Two modern(ish) ways with leftovers: ratatouille butternut squash and courgetti

I read a lot of articles and books on food history and how changes in technology change our relationship with eating and the process of cooking itself. Looking back at the evolution of kitchen technology can result in quite a jolt – it’s fascinating to see how much of what we think of as our culinary culture is the product of technological change, and how much of what we consider tradition is actually relatively modern. One such ‘tradition’ is that of the reheating and re-eating of ‘leftovers’. While uneaten prepared food is likely to be as old as human beings’ relationship with the cooking process itself (unless our caveman ancestors were really excellent at judging portions of mammoth), the concept of ‘leftovers’ – a prepared meal served again and again, in the same form, until it’s done – is much newer, and is tied to the history of refrigeration and, more importantly, the arrival of fridges into the family home.

Prior to their introduction, the concept of ‘leftover’ food appearing on the plate in more or less the same format didn’t exist as such – it was all simply treated as ingredients, continuously reworked and reformed into new dishes. A a roast slab of beef or lamb would be diced into a fine mince, mixed with the leftover gravy and some vegetables, and baked with a topping (and indeed lining) of mashed potato to make a cottage or shepherd’s pie. The pies we make now, using fresh raw mince which is cooked specially, is much more modern. Cooked meat chopped fine formed the basis of many a dish, most of them quite similar: rissoles (breaded patties), cutlets (patties formed into a shape supposedly resembling an actual cutlet), and even something called ‘beef olives’ – thin slices of beef wrapped around vegetables, covered in stock or broth and cooked for an unfathomably long time.

Reworking leftover bits and pieces of food has the advantage of staving off the extreme boredom that can result when eating, say, the same bowlful of carrot soup night after night, especially if the dish you made isn’t something that necessarily gets better with time. I don’t own a freezer, so when I make a dish that yields a lot of servings, I unfortunately don’t have the satisfying option of popping it into a neat labelled box and stowing it away for busier days. A while ago, I made a large portion of ratatouille from a slimming cookbook. I think my liking for ratatouille is a bit more theoretical than actual – I don’t like cooked fresh tomatoes, for example – and calorie-controlled recipes tend to bulk up on watery courgettes rather than delicious, melting, oil-absorbing aubergine. Safe to say, my liking for the recipe was moderate, but there were at least four more portions in the pot after dinner. I served it up in two relatively simple new ways, one on a working night and one on a Friday night.

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Firstly, with courgetti. Here, doubtless, some people may already be turning away in faint disgust. The courgetti backlash is commencing in earnest at the moment. Spiralised vegetables have come to symbolise the clean eating movement, so it’s unsurprising that, as we enter the moment where the media is turning against clean eating as rapidly as it embraced itrapidly as it embraced it, the vegetable noodle has become severely castigated. I’ve seen them described as tasteless, bland, boring and deficient in terms of the ‘energy’ they offer. And yet I persist in quite liking courgetti. Maybe it’s because my interest in acquiring a spiraliser to make vegetable noodles predates the clean eating movement by a good number of years, ever since I saw a post on Chowhound about daikon noodles. I thought the idea was fun and added some interest, the opportunity for innovation and fun textural contrasts, but back then acquiring a spiraliser was more complicated and expensive than it is now; the Lurch model I wanted was perennially out of stock on Amazon and cost about a third more than they do now (demand and supply, right there). And now that spiralising vegetables is easy, the noodles themselves represent everything about a food culture gone wrong; they mean fear – of gluten, pleasure, wheat, fat, abandon, gluttony.

Still, let’s not get hung up on what food symbolises. I still like them and yes, courgette is less energy-dense than spaghetti, so eating it carved into noodles can be helpful if you’re monitoring your calorie intake, which I try to be conscious of. There, I said it. So, the day after I made the fateful never-ending pot of ratatouille, I spiralised two courgettes into thin, satisfyingly long noodles, reheated the ratatouille with an addition splash or two of water (in addition to not having a freezer, I do not own a microwave), and then dropped in the courgetti to cook and lose their raw edge in the sauce for a couple of minutes. I think this is key with vegetable noodles: no matter how much people may try to convince me otherwise, the idea of eating raw courgette rarely appeals.

So the nice thing about this was that it was very quick: slizzing the courgetti into noodles, warming up the ratatouille and cooking the vegetable strips was actually quicker than boiling up spaghetti would have been, and although it does then require washing up the spiraliser or julienne peeler used, this is no worse, to me, than washing up the sieve I use to drain pasta, which always gets gunged up with the thick, starchy pasta cooking water.

I served this up with the ubiquitous clean-eating favourite, the avocado, and – less celebrated among the clean eating who walk among us – soft goat’s cheese (I think Lidl’s is very good but also like the one from Sainsbury’s). I enjoyed it a lot.

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Secondly, baked into the centre of a halved butternut squash. This is inspired by a recipe by Lorraine Pascale. In her book ‘Eating Well Made Easy’‘Eating Well Made Easy’ she serves a sort of proto-chilli con carne with avocado and cheese inside a halved butternut squash. While I’m not entirely convinced by Pascale’s enrolment at the somewhat dubious Institute for Integrative Nutrition, I thought the recipe looked good and I was inspired to try something similar.

I bought a quite small butternut squash (as you can see above, the squash I used was a little smaller than a dinner plate; although dinner plates can, these days, be huge, the one in the picture is a modestly-sized Denby plate), cut in half vertically and scooped out the seeds in the cavity. I then slashed the flesh with a small sharp knife, cutting about 1cm deep and rubbed it with some oil and seasoning before baking for just under an hour in a preheated 200C oven. Once the squash was tender, I piled in the remaining ratatoutille in the squash cavities and baked it for about ten minutes (to heat through) before topping with grated Parmesan – Emmental would be great here too, because it melts beautifully in delicious, gooey, molten, appetising strings. The cheese-topped squash was returned to the oven to allow the Parmesan to melt. The resulting dish was served with a dollop of creme fraiche – somehow the addition of cool, tangy lactic fat offsets the fat from the cheese and provides a good contrast to the vegetables and starchy squash.

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Ordinary things: a lamb stew, without a story

I’ve been thinking a lot about ordinariness recently. I was recently writing a spontaneous, off-the-cuff piece about being an ordinary person living an unremarkable life which descended into a strangely anguished cri de coeur that surprised me with its sincerity and its turbulent momentum. But it was also self-indulgent and first-world-problem-ish in a way that was embarrassing to read in the cold light of day, and I decided to keep it private. In a way the writing of it was sufficient for me to consider and reflect without needing it mirrored back at me through the lens of blogging or social media.

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Lamb stew at my dinner table. Overhead lighting, photo taken at night, because that’s how it rolls

But I also think about ordinariness in the context of food, and food writing, too. I read a lot of beautifully written cookbooks, memoirs, blogs and articles where writers describe their lives – especially their childhoods – as marked by distinctive food experiences, memories, and culinary comings of age. Or I will read an evocative and heartfelt piece about a lesser-known cuisine, and get a powerful sense of a heritage being actively preserved.

Like everyone, I have a history when it comes to food and eating, but it’s often a very prosaic one. I was a painfully fussy eater as a child, the kind who causes great anguish (or at least additional work) for parents, and for many years basically ate steamed cauliflower in bechamel, spaghetti with garlic and olive oil, and cheese and tomato sandwiches. I grew up in Singapore, a foodie hotbed, but for most of my childhood I was equally repulsed by hawker food, with its lingering smells of belacan (fermented fish paste; it smells stronger than fish sauce), and the local wet markets, with the watery floors and strong scent of raw meat mingling with durian. I came round to Indian food earliest, after many years of rejecting the fragrant heat of chillies, but an attempt at an authentic (albeit vegetarian Buddhist) Chinese meal made me tearful well into my teens. In my late teens I became interested in cooking and started a food blog (Musings on Dinner is, I think, my second or third); my palate broadened because I wanted to cook new things. Even today I find myself discovering new things to enjoy simply because I thought that I should really get round to trying this or that recipe.

This lamb stew is a good example of ordinary cooking. The recipe isn’t dredged from childhood or inspired by a favoured restaurant dish: like so many things I invent, it’s based on what I happen to have in the cupboards and fridge that I would like to see the back of. To this end: the remains of the diced lamb I bought in excessive quantities because I could only find a double-sized pack at the supermarket; the last of the celery; the tomatoes which had been lingering in the fruit bowl and were past their best for eating out of hand; the bag of new potatoes which were threatening to sprout angry and green; the parsley which, ignored at the back of the fridge, was wilting to show her displeasure. I added the spices because I like them, they go well with lamb and they are always in my house.

Continue reading “Ordinary things: a lamb stew, without a story”

Something I threw together: spiced red bean stew

This recipe is for a dish I threw together at the weekend. We’d had half a bag of red kidney beans sitting in the cupboard for about a hundred years, and I decided the time was right to use them up – for whatever reason I’m itching to clear out cupboards and declutter. I soaked them a few days before (I store the soaked beans in the fridge until ready to cook) and, using various bits in the cupboard and fridge, I threw together a richly spiced, juicy, tomato-tinged red bean stew. It wasn’t going to make it into the blog – since it really was just a spontaneous, on-the-fly meal – until my boyfriend suggested it.

Spontaneous bean stew - I'd already started eating when I took the photo
Spontaneous bean stew – I’d already started eating when I took the photo

“This is amazing!” he said (it is really good – hearty and flavourful). When I told him it was my own recipe, he insisted I blog it: “The baking challenge is fine, but you can find those recipes somewhere else. You can’t find this one anywhere, since it’s yours!” He added that he thought it might be useful for other people putting together a meal based on storecupboard staples. So, I hope it is.

You can serve this with all sorts of extras - pictured with flatbreads (not homemade) and cottage cheese
You can serve this with all sorts of extras – pictured with flatbreads (not homemade) and cottage cheese

This recipe draws on Tex-Mex flavours: the earthiness of cumin, and heat, sweetness and smokiness from two types of paprika and the fresh red pepper. One you have this template in your head to draw on, you could vary it in all kinds of ways: using different beans – black beans would be great if going down the Tex-Mex route – or adding more, or different, vegetables, are the most obvious. You could make it fiery with chilli and add ground meat. But you could also gently shift the recipe’s geographical focus with some other adjustments:

  • dial down the paprika, add grated fresh ginger, a teaspoon of turmeric and sprinkle with chopped fresh coriander at the end, and it would become an Indian-inspired, not-quite dhal, for example (if going down the Indian route you could substitute various lentils for the beans, as well. I’ve made a version of this using urad dhal).Serve with naan bread or steamed rice.
  • To make something more Italian-inspired, use cannellini or butter beans, add two chopped carrots and two chopped celery sticks to the onions, and omit the dried herbs. Chop through some fresh parsley or basil and stir through some lemon juice at the end and serve with parmesan.
  • If you feel inspired by the flavours of Morocco, use chickpeas and add one or two chopped carrots to the onions. If you have any preserved lemons, chop one up and add it to the pot, and stir through some lemon juice at the end. Serve with couscous.

The above suggestions might not be strictly authentic (hence my careful use of the word ‘inspired’), but using these flavour profiles will enable you to put together a dinner based on almost any dried or tinned pulses you may have.

I use a lot of spices in this recipe, because I definitely prefer strong flavours, and I think the starchy, substantial red beans can take a lot of flavour. If you’re baulking at the idea of throwing in spices by the tablespoon, by all means reduce the amounts.

Continue reading “Something I threw together: spiced red bean stew”

RECIPE: (frugal) leftover sausage tortilla

Cooking magazines and newspaper supplements often offer a series of recipes around the theme of frugality. They can be cheap meals (the kind featuring beans and lentils) or promise inventive twists to make leftovers more appealing. The recipe below, for a sausage tortilla, is of the latter kind.

The finished product.

This recipe really suited my needs because I like to cook sausages a la Nigella, that is, in the oven. It’s convenient, hands free, less greasy than on the hob and requires less tending. She recommends 40 minutes at 200C, turning them halfway through. The only problem is that I’m only cooking for myself and it’s not very economical to switch on the oven and have it powering on for two sausages. Often I get around this by roasting sweet potatoes alongside for a starchy, simple dinner. This recipe allowed me to cook a whole packet in one easy go and still have something interesting to eat the next day.I used chorizo-style fresh sausages (they are available in Tesco alongside the venison and leek and apple and other exotic flavours).

I halved the original recipe, somewhat, so here’s how I made it.

Sausage, onion and potato tortilla
Slightly modified from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstal

1 TBS olive oil
1 onion, peeled and finely sliced
4 thin, cooked, fresh chorizo-style sausages
around 250g cooked potato, thickly sliced. Mine was unpeeled. (NB I microwaved mine till cooked as I didn’t have any cooked knocking about. It was about 230-250g weighed raw)
4 eggs
Salt and pepper

1) In an ovenproof frying pan (in my case a cast-iron skillet), heat the oil. Add the onion and sweat down for 15 – 20 minutes until soft.

2) Stir in the sausage and potato for a few minutes so they heat through.

3) Preheat the grill on medium

4) Lower the heat on the stove. Beat the eggs, season (be careful about adding salt as the sausages are salty, but you do need a little) and add to the pan. Tilt the pan around to get the layer of egg even but do not stir. Cook gently until the egg is about two-thirds set, with a layer of wet egg on the top

5) Transfer to the grill and cook for five minutes or so until set on top.

I suppose this would serve two or three people if you served it with a salad and some tomatoes. I ate the whole thing on my own…