Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year To All

I have run out of time to get up my December Barefoot Blogger posts: you will have to wait until a little later in January for some fabulous pudding and sausage stuffed mushrooms. I also have the last of the We Made It December posts to do. Too much cooking and too little writing as you see.....

Until then, Happy New Year to all. Thanks for reading. I hope 2010 brings only good things to your life and to those in your life. Enjoy the start of the new decade.


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Caramel Popcorn - One Last Bit of Wickedness for 2009

Some of you are probably finishing the year now, feeling good about all your accomplishments, whether they be professional, personal, major or minor. Maybe you even stuck to your New Year's Resolutions, and are finishing this year 6 inches taller, a couple of stone lighter and giving Elle Macpherson a run for her money. Congratulations. I am deeply impressed. However, if you do not count yourself among gods like that and 2009 has actually been a year of mixed blessings, then you may still have a little bit of room in your calendar for a last piece of wickedness before we shut the door on 2009. And this is not just any type of wickedness - it is wickedness of the highest order: caramel popcorn.

I saw this on Orangette's blog a week or two ago. I am a late-comer to the phenomenon that is Orangette; in fact I think she has filed only about half a dozen times since I first clicked onto her site. She does however belong to the small pantheon of bloggers who have managed to morph from the virtual into the real world, with a book to her name, as well as a new restaurant. She also does beautiful photographs which feel a bit melancholy and sentimental me. Go have a look. But back to the caramel corn: it is fabulous. It is nothing like any sticky candy corn-type recipe you have ever tried. It is crisp and sweet and salty all at once. It is more-ish, and even better, it is pretty easy to make, provided you follow the instructions as she gives them. Take it from me, it would be an appropriately wicked way to end the year.

Caramel Corn with Salted Peanuts

Adapted from DamGoodSweet, by David Guas and Raquel Pelzel, with notes from Molly Wizenberg aka Orangette:

- Be sure to have a whisk and a rubber spatula close at hand. You’ll need them both on short notice.
- Before you begin cooking the caramel, measure out the baking soda and the vanilla, and chop the peanuts. You won’t have time to do it later.
- Do not try to make this recipe without a candy thermometer.

1 family-size package plain (unbuttered natural flavor) microwave popcorn, or about 10 cups fresh popcorn popped by any method, lightly salted
1 cup packed light brown sugar
¼ cup light corn syrup
6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted (5 Aus tablespoons)
¼ tsp. salt
½ tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup lightly salted peanuts, roughly chopped

Preheat the oven to 125C. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. If using microwave popcorn, pop the popcorn according to the package instructions. Coat a large mixing bowl with nonstick cooking spray (I used olive oil spray), and dump the popcorn into the bowl, taking care to pick out and discard any unpopped kernels.

In a medium saucepan, whisk together the brown sugar, corn syrup, butter, salt, and 2 tablespoons of water. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Continue to simmer, whisking often, until the mixture reads 250°F on a candy thermometer, about 3 to 4 minutes. Immediately remove the pan from the heat, and whisk in the baking soda and vanilla.

Quickly pour the hot caramel over the popcorn. Use a rubber spatula to gently fold the caramel into the popcorn, taking care to distribute it as evenly as you can. Stir in the peanuts, and transfer the mixture to the prepared baking sheet. Bake for 1 hour, stirring and turning the popcorn with a spatula every 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, and place on a cooling rack for 20 minutes. Gently break up the popcorn, and serve. Store in an airtight container for up to 5 days (or thereabouts).Yield: about 10 cups

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Rosemary Cranberry Florentines

If you are still in the mood for festive flavours, here is another amazing recipe I tried for the "We Made It" Challenge with Melinda from Melbourne Larder. Between us, we decided to seek inspiration from this month's Gourmet Traveller, and cook as much as possible from the magazine. While we originally thought that December was a great month to start this project, the biggest problem I hit was that it was December. In other words, if you are like me, you may well spend December in the kitchen, but this is the month when you are making all your old traditional favourites. So no matter how good the Gourmet Traveller ham or turkey looked, I was only ever going to cook Aunty Judy's ham recipe and Mum's turkey recipe (which incidentally, I promise to post in time for next Christmas. I couldn't post it any earlier because the only photo I had of Mum's turkey recipe was of me, sweaty and exhausted on a boiling hot Xmas Day pulling the bird out of the oven. Was that photo going to appear on the blog? No way. Not ever.)

But now, thanks to Gourmet Traveller, I have another tradition to add to my permanent Xmas list: cranberry-rosemary florentine bars. These appeared in an article featuring the recipes of patissier of the moment, Adriano Zumbo. Zumbo has been building a profile for the last few years, starting with the odd mention in the food pages of the paper, before building to a star turn on both Masterchef and Celebrity Masterchef. Every time the Masterchef contestants were challenged with a Zumbo recipe, the judges would suck some air back through their teeth, shake their heads and discuss how many "processes" were involved. It was this image that kept popping into my head as I was making these bars: Gary and George shaking their heads and saying, "but how many processes does she still need to complete?" And I must admit, at the end of the cooking, I thought to myself "well, that was interesting. Rather serious effort for a Christmas sweet. Maybe next year I should set my sights a little lower. Who needs to do so much work at this time of year? Who really wants some fancy-pants chocolates?"

But then I tasted them, and the answer is ME ME ME. I will slave in the kitchen every year just so I can have another hit of those chocolates. Zumbo says in his GT introduction “These were inspired partly by stuffing mix from Christmas, with the rosemary, but made into a chocolate." I never would have contemplated rosemary and chocolate together, but these were phenomenal - a really perfect balance between sweet and savoury, and filled with so much flavour, that, even though I cut them smaller than Zumbo, one is plenty. And almost everyone who tried them was bewitched by the flavour. I must also admit, that while there are plenty of processes, none are very hard. It's just that there are a lot. But for the end result? I promise you will never hear another word of complaint from me. Gosh, I would even cop another process or two, just to eat them again. Really.

You start by making the flaked almond layer of the florentine; once that is in the fridge, you move onto the rosemary sable biscuit dough. These biscuits are cut into 1cm squares and baked until they are golden. Then all except 16 are crushed. (In case you were wondering, I have never made biscuits before for the sole purpose of smashing them up.) The recipe then asks you to process rosemary and cream in a small food processor. I only have a large food processor, so I decided to do this bit in the blender, and very quickly created something that more closely approximated rosemary butter than cream flecked with rosemary. I wasn't about to throw in the towel at this point, so I added a couple of extra tablespoons of pouring cream, and continued. The cream and rosemary are then brought to the boil, then left to infuse before being poured over the white chocolate and crushed pistachios to make a ganache and folded with the crushed biscuits. Zumbo then instructs that this mixture is poured over the almonds. My mixture was so thick that pouring was impossible, so I wound up taking a sheet of glad wrap and using it to push the mix flat on top of the almonds. That mix is then left to set in the fridge ofr 6 hours to overnight, before it is cut into bars, dipped in chocolate and decorated. And the final piece of advice comes from Zumbo: "The secret here is to not overcook them or the sugars become too reduced and they become too hard. And, no suprises, you’ll need to begin this recipe a day ahead.

Rosemary Cranberry Florentine Bars
Australian Gourmet Traveller Dec 09
Serves 16
Cooking Time Prep time 40 mins, cook 40 mins (plus infusing, cooling, setting)
125 gm flaked almonds
150 gm Tasmanian leatherwood honey (I just used the normal honey I had)
100 ml pouring cream
35 gm liquid glucose (I used corn syrup as a subsitute)
15 gm glacé cherries, finely chopped (I used some dates)
35 gm dried cranberries, finely chopped, plus extra whole, to serve
350 gm dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids), finely chopped
To serve:
rosemary leaves and coarsely chopped pistachios

Rosemary sablé
25 gm caster sugar
1½ tbsp rosemary leaves
50 gm (1/3 cup) plain flour
35 gm cold unsalted butter, diced
2 tsp lightly beaten egg

Pistachio and rosemary ganache
60 ml (¼ cup) pouring cream
½ cup (loosely packed) rosemary leaves
115 gm good-quality white chocolate, finely chopped
20 gm pistachio kernels, pounded in a mortar and pestle until finely crushed
1 tsp liquid glucose
25 gm softened butter

Preheat oven to 180C. Spread almonds on an oven tray and roast, stirring occasionally, until golden (5-7 minutes), set aside. Stir honey, cream and glucose in a saucepan over medium-high heat until combined, then cook until mixture reaches 123C on a sugar thermometer (10-12 minutes). Stir in almonds, cranberries and cherries, then spoon into a 22cm-square cake pan lined with baking paper, smooth top and refrigerate until set (1-2 hours).

Meanwhile, for rosemary sablé, reduce oven to 160C. Process sugar and rosemary in a small food processor or spice grinder until finely chopped, then transfer to a mixing bowl. Add flour and butter and rub in with your fingertips until fine crumbs form. Add egg, mix until a dough just forms (don’t overwork it) then flatten into a square, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate to rest (1-2 hours). Roll out on a lightly floured surface to 7mm thick, cut into 1cm squares and place on a baking tray lined with baking paper. Bake until golden (10-15 minutes), cool completely and coarsely crush.

For pistachio and rosemary ganache, process cream and rosemary in a small food processor to break down leaves, transfer to a saucepan and bring to the boil over medium heat. Remove from heat, stand for 20 minutes to infuse, then bring back to the boil. Combine chocolate, pistachio and glucose in a heatproof bowl, strain over cream mixture and stir to combine. Stir in butter, fold in rosemary sablé (reserve 16 pieces to garnish). Pour over almond mixture, smooth top, cover with plastic wrap, refrigerate until firm (6 hours-overnight), turn out and cut into 3cm x 9cm bars.

Melt chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of simmering water. Dip bars into chocolate, shaking off excess, and place on trays lined with baking paper. Decorate each bar with a rosemary leaf, a cranberry, a pistachio and a little remaining rosemary sablé, then refrigerate until set (10-15 minutes). Cranberry-rosemary Florentine bars will keep refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days.

This recipe is from the December 2009 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller magazine.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Mini-Christmas Cheesecakes

When my children were small, I decided to make an Advent Calendar for them that contained a new Christmassy activity for each day from December 1st until December 24th. Some of the activities were simple, some more complex, some silly and some sweet. We made Christmas-shaped biscuits, we had red and green themed dinners, we went out driving at night to look at the Christmas lights. We also went into the city to have lunch with Daddy (a big adventure when they were small), and we spent afternoons on the beach. We made cards and went to see Santa.

Much to my surprise as they have gotten older, they are still keen to do our Advent activities, although the activities have certainly evolved. Things that I thought were charming are now labelled "so embarrassing". The girls have managed to persuade me that new items like "get a new bikini" should be incorporated into our traditions - for Northern Hemisphere readers, a new swimming costume is a pretty normal thing to do at this time of year. They are also getting a bit resistant to things they don't feel like doing (this year, sadly, going out driving to look at the Christmas lights was voted down by the rest of the family). It is possible that this year will be the last year of this Christmas tradition, but I know it will be something that they will remember and possibly will do with their own families in the future.

I have also decided that I don't want their Christmas memories to include a crazy, out of control stressed mother. My highly ambitious plan to stay calm and organised for Christmas this year, is still mostly in place. In a personal best, I have only had two enormous whines to my husband about the goings on of the household, and we are already the Eve of Christmas Eve (although there are bound to be a few more before we finish up with ham and turkey for the year). Part of the key has been my "get dessert out of the way" strategy, with a bought pudding and some home made petit fours to have as a dessert platter. One of the petit fours I chose were these mini-cheesecakes, that have been living in my freezer for a week or so. While the recipe calls for making them in a regular sized muffin tin, I wanted tiny bite-sized cheesecakes, so I used the mini-muffin sized silicon cups that you can get at the supermarket. They peel back easily when you want to serve them. Like I said, just keeping it easy.

Mini Fruit Mince Cheesecakes
delicious Dec 2005

200g digestive biscuits
120g unsalted butter, melted
250g cream cheese
200g creme fraiche
1/2 cup (75g) pure icing sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
100ml thickened cream, whipped
1/2 cup sweetened dried cranberries (Craisins)
2 tbs brandy
410g jar fruit mince

Line a 12-hole muffin pan with plastic wrap (or use silicon baking cups). Process the biscuits in a food processor to fine crumbs. Add butter and process until just combined. Press biscuit mixture into base and sides of prepared muffin holes, using a spoon to press down firmly. Place muffin pan in freezer while you make the filling.

Combine cream cheese, creme fraiche, sugar and vanilla in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat until smooth. Fold in whipped cream using a metal spoon. Fill muffin pan with spoonfuls of filling. Freeze for a further 30 minutes, or until you plan to use them.
Meanwhile, for topping, place cranberries and brandy in a saucepan over low heat. Heat gently over low heat for 2-3 minutes to plump fruit, then add mince and warm through for a further 3 minutes. Remove from the heat. To serve, carefully remove cakes from pan (or cups) and serve with fruit mince topping.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Cured Ocean Trout - Make Your Christmas Meal Easier Pt 2

After writing yesterday's tips for making Christmas easier, I am feeling a bit warm and fuzzy as befits the season of goodwill among men. Probably a bit fuzzier than I should be (I did arrive two hours early at the dentist yesterday), but I am trying hard to hang onto a sense of calm this week. Please, will someone remind me of this when I fight for an hour to get into a Westfield car park next week, or when the hundredth playing of "Santa Baby" makes me want to kick Santa in the shins and run away.

Looking at the week ahead, I know Christmas Eve will be a long day. I will be hosting lunch for close to a dozen of us. I have one standard-sized oven with both a ham to glaze and a turkey to cook before lunch (the current plan is to glaze the ham and then cook the turkey and then whack the ham back into the oven for a few minutes so it tastes freshly glazed.) My turkey recipe is also like a high maintenance friend, and needs fairly constant attention until it appears golden and rested: worth it ultimately, but a bit demanding at times. So, in my spirit of calm, I am trying to take the pressure off myself everywhere else. I am doing only cold side dishes (fitting since it is likely to be very hot): a spinach and rice salad in perfect Christmas colours, a King Cole coleslaw (from Gourmet Traveller Dec 09) also in seasonal colours and a Christmas caponata. Both the caponata and the rice salad will be made the day before they are needed, as they improve when the flavours are given a bit of time. The coleslaw requires only a bit of chopping, which can be easily managed between bastes of the turkey. I have also decided to serve a fruit salad of mangos, nectarines and raspberries as the dessert, and then do more seasonal, indulgent petit fours with coffee, which will all be made ahead of time. All of this makes me feel happy and capable of managing the cooking without any of it being too difficult on the day. But there is one final item I need to share with you. My final blinding piece of inspiration (or self-preservation) was choosing to do cured ocean trout for the entree, which needs to be prepared now to be ready for Christmas.

If you have never cured trout or salmon, today is the day to think about doing it. It is so easy, I am nearly embarassed by it, and the resulting fish is wonderful. If you have never eaten cured fish, the texture is somewhere between sashimi and cooked fish, but does not taste at all raw. Depending on what you use for the cure, different flavours can be introduced into the dish. I am trying the recipe from Gourmet Traveller Dec 09 for Greek Cured Ocean Trout for the first time, however I have cured fish before (salmon gravlax). The fish needs to cure for five days before being eaten, so what you see above is the side of ocean trout in its ziploc curing bath. Once cured, the fish will last another couple of weeks. As soon as it is ready, I will taste it and update this post, and the picture. In the meantime, here is the recipe. Hopefully it will be perfect for Christmas!

UPDATE: The ocean trout was really good. Because it cures for longer than other recipes, the fish shrinks quite a bit, so each slice from the fillet is quite small. The taste however is wonderful - and don't be afraid even if you don't like ouzo - it definitely does not have a strong ouzo flavour, just an almost unidentifiable background hint. This recipe was a definite hit with everyone, and was eaten too fast for me to get another photo.

Greek Cured Ocean Trout
Gourmet Traveller Dec 09

100g caster sugar
100g fine sea salt
100ml ouzo
1 small side ocean trout
Baby coriander sprigs to garnish
Condiments as desired

Combine sugar, salt and ouzo in a bowl. Place trout in a ziploc bag, and pour in the curing mixture. Press mixture down to evenly coat fis. Seal, removing as much air as possible, and refrigerate, turning occasionally until lightly cured (5 days.)

Wipe curing liquid from trout, then brush any remains away with a wet pastry brush (don't wet the fish too much). Thinly slice fish, arrange on a platter, scatter with garnish and serve. (I am planning to serve it wih thin sourdough toasts, capers, pickled onions and a garlic aioli).

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas Gravy plus Ten Things That Will Make Christmas Easier

One week and counting until Christmas Day. Whether you are hosting a big festive celebration at home or heading off to a loved one's house for the day, here are some thoughts to make your celebrations a little smoother:

1. Get the drinks organised now - you will have enough to cart home from the supermarket next week. Get the mineral water, soft drinks, wine and champagne so you can cross them off the list. PS Always buy more mineral water than you think you will need because if Christmas Day is stinking hot, you will drink every last drop. Fill up your ice trays as well.

2. Go through the fridge and get rid of anything you don't need or want. Fridge space is more valuable than a city car spot at this time of year.

3. Finalise your menu. Whether you are planning a ham and turkey traditional baked dinner or a "cooler" seafood feast, decide on everything now. Make a list starting with nibblies with drinks, moving through the meal, side dishes, dessert and finishing with chocolates tea and coffee. Last minute menu decisions are more stressful than the queue for a photo with Santa. And by the way, make sure that you can manage what you are planning, from an oven and fridge capacity, as well as from the man hours needed to get the food on the table.

4. Make a master shopping list from your menu, and double check it against what you have in the fridge or pantry. Just because you think that you have enough apricot jam to glaze your ham, it is still worth double checking because you might be wrong and you will find nothing is open on Christmas morning. I speak with authority on this point. Then divide your shopping list in two between perishables and non-perishables (use 2 coloured highlighters). Buy all the non-perishables this weekend, and leave only the perishables for Dec 23 or 24.

5. Get out all the platters and serving dishes you are planning on using, and check what needs washing or polishing. A lot of this servingware won't have been touched since January, and may be a bit dusty, so get this tedious job out of the way this weekend.

6. Ditto for all the napery you will be using: cloths, napkins, hand towels, may all need a press to look welcoming on Christmas Day.

7. Decorate your table - steal some tinsel and ornaments from the tree for a Christmassy centrepiece.

8. If you are entertaining people who either don't know each other well or don't get along (surely every family lives through this at one time or another), plan your seating. You do not want people who don't get along rubbing elbows at the table. Opposite ends of the table works much better

9. Don't forget to put the crackers on the table. More than once I have realised after the Christmas meal that we forgot the crackers. Christmas just isn't Christmas without silly hats and stupid jokes.

10. Make the gravy ahead of time and freeze it. I would never have thought of this, but Jamie Oliver told me to do it, and you know how I like to keep him happy...

Get Ahead Gravy
Jamie Magazine Dec 09

2 celery sticks, roughly chopped
2 large carrots, roughly chopped
2 large onions, roughly chopped
5 fresh sage leaves
5 fresh bay leaves
4 sprigs of fresh rosemary
2 star anise
2 rashers of smoked bacon, diced
8 chicken wings, smashed with a rolling pin to break them up a little
30ml olive oil
4 tbl plain flour
60ml sherry or port

Put the vegetables, herbs, and star anise in a baking dish. Scatter over the bacon and chicken wings. Drizzle with olive oil. Roast at 200C for 1 hour. Remove from the oven, and place over a low heat on the stove. Grind all the ingredients with a potato masher. Gradullay add the flour, continuing to fry. The longer you let this phase go, the darker the gravy will become. When the flour is combined, add 2 litres of water, turn up the heat and boil for ten mins. Then reduce the heat and let it simmer for another 20 mins or so, adding the port or sherry if you are using it. Strain through a sieve, pushing down on everything to extract as much moisture and flavour as possible. Store in containers/bags in the fridge/freezer. On Christmas Day, take gravy out of the freezer when you are putting your turkey in the oven and let it defrost as the turkey cooks. Warm up in a pot, tip in any pan juices from the turkey (drain fat first), and serve.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Speculaas for Christmas

Inspired by Melinda from Melbourne Larder, I decided to whip up a batch of these speculaas during the week. I had never heard of speculaas until they were featured in this month's Gourmet Traveller, but the description grabbed my attention: baking speculaas "will make your kitchen smell like the inside of a gingerbread house." Who could resist that?

I have always been completely taken by gingerbread houses, from Hansel and Gretel onwards. When I was little my mother made a beautiful gingerbread house once at Christmas time. I think she used a recipe in "The Cooking of Germany", part of a Time Life series, which featured an amazing gingerbread house on its cover. I remember Mum's gingerbread house sitting proudly on the dining room table, tiled with lollies, so picture-perfect that I was completely dazzled by it. It was in the dining room to keep it away from little hands, but I kept sneaking in to look at it. Sadly the Sydney humidity ensured that within a day or so of completion, it had collapsed in on itself, and we wound up picking the lollies out of the gingerbread rubble. Poor Mum. (Note to self, if I ever attempt a gingerbread house, make sure to use a local recipe, not one that presumes European winter conditions.)

So, on to the speculaas and my attempt to make my kitchen smell like a gingerbread house.... This recipe certainly creates a lovely crisp biscuit, with rich spicy gingerbread flavours, and your kitchen really will smell superb while you are making them. The downside is the work involved. Like many Christmas treats, these speculaas are much more a labour of love than a simple batch of biscuits. Firstly there is a spice mix to make. Then a dough which needs resting overnight. Then the dough needs to be rolled out, and returned to the fridge for more resting, and then it is cut with cookie cutters and returned to the fridge for more resting. And only then does it hit the oven and turn your kitchen into a gingerbread house. Incidentally, the final resting is to ensure that your cookies hold the intricate patterns of some speculaas cutters, but I got a bit bored and impatient and reduced it dramatically with no apparent ill-effect. As long as your biscuits aren't too intricately patterned, you cold probably get away with it too. Incidentally, in case you are wondering, my cutters are supposed to look like Christmas ornaments, but I think they wound up looking a little like some sort of medical instrument. You've got to laugh - at least they tasted good.

If you are cooking something from Gourmet Traveller this month and would like to join Melinda and I, on our new We Made It challenge, drop us a line either here or at Melbourne Larder.

Australian Gourmet Traveller December 09
Makes about 30-40 biscuits

500 gm (3 1/3 cups) plain flour, sieved
2 tsp baking powder
220 gm butter, softened
250 gm dark brown sugar
2 tbsp milk

Speculaas spice
8 green cardamom pods
8 cloves
5 star anise
1 tsp white peppercorns
1 piece of mace
2 tbsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp ground ginger
½ tsp finely grated nutmeg

For speculaas spice, finely grind cardamom, cloves, star anise, peppercorns and mace in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle. Transfer to a large bowl, add cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg, stir, add to flour and baking powder, and set aside.

Beat butter, sugar and a pinch of salt in an electric mixer until creamy (3-4 minutes). Add milk, beat to combine, then add flour mixture and mix until just combined. Form mixture into a dough with your hands on a work surface (add extra milk if mixture is too dry), shape into a disc and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate to rest (8 hours-overnight).

Preheat oven to 170C. Roll pastry on a lightly floured surface to 5mm thick, then refrigerate until firm (30 minutes). Cut into desired shapes (see note) and place on trays lined with baking paper. Re-roll scraps and repeat. Chill until firm (20 minutes), then bake in batches until light brown and crisp (10-12 minutes). Cool for 5 minutes on trays, then transfer to wire racks and cool completely. Speculaas will keep, stored in an airtight container, for 1 week.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Chilli Mud Crab for a Date Night

This week a very unexpected thing happened - both children were suddenly invited away to the country with friends. For two nights. As far as I can remember, which admittedly isn't that far, this is only the second or third time we have had both girls away simultaneously for more than a night, in more than a decade. Yes, we have been away without the kids, and yes one or both of them have regular sleepovers at friends' houses, but both away together for 48 hours is different. Especially because Darling Husband and I are still at home, which makes it much more noticeable - the rhythm of the house changes completely. For me it has been liberating, but a little strange. It also focuses the mind a bit on how life soon will be as the children emerge into the wide world, and Mum and Dad are left behind.

Right now, I feel we are drawing to the close of a lovely period, where the children are old enough to be reasonable, interesting and articulate, but not yet old enough to be revolting, vile teenagers. And I know it is coming - if I was a vile teenager, why would I imagine that they won't be? Both daughters are probably already practicing the teenager-y rolling of the eyes in front of the mirror. The angst and door slamming must be coming soon too. Already, they point out to me how embarrassing I am (I make sure that I only take glee in this; in fact I tell them that I live to humiliate them - in a good way of course). But the little girls in them are still clearly there too; the one who crawls into your lap and sobs because life didn't go the way she wanted it today; or the one who still looks for reassurance and validation as she starts to make her own decisions. Every time one of them snuggles into me like a little child, the thought crosses my mind, that maybe this is the last time they will cuddle up to me like that. I know that we will still hug or hold each other, but it makes me sad to think the nuzzling will soon go. Such a bittersweet time.....

But, let's not pretend that the children being out of the house for just a couple of days is even a little bit sad. Darling Husband and I got two date nights, one night at home featuring chilli crab, some good conversation and a little TV, the other out at a show and then on to an alfresco dinner on a gorgeous balmy night. Plus some of the Xmas shopping was knocked over, leaving me feeling a little calmer about the fortnight ahead. Yes, I do know how lucky I am.

For our date night dinner, I picked this chilli crab both because it looked good, and because I am still trying to cook as much as possible from this month's Gourmet Traveller. Melinda from Melbourne Larder and I have started a very low-key cooking challenge, trying to cook as much as possible from a different food magazine each month. This month's focus for the "We Made It" challenge is Australian Gourmet Traveller, December 2009. The chilli crab was the third thing I have made, and is my favourite so far. The sauce successfully achieved that fantastic Thai balance between hot, sweet, sour and salty - it was incredibly moreish. I did however simplify the recipe a little. I have no desire to bring home live crabs and then boil them just to set them aside and then reheat in the sauce. So I bought pre-cooked crab and got the fish shop to clean the crabs and chop them in four for me - skipping this ickiness made dinner taste even better. As long as you go to a good fish shop, I would recommend you do this. The crab tasted sensational. This recipe is a definite keeper for me - absolutely perfect summer fare. PS This is not a meal to be eaten in front of anyone you want to impress - licking your fingers is not for company.
Incidentally, if you are cooking from Gourmet Traveller this month and you would like to play along, drop a note to either Melinda or me.
Chilli Mud Crab
Australian Gourmet Traveller, December 09
2 live mud crabs (I used cooked)
6 kaffir lime leaves torn
2 red bird's eye chillis, thinly sliced
Juice of 2 limes
1 tbl fish sauce
1 egg. lightly beaten with a fork
Generous handful of coriander and Thai basil, torn
2 shallots, sliced (green onions)
Chilli Jam
60 ml vegetable oil
1 onion finely chopped
5 garlic cloves finely chopped
15g each (3 cm piece) of galangal and ginger, grated
3 long red chillis, thinly sliced
80g palm sugar grated, plus extra to taste
2 tbl fish sauce
1. Place crabs in the freezer to stun them for 30-40 mins. Bring a stockpot to the boil, add crab, cover and cook until cooked through (15-20 mins). Drain, remove top shell from crab, discard gills and coral, quarter crabs, crack claws, set aside. (Or just avoid this bit and get your crabs cooked).
To make chilli jam, heat oil in a wok. Add onion and cook over a medium flame, stirring occasionally, until the onion begins to caramelize (15-20 mins). Add galangal, ginger, garlic and chilli, and saute until chilli is tender (5-10 mins). Process this mixture in a food processor until it turns to paste, then return it to the wok with the fish sauce and the palm sugar. (I added the fish sauce to my food processor as it made it easier to chop the mixture.) Cook until caramelized (a further 5-10 mins).
Add crab, lime leaves, bird's eye chillis and 40 ml water to the chilli jam. Stir until the crab is heated through (5-10 mins). Add lime juice and fish sauce, and check seasoning, adding more juice, sauce or sugar to balance the flavours to your liking. Add egg and stir until egg is cooked and crab is well-coated (2-4 mins). Transfer to a bowl, scatter with herbs and shallots, and serve hot.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Fried Quail With Cucumber and Lettuce Wedges

One of the reasons that I love cooking is that it forces me to employ my senses more than my cognitive ability. In other words, my brain can enjoy the equivalent of a snooze on the couch, while smell or feel or taste take over. I get enormous pleasure from the meditative moments as I watch a pot boil, or hold down the lid on my food processor while it whizzes away (don't ask). But sometimes the food itself distracts me and I find myself doing the mental equivalent of a gym workout.

Which brings me to today. I found myself at my kitchen bench, contemplating very small birds. Birds that could have been cupped in my hand quite easily, and I have small hands. The reason for the birds was dinner, and more specifically, a fast dinner after a busy day from a Gourmet Traveller recipe. I am trying to cook as much as possible from Gourmet Traveller this month because of a new monthly challenge with Melinda from Melbourne Larder. We have called this project "We Made It" and we are planning to try and cook as much as possible from a different food magazine each month. Ideally, we want our food magazine purchases to be put to better use than just contemplating hypothetical dinner parties. Not that I can see the hypothetical dinner parties being cancelled anytime soon.

On scouring this month's Gourmet Traveller for something fast to cook for dinner, I landed on marinated quail in the Gourmet Fast section. I knew immediately that darling husband and kids would love this. While many people would quail (!) at the thought of eating a quail, my people are not those people. My Asian husband and children are used to eating small birds from pigeon onwards, after years of meals at Chinese restaurants. I consider it something to do with the famine mentality that is visible at times behind even the fanciest Chinese cuisine. Yes, I'm looking at you, 1000 year old eggs.

But as I sat there contemplating the small birds, I was wondering whether there was something inherently cruel about eating something so little. I can only put this down to the "pick on someone your own size" school of thought, as most days of the week, I have no problem eating all manner of animals. Which then led me to wondering whether empirically there was something different in quality between the life of a quail, or a cow or a sheep or even a very unlovable shark. Logically, there isn't. Which then led me to contemplating our position at the top of the food chain and the fact that nature can be cruel at almost every turn. Those at the top of the food chain tend to win, but the only ones who worry about it are humans. And as if the cruelty and health arguments for and against vegetarianism aren't enough to wrestle with, now there is an environmental dimension to be considered as well. Promise to let you know when I reach some conclusion.....

Back to the quail. If you are someone who does not quail at quail (sorry, I loved that line so much I had to use it twice), this recipe is a winner. I measured all of my marinade ingredients into the same measuring cup, so by the time I had finished measuring and chopping the sugar had nearly dissolved. The marinade then needed only a minute or two on the stove to be ready for use. Incidentally, I couldn't find 4 jumbo quail, so I used 6 regular quail and cooked them for slightly less time (about 2 mins). After ten minutes, the oil was hot, the salad was made and the quail was ready for the pan. Cooking took another ten minutes by the time I had worked in batches. The result was really good. Daughter came back for seconds and husband came back for thirds. If you are not keen on deep frying, I also tried cooking one of the quail under the griller, and it was good too.

PS Apologies for the photo - light was failing and we were all too hungry for much styling.

Fried Quail With Cucumber and Lettuce Wedges Australian Gourmet Traveller December 2009

Serves 4
4 jumbo quail, butterflied and halved lengthwise (have your butcher do this if the thought of it bothers you)
200 ml light soy sauce
100 ml chicken stock
40g caster sugar
2 pieces of orange rind removed with a peeler
2 cm piece of ginger thinly sliced
1 star anise crushed coarsely
Vegetable oil for deep frying
1/4 iceberg lettuce cut into thin wedges
1/2 cucumber cut into 4cm batons
1 tsp Chinese five spice mixed with chilli flakes (ooops forgot this bit)
Lime wedges and coriander sprigs to serve

Place quail in a single layer in a non-reactive bowl (I used plastic; glass or ceramic are fine too). Combine soy sauce, sugar, stock, orange rind, star anise and ginger, in a small saucepan, and stir over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Cool, pour half over the quail and return the rest to the stove. Cook until it is a nice, syrupy sauce, then strain and set aside.

Meanwhile heat oil to 180C in a high sided frypan or a deep fryer. Combine five spice, chilli and 2 tsp sea salt in a small dish, and set aside. Drain quail, pat dry and deep fry until golden and crisp. Drizzle the sauce over the quail, and serve with lettuce, cucumber, lime wedges, coriander and five spice salt.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Mixed Tomato Salad: We Made It

December is upon us. I have neglected my blog even more than my garden for the last couple of weeks, so apologies to any regular readers who thought I had fallen down the proverbial plug hole. Some low level renovations made me briefly computer-less, followed by the usual ups and downs of a household at this time of year, but I am planning to more than make up for lost time this month, so brace yourselves.

A few months ago, I saw a post from Melinda at Melbourne Larder about making good use of food magazines. In one month, she had made more than 10 recipes from a recent Gourmet Traveller. I was impressed because - brace yourselves - my name is Suzie and I am a food porn addict. I don't just enjoy them; I mainline food magazines. As well as filed and orderly collections of magazines I am keeping, there are piles of unsorted magazines hidden in various corners around the house. I have an enormous box of unsorted clippings from magazines that have been sent off to recycling, plus three largish scrapbooks of sorted recipes. Whenever I find myself out and about with some time to kill before collecting the kids, going to an appointment, or meeting a friend, I tend to dive into a newsagency and collect another hit. Which all wouldn't be nearly as wicked if I actually used them a bit more instead of just conjuring up hypothetical meals in my head.

So I dropped a note to Melinda suggesting some sort of monthly challenge, and after an exchange of emails, we have decided to play. Our plan is to pick a different magazine each month, try and cook and review and post as much as possible from it in the month. If anyone else decides to join in, they are more than welcome, just drop a comment in to either Melinda or me. No more rules or pressure than that. This month's choice is Australian Gourmet Traveller, December 2009. And tentatively, this project of ours is called "We Made It". Which, incidentally, is how I feel by the time I get to December.

So first recipe off the rank was a mixed tomato salad with sumac, herbs and flatbread. At this time of year, the available varieties of tomatoes spin out from the usual choices of Italian, vine-ripened or bog standard to a gorgeous palette of shapes and sizes and colours. And the recipe is not prescriptive as to what varieties you pick - take a look at what is available and what will look pretty in a bowl and work from there. Tomato salads are a great addition to any buffet or plate because of the shot of colour they give. They also last longer than your standard leaf salad - I enjoyed the remainders yesterday of a salad prepared the night before - so make sure you don't bin the leftovers. The tomato holds its shape and texture well, and if anything the flavour is enhanced. Incidentally, I prefer to blacken the capsicum skins under the griller than mess around with open flames - no need for yet another cooking scar on my hands!

If you would like to join in the fun of cooking from Gourmet Traveller this month, leave me a comment, and make sure you go and visit Melinda at Melbourne Larder and see what amazing things she is whipping up too.

Mixed tomato salad with sumac and herbs

Australian Gourmet Traveller December 2009
Serves 6

3 red capsicum
1.2 kg assorted tomatoes, such as vine-ripened, green, ox heart, grape, cherry, kumato
80 ml (1/3 cup) extra-virgin olive oil
3 golden shallots, thinly sliced
1 lemon, juice only
2 tsp sumac
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 bunch each coriander, parsley and mint, leaves torn
To serve:
grilled flatbread and crumbled feta (optional)

Grill capsicum over a low open flame until blackened, turning occasionally (20-30 minutes). Transfer to a heatproof bowl, cover with plastic wrap and stand until cooled (1 hour), then peel, coarsely chop and set aside.

Cut large tomatoes into wedges, halve smaller ones and combine in a bowl. Add olive oil, shallot, lemon juice, sumac and garlic, season to taste and toss to combine. Stir through capsicum and herbs and serve with grilled flatbread to the side and crumbled feta, if desired.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Cappucino Biscuits

On the list of my sins ( far too exhaustive to contemplate listing or even contemplating), both caffeine and chocolate are prominent. For a long time, caffeine kept me moving through the day. Through the infancy of a daughter who wouldn't sleep, through crisis management (an airline collapse, terrorism and anthrax attacks spring to mind), and midnight conference calls, there was always a coffee nearby. Additionally any private management meeting, in my world of open plan offices, also happened "over coffee", which meant downstairs at the coffee shop. Things got so out of control that caffeine stopped it's positive effect on me and started giving me heart palpitations. Yikes. I was forced to severely reduce my intake. Periodically I fall back into bad habits, and find myself having to cut back again. I have never indulged in chocolate as wantonly as I drank coffee - just a little nibble here and there, with a mouthful of bitter dark chocolate usually sufficient to quash any craving. But the chocolate and coffee combination? I adore it. Cappucino? Yes please.

These tiny cookies bring all that is good about chocolate and coffee into one little biscuit. And they are really a little treat. The dough is rolled out into sausages that are about 3cm in diameter before being chilled and sliced and then baked. They wind up the perfect size to sit on the saucer next to your coffee - a tiny unit of energy to nibble while you read the paper or take that conference call or manage that crisis or do whatever. The recipe comes from a wonderful old cookbook of mine by Barbara Tropp: "The China Moon Cookbook". If you ever see this cookbook, even if you don't like Asian food, grab it for the cookie recipes.

Cappuccino coins
from "the China Moon Cookbook" by Barbara Tropp

makes 10 dozen cookies
125g cold unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces
¼ cup packed dark brown sugar
¼ cup granulated sugar
1 extra-large egg
1 cup plus 2 Tbs. all-purpose flour
1 ½ tsp. instant coffee powder or granules
1 ½ tsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
½ tsp. cinnamon
¼ tsp. fine sea salt
½ cup finely chopped semisweet chocolate

In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream butter and both sugars on medium speed until smooth, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the egg and mix until smooth. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Add the flour, instant coffee, cocoa, cinnamon, salt, and chocolate bits; mix thoroughly for 2 to 3 minutes.

Gather the dough together and turn onto a lightly floured board. Using lightly floured hands, roll the dough into 2 or 3 even 3cm-thick logs. Wrap the logs separately in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 1 hour. Preheat the oven to 175C. Move an over rack to the middle position. Line large baking sheets with parchment paper.

Slice the logs into 1/2 cm thick coins, and place them ½ inch apart on the prepared baking sheets. One sheet at a time, bake until the cookies are lightly golden and are firm enough at the edges to slide off the parchment without sticking, 15 to 17 minutes. Cool on the baking sheets set on wire racks.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Pumpkin Time Part 2 - Perfect Pumpkin Salad

Having roasted my pumpkin yesterday, I was planning to make this salad last night but we decided to head out for dinner instead. So today I got to enjoy my salad, with all the components made ahead, meaning no work apart from the tossing. This made it such a thoroughly enjoyable Saturday lunch I am going to start trying to have a salad planned and ready to go every week. Our Saturday mornings are usually pretty frantic, racing from one end of the city to the other according to the season and the sport the kids are playing. It was so nice at the end of that racing around, to sit down to something lovely, instead of the usual scramble to find something for lunch.

This Nigella recipe is from a compendium of chefs' recipes, and fits perfectly into the I heart Cooking Clubs theme this week of an autumn meal by Nigella. As it is Spring here, I can vouch for the fact that the salad worked just as well on a warmish Spring Saturday as it would on an autumn day. Nigella says she drew her inspiration for this salad from her very popular summer salad of feta and watermelon, replacing the sweetness of watermelon with te sweetness of pumpkin.
Roast Pumpkin, Radicchio and Feta Salad
from Nigella Lawson in "Off Duty: The World's Greatest Chefs Cook At Home"
900g peeled and deseeded pumpkin
1 tbl vegetable oil
1/2 red onion cut into fine half moons
juice of 1-2 limes (60 ml)
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts
250g feta cheese, crumbled or cut into bite-sized pieces
1 radicchio headcut into bite-sized pieces
2 tbl oil
Cut the pumpkin into 6cm pieces and put them in a roasting tin with the vegtable oil. Roast at 200C for about 45 mins, until tender but not mushy. Allow to cool (this step can be done up to one day ahead). Steep the onion in the lime juice for 15 mins or longer (mine wound up steeping overnight and it was fine).
Put he pumpkin in a bowl with the feta and onions, radicchio and half the pine nuts. Gently mix it all (Nigella suggests using your hands for this). Mix the oil in the bowl the onions were steeping in, then dress the salad with this mixture. Sprinkle remaining pine nuts over the top.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Pumpkin Time Part 1 - Caramelized

"There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin ― Linus Van Pelt in "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown"
This quote landed in my in-box the same day I saw that roasted pumpkin* was one of the bonus recipes for this week, and it has been going round and round in my head for a week now. It has also brought back lots of Snoopy and Charlie Brown memories - surely we are well-overdue on a Snoopy revival? I used to love all the Peanuts characters but especially Snoopy (I had a stuffed Snoopy) and Lucy, who tried so hard to make Linus love her. I was prompted to do a bit of googling down memory lane. Here are a couple of gems I found on the net this morning:

Lucy: You think being average is enough, don't you? Well it isn't! What shape would the world be in today if everyone settled for being average?
Linus: What shape is the world in today?


Lucy: This is our last game of the season. Let's win it!
Charlie Brown: Okay. Get out there and play your best.
Lucy: You always have to say something sarcastic, don't you?

So onto pumpkin. I don't get enough pumpkin, because I have sadly found myself to be living in a pumpkin unfriendly family. Largely thanks to my otherwise reasonable husband, the rest of the family treats its appearance at dinner as if it was the ebola virus, capable of contaminating everything else on the table. So I was thrilled to make it this week, and cunningly chose a night that darling husband would be MIA to serve it. Clever. I can now report that if you are trying to introduce unwilling / uninterested daughters to pumpkin, this recipe is a cracker. It gives the pumpkin a meltingly soft texture, and brings out its sweetness, which is surely a kid eatability criteria. Both conceded that it was pretty good. Husband's response? "Good luck to you all." Clearly I still have some work to do on that front.
PS: If you come back tomorrow, I'll show you how the leftovers work in a Nigella Autumn salad.

(NB to US readers, what you can butternut squash, we call butternut pumpkin)

Caramelized Butternut Squash
from The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook by Ina Garten

2 medium butternut squash (abt 2 kgs total)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 200C. Cut off and discard the ends of each butternut pumpkin. Peel the pumpkin, cut them in half lengthwise, and remove the seeds. Cut into 4cm to 5cm cubes and place them on a baking sheet. Add the melted butter, brown sugar, salt, and pepper. With clean hands, toss all the ingredients together and spread in a single layer on the baking sheet. Roast for 45 to 55 minutes, until the pumpkin is tender and the glaze begins to caramelize. While roasting, turn the pumpkin a few times with a spatula, to be sure it browns evenly. Taste for seasonings and serve hot.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Barefoot Chicken Chili

In which the author displays her astounding lack of knowledge of a very popular food that every child raised on Brady Bunch and Partridge family re-runs really should know.

"Chicken Chili" made its way onto the Barefoot Bonus list this week, much to my delight. I have been wanting to taste chili for a very very long time, but somehow never did. For those of us born and living outside the US, chili is one of those dishes that you hear about and see in movies or on TV but never really stumble across. I know that Superbowl Sunday would not be complete without it (or is that the World Series?). I know that you can have it on a hot dog. I bet Harry made some for Sally. I'm sure all the Desperate Housewives have their own recipes. And surely Alice made a pot for the Bradys on their 3-ep Grand Canyon camping trip. But I have never tried it. I can't even remember seeing it on a restaurant menu in various trips to the US, although maybe I wasn't paying attention....

So yesterday, I began chopping onions and capsicums and garlic and tomatoes, for a slowish stove-top simmer before throwing in some oven-roasted chicken. The resulting stew was spicy, and packed with flavour. I really liked it, and would not hesitate to serve some up to friends for a casual meal. With some corn chips and sour cream on the side, it's perfect. Come to think of it, it is great "day after the night before" type food. However the kids were a little more luke-warm about it. Maybe it was too spicy for them, or maybe Hannah Montana doesn't eat chili, so they don't have the right TV references. As for my husband, who has slightly more chili experience than me, since he has eaten exactly one or two chili dogs, he wanted to know "Where's the meat? Where's the beans?". Blank looks from me, which prompted me into a quick bit of Wiki-research:

Did you know:
- Chili is the official dish of Texas (we don't have an official dish here, although someone is trying to sell Coat of Arms potato chips at the moment - flavoured with kangaroo and emu, would you believe?)
- Unnamed chili purists say "if you know beans about chili, you know chili ain't got beans" (guess who will be sharing that witticism tonight?)
- Secret chili ingredients can include peanut butter, bananas, pineapple, and cola. Not in this house.
adapted from "Barefoot Contessa Parties" by Ina Garten
4 cups chopped yellow onions (3 onions)
1/8 cup good olive oil, plus extra for chicken
2 cloves minced garlic
2 red capsicums, cored, seeded, and large-diced
2 yellow capsicums, cored, seeded, and large-diced
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon dried chili flakes, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
2 800g cans whole peeled plum tomatoes in puree, undrained
1/4 cup minced fresh basil leaves
4 split chicken breasts, bone in, skin on (I used 4 marylands instead)
Chopped onions, corn chips, grated cheddar, sour cream

Cook the onions in the oil over medium-low heat for 10 to 15 minutes, until translucent. Add the garlic and cook for 1 more minute. Add the capsicum, chili powder, cumin, chili flakes, cayenne, and salt. Cook for 1 minute. Crush the tomatoes by hand or in batches in a food processor fitted with a steel blade (pulse 6 to 8 times). Add to the pot with the basil. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Rub the chicken breasts with olive oil and place them on a baking sheet. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Roast the chicken for 35 to 40 minutes, until just cooked. Let cool slightly. Separate the meat from the bones and skin and cut it into 3/4-inch chunks. Add to the chili and simmer, uncovered, for another 20 minutes. Serve with the toppings, or refrigerate and reheat gently before serving.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Potato and Leek Soup, plus Really Good French Beans

This week is a super-dooper bonus week for the Barefoot Bloggers with a five recipe challenge, all to be posted before the weekend. All except one recipe were things I wanted to try, so I will be making up for the comparative abscence of recent posts with an excess this week. Famine to feast, to say the least.

We are kicking off with the Roasted Potato and Leek Soup. I whipped this up last week when the weather turned a little cold, and a soup seemed to be comforting and restorative. I love potato and leek as a combination and I really love vichyssoise, so I was ready to be blown away by this soup, but unfortunately I wasn't. In truth, it was probably my own fault: the recipe called for 3/4 cup of cream plus 250g of creme fraiche, which is a lot of calories, especially for a mid-week dinner. So I subbed in 250g of plain yoghurt in place of the creme fraiche, and left out the cream altogether. The resulting soup was OK but was certainly not the creamy indulgent fabulousness that some of the other bloggers enjoyed. Next time I will stick with my vichyssoise.

But then came a recipe that I did really love: French String Beans. I always try to include at least one green vegetable with dinner every night, mostly just steamed. This is undeniably fabulously healthy, but it is also a little (OK a lot) dull, and most nights I find myself harrassing the kids to finish their greens. So, a new tastier way with beans is very welcome. This recipe calls for chopping up capsicum and spanish onion into big chunks, then roasting them on high for 15 mins. Meanwhile you top, tail and blanch your beans. Toss both lots of vegetables together and voila, a really good bean dish, which happens to be three vegies now instead of one. Usually, my family isn't mad about capsicum, but they are happy to eat it roasted, because the flavour is mellower and sweeter, just like the onion. This can be served hot or at room temperature, so it also works for the warmer weather ahead. Perfect!
You can find both recipes below. Click here if you want to see what the other Barefoot Bloggers thought or if you are interested in launching yourself into fortnightly indulgences thanks to Ina Garten.

Roasted Potato and Leek Soup
from "Back to Basics" by Ina Garten

1kg bintje potatoes, peeled and cut into 2cm chunks
4 cups chopped leeks, white and light green parts, cleaned of all sand (4 leeks)
1/4 cup good olive oil
3 cups baby rocket, lightly packed
1/2 cup dry white wine, plus extra for serving
6 to 7 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
3/4 cup pouring cream
250g creme fraiche
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan, plus extra for garnish

Preheat the oven to 200C. Combine the potatoes and leeks on a sheet pan in a single layer. Add the olive oil, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper and toss to coat the vegetables evenly. Roast for 40 to 45 minutes, turning them with a spatula a few times during cooking, until very tender. Add the rocket and toss to combine. Roast for 4 to 5 more minutes, until the rocket is wilted.

Remove the pan from the oven and place over 2 burners. Stir in the wine and 1 cup of the chicken stock and cook over low heat, scraping up any crispy roasted bits sticking to the pan. In batches, transfer the roasted vegetables to a food processor fitted with the steel blade, adding the pan liquid and about 5 cups of the chicken stock to make a puree. Pour the puree into a large pot or Dutch oven. Continue to puree the vegetables in batches until they're all done and combined in the large pot. Add enough of the remaining 1 to 2 cups of stock to make a thick soup. Add the cream, creme fraiche, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper and check the seasonings. When ready to serve, reheat the soup gently and whisk in 2 tablespoons white wine and 1/4 cup of Parmesan. Serve hot with an extra grating of Parmesan.
French String Beans
from Barefoot in Paris by Ina Garten

500g French string beans, both ends removed
1 red onion, large- diced
1/2 red capsicum, large diced
1/2 yellow capsicum, large diced
Good olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 210C. Blanch the string beans in a large pot of boiling salted water for just 4 minutes. Drain immediately and immerse in a large bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. When they are cool, drain and set aside.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl toss the onion and capsicumtogether with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Place in a single layer on a baking sheet and roast for about 15 minutes, tossing with a spatula from time to time to be sure the vegetables roast evenly.

Just before serving, reheat the string beans in a large saute pan drizzled with a little olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and arrange on a platter. Spoon the roasted vegetables over the string beans and serve hot or at room temperature.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Haunted House Cake for Halloween

I have been trying to declutter at least some of the excess magazines lying around the house. If anyone has a good idea on how to do this, I need your help. My current plan is grabbing a pile of mags, merrily ripping out all the recipes I am interested in and then popping them all in a great big box, which even I can see will need to be decluttered sooner rather than later. It is also clear to anyone walking into this house that I have more recipes than I will ever cook in my lifetime (even accounting for the fact that I am planning to live past 100) . So why do it?

The simple answer is that you come across treasures like this. A few weeks ago, I was attacking the Halloween issue of Martha Stewart from last year, and saw the most incredible Haunted House Cake. The younger darling daughter agreed with my ill-researched suggestion that I should make this cake for Halloween. When we were invited to join friends for a Halloween BBQ, I immediately volunteered making the afore-mentioned cake as my contribution to the festivities. All was well until Wednesday when I read the recipe for the first time. This was a serious cake. A three batches of Devil's Food Cake type of cake. And each batch big enough to fill my enormous stand mixer. And don't get me started on the icing - the recipe called for 12 cups of icing, made with 10 egg whites, 3/4 kg of chocolate and 4 blocks of butter. Oh my. And then a giant biscuit in the shape of a haunted house with toffee windows, and a pumpkin seed roof, to set it all off. Oh my again.

There was only one thing to do. Pin back my hair and go for it. I spread the cake-making out over a couple of days to make the process a little more fun. Day One was making the cakes and the icing. Each batch supposedly made one 9 inch and one 11 inch layer for the cake. I found that I had enough leftover batter from each batch to also make some chocolate cupcakes. Martha's concept was three 9 inch layers piled on three 11 inch layers. Which would be fine if you were feeding Andre the giant, but this was already an enormous cake with only two layers, so I cut myself a break and left out the third layer. The Icing was amazing, made by cooking the egg whites with the sugar before beating them hard - the first icing I have ever made that tastes like it could come from the cake shop up the road, and I mean that in a good way. Martha helpfully advises that leftover icing can be frozen, so I now have a box of it sitting in my freezer waiting for some other chcocolate cake to emerge from my oven.

Day Two I made the giant cookies for the Halloween house, as well as the tree and the spooky man and the pumpkins. Martha's original concept was for cookie grave stones to be scattered around the cake, but I knew that my superstitious husband would have a fit if he found me making a graveyard cake, so pumpkins it was. Once the cookies were cooked, it was time to make toffee for the doors and windows. At this stage I felt like I was doing the pressure test for a masterchef challenge. How many processes can one cake require? And once that was done, it was time to melt some chocolate and roof the house, before applying liquorice details to the windows and roof.

Finally on Halloween, all that was required was assembling it all, with nougat stairs, shaved chocolate to look like the ground and the assemblage of cookies. Unfortunately I overbaked the tree, so by the time it was put on top of the cake, it looked like one of those African baobab trees with nearly no branches. Problem number two was Sydney's humidity, which was not superhigh on Saturday, but was high enough to make the biscuits go soggy and eventually my house collapsed in the middle! Happily, not before its beauty was captured on film and all the kids had had a chance to enjoy the sight of it before it was demolished. You can find all of the recipes at the links above - they are a little long to reproduce here. The stand-out for me was the icing, which I will definitely make again (although not in such excessive quantities!). I really loved making this cake, and will probably make it again the year after next (next year might be too soon). I liked using a giant cookie as decoration because of the flexibility it gives you: giant Xmas trees or love hearts or animals or anything at all. Just not in the summer humidity.

And guess what I did with the leftover cupcakes? Upended them under some white fondant icing to make little ghosts. I think I had more fun at Halloween than the kids.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Blue Cheese Souffle

This week's Barefoot Challenge was a Blue Cheese Souffle, selected by Summer from (Sexy) Apartment. While souffle is a word that strikes fear into the hearts of many cooks, this was actually a pretty easy recipe. You start with a roux, beat in some egg yolks, blue cheese and parmesan, and finally fold the mixture into some stiff egg whites. The mixture is then tipped into a souffle dish and with a few hurried prayers, despatched to the oven for half an hour. And then, your souffle is (hopefully) risen and frothy and lovely.

How strong or mild the flavour of the souffle depends on the blue you use. I picked a King Island blue that was mid-range in intensity, and that suited us just fine. A few tips if you are tempted to give this a whirl: make sure you have your oven on the conventional oven setting not fan forced, as souffles don't like any air blowing around them. Do not open the oven door and peek at the blossoming loveliness of the souffle for fear of a collapse. Serve this immediately as it will slowly sink, and you will lose some of the airiness. However, curiously, I discovered that the leftovers are actually pretty good the next day. Certainly it tastes more like quiche at this point, but was still yummy with a rocket salad for lunch. I will definitely make this again for a light supper or lunch - maybe one day I will convince the kids to have a taste as well. Sadly at the moment they think that blue cheese is the work of the devil.
Blue Cheese Souffle
from "Barefoot in Paris" by Ina Garten

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing the dish (NB US tablespoons as used in this recipe are 15ml, not the Aus standard 20 ml)
1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan, plus extra for sprinkling
3 tablespoons plain flour
1 cup scalded milk
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pinch cayenne pepper
Pinch nutmeg
4 extra-large egg yolks, at room temperature
3 ounces good Roquefort cheese, chopped
5 extra-large egg whites, at room temperature
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
Preheat the oven to 200C. Butter the inside of an 8-cup souffle dish (7 1/2 inches in diameter and 3 1/4 inches deep) and sprinkle evenly with Parmesan.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. With a wooden spoon, stir in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Off the heat, whisk in the hot milk, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, the cayenne, and nutmeg. Cook over low heat, whisking constantly, for 1 minute, until smooth and thick. Off the heat, while still hot, whisk in the egg yolks, one at a time. Stir in the Roquefort and the 1/4 cup of Parmesan and transfer to a large mixing bowl.
Put the egg whites, cream of tartar, and a pinch of salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat on low speed for 1 minute, on medium speed for 1 minute, then finally on high speed until they form firm, glossy peaks. Whisk 1/4 of the egg whites into the cheese sauce to lighten and then fold in the rest. Pour into the souffle dish, then smooth the top. Draw a large circle on top with the spatula to help the souffle rise evenly, and place in the middle of the oven. Turn the temperature down to 375 degrees F. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes (don't peek!) until puffed and brown. Serve immediately.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Fish and Porcini Pie

This afternoon I am playing catch-up, posting something that I actually made a few weeks ago: Fish and Porcini Pie. As long-time readers would know, this is not the first fish pie that I have posted, and I have cooked a lot more in between that I haven't posted. However according to darling husband, this is the best fish pie recipe I have tried out. Now, I really love most fish pies for their incredibly soft and comforting flavours and textures - it is truly the nanna rug in my dinner repertoire (that metaphor doesn't really work but I'm sure you get what I mean). Nigella herself says that even an imperfect fish pie is a delicious one. I just wish it looked prettier. Fish pie tends to be a bit of a melange of beige, and is nearly impossible to photograph and make look appealing. Or it is for me with my very limited styling and photography skills.

On that basis, this is not something that I would ever cook for company, but for a family meal, it is terrific. The porcini makes it slightly more elegant than usual, and I like having a mix of fish. This dish is incredibly easy to eat - you could manage it all with a spoon if you were that way inclined, and for that reason, I gave a second fish pie to a girlfriend with a broken arm. Both her family and my family devoured it, so even you fish pie-doubters out there should give this a try.

This was meant to be for the family favourites week at I Heart Cooking Club but I missed the deadline, so am now sending it to them for their pot luck round-up. You would be very lucky if this turned up at a pot luck dinner!

Fish and Porcini Pie
from "How To Eat" by Nigella Lawson

10g dried porcini
300ml fish stock (buy it from good delis or fish shops)
175g skinned cod (I used Blue Eye)
175g skinned smoked haddock (couldn't get this so I upped the amounts of the other fish)
175g skinned salmon
250ml milk
3 bay leaves
60g butter
60g plain flour
1.25kg mashing potatoes
Extra milk and butter for mashing

Cover the porcini with boiling water and leave for 20 mins. Remove the mushrooms and strain the soaking liquid into the stock. Butter your pie dish. Put the fish in a single layer in a wide deep pan and cover with milk, the stock and the bay leaves. Bring to a simmer then poach the fish for about three mins. Remove the fish to the pie dish and break into chunks. Sieve the cooking liquid into a jug.

Finely chop the mushrooms. Melt butter in a frying pan and fry the mushrooms gently for 2 mins. Stir in the flour and continue frying for another 2 mins. Remove from heat and slowly add the poaching liquid stirring as you go. If the mixture is not already thick, put back on the heat and stir gently until thickened. Pour over the fish.

Boil and mash the potatoes. Preheat oven to 180C. Spread the mash on top of the fish mixture, bake for 20-40 mins, depending on how hot everything was when it went into the oven.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Chocolateiest Chocolate Chip Cookie Ever

Today was the first day back at school for the last term of the year. Term 4, for those of you without kids, is like the sprint at the end of the marathon. Calendars are already filling up with concerts and performances and carols and a million other commitments ... Not surprisingly, everyone gets tired of it all very quickly and starts to get itchy for that fantastic stretch of holidays in December and January, which always arrives before any of us are ready for it.
But since today was the first day, and I wanted to start the term well (perhaps more accurately on a chocolate and sugar high), I spoilt the kids with a very yummy treat in their lunchbox - a Totally Chocolate Chocolate Chip Cookie. This biscuit is easily the most indulgent I have ever made. Rich and gooey with a slightly salty taste, that just makes the chocolate sing more. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmm. The recipe, from Nigella Express is meant to only make 12 biscuits. I got 16 out of the mixture and each one was the size of my palm or possibly a little larger. So don't feel you need to follow Nigella's directions for 12. They freeze well, either as dough or baked so you can get temptation away from you.
I am sending this over to The I Heart Cooking Clubs midnight sneaks theme. They wanted recipes so good that they would pull you out of bed and back to the kitchen for one more morsel. This is definitely one of those - somehow they have been disappearing nibble by nibble out of the cookie jar.

Totally Chocolate Chocolate Chip Cookies
Nigella Express by Nigella Lawson

120g semisweet chocolate
1 cup flour
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa, sifted
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
125g soft butter
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 egg, cold from the fridge
2 cups semisweet chocolate morsels or dark chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 160C. Melt the chocolate gently in a heat proof bowl over simmering water. remove from heat and allow to cool. Measure the flour, cocoa, baking soda, and salt into a bowl. Cream the butter and two sugars in another bowl. Add the melted chocolate and mix together. Beat in the vanilla extract and cold egg, and then mix in the dry ingredients. Finally stir in the chocolate chips. Scoot out 1/4 cup-sized mounds - an ice cream scoop and a palette knife are the best tools for the job - and place on a lined baking sheet about 2-1/2 inches apart. Do not flatten them. Leave to cool on the bakign sheet for 4-5 minutes, then transfer them to a cooling rack to harden as they cool. Makes 12 big cookies (or 16 big cookies for me).

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Chicken Pho and Malteser Wantons!

I I was very happy when I saw this month's Daring Cooks' challenge was Pho, the traditional Vietnamese soup. And not just because, there was no dismembering of squid or cuttlefish required. Firstly the recipe comes from Jaden of Steamy Kitchen fame. Jaden has a blog that never ceases to entertain me: great recipes, beautiful photos and a side-gig as an ambassador for Club Med which involves flying from one glamour location to another. I guess someone has to do it.

I was also happy because this recipe fits in perfectly with the super-healthy eating that I have trying (sometimes sort of) to do since my return from the health retreat. Nothing more than clear soup, rice noodles, some vegies and loads of flavour in direct correlation with the absence of calories. It is also a pretty easy soup to make. You start with a whole chicken that you chop into pieces with a cleaver, exposing bone and marrow. My cleaver skills could do with a little work - getting a nice clean cut through bones is a little trickier than it looks, and my kitchen did look a little like it was being styled for a Texas Chain Saw tribute night. No matter. Parboil the butchered pieces, rinse them off and pop into a pot, with a charred onion and some ginger, and spices. Bring to the boil then let it cook on low for 1 1/2 hours. Serve with the classic additions of lime slices, red onion, bean sprouts, chillies and some of the shredded chicken.
Unfortunately the reviews in my kitchen were a little mixed. The kids thought the soup was lacking in flavour, possibly because they are more used to thick soups with garlic in the base, possibly because they refused to add any of the options apart from some chicken. However both the husband and I enjoyed it, with chilli, some extra fish sauce, the bean sprouts, lime onion plus for me, loads of coriander. The recipe is here on Jaden's blog if you are interested in daring yourself this month.

And now for some fun! Part Two of Jaden's challenge was a wonton dessert (which I kept thinking of as a wanton dessert, since the best desserts are all a little wanton). I decided, after a little experimenting to go with Malteser wontons. For those of you who don't get maltesers in your part of the world, they are honeycomb balls coated in chocolate. Three balls wrapped up very neatly into a wonton wrapper, and these received a big thumbs up from all the family. The crunchy pastry filled with melted chocolate and some more crunch from the honeycomb was a real winner. In fact I'm heading downstairs to make the rest now! These are a keeper.
Malteser Wantons
1 large egg
1 tbsp. water
12 wonton wrappers (keep wrappers covered with damp towel)
36 Maltesers
Oil for frying (i.e., vegetable oil, corn oil)
Icing sugar (icing sugar) for sprinkling

Directions:In a small bowl, whisk together the egg and water to make an egg wash. On a clean, dry surface lay 1 wonton wrapper down with a point toward you, like a diamond. Place 3 Maltesers of chocolate near the bottom end of the wrapper. Brush a very thin layer of the egg wash on the edges of the wrapper. Fold the bottom corner of the wrapper up over the maltesers, then fold in the sides and roll up to make a little parcel. Make sure the wrapper is sealed completely. Repeat with the remaining wrappers and Maltesers. Keep the folded chocolate wontons covered under plastic wrap or a damp paper towel to prevent them from drying. In a wok or medium pot, pour in 2 inches (5 cm.) of high-heat oil. Heat the oil to 350º F (180º C) and gently slide a few of the chocolate wontons into the hot oil. Make sure you don’t crowd the chocolate wontons. Fry the wontons for 1 ½ minutes, then flip over and fry another minute or until both sides are golden brown and crisp. (Mine cooked faster than this).

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Frittata for One

I am old enough to remember when eggs were the bad guys in the cholesterol wars, banished to the "once in a blue moon" category with
double cream and butter. But the pendulum has swung, and a friend has now been prescribed more eggs (if prescribed is what a nutritionist does) to help control his cholesterol. Apparently the good fats in eggs help fight cholesterol, plus they have a whole lot of nutrition and are very filling, so he won't nosh on something naughty mid-morning. So with that blessing in mind, here is a very very very easy frittata recipe from Nigella, that will get your day off to a good start.
Even if you are still half-asleep, you can manage this:
1. Scan fridge for any little bits and pieces of leftovers (vegies, maybe some ham or cheese or smoked salmon) that take your fancy, and grab two eggs.
2. Whisk eggs and chop whatever else you have grabbed finely, before combining them.
3. Tip the eggs into a hot pan, pause for two mins and then tip onto a plate. Too easy.
This was a perfect breakfast this morning with my fillings of choice - a little ham, a little capsicum and a little parmesan. Nigella also suggests using the frittatas as a filling in a sandwich with a smear of mayonnaise - something to do with your leftovers if there are any. Thanks to the ladies at I Heart Cooking Clubs for their theme this week: a Nigella One Pot (or pan) Wonder. I have no doubt that I will make this again and again and again.
From "Nigella Express" by Nigella Lawson
For each frittata:
2 free-range eggs
knob of butter and a drop of oil, for frying
For a cheese frittata
25g/1oz Emmental, grated (or any other cheese of your liking)
For a chilli frittata
1 long red chilli, deseeded and sliced ¼ tsp ground ginger ¼ tsp ground coriander
For a green frittata
20g/¾oz watercress, baby spinach or rocket, finely chopped 1 spring onion, finely sliced
For a ham frittata
50g/2oz ham, chopped
1. Crack the eggs into a bowl, add your choice of flavouring and beat well to combine.
2. Heat the butter and oil in a heavy-based frying pan. Once the pan is hot, pour in the egg mixture, swirling quickly to coat the base of the pan in a thin layer.
3. Cook the frittata for 2-3 minutes over a medium heat, then lift the edge of the frittata with a spatula to check it is set and golden-brown underneath; the top of the frittata should be just set but still a little gooey.
4. To serve, slide the frittata out of the pan onto a plate and fold one half of the frittata over the other. Repeat the process with different flavourings to make more frittatas as needed.