Archive for the ‘generosity’ Category

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Hazelnuts, sisterhood & serendipity

September 3, 2012

I love how the best meals so often come about through serendipity. Last night’s was like that for us, prompted by a gift from my friend Tigs last week (delivered along with a fresh batch of Alice Thomas Ellis books, woohoo!) – a little bag of these rather beautiful hazelnuts from the Blue Mountains.

My first thought was to serve the chopped hazelnuts with green beans, but then I decided to try something new, so turned to my trusty Eat Your Books account to search further afield. I can’t recall if I’ve raved here before about EYB, though I certainly have elsewhere. In fact, here’s what I wrote about them for Good Weekend magazine earlier this year.

Have too many cookbooks, yet still find you’re always Googling recipes? Eatyourbooks.com is a search engine for the cookbooks you already own. Register, then simply type in the book titles to create your database. Then enter ‘cherries’, for example, and up pops an index of every recipe using cherries in your collection. Choose one, pull the book from your shelf and cook yourself happy. The site’s index is often far superior to those in your books, and provides a shopping list with each summary. It’s a global site with an impressively vast and growing Australian book list, and even includes options for indexing blogs, obscure books and your own ragged clippings. $25 per year.

I have no affiliation with EYB apart from being a huge fan of this idea and of the very cool women who run it. It was started by sisters Jane Kelly & Fiona Nugent, but has grown heaps. Their customer service, from what I’ve seen, is brilliant and the site is so well designed and constructed I use it all the time. It also now has a mobile version so you can look up stuff from your smartphone while you’re shopping, and it will provide you with a shopping list of ingredients you need for each recipe – ingenious!

One of the best things about it is the quality of the indexing, which means you can often find things here that won’t appear where you expect, if at all, in your cookbooks’ own indexes which are often pretty basic.

Yesterday was a case in point. My search for  ‘hazelnuts’ brought up a zippy-sounding dish from the first (much loved in our house) Ottolenghi book – a red pepper & hazelnut salsa. But when I searched in the book’s index I couldn’t find it, until I looked up the full recipe title handily provided by EYB – ‘Salmon with red pepper & hazelnut salsa’. And then off I went – but without Eat Your Books I doubt I would have come across it at all. And it was good.

We planned to have it with some panfried snapper fillets, and I was toying with another couple of side dish ideas – but then I spied that the opposite page to the salsa recipe held another great Ottolenghi combo: sweet potato with a lime, chilli and coriander dressing. More serendipity, and more divine dinner for us.

Anyway – back to the nuts!

First step was to crack those babies – our bowl of nuts yielded about 50g of hazelnuts. I think I used about 30g in the dish and saved the rest – shelling nuts always makes me appreciate how relatively cheap it is to buy shelled nuts, because with hard nuts like these it’s a bit of a palaver. Once I got into the rhythm of it with our nutcracker – also known as The Big Red Pliers – however, it only took about five minutes. Collecting all the sharp little bits of shell out of the stove fittings, off the floor, the kitchen shelves and so on took a little longer. They were very nice raw, even with the slightly bitter skins on, but toasted in the oven for ten minutes and with most of the skins rubbed away they were really good – crunchier, and with the unique, slightly sweet flavour that hazels have.

Next step was to roast two red capsicums until the skin blackened enough for peeling, and then I cut it into thin strips rather than finely chopped as the recipe says.

A dressing of chives, lemon juice, a single finely chopped garlic clove, olive oil and the surprise star  ingredient of apple cider vinegar  made this a really delicious side dish.

We’re trying to eat more veg so along with the sweet potato we had some blanched green beans and gorgeous balsamic roasted beetroot. I used to always roast the beetroot whole and then remove the skin – but now I just quarter it and roast in pieces, keeping the skin on (hooray, yet another way to avoid boring & annoying peeling!) and then tossing the caramelly chunks in a spoonful of Balsamic vinegar just near the end of cooking.

I have to say, this was one of the best dinners we’ve eaten at home for ages – and all resulting from a friend’s generosity, a couple of gals with a smart idea and a computer – and serendipity.

What about you – made anything good by happy chance lately?

 

 

 

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Conflict in the kitchen

April 6, 2012

Lately I’ve been thinking about culinary power plays between couples.

It’s my observation that, with couples who are interested in cooking, there often tends to be one party who does the fancy footwork and gets the praise, and the other who ends up at best as sous chef – or at worst, general dogsbody whose flourishes are relegated to taking the garbage out rather than the main course to the table.

Certainly in our house when friends come round I’m generally the one who gets to do the razzledazzling while Senor patiently stands by, either at front-of-house with drinks and hospitality, or – more shamefully for me – at the sink with the dishcloth.  In general this arrangement seems to suit both of us, and probably works fine in your house too. But it’s worth questioning, I think.

Because occasionally I have noticed, among some couples I know, that rather more of a power play seems to be going on, with the main cook subtly (or even overtly) intimidating the sous-chef so the latter never gets to develop their cooking skills, and the only meals they are allowed to cook are of the thankless, everyday, dinner-for-the kids variety. Meanwhile, the more confident Better Cook has all the fun. She or he gets to try new the new dishes, buy the expensive ingredients and the flashy gear and generally be the star of the show when friends show up for dinner. They also get to make the mess, then sit back for the praise and the wine while the spouse gets busy stacking the dishes.

I even know of one or two cases where the “Lesser Cook” is actively discouraged, even forbidden, to cook for friends by the Better Cook. None of this is stated up front, of course; it’s justified because ‘I like to do it’; ‘It’s easier for me’; ‘You get too stressed’ and other such furphies. In this way the roles become even more established. The Lesser Cook becomes rather patronisingly known as ‘good at salads’ or ‘a great help in the kitchen’, while the Better Cook can even indulge in a little kitchen martyrdom, sighing at having to do All the Work Again.

This situation is not good, people! 

When Senor and I first met over a decade ago he was not a confident cook. He is now. But in the early days of his culinary development, it took every ounce of my strength not to stand watching over his shoulder, questioning his choice of dish, his onion-chopping method, his balancing of oil and vinegar. No doubt I did a lot of that. And sometimes, to be honest, it’s still tricky – after all, when you do know how to do something it seems only sensible to instruct and educate someone who doesn’t.

The problem is that ‘educating’ can so easily topple over into criticising and intimidating and undermining. And it means the less confident cook remains dependent on the other for approval, unable to confidently produce a great dessert or even independently arrange dinner with friends. It’s a vicious cycle.

I learned that the best way to encourage Senor to cook was simply to stay out of the kitchen altogether while he did the choosing, shopping and cooking. And if there were a few wonky meals as a result, there have also been many more brilliant ones – he is more imaginative in the kitchen than I am, often more ambitious and energetic and certainly more amenable to trying new things.  If he asks for an opinion on how to do something I’ll give it, but otherwise I am now very happy to go read a book while he does his stuff.

I think the solution for us, has turned out to be only one cook in the kitchen at a time. Other couples we know have different arrangements – dividing kitchen labour by course, or by main-or-side dishes, or by occasion.

Over time it’s turned out that Senor’s & my repertoires have settled into a kind of genre pattern – he tends to do Asian cookery much more than I do, and is also much more of a dessert buff, while I lean more towards the simple classics. I am still the one who tends to cook more for our friends, but if he ever volunteers I am totally up for it.

Now, to a recipe.

This one is apropos of nothing really, except that I love peas. And I love leeks. And I love anchovies. And it’s the kind of side dish that can be made ahead, and eaten hot or room temperature or even chilled. And any sous-chef can make it on their way to turning the tables and becoming the King or Queen of the Kitchen.

Braised peas, leeks & anchovies

  • 1 leek, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 5 anchovies in oil, mashed
  • 500g frozen peas
  • 1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
  • a squeeze of lemon juice
  • salt & pepper
  1. Saute the leek, garlic & anchovies gently in a little oil until leek & garlic are soft.
  2. Toss in the peas and stock, bring to the boil and simmer until peas are tender and the liquid has largely gone.
  3. Season with lemon juice to taste, salt & pepper.

Now, tell me about your kitchen politics. Who does what in your house, and how do you divide the labour? Have you, like me, ever been guilty of culinary power plays, or felt intimidated out of cooking by a flatmate or spouse? Come on, spill …

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Food & friendship: on Crossing to Safety

February 1, 2010

‘The expression of a civilised cuisine’

It’s been a while since I posted any fictional food, and this morning trawling through my bookshelves for readerlyinspiration I found Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner. This novel (introduced to me, incidentally, by the Parsnip Princess) is One of Those Books – it will remain one of my favourites for ever, I think. It’s about a lifelong friendship between two couples, and the dominance of one charismatic, exceptional, difficult woman over all four individuals. Very little has been written about this kind of complex, meandering, intense friendship, so the subject in itself is a fine thing. But the finest thing is the writing. I love this book.

Here are new arrivals Larry and Sally going to Sid and Charity Lang’s place for the first time.

I have heard of people’s lives being changed by a dramatic or traumatic event – a death, a divorce, a winning lottery ticket, a failed exam. I never heard of anybody’s life but ours being changed by a dinner party.

We straggled into Madison, western orphans, and the Langs adopted us into their numerous, rich, powerful, reassuring tribe. We wandered into their orderly Newtonian universe, a couple of asteroids, and they captured us with their gravitational pull and made moons of us and fixed us in orbit around themselves.

What the disorderly crave above everything else is order, what the dislocated aspire to is location. Reading my way out of disaster in the Berkeley library, I had run into Henry Adams. ‘Chaos,’ he told me, ‘is the law of nature; order is the dream of man.’ No-one had ever put my life to me with such precision, and when I read the passage to Sally, she heard it in the same way I did. Because of her mother’s uncertain profession, early divorce, and early death, she had first been dragged around and farmed out, and later deposited in the care of overburdened relatives. I had lost my security, she had never had any. Both of us were peculiarly susceptible to friendship. When the Langs opened their house and their hearts to us, we crept gratefully in.

Crept? Rushed. Coming from meagerness and low expectations, we felt their friendship as freezing travelers feel a dry room and a fire. Crowded in, rubbing our hands with satisfaction, and were never the same thereafter. Thought better of ourselves, thought better of the world.

In its details, that dinner party was not greatly different from hundreds we have enjoyed since. We drank, largely and with a recklessness born of inexperience. We ate, and well, but who remembers what? Chicken kiev, saltimbocca, escallope de veau, whatever it was, it was the expression of a civilised cuisine, as far above our usual fare as manna is above a baked potato. A pretty table was part of it, too – flowers, wine in fragile glasses, silver whose weight was a satisfaction in the hand. But the heart of it was the two people who had prepared the occasion, apparently just to show their enthusiasm for Sally and me.


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Loaves and fishes: my list of miracle foods

December 15, 2009

Okay, I know Christmas isn’t strictly related to that particular miracle (reminds me of the time my heathen brother-in-law demanded of my mother what the hell Easter eggs had to do with Jesus being born in Bethlehem anyway…), but one of the things I really like Christmas & New Year holidays is the tendency toward spontaneous and sprawly gatherings over food.

You know the kind of thing, two people for lunch turns into ten, and an instant party ensues. But to make that kind of thing fun it’s gotta be stress free – so here’s my list of good stuff you can pull out at the last second for lunch or picknicky dinner, or take to a friend’s place to blast off their Christmas stress.

Some are old summer holiday faves, and some gleaned from these pages this year. Most of this stuff can be bought in advance and shoved in the fridge, freezer or pantry to pull our for miracle-working when requried…

  • Oysters – of course! Buy them unopened a few days before Christmas and keep in a bucket with a wet towel over them in a cool place – they keep for a couple of weeks.
  • Glazed ham – leftovers, for weeks. Mmmmm.
  • Chutneys & pickles – years ago the Empress introduced me to the killer recipe for Christine Manfield’s eggplant pickle.
  • Smoked salmon – or Virginia & Nigella’s cured salmon! – w creme fraiche and/or salmon roe & sourdough
  • Smoked trout –  keep a couple in the freezer and pull them out any old time
  • Cooked prawns, green salad, mayonnaise
  • Bread – keep a supply of sourdough in the freezer
  • Green salad, nicely dressed with good oil & vinegar
  • Chickpeas – of course! Chuck em in a bowl with bottled roasted capsicum & marinated feta or labneh, or try these ideas
  • Baba ganoush & Steph’s beetroot dip – plus packets and packets of rice crackers
  • Quinoa salad or citrus couscous (make a huge batch – both of these keep forever)
  • Lots of luscious, ripe avocado – buy a heap of those rock hard ones now to have softies on hand for later.
  • Lots and lots and lots of ripe tomatoes
  • Devils on horseback – everybody loves them! And you can keep sealed pancetta & pitted prunes on hand for months…
  • A couple of fillets of salmon in the freezer and a couple of spuds can yield a heap of salmon patties for a crowd.
  • Peas! I am never without a huge bag of frozen peas in the freezer. Actually there will be a new post on peas coming shortly…
  • Eggs – chuck a few halved, hard-boiled eggs in a green salad with some chunks of fresh, cured or smoked salmon and you have a delicious twist on nicoise.
  • Labneh – mmmm.
  • Quiche – if you have frozen shortcrust pastry in the freezer, a quiche takes about fifteen minutes to throw together and another twenty to cook. Fast and fab.

Okeydokes, that’s Santa’s (or Jesus’s?) list of magic expandable food for now – but you must have lots of things to add …

*Oh, and today’s Christmas Excess Antidote is courtesy of www.kiva.org– I absolutely love this site. At the click of a mouse you can provide a micro-loan (as little as $25) to someone in a developing country who’s making a go of things with very slim pickings indeed. I love it so much because your loan just keeps on giving – you can either get the money back (though what kind of a person …) or choose that it goes to someone else in the chain. Perfect!

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The platters that matter…

October 13, 2009

4candlesMenu for a 40th birthday lunch

My absence here over the past week has, till now, been almost entirely food-related. Well, celebration-related anyway – and in my family that means food. My sister’s 40th birthday on the weekend involved a bunch of us staying in houses on the coast just south of Sydney, and a few others popping down for the day. The main event was a birthday lunch for 25.

All our old family favourites (both human and culinary!) came to the table – a table groaning with platters of lovely food, it must be said, and as the last stayer at the coastal house I am the beneficiary of my sister’s generosity, still chomping my way through the leftovers.

Sadly I was too busy on the day to take pictures, which is a shame cos it looked beautiful. But nevertheless thought I’d share the menu with you here in case you ever need some stalwart standouts to cook for a crowd – everything on this menu is low-stress, almost all of it can be made ahead of time, every dish can be served warm or at room temperature, the platters set down a long table create an impression of great, colourful generosity and luscious diversity, and with a couple of vegetarians and one coeliac among our guests, this menu makes everyone happy. I’ll gradually add these recipes to the blog down the track – right now I’m still in culinary recovery – but let me know if any strike you as desperately urgent to have now.

  • Oysters – of course! – freshly shucked, with a squeeze of lemon
  • Rare rump of roast beef, according to Stephanie Alexander’s instructions
  • Poached whole salmon (with a horseradish cream for both this and the beef)
  • Zaatar chicken – from the fab Ottolenghi lads
  • Green beans braised in olive oil, garlic, tomato & dill
  • Roast carrot salad with mint & balsamic
  • Citrus couscous salad
  • Fennel, feta, tarragon & pomegranate salad – another Ottolenghi fave
  • Chickpea, roasted red pepper & marinated feta salad (all from jars & cans, but it looks and tastes fab)
  • Lentil, sundried tomato, parsley and Balsamic salad (ditto)
  • Crisp roast potatoes with minted creme fraiche dressing
  • Dessert, made by sweeter cooks than me, was an incredibly good chocolate and coffee birthday cake (Alice, we’ll have the recipe for that, please?) and the Manna from Heaven chocolate crunch made by Miss Jane; this is a lusciously dastardly version of the old fave hedgehog cake, updated into an utterly irresistible  death-by-chocolate experience.

Lunch went on for hours, the birthday girl looked a million bucks, the speeches were lovely, the wine flowed and the love goes on. Thanks Lou and J&B for a great weekend.

And thanks for the leftovers…

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After the party: farewell The Cook and the Chef

September 16, 2009

maggie_simonWell, it’s finally here.

Tonight, very sadly, sees to air the last-ever episode of  The Cook and the Chef, the only television cooking show I have watched avidly since it began four years ago. I love the dagginess of it, the focus on the food and the recipes and the growers and food producers, rather than the celebrity of the presenters or the flash panache of the camera angles.

I love the aunty-nephew banter between Maggie and Simon, their contrasting tastes and techniques and styles with food. I love the greedy earthiness of their dive-in-and-taste-it methodology at the end of each show, and the honest love of food evident in their gasps and groans while they cup their hands beneath their chins for drips and crumbs. (I have even grown fond of Maggie’s idiosyncratic terror of chilli!) I love the general air of generosity, egalitarianism and passion that has infused this program since the start.

The sense of bounteousness isn’t just about the food itself, either. Both of them speak magnanimously of other chefs, cooks, providores and producers, but Maggie Beer in particular is renowned for her generosity in promoting people and places she thinks have something to offer.

I know of a particular story demonstrating this, when Maggie went to Shanghai to cook at M on the Bund, where our beloved bro-in-law Hamish (who is sadly mostly excluded from joining us here in howtoshuckland these days by China’s Great Firewall!) is executive chef. I am told that when she got up to speak after the Maggie Beer M On the Bund luncheon, almost the entirety of her address was taken up with singing the praises of Hamish and his staff rather than discussing her own role in the luch – and she has kept up the praise ever since.

And then I had my own brush with this munificence, when Maggie wrote to Hamish and Kate telling them how much she liked my book The Submerged Cathedral, which they’d given her to read on the plane home. You can imagine my breathless excitement at that news when they passed it on, knowing I was such a fan of her books and the show. Then the next day, I suddenly began getting texts from friends saying Maggie Beer was on ABC radio recommending my book. Asked in an interview about what she did in her spare time, she apparently began rhapsodising about reading, and mine happened to be her favourite book of the moment. So it’s very clear to me that Ms B is the type of person who will not let a chance go by to give a push to other creators she thinks might do with a helping hand.

I reckon there are two types of creative people – the ones who are fearful of losing the edge, protecting their patch, hoarding ideas, always competing and anxiously looking around at who might be getting ahead of them. And then there’s the other kind, who see their creativity as an ever-filling well, who know that no matter how much they give away, there will be more than enough to go around, and who genuinely get a kick out of sharing their knowledge, skills, and success.

And that is the spirit that has so enlivened The Cook and The Chef for all these years.

So tonight I will be sitting back with a glass of wine, watching and toasting Maggie & Simon for all the fun they’ve brought into our house. Hurrah for them.

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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!