Dinner With The Omnivore

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OK maybe a bit less rudimentary these days

OK maybe a bit less rudimentary these days

There’s nothing quite like being deprived of the basics to make you appreciate how splendid your life actually is despite all its little irritations, and after five months spent living in one room with no access to cooking facilities (don’t ask), my frankly rather rudimentary kitchen arrangements look positively professional.

The other side effect of living on a diet of chalet scraps plus whatever you can get together using only a fridge, a kettle and a penknife is that you never want to see an instant noodle, a piece of meat or a croissant ever again. By the end of the winter I was drooling over allrecipes and the BBC’s Good Food website the way 50-year-old men who live with their mothers surf porn sites An excess of meat and sugar has left me with an insatiable craving for fish and vegetables, to the extent where I may shortly need to be treated for the effects of asparagus overdose. (But what a way to go.)

A trawl through new and existing recipes in search of suitable veggie/fishy dishes turned up something cut out ages ago from a copy of The Week (must get round to renewing the subscription one of these days) and contributed by no less a person than Aung San Suu Kyi, Burmese dissident, political figure and general all-round bolshi person. Presumably the best part of 15 years spent under house arrest gave her plenty of time for cooking.

.... and accomplished curry chef, apparently.

…. and accomplished curry chef, apparently.

Contributing to cookbooks might seem a

bit of a frivolous pastime for someone involved in changing the world and receiving Nobel peace prizes for her efforts, but it seems she managed to fit it into her busy schedule, possibly because the book in question is ‘Share’, published under the auspices of charity Women for Women International, which fundraises for and offers training to women who have survived appalling experiences during wars in the likes of Bosnia, Afghanistan and Sudan.

I confess to not having bought the book as yet, though I probably will do so, because 1) it looks like a beautiful book, full of spiffy pictures and uplifting stories of survival against the odds; 2) it’s a very worthwhile and high-minded sort of charity which will give you a feeling of virtuous smugness as you click ‘add to basket’ on Amazon; and 3) Aung San Suu Kyi’s Burmese fish curry is bloody lovely. It’s also quite low calorie, should you be feeding anyone for whom that’s a consideration.

You will need: 300g white fish, cut into cubes; 2 tsp grounf turmeric; 2-3 red chilis; 100ml fish or veg stock; 2 tblsp fish sauce; ½ tsp paprika; 30g fresh coriander; 300g tiger prawns; 5 shallots; 5 garlic cloves; 2cm root ginger; 800g fresh tomatoes; lime or lime juice

Mix together turmeric, fish sauce and a splash of water to make a paste. Coat the fish and prawns with it and set aside to marinate for a bit. Meanwhile blend together the shallots, garlic, chillies and ginger.

Faffy onions - don't bother.

Faffy onions – don’t bother.

Fry the blitzed paste for a few minutes, add the paprika and cook for a bit, then put in the tomatoes and stock and bring to the boil. Add the prawns and cook for a couple of minutes, and then add the fish and carry on simmering until the prawns are pink and the fish just cooked. Stir in the coriander and season with lime juice and a bit more fish sauce to taste.

I admit to having tweaked this slightly, having forgotten what the prawns were for and used them in some fish cakes earlier on. Furthermore, I couldn’t be bothered with shallots, which seem to me to be nothng more than faffy onions, so I used a red onion intead. I also substituted a few dried chili flakes for actual chilis. However, none of this seemed to matter much, as the final result was such that this is now officially my favourite curry recipe, surpassing even Madhur Jaffrey’s rogan josh. Which is saying a lot.

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Preview of my next life.

I have noted before that the middle of the Alps is a foolish place for a fish-lover. In my next incarnation I shall get into sailing at an early age, and spend my summers on the Med, skippering yachts for wealthy holidaymakers while eating nothing but fresh fish and trousering the sort of fortune which will allow me to spend every winter snowboarding without the inconvenience of having to work. Why don’t they tell you about these options when they’re dishing out careers advice in school? Because they want you to have the same kind of boring crappy life they do, that’s why.

Anyway, the quest for acceptable fishy food continues to be reasonably successful, with the discovery of marinaded anchovy fillets on Casino’s deli counter, actual real kippers in Leclerc, and the possibilities offered by paella. Or pseudo-paella, if I’m honest, but you have to take what you can get this far inland.

The key to competent paella, I discover, is to remember that it is not risotto. Risotto is soggy and frankly rather uninspiring, whereas paella is drier and generally tastes of something. Fish, if we get it right. Cook it the way you would rice (ie twice as much water as rice, cook until the water disappears then put a lid on, turn the gas off and waut for 10 minutes). This means it takes about 20 minutes from start to finish, so if you want it full of chicken legs and other things which take longer than that, you have to cook them first. I discovered this the hard way and ended up with a sticky sludge of overcooked rice and undercooked chicken. I think we may well have eaten takeaway pizza that evening.

Risotto. Yes, it does look like dubious porridge with bits in.

The easiest way to obtain a decent fishy vibe without access to proper fish is to make liberal use of tinned tuna and smoked salmon, but I was aiming to avoid a rice-based version of Alpine Fish Pie, and besides, one of the attractions of paella is that it’s full of seafood. Frozen seafood clearly isn’t a patch on fresh stuff, but it works reasonably well as long as you cook it with a load of other things, and isn’t nearly so taseless as frozen white fish, which is a complete waste of money if you ask me.

Having discovered early on that I needed to pre-cook the chicken legs, I ditched them as an ingredient. Well, can you be bothered cooking dinner twice? No, me neither. I also ditched the white fish idea in short order (see above) and replaced it with salmon, which makes a better fist of surviving the freezing process. This is a long way off being authentic, but at least it tastes of fish.

Finally, a handful of big fat prawns complete with heads and whiskers adds yet more fishiness as well making the whole thing look more or less like real paella. I’d add a few mussels in shells for the same effect, but nowhere round here sells mussels other than in vac-packed moules marinieres form, and they’re always disappointing so I never bother.

So here it is, the final tweaked and tested Alpine Paella recipe. Ta-daaah!

Alpine Paella

You will need: about five cm of hot chorizo sausage; an onion; some frozen peas; frozen seafood mix; salmon steak; big fat prawns; paprika; paella rice.

Slice up the chorizo and fry it along with the onion and frozen peas. Chop up the salmon into chunks and add it along with the seafood and big prawns. Season with paprika and pepper, then sauté the lot for five minutes or so before adding the rice along with twice its own volume of water. Cook until all the water has disappeared, then turn the heat off, put a lid on the pan and leave to steam for 10 minutes.

I realise there is an irritatingly Jamie Oliveresque haphazardness about these instructions, what with the glaring lack of specific quantities of anything, but really it depends on how much of the stuff you want. I find that one salmon steak is enough for two, as is a whole onion, so I add enough of everything else for two as well and then eat it two days running. It reheats well in the oven, usual caveats regarding reheating rice without killing yourself. I’m sure you’ll all manage.

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Probably, given the number of zombie epics I watched last winter

The alpine winter diet of lard, cheese and beer is undeniably tasty, but it’s a bit hard on the waistline and probably isn’t doing vitamin levels any favours either. In fact if it wasn’t for the skiing and sunshine we’d all emerge in May looking like overfed maggots. Fortunately summer offers the chance to address these pressing health and fitness issues via swimming, cycling and not sitting on your fat arse all evening swilling wine and watching zombie movies.

The summer challenge then was to find appealing lunches which aren’t the seasonnaire sandwich, one of my favourite midday options, but a tad on the calorific side for someone aiming to become less porky, stuffed as it is with cheese, mayo and carbs. I did try fruit at one point, but it was a bit of a non-starter really as I don’t actually like it much in its most convenient forms. Bananas aren’t bad, and grapes, melons and strawberries always appeal, but standard stuff like apples or peaches just doesn’t do it for me unless it’s cooked. And since cooked fruit usually involves pies or those almond tart things you get in the patisseries, it’s not about to feature prominently on the diet and exercise menu.

But perusal of Casino’s tourist-oriented picnic shelves suggested that little boxed salad foods might well be the way forward. Not actually purchased from the supermarket, clearly, but their stock is certainly a useful source of ideas. And after minimal experimentation it transpired that salad in plastic tubs was indeed a winner. Plenty of variety, nice fresh food and appropriately summery. Pity the weather was anything but summery for most of the time, but you can’t have everything.

First favourite was the Indian chickpea salad which proved perfect salad-in-a-box material along with a hard boiled egg and a squeezy pack of apple compote (see, the cooked fruit solution) and I ate it for nearly a week before getting bored enough to branch out into alternatives. And many tasty alternatives there were:

Faux Greek Salad – pasta based, making it very faux indeed on the Greek front. Mix with spring onions, fresh and sun-dried tomatoes, sliced black olives and little bits of feta cheese, then drizzle with garlic oil. Not very much feta or it gets overwhelming, so buying it under oil in little jars turns out to be best value, despite the fact that it looks more expensive.

Rice ‘n’ beans – I didn’t eat much rice-based lunch despite the fact that it’s a favourite, as leaving it in your bag in an increasingly warm hut all morning is just asking for food poisoning really. But given July’s consistently arctic weather I reckoned I could probably get away with it. This one consists of white basmati rice and (you guessed it) pulses, my usual combo being chickpeas and lentils with chopped spring onions and a splodge of soy sauce. Works well with all kinds of pulses, and sweetcorn does the biz as well.

Brown rice & prawns – more lunchbox roulette, this time with brown basmati, prawns, spring onion, sliced gherkins, chopped capers and either cherry tomatoes or pineapple. Add chopped anchovy and Thai fish sauce for more fishiness. I think I ultimately preferred the tomato version, though pineapple worked quite well. It seems you can only buy it in huge tins, but as this gives you an excuse to have sweet and sour pork for dinner it can only be a plus.

Lentil salad – yes it’s pulses again. Gosh I’m such a healthy eco-freak. Mix of tinned puy lentils, spring onion, cucumber and cooked beetroot. I know the beet thing sounds slightly odd, but give it a go – you’ll be surprised.

Rice salad weather

Carrot vinaigrette – flagrantly stolen from the supermarket picnic repertoire, this one, and you wonder how they have the brass neck to charge what they do for a load of grated carrot covered in salad dressing. Fresh and tasty, and you can obviously try different dressings for a bit of variety. Adding raisins gives a bit of extra zing as well, assuming you like raisins.

Celeri remoulade – another supermarket picnic staple, but amazingly bland compared to the home made version. This one thanks to JC, who spent an entire afternoon perfecting the remoulade following a row with his boss over what should go in it. Turns out it tastes best made with three parts olive oil, ditto mayo, one part mustard, some capers and a minced garlic clove. Mix with grated celeriac, but add only just enough sauce to coat the veg. Improves for a day spent sitting in the fridge, so you can make it in advance and use it on days when you get up too late to spend time putting lunch together.

And finally ……

Random generic salad – for the end of the shopping week when you’re taking pot luck with the contents of the fridge. Any carb (rice, pasta, couscous, wheat) plus a bit of protein (chopped chicken, prawns, smoked salmon, pulses, cheese) and whatever vegetable matter is lying about (salad veggies, grated carrot, sweetcorn, gherkins, sundried tomatoes). Drizzle with flavoured oil (the stuff out of the feta jar is a good wheeze), soy, Worcester sauce, sweet chilli sauce, Thai fish sauce etc.

This being part of the annual effort to carry on fitting into the same jeans I didn’t venture into dressings based on mayo or creme fraiche and nor did I get too involved with cheese or bacon, but adding those options opens up a whole further world of salad possibility. I did accessorise a bit though, with hard boiled eggs prominent on the menu along with cereal bars, fruit compotes and the odd banana. I have to confess to being led into temptation by some Nutella muffins at one point as well, but I refuse to feel guilty about what I eat. Besides you can’t expect me to exercise iron willpower all of the time.

Mediterranean weather ....

Lulled into a false sense of security by a week on the Med in 30°C sunshine we stocked up on the old healthy salad options on the last shopping trip and looked forward to vitamin-packed summer-style nosh. Bad move. Our estival eating plans were promptly disrupted by rainfall, plummeting temperatures and snow above 1800m. Not that there’s any real reason why you can’t eat salad under those conditions, but it rather loses its appeal when the rain is hammering down outside and you’re seriously thinking of breaking out the heating again.

Still, having purchased the stuff we dutifully carried on eating it up until yesterday, when it got so parky I was reduced to lurking in a hot bath before hiding in the fleece I’ve been wearing all winter. It’s June, for God’s sake, what’s going on?

I refused to go out and spend more cash on extra food, so we were stuck with whatever was lying around the house, which as usual meant pasta and …….. something. Bit of a challenge, as there’s not much potential for pasta sauce in a load of lettuce and radishes. Apparently other people in this position generally just heat up a tin of tomatoes and stick them all over some spaghetti, but frankly I think salad would still sound more appealing even in the middle of January with a raging blizzard outside.

But fortunately my trusty Sainsbury pocket pasta book came to the rescue. I’ve recommended this tome before and I do so again. (Actually, looking at that post I discover that the weather played exactly the same trick on us last year. Doh.)

....... and spring in the Alps.

Basic tomato sauce

You will need: a can of chopped tomatoes; a carrot; an onion; a clove of garlic.

Chop the onion and garlic, and fry until soft. add the grated carrot, tinned tomatoes and a bit of water. Simmer until the onions and carrot are cooked through, then blitz with a hand blender.

And that’s it, tomato sauce. You can liven it up by using red wine rather than water, adding shredded fresh basil at the last minute, throwing in a handful of lardons or chopped mozzarella ……………. etc. Whatever sounds tasty. It also freezes very well, so you can have a supply of it hanging around for emergencies, and it’s even better with fresh tomatoes so it’s a good way of getting rid of a glut of those, should you find yourself with such a thing.

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Peace, love and meusli. Man.

Meusli has always had a rather beardy left wing vibe about it, the sort of worthy breakfast sandal-wearing vegan types might eat while reading Guardian supplement articles about women’s fair trade goat-weaving cooperatives in the Congo. Pity really, because if you believe what Wikipedia has to say about it, regular meusli consumption will probably make you immortal. Unfortunately Wikipedia is blatantly talking complete tosh on this occasion – “the presence of manganese in Muesli along with low saturated fats keeps your heart safe” indeed, what on earth is that supposed to mean? My heart will somehow turn aside large serrated knives just because I’ve had my meusli this morning? Excuse me if I don’t put that one to the test.

Meusli has moved gradually in from the health food fringe over the past 40 years or so with commercial brands like Alpen and Country Store and the rise of some kind of toasted crunchy cousin called granola. Which is all well and good but for the fact that they all seem to have more sugar in them than a packet of chocolate Frosties. I’m not about to get all paranoid about sugar consumption, but the fact is that I’m just not a big fan of the stuff, and I definitely don’t want it by the tablespoonful at breakfast.

So having sampled various over-sweetened cereal-and-seed combos, I am reduced to making my own meusli. Now how embarrassingly middle class hippie Guardianista is that? No, I’m not sitting here wearing eco-friendly Nepalese cotton trousers and a beard you could hide an endangered species in, honestly. We’ve even got one of those chavtastic huge flatscreen telly contraptions at the moment, though admittedly it’s not actually ours and for my money it could go back in its box and live in the attic until its owner reclaims it next winter. But it seems churlish to deny convalescing man the pleasures of Playstation, so I suppose it’s destined to dominate the living room all summer.

The big advantage of custom meusli making is that you can have exactly what you want in the stuff. Home meusli evangelists are inclined to bang on about how much cheaper it is, but I suspect they’re eating really very dull and politically correct breakfasts indeed and rejecting all the nice bits as being too bourgeois.

Wholefoods with a sense of humour - that's new.

The starting point for DIY meusli is either the cereal mix which health food shops sell as ‘meusli base’ or (my preferred option) uber-cheap supermarket own-brand meusli. This stuff has none of the luxury nice bits, but it does have a few extra odds and ends over the basic cereal mix and (where I get it from anyway) it’s actually cheaper. Start by emptying it into a big bowl.

You are now ready to embark on the customisation process. Add whatever you like in whichever proportions you please. Herewith a few suggestions:

Nuts: personally I really don’t like nuts in my meusli, though I’ll make an exception for flaked almonds. But nuts are definitely traditional, and remain popular. You mught want to look for pre-chopped ones though.

Pumpkin seeds: tasty addition, and one which livens up the appearance of your meusli, the rest of which tends to look a bit bland and generally oat-coloured. Mainly because it’s full of oats.

Sunflower seeds: also rather oat coloured, but another tasty addition. Get shelled ones, or you’ll be picking bits of shell out of your teeth all day and people will think you’ve been at the gerbil mix.

Linseeds: ‘good for you’ apparently (whatever that means) though they don’t taste of anything much. I’m told they have a laxative effect, so I wouldn’t go overboard with them if I were you. Not if you have to go anywhere after breakfast anyway.

Sesame seeds: lots of taste in these, especially the toasted ones, so you don’t want to add too many of them either or your whole brekkie will taste of burger bun.

Raisins: I know a lot of people aren’t big fans of raisins in meusli, but I think they’re essential. Any old raisins will do, but those fancy packets of mixed ones are nicest.

Tropical fruits: not that keen, I have to say, as I find it a bit chewy, but I can see the appeal. Mixed fruit bags usually give you pineapple, papaya, banana and coconut, along with a few more raisins for good measure.

Cranberries: very sour, but an interesting extra if used frugally.

Red fruits mix: haven’t tried this yet as I only spotted it in Casino this morning, but I will certainly be experimenting with it in the next batch. Looks promising.

Prunes: to be avoided. I tried this once and having chopped up a whole pack of the things I had to pick them all out again because the net effect just looked way too much like the contents of the cats’ litter tray. Too sticky and a bit of a faff.

A Yak. Bloody long walk from Tibet.

Goji berries: a ‘superfood’ allegedly, though I’m not likely to find out what’s super about them because they cost about 50€ for half a dozen. I assume this is because they are transported all the way from the Himalaya by yak pannier.

So there you have it. The original Swiss meusli was served with water or fruit juice, but as this sounds frankly minging I generally eat it with plain yoghurt or fromage blanc and possibly a bit of honey. I did experiment with fruit yoghurts and various flavours of drinking yoghurt, but for some reason both of them were quite horrible, so I went back to the fromage blanc thing.

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Oh all right, it's an axolotl not a fish. But I quite like them, so here he his.

I think may have discussed the importance of culinary compatibility in a relationship before. In fact I’m sure I have. I wonder if Ms Middleton has thoroughly vetted her prince for willingness to eat basic foodstuffs without complaining. Mind you, as a senior royal required to attend diplomatically cruical banquets in exotic locations, he has probably been trained from an early age to look enthusiastic when presented with chocolate-coated sea slug on a stick, so mere liver shouldn’t present him with a problem.

I can’t say I’ve eaten a vast deal of liver this winter, but given that someone else has been feeding the house man for the past five months, fish pie has featured heavily on the seasonal menu.

I first discovered the joys of fish pie when I lived in Southsea, round the corner from a fishmonger. We don’t see much in the way of fishmonging here, what with being about as far from the coast as you can get without ending up in Switzerland. This particular shop used to have a tray filled with fishy offcuts of various sorts and species, priced at something very affordable even for me and probably intended for the cat rather than for human consumption. It was, however, perfect for making fish pie, the whole point of which is to get together as many different sorts of fishiness as possible all at once.

Southsea. Arnold Schwarznegger used to live here, you know. No, really.

Living next to Portsmouth, fish pie was a cheap dining option, but in the Alps it’s rather a different story with fresh fish being limited and expensive, frozen stuff tasteles and expensive and …….. well that’s about it really. However, all is not lost because it’s possible to get your hands on little packets of smoked salmon offcuts at slightly less than eye-watering expense and when combined with tinned tuna this gives you a more than acceptably fishy vibe. It’s not quite the same as filling your pie with half a dozens sorts of fish and a handful of seafood, but nor does it involve an eight hour round trip to the coast and the nearest decent fishmonger.

Alpine Fish Pie

You will need: some smoked salmon; a tin of tuna; two hard boiled eggs; some capers; a bit of anchovy; mashed potato.

Sautee the salmon in a bit of butter than add tuna, chopped capers and anchovy (the anchovy isn’t essential but it adds extra fishiness, as does Thai fish cauce if you happen to have any). Add some flour and milk to thicken the mixture and season with pepper. Chop up the eggs and add them as well. Finally, turn the whole lot into an oven dish and spread the mashed potato on top, then bake at 180°C or so for about half an hour.

And voila fish pie, more or less. For some reason I always feel that this has to be eaten with peas, despite the fact that there are plenty of other vegetables which I like better than peas. I have no idea why this is the case.

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That'd be me then, clearly

Which tells you all what an old biddy I am. Grants, what are they, eh? Ah the golden age of university education, when degrees were difficult, beer was cheap and a bus ride across Sheffield cost tuppence.

Students are still poor though, on the whole, and among the useful things the experience taught us was that a) you can’t live on steaks and takeaway and still have enough money for beer even if it is cheap and b) it’s possible to eat perfectly well on a fiver a week. Or it was then at any rate – it’s probably more like £20 these days, but you get the general idea.

Actually I’m told that modern parents do their student offsprings’ shopping online at Ocado and have it all delivered to their immaculate flats, likewise purchased for them at parental expense. Either that or they pay a fortune for canteen swipe cards so that their delicate little babies can eat in residence cafés all term at hugely unnecessary expense. Where was I when the parents were handed out that I failed to get my paws on one of these drooling idiots with the bottomless pockets, I ask myself? Probably at the front of the queue I suppose, if I’m honest.

I take such stories with a pinch of salt really, since I can’t think of any reason why the average parent should have let its brains run out through its ears all of a sudden. Besides, they can’t all have an MP’s expense account, surely?

... or food? Hmmm, close call.

JC’s experience of student life was the standard one of prioritising beer over food and consequently his culinary specialities run to stodge, potatoes and substances chosen on a maximum calories for cash basis. He is the only person I know who makes bubble and squeak from scratch rather than leftovers (what leftovers?).

But there’s nothing wrong with basic student stodge. Baked spud and beans, spag bol and assorted things on toast still feature largely on the menu even today, mainly towards the end of interseason when things get a bit thin and the arrival of the party season at the most financially inconvenient time possible means that once again we’re all making that food vs beer calculation and at the same time trying to stuff 3000 calories a day just to maintain a sensible body temperature.

And thanks to higher education and our cruel and Scrooge-like parents, we manage it every year. God knows what the seasonnaires of the future are going to do – I don’t think Ocado deliver up here.

Tuna Pasta Thing

You will need: a can of tuna; a small tin of sweetcorn; a spring onion; some mayo; pasta of your choice (though it doesn’t work too well with spaghetti)

Cook the pasta. Meanwhile, mix everything else together in a bowl. Drain the pasta, return to the pan and add the contents of the bowl. Stir everything until the pasta is well coated with the tuna mixture.

If you’re feeling posh you can heat the bowls before you serve it. Alternatively, you could save on washing up and eat it straight from the pan, though I never stooped than low even as a student. I’d be prepared to bet JC did though – every time.

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Food for thought

“Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.” ― Orson Welles

Food by e-mail - takeaway for the modern age.

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