Taste of autumn – Apples

(A not-so-thorough post about apples, in which I make an unexpected dicovery, prepare some apples for freezing, and make my first ever store-bought-pastry pie.)

Despite sitting outside in shorts and T-shirt for the past 2 days, I finally have to admit defeat and realise that autumn is well and truly here.

The thing about autumn though – it’s a gracious winner. Once you surrender, you realise autumn is actually pretty great; a treasure-chest of all things cosy and comforting.

This would have been even prettier if I'd taken it yesterday, when it was all sunny and golden.

There’s pretty colours on the trees, you can stay inside with tea and a good book, without feeling that you HAVE to go outside because it’s sunny, lots of great TV shows start up again after summer hiatus, and there’s plenty of new seasonal produce around. If you’re lucky, you might find some just outside your door.
World's smallest orchard

'My' apple trees

After living in this flat for almost 3 years, I suddenly discovered, not only one, but two apple trees outside my window. To be fair, I’ve always sort of known the trees were there (I may live in my own little world, but not to that extent!), but I’ve never noticed the apples. I must mention that I live in a block of flats with a shared garden, so I spend very little time there.

Needless to say, this was a very exciting discovery (maybe not Colombus-coming-to- America-exciting, but at least spare-fiver-down-the-back-of-the-sofa-exciting). It’s almost getting a bit too cold for apples now, but there were some left, and after a good rummage on the ground, I found a few that I could use (and also made the slighty less thrilling discovery of a dead mouse in the process).

There’s just something about apples that says ‘autumn’ in a way that recalls golden childhood evenings spent nicking apples from unsuspecting neighbours’ gardens under a canopy of flaming leaves (not that I’ve ever done this, of course. Stealing apples is bad, kids. Also, the owner of the tree is usually all too happy to get rid of a few apples if you ask first. Although that isn’t nearly as thrilling).

Apples aren’t exactly expensive in the shops right now, but there’s a special feeling about cooking with apples that you’ve picked yourself (and that probably aren’t full of pesticides and stuff).

Flawed, but beautiful

They’re not as pretty as the apples in the shops, but beneath those lumps and discolourings lurks a wealth of flavours. I have no idea what variety they are, but there were 2 different kinds, which were both crispy and juicy with a tangy flavour.

There’s obviously a huge amount of things you can do with apples, but one of my absolute favourites is apple pie. There’s not going to be a proper, thorough recipe this time, but maybe later. The reason is that I decided to try some ready-made puff pastry I had in my freezer, and see how it turned out. Yes, this was my first time making pie without making the pastry first, and I was rather sceptical. (No less so because my ready-made puff pastry didn’t acually contain any butter! That’s right, pastry without butter. It just doesn’t sound natural. I think they put in some vegetable margarine and oils instead. The reason I wanted to try this, is that I might go back on a dairy-free diet I tried a while ago (more about that later, most likely). And since I can’t live without pie, and dairy-free butter is quite expensive and hard to find around here, while this puff pastry was relatively cheap and available in a shop near me, this might work out cheaper and easier than making my own.)

Wow, that was a long parenthesis – and parenthesis within parenthesis! The proof-reader part of me would have something to say about that.

Anyway. I started with peeling and slicing the apples, leaving some for freezing (put some lemon or lime juice in the freezer bag with the apples, so they don’t turn brown, and freeze them as flat as possible for quicker defrosting).

Sliced apples. In case you didn't know what that looks like.

I froze 3 medium apples, about the right amount to fill my pie tin.

I then filled my pie tin with the defrosted pastry sheets and a layer of the apple slices that I didn’t freeze. On top of that went a liberal sprinkle of cinnamon and nutmeg, and a few dollops of jam. Whenever I don’t pre-cook the apples with some water and sugar, I usually put in some jam, fruit compote, of whatever I’ve got around to keep things from becoming too dry. This time, I used some cheap and horrible strawberry jam, and a bit of fancier apricot jam. (At this stage I would normally sprinkle sugar over the apples as well, but I forgot, to be honest. Luckily it didn’t matter, as my jam and apples were sweet enough, and I prefer to keep some of the tang from the apples anyway, not make it sickly sweet).
Sticky goodness

First layer of apples with spices and jam.

Yep, the edges are pretty uneven and ugly. I just couldn’t be bothered, and besides: round pie dish+rectangular pastry sheets. you do the math.
Then one more layer, with more spices, but no jam. This time, I laid the apple slices out a little bit prettier, to compensate for my lazy pastry-shaping.

Just before going into the oven.

 While the pie is in the oven, there’s time for a large cup of tea, two You-Tube-videos, three medium-sized magazine articles, or a short episode of a TV show (Friends, for instance). Which means I baked it for about 20-25 minutes at 200 degrees Celcius.

If you put your head really close to the computer, and believe, you can detect a faint aroma of apples and cinnamon. Or so the legend goes.

I don’t know if you can see it in this photo (well, now that I’ve told you, you will see it), but it sort of puffs up weirdly to the right. Because I used puff pastry. (Shouldn’t have told you.) Unsurprisingly, the deformed puffed bit was the best part.
Verdict:  Store-bought puff pastry is puffier than homemade (maybe because I’m no pastry expert yet, I tend to make shortcrust more often), and not having to actually make it is a bonus. But it’s also less flavourful, which could be due to the no-dairy thing. If I’m short on time, or can’t be bothered with flour all over my kitchen, or decide to do the no-dairy thing and can’t find dairy-free butter (or it’s really expensive), then this is a great alternative. Especially if the other option is no pie at all. Dreadful thought.

Something's missing here... Oh, yes, ice cream.

How can you have apple pie without ice cream? I hear you ask in dismay as you look at my photo. I’ll tell you how: not have any in your freezer because you decided to go dairyfree a while back, and haven’t bought any since, not even that dodgy soy stuff, because you’ve overcompensated for having no dairy by making lots of homecooked comfort food, and the freezer is now too stuffed with these things to accommodate a tub of ice cream as well.
But a cup of chai almost makes up for the lack of it. (Just don’t use rice milk in tea! Ever. Seriously. It doesn’t give any milky flavour to the tea at all, but instead makes it more watery and grey. Not good.)
I ate this while watching the excellent True Blood finale. Nothing like pie to enhance the southern atmosphere. (Well, it was either that, or have blackcurrant squash and pretend to be a vampire.)
Bedtime reading:  Neil Gaiman’s short story collection Smoke and Mirrors. You should read it too! (Just don’t read the story called ‘The Price’ when you’re alone and it’s dark.)
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An ode to vegetables

Welcome to the first new, shiny post of my combined writing/cooking blog! Strange combination? Perhaps. But they’re both things I love, and while it’s impossible to write something good without proper fuel, words are food for the soul. So you see how it all fits together.

This first post concerns food, but there will be writing/reading/publishing related ones later. I’ll try to tag everything so it can be sorted easily. Now, onto the subject o this first-ever post:

VEGETABLES!

Don’t you just LOVE vegetables? Crunchy, colourful, varied, good-for-you vegetables? Not to mention humourously shaped veg. (If you hate veg, you’re gonna have issues with this blog. I’m not likely to stop writing about them.)

 What’s the big deal?

  • Cheap! They are so much cheaper than meat. (At least if you’re the least bit health-conscious and try to avoid the worst processed cheap meat products.) Great news if you’re on a limited budget (maybe a student, or like me, a poor writer or other starving artist) but still try to be healthy.
  • Pretty! They add colour to your food. I don’t know about you, but I find a plate full of greens, reds and yellows more inviting than a plate of, well, just different shades of brown (meat, rice, fries, pasta…you know). 
  • Healthy! I actually notice a difference in my wellbeing when I’m eating lots of veg vs. eating little. I just feel better in general, better skin and hair, more energy, better digestion, etc.
  • Varied! There’s just so many different types of veg and sooo many ways to cook them. I’m 30 and still trying new vegetables (recently; plantains and okra. Success). If you’re not afraid to try something new, you’ll never suffer from culinary boredom.

Hate vegetables?

Like a lot of people, I grew up with a standard dinner of meat/fish, boiled potato and two boiled veg. There were a lot of vegetables I really loathed, but now I absolutely love most of them! How? I learned to think differently.

The solution is probably not to avoid vegetables altogether (I won’t go on about how good they are for you and all that, cause I’m sure you know).  Instead, view this as an opportunity to discover new flavours as you search for alternative ways of preparing veg. There are several ways to ‘trick’ yourself into eating more veg, or getting used to a vegetable you don’t like.

  • Pinpoint what it is you don’t like about a specific vegetable. Is it the texture? Maybe you’ve had it cooked wrong (soggy, overboiled carrots, anyone?). Try it cooked a different way – stir-fried, raw, mashed, roasted, grated in salads, etc.
  • Is taste the problem? Try adding flavours that mask or complement the vegetable. (To continue with the carrot theme; this carrot, chili and coriander soup might make you see carrots in a new light).
  • Which brings us to: soups. A blender and some cream can work wonders with a boiled vegetable. This works with a huge variety of vegetables: Boil veg, drain, add some stock and spices, whizz in blender, add a bit of cream and bring back to the boil. If you’re a fan of spicy food, you’re lucky to have an easy way to mask unwanted vegetable flavours, if not, adding more cream will soften the veg taste. This site is a soup goldmine (or gold pot, if you will).
  • When making stews and casseroles, substitute some of the meat for veg. About half the mince in spaghetti bolognese can successfully be swapped with -you guessed it – chopped carrots. (If you don’t like the texture, try grating it.) Onions, mushrooms, bell peppers/capsicums are also great in spag bol.
  •  Salads! It doesn’t have to mean limp salad leaves and soggy tomatoes. In fact, it doesn’t have to contain any leaves at all, just put in whatever you want. A friend of mine barely liked any veg, but learned to like them after having lots of salads with just about any vegetable on earth, topped with olives and feta. The key is variation; throw in enough different veg so that you have different textures and colours and it looks pretty and colourful.
  • Raw veg! It’s great. (I could have written ‘crudites’, but I’m not that fancy, really.) Try dipping sticks of carrot (I know, just shut up about the carrots already!), celery, bell peppers, swede, cucumber, zucchini or anything else you fancy, in dips like tzatziki, hummous, etc.
  • If anything else fails, grate some into stews and casseroles, and because it’s grated into tiny pieces, you’ll hardly know it’s there. You’re not learning to like them, which is a shame, but at least you’re getting some of the nutrients.

Other people have written about this before me, much better too. Here’s a few great tips.

Over at cheaphealthygood, there are loads of exciting dishes that uses vegetables in ways I never would have thought of myself. Plus, cheap! That’s a good bonus, right?

Of course, I deliberated for a long time what my first post of this exciting new blog would be, and I landed on this.  Purely because I had an extremely tasty dinner of cabbage and carrots, both of which I used to hate, and I wanted to share the love.

 Sautéed cabbage & carrots

A pile of unphotogenic goodness

(Really, how appetising can you make cabbage and carrots look? Just imagine what the smell of garlic and chili would look like and then pretend this is a picture of that.)

 I used:

About 1/6 of a whole cabbage

1/2 yellow onion

1 large carrot

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

1/3 of a fresh red chili (deseeded)

Pinch of pepper

Chop everything finely, cook in a bit of oil (and maybe some butter – I like to add some for flavour) over a medium high heat, in a wok or frying pan/skillet. (It’s also a good idea to add the garlic towards the end so it doesn’t burn.) Stop cooking when it’s glossy and slightly softened, but still has a bit of crunch left – taste as you go along to find your own perfect texture. Season to taste with salt and pepper (but really, with chili and garlic you don’t need a lot of salt – good news for your health).

I had this with two types of buttered roll. One was a sort of improvised wholemeal rye roll which turned out ok, but nothing out of the ordinary (the small one to the right in the photo). The other roll, I have to tell you, was THE BEST ROLL I’ve EVER had! Yes, so amazingly good that the caps are almost justified. Big balls of crunchy, fluffy, soft, golden, tasty goodness.

The recipe for these AMAZING cornmeal rolls are over at comfortablydomestic. I’ve only just discovered her blog, but she seems to be somewhat of a domestic goddess who has lots of lovely, comforting, ‘proper food’ recipes. American measurements and temperatures, and I don’t have a good metric one, unfortunately. To be honest, I’m so crap with numbers that I can’t be bothered with conversion tables or calculators – I simply try to get the measurements right in relation to each other (i.e. if a recipe calls for 2 cups of water and 1 cup of cornmeal, I make sure I use twice as much water as cornmeal). If the measurements are more complex, I just use some educated guesswork, and it usually turns out fine.

Now, off to bed, to read On the Way Home, a diary by Laura Ingalls Wilder. A fascinating look ‘behind the scenes’ of the world of the Little House books (and, coincidentally, it has a few interesting food mentions).  Any bedtime reading recommendations for me, people?

Good eating and reading, everyone!