Category Archives: Food

Cooking on Easy Mode

Attention conservation notice: this is a food post. If you’re not here for the food posts, maybe go reread Stargate Physics 101 instead or something.

Content note: Aggressively non-vegan food.


The other evening I had zero energy but felt like I should at least make some token effort at real cooking so I just flipped all the dials to easy mode:

  • lots of salt
  • more butter than you are willing to admit to
  • caramelised onions
  • a single strong spice or herb (e.g. chilli, black pepper, rosemary)
  • meat
  • a pressure cooker

Pretty much all of these dial up the tasty to effort ratio of everything you cook. None of them are essential (I want to emphasise that it is possible to make extremely tasty vegan food. Meat and butter are just easy mode).

Here’s the specific combination I deployed:

  1. Slice a lot of red onions. Put them in the pressure cooker with lots of butter, lots of salt, and a dollop of smoked chilli paste.
  2. Cook on high heat until the pressure cooker whistles, then low heat for another 20 minutes. The onions should be slightly caramelised and very juicy when you take the lid off.
  3. Add shredded chicken (about 3 times by volume of what I used for the red onions. I had a bunch in the freezer that I’d made previously).
  4. Stir it all up until well mixed. Same drill as before with the pressure cooker.
  5. Serve on corn talcos

I don’t know if I get to count this as properly Mexican food. I tend to get in trouble with my sister-in-law when I do that. But it was tasty and definitely in that direction.

The result was frankly almost offensively tasty. I had a sore throat which made eating painful and I still ate way too much of this.

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My standard dinner meta-recipe

This is a recipe style I cook a lot for myself a lot. It’s very easy, balanced and healthy, and with only a little bit of effort can be made to be extremely tasty.

It’s… lets call it “Japanese inspired”. It’s not Japanese, but that’s probably the closest regional cuisine in its heritage and it tends to use a number of Japanese ingredients.

It consists of 3-4 parts:

  • A base. For me this is almost always brown rice, sometimes with a bit of red rice added to it to give it a little more variety. I’m obsessed with Tree of Life short grain brown rice at the moment. It’s really tasty. You could certainly use other rices here though. It also works well with quinoa, and it probably works well with most other grains too.
  • Vegetables, raw or steamed. Depends on what I have to hand, but most things work here. Blanched green beans are great for this. Cucumber and avocado are both good raw. Carrots are good raw or steamed. If I’m feeling super lazy then sometimes I just use a cup of frozen peas stuck in the microwave.
  • A topping (this is either one or two parts)

I typically serve this with soy sauce, brown rice vinegar and sesame as seasonings people can add to their dish. Crushed chillies or Shichimi would also likely work well for that

The topping is of course where most of the work goes in, and also what tends to make the difference between this being a lazy but acceptable dish and all of it mysteriously vanishing.

The idea of the topping is that it’s mostly a protein source + flavour. It’s either the something simple like eggs or chopped tofu and an accompanying sauce, or it’s a more integrated dish.

Quantity wise, there should be lots of rice and vegetables and a modest amount of topping. I’d say by volume the bowl should be about 3 : 2 : 1 rice, vegetables and topping. The topping is the center piece of the dish, but the body of it is the rice and the vegetables, with the topping there to provide flavour and a bit of extra substance with the protein.

Here are some toppings I’ve done recently that I think are really good and would recommend trying:

 Spicy Tofu

This is a simple and tasty vegan topping.

  • One medium red onion, chopped into thin slices
  • Three packs of Taifun smoked tofu (I really recommend their tofu, it’s great), cut up into rough cubes
  • Three small red chillies, deseeded
  • A couple large carrots, julienned (cut into thin strips)

This served five people in these quantities.

I then then just fried these for a while in peanut oil – starting with the onions, carrots and chillies, then adding the tofu once they were cooked.

Miso and Ginger Chicken

This is loosely based on this recipe from the New York times.

I didn’t do the ingredients for this very precisely, but it was roughly:

  • 250g white miso
  • 100g butter, softened and partially melted in a microwave
  • Clearspring brown rice vinegar
  • A squeeze of honey (probably 1-2tbsp)
  • A fairly sizable chunk of peeled ginger
  • One egg
  • Some quantity of deboned chicken breasts (it was actually offcuts from a previous meal, so I don’t really know how much. Not more than 500g), chopped into small (2cm ish) pieces.

This served five people in these quantities.

I then put everything except the chicken in a food processor and blended until completely smooth. Afterwards I coated the chicken in it and left it in the fridge for a few hours (I don’t actually think this step is necessary and suspect it would have been fine without, but it was convenient to make this in the morning and then just throw it in the oven later). Finally, I spread it on a baking tray and baked it in the oven at 200C, stirring occasionally and stopping once it’s crispy and slightly blackened on the outside.

This was really tasty and I probably could have made twice as much as I did and it would still have all been eaten.

Peanut Sauce

The inspiration for this comes from Gado-Gado, but this is not Gado Gado sauce (it resembles it, but lacks some of the key ingredients).

Here is my peanut sauce recipe. I recently did this served with boiled eggs, but it also goes well with chopped smoked tofu if you want it to be vegan:

  • A couple peeled garlic cloves
  • A couple red chillies (seeds included depending on how spicy the chillies are and how spicy you want the result)
  • Peanut butter (just use the cheap stuff, no need to be fancy here)
  • Lots of limes, squeezed
  • A little bit of soy sauce

I fry the garlic and chillies in oil until they’re reasonably well cooked then add everything to the food processor and blend until smooth.

There are no standard quantities for this. Once it’s blended I then taste it and see how it is and adjust the quantities if it doesn’t taste right. If it’s not liquid enough, I either add more lime or a little bit of hot water.

“Japanese” chicken livers

I have no idea how close this is to anything that would actually be made in Japan. I suspect not very. It’s loosely based on some googling for Japanese recipes for chicken liver and most closely resembles this recipe, adapted to what I had to hand.

  • A small pot of chicken livers (I think these are 150g? I didn’t measure)
  • One small red onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 tbsp brown rice vinegar
  • 2 tbsp honey
  • 2 tbsp soy sauce
  • Toasted sesame seeds
  • Butter (50g or so?)

This served two people in these quantities.

I mixed all the liquid ingredients together to form a sauce.

I then fried the onion in the butter on high heat until it was caramelised, added the liver and continued frying until it was brown (this took about 30 seconds to a minute), then added the sauce on top and continued cooking until the sauce was thick and reduced, at which point I added the sesame seeds and cooked for another minute or so.

Anything else

The great thing about this style of dish is that it’s suitable for almost endless improvising on because the only core ingredients are ones that keep more or less indefinitely in your cupboard. As long as you’ve got a base and the seasonings, everything else can just be done based on whatever is in the fridge.

e.g. last night’s dinner was the liver topping above, steamed carrots, raw cucumber and avocado as the vegetables on top of a base of brown and red rice. I didn’t start with any plan to do that – I had bought the liver with an intention to do liver one night this week, but didn’t really know what I was going to do with it. Once I decided to do it in this style I googled a bit for Japanese chicken liver recipes on the off chance that I’d find something appropriate, and improvised it into this. The vegetables were then just what we had available.

It also tends to keep quite well: When I’m on my own and short on time I will often batch make a topping (particularly just boiling a carton of eggs and making a large batch of peanut sauce, but this works well with most other toppings too) and some brown rice. The topping and rice can just be heated up in the microwave and fresh vegetables can be done each day to keep it varied.

Anyway, that was a lot of words to basically just say “Hey did you know you can serve things with rice and vegetables and it’s pretty great?”, but you can and it is, and I don’t really see people doing it enough, so maybe you should give it a try?

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Definitely not a Mexican recipe

I feel it’s important to state that this is totally not a Mexican recipe and I make no claims of authenticity, mainly so my friend Paulina won’t be mad at me for perpetuating the various bad imitations of Mexican food that abound (not that this will stop me from sending her pictures when I encounter things like the “Mexican mac ‘n’ cheese” I had in the north of England of course).

Lets call it pseudo-Mexican. Or Mexican inspired. Or we could call it Fusion if we were feeling fancy. I originally made it as an improvisation, but then I made it again because it was tasty.

Ingredients:

  • 500g Gnocchi (I told you it wasn’t Mexican)
  • 3 cans red kidney beans
  • 3 medium sized onions
  • 4 medium sweet peppers (I used a mix or red, orange and yellow)
  • 1 small red chilli pepper
  • Ground cumin
  • Dry Oregano
  • Hot smoked paprika
  • Salt
  • Black pepper
  • Vegetable oil for frying

The spice quantities are problematic because I still haven’t measured them out. The ratios are about twice as much cumin as oregano and twice as much oregano as paprika. I’d guess that it’s about 2-3 tbsp of cumin, but I’d recommend tinkering with the levels until it’s tasty.

Cooking is simple:

Dice the onions and peppers (including the chilli pepper), put them into a frying pan with hot oil and salt to fry. Stir, and once the onion has gone translucent, add the spices. Keep stirring for about another 10 minutes, add the kidney beans (drained), stir for another ten minutes, add the Gnocchi, and you guessed it stir for another 10 minutes.

By that point the kidney beans should have broken up a bit but the gnocchi will mostly have kept its structure. The result is a fairly thick mush that will hold together quite well.

The first time we ate this we just had it in bowls with guacamole on the side. The second time we put it in corn tortillas with some salsa verde as well and that worked a lot better, though both ways were pretty good.

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Gnocchi with Courgettes and Sundried tomatoes

Here is a recipe very much composed by my previous algorithm, albeit the “what’s in the kitchen” variant rather than the “what should I buy?” variant.

It’s also influenced by the “I am feeling super lazy therefore I’m going to throw technology at the problem” style of cooking, using both the food processor and the pressure cooker. You could probably prepare it without the pressure cooker, you can certainly prepare it without the food processor.

Ingredients

  • 100g dry sundried tomatoes
  • 1 small red onion
  • 1 head of garlic
  • 4 medium sized courgettes
  • About 50g salted butter
  • 500g gnocchi
  • 200g feta cheese
  • “some” black pepper

Note: I used the sundried tomatoes directly from dry. This worked pretty well but I forgot that they have a lot of salt in them if you do that. If you have less salt tolerance than me you may wish to soak them a bit before you do this to leech out some of the salt. If you do it from dry then definitely do not add any salt to this dish.

Instructions

Step 1:

Peel but do not chop the head of garlic. Finely chop the onion. Coarsely chop the sundried tomatoes (I used the food processor, you could just use scissors). Add these with just enough water to dampen the sundried tomatoes (so they don’t burn) and the butter to the pressure cooker. Bring it up to pressure and then cook for an additional 5 minutes.

Step 2:

Meanwhile, grate the courgettes (again, I used the food processor, you could just use a normal grater).

Once the previous step is complete, add the gnocchi and grated courgette to the mi, crumble the feta into it and grate some black pepper on top. Mix well. Now bring the pressure cooker back up to pressure and cook for another 5 minutes.

Step 3:

Eat.

Notes

The flavours all work really well together. It’s a bit too salty for me (and I love salt), so I think next time I will definitely partially pre-soak the sundried tomatoes just to ditch a bit of the salt, but I think it’s otherwise almost perfect. I might try adding some capers next time for a bit of sharpness, but it’s probably not necessary.

In terms of quantity: This will look like it’s not a lot of food, but it’s very dense. It served three of us (and we were quite hungry) and we were very full at the end. It’s probably a 4 person meal if you add a side salad to make it look a bit less small – it’s certainly filling enough.

In terms of doing this without a pressure cooker: My guess would be that the best way to do it is to mince the garlic, fry it with the onions in the butter, then add the sundried tomatoes (which you should definitely pre-soak or use an already soft variety) after that. You may also want to pre-cook the gnocchi. It will be a somewhat different dish – it’s very hard to do garlic like a pressure cooker does garlic – but it will likely still be very tasty.

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My algorithm for deciding what to cook

I don’t really follow recipes. I sometimes read recipes for inspiration, but I rarely end up following them more than even vaguely.

Instead I just haphazardly thrash around until I come up with something to cook. This works surprisingly well.

It occurred to me earlier that the way I do this is a greedy algorithm. As well as being an interesting insight, this is an amusing pun (here let me explain the joke: You see, a greedy algorithm is both a solution finding algorithm from computer science but also someone who eats lots of food is “greedy”. Therefore the humour derives from the double meaning of the word greedy in this context: It is both accurate from an algorithmic design point of view and also carries the hidden implication that you are going to eat lots of food. Is this funny yet? I can explain more if you like).

That is to say it works by maintaining a set of ingredients. The algorithm is then:

  1. Find an ingredient which would go well with the existing set of ingredients.
  2. If I am in the mode for that ingredient, accept it and add it to the list.
  3. Repeat until the current set of ingredients seems like it could be turned into a complete meal.

This seems to produce consistently good results.

The problem is that it requires a good implementation of step 1 in order to function. I think mine is basically performing a rejection sampling on the set of available things (i.e. wandering randomly through the supermarket / browsing through my cupboard / fridge) until I find something that catches my eye and go “Oooh. That could work”. The empty set is a special case here where it requires me finding out what I’m in the mood for.

It also requires being able to figure out what goes well together without actually trying it. Some people seem to find this hard. All I can offer as advice is that a protracted period of vegetarianism in which you can’t eat cheese works really well for developing this skill (at least that’s how I did it). The problem with meat and cheese is that they constitute a dominant flavour for the dish, so it’s very easy to just make them the centre piece and not do much else to it. Without that as a crutch what you will make will tend to be very boring unless you figure out how to make a variety of different flavours work well together, and you’re forced to learn out of survival instinct. It’s not dissimilar to the immersive way of learning a language I imagine.

Here is a dish I made recently that resulted from this:

Gnocchi with Aubergine/tomato/Caper sauce

Gnocchi is self-explanatory. The sauce is as follows:

  • Approx 1 kg aubergine
  • 1 head of garlic
  • approx 50g butter
  • “some” olive oil.
  • coarse salt “to taste” (sorry, I know. But I have no idea how much I used, except I tend to salt things quite heavily).
  • About 5 tsp of capers
  • 1 pretty embarrassingly weak red chilli (note: recipe needs more chilli than I used)
  • fresh thyme until I got bored stripping it off the stems
  • 800g canned chopped tomatoes

It proceeded in two stages. To be honest, I’m a little disappointed in the second stage because the first was so amazing and the end result was merely really good. You might want to stop halfway through and just eat the aubergine bit.

Step 1:

Cut the aubergine into roughly cm cubes. Peel but don’t crush the garlic. Chop the chilli without removing the seeds (you may wish to remove the seeds if you have a real chilli rather than the pathetic imitation chillis I found in a Swiss supermarket). Put these in a pressure cooker with the butter and enough olive oil that the aubergine is lightly oiled but not soaked in it and as much thyme as you can be bothered with. Stir it all up, then pressure cook for 10 minutes once the pressure is up.

The result was basically perfect salty garlicky soft cooked aubergine. The pressure cooker basically fixed all the pathologies of cooking aubergine where there’s a complex dysfunctional middle ground between undercooked and burned.

Step 2 is simply to add the tomatoes and capers, stir and then pressure cook for another 5 minutes.

The result is a really nice garlicky sharp sauce a little reminiscent of puttanesca (it didn’t have olives, but they’d probably have been a good addition now that I think about it).

The basic starting point of this recipe was gnocchi, found while browsing the supermarket. I then added the aubergine, and everything else just build up around there.

Of course, now I’m using a subtly different algorithm for tonight’s dinner: The aubergine intermediate step was really good. What could I serve that with? (The answer BTW is that it’s going to be served with a quinoa done with dill, lemon and feta plus a side of fresh made guacamole. I’m pretty excited by this plan).

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