Thursday, 3 November 2011

Chermoula Chicken, Cauliflower Fritters, Roasted Veg Risoni, Lime Yoghurt and a Lemon and Raspberry Teacake

I am definitely learning that I am a cook of big flavours. When it comes to my approach it isn’t simply a matter of say peeling and boiling or roasting a potato; it’s about what I can cover it with, dress it in, add to it. I get an ingredient and I think ‘what would this go with’. I believe there are pros and cons to this approach. The pros I suppose would be that the meals I try to create are somehow in sync on the plate, each element comes to compliment the other creating a balanced dish. Another pro would be that each mouthful is flavoursome and interesting to taste, there is rarely a dull moment so to speak. A con however would be that I rarely let an ingredient just speak for itself; it is not enough to leave a vegetable naked on the plate, I have to dress it up in something. Another con is that cooking becomes rather time consuming, having to constantly chop and blitz and marinade. It is testament to say Italian cuisine that proves it is simply the produce itself that is enough to provide savoury satisfaction and pleasure, granted with the addition of a drizzle of olive oil and perhaps some salt. 
Ironically I am a big supporter of the idea of simple pleasures. Ham off the bone with mayo on some bread? Delicious. Pasta with butter and parmesan? A winner. Yet when it comes to more serious cooking I can’t leave the extras alone. Take this week’s meal, practically every single component had an extensive array of herbs in it. The chicken was covered in coriander, mint and parsley, the fritters had parsley and coriander stalks in the batter, the risoni had mint mixed through it. Plus there was the addition of chilli, spring onion, shallots, a numerous mix of spices, zest. It all culminated in multiple bowls containing multiple chopped goods ready to be combined into multiple items. I suppose that when you purchase something like a curry paste you are buying exactly that – numerous ingredients put together holding high amounts of flavour; all easy and ready to go. And it is definitely the preparation side of cooking that takes longer than the actually cooking side, so these products are certainly convenient. I just seem to be addicted to getting all these elements together myself instead.
I wouldn’t lie and say that I haven’t got the necessary equipment to make all this chopping a little easier, I know that Jamie Oliver is a big encourager of what you can do with a magi mix, and a friend recently introduced me to the wonders of a garlic crusher – who would’ve thought! These technologies in the kitchen certainly make preparation easier. I suppose it’s that I’ve been taught to use the board and knife, and that’s where I feel most comfortable. That and there’s nothing wrong with improving those knife skills a little right?
I did get involved with the barbecue this week however. I don’t know why it has taken me so long to utilise its potential. The boned chicken thighs grilled nicely on the flame for about five minutes, giving that great barbecue taste, before I covered them in the chermoula marinade and finishing them in the oven. The risoni had zucchini and char-grilled peppers in it with some spring onion, mint, toasted seeds and red wine vinegar, and the cauliflower was mixed with a batter of flour, egg, cumin, parsley, coriander, chilli, cinnamon, turmeric and shallots. I made some lime yoghurt as well to accompany which tied everything together. Getting my gist yet?
With my new kitchen aid mixer still waiting to be used I thought a simple cake for dessert would be a nice way to break it in. I found a recipe for a standard lemon teacake and decided to add raspberries that I found in the freezer. Frozen berries are a great addition to have in the freezer, not only do they keep but they taste great and they’re a lot cheaper than the punnets you find these days. I am a fan anyway. The kitchen aid lived up to its reputation creaming the butter and sugar beautifully, then I simply added eggs, lemon zest, lemon juice, ground almonds, a small amount of flour, and the berries. I love cakes for that reason, so simple to make but so good to eat. I cut up some strawberries to accompany and made a glaze just out of lemon juice and icing sugar for on top.
Whether or not lots of flavour comes with lots of work, the outcome seems worth it. There were lots of nice ‘mmm...’ sounds coming from around the table as we ate, and as a learning cook there’s nothing better than that sound.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Portuguese Seafood Stew with Aioli and An Apple and Walnut Cake

 I had lots of fun cooking this week’s dinner. Funny because it made me realise how much I obviously hadn’t been having fun with the other things I had been cooking. I think I had been so adept at concentrating and wanting to get things right that I forgot just to do it and see what happens. You know, take the more light-hearted approach. It wasn’t as if this week’s meal was a cop-out, I still chose to do something I haven’t tried before, but I don’t know, I just never seemed to worry or panic this time about the outcome. Maybe after reading a few recipes I just had faith that it would all turn out ok.
After a few rays of sunshine showed themselves that day I opted out of my original plan to do shepherd’s pie and went for seafood stew instead. A place I used to work at had it on the menu at one time and everyone seemed to get very excited by it. So I thought I’d have a go at getting excited by it too. The general gist of a Portuguese stew is to have your base of onions, garlic, peppers, tomato, and to add the various fish and seafood in layers on top of this so it all steams and infuses and becomes a big pot of hot juicy tasty goodness. I chose to add chorizo to the base for a bit of spiciness and smokeyness, as well as the usual aromatics: peppercorns, bay, white wine. Oh and some parsley. Now in the past I haven’t actually ventured far into the seafood section at the market, mainly out of fear and inexperience, but it was nice to by-pass the loins and hanging carcasses in the butchery aisles and go instead to those fishy stalls nearby. With seafood it seems that you certainly get what you pay for and I wasn’t keen on going for the cheap and cheerful option and choosing fish that wasn’t going to add any flavour to the dish, or that was going to fall apart when you stuck your fork in it. It cost a bit more, but in the end I bought a selection of basa fillet, swordfish, prawns, mussels and clams. I think variety is key to a good seafood stew and I thought each of those would combine nicely in the pot.  

With potatoes in the dish the starch component was spoken for, but I recalled that a good bit of crunchy toast with aioli was a good accompaniment with the fish so decided to make a batch of the heart-stopping condiment. I haven’t made much of my own mayonnaise so far, even though it’s one of the first things they teach you how to do at school. But bringing out the magi-mix instead of the bowl and whisk made things a lot easier and faster, and in the end it looked the part. I may have gone a little overboard on the garlic however... tasting it I literally did a bit of a ‘woah there’. Funnily enough though when it came to eating the stew most of the compliments from the guests involved the infamous spread. Turns out you can’t have too much of a good thing after all. 

With the main event happening in a pot (or two actually – it was optimistic to think all that fish was going to fit in one) the remaining element was dessert. Sweets following on from seafood was a tricky decision, nothing to rich or creamy I thought. So I decided to do something with apple seeing as they are in season, and make an apple and walnut crumble cake. It involved making a crumble mixture from butter, sugar, flour and walnuts and then dispersing that in layers throughout the cake batter, with cinnamon apples on top. It all looked pretty good coming together though I really didn’t have enough batter to get the layers going, and unfortunately I made a school boy error and over cooked it. I thought and hour and a half seemed a bit excessive but trusted the recipe instead of my instincts. Hmm, lesson learnt there.
It was great to finally attempt a seafood dish and see that it turned out well. I may actually consider trying more dished involving mussels and clams and all those other crazy things from the sea. Funny how you can be scared of something even though you’ve never actually tried and failed, but just never tried. What is it about the fear of failure that stops even a first go being attempted. Silly really.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Blue Grenadier, Beurre Blanc, Artichoke Risotto and Chocolate Mousse with Cherries

I think I may be falling into a trap. It’s called unoriginality. I’m worried that what I keep producing in the kitchen has all been done before and that it lacks any real character. Granted these days most things in the food world have been done before, but its credit to all the great cooks and chefs out there who manage to still keep it interesting and fresh. This I believe is one of the hardest elements of successful cooking alongside the cooking itself; to take an ingredient that’s been used time and time again and keep people ordering it. But then there’s also the side of the argument that sees traditional food as the soul of any cuisine and that too much deviation from original styles is missing the point. It seems that there’s always this natural tug of war where the rope is constantly pulled and tugged from the old into the new and then back again. And I suppose what I wonder is where I stand in all of this...
I have never really been a creative person, creative in the sense of innovation. Yes I can probably take something that already exists and tweak it a little; but come to any pure original thought and I’m out of luck. I think this is how I cook. I know what I like to taste, and I have a fair idea of what flavours go together, so when I put together a meal I’m relying on piecing all those elements together that I am familiar with to create a plate of food that goes down well. What I am worried about I suppose is seeming a little repetitive. Chocolate again? Oh, ok.  I want to be able to stretch myself a bit more, cook things that I am not familiar with. Yet when it comes to planning my dinners I seem to fall into the same Italian/French style that I’ve done before: wine, stock, cream, bay, butter.

It hasn’t all been like that – I’ve definitely plunged into trying things I’ve never made before such as pastry and marinades and stuffing pork shoulders, I should give credit for that. What I would like to do now is aim for different flavours, be a bit more adventurous. With Asia on our doorstep it would be nice to take advantage of all that produce that you don’t see in Europe. And with all the access to markets and cookbooks it wouldn’t be hard to branch out a little. So I think it may be time to ‘push that boat out’ a little, give something new a go. Predictably the next meal will consist of the same style that I’ve done before. But hey, you have to set goals before you achieve them right?
Back to this week’s meal though... I saw a recipe for beurre blanc and thought it sounded delicious so I decided to do some fish for it to go with. I bought two big sides of blue grenadier from the mongers but became weary when she mentioned it was a very ‘soft fish’. I suppose I am a fan of the firmer slightly meatier types, but I’d never had grenadier before so you I figured give it a go. Cooking wise I just divided it up and pan fried it in butter and olive oil. In the end it probably wasn’t the nicest fish of the bunch, something a bit more like bass would have been better. The beurre blanc was also a bit of new ground. I haven’t made many sauces yet and its silly because a good sauce can often be the best part of the meal and usually is worth the effort. Sauces like these aren’t simple however because if you get the temperature wrong the butter that you incorporate can turn on you ruining all your efforts. Patience is key. I managed to get the consistency right in the end, but the reduction of vinegar and white wine overpowered the sauce a little. It was too tangy rather than creamy and rich. The sauce cut through the fish nicely but next time I will use a bit less vinegar. I think these sauces take time to perfect but once you know how to do them you’re looking at some good additions to plenty of meals.
I decided to do risotto with the fish as it is versatile and goes a long way. Because there was a bit of richness coming from the beurre blanc I decided to keep it simple and do one with artichoke. I was quite amazed at how it turned out. Often risotto encourages a lot of tasting and adding and tweaking but this kind of just turned out good. I sweated off a good deal of shallots and celery at the start but then only added white wine, the artichokes, and stock. It just worked. I think by having a good base to start with means you don’t need to do so much to it at the end. So yeah, no stinginess on that celery. I made a cucumber, dill and olive salad to accompany as well as some steamed asparagus.
Dessert was definitely one of parts. I did chocolate mousse cake with cherries which had about 10 stages to it. I decided to do one big cake rather than individual bowls because its always nicer to share things at dinner and with a cake you get that extra bonus of a base. The base I did like a cheesecake: digestive biscuits and butter then chilled. On top of the base I made a thick cherry jam to go between the biscuit and the mousse. That consisted of reducing cherry jam with balsamic vinegar and rum until thick. It tasted good but I must remember to be quicker next time as the thing practically set before I could spread it on the base. I was trying to avoid melting the butter in the biscuit but this was like trying to spread dried fruit. It did provide a good contrast to the richness of the chocolate though.
The mousse needed lots of bowls(!) One for the chocolate, one for the egg yolks, one for the egg whites and one for the cream. My arm was practically limp by the time I finished whisking egg whites and whipping cream but I think that helped with the delicate folding in of each layer. It’s hard to keep the mixture smooth and light because often your chocolate can seize or the egg whites can flatten. I tried my best though and got the mixture into the tin. For the final part I reduced the syrup from some tinned cherries with cinzano and poured that over the cherries themselves just for a bit of alcoholic kick. These went on top.
Quite a bit of concentration required this week it seemed but it was nice to get fish on the table again. Definitely some practice needed with those sauces (sweet and savoury) and I think next time I’ll be using an electric whisk for the laborious parts... it is the modern age after all. Happy eating everybody.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Roasted Pork Shoulder, White Beans, Cabbage, Parsnips and Choc-Apricot Bread n Butter Pud

There’s one thing I really dislike about recipes... its the way they make difficult things seem easy. It’s as if they compact all the processes and tricky elements of a dish into five or six little concise lines that shout a little ‘hey presto!’ at you. A kind of ‘look what I can make’ type of affair, with an ‘I didn’t even make a mess’ added on. Unfortunately as it turns out it seems that recipes, just like life, are not as simple as we’d like. Take my attempt this week. I was flipping through a gourmet traveller magazine to get ideas for what to make when I spotted this extremely enticing, golden coloured bit of pork with the crunchiest looking crackling on top. It was rolled and stuffed with various items and looked pretty much spot on. Being not one to get ahead of myself I skimmed over the ingredients and method just to gage whether or not this piece of meat was within my realm of skill. Strangely enough it all seemed pretty straight forward: get your stuffing ingredients, combine them, place them on the inside of the pork shoulder, then roll and wrap the piece of meat eventually finishing it off with some tied string. To get the crackling one simply scores the meat and then rubs a good amount of salt and oil on the skin and roasts at a high temperature. The thing seemed possible. So off to the market I went, full of ideas and excitement and my ingredients list ready to gather my needed goods. All was going well until I got to the meat section. When asking the butcher if I could have some string with my boneless bit of pork shoulder the look he returned slightly took me aback.
looking all nice and approachable
‘You’re going to tie the shoulder?’
‘Why yes’ I replied ‘I am.’
‘Good luck with that one love.’
‘The shoulder’s practically impossible to tie up. We would do it ourselves but there’s always bits falling out all over the place. I’d probably go for a leg instead if you want to tie it.’
‘Oh no that’s fine’ I said, ‘I’ll be ok’. I figured my trusty gourmet traveller recipe wouldn’t lead me astray.

Back at home I began to prepare for my first attempt at roasted pork. I cooked a little rosemary with salt and pepper to rub on the skin, and got my ingredients all together for the stuffing: pine nuts, sage, and some pear. I then pulled the meat out of the fridge and placed it on the bench. I must admit the size of it was slightly alarming... turns out 2.5kg is a whole lotta pig. I turned it over skin up and got my knife at the ready. With instruction from my recipe I began trying to score the meat. Well, those pigs have got some serious experience in the skin department. That skin is tough! I must have tackled the thing from all different directions with my sharpest knife and could barely make a dint in the thing. After a good 30 minutes of wrestling I managed to indent about eight crooked lines in the animal but then gave up. So much for that bit. I then turned the piece of meat over and placed the stuffing ready to be rolled. Hello problem number two. The meat was so friggin fat that I could barely get it to come full circle. Plus it turned out that all the stuffing got too wet and just slipped and slided all over the place. It was a disaster. There I was, 4pm with nothing done, pinching and hugging and grabbing at this pig on my bench and just wondering what the hell I was going to do because this certainly wasn’t turning out as I planned. After a good mess session and a bit of removal of meat I managed to get the thing tied up, barely stuffed but together, and placed it on a tray. I rubbed the salt into the skin and then left it in the fridge for a bit. To be honest I had gotten sick of the sight of it. My resentment for gourmet traveller was certainly growing.
The other elements of the dinner went a bit better. I cooked some white beans up with some leeks, white wine, thyme and crème fraiche, roasted some parsnips, and sautéed some lovely little bunches of Tuscan cabbage that they were selling at the market with some chilli, garlic and stock. It all started to smell and taste pretty good so relaxation returned for a little while. So much so that I was able to brave the sight of the pork again and remove it from the fridge. That went into the oven for a good 2 hours and seemed to actually hold its shape intact. (At least one of us was keeping it together that night).

For dessert I turned back to the British in me and decided to do good old bread and butter pudding. I added some chopped apricots and dark chocolate in between the layers just for a bit of extra yumminess, and smothered the bread with cinnamon and nutmeg. That part actually went ok, except for the minor fact that I managed to spill all my pre-prepared custard over the bench and the sink right when I was about to put the thing in the oven. ’Ah sorry guys, dessert’s going to be a little longer than expected’.
To my surprise when the pork came out the skin actually semi-resembled crackling, and when I cut through it some nice juicy pieces of meat came off with stuffing still inside. Well I’ll be damned I thought, the thing actually looks ok. I was even able to mix up a bit of gravy from the juices and serve that alongside it.
 It certainly wasn’t the most carefree dinner ever prepared. But the flavours were good and the company was even better, so I will say it was worth it. If there’s one thing to be learnt it’s that things certainly don’t always go to plan no matter how prepared you think you are. And also that recipes really need to have footnotes on the bottom of them with a little bit of advice attached. Something along the lines of:
*note: this recipe may cause serious levels of frustration and no, your food will not turn out like this.

Just another culinary adventure...

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Schnitzel, Sweet Potato Gratin, Cauliflower Cheese, Braised Cabbage & Cheesecake

I seem to have a problem. It involves going overboard. I don’t know what it is, but for some reason I find it hard to say ‘that will do’. I start with an idea, build it up on good principles, but by the time I’m done with it there’s a whole extra layer of ad-ons that really probably weren’t necessary. This week’s dinner is a prime example. I thought I’d do schnitzels. Simple enough. I thought it would be nice to jazz them up slightly by adding a few things to the crumbs like a bit of parmesan and parsley. Still pretty straight forward. Then I thought of what to have with it – potatoes were a given, but I have been using potatoes a lot lately so thought I’d go really crazy and use sweet potato instead (note to self – no potatoes for a while. There are plenty more exciting ‘fillers’ out there. Quinoa anyone?) I did the potatoes gratin style – chilli and garlic with cream and baked. Good result but my a mandolin would have come in handy.
So then veg – thought some red cabbage would be awesome because I love red cabbage and it reminds me of plenty good Sundays spent at our infamous favourite pub that need not be named. It’s tasty too. While shopping for the cabbage however I spotted some cauliflower and thought ‘ooh cauliflower cheese! That’s always a winner’ so put that in the basket as well. You would think that meat and three veg would suffice, but for some reason I have this thing where if there’s nothing green on your plate then there’s something wrong (the full English fry-up was always something I never seemed to be able to ingest) so then I decided to do green beans as well. And they got done with some pine nuts and garlic. Blimey well you would’ve thought I was cooking a Sunday roast or something. It was lucky my school finished three hours early or I would’ve seriously been breaking more than a sweat.
There were similar lines with dessert. Cheesecake was the order of the day – white chocolate cheesecake to be precise. But instead of just doing basics I added pistachio to the mix and a bit of coconut to the base. Both good additions but again, not crucial. And because I felt a slice of cake on a plate was near to nakedness, I whizzed up some raspberry coulis to accompany. And that believe it or not was the most laborious part of the whole dinner. Who would’ve thought pushing pureed berries through a sieve could take the best part of half an hour...? True story. So my mission for my next dinner is this: keep it simple. Take an idea, but not let myself get carried away with step after step and process after process. I do wonder if perhaps I’m just being slack, and that these things have to be done in order to actually produce good food.... I mean it does take a while to pull all the broad beans out of their pods, or to shell the pistachios one by one. Maybe I’m just making bad choices, picking things that aren’t so quick and easy. OR... maybe we’re all being so infested with these ‘30 minute here’s-a-four-course-meal’ concept that we forget that cooking actually takes time. Who knows. What I do know though is that I personally seem to go a little too far sometimes. I might try and just do ‘pasta’ next. God that just sounds so dull though doesn’t it. Or it could really be that I am just shocking at time management. That’s probably it.  Anyway. The food was good I believe. Another round of stuffed stomachs on the premises.  
Next week: corn five ways.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Coq au Vin, Champ, and Rhubarb Crumble

     I remember when I first made coq au vin. We had been watching a food programme on the tv and it was the main dish of the programme. The food looked so tempting we actually went out that day and bought all the ingredients to make it. I remember it because the eventual taste and flavour was so good I couldn’t believe we had created it. It was simple and delicious. And it was from scratch.
just a few ingredients...
        After watching Julie and Julia (for the second time) the idea of French food was well on my mind, so I decided to cook it for dinner this week. The main ingredients were simple enough: chicken, bacon, mushrooms, a few herbs, shallots and of course some red wine. I decided to do champ instead of mash as well just to mix it up a bit. This largely involves crushing the new potatoes with leeks and a bit of butter and milk. Kind of like a half-hearted mash but with a bit of extra flavour. There’s always a place for leeks at dinner I think.

        As simple as the dish should be, I suppose where I struggled was just how to put the whole thing together. It all ends up in the same pot but there are a few variations on how it should get there. Some recipes call for browning all the ingredients first in stages and then combining it all at the end and letting it cook. I wasn’t sure of this concept as I thought a lot of flavour would be lost through doing this. Other options as well were braising the mushrooms, onions and carrots about half an hour before serving, and adding them at the end to the sauce. I was thinking if the carrots and onions went in sooner it would again add more flavour. But, there is the risk of it all breaking down which I suppose wouldn’t be great. In the end I followed the recipe mostly traditionally – flouring the chicken and browning it in the pancetta juices, followed by the shallots, and then covering with the wine and a bit of stock. Soon I discovered there was no way the carrots were going to fit with the mushrooms and the meat so they got roasted separately with some garlic and honey. After a good few taste tests it seemed the sauce needed a lot of adjusting. I removed the chicken after 2 hours of cooking and reduced it whilst skimming. The flavour still seemed to be lacking so I added another good half a bottle of red and continued to reduce. This helped a lot.

        A few mentions of rhubarb had spread across the dinner table in the past so I decided to use it this week for dessert. A classic choice was to make a crumble. What I love about crumble is how easy it is to produce and what general happy reactions people give when they eat it. Rubbing the butter with the flour is always a nice time to zone out, gaining a few moments of stillness while the crumbs form and fall into the bowl. I cooked the rhubarb with plenty of sugar (there never seems to be too much when it comes to the bitterness of rhubarb) as well as the juice and zest of two oranges. Ground almonds and a bit of toasted muesli went in to the topping and this got layered thickly on top. I made a crème anglaise to accompany which was quite honestly devoured.
        It was a quiet evening, a small amount of 6 around the table and the fire going in the background. The frosty night sedated us all so we sat and relaxed in true form. For the first time in a while bowls of leftovers were piled in to the fridge at the end, my concept of portioning once again off the mark. Still, it was good to know that coq au vin found its way back into my kitchen. As I’m sure it will again too.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Laksa and a Pear and Ginger Pud

After a request from one of the weekly regulars to do something vegetarian the next time we had dinner, I had to seriously put my thinking cap on. What is it about vegetarian food that just seems, well, difficult? I’ve chowed down on many vegetarian meals in the past, quite often actually, and have enjoyed them a lot. But for some reason when it came to constructing a concept for my next dinner I was just stumped. My initial thought was curry: tasty, can do it by the truck load, pretty satisfying. But for some reason the idea just wasn’t settling with me. Something to do with the lentils. Next I thought of doing a kind of veggie extravaganza - you know, gratin of fennel, cauliflower cheese, stuffed peppers, braised greens etc. But I actually thought it would be nice this week to not have my face so shoved into the stove watching the zillion dishes I’d be trying to prepare and actually be available to talk to my guests, which  have been very dedicated guests and who without these weekly occurrences would cease to exist. And then out of nowhere came an idea... laksa. Creamy, spicy, easy to do vegetarian, and with the right preparation not too much of a fuss. And with an amazing asian supermarket right near my university it seemed pretty perfect.
the yellow culprit
Shopping for the ingredients was an interesting experience. I ventured into a place known in Footscray as Little Saigon, an all-out mini Vietnam where if it exists in Asia it exists here. It has everything, from every cut of meat to things you don’t even recognise from the sea. And the aisles of sauces and pickles and cans of funny fruit stretch way into the dusty corners of the back. It was definitely a fish out of water experience. Two of the ingredients that the laksa recipe called for were fresh galangal and turmeric. Now for someone not too familiar with these things, and with no signs in English to guide me, I had to use my instinct (!) After shuffling around the mounds of very unrecognisable objects I went for a pile of ginger-looking root things hoping they were what I needed. Turns out they weren’t as the girl at the checkout informed me. But they had it, both of them, and any doubt I had of the place not housing everything I needed immediately vanished.

I came home with bags full of chilli, bok choy, shrimp paste, tofu, lemongrass, bean sprouts, coriander, Vietnamese mint, shallots, coconut milk, noodles, galangal, turmeric, snow peas, and two giant-size granny smith apples that I just couldn’t get over. They were huge. With my dad’s trusty spice collection reliable as ever I also had coriander seeds, cumin seeds, cloves, cardamom pods and fennel seeds to add to the concoction. It was a good start. Now laksa I think is a pretty simple dish that can bring extra satisfying results. It really is just a matter of heating up the paste, adding coconut milk and stock and then throwing in all your extras. I figured I could steam the greens before hand, soak my noodles, fry my tofu and then have a nice assembly line to put it all together at the end. That worked pretty well actually. The paste in the end was probably the hardest bit. More for its fiddly-ness than anything. I know that in this day and age it is very easy to buy some ready-made pastes that to be honest are very good and capture the flavour you want. But that wouldn’t be very challenging now would it! So I made it from scratch. It basically involved combining all the fragrant items and spices together and whizzing them up into a paste. My only error was I completely forgot to link the fact that the lovely yellow powder you get as ground tumeric really is that colour in its fresh form. And I am still getting the yellow out of my fingers (and off the bench). A note of warning to you, don’t do it!
For dessert I thought we needed something to cut through the creaminess a bit, so anything too dairy or chocolatey was out. Fruit was on the mind, so I decided to do a pear and ginger cake with pecans. It actually went along the lines of a sticky toffee pudding in the end – lots of dates, melted with milk and butter, added to the flour etc. The ginger came from a ginger marmalade and ground ginger and I bought these three beautiful red Bartlett pears at my local organic grocer that were crying out for good use. The cake came out soft and sticky and pretty tempting. I made a syrup with some rum in it (alcohol is always welcome) and served it with some ice-cream. One of guests whose opinion I always value commented on it saying it was the best of the desserts so far. I believe she even used the phrase ‘this takes the cake’. Gotta love a good pun. Funnily enough it definitely wasn’t the most complex of puddings to make. But perhaps that’s where the lesson lies – the simplest things are often the best.
It was a successful meal. And I am looking forward to delving into the leftover paste I have sitting in a jar. A good whiff of it really knocks you back to life. And of course next week, its back to meat.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Sausage Stew, Focaccia, and Lemon Tart

Well it’s been a bit of a break since the last cook off, due to Easter and other occasions, and within that time the seasons have run their natural course and changed from subtly warm to cool. And with the change of seasons comes a change of cravings as the inkling for heartier more flavoursome food grows. So out goes ideas of light crispy meals to something softer and soothing, and this week I have decided to cook a sausage and white bean stew accompanied by freshly baked foccacia (a first on both counts). Time unfortunately was not on my side this week either so I’ve been unusually organised and decided to prepare the stew the night before. This I believe gives me two advantages... first it allows for all the flavours of the stew to infuse and grow to a stronger and richer dish, and secondly it means that my usually flustered approach might get a night off this week as I can focus on preparing just the bread and dessert in the evening. I am attempting yet another pastry-based dessert this time and going for a lemon tart. A little nervous I admit. But fingers crossed my pastry skills have improved (!) – I guess practice makes perfect.
The stew itself consisted of some fairly straight-forward methods: sweating leeks, adding sausage (two types I decided on – chorizo and lamb) and garlic, chopped tomatoes, wine, cannellini beans and some herbs. I guess the real essence of something like this is to give it the time it deserves and let the food cook slowly and at length so as to create the overall depth of flavour that you would expect from a stew. After an initial taste I was unsure that the flavour was quite right but taking advice from my father as any daughter should I listened to the words ‘give it time’ and let the oven do its thing. Sure enough after just two hours the stew was already changing to a thick, heartier looking meal, and I believed by the following day it would be even better.
my punchmark
bread proving and stew thickening
In terms of the accompaniments I was quite excited to make my first batch of bread. I heard from someone who I cannot recall that focaccia is one of the simpler breads to make, so I felt fairly safe in my attempt. The dough came together pretty easily, and it was fun kneading it on the bench. It really does go very elastic from the work you give it, and I understand now how the gluten really gives bread its stretchiness. Leaving it to rest the recipe indicated that the dough should double in size, and sure enough after a good hour the dough had filled nearly half the bowl. I deflated it with a good punch then worked it a bit more before rolling and placing into the tray. It only took about 20 minutes in the oven and it looked pretty good when it came out. In fact when I brought it on to the table people kept saying ‘you made this?’- I thought it was kind of funny. The end product was pretty good, not too dry and good density. The only thing I would have done is added a bit more olive oil and salt for flavour. It turned out to be more like a Turkish bread than a focaccia.
tart overflowing...!
Now the lemon tart. I actually think I went ok with that. The butter and flour crumbed up really well in the processor. And I added just the right amount of cold water to bring it all together. It’s funny how some days things just seem to work, and others they really don’t. Such is life hey. I let it chill and then rolled it out. It cracked and broke a little as I did this but I found if I just broke bits off and reattached them and joined it with the rolling pin, then it seemed ok. The only thing I found was that I didn’t quite have enough pastry for the tin... no! It just covered the base but the sides were pretty flimsy. This unfortunately meant that when it came to filling the base the lemony custard overflowed. But you know what, I stuck it in the oven anyway. I’d come this far, I wasn’t going back! Some beautiful smells wafted out of the oven as it cooked and it added to the warmth of the evening.
The stew as I had hoped had become really nice and soft and tasty throughout the day so all was set in place. It was a new record this week however with ten people coming to dinner, so at the last minute I decided just to cook up some rice to go with the stew and act as a bit of a filler. Typically however after all my concentration with the other parts I managed to cock that bit up by relying on a rice cooker that obviously cannot handle large amounts. Can you believe it  - downfall by rice. I guess every meal has its weakness (!)
But yes overall I think it went pretty well this week. The stew was a hit, the bread all got eaten, and my tart came out a bit cracked but yummy. Also I proved that I can cook for ten, which is more stomach space than you think. It was nice just to get it going again though, it felt a bit long since the last get together. So if this cold weather continues, as I am sure it will, there could possibly be some more attempts at hot pot feeds. No rice though.