h1

Flashback – citrus couscous

December 13, 2013

citruscouscousLast night I made this lovely couscous salad – we haven’t eaten it at home in a couple of years I think, and now I can’t imagine why. It’s very good. I remembered it because I watched Jamie Oliver’s 15-Minute Meals the other day and he made some terrific lamb rissoles with pistachio, honey & thyme, and he served it with couscous.

The recipe for this salad is here, posted way back in 2009!

The meatballs were excellent – I’m a big fan of the J-man – and extremely easy. The recipe isn’t online, but I’m wondering if that book might be a very good present for cooks for Christmas (though of course everything takes longer than 15 minutes – I’d double the time personally, though the meatballs certainly didn’t take any longer than that).

But anyway, back to the couscous. Recommended – and it keeps forever and ever and a day.

h1

Grrrr, apology

December 9, 2013

Hello subscribers! Sorry about that chief – WordPress destroyed my last blog post immediately after I made it. I’ve rewritten and reposted, so it is available again here: https://howtoshuckanoyster.com/2013/12/09/christmas-material-a-festive-salad/

h1

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?

h1

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.

h1

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!

h1

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…

h1

On painting, cooking and eating

August 20, 2013

ImageMartin Gayford’s Man with a Blue Scarf

In an experiment in disconnection over the past week (a diary-style magazine piece on what it’s like to return to total offline life for seven days) I’ve done a lot of reading. In time away from the internet I discovered a lovely rich sense of privacy and mental spaciousness, even allowing for a little rereading. One of the books I’ve dipped into again is an old favourite: Man with a Blue Scarf, by Martin Gayford. It’s an account of sitting for two portraits for the great Lucian Freud, an experience that took over eighteen months altogether.

This is such a beautiful book. I first read it as I wrote this piece here, for The Monthly. It’s perfect for dipping into, as it’s written in short, reflective, elegant pieces.

One of Freud’s conventions is to eat dinner in a good restaurant with his portrait subjects after each sitting, as the latter is a surprisingly demanding physical feat. But Gayford points out it is not just a pleasant reward for what could become ‘a grind’ – it’s also a chance for the painter to keep observing the sitter at close quarters.

There is a complicated relationship between painting, cooking and eating. Quite often the subject matter of painting is food, or as we call it in English, ‘still life’. The French term, nature morte, or dead life, describes it with bleaker honesty. The eatable is, generally speaking, dead matter, animal and vegetable, which if not consumed will soon decay. Living flesh is made by consuming other organisms. That is a fundamental biological process, one that is punningly recalled by Lucian Freud’s painting of a nude with two fried eggs (Naked Portrait with Egg, 1980-81; p 16), as close a visual analogy between the human body and comestibles as exists in the whole of art. 

Artists who are interested, like LF, in the physical being of people are necessarily interested in food.  Francis Bacon used to insist that we are meat, and – though one might disagree about whether there is more to the question – that contention is undeniably true. Moreover, painting – especially the thick and luscious variety often employed by painters who attempt to evoke the texture and weight of bodily existence – often uses techniques that verge on the culinary. Rembrandt, it has been discovered, used a liaison of oil and egg yolk to thicken those wonderful dollops of pigment that he used to recreate the bulge of a nose or the currugations of a forehead. In other words, he was painting with a variety of mayonnaise.

A remark by Sickert comes to mind: ‘The more our art is serious, the more it will tend to avoid the drawing room and stick to the kitchen. The plastic arts are gross arts, dealing joyously with gross material facts … while they will flourish in the scullery, or on the dunghill, they fade at a breath from the drawing room.’

‘Gross material facts’ are exactly the subjects of LF’s pictures, very often. And though many would dispute he deals with them joyously (though I am not sure I would), he does so – I believe – with sympathy, tenderness and, certainly, intense seriousness. From this first evening, the sights and smells of restaurants are mingled in my mind with those of the studio: linseed oil and olive oil, saffron and yellow ochre.

I highly recommend this book – it’s a lively and rich philosophical discussion of Freud, portraiture, friendship and painting. It’s an absolute jewel, and you can buy it here