Archive for January, 2011


Checkpoint chutney

January 31, 2011

What’s the difference between a chutney, a relish and a pickle?

That’s not a joke – I actually want to know. Some people say the difference lies in the texture, and others in the sweetness, and still others in the level and type of spice. But then when you turn to Asian and sub-continental cultures everything changes again, as Anglo definitions appear to be irrelevant here.

While I am genuinely interested in the difference if anyone has strong views, I also am quite happy to embrace the who-cares-as-long-as-it’s-good school of thought. We haven’t really discussed chutneys and pickles much here at How to Shuck An Oyster, have we? Apart from this pickled pear relish (see how confusing the lingo is?), and a very brief link to the unquestionably good Manfield eggplant pickle here, and this rather sour half-invented cumquat chutney, that is.

I am beginning to think that the upshot with chutney seems to be: if you have a glut of anything and don’t know what to do with it,  simply shove it in a pot together with chopped onion, sugar, vinegar, some dried fruit and a little spice, and out come some jars of jewellish goodness to keep and distribute.  I suppose I should note that the glut should probably be vegetable in nature (fish pickle, anyone?) although I would very much welcome news of more outlandish recipes.

We have had a good few tomatoes from the garden this year, and scoffed the lot in salads – the next crop is slowly forming, but sadly we haven’t been able to complain of tomato glut. But I was moved to ponder chutneys the other day when Ms Lily – she of last summer’s amazing fig salad – asked me for a tomato chutney recipe, as her glut was getting out of control. Clueless, I spent a few seconds Googling before coming upon this Nigel Slater red and green tomato chutney. Ms Lily reported the results as spectacular, and thus – being the bitter type of person I am – my subsequent days and nights were filled with chutney envy. I had to have it.

I may not have had a tomato glut, but the grocer certainly has a few, so I decided to fiddle with the recipe a teeny bit and go with fully ripe tomatoes. Being lazy and greedy, I messed about with the quantities a little, using a tad less sugar and adding a good few glugs of olive oil near the end. I love the result  (it could be slightly too acidic for some, so do taste along the way and adjust accordingly) and I also love the fact that there is almost no effort involved beyond chucking everything in a pot and waiting. So, here tis

Tomato Chutney, with apologies to Nigel Slater – this quantity made two largeish jars. The second time I made it I almost tripled the quantity and got seven medium-sized jars.

1kg ripe tomatoes (I used Romas), halved

350g onions, roughly chopped

90g raisins

180g light brown sugar

1 birdseye  chilli, with seeds, halved

1 tsp salt

2 tsp yellow mustard seeds

250ml white wine vinegar

150ml olive oil


  1. Chuck everything except the oil in a pot, bring to the boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for around an hour, stirring occasionally. If it looks too runny, turn up the heat and reduce until it begins to turn jammier. Add the oil, stir thoroughly and turn off the heat.
  2. Meanwhile, sterilise your jars – I pour boiling water into the jars & over lids and let sit for a few minutes, then drain and bung them into a warm oven to dry (unless the lids are plastic, obviously) for another few minutes. Bung the hot chutney into hot jars, screw the lids on tightly and invert. When you return after ten or twenty minutes, the lids should have gone slightly concave, making a good vacuum seal.

Now I’ve realised how really basic and relatively quick and simple chutney can be, I am quite keen to try some more unusual stuff. I would love to hear your ideas, recipes and hints.

For a start, where do you get good jars? I ended up buying a few of those expensive beautiful Italian jobs as I ran out of recycled jars, but once you give those away they’re gone, unless you know the recipient well enough to ask for it back, which you can encourage by suggesting they might get another filled with something good on its return.

When buying food in jars I try to go for those with plastic lids as they seem easier to clean than the metal ones, with those scungy bits of paper lining, and also often to give a better seal. Am I right on this?

Also, do you have any foolproof label-removal methods? I can’t bear standing at the sink with the jar in soapy water, scratching off tiny shreds with my fingernails, but that seems to be what I always end up doing. Any better ideas?

*A quick plug here for the dreary initiative known as Febfast – in this house called FeebleFeb – which Senor and I are doing in an effort to shed some ballast and give the broken-down old livers a rest. Not known for our restraint, we will endure this month as best we can. If you feel like encouraging our team Chopped Livers and sending some bucks to deserving folks (not us!) feel free to sling a dollar our way here. If you are appalled by such tedium, I can only agree and say please have a big glass of something cold for me.


Beet poetry

January 18, 2011

Is it a particularly Australian thing to love beetroot? I have never heard other Anglo people praising it as we do, and clearly the idea of a tinned slice of beetroot on a hamburger is just weird where other Western cultures are concerned.

My childhood was full of tinned beetroot, and I grew to dislike it. I still gag at the thought of soft, gluggy white-bread salad sandwiches soaked in beetroot juice – ugh.

But once I discovered fresh, real, roasted beetroot as as an adult, it became one of my favourite things. Roast beetroot seems to have a deeper, earthier flavour than boiled, I find. Or it could be my imagination – but the excess of leaky pink juices in the boiling takes me back to that sandwich-soaking issue, so roasting is the only way in our house.

Beetroot chunks are especially good in a salad with some feta, don’t you think? Not to mention grated  in the Empress’s delectable beetroot dip courtesy Madhur Jaffrey.

Unaccountably,  the other day I had a craving for beetroot curry. It’s unaccountable because I had never eaten such a thing, or was even sure it existed. The internet yielded quite a few recipes, many of which sounded to my ears either rather bland or too sweet, so instead I experimented a little with a couple of made up versions. The best was this riff on the aforementioned beetroot and feta combination – basically a palak paneer with beetroot. And I have to say, it is rather good – the cheese is essential, it seems to me, to balance out the otherwise rather watery potential of this dish, and since I discovered paneer in the supermarket alongside the haloumi (more on that soon – a festival of salt and fat; is there anything finer?), I’ve become a major fan.

Beetroot palak paneer

  • 2 medium beetroots, roasted, peeled & cut into chunks
  • 2 tbsp vegetable / olive oil
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 2 cm piece ginger, finely chopped
  • 6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 bunch English spinach, finely chopped
  • 1 can chopped tomatoes
  • 1-2 birdseye chillis, roughly chopped
  • 1 small pack paneer (Indian cottage cheese), cubed
  • a few curry leaves
  • pinch garam masala
  • 1-2 tablespoons chopped dill leaves & stalk

1. Fry garlic, onion, ginger till soft, then add spices and curry leaves and fry till aromatic.

2. Add spinach and fry a few minutes till wilted and coated in the spices, then season liberally with salt.

3. Add tomatoes & chilli and bring to the boil.

4. Add beetroot and simmer gently, covered, for 20 or 30 minutes for flavours to develop.

5. Add cubed cheese and garam masala and stir to combine.

6. Sprinkle with chopped dill.

7. Serve with rice and split peas for a sturdy accompaniment, with yoghurt and lemon wedges on the side.


Now, what about you? Do you too love beetroot, and if so, may I urge you to count the ways?




Separation anxiety

January 3, 2011

Happy New Year everyone. I hope you are all still on languid holidays involving lying about reading, dozing, or foraging in the fridge for feasts of lazy food. And if you’re back at work, may the holiday feeling continue just a wee bit longer.

My first post of the year is yet another embarrassing culinary confession: I am crap at separating eggs. I’m even pretty crap at just cracking them, to be honest. This rather demeaning lack of expertise was brought home to me several times in the lead-up to Christmas. First, in the making of forty-five packages of chocolate brownies for Senor’s best customers and a few friends (that was a lot of egg-cracking), and second, in the making of 10 times the quantity of these spiced nuts, which I once again stuffed into the family food gifts this year.

Around the same time I was watching Nigella Lawson doing her Express cooking on telly (just to keep my outrage pilot light aflame, you understand – can’t abide the woman but it’s difficult to look away…) and finding my usual irritation rising tenfold when she seemingly effortlessly cracked an egg with one hand and then proceeded to go about her work without wiping her hands. Seriously, I watched for five more minutes just in the hope she would at some point run her eggy hand over something – her bosom, anything! – to wipe it clean, but no. Apparently The Goddess’s assets include spotless yolk-free fingers among her other skills.

So let’s talk about this – I want to hear how you do it. For myself, the method varies. I try to blithely snap the egg on the side of the bowl a la Nigella, but usually this results in me just efficiently dinting the shell into a minutely crazed patch, all ready for tiny bits of shell to fall straight into the egg once I do get it open. Then I spend long minutes chasing shreds of shell around the bowl with another bit of shell, which may or may not break and add to the problem.

Otherwise, I crack a sharp knife on to the egg held in my hand and hope it doesn’t go right through the shell into my palm. This does give a cleaner break (to the egg that is, boom tish), but lacks the panache of the side-of-bowl approach, and also leads to eggy hands if the blow is a little too sharp and cracks the egg more deeply than anticipated.

Now on to separating. I seem to have a deep anxiety about this, perhaps instilled in childhood. There is an almost pathological fear of escaped yolk infecting the white, and so I seem to spend inordinate lengths of time with held breath, tipping the yolk from one half-shell to the other –  a feat made more difficult by my hopeless cracking (see above), which often results in the ‘halves’ being most unequal, and thus I can be scooting an egg yolk from one cavernous bowl of shell on to a teeny jagged shell plate the breadth of a thimble, then back again, for long, terror-filled minutes.

I don’t think this is normal.

There is, of course, the method often favoured by lascivious folks like Nigella – plopping the whole lot into your hand and letting the white seep through your fingers into the bowl. Now, I’m all for the sensual pleasures of cooking, but quite frankly I find this disgusting. Not to mention inefficient – if you’re like me, half the white would end up dripping down your arm and into your apron pockets, and then how the hell do you measure whether you have enough white left for the recipe? And there’s the contamination factor – my cooking hands are always washed several times during the process, but if  a bit of yolk equals major systems failure, what about the inevitable oils or detergents or butter or other cooky stuff that must remain on the hands at least some of the time?

Now, I suspect that some of you will advise me to take the coward’s path and acquire one of these contraptions or even, God forbid, one of these (thank you Jules, I knew I’d get to use it one day…) but frankly I will take such advice as an insult. I want to know your best methods of unaided egg cracking and separation, and I want to know them now.

Please share! How do you do it? Are you an egg-all-over-the-shop cracker like me, or a spotless Nigella type? Do you share my separation anxiety? Any tips? I know that at least one of you has an intriguing shell-retrieval method passed down by her mother, so come on, share the love!

A wee announcement

This year is going to be a huge one for me, as I have not only my new novel Animal People to edit and get ready for publication in October, but I have managed to persuade the wonderful Allen & Unwin to let me write another book, which will be published in April 2012.  I am very excited about it, as it’s a complete departure from fiction (and may – shhhh – involve matters close to our hearts here in howtoshuckanoysterland!), but it’s going to take up an enormous amount of my time between now and the end of August when I need to have it finished. That’s started, middled, and ended. Yikes.

Now, I desperately want to keep this blog ticking over regularly, but I’m thinking the best way to do that without growing stressed and resentful about getting everything done is to pull back a little and post an entry here around once a fortnight. I very much hope you will stay with me, as your readership and conversation here are among the great joys of my life. If you can, maybe subscribing by email (fill in the bit at the right of the screen, headed ‘get email alerts’) will save the irritation of finding no new posts online when you visit. This function sends you an email alert only when there’s something new to read here – no new post, no email.

But now, back to the crucial questions: how do you crack your eggs?