Archive for the ‘techniques’ Category

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Fear of tofu

November 20, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pork & tofu stir fry with chilli & basil

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

October 25, 2009

thermometerAs you will have deduced, I am quite the fan of a big lump of roasted red meat, a deep and abiding love that I regret persists despite the fact of its ethical and environmental indefensibility. I know not how it will end, except it’s clear this affair cannot last forever if I’m to live with myself …

But until the break-up, let’s talk about roasting. If you are a meatlover like me, but have been frustrated by uneven results in the roasting department – is it cooked through? is it wobblingly raw? is it charred on the outside but inedibly cold and raw in the middle? – I have two words to say to you, Kimmie: meat thermometer.

I was first introduced to the joys of the thermometer by chefbro Hamish, who, being a restaurant guy, is all about consistently perfect results in the kitchen. He gave me a nifty little digital thermometer, needle-thin, which you stick into the meat at intervals through the cooking. I loved and used this little red rocket of a thing until it fell to bits. I then bought a fancy Zyliss digital thingummy with a silicone thread and a metal probe, which involved the magnetic digital dial and timer bizzo sticking to the outside of the oven while the probe stayed in the meat and the silicone cord went, umbilically, from one to the other. Then I lost the instructions and have never been able to figure it out since. It just lights up and beeps and makes me crazy.

All of which led me to my trusty, daggy, oldfangled  Acu-Rite thermometer, pictured here. I love it to pieces. I believe it came from a kitchenware shop but I’m sure I’ve seen them in any old daggy supermarket. Cheap – and how cheerful. You simply shove it into the thickest part of the meat before cooking, and leave in for the whole time. If you position it right, often you don’t even need to remove the pan from the oven to check the temp, but just peer through the open door or even the glass with the light on.

As everyone’s definition of ‘medium’ and ‘rare’ seems to differ (there’s no problem really with ‘well done’ – just ruin the meat by cooking it to buggery and you’re sorted), it might take a little time to work out your own preferred temp.

But as I like my meat red-to-pink, generally with a sizable piece of meat (e.g. leg of lamb or whole rump /Scotch fillet of beef, enough to feed six or more) I take it to around 60-65°C for both lamb & beef. This is generally medium-rare in the centre, while allowing any well-done eaters some cooked-through bits on the ends.

The beauty of the thermometer is that it takes into account the coldness of the meat before you begin. I try to get meat to room temperature first, but most of the time that’s near impossible, by the time it comes from the butcher’s cool room, and so on.

I haven’t paid too much attention to the recommended cooking temps on Acu-Rite’s dial here (cute name, huh), although they roughly correspond to what I do. But my advice comes from Stephanie Alexander, every Australian gal’s kitchen matriarch, who provides cooking temperatures in The Cook’s Companion sections on beef (rare = 60°C, medium = 70°C, well done = 75°C), lamb (rare = 60°C, medium = 65°C, well done = 80°C) and pork (“…one does not have to cook pork until it is dry and splintery as a precaution. The safe internal temperature for pork is in fact 76°C. At this temperature the meat is both safe and juicy.”)

One thing to remember is that the internal temperature keeps rising after you remove the meat from the oven – I believe Hamish told me it “rests up” 5°C; Stephanie A says it rests up 2-3 degrees, so the message is you need to take it out a little before you reach the desired temperature. (I find this whole thing puzzling – how does this happen? – but it’s true.)

And, as always, the final secret to tender, juicy roasted meat is to rest it for as long as you can before carving. Keep the roasting pan on top of the stove or in another warm place, very loosely covered with a double layer of foil, for up to an hour.

If you do all this – and so long as you’ve bought decent quality meat in the first place – I guarantee it will be good, and stress-free, every time.

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To peel, or not to peel?

October 2, 2009

Carrot peelAs I was chopping a bunch of ingredients for tomorrow’s lunch (duck ragu – trying out a Ms Martini number from the white book, but adding a bit of this and that), I realised that I pretty much never peel vegetables, unless absolutely necessary because the skin is too hard or lumpy to eat.

I may as well admit that I almost never skin or de-seed tomatoes, regardless of instructions – what’s a bit of tomato skin between friends? I do peel parsnips and sweet potato,  and lumpy stuff like celeriac, but if I can avoid it, I do. Mostly because I can’t be bothered, but I also hate the idea of the waste – that, and my mother’s voice ringing in my ears, insisting that half the vegetable’s nutrients are in the skin. Is this true, or just one of those things mothers say when they can’t be bothered peeling?

What about you – peeler, or no?

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Shelf help

August 7, 2009

cookbooksToday’s post is inspired by two things – first, the empty space we now have in our new cookbook shelves; and second, our chat here about Julia Child, and especially Julie’s & Fiona’s recollections of working from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which Fiona so beautifully described as “my first cooking book mother – the human mother being a frozen chop sort of cook…”

Now, as you can see, in place of our crappy old single cookbook shelf jammed into a corner of the living room are these spacious purpose-built cookbook shelves in the kitchen itself (I know, the top one is a leetle cramped, but good for mags perhaps?)

So I discover to my delight that we need more cookbooks. We did chuck out a few duds when we cleared the place for the reno, so pretty much only useful ones remain.

And all this Julia Child talk has made me think about classics I should own but do not – and I would love your advice. I want to hear about your ‘cookbook mother’ – the book that got you into cooking in a way your own mum didn’t.

I know we’ve touched on this via my Elizabeth David ramble here, but I want to hear more about your early cookery book love affairs. After Elizabeth, it was two Aussie blokes who led me up the kitchen garden path – Paul Merrony, with a slender (almost self-published-looking) book called The New French Cooking in Australia: Recipes from Merrony’s Restaurant, and the other was Geoff Slattery, with a very workable and appealingly instructive book called Simple Flavours. Both of these propelled me wonderfully towards fresh, simple yet classic dishes and flavour combinations. What about you?

And what about those classics every cook should have – you must have at least two or three on your shelves that One doesn’t?  Help me fill the void!

Postscript: A couple of recent birthdays round here have suddenly yielded two beauties since I wrote the above – Marcella Hazan’s The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking and Greg & Lucy Malouf’s Saha: A chef’s journey through Syria & Lebanon. Happy, happy days in this house!


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Fishy (and salty) business

July 1, 2009

stephsaltcodThe Empress’ Sydney Morning Herald Good Living column this week is on salt cod – mmmmmmmm. She writes:

Since the advent of refrigeration and better transport, there’s no storage imperative to salt fish. But try telling that to the Portuguese, who have bacalhau so firmly entrenched in their culinary repertoire there’s no turning back. Soaking in water renders the stiff, dried fish soft, palatable and ready to be made into any of the 365 recipes the Portuguese have devised for it. But salt cod isn’t only the preserve of the Portuguese. The French are also fans of salt cod, which they call morue, and transform into warm puree with olive oil, garlic and moistened bread.

She samples salt cod French, Portuguese & Italian style.  And it sounds good.

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Cry me a river

May 17, 2009

onion gogglesSenor and I are having an argument about whether I should purchase a pair of these exceptionally snazzy onion goggles.

My view, of course, is yes! Although since our earlier discussion on the topic I have to say Hamish and Jamie were both right, and while I still bawl each time, practice is making – well, marginally better. My dice are neater and the chilling and sharpest knife does make a difference. But still, I can definitely see myself in these.

Senor, however, has been rolling his eyes. I’m used to that. Then, warming to the topic, he quite seriously suggested a scuba mask, because then “at least you can use it for snorkelling as well”.

Please. I can just see myself welcoming the guests at the front door with one of those on my head, I replied. At which S looked for a minute from this picture to me and back again, incredulous, and said, “Are you telling me you’re concerned about what they’re going to look like?”

I still think they’re funky.

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A song to the tong

April 24, 2009

tongsOne of the great pleasures of all this visiting and house-sitting we’ve been doing while our place is renovated is having the chance to play in so many different kitchens.

I have developed quite a list of new gadgets to stuff into my capacious drawers (ooh!) when I eventually get them. 

And a few new sets of tongs will be on the list. I love tongs, and cannot fathom how anyone lives without them.

Over Easter I visited my sister and was aghast to find not a single pair of tongs – not even a crappy old supermarket pair – in her kitchen. As I whined and ransacked every drawer in the place, berating her for her tongage shortage, she looked on, nonplussed, and asked what was wrong with a fork.

A fork. How could she possibly substitute a fork for tongs, I gasped. And she said, with rather too much relish for my liking, ‘Well I probably don’t fry things quite as often as you do.’  

An outrageous slur, of course. There’s roasting, too. And sauteing, and flash-frying, and … hmm. But Senor has also pointed out there’s the whole serving aspect. And barbecuing. And fishing pasta out for testing whether it’s cooked. And – surely other uses!??   Read the rest of this entry ?