax

350g fresh salmon

50 ml salt

50 ml sugar

50 ml chopped dill

a splash of water

Beetroot and gin

350g fresh salmon

50 ml salt

50 ml sugar

3 tbsp gin

1 medium beetroot

Citrus fruits

350g fresh salmon

50 ml salt

50 ml sugar

1 orange (zest only)

1 lemon (zest only)

1 lime (zest only)

a splash of water


Place the salmon in a plastic bag.

Mix salt and sugar and rub onto the fish.

Sprinkle a few drops of water (or gin in the beetroot and gin version) over the mix, then add the condiments for your chosen version (i.e. dill or beetroot or the citrus zest mix).

Put the fish in a plate or tray of some sort, skin-side up, and leave in the fridge for three days, turning once a day.


Slow cooked ox cheeks in red wine (6 servings)

3 tbsp olive oil

1.2kg beef/ox cheeks

1 onion

1 carrot

4 garlic cloves

1.5 tsp dried thyme

4 dried bay leaves

1 cup beef stock

1 bottle (750 ml) red wine

3 tsp salt

black pepper

carrots

mushrooms

pearl onions


If necessary, cut off any large bits of fatty membrane. Season the cheeks with 1 tsp salt and some pepper.

Heat 2 tbsp oil in a large pan and sear the cheeks. (I don’t usually sear my meat for the slow cooker, but this time I did, since it was a ‘fancier’ recipe.) Set aside on a plate and cover with foil.

Turn down the heat and add 1 tbsp oil. Sauté the onions, carrots and minced garlic for about 3 minutes, or until the onion has become translucent.

Add the onion mix to the slow cooker and place the meat on top.

Return the pan to the heat and pour in 500 ml wine. Leave to simmer for a minute, then pour into the slow cooker, including all the brown bits stuck to the bottom.

Add stock, thyme, bay leaves, 2 tsp salt, and some black pepper to the slow cooker, then cook for 6-8 hours.

When the cooking is finished, remove the cheeks from the slow cooker and discard the bay leaves.

Blend the sauce with a handheld mixer until smooth and add the remaining wine. Pour it all into a saucepan and leave to simmer for about 10 minutes, or until it has reduced enough for your liking. You can also add some cornstarch mixed with water as a thickening agent if you would like to.

At this stage, as I knew I was returning the meat and sauce to the slow cooker to keep warm, I also added some mushrooms, carrots and pearl onions.

You can also make this as a non-slow cooker recipe and the instructions for that can be found in the original recipe.


Garlic mashed potatoes (4-6 servings)

800g potatoes

250 ml cream

3 garlic cloves

85g parmesan


Cook the potatoes until soft.

Mince the garlic and add to a saucepan with just a touch of butter. Brown for a few seconds, then add cream and bring to simmer. Set aside.

Drain the potatoes then mash them and add the garlic cream and the parmesan, stirring to combine.

Season with salt and white pepper to taste.


Salted caramel sauce (6 servings)

50g butter

50g white sugar

50g brown sugar

50g syrup

125 ml cream

1 tsp sea salt


Melt butter, sugars and syrup in a heavy-based pan. Let simmer for about 3 minutes, stirring every now and then.

Add cream and salt and stir to mix. Remove from heat and leave to cool.


Chocolate fondant (4-6 servings)

100g dark chocolate (I used half 55% and half 70%)

100g butter

100g sugar

100g flour

2 eggs and 2 egg yolks

butter

cocoa powder


Brush your moulds with melted butter and place in the fridge to cool. Once cooled, repeat, then dust with cocoa powder. Set aside.

Divide chocolate and butter into small pieces and place in a water bath (a bowl on top of a simmering pot of water – but not touching the water). Stir until completely melted. Set aside to cool.

Whisk eggs, egg yolks and sugar to a thick, fluffy, white-ish mix. Fold in the flour, then the melted chocolate – one third at the time.

Pour the batter into the moulds.

If you do not want to make caramel filled ones, fill to about three quarters. Leave in the fridge for at least 10 minutes before baking.

If you do want to make caramel filled ones, fill to just under half, then place something in the middle to make a hole. I used egg cups wrapped in cling film, which was a bit sticky. Leave to cool for 10 minutes, then remove your objects and fill the hole with caramel sauce. Cover with more fondant mix (which has been kept outside the fridge) and make sure it goes all the way to the edge, not just covering the top. Leave to cool for another 10 minutes – at least.

Bake for 10-12 minutes at 200 degrees Celsius.


Notes:

The citrus salmon was quite sweet. I think halving the orange zest and upping the lemon and lime zest would be better.

Also, last time I made gravlax I used the 1:0.5 ratio where you have half the amount of salt to sugar. I thought that was too sweet, so this time I did 1:1.

I cooked my ox cheeks for 6 hours on low, because I knew they would be keeping warm, and as such ‘after-cooking’, for another 2 hours. If you’re going to eat yours at once, you might want to cook them for 7-8 hours instead.

For the mash, make sure the cream is really heated or the mash will get cold. I would also recommend seasoning it with salt and pepper.

For my dessert I made two batches of salted caramel sauce – one that I made the day before and left in the fridge overnight to solidify a bit and one that I made just before our guests came and left out in a sauce jug to cool. If you’re using the sauce as an actual sauce (i.e. not as a filling) I would recommend not putting it in the fridge, as I felt that it went too solid to pour properly then.


Definitely a good birthday dinner.

/t

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slow cooker mexican shredded beef burritos

When I worked in London we didn’t have a lot of nice lunch places around the office. Most often that meant having just a ready meal or sandwich from a local supermarket or something from the office restaurant (which was always a, shall we say, interesting experience…). But sometimes when the weather was nice and I didn’t feel stressed I would walk over to Embankment and treat myself. Some days that meant getting a Katsu curry at Wasabi, other days it meant getting a fully loaded Mexican Burrito from Wrap It Up!. The burritos were so good – huge and filled with shredded beef or chicken, rice, black beans, salad, cheese, guacamole and sour cream. Freshly wrapped up in foil, with the cheese melting with every step, I’d carry it back to the office and tuck in.

Lately I’ve felt a bit been-there-done-that with many of the slow cooker recipes I’ve been looking at since pretty much all I’ve had this autumn and winter have been soups and stews. I also had a real craving for Mexican (or European Mexican shall we say) food, and being in London over the weekend made me remember the cheesy, spicy burritos I sometimes had for lunch. So I went looking for slow cooker beef burrito recipes online and came about this Mexican shredded beef recipe. Often the pulled pork/shredded beef/chili recipes require lots of different ingredients that I don’t have or can’t that easily get hold of – especially since they’re often American. This required some spices I didn’t have at home but that I knew I could get at my local supermarket, so I decided to give it a go.

I don’t think it’s very often when you try and remake something you’ve had when eating out that the result exceeds your expectations, but this time it really did. It was exactly what I was craving and it really did feel like I was eating one of those Wrap It Up! burritos. I first had it for lunch, reheated in the microwave, with guacamole and when I bit into that first bite with the melted cheese and the spicy beef I knew I had found something good.

I should warn you though that this recipe makes a lot of beef ! And I mean a lot. Especially when you add rice, sweetcorn and beans like I did. I used 4 portions of rice, 200g sweetcorn and 380g (one box) ready to serve black beans. This mix is very beef-heavy, so if you want a more equal mix between your beef and the rest I would probably recommend using the same amount of rice, sweetcorn and black beans, but halving the beef (or cooking all of it but using half for something else). Unless you’re cooking for an army, in which case feel free to double the rice, sweetcorn and beans.

I would also recommend actually letting the sauce reduce down for at least 10-15 minutes, as it says in the original recipe. I didn’t have time to do that since I was doing the last bits in the morning before going to work, so mine only simmered for about 5 minutes. This unfortunately meant that the flavour of the sauce wasn’t as intense and there was way too much of it since burritos can’t be too liquid – or the tortilla will just become sloppy. Apart from that the result really was fantastic.


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Ingredients (many portions)

Spice Mix

1.5 tbsp chipotle powder

1 tbsp smoked paprika

1 tbsp oregano

1 tsp All Spice

1 tsp coriander powder

2 tsp garlic powder

1 tsp salt

black pepper

Beef

1 – 2 tbsp olive oil

1.5kg beef brisket

5 garlic cloves

1 onion

0.75 cup orange juice

2 tbsp lime juice

400g crushed tomatoes

500 ml beef stock

Burritos

4 portions long grained rice

200g sweetcorn

380g black beans (cooked/ready to serve)

grated cheese

soft tortillas

guacamole and/or sour cream


The original recipe recommends cutting the meat up into three similar-sized pieces, but I chose to keep mine in one large piece, since I’ve learnt my slow cooker seems to make the meat drier than some others.

Combine all the spices for the spice mix in a bowl, then sprinkle a few teaspoons over the beef and pat it in.

Heat the oil in a pan and brown the meat on high heat. Remove the meat from the pan and add to the slow cooker.

Fry the garlic and onion on medium heat until soft.

Add the orange juice and lime juice to the pan, then add the remaining spice mix.

Pour the contents into the slow cooker together with the chopped tomatoes and beef stock. Your beef should be mostly covered, but if it’s not – add water until it is.

Cook on low for 6-10 hours – the bigger the piece(s) of meat the longer the cooking time.

Remove the beef from the slow cooker and shred it with two forks. Set aside.

Pour the sauce into a pot. Simmer on the hob until thickened enough for your liking (at least 10-15 minutes), then pour as much as you like over the beef (though not all!).

To make my burritos:

Measure out four portions of long grained rice and cook according to the instructions.

Drain the black beans and rinse thoroughly.

Mix the rice, sweetcorn and beans into the beef.

Put a good-sized dollop of burrito filling in the middle of a tortilla. Top with as much cheese as you feel like, then fold it and wrap it up in foil.

Serve with guacamole and/or sour cream.


This is one meal I’ve made that I won’t grow tired of having both for lunch and for dinner several days in a row.

/t

beef stew with chili and chocolate (a slow cooker conversion)

So, as I mentioned in my how-to post, I converted a normal recipe to a slow cooker recipe for the first time this week!

Apart from the fact that I felt the stew was too liquid when it was done, I think it turned out very nice. When it had cooled in the fridge for a few hours the liquid had set a bit more, so it wasn’t as liquid as it was when I first took it off the heat. The flavour was definitely good (though more beefy than winey since I added more stock than wine) but the carrots were a bit too mushy. So I would recommend either adding them halfway through the cooking process or putting them in aluminium foil and laying them on top of the meat, mushrooms and liquid.

As I also said in the how-to post, I not only adapted this recipe from a regular one to a slow cooker one – I also had to adapt the ingredients slightly. My local supermarket doesn’t stock venison, so instead I got what we in Sweden call rostas, which is the inner muscle of the beef rump (basically the inner bit of the roast beef bit), and then I added mushrooms as well. I also didn’t use any coriander or chili powder, and bought tinned tomatoes with garlic rather than plain tinned tomatoes. Either way it turned out really good and served with mashed potatoes it’s great comfort food.


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Ingredients (6 portions)

1 kg beef (or venison if you have it at hand)

2 large carrots (ca 200-250g)

250g mushrooms

1 red chili

1 yellow onion

390g tinned tomatoes (with garlic if you wish)

2-300 ml beef stock (I used about 400 ml which felt like way too much)

250 ml red wine

1 tsp cumin

1 tsp thyme

1 cinnamon stick

3 tsp vegetable oil

40g dark chocolate (70%)

water + cornstarch


Chop up your onion and fry until golden in 1 tsp oil. Pour in 2 tsp oil into the slow cooker and add the onion.

Cut your beef into big-ish chunks and add to the slow cooker. If you wish you can sear them before putting them in the slow cooker but this time I didn’t have the energy to and I can’t say I noticed too much of a difference.

Cut up your carrots and mushrooms into similar sized pieces and add to the slow cooker. Alternatively; add the mushrooms to the slow cooker and keep the carrots aside until halfway through, or wrap the carrots in foil and set aside.

Chop up your chili and add to the slow cooker.

Add tomatoes, red wine, beef stock, cumin, thyme, and the cinnamon stick to the slow cooker. (If you have wrapped the carrots in foil, place them on top now.)

Cook on low for 6-8 hours.

If the stew is too liquid, add cornstarch to water until there are no more lumps then add to the stew and cook on high for 30 minutes.

Add chocolate and stir so it mixes in.

Serve with mashed potatoes, or boiled potatoes, or maybe even add potatoes to the stew? BBC also say that it’s really good as pie filling, but then you’ll want to make sure it’s not too liquid.


I know I often say so, but I’m definitely making this again. I might play around with it some more, but I’m pleasantly surprised with how this turned out, seeing as it was the first time I tried my hand at making a non-slow cooker recipe in the slow cooker!

/t

 

how to: convert recipes to slow cooker recipes

I tried my hand at converting a normal recipe for the slow cooker this week! I found this recipe for a spiced venison stew with chocolate on BBC Good Food, and thought it sounded really nice. I always wanted to try a stew or chili with chocolate – to see what kind of a difference it may make. I like dark chocolate with chili in it – and when I lived in Italy my favourite ice cream shop made an amazing chili chocolate ice cream – so the idea of that hint of chocolate in a hearty stew was intriguing. However, my local supermarket didn’t stock venison, so I had to go with beef instead.

Having experimented a little with my slow cooker so far (the three bean chili, a beef stew that turned out way too dry, two different batches of peanut butter shredded chicken, and a parsnip and apple soup that was more reminiscent of apple sauce) I’ve come to believe that mine is a bit stronger than may be usual. When I made the beef stew and the first batch of shredded chicken I followed the cooking time exactly and they both turned out really dry. For the second batch of chicken I took off 30 min of the lower estimate and it was still a bit dry. I don’t know if there’s any way that you can figure out what the heat is (instruction manual maybe) but since I was cooking beef I figured I’d be ok even if it was a little bit underdone.

Scouring the internet for how to convert recipes I found a number of articles that set out very similar tips. Essentially it seemed that your best bet is to take soups or stews since they’re often ‘slow cooked’ anyway and since they contain a good bit of liquid. Lifehacker provided me with a slow cooker conversion chart by One Good Thing by Jilliee, but like I said above I made my own adaptions to the cooking times.

Conventional recipe time    Slow cooker time on low     Slow cooker time on high

15-30 min                           4-6 hours                             2-3 hours

35-45 min                           6-8 hours                             3-4 hours

50 min – 3 hours               8-10 hours                           4-6 hours

My stew falls into the last category (about 2.5 hours) but my previous experience has shown that cooking the food on the low setting for the time specified as the high estimate on the high setting (i.e. cooking the stew on low for 6 hours in this case) may be the way to go. So this time I went with my gut.

There are also a few things they say you should think about in terms of the ingredients – the big thing being the liquid. If your recipe is a soup or stew, or something else that already has liquid in it, the tip is to reduce the liquid by half. If your original recipe doesn’t have any liquid (or sauce) in it you should instead add 100-125 ml water to it – to create the steam needed for the slow cooker to reach its cooking temperature.

As for meat and vegetables, the general tip is to brown/sear any meat – unless you want to shred it – and seafood going in the pot. Obviously you don’t have to sear the meat, but they say it enhances the flavour and it helps in that it removes some of the excess fat which otherwise will just end up in your broth. Onions and garlic on the other hand should apparently always be browned first, or it will be too strong in flavour.

I like my vegetables with a bit of a bite still in them, and have found that even on the low setting, 6 hours in a slow cooker does mushy things to them. Most of the tips I read online said that hard vegetables like carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, swede, parsnips, etc. can go in right at the beginning, but I would say that if you’re able to (i.e. you’re not cooking it overnight or while you’re at work) it’s nicer to add your vegetables halfway through. Softer vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, peas, etc. should always be added nearer the end, or they’ll disintegrate in the stew. Another tip on the root vegetables (if you have to add them at the beginning) is to wrap them in foil and place on top of the beef, and then stir them in when the cooking time is over. This way they’ll stay a little bit firmer.

I haven’t yet tried a recipe containing dairy products or rice or pasta so I can’t comment on the next tips, but apparently any dairy products – milk, cheese or other – should be added in the last 30-60 minutes of cooking, and rice and pasta should be parboiled and added at the end – with just enough time left to heat through.

If your recipe calls for a thickening agent to be added to the sauce/broth, wait until the end. My tip (based on what I’ve done with my other stew) would be to reduce the cooking time by 30-45 minutes. Once finished cooking, combine cornstarch and water  until no lumps remain(the quantities vary but a good basis is 4 tbsp water and 2 tbsp cornstarch) and add to the slow cooker. Cook on high for 30 minutes. Another option is to remove the broth/sauce from the slow cooker and reduce it on the hob (stove in American), or to simply remove the lid on the slow cooker and cook on high for 30 min. I haven’t tried the last way, but the cornstarch approach is tried in tested in many regular recipes, so I’ll probably keep using that.

When I was doing my conversion prep I read somewhere that the liquid in your recipe should still cover your meat and vegetables completely. When I had halved my wine and beef stock it was nowhere near covering everything, so I added the other half of the stock to make up the full amount. However, when the stew was done, there was then way too much liquid, and even reducing it on the hob with added cornstarch mix didn’t make it thick enough in time for me to pop to work this morning. So I think I should have maybe stuck with the halving of the liquid rule. (Also, adding more beef stock compared to the wine will have changed the flavour of the stew compared to the original recipe – for better or worse I don’t know.)

Either way I’m going to keep experimenting with my sloow cooker until we’re best friends and I know all its secrets, likes and dislikes. And I’ll post my adapted recipe for the stew tomorrow or Thursday.

/t

three bean chili with sweet potato (my first slow cooker recipe!)

I’m so tired today. It’s been a long week and I haven’t been sleeping very well most nights. I’m pretty certain I’ve pulled/strained my left chest muscle, so all week I’ve been waking up during the nights because I’ve moved and it has hurt.

It must have been during boxing last Tuesday that I did it, but I first properly felt it on Thursday when I did yoga. Then after a day of carrying heavy boxes around the office, it really started hurting on Saturday. On Sunday it was so bad certain movements made me feel like crying. Since then it’s gotten a bit better – the pain is not as sharp now, it’s a duller kind of pain, but sometimes it still surprises me how much it hurts. Like when I sneezed yesterday and thought I was going to cry. On top of this I’m of course getting a cold – at a time where I can’t sneeze, cough, or blow my nose without being in pain.

In addition to this, I slept really badly both last night (pain) and the night between Wednesday and Thursday when I woke up at 1am, 4am, 5am and 6am, thinking I’d overslept each time. So it wasn’t just the waking up and rolling over in bed, it was the waking up with your heart jumping out of your chest because you thought you were running late (and then trying to roll around without incurring that still somewhat shooting pain in my chest muscle).

So it hasn’t been a great week. I also haven’t been to the gym since Thursday’s yoga, and I don’t know how much I’ll be able to do next week either. You don’t really realise just how much you use/tense your chest muscles in your everyday life until it starts hurting when you do it – just getting up from the sofa, turning around in bed, or laughing has become something painful. I’m going to be really careful about the gym though, because we have a conference with work next weekend at a ski resort in the Alps and I’m not planning to miss out on the skiing.

Anyway, I’m long overdue on this, but I’m going to post the three bean chili recipe that was my first slow cooker attempt! I found it online somewhere where it was a recipe for three bean chili with pumpkin. I’m not overly keen on pumpkin though (and the recipe called for tinned pumpkin which I doubt I’d be able to find in my local supermarket) so I decided to swap it out for sweet potato. I think it turned out nice, but the first portion didn’t give me that ‘wow’ feeling I had hoped for. I then added frozen sweetcorn to my remaining portions and that upped the game a lot. So I think when I make this again I will skip out on the sweet potatoes and instead add sweetcorn (after the chili has cooked for the prescribed time).


Ingredients (6 portions)

2 tbsp olive oil

1 yellow onion (approx. 150g)

4 cloves of garlic

1 red pepper

425g chickpeas

425g kidney beans

425g black beans

425g sweet potato

425g tinned tomatoes (crushed or passata)

2.5 cups beef stock

2 tsp oregano

1.5 tsp chili flakes

1.5 tsp cumin

1 tsp smoked paprika

0.5 tsp sea salt


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Fry the onion in 1 tbsp oil until translucent. Add the garlic and fry for another few minutes.

Add 1 tbsp oil to the slow cooker, then add all of the remaining ingredients.

Cook on low for 7-8 hours.

It really can’t be simpler.


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Next time, however, I’ll try:

2 tbsp olive oil

1 yellow onion (approx.. 150g)

4 cloves of garlic

2-3 red peppers

425g chickpeas

425g kidney beans

425g black beans

425g tinned tomatoes (crushed or passata)

500g sweetcorn (add after cooking)

2.5 cups beef stock

2 tsp oregano

1.5 tsp chili flakes

1.5 tsp cumin

1 tsp smoked paprika

0.5 tsp sea salt

Also, this obviously isn’t vegetarian because it has beef stock in it, but if you swap the beef stock for vegetable stock you’re good to go. I just prefer the slightly heartier taste I feel like the chili gets with beef stock.

/t