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.