Archive for the ‘recipes’ Category

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Something borrowed

November 5, 2012

As any visitor here will know, the sharing of food is one of the great joys of my life – but I don’t think we’ve ever really talked about the whys and wherefores of actually sharing recipes and ideas for dishes. It seems self-evident that folks who read – and write – cookery blogs have a natural, internalised desire to share knowledge and ideas about cooking, so it has always stunned me when people talk about having “secret” recipes.

Secrecy over recipes and the fierce withholding of kitchen expertise plays a central role in the film Toast, the dramatisation of Nigel Slater’s memoir of the same title (I’m assuming the same events occur in the book) . From Slater’s Wikipedia page:

[Slater] used food to compete with his stepmother – the former cleaning lady – for his father’s attention. Their biggest battle was over lemon meringue pie – his father’s favourite. His stepmother refused to divulge her recipe, so Slater resorted to subterfuge in order to turn out his own version. “I’d count the egg-shells in the bin, to see how many eggs she’d used and write them down. I’d come in at different times, when I knew she was making it. I’d just catch her when she was doing some meringue, building up that recipe slowly over a matter of months, if not years.”

Whatever the truth of Slater’s step-mum’s kitchen caper might have been, his portrayal of her represents a figure some people know well. I wonder if this kind of woman – always a woman in the stories I’ve heard – is still around, or is she only a figure of bygone eras, when a woman’s power in society was so limited that she felt she had to wield it in this manner?

Or am I inventing this Fifties Femme?

My own mother couldn’t give a damn about who had her recipes, but then she was never a particularly passionate cook to begin with. Unlike a friend’s aunt, who staunchly refused for decades to share the recipe for her legendary melting moments. Eventually, suffering a brief attack of magnanimity, Aunty Mean deigned to offer the recipe to her niece, a brilliant cook – but only on the proviso that she promised never to share it with her mother!  Rather takes the cake (boom-tish) for sibling rivalry, don’t you think? My loyal friend politely declined the offer, managing not to add, “It’s only a fucking biscuit!”

The holding of recipe cards close to the chest in this way speaks of all kinds of things that have, obviously, nothing to do with the biscuit. It implies that cooking is a contest, that the only value in making beautiful food for others is in your power to impress them, and indeed that one’s esteem in the eyes of others is so fragile that refusal to share something as trivial as a recipe will actually help maintain that esteem. When of course it just does the opposite – paints you as desperate rather than skilled, mean-spirited rather than generous. In fact the whole concept of generosity is completely absent in this kind of syndrome. As well, when all recipes spring from other recipes, it seems somehow dishonourable to suggest that my recipe alone is original, and therefore so much more valuable than yours. It also smacks of a lack of confidence about the bounty of creativity – this recipe is so precious because there will never be others to take its place. I’ve known writers like this in my time, who obsessively, vigilantly – and in vain – inspect the work of others for similarities to theirs. What such people seem not to understand is that this fearful obsessing over other people’s wells of creativity means that their own will always be in danger of drying up completely.

Anyhoo, I’m happy to say that among my friends and family, recipes and food ideas fly back and forth and round and about with complete abandon. Take the unbelievably good lemon curd fool we ate at the Empress’s palace last week, which I then immediately pinched for our dinner guests on Saturday night. It’s one of the easiest, quickest and yet most swooningly striking desserts you’ll ever try. Bizarrely, I had never made lemon curd until that day but now I know how easy and how very fine it is – my favourite meld of citrussy tartness and sweetness –  I’m going to find many other desserty avenues for it.

Which brings me to another part of the pleasure of sharing recipes; one leads to another, which then morphs into another which gives birth to another and another, in a rich cycle of generosity, abundance and plenty. And as soon as I “invent” – or am given! – a suitably delicious new incarnation of this luxurious dessert I’m inviting the Empress over to eat it.

Lemon curd fool

  1. Make a lemon curd – I used the recipe in Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion, but there are thousands about – and let it cool, then chill (I made ours the day before).
  2. Whip some cream into stiff peaks – from memory I used 300ml pouring cream for a curd of 1.5 times Stephanie’s quantity.
  3. Mix the two together – that’s it! Simplicity itself.

We served ours in small glasses with a sploosh of passionfruit pulp on top of each one. The Empress had a wafer of home-made biscotti sticking out of hers. I can imagine all kinds of lovely toppings and additions –  crumbled pistachios maybe, or a little finely chopped mint?

Love to hear your tales of recipes shared or protected. Do people still refuse to share recipes? Or, as women have actually begun to take part in the world beyond the kitchen, has such desperate recipe-protection become a thing of the past? And I wonder if the syndrome has arisen among men as they begin to take up more space in the kitchen? Or am I looking at this whole thing from the wrong point of view? Is there any virtue in keeping “secret recipes” that I’m overlooking?

And if you have a favourite use for lemon curd, do share ……

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Fear of tofu

November 20, 2009

Don’t get me wrong, I love tofu. In good Thai and Japanese restaurants, or when somebody skilled cooks it for me. Agedashi tofu is one of my favourite things in the world. And at our favourite Thai, the beloved Ploy, there are a couple of tofu dishes to die for – one stir-fried tofu with bean sprouts, and the other a divine larb tofu salad.

Tofu should be on our home menu more often as we are trying to cut down on meat for all the obvious and much-discussed reasons.

But when it comes to cooking with tofu, I am filled with anxiety. Which one, for starters? What is the difference between ‘silken’ and ‘firm silken’ and ‘firm’, for example? Recipes tend to say ‘firm’  or ‘soft’ but the shops seem to have zillions of different kinds. I am way too confused to master this stuff, and always expect it to fall apart, so have generally just steered clear.

However, yesterday I decided to feel the fear and do it anyway (which reminds me of stonesoup’s excellent post on that subject recently).

I decided to have a crack at a very delicious looking Karen Martini recipe that appeared in the Sunday rag a little while ago. But as hers had salted black beans and various other bits and bobs in it, and I couldn’t be bothered hauling myself to the Asian supermarket to get such things, I just bastardised our usual basil and chilli stirfry taught to me many years ago by our Asian gourmand friend Ricardo, the lunging latino.

The first thing I did was buy the wrong tofu. ‘Firm silken’ is not the same as ‘firm’, I discovered as soon as I unwrapped the former (pictured above, at rear). Lovely soft, wobbly stuff – but even getting it out of the packet made it start to crumble and collapse, and I had visions of a wokful of sloppy custard. So back to the grocer for a block of the hard stuff, easily chopped into pieces (foreground).

I dried and fried the tofu cubes first, then drained them on kitchen paper – then did the rest of the stirfry and then tossed the tofu back in at the end with the fish sauce and basil. The result? Pretty damn fine! So here is the befuddled recipe, which can obviously be mixed and matched and altered as you wish.

But before my next foray into tofuworld, I would love to hear from any aficionados who may be lurking here – I need your advice! Tips, tricks, which is best for what, other easy recipes, how to buy, store, etc. Come on: spill.

Pork & tofu stir fry with chilli & basil

  • rice bran / peanut / vegetable oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, sliced
  • small knob ginger, julienned
  • 1 block firm tofu, cut into 1.5cm cubes
  • 150g pork mince
  • 1/3 red capsicum, cut into sizable chunks
  • handful green beans, halved
  • 2 birdseye chillis with seeds, split lengthwise
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce, or more to taste
  • 1 teaspoon brown sugar, to taste
  • 1/2 bunch basil
  • steamed jasmine rice, to serve
  1. Heat a little oil in wok or other pan to smoking point, then toss in garlic &  ginger for 10-20 seconds.
  2. Add tofu cubes and fry for 2 minutes, turning so all sides are golden.
  3. Remove wok from heat while you remove tofu pieces & leave to drain on kitchen paper.
  4. Return to heat and add pork mince to pan, stir frying for a few minutes.
  5. Remove pork and set aside. Either wipe out pan or continue with pork juices.
  6. Add chilli, beans, capsicum and cook on high heat till just tender – a little water added to the pan can sometimes help cook more evenly.
  7. Return pork and tofu to pan and stir to mix, keeping heat high
  8. Add fish sauce & brown sugar, adjusting each to taste.
  9. When you are happy with the seasoning, tear basil leaves from stalks and toss through.
  10. Serve on a bed of fluffy rice.
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Little Patty

October 18, 2009

salmonpatties1Last weekend’s birthday party excesses left us with a heap of leftover poached salmon – the perfect excuse to indulge in some sixties-style comfort food: the classic salmon patty.

I made these last Sunday for a friend whose French mother happened to telephone as I was cooking and, being French, asked what was for dinner. My friend graciously described these little babies as salmon croquettes, which sounds far more glamorous. You can call them what you like, but they are sweet, crunchy, deliciously simple.

I enjoyed them so much that I cooked them again in a different house a few days later – this time not with leftover salmon but one medium fillet. Both times I discovered that a little salmon goes a hell of a long way (a single salmon fillet and one large potato made 12 medium-sized patties, for example), so I had leftovers to freeze both times. The second time I steamed the salmon fillet till just cooked through. This recipe is for the single fillet as it’s easier to work out quantities, but you’ll be able to judge for yourself – I’d suggest marginally more salmon than potato, and enough egg to make it bind.

What you need:

  • Steamed/cooked salmon, flaked
  • 1 potato, peeled, cooked & mashed
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 1/3 bunch dill stems, finely chopped
  • 1 egg
  • very fine breadcrumbs (I hate buying them so made my own, but whatever works)
  • salt & pepper
  • vegetable oil, for shallow frying
  • yoghurt, honey & chopped dill, for dolloping

salmonpatties21. Fry the onion, garlic & dill stems till soft.

2. Combine the potato, salmon & onion mix in a bowl.

3. Add the broken egg and mix till well combined.

4. Form the mix into patties about 5cm diameter, and while the oil is heating, coat in breadcrumbs on either side.

5. When the oil is quite hot, shallow-fry on both sides till golden, and drain well on kitchen paper.

Serve with a green salad and a big fat dollop of yoghurt mixed with a little honey, lots of salt and chopped dill.

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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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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?

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A Woman of Style, Substance & Hedgehog Slice

August 19, 2009

hedgehogI have just heard tonight that Mrs Spain, one of my mother’s dearest friends, died this week. My mum died 15 years ago, and I haven’t kept properly in touch with her friends … so it came as a great shock to hear that Marie, who was without question the most glamorous woman in my parents’  country Catholic family circle, was in her seventies (I realise I have always pictured her as still resolutely, elegantly 47), and had had Alzheimer’s for some time, and in the past week apparently decided her time was up, and refused food and drink, and faded away with her daughters by her side.

Marie Spain was quite a woman, let me tell you.

When were small, our family of seven would turn up to Mass late, every week, with each one of us kids looking as if we’d been torn through a bush backwards – hair fuzzed, clothes misbuttoned, faces unsuccessfully tissue-swabbed, still squirming and tearfully or viciously swatting at one another over some outrage committed in the Kombi on the way to church. Once they got us into the pew, I think our exhausted parents simply closed their eyes with relief at the hour of enforced silence to come (somehow the presence of God, incense and altar boys, combined with an icy parental stare when necessary, momentarily stilled the Beelzebubs within).

But though we were always late, there was invariably one family who arrived later – but oh, so gratifyingly so. Each week, with a regal air I am certain they never knew they had, would enter a procession of Spains, all nine or twelve or sixty of them (they had multitudes of kids, plus various extraneous extended family members of all generations in constant residence, I seem to recall…) and take up their series of pews down near the front.

The differences between my family and the Spains were many and various (mostly to do with sporting prowess and wide smiles and great warmth and good looks on their part, vs wan, lankhaired, spottiness and physical clumsiness on ours) but by far the most enthralling of these differences was that the Spains – all of them, but none more than Marie – always dressed like a million bucks.

I don’t think they had a million bucks,  but Marie was one of those women of our mum’s generation who could sew. I mean really sew, not the apologetic crookedly-pinned, wonkily hemmed A-line skirts we would labour over under Mum’s bored, lacklustre supervision and the Singer threaded too tight. Marie’s stuff was serious art: the kind of French-seamed, gorgeously satiny lined, perfectly fitted stuff we would all pay thousands for these days if we could afford it, which we never will, because that kind of skill and eye for beauty is priceless.

So Marie arriving at Mass was something akin to Audrey Hepburn taking a stroll down the aisle of Our Lady Help of Christians Church, Cooma North, every Sunday. I’m talking elaborate hats, and, when called for, minxy black mantillas. I’m talking gorgeously tailored suits in sumptuous fabrics, gleaming, unscuffed shoes and matching bags, fashionably barbaric jewellery. This was the seventies: Marie wore fur, and tartan pantsuits, and slinky boots, and in one glorious phase the Spains would come to church each week accompanied by a new movie-star mother, in a fabulously funky wig: platinum bouffant one week, redhead flapper the next.

We would gaze along the pews past our mother, past all the other perfectly presentable women like the ones we girls would grow up to be, and who paled (and still do) into the faded green baize carpet in comparison to Marie Spain. If she  happened to be hovering in her grotto on the wall above Marie that week, the boring old Virgin in her chipped blue plaster sack, with her downcast eyes and her lank defeated hair, simply never stood a chance.

Marie and her husband Brian – a tall, strong-boned, confident, handsome tennis champ with warmth to burn – made a dashing couple. Their arrival at Mass was as if a pair of birds of paradise landed on the church steps every week, with a brood of chicks-in-training-plumage  stepping along behind.

I’m told that the priest there now, a young chap, never knew Marie. It’s kind of unthinkable to me, that her funeral might be presided over by someone who never witnessed this Sunday spectacular. Not his fault, obviously. But just in case he happens to read food blogs, this is for him: Marie was a woman of a steady, powerful gaze; slender shoulders; a firm handshake; perfect lipstick (red, I think); excellent Twiggy-style haircuts; bold earrings; immaculate tailoring; a husky, throaty, flirtatious laugh; a complete absence of bullshit; a conception of love and family (and god, I reckon, for that matter) that surpassed all boundaries of blood or duty, to embrace anyone having a moment of loneliness or need; a woman of boundless love, enormous verve, enormous fun.

When our father got sick and died at 53, Marie and Brian were there, instantly and at all times for my mother, and for us. When our mother got sick a few years later, Marie and Brian were there, instantly, by her side, full of love and outrage. When Brian, super-fit and indestructible, suddenly became ill himself and died devastatingly young, my family was shaken to the core for all the lovely Spains. It was impossible that he had gone, and still feels like that. They were a team.

So tonight I feel the same all over again about Marie herself, though I haven’t seen her for decades. I simply cannot get my head around her being old, being gone.

There is one more thing about her.

Every year on my father’s birthday, Marie would show up at our house with a small plateful of her famous chocolate hedgehog slice. This stuff is legendary. And in her typically stylish fashion, Marie’s slice made an entrance – a few perfect squares, artful on a white plate, or wrapped in some elegant paper – and on this day, once a year, the package was always strictly for Dad, and Dad alone. The hedgehog slice would go straight into the fridge, in its special wrapping, until he got home from work. We kids were never allowed to even sniff it, though we stared longingly, with the fridge door held open, and I guess now and again we must have been given enough of a tiniest taste for me to have developed the Pavlovian drool that still starts up whenever I think of it.

I think it took a woman with a hundred kids and every demand under the sun upon her to understand something about the specialness of the biscuit equivalent of A Room of One’s Own – how she managed it every year I don’t know. But the hedgehog cake was Dad’s birthday treat, delivered by Marie every year without fanfare, without fail, and savoured every time.

So Vale Marie: fashion icon, generous soul, deeply  loved woman with exactly the right overabundance of style and substance. I proffer this recipe for hedgehog slice, which cannot possibly measure up to hers, but all the same, I offer it in her honour and memory, with love.

Hedgehog Slice

  • 250g plain sweet biscuits (e.g. milk arrowroot)
  • 3/4 cup chopped hazelnuts
  • 125g butter
  • 125g sugar
  • 2 level tbsp cocoa
  • 2 tbsp coconut
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 beaten egg
  • 200g good quality dark chocolate

Crush biscuits, leaving some lumps, add nuts.

Combine butter, sugar, cocoa, coconut and vanilla in a saucepan and cook for 2 minutes.

Cool slightly and add egg, then add to biscuit & nut mixture.

Melt chocolate and stir thoroughly into mixture.

Refrigerate until set, about an hour. 

Cut into squares, reserving five or six to take on a small plate to your friend on his birthday.

* This recipe, while pretty good, nowhere near approaches Marie Spain’s hedgehog slice. If I ever get my hands on the original recipe, I will most definitely post it here.

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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…