Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Crispy Roti with Feta

This is hardly a recipe - but it is such a great idea. An unlikely combination only in terms of each ingredient's cultural affiliation; flaky Indian roti bread and creamy Greek feta cheese. But I came up with this idea because it reminds me of handmade pita bread fried in olive oil that my grandmother used to make. You used it to scoop up a coarsely mashed paste of feta and oregano and it was the most delicious thing that ever came out of a frying pan.

This is great for when it is too hot to (really) cook but you need something a little more than salad, or when you want a little something to serve as a meze or finger food. And it is so perfect for during the party season when you get home very late, after many drinks and remember that you've not eaten dinner. For me, crispy roti with feta trumps the after-midnight post-cocktail toastie - and I think that says alot.

To make, use any roti you like - I usually have spinach. Carefully pry open and unfold a sheet of the bread, trying not to break it at the creases. Crumble a generous amount of feta over the newly revealed centre. Sometimes I also add a sprinkle of dried Greek oregano at this point. Fold the sides back over and press gently to adhere the roti back together. Fry in the bread in a large non-stick frying pan over medium heat until puffed and golden. To serve, cut into squares or fingers.

Lazy, huh?

I've just set up a recipe index for this site, which should make it easier to access recipes past. Links to it are here, and in the site side bar. Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

My inner Italian-American: Spaghetti and Meatballs

I’m not sure I’ve ever mentioned this, but desire in my life is dictated almost entirely by cinema. From a very, very young age, my ideas about the world – and what I wanted it to be – were constituted through films I saw at the movies and watching videos at home. I think that, as a consequence of this, the world for me was relatively unbound by limitations of class and sexuality and nation and gender; I dreamt up who I was and, more particularly, who I wanted to be – with cinema as my reference.

As a little kid, the Frog brothers taught me all about what to do if you met a vampire at the fair, and Frankenfurter showed me that sometimes men wear lipstick, too. When I was eleven, I learnt from Stanley Kubrick how terrifying things can also be beautiful, and I often wondered if my school had an attic where I could lock myself in to read incredible books and eat my sandwich slowly. I wanted to visit OZ for a lunch pail picked from a tree and Chicago for four fried chickens and a coke. But there was nothing I wanted more than to stand by the stove in that kitchen when Peter Clemenza teaches Mikey to make spaghetti sauce in The Godfather (1972).

This moment marked for me the beginning of a deep fascination with Italian-American culture – an obsession that I’ve fostered entirely through film and television. This monster reached its crescendo in my late teens, when I decided to shelve my dreams of an academic career to fulfil my new life’s calling to marry into the mob. I had leopard print, too much mascara and names picked out for my boys, Frankie and Johnny. And I had this recipe.

Spaghetti and meatballs is not something found on Italian menus in Australia – even though we have wonderful regional Italian food here. This is because, while it surely has some southern Italian root, it is known specifically as an Italian-American speciality dish – something that was made by those who’d left the old country for the new. Perhaps because I’d never eaten it, I became obsessed with this huge platter of comfort food that was produced time and time again in American family dinner table scenes. The desires of my inner Italian-American are what led me to this dish – and I’d never have met her without the cinema.

Life as a mob wife would have ensured that mountains of coiled al dente pasta, red sauce and soft, rich meatballs appeared regularly on my table, but somewhere along the line, I changed my mind. Funny, but I think one of the turning points was seeing a film called Frankie and Johnny (1991). From this film, I learnt how standing around, brushing your teeth could be romantic and that having someone make you tuna fish sandwiches can somehow trump a diamond necklace.

Just recently, I’ve had the pleasure of re-watching a number of the greatest gangster films while I’m doing some writing for a forthcoming book on the genre and that wonderful scene in The Godfather – that scene that is about so much more than spaghetti – seeing it fanned the embers of that old desire. I made spaghetti and meatballs and we sat down to complete the trilogy and when the film was over and the last of the sauce wiped out of the bowls with thick buttered bread, I thanked the cinema for its ability to both summon and satisfy desire.

Note: If Italian-American food is your thing, I’d highly recommend the January 2009 issue of American magazine Gourmet which takes this cuisine as its central theme. It contributed a number of ideas for excellent tweaks to my original recipe. Additionally, it contains a beautiful and honest essay by Amy Bloom about discovering Italian food, coincidentally (I promise) called ‘My Inner Italy’. Highly recommended.

Spaghetti and Meatballs
Adapted from Gourmet 2009 & Peter Clemenza’s original recipe
This makes enough for about six serves. Or two dinners and four meatball sandwiches. You know, like in Point Break.

For the sauce:
2 cans Italian tinned tomatoes
2 garlic cloves, peeled and squashed a bit
¼ cup olive oil

For the meatballs:
1 medium onion, very finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1 cup day-old bread, torn into pieces
1 cup milk
2 eggs
¾ cup grated Italian parmesan (I used Grana Padano)
a couple of springs each of fresh parsley and oregano, leaves finely chopped
250g veal mince
250g pork mince
250g beef mince
vegetable or olive oil, to fry

Spaghetti, around 100 – 120g dried per person

To make the sauce, tip tomatoes and juice into a large bowl. With your hands, squeeze and break up the tomatoes to make a chunky puree. Heat olive oil on medium in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and add squashed garlic. Cook for a couple of minutes to release the garlic flavour into the oil. When it smells very good, add the tomatoes and juice. Add salt and pepper, stir and bring to boil. Turn down to a low simmer and let cook, for around 30 minutes, while you make the meatballs. You can remove the garlic after cooking if you like.

For the meatballs, pour milk over torn bread and let sit five minutes. Meanwhile, fry chopped onion in a frying pan with a little olive oil and a tiny sprinkle of salt until softened, about 8 minutes. Add garlic and cook for a few minutes more. Remove from heat and scrape into a large bowl to cool. Remove bread and discard excess milk. Work the bread between your fingers until you have a slightly chunky pulp. Add this to the cooled onions, along with the herbs, parmesan and eggs. Add salt and pepper, remembering that the cheese is slightly salty and mix together until well combined. Add the minced meats and, with light hands, combine gently without needing or overworking the mixture. Make mixture into meatballs with dampened hands (mine are about the size of small limes) and place on the baking paper lined tray until all are made. Heat olive oil in a large frying pan over medium heat and fry meatballs in batches until browned on the surface.

When all meatballs are done, taste sauce for seasoning, then add meatballs and combine very gently, being careful not to break them up. Simmer gently until the meatballs are cooked through – this should take around 20 minutes.

Cook pasta according to packet directions in plenty of salted water. When ready, drain and add to sauce, tossing gently to combine. Serve with extra grated parmesan.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Mackerel Two Ways: Butterflied Baked with Garlic and Paprika & Escabeche

At our house, we have a real thing for cheap kinds of fish like sardines and mackerel. It isn't because they're cheap that we love them, (although this ensures the love affair continues) but because, with a little bit of an idea about how to prepare these babies, they're often the tastiest, meatiest and healthiest fish you could ever eat. 

The Spaniards, Portuguese, Greeks and Italians know a lot about cooking these kinds of fish so there are countless tasty ways to prepare them. The texture is meaty and pleasantly oily and the flavour stronger than with your average white fish. Don't be put off though by your experience of the canned variety, because fresh fish is always a different kettle of, fish. Fresh mackerel is not something we find everyday here though, so when I saw them at the market the other day, I snapped up a couple of kilos (for under $12!) and decided that I'd prepare them two ways. Believe it or not, I cleaned, butterflied and filleted these myself, but I'm a sucker for learning about these kinds of things and if you've got a fish monger that is friendly, I'm sure they can take care of this for you. If you're feeling crazy, here are some good instructions for cleaning, and here are some for the rest. Go YouTube! Really, you can learn to do anything

The first lot we ate for lunch on the day I bought them (so fresh!), butterflied and baked very quickly, then dressed with extra virgin olive oil, finely chopped garlic, parsley and a generous sprinkle of Spanish smoked sweet paprika. With a delicious crunchy kind-of Greek salad and great bread for juices, it was delicious. If you're into these kinds of flavours - Spanish/Moorish/Middle Eastern - I can't recommend highly enough Sam and Samantha Clarke's book Moro, from which I stole this idea. It is one of the cookbooks I use most often. 

The second preparation, escabeche, is entirely different, in that the fish is gently pickled or marinated overnight in the refrigerator and served cold or at room temperature. The recipe was adapted (very slightly) from Frank Camorra's book Movida - a book that shares some of the  secrets of my favorite Melbourne restaurant. Note that owning this book, and even cooking from it, will not cure you of insane desire to eat there, all the time. But the fish - it keeps for a few days wrapped in the fridge: we pulled it out as a little tapa before dinner or light lunch over two or three days. The marinade made with wine and sherry vinegar, bay leaves and saffron is neither too vinegary or strong, but is deeply fragrant and kind of refreshing. It is a perfect dish for summer. 

In case you needed another reason to head to the market, mackerel is really a super-fish: it has lots of omega-3 (good fats) and vitamin B12 - good for your skin and just about everything else. Sometimes, at this time of the year (just after Christmas), those promises of healthfulness really get to me. But this, I'd eat anyway.  

Butterflied Baked Mackerel with Paprika and Garlic
From Sam and Sam Clarke's Moro
Serves 4 as a light lunch or first course. 
Notes: this fish could also be cooked on in a grill pan or or heavy frying pan. Also, a good substitute for mackerel here would be fresh, fat sardines.

3 tbsp olive oil
4 mackerel, cleaned and butterflied
3 small or 2 large garlic cloves, very finely chopped
A big handful of fresh parsley, chopped
2 tsp sweet smoked Spanish paprika (ahumado)
1 lemon
salt and pepper

Take a roasting tray big enough to hold your fish and pop it in the oven, while you preheat to 220˚C. When nice and hot, carefully pull it out and drizzle half the oil into the hot tray. Slide in the fish, skin side down (it will sizzle and begin to crisp up right away) and pop back in the oven for about 10 minutes, or until cooked through. 

Remove from the oven and immediately sprinkle with garlic, parsley and paprika. Drizzle with remaining olive oil and serve. So easy!

Mackerel Escabeche
Adapted from Frank Camora's Movida
Note: this could also be made with fresh, fat sardines

For the fish:
Around half a kilo of mackerel fillets
seasoned plain flour (to coat fish)
olive oil to shallow fry fish
fine sea salt

For the escabeche:
2 red onions
60ml extra virgin olive oil
4 bay leaves, preferably fresh
2 garlic cloves, finely sliced
pinch of saffron threads
2 large-ish carrots, julienned
125ml white wine vinegar
125ml Spanish sherry vinegar
250ml white wine
1 tbsp black peppercorns
1 large handful of flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped

To serve:
small handful of chopped continental parsley
extra olive oil to drizzle

Lightly coat fish fillets in seasoned flour. In a large frying pan, heat the olive oil and fry fillets until golden brown on both sides (Frank says around 3 minutes). Season each side with salt. Remove and drain on paper towel to absorb excess oil. 

To make the escabeche, cut onions into thinnish wedges. Heat olive oil into a heavy frying pan over low heat and add onion, bay leaves, garlic and saffron. Stir to combine, then cover and cook for around 15 minutes. The onions should not colour, but turn transluscent and sticky. Add the carrot, stir and cover again for another 15 minutes. When the carrot has slightly softened, add the vinegars, wine, peppercorns, 1 cup of water and 1 tsp of salt. Bring to a boil, then simmer until the marinade it fragrant and doesn't smell of alcohol - about 20 minutes. Remove from heat, cool and add parsley. 

Place fried fillets in a single layer in a large, non-metal dish (metal will react with marinade). Pour over the escabeche. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. Serve the fillets the following day with a spoonful or two of the marinade and some vegetables on each. Sprinkle with fresh parsley and drizzle with extra oil. 

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