Archive for the ‘techniques’ Category

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On shopping, surliness & sustainability

August 21, 2012

I have always been rather afraid of stir-frying fish.

I have visions of fish fillets falling apart and turning to soggy mush, making not so much a stirfry as a soupy mash. As I think I’ve discussed here before, my thoroughly inland childhood meant I came late to seafood and, unlike my beachy husband, I still lack a natural confidence in cooking much seafood.

This is one of the reasons I love Neil Perry’s recipes for cooking fish and seafood – his instructions are always so exact and clear, especially in Good Food, one of my essential books.  So when I saw Mr Perry’s stir fried blue eye in last weekend’s paper I determined to look again at stir fried fish.

The recipe is for blue eye trevalla, which, while recommended for its firmness of flesh and ability to stand up to robust flavours, the sustainable seafood gurus GoodFishBadFish put in the category ‘Think Twice’. “Stocks are currently fully fished, with localised depletions. Some bycatch concern,” they say.

However, given that so much of the other seafood we like to eat is firmly in the “Say No” category, I find myself thinking that everything’s relative, and so blue eye is not so bad after all. GoodFish folks suggest alternatives of mulloway or coral trout, neither of which my nearest fish shop stocks.

I know I should ask them about mulloway, and start talking about sustainability, and “building a relationship” for future reference. But I’m weirdly, ridiculously shy of such conversations. I don’t know why, exactly. But with things like this I’m reminded of Julian Barnes’ amusing piece on food shopping in his Pedant in the Kitchen, where the author admits that for him, as for most of us, the idea of “developing a relationship” with or “instructing” one’s butcher, fishmonger or candlestick maker is as realistic as “advising” one’s local policeman or garbage collector.

This is why the Pedant’s morale is rarely lifted by a recipe beginning “Instruct your butcher to…” or “Telephone your fishmonger in advance and ask…” Now I know some excellent butchers, fishmongers and fruit ‘n’ veggers, though I don’t think of any of them as “mine”. Equally, I sometimes encounter a needlessly surly butcher who, when you hesitantly propose what you might require, will seize something in a flurry of hands, offer it for a nanosecond’s inspection with a lip-curling “That do?”, and have it on the scales and off again before your eyes can refocus, while calling out a weight and price which could well be a touch speculative.

I can imagine the look of bafflement on my fish shop man’s face if I quizzed him on his sustainability credentials. I suspect it would resemble the response of the woman behind the counter at a terrible local store laughingly called a “deli”, when I asked her about the origins of one of her four slabs of unmarked, unlabelled cheese. “I dunno,” she said, crossly. I tried again, valiantly. Might she know what kind of cheese it was? She sighed, cast her eyes to the ceiling, and shot me a look of undisguised contempt as she said: “English”.

Sometimes I wonder if avoiding this kind of exchange  is part of the reason some people actually prefer supermarket shopping. (It’s also one of the reasons, apart from the amazing quality of the meat and the ethical aspects, I buy almost all our meat from Feather & Bone – they actually do like to talk to you, are happy to help, and are generally Lovely Humans.)

Anyhoo, back to fish!

I bought blue eye trevalla from my surly fish man, and with it made a bastardised version of Neil Perry’s recipe last night. I marinated the chunks of fish as per his recipe, but from there returned to the old faithful stir fry combo taught to me a thousand years ago by my friend Ricardo: red capsicum, lots of sliced garlic, 3cm batons of green onion, a couple of birdeye chillis, split lengthwise, and then half a bunch of basil leaves tossed in at the end. Add to this a goodly slosh of fish sauce (I tend to go for at least one tablespoon, sometimes more) and a good pinch of brown sugar.

Method wise, I began as Neil suggests:

1. Heat a wok with a little vegetable oil until just smoking, then add the fish pieces with the marinade, spreading these evenly around the wok.

2. “Cook undisturbed for 1 minute, allowing the fish to start to brown” – then I turned the chunks once until almost cooked, then removed them and set aside.

3. I then added the vegetables but not the basil to the wok and stirfried them for a few minutes (adding a little boiling water), then returned the fish, slooshed in the fish sauce and brown sugar and gently stirred to combine, still at high heat.

4. As I turned off the heat, I threw the basil leaves in, put the rice in one serving bowl and the fish in another. By this time the basil leaves had wilted just nicely.

It was excellent.

Do you stir-fry seafood much? any problems? And what about “your” butcher, fishmonger or baker? How do you begin the conversations I’m too chicken to have? I would really love your views.

 

 

 

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The (pro) Biotic Woman

July 3, 2012

 The fermentation bug

Many moons again my friend M introduced me to the pleasures of making labneh – an incredibly easy thing to do.

But till now I only made labneh with shop-bought yoghurt – I  had never considered actually making my own yoghurt, assuming it would be a tricky process, involving special equipment, millisecond-accuracy with timing and temperatures and whatnot.

Then the lovely Fouad appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald‘s Good Living section a couple of weeks ago, evangelising about homemade yoghurt. His instructions seemed too good to be true – simply bringing full cream milk to a temperature of 83 degrees C, then cooling it to 46 degrees, stirring in a couple of spoonsful of (live culture) yoghurt and leaving it in a warm place overnight.

After chatting with him and the charming Lili from Pikelet & Pie about this on Twitter, I decided to give it a shot. Lili advised using a thermos to try to keep the temperature warm enough overnight, but as our crappy old thermos only holds about 500ml, I went for a split method. Half went into the warmed thermos and the other half into a Pyrex dish with a plastic lid, which I then sat on top of our gas heater for the evening. Once we went to bed and the heater was off, both batches just sat on the bench overnight.

Next morning, lo and behold – yoghurt! A little runny, I admit – but definitely yoghurt. There seemed to be no real discernible difference between the thermos and the dish batches either. I had a poke around online to see what folks had to say about thickening yoghurt and there are many methods, but the simplest to me seems to be just straining it through muslin a la labneh (but now just by lining a sieve with the muslin and leaving it over a bowl in the fridge). In fact Fouad, henceforth known as my Yoghurt Yogi, informs me that as soon as you strain yoghurt it’s called labneh. But whatever it’s called, with even just half an hour to an hour’s straining, my yoghurt / labneh was beautifully creamy, rich and utterly delicious.

That’s it, pictured above (drizzled with our beloved pomegranate honey, which I first learned about here at Kale for Sale via Nourish Me, and have been doing my own evangelising about ever since).

Now, that first batch was actually a little too delicious, in a way, for it tasted very much like clotted cream. I wanted more of the sourness and acidity that makes yoghurt yoghurt, which meant I needed to leave it sitting longer than just overnight. For my next batch, I left it a full 24 hours before straining and refrigerating and it was perfectly acidic. I was starting to get the hang of this!

Batch number three got me worried – through inattention I took the temperature too high and then completely forgot about it until a couple of hours later when it had cooled too much. Not sure how much this would affect things, I just started again, re-scalding the same milk and cooling to the right temp. And you know what? It was completely fine!

I so love a process that seems almost unstuffupable – and I’m hooked now. A friend asked me yesterday why I thought my yoghurt was better than good organic Greek-style from the shop. The answer is it’s not – or at least, not that I can taste. But it’s fun, for starters, and by playing around with the straining and setting times you can adjust the level of acidity and the thickness to get it exactly how you like it. I also love that there’s no packaging involved (though I guess there is the milk carton, so maybe that advantage cancels itself out…) and that at a few dollars for a litre of organic milk it’s less than half the price of the nicest organic yoghurt we buy regularly. My single litre of milk yields about half a litre of yoghurt, give or take a bit for straining.

I toyed briefly with the idea of buying a yoghurt maker, which would keep the temperature steady for the whole time – but then realised that another thing I love about this process is its simplicity. No gadgets, no special equipment other than what was already in the house. That said, I would really recommend a thermometer for this – although plenty of people do seem to judge the temperature just by touch (it’s ready when you can hold your finger in the hot milk ‘without it hurting’, according to one commenter here!). And methods vary a great deal – all kinds of warming / temperature regulation tips are to be found in online discussions, from leaving the yoghurt wrapped in blankets, in the oven with just the oven light on, on top of the fridge at the back near the motor, in a slow cooker … it’s endless! But so far so good for us just leaving it in the living room until we go to bed.

Next batch I’m even going to try thermos-free, and see what happens. As I said … I am the proBiotic Woman. I’m hooked!

What about you – any of you had the fermentation bug?

PS: By the way, lucky winner of the beautiful Fuchsia Dunlop book, judged by Senor, is hatarimouse by a hair’s breadth. Thanks for playing all …

PPS: This fermentation process is so easy it brings pleasure … unlike my repeated failures at wild yeast sourdough starter (another story)…

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Risky bisqueness

June 6, 2011

Smash it up: Jared Ingersoll’s crab & harissa soup

The other weekend Senor and I were looking for a punchy little entree to accompany a roast lamb dinner for friends, and he happened upon Jared Ingersoll’s recipe for this crab soup.

Unusually, the recipe involved roasting the blue swimmer crab along with other ingredients for a whole hour in the oven.  Simple enough, you think, and it is.  The only demanding bit  is that periodically through the cooking you are required to take ‘a heavy mallet or a rolling pin’ to the crab, smashing it to simithereens.

Have you ever used a mallet to smash a crab shell? I haven’t, but I have sat across the dining table from Senor and our friend Ms J years ago while they went beserk with a hammer on a mud crab as Mr J and I cowered in fear, doing our best to shield ourselves from crabby debris.  I recall that there followed many weeks of picking crab shell off  Mr & Ms J’s paintings and nearby soft furnishings  (I recall, too, Mr J’s and my anxious glances at one another on seeing how powerfully – and gleefully – our respective spouses wielded the blunt instrument).

Suffice it to say that if you want to make this soup, you must prepare for a splatter fest, given that the smash-up here involves not only crab but a soupy mix of roasted capsicum and onion and tomatoes.  I started out trying to prevent crab on the ceiling by leaning over the pan and hoping my apron would take the brunt, but eventually I just gave in and bashed away with the rolling pin, picking bits of crab and roasted capsicum and tomato off the walls and my face as I went, pitching the bits back into the pan as best I could. I even confess to a certain amount of pleasurable abandonment to the process after a while.

The hardest part of this recipe is not the bashing, but the last step. After you’ve whizzed the mixture (which by now includes fish stock)  with a stick blender to mash it all up as best you can, it’s mouli time. I have never used a mouli before, but bought one specially for this dish (I’ve been trying to think of an excuse to get one for a while now) and I would say that it would be almost impossible to make this soup without one – or without some other way of sieving the mixture so that, as Jared instructs, you “take time to squeeze out as much of the soup as you possibly can; only stop using the mouli when you are left with a dry crumbly mixture on top”.

If all this sounds like one giant headache, it kind of is. But the result, I must tell you, is pretty fantastic: a deep, velvety, richly spicy soup. The quantity, which looked small when we finally had the soup finished, was just right – it’s so rich and luscious that a little goes a long way. This recipe comes from the book Sharing Plates, which is full of good stuff including our favourite orange and quince cake recipe and is accompanied by a recipe for zucchini fritters that we’ve not yet tried.

Unfortunately we forgot to take a photo of the final result, so you’ll have to imagine for yourself  a rich mahogany-coloured, velvety-looking soup in a little white ramekin and a sweet, spicy, roast crab aroma in the air.

Jared Ingersoll’s crab and harissa soup 

Ingredients

  • 3 blue swimmer crabs (we didn’t kill our own although the recipe calls for live ones)
  • 1 teaspoon each cumin, caraway, coriander seeds and half a teaspoon fenugreek seeds
  • 1/3 cup soft brown sugar
  • pinch chilli flakes
  • salt and pepper
  • 150ml vegetable oil
  • 3 red capsicums, seeded & chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 4 ripe tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 red onion, chopped
  • 1.5 litres fish stock (I used half packaged fish stock and half homemade chicken stock)
  • 1 bunch coriander
  • a few sprigs of mint and of parsley
Method
  1. Clean and quarter the crabs, removing the finger-like gills but keeping the brown meat if there is any.
  2. Toast the spices in a dry frying pan until fragrant, then grind in mortar & pestle or spice grinder.
  3. Sprinkle the spices over the crab with the sugar, chilli flakes & seasoning and mix.
  4. Heat a deep roasting tin in the oven or on the stove top and when hot, add the oil and then the spiced crab mix.
  5. Mix everything together well, bung in the oven for about 20 minutes.
  6. Remove pan from oven, mix in the remaining ingredients and continue to cook in the oven for about an hour, periodically bashing the shit out of the crab with your rolling pin or hammer, as discussed above. I think I did it about three or four times during the whole process.
  7. When it smells good and everything is soft and a little coloured, put the pan on the stove top and add the stock, simmering gently for about 15 minutes.
  8. Transfer to a saucepan and whizz with stick blender, then mouli as thoroughly as you can, as described above. I checked obsessively for shell, thinking there was no way the mouli could get it all, but found no shell at all. I would still suggest warning your guests about the possibility, however.

If this sounds good to you, I would love to know if you make it – probably best for a day when you have a few frustrations to pound out. And in the meantime, I would love to hear any other crabby tales you might have to tell.

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How to get your groove back

February 27, 2011

Regaining your kitchen mojo: the chicken stock method

This week, my dear friend Ms Manners remarked rather sadly that it seemed she never cooked anymore.

She works incredibly hard at a stressful job, her partner is a good cook and happy to do it. But these weren’t the only reasons she had virtually abandoned the pots and pans, she said wistfully. The major problem was that, despite being an excellent cook at various times of her life, it seemed now she had simply lost the zest for it, and didn’t know how to get it back. She’s lost her kitchen mojo.

We all know how this feels, right?  The day you try to come up with an idea  for dinner and decide that, think as hard as you might, there are only two possibilities, grilled chicken drumsticks or pesto, and you’ve had them both already this week. It’s not that you don’t want to cook other dishes – it’s that you simply can’t imagine what other stuff there might be to cook. The books on your shelves, full of recipes and ideas, are like holiday brochures: full of gorgeous places you might like to visit one day, but simply too distant, too exotic, too out of reach for now.

This is a very common syndrome, known as Culinarus Mojous Interruptus. It is characterised by a light melancholy and an overwhelming fatigue whenever the sufferer glances at the cook top. It can last for years, and the same cure doesn’t work for everyone. Fortunately though, there are a few remedies that, taken as directed, can slowly but surely restore the sufferer’s confidence and enthusiasm for cookery.

The other night I found myself in the throes of a syndrome at the complete opposite end of the spectrum; an episode of Culinarus Hyperstimulatus which manifested in waking at 3AM, insomniac with excitement about a bag of chook bones in the fridge.

This was partly inspired by my cooky brother-in-law (one of several!) marvelling recently over why people pay good money for tetra-paks of stock full of salt and perservatives when chicken stock was quick and so simple to make. I confessed I was one of these ninnies; I had not made stock for months, and I often use those cartons (my view remains that using packaged stock is pretty far down the list of culinary sins, so I have no problem with it).

But of course he’s right about it being so easy to make, and cheap. You can buy a bag of chook bones from chicken shops for around a dollar, but since I pledged allegiance to free-range or organic chook only, don’t eat all that much chicken anyway and often buy boneless thigh fillets, my supply of bones has diminished. Until this week, when I came to my senses and asked the lovely peeps at Feather And Bone to sell me some carcasses along with the whole chooks I ordered this week. A bountiful bag of four beautiful, fresh, meaty, free range chook skeletons arrived on my doorstep for the princely sum of $5.

As I flung these into two big stock pots along with the other bits and bobs, it occurred to me that maybe making a pot of chicken stock could be a first step towards regaining one’s vanished culinary mojo.

First, there’s no pressure to actually complete a whole dish, and surely there is no less stressful task than hacking up a carrot, an onion, a celery stick and a tomato and tossing it into a pot with a couple of herbs (bay leaf, thyme, parsley, whatever), the chook carcass and some water.

Second, the sensory delight of this little job is immense. For one thing, there’s the luscious smell – our front door was open to the street when I made mine, and I actually saw passers-by stop and peer into my hallway, provoked by the cooking aroma. Then there’s the visual beauty of it – the glistening little baubles of  fat separating and rejoining, the gentle steam, the gradual transformation of your wan bunch of ingredients into a potful of golden goodness.

But most of all, I reckon making chicken stock provides one with an instant and very rewarding Real Cook glow.

Partly it’s to do with the busy productivity of the water toiling and simmering away (while you get to read the paper and drink coffee). Partly it’s to do with the virtue factor involved in making wholesome good use of otherwise wasted vegetable crisper odds and ends – all those tough bits of leek, nubs of carrots, limp herbs and otherwise useless parsley stalks, mushroom trimmings and overripe tomatoes. And partly, of course, it’s the incredible usefulness of the result: a splash or a litre of gorgeous home-made chicken stock can enrich anything from a risotto to pasta sauce to tagine to poaching broth to bouillabaisse to minestrone.

I have mostly made stock by bunging the leftover bones from dinner into a little saucepan with the veg trimmings before the dishwasher is stacked, then simply turned off the heat before going to bed.  Recipes are everywhere and recommended simmering times vary anywhere from twenty minutes to four hours, so it’s pretty much a no-brainer, deadset simple thing to do. But I have to say there is a leisurely pleasure in the long-simmered type that doesn’t really shine through so much in the quick apres-dinner simmer. For me, anyway – I welcome dissent on this!

The other virtue of this stock remedy for getting your mojo back is that you can enter into the kitchen spirit without having to make it a performance – there’s no tricky timing to worry about, no dinner party stress, not even anxiety about a raised eyebrow from your partner, housemate or cat!

So, there’s my first tip for reviving Ms Manners’ enthusiasm for the rounds of the kitchen. Some others I’ve thought of while writing this post include:

  • Have a well stocked pantry & freezer. That way, when inspiration strikes there’s no dreary going to the shops involved. Let’s face it – supermarkets drain the life force out of the most committed cooks, so you don’t want that giant obstacle in your way. My pantry essentials are mostly listed here (and lots of good advice in the comments too), but of course there are much more obvious things – salt & pepper, spices, canned tomatoes, olives, anchovies, pine nuts, etc. For the freezer, my essentials are butter, couple of bits of chicken, some chorizo sausage, a couple of other good sausages, and loads of nuts.
  • Start small, start simple! Don’t try to cook a special dinner for eight until you’re really firing on all burners – you need to rebuild your confidence cooking simple but interesting things. Even if it’s just sparking up a salad with a few nuts or some lentils & goat’s cheese, start small and get the mini-buzz first.
  • Go to a grower’s market or a really good fruit & veg grocer, sniff the air and get inspired (I love Addison Road Sunday market at Marrickville for its lack of pretension, cruisy vibe and good veg stalls).
  • Use good equipment. No need for loads of gadgets, and nothing need be really expensive – but decent saucepans, at least one sharp chef’s knife and a sturdy food processor make otherwise tiresome chores easy and pleasurable. Would love your ideas on the basic essentials.
  • Watch a bit of Jamie Oliver. He has naysayers aplenty, but I love his exuberance and egalitarian insistence that anyone can cook good food. We have two of his books and they’re both great, and I am a huge fan of the 30-minute meals show that screened here recently. Always felt the urge to cook after watching.

Okay, enough from me; it’s your turn. How do you get your mojo back back after a holiday from the hob?

 

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Separation anxiety

January 3, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t think this is normal.

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

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

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

A wee announcement

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

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

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


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Blades of glory

August 24, 2010

We all know from crappy holiday house kitchens that there’s nothing worse than a blunt chef’s knife – the kind you end up bludgeoning, rather than cutting, food with – and I take care to keep ours reasonably sharp. But the other day, as I end up doing only every few years, I had six of our knives professionally sharpened. Man oh man, what a difference.

Makes me realise that even using our nifty little Victorinox sharpener thing, which I have loved for its ease and relative efficiency, doesn’t really keep the knives in as good nick as I’d like. Before that I’ve used a whetstone, which works pretty well, but I have never mastered any skill at all with a steel. I seem to blunt the knife rather than sharpen it any time I’ve tried.

I see here that CHOICE tested knife sharpeners and ours came out somewhere in the middle, so I either need to learn how to properly use either a steel or our old stone (do they ever wear out? I’ve had mine for a thousand years) or get a new sharpener which I’m loath to do, especially after reading Fenella Souter’s  amusing and inspiring Good Weekend article on the movement towards eliminating waste and saving cash, prompted by these people and their passion for not being diddled.

I guess the other aspect of good knife care is storage – long gone are the days I kept knives in the drawer. We have one of those great wall magnet strips that the blades just stick to, and a few years ago were also given one of these cool knife blocks, where the fibre things just move to accommodate the knife.

And what about cleaning? I usually just chuck them in the dishwasher, though I’ve just now read elsewhere that it’s not good for knives – but does it do anything to damage the actual blade, or is it only to prevent damage to the wooden handles?

So what about you – how do you keep your knives pointy? Do you ever have them professionally sharpened, or are you a whiz with a steel? Any tips? And what are the essential knives? We have lots, but only because I was given a large set by generous friends for a big birthday years back. Otherwise, we would have only two in constant use – the big Furi chef’s knife and the beautiful little Wusthof given me by the Lunging Latino, which I believe is known as a ‘sandwich knife’. Go figure.

Now, while we’re on the topic of slicing and dicing, I was thrilled to be alerted to this very useful knife skills video on the ‘claw grip’ over at Beyond Salmon (thanks Daniel Koontz at Casual Kitchen) – it demonstrates very clearly how to hold a knife, the action needed, and most importantly, what your other hand should be doing.

So happy chopping, shuckers. And do tell me how you keep your blades in glorious condition, or any other sharp points we should be discussing!

PS: My knives were beautifully sharpened by the lovely folks at the new Chef and the Cook – check them out if you’re in the neighbourhood.


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The rough stuff

June 14, 2010


How I finally made friends with my rolling pin

This was the week I decided I have been afraid of pastry for too long.

I have always found pastry-making a stressful, lengthy process whereby the entire kitchen is covered in flour, I never have it rolled thinly enough, it always breaks and my pie ends up like some road-accident patchwork, and very often it doesn’t cook through on the bottom. The idea that anyone would want to be a pastry-chef is completely mystifying to me.

My pastry problem was brought home to me once again this week following an attempt during the week to make Maggie Beer’s famous and supposedly foolproof sour cream pastry for a chicken pie – I made it, and it tasted great, but seemed to take me all day, I did hundreds of things wrong and my measurements were out. I think I handled it too much, processed it too much, didn’t have things cold enough, and just generally stuffed it up. So the result, while lovely in flavour, was too crumbly and looked like crap, because of my almost running out of pastry for the pie lids so rolling it way too thin for the tops. Hopeless.

There and then I determined to master at least one basic pastry recipe – this has been a big hole in my repertoire (and my pie crusts) all my cooking life and I’ve relied entirely on frozen pastry forever. Which is fine, but I hate being scared of cooking. Happily, this realisation coincided with a long weekend visit from my sisters, one of whom is the Paragon of Pastry, so I demanded a lesson in her gold standard easy pastry.

The Paragon – whose Christmas mince pies each year provoke the kind of unseemly, grasping scramblefest among her siblings akin to the behaviour of those ghastly bargain-shoppers with faces pressed to the department store sliding doors on Boxing Day – reckons the only pastry she ever makes is the Rough Puff she learned decades ago from Delia Smith, and uses it for everything.

When the Paragon makes it, this pastry is fabulously sturdy, flaky and crisp. She seems to make it in about forty-five seconds flat, and it always works.

I am determined to master it.

So today we had a lesson, and made two batches – one for a quiche and the other for freezing, ready for next time we want some.

Couldn’t find Delia Smith’s particular rough puff recipe, but the web is full of versions which are identical and very simple. The tricky part is not the measurements but the technique.

Rough puff pastry

  • 250g butter, at room temperature but not soft; cut into chunks
  • 250g plain flour
  • 150ml iced water
  • salt
  • squeeze lemon juice

Method

This is the  complicated part, which I’m told improves only with practice. The Paragon’s visit also happened to coincide with my discovery of the video function on my mini camera, so here for your edification is the start of the process. If I’d known it would work so adequately I’d have video’d the whole thing step-by-step, but this start will have to suffice. At least you can see from this bit just how rough is rough – what you’re after, apparently, is great lumps of unmixed butter which when rolled & folded, form the layers of flaky goodness in the pastry. Big no-nos are letting it get too warm, rolling it too much and handling it too much. So there.

Step 1:

Here, then, is the Paragon’s step one: chuck the lumps of butter in with the flour & salt, make a well in the middle and pour in the icy water & lemon juice, and then do this! At the end she’s gathering it up ready to turn out on to the bench. Just like that – big loose, lumpy mess.

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Step 2:

Form into a rough rectangle.

Roll the dough in one direction only, pulling in the pastry to keep edges straightish.

Don’t overwork the pastry! Whatever that means!

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Step 3:

Give the pastry a quarter turn to the right or left and make two dints with your hand across its length. Push the pastry together from the ends, sort of trapping the air in pockets made by the dints, and roll out again.

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Step 4:

Fold the length of pastry into thirds, as shown.

Give the dough another quarter turn and roll out again to three times the length.

Then fold as before, cover with cling film and chill for at least 20 mins before rolling to use. We put it into the pie dish and chilled again.

The filling should go into cold pastry.

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The result:

We used the pastry for a quiche base and it turned out rather beautifully, despite my 
Idiot’s mistake #4587: I wrapped the lovely soft pastry around the rolling pin as I’ve seen cool pastry people do, then unrolled it over the quiche tin, then enthusiastically used the roller to slice the pastry off at the fluted edges. Beautiful. Except  I hadn’t actually let the pastry reach the greased bottom of the tin first, so when it did drop, it was way too shallow all around the sides. So, hello patching at which I am now quite accomplished, and goodbye beautifully fluted edges. Hrmph.

But cest la vie – when the quiche (leek & rainbow chard, mmm) was cooked, it looked like this. And the pastry was buttery, crisp and flaky and quite simply Very Good.

Hooray!