Archive for the ‘salad’ Category

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Christmas material: a festive salad

December 9, 2013

photo 2[2](Take two! Sorry about the disappearance of first draft – I blame WordPress!)

A few weeks ago, when we had some pals round for dinner, I made a salad. I had planned an attempt at replication of one of the most perfect dishes I have ever eaten – a beautiful little salad I ordered as an entree in a Rome restaurant back in October (I could go on, and on, and on about that holiday but I won’t for fear of bursting into bitter tears of post-holiday-self-envy).

It was such a simple thing: a scattering of semi-roasted cherry tomatoes, a handful of tiny, sweet Ligurian olives, and a large, perfectly fresh zucchini flower – uncooked – filled with the most delicious ricotta I have ever tasted. It was one of those dishes that depends absolutely on the quality of each element, yet was so utterly simple, who wouldn’t want to try making it?

photo 5Well, things didn’t exactly to go plan for my dinner. For some reason the day came and rapidly went in a shambles of chaos and disorganization. I can’t recall what  put me in such a flap that day, but it was one of those afternoons of delays, interruptions, annoying shopping glitches – I couldn’t get enough zucchini flowers for the number of people, and the flowers were nowhere near the fresh, springy, silky quality of the one I ate in that dish. And nor could I find any really good ricotta in time. And I decided to add some asparagus to make up for lack of flowers, and my Ligurian olives were boring old kalamatas. By dinnertime, I had reverted to my usual cookery approach: 1. Get all the stuff. 2. Chuck it in a bowl. 3. Stick it on the table.

photo 3The one thing I did get right was the roasting of the tomatoes – little cherry lollybombs of sharp, salty sweetness with a concentrated delicious flavour. Easy to cook, but also easy to overdo at the last minute.

Still, despite being a completely different animal from the elegant entree of my memory, the salad was really quite nice. And one of the friends present liked it so much she told me later she’d decided to make it for her family’s Christmas lunch.

Well. I happened to run into her last week, and she told me she’d given it a trial run at home from her memory of the one we had, as you do. Her bloke and daughter ate the test dish, gave her a dubious glance and said, “Well, it’s not Christmas material.”

Not Christmas Material.

Them’s fightin words, pal.

When I repeated this outrage to Señor and said I’d be making it again and this time writing down what I did, he said: “Is that going to be the headline? Not Christmas Material My Arse?”

So here, in the spirit of reputation reclamation and hopefully the restitution of a Perfectly Good Salad to Miz G’s Christmas table, is a recipe.

The key thing, I reckon, is to use as high quality everything as you can, and  to make sure to roast the tomatoes very slowly. You can do the whole thing ahead of time and then just eat it at room temperature – or eat it warm just after cooking.

Ingredients

  • assorted cherry tomatoes
  • sea salt
  • spray olive oil
  • 2 or more bunches asparagus spears, cut into thirds or halves
  • best black olives you can find – the little sweet plump Ligurian ones are perfect
  • fresh zucchini flowers with tiny zucchini attached
  • best quality balsamic vinegar and olive oil for dressing
  • Best quality soft goat’s cheese or Persian feta

Method

photo 1[2]1. Halve the cherry tomatoes and arrange on baking paper, sprinkle with salt and spray with olive oil. Roast slowly for a couple of hours – I did these at 125 degrees C in a fan-assisted oven for two hours, then turned off the fan and turned down the oven to 100 degrees for another half hour.

2. Blanch the asparagus in boiling water for maximum one minute, the refresh in cold water.

3. Halve the zucchini and flowers lengthwise. Heat a little olive oil in a non-stick pan and then fry the zucchini on the flat side for a minute over moderate heat. Splash a little water into the pan, add the asparagus and cover for a minute, cooking till both zucchini & asparagus are tender.

photo 3[2]4. In a wide shallow bowl or platter, toss the vegetables, tomatoes and olives gently in a dressing of three parts oil to one part vinegar.

5. When it’s all mixed, dollop a few blobs of feta or goat’s cheese over the platter.

Who knows, with its red and green baubley goodness, this one might even make the grade as Christmas material for our table this year.

So what are your plans for Christmas cooking, hmm?

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Backyard grits

November 29, 2013

photo 2The sound of summer round here is the whoosh of the barbecue flame as it lights, the clunk of crockery on the outdoor table, the clicking of crickets and cicadas, and the occasional high tinnitus whine of a mosquito in your ear. Lazy, cruisy evenings outside are one of the great pleasures of the season in the suburbs, don’t you think? It’s been so rainy around here lately that we’ve taken every opportunity between showers to eat dinner outside.

One of our midweek go-to dinners is a few chunks of salmon chucked on the barbecue and a salad. And the star salad of this week turned out to be this beany number, which now has me addicted to canned flageolet beans.

photo 1A friend who moved from Melbourne to Sydney a couple of years ago was horrified to find that these beans are all but impossible to find in this city. A major problem, it turns out, because as I discovered this week – with a single precious can given to me by said friend – the flageolets are a completely different creature to all the other siblings in the canned pulse family. Much more buttery in texture, smaller and altogether sweeter and more delicious than cannellinis or borlottis, these babies are just too good to miss.

My friend has now found a mail-order source, which just shows how essential they are. But if anyone reading this knows where to get them in Sydney, let me know! (I must say I was horribly ashamed of my city on this matter, because it provided some justification for the gasps of distress from pals greeting news of my friend’s move from the south. One actually asked in consternation, “But where are you going to get food!?”)

Anyway, this salad would of course work just fine with other canned beans or even chickpeas. But with the flageolets it was sublime.

photo 3Ingredients

  • 1 can flageolet beans, drained & rinsed
  • handful of fresh broad beans, cooked & double peeled
  • half a red onion, finely sliced
  • a few anchovies
  • a handful of cherry tomatoes
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • large handful parsley, finely chopped
  • juice of half a lemon
  • a slug olive oil
  • good splash raspberry vinegar  (this really made it pop)
  • salt & pepper

Method

Chuck everything in!

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A sucker for octopus

November 26, 2013

photo 4For ages I’ve wanted to try cooking Big Octopus, as opposed to the baby version which has always seemed much more approachable. But over the last while, a few thick slices of pickled or marinated or grilled but always sweetly tender occy in tapas or salads at cool places like Movida and Bar Lourinha in Melbourne and our beloved local Harts Yard in Sydney have given me a taste for tentacles.

So I decided last night to have a crack at a grilled octopus salad. Off to the fish market where I bypassed the baby and medium octopi for the big mamas, and bought a single octopus which weighed a bit over a kilo (our fishmonger removes the head and the beak – if yours doesn’t, you’ll need to do it yourself). After a little research I decided to take a punt with a mix of this and this recipe.

photo 1[1]There’s a lot of advice around about how to cook octopus, but most agree that for tender tentacles, it’s essential to boil or simmer it first. Some folks boil up a big batch and then freeze it (another step in the tenderising process, apparently) so all that’s required is thawing and grilling. I like that idea and might try it in future. I didn’t bother with all the other  recommendations like putting a cork in the water (something to do with tartaric acid) or bashing the crap out of the creature on the back patio first to tenderise it.

photo 2[1]Instead I just brought a big pot of salted water to boil, threw in some eschallots and a few fresh bay leaves, and then dunked the creature into the deep three times. I have absolutely no idea why this is a good idea, but lots of people recommend it. This explains the blurriness of these pictures – it’s quite hard to wrangle a dripping kilo of octopus in tongs in one hand while photographing with the other! Then I dropped it back in, admiring those stunning suckers all the while, covered it with some baking paper (again, not sure of the rationale but I’m an obedient lass) and brought it back to the boil, then turned down to simmer for around 45 minutes.

photo 2When it felt tender when pierced with a skewer, I drained and cooled it under running water, whereupon quite a bit of soft purple skin came away. After that I cut the ‘wheel’ in half and laid the now-soft and still slightly warm tentacles in a glass dish with lots of olive oil, several long sprigs of fresh oregano from the garden, a chopped clove of garlic (received our annual five kilos of Patrice Newell garlic the other day, yippee) and the juice of one lemon. Squidged it all together with clean hands, covered it and bunged it into the fridge for a few hours. Advice for marinating recommends anything from half an hour to overnight, so take your pick. Mine ended up being in there for around five hours.

Then I returned to the desk for an afternoon’s work – back to the novel in progress (and an exciting online project I’m working on with psychologist and coach Alison Manning about managing the emotional ups and downs of the creative life – artists and writers, stay tuned! 

imageOf course it began raining just when I wanted to use the barbecue, so instead I tossed the tentacles in a hot non-stick pan in two batches, cooking for two minutes each side to get that nice lemony golden crust. Then threw them back in the marinade while I fried a few sliced of haloumi for a minute or so each side.

I sliced the tentacles into a few pieces and then chucked the lot into a pile of fresh lettuce leaves (growing lettuce in pots is one of the joys of summer, so easy and soooo much better than bought stuff) with a dressing of balsamic vinegar, olive oil and some chopped preserved lemon.

The result was just about perfect – crisp outside, tender inside and not even faintly rubbery. This would be a lovely lightish yet still substantial entree for four people – but because we are greedy we ate the lot for dinner between two.

Now I’ve mastered the art of tender tentacles I’m going to experiment with lots more uses – tapas, canapés, braises and pickles. Could be the dish of the summer –  if this scarily intelligent species doesn’t rise up and take over our world first, that is…

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Jewel in the crown

January 29, 2013

Jewellery box saladHave you noticed how certain dishes can end up defining a time or a season in your memory?  In our house this seems especially true of salads, and of summer.  In the past we’ve had the Summer of Quinoa, and the Summer of Citrus Couscous (the latter remaining the strongest food memory of a road trip we took with dear friends to Perth and back over a decade ago, camping and couscous-ing all the way).

Well this summer of 2012-13 will most definitely be remembered as The Summer of the Cypriot Salad. Or maybe the Jewellery Box  Salad, as I’ve come to think of it. It’s so beautifully colourful and baubly to look at, I find myself gazing adoringly at it almost for longer than I spend eating it each time. It’s also become fondly known as the Freaky Salad because it uses freekeh (the nutty and chewy green cracked wheat which can be found in some health food stores, but can be quite difficult to get hold of ).

In my last post I think I mentioned how much we loved Hellenic Republic’s “Kipriaki salata dimitriakon – Cypriot salad of grains, pulses, nuts, yoghurt” that we ate during a visit to Melbourne in December.  I couldn’t stop thinking about it even days after we got home; the sign of a great dish, don’t you think?

A hunt around the internet yielded this recipe. However, the ratio of lentils to freekeh here didn’t really match my memory (or preference) so I tweaked it a bit to come up with an ever-changing version that we’ve made over and over. The restaurant version included a dollop of yoghurt and, I think, some cumin, both of which are delicious additions although I have tended not to bother with either over time.

It’s the kind of dish where quantities hardly matter, to be honest, so you will find your own way with whatever you have to hand. The only non-negotiable essential is the puy lentils, I think – and although I have made it without the pomegranate seeds, it is so very much better with them that I’m not sure I’d bother going without. The pumpkin and sunflower seeds are also quite necessary for the salad’s lovely surprising crunch.

This dish has two huge advantages apart from being swooningly good to eat. First, it keeps in the fridge for days and days and days without any noticeable fade in quality, and it is incredibly filling. I discovered just how seriously so for both factors  when we made a huge amount for a lunch party and then spent the entire rest of the week eating the leftovers for lunch and dinner.

So here we go – all quantities are debatable; I generally chuck in a handful or so of whatever I feel like. I do prefer a lentil-freekeh ratio of around three to one, even four to one. I find the salad can get a little gluggy if there’s too much freekeh. I have also very often used a handful or two of wild rice in its place, which works just as beautifully and has the added advantage of being fine for gluten-free folk.  This quantity should work for at least six people, but don’t quote me until you’ve tested it for yoursel

freakysalad2Jewellery Box Salad
viaHellenic Republic

  • Juice 1 orange
  • Olive oil
  • ½ cup currants – or combined currants, dried cranberries, raisins
  • ¼ cup capers, rinsed
  • 1 cup puy lentils
  • ¼ cup freekeh or wild rice
  • 1 cup nuts – pine nuts, pistachios, slivered almonds are nice
  • ½ cup mixed pumpkin & sunflower seeds
  • ½ bunch parsley, finely chopped
  • ½ bunch coriander, finely chopped
  • Juice ½ a lemon
  • Seeds of half a pomegranate
  • Salt & pepper
  1. Soak the dried fruit and capers in the orange juice while you prepare the rest of the dish.
  2. Cook the lentils and freekeh or wild rice separately in boiling water until just tender – I cook the lentils for about 15 or 20 minutes and the freekeh or rice for longer; you want them to retain a tiny bit of bite while still being properly cooked.
  3. When lentils are cooked, drain and then immediately sloosh with some olive oil and salt to give a nice glossy coating and stop them sticking. Add the grain or rice when drained and stir well.
  4. While that’s happening, toast the seeds and nuts in the oven or on the stove top – the usual advice about not looking away applies! If any of them really burn, throw them out and learn your lesson – the bitterness of burnt nuts will taint the whole dish.
  5. Remove the seeds from the pomegranate making sure to avoid the pith – the easiest method is the satisfyingly violent one detailed here.
  6. When the nuts are coolish, chuck all ingredients into a bowl and mix gently but thoroughly. Add more lemon juice or olive oil to taste, season well  and present with a flourish.

Now your turn – what’s been the defining dish of your summer so far? Any favourites to share?

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What I ate on my holidays

January 18, 2013

Salad days

It’s been 46.2 degrees Celsius here in Sydney today – that’s over 112 degrees for you Farenheit fans – at the end of my first week back in the office for a loooong time. Luckily this room is air conditioned  unlike the rest of the house, but I’m wondering what on earth to cook for dinner. Last time it got nearly this hot I made this, but I think I have a batch of Karen Martini’s amazing Syrian chicken in the freezer, so I think we’ll have that (actually it’s ours, not Karen’s – but the recipe is hers…)

January has been perfect salad weather so far. So in lieu of a very, very overdue posting – and just before I go and find a cooling bevvy in the fridge – I’ve decided instead of writing here I will merely present a pictorial history of my favourite bits of holiday cooking and eating. Salads, salads, salads and more salads, with the odd bit of protein thrown in. Have been inspired again by the wonderful Ottolenghi lads, as I was given this fantastic book for Christmas, but also have revived lots of old favourites. Hope to be back here soon with some recipes … if you’re in Australia, stay cool folks!

Oh look, the cool change is here! Aaaaahhhh….

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Leftover largesse: from bland to bling

September 13, 2012

Roast chicken lawar

Whenever I’ve invited people over for dinner and then find I have ended up with almost no time to cook, I tend to fall back on an old favourite in this house – roast chook.

This happened on Tuesday evening. I’d invited six pals around, having forgotten that the plasterer was coming to fix the many cracks in our 120-year-old house. Which meant spending Monday getting allll the furniture and paintings and whatnot out of allll the rooms (except the kitchen, thankfully) while they did their thing – and then on Tuesday ridding the entire house (including kitchen!) of its fresh coating of plaster dust, and hauling all the stuff back into place. All while noticing along the way that my generally sluttish housewifery meant all our belongings were in fact covered with their own rich patina of dust and grime, so all that had to be cleaned as well. Lordy.

Despite the house looking like the above at 10am, we managed to get everything back to order by six o’clock and dinner was had and all was lovely (especially including Senor’s chocolate pots au creme from Neil Perry via our friend F! Divine).

Anyhoo,  as I erred on the side of too much food and roasted two chooks for eight people, this meant two roasted chook breasts waiting to be used in the fridge the next day.

What to do with leftover roast chook? Normally I just pick at it for lunches and whatnot, but this time wanted to try something different.

My brainwave was to revisit my lawar love affair of this time last year, following our beautiful holiday in Bali. And now I reckon this must be one of the most delicious and easy ways to use leftover chicken – because you can make a whole meal from it even if you only have a tiny bit of chook. We had lots, but if you didn’t all you would need to do is just increase the beans or other veg quantities and away you’d go. We’re thinking it might be very nice with beans and cashews or tofu cubes, actually …

Once again I used this SBS Food recipe as the starting point, but this time I doubled the paste quantity so I could keep some of that fab stuff in the freezer. I also added a whole bunch of coriander to the paste, and used one small red birdseye chilli instead of two big ones. As before, I dry-fried half a cupful of shredded coconut till brown.

Rather than going the trad mortar-and-pestle route, I whizzed the paste up in the food processor because I prefer pastes with lemongrass in them to be very smooth. Also I am bone idle as you know and can’t be bothered with all that pounding.

So, into the whizzer went the paste ingredients:

  • 1 birdseye chilli
  • 12 cloves garlic
  • a sizable knob of ginger (about 5cm lump)
  • ditto of fresh peeled galangal
  • a little finger of fresh turmeric
  • roots & leaves of 1 bunch coriander
  • 6 candlenuts
  • 4 roughly chopped lime leaves
  • 12 eschallots
  • 1 chopped stalk lemongrass
  • a couple of teaspoons of shrimp paste
  • 2 tablespoons black peppercorns (ground)
  • 1 tablespoon coriander seeds
  • juice 1 lime
  • juice ½ lemon
  • 2 teaspoons brown sugar
  • salt to taste
  • a few lugs of olive oil (vegetable oil if you wish to be more authentic)

After whizzing for a few minutes, it ended up as a very aromatic yellowish paste.

Next step was to fry off about four tablespoons of this – use as much or as little as you like, but it’s so delicious I say don’t skimp on the amount. I fried it for about six minutes, stirring now and then to stop it sticking, over a medium heat.

While that was going on I shredded the chicken breast meat and set it aside. The real recipe uses poached chicken mince, and you then use the chicken water to cook the beans in. But I just blanched the beans – about 2 cups of green beans, cut into 3cm lengths – in boiling salted water for a little over a minute.

Once the beans were just crisp and refreshed in cold water, I added them to the chicken with about ½ a cupful of thinly sliced red capsicum and the previously browned coconut.

Then I added the lawar paste and combined very thoroughly until all the chicken, beans and capsicum were well coated in the mix. At the end I added the roughly chopped coriander leaves and about a tablespoon of chopped mint, and served this with a wedge of lime on each plate for squeezing. You could serve it with rice, but the paste is so deliciously rich and thick we just ate it in a bowl on its own.

All in all, it was a damn fine dinner.  And it might have been extra good because of the satisfaction quotient involved in transforming quite ordinary leftovers into something much more special, which always feels a bit magical to me.

What about you – any good kitchen transubstantiation going on at your place lately?

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Playing salads

August 29, 2012

The fictional knives of Alice Thomas Ellis

It’s been far too long since I posted some fictional food on this site. But in the last couple of weeks I’ve been introduced to a writer whom I know immediately will become one of my favourites – Alice Thomas Ellis. This was the nom de plume of the English writer and legendary editor Anna Haycraft, and I am indebted to my friend Tegan for lending me The Birds of The Air, which I absolutely loved. Tegan has written about Thomas Ellis in a riveting series of academic essays on literary influence, which I hope to see in widespread publication very soon.

Thomas Ellis is one of those sharp-eyed, caustic observers of the English middle classes, and wrote her thirteen novels from the late 1970s to the 1990s. She died in 2005, and I feel a little mortified that I’d never heard of her before now, because judging by the obituaries of the time she was very highly regarded.

(She reminds me a bit of another recent discovery of mine, Nina Bawden, whose children’s books are renowned but who also wrote brilliant fiction for adults  – coincidentally, the first Bawden book I read was titled The Birds On the Trees ).

Thomas Ellis, like Bawden, is one of those discoveries that thrills because you know there are so many more books to read – on finishing The Birds of the Air I went immediately to Google and discovered not only all the other novels but also, excitingly, that she wrote two books on cooking! Am tracking those down forthwith, but in the meantime am engrossed in Unexplained Laughter, which I ordered as an e-book (nothing quite like that instant gratification) and am loving.  The writing reflects the paradox of Thomas Ellis’s conservative Catholicism – a convert who spent six months as a nun, she famously loathed any progressive change to the church and described the Second Vatican Council (an attempt to modernise some of the most rigid teachings of the Church) as unleashing  a “tide of sewage”. Despite her books being filled with powerful female characters, she was apparently “bitterly opposed” to feminist influence in Catholicism. Go figure.

Tegan tells me that Thomas Ellis’ novels are “full of food” – and so far at least, she’s right. What I love about this extract, from Unexplained Laughter, is how spectacularly narky Thomas Ellis is – food here isn’t the sloshy-galoshy shorthand for sensuous pleasure it so often is in fiction: it’s a point of unspoken tension between two women, black and sharp. With the character of Lydia so immediately and richly unpleasant, I can only imagine the scorn with which Thomas Ellis would have greeted contemporary preoccupations with “likeability” of characters in fiction.

Lydia and Betty are staying at Lydia’s cottage in the Welsh countryside. Lydia has just been ditched by her unfaithful lover, and “had invited Betty to stay by accident, or rather by drunken mischance, at one of those fatal office parties.”  Now they’re trapped there together, with Lydia’s loathing of Betty growing more intense by the minute. But she “determined to be pleasant since the one thing more disagreeable than staying with someone you detested was staying with someone who detested you too. Dissembling was tiring but squabbling was disgusting. She would never be sufficiently intimate with Betty to quarrel with her.”

“The sun shone the next day, and Emyr arrived to connect the water pipes. Betty made him a cup of tea and sat among the cut lengths of gleaming copper and strong-toothed tools conducting a little chat, which afforded Lydia a moment’s amusement since Betty was adjusting her conversation to suit a person of low intelligence and the people of the valley were, on the whole, clever, devious and unusually literate. As Betty talked of the rain of the previous days the builder spoke briefly of water tables; as she deplored the unemployment of the Principality he gave a succinct resume of the economic situation; as, somewhat at a loss, she praised the sun for now shining, Emyr described in a few words how it would eventually burn itself out. The scene was rather like a bull-fight, with Betty, small-eyed, blundering hither and yon dazzled by the whisk of scarlet, the glancing slippers of the matador.

‘What do you want for lunch?’ enquired Lydia when Emyr, having demonstrated that the taps now functioned, had left.

‘I thought I’d make us my special salad,’ said Betty. ‘If you’ll wash the lettuce I’ll make my special dressing and we could pick some wild sorrel and chop it in at the last minute.’

‘Do you know, I’m not hungry,’ said Lydia, consideringly. There was something spinsterish in Betty’s plans for her salad, something intimate in her expectation that Lydia would collude with her, and something repellent in the prospect of two single women fussing over food in the kitchen. Lydia was damned if she’d play salads with Betty. She might never eat again until Betty had gone. She had real women friends: pretty, witty women more likely to speculate on a swift method of fermenting potato peel than slaver over wild sorrel. Why were none of them here? Because she hadn’t asked them, that’s why. She had chosen for herself the human equivalent of sackcloth and ashes, and she denounced herself for a masochist. Do I, she asked herself, imagine that because I have lost a man I am in the same category as spotty Betty? Is it my Unconscious (of the existence of which I have informed doubts) that has dropped me in this plight? Because if so, I had better watch out. ‘I think I’ll go for a walk,’ she said.

‘Perhaps it’ll give you an appetite,’ said Betty. 

As she walked, Lydia wondered whether perhaps Betty was lesbianly inclined and that this was why she found her presence so distasteful. After half a mile she had rejected this hypothesis and decided that it was merely because she was unattractive, the sort of person who, fifty years ago, would have worn rubber galoshes. Lydia did not castigate herself for so disliking a fellow-being, believing that it was sufficient merely to refrain from overt unkindness.”

From Unexplained Laughter, Alice Thomas Ellis, 1985 – published by Corsair, an imprint of Constable & Robinson (ebook) 2012

Buy Alice Thomas Ellis books here.