Monday, June 18, 2007

Vegetarian shepherd's pie

Any time you ask Pete what he wants for tea (that's dinner to you posh non-English folks), he always says "Shepherds pie?" with a puppy-dog look in his eyes and every bit of him radiating quivering hope. It's really probably his most favourite traditional British dish (I say British, because apparently it's meant to be a Scottish dish and I didnt want to offend anybody's sensibilities by calling it an English dish!), one he's happy to eat any time I make it.

Usually shepherds pie is made with minced lamb (it becomes "cottage pie" if it's made with minced beef, I think), but this time Pete asked me to try making it with frozen vegetarian mince - soya mince or some such vegetarian protein. I've made shepherds pie for Pete plenty of times, but never tasted it myself because I dont like any kind of meat. He's always full of praise for my shepherds pie and he felt it was high time I tried it too.

Dont be misled by the term "pie" here, because this has no pastry of any kind. Actually it can be quite a healthy dish if you lay off the cream, butter and cheese that add to the richness - and calories, natch. If you ask me, it doesnt require those ingredients at all.

What I used to mash the potatoes was a tablespoon of margarine instead of butter, and some hot semi-skimmed milk instead of cream. (Hot milk, because if you use cold milk, the potatoes lump up and wont mash at all!). It worked just fine. I'm not much of a cheese person, plus I didnt have any on hand anyway, so that was out as well. The shepherds pie was filling and spicy (as I'd increased the heat content a bit), fragrant with herbs - and best of all, it didnt contain meat. Pete said he was perfectly happy to always forego the meat in the dish, as the soya mince provided the texture he likes. Three cheers for soya mince!

Recipe for:
Vegetarian shepherds pie


1-1/2 cups frozen vegetarian mince
1 large carrot, halved length-wise and cut into 1/2cm thick semi-circles
1 cup frozen or fresh garden peas
1 large onion chopped
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce (vegetarian if you can get it)
1 scant tsp hot chilli sauce (I used West Indian scotch bonnet pepper sauce)
1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
2 cups vegetable stock (from stock cube or fresh)
1/2 cup red wine/Guinness (optional)
1 tsp browning (optional - it's just brown food colouring)
2 tbsp fresh herbs chopped (I used basil, rosemary, thyme and parsley)
2 tbsp olive oil

For the mash topping:
4 large potatoes, boiled and peeled
Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup hot milk
1 tbsp butter or margarine
1/2 tsp 21-spice seasoning (available at Trader Joe's!) - optional


1. Heat the olive oil in a pan. Add the chopped onions and fry on high for 2-3 minutes. Then add the carrots, peas, mince and herbs and stir well. Let it all cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

2. Now add the 2 cups stock and bring to a boil.

3. Add the Guinness/red wine or browning (if using) and stir. Add the Worcestershire sauce and the chilli sauce and stir it in.

4. Let the mixture boil for about 5 minutes, or till the carrots are partly cooked. The gravy shouldnt be runny - if it is, thicken it with cornflour. Pour the mixture into a flat-bottom deep casserole dish. (There should be about 3 inches space to the rim of the dish after the mince mixture has been poured in. My casserole dish was a bit small, so the gravy simply bubbled and overflowed - hence the messy look!)

5. Meanwhile, peel the potatoes. Put them in a large bowl while they are still hot.

6. Mash them so as to break them up into small pieces, then add 1 tbsp margarine or butter and beat well with a wooden spoon.

7. Add the hot milk in two additions and beat till the mash is fairly smooth (a few small lumps dont matter). Add the seasoning at the end and mix in well.

8. Spoon the mash over the top of the mince mixture in the casserole dish, spreading gently with the back of the wooden spoon. If it's sticking, dip the spoon in water.

Be careful that the gravy doesnt come up over the top of the mash, or it will look messy. (It's ok if this happens after baking!)

9. When all the mash has been spread evenly over the gravy, dot the top of it with a little butter here and there.

10. Place in a pre-heated oven (180C) and bake for 30 minutes or till the top of the mashed potato turns golden brown.

Remove carefully from the oven and let the shepherds pie rest for 10 minutes. Serve hot with a selection of green vegetables.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Banana-pistachio muffins

I have to say that baking with eggs is a LOT less hassle than egg-free baking. As per my previous post on fried-vs-baked, I really think that egg-free baked goodies usually come off second-best. They are fairly uncommon occasions when I'm perfectly satisfied with eggless baking outcomes.

The thing is, I dont have the time or the patience to keep trying variations on recipes to see which might work out best. I prefer to let others do the trying-and-testing - this is why I buy cookbooks, for cryin' out loud! It really annoys me when a cake turns out too gluey or too crumbly or too crisp - especially when I've been trying to make the cake as a special item for someone (like my mother) who will not eat eggs or anything made with them.

So, just to get over the last few occasions when I've been dissatisfied with my baking efforts, I made these muffins. (One egg required). Well, not JUST because of that. Also because I had two overripe bananas - whose lives I had protected endangering life and limb. Pete doesnt like to be around overripe bananas. (He's the kind of guy who eats his bananas just barely ripe.) I had to resort to hiding the damn things around the house the last couple of days, moving them from place to place, while he went around sniffing the air like a bloodhound. Or possibly like the Giant at the top of the Beanstalk. ("Fee fi fo fass, I smell me some overripe bananass" - ok, never claimed I could rhyme well, or at all).

Anyway, this recipe makes six large muffins - no fuss, no mess. I liked them especially because they werent oversweet. Nice with a glass of milk.

Recipe for:
Banana-pistachio muffins


1 heaped cup all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
2 overripe bananas
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 egg
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
a handful of pistachio nuts, roughly chopped


1. Preheat oven to 180C.

2. In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, and salt.

3. Mash the bananas with a fork in a small bowl.

4. Remove 1/2 the mashed bananas to another bowl. Add the sugar and whip it briskly with a balloon whisk for 2 minutes.

5. Add the oil, egg and vanilla and beat well.

6. Now add this to the flour and mix till just incorporated.

7. Fold in the nuts and the mashed bananas with a rubber spatula.

Spoon the batter into the muffin tins (use paper cups if you like) to fill them 3/4ths of the way.

8. Bake until a toothpick stuck in the muffins comes out clean.

Let cool for a few minutes in the pan before turning the muffins out.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Fat-free microwave potato crisps

In religious terms, I was an agnostic. Not only did I not believe in the existence of the perfect tasty non-fried non-fat potato crisp, I even (privately) questioned the veracity of those who waxed lyrical about the properties of that mythical snack.

But before you blame me for my cynicism, stop a moment and think - does it seem possible that the potato could make a tasty crisp without the use of hot oil in which to fry it?

Crisp, chip, wafer - whatever. Take your pick, depending on which part of the world you are from. A chip by any other name is a wafer, or indeed even a crisp. The name doesnt matter. (But the matter does.) Does it matter if you address the One Great Entity In The Sky as Allah, Ram or Jesus? No, as long as you believe in the Entity, the name is merely that - a name. It doesnt change the basic spirit of the matter.

Anyway. Set aside, just for a few moments, the principles of healthy cooking/eating/living which govern our day-to-day lives, and think about this: NOTHING beats the taste of savoury (and some sweet) goodies that have been deep fried - samosa, bajji, papad, pakoda, kachori etc. Yes, we bake some of these in the oven and pretend that they're "just as tasty" but really you know they're not. It's just a compromise on taste made in the interests of fat-free healthy cooking.

That, in short, was my attitude. I was convinced that the phrase "fat-free" automatically meant "taste-free" - or at the very least, diminished taste.

But wait! Dont despair at my attitude, dont turn away from me (and certainly puhleeese dont shun my blog!!!!). Because I have Seen The Light! I believe in that holiest of holies - the grail of foodies - that Mecca of gourmands - the very Nirvana for potato crisp fans.... yes, I BELIEVE in the oil-free potato crisp! The TASTY oil-free, any-kind-of-fat-free potato crisp!

(Yes, chip, wafer, whatever... go back to the start for a re-run).

(Evidently I also believe in dissing all religions equally, but please forgive me this once. It's just too revelationary a moment for me!)

And after all that, in simple words - I believe that you CAN make perfectly tasty potato crisps in the microwave. Granted, they wont last well, not even overnight, to be honest. But when you eat them fresh... ahhh! They wont last even 10 minutes, if you're anything like me and my family.

The downside to these heavenly crisps is that if you have a small microwave oven, it will take absolutely AGES to accumulate enough crisps to serve even two people - especially if you keep eating them as quickly as they come out of the microwave!

But this is only a little obstacle in the Path to the Perfect Potato Crisp. Take it from the newly converted.

Recipe for:
Fat-free microwave potato crisps


3-4 small potatoes (I used Jersey Gold), sliced very thin (I used a peeler, actually!)
Pam spray (original will do)
A flat microwave-safe dish
A microwave oven
Salt and other condiments/spices/herbs to taste


1. Spray the dish lightly and evenly with Pam.

2. Lay the thinly sliced potatoes on it in a single layer, making maximum use of the space available.

3. Sprinkle on salt and whatever spices/herbs you like.

4. Microwave for 3 minutes at first, check to see the done-ness of the crisps, then microwave again (a bit of experimentation required here, but usually another 2 minutes will do) till they are crisp and golden.

Once you find out the time required for optimum crispness and done-ness, you can straightaway put in the correct time. Mine took 5 minutes per batch.