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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