It’s damn well bloody over! 69-er is COMPLETE.

And it ends with mixed feelings (and an expanded waistline!).  I’m sorry that there’s no longer going to be anything pushing us out of our comfort zone of routine dinners.  That there won’t be anything that motivates me to whip up a cake or some scones after dinner when I normally couldn’t be arsed.  That it may not occur to me any more to sling together a casual salad or soup for a saturday lunch instead of a sandwich.  However I am relieved that I stand a chance now to lose the weight I’ve put on in the last 9 weeks.  And that I can do other things in life other than cook and pick recipes!

So what have been the wins?

Engaging with cookbooks I normally can’t be bothered to open has been a wonderful discovery.  Who’d have thought that cookbooks without photos actually work?  I love a visual demonstration of a dish to inspire me but a number of my cookbooks didn’t help me out with that. And guess what? The food tasted just as good without the photo.

If a cookbook is old it doesn’t stop it from being excellent – Jamie Oliver’s Naked Chef (1999) helped me to make the best beer bread in the world and Nigella’s How To Eat (1998) provided the recipe to an exquisite mushroom ragu.

Even if I don’t particularly like a chef on tv (Rick Stein – I find him very whingey) doesn’t mean that they can’t write an amazing cookery book. I was literally blown away by Rick’s creamy leak cannelloni.

It’s forced me to try different sorts of cooking – I often avoid my Asian/Indian/Chinese cookbooks because the ingredients can be difficult to source.  But we managed and the dishes were a joy.

Conquering bread was a HUGE deal for me.  I’ve talked about making bread for YEARS and with this challenge I made pitta bread, beer bread and potato bread.  My fear of breadmaking has gone.

It’s confirmed to me that some of my favourites will remain favourites.  I refer to them again, but Nigella and Jamie never failed to deliver amazing food throughout the challenge.

And what will I be taking with me going forward?

I’m going to be more curious about my cookery books and not stick to my comfort zone of my three favourite healthy cook books. Different styles of cooking have different merits and it’s fun to mix it up.  I hope to make an attempt to return to as many of those 69 books as possible.

Finally let me talk you through the last eleven recipes of the challenge. They were all pretty lovely – apart from the Basil and Mango Smoothie (Innocent Smoothie Recipe Book) which was a bit bland.  You can look at all the dishes on the collage below, but I’ll pick out my top 3 faves.

  1. Beetroot and Feta and Mint Salad – Fabulous Baker Brothers.  A bit faffy to make as you had to roast the beetroots then de-skin them with rubber gloves.  Messy work I can tell you. But this was a beauty of a dish – fresh and wholesome and deliciously oniony.
  2. Leek Cannelloni – Rick Stein.  This took ages to make and involved four pans on the go at once.  Every element required steeping and simmering and several stages (eg infuse the milk for the cheese sauce for 20 mins with bay leaves, onions & garlic before you even make the cheese sauce!).  And the lasagne sheets we had to boil in a pot ended up stuck together so we had to chuck them out and have a pasta-less cheese bake. However this didn’t matter and the effort was worth it.  It was out of this world.  The tomato sauce was rich, the leeks with ricotta were a great combination and the cheese sauce was so  flavourful and creamy – it was the icing on the cake.
  3. Baked Cheesecake – James Martin.  I went through a phase about six years ago when I’d have people over for dinner and I’d ALWAYS make a cheesecake.  I was obsessed – I must have tried ten different varieties of cheesecake.  So since that overkill, I don’t make cheesecakes, until the challenge that is.  As it turns out I think it’s the best cheesecake I’ve ever made – the lemon zest and whisky soaked sultanas added a subtle and sophisticated twist to a traditional recipe.

So now 69-er is over, what next? Well certainly for the next two weeks before my holiday I’m going to be doing a lot of healthy eating recipes to lose those extra pounds I’ve gained. So expect a post about that.  And for the next challenge – I’m not quite sure yet, but it would be nice to start another juicy challenge in September.  A food waste challenge or mastering a cuisine are appealing ideas.  Do comment and let me know if you have any suggestions for me!

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69 in 69 – I’m raising the bar

We’re only on day 14, and we’re up to 15 recipes, so it feels appropriate to change the challenge to completing 69 recipes in 69 days.  I’m sure we can do it and I’ve moved the deadline day to 28th July instead of end of September. Go us!

And rather than drown you in detail, here is a quick whistle stop tour of all the nine recipes we cooked this week:

Beetroot Brownies: Red Velvet Chocolate Heartache (all the cakes in this book are made from vegetables).  These brownies were a revelation.  Easy to make even if the beetroot peeling and chopping was a little messy on the hands.  And MY GOD, they packed a punch – moist, rich, earthy.  I couldn’t get enough of them.

Moroccan chicken kebabs and panzella salad: Good Housekeeping Step by Step Cook Book. I’ve wanted to make panzella salad ever since I had one that blew my mind in Tuscany a few years ago.  Who would have thought that some stale bread, tomatoes and cucumber could taste so good?  But it’s quite something.  And the whole meal was a magical combination for a stunningly sunny bank holiday sunday.

Griddled nectarines with feta salad: Good Food 101 Veggie Dishes. This was a saturday lunchtime quickie – just a few simple ingredients compiled in ten minutes.  A gorgeous, light combination of salty feta, sweet melty hot nectarines and fresh mint.

Jamie chose a slow roasted Persian Lamb recipe with pomegranate salad: Good Food 101 Slow-Cooking Recipes. I was not keen – it involved pomegranate molasses and a pomegranate – I wasn’t convinced we’d find either of those in the Stockport suburbs of Hazel Grove.  However Jamie’s enthusiasm won out.  He even MADE the pomegranate molasses!  The thing that impressed us most was the pomegranate salad.  Yes the lamb was succulent and delicious (four hours of cooking in molasses), but the salad was tart, juicy and beautiful – a wonderful compliment to the lamb.

Smoked haddock with white beans and parsley : Gordon Ramsey Cooking for Friends was last friday night’s supper treat.  Jamie found it a bit fiddly – there was pureeing and faffy stages to the dish, but as the consumer of the dish, I was delighted.  It was stylish and showy to look at and just felt like something that you would be served in a posh restaurant.  Bacon and smoked haddock is a great combination and the bean/thyme mash was lovely.

Jamaican chops: Caribbean Food Made Easy with Levi Roots.  A week day simple dinner for us – pork chops slow cooked in a fiery, sweet tomato sauce with celery, peppers and lime. Easy to assemble, tasty and comforting.

Salmon fillet wrapped in proscuitto with herby lentils, spinach and yoghurt: Jamie Oliver The Return of the Naked Chef was a desperation choice.  It was late in the evening and I needed to pick something easy for the next day.  Everything else in this cookbook looked long-winded, but when I spied this I was a happy girl.  Speedy, simple and healthy.  And it really delivered.  It’s not the most aesthetically pleasing dish but prosciutto and salmon REALLY works – the salty meat enhances the salmon and those herby lentils were a nice earthy, flavourful background to the dish.

Keralan Coconut Curry: Anjum’s Indian Vegetarian Feast.  Another beautiful book that had never been cooked from. The curry was creamy, spicy and had lovely depth – for me it was delicious but nothing earth shattering as I’ve had many similar curries, but it really wowed Jamie.

Spurred on by last week’s pitta success I baked oatmeal and potato bread: Home Baking Cookbook.  It was a cheap and easy number (apart from having to make the mash which was a pain!).  Admittedly we did burn the entire top of the loaf, but it really had no affect on the flavour.  It was a dense bread wholesome bread – perfect for making picnic sandwiches with the leftover feta from the salad. I’m definitely getting into this bread making thing – it’s satisfyingly easy and I love the therapeutic process of kneading the dough.

It’s been an intense week of cooking and eating and I’ve loved it.  This challenge is proving to be a real adventure – it’s a heartening and nostalgic experience re-connecting with my neglected books.   Fancy joining me in a similar challenge? Comment below and fill me in!