Friday, 15 April 2011

Fishcakes, Carrots and Beets, and a Gooey Clafoutis

As I’ve been cooking a lot with meat lately I thought why not give the guests something a little different this week and decided to go with fish. When it comes to deciding exactly what to make I am very easily influenced by what I see around me, i.e. cooking shows, magazine covers, someone else’s plate who’s sitting opposite me at a cafe – so when I saw a picture of fishcakes I thought ‘well, everyone likes fishcakes’ and decided to go with that. Another deciding factor, if I’m to be completely honest, is that I thought they would be pretty easy. Pick something straight forward and then I can go a bit nuts with the veg and things you know? Well, let me tell you, if I thought that putting a bit of mash potato, some salmon and a bit of herbs into a bowl, forming them into patties and frying them would be easy – I was definitely mistaken. It wasn’t exactly the technical difficulty that I struggled with, it was more the time that I thought it would take. For one my mix that I ended up with was way too mushy and soft to form nice patties, and after tampering with it and adding bits and bobs I couldn’t quite get it right.  They also, despite my flouring effort, kept sticking to the plate and my hands and looked more like prodded bits of play-do as opposed to tempting cakes. After letting them rest in the fridge for a good hour I still wasn’t happy with them so thought that crumbing them might help them take shape. This process once again took far much longer than I had anticipated and so I was frantically catching up with myself as the guests trickled in. For once I was glad of Melbourne’s crazy weather as it was adding to the traffic and also to people’s tardiness. Thank you thunderstorm!
I wanted to create a really colourful plate this week too so picked carrots, beetroots and baby gem for the veg – also because fishcakes contain potato so your filler is already taken up there which leaves a lot more room on the plate for extras.  I did the carrots with thyme and cumin and marinated the beets with some balsamic before roasting them both. They both turned out good. The baby gem I decided to wilt in some chicken stock with some peas - a surprise to everyone who kept asking if they could put the lettuce in a salad bowl... ‘You’re cooking it??’ But actually I thought that something a bit hot and brothy was quite fitting for the wet weather. I don’t know if I converted everyone but it seemed to work ok. The only other extra thing I did was fry up some bacon and leeks with half a cabbage I found in the fridge that needed using. So it was certainly a full display of vitamins when we were done with it. If the fishcakes hadn’t taken so friggin long to prepare I would’ve happily thought of it for a future attempt – but I think I’ll leave them alone for the minute. I’m sure they’re supposed to be simple but I just couldn’t tame them.

 Now dessert on the other hand – that was fun. Not only did the recipe seem fairly straight forward but the fact that cooking time was 16-20 minutes meant that people wouldn’t be waiting around for two hours while I got my act together(!) I was making a chocolate and orange clafoutis (normally done with cherries) with some caramelized oranges on the side. The clafoutis itself was delicious – rich, creamy and all gooey in the middle. Yum. My ‘caramelized’ oranges were more like oranges with syrup and I am still bamboozled why all my attempts at making caramel from sugar is failing. (I’m sure we used to cook sugar up in science class to get toffee... why couldn’t I do it now? Back to the drawing board for that one) But it all worked out good in the end. I mixed some cream with sour cream to get a crème fraiche equivalent ($7 for a tub of it from coles seemed a bit steep to me) and topped it with shaved chocolate flakes. There was none of that left at the end of the night.
The company once again was great and I think everyone left with slightly rounder tummies than when they came. So mission accomplished there. Definitely a learning curve once more and I am wondering how long those extra patties will remain in the freezer before I face their mushy little selves for a second time. Not too shortly I’m sure..!

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Moussaka and Plum "Tart"

       Another day another dinner. At least this is the intention no? I needed to cook something for 12 people this week so was trying to think of what could be good ‘on mass’ and came up with moussaka – a classic greek dish that seemed fitting with the change of seasons. It turns out that the guest number shrank to 8 (something a little more achievable) but I stuck with the idea none the less.
Moussaka has three main components – the meat, the eggplant, and the béchamel. I guess its like a lasagne with eggplant substituted for pasta. I thought it would be fairly straight forward and in the end I think it was – the only thing I guess is that it was more time consuming than I thought. For example soaking, seasoning and frying the 30 pieces of eggplant took almost as long as getting the meat together, which surprised me. But I was able to make and layer the meat and eggplant and let that sit for a while before doing the béchamel so it certainly became a dish in stages. I made a big green salad to accompany and turns out that was all that was needed – the moussaka was filling!
       Now I’ve been meaning to attempt a few different desserts lately – things like lemon tart or bitter chocolate tart have been popping into my mind on regular occasion. The only thing is making such a dessert involves something I am certainly not familiar with – pastry. If you speak to anyone who cooks often they will say that savoury food on a basic level can generally be fiddled with and adapted according to situation. Pastry on the other hand – well, that’s something new altogether. It is a lot more difficult to ‘wing it’ when it comes to creating the desired crust. Yet when I saw a picture of a tart tatin I thought ‘bugger it – gotta start sometime’ and sure enough when I was at the market there was a beautiful pile of plums for sale.  So I decided that would be dessert.

2nd attempt to roll...
     The tart...hmm... how to begin with the tart. Most recipes I looked at called for ready-made puff pastry which really does simplify a tart tatin. But I was determined to attempt at least once my own batch and so looked for recipes for puff pastry. Woah did they bamboozle me! Without any previous instruction with pastry a lot of the steps mentioned seemed complicated, and very technical. I became a bit stuck between finding a simpler recipe or actually going for a non puff pastry but something shorter. In the end I copied parts of one recipe and part of another – something I presume is a big no no! I combined the ingredients and got them into a ball and let it chill as I think the chilling part is quite important. Rolling it out was not as simple and I had to re-group it and do it again, plus it kept sticking to the rolling pin as well and to be honest the whole time this was happening I was just thinking ‘ I have no idea what I am doing!’ Eventually I did get a single flat sheet on the bench but I think that only happened because it had become warm and softened (another no no!) Still, I chilled that again to compensate and in the end did manage to flop a big enough piece of ‘pastry’ over some slightly softened plums. It was fun wrapping the edges over the fruit and seeing some juice ooze out. Maybe, just maybe, I could pull this off. If worst came to worst sugared plums with cream could do. My guests were also very encouraging by reminding me that the idea of these dinners is to practice and experiment with the food, and so I reminded myself that it is all a learning curve and bunged it in the oven none-the-less.
my assistant

       The product I pulled out looked not quite like the triumphant dessert I had aimed for – definitely not puffed and a tad burnt! But we still had to flip it. My assistant for the night was certainly needed as we tried to flip a hot cast iron pan on its head whilst dislodging the tart from the base. It took a few goes. Surely enough however persistence paid off and a lovely looking, juicy red creation sat upright on the plate.  Plums really do get that amazing transformation when you cook them, going from firm, tart, orange fruit to soft, sticky, ruby red gems. They did look pretty. The tart cut up into 8 nicely and the crust was actually ok. It definitely wasn’t puff so I think plum tart was more fitting than tart tatin, but eh, it was still a tart.
       I had retained some syrup from the cooked plums before and mixed some cointreau with cream to have as an accompaniment. It made a good second half to the meal. All in all, in complete honesty, it tasted pretty good.
       So lessons from this dinner: 1 -moussaka is a good, tasty, pretty straight-forward and very comforting dish that is great to share.  2 – assistants are very useful in the kitchen. 3 – don’t mess with pastry, it’ll definitely win! More trial and error certainly needed...