Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Spiced lamb and tomato soup with couscous

I spent most part of today working on figures for my upcoming business venture and the remainder reading "a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years" - a book by Jared Diamond. My cerebral hemispheres feel a little more worked out than usual and I am relishing this sensation, knowing I have exercised and fired a few dormant neural pathways today.

So tonight's dinner is a healthy no-brainer - soup.

I used to make this soup quite often in the past, using chicken instead of lamb. Of course, if you prefer a meatless version, you can substitute the meat with eggplant, zucchini, pumpkin or some firm tofu. If you are planning on making soup for now and some later, my advice is to cook the couscous separately as it tends to absorb all the liquid it sits in and turn into a slippery, starchy mess.

This soup is all about bold flavours so it is not so suitable for the convalescing - but extremely good for nursing a hangover. We are talking about some fierce heat from fresh red chillis and cayenne, sweet spiciness from Spanish paprika, earthy tones from fresh ginger, turmeric and cumin, finished off with fresh coriander and parsley. This soup is like a watered-down version of a Moroccan lamb tajine, less laborious to prepare but still delivers the same amount of eating pleasure. Although I had ideas of taking this soup in various directions, I think this is one of those soups where less is more.

spiced lamb and tomato soup with couscous
400g lamb mince
100g baby spinach
400g tin of chopped tomatoes
500ml stock (chicken, beef or veg)
1 medium onion, finely sliced
4 fat garlic cloves, chopped
1 knob of ginger the size of a thumb, finely chopped
1 red chilli, chopped
1tsp Spanish paprika
1/2tsp cayenne pepper
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp turmeric
chopped parsley, coriander or spring onions
1 cup instant couscous
1 tsp butter
1 1/4 cup boiling water
salt and pepper to taste
place couscous in a bowl with butter and add boiling water, salt and pepper
cover with clingwrap and allow couscous to steam and absorb all the liquid - set aside
saute ginger, garlic, chilli and onion in a medium sized pot with some veg oil until soft but not coloured
add lamb mince and cook until brown
add spices and cook for a minute
add chopped tomatoes and stock and bring to the boil
simmer for 15 minutes
season to taste
fluff couscous and add chopped fresh herbs through
to serve place a handful of baby spinach leaves in a bowl and pour hot soup over
garnish with couscous

Monday, 30 March 2009

Remembering someone special - Dark chocolate chestnut truffles

A year ago today, I lost my closest friend Jean-Michel Howland aka Micka (to me), after a very unfortunate accident left him battling for life in the Intensive Care Unit for 4 nights. I remember thinking, if part of my soul could bring him back to life, I would gladly surrender it and I am certain everyone who knew him would do the same... He was a great man with a warm soul and a true heart.

My heart truly broke the morning Micka left forever.

As a tribute to him, I made some dark chocolate chestnut truffles because like truffles, a true friend like him is rare, a real precious commodity and an acquired taste (he had a twisted sense of humour).

These truffles have a slightly different texture to classic dark chocoalte truffles. They seem less dense, more creamy - like a heavy mousse due to the high starch content of the chestnut puree.

dark chocolate chestnut truffles
200g dark chocolate min 70% cocoa
200ml pouring cream
150g chestnut puree
2 tbsp honey
2 tbsp brandy
250g your favourite dark chocolate
1/2 cup good quality cocoa powder
(makes 36 truffles)
melt 70% cocoa dark chocolate au bain marie
gently heat cream and add chestnut puree and honey stirring until a smooth consistency is achieved
add chestnut cream and brandy to melted chocolate and stir gently until well mixed and smooth
cover and place in fridge over night to set
melt your favourite dark chocolate in a water bath
using 2 teaspoons, portion ganache and place on a sheet of baking paper (alternatively, use a melon baller to shape the truffles)
coat the truffles with the melted dark chocolate then roll in cocoa powder
store in the fridge for up to 3 months.

Incredibly awesome ginger-pear cake

I made this cake purely out of necessity. It has been a while since I last baked a cake and I had to use the small pears that were going too ripe in the crisper compartment of my fridge so I made something to satisfy the two criteria. I mentioned in several posts back about my cravings for caramel. Although this cake doesn't feature caramel per se, the treacle in the gingerbread contributes caramel notes that linger with the sweet perfume of pear and the warm spiciness of cinammon and ginger making this cake so rib-stickingly good!

This cake is simple to make and assemble. If like me, you don't forget to place the pears cut side down in the pan before adding the cake batter, you will be rewarded with a rather attractive old-fashion upside-down cake that I didn't.

I adapted the steamed gingerbread pudding recipe from one of my favourite cookbooks, Tartine by Elisabeth M Prueitt and Chad Robertson. Although I have not tried the original recipe prior to baking this cake, I made a few alterations and found the results very agreeable. If you are looking for a sponge-textured cake, then this is NOT the cake you are after. Because of the liquid content, this recipe yields a hefty, moist and firm cake - delicious at room temperature but incredibly awesome eaten warm with a generous helping of cold creme anglaise (pouring custard) or a dollop of thick cream.

ginger pear cake
225g flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinammon
1 tsp mixed spice
1/4 tsp ground clove
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp salt
60ml sour cream
140ml milk
2 large eggs
150g sugar
150ml sunflower oil
235g treacle
4 pears, cored and quartered
(makes an 8-inch round cake - serves 8 generously)
sift dry ingredients and place aside
preheat oven to 180C and line the bottom and sides of a springform tin with baking paper
scatter 2 tablespoon brown sugar and dot 30g butter over the base of the baking tin
arrange pear in a decorative fashion, cut side down
beat wet ingredients at low speed for a minute then at high speed for another
add dry ingredients to the wet mixture
mix at low speed until moistened
switch to high speed and mix until perfectly smooth
pour the batter over the pears
bake for 45 minutes then lower the oven temperature to 160C and bake for a further 30 minutes or until the cake is ready.
allow cake to stand for 10 minutes after taking it out of the oven before inverting and unmoulding unto a plate.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Rustic mushroom salad

Today, we put our clocks back an hour as Daylight Savings come to an end. I was hoping to take full advantage of this event by spending an extra hour in bed but of course with numeric confusion, I ended getting out of bed at 6; 2 hours too early which was a disappointment especially since it is Sunday.

Anyway, after breakfast and a trip to the markets, I made a warm mushroom salad and a ginger-pear cake for a late afternoon picnic at King's Park. The salad is one I have made quite often in the past but for some reason, I moved on to other salads. It made a reappearance sometime last week when I had to make it at work and had me wondering why I haven't made it for so long.

This is so very simple to prepare and Autumn is just the perfect season for it because mushrooms are cheap and in abundance. Of course you can try a variety of mushrooms but I recommend small, tight Swiss Browns and fleshy field mushrooms. Swiss Browns have a sweet-nutty flavour and hold their shape better during cooking while field mushrooms have a nice meaty texture - both excellent for soaking up the delicious savoury and vinegar-y cooking juices. Although this particular salad is inspired by Mediterranean flavours like fruity olive oil, balsamic vinegar, sweet basil and pungent garlic, other cultural renditions are just as good. For example, why not try shimeji, shitake and oyster mushrooms with chilli, garlic, spring onions, a dash of mirin and sesame oil then finish with a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds?

In a hot pan, saute some sliced red onions (I used 2 medium ones) until brown and slightly soft (don't forget the seasoning) then add 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar to deglaze the pan. Set aside, then in the same pan, saute some chopped garlic in your favourite olive oil then add mushrooms. Cook until mushrooms collapse, season well then add more balsamic vinegar to the pan (it should hiss, spit and sizzle!). Mix the cooked mushrooms with the onions then add lots of chopped sweet basil and a slug of good extra virgin olive oil. Crumble your favourite chevre or fetta atop and enjoy it warm with lots of grilled ciabatta.

And if you are feeling more industrious than usual, why not prepare a pot of soft polenta or creamy potato puree as a side dish. For our picnic, I roasted a large sweet potato I had cut into small chunks with nothing but a good splash of olive oil, salt and pepper. Topped with the mushroom salad, it made a very wholesome and nutritious meal - with Autumn's colours on a plate.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Autumn pasta - mushrooms, spinach, pine nuts and creme fraiche

This is one of my favourite quick weeknight meals when I want to indulge in a bowl of pasta. Again, all there is to this very satisfying dish are a handful of ingredients you can add to or subtract from. Pasta being the key ingredient is something you cannot do without and the type you choose is entirely up to you. Last night, I picked up this peculiar tripe-resembling variety called spugnole for an extravagant sum of $14.00 per kilo. I know this is extremely indulgent especially during "such difficult times we live in", but it is one of the few things I afford myself in place of jewels and overpriced sandals, both of which I too am very fond of.

So as I was saying, pick a pasta that pleases you and while you have it boiling in a pot, you can start preparing the other items that go in the dish. Autumn is a great time for mushrooms so try a variety or go for some "meaty" field mushrooms. Although baby spinach is a convenient option because its tender leaves wilt in an instant when it comes in contact with the searing heat of the pan, I quite enjoy silverbeet too. The latter takes a little longer to cook but I find it packs a bit more in texture and vegetal flavour. Swiss chard is another good vegetable to use as it contributes both flavour and colour to the dish.

The time it takes for the pasta to cook, you can saute some chopped garlic and chilli in a pan with the mushrooms until they become soft. Add to this a good splash of dry white wine or sherry, some seasoning then the drained pasta and baby leaves. As I don't always have cheese in my fridge, I often stir a healthy dollop of creme fraiche, light sour cream or yogurt through my pasta or risotto dishes towards the end. I know it isn't the tradition (especially with yogurt) but I find the light creaminess and tang of these products is a pleasant change and doesn't overpower the other flavours of the dish. These creams form a smooth velvety sauce that is pleasingly thick enough to cling to the pasta.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Warm chickpea and broccoli salad with toasted almonds

Tonight I made myself a warm salad. To be honest, calling it a salad would be slightly misdirected as I think it is more a stir-fry with one unlikely candidate as the protein component - chickpeas (NB I added a few shelled prawns just because I had them - of course, you can omit them should you wish to keep this dish vegetarian).

This is an incredibly fast, substantial and cheap meal to prepare and it really does cover all the required food groups. Here, I have opted for piquant Asian flavours: lime, fish sauce (which you can replace with soy sauce for a vegan/vegetarian alternative), garlic, chilli and fresh coriander. In hindsight, I could have added some coconut cream and leftover curry paste to the pan as well and I would have a quick vegetable curry. I was searching for something crunchy and salty to add to my salad - like bacon bits. But I don't eat pork. I suspect if you enjoy bits of salty pork, you could saute some pancetta in the pan before adding the rest of the ingredients and it would be quite tasty. In the end, toasted flaked almonds played the role of "salty pork bits" for me.

Whatever direction you wish to take this dish is entirely up to you. I have a can of butter beans and lentils sitting in my cupboard, so next time I might use those in place of chickpeas. Grains and pulses tend to be neglected in most of our diets but they are an excellent and cheap source of protein. The added bonus is they are also high in dietary fibre - which commonly lacks in our contemporary diet.

Chickpea and broccoli salad
1 medium head of broccoli, cut into florets
1 tin of chickpeas, rinsed and drained well
1 chilli, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
fresh coriander, roughly chopped
1/2 lime/lemon, juiced
peanut oil
fish sauce (vego alternative: soy sauce)
handful of flaked almonds, toasted in a pan
heat pan or wok and add peanut oil
saute chopped chilli and garlic until fragrant then add chickpeas
add soy/fish sauce and juice to the pan (it should sizzle)
add broccoli florets and 1/4 cup of water
place lid over pan allowing the steam to cook the broccoli - this takes about a minute or two
remove from heat and place in bowl
scatter flaked almonds and chopped coriander on top of salad

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Luxury in a jar - Berry and rhubarb jam

Just the other morning while I was filling out the little jars at work with breakfast jam, I thought to myself,

"Such luxurious times we live in".

Centuries ago, jam was a delicacy only the royalty enjoyed. These preserves were made from fruit picked from the garden and glasshouse on the palace grounds. Fast forward to the present and I am portioning jam from a large bucket and everyone can enjoy a jam sandwich. Isn't it funny how we take these little luxuries for granted?

Of course there are jams, and there are jams. What sets the standard for the heavy-weights is the percentage of fruit. To me, any preserve containing a minimum of 45% fruit is called a jam. Anything less, it is a jelly or a fruit spread - and this is by no means my personal dismissal of its quality, merely a question of semantics.

Although I was tempted to make this jam without the use of commercial pectin, the idea of gathering enough apple pips or making an apple peel stock had me change my mind at the drop of a spoon. The truth is, most commercial pectin is derived from apple anyway but is conveniently crystallised for use. Initially, I planned on using raw sugar in my jam but spotted jam-setting sugar conveniently packaged in 1kg bags at my local grocery which is just the amount I required. Although, it costs a fraction more than raw or white sugar, it really does make the whole process, less of a process - that is, there is no need to:

  1. measure pectin then mixing it through the sugar to prevent it from clumping together

  2. determine the appropriate amount of citric acid required to activate the pectin and,

  3. be left behind with a jarful of pectin that you may never use again, unless you are considering jam-making as a hobby.

The jam I made is a no-fuss-cook-in-30-minutes-soft-set variety. The advantage of the short cooking time is you get to preserve the vibrant colour and taste of the fruit and as a result, a more robust jam in both flavour and visual appeal. Some recipes call for a knob of butter to be added when the jam has come to its setting point. This does not affect the flavour of the jam and is merely done to help disperse the foam that accumulates during boiling (scientifically, its job is to break the surface tension of the jam). Some argue that this step may affect the shelf life of the product but I cannot personally remark on this as I have very little jam-making experience. I find skimming the foam off the surface of the jam before placing them in jars just as easy.

If you wish to read more about proper jam-making, this site offers some good guidelines. As does this site. However, I must add my jam (although breaking a few rules highlighted in aforementioned sites) is pretty spectacular and should you try it, you would probably think so too.

So try it, and let me know what you think.

Berry and rhubarb jam
500g raspberries
300g strawberries, hulled
300g rhubarb, peeled, cut to 2cm pieces and cured overnight with 1/2 cup sugar
1kg CSR jam-setting sugar
peel of 1 orange
peel of 1 lemon
1 vanilla pod, split and scraped
(makes 5-6 250ml jars)
mix berries and rhubar in a large bowl with jam setting sugar
place fruit in a large non-reactive pot and gently heat to dissolve sugar
add citrus peel and vanilla seeds and pod
bring to a rolling boil for 5-6 minutes
test to see if jam has set by placing a small amount on a cold plate. It is ready when a skin forms and it fails to run all over the plate (NB this jam is soft set, just the way I like it. You may need to use additional pectin if you prefer a firm set jam)
remove peel and vanilla pod
place in hot sterilised jars (I wash my jars and lids in hot soapy water then place them in the oven set at 120C to dry. I keep them at this temperature until I am ready to fill them with jam)
screw the jar tops on while jam is still hot and place in a cool dark place to store.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Soba noodles with seared tuna steak

Keeping it simple and fresh tonight with a handful of ingredients I found in my cupboard and fridge. This is a very healthy and wholesome dish you can prepare for yourself even after a long hard day at work and my promise to you is a feeling of being nourished from within.

Although I included slices of seared tuna in tonight's version, vegetarian variations can be just as easy to prepare, simply adding slices of grilled or pan-fried tofu or tempeh. Perhaps even sauteed seasonal vegetables. I am particularly fond of spinach and mushrooms but this would work just as well with chunks of roasted pumpkin, spring onions and even fresh amaranth (something I still haven't had much luck finding in Australia). In fact, you can go in many directions with this dish. When the weather is cooler, I include the dashi broth I cooked the noodles as part of the dish. In summer, I chill the noodles in ice water then eat it with nothing but a smear of wasabi, some crisp julienne cucumber or grated daikon, and a light dressing made with mirin, rice wine vinegar, soy sauce and sesame oil.

Since there is no fixed recipe for a dish like that, I thought it best for me to include a couple of guidelines I tend to follow

  1. Cooking the soba noodles in a stock, miso soup or dashi broth gives it a very good flavour regardless of whether you wish to include the cooking liquid in the finished dish
  2. Most soba noodles you get in the shops will not clump up or turn claggy when overcooked. I find the authentic Japanese imports are less forgiving but have better flavour (they even have green tea variations!). Should you try the latter, refresh the cooked noodles in lots of iced water.

Let me know if you do try this dish and I would love to hear about the way you cook your favourite noodles.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Little bites - various canapes

Yesterday, after a fairly busy week, I did absolutely nothing productive. Although I felt a touch of guilt for not seizing the glorious beach weather, it was quickly overcome by watching a marathon session of [scrubs] in bed, slothing in my favourite pajamas and bingeing on my body weight of chocolate eclairs and crunchy seedless white grapes. Needless to say, I felt a little ill from this excess and dinner was not on the cards. On days such as these I wish I had little savoury things with a bit more substance to graze on throughout the day - like these canapes I made for a tasting last weekend. Perhaps, then I would be less inclined to eat dessert as a meal. Not that there is anything wrong with that!

Beetroot jam and brie tart

This is my personal favourite combining a tangy savoury beetroot jam with a creamy brie and sweet crunchy Bartlett pear. Most beetroot jams I have tried in the past are texturally challenged. I prefer not to cook my beetroot for too long keeping a slight crunch to the jam.

"Waldorf" salad with chicken

Although the popular Waldorf salad needs no re-invention, I had to figure of a way to deliver it as a canape. The celery "boat" I thought was just the perfect vector - and who doesn't like chicken with mayonnaise?? I am really digging raisins in savoury dishes at the moment too.

Prawn and peach salsa in a parmesan cup

I cannot take credit for this particular canape as I think it has been done to death. Still, I think it epitomises the food of the Australian summer because it combines fresh boiled prawns with glorious ripe and juicy stone fruit in an appetising mouthful.

Vitello tonnato on a sourdough crouton

So okay, no points for originality here. I guess this is Italy's answer to "surf and turf" but with more flair and finesse? This canape is a simple assembly of very finely sliced seared veal steak on a baby spinach leaf (for colour and to keep the crouton from becoming soggy) then topped with a lemony anchovy-tuna cream and caper.

Seared tuna on Japanese rice cake with wasabi mayonnaise

Although of Asian heritage, I cannot understand the appeal of sashimi. Seared tuna on the other hand, I am particularly partial to and I think this little bite is a good compromise for those who enjoy sushi but not its protein component still gleaming with too much life.

Finally, as an endnote, I would like to apologise for my sporadic pattern of posting this month as I am currently experiencing slight difficulties as E and I are changing our internet service at the moment. Please bear with me and I hope to post something sweet soon as I cannot seem to shake off the idea of caramel.
Mmmm caramel...