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.