Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Bessie Jackson

Wednesday afternoon and the clock has just struck 3 - it's Soul Time. For those who don't already, this is the time to switch on your radio, tune into 106.7 PBS FM and bliss out to Vince Peach's excellent show. And seeing as this particular Wednesday afternoon happens to be New Years Eve, I thought about 3 o'clock might be a good time for a cocktail, too.

I can't think of a more perfect drink for this particular scenario than the Bessie Jackson cocktail in my friend Jane's gorgeous new book Cocktails & Rock Tales that I haven't had a chance to tell you about until now. When I picked up my copy and opened it randomly, this was the first recipe l saw. And, I soon realised, that it was housed in the Soul section. And, it uses Stone's Green Ginger Wine - so it really couldn't be more perfect, for a Wednesday afternoon at 3. If it so happens that you're listening to something else, like...The Pixies for instance, or Dolly Parton, Jane's book can help you out too with delicious drinks for a whole heap of genres. But of course for me, it's Soul and so I'm sitting here with my little cat Quincy, my other third away camping with the boys, sipping my Bessie Jackson on New Years Eve. Don't worry - it's quite blissful. And there are plenty of folk arriving later in the evening to attend to the seafood extravaganza that has eaten up all my fridge space. Of course.

Happy New Years. I hope yours is as sweet.x

Bessie Jackson
From Jane Rocca's Cocktails & Rock Tales

8 mint leaves
5 dashes of bitters
45ml Tennessee whiskey
15ml green ginger wine
30ml clear apple juice
mint spring to garnish

Muddle mint leaves and bitters in a shaker. Add remaining ingredients (except for garnish) and shake up with ice. Strain into an old-fashioned glass over ice (not an old champagne glass as in my picture) and garnish with mint spring. So. Good.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Pomegranate and Apple Jelly

I love the way that moulded jelly looks like it has fallen from a children’s storybook onto your table, shining and wobbly. It, like chocolate mousse, was something we loved when we were kids and the best ever was when, for birthday parties, Mum would make layered jelly in different colours in small plastic wine glasses.

I’d been wanting for a while to make this jelly from Tessa Kiros’ beautiful book, Apples for Jam. We (now grown-ups) ate this two tone fruit juice treat the day before Christmas as an after-lunch dessert when we felt like something sweet that wouldn’t bowl us over right before the big day. It was light and refreshing, perfect for summer, or anytime you feel like some childhood comfort food minus the artificial colouring. This is so easy, and you could use all kinds of fruit, but the colours in this combination are beautiful I think. You can’t see it in the photograph, but I threw some blueberries into the pomegranate layer too, and they were delicious.

Pomegranate and Apple Jelly
From Tessa Kiros’ Apples for Jam
Note: If you’ve never juiced pomegranates before, all you need to do is cut them in half just like an orange, and twist away on a citrus juicer. Alternatively, you can buy the juice in bottles at some fruit stores, supermarkets and Middle Eastern food stores.

vegetable oil, to grease
170ml pomegranate juice (or juice from two pomegranates)
2 tbsp lemon juice
75g caster sugar
6 tsp powdered gelatine
170 ml cloudy apple juice

Using some paper towel, lightly grease 6 small jelly moulds with vegetable oil. In a small saucepan, combine pomegranate juice, 1 tablespoon of lemon juice and 50g of the sugar and heat gently, stirring until sugar dissolves. Meanwhile, add 3 tsp of the gelatin to 3 tbsp of water. Leave for a minute or two until it swells and then add to the hot juice. Stir until dissolved and smooth and remove from heat. Pour the mixture into the moulds evenly. Pop these in the refridgerator.

Next, add the apple juice, 1 tablespoon lemon juice and remaining sugar to small saucepan. Heat gently, and meanwhile, prepare remaining gelatin with water as above. When the sugar has dissolved, add gelatin to juice and stir until smooth and dissolved. Remove from heat and leave to cool in saucepan.

When the first layer is set enough for you to touch the surface lightly without rupturing, gently spoon the cooled apple mixture over the top and return to refrigerator until set. To serve, dip the moulds very quickly into hot water and invert.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Roasted Grape Salad

So finally, summer has arrived. And the first thing I want to eat when the temperature reaches over 25˚C is salad, of course. If it reaches over 35˚C, it almost has to be a well-chilled Greek horiatiki salad, or watermelon and feta. But since we’ve not been that fortunate here yet, there are hundreds of salad choices to be made. I sometimes wonder how it is possible that new salads can turn up all the time, with ingredients so scrumptious, so delicious that you cannot believe you’ve never eaten them, in a salad, before. Maybe I missed the boat on this one, but roasted grapes in a salad? I’d never had them, I had to try them, and now I think about them all the time.

This recipe gem was mined from my latest food-porn obsession, bon appétit: an American magazine that is available at Borders for an obscene amount, or on yearly subscription for pretty cheap. And yes, it is out of season and upside down for us here in the land of OZ (oh, I wish. I’d trade macadamia for lunch-pail trees and thongs/flip flops for ruby slippers any day…) but seeing as I keep my magazines forever (really) I don’t see this as too much of a problem.

But back to the salad, which technically, is an autumn salad, I suppose. But seeing as there were pears and grapes and Iranian dried sour cherries (!) at the market recently, I made it anyway. It is the most perfect combination of bitter greens, crunchy toasted pine nuts, tart and luxurious dried sour cherries, salty parmesan and proscuitto, fresh fragrant pear and – its pièce de résistance – red grapes that have been tossed with olive oil and roasted in the oven until wrinkly, juicy and sweet. You drizzle the whole lot with extra virgin oil and aged balsamic vinegar and all together, it is so, so good. Really, yours will look even better than the picture because that was our first version without pine nuts and cherries and we keep forgetting to photograph subsequent versions before we've already tucked in. We’ll be making it as part of our Christmas evening buffet to serve alongside barbecued quail, but it makes an elegant entrée or, with good bread, it is a wonderful lunch or light dinner. Does it sound like the bomb or what?

Roasted Grape Salad
Adapted from bon appétit 2008
Serves 4

¼ cup olive oil + a couple of tbsp extra
2 tbsp fresh squeezed lemon juice
4 long, thin slices of prosciutto
1 cup seedless red grapes, washed and stem removed
1/3 cup dried sour cherries
6 or 7 cups salad greens (such as roquette, radicchio, frisée)
2 small/medium pears, cored
Aged balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted
handful of shavings of Italian parmesan

The following preparatory steps can be done 2 hours in advance of serving.

Preheat oven to 200˚C. For dressing, whisk ¼ cup of olive oil and lemon juice in a small bowl. Heat a little of the oil in a frying pan and when hot, add prosciutto and fry until crisp. Remove and drain on paper towel and break into shards. Toss grapes with a little olive oil until shiny on a rimmed baking tray. Roast for around 15 minutes in preheated oven, or until they shrivel and look a bit sticky. Remove and cool. Soak cherries in a small amount of near boiling water for around 15 minutes until softened, then drain.

When ready to serve, cut 1 pear into matchstick-sized pieces and thinly slice the remaining pear. Toss matchstick pear pieces with salad greens, dressing, most of prosciutto, grapes and cherries in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Divide among plates or arrange on platter. Garnish with pear slices, remaining prosciutto, pine nuts and drizzle with aged balsamic. Add shaved parmesan to taste.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Olive Oil, Mandarin and Dessert Wine Syrup Cake

This is a cake for Luella.

A few months ago now she wrote and asked for the recipe for this delicious cake we'd both made years ago - but I didn't know where I'd found it in the first place and I'd looked for the last couple of years through (literally) hundreds of old magazines and through my piles of torn-out pages - like a crazy woman looking for a cat who died years ago. And then, not so long ago, I found it. I'm so glad, because this cake is light and moist with a hint of the beautiful olive oil shining through - and, being a syrup cake, it keeps remarkably well for days.

Luella's email sat at the top of what had become a small pile of requests for recipes: ideas from my growing collection of books and clippings, recipes for things we'd all made once a week for a while years ago but since forgotten, and for things my family made that weren't written down anywhere. This was the last request I received before I decided to start this blog. So thanks Lulu for the inspiration: have some cake.x

Olive Oil, Mandarin and Dessert Wine Syrup Cake
From Gourmet Traveller 2004

½ cup olive oil
1 cup caster sugar
pinch of salt
finely grated rind of 2 mandarins
3 eggs
200g self-raising flour
100g ground almonds
½ tsp bicarbonate soda
250g thick Greek yoghurt
about 6 Greek dried figs, halved widthway and stem removed

For syrup:
200ml dessert wine (like Brown Brothers Orange Muscat & Flora)
150g caster sugar

Preheat oven to 180ºC/350ºF. Grease and line a 20cm cake tin with baking paper.

In a large bowl, beat sugar, olive oil and salt with an electric mixer until well combined. Add mandarin rind. Add eggs, one at a time, until well incorporated and a little lighter.

Sift flour, almond meal and soda into a bowl. Add this to the oil, along with the yoghurt and fold to combine.

Transfer gently to tin, level top and bake 45 – 50 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean. If the top looks like it may be getting too dark, cover with a circle of baking paper halfway through cooking.

For syrup, add wine and sugar to a small saucepan and stir over medium heat, until sugar dissolves. Bring to boil and simmer rapidly for 5 minutes.

Remove cake from oven and prick all over with a skewer or small knife. Pour half of hot syrup onto hot cake and allow to cool in tin. Put halved figs into remaining syrup and leave to cool.

Turn cake out and spoon remaining syrup over cake, arranging figs on top. Serve with thick cream.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Grown-up Chocolate Mousse

As kids, my brother and I would have killed for chocolate mousse. It was the most rich and awesome thing we could ever imagine and we would request it all the time (even if it rarely appeared). We were so addicted to the idea of fluffy, light chocolate that we’d sneak those tubs of the supermarket version into the trolley when Mum looked away. If she didn’t see them earlier, when you got to the checkout I reckon you had a fifty percent chance of taking one home, depending on whether she thought it was cute or annoying that you’d slipped one in. If you’d been lucky, you’d eat it on the couch at home real slowly with a teaspoon while watching Ren & Stimpy and there was nothing better.

I thought of this the other day when I was in the mood for chocolate. And I realised that it had been a long, long time since I’d eaten any kind of chocolate mousse – especially the real, rich and deadly French stuff. So, of course, I made some. And it was divine! This intense and full-flavoured dessert is not something I could eat too often, but if it’s been a while, that first spoonful leaves you wondering if there’s anything better.

As you might imagine, its success relies heavily on the quality of the chocolate you use. For this, I like something about 60% cocoa (bittersweet), but if you are more of a 70% and up kinda kid, I say go for it. Just remember that the addition of alcohol makes the flavour a bit more intense. Needless to say, Anthony Bourdain wasn’t rushing to stick a maraschino cherry on top of his version, but, as you might imagine, I was. Oh well, chacun sa route.

Grown-up Chocolate Mousse
Adapted from Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook
Makes 6 small, but rich servings

170g good-quality dark chocolate
60 ml brandy (or Grand Marnier, if you have it=yum)
60g butter
4 eggs, separated
2 tbsp sugar
½ cup heavy cream
Maraschino cherry to garnish

Place chopped or broken chocolate in a bowl over a saucepan of simmering water to melt. Stir as you go so that chocolate doesn’t burn. When completely melted, whisk in brandy and butter, bit by bit, until it has melted and the whole lot looks glossy and good enough to stick your finger in. Don’t though – it’s very hot. Whisk in the egg yolks, one by one.

In a clean bowl, whip the eggwhites until they form soft peaks, adding the sugar a sprinkle at a time. Whisk about a quarter of this mixture into the chocolate, then gently, gently fold in the remaining.

In a separate bowl, whip the cream until it holds soft peaks, then add to chocolate mixture and fold in. Gently transfer the mousse to a large serving bowl, or pipe into glasses for individual serves, as above. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours. Serve with extra cream, a mint garnish, a maraschino cherry – or all of the above.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Sopa Azteca (Mexican Tortilla Soup)

Not a week goes by where we don’t talk about Mexico. Places we went to, people we met, food that we ate. Memories of that amazing country have been branded onto our hearts, and we long always to get back there.

The most beautiful dishes we ate there have been hard to recreate back in Melbourne for reasons involving both ingredients and equipment. One thing we are quite happy with though, is our version of Sopa de Tortilla, also known as the infinitely more exotic 'Sopa Azteca'. This soup is often served as the small first course of the comida corrida (the set lunch menu offered at restaurants all over Mexico) and there are about as many versions as there are restaurants. At its most basic, it is a rich and earthy chicken broth poured over fried strips of tortilla and anything from chunked avocado, to cubed cheese is added to garnish. We loved it so much that we eat it now in a bigger version as a main meal, like a kind of Mexican incarnation of those big Vietnamese noodle soups with the best of every version we encountered. It's the ultimate use of leftovers if you’ve had roast chicken for dinner the night before or if you’ve got a couple dry tortillas hanging about. But it is so good, it is totally worth making from scratch – and we often do.

Sopa Azteca
This will make 4 entrée-sized soups or 2 large bowls.

2 medium-sized ripe tomatoes
3 – 4 corn tortillas, cut into strips
1/3 cup light olive oil or vegetable oil
1 medium-sized brown onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1 litre chicken stock, flavoured with clove, thyme and allspice
Salt and pepper
Chiles chipotles en adobo (1 chile for each serve)*
1 avocado
½ - 1 cup of shredded cooked chicken
½ cup roughly chopped coriander leaves
Fresh lime

Place tomatoes in a cast iron frying pan or grill pan on medium heat for 12 – 15 minutes until skin blackens and begins to split. The tomatoes should also have softened a little. Remove and when cool enough to handle, remove skins and puree in blender.

Heat oil in a frying pan until very hot. Add tortilla strips and fry, turning, until all strips are crispy and lightly golden. Remove from pan and drain on paper towel.

Tip remaining oil into a large saucepan (or stockpot) and add onion. Sauté over medium heat until onion is translucent. Add the garlic and then the tomato puree and fry for around 10 minutes to thicken and concentrate.

Add the chicken stock, bring to boil, then lower heat to a simmer. Cook covered for 30 minutes, then season to taste.

Divide tortilla strips, chicken, avocado, chicken and coriander into serving bowls. Add one chile per bowl. Ladle hot broth over the mixture and add lime juice to taste.

*Chiles chipotles en adobo are smoked Mexican jalapeños in special chile sauce. They are available canned from Casa Iberica in Fitzroy or online from U.S.A. Foods.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Peach and Cherry Cake

Last week at the market I became so excited by the arrival of summer fruit that I bought too much to carry. Does that ever happen to you? I couldn't help it. There were peaches, apricots, nectarines, watermelon (with flavour) and most excellently, cherries. Because Christmas happens in the summertime for us down here, the plump red fruit have taken on a festive significance. They’re piled high in Christmas fruit displays, they feature heavily in recipes and the glossiest specimens are poured straight from the farms into our lounge rooms through holiday season supermarket advertisements on the television. It’s almost impossible not to buy bag after bag. But for me they mean so much more than this.

Cherries remind me of sitting on the whitewashed steps of my grandmother’s house, shaded from the hot summer sun by the lemon tree. We’d come back from a swim and she’d be in her bedroom for siesta, but there’d always be a big plate of freshly cut fruit chilling in the fridge for us – giant slices of red pink watermelon with shiny black pips and icy cold peaches with heavy perfume and always, scattered about on top, were a couple of large handfuls of cherries. When my grandmother did it, the cherries always fell perfectly onto the plate, into the crevices made by the other fruit as if she’d placed them there one by one. And so we’d sit on the back steps, with crickets buzzing and the syrupy smell of sunburnt fig trees thick in the air, drinking tall glasses of water, eating cherries. I buy lots of them now, because every so often, a really good one will take me back there.

But I bought so many this week that I decided to make this cake. And I’m glad I did, because it really does showcase how delicious cherries are – and peaches. This cake is wonderful because you can change the fruit for whatever you have on hand and it is always beautiful, as long as you stick roughly to amounts. My mother and I make this often – sometimes she’ll spoon the pulp of a passionfruit over the top before baking and sometimes I’ll throw in some apple and mix cinnamon into the sugar topping. This summer version with peaches and cherries is moist and light, studded with big pieces of sweet baked fruit. It is perfect with a cup of tea in the morning, or even as a dessert if served slightly warm with a dollop of thick, thick cream. The recipe below is for one big cake, but sometimes I'll make it as two half-sized cakes, as in the pictures here. One for us and one for a friend (you give them the less wonky one). Happy Birthday Nicole.x

Peach and Cherry Cake
Adapted from Tessa Kiros’ Twelve

900g – 1kg of fruit (here about 700gm peaches and 250gm cherries)
150g sugar plus 2 tbsp to top
3 eggs
1 tbsp vanilla essence
250g “00” or all-purpose flour
1½ tsp baking powder
150g butter, melted plus a little extra for greasing
125ml (½ cup) milk

Preheat oven to 180˚C (350˚F). Butter and line a 24cm (9½ inch) loose bottom cake tin with baking paper.

Pit cherries and halve. For peaches, halve and remove stone. Cut into quarters if the fruit are large. Big pieces here are nice.

With an electric beater, beat eggs, 150g sugar and vanilla until pale and fluffy. Add sifted flour and baking powder, mixing well to form a smooth, thick batter. Whisk in melted butter and milk.

Throw a few pieces of peach into the bottom of the lined tin, then scrape out the batter on top. Tip the rest of the fruit onto the batter. Don’t worry about pushing it under the batter – the oven will do the rest. Sprinkle the 2 tbsp of sugar over the top and pop into the oven. Bake for about an hour or until a skewer comes out clean and the top is golden and delicious. This is a delicate cake when hot, so let cool before removing from tin. Sprinkle with icing sugar to serve, if desired.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Chicken, Leek and Thyme Pie

Often people talk about the satisfaction gained in making bread. I totally see where they’re coming from, but for me it is, and has always been, pie. A pie is always a surprise, even when you know what’s inside and even if you made it, because every pie is different depending on temperatures, absorbencies, natural sugar levels and lots of other science. But this is the greatest thing about pies, this unpredictability; this is what makes them magic.

One thing I (actually) do like about being Australian is our unique and central position on the international pie matrix. What do I mean, exactly? Well, from our colonisers, the English, we inherit the grand tradition of the savoury pie: flaky pastry filled often, but not always, with a rich meat stew. From other parts of Europe we claim pitas (yum) and strudels (yum) and, more recently empanadillas (and yum!). And from the magic worlds of literature, cinema and television, we (ok, I) have an (literally) unhealthy obsession with American home-style sweet pies (and brackets, evidently). I’d actually planned today to deliver a cherry pie recipe to inaugurate the season, but the early cherries I bought and baked in haste were a touch dull in the end, and it put me off. I’ll make good on the cherry pie soon.

Sweet or savoury though, it doesn’t matter; pie making from scratch gives me the ultimate sense of satisfaction. And so last week when we bought the sweetest, most delicious young leeks from the farmer’s market, I knew that this was the week of the chicken, leek and thyme pie.

When they’re not Thai green curried, or Moroccan spiced up, chicken pies are so damn country, and in the best possible way. The filling in this one is really delicate and fresh with a touch of lemon and is encased in, thanks to Angela Boggiano's Pie book, the easiest flaky pastry you’ll ever make. Although homemade pies can seem a bit of a job, you can always prepare ahead to lessen the workload come dinnertime. In fact, making your pastry in advance gives it extra time to chill and promises a flakier crust, while cooking up the filling ahead of time will only improve the complexity of the flavour. With a bit of practise, putting the pie together will only take you ten minutes, giving you ample time for a quiet sherry in your apron before everyone else in the house smells what’s going on.

Chicken, Leek and Thyme Pie
Adapted from Angela Boggiano’s Pie

Note: This recipe makes enough for one double-crust 25cm pie. The key to success is keeping everything very cold – so feel free to stick the pastry back in the freezer for a few minutes at any stage if you think it's warming up. It really does make a difference!

easy flaky pastry
200gm butter, very, very cold (nearly frozen!)
21/2 cups flour
a pinch of salt
6 or 7 tbsp iced water
1 beaten egg to glaze

pie filling
1 big chicken, about 1.5kg (preferably free-range)
1 large carrot, chopped into three
2 celery stalks, chopping into three
1 onion, peeled and halved
1 more onion, finely chopped
5 or 6 sprigs thyme
1 tbsp olive oil
knob of butter
2 leeks, white and very pale green bits finely sliced
150ml/ 2/3 cup white wine
2 tbsp flour
150ml/ 2/3 cup thin cream
finely grated zest of ½ lemon
salt and pepper

For pastry, whisk flour and salt in a large bowl to mix and aerate. Holding butter with a piece of foil or baking paper, grate into flour. Stir to combine evenly. Sprinkle in 6 tbsp of iced water and use a knife or rubber spatula to bring the dough together. Add a little more water if it needs it, but be conservative. It doesn’t need to be perfectly smooth dough, but a clumpy, crumbly mass. Tip onto a big piece of plastic wrap and shape roughly into a flat disk. Wrap and stick it in the fridge for at least 30 minutes, up to 2 days, or freeze up to 3 months.

For filling, put the chicken in a large pot with carrot, celery and halved onion. Season with salt and pepper, remembering you can always add more later. Cover with water and bring to boil. Simmer for around 45 minutes, or until chicken is done. Remove chicken and set aside to cool. Continue to simmer stock for half an hour or so until it reduces by half. When chicken has cooled enough to handle, remove meat from bones, discarding skin, and shred or chop coarsely.

While your chicken is on the boil, heat oil and butter with medium heat in a large frying pan. Add the leeks and chopped onion, a sprinkle of salt and cook until softened and sticky. Turn the heat up a bit higher and add the wine. Let this simmer for a minute or so until reduced by half, and then add the flour. Stir well to combine, fry for about a minute, and then pour in the cream and about 150ml/2/3 cup of the reduced chicken stock. Strip leaves from thyme sprigs and add to leek and cream along with the chicken meat. Stir to combine well and set aside to cool. Have a taste for salt and pepper and image how good your pie will be.

Preheat oven to 200˚C. Pop a baking tray onto the middle rack to heat up. Divide your pastry into two lumps, one slightly bigger than the other and roll out the largest to line bottom of pie tin. Spoon the cooled filling into the pie and brush round the edges with beaten egg. Roll out the pastry lid and lay over filling, crimping the edges together to seal. Brush the top with beaten egg to give a good glaze and pop into the oven on the baking sheet for 35 – 40 minutes. It’s ready when the top is beautiful and golden.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Minestra di Zucca (Pumpkin & Bean Soup)

I missed the warm weather that teased us last week. It tricked us into barbecuing and drinking beer as if it were summer already. But this evening it hasn't stopped raining and my little cat and I felt stuck inside on the couch, watching bad movies on TV, half reading a new book. The thing that set this evening right was soup - and once I'd thought of it, I was glad for the rain. 

This is an Italian vegetable soup I've made many times since coming across it in delicious. a few years ago and it's the easiest to put together. A sofritto of pumpkin, leek and celery makes a sweet and flavorsome base to which you add good vegetable stock, then let the pot simmer away. When the vegetables are tender, you simply throw in a can of lentils and a can of cannellini beans and puree or blend to the consistency you like best; I like mine thick and chunky. The beans and lentils give the soup a hearty dimension, and a bowl of this with a thick slice of buttered sourdough is the most comforting and satisfying meal. Serve with a good grinding of pepper, and if you're feeling austere, a swirl of fresh cream. After this, the rain doesn't seem so bad after all. 

Minestra di Zucca (Pumpkin & Bean Soup)
adapted from delicious. May 2005

600g pumpkin, peeled & cut into pieces
2 large leeks, (white ends only) chopped
3 large celery stalks, chopped
1/2 cup olive oil
1 good-quality vegetable stock cube
400g canned lentils, drained
200g canned cannellini beans, drained
thickened cream, to serve

Add olive oil, pumpkin, leeks and celery to a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Fry gently, stirring until vegetable soften and begin to look sticky. 

Add the vegetable stock with 1.25 litres of water and bring to the boil. Return heat to low and simmer gently for around an hour. 

Add the lentils and beans and season with salt and pepper. Using a stick mixer (or transfer to a blender) puree to desired consistency. If it seems too thick, add a little more water and taste again for salt. Serve with a swirl of cream and fresh pepper. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Orecchiette with Broccoli, Anchovy and Chilli

Good-quality dried pasta can change the way you eat forever, especially if you’ve always bought the $0.69 stuff. I’m not talking here, necessarily, about those artisanal $14 brown paper bags sold at packaging-obsessed gourmet food stores (although some of these are devastatingly good). Rather, I mean pasta that performs consistently – and one that has a good flavour before you add anything to it. This means it will hold up to al dente cooking when many of the cheapest ones don’t. One general rule of thumb is to look for pasta that seems more opaque than others on offer – this means that it has been dried for longer at a lower temperature, significantly improving the flavour. The beauty of this is, that the better your pasta is, the less you need to add to it to make a wonderfully satisfying meal. And this phenomenon is your best friend on a Friday night after a long week.

Which brings me to this excellent pasta that is made often here on a Friday night – or whenever we feel we’d rather not spend too much time at the stove. It is simple and yet, when made well, quite sophisticated and is perfection with a glass or two of crisp white. If anchovies are not your favourite thing, this dish could still be, because as the fillets melt into the olive oil with garlic and chilli, their flavour mellows and they impart only a hint of complex saltiness that is perfect with the broccoli and chewy pasta. Traditionally from Puglia, orecchiette (little ears!) is dense and robust pasta that takes a little longer to cook than spaghetti or penne, but its rough texture and cupped shape means that it picks up simple sauces like no other. In this recipe, the pasta is cooked in the same water as the broccoli to capitalise on the flavour of the vegetable. Smart thinking. Traditionally, this dish is served not with parmesan, but ricotta salata: a dried, salted ricotta that is firm, white and perfect for grating finely. If you don’t have this on hand, parmesan is good too – after all, rushing to shops for one ingredient on a Friday night? I don’t think so.

Orecchiette with Broccoli, Anchovy and Chilli
Adapted from Tessa Kiros’ Twelve.

500g broccoli
5 tbsp olive oil
1 large or 1 smaller garlic cloves, crushed
1tsp dried chilli flakes (more or less to taste)
about 5 Italian anchovy fillets in oil, chopped roughly
200g dried orecchiette
grated ricotta salata or parmesan to taste

Trim the tough outer stem of the broccoli and cook whole pieces in a large saucepan of boiling salted water until tender, but not soft. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a bowl or colander, reserving water. When cool enough to handle, cut the broccoli stem from the head, roughly chop into smaller pieces and return to boiling water. Add orecchiette and give the pot a stir. Cook pasta until al dente, following instructions on your packet (these will vary according to brand, thickness etc). When ready, drain pasta and broccoli stems, reserving half a cup or so of the cooking water.

Meanwhile, separate the heads into smaller florets. Heat olive oil in a medium frying pan. Add garlic, chilli and chopped anchovy fillets and stir with a wooden spoon, mashing the anchovy up a bit as you go until they melt into a sauce. Add the florets and toss through so that they pick up the lovely sauce. Add salt and pepper to taste, remembering the anchovies might already be salty enough. After a few minutes, add the orecchiette and stems along with the reserved water. Toss through gently until it is glistening and smells delicious. Serve with cheese atop, or mixed through to melt a little.

Serves two with a bit left over, or two very hungry people.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Yemista (Greek Stuffed Vegetables)

Warm, soft and rich, yemista is comfort food at its finest - the kind where the first forkful always summons memories of eating it in the past. Memories of my grandmother's version, eaten in the hot summer evening, with salty hair and sandy feet, at the plastic table on her rooftop balcony. Or my mother's version, cooked on Sunday, eaten on Monday after long days at work, or at school. It's beautiful how the most humble dishes can invoke such vivid recollections of moments past.

Like many of the finest Greek dishes, yemista is rich but wholesome. The vegetables become fleshy and sweet after their long roasting, and the filling of rice, vegetables and herbs transforms into a kind of soft, dense risotto. The recipe given below is vegetarian, but you can make the more traditional version with meat by substituting some of the rice for mince and frying it off before you add the other ingredients. Both versions are delicious.

Hollowing out the vegetables can be a bit of a job - depending on what you use - but it's not a bit difficult, and the result is always worth it. You can add pine nuts to the filling (or whatever else you think would be good) or throw quartered potatoes into the roasting dish around the vegetables to make a more substantial meal. This dish makes an excellent hot dinner on chilly nights, but is perhaps even better eaten (all year round) slightly warm or at room temperature for maximum flavour. Prepare it a day in advance and, magically, the flavour only improves. 

Greek Stuffed Vegetables (Yemista)
A note on choosing your vegetables: go for those that are rounded with plenty of room for stuffing. A bottle-neck shaped eggplant will cause much grief when you attempt to hollow it out - look for those that are wider at the top.

4 red capsicum
2 large eggplants
5 large tomatoes
1 large brown onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced or finely chopped
5 tbps (or so) of good olive oil
A good knob of butter
1 1/2 cups of aborio rice
1 medium zucchini, chopped into a small dice
1 tsp cumin
3 or 4 tinned tomatoes chopped, with their juice
a big handful of chopped fresh parsley 
1/3 cup of dried currants
around 800ml vegetable or chicken stock
salt and fresh ground pepper
3 tbsp olive oil, extra
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup grated mizithra (salted dried ricotta) or parmesan

Using a sharp little knife (carefully!), cut the tops of the capsicums to make what looks like little lids or hats and scoop out any seeds. Cut the seeded heart from the lid so that that each capsicum is entirely empty. Keep the right lids with the right bottoms! Cut lids from the tomatoes and gently scoop out the flesh and seeds, chop up any larger bits and reserve in a bowl. Cut tops from eggplant and scoop out flesh and reserve in a colander. Sprinkle with salt to draw out any bitterness. 

For filling, pop oil and butter into a large frying pan. Cook onion, stirring, over low heat until translucent then add garlic. Stir for a minute or so, then add rice and stir to coat well. Stir in the cumin and the currants, add some freshly ground pepper. Rinse eggplant flesh of excess salt, chop finely and add to rice along with zucchini. Fry this mixture, stirring every now and then, until vegetables soften and begin to look sticky. Pour in the reserved tomato flesh and juice, add the tinned tomatoes and throw in the parsley. Stir in around 500ml of the stock and cook for 10 - 15 minutes. Stir from time to time and add a ladle of stock if it looks like it's drying out. The rice should be about half-cooked. Taste for salt (this will depend on your stock). Take off the heat and let cool slightly. Preheat oven to 180˚C. 

Fill each hollowed-out vegetable nearly to the top with rice mixture, add its little hat and arrange in a large roasting dish. Add lemon juice to remaining stock and pour around vegetables to keep moist during cooking. Pour extra olive oil over vegetables. Sprinkle with cheese. Cover with foil and pop in hot oven for 1¼ - 1½ hours, removing foil after first 45 minutes to get a nice colour on the vegetables. If they seem dry, add a little water. They're done when they're soft all over and golden on top. 

Friday, November 14, 2008

Green Ginger Caipirinha

I thought we'd start with a drink - after all, many good things do.

Welcome: after apple-picking is a way to share the recipes I love with friends everywhere - those I've cooked for and those I haven't. It's a way to get around to the hundreds of recipes I've never made but have always wanted to, to share the favorites I always come back to, and to spend time thinking and writing (even more) about the sublime everyday pleasure that is food. And so a toast - to beginnings. And to cooking, learning and eating, together and alone. I hope this archive of my favorite things to cook and eat gives you all that these recipes give me - and I look forward so much to your ideas and suggestions.  
Ze drink? A number of weeks ago now, after my first sip of this severely bastardised 'caipirinha', I announced that my summer this year would be sponsored by Stone's Green Ginger Wine. Later in the evening, after a good number more sips, I announced that I would start a food blog. Since then, I've served Stone's at my birthday party, at our first barbecue of the year, and have found ways to drag the giant jewel-green bottle out just about every Friday night, whether we have company or not. I can't get enough and I'm not ashamed to admit it.

So head to your local bottle shop and venture into the corner you'd usually avoid. Yes, the one lined with boxes and flagons of McWilliams sweet sherry and novelty-sized ruby ports. There, in its 1.5l bottle, (it could last you all summer) you'll find Stone's Green Ginger Wine. Now, a sip of Stone's delivers one super-zingy ginger blast - spicy, sweet, smooth - and is surprisingly good simply splashed over a couple of ice cubes. Sniffing some excellent potential from the beginning, I took myself here and discovered a multitude of ways to enjoy the golden-green liquor, but I can't get far beyond the Green Ginger Caipirinha. You simply muddle small wedges of fresh lime, brown sugar and a few mint leaves in the bottom of a glass, fill with crushed ice and top up with Stone's Green Ginger Wine. Perfectly refreshing. For a less spicy incarnation, top up with lemonade or soda water to taste. Chink, chink.

So cheers, and do come by again soon! The oven's on and I've got big plans.x
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