Monday, June 29, 2009

Superfast Honey Lamb Skewers With Almond Couscous

As every parent knows, the early evening is when the most stressful time squeeze of the day occurs. Before I had kids, it didn't really matter if we didn't eat dinner till after 9pm. But once you have kids, there is definite pressure to get the meal on the table by a reasonable hour - whatever that may be - depending on the age and stage of your kids. Somewhere between 6-7pm is regarded as reasonable around here. Not sure why. If you are a working parent, and not getting home till about six, or you have been out at some after school activity, the squeeze is even harder. If you haven't yet worked out what is for dinner, harder still. And don't imagine your only focus is dinner. If your life is at all like mine, you will also find yourself:
- suggesting the children to do their homework
- feeding the dog
- looking for the netball skirt
- putting on a load of washing
- hanging out some drying
- reminding the kids to do their homework
- unloading the dishwasher
- signing permission notes for school
- answering the telephone and trying not to swear at some poor call centre guy in India
- attempting to find the chequebook
- yelling at the kids to do their homework
This recipe is for those nights. Buy some narrow backstraps of lamb (look out for them on special because they can be hellaciously expensive). Cut each strap into 4 or 5 pieces and thread them onto skewers. The kids might even help with the threading if the homework is done. Mix up honey, lemon rind and rosemary (if your kids hate herbs, go lightly on the rosemary or leave it out altogether). Brush the marinade onto the skewers, whack them under the grill, and they are ready in a couple of minutes. Served with couscous that also takes 5 minutes, and whatever vegies you have on hand, and it makes a delightful meal. If you want to be fancy, you can even toss some toasted almonds through the couscous and serve the lamb with some greek yoghurt as a sauce. But probably you just want to sit down.
This recipe comes from the 20 minute section of "Food Fast" by Donna Hay. I especially like Donna Hay in general, and this book in particular for recipes for my most frantic nights. And
I think she is being generous with the 20 mins - if you tried you could get it down to about 15 minutes at the most. (Incidentally, this fed two adults and two kids; if you are big eaters, you may want more lamb).
Honey Lamb Kebabs
from "Food Fast" by Donna Hay
500g lean lamb loin or fillets or backstraps
2 tbl honey
2 tsps grated lemon rind (with a rasp grater, you can do this in less than a minute)
1 tbl rosemary leaves
Black pepper to taste
Cut lamb into cubes and thread onto skewers. Combine honey, lemon, rosemary and pepper. Spread onto kebabs, then grill them for 1-2 mins each side.
1 cup instant couscous
1 cup chicken stock
1 tbl good olive oil
toasted almonds, to serve
Heat stock in a small saucepan to boiling. Tip in the couscous, remove saucepan from heat and cover. Let sit for five minutes. Fluff up couscous by raking with a fork. Stir through olive oil. Mix in almonds and serve.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Strawberry Sponge Kisses for Cook The Books

"Humanity can be roughly divided into three sorts of people - those who find comfort in literature, those who find comfort in personal adornment and those who find comfort in food." Or so declares this month's choice for the Cook the Books club on its first page. "The Little White Horse" by Elizabeth Goudge was a childhood favourite of an earlier generation, and a charming choice for us to read. The story follows many of the conventions of children's fiction including dead parents, odd uncles, wicked strangers, a search and a mystery, thrown together with a menagerie of highly intuitive animals, fairy-like people and the inevitable triumph of good over evil. The book was delightful to read and such a change of speed from the sort of novels that I generally find myself engrossed in.

While reading the book, I contemplated what to cook for this challenge. It had to be something that was very traditional "English" food, in keeping with the book. Sausages were a definite possibility because they kept turning up in the descriptions of breakfast, but after a less than successful attempt at Toad in the Hole, I decided to focus on the climax of the book - afternoon tea. The cook, Marmaduke Scarlet, created a high tea banquet with plum cake, saffron cake, cherry cake, iced fairy cakes, eclairs, gingerbread, meringues, syllabub, and more. I decided, if I were Marmaduke Scarlet, I would make for Maria and Robin something light and dainty as the kiss of Loveday Minette, and serve it with strawberry tea. So here are some strawberry sponge kisses, also called powder puffs, that are soft and sugary and perfectly delicious.

The recipe for these sponge kisses comes from The Cook's Companion by Stephanie Alexander, which seems to have every recipe that you could ever want to find, but did not know where to start. The direction to line your trays with baking paper is important - otherwise removing your cakes from the oven trays will damage them. I also think I didn't get my egg whites stiff enough before adding the sugar. The hardest part of the recipe is allowing them to sit for three hours to soften after they are filled with the cream. I'm sure there will be no complaints if I need to try again to perfect this recipe.....

Strawberry Sponge Kisses
from "The Cook's Companion" by Stephanie Alexander

75g plain flour
75g cornflour
¾ tsp cream of tartar
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
3 eggs, separated
¾ cup castor sugar
stiffly whipped cream
strawberries, sliced
icing sugar

Preheat oven to 210C (if using a fan-forced convection oven, 200C may be better) and line four baking trays with baking paper. Sift dry ingredients, except sugar, three times. In a separate bowl, beat egg whites to soft peaks, then gradually beat in sugar until mixture forms a glossy, stiff meringue. Add yolks one at a time. Sift dry ingredients over mixture, then fold in very gently and thoroughly. Do not stir mixture after this point. It should be firm and when spooned onto trays should not settle or run. Quickly spoon heaped teaspoons of mixture onto prepared trays, well apart to allow for spreading. Cook for 5-7 minutes until sponge-coloured.
Allow cakes to rest on trays for one minute, then, using a spatula, slip them onto a wire rack. When cakes are completely cold, store in pairs in an airtight tin for at least three hours, then fill each pair with a strawberries and whipped cream three hours before serving. They will take about 30 minutes to soften. Dust surface with icing sugar before serving.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Gazpacho - Yes I Know It's Winter

Life is sometimes funny in the Southern Hemisphere. Christmas day is hot. Easter doesn't give us the fresh start of Spring; instead it is rainy autumn weather. And June is not the summer holidays, but the start of winter and it is cold. However, when you belong to a cooking group like Barefoot Bloggers which is predominantly North American, you get to cook along with northern hemisphere seasons and pretend that it is warm when it is actually pretty miserable.

This week's height of summer Barefoot pick is gazpacho, a chilled soup I really love. I have already posted three different versions of Gazpacho on this blog (a Spanish version, a cucumber version and a fancy almond version). I love the balance of flavours between the vegetables, and I love that it feels like I am doing something really good for my health when I eat it. And when I ate it today, I could pretend that spring is nearly here, when actually it is 67 days away (OK I am counting).

Ina's Barefoot version of gazpacho is fairly simple and very tasty. Where other versions use bread to thicken the soup after pureeing vegetables as the base, this gazpacho was made thick by the large volume of chopped vegetables tossed through the tomato juice base. I left out the olive oil altogether, although if you had a really lovely oil, you could garnish the soup with a swirl of it. I also added my own avocado garnish as I love the contrast it brings to the texture of the soup, and the way it balances some of the more pungent flavours. Using the tomato juice makes this soup very quick and convenient. Just the thing for lunch while lolling about at a beach house contemplating an afternoon siesta. I wish.

If you are interested in joining the Barefoot Bloggers, click on the icon in the margin. Thanks to Meryl from My Bit of the Earth for her choice.

Gazpacho from "The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook" by Ina Garten

1 hothouse cucumber, halved and seeded, but not peeled
2 red bell peppers, cored and seeded
4 plum tomatoes
1 red onion
3 garlic cloves, minced
23 ounces tomato juice (3 cups)
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1/4 cup good olive oil
1/2 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

Roughly chop the cucumbers, bell peppers, tomatoes, and red onions into 1-inch cubes. Put each vegetable separately into a food processor fitted with a steel blade and pulse until it is coarsely chopped. Do not overprocess!
After each vegetable is processed, combine them in a large bowl and add the garlic, tomato juice, vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Mix well and chill before serving. The longer gazpacho sits, the more the flavors develop.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Cranberry Orange Scones

Good scones are a very lovely thing indeed. I make them from time to time because I think they are so much nicer than any that you can buy. The commercial scones are always enormous and tough - I'm sure that on a scale running between cake and bread, they come in at something like cement. So homemade it has to be. (And since my favourite scone recipe takes you from start to scone in about half an hour, why not?) I like to serve them as a Devonshire tea with lavished cream and jam - to me, this is one of those things that makes all feel right with the world.
No surprise then that this month's Barefoot Bonus Challenge was a welcome one - cranberry orange scones, from "The Barefoot Contessa at Home" by Ina Garten. I was keen to try these and see how they stacked up against the plain ones. I did play with the recipe below a little. Firstly I halved it. I have discovered that a lot of Ina Garten's recipes make what I would regard as a commercial quantity - so half a batch of these scones was easily enough for a generous morning tea, with leftovers as well. I also left off the icing glaze, as I didn't think I needed to ramp up the sugar any more.
I also played around with the method a little. The dough for scones needs to be treated as lightly (and little as possible) to make them as light and flaky as possible, so I rubbed the butter in by hand. If you have never done this and are thinking that this sounds a very Martha thing to do, don't be too impressed - it is actually very easy. Just cut your butter into little cubes, put it into a big mixing bowl with the flour and dry ingredients and literally rub the butter between your fingers into the flour until the flour looks like bread crumbs. Then gently stir in your lightly beaten eggs and cream. Gather the dough into a ball, knead softly a couple of times then roll out gently to about 2cm thick on a very well floured board. Cut out your scones, re-roll the scraps and cut out some more until the dough is all used up.
The resulting scones were lovely and light. The flavour was great - good enough to eat without the cream and jam in fact! I have no doubt they would appeal to anyone who likes citrus-y baked goods. The traditionalists in my household are demanding a return to plain scones next time, but thanks to Em of The Repressed Pastry Chef for the choice. I loved the change.

Cranberry Orange Scones
from The Barefoot Contessa At Home" by Ina Garten
4 cups plus 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar, plus additional for sprinkling
2 tablespoons baking powder
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon grated orange zest, or more if you like a stronger orange flavour
3/4 pound cold unsalted butter, diced
4 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup pouring cream
1 cup dried cranberries
1 egg beaten with 2 tablespoons water or milk, for egg wash
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar, plus 2 tablespoons
4 teaspoons freshly squeezed orange juice
Preheat the oven to 200C. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, mix 4 cups of flour, 1/4 cup sugar, the baking powder, salt and orange zest. Add the cold butter and mix at the lowest speed until the butter is the size of peas. Combine the eggs and heavy cream and, with the mixer on low speed, slowly pour into the flour and butter mixture. Mix until just blended. The dough will look lumpy! Combine the dried cranberries and 1/4 cup of flour, add to the dough, and mix on low speed until blended.

Dump the dough onto a well-floured surface and knead it into a ball. Flour your hands and a rolling pin and roll the dough 3/4-inch thick. You should see small bits of butter in the dough. Keep moving the dough on the floured board so it doesn't stick. Flour a 3-inch round plain or fluted cutter and cut circles of dough. Place the scones on a baking pan lined with parchment paper. Collect the scraps neatly, roll them out, and cut more circles.
Brush the tops of the scones with egg wash, sprinkle with sugar, and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the tops are browned and the insides are fully baked. The scones will be firm to the touch. Allow the scones to cool for 15 minutes and then whisk together the confectioners' sugar and orange juice, and drizzle over the scones.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Some Irresistible Fundraising Cupcakes

Because she has now reached Year 5, Miss 10 recently had to complete a service learning project at school. This was a very open-ended assignment: pick a charity or community service organisation or issue that you feel is worthy of support and do something for them, agreed to by both parents and teachers. It could be anything from cleaning up litter at a local beach, to spending time reading to the elderly at a nursing home. My daughter and her friend decided to sell cupcakes and lollies at school to raise money for a range of charities. The proverbial icing on the proverbial cake? They wanted to theme their cupcakes according to the charities they were supporting.

Happily I had seen some of Chris' beautiful cupcakes at Mele Cotte, which inspired me to make use of some leftover fondant for the decorations. (If you ever find yourself with leftover fondant, wrap it up so it is airtight, and keep it in a dark place at room temperature, and it will keep for a long time.) The designs were kept simple, so the kids could decorate the cupcakes themselves on top of the buttercream icing. Red fondant made crosses for the Red Cross. White fondant made paw prints for the RSPCA, and the leftover red and white fondant kneaded together made pink ribbons for Breast Cancer. The girls were so proud of their handiwork, and, even better, they sold well at school, raising almost $300 in total from their stall.

The recipes were the basic vanilla and the basic chocolate cupcakes from 500 Cupcakes by Fergal Connelly. If you haven't seen this book, it is charming, with cupcake recipes covering every flavour possibility. Because kids en masse can be a pretty fussy lot, we played it safe and went with the basic vanilla and the basic chocolate cupcake recipes. I never got to try a cupcake, but the kids tell me they were good.

Classic Chocolate Buttercream Cupcakes
from 500 Cupcakes by Fergal Connelly

225g unslated butter, softened
225g caster sugar
225g self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
4 tbls cocoa powder
4 eggs
1 tsp vanilla essence

100g chopped plain chocolate
2 tbsp double cream
50g unsalted butter, softened
100g icing sugar, sieved

Heat oven to 175C. Place 18 cupcake papers into a muffin tin. Combine all ingredients in an electric mixer and beat with the whisk attachment for 2-3 minutes. Spoon the batter into cases. Bake for 20 mins. Cool in the tins for 5 mins then remove to a rack to cool completely. For the icing, combine chocolate cream and butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Stir gently until combined. Remove from heat and add icing sugar, stirring until the icing is smooth. Spread onto cupcakes.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Crusty Cornstalk Bread - A Loaf Worth Giving

There is something about making bread that taps into my emotional core, in ways that are very difficult to accurately capture for you. Part of it is the sense of history I get when kneading - the feeling that millions upon millions of people have stood at a bench and pressed down dough with the heel of their hand, while reflecting on their day. Part of it is the ongoing amazement at the chemistry of making a loaf - the feeling of being an alchmeist playing with simple ingredients to spin some gold. Then there is the yeasty smell of bread rising in a corner of the kitchen, which probably taps some ancient cellular memories inside me of comfort and warmth. It is also a quite "physical activity" in that it requires no particular brain activity, in fact you get to put your brain on hold for a little while. You just need to rely on your senses, especially touch. And then once the loaf is in the oven, I find it difficult to tear myself away from watching as it grows and browns, and once it is out of the oven, I feel incredibly proud, a bit like a clucky new mother insisting that everyone admire the new arrival.

Knowing that I had an "in the kitchen day" a few weeks ago, courtesy of Miss 10's school fair on Monday and the mountain of cupcakes that were to be baked, I decided to tackle another of the loaves in the Gourmet magazine from Feb 09. (Regular readers may remember the Parmesan loaf success earlier in the year). This loaf was denser than the first, but really yummy, and it looked so very handsome that I decided to give it to a beautiful friend when we went for dinner that night.

If you have never made bread, I highly recommend giving it a try. I am not so enthusiastic, or accomplished a baker, that I would ever consider making all my own bread. But, it is actually a very lovely thing to do now and then, and the satisfaction you get is entirely disproportionate to the effort required. The only thing you must have is time, as the steps can't be rushed. Just start the process in the morning, check back in at lunch time and then bake in the afternoon - you will be rewarded with wonderful bread for dinner.

Crusty Cornstalk Rolls

from Gourmet Feb 09

1 1/2 tsp active dry yeast
1 1/4 cups warm water (105-115F)
1 tsp honey
2 1/2 cups plain flour
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup plus 2 tbls cornmeal, divided
A spray bottle filled with water

Stir together the yeast, 1/4 cup warm water and honey in a large bowl and let stand until foamy, about 5 mins. Mix together flour, salt, 1/2 cup cornmeal, and remaining cup of warm water, with the yeast mixture. (I didn't read the recipe properly and added all the water at the beginning to the yeast - it didn't seem to matter).

Turn the dough out onto a well-floured surface and knead until the dough is elastic and smooth - 6-8 mins or so. Put dough in oiled bowl, and turn to coat. Them leave it to rise at warm room temperature (about 1 1/2 - 2 hours) until doubled.

Punch down the dough, then fold it into thirds like a letter, then gently roll into a 12 inch long log. Sprinkle a baking sheet with the remaining 2 tbl cornmeal and put dough diagonally in the center. Alternating sides, make 8-10cm long diagonal cuts with kitchen shears into the roll. Gently pull apart cuts to stretch dough, forming rolls that remain connected to the central stalk ( I will pull mine more next time).

Allow to rise, covered with a kitchen towel (not terry) for about another 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Preheat oven to 425 with rack in the middle. Spray rolls with water, then bake, spraying into oven 3 times in the first 5 minutes of baking. Bake until golden - about 20 minutes.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Double Happiness Chinese Steamed Dumplings

I recently joined a blogging group on the web called The Daring Kitchen. The Daring Kitchen is the new sibling of the Daring Bakers, and they hold a monthly challenge to make something a little harder and more testing than the meals I usually find myself cooking. I was excited to join - I have watched the Daring Bakers making the most amazing cakes and pastries, but did not consider joining because there is a definite limit to the amount of sweets we would ever manage to make or consume in this house. The Daring Kitchen, however, looked exciting to me with its move into the savoury side of cooking.

So I was bracing myself for my first challenge, wondering whether I was about to be completely overwhelmed by what they would ask me to attempt. Instead, I was completely blessed by my first challenge: Chinese Dumplings. While I have never made them before, some of my family is Chinese, we eat Chinese food all the time, and dumplings are a particular favourite with the kids. In other words, I knew that what I made would get eaten, and I knew how it should look and taste. And as for the making itself, I had more fun doing this than you would imagine, but it is definitely something to do as a communal activity - next time I will line up the partner , friends or kids for an hour or two of this. The fillings are relatively simple to pull together, and they can sit in the fridge while the dough is being made. While I used the two suggested fillings, you could really let your imagination go and create anything here, or else just copy one or two of your favourite yum cha dumplings.

The dough was the revelation for me. It consists of only flour and water. No salt, no eggs, nor anything else. I used the food processor method described below, and wound up with a fairly hard lump of dough, which I kneaded then left to rest for 15 minutes. I then sliced it into strips, rolled the strips into sausages, and chopped the sausages into pieces (see pics below). Because it felt hard, I couldn't imagine that it would become pliable enough to fill, but it does. The whole process of rolling, filling and pleating is very satisfying. It made me feel incredibly satisfied - definite double happiness dumplings!

Chinese Dumplings
pork filling:
1 lb (450g) ground pork
4 wombok cabbage leaves, minced
3 stalks green onions, minced
7 shitake mushrooms, minced (if dried - rehydrated and rinsed carefully)
1/2 cup (75g) bamboo shoots, minced
1/4 (55g) cup ginger, minced
3 tbsp (40g) soy sauce
2 tbsp (28g) sesame oil
2 tbsp (16g) corn starch


prawn filling:
225g raw prawns, peeled, deveined, and coarsely chopped
225g ground pork
3 stalks green onions, minced
1/4 cup ginger, minced
1 cup water chestnuts, minced
1 tsp salt
3 tbsp sesame oil
2 tbsp corn starch

dough: (double this for the amount of filling, but easier to make it in 2 batches - or just halve the filling recipe)
2 cups (250g) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (113g) warm water
flour for worksurface

dipping sauce:
2 parts soy sauce
1 part vinegar (red wine or black)
a few drops of sesame oil
chili garlic paste (optional) - I used chopped fresh chilli
minced ginger (optional)
minced garlic (optional)
minced green onion (optional)
sugar (optional)

Combine all filling ingredients in a large mixing bowl and mix thoroughly (I mix by clean hand). Cover and refrigerate until ready to use (up to a day, but preferably within an hour or two).

Make the dough, Method 1: Place the flour in the work bowl of a food processor with the dough blade. Run the processor and pour the warm water in until incorporated. Pour the contents into a sturdy bowl or onto a work surface and knead until uniform and smooth. The dough should be firm and smooth to the touch and not sticky.[Note: it’s better to have a moist dough and have to incorporate more flour than to have a dry and pilling dough and have to incorporate more water).

Make the dough, Method 2 (my mom’s instructions): In a large bowl mix flour with 1/4 cup of water and stir until water is absorbed. Continue adding water one teaspoon at a time and mixing thoroughly until dough pulls away from sides of bowl. We want a firm dough that is barely sticky to the touch.

Recipe note from the Daring Kitchen: Your 2 cups of flour should weigh 250g - some flour sits denser than others, so a cup measurement is not definitive. When you knead the dough, if it feels hard and dry, then you can add more water. [Warning: it will NOT be a soft bread dough, so don't expect it to be, but it shouldn't be a brick either.] It is perfectly fine to use more than the 1/2 cup listed in the recipe as everyone's climate and flours vary.

Both dough methods: Knead the dough about twenty strokes then cover with a damp towel for 15 minutes. Take the dough and form a flattened dome. Cut into strips about 1 1/2 to 2 inches wide. Shape the strips into rounded long cylinders. On a floured surface, cut the strips into 3/4 inch pieces. Press palm down on each piece to form a flat circle (you can shape the corners in with your fingers). With a rolling pin, roll out a circular wrapper from each flat disc. Take care not to roll out too thin or the dumplings will break during cooking - about 1/16th inch. Leave the centers slightly thicker than the edges. Place a tablespoon of filling in the center of each wrapper and fold the dough in half, pleating the edges along one side (see images in post for how to fold pleats). Keep all unused dough under damp cloth.

To boil: Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add dumplings to pot. Boil the dumplings until they float.

To steam: Place dumplings on a single layer of cabbage leaves on a well-greased surface in a steamer basket with lid. Steam covered for about 6 minutes. (I used my steam oven and cooked for about 7 minutes).

Friday, June 12, 2009

Lamb and Apricot Tagine Because Baby It's Cold Outside

Sydney was 6C (42F) this morning, or more scientifically, "bloody cold". I know that there are other parts of the world where this would be considered positively balmy. But not here. The coldest morning on record in Sydney is 3C, so we are not far from the record. Meanwhile, I have been giggling to myself all morning about the Prime Minister trying to make himself sound like an ordinary Australian by pulling out some very old-fashioned sayings. Among them:
"fair shake of the sauce bottle", "rough end of a pineapple", "fair crack of the whip" and "don't come the raw prawn". It is particularly amusing because from him it all sounds so forced, however, I do love a bit of our old-fashioned slang. Which then, with the weather made me think that it was "cold as a witch's tit". I had presumed that this was an australianism, but a quick bit of internet research suggests not. In fact, the expression is amusingly explained on (whoever they may be) as "Witches don't freeze since they have to travel high speed on their brooms. Thus their nipples get very cold." Now there's a thought to carry with you today....

I made this lovely tagine earlier in the week, having read about it on the blog of the baking queen herself, Dorie Greenspan. The tagine was a good warming meal, however the leftovers were fantastic. Next time I will make this a day ahead then store it in the fridge to let the sauce flavours develop before I serve it. After a day of rest, the sauce has turned into something that is pretty high on the lick your plate clean scale.

PS I have a final question: why does the US call coriander cilantro, but still call the seeds of the herb, coriander seeds?

from Dorie Greenspan

Makes 4 servings
2 chicken bouillon cubes or 1 3/4 cups chicken broth
1/4 pound moist, plump dried apricots
About 6 tablespoons olive oil
About 1 3/4 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, fat removed, cut into cubes about 5cm on a side
4 medium onions, peeled, trimmed and coarsely chopped
4 cloves of garlic, peeled, trimmed, germ removed and finely chopped
400g can diced tomatoes, drained, or 4 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded and crushed
1 tablespoon coriander seeds, cracked (I do this in my mortar and pestle)
2 pinches saffron
1/2 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
About 1/4 cup chopped coriander leaves
1/2 cup toasted sliced almonds
Couscous or rice, for serving

Centre a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 160C.
If you're using the bouillon cubes, drop them into a medium-size bowl and pour over 1 3/4 cups of boiling water; stir to dissolve. If you're using chicken broth, bring it to the boil, then pour it into the bowl. Add the apricots to the bowl and let them soak and plump while you prepare the rest of the tagine.

Put the base of a tagine, a heavy, high-sided skillet or a Dutch oven over medium-high heat and pour in 3 tablespoons of the oil. Pat the pieces of lamb dry between sheets of paper towels, then drop them into the hot oil - don't crowd the pan; work in batches, if necessary - and brown the meat on all sides, about 4 minutes. Lift the meat out of the pot and onto a plate with a slotted spoon. Season the lamb with salt and pepper. Pour out the fat that it's in the pan, but leave whatever bits may have stuck to the base.
Return the pan to the stove, adjust the heat to low and add 2 more tablespoons of the olive oil. When the oil is warm, stir in the onions and garlic and cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, just to get them started on the road to softening. Add the tomatoes, season with salt and pepper, and continue to cook, stirring often, for another 10 minutes, adding a little more oil, if needed. Add the chicken bouillon/broth to the pot as well as the coriander, saffron - crush the saffron between your fingers as you sprinkle it into the pot - ginger, cumin, cinnamon and 2 tablespoons of the chopped cilantro leaves. Stir to mix and dissolve the spices, season with salt and pepper and spoon the meat over the base of vegetables. Top with the plumped apricots, seal the pan with aluminum foil and clap on the lid. Slide the pan into the oven.

Bake the tagine for 60 minutes before carefully lifting the lid and foil and scattering the almonds over the meat. Recover the pan and allow the tagine to bake for 15 minutes more. (NB If you are not serving straight away, hold the almonds until you are about to serve, then mix in and sprinkle with the last of the coriander).

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Curried Couscous

The dramas of 09 continue with the discovery last week that a small part of our house has structural problems and basically needs re-building. How much work (and cost) is not clear until the builders start pulling off our walls next week. It makes me feel ill even writing that. Just my luck that the room in question is basically the repository for every piece of paper / book / file in the house. The next week will be spent boxing and clearing. Keep your fingers crossed for me - I am hoping that if things come in threes, this is the end of the three that began with chicken pox and followed with whooping cough. Then, just maybe, the second half of the year will be smooth sailing.

Luckily for me then, this week's Barefoot Challenge of curried couscous was a cinch. It was tasty, easy and I had nearly all the ingredients on hand. Couscous is always a winner with me because it is so fast and virtually impossible to stuff up. It also allows for any number of tweaks. My only changes to the recipe were to halve it, and I used stock instead of water for making the couscous, and left out the butter. The curry flavour was not overstated either, just a warm note in the salad. It worked well as a side when I served it with a lamb tagine, but I could also see it as a salad at a BBQ or maybe even as a girl's lunch with prawns or chicken breast tossed through it as well.

This month's first Barefoot Challenge is a recipe that I can see myself making again and again, so thank you to Ellyn from Recipe Collector and Tester for your choice. The Barefoot Bloggers are a cooking group that every month cooks something from the Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten. Click here to see what others thought of the recipe.

Curried Couscous
from "The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook" by Ina Garten

1 1/2 cups couscous
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups boiling water
1/4 cup plain yogurt
1/4 cup good olive oil
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon curry powder
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup small-diced carrots
1/2 cup minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/2 cup dried currants or raisins
1/4 cup blanched, sliced almonds
2 scallions, thinly sliced (white and green parts)
1/4 cup small-diced red onion

Place the couscous in a medium bowl. Melt the butter in the boiling water and pour over the couscous. Cover tightly and allow the couscous to soak for 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork.
Whisk together the yogurt, olive oil, vinegar, curry, turmeric, salt, and pepper. Pour over the fluffed couscous, and mix well with a fork. Add the carrots, parsley, currants, almonds, scallions, and red onions, mix well, and season to taste. Serve at room temperature.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Pre-cooked Tart / Pie Shell 101

I have spent a lot of years thinking that pastry and in particular tart shells were hard and tricky things that were best avoided by the likes of me. They always looked very neat and very perfect, and whenever I tried to make them, things would just go a bit wonky and the creation on the plate never matched the vision in my head. Instead my tarts usually looked like the creation of a slightly mad and embarrassing aunt - full marks for enthusiasm but not much else. But now, I am delighted to say, thanks to Belinda Jeffrey, I have metaphorically cracked the tart shell. This tart shell was easy and lovely, as was the filling. The secret, it appears, is in not trimming all the excess dough from the tart until you are about 3/4 way through the blind baking stage. Then you trim with a rolling pin, and eventually finish with a crust that is so perfect it looks bought. I love that! In fact, I was hard-pressed tearing myself away from admiring the beautiful crust to actually make the filling (in this case a brie and pear tart, although I will be using it for everything from now on).
You start with pastry that comes together quickly and easily in the food processor. Let it rest for a good half hour or so, then roll. Bake blind, repair any cracks, and voila, a perfect shell. I was in such a rush to make the tart that I didn't take a photo of the shell by itself - I will update this post with a new photo next time I make a pie.
Simple Pastry
from "Tried and True Recipes" by Belinda Jeffrey
1 1/2 cups plain flour
1/4 tsp salt
125g cultured unsalted butter, chilled, chopped into dice
1/4 cup iced water
Put the flour and salt in the food processor and whiz them together. Add the butter and whiz again until the mixture looks like coarse breadcrumbs. Then, with the machine running, pour in the iced water and process only until the pastry forms a ball around the blade. (I used the cutting blade not the plastic pastry blade, and set the food processor on its slowest speed because I was worried about overworking the pastry).
Shape pastry into a ball, then flatten it slightly. Wrap it tightly in cling wrap then let it rest in the fridge for 30-40 minutes.
Pre-Baked Tart Shell
1 quantity simple pastry
1 egg yolk
2 tsps water
On a lightly floured board, roll out the pastry into a large round (I actually use my kitchen bench for this as my chopping boards aren't big enough). I find it helps also to flip the pastry over from time to time as you are rolling it so that none of it sticks to the board / bench. Don't worry if the pastry seems stiff when you first start rolling, it will relax.
Carefully lay the pastry over a loose-based tart tin. Gently press it into the tin, leaving an overhang of a couple of centimetres all the way around. Trim a little pastry from the overhang, wrap it up and put it in the fridge in case you need it for repairs later. Put the tin on a baking sheet and then into the fridge for 30 mins to chill.
Preheat the oven to 200C. Completely cover the pastry with a big sheet of foil, pressing it down into the corners. Spread pie weights, rice or beans on top to weigh it down and put the tray in the oven. Bake the pastry for 18 minutes or until it is nearly set. Take it out of the oven and run your rolling pin over the top edge of the foil on the shell to cut off the excess pastry. Flatten out any bubbles in the pastry you can see forming as well. Return the tin to the oven with the foil and weights still in place and bake for a further 10 minutes or until the pastry is set.
Carefully lift out the foil with the weights. If there are any splits or cracks in the pastry, push little balls of the reserved pastry into the cracks and spread it out gently with your fingers. Whisk together the egg yolk and the water. Brush this over the pastry and return it to the oven for a few more minutes until the glaze has set and is golden. Remove from the oven and place on a rack to cool.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Blueberry Crumb Cake

I am not writing about this recipe because I think there is nothing nicer in the world than a fresh homemade cake (although that is exactly what I think). I am not writing about this recipe because this is exactly the sort of cake that is impossible to purchase (although that is true, at least around here). This recipe deserves wide acclaim because it is so good that your guests will sneak off to the kitchen to cut themselves an extra morsel or two, when you are not paying attention, so that the cake seems to miraculously disappear before your eyes (or at least my guests did). And in my opinion, that is an endorsement and a half. The cake is not too sweet to have as dessert after a heavy meal, but certainly indulgent enough, especially with some cream. It is also lovely plain for morning tea or afternoon tea.
No surprise that this recipe comes from the uber-baking book, Dorie Greenspan's "Baking: From My Home to Yours", which I find myself referring to constantly when a super-scrumptious dessert is required. Dorie has built up an enormous following of devoted bakers who are working their way through her book. I love watching out on Tuesday as each week's challenge pops up on blogs from around the world.
Blueberry Crumb Cake
from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: from My Home to Yours
For the Crumbs:
5 tbsp unsalted butter at room temp
1/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup light brown sugar (packed)
1/3 cup all purpose flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
For the Cake:
2 cups blueberries (preferably fresh, or frozen, not thawed)
2 cups plus 2 tsp all purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp freshly ground nutmeg
2/3 cup sugar
grated zest of 1/2 lemon or 1/4 orange
180g unsalted butter at room temp
2 large eggs, at room temp
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup buttermilk
Preheat oven to 175C. Butter an 8-inch square pan and put it on a baking sheet.
To make the crumbs: Put all the ingredients except the nuts in a food processor and pulse just until the mixture forms clumps and curds and holds together when pressed. Scrape the topping into a bowl, stir in the nuts and press a piece of plastic wrap against the surface. Refrigerate until needed. (Covered well the crumb mix can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.)To make the cake:
Using your fingertips, toss the blueberries and 2 tsp of the flour together in a small bowl just to coat the berries; set aside. Whisk together the remaining 2 cups flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg.Working in the bowl of a stand mixer or in another large bowl, rub the sugar and zest together with your fingertips until the sugar is moist and aromatic. Add the butter and, with the paddle or whisk attachment, or with a hand mixer, beat the sugar with the butter at medium speed until light, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs one by one, beating for about 1 minute after each addition, then beat in the vanilla extract. Don’t be concerned if the batter looks curdled — it will soon smooth out. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the flour mixture and the buttermilk alternately, the flour in 3 parts and the buttermilk in 2 (begin and end with the dry ingredients.) You will have a thick, creamy batter.
With a rubber spatula, gently stir in the berries. Scrape the batter into the buttered pan and smooth the top gently with the spatula. Pull the crumb mix from the fridge and, with your fingertips, break it into pieces. There’s no need to try to get even pieces — these are crumbs, they’re supposed to be lumpy and bumpy and every shape and size. Scatter the crumbs over the batter, pressing them down ever so slightly. Bake for 55 to 65 minutes, or until the crumbs are golden and a thin knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Transfer the cake to a rack and cool just until it is warm or until it reaches room temperature.

Slow Roasted Lamb Shanks With Parmesan Mash

The weather is shivery and miserable. Everything feels damp, and chilled to the core, even inside. Without being overly dramatic about it, the day is too revolting outside to even contemplate leaving the house, and a long weekend looms ahead. So be smart about it - race out and grab your provisions today and hunker down for the weekend. I promise if you make these shanks, you will feel a whole lot better about the weather. In fact, it might start to feel a bonus that the rain is driving in horizontally, and the wind is screaming around the neighbourhood. Warming, comforting and easy, this meal will warm you to the core. It is really easy to pull together too. All you need is time for a nice slow braise in the oven. They even taste fantastic reheated, so put them together in the afternoon. You'll have loads of time for a kip on the couch before serving them up for dinner, or even lunch tomorrow.

The recipe comes from a nifty recipe book called "Madison Entertains" by Bridget Palmer, and is the first thing I have made from it. If everything else lives up to this recipe, it will be a winner. The thing that drew me to buying the book in the first place is that unlike many entertaining type books, this is food that doesn't demand an indecent amount of time or attention. After all, you want to give that to your friends or family, or even that afternoon kip. I made this for 12 recently, with 16 shanks - I tripled the sauce ingredients to cope with the extra shanks. And the sauce has so many vegetables that apart from a green salad, there is no need for any other sides. It was perfect for everyone from the kids to the more aged around the table. You'll be glad to know the leftovers were sensational too. Incidentally, the recipe below is for 4.

Slow Simmered Lamb Shanks With Parmesan Mash
from "Madison Entertains" by Bridget Palmer

Preparation 25 minutes Cooking 3 hours
4 lamb shanks
1 cup plain flour
4 tbsp olive oil
1 large red onion, peeled and chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 red capsicum, seeded and chopped
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 x 400g tin diced tomatoes
1 cup (250ml) red wine
1 cup (250ml) beef stock
2 bay leaves
3 sprigs thyme
salt and pepper
2 tbsp chopped parsley, to serve

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Coat the shanks in the flour, dusting off any excess. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat; add the shanks and cook until browned. Remove from the pan and set aside.

Place the remaining olive oil into a large baking dish or flameproof casserole dish. Add the onion, celery, carrot, capsicum and garlic and toss to coat. Top with the browned shanks then pour over the tomato, wine, stock and herbs and season. Cover with aluminium foil or a lid and transfer to the oven for 2–3 hours (the longer the better), turning the shanks halfway through cooking.

To serve, spoon some parmesan mash on to 4 plates and place a shank on top. Spoon over the vegetables and sauce and sprinkle with chopped parsley.

Parmesan Mash
1 kg mashing potatoes (such as desiree), peeled
²⁄³ cup (185ml) milk
50g butter, chopped
½ cup (45g) parmesan, finely grated
sea salt

Roughly chop the potatoes and cook them in a saucepan of boiling water until tender. Drain. Return the potato to the saucepan and place over low heat. Add the milk and mash until smooth. Add the butter a few pieces at a time, whipping with a wooden spoon until well combined. Stir in parmesan, season and serve.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Savoury Crepe Cake With Salmon

Once upon a time, I made a very glam starter, and felt very, very pleased with myself. It looked incredible and tasted just as good... layer upon layer of champagne crepes, smoked salmon and cream cheese flavoured with some lemon and dill. It was a lot of work for something that disappeared in a nano second. And, having successfully made champagne crepes (I was more surprised than anyone), I never attempted the recipe again. My logic went something along the lines of the rock star car park (ie if it happens to you once, you know it will never happen that way again). But the memory of the beautiful crepe cake stayed with me, and I would occasionally contemplate trying again.

But praise be to whatever gods determine the stock at my local supermarket. The have now decided to add frozen pre-made crepes to the freezer section. So now I can have my smoked salmon cake without the fear or the grief. OK they are not champagne crepes, but the trade off is a fantastic nibble that takes about 3 mins to prepare, and will amaze everyone. So easy I feel a little embarrassed even giving a recipe. But not so embarrassed to serve it to anyone.
Savoury Salmon Crepe Cake
1 box frozen french crepes (the ones at my local are from Creative Gourmet)
1 tub cream cheese
Juice from 1/2 lemon
1 bunch dill, finely chopped
300g salmon
Mix cream cheese, lemon juice and dill together. Toss through the cream cheese and season generously with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Take a frozen crepe, and spread generously with cream cheese and then top with a layer of salmon. Repeat four times, finishing with a plain crepe (or you could go higher...) Slice into bite-sized wedges and serve.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Fishcakes - Make A Meal Of Leftovers

There are a lot of things I like about living in a city that clings to the coastline. Beaches close enough to grab a swim after work or school when summer is at its most punishing; the blessing of sea breezes and the drama of storms blowing in from the sea; incredible natural beauty that unexpectedly grabs you as you turn a corner; and then there is the seafood. I hadn't really contemplated what a rare and special thing it was to have amazing access to fish and seafood until I started food blogging. By my estimate, fewer than 1 in 50 recipes I come across on the net are for either fish or seafood, while 1 in 5 is for some sort of cake. It seems there are many excellent cooks who rarely (if ever) tackle anything aquatic in their kitchen. More fool them. Apart from the health advice recommending people eat fish once or twice a week, they are also missing out on something simple and delicious and fast.

My one gripe about fish, at least as it is sold to me, is in portion sizes. I often splurge on Atlantic Salmon fillets which come in from Tasmania. Sold by the kilo, the salmon is often cut into fillets that are huge, creating a dilemma (buy enough fillets so that everyone gets one, or let someone eat the offcuts of a couple of fillets????). Happily, this recipe solves the problem. Buy a fillet per person, knowing that you will have a scrumptious use of the leftovers in these fishcakes. Even better if you also have leftover mashed potato in the fridge. (I have even successfully used leftover cooked salmon in this recipe. Just skip the poaching steps and proceed).

PS Apologies about the photo. This is the third time I have made these and photographed them for the blog. While they taste fabulous, it is hard to make them look as beautiful as they should. The recipe comes from Nigel Slater in his fantastic cookbook "Appetite". I am only a recent convert to his books, but I highly recommend his relaxed, flexible, non-prescriptive style.

Fishcakes to Console
from "Appetite" by Nigel Slater

500g potatoes
500g salmon, haddock, cod, hake or any large-flaked white fish
milk – for baking the fish in
flour – a little for coating
butter and oil – for frying
Heat oven to 200C. Peel the potatoes and cut them into large chunks, then boil them to tenderness in salted water.

Meanwhile, put the fish into a baking dish, almost cover with milk – you can add a bay leaf or two if you like – then bake until the fish is opaque and will come easily from the bone or skin when you pull it. You can expect this to take about 10 to 15 minutes, bearing in mind that different types of fish take slightly different times to cook. Drain the potatoes, putting them back into the empty pan over a moderate heat for a few minutes if they seem wet, then mash them with a potato masher.
Lift the fish from the milk, reserving the liquid, then pull the flakes away from the bones and skin. Tip the fish into the mashed potato, add salt and grind over some black pepper (if you wish to add any of the additional seasonings below, do so now), and mix briefly and gently, so as not to crush the flakes of fish too much.
Shape the mixture into patties, as large or as small as you like – I favour ones the size of a digestive biscuit and the thickness of an English muffin – coating each one lightly in flour as you go. I think you should avoid the temptation to err towards perfection. Wobbly cooking has a certain charm about it.
Melt a little butter and oil in a frying pan – you need enough to coat the bottom of the pan – and fry your cakes till they are softly golden. This should take no more than a couple of minutes on each side. Serve plain or with your sauce of choice.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Bruschetta with Capsicum and Blue Cheese

The GFC, (as I like to call the global financial crisis - makes me think more of Kentucky Fried than some nasty economic malaise) has forced some critical rethinking in most people's kitchens. Out with the pricey ingredients and imports, in with cheaper cuts of meat and more seasonal and local produce. The Barefoot Blogging crew has picked up on this and set a Barefoot on a Budget challenge in May to re-work an Ina Garten recipe to be a little more wallet friendly.

I took a few major cuts to this recipe: I substituted local blue cheese for the gorgonzola (about $8 for 250g vs $16). Because it has been one of those weeks, I forgot to buy the basil (saving $3). And then because it was still one of those weeks, I also forgot to include the capers even though they were sitting in my pantry (another inadvertent saving of a dollar or two). I did splurge on the yellow capsicum however (about $6 for two. Green would have been cheaper). And the end result was good, and looked great. I would definitely make this again but I must admit I would like to try the non-budget version next time. Maybe this is what I should be spending my stimulus money on?

Good olive oil
2 yellow capsicums, seeded and sliced into thin strips
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon capers, drained
2 tablespoons julienned fresh basil leaves
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
100g creamy Gorgonzola or other blue cheese, at room temperature
Preheat the oven to 185C.
Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a medium saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the capsicums and cook until soft, about 12 to 15 minutes. Sprinkle with the sugar and continue cooking for 2 more minutes. Stir in the capers and basil, and season, to taste, with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Slice the baguette crosswise into 18 thin round slices. Brush the bread rounds lightly with olive oil on 1 side. Arrange them in rows, oil side up, on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper and toast in the oven until lightly browned, about 7 to 10 minutes.

Top each toast round with a teaspoonful of the capsicum mixture. Place 2 small pieces of Gorgonzola on top. Return the toast to the oven for 1 to 2 minutes and warm through. Serve immediately.