Friday, August 28, 2009

Minestrone: the right kind of soup

I’ve never really been into soups all that much. I have to really be in the mood. I don’t order them when I go out, and I rarely make them at home. However, when the mood does strike me, I’m happy to cook up a big pot of something hearty and tuck in.

One thing I can’t do is leftover soup. Don’t ask me why. Perhaps it’s the fact that a lot of soups sort of congeal into a slippery, stodgy looking, unattractive mass when refrigerated. Perhaps it’s the sight of waterlogged pieces of veg or meat floating like so many corpses in cold broth that turns me off. (Not that I've ever actually seen a floating corpse, but I watch a lot of Midsommer Murders.) I suppose it’s a question for the ages and best left alone, lest I turn anyone else off.

I think the one exception for me is a decent minestrone. Not any old minestrone, but one that I know the providence of. Seriously. The issue for me is that so many versions of minestrone seem to contain too many indiscernible ingredients tied together by mushy shell pasta and labelled ‘minestrone’ as if that’s meant to comfort and convince. I won’t touch it with a ten foot barge pole. Or soup spoon for that matter.

Minestrone should have a clean, strong, wholesome feel about it. It should be hearty and satisfying. It shouldn’t be strewn with random vegetable matter, but with carefully combined ingredients. The pasta should go in at the end, having been par-cooked and drained. If meat is included, it should not be great, soaking, sinewy chunks. Minestrone should be able to count as a meal all on its own and able to stand up for itself the next day. But for that to happen, you need a solid recipe. Here’s mine, based on years of contemplation.


1 small brown onion, finely chopped

1 large clove garlic, finely chopped

1 1/2 cup potato, diced

1 cup carrot, diced

2/3 cup celery, diced

1/2 cup red capsicum, diced

1 x 400g tin kidney beans

1 x 400g tomatoes (crushed or chopped)

1 raw chorizo, diced (optional)

1 sprig thyme

1/2 tsp dried oregano

1 tbsp fresh chopped parsley

1/2 tsp smoked sweet paprika

enough beef or vegetable stock to cover ingredients

salt & pepper to taste

1 cup small shell pasta, par cooked and drained

This is completely simple. Lightly brown the onion, garlic and chorizo together in a large pot. Throw in all the other ingredients and cover with stock. Let it simmer gently until the veg starts becoming tender but not soggy. Once the soup is cooked, add the pasta. The pasta will soak up the juices and flavours and soften so you don't need it to be too soft to start with.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A bit of a tart...

I was inspired the other week by some stuff I saw in a cafe display case. Not inspired in a good way mind you - just inspired to do better. Sorry if that sounds trite, but the half dozen ordinary looking, still partly frozen savoury tarts in the display case did nobody any justice. I could see the condensation collecting on the limp strip of pepper draped over the top as they slowly thawed. Yuck! They looked soggy and unappetising.

In the week that followed the defrosting tart incident remained very much on my mind. Am I obsessive? Maybe. Am I determined? Definitely. What did I do about it? I decided to get creative and make my own.

Now I don't come from a quiche or tart sort of family. Dad didn't eat that sort of thing, so mum didn't cook it. It was as simple as that. And, since I do come from a 'everything is made from scratch' type of family, we never bought the ready made variety when he wasn't around. My point is that my experience is somewhat limited to the occasional lunch at a friend's house or cafe adventure.

But back to my plan of action. I rummaged about in the fridge, and found some seasonal ingredients that I really love: leek and potato. What a marriage made in culinary heaven these two are. Throw in some free range eggs, some nice cheese, parsley, etc, and there you have it - a potato and leek version of the humble savoury tart. It was pretty quick and simple too and kept well in the fridge and lunchbox.

End result? I was pleased. Very pleased. So was Tim. (Especially since I took the easy route, used bought pastry and couldn't eat any of them myself!)

50g unsalted butter
1 cup sliced leek (white part only)
200g thinly sliced potato
1 sheet short crust pastry
2 eggs
1 tbsp light sour cream
1 tbsp milk
1 tsp finely chopped fresh parsley
1/4 cup freshly grated grana padano

Place half the butter in a fry pan and soften the potatoes for about five minutes at a low temperature. Add the rest of the butter and the leek and cook for ten minutes. Salt & pepper to taste.

Lightly beat the eggs, and then add the cream, milk, parsley and cheese.

Oil four 10cm (diametre) tart tins, quarter the sheet of pastry and gently ease each one into a tin. Cut the excess pastry away. Prick the bottom of each with a fork.

Spoon a quarter of the potato and leek into each tin, spreading it out evenly. Then spoon in the egg mix over the top. Tap the tins to settle the mixture.

Bake for 20-25 minutes at 180º C. Serve with tomato relish, salad and a glass of white wine.

Australian Gourmet Traveller Restaurant Awards

I like the idea of an award for the best maitre 'd. See story in the SMH.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Take 5 - again!

Well here we are in all our glory as the Take-5 Reader's Choice winners. I would like to state for the record that this photo doesn't look much like me (don't know why that is) and I definitely do not talk like that. Oh, and my mother has never called me darling. That's all.

Thanks to everyone who voted!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Chocolate caramel slice

What a weekend it has been! Lots of cooking and photos and running around generally. I've had a few flops and a few successes. It's all a learning experience and this afternoon it's perfect weather to stay inside and tell you all about it.

I started the weekend with a chocolate caramel slice from the Donna Hay Simple Essentials: Chocolate cook book (p32). It's something I've wanted to try making for years. I remember school fetes and morning teas when someone's mum made caramel slice. I was fascinated every time. I thought it was this magical, mystical creation that took much more skill than I had. Well it turns out that it's not actually that hard, even when converting the base to wheat free. (There are some things I'm not prepared to forgo taste testing of!)

The recipe worked well although I'll use more chocolate on top next time. The one thing I found was that the base can dry out quite quickly and become a bit hard. I think this is because the base is baked twice - once with and once without the caramel filling. Or perhaps it's just because I don't have a feel for this recipe yet? Whatever the case may be, it hasn't deterred Tim and I've had to hide a large portion of it. I want him around for a long while yet and I fear that if he gets his hands on this and acts with his usual abandon, it will go in a flash and may cause a little artery hardening. Yes, there's a fair bit of butter in this one.

1 cup plain flour (I used spelt flour)
1/2 cup desiccated coconut
1/2 cup brown sugar
125g butter, melted

caramel filling:
1/3 cup golden syrup
125g butter, melted
2 x 400g cans sweetened condensed milk

200g dark chocolate
3 tsp olive oil

Preheat oven to 180ºC. Place the flour, coconut, sugar and butter in a bowl and mix well. Press the mixture into a 20cm x 30c slice tin lined with non-stick baking paper and bake for 15-20 minutes until brown.

To make the caramel filling, place the golden syrup, butter and condensed milk in a saucepan over low heat and stir for 7 minutes or until the caramel has thickened slightly. Pour over the cooked base and bake for 20 minutes or until the caramel is golden.

Refrigerate until cold, then melt the chocolate and oil and pour over the top.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Dishwasher Love

If you've been following this blog for any period of time, you'll know that I started with a kitchen that was, frankly, a dangerous place. I finally cracked it a couple of months ago (after yet another hot plate on the badly installed stove broke and I got an electric shock) and made my demand: a new kitchen or I stop cooking. I got the new kitchen.

You'll also be aware that Tim and I got married earlier this year. A group of wonderful friends gave us a voucher for a dishwasher. I think this came after hearing me complain way too many times about things like Tim getting distracted mid-wash and the lack of rinsing that was taking place.

Finally, with the kitchen purchased and about to be installed, it was time to go out and purchase the dishwasher. Here Tim took control. The pre-purchasing research was phenomenal. Thank goodness for the internet. After several weeks of intensive study, Tim decided on a lovely white Bosch model with simple mechanics, rather than the type with the flash LED display panel. I like it. As you can see from the picture, Tim likes it even more.

Thanks to all our friends for the most wonderful gift. Now that it's been connected, it's even more useful!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Me vs Madeleine

Everyone has their kitchen achilles heel. It's that one thing that no matter how hard you try to get right, you just can't. You can try over and over and something is slightly off every time. It's so frustrating and doesn't seem fair, especially when you follow a recipe to the letter.

For me it's Madeleines. They're so small and seem so simple. I wish I could tell you that I'd succeeded in making perfectly textured little morsels that look fabulous and taste great. Unfortunately, success evades me.

I've tried different recipes, from traditional French to modern 'no-fuss' versions. I've used different flavours from lemon to chocolate to coffee. I've bought a new tin. I've had Tim supervise and double-check my measurements. But nothing! I cannot seem to get them right.

I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing wrong which makes it all the more frustrating. All I know is that my madeleines, when I can even prise them out of the tray, are lumpy on the upside and the kind of texture that I'm sure isn't right. Because I don't like to believe that any culinary challenge is too much for me, I will keep trying. Perhaps one day I'll get it together, or perhaps not. Either way, Tim will be taste testing a lot of Madeleines in the future.

Anyway, the photo you see is my most recent and successful batch so far. They don't look too bad, they weren't too lumpy on the up side, but they were a bit dense. In spite of this, Tim ate all two dozen. I guess that counts for something?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Julie & Julia

This is the story of Julie Powell cooking her way through Julia Child's 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking' and blogging about it. Well, there's actually a bit more to it than that because it is about a personal journey through which cooking every recipe in this iconic cookbook seems to have been the one constant. It's a funny, poignant story and one I recommend reading if you can find a copy. Or else go and see the movie, starring Meryl Streep, no less.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Frank Sinatra, pot roast, and me

I have had some particularly odd dreams lately. I have a feeling they're food related on account of me either having eaten new and unfamiliar things for dinner that have set me off, or because there are things I'm thinking about cooking. Whatever the cause, it's made for strange times.

The other night I had what began as one of those unforgettable dreams. I dreamed I was dancing with Frank Sinatra. It was when Frank was arguably at his sexiest too. He was about 40 years old and had filled out a little bit, but still looked fit. I recall his blue, blue eyes, the cut of his beautiful suit, the cocky hat and the commanding way he held me while we danced. He was gently crooning something into my ear. I don't recall what song it was. I was entranced and had decided not to resist the inevitable attempt to seduce me.

Just as Frank drew me close with those strong arms around my waist, I stepped back and took the sight of him in, breathlessly. I looked into those clear, blue eyes that were smouldering with lust, and I asked Frank Sinatra to hold on while I went and cooked dinner.

What the hell is wrong with me?!

I told Tim. He laughed and wondered what it meant. I have no idea. Would I turn down Frank Sinatra to cook dinner? (I mean, if I was a single woman of course.) I just don't know. The point is that unfinished business has haunted me for days as I wondered why I stopped to cook dinner, for whom was I cooking and what kind of a dinner was so damned important that it couldn't wait until Frank had finished his song?

Instinctively I think I must have gone off to cook a pot roast. I've waxed lyrical about the pot roast on several occasions so I think it's a pretty good bet. It's a stable, wholesome meal and one that a woman probably would have stopped to cook in the 1950's in the middle of a Frank Sinatra seduction. Anyway, I think it's probably time to share my way of doing it. (Since I can't share how Frank did it.)

1. Use almost any cut of meat. For today's demonstration, I've used just over a kilo of roasting beef. You could also use pork or lamb (pork is amazing done this way). The slow, long cook time should soften the meat and make it just about melt in your mouth.

2. Heat up a decent splash of olive oil in a heavy pot that can be transferred to the oven. If you don't have one, use a frying pan for this step. Throw in a quartered onion and several unpeeled cloves of garlic. Place the beef in the pot and sear each side. You're not trying to cook the meat through, just brown.

3. Throw in one large, roughly chopped carrot, about a tablespoon of sweet paprika, half a cup of good beef stock and a bouquet garni - parsley stems, thyme and bay leaf. Add some salt and pepper. I also threw in about a tablespoon of chopped parsley leaves that I had left.

4. Put the lid on the pot and put it into the oven for about four hours (or until very tender) at 160º C. At about every hour or 45 minutes, baste the meat with the juices.

5. When it's all done, I don't strain the juices for serving purposes, but I do remove the carrot and bouquet garni. You can use the juice as is, although I often slightly thicken it with a little corn flour.

Dream well.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Croquembouche conquered...almost

For a long time now I've wanted to try making a croquembouche. Why, I hear you ask? Well, why not?

I guess I see it as one of those ultimate kitchen challenges. Tim has always thought this a bit of a silly idea and steadfastly discouraged me from attempting such a foolhardy exercise. He has pointed out that it involves hot sugar, which he assured me has a much higher boiling point than water. Also, boiling sugar is sticky. That makes for one big 'ouch' if you come into contact with it. I don't always listen to Tim.

Instead I called my sister Esther. I distinctly remember her high school home economics teacher commending her choux pastry efforts. Esther imparted what would become my mantra for the pastry making part of the deal - just keep stirring. One sore arm later, and I had several dozen fairly decent little puffs. Tim said they were shaped a bit like doggy do. He still ate them.

I'd read somewhere that profiteroles are best for croquembouche use the day after they're baked because they dry out a bit. I think this is true. I baked on Friday evening and constructed on Saturday morning and they did seem drier. I threw together a very thick custard filling that seemed to do the trick and piped it in about two dozen profiteroles.

At this point it was toffee time. I followed a recipe of sugar, glucose syrup and water and boiled until it started changing colour. I then dipped the top of each profiterole, without incident, and put them aside.

Finally it was time to construct. I was fairly confident, even though I didn't have a mould. Since the tower I was making wasn't that big, I thought I'd be fine. With the bottom layer down - the ground work you might say - it was time to put to work all that icy pole stick construction practice I'd had during various team building exercises over the years. Not quite the same thing but it still involved gluing somewhat unwieldy objects together to form a recognisable shape. And this is where it got nasty.

While dipping the bottom of a profiterole in molten sugar, I managed to drip some onto my right index finger. (Being right handed I could hardly have picked a worse spot for a bad burn.) It's true - molten sugar is very sticky and and very, very hot. And you can't stick your finger in your mouth for instant relief because you'll burn your mouth and hurt for hours in two places at once.

I don't recall swearing. I didn't cry. I stuck said finger under cold running water. In fact, I spent most of the rest of the day with a container of cold water at the ready for finger dunking. What didn't help was re-burning it later on when I went to get a hot tray out of the oven. I'm pretty sure I swore on that occasion. Ladybug certainly got a fright. I'm also pretty sure that I could just about pinpoint the spot in my brain where I felt some sort of chemical release every time I stuck my finger back into the cold water and relief washed over me. It was weird and strangely satisfying.

Besides the huge blister, I now have a sense of achievement and a healthier respect for hot sugar.

Oh, and Tim has offered to buy me special heat proof gloves, just in case I try this again. He's so thoughtful.