Archive for July, 2009

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A Persian excursion

July 31, 2009

persianstuffOne of the best reasons for having a proper food writer as a friend is joining them for the spontaneous suburban sojourn in search of a particular dish or ingredient. The Empress took me the other day to Auburn in the mid-west of Sydney, where all things Persian, Afghan, Turkish & Lebanese can be found (and where the Gallipoli Mosque is a feature).

As DrDi wrote recently, it’s very cool for we postcode-centric Sydneysiders to take a trip along the discovery highway to an unvisited suburb – and the Empress is the gal to do it with. Our trip was a short sharp operation but chock full of discoveries for me. First stop was a great restaurant for lunch, where among the delights was an an eggplant dip to die for called Kashk-e bademjan; I devoured the lot and got an extra tub for takeaway.

After that we popped into a Persian supermarket where we filled our shopping bags with these goodies: green raisins, dried sour cherries, barberries and slivered pistachios. The shop guys and we managed to cross the language barrier with the aid of some friendly other customers, which was a very nice part of the encounter.

I haven’t used any of these staples of Persian cooking yet, and have never seen those ruby-red barberries or the chewy black and very tart sour cherries before, but plan to have a go very soon at a polow – a Persian pilaf, basically, which apparently has a lovely crusty bottom.

I’ve checked out some polow recipes with barberries here and with sour cherries here and here and here.

But I’m also thinking that both of these would be delicious chucked into any tagine or, as I found after taking this photograph, just eaten as a little dried-fruit mix from a bowl.

Years ago when making the divine mast-o khiar – a yoghurt & cucumber dip with walnuts, green raisins & rose petals (and another recipe here)  I had the devil’s own job finding green raisins, and now I know they’re everywhere in any Middle-Eastern suburb I feel a bit of a dill for buying them from these elegant and expensive packagers (although their stuff is top quality, so if you can’t get near a Persian supermarket, they are worth a shot online).

And as for my plans for the pistachios, well obviously the list is endless. But apart from Karen Martini’s quite incredible baked lemon and goat’s curd cheesecake with pistachios (from Where the Heart Is, but Stonesoup has an adaptation here – scroll down to find it), I have just come across this delicious-sounding pistachio dukkah which sounds a very fine idea.

Now, off to Culburra for the weekend with a bunch of food-crazy friends. Will return fatter and more recipe-laden than ever next week…

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Family lunch, Franzen style…

July 28, 2009

correctionsI’ve just taken Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections down from the shelf, again, because I’m at a reading loss, with nothing good enough to replace The Line of Beauty coming my way yet (suggestions, anyone?).

Tried earlier today to buy Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black, as my writing pal E showed me a bit of it last night, and lordy that woman can write. But no joy in the shop.

Anyway, I have once again come across this superb mealtime encounter between abrasive Denise, a chef, and her ageing parents Enid and Alfred.

It starts with Enid’s description of a lavish party.

“The desserts were a foot tall!” Enid said, her instincts having told her that Denise didn’t care about pyramids of shrimp. “It was elegant, elegant. Have you ever seen anything like that?”

“I’m sure it was very nice,” Denise said.

“The Dribletts really do things super-deluxe. I’d never seen a dessert that tall. Have you?”

The subtle signs that Denise was exercising patience – the slightly deeper breaths she took, the soundless way she set her fork down on her plate and took a sip of wine and set the glass back down – were more hurtful to Enid than a violent explosion.

“I’ve seen tall desserts,” Denise said.

“Are they tremendously difficult to make?”

Denise folded her hands in her lap and exhaled slowly. “It sounds like a great party. I’m glad you had fun.”

Enid had, true enough, had fun at Dean and Trish’s party, and she’d wished that Denise had been there to see for herself how elegant it was. At the same time, she was afraid that Denise would not have found the party elegant at all, that Denise would have picked apart its specialness until there was nothing left but ordinariness. Her daughter’s taste was a dark spot in Enid’s vision, a hole in her experience through which her own pleasures were forever threatening to leak and dissipate.

“I guess there’s no accounting for tastes,” she said.

“That’s true,” Denise said. “Although some tastes are better than others.”

Alfred had bent low over his plate to ensure that any salmon or haricots verts that fell from his fork would land on china. But he was listening. He said, “Enough.”

“That’s what everybody thinks,” Enid said. “Everybody thinks their taste is the best.”

“But most people are wrong,” Denise said.

“Everybody’s entitled to their own taste,” Enid said. “Everybody gets one vote in this country.”

“Unfortunately!”

“Enough,” Alfred said to Denise. “You’ll never win.”

“You sound like a snob,” said Enid.

“Mother, you’re always telling me how much you like a good home-cooked meal. Well, that’s what I like, too. I think there’s a kind of Disney vulgarity in a foot-tall dessert. You are a better cook than–“

“Oh, no.” Enid shook her head. “I’m a nothing cook.”

“That’s not true at all! Where do you think I–“

“Not from me,” Enid interrupted. “I don’t know where my children got their talents. But not from me. I’m a nothing as a cook. A big nothing.” (How strangely good it felt to say this! It was like putting scalding water on a poison-ivy rash.)

Denise straightened her back and raised her glass. Enid, who all her life had been helpless not to observe the goings-on on other people’s plates, had watched Denise take a three-bite portion of salmon, a small helping of salad, and a crust of bread. The size of each was a reproach to the size of Enid’s. Now Denise’s plate was empty and she hadn’t taken seconds of anything.

“Is that all you’re going to eat?” Enid said.

“Yes. That was my lunch.”

“You’ve lost weight.”

“In fact not.”

“Well, don’t lose any more,” Enid said with the skimpy laugh with which she tried to hide large feelings.

Alfred was guiding a forkful of salmon and sorrel sauce to his mouth. The food dropped off his fork and broke into violently shaped pieces.


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Roast chook, the kitchen’s little black dress

July 26, 2009

roastchookRoast chicken, as you’ll know well, is the little black dress of the culinary repertoire. Simple, elegant, timeless and understated – but with a bit of bling it can be transformed into a truly spectacular performance.

I started musing on this today because I have some writing buds coming round tomorrow evening. We meet frequently to eat dinner together and take turns wailing about our work. They are all fine writers and fine cooks (in fact I think every writer I’ve met loves good food – is there a connection?), and the meal is central to our enjoyment of these evenings. But there’s also an unspoken rule that dinner is a simplish affair so as not to distract the cook from the natter, the real heart of the matter.

As I still haven’t got used to the joy of a generously sized and perfectly working oven (the old one had two temperatures – off, and 240 degrees C), I’m going with roast chook for tomorrow night’s dinner, prompted in part by Andrew McConnell’s great-looking chickybabe in yesterday’ s Good Weekendroast chicken with brussels sprouts and bread sauce.

This brings me back to the endless potential for blinging up little black dress – the fact that an LBD will go just as well with a teeny pair of diamond stud earrings as it does with one of those whopper seventies copper-enamel whirligig pendants.

So here is a short list of easy suggestions for roast chicken bling – but I want more! Do add your contributions, please … ( I’m very much hoping that Chefbro Hamish, who is sadly now almost totally blocked from chatting to us here by the great firewall of you-know-where but is presently holidaying in France, land of the free and greedy, might be able to pop in with some chook-bling suggestions of his own before returning to Shanghai.)

On & in the chook

  • Under the skin: butter with thyme, garlic & salt; or same with tarragon.
  • Under the skin from Neil Perry – compound of butter, garlic, coriander, parsley, cumin, lemon zest, saffron, salt.
  • Maggie Beer’s fabulous recipe here suggests whizzing  the under-skin butter in the food processor (not too much or butter will split) with chopped preserved lemon & tarragon. Of course she also adds verjuice towards the end, which helps moisten the chook – and see below for Maggie’s resting tip.
  • Stephanie Alexander says rub the chicky inside and out with lemon, crush 3 cloves garlic with the back of a knife, roll in salt & pepper and bung in the cavity with 2 lemon halves, rosemary sprig & butter.
  • Karen Martini advises a stuffing of bruschetta, porcini mushrooms, chicken liver & rosemary & check out Jules of Stonesoup’s adaptation of same.
  • In the chook’s cavity, says Skye Gyngell, stuff half a lemon, thyme, bay leaves, parsley, garlic, crumbled dried chilli.

Cooking the chook

  • Maggie says roast in a fan-forced oven at 170⁰C for 40 minutes, pour verjuice over and return to oven for 10 minutes or until cooked through (juices run clear from the thigh). If using a meat thermometer, it should read 68⁰C at the thigh.
  • Maggie’s all-time best chook tip, I reckon, is to rest the chicken in a warm place for 20 minutes turned on to its breast sideand Damien Pignolet repeats it in his book French: “Maggie Beer taught me this excellent technique, which allows the juices to circulate from the thighs into the breast, keeping it moist.”
  • Andrew McConnell (can’t find any online references but he runs Cutler & Co in Melbourne) in his Good Weekend recipe suggests smearing a 1.8kg bird with butter & salt, roasting it at 180⁰C, breast side down for 20 minutes, then reducing the heat to160⁰C, turning it over and continuing for 40 minutes or till cooked.

Sauces, accompaniments

  • In Rockpool, Neil Perry suggests simply tipping the chicken juices from the cavity into the pan, adding lemon juice and extra virgin oil, scraping the pan to loosen the crispy solids and chucking the lot over the whole bird (with garlic roasted in the same pan) at serving time.
  • Skye Gyngell serves pan-roasted chicken with braised lentils, roasted tomatoes, basil oil and a big blob of aioli  – and elsewhere Neil Perry serves pan-fried chicken breast with tzatziki.
  • From an issue of Delicious magazine years ago I have kept a Steve Manfredi bread & tarragon salsa recipe (it goes with an incredible slow-roasted lamb, but is fab with poultry too) – basically you just whizz up some day old bread soaked in lots of olive oil and red-wine vinegar with a couple of cloves of garlic and a bunch of tarragon, sale & pepper, adding more olive oil to loosen. It’s sharp and fragrant and delicioso.
  • I often throw some quartered fennel bulbs along with unpeeled garlic cloves & French shallots into the pan beneath the chook – they all go sticky and sweet but the fennel’s aniseed sharpness gives it a lift.
  • When we were in Puglia a couple of years back, one of the finest things we ate was a chicken simply roasted on a rack over a tray of potatoes, which catch the chickeny drippings and are soft and flavoursome as anything. I have never, ever, ever eaten chicken as good as that – in Australia even the best chooks are a poor substitute but it’s still worth a crack if you get a really good chook. While you rest the chicken, whack the oven heat up to a zillion and blast the hell out of the potatoes. It’s good.
  • Yesterday’s Good Weekend Andrew McConnell bread sauce – bring half a litre of milk  to a simer with a couple of cloves, half an onion and a bay leaf and then remove from heat and leave for 15 minutes (sounds remarkably like the start of Jane’s polenta recipe) – then add 120g dried breadcrumbs, stir, reduce heat and cook gently for 10 minutes. Cool and whizz in a blender, adding nutmeg & salt to taste.

Ah, we could go on … so why don’t you?  What are your favourite roast chook tips, tricks, accompaniments & complements?

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Sweet success: A&U annual bakeoff

July 25, 2009

cakesallThis week the Empress and I found ourselves bestowed with the extraordinary honour of judging the Allen & Unwin staff club’s Annual Bakeoff.

We arrived at Cake HQ to find a staggering twenty-seven entries awaiting consumption – from cakes and tarts to flans, shortcakes, cheesecakes, friands, cupcakes, meringues, quiches, biscuits, strudels… in three categories –  Savoury, Chocolate and General.

The task was almost overwhelming, but like the truly professional gutses we are – and despite the growing threat of sliding into diabetic coma – the Empress and I made our way through the blind tasting, separately keeping our scores out of 10 each for presentation and texture, and out of 20 for flavour.

stephjudgingWorking diligently through the morning with valiant A&U staffers slicing off slenderer and slenderer slivers – and fending off contestants desperate for their morning tea outside the door – the Empress and I were gratified to discover, when comparing scores, that for each category we had picked the same winner, and our scores were within one point of each other’s.

The standard, it must be said, was exceptional. It’s our first year of judging, but the bakeoff has been an A&U fixture for some time apparently, and competition is fierce. The winning entries were within one point of each other on the scale, and then from the three we had to choose one overall 2009 Bakeoff Champion.

And the winners were …

cakewinnersBy a whisker, the three winners were:

Savoury – Lou Blue’s Quiche Lorraine with  Pancetta

Chocolate – Anthony Bryant’s Triple Chocolate Praline Tart

General – Catherine Milne’s Clementine & Almond Syrup Cake with Chocolate Ganache

The overall champion, by the slenderest sliver of a hair’s breadth, was Catherine’s clementine cake. (And it turns out this was something of an upset win – apparently for the past several years Anthony, who also entered an incredible chocolate and cherry cake and a divine rhubarb and amaretti tart,  has been the unstoppable reigning champ. Next year’s bakeoff should be very interesting as he attempts to wrest the crown back!)

clementinecakeOnce the presentations were made and the hordes descended on the entries for morning tea, the Empress and I prised a few recipes out of the contestants, some of which happily are available online.

Turns out that Catherine’s unbelievably moist and complex clementine cake is an Ottolenghi recipe, and can be found here; and Anthony’s incredible praline tart (the silkiest, most satiny smooth filling ever) is from Gourmet Traveller a couple of months ago and is available here.

choctart

All in all, it was an astonishing display of skill, nerve and flair. The Empress and I have begged to return and offer our greedy evaluative skills for the A&U staff club’s Great Curry Contest – can’t wait!

Oh, and in case you think all this gustatory grandeur might be a little decadent, it also has a higher purpose: everyone who joined the morning tea festivities gave a donation to Sydney PEN, and every one of the many A&U staff club activities for 2009 raises some moola which will go to Sydney PEN at the end of the year.

Hey, I sense the opportunity for a Sydney PEN fundraising challenge! Any other Sydney publishers willing to take on the A&U master chefs in a publishing industry bakeoff? Let me know – Steph & I are more than willing to go the extra mile and extend our judging skills across the land!

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Love that lasagne

July 22, 2009

stephlasagneI have always loved a good lasagne myself – but a really good one is hard to find, no? Not for the Empress though – she winkles out three excellent versions of lasagne in this big wide city in her  SMH Good Living Three-of-a-Kind column for this week, online now. Says she:

Lasagne is believed to be the earliest form of pasta, which makes sense given the flat sheets result from simple rolling. But it isn’t always layered with bolognaise and bechamel sauce; there’s a more elaborate version, known as vincisgrassi, which can contain sweetbreads or other offal, spices, porcini mushrooms, prosciutto or a combination.

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Mark Strand’s Eating Poetry

July 22, 2009

Today I came across this, by an American poet called Mark Strand who, in my vast ignorance, I had never heard of.  I love this poem, despite not really understanding, or being able to say why it takes me ….


Eating Poetry

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.

The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.

Their eyeballs roll,
their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.

She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
she screams.

I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.

It is from his Selected Poems – and there’s more about Mark Strand and his poetry here and here.  Turns out my ignorance is even greater than I thought – he has been a Pulitzer winner as well as American Poet Laureate, and very distinguished all in all. I am going to buy one of his books now, in the hope he doesn’t mind my reproduction of his strange and disturbingly beautiful poem here.


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Cate Kennedy’s new shoots

July 21, 2009

garliccateAs I’ve said before, Cate Kennedy has a new book coming out soon. It’s a novel, and I keep hearing from advance readers (those folks who get to snaffle up the advance copies of books that are sent out to bookshops, media and so on before they are actually in the shops) that it is a right cracker. Cate is well known as a short story writer of particular note, and her collection Dark Roots was widely acclaimed a couple of years back.

So I can’t wait to read this novel of hers, called The World Beneath, but I, like you, will  have to wait till September to do so.

(Incidentally, Cate’s publisher is one of the great Oz independents – Scribe, which is doing excellent things with Australian fiction and particularly short fiction. Another of Scribe’s books to get your mitts on very soon is newcomer Patrick Cullen’s short story collection, What Came Between, out in August. He has been well published in anthologies for years, but this is Patrick’s first solo collection, and it’s bound to be good.)

But back to Cate. Apart from her writing (did I mention her amazing story for our Brothers & Sisters story collection, out in November?) she is a primary producer of another sort – garlic. A few weeks ago I got the lovely surprise of a heap of baby garlic in the post, sent by Cate after reading of my garlic-growing anxiety here ( I killed the other one, by the way).

Since then I’ve potted the bub bulbs into these peat pots, and as soon as the painters finish the frame of the bathroom window, directly above my new herb bed, these will go into the bed too. It’s the only spot in the garden that gets year-round sun, although only for a few hours a day in winter. Come summer though, that spot will be hot hot hot and perfect for herbs and, I hope, the garlic. So here’s to Cate, her Dark Roots and her New Shoots.