Archive for August, 2009

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In love with labneh

August 31, 2009

labna2Inspired by the happy coincidence of my friend Ms Melba’s recent gift of her incredibly good homemade labneh – that creamy, unbelievably smooth yoghurt cheese – and Miss J’s birthday gift of the gorgeous Saha: A chef’s Journey through Lebanon & Syria by Greg & Lucy Malouf, I decided on the weekend to have a stab at making some labneh myself.

Oh, and the third inspiration was driving past a humungous and ghastly Spotlight outlet, whereupon I could dive in and grab myself a thousand metres of muslin (I later sent some of that Ms Melba’s way, and she said that while she longed to drape it about her person for running through damp fields towards Pemberley,  she  promised to use it for cheese-related purposes).

Anyway, after tasting Melba’s labneh and gobbling it all in a week, I asked for her recipe, and then compared it with Greg Malouf’s in Saha which, by the way, is the most beautiful book. (I have just lent it to the Empress, who – prepare to bite out your own veins with envy – is planning a culinary trip through various Middle Eastern countries including Syria. Argh. We can only hope she comes back with some fine recipes to share, but I may find it difficult to speak to her for a while…)

Anyhoo.

Labneh, it turns out, is so easy peasy to make that I am never again buying that gorgeously silky Yarra Valley Dairy Persian Fetta in the black tin, because my labneh (while texturally probably quite different and probably-not-even-remotely-comparable-because-it-isn’t-feta), turns out to be just as delicious. And costs very little. The amazing thing about this stuff is the texture – so silky and creamy, but with excellent body and, depending on your marinade, a lovely soft and herby tang.

Greg Malouf’s recipe is here, and it’s the one I used, except I followed Melba’s lead and formed it into the little balls rather than just spreading over a plate topped with oil as he’s done. Anyway it’s hardly a recipe at all really – take a kilo of natural yoghurt, hang it for 48-72 hours, and then do as you wish with it. Melba hangs hers for anything from three hours to overnight, and it’s beautifully light. I did as GM says though, and hung it for 48 hours. The longer you hang it, the firmer it gets, and lots of whey comes out of it. Here’s what I did.

1. Take a good half-metre of clean muslin and line a colander with it over a bowl. A fine cotton tea towel would probably do just as well, but perhaps take longer.

2. Mix up a kilo of full-cream natural Greek-style yoghurt with a good teaspoon of salt and pour it into the muslin.

3. Tie up the  corners of the muslin any old how, and find a way to hang it. Easiest for us was get a large deep saucepan, tie the muslin bag to a long wooden spoon and rest the spoon over the top of the pot. Do tie it tight and hang as high as possible, as it does hang lower over the hours and ours eventually touched the bottom of the pot, necessitating re-tying half-way through. No big deal though and gave us a chance to drain the whey out halfway through.

labna14. Bung it in the fridge for anything from three hours to 72 hours. We did 48 and it resulted in easy-to-form, nice firm labneh.

5. Remove and form into balls, keeping your hands moistened with olive oil – stops the labneh sticking to your hands and the balls to each other.

6. Lay the balls in a jar or container, cover with oil and add some dried chilli flakes, dried thyme, fresh rosemary and a clove of garlic. Any dried herbs or spices you fancy would do, I reckon.

Use it spread on biccies as a dip; on toast or a sandwich instead of butter; plonk a ball in your spicy veg soup (that’s where almost all of M’s batch went – thicker and more delicious than a yoghurt dollop); toss on to steamed green vegetables, or just use anywhere you would sling a blob of yoghurt, I reckon.

This amount made three full medium-sized deli takeaway containers’ worth. The oil is obviously the costly bit of this, but given that one would never chuck away such lovely herby olive oil, instead keeping it for pasta sauces, salad dressings or whatever, I reckon this recipe is a contender for the frugal food post as well as just being a beautiful thing. And great to take to a friend’s when you’re turning up for dinner – they will be tres impressed with your domestic goddessness as well as gobbling it up in a flash like I did.

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Back to the books

August 30, 2009

booksFurther to our very satisfying natter about cookbooks a couple of weeks back, I have now obtained the Empress’s informative and amusing cookbook manifesto, first published a few years ago in Good Reading magazine, and it’s available here as a quick PDF file (will also pop it on the Writing on food page for easy access later). It’s a lovely piece of writing about Steph’s favourite books for recipes, travelogues, pictures and entertainment …

A taste:

I’ve never actually cooked anything out of The Taste of France based on a Sunday Times magazine series from 1983 because the food all looks a bit dark and the layout’s confusing. But the photo of a chipped pottery bowl filled with three kinds of wild mushrooms, five eggs still in their shells and an old wooden spoon holding sea salt, ground pepper and garlic cloves is fantastic. It doesn’t immediately make me want to make scrambled eggs with mushrooms but it does make me want to rent an old house in the Auvergne, in October (mushroom season), shop at the markets for my eggs and butter and then make the recipe. It’s just something a white-styled Donna Hay book can’t do.


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Kitchen calamity

August 28, 2009

garbagedispsalWell, it doesn’t happen very often, but it did last night. I cooked a Truly Revolting meal for my beau and myself.

It was supposed to be a lovely rich dahl and a dish of potatoes and peas in a yoghurt sauce, but let’s just be frank and call it vomit-coloured slop (and thanks to the yoghurt, there was even a whiff of the sick bowl about it too). I haven’t posted a photograph of it here, but believe me that’s for your own good.

Nor will I slander the recipe-writers because obviously I did something hideously wrong, but they are both well-known & respected. I can’t figure out what I did, unless it was just the combination of dishes that made it so disgusting.

Suffice it to say if anyone has a recipe for dahl that does not end up as powdery, tasteless slop (there’s only so much salt and lemon juice you can add before you get past the point of no return, and it seemed to make no difference), can you share, please? I have eaten delicious dahl many times, so what the hell went wrong with mine?

And ‘yoghurt sauce’. This dish proved that sometimes you really need a photograph accompanying  a recipe (I checked back later, and the book had one of those photo pages with a spread of different dishes. But they craftily did not include a picture of this dish). To me, ‘yoghurt sauce’  conjured up images of lovely thick clustery, creamy spicy goodness. But in fact, if one followed the recipe the result was a watery pale yellow (the V-word again) soup in which the peas were drained to a lovely grey colour and the potatoes just gave up the ghost entirely and slumped there, defeated and drowning. I ended up reducing the hell out of it just to rid it of the nuclear-waste-affected pondwater effect, which process sapped even more colour and any remaining life from the solids.

By the time this meal reached the table we had a bowl of rice (fine), a bowl of yellow soupy starchy tasteless slop (dahl) and a bowl of the pale starchy mess, which by now was a sort of grey and lumpy glue, but at the same time tasteless (except for the faint topnote of bile) and somehow textureless. Quite a feat, I think you’ll agree. We also, thank god, had the cumquat chutney – but again, it’s rather tart and sweet, so more than a tablespoon of that was always going to make the eyes water. Nothing could save us on this occasion.

I was so horrified I could barely eat a mouthful, and sat squirming in my chair while Senor doggedly chewed on, in a prim and dignified fashion, telling me to stop behaving like a three year old as I rolled my eyes and gagged and made faces. He got quite cross when I refused to eat my plate’s worth, and told me I was being ridiculous, and then to prove a point served himself a bit more grey slop. He is a brave and noble man.

I suddenly remembered what it was like  being a child and having to eat food that made you physically gag, and felt a stab of surprised sympathy for all the kids at my table over the years who have had the same response to some (perfectly good, I might add) dish I’ve served. Poor little beggars. Next time one of them convulses and makes vomit noises I shall take their plate away and give them ice cream.

Ugh. Bad food. I guess one good thing is to realise how shocking it is when it happens, which shows how generally well we eat.

There is, of course, a bucketload of dahl left, which Senor claims he will eat for lunch. But we shall see. Even the greatest nobility has its limits. To my mind, this is one occasion on which food waste is not only acceptable but the only humane course of action.

What about you? I doubt any of you have had any disasters recently, but any comforting anecdotes of calamities from the past that you’d like to share?

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Sweet & sour: spicy cumquat chutney

August 27, 2009

cumquatsInspired by Fiona’s comment about Indian food yesterday, plus the fact we had been given two kilos of beautiful Killcare cumquats by our friends the Nannas of Naremburn, I messed around with a few chutney recipes and came up with this spicy Indian-style cumquat chutney.

I began with the recipe for spiced kumquat chutney here, and then made a few variations based on what I had in the cupboards, and by flipping back and forth through Stephanie Alexander’s orange book to check out her pickled cumquat, her mango chutney (p733) and her peach chutney (p519).

Mine turned out a little sweeter than I would’ve liked, but adjusting the sweetness with plenty of salt and a little lime juice I think I’ve ended up with a lovely thick, sweet Indian-style chutney with a nice note of gingery heat. To those of you who’ll find a jar on their doorsteps, just don’t use too much at once! It’s quite tart as well, but the cumquat fruit itself has a nice slightly bitter edge …

cumquat chutneyThe original recipe called for currants; I had only a handful of currants in the larder but lots of barberries, the tart little rubies I found on our Persian excursion the other week, so I threw them in instead, which doubtless bumped up the sour/tart factor.  I also threw in some cardamom pods, cinnamon, whole cloves and star anise. Anyhoo, if you’re game and have heaps of ready cumquats on your conscience, try it out. I take no responsibility for the outcome, though!

Sweet & spicy cumquat chutney

  • 2kg cumquats, halved or quartered (it’s good to get the seeds out now, but if you can’t be bothered, it is possible to scoop them out later with a slotted spoon – bit laborious either way, but the latter is more meditative…)
  • 3-4 cups sugar
  • 1.5 cups orange juice
  • 1.5 cups water
  • 1 cup white wine vinegar
  • 2 sticks cinnamon
  • 5 star anise
  • pinch of whole cloves
  • 1 cup currants or half currants and half barberries
  • 1 large knob ginger, finely chopped
  • 2 birdseye chillies, chopped
  • a teaspoon or two dried chilli flakes, to taste
  • 3 tablespoons salt (or more, to taste)
  • (optional) juice 1 lime

jarschutneyThrow everything but the lime juice into a heavy-based saucepan, reserving a little of the sugar and salt until you taste it at the end.

Stir over heat until sugar has dissolved and chutney has come to boiling point. Boil steadily for an hour or so, until the chutney reduces and becomes thick.

Adjust seasoning with sugar and salt, then bottle into sterilised jars.

This quantity made eight small to medium jars of chutney.

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Fine but frugal food – is it possible?

August 26, 2009

frugalfoodI’ve come to the realisation, rather late in the piece, that the dough has run out. Renovation sure takes it out of a gal, and the latest bit of it – our backyard spritz, even done with volunteer labour, secondhand and bargain basement materials – most particularly took it out of a girl’s wallet.

I’ve been thinking for some time about how to reduce the costs of cookery, for ethical reasons as much as anything – it seems quite obscene to spend ridiculous amounts on food when so many people have none. I justify my spending on food by contributing to overseas aid organisations and so on, but still, I know our spending would make many folks gasp … however, now we’re down to the wire in this household budget the idea of frugal food is becoming less a matter of choice than necessity!

The main issue I have is how to cook a generous spread for lots of friends & family without getting that sense of dread when you check the bank balance at the ATM. I know lots of folks have discussed this before – Jules Clancy at Stonesoup, for example, has addressed it here with her 10 tips for frugal entertaining, which are fantastic.

But the very word ‘frugal’ bothers me enormously – conjures up images of cranky, skinny old women in cardigans who won’t turn the heater on in midwinter, or Dickensian bowls of grey gruel. Something in my nature just cannot stand the idea of skimping on the plate, espescially where catering for friends is concerned. Fun = generosity, both spiritual and material, as far as I’m concerned. But if it ain’t there to be shared, it ain’t there. So my challenge for the foreseeable future is how to get the goods on the plate without breaking the bank, and still make it feel bounteous.

I’m thinking that the way to do it for folks like me who work at home is to spend time, not money – on planning, shopping, cooking and growing. So here are my beginner suggestions for generous dinners that don’t cost the earth. But as you can see, even my frugal ideas are skimpy, which is where you come in. Tips, please!!

1. Cut down on meat, or lose it altogether.

I have to say our recent vegetarian dinner for 11, where the Empress’s pumpkin risotto was the highlight, cost almost nothing, apart from splurging on a couple of fancy cheeses. So … why not do it much more often? Unless you have total vegetarians at the table, it’s very easy to get good rich flavours from good oils, stocks, and meaty taste-bombs like chopped pancetta.

2. Make your own dips

Since I’ve discovered how relatively simple it is to make baba ganoush or – even easier – to chuck a can of chickpeas into the food processor with lemon juice, garlic & oil to get a whopper serving of good hummous, I don’t think I will buy those two in the pre-made versions ever again (and don’t forget beans, like the broad bean puree dippy thing here.) And the homemade versions are better than the bought ones, so it doesn’t feel like skimping. Needless to say, add stocks to the make-your-own and keep-in-the-freezer list.

3. Grow your own herbs & salad leaves

The worst culprits in the rotting-veg compartment in my fridge are always bunches of herbs and leftover handfuls of salad leaves. Once past their prime you really can’t throw them in a soup the way you can with a slightly limp carrot or stick of celery. So grow your own to prevent all this waste (as we’ve discussed before, food waste is not just costly but a horrib le environmental problem), and you’ll never need to buy more than you need (watercress, for example – what is it with those massive bunches in the shops?? I have just stuck a potful of watercress in the new fish pond, and can’t wait for the next salad if the  fish don’t get it all first).

Now, my current crop of herbs grown from seed is still giving me gyp – damn things are stalled, not dying but not growing a speck either, so I’m giving them two more weeks before giving the whole thing up as a bad experiment and getting the bought seedlings in. But that said, once they’re growing properly, I find herbs and particularly salad greens so satisfying to pick and eat fresh from the plot (or pot, if you’re space constrained – a bit of good sun is all that’s required for both). And apart from the incredible taste and fine, springy texture of freshly picked leaves, I find that because of the effort of growing them, I don’t waste a single leaf.

4. Splurge on a few essentials

There are some things you can’t skimp on without just being stingy. Like bread. One good sourdough loaf goes a long way in the satisfaction stakes. Olive oil and vinegar for salad dressings is another – but only for dressings, used judiciously.

5. Don’t serve too much

Being the greedy guts that I am, I usually overcater for fear of looking like a stinge. The leftovers are almost always later devoured, so it’s not such a food waste issue, but it does bear some examination. On the weekend, with eight people at the table and roast chook on the menu, I usually would have cooked two chickens – but given two of the eight were kids with finicky eating habits, I decided to go for one. We still had plenty of chicken left over.

6. Buy seasonal

Everybody goes on about this, all the time, but it’s true. Fruits and veg in season are cheaper and better quality.

7. Set the table beautifully

You might be serving low-cost food, but it doesn’t have to look like it. A table set with shiny glassware and cutlery and ironed napkins is a beautiful thing – and a small candle or two is perfectly lovely, I reckon. I do not mean one should cram the dining table with ornaments and flowers in the hilariously over-the-top Martha Stewart style (I believe I’ve shared this monstrosity with you before!), but a well-set table immediately creates a generous, inviting air about the place.

Okay, over to you. Your comments on these, and advice on new tips, please!

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Snag a sausage roll

August 26, 2009

stephsnagrollsThe Empress has come over all flaky in her Good Living 3-of-a-kind column this week – it’s on sausage rolls.

I can vouch for the goodness of the Bourke St Bakery pork & fennel version, and the others sound just as fine. (If you’ve never checked out the Berry Bakery, down there in the southern highlands, you must.)

As the Empress writes, “Six years ago, in a pre-election distraction strategy, former NSW Premier Bob Carr heaped scorn on this iconic snack but as a nation we disagree with him. Along with the meat pie, the sausage roll is up there among our favourite fast foods. Most of us have fond childhood memories of them, hot from the tuckshop or at birthday parties with the requisite sticky tomato sauce. Pastry and fillings vary enormously and, while dud versions are still around, some good bakers take them very seriously.”

Pop along and have a look at Steph’s picks of the best three snag rolls in Christendom here.

P.S. Snag rolls are not the only thing we disagree with Dymocks Bob about…


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In celebration of celery

August 25, 2009

celeryIf there’s one vegetable always found in my crisper, it’s the humble bunch of celery – it goes in everything from soups to curries to pasta to tagines to all those good Mediterranean casserolish things, and even when past its prime it still keeps that fresh flavour note. But until now, the ol’ soffrito has been pretty much been the limit of my use of celery – chopped and sauteed along with the onion, carrot, garlic, etc. I’ve always hated the whole raw celery stick thing  (same with raw carrot sticks – ugh), and lumps of raw celery in salads somehow speak to me of lack of imagination. As for that childhood Healthy Eating craze for celery sticks with peanut butter – eew.

However, when I got home from woodwork school the other week, Senor had made the most surprising and delicious Marcella Hazan dish – braised, gratineed celery. It was incredible: blanched, then braised in beef stock, sauteed with pancetta, onion & garlic, and then baked with parmesan over the top. Even after all that dousing it holds such a zingy, fresh flavour, but the texture is beautifully soft while still retaining the tiniest bit of crunch.

I made it again last night, and it will now go on my list of vegetable winners. I think you should try it too. My next experiment with celery will be Marcella’s braised celery and potato with lemon juice. Sounds equally good. This recipe is from The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking that I so selflessly gave Senor for his birthday …

Marcella Hazan’s Braised & Gratineed Celery Sticks with Parmesan

Serves 6

  • 2 large bunches celery
  • 3 tablespoons finely chopped onion
  • 25g butter (I skipped this & used olive oil only)
  • 4 tablespoons chopped pancetta or prosciutto (I used speck)
  • 500ml diluted beef consomme (I used a small diluted amount of the very fancy Simon Johnson veal stock I was given for my birthday – thanks Ricardo!)
  • Parmesan
  1. Cut off celery’s leafy tops and save the hearts for salad. Peel the strings off the celery and cut into 7cm lengths.
  2. Bring water to the boil, drop in the celery and 1 minute after water returns to the boil, drain and remove.
  3. Saute onion until translucent, then add pancetta/proscuitto and cook for 1 minute.
  4. Add celery, stir to coat well and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  5. Add the broth/stock/consomme, adjust heat to very gentle simmer and cover the pan. Cook until celery feels tender when prodded, then remove lid and raise heat to boil away all liquid.
  6. Arrange the celery in a heatproof baking dish with the concave side of the sticks facing up. Spoon onion & pancetta mix over the celery, then sprinkle with grated Parmesan.
  7. Bake in the oven for a few minutes until the cheese melts and forms a light crust. Remove from oven and allow it to settle for several minutes before bringing it to the table.

So, there’s my (well, Marcella’s) celery celebration. Any other ideas for this excellent and versatile friend of the fridge?