Monday, December 15, 2008

It feels like it's already been a heck of a week and it's only Monday! 

Here's an easy idea for any time this week - possibly the busiest on the social calendar. Jelly. Yes, jelly. Previously the domain of housewives of the 50's and possibly children today (frankly, I wouldn't know what kids these days eat), jelly can take on a whole new meaning if you add a few grown up ingredients. Like alcohol. 

I must sound as if I do a lot of drinking, but actually I don't. In
 cooking though, alcohol can give a dish a whole other dimension and lift the flavours up . Let's face it, if you're cooking anything hot, you're really going after the taste because the alcohol evaporates off pretty quickly, so even teetotallers need not fear. Especially if you're using average proof stuff.

This dessert is an alternative to all the fruitcakes, puddings, gingerbread and chocolate doing the rounds at the moment. I love a lot of that stuff too, but if you need a little rest from the richness that can be Christmas sweets, this one could be for you. It's not that sweet, and if you prefer a bit sweeter, you can just add some sugar to taste and stir in the hot liquid until it's dissolved. Easy.

Grown up cranberry jellies

Ingredients:
500ml cranberry juice
200ml sweet white wine
200ml boiling water
8 tsp gelatine
1 cup frozen fresh cranberries
1 cinnamon stick

Put the cranberry juice and water into a pan with the cinnamon stick and bring to the boil. You can do this in the microwave if you prefer. If you like it sweeter, now's the time to stir in some sugar. Don't overdo it though because part of the nice thing about this is that it's slightly tart and fresh. 

Stir in the gelatine until fully dissolved. Let it sit until it's cool - no need to put it in the fridge unless you're in a rush. When cool, pour in the wine and stir.

Take six  jelly cups (you can get a pack of six for around $4 at the supermarket) and place them on a tray or plate. Discard the cinnamon stick. Arrange some frozen cranberries in the bottom. Pour on a little jelly and stick them in the fridge until set. They should set pretty quickly because you're only just covering the berries and they're so cold already. When set, gently pour in more jelly mix until all the moulds are filled equally. Put them in the fridge to set. 

When set, gently turn the mould upside down onto the plate you want to serve it on. Wet a clean cloth with hot water and wrap this around the mould. Leave it for a minute or so. You should then be able to pull the little lid off the bottom and the jelly should slide out pretty easily. If it doesn't try the hot cloth again. Be patient though - it will work!

You can work with any flavours you like too - try adding orange peel to the hot mix or a nice, sweet liqueur, or soak the berries in liqueur for a while beforehand. It's all good. 

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The inevitable

It had to happen. I had to make Christmas cake at some point. 

Fruit cake can be a truly wonderful experience. If the fruit mix is just right and not too overbearing, and there's enough room left in the batter for the cake to rise really well, rather than being weighed down by dense fruit, a fruit cake can be wholesome and comforting, and a real treat. Unfortunately, too many fruit cakes are anything but enjoyable.

For me, the thought of Christmas cake tends to conjure up visions of sultana-laden fruit mixes, containing barely discernible bits of peel and glace cherries, soaked in vast quantities of cheap sherry and plonked into a heavy, uninspiring cake batter. In my opinion, the true nightmare of Christmas involves having to graciously accept the large chunks invariably offered wherever you go, and, after struggling to swallow the horrendous stuff, the requirement that you plaster on a bright smile, convincingly tell the cook that it was wonderful and that yes, you'd love another piece. If this is too much to bear, for goodness sakes, do not go anywhere near any form of retirement community during December! 

I only ever enjoyed the lighter variety of fruit cake, and not much then. In recent years I've experimented with a few mixes, both regular and gluten free, and in the last couple of years I've been fairly successful. This year's effort is a little different - little glace fruit cakes. Another adventure into Woman's Weekly cooking. (Hey, if it works...)

These little morsels are quite sweet, so I'm told. I couldn't actually try since I made them with regular wheat flour, but I may try again with spelt. I think the fact that a dozen disappeared in about two days speaks for itself. What I can tell you is that they smell divine and look pretty  and were easy to make, which is the real cherry on top.

Two things - the health food shop wasn't open when I shopped, so I didn't get the natural looking strips of pineapple. I settled for the chunky stuff from the supermarket and nobody noticed. Second, I used only red glace cherries. Nothing untoward happened because of that either. 

Glace fruit cakes
Woman's Weekly, Christmas, p 32

Ingredients:
3/4 cup slivered almonds
90g butter, softened
2 tsp finely grated lemon rind
3/4 cup caster sugar
2 eggs
3/4 cup plain flour
1/2 cup self raising flour
1/3 cup milk
4 slices glace pineapple chopped coarsely
1/3 cup red glace cherries, halved
1/3 cup green  glace cherries, halved
1/3 cup coarsely chopped glace ginger
1/2 cup slivered almonds, extra

Preheat oven to 170ºC/150ºC fan forced. Grease 12 hole muffin pan, line bases with baking paper. (I cut the bottoms out of muffin papers rather than mess about outlining, etc)

Sprinkle nuts into pan holes

Beat butter, rind and sugar in small bowl with electric mixer until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time.

Transfer mixture to medium bowl; stir in sifted flours, milk, fruit and extra nuts. Spread mixture into pan holes. Bake for about 25 minutes.

Now the recipe also offers a ginger syrup which you can pour over the cakes while they're still in the tin. I didn't do this, but here's how:

Take 3/4 cup water, 3/4 cup caster sugar and a 2cm piece of fresh ginger, grated. Stir ingredients in small saucepan over heat, without boiling, until sugar dissolves; bring to the boil. Reduce heat; simmer, uncovered without stirring, about 5 minutes or until syrup thickens slightly. Serve hot or cold. 

Monday, December 8, 2008

Thinking about tarts...

At this time of year, a lot of people have been thinking about fruit mince tarts for a while already. I know Tim has. Probably more than a few have had a mince mix on the go for weeks. My mum's best friend used to have it made about three months in advance, stored in a giant jar in the pantry that she turned over every few days. I didn't get it then. I do now.

I have to say that I didn't get quite that organised, particularly because the old fruit mince tart has never been my favourite Christmas treat. I think it has something to do with the stodgy, heavy, this doesn't bear any resemblance to fruit (or pastry for that matter), lame excuse for a tart that you can get cheaply at most supermarkets and that was thrust upon me as a child. Am I being harsh? Yes. But fair. If you can manage it, you are so much better off making your own. 

Determined not to buy any, but faced with people asking me for a recipe and Tim pining for a nice spot of tart, I decided to come up with my own recipe. I'm happy with it. The fruit mix will make oodles and last ages. I made 18 tarts to start with, but there's enough fruit left over for several dozen more. Unless Tim doesn't stop eating the stuff, in which case we'll either go without or I'll have to start from scratch. Oh yes - apparently it's great on porridge too.  

What I like about this mix is that it's not so sickly sweet and the different fruits are discernable. It's not just one dark, sludgy mass, encased in heavily shortened, much too sweet pastry. Some people may like to put in some more grog, or perhaps some jam, but I like this consistency. The orange juice and fresh apple really lighten the flavour up.  Even if some of the fruits may sound a bit odd in this mix, give it a go because there's a pretty good chance you'll wind up enjoying it a lot more than you thought you would. Just make sure you cut all the ingredients around the same size to avoid massive chunks of one thing against the smaller currants and craisins.

Use any pastry mix that you're comfortable with, but I'll put down my spelt flour recipe. As usual, you can swap the spelt for wheat flour if you like. It's all good.

For the mince:
1 cup dried cranberries
1 cup chopped dried apple
1 cup currants
1 cup sultanas
1 cup chopped dried fig
1/3 cup mixed peel
1/3 cup chopped apricot
1/3 cup chopped glace cherries
1/4 cup chopped crystalised ginger
1 tbsp mixed spice
1/2 tbsp ground cloves
1 tbsp cinnamon
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 tsp cardamom
1/2 cup brown sugar (firmly packed)
juice of two oranges
2 small peeled and grated apples
1 cup sherry

Stick this all in a large bowl, stir, cover and refrigerate for as long as it takes to use it. You can stir it every so often if you've got if for a few weeks.

Spelt pastry:
1 2/3 cup plain spelt flour
1/3 cup caster sugar
150g chopped butter, room temp
1 egg yolk
1 tsp ground cinnamon

I used my mixer, starting with the butter and flour until crumbly and then adding the rest. If you're finding it too dry, put in a few drops of water or milk. You could also make this by hand, or whack the lot in a food processor. Knead it lightly on a floured surface but don't overwork it. Wrap it in cling film and refrigerate for half an hour.

Roll cooled dough out on a floured surface and then cut rounds to the size of your muffin or tart tins. Don't worry if the rounds look to small and don't reach to the top - they're not meant to be the size of muffins! Grease the tins and press the pastry inside, pricking each one with a fork. Refrigerate for half an hour, then cook for 5 minutes in a hot oven - 200ºC/180ºC fan forced. 

Let the tart shells cool a little bit, then fill each one with fruit and press it in a bit. You can either cut more rounds for the tops, or cut shapes out of the leftover pastry or rolled marzipan. The marzipan tastes brilliant cooked. Brush the lot with lightly beaten egg yolk - doesn't matter if a bit gets into the fruit.

Bake for about 10 minutes, or until lightly browned. 

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Sugar & Spice & all things nice

Wow! After an unprecedented delay since my last post, I'm back! Sorry about that. It's good to know that people care, judging by the emails I've gotten, wondering where I am, and where the Christmas stuff is. I could pretend that I've been kept far too busy to blog by a series of glamourous and fun Christmas parties, but sadly, I was temporarily laid out earlier this week by some kind of very un-fun, unseasonal, and completely without Christmas (or any other) cheer, tummy bug. YUCK! 

Anyhow, it's now the 4th day of Christmas so I have some catching up to do. I've done almost all my Christmas shopping, except for one friend who has perfect taste, gives magnificent gifts, and  I find incredibly difficult to buy for. This Saturday, mum is dragging me out to the DFO because she's heard they have good bargains out there and wouldn't mind a look. I'm really just the driver on this expedition, having no interest in the DFO experience at all. In fact, I personally hate any kind of shopping (except for food) with a passion. I really do. (Men have offered to marry me on this basis). I'm going to have to take some kind of sedative to get through it. I can imagine it now - the hyped up, Saturday morning, pre-Christmas crowd, on a mission with high spirits and full credit cards, striding through with purpose and in the hopes that they truly have discovered some kind of super-saving-shopping-mecca that will bring peace and goodwill to all men. Or at least get them some serious bargains. (Deep intake of breath) On the cooking front, I have plenty of that to do too, if I make it out of the shops alive. 

The first tasty treat on this year's Christmas list is a recipe I found in a Woman's Weekly recipe book. Actually it's a really nice little book, full of gorgeous pictures and Christmas recipes. It's simply called 'Christmas'. I've only used this one recipe so far but I hope to do more and we'll see how we go.

Sugar and spice snaps look so invitingly delicious on the page. I recall be able to buy honey snap biscuits as a kid. I don't think they make them any more, but these cookies reminded me of those. Full of Christmas spices like ginger and clove and lots of dark sugar, they're just right to kick the season off.

One thing - I sprinkled the first lot with regular raw sugar, suspecting that it would in fact get lost in the biscuit when cooked. It did. I then turned to the trusty coarse, coffee crystal sugar. It's basically just larger grounds of raw sugar and worked a lot better. 

Sugar & Spice Snaps
Women's Weekly, Christmas, p 11

Ingredients:
1 1/2 cups (225g) plain flour
3/4 cup (165g) firmly packed dark muscovado sugar
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp mixed spice
1/4 tsp ground clove
150g butter, chopped coarsely
1 egg yolk
1/4 cup (55g) raw sugar

Process flour, muscovado sugar, spices and butter until crumbly. Add egg yolk; process until combined. Knead dough on floured surface until smooth. Cover; refrigerate 30 minutes.

Divide dough in half, roll each half between sheets of baking paper to 3mm thickness. Refrigerate 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 180ºC/ 160ºC fan forced. Line three oven trays with baking paper.

Cut thirty 7cm rounds from the dough. Place rounds on trays; sprinkle with raw/coffee sugar.

Bake snaps about 10 minutes; cool on trays.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Secrets of the Tim Tam

There's no question about it - Aussie's love their Tim Tams. Check out this cool gallery to see how they're made. What floored me is the massive quantities (we're talking tonnage here folks) of chocolate butter and other sweet stuff that get used every single day in the making! The whole conveyer thing is pretty cool too. 

Monday, November 24, 2008

Boozy poached pears with caramel and meringue

This weekend was cold and wet in the 'Berra. No matter. All the better for staying inside and cooking. Especially cooking with alcohol. Tim walked in after a trip to the hardware store and was just about overcome by the heady fragrance of cinnamon, orange and sweet wine wafting through the entire house. I couldn't get him out of the kitchen after that! 

This dessert was inspired by a very posh version that I saw in a magazine, made of ingredients I've never heard of. This is my version and it worked well. While it's cooking it sort of smells like Christmas and then it looks classy and tastes gorgeous. As with most of what I cook, it's really simple too so don't let the different components put you off.

Caramel
395g can sweetened condensed milk.

So simple!!! Take the label off the can and pierce two small holes in the top of the tin. Then put the tin in a small pan and fill with water until about 1cm from the top. Bring to the boil and then reduce to a vigorous simmer. Remember to top the pan up with boiling water every so often. Let it simmer for about 3-4 hours and you should get a lovely thick caramel. Let the can cool for a bit, remove the caramel and refridgerate. Mine could have been thicker, but I didn't leave it long enough. 

Pears
2 medium sized pears, peeled and cored if you can. Leave the stems on. (you could actually fit two more in the pan and use the same amount of syrup ingredients, but it was just Tim and me and I didn't want to waste so we had leftover syrup instead.)

Syrup
2 cups water 
1/4 cup caster sugar + 2 tbsp extra
1/2 cup sweet wine (or you could use sherry)
1 cinnamon stick
2 strips of orange peel

Put all the ingredients in a pan, except for 2 tbsp caster sugar. Bring to the boil and then simmer gently. Place the pears in the pan, cover and simmer for about an hour. They should not be mushy! If the pan lid won't fit on the pears without pressing down on the stems, put a large bowl over the top - I actually used the rice-cooker bowl. 

When done, remove the pears, orange peel and cinnamon stick, put in the extra sugar and boil down until it's a little bit thicker. You can add another splash of wine or sherry if you want to. Let it cool a little bit before using. 

Meringue
1 egg white
1/4 cup almond meal
1 tbsp caster sugar
1 tsp corn flour
1 pinch salt

Put the egg white into a small bowl and beat with an electric mixer until it starts getting stiff. Then slowly add the sugar, corn flour and salt and beat until very stiff. With a wooden spoon, very gently fold in the almond meal. Take your time and don't slap the air out of the egg whites.

On a piece of  baking paper, mark out two circles with pencil. Turn the paper over and onto a baking tray so you can still see the marks. Lightly dust with corn flour - I use a pastry brush. Halve the mixture between the circles and spread until even. Cook for about 15 minutes in a low-ish oven - I used 150ºC fan forced.

To assemble: 
On a plate, put the meringue circle down and top with a small amount of caramel. Place the pear gently on top, and spoon over some of the syrup. Garnish with strips of orange zest. 

If this isn't enough sugar for you or your guests, place a small bowl of the caramel and one of the syrup nearby for people to help themselves.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A cookie a day...

One of my favourite cook books is Nigella Lawson's 'Feast'. It's a beautiful book, jam packed with recipes, stories and great photos. I have a few favourites in this book, and these cookies are now one of them. I made them on Sunday morning and by Sunday night they were gone, except for a few I'd put aside for colleagues. The Cookie Monster had struck! No guesses who that is in our house.  

These are seriously good anyway and despite note being allowed to eat wheat, I had to risk it and try a bite. I'm really glad I did. They're packed with the sweet, yet slightly tart little cranberries, and the smoothness of the white chocolate that makes them feel slightly decadent. Yes, they're sweet, but not something you'd eat every day. Especially if you live with the human equivalent of a locust and there's not much left at the end of the day! 

I think these are a good special occasion cookie, if such a thing exists, and a great option for Christmas if you're over the whole gingerbread thing. (Stay tuned for gingerbread recipe).

Cranberry and white chocolate cookies
From Nigella Lawson's Feast, p 82

Ingredients
140g flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
75g rolled oats
125g soft unsalted butter
75g dark brown sugar
100g caster sugar
1 egg
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
75g dried cranberries
50g pecans, roughly chopped
140g white chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to gas mark 4/ 180ºC

Measure out the flour, baking powder, salt and rolled oats into a bowl. Put the butter and sugars into another bowl and beat together until creamy - this is obviously easier with an electric mixer of some kind, but you just need to put some muscle into it otherwise - then beat in the egg and vanilla.

Beat in the flour, baking powder, salt and oat mixture, and then fold in the cranberries, chopped pecans and chocolate chips or white chocolate, chopped into small dice. Set the bowl of biscuit dough in the fridge for 10-15 minutes.

Roll tablespoons of dough into a ball with your hands, and then place them on a lined or greased baking sheet and squish the dough balls down with a fork. You may need two baking sheets or be prepared to make these in two batches.

Cook for 15 minutes; when ready, the cookies will be tinged a pale gold, but be too soft to lift immediately off the tray, so leave the tray on a cool surface and let them harden for about 5 minutes. Remove with a spatula or whatever to cool fully on a wire rack.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Baked ricotta cheesecake with saffron apricots

At long last, a killer cheesecake recipe that isn't too bad for you and a real joy to make. It's so simple. I don't make cheesecake often and I've been meaning to try this recipe out for ages. It's from an old edition of Delicious and looks divine, tastes better and is gluten free.  No story tonight - just a fabulous recipe.

From Delicious magazine, Issue 54, October 2006, page 116

Ingredients:
250g dried apricots
2 tbsp brandy or sweet wine (I used brandy)
1/2 tsp saffron threads
1 1/3 cup (295 g) caster sugar
1 kg low-fat fresh ricotta
1/2 cup lemon curd
1 tsp vanilla extract
grated zest of 1 lemon
40g cornflour
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cinnamon quill
6 cardamom pods, bruised
Icing sugar, to dust

Preheat the oven to 170º C. Grease a 20 cm spring form cake pan.

Combine the apricots in a bowl with the brandy and saffron, then stand for one hour. I stood them at room temp and used a little more brandy.

Meanwhile, place 1/3 cup caster sugar in a food processor with the ricotta, lemon curd (I used bought stuff because I was feeling lazy), vanilla, lemon zest and cornflour, and pulse to combine Add eggs and process until smooth. I actually used a mixer because I don't have a processor and it worked just fine. 

Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and smooth the top, then tap several times on the bench top to remove any air bubbles. Place in the oven and bake for 40-45 minutes until the top is golden and a skewer inserted into the oven comes out clean. (took closer to an hour for me, so keep an eye on it) Turn off the oven, leave the door slightly ajar, then leave the cheesecake to cool completely. 

Meanwhile, place the remaining 1 cup sugar in a pan with 1 1/4 cups cold water (310ml). Stir over low heat until the sugar dissolves, then add cinnamon, cardamom and apricot mixture. Simmer over low heat for 15 minutes.  Transfer the apricots to a bowl, then increase the heat to medium-high and simmer syrup until thickened. (Keep an eye on it, stir regularly and don't let it burn). Pour the syrup over the apricots and cool completely.

Dust the cake with icing sugar, slice and serve with apricots and syrup.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Seaside delights

I know that technically it's only Wednesday, mid-week, and I shouldn't be getting too excited about the weekend which is still two full days away, but for whatever reason it really feels like tomorrow should be Friday which would mean it's practically the weekend. And I can't wait for it. This weekend's going to be busy! In between bouts of helping Tim organise the front yard that has been reduced to a dusty piece of nothing in an attempt to give us a blank canvas to work with, I'm planning a baked ricotta cheesecake and some other tasty treats. I'd really like a weekend at the beach, but oh well.

If you can are looking to get out of Canberra this weekend to enjoy the sun somewhere with water, (let's face it, the Lake BG doesn't count) and if this gorgeous weather holds, try a drive to the South Coast of NSW. Petrol prices have gone down a lot lately, so that's no excuse. If you can, get down as far as Tilba and Cobargo. It's a beautiful stretch of country that they call the Sapphire Coast - with good reason. The water is blue and green and whales travel up and down at various times of the year. Of course, they always surface as I'm blinking, but they do exist I'm told.

Importantly, there's a lot of good food along that drive. Before you get into gourmet territory, you could try a proper bistro lunch at the Narooma Gold Club where they still do roasts and decent portions. The club occupies a piece of land on the edge of a cliff. Below swells the ocean, littered with thousands of lost and un-retrieveable golfballs. The view from the bistro is a million dollar one if I ever saw one. Back in the day when I could eat wheat, I always enjoyed the fisherman's basket. Crisply fried calamari rings, tender pieces of fish, golden chips and other stuff besides. Mmmm... More recently I tried a steak. I was not disappointed.

Further down the coast is Tilba. If you remember the Nescafe ads from a few years ago 'I came to this valley... wound up meeting a man in a shop ... blah blah blah...' that's where it was filmed. It is very picturesque and doesn't seem to change much. Same stores, same red telephone box, same people.  

The cheese factory is still there, at the end of the main road in Central Tilba. You can try a dozen or so different kinds of honey, and some award winning cheeses. I love the trio that you can now buy in the supermarket, and also the smoked cheese. On the way back down the street, try the old fashioned sweet shop. You can find anything in there, not that I've actually looked, but I know I see things in there that I liked as a kid and haven't seen much of since. I opted for some proper mints and some flying saucers which I later realised I can't eat because of the whole wheat thing. Grrrr!

Finally, and one to be savoured, is the hand made fudge at the general store on the corner as you come into Central Tilba. Years ago I got talking to the girl who worked here who told me that it had been made there by the same family for years. I didn't ask this time but it's a good bet it still is. I bought a two-toned confection - chocolate and English toffee I think. I carefully doled out bite-sized pieces for about three days before being unable to control myself and polishing off the lot while Tim was on a bike ride. He he he ...

If you're looking to stay somewhere, try Mumbulla View at Quaama, which is about 10 minutes south of Cobargo. We stayed there a few weeks ago and could not have had a more pleasant and relaxing experience. The place has been completely renovated and the owners are lovely, hospitable people who made the weekend all the better. They even found toys for a friend's toddler. Never seen that in a big hotel before. Whatever you're doing, enjoy and eat well!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Cupcakes for a happy day

This weekend just past was really  busy but lots of fun. After another hectic week (not complaining since mine was all of three working days long) we launched into a weekend of cooking, planning, organising and unfortunately, shopping. I really hate shopping. A lot. 

I'm partial to markets, especially food markets and great delis where I can trawl through shelves and cabinets and refrigerators stocked with luscious things I sometimes take home to try. On Saturday I saw a jar of pate d'foi gras (or however you spell it) in a deli in Woden. Amazing! I've never spotted that in Canberra before, but there you go. Now I'm deliberately not going to make a comment on the the whole foi gras thing being cruel to geese because I have no idea what it entails and I've never indulged. This particular pot could be purchased for the bargain price of $149.95. Ouch! 

Interwoven with random acts of housework, visits, shopping and the like, I managed to get in some cooking. It was a largely unsatisfactory weekend on that score. It's bizarre how things you've either made a hundred times before sometimes just don't work, and then difficult things you've never done turn out as if you're a master. On this occasion, both old and new were disasters. It definitely took a toll on my morale.

Determined to have one success to speak of, I turned to an old standard, guaranteed not to fail, favourite of one and all, young and old, and especially Tim. Cupcakes. Cupcakes are little bits of light, pretty frippery, designed to make a person feel happy. I didn't use any particular recipe of note, just a basic vanilla recipe that I turned into orange and poppyseed by using orange juice and zest, and poppy seeds. But I did feel the need to make them look pretty. 

Earlier in the week I bought a packet of Robert Gordon paper baking cups. I think they're pretty good value at $4.95 for 50. They're good quality too - held their shape and colour well and look really lovely. I made up some pale orange and not too buttery icing, and slathered this on generously. To top it al off, I grabbed some lavender flowers from the garden and as you can see, the purple works really well.

The nicest thing is that they really do cheer people up, which is especially necessary on a Monday morning. 

Thursday, November 6, 2008

There's nothing like a Cosmo


There really is nothing like a Cosmo to perk a person up. Just looking at the ruby-coloured liquid with the shiny, jewel-like cherry soaking up the flavour, you can taste the potent nectar before it hits your lips. 

I was trying to explain the attraction of this drink from a woman's point of view to Tim. The colour of a properly made Cosmo is like the colour of a dress you wish you had, or a lipstick you wish they made, or nice lingerie that costs too much to buy. You order a Cosmo, imagining that for just a little while, you'll have something beautiful and sophisticated and it will make you look beautiful and sophisticated, but will also pack a punch and so be totally worth the price, and the calories. I don't recall ever not savouring every single last drop.

Why this mid-week madness? Blame it on being a short-long week. I had a four day weekend, followed by two very busy days at work and another tomorrow before the weekend. There's been a new president elected, a new Melbourne Cup winner, I've achieved things at work and perhaps most importantly, one of the nice guys at work and his wife had a perfect baby boy. All is good and wonderful in my world.

Here's our recipe:

1 1/2 measures/ 6 tsp vodka
1 measure/ 1 1/2 tbsp Cointreau
1 measure/ 1 1/2 tbsp cranberry juice
1/2 measure/ 2 tsp lime juice

Make sure you use decent vodka, cold cranberry to start with and freshly squeezed lime juice (strained) for the best result.

Oh - and as I've been reminded, pour it over ice in a cocktail shaker. Tim likes to more or less massage the cocktail over the ice, but I like it shaken, not stirred. Serve in a martini glass with a cherry. I know I go on about quality ingredients a bit, but it is totally worth investing in decent quality cherries. They're not much more expensive, and they look and taste so much better. Actually, if anyone knows where to find the cocktail cherries with the stalks on in Canberra, please let me know!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Melbourne Cup Day...or whatever...


Here in the ACT, a new public holiday was gazetted by the local government last year, much to the chagrin of cafes and caterers everywhere. It's called 'Family and Community Day' or something of that ilk. The fact that it just so happens to fall on the first Tuesday in November, traditionally Melbourne Cup Day, is merely coincidental...

That aside, what it means is that now you actually have to think about what you're going to have for lunch, rather than wait for the inevitable announcement over the office PA that signals to all that you must now surrender yourself to being herded off by your supervisor to the local club or staff common room for Melbourne Cup lunch/afternoon tea/drinks. These are traditionally disappointing affairs in terms of the food, made only slightly more bearable if you happen to have backed a winner in your own right or gotten lucky with the office sweep. (Or in the case of some people who won't be mentioned, gotten so drunk that you're beyond caring about food, the race or even know why you're huddled with your colleagues around the TV in your boss's office at three in the afternoon).

I have to admit that I'm looking forward to spending this afternoon with friends in their back yard, BBQ on the burn, champagne in hand (the decent stuff), rather than lining up with my colleagues to trawl past the $15 cold buffet that consists almost entirely of pressed chicken and coleslaw, and having to gush about whoever organised  it doing a wonderful job and pretending that the caterers have been generous and done us a good deal, while really feeling ripped off and wondering why we bothered. This little ritual is almost always followed by the act of balancing one's plate while one surrenders one's drinks ticket to a surly bartender who wishes he was at the track rather than dealing with a room full of slightly inebriated desk jockeys, for a glass of $4 a bottle plonk that would otherwise be bound for next month's school leavers heading for their first big binge. 

So really, thank goodness for the public holiday, whatever it's called!

Anyhow, I got thinking about the traditional chicken salad and champagne lunch. Believe it or not, I can't ever recall making chicken salad before. I didn't feel like making one now. So what I did was this instead - rolled chicken thigh fillets served with salad. It's still good. 

Ingredients:
4 chicken thigh fillets (I used organic free range and you can taste the difference)
olive oil

For marinade:
4 tbsp honey
1 generous tbsp Dijon mustard
2 tbsp sesame seeds

For stuffing:
4 tbsp fresh ricotta
2 tbsp polenta
2 tbsp fresh basil, finely chopped
2 tbsp roasted pine nuts, roughly chopped
1 tsp fresh or dried parsley, finely chopped
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp finely grated lemon zest

Mix up the marinade and set aside. Pat dry the chicken thighs on some paper towel.

Mix all of the stuffing ingredients together. It doesn't look like much but it will be enough because you're not flattening out the chicken at all. Turn the chicken over and put a couple of tablespoons of the mixture, moulding it into a cylinder shape to fit the length of the thigh. Roll the meat over it - no need to secure or anything.

Oil a small baking dish and place the four fillets in, making sure they fit snugly up against each other. This will keep the filling and the flavour in. Brush the marinade over the chicken. Use the whole lot even if it looks very thick. Cover the dish with foil and bake for about an hour on medium heat. At about 45 minutes in, remove from the over, take the foil off and baste the chicken with the juices forming. Put it back into the oven and let it brown up for about 15 minutes. When it comes out, it should have coloured up beautifully and when you open in up, the meat should be moist and full of flavour. 

I served this with a mixed salad of butter lettuce, thinly sliced radish, tomato, baby capers, boiled egg, some small blobs of ricotta, lemon zest, basil leaves and seasoned with salt, pepper, olive oil and lemon juice. It's very fresh and delicious.

Whatever you're doing today, enjoy and here's hoping you back a winner! 

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Whatever happened to Mr Pumpkinhead?


He got made into soup and eaten. That's what!

Actually it's pretty funny because now that he's drying out a little bit, he's starting to look like a less evil, very gummy old man with no teeth on the top. Making soup out of his guts seemed like a fitting end for him. I'm not even that into soup, but smelling the beautiful, organic pumpkin smells as Tim carved the old guy up made me crave for pumpkin soup. Totally simple, easy and complete comfort food without being stodgy. Here's how:

Ingredients:
About 6 or so cups of roughly chopped pumpkin
2 red capsicum
1 cup finely sliced leek
1 litre vegetable stock
Juice of 1 lemon
1 clove garlic, roughly chopped
2 tbsp sweet paprika
Olive oil
salt & pepper
2-3 springs fresh rosemary
Sour cream to serve

In a hot oven, roast the peppers until black. Wait till they've cooled a bit and pull off the skin. Roughly chop or pull apart. It's all going to get whizzed up anyway so it doesn't need to be neat.

While the peppers are roasting, take the pumpkin, drizzle with olive 
oil and sprinkle with a little salt & pepper, and toss around until it's all coated. Throw a couple of sprigs of fresh rosemary on top and roast until they're soft and going brown.

In a large pot, soften the leek in a generous splash of olive oil. Don't brown them - just soften. 
Add the capsicum and pumpkin to the pot, taking out the rosemary stalks. The leaves should have fallen off by now. If not, leave them in an remember to remove before you blend it all up. Add the paprika, pour in the stock and cover. Let this simmer slowly on low for about 20 minutes. Then pour in the lemon juice and let it simmer for another 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and let it cool slightly. 

When it's cooled a little, pour it in batches into a food processor or blender and whizz the bejesus out of it. Pour it back into the pot and over a low heat, warm it up a bit. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with sour cream, crusty bread and a dry white wine. Delish!

Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween

Having grown up in Australia, Halloween has never been a part of my life, unless you count the Simpson's Halloween specials. I'm not really sure what it's all about and I'm not interested enough to Google it. 
I remember trick or treaters coming to my grandmother's door once when I was a kid. Nobody knew what to do so my grandmother gave them a packet of Arnott's Nice biscuits and sent them on their way. I'm sure it was the score of the night for them. That's about the extent of my direct experience.
Despite my apathy about Halloween, Tim brought home three pumpkins and had lots of fun turning one into Mr Evil Pumpkinhead. He's actually pretty cool looks great all lit up.
Happy Halloween and have a great night!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Pumpkin & Couscous Salad

Here's one of the best salads - pumpkin & couscous. It's fresh, it's summery, it's easy to make, it's good for you and according to Tim, it tastes bloody fantastic. I can't actually eat couscous because of the whole wheat/gluten issue, so I'm taking his word for how good this is. Also, and this is a major bonus, it's one of the few things that keep him going for hours. A challenge at the best of times.

Here's how: Toss a generous cup of diced pumpkin in extra virgin olive oil, a large clove of finely chopped garlic, a tablespoon of coarsely ground black pepper. Whack it in a medium to hot oven until it is browning and cooked, but not so soft that it goes mushy when you mix it into the salad. This doesn't take long. Chop up 1/4 cup of flat leaf parsley and finely slice and chop two tablespoons of red onion. Finely zest half a medium lemon and then juice the whole thing. In a dry pan, brown a generous handful of pine nuts. Don't let them burn! Now for the cous cous - for two large serves, I use 250g couscous, made according to the instructions on the box. Let the couscous cool down before throwing in all of the other ingredients. Gently toss. Salt, pepper and extra lemon juice to taste.
You could try it with rice and it would probably work well too, although I tend to think that the couscous soaks up the flavours differently and adds a different dimension to the other ingredients. It keeps really well for a day or two so it's great for the lunch box. Eat up!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

My favourite gadget


Tim tells me my last post was too long. Sorry. I just like telling the story. Anyone can give you food on its own.  
For a change, I thought I'd share my last major purchase with you and tell you just how damned good it is in case you're thinking of investing. I can do that pretty quickly
I grew up with a white Sunbeam mixer with the glass bowls. A beautiful piece of equipment that was about 40 years old or maybe more. A couple of years ago it blew up on me. Literally. It was a sad afternoon. Nothing could be done to resuscitate it because nobody has the parts any more. 
I replaced this with a $10 supermarket hand-held job. That blew up on me the other week. Not a bad innings for $10.
I thought 'enough is enough' and Tim helpfully pointed out that I cooked enough to justify it (perhaps realising that the tasty treats would dry up otherwise) so I went out and bought a white Kitchen Aid Artisan mixer. 
It's gorgeous! It weighs a tonne, but it's another beautiful piece of equipment that I hope to have for many years. It's a joy to use. 
I recommend looking around online and in department stores before you purchase as I managed to get about $100 off the normal price. Also, certain colours will cost you more and you are literally paying for the 'it's hot right now' factor and nothing more.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

An engaging evening

What a fabulous weekend it has been! Full of good food and excellent company. 
Where do I start? Perhaps with the visitors - my oldest friend, Fleur, and her extremely new fiance of one week who I've never met before, drove down from Sydney to meet and greet. Sensible, since they plan to get married soon and Fleur thinks I should be a bridesmaid. They'd travelled here partly on the promise of a nice dinner, so I thought I'd better do something special. I'd envisaged a night of candlelight, glittering glassware and polished silver, with me serving in a nice little dress to the sounds of sparkling conversation. Got most of it right. Candles burnt, glassware glittered, silver shone and conversation was mostly sparkling. Dress stayed in cupboard. 
After a visit to the beauty therapist who generously shared her floral arrangement with me after hearing that I was planning a celebratory dinner for at least one person I'd never met and was therefore slightly nervous about the whole thing, I was very nearly wiped out on the road by someone who wasn't paying attention. Not being one to dwell, I popped in to my mum's house to pick up a white damask table cloth (can anyone believe that I don't own a white table cloth myself???) and some antique silver parfait spoons. Linen and spoons in hand, I made my way to the supermarket for what I hoped would be fresh raspberries, but for the price of a single punnet of raspberries, I bought a punnet each of strawberries and blueberries. Then home, although temporarily stymied on the Cotter Road by either a triathlon in progress or road works. It was never clear which. With time ticking away, there was no time to wait, so over the island I went and did a u-turn, back through the suburbs and over the hill and finally, home. Where I got started on preparing dinner. It was 12.30pm and I wasn't sure when the happy couple were due. I needn't have worried. Shortly after I got a text - ETA 4pm.
Anyhow, I had carefully planned the menu and had even written down a game-plan for preparation.  Actually it pretty much went to plan and well before they arrived, I had prepped all the veg, made up vol au vant filling, marinated, mixed and chopped, cleaned the kitchen, washed the dog (Tim did that in truth but I had to assure the dog that we still loved her and this wasn't torture), polished the aforementioned silver parfait spoons and the candle stick, starched and ironed the damask (*%@#!), showered and even straightened my hair. Sigh.... 
Now to put the magnitude of this weekend into perspective - David (fiance) is the answer to everyone's prayers. He is nice. He is genuine. He is easy to look at. He has a job, a home, manners, appears to understand the concept of personal hygiene, can take a joke and be self effacing and funny, and perhaps most importantly, he is the antithesis of every boyfriend that Fleur has ever had at any time in the past that I am aware of. I mean it when I say 'thank God'. On top of all of this, David (or Dave to those of us who know him well) wants to marry Fleur. Soon. What a man! The upshot of this scenario is that dinner had to be good. 
When Fleur and Dave arrived, we all relaxed pretty quickly because he is so nice, well mannered, etc. We'd anticipated dressing up for dinner, but in the end, it was all too much trouble and thongs were the footwear of choice. It so didn't matter because the food and company were great and the occasion was pretty special. So as not to delay the champagne drinking, I served some baba ganoush, hummus and beetroot dip that I'd made during the week. This went down a treat. I'd never made beetroot dip before so I was pretty thrilled that it worked out. All I did was cook up some finely chopped beetroot in some olive oil with a little bit of garlic and thyme, and then whizzed it up in the processor with some Greek yogurt, lemon juice and salt. Easy.
Next, I made up a dozen vol au vants. I recall these as being de rigeur in the 1980s at any smart suburban dinner party. Being a child in the 1980s I didn't actually attend many smart dinner parties, and yet I have a strong conviction that this is what was done. I spied some in the supermarket the other week and thought it was time that the vol au vant made a comeback. But no white, cheesy sauce with tinned asparagus for me. I chopped up some smoked salmon and mixed it in with some very creamy, fresh ricotta, threw in a tablespoon of baby capers, and a pinch of black pepper. I garnished with a little more salmon, caper and some very finely chopped parsley. The filling mix is gorgeous and would translate into a nice sandwich filling. I actually had some on a savoury crepe today, having run out of bread.
For the main course, I took four large quail, butterflied them, and marinaded overnight in a mixture of lemon juice, lemon zest, olive oil, salt, pepper, sweet paprika and fresh thyme. These went on the BBQ until done and pretty crispy on the outside. (I also made up some organic, free-range chicken skewers just in case the quail wasn't enough on it's own. It wasn't). Having debated what to serve quail with with my boss last week, I went with his brilliant idea of an onion jam which took about 10 minutes to make and was served straight away. I added some fresh chilli. Not too hot but gave it a nice little kick. It's easy to do - take a large red onion, about 3 tablespoons of brown sugar and half each of a long red and long green pepper, sliced into rounds and with most of the seeds removed. Put these in a fry pan and cook in some olive oil until they're all soft and the mixture is thickening up into, well, into a jam. Delicious.
For veg, we had a mix of lightly pan fried asparagus, broccolini and green beans, splashed with lemon juice and some chopped bacon that I'd fried to almost a crisp. Also some baked potatoes and just to cover all bases, I took some baby Mediterranean salad leaves and dressed with balsamic and olive oil. 
To end, I served a two-tone chocolate mousse that will be the subject of another post. I will need to explain the challenge that was involved in the white part. For a while there, it was not looking good.
It sounds like a lot of different things, but the flavours all complemented each other and everything worked pretty well. If anyone has a fool-proof way of getting baked potatoes to come out crispy, please let me know. I tried the old par-boil (microwave) followed by a very hot oven and olive oil. Didn't work for me. Perhaps I need practice?
Well the weekend is just about over and it's off to another working week shortly. Congratulations Fleur and Dave and I can't wait until the wedding!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Feed a cold?

What's the old saying? Starve a fever, feed a cold? Or is it the other way around? 
Well for my birthday, Tim gave me the gift that keeps on giving and I did not feel like being fed or feeding anyone else for that matter! Now to put it in perspective, it was just a bad cold but I felt rotten just the same and was not particularly interested in food. Tim, on the other hand, had a man cold so I was on standby to call an ambulance for about a week while he got over the worst of it. One complaint from me one night about feeling too sick to contemplate making dinner had him truly puzzled, and caused him to inquire, earnestly I might add, whether I in fact had the man cold. He survived this incident, but only because I was too weak from not eating, to hurl any of the heavy, blunt objects at him that were lying around at arm's length.
Possibly out of guilt for bringing his cold monster home to me (even though he claims I insisted on kissing him although he was feeling lurgied - well we were at a wedding! (that wasn't ours)) he decided he'd better make dinner one night. He had a craving for my old family recipe for chicken soup. Perfect for any type cold, man or otherwise.
I recall my grandmother making this as a child and taking flasks of it to any of her elderly Italian friends who were unfortunate enough to be in hospital. These people would have, without doubt, starved to death if they had not had relatives and friends who understood food, and therefore did not expect them to even attempt to survive on the hospital's version.
I know the feeling - once after several days in hospital and with the family away, I very nearly starved to death myself. My mother came home from being away, rushed in to visit me and asked me if I wanted anything. Only one thing did I want. Pastina! (my name for this delicious soup)
And so I share an old family favourite with you.

Italian Chicken Soup
Ingredients:
600gm chicken mince
1/3 cup finely chopped flat leaf parsley
1 fresh, free range egg
1/4 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
1 tbsp coarsely ground black pepper 
1 tbsp salt
2 litres chicken or vegetable stock
1 cup risoni or other tiny pasta 

Warm your stock in a medium pot and keep it gently simmering. No need to have it roughly bubbling away. I put a few stalks of parsley in with the stock and remove before serving.
Place the chicken, parsley, egg, parmesan, salt and pepper into a bowl and mix thoroughly with your hands. If you're not a huge pepper fan, use only half a tablespoon or even a teaspoon. Don't go entirely without it though because it really adds to the flavour.
With the bowl near to the simmering stock, roll small balls of chicken and drop them gently into the stock. To prevent sticking, have a bowl of tepid water at hand and dip your fingers in this every so often. The balls shouldn't be bigger than a large walnut and can be really tiny if you like. I had one great-aunt who made them the size of large peas. They should float to the top after a couple of minutes.
Once you've made all the meatballs, let them cook for about 15 minutes or so. Maintain a gentle simmer and don't boil them to death. The broth will become lovely and tasty now.
About 10 minutes before you want to serve, pour in the risoni and stir gently. You can get the super tiny pasta that's a fraction of the size of risoni in some delis. If you can find it, try it instead. Before the whole gluten issue kicked in for me, it was my preference and what the oldies always used.  Now I just remove some of the broth and meatballs before I put the pasta in.
The risoni should be served al dente, like with all pasta, so have a taste and see how it's going just before you want to serve. Serve with bread and extra parmesan if you like it. 
The photo shows a little less broth than would usually be in the bowl. This is purely for aesthetic purposes - risoni gets lost in a full bowl of broth.
This should feed about four people who don't want seconds, or two extremely hungry people, one of whom wants some for lunch the next day. 

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Smarshmallows

What the?
Yes, smarshmallows. It's what you get when you dip marshmallows in chocolate and top them with a smarty. Believe me, they're surprisingly good and lots of fun. They even look like fun. How did these come about?
Well yesterday, Tim and I were looking for a place to vote where we wouldn't have to wait for ages or be bombarded by advertising on the walk to the polling place. Despite the 100m safe-zone that's meant to exist around polling places in Canberra, somehow you still wind up running the gamut of election freaks with their 'how to' cards, which given you had about 40 options yesterday, could have been helpful in some circumstances. But that aside, we thought we'd head over to the north (dark) side to drop some stuff off to a friend, and find a place to vote along the way. In doing so, we went past St John's Church in Reid.
For those non-Canberrans reading this, St John's is the oldest church here, and very pretty with lovely grounds. Every year, they have a spring fair that looks like it belongs in an episode of Midsommer Murders. In fact, it's more quaint and English than the supposedly traditional English church fete that Tim and I ventured to last year whilst in England. For the cost of one pound each, we saw exactly nothing but some left over sausages and some sort of highland dancing troupe that wasn't very good. It has to be said that the event was a total flop and we left feeling totally ripped off, and tempted to ask for our pound back!
But I digress...
In the hall at St John's, we found several food stalls. From one I purchased Orange Seville Marmalade for my mum who goes nuts for marmalade. Points for me were gained. Second, I got a few ideas, including for Smarshmallows.
The principle is easy: dip marshmallows in chocolate - I used a good quality milk chocolate - and top with smarties. For one packet of marshmallows, I used a decent handful of chocolate buttons. Simple.
Now in addition to being delicious and looking bright and fun, they photograph so well that it was a joy to play around with the styling of them. The very top photo is my all-time favourite and a good idea for a fun display - very practical storage too - and the one below is what you can do if you're planning to be a bit cheeky and serve these to 'proper' grownups at a dinner party or something.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Sam's Tart

Now, to be clear and up front, I am not talking about Sam's girlfriend, who if you are reading this, we all know you're a very nice girl. I'm talking about Sam's other tart - the apple one we made. It was nice too, but in a different way.
It sort of started as a 'we're bored and procrastinating' project. We both had other stuff to do, but just didn't feel like it. Out of guilt, we decided to do something constructive. So tart it was.
We made it up as we went along, and it was really good. Because we used a whole lemon in it, it's quite tart (no pun intended), and if you prefer it less so, just swap some water for lemon juice and don't use quite as much zest along the way. If you prefer almond to hazelnut, that would also work, but I had hazelnut meal in my pantry so that's what we used in the filling.
Also, probably leave the pastry in the fridge for about an hour. We left it half an hour out of sheer impatience and it was harder to keep in one piece when we rolled it, although as you'll see, it worked out just fine.
Sam and I cut this right down the middle and he took half home. I hear anecdotally that it mostly didn't make it home. Of course Tim wondered (out aloud) whether I'd just eaten half the tart in one sitting. My answer, now official, is no. No I did not.

Ingredients:
For crust:
2 cups plain white or spelt flour (I used spelt - the special needs thing)
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup caster sugar
1 tsp cinamon
115g softened (not melted) butter
juice of one lemon
zest of one lemon (finely zested)
Put all the dry ingredients in a bowl, sifted, plus about half of the zest. Cut up the butter into blocks and rub it in until the mixture is crumbly with no big chunks of butter left. Then pour in the lemon juice bit by bit, until you hae a working pastry mixture. If you need some more liquid, just use water, but don't make it too sloppy.
Knead it together very gently and don't overwork it. Wrap the ball of pastry in plastic and put in the fridge for an hour. When it's nice and firm, roll it out on a floured surface and line a 23cm tart tin with it. Put it back in the fridge for about 10 mins or so - just give it a chance to cool down a little bit. Turn the oven on to 180º.
Blind bake the pastry shell - for heaven's sake, put some baking paper down before you use your beans, weights or whatever! I forgot to last time (see Lemons & Limes) and it was a disaster! Thankfully, I got my act together on this occasion.
Bake until just a bit brown.

For filling:
1 cup hazelnut meal
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 tbsp cinamon
50g butter
2 large apples - peeled, cored and sliced
1 tbsp lightly pan-roasted pecan pieces
remainder lemon zest from above
1 tsp caster sugar
In a pan on low heat, mix these ingredients together until a paste starts to form. If you want it sweeter, mix in some more brown sugar.
Spread this in the baked tart shell. It won' be a thick layer but that's ok. There's enough going on with this one to make up for scant nut filling. Arrange the apple slices on top, sprinkle with the caster sugar, lemon zest and pecan pieces. Again, if you want it less zesty, forgo the extra lemon zest on top.
Bake until it's all starting to go brown, but don't overdo it. It doesn't matter if the apple isn't completely soft and mushy. The only place for mushy apple is in a pie or in a jar of baby food.
Serve this tart with something plain, like unsweetened cream, vanilla ice cream or custard. I think the custard works particularly well.

Thanks Sam!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Ploughman's pasta

It's been a great long-weekend here in the 'berra. I've done loads of cooking, gardening, a spot of shopping and even managed to squeeze in some general lounging about and magazine reading. Not a bad effort.
I got to a point this weekend when I felt like doing something other than cooking. Tim took this to mean that I would enjoy struggling to keep up with his powerful, long and fast strides up the side of a mountain (aka a nearby hill) that he can pretty much run up without breaking into more than a light perspire. Ladybug handles the situation by running between me and Tim, making no effort to hide the fact that she really, really, really enjoys running, or the fact that she really, really, really wishes I'd hurry up so she wouldn't have to keep stopping to check on me.
Recovery from this adventure meant a quick, easy and yet tasty dinner, packed with every Hollywood starlet's worst nightmare - carbs. So what's the easiest thing for dinner under the circumstances? Pasta. Oh magnificent pasta, in all your shapes and colours - long, short, coloured, plain, shells, spirals, tiny little maps of Australia - all wonderful in your own special way. I realise that this ode may be slightly over the top, but when you think about it, how versatile can a foundation ingredient get? Boiled, sauced, baked or even fried in some cases, pasta is the unfailing, reliable servant of the average kitchen today. And where would we be without it? Hungry, that's for sure!!!
Once again, I turned an old favourite of ours. Tim calls it 'Ploughman's Pasta'. I call it pasta with peas and some other stuff. It started out as a totally basic dish derived from what we could locate in a hurry one night - peas, ham, some olive oil and white wine - and sort of developed over time to include spinach and mushrooms, mustard, and so on. Both good options depending on what you've got on hand and how you feel.
Any way you like it, it's easy - in a pan, pour a little olive oil and about a half a cup of chopped bacon or ham if you like. Or go without this part if you're a vego. It's all good. Once the meat is starting to cook, (shouldn't be crispy) throw in a couple of roughly chopped shallots and one very finely chopped clove of garlic. These just need to be sweated, not browned. Then in about two cups of roughly chopped silverbeet (I used the coloured heirloom stuff that grows like a weed once you get it started), about a cup or so of frozen peas, and the same of sliced mushrooms. I also throw in about three chopped parsley stalks because they're very flavoursome and I use the leaves to garnish.
After literally a couple of minutes, the spinach starts wilting and you don't need to overdo it. Splash in some dry white wine, a tablespoon of sour cream and a teaspoon of dijonaise mustard. Use your judgement here - if you prefer it thicker, stir in a teaspoon of corn flour; if you like it runnier and you're not giving it to infants, pour in some more wine. Salt and pepper to taste.
I use the San Remo gluten free pasta because I'm a special needs individual who blows up like a balloon when I eat wheat. Lots of fun that. Anyhow, this stuff is excellent and by far the best GF pasta I've ever had. It's more expensive than regular pasta, but totally worth it. You won't know the difference, unlike some of the rice or corn varieties that I find just stick together in a gluggy mess that no real Italian worth their salt would ever dream of calling pasta, lest they wind up damned to the hell that is ham and pineapple pizza made with pita bread and straight tomato paste. (I personally don't mind proper ham & pineapple pizza on occasion, but I'm yet to find one authentic Italian person who will make it, eat or even say the name out aloud, except to ridicule the concept).
Anyway, I throw all the sauce into a big pot with the drained pasta, and stir it around gently. Serve with some fresh chopped parsley. You could use parmesan to serve, but you shouldn't need it.
Well, tomorrow's another working day, so time to pack some left-overs, iron a shirt and go to bed. Like most pasta, this is brilliant the next day too.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Stacks of success

What do you do when you hit the middle of the week, there's nothing much left in the fridge, it's the day before pay day and you're hungry because your boyfriend is a fitness nut who insists you power walk/climb/lift/leap and run over hill and over dale? 

Apart from a lot of cursing, you look into the deep, dark depths of your fridge and see if anything besides the frozen emergency meals are salvageable. 

My fossicking around turned up the following items: two pink potatoes (eyes not growing that much), one red capsicum, one medium sweet potato, one large zucchini and two portobello mushrooms that were on the verge of turning into fungus but still ok if you peeled them. Which I did. 

Tim glanced at this collection, carefully arranged according to length, and politely expressed the view that he wasn't convinced anything could be made of it and wouldn't it be much easier if we had cereal for dinner? Big mistake for a man who had just made me march up, down and around a sizable hill for fun. 

Heck, after that feat, during which I engaged muscles in the general buttock region that I did not realise existed, (and I was excellent at biology) I felt that creating dinner for two people in under half an hour from this collection was not only achievable, but that I may even triumph!

Whatever... I made roast veggie stacks. 

And they were amazing. Another idiot-proof idea. The principle is simple: 

Take whatever veg you can find in your fridge and that will withstand a good grilling.  Slice lengthways - about half a centimeter is a good guide - mash up some garlic with some salt and olive oil in a pestle and mortar (or the mini-whizz machine); paint the mixture on both sides of everything; grill until they're going brown but not burnt. Except for the pepper which you want to grill the bejesus out of so it goes black and you can pull the skin off easily. 

For the mushrooms, once both sides have been browned, put some diced fetta and sprinkle some parsley on the inside and stick it back under the grill until it's looking brown.

Stack the whole lot up on a plate with the mushroom on top, dabbing with hommus at intervals. Serve with some olive oil, black pepper and baby capers. (Yes, I really did have those things just languishing in my fridge.)

I know you can buy hommus, but it's SOOOOO easy to make it I don't know why you wouldn't. Into a food processor, stick a can of chickpeas, (rinsed and sans can), the juice of one lemon, some salt, pepper and a tablespoon or so of tahini and enough olive oil so that when you whizz it to bits, it forms a nice, smooth(ish) hommus-like consistency. You might find you want more lemon juice or olive oil or even tahini. So for goodness sake, taste it as you go along!!! Personally, I like it on the lemony side. It's pretty hard to get it wrong but whatever you do, you don't want it to be dry. All dry hommus is is mashed chick peas and nobody ever paid for that.

All this in under a half hour and bloody delicious, and probably quite good for you too.

Now to get serious for a second, Tim and I are really enjoying the whole process of cooking, eating, presenting and photographing the food. It can be so fun and yet so challenging, especially for a couple of people who are completely self-taught. We're certainly learning a lot as we go which is all part of the fun. I tell you all this because we're pretty proud of some of our efforts, particularly this one - the photo of the half-eaten stack was taken in one shot, nano-seconds before the light blew!!! We hope you enjoy. We certainly did!

Monday, September 29, 2008

Good chocolate


Is there any other kind??? Arguably not. Anti-oxidants galore, all wrapped in mouth-watering, divinely sweet, chocolatey goodness. It was made that way for a reason, so let's vote to remove the luxury tax - it's a necessity, like water or sex.
Which is why, after a helluva long day like today, I needed some. 
These days I measure the productiveness of my weekend by how much really good cooking I've managed, and how well it looks in photographs. This weekend was excellent. Gorgeous weather, blue skies, birds singing, the smell of freshly mown grass and washing on the line. And a great chocolate cake. Bliss. 
I really had my doubts about this recipe because it looked almost too easy, but mostly because it called for melting the chocolate with a minute bit of 
milk. That just turned the whole thing into a fudgy sludge and had me cursing  the waste of 250g decent dark chocolate. (Although I would have rolled it into balls and sold it to Tim as 'truffles' or something of that ilk). 
Surprisingly, the whole thing mixed beautifully, was really simple, and came out perfectly. This cake is deceptively moist, and given that there's not an ounce of butter in it, that's an achievement. Must be the 6 eggs! It means there's no heavy or greasy residue which is a plus. Also, the hazelnut meal works to give it an interesting texture and extra flavour - better than flour. Hazelnuts are like walnuts - not a fan of them au natural, but combine them in any way with chocolate, and they're pretty special.
Time to be healthy...

Flourless Chocolate Hazelnut Cake
Wheat & Gluten Free, Jody Vassallo p 87

Ingredients:
250g (8oz) dark cooking chocolate chopped
2 tbsp milk
120g (4oz) hazelnut meal
1/2 cup (125g/4oz) caster sugar
6 eggs, separated

Preheat oven to 180º (350ºF/Gas 4). Line a 20cm (8in) spring form tin with baking paper.
Put the chocolate and milk into a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water. Do not let the base of the bowl touch the water. Stir over medium heat until the chocolate has melted. Set aside to cool slightly.
Put the chocolate mixture, hazelnut meal, sugar and egg yolks into a bowl and mix to combine. (I mixed everything except the chocolate mix first, and then combined it)
Whisk the eggs in a clean, dry bowl until stiff peaks form. Fold the egg whites into the chocolate mixture and spoon into the prepared tin. 
Bake for 45 minutes or until firm. Allow to cool in the tin for 5 mins. Serve with fresh berries. Serves 8. (Or 1 x Tim)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Lamington drive


The thought of lamingtons conjurs up memories of the yearly tradition of lamington drives for school, girl's brigade, church fundraisers, senior citizens fundraisers, etc, etc, etc... I'm sure it was even more painful for parents, guilted into buying the dreaded things, and bullied into arriving at the school early on a Saturday morning to take delivery of the un-iced cakes, and spend the day dipping and boxing at the direction of the second grade teacher straight out of uni.
I remember one year, back in the days when primary school children could wander the neighbourhood, safe in the knowledge that as long as parents knew vaguely where you were and you were home by dinner, they wouldn't panic and call a full-scale search, a good friend of mine called Imogen and I set out to sell more lamingtons than any other girls brigader had ever sold in the history of girls brigaders selling lamingtons. We decided that rather than do a half-arsed job canvassing immediate relatives, next door neighbours and our parents friends who would be unable to say no, (lest our parents refuse to buy their kids' fundraising crap) we would launch a well-planned, street-by-street operation in our suburb. I think we were actually trying to knock some leader's pet off their perch, but motive didn't matter because we were raising money for some good, girls brigade approved cause. I have no memory of what that was but I know it didn't directly benefit us - unless you count the glow you get when you sell more lamingtons than anyone else. But anyway...
For two 11 year olds, we were well-organised and strategic. There were clipboards involved, and a map of our suburb, one water bottle (no fear of germs then) and Imogen's bike in case we got tired. I don't really think either of us could read the map, but we had a notion that it was good marketing for adults to see two such organised kids, even if we didn't know what marketing was either. We went on to set some kind of lamington selling record, for the sale of both cream-filled and plain lamingtons - something like 67 dozen from memory. Not bad. It was announced in the church and we were instantly forgiven for annoying far too many innocent citizens.
Anyway, Tim's had a craving for lamingtons lately and has been disappointed with the general standard of pre-packaged, pre-fabbed, pre-flavour offerings at the supermarket. Let's face it, the life of the supermarket lammo starts so long before it ever finds a home that the poor things don't have a chance! Dry sponge that doesn't resemble anything my mother ever made, synthetically flavoured with the sorriest looking coconut clinging desperately to the synthetically coloured chocolate, raspberry (try flamingo pink) or white syruped edges impersonating real icing. It's no wonder that Tim turned once again to the (so far) fail-safe pages of Donna Hay's chocolate book for guidance. (It was her or me and I wasn't in the mood.)
Tim has a theory that lamingtons are made best with slightly stale, day-old sponge. Since we didn't have any of that lying around the house, he bought a sponge cake from the supermarket. Next step, measure it up and square of the corners. Yes, I'm serious. The man had a ruler and other geometrical implements on hand so that his lamingtons would be perfectly cut. (I know) Next came the frosting. It involved A LOT of icing sugar, so he halved the quantities. But basically it's a hot, runny, cocoa icing. Totally idiot-proof. Tim did really well.

Lamington Icing
Donna Hay, Simple Essentials - Chocolate, p40.

Ingredients:
3 cups (450g/15 3/4oz) icing sugar, sifted
3/4 cup (90g/3oz) cocoa powder, sifted
1 cup (250ml/ 8fl oz) boiling water
1/4 cup (60ml/ 2 fl oz) milk
75g (2 1/2 oz) melted butter
dessicated coconut, to coat

Mix together all of the ingredients in a large bowl. Put the coconut in another bowl. Roll the sponge squares in the icing and then in the desiccated coconut. Place on a baking tray lined with non-stick baking paper and refrigerate until set.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The problem with brown food...

I really wanted to share this one because it's so delicious and easy and will definitely make the right impression on anyone who isn't a vegetarian. Unfortunately Tim was right! It's REALLY, REALLY hard to photograph brown food and make it look good. (The obvious exception being anything made of chocolate. Let's face it, chocolate on a stick would still make you want to reach for the nearest Lindt ball). Not beef stew.

Still, we pressed on, determined to do this French classic asthetic justice. In the end, after many variations on a theme, and with Tim at his wits end over my obsession for a plate of beef stew, I settled for full frontal beef.

Now about the brown food in question, I attempted another French feast - Beef Carbonnade. It sounds flashy, but really it's beef and onion stew made with beer. Actually it tasted great, but it's just hard to photograph it and make it look anything other than beef stew with mash. Which is really what it is.

Compared to beef bourguinon, this recipe is a doddle. No overnight marinading, bouquet garni, small onions that take forever to peel or any tying up of any ingredients. It's basically beef, beer and onion. Really you just chop it all up, brown it in batches, layer it in a casserole dish and pour a beery mixture all over it. Then into the over for 2-3 hours and you're done.

I think my absolutely favourite thing about this stew, and others like it, is that you can start out with an average cut of meat, and after several hours of cooking in some delicious juices in a slow oven, you have something really special.



Beef Carbonnade
The Food of France, a journey for food lovers, p159, Murdoch Books

Ingredients:
30g (1 oz) butter
2-3 tbsp oil
1kg (2lb 4oz) lean beef rump or chuck steak, cubed
4 onions, chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed (but since I don't have a crusher, I finely chopped)
1 tsp brown sugar
1 tbsp plain flour
500ml (2 cups) beer (bitter or stout. Tim spent some time in NT this year so I opted for VB)
2 bay leaves
4 sprigs of thyme

Preheat oven to 150ºC (300ºF/Gas ). Melt the butter in a large pan with a tablespoon of oil. Brown the meat in batches over high heat and lift out onto a plate. (I didn't cook completely through - literally just brown)

Add another tbsp of oil to the pan and add the onion. Cook over moderate heat for 10 minutes, then add the garlic and sugar and cook for a further 5 imnutes, adding another tablespoon of oil if necessary. Lift the onion out onto a second plate.

Reduce the heat to low and pour in any juices that have drained from the browned meat, then stir in the flour. Rmove from the heat and stir in the beer, a little at a time (the beer will foam). Return to the heat and let the mixture gently simmer and thicken. Season with salt and pepper.

Layer the meat and onion in a casserole dish, tucking the bay leaves and springs of thyme between the layers and seasoning with salt and black pepper as you go. Pour the liquid over the meat, cover with a lid and cook in the oven for 2 1/2 -3 hours, or until the meat is tender.

The French serve this with croutons - slices of baguette toasted and spread with dijon mustard. Since I can't do baguette, I settled for creamy mashed potatoes. Mmmmmm......

Comfort food at it's best, and excellent the following day.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

To market, to market...



It's been a long and cranky week and what I needed this morning to boost my morale was a trip to some decent markets. I grabbed my patient and understanding brother Sam, lured by the promise of a good coffee and home-cooked tasty treats, and off I set.

First stop - Gorman House Markets in the City. Actually, first stop was coffee, but after that we got down to business.

GH has been around for ages, and I've been a seller there a couple of times. It's been a bit of an up and down affair over the years, but these days it's more up than down and actually really pleasant and vibrant. We got there just after opening time so a few people were still setting up and it was a little quiet, but perfect for trawling unhindered by crowds of people. By the time we left - about 10.30am, it was picking up considerably.

Stalls there are mostly vintage clothing, arts and crafts, local produce and international food. I haven't been in ages, but since last time I went, a cake stall has been added in the main courtyard - Amore Cakes? Of course this proved irresistable to me, so over I ventured, a woman with a mission, narrowly avoiding tripping over the dancing child and large Irish wolf hound . I really wasn't in the mood for a gluten free brownie, and I couldn't try the rose-muffins or brioche pudding (which incidentally looked divine) so I settled for a piece of banana-blueberry bread for Tim.

As you can see from my extremely average photo (forgot to take my camera along!!!) a piece of this bread is cut off an served in a great chunk and at $4 it seems like good value. I had the tiniest sliver and it was moist and tasty. Tim might have something to add when he's tried it...

The second good thing I got was home-baked bread. A whopping great multigrain loaf that really looks like a loaf of bread should look. There are two types on offer, the main difference being that one has caraway seeds and the other doesn't. The same lady sells other goodies, as well as some home-grown organic produce.

Gorman House is definitely worth a look. It's open from 10am Saturdays. 

Not satisfied with my purchases, I headed over to the Fyshwick Fresh Food Markets, on the promise that a shop there sold whole rabbits for the bargain price of 12.99. My mother has been hankering for rabbit for ages, and I've been dying to try my hand at making a French dish involving the little critters.

I found what I was looking for, not at either of the butchers (although I did come away with some very well priced and lean chuck for tonight's effort in French cooking) but at the poultry shop. I bought four, along with a whole duckling (don't worry - it's more the size of a small turkey!!!) for yet another French recipe I want to try.

We also picked up assorted fruit and veg at really good prices, and I was very restrained at the deli. It's easy to get caught up in the colour and theatre that is the heart of any real food market, and I say dive in. It's fun and you'll get much more out of it than supermarket shopping.

Try Fyshwick Markets for more info.

Now I have a lot to work with, so stay tuned for something fabulous and French.