Caramelised onions and a wedding anniversary.

I’m very fond of November as a month… I love the dark nights because it means when I get in that I put the lights on and the place seems to glow making it seem like a warm cocoon; I make lovely, comforting food that soothes us both, no matter how stressful a day we have had at work; it’s getting close to Christmas so the excitement is building… but it’s not close enough to terrify me because I haven’t done the shopping. But the best thing of all is that in November we have our wedding anniversary.

We got married on Guy Fawkes night and the week leading up to and the week afterwards the night skies are filled with fireworks. It’s like a city wide celebration, just for us. In 1605 a law was passed, The Observance of 5th November Act, that called for a public, annual thanksgiving that the treasonous plot failed.

I have to wonder that anyone would think we would need a law to make us celebrate anything, as the Great British public will have a party at the drop of a hat, but there you go. Not wishing to be law breakers, we all join in and enjoy ourselves. It seemed to us to be a great day to get married, too.

We got married, in the late afternoon,  at Lumley Castle , near Durham, in the far north of England,one of  the most beautiful and romantic places in the world to have your wedding. There were fireworks going off outside as the speeches were taking place and the whole place had a magical and special air. The castle staff did everything to make our day perfect… and it was. We laughed as we exchanged our wedding vows – so much that the cermony stopped for a while as the giggles took hold of us all – and we carried on laughing for the rest of the evening.

Most of our wedding photographs show people, giggling helplessly. That set the tone for our marriage, I think.

Anyway, here we are, a few years on, still laughing and still celebrating. Last year I made us roast vegetables for our anniversary supper and we sat and watched the fireworks going off below us. This year we decided to take a day’s holiday from work and really celebrate.

The night before our anniversary we went to  Restaurant Sat Bains. This was our fourth visit to Nottingham’s only Michelin restaurant and, as it always has been, it was spectacular. Sat is one of the UK’s finest chefs and one of the most approachable and welcoming. One time we went we took the Bear’s sister, who had come from Australia  for her birthday and Sat invited her (and, therefore us, because we weren’t going to be left behind) into the kitchens.

 Sat really achieved  national fame in “The Great British Menu” that was screened on TV. Fourteen of the UK’s top chefs competed to win a place cooking a course in what would be the best menu Britain could produce. Sat’s starter of slow cooked duck egg, peas and ham scored a perfect 10 from each of the judges. It really is special and we have had it a couple of times before but this night we thought we would have the  ten course tasting menu. It’s not as daunting as it sounds.. the ten courses are delicious bite sized, or mini portions that make you glad you are there.  Explore the link if you want to see the kind of menus on offer… our menu started with scallops, then salmon that was so delicious I could have eaten plates of it, then duck, mutton, a barley and snail dish, then leeks before moving to the transition course and desserts. You need someone better than me to tell you how lovely it was. It’s not enough that I just make whimpering, moaning noises of delight and say it was lovely.

Life can’t be all Michelin restaurants, though, so for our anniversary proper, we decided to stay in and cook for ourselves. The Bear decided he wanted to have sausages in buns for supper because… well, because that’s what you have on Bonfire Night!

I made the buns from so No Knead Bread dough that was ready to be baked

and instead of baking the dough in a cast iron pot as I normally do, I heated a baking stone in the oven and just shaped the dough and then baked them on there. Without the cast iron pot which sears the outside, you get a softer bun, which was what I wanted.

That was going to be delicious… but, it was our anniversary, so I decided I needed something to make the sausages in buns special. Caramelised onions would be just the thing, I thought. Rich and tasty, soft and savoury onions, stuffed into the buns with hot sausages… what could be better or more appropriate for Bonfire Night?

All you need to make this is time (maybe an hour), onions, balsamic vinegar (a spoonful or so), some sugar and some salt and pepper.

I had five red onions. That was going to make a lot of caramelised onion, I know, but whatever I didn’t use was going to be put in a jar and kept in the fridge for later. It won’t keep forever but it will certainly keep for a couple of weeks at least, so you may as well make extra.

I love the look of red onions.

They are so vibrantly pink and beautiful.

Slice your onions finely and add them to a large frying pan with a good amount of olive oil, warmed on a gentle heat.

You are not wanting to fry them to a crisp, just to soften them as they cook slowly.

red onion cooking slowly

Adding a spoonful of salt keeps them soft and enhances the flavour.

As the onions start to soften, the colour gentles and blends slightly. What you need to do now is add some extra flavour and add to the caramelisation process. Balsamnic vinegar works brilliantly here, or, as I used, a balsamic vinegar glaze or crema. What they have done is reduce the vinegar down to a thick, sweet and sticky glaze that can be used in dressing, on roasts, in salads or in general cooking. It is, I suppose, what you would end up with if you slowly cooked straight balsamic vinegar, so don’t worry if that’s all you have.

The aim is to add another layer of flavour.

A tablespoonful or so needs to be stirred through while the onions carry on cooking slowly.

A dessertspoonful of golden granulated sugar needs to be stirred through to help the caramelisation

And then, after maybe another quarter of an hour you have a rich, sticky, soft and tasty tangled pile of onion……

All I had to do was slice open the buns

Add a fat and juicy sausage

… and then start adding the onion…..

It was delicious.

The night before, Michelin starred restaurant… that night, champagne, sausages and fireworks.

Pretty simple. Pretty delicious.

At the end of the night, we had had a lovely time and I still had enough caramelised onion to put into a jar and keep in the fridge. It’s perfect to serve with sausages, or pate, or cheese. Make some yourself and see how easy it is. It’s enough to make a simple supper special. We thought so, anyway.

Lovely lamb shanks, tagine style and the Bear’s shopping expedition

I’m a lucky old thing, I know, and meeting the Bear was the best thing that has happened in my entire happy and lucky life. He’s funny and sweet, very clever and tolerant and (and this is a good bit indeed) very helpful about the house.

I had a lot to do and, while I normally do the shopping because I like to choose what I’m going to cook with, I was running out of time to get everything done. The Bear had some spare time and offered to help….

What could go wrong? I had all the meat and vegetables (so there was no problem with choosing the best examples) and all I needed were things for the house and a few food or drink items for the cupboards. It wouldn’t matter whether I picked them up or he did, they’d be the same….

So armed with a specific (very specific) shopping list the Bear set off and I got on with other stuff. We met later in the kitchen and I started to unpack the bags… cleaning stuff? Check. Dishwasher salt and rinse aid? Check. Kitchen rolls? Check. Butter, milk, cheese? Check. Tea and coffee? Check. Wine? Check, check and more check. (We were having friends round) Cordials? No check.

I had wanted a specific kind of cordial – Grape and Melon. They didn’t have any apparently (and there’s no point Googling or asking about other stockists because they have stopped making it now. Shame on you, Robinson’s!) and the Bear had remembered not to deviate from the list and get another flavour. All well and good. We did have other cordials anyway so it didn’t really matter.

I carried on emptying the bags…. and found, in the bottom of one of them, three cartons of prune juice!

Prune juice? Whatever had possessed him to buy prune juice? I don’t like prune juice and I don’t need prune juice. I certainly didn’t need three litres of it.

He started to explain. Quite frankly the reasoning behind it was flawed. They didn’t have the clear and delicate tasting cordial I wanted so when he saw “Buy 3 for the price of 2”  next to the prune juice he thought he would use his initiative and grab us a bargain….

The prune juice went into the larder and there it stayed as a reminder that sometimes initiative is a terrible thing.

I can’t bear waste though and eventually, months later, decided I would have to do something with it. I’d gone into the larder to get a new box of salt out and spotted the prune juice still loitering on the shelf. I was going to be cooking lamb shanks that day and it struck me that if I were to do lamb shanks in, say, a Moroccan tagine style then I might have used prunes in there. What if, I thought, I was to cook the shanks IN the prune juice, instead of adding them as whole fruit, replacing just a simple stock and so making a rich and tasty gravy?

I had two lamb shanks that I was going to cook slowly while we were off doing other things.  I would have used the slow cooker but the two of them were too big for the pot and I decided that I’d just use a casserole instead. As long as you make sure you have enough liquid in there and keep the temperature low then it is safe to leave for a while.

It’s also lovely to come back to a home that smells of deliciously cooking food……

I love lamb shanks for many reasons. Firstly because they don’t cost much at all and secondly,if you leave them to cook slowly and gently they will turn into the most deliciously melting pieces of meat, far tastier and more tender than most expensive cuts and thirdly because I don’t have to do much at all to make it a perfect warming and mouthwatering meal.

Five minutes preparation and then you can walk off and leave them to glug quietly away for as long as you like. A perfect way to cook something while you are out at work or off out shopping at the weekend.

First of all, brown the outsides of the shanks. All it takes is a few minutes in a frying pan with a drop of oil to crisp and brown the skin. Yes, they are going to be cooked for hours and will cook all the way through but if you brown the outside you get a better depth of flavour and they also LOOK better. It’s all very well being delicious… it’s nice to appeal to the eye as well, though.

While the lamb is browning, quickly chop some onion and garlic.

I had the remnants of some tagine paste that I could use to bring in a hint of Moroccan flavouring and some lovely Rose Harissa that would liven things up a bit. I wasn’t making an authentic tagine but I wanted a definite nod in the direction of Morocco. You can get tagine flavourings in most supermarkets now so choose whtever you fancy.

I put a spoonful of each into my casserole dish and stirred it through the chopped onion and garlic.

Carrots were roughly scraped clean and sliced and the browned lamb shanks were put in the pot on top of the vegetables.

I poured a pint of prune juice into a jug – just look at the colour of it! Now while this could never replace a light and fresh tasting cordial as a drink I could see this was going to make a deliciously thick and tasty gravy. With the harissa and tagine paste to spice it it, I had high hopes of this turning out to be a success.

Mixed with some stock granules to add a salty, savoury taste, it was poured over the meat and vegetables.

And then, because I love it and I knew it would be good, a couple of teaspoons of cinnamon powder were put in.

And that was it. The lid was put on and the casserole was put into a slow oven (165 degrees C/350 degrees F) and I went off to do what I needed to do. If I’d used the slow cooker I would have set it on Auto – which means it gets a high start then it turns down to a very low heat. The cast iron casserole would do just as well on a steady low temperature for hours.

After about three or four hours I came back and looked at the shanks…. they smelled delicious anyway.

Rich and dark from the prune juice, steaming and the meat was falling from the bone.

Chopped coriander would give just the right fresh herby taste

Couscous takes maybe three minutes to make – simply measure it out (the packet will tell you the proportions) and add boiling water so the grains fluff up.

You can add herbs and spices to flavour it if you are having plainer food but the gravy from the lamb would be flavourful enough, I thought.

The meat just fell apart…. the prune juice gravy was rich, savoury and spicy with a mellow sweetness. It all soaked into the couscous making each mouthful delicious. Who would have thought mis-judged initiative could produce such a lovely result? Inexpensive cuts of meat, unwanted cartons of juice and a few hours in an oven produced a meal that I would have been proud to serve to guests.

We enjoyed every mouthful.

So, while I can’t advocate the drinking of prune juice…. I can suggest you cook with it. You might just be as pleased as we were with it.

Cauliflower and apple soup

Now that autumn is here we are starting to see the arrival of our glorious winter vegetables. As the seasons change, our food does too – we no longer want cooling salads or light and fresh meals, we need something to fill us and warm us against the chill winds and the leaves fall and the skies turn a constant grey.

When I walked up to the local shops I saw beautiful white cauliflowers, grown in local fields, stacked in the greengrocer’s barrow outside his shop. How could I resist them?

There was a time, you know, when I did resist them. When they appeared in school dinners… overboiled, smelling slightly and looking rather grey. If your teacher forced you to eat them you’d get a mouthful of hot water and the grey and tasteless, soft but weirdly sort of granular vegetable mush would dissolve in your mouth and slide down your throat. I was a picky child and I could be very stubborn. There was many a school lunchtime when I would sit there, with my jaws clamped shut, refusing to eat, while my teachers tried to make me.

Now, obviously, this isn’t a picture of me at a school dinner table (even the Grim North isn’t cold enough to make me wear an anorak indoors) but this is pretty typical of my sideways, scowling look when faced with something I didn’t want to do. I could be very determined. Cauliflower? No. And I mean no. Make me? I don’t think so. I mean no. I meant no for years.

Years and years went by until I finally discovered, as with so many things, that it is not the food itself that is the problem, it’s just the way you cook it.  Cauli can be good….. I discovered the joys of Cauliflower Puree and realised that if you cooked it carefully and didn’t overload the poor vegetable with water, you would end up with a beautifully rich and almost earthy tasting, interestingly textured dish that really was gorgeous to eat.

Anyway, I’m over it now. I like cauliflower. I like it raw and I like it cooked and after I saw all of those crisp cauli’s I decided I’d like it, this week, in a soup.

I bought a couple of cauliflowers and then, because apples are in season as well, I got a couple of  Bramley apples and a Braeburn.

I had an idea.

I would make a rich cauliflower soup but I’d add a Bramley apple to cook with it and add a sharp sweetness to the soup and as an extra apple boost, I’d caramelise an eating apple with chillies to go on the top. Bramleys are cooking apples and are generally too sharp to eat raw but when cooked they almost dissolve into a delicious mushy smoothness. That’s perfect when you are adding them to something like this soup or you’re making a sauce.

The Braeburn I got to go with it is an eating apple – sharp, crunchy, juicy and sweet. If you cook that it keeps it’s shape. If you can’t get a Braeburn, find something else that is like that.

So, to make soup, start like you always do with soup – peeling and chopping onions and then softening them in a knob of butter with a pinch of salt. The salt will keep the onions white and stop them from burning. You want them to be soft and almost translucent, so start them on a medium heat.

While they are gently cooking, cut up the cauliflowers, separating the florets. The hard stem, chopped into small pieces,  can go in first with the onions as this will cook faster than the lacy florets.

When a cauli is fresh, the florets are crisp and hard and a beautiful creamy white.

Add them to the pan with a couple of pints of water and some good stock cubes.

The next thing is to peel, core and segment the Bramleys. They will take less time to cook so you can do this while the florets soften.

Add the pieces of apple to the cauliflower and let everything cook, still on a medium heat.

It won’t take long, so while that’s glugging away, start on the Braeburn. This is going to be turned into a deliciously sweet, sharp and spicy apple dressing to be served with the soup…

Peel your sweet, juicy, sharp and crunchy eating apple. Core it and cut into pieces.

I cut into segments and then cut those bits in half.

Then, in a non-stick pan, heat a couple of tablespoons of butter and a couple of tablespoons of golden granulated sugar over a medium heat. As this melts and dissolves into an almost caramelised buttery deliciousness, add some chopped chilli.

My chilli harvest this year has been an utter disaster, so tubes of prepared chopped chillies, which can be kept in the fridge, have been a marvellous help.  An inch squeezed out – which would, I suppose, be about a teaspoonful – needs to be stirred into the sweetened butter.

Next, add the segmented bits of the Braeburn and stir it all round so the pieces are covered and let it cook gently. The apple will keep it’s shape even though it is cooked.

By now, the cauliflower will have cooked and when you poke at it with a knife, it is tender. If you were to just have this as the soup it would taste rather thin. The thing to do next is to add richness…

But richness can mean adding extra calories when you might be wanting to cut back. Why not save some calories but still get a rich and creamy taste?

This is where I add skimmed milk powder. If you were to start the cooking off with milk (skimmed or not) you would have to be very careful because there is every chance that the milk would catch and burn on the bottom of the pan. Starting the cooking off with water and stock means that the vegetables can cook with scorching but if you later then add milk to enrich it, you end up with too much liquid to the vegetables.

So, I use Marvel skimmed milk powder. No added fat (and no added liquid) but if you add a good scoop of it you get a lovely, creamy taste. 4 heaped tablespoons are the equivalent to a pint of milk.

Stir it round… yes, it will be lumpy but that doesn’t matter because you are going to blend it all into a smooth and creamy soup.

I use a stick blender because it is quick and easy.

Once it is smooth, add a good shaking of ground white pepper. I say white, because it does have a different taste to black pepper and it also looks better. You  are making a beautifully pale and creamy soup….check the seasoning and and add a pinch more salt if you need to. The big thing is checking that the soup tastes good to you.

By now the Braeburn has softened. It still has its shape but it has turned a lovely golden colour. If you happen to taste it, the sauce is not too hot from the chillies and not too sweet from the sugar. There’s just emough salt from the butter to make it almost savoury. It just tastes divine.

A scoop of natural, thick Greek yoghurt can go in the middle…. the sharpness of the yoghurt is perfect against the smoothness of the cauliflower…..

And on top of that… a spoonful of the chillied and caramelised apples.

That was, as the Bear will tell you, absolutely delicious.

Minimal calories for a most delicious fresh and tasty soup. You can cut back further on the calorie count by not doing the chillied and caramelised apples but there’s a limit you know. Why not enjoy yourself?

Now if they’d served this at school there would have been a race to the tables to sit down and scoff….