Thursday, 24 March 2011

Moorish Chicken, Braised Fennel, Walnut Pilaf and Lemon Polenta Cake

After what I would call a pretty successful round one it was interesting to see just how quickly round two came about. I swear I had only just finished thinking about the first dinner before I was shopping for the next. As spaghetti and meatballs is a fairly standard meal (safety first was definitely the plan) I felt the urge to try something a little more complex this time. As usual the days of the week involve numerous foodie ideas going in and out of my head but to no surprise the day before the second dinner was supposed to happen I couldn’t sit tight on any previous thoughts. It just so happened that I borrowed a book from my mum’s after a recent visit to her house, a good one at that too, so I thought why not let the book decide. It was the Moro cookbook written by the two Sam’s behind the famous restaurant of the same name in London. The Moorish flavours certainly appealed, something a bit different I suppose, and sure enough I fell asleep on the eve of dinner number two with a menu planned out: marinated chicken done Moroccan/African style, accompanied by a nice bitsy pilaf, braised fennel, and some green beans. The menu also came about after consideration of one of my guests who is a celiac, a word that I find I am hearing more and more these days (I wonder if we are at the beginning of a gluten-free epidemic...!) So it was nice to think of something that she could enjoy as well, without missing out. For dessert I was going to do a flourless orange cake (celiac friendly!) but then at the last moment stumbled upon a recipe by Nigel Slater for a lemon polenta cake with a lemon curd filling. ‘Bingo!’ I thought.  The lemon would provide a nice refreshment after the spiciness of the main dinner and also I had never made a polenta cake before. So finally by about midday on the day I had my dinner planned.

Now one thing that these events have shown me so far is that I am definitely not a fast cook. In fact, I would probably say that doing this course in Footscray has possibly made me slower in the kitchen. Taking my time is something I seem to need to do when cooking, and I find it hard to see myself in a bustling restaurant racing around putting food to plate in a frenzy. I happened to have the entire day off on Monday (the day of the second dinner) and still it took me a good 6 if not 7 hours to cook. That is enough for a banquet if you ask me, hardly for a quiet dinner with friends..! None the less it was nice not to feel rushed and meant that I could concentrate on each dish separately and calmly. The only real hurdle that I had to jump was dealing with the chicken that I picked up from the supermarket. Free-range and organic, cut already into pieces, I thought that I would simply take them out of their packets, wash them, dry them, and cover them in the marinade that I had made courtesy of Moro. Alas this was not the case. When I removed the pieces from their wrapping I saw that most of them still had feathers stuck in the skin and that the innards of the bird still lay nestled by the backbone. Now I’ve done a tiny bit of chicken butchery in class so far, and I will stress the word tiny here, but trying to clean up 12 pieces of chicken unexpectedly just didn’t really help with my preparation. The bones wouldn’t cut, kidneys and bits of carcass were going everywhere, and every time I thought I had got it all there was more lurking below loose bits of skin. I was trying to remember if most of the chicken I had dealt with from packets before had been like this and I was pretty sure they hadn’t. It’s definitely put me in a different mindset towards the bird and I can’t help but think that I will either get the butcher to deal with it next time, or I’ll just roast them whole. It sounds squeamish doesn’t it, particularly from someone who’s involving herself in a cooking course, and I know there will be more challenging tasks I will face than cleaning up a chicken; but something about the way I thought I had bought prepared bits of meat to cook with and then having to get a meat clever out just didn’t sit quite right.

          But enough about the bird. The pilaf I did went well and I was pleased with my walnut, pumpkin seed and chickpea combination. Once you know how to do a pilaf it’s actually a really enjoyable thing to cook because you can really experiment with the ingredients that you use, and opt for particular flavours which I like. I think it’s something that people can get wrong because of rice to water ratios or not cooking it in the oven. But if you can practice just a bit and get the process right then it’s a great dish to know how to do off-hand. And the braised fennel was a hit. There is something about fennel I think... the way it totally transforms from that crunchy, aniseedy, almost tart ingredient to a soft, comforting, juicy item that just makes it interesting and a winner. I really do love it. Turns out there was plenty of food to go around as well, something I am still adjusting to in terms of how much to cook, and everyone seemed happy to munch it all down.

The lemon polenta cake I was certainly unsure about. It was the thinnest cake ever when I pulled it out of the oven and I wondered how I was supposed to slice it in half and fill it with the lemon cream without it totally cracking. Patience I have learnt is definitely key and I did in fact manage to cut two very thin pieces which I filled with a filling made simply from lemon curd and double cream. A few blueberries on top and dessert was served. Now personally I thought that the polenta itself was too hard for the cake, and I kept crunching on little bits as I ate. But other people commented that they liked that about it, so I was happy to let them decide!

All in all it was a good second effort. I am going to try and streamline my efforts a bit more as I go, maybe trying to cut down cooking time by quite a bit especially. But a meal is a meal and if people can leave here feeling satisfied and that they’ve tasted something nice then I am happy. And if I can manage to produce in some way or another what I intend to produce without burning it or poisoning someone then I am happy too. More than happy, actually.  

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Meatballs and Shortbread

           Being the first night of this new attempted venture I thought it would be good to stick with something fairly safe for the first round of guests. I am certainly eager to use these events as opportunities to cook new and unfamiliar things, but I guess as others and myself are warming up to the concept it would have been a bad idea to scare them away with something out there and potentially undercooked! In an old house in London a while ago I had had some friends over for dinner and cooked up a big batch of meatballs. The massive bowl was downed in about 10 minutes despite there being about eight or nine each. With this in mind I figured they were a popular and fairly friendly choice for the night – and so I decided that menu number one would be spaghetti and meatballs with a pea, parmesan, fennel and mint salad. Dessert can often be a tricky one as well as I find myself always thinking directly about cakes. Even though there is a whole other world out there for the sweet-toothed, for some reason it is a batter poured in a tin that I always seem to think of. With a few beautiful days still gracing us with their presence however it was difficult to resist the vibrant red of strawberries and raspberries at the market that are so reminant of summer. And so with sunshine in mind I decided to do simply berries and ice-cream, and make some home-made choc-chip shortbread to accompany. I had never baked shortbread before but figured with just three ingredients – butter, sugar and flour – that it wouldn’t be too hard to get some sort of baked biscuit together. As I am learning however, without being told exactly how a pastry is supposed to look or form it was hard to know whether my concoction was too dry or too wet, or if by using my hands I was warming the dough too much (or not enough!). I managed after a few attempts to roll the sticky paste out and cut some fairly symmetrical circles that in the end seemed ok. They were chilled and baked and actually the smell that came out of the oven when they were done was pretty enticing. Amazing what can come from a bit of butter and sugar!

                   It was a nice number of six at the table as we sat down to eat, myself included, and the intimate atmosphere seemed to encourage good conversation. Talk turned to the art of courting and I felt my brother was certainly benefitting from being the only male at the table as five other girls spoke their minds. It surely gave me a glimpse of what nights like this could be... people, voices, music, and a big pot of spaghetti in the middle acting as the anchor. I certainly don’t expect the food at these nights to be mind-blowing every time, that is not really the idea of these dinners. I guess what I hope for is to use the food to be a central focus that all can link with, and let the night and the experience grow from there. Bringing people together that hadn’t caught up in a long time and seeing the interaction grow gave me a confidence that I needed. Perhaps, I thought, this thing might just work.

               So with questions of next week’s date being asked from the departing guests it is now time to think of next week’s menu. For some reason I think the night will come around rather quickly! And thank you to the five who helped me pioneer into this wonderful world of food and friends and remind me exactly what it was that inspired me to start it in the first place.