Delving into ‘Tana’s Kitchen Secrets’ – Week 1

Nothing like suddenly not being able to do something very well, to make you appreciate it, even if you weren’t doing much of that something for a while anyway, in this case I’d let my cooking slip, then I got my wrist done and then suddenly all I wanted to do was cook and yet even opening a jar was tricky. So, I’m easing myself back in with Tana’s Kitchen Secrets; I was a massive fan of her earlier books but I then began to find that her later books weren’t so family friendly, so I’d stopped slavishly buying every single one of her books and hadn’t thought much else of her until I spotted the aforementioned Kitchen Secrets for a fiver, piled up near the queue in WH Smiths, I folded.

So, I got it home, admittedly didn’t cook from it for a while (but I wasn’t cooking from anything) but the recipes did look interesting and it was the first book I thought of when I started thinking about doing ‘proper’ cooking again. So, how did I get on?

Monday 25th June

I seem to be having a day devoted to food today, what with allotment gardening in the morning, then home to make this, so that and a spot of the obligatory housework has meant that I’m already looking at the clock thinking “christ, not long before I have to be back at school”. The recipe is ‘simple pork stir fry’ but I substituted pork for bacon (as using this book to menu plan has already meant that I’ve bought far more meat than normal this week) and I left out the button mushrooms that seem to be in every other recipe in this book, bleurgh. Anyway, I have a tendency to think that any cook book with a recipe entitled ‘simple stir fry’ is a little like (to anyone but the most kitchen phobic newbie) trying to teach your grandmother to suck eggs, however considering the only stir fry I’ve been eating recently are ones from a packet *blush*, maybe I needed a spot of reminding / a kick up the bum.

The recipe certainly didn’t suffer from the pork / bacon substitution and it certainly didn’t suffer from the lack of button mushrooms, however with just a simple fish sauce, soy sauce and lemon juice flavouring, it didn’t really taste of anything special (certainly couldn’t taste the lemon juice). However, it did taste nicer than one of those limp packet stir fry things.

To ‘celebrate’ my return to cooking (however long it may last), I bought a new wok for this, we’d got rid of our old wok a few months ago, as it had got rusty and had decided, due to space restrictions in our tiny kitchen, that if we wanted to stir fry anything, we’d just use a frying pan and although the frying pan did the job, boy, going back to a wok, a good wok this time (unlike our previous horrible flimsy thing), it’s a world of difference. The new wok will take some getting used to though, it wasn’t an expensive one (£12 from John Lewis, boy, some woks are up to 7 – 8x that much) but it’s a lot heavier than our old one and the spiel on the wok label about it’s superior heat distribution, not kidding! Hence me overcooking the veg a little bit. Will have to do lots of stir frying to get my feel in.

Now steering way off topic, although sticking to the subject of stir fries, eating the stir fry this lunch time made me remember a book I read as a child that I really liked. I can’t remember what the book was called but it was a sci-fi / fantasy children’s book about domed cities in the future. The people who live on the surface under the domes, live a pampered, luxurious lifestyle, I remember one scene in the book where the children go to a vending machine which can serve up food from any era, they choose 20th century and they get served up pizza. But it wasn’t the vending machines I liked the most about the book, you see below the city there was an underground population, the workers who supported the city, toiling unseen and living quite the opposite lifestyle and I remember the author going into detail about what the main child character down there ate, how she queued to eat hot, fried vegetable scraps. Now when I read that as a kid, I was not good at eating my veg (I argue now because most of the veg was soggy, bland and overcooked, I still don’t like boiled veg) but there was something, even then, about the hot, fried vegetable scraps, that made my mouth water. Now back then stir frying wasn’t ‘in’, so I didn’t know what a stir fry was but ever since I did learn about stir fries, I always think of that book. (It’s funny isn’t it, how in so many bleak, sci-fi future worlds, they’re all eating Asian cuisine, I hope it comes true, although obviously not the bleak bit).

Tuesday 26th June

(Excuse the bad lighting)

Now I had planned to make pasta with bacon and veg sauce for both me and the kids but it turned out that Girl Lacer had already hadpasta for lunch (I really need to make a note of what they order for school lunch, if I’m going to menu plan properly), so I made it just for me and froze the rest of the sauce. I used to be so good at making stuff in batches and freezing stuff when the kids were a lot younger, I have no idea why I stopped. With my life right now I need to start freezing stuff again, as it’s all well and good having the intention to eat more healthy, properly home cooked food but if you haven’t got the time to prepare it, you haven’t got the time. Anyway, the sauce was really nice, possibly a bit too ‘chunky’ for my kids anyway, it was a definite ‘sit on top of the pasta’ sauce, instead of a stir in one. It was so chunky enough that I think it would make a good jacket potato filling to, a mixture of bacon, aubergine, courgette, tomato, red onion, garlic and basil (once again I missed out the horrible button mushrooms). It was topped with fried breadcrumbs mixed with parmesan and basil (obviously didn’t freeze that bit). Once I get through my stash in the freezer, I will definitely aim on making this one again.

Wednesday 27th June

Phew! All day in the kitchen or what? (Actually it was all afternoon, but I’m quibbling now). After a spot of shopping in the morning I came home to make chicken, rocket and lemon risotto for lunch.

It wasn’t the prettiest risotto I’ve ever seen (personally, I would have added the rocket a lot later than 5 minutes before the end of cooking time, so that the rocket still looked more like, ummm, rocket but I was being a good girl and following the instructions). It also wasn’t the nicest risotto I’ve ever had, I found it too rich and too salty and personally my ideal risotto does not require having to cook something separately first in a separate pan (in this case the chicken), I much prefer everything in one pan (I’m a lazy cook). I probably won’t be making this again, although the lemon was a nice touch (and I’ve learnt to trust my instincts about how much stock to put in and when to add the rocket i.e. I think the risottos where I make it up as I go along, are a lot nicer (I make a wicked tomato and pancetta one)).

After lunch I had to get the stock pot on, I had some chicken drumsticks left over from a buy two for X price deal, from when I had bought chicken drumsticks for Boy Lacer’s cooking efforts and they were about to go out of date. So I made the chicken broth recipe from Tana’s Kitchen Secrets. Once I’d got all that on the stove simmering away, it was then time to make tea (in advance), which was bacon and cheese pastry parcels. I adapted the parcels recipe a bit (actually I adapted the broth recipe a bit to, just bunging in what I had, the ingredient list was long), the parcels were, surprise, surprise, meant to have mushroom in, instead I used leek (frying it with the bacon) and swapped the herb from basil to thyme.

These were eaten in between pick up from after school clubs and before ballet, sitting sheltering under a tree by the river in the drizzle. They were nice (they beat what I normally feed the kids on Wednesdays) and I will probably make them again, the recipe is very adaptable and I already quite fancy trying these with roasted veg but I did find them rich, but that may be because I still hadn’t recovered from that lunchtime’s risotto.

As for the broth, I was by this time so knackered, by the end of the 2 hour simmer, I hadn’t been keeping as close an eye on the water level, so I didn’t get as much broth as I would have liked. But it was enough for a soup base for the next day, so in the fridge it went.

But, ah, that wasn’t the end of my cooking for the day. I still had breadcrumbs left over from yesterday’s pasta and I didn’t want them to go to waste, so when I came back from ballet, had put the kids to bed, it saw me in the kitchen making the start of a treacle tart and moaning to Mr. Lacer that it’s impossible to eat nice, home cooked, healthy food and have a life away from the kitchen, no matter what Jamie Oliver says.

Thursday 28th June

No photos today, not an overly successful day. Where shall I start? Well, the soup I made using the broth I made yesterday? Bland and at the same time overpowered by the flavour of star anise (one of the spices I did have, that was on Tana’s list). It was ok (and when I got the broth out of the fridge it was jellified, sign of a good stock apparently) but it so was not worth yesterday’s effort.

Then the treacle tart I started yesterday? Well the filling was lovely but Tana’s instructions for the cooking the pastry case were next to useless. Now I haven’t made many tarts but I know about blind baking the case first but when the instructions didn’t say to do that, I thought fair enough, she knows what she’s doing, hmmmm. And then I did wonder about the very low oven temperature . . . And I was right to wonder, no way was the tart ready by the time the cooking time was up, I ended up having to up the temperature and leave it in the oven for an extra half an hour but even then (and because of the lack of blind baking) the pastry was not cooked properly.

And then there was tea, a beef and aubergine rigatoni bake, where I turned out not to have enough sauce or aubergine to cover the pasta properly and the cheese sauce was cottage cheese, cottage cheese, that should stay in the 80s, bleurgh. The kids did like it but I didn’t.

Friday 29th June

365:181 Birthday cakeMr. Lacer’s birthday today, I went to have lunch with him in his lunch hour (so odd, time alone with no kids in the next room or anything, odd but nice). I made the Victoria Sponge from Tana’s Kitchen Secrets for his birthday cake at tea time. Victoria Sponge is Mr. Lacer’s favourite type of cake and I used to be rubbish at making them but I think I cracked it one or two Victoria Sponge’s ago and Tana’s recipe didn’t throw any spanners in the works, so result, it was quite nice (probably the nicest thing I’ve made this week, although that’s not saying that much). Mr. Lacer and Girl Lacer thought there was too much jam in it though, but isn’t that the point?

Verdict so far

I need to eat better, I know I do, but a week of home cooking from Tana’s Kitchen Secrets has not left me feeling bouncing with health, instead quite the opposite, it’s left me knackered. However, the fridge is pretty much empty, so far less food wastage.

I don’t think I’d begrudge the time spent cooking if the results were more consistently nice, I think the big reward with home cooking is that moment when you take the first bite and it tastes so nice you do a little dance of joy around the kitchen. If what you just made doesn’t taste as nice as an equivalent you could go and buy from a shop, then there really isn’t that much point.

I also think that there are less labour intensive recipes out there.

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