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
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


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.

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 180ยบ.
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!