Archive for the ‘summer food’ 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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Vine & cheese…

December 4, 2013

vine-haloumiOn the weekend, along with another crack at the char-grilled octopus (a big hit with the punters, it turns out, specially served with aioli) I revisited this old Karen Martini recipe for haloumi and roasted garlic wrapped in a vine leaf and served with peach.

I just put a slice of peach on each piece, stuck a toothpick through each one and then handed a platter around at an afternoon of drinks and snacks in the back yard. It was another hit, so keep it in mind if you need a slightly unusual plate of morsels some time. I did everything but the cooking ahead of time and then it was just a matter of slinging them in the frypan for a few minutes. Worth it, I reckon.

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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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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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The Veg Report

February 4, 2012

It seems a bit early to report on my first week as a vegetarian seeing as it’s actually only day four of our VegFeb month, but what the hell.  I am already finding it an interesting experience.

Day one was – well, a great big veg fail, because I omitted to read a menu properly.

Senor and I were at Sydney Theatre Company to see Never Did Me Any Harm (which we loved – I thought it was a beautifully original production and I loved the slipping and sliding narratives and use of dance and text as well as speech) and sat down for a quick bite from the cafe menu there at the Wharf.

I ordered while S found a table, and I found some good veg stuff on the menu including a mushroom bruschetta with shaved Parmesan, an oxheart tomato bruschetta, some warm olives and a fig & goat’s cheese salad. The bruschettas & olives were very good (although it’s lucky we are including anchovies in our almost-veg adventure, as unbeknownst to me some big fat delicious ones were in the tomato & pesto mix).

When the fig salad arrived, S looked at me as if I was crazy. ‘What are we going to do about that?’ he asked, pointing at the plate. There were a few halved almonds dotted over the dish. I put on my special Patient Voice and said, ‘Sean, nuts are fine for vegetarians.’

Then it was his turn to employ a special Voice for the Stupid:

‘I’m not talking about the nuts, I’m talking about the pig.’

And there it was – four large, pink and curling satiny ribbons of prosciutto nestled among the figs and the rocket and the goat’s cheese. How could I have missed reading this on the menu? And how did I miss seeing it on the plate!?? And why did I even think figs would be served without some kind of cured pork – especially given that it’s a particular favourite combination of mine?

If there had been a non-vego at the table it would have been easy – just make them eat the prosciutto and forge merrily on. But now we were faced with the dilemma – knowing that restaurant rules would surely mean this beautiful stuff was thrown away if we didn’t eat it, or sticking to our VegFeb plan. Of course we ate it, and it was delicious.  But it was an interesting lesson in how much more carefully I need to be reading menus in the next little while. I can’t bear the idea of being one of those people who sits asking waiters about every ingredient in every damn dish, though. Which is probably one of the reasons I know I’ll never be an actual vegetarian. But I will be more careful about thoroughly reading, rather than quickly scanning, menus for the rest of February. And we have added a new rule – if we eat meat due to menu stuffups like this one, or to be convivially polite at a friend’s house, then we add another day at the end of VegFeb. Easypeasy. (Which reminds me – mmmm, peas…)

But the rest of the week has been fun, and lordy we have eaten well.  The day after VegFail (at least I know I’m not alone. A pal of ours, also doing a VegFeb version but stricter – i.e. no anchovies – was forced to eat meat on her day one, when the burger restaurant where she’d arranged to meet a friend offered no veg options, which seems pretty hopeless!) we had several folks round for dinner. I marinated and roasted some chicken pieces for them, which we served along with:

 

And followed with a traditional Middle Eastern orange cake with yummy sweetened labneh.

The leftovers from these kept us going for lunches for a few days. Dinners this week have also included this chickpea & cashew curry, and this very tasty silverbeet tart, minus the bacon and plus some sunflower seeds as well as the pine nuts.

After a few days I jumped on the scales, curious to see how quickly my new meat-free existence was sending me to Svelte City – and I’d put on over a kilo. Hmmm.

This salad was one I made last weekend prior to official VegFeb start, inspired by the fantastic recipes in Heidi Swanson’s book Super Natural Every Day (I’ve now bought three copies of this book for friends as well as my own, for the originality and big flavours in the recipes) and the first Ottolenghi book, both of which I love to death. One thing I’ve noticed with both these books is how often vegetables for roasting are cut into quite small pieces – which is of course fab for getting that lovely fat and crispness to a lot more surface area, especially with otherwise quite soft veg, not to mention a greater caramelised flavour through the whole thing.

So this salad was basically a matter of using a quarter of a pumpkin and an eggplant from the fridge, both of which were starting to fade. And I had just stocked up on lots of nuts from the farmer’s market. As I sort of made it up as I went along I don’t have a proper recipe, but from memory these things went into it. Quantities don’t really matter in a thing like this, obviously – whatever you feel like doing works.

  • pumpkin, skin on, chopped into 2cm squares & roasted in a light spray of olive oil in a hot oven for about 20-30 mins or till caramelised
  • eggplant, ditto
  • pine nuts, lightly toasted
  • pistachios, lightly toasted
  • pecans, roughly chopped & lightly toasted
Once these were cooled and tossed together, I made a dressing of
  • maple syrup
  • olive oil
  • orange juice
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • a splash of balsamic vinegar
  • chilli flakes
To be honest I think the dressing was a bit too acidic, so would probably do something about that next time. But it was still damn fine, and a bit of chopped coriander over the top finished it off nicely. We took some of that and a bit of other stuff round to some friends who had just moved house, so they had something other than takeaway to eat among the boxes that evening, and everyone was happy.

Now, I now you’re all great cooks with some fab veg recipes in your repertoire – don’t forget to point me to any particular favourites as I progress through the month.  I’m already excited about a couple of new things I’m trying this week – I’ll be back with further reports soon.

Oh, and PS: Just in case you’re interested, I have a piece on why and how I came to love oysters in the new (March) issue of SBS Feast magazine, which I believe is in the shops on Monday. I haven’t seen the final version yet, but because it is a kind of oyster love story it includes a photo of me and my beloved shucking oysters at our pals Jane & Brian’s place at New Year, which is kind of nice. Thanks to B for taking the pic. 
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Fish out of water

January 27, 2012

Our (almost) vegetarian adventure

Some of you already know about the culinary experiment I am forcing on Senor for February – the two of us are going veg for a month.

Last year it was Febfast, giving up the booze, which was a chore, to say the least. I expect to enjoy this February a whole lot more than last, for I have no doubt we will be eating very well indeed.

We’re trying out a version of vegetarianism for a few reasons, apart from my increasingly obvious lapsed-Catholic attachment to some annual ritual festival of denial – any other ex-Catholics out there with these weird lenten leanings?

First, I just want to see what it feels like to go without meat for a month, because I realised some time ago that I have never forgone meat (either red meat, or chicken, pork, bacon, chorizo, fish, seafood etc) for even one week, let alone a month. And even though I feel that we have cut down our meat consumption substantially, I took note of everything we ate while away last week – a holiday filled with delicious salads and veg dishes provided by excellent cooks – and realised that even then, not a day went by without some bit of animal flesh – fish, or ham, or chicken. So actually, the only thing we’ve really cut down on is red meat.

Second, I am hoping it will help us shift a few kilos of the blubber that returned rather insistently over the latter quarter of the year. As I said to Senor, I’ve never known a fat vegetarian, my eyes glazing over and mouth watering with images of all the butter and cheese (and organic ghee kindly delivered to our door by our friend Guy the other day!!) that we will be chowing down on. And then Senor most unhelpfully pointed out that we do know a couple of portly vegos, which sort of ruined my fantasy of the kilos dropping daily with zero effort on our part at all. But I still will be interested to see how it affects weight and general health and feeling of zinginess, to substitute meat with other things.

Third, I am keen to see what kind of a reboot my cooking repertoire receives from this change in routine. When I’m busy I, like most of us I’m sure, tend to fall back on the usual contenders for the evening meal – but this will force me to try new things and extend the range a bit, I hope. As well, one of the things I’ve always believed is that to make interesting, really flavoursome  veg food requires more effort than a meat diet does. And now I’m a full-time student (starting a PhD in Creative Writing, eek) I will be financially less well off but have more time and flexibility. If there is ever a time to do this, it’s now – in summer when salads are inspiring, when one doesn’t crave rich, stodgy food as I do in winter, and early in my studies when I can retain the illusion I have plenty of time to do everything.

Finally, there will be the nice fuzzy glow of knowing we’ve spared the lives of a few critters, but I can’t pretend that this is really high on the list of reasons. While in recent years I have thought a lot about my love of meat, and eating it has caused me guilt and unease, I have recently come to a position of moral acceptance that it’s okay to eat animals that have been humanely raised and which have not been made to suffer unnecessarily (hence shopping at Feather and Bone, and proper free range eggs and chooks and all that jazz that you probably all do as well). We’ve cut down a lot on red meat, as I’ve said, and become much firmer in a commitment to real free range pork and chicken (I think conventionally raised lamb and beef, in this country, have better lives than they do in wholly grain-fed operations like those in the US, and have better lives here than our pigs and chickens do, even accounting for beef being finished on grain), but we also try now to only buy red meat from either F&B for that reason. I do welcome any commentary on this, by the way, because I am always keen to hear more about ethical meat production.

All that said, and in noting that we’re only going veg, not vegan, we’re doing this with a few caveats in place.

The first and most important for me is that, while we’re telling all our friends and family about this trial and some have already booked us in for veg meals with them, we won’t be refusing meat at someone’s house if it feels rude to do so. Given that this is an experiment rather than a life choice, I won’t be imposing our vego status on our friends. And to me, conviviality and respect for the person who offers you food is as ethically important as respect for the life of an animal, as the fabulous Tammi Jonas has written about so eloquently here.  So there is bound to be the odd evening we eat a bit of meat rather than reject someone’s hospitality, though we’ll try as much as possible to minimise the chances.

Second – and this has no ethical basis whatsoever – I can’t give up anchovies. I just can’t. I love those little salty bombs as much as bacon, which I know I really will miss, for a hit of flavour in everything from chickpea salads to lamb roasts to onion tarts to antipasto. I completely accept the hypocrisy of feeling warm and fuzzy about a cow but not a fish, no matter how small. I hope I have never claimed to be free of hypocrisy (one of my favourite lines on hypocrisy is this, from the philosopher and psychologist Jonathan Haidt: “Stop smirking. One of the most universal pieces of advice from across cultures and eras is that we are all hypocrites, and in our condemnation of others’ hypocrisy we only compound our own.”  That came to me via Hal Herzog’s wonderful book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals).

So now, in honour of our beloved salty little fishy bombs, and in farewell to meat for a month, I offer you this recipe which includes anchovies. It’s a very slight adaptation of a Neil Perry recipe from Good Weekend some time ago, and it is excellent. He used blue eye trevalla but as there was none when I went to our local fish market I bought royal basa and it was good. That said, next time I would try harder to buy a more sustainable fish, given the bloody ethical minefield that seafood shopping entails (god it’s tiring, isn’t it?).

I added chickpeas and zucchini to this to make it a serious one-pan dinner of gorgeousness. I also used dried rather than fresh oregano (just a teaspoon). Highly recommended with or without those additions.

This will be the last fleshy recipe from me until March – but I hope to be posting at least a few updates of how we’re faring throughout vegetableFeb.

Neil Perry’s Roast blue-eye trevalla with fennel & olives

  • 1 bulb fennel, finely sliced
  • 1 red onion, finely sliced
  • 2 tablespoons oregano, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons thyme, chopped
  • 60 ml olive oil
  • 1 red capsicum, finely sliced
  • 4 tomatoes, chopped (NP peels and deseeds, but I am too lazy for that and almost never do it)
  • 2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained
  • 6 anchovies
  • handful of olives
  • 1 tsp chilli flakes
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 4 x blue eye trevalla fillets – we used basa, but any firm white fish fillet would work
  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley (I forgot this but it mattered not)
  • Additions: 1 can or equiv cooked chickpeas; 2 small zucchinis, chopped into 3cm lengths
  1. Preheat oven to 200 degrees C.
  2. Toss fennel, onion, herbs, capsicum, tomato, capers, anchovies, olives, chilli flakes together in a roasting tin. Pour the wine in and roast for about half an hour, or until the vegetables are soft.
  3. Add the chickpeas and zucchini and return to oven for 20 minutes or so until zucchinis are just tender.
  4. Nestle the fish fillets into the mix, drizzle with a little more oil and return to the oven for about 10 minutes or until fish is just cooked.
  5. Remove tray from oven, leave to rest for about five minutes and then serve a fillet on each plate, topped with the vegetable mix, garnish with parsley and season.

Any of you ever done the vegetarian thing? I’m very interested to hear about it if you have, and if you still are, what kind of foods you missed when you first gave up meat – and if you went back to meat, what tipped your decision…