15 Easy Ways to Improve a Bland Meal!

Before I get into the ways to make a bland meal taste so much better I'll just explain what inspired this post.

I have been experimenting with Quora and am getting quite hooked. If you're not familiar with Quora it is a very interesting and useful site where people ask questions and other people answer them! When I signed up I said I could answer questions on food, cooking, recipes, leftovers, ice cream and the British Virgin Islands. Having done this I can then answer any questions related to these subjects and some of them are pretty weird, I can tell you!  My favourites so far have been ..

What if any person's shoes you touched turned to cheese, would you eat those shoes?

And ...

Is it unethical to eat vegetables when they are unripe?  I mean as in being below the age of vegetable-puberty. What if the vegetable really wants to be eaten?

Some of them, however, have been sensible and one has inspired me to write this post! 

ideas- to-improve-a-dish
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What are some tips and tricks for turning a bland meal into something delicious?

Below are my ideas ...

1.  Firstly and most importantly a little salt helps everything, even sweet dishes (salted caramel – yum!) if used abstemiously.  Crunchy sea salt such as Maldon or Cornish Sea Salt are extra delicious when you bite on a crystal!

2. Flavoured salts add a new twist, smoked salt, chilli salt, lemon salt etc. are easily available or try making Bacon Salt, it's great on all sorts of things, try it with maple syrup for instance!

3. A squeeze of lemon juice or other citrus will brighten the flavour of fish, vegetables and in some cases chicken dishes.  Or, here’s an attractive idea, serve on a bed of sliced citrus fruit and it will not only look pretty, the flavour will infuse into the food.

4. Add a drizzle of vinaigrette to fresh vegetables eg. mint vinaigrette with peas.  Lots of vinaigrette recipes and info here.

5. A little sugar will help tomato dishes or, even better ...

6.  Gastrique

This is a useful thing to make and keep in your storecupboard, it can add flavour to all sorts of things.

60g sugar
225 (leftover!) red wine

~   Slowly heat together the water and sugar till dissolved and then cook without stirring, although you can swirl a bit, till caramelised.
~  Add the red wine (carefully, it will splutter) and then stir over low heat till the caramel, which will have hardened, has melted back into the wine.
~  Simmer over low heat till the mixture has reduced back down to about 60ml.
~  Cool.

A little gastrique adds a great boost to tomato soups and sauces and is also great drizzled over blue cheese, added to pan juices, added to fruits especially peaches or strawberries and even topped up with sparkling water as a different sort of spritzer.  Here's some drizzled onto a baked pear stuffed with blue cheese.

7. Whisk a little butter (flavoured if you like and as appropriate, e.g. garlic butter) into a sauce to improve both flavour and texture.  See here for some flavoured butter ideas.

8. Flavoured oils also work well stirred in at the last minute;sesame oil  is a good addition to Oriental dishes or make your own infused oils. Holy Lama  make a great range of oils specifically designed to add to finished dishes.  Here’s my review and some ideas for them

9. Drizzle a dish with a suitably flavoured oil or glaze or sauce.  This is balsamic glaze drizzled over fried leftover polenta.

10. Add grated Parmesan cheese to boost umami (savouriness).

11. Sprinkle dishes with fresh herbs chosen in accordance with the dish - these are Flowers of Scotland on simple potato soup but something less stunning will taste good too!

12. Speaking of sprinkling, Pangrattato is a delicious and crunchy addition to almost anything!

13. Freshly ground spices will perk things up; black pepper with most things, nutmeg with potatoes or spinach, paprika (smoked or otherwise) with whatever you fancy.  A little chilli not only enhances savoury dishes but can be great with sweet dishes too such as fruit salads or chocolate mousse and so can cinnamon.
The flower thing in the front is for
display purposes only! It is the
wotsit by which a coconut is attached to the tree.

14. Sprinkle flavoured sugars such as cinnamon or lemon on sweet dishes, vanilla sugar is great of course or see here for a wonderful thing!!! 

14. Make the food look appealing – this gets the old gastric juices flowing and so helps with both digestion and enjoyment of the meal.

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9 Great Coatings for Fried Foods

We are Up North at the moment and recently ate some of the splendid fish and chips that is rife in the North East,  my real man's piece of haddock was as big as his forearm and it is not a small arm


This got me thinking about various coatings for fried food~ here are nine good ones.


    1.        Seasoned Flour

This is a very light coating which is not suitable for deep frying and is suitable for delicate items. It's just plain flour with a little seasoning. Turn a piece of fish or fish cake or whatever in the flour and it should adhere to quite naturally Shallow fry and it will form a light crust as in these fried green tomatoes. 

 ~   Batters  ~

Pin for later reference!
When applying batter it is a good idea to first give the food a light coating of flour to help it stick.

2.       Flour & Water Batter

This is a light and crispy batter which absorbs little oil.  It is important to cook no further than a  pale ivory colour.  Rest the batter for 30 minutes before using to allow the gluten to relax or will shrink and expose the fish or whatever you have under it.  This makes enough batter to coat 4 x 200g fish for instance.
110g self-raising flour
½ teaspoon salt
150 ml water

~   Sift together the flour and salt (plus other seasonings if you wish).
~   Gradually whisk in the water to form a smooth batter.

This is even lighter if made with sparkling water.  Which leads me, quite naturally, to ...

3.      Beer Batter ~ a classic for Fish and Chips

A great tasting light and crispy batter which is a classic for fish 'n' chips.

Replace the water in the above batter with beer, English bitter is usual here but lager style beers work too.


Taking this a step further ...

4.      Yeast Batter

This batter has a pleasant slightly bready taste. 

15ml warm water
1 x 7g sachet easy-blend dried yeast
225g plain flour
½ tsp salt
300ml beer

~   Stir the yeast into the water and set aside somewhere warm for about 10 minutes till all foamy.
~   Stir the salt into the flour and make a well.
~   Put the yeast mixture into the well and then gradually whisk in the beer to make a smooth pancake batter consistency. If too thick add a little water when you run out of beer.
~   Cover and set aside at room temperature till bubbly – about 30 mins.
~   Chill till needed.

5.      Tempura Batter

Very light, good for delicates such as shrimp and vegetables. This batter should be made at the last minute, just before using.

90g plain flour
1 tbsp cornflour
½ tsp salt
200ml sparkling water – as cold as cold can be

~   Sift together the flour, cornflour and salt.
~   Whisk in the water till just combined – a few small lumps are OK!
~   As I said before – use immediately
~   Dip the food to be fried into the batter and then hold aloft to allow excess to drip off.

6.      Cornmeal Batter

This make a pleasant gritty coating with shades of the Deep South so flavour accordingly with Cajun seasoning or, if you can get it, Old Bay Seasoning which is ubiquitous in the States and is especially good with seafood. Failing that a pinch of chilli powder.

80g yellow cornmeal
60g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
½ tsp salt
1 beaten egg
120ml milk

~   Stir together the dry ingredients.
~   Whisk in the wet ingredients to a smooth batter.

~   Dry Coatings   ~

To add a dry coating follow these guidelines ...

~   In addition to the breadcrumbs or other coating have ready a dish of seasoned flour and a bowl of egg beaten with a spoonful or two of water.
~   Make sure the item to be coated is dry.
~   Coat said item in the flour, dip in the beaten egg and then coat with dry coating.
~   Set aside for a few minutes for the coating to set a bit before frying.

An easy way to apply the dry coating is to have the crumbs or cornmeal in a deep straight sided box. Drop the eggy item into it and shake the box to coat.  Lift it out and continue with the next piece.


   7.      Cornmeal Crust

Mix together equal quantities of yellow cornmeal and plain flour together with seasonings; salt, black pepper and perhaps paprika and cayenne to taste. As this is a recipe from the Deep South buttermilk is traditional instead of egg for dipping.

8.      Bread Crumbs

You could use the vibrantly coloured bought in crumbs or alternatively make your own!  You knew I’d say that.

~   Fresh Breadcrumbs – run leftover bread through the food process or hand grate to crumbs.
~   Dry Breadcrumbs - bake leftover bread at 300°F/150ºC/130ºC fan/gas 2 till completely dry. Cool then process or crush to fine crumbs. 

9.      Japanese Bread Crumbs (Panko)

If you are familiar with this blog you will know that I am very keen indeed on these and use them in all sorts of unusual ways.  They make a lovely thick crunchy coating for fried food - these are shallow fried slices of avocado.


SERIOUS WARNING – if perchance you don’t have a deep fryer and use a saucepan make sure it is a deep one with straight sides and fill it no more than a third. Some people say half full is OK but I don’t believe them!

Of course crispy coatings are a great way to make all sorts of leftovers delicious!

In Other News ...

~   I’m rather proud that "The Leftovers Handbook" and I have been mentioned in the May/June issue of Marks & Spencer’s Magazine thus ... 

M & S review of The Leftovers Handbook

... although I really wish they’d got this blog’s name right, added a link and perhaps a picture of my book.  Still buggers can’t be choosers!

Melted Onion Panade - delicious!

And to friends in Padstow may I say Oss Oss!  I’m sad I can’t make it there this year.

To business ...

The other day I cooked and ate a strange and marvellous thing; a panade which is generally deemed to be part of the soup family but also, I think, is related to the bread and butter pudding clan, a bit strata-ish if you are an American. 

Melted Onion Panade – for 4

Please use good (leftover) bread for this; I like sourdough,  because it goes well with the onions (and I make my own sourdough) but any good rustic substantial sort of bread will do.

caramelised onion strata
Pin it - don't forget it!
3 large onions
3 tbsp olive oil
350g good bread – thickly sliced
About 500ml good beef stock (or other if you prefer) – hot
200g grated cheese

~   Melt the onions in the olive oil and when utterly tender turn up the heat and stir till starting to caramelise.
~   Preheat the oven to 350°F/180ºC/160ºC fan/gas 4.
~   Lay the sliced bread on a baking sheet and pop in the oven for a few minutes till dried out but not taking any colour.
~   Butter a shallow ovenproof dish and lay a third of the bread slices in it. Break them if necessary to fit in neatly.
~   Spread with half the onions and sprinkle with a third of the cheese.
~   Repeat these layers, using up all the onions.
~   Top with the final third of bread and sprinkle with the last of the cheese.
~   Pour over the stock, adding just enough to lift the top layer of bread so it starts to float. Do this gently so the cheese stays in place!
~   Cover the dish with a sheet of foil and bake for 45 minutes then remove the foil and bake another 20 minutes or so till the cheese is golden and delicious looking.

The result was a thick, warm, comforting (and cheap) sort of French Onion Porridge (OK, I admit it, I did add a tad of brandy to the stock).  Really delicious and I won’t be at all surprised if I make it again quite soon.  I wish I'd tried this before and put it in Creative Ways to Use Up Leftovers although that does already contain at least 18 great ways to use up leftover bread.

Speaking of which, obviously this dish lends itself to the addition of any leftovers you have that need using up; wilted chard is traditional and kale fashionable but leftover cooked vegetables, meats, beans etc. will all work well.

In Other News ...

easy no-churn ice cream recipe book
Great review for Luscious Ice Cream without a Machine – it’s as if she knows me

I love ice cream but am allergic to an ingredient added to most commercial brands (propylene glycol). I have tried machines but they never worked well and most recipes required cooking first. So I was overjoyed to find this book! These are recipes anyone could do at home. I also loved the entertaining style the author writes with. She made it fun to just read the recipes. I could imagine her standing in the kitchen, sneaking sips of brandy and pieces of chocolate while whipping up ice cream. That is truly a difficult task with cookbooks, so kudos for a great concept, recipe, and writing style.”

And here is an entirely onion-appropriate photo I took on a recent trip to France, I've been waiting for a chance to post it!

onions, bike, France!

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