I’ve thought a number of times about sharing some of the tips I’ve picked up or worked out during my many years cooking food. I sometimes pass them on in separate posts but thought it might be fun – and hopefully helpful! – to share in the occasional special post. So … here are the first 10!
I make moussaka a lot; it’s one of my family’s favourites. I first made it back in the late 70s and at that time all recipes told you to fry the aubergine slices in oil. Of course there’s nothing as thirsty as an aubergine within sight of some nice olive oil; I used to get through loads of the stuff and then the end result (despite draining the slices on kitchen towel) was quite oily. Then a few years ago I hit on the idea of brushing the slices with oil using a pastry brush, then griddling them. It’s so much easier and the end result is pleasingly less oily. You don’t need to be making moussaka – griddle slices with other vegetables, like courgettes, peppers, fennel slices, onion slices, for a nice mixed vegetable grill. See this recipe: click here.
Whilst on the subject of moussaka, I always make a couple of little individual ones for the freezer. I love moussaka but it’s a bit of a mission making it from scratch so I aways make enough to layer up 2 little dishes as well as the main big one. It’s great to pull one out of my freezer another night for a ‘ready-made’ supper. You need to defrost before cooking.
Roasting peppers can be quite a macho thing – I’m not being sexist here, I’m including all cooks – with barbecues and flames on the hob and quite a lot of drama, not to mention risk of fire in the kitchen. There really is a much easier route: place your peppers on the shelf of a hot oven (220C/Fan 200/Gas 7) for about 15-20 minutes and when they start to blacken a bit and the skins break open, very carefully (with an oven glove) transfer them to a freezer bag. Do the bag up and leave for a few minutes. Once cool enough to handle, the skins will peel away very easily (see also this recipe).
Freezing Ice Cream
There are lots of ice cream recipes on the blog – just look at the Recipes section and you’ll find a separate ice cream & sorbet category. I love making ice cream but homemade ice cream generally freezes quite hard so you need to take it out for a few minutes before serving to soften a bit. Now (Health & Safety message!) it’s not a good idea to do this too often. Many years ago I had one of my worst experiences of food poisoning from doing just this (a tub of bought ice cream back then, I remember), taking it out a few times and then by the end portion … disaster! So … now I freeze ice cream in 2 or 3 smaller containers to get over this problem and can more or less take out just what I need.
I haven’t changed my mind about bought stock cubes since I wrote this post back in 2011. So I always try to have some homemade in the freezer. I’ve taken to freezing quantities of about 250ml/½ pint in a freezer bag to take out to make risotto, as I make risotto a lot. Just run the bag under cold water to ease it away from the lump of iced stock, tip into a saucepan and slowly bring to the boil. I also make a number of stock ice cubes. You want a tray with reasonable-sized cubes. Just pour the cold stock (cool in fridge for a while first) into the ice cube tray and when they’re frozen, tip out into a freezer bag (don’t forget to date it – they should be used within a month or two). Then you have ready-made stock cubes for sauces and gravies and can take out just one or two or three, whatever you need and pop it straight into whatever you’re cooking and it will soon defrost. You can also use them for soup but don’t then freeze the soup – use straight away. The stock should never be used in something you intend to freeze.
Now I made some very lovely croûtons recently for my Caesar Salad in a more orthodox manner, and you can also fry bread cubes in oil. But when I’m in a hurry and maybe just want to throw a few croûtons into a bowl of soup at lunchtime (and grate over a generous shower of Parmesan) or to bulk out a simple salad, I do it this way: cut a nice thick slice of bread from (preferably) a lovely sourdough loaf and pop it in the toaster. When nicely brown lift out, drizzle over some olive oil, maybe using a pastry brush to cover it all, then cut into cubes. Instant croûtons!
Pine Nuts – storing
All nuts will go rancid after a time if you keep them too long but pine nuts have a high oil content which means they go off quite quickly. The thing to do is keep them in the fridge! Once you’ve opened the packet, store in an airtight jar at the top of your fridge and they’ll keep for a month or two. I use pine nuts a lot in cooking so always like to have them on hand.
Freddie’s Tomato Sauce
My little grandson loves pasta and tomato sauce – and ragù, and olives, and ice cream! I’ve taken to making a very simple tomato sauce to freeze in Freddie-sized portions to have on hand if I’m ever looking after him at a meal time. Fry a finely sliced shallot in a little olive oil, when it’s soft, tip in 1 tin (400g) chopped tomatoes. Season a little (yes I know you shouldn’t do it for little kids but he eats the same as us usually and a little sea salt and black pepper is fine; and a pinch of sugar to counteract the acidity), stir, bring to a simmer, turn down the heat, put a lid on and cook very gently for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and use a hand blender to make a smooth sauce – this wraps itself beautifully around penne pasta! Freeze in 4 portions in little Freddie-sized pots. Cool in fridge then transfer to freezer. When you need to feed a child (or even an adult, although they may want 2 portions), just take one from the freezer, hold under a running tap to loosen the frozen lump of sauce in the pot, then pop it out into a small saucepan. Heat gently to defrost and warm through; cook some pasta at the same time and soon you have a simple meal to feed a hungry child. Oh and grate some Parmesan over the top too!
I cook a lot of middle eastern and Ottolenghi-type food so have become a dab hand at dealing with pomegranates. I have to admit the idea originally came from Jamie Oliver. To get those seeds out, cut the pomegranate in half, hold it over a sieve which you’ve sat on top of a bowl, then gently bash the outside of the pomegranate with a rolling pin. Pomegranate seeds will start popping out into the sieve. Once the fruit is breaking up a bit, it’s then easier to gently pull it apart to remove the rest of the seeds. Be careful not to let the little hard bits of pith surrounding the seeds go into the sieve – or pick them out – and juice will collect in the bottom of the bowl. You can either drink this or add it to any dressing you’re making.
Olive Oil & Lemon Juice
I’m not sure if this is an Italian idea or not … but wherever it came from, for years I’ve dressed simply cooked vegetables like spinach and broccoli, even peas, with olive oil and lemon juice. Just put your vegetable on the serving plate and drizzle over a little extra virgin olive oil, followed by a squeeze of lemon juice. Believe me, it transforms any veg into something wonderful!
The problem isn’t so much the chopping as what’s left on your fingers. Years ago when I wore contact lenses it was a serious hazard but anyone could without thinking rub their eye or brush something away near their eyes … and, ouch!! Very nasty. And just washing your hands doesn’t do the job; the fingers stay chilli-ed for some time. So, a long time ago I decided to wear those thin disposable vinyl gloves you can find in packs in supermarkets. They’re really handy not just for chillis but if you’ve a cut on your hand; better to use them to make things with fresh meat like kofte or beef burgers.
I expect you may know some or even all of these tips, but hopefully they will be useful to someone! It was fun putting it together and I’m going to try to write down things as they come to me … sometimes you don’t know you have a tip until you’re using it!!