Sunday, February 24, 2008

So Patient

lamb burger

I’ve been patient, so patient. You see, it was right at the tail end of last year’s fig season that I discovered I liked them. I had an amazing caramel fig gelato that made me completely forget why I avoided them for so long in the first place. Waiting for fruit to grow has got to be even more boring than watching paint dry! And then to rub salt in the wounds, there were events like Sugar High Friday that occurred when there were no figs in sight for months around here! (though I must say, all of those submissions looked amazing, and I was particularly upset that I wasn’t able to participate)

I’ve spoken a little about my Nanna before, but I didn’t mention her garden. My grandparents originally came from Malta, which is a tiny island in the Mediterranean, just south of Sicily. When they migrated to Australian in the 1970s with their six children, they brought with them their knowledge and love of Mediterranean food.

My grandfather planted fruit trees in his garden – oranges, blood oranges, lemons, pomegranates, bananas, prickly pears and figs. He planted parsley and mint, and all manner of lovely flowers. I think he even grew tomatoes and grapes at one point! I have fond memories of climbing ladders to pick oranges and lemons to make fresh juice for lunchtime. He has now passed on, but his garden is still flourishing, and my nanna often has more fruit than she knows what to do with! When she offered me some figs, I greedily accepted.

I ate many of them raw, sometimes with ice cream and honey. I looked at many recipes and saw that figs were often paired with walnuts, which inspired these lamb burgers. I was so impressed with how these turned out, the flavours played nicely against each other. I especially liked the slight crunch that the walnuts gave. My dad and sister who aren’t too keen on figs loved them, but I thought they were even better a day later after a sleep in the fridge, which makes me imagine that they’d be good ‘make in advance’ picnic food. The good thing about these burgers is that they can be served with green beans and creamy garlic mashed potato for dinner, or on Turkish bread with salad for lunch. I would have loved to add slices of fig to my burger but I’d eaten them all by then!

Lamb Burgers with Walnuts and Figs
Makes about 10-12 patties

• 600g lamb mince
• 1 tablespoon minced garlic
• 1 tablespoon fresh parsley, finely chopped
• 4-5 figs, stalks removed, finely diced
• ¼ cup walnuts, finely chopped
• Sea salt and cracked black pepper
• 3 eggs
• Olive oil

1. Combine all ingredients except the olive oil in a large bowl. Mix with a wooden spoon (or your hands, if you’re keen) until well combined. The mixture should hold together pretty well and not be sloppy.
2. Shape mixture into patties, approximately 10cm in diameter and quite thin because they shrink while cooking
3. Heat olive oil in a frying pan. Cook 2-3 patties at a time until well browned and cooked through. Allow to drain on paper towels. Serve as desired.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Cooking Outside

BBQ potatoes

Sometimes I wonder if there is anything my dad Alan can’t do. He can fix cars and computers, he can do woodwork and metalwork, he knows just about everything there is to know about nuts and bolts, he has a keen eye for antique furniture, he’s currently doing just about all the work on our new house extension – from planning to plumbing. Oh, and did I mention that he can also cook? He’s even owned a restaurant!

I’ve learnt a lot from my dad. I remember afternoons spent in the garage while he worked on one project or other. I’d keep busy by hammering nails into a piece of wood and then prying them out. Dad has been there to rescue several dinners I have cooked that didn’t quite turn out as planned. He’s taught me the value of preparation and time management when cooking.

One memory that sticks in my mind now is cooking a barbeque with him last year. Each equipped with a pair of tongs and a beer, we chatted while we cooked, and he taught me how to cook a good steak. I love the good old Australian tradition of barbequing. It is perfect for summer because cooking outside keeps the heat out of the house. With the last days of summer stretched out before us, I thought I would share my dad’s way of making amazing barbequed potatoes. He’s been preparing them this way since before I can remember, though I’m sure they would also be nice in thick slices instead of quartered wedges.

What follows is not a recipe as much as a procedure with suggestions. These are the ingredients we use, but I have never measured quantities, it’s all to taste. I would recommend allowing one and a half large potatoes for each person, roughly 6 pieces. The microwave step is important to pre-cook the potatoes before browning them up on the barbeque, but don’t overcook them because they’ll fall apart during cooking. Any leftovers are also great cold.

Dad's BBQ Potatoes
Serves 4

• 6 large potatoes, skin on and washed, cut into quarters.
• Salt and pepper
• Cinnamon, Paprika or Cumin
• Fresh chives or parsley, chopped
• Olive oil

1. Place potatoes in a freezer bag or covered container. Microwave on high for about 6-8 minutes, until just tender.
2. Put potatoes into a large bowl with salt, pepper, cinnamon, fresh herbs and olive oil. Swish the bowl around so potatoes are evenly coated.
3. Heat the barbeque plate. When hot, add a little olive oil and spread to evenly coat the plate. Add the potatoes. Cook, turning over occasionally. Remember that barbeques have hotspots, so you might find they cook quicker in certain areas.
4. When they are well browned, move them over to the slatted grill part of the barbeque to finish them off. You can put them in a low oven to keep warm while you cook the rest of your barbeque.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Other Directions

spaghetti with pork meatballs

I have a small confession to make. I am virtually incapable of following a recipe. Whether I make small changes or big changes, what I produce is never quite what the author intended, for better or for worse (oh I’ve learned my lesson quite a few times). I’m not quite sure why this is, I don’t mean to do it and I’m not what you'd call rebellious by nature. Perhaps the years of graphic design training have taught me to look outside the box, to try and make things different and interesting, and to try to inject my personality and style into everything I do.

Yes, that sounds good, lets stick with that.

When I saw the recipe for pappardelle with a ragu of tiny meatballs in Jamie Oliver’s book Cook With Jamie I was enthralled. I kept the cookbook by my side for days, randomly flicking open to page 92 to admire the photograph yet again. But inevitably, my mind started ticking and I considered other directions in which to take this seemingly wondrous recipe. In the end, my interpretation was hardly recognizable as the original, no offence to Jamie. But he seems like a cool guy, so I doubt he’d mind.

I used pork mince rather than beef for the meatballs. I was a little unsure of how this would work out in the end but I was more than happy with the result. They would also do well on their own with a dipping sauce at a cocktail party. The tomato sauce was rich and garlicky with a hint of red wine, just the way I like it. I only wish I had found some nice basil, because that would have been perfect. My poor little plant died after I ripped all the leaves off for pesto a few months ago!

Unfortunately, Jamie’s photo was much better than mine. It was kind of awkward to be taking photos of my dinner when we had guests. But don’t let that put you off, because everyone agreed that it was delicious.

Spaghetti and Pork Meatballs
Inspired by Jamie Oliver
Serves 6

Meatballs (Makes about 75)
• 750g pork mince
• 2 eggs
• 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped
• 2 – 3 teaspoons Parmesan cheese, finely grated
• 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
• Salt and pepper

Sauce
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• 4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
• 3 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped
• 3 x 400g cans diced tomatoes
• ½ cup red wine
• 3 tablespoons tomato paste
• 50g butter
• Chilli powder, to taste
• Salt and pepper, to taste
• Parmesan cheese, to serve

1. Combine the meatball ingredients in a large bowl. Mix with a wooden spoon, or your hands until thoroughly combined. Form meatballs using a teaspoon or small ice cream scoop. Try to keep them uniform in size and shape.
2. Deep fry or shallow fry in batches of 15 – 20 until golden brown and slightly crispy. Drain on paper towels. Set aside. The meatballs can be made a day in advance and stored in the fridge. Bring to room temperature before adding them to the sauce.
3. To make the sauce, heat the oil in a saucepan or large frying pan. Add the garlic and sauté. Turn the heat right down, and add the parsley, tomatoes, red wine, tomato paste and butter. Stir slowly to combine ingredients. Add chilli, salt and pepper to taste.
4. Simmer for 10 minutes, then add meatballs. Continue to simmer for a further 30 – 40 minutes.
5. Serve over spaghetti or other long pasta, with Parmesan cheese and crusty bread.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Pouring Rain

coconut bread

It’s been over a week now, and I’ve managed to eat breakfast every day. I’ve even enjoyed it! Whether it’s a bowl of cereal with yoghurt (I have a strange aversion to milk on cereal, is that weird?), my favourite crusty Italian bread toasted, or even just a delicious juicy peach from the fruit bowl, its nice to establish a routine in the morning, and breakfast is a good one for all the right reasons.

The weather has been pretty dismal, last week especially. It hardly feels like February at all. When it’s pouring rain outside, there’s nothing I like better than baking. I made this coconut bread one evening when the oven was still warm from dinner. It comes together quickly with minimal washing up (no need to bring out the mixer), and cooks in about an hour while you watch TV. It was perfect, because the next morning was drizzly and dark and I stayed in bed quite a lot longer than I should have.

Which brings me to my point – sometimes, breakfast needs to be portable. Whether eaten on the run or saved until you have a second to sit down, this coconut bread will be the highlight of your morning. I’m inclined to take Bill Granger’s advice and “keep slices in the freezer for workdays when you’d rather be in the Caribbean.”

I made this coconut bread once before, but thought a few minor modifications could make it better. This time I used shredded coconut, with a little less cinnamon. I swapped ½ cup of plain flour for wholemeal, but feel free to use the whole 2 ½ cups of plain flour if you’d like. The addition of coconut essence was also used to enhance the flavour. Next time I might use coconut milk in place of milk. A mashed ripe banana, some lime zest, chopped dried cherries or grated chocolate would also go very nicely in there, and I’m looking forward to trying other variations on this great breakfast recipe soon.

Coconut Bread
Adapted from Sydney Food by Bill Granger
Makes 8-10 thick slices

• 2 eggs
• 300mL milk
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 teaspoon coconut essence
• 2 cups plain flour
• ½ cup plain wholemeal flour
• 2 teaspoons baking powder
• 1 teaspoon cinnamon
• 1 cup caster sugar
• 2/3 cup shredded coconut
• 75g unsalted butter, melted

1. Preheat oven to 180°C (375°F) and line a 21x10cm loaf pan with baking paper.
2. Lightly whisk eggs, milk, vanilla extract and coconut essence together in a small bowl.
3. Sift flours, baking powder and cinnamon into a bowl. Add sugar and coconut and stir to combine
4. Make a well in the center and gradually stir in the egg mixture until just combined. Add melted butter and stir until the mixture is just smooth, being careful not to overmix.
5. Pour into prepared load pan and bake for 1 hour, or until bread is cooked when tested with a skewer
6. Leave in the pan to cool for 5 minutes, and remove to cool further on a wire rack. Serve in thick slices, lightly toasted

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Creative Insubordination

chocolate whisky cake

Since I started this blog last July I have been looking more keenly at cookbooks. No big surprise there I suppose, but these days I’m not just looking for mouth-watering recipes and photographs, I’m interested in the stories behind them. I’ve learned from others and experienced firsthand how food can invigorate all of your senses, bring people together and stir long-forgotten memories. Some of the most thoughtful things people have ever done for me have included food, and I’m always first to put my hand up to make birthday cakes for friends or family. It makes me kind of happy that food in all its forms plays such a big part in my life these days.

Given the choice between two recipes for the same thing, one with a memorable bittersweet story, and one with only a pretty picture, which would you choose? Give me the story every time. This cake you’re thinking about making has touched, and even changed someone’s life. This someone is Dorie Greenspan, and it’s the cake that got her fired. “Creative Insubordination” was the reason her employer gave for her dismissal, when she switched Armagnac-infused prunes for the much-loved whisky-soaked raisins in this restaurant’s famous chocolate cake.

The thought of a chocolate whisky cake has intrigued me since I saw it in an issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller magazine. It seemed like fate that I found Dorie’s book Baking: From My Home To Yours only a few days before my Nanna’s birthday, when I was looking for an intensely chocolatey cake spiked with whisky – the plump juicy raisins were a heavenly bonus. Let me tell you – and I don’t say this lightly – this is my new favourite cake without a doubt, and it garnered similar reviews from all of the samplers. In some cases, two slices were needed for confirmation. After all, it’s a big thing to commit to a favourite, especially where cake is concerned.

Chocolate Whisky Cake
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours
Serves 8-10

• ¼ cup raisins or sultanas
• ¼ cup whisky, I used Johnnie Walker Black Label Scotch
• 2/3 cup walnuts, finely chopped
• ¼ cup plain flour
• ¼ teaspoon salt
• 200g dark chocolate, coarsely chopped
• 125g unsalted butter, chopped
• 3 large eggs, separated
• 2/3 cup sugar

Chocolate Glaze
• 85g dark chocolate, coarsely chopped
• 3 tablespoons icing sugar
• 75g unsalted butter, slightly softened

1. The night before you intend to start this cake, place the raisins and whisky in a jar. Seal and shake a few times. Leave to soak for at least 3 hours, or up to 1 day. I left mine for about 15 hours.
2. Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F) and line a 20cm round cake pan with non-stick baking paper.
3. Whisk together the walnuts, flour and salt in a small bowl
4. Combine the chocolate and butter with 3 tablespoons of water in a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water. Stir until the chocolate and butter are melted.
5. In a large bowl, whisk the egg yolks and sugar together until thick and pale, then stir in the chocolate mixture, the walnut mixture and the raisins plus any liquid left in the jar.
6. With an electric mixer, beat the egg whites until firm and glossy. Gently fold into the chocolate mixture using a large metal spoon.
7. Transfer the batter to the prepared cake pan, bake for about 30 minutes. When it’s ready, a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake should come out streaky – not wet but not dry.
8. Transfer cake to a rack and let it cool for about 10 minutes, before removing from the pan and letting cool completely.
9. To make the glaze, melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water. Remove from the heat, then add the icing sugar, and the butter, a bit at a time, stirring until you have a smooth glaze. Now you can either pour the glaze over the cake straight away for a smooth finish and refrigerate for 20 minutes, or allow the glaze cool to room temperature for a more spreadable, swirl-able frosting.
10. This cake tastes fantastic at room temperature, but is also good straight from the fridge. It can be served with whipped cream or ice cream.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Impatience (and hunger)

home made crumpets

A typical morning for me involves sleepwalking to the kitchen to make coffee, agonizing over what to wear and then having to practically run to the train station. I don’t have much of an appetite in the morning, so often I’ll leave without eating breakfast. I know what they say about breakfast, and I always feel somewhat guilty when I run out for coffee and a muffin on my morning break. With college about to resume for my third and final year of Graphic Design, I thought I’d try and implement some better habits. For the month of February, I’m going to eat breakfast every single day.

I think its safe to say that Bill Granger is the King of breakfast in Sydney – the man built his empire on scrambled eggs! His three restaurants are world-famous, beloved by locals and tourists alike. I haven’t eaten there yet, but the next time I stay overnight in the city, bills will be my first stop for breakfast. His first cookbook Sydney Food tries to capture Sydney’s eclectic attitude to food, and has a great list of produce suppliers. It also has a great chapter all about breakfast.

After the adventures we had this morning in the kitchen, I’m not sure why I was drawn to the crumpets featured in the book. Maybe it was Bill’s claim that home made crumpets had to be tried at least once to compare to their store-bought counterparts, but hours later I’m not so sure. I don’t mind putting in a lot of time and effort for worthy results, but this morning I was disappointed.

I think their success has a lot to do with cooking technique – very, very slowly. In my impatience (and hunger) I was flipping them over too early. My sister Beth was more patient, giving them time to bubble up and dome gorgeously, but when they were flipped over, they too went flat. It was a learning experience for us both, and if we were to ever try this again, we’ve got some tricks up our sleeve.

The winner of the morning however was the maple and walnut butter that I made to serve them with. It had a nutty sweetness that worked well with the crumpets, but would possibly be even better on waffles or pancakes. Of course additions such as chopped dark chocolate, or other kinds of chopped nuts would be wonderful too.

Crumpets
Adapted from Sydney Food by Bill Granger
Makes about 14

• 1 ½ cups milk, slightly warmed
• 1 ½ teaspoons sugar
• 7g sachet dried yeast
• 1 ½ cups plain flour
• pinch of salt
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• ½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
• 200 mL water
• Butter, for greasing pan and metal rings

Maple Walnut Butter
• 50g butter, softened
• 2 tablespoons maple syrup
• 1 – 2 tablespoons walnuts, very finely chopped

1. In a bowl, combine the warm milk, sugar and yeast. Set aside for 10 minutes, until the milk starts to bubble, indicating that the yeast is active
2. Sift the flour and salt into a large bowl and make a well in the centre. Add the milk to the flour and beat with electric beaters until completely smooth. Start on the lowest speed because the mixture is likely to splatter.
3. Cover with plastic wrap and stand in a warm place for about 1 hour, or until doubled in volume and full of air bubbles.
4. Mix the bicarbonate of soda with 200mL water, and use electric beaters to combine with the batter.
5. Heat a flat-bottomed non-stick frypan over low heat. Use your finger to grease the inside of a metal ring with butter. Melt a little butter in the bottom of the pan.
6. Spoon mixture into the metal ring, leaving 3-5mm gap from the top. Cook until large bubbles form and burst all over and a skin has formed around the top. It should start to shrink away from the metal ring.
7. Remove the metal ring carefully. Keep a bowl of cold water handy to rinse the hot metal rings.
8. Don’t be in a rush to flip it over, the bottom should be well browned and crispy, and the top should have no liquidy batter remaining.
9. Flip carefully and cook until brown. Serve immediately with maple walnut butter, because they deflate quickly.
10. To make the maple walnut butter, combine butter and maple syrup in a bowl. Use electric beaters to mix until smooth and creamy, then fold in chopped walnuts.

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