Category Archives: Food

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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A culinary option you may have overlooked

I’ve recently been visiting my aunt in Jordan, and as a result I would like to advocate something very important that if you’ve not had much exposure to middle eastern cuisine you may have overlooked.

Specifically, that there’s this thing called Za’atar and it’s amazing and oh god you should be eating so much of it and why aren’t you?

I first encountered it as a kid growing up in Saudi Arabia. Then we moved to England I forgot about it for ~ 10 years. At some point in my early 20s I said to my mother “So… I remember eating this thing with yoghurt and pita bread as a kid. What was that?”, rediscovering it as a result and finding out that it was even more amazing than I remembered.

Confusingly, Za’atar refers to two different things. It is both a species of herb (related to thyme. One of its English names is “wild thyme”. This confused me so much that it’s only in writing this blog post that I’ve understood that they aren’t the same thing and why my past experiments with making it have been so disappointing). It’s also the name of a spice mix made of said herb.

As a result the (non-recursive) basic ingredient list for Za’atar is:

  • Za’atar
  • Sumac
  • Toasted sesame seeds
  • Salt

It frequently contains other herbs and spices as well. I’ve no real idea what the “correct” ones are and it seems to vary a lot from brand to brand and person to person.

The result is this wonderful slightly sharp and spicy savoury mix.

The correct way to eat za’atar is to basically put it in large quantities on everything.

That being said, 90% of the way I eat it is much simpler: Take pita bread, dip pita bread in greek yoghurt, dip yoghurt coated pita bread in za’atar. You can also substitute olive oil or hummus for the yoghurt in this.

Other ways of eating it include making some sort of flat bread and topping it with olive oil and za’atar before baking and heaping it on top of a lightly dressed salad (just using a bit of olive oil for the dressing works well. You can also add lemon to give it a little more of a kick). There are a lot of za’atar based recipes but I’m basically such a fan of the the pita bread mode of eating that I’m always slightly hesitant to experiment in case it would be disappointing.

Which brings us to… the dark side of the za’atar.

It’s available in London, certainly. Also online. The problem is that it’s available in the same way that spices are available: You pay £2-5 for a little 50g sachet of it.

A 50g sachet of za’atar is approximately 1.5 servings. Maybe 2 if you stretch it.

This can be worked around. It takes a bit of hunting, but there are stores both physical and virtual which will sell you za’atar for a sensible price (generally speaking my rule of thumb is that you should be paying under 10% of what you’d get it for in a normal supermarket for spices – so in the above case £2-5 should buy you about 500g). There seem to be online shops for za’atar which will do this, and also some turkish supermarkets (though I’ve not been super impressed with the quality of some of the za’atar I’ve bought in London. It’s been ok, certainly it’s been better than not having za’atar, but it’s not been amazing. I think this may be because it’s made with a mix of actual thyme and other green spices in an attempt to approximate real wild thyme).

I can’t offer great advice on provisioning it unfortunately because my main source is friends and family in the middle east. I just want to make it clear that these are the quantities you should be buying it in.

And that if you haven’t tried it you should definitely be buying it.

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Chickpea and vegetable stew

This was mostly a “what can I make without going all the way outside to the store?” meal, but it ended up pretty tasty.

  • 3 medium onions
  • 4 medium potatoes
  • about 8 tiny sweet red and orange peppers
  • 2 cans chopped tomatoes
  • Lots of chickpeas (I’d guess 2-3 cans worth? I made them from dry the other day)
  • 3 large spoon fulls of dark tahini
  • about a tbsp cumin
  • half a tsp chipotle powder
  • a tbsp dried rosemary
  • plenty of olive oil
  • salt
  • balsamic vinegar
  • knorr vegetable stockpot

Cooking

It’s pressure cooker time!

Finely dice the onions, slice the peppers, and chop the carrots and peppers into < 1cm cubes. Put in the pressure cooker with olive oil, cumin, salt and some balsamic vinegar. Cook for 10 minutes after it’s come up to pressure.

Take it off the pressure. Add the tomatoes, tahini, chipotle, chickpeas, the stock pot and a little bit of water. Put back on the pressure and cook for another 10 minutes.

The result is… quite brown. A little orange maybe, but mostly brown (it’s the tahini that does that). It is however rather tasty. The flavours infuse really nicely into the potatoes cooked this way, and the combination of different flavours works quite well together.

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My kitchen has a new toy

I was talking to a colleague the other day about caramelizing onions and all of a sudden there was a pressure cooker in my kitchen.

OK. There were a few more intermediate steps than that, but that’s pretty much the gist of it:

The gist of the conversation was:

  • how caramelizing onions in a pressure cooker is great
  • pressure cookers are no longer the contrary death traps we remember from days of yore
  • they’re really no larger than a normal sized pot

The last one is particularly important for me due to the limited kitchen space available in London on my budget (ok, the “I’m not going to die horribly” bit is quite important too. But kitchen space dammit).

So when we got back the office I applied my standard impulse buy buying algorithm and on Wednesday a pressure cooker arrived. It’s this one for what it’s worth, which has a few bad reviews about longevity, but I figured I’d rather buy a cheaper one and replace it in a year or two when it turns into a mere pot than buy an expensive one and discover pressure cookers were useless.

It turns out pressure cookers aren’t useless.

I’m still not entirely used to the next day delivery thing, so I had completely failed to anticipate that I would have a pressure cooker and thus decided to make something with whatever I had to hand. The following was the result:

Caramelized onion and red lentil soup

Ingredients:

  • 1 large red onion
  • 3 small white onions
  • a little under half a pack of butter (100g?)
  • a couple liters of chicken stock I’d made the other day
  • a lot of lentils (I honestly just poured what was left of my 2kg bag in. I think this came to somewhere around 500-800g?)
  • a bit of salt
  • a bit of brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp ground chipotle
  • 3 bay leaves

I am not a precise cook, OK?

Approximate process:

  1. Put all the lentils on to soak in cold water, stirring and changing the water occasionally. This is mostly to clean off a lot of what I guess is mostly lentil dust off them but tends to give them a slightly unpleasant floury flavour.
  2. Slice the onions
  3. put them in the pressure cooker with the butter, salt and sugar
  4. Let it come up to pressure
  5. Wait 5 minutes then get a phone call
  6. Panic and take the pressure cooker off the heat because I still don’t entirely believe it’s not going to explode
  7. Spend about 15 minutes on the phone
  8. Put the pressure cooker back on the heat, leave it for another 10 minutes
  9. Observe that those onions do indeed look very nicely caramelized, and also are swimming in a delicious looking mix of butter and their own juices. I’d probably have put them back on for a little longer, but they were going to cook more in the soup and I was in a hurry.
  10. Add all the rest of the ingredients – stock, lentils, spices, etc.
  11. Let it come back up to pressure (this took a while, mostly due to time it takes to boil that much liquid) then wait another 20 minutes
  12. Observe giant pot full of tasty soup
  13. Serve with crumbled feta and white sourdough bread

This was really good soup. I had seconds despite being full from the firsts and was late to the pub as a result. Totally worth it.

I mean, this would have been tasty without the pressure cooker too, but the novel thing about the pressure cooked soup was that the cooking was really even, much more thorough that I’d normally have got for the amount of liquid lost and took way less time and effort.

More experiments will need to be performed, but I think this pressure cooker and I are going to be friends.

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Chicken breasts in red wine and caramelized onion sauce

I made this the other day. It was improvised but turned out to be really good, and I’ve been eating leftovers for it since and not feeling put out by this at all.

  • A pack of thick bacon. I used about half of it for something else, but reused the frying pan with the bacon fat in it as well as some of the bacom
  • 8 small red onions, sliced
  • About 50g butter
  • About a tbsp dark brown sugar
  • A fair bit of salt (I’ve no idea how much. “to taste”)
  • About half a bottle of dry red wine
  • 8 chicken breasts

Equipment needed: Food processor, frying pan, small baking tray

First fry the bacon quite thoroughly, then take it out and put it aside. Add the butter to the fat in the pan, let it melt, then add the onions, salt and sugar. Put on a high heat and cook for bloody ages until the onions are properly caramelized (no “put on high heat for 10 minutes” nonsense. Caramelising onions properly takes most of an hour). Slice the bacon quite thinly, add it to the onions, fry for a few more minutes then add about half the wine and some water so that the onions are just covered. Lower the heat a bit and simmer, stirring occasionally, until you’ve got a thick reduction. Add the rest of the wine and a fair bit more water and simmer for another half hour or so.

Once this is cooked, transfer to the blender and blend until you’ve got a smooth, thick sauce.

Place the chicken breasts in your baking tray and cover with the sauce.

Now bake in the oven at 160C until the chicken is tender and easily comes apart when you poke it with a fork (I think this took a little over an hour, but I forgot to time).

This should probably be part of a larger meal, but I’ve mostly just been eating it with bread. The sauce is amazing, so you definitely want something that soaks it up.

When reheating it I’ve been slicing the chicken, spooning on extra sauce and frying it in a bit of butter.

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