Saturday, March 27, 2010

Being humbled by pie

Pie is easy.* You can buy it frozen and pop it in the oven. That pie is humble: it doesn’t ask for much, doesn’t expect much, doesn’t particularly offer much either, just sits quietly in the freezer, then the oven, then disappears quickly without much comment.**

Eating fancy meals can be demanding: there is an extra attentiveness we tend to approach a glamorous dish with, as opposed to the unwinding we allow ourselves when we sit down for a traditional home cooked meal. Something intimidating, something attention-grabbing about a restaurant meal. It is special food for a reason. We hesitate, we pause, we pay that momentary respect, that intake of breath, that thoughtfulness.

The direction of the breath we take is pivotal, I think, in defining the difference. Restaurant food: intake. Wonder. Home cooking: exhale. Relaxation.

A few weeks ago I attempted a recipe from Thomas Keller’s cookbook The French Laundry. It was pretty complicated, involving making duck stock and then a reduced duck sauce. Creamed corn, which involved pureeing fresh corn kernels, then straining them, then cooking them, then adding whole blanched corn kernels. Oh, and blanched silverbeet wrapped skinned duck breast, cooked sous vide (ie, wrapped in plastic then poached).
The meal took a whole day, and was an exercise in peeling, precision dicing, watching, skimming, straining ... The end result was delicious, but damn, it would want to be for the effort it took to produce one dish.

Taking this recipe as a starting point, I thought about pie. What if you took the basic components - duck, mushroom, corn - and made pie? Mixed everything up together? Mushrooms fried with roughly chopped leeks and thyme. Poached the chicken (that way, if it doesn’t work, I’ve only lost my investment in chicken, and not a duck). The diced brunoise is transformed into diced vegetables. The creamed corn and reduced poaching liquid from the chicken becomes the binding gravy. From fancy restaurant food to rustic, home-style comfort food.
Easier to eat.

Not easier to make.

It took me nearly as long to make the pie as it did to make the Keller recipe. Poaching the chicken the night before. Reducing the stock. Chopping the vegetables. Cooking the sauce. Frying the mushrooms. Pulling the chicken off the carcass. Baking the pie. (Thank goodness for store-bought pastry!).

But there was a gentleness about the process – a shift in the expectation. This pie didn’t need to be perfect. It didn’t need to wow anyone. It didn’t have to look like a jewel, be perfectly sized or shaped. It didn’t really rely on split second timing. When we sat down to eat, we breathed out.

* ‘Easy as pie’ doesn’t describe the ease of creation, but rather the pleasure of eating, the idea being that good things are also easy to like – easy on the eye, for example. ‘Easy as pie’ comes to us from American English (check out Mark Twain and all the pie references).

** Humble pie is little bit older – from the old English ‘numble’ or ‘umble’ pie – pie made from deer offal. Perhaps also eaten by the lowly of station. By a phonetic slight of hand: ‘umble pie (think of Michael Cain saying it). Humble pie. Numble pie eaten by the humble.

Chicken, corn and mushroom pie, a play in four acts

Act 1: The poaching of the chicken (the day before)

2 1 kg chickens (whole or with thighs removed – depend what fits into the pot)
1 carrot, cut in half
1 brown onion, peeled and cut in half
6 sprigs of parley
10 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 bay leaves

Place all ingredients in a large saucepan. Cover with cold water. Bring to boil, simmer for about 20 minutes. Cover with a lid and turn off the heat. Allow to cool, then refrigerate overnight (I put the whole saucepan in the fridge.

The next day, scrape the fat from the top of the stock. Remove the chicken, discard the skin and pull the meat off the bones. Shred the meat and set aside.

Strain the poaching liquid and reserve.

Act 2: A kernel of corn

Poaching liquid from the chicken
Kernels from 3 cobs corn
2 carrots – cut in ½ cm dice
200 g celeriac – cut in ½ cm dice
1 leek, white part cut into 1 cm dice
¼ cup polenta

Bring the chicken poaching liquid the boil in a medium sized saucepan and reduce to about 4 cups.

Puree the 2/3 of the corn kernels with a cup of poaching liquid. Strain and discard the solids. Return the puree to the stock, add the polenta and slowly cook until it starts to foam. Add the remaining corn kernels and diced vegetables and continue to cook until the sauce thickens and the vegetables are just cooked.

Set aside.

Act 3: Mushrooms

½ kg mushrooms (I used field mushrooms, but any combination will be fine), thickly sliced
2 leeks, chopped into 1 cm dice
2 tbsp chopped thyme
1 tbsp chopped oregano
1 bay leaf
2 tbsp olive oil

Throw everything into a non stick fry pan and cook until the mushroom are soft, shaking the pan occasionally to prevent sticking. The mushrooms will release liquid, which will evaporate.

Act 4: the assembly of the pie

Shredded chicken
Thickened corn gravy with vegetables
Fried mushrooms
Pastry (enough to line and lid your pie dish)

Heat the oven to 180ºc

Mix the shredded chicken, mushrooms and corn mixture together. Taste and season (note – nothing has had any salt or pepper added yet).

Line the pie dish with pastry, fill with the pie filling, cover with a pastry lid. Brush with egg wash or milk.

Place into the oven, and cook for about half an hour (if the top starts to brown, cover with foil whilst the pastry base continues to cook).

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Moules mariniere (mussels in white wine)

I speak terrible French. More accurately, je ne pas parle Francais. I cannot pronounce even the most important of the words I do know (vin).

As if a long haul flight via Singapore via Heathrow to Dublin is not punishment enough, I arrived in France after an over-night sea voyage from the south-east coast of Ireland. Travelled from Roscoff by bus as the train was not running.

Through vineyards and fields growing artichokes and cauliflowers. Past old men on bicycles, one with a loaf of bread in the basket. I suspected these were plants by the French tourism authority.

To arrive at the top of a soaring nineteenth century viaduct. Then, according to Google maps, my hotel, charming and balconied, was only a short walk away. What became apparent was that this short walk was a devious and twisty path, and mostly a direct decent down about four thousand steps. Having missed breakfast, I was ready for lunch.

My first meal in France was a baguette with a selection of charcuterie and chevre purchased from a market, and a glass of vin rouge, ravenously consumed after the epic journey to the bottom of the valley. A picnic in bed. This was the view.
I surrendered to the cliché.

I stayed four days in Morlaix, on the coast of Brittany, pretending I could in fact read the menus. Eating everything but mussels: coquilles Saint Jacques (a delicious pot of scallops in white sauce with mushrooms and cheese), saumons fumes (smoked salmon), fruits de mer (a giant plate of mixed crustaceans and fish), huître (oysters, fresh with nothing but lemon) – all divine, but the French word for mussels eluded me.

And then: moules mariniere. A deep bowl of small mussels, steamed in garlic and onion and white wine and butter, served with pomme frittes. A bottle of rose, crisp, dry.

Nearby, middle-aged Frenchmen with easels resting on cobble stones made pastel drawings of the sail boats bobbing on the river. Overhead rose the spires of the gothic Eglise Sainte-Melaine and the arches of the nineteenth century viaduct. C’est la vie.

Moules mariniere
Serves two people as a main meal, or four for a light lunch or entre
1 ½ kg mussels
75 g butter
White part of two leeks, fined diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
6-10 stalks of thyme
½ tsp cracked pepper
120 ml dry white wine
½ cup chopped parsely
2 tbsp white wine vinegar

Clean the mussels (scrub them and with a sharp knife, remove any barnacles – most fishmongers will have already done this. Pull the fibrous thread off each one. Don’t use any that are broken). Set aside.

Melt half the butter in a very large pan. Add the leeks, garlic and herbs. Cook until soft. Add the wine and bring to the boil (this will be almost instantaneous) Cook off the alcohol (about
a minute).

Add the mussels and cover with a lid (if you don’t have a lid, cover with foil or grease proof paper to trap in the steam). After a minute or two, you will notice the mussels are starting to open. As each mussel opens, remove with a slotted spoon to a warm bowl until all are open. This won’t take long – maybe five minutes. Some mussels just won’t open – discard them, just in case (I like to give then a good chance to open, leaving then in the heat a bit after the majority are open).

The mussels will have release a lot of liquid. Pick out the thyme stalks and bay leaf (some recipe suggest you strain the sauce, but I like the taste and texture of the leeks). Add the rest of the wine and the vinegar and bring to the boil. Cook for about a minute, then rapidly whisk in the remaining butter. Taste, and season if necessary (I don’t add salt to mussel because they are so salty naturally). Stir in the parsley.

To serve, fill a large bowl with opened mussels. Pour over sauce. Serve with pomme frittes (French fries) or crusty sourdough bread to soak up all the sauce.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A is for Apple, B is Boring, C is for Crumble

Apples are credited with keeping doctors away, impressing educators and proving the effects of gravity. Although mythological credited with the fall of man – or more precisely, the fall of woman, nothing is more mundane than the apple.

A sensible, serious fruit.

Perhaps contributing to the boringness of apples is the fact that they almost never feature as the stars of haute cuisine. Apples-as-dessert tend to be home-cooking’s domain: apple snow, apple pie (oh, tarte tatin), apple crumble, stewed apples, apple butter, apple tea-cake. Cooked apples are for eating in the kitchen by the fire with a cup of tea.

It is difficult to imagine the apple being an object of excitement or desire – presented alongside option such as figs or mangoes or strawberries, the ever-available, the cold-storage apple is likely to be eaten without thought. So someone (we’ll call her Eve) jumping up and down, squealing “COX’S ORANGE PIPPINS” over and over again would probably be a bit weird. And embarrassing for the people around me. I mean Eve.

Despite their year-round availability, apples are seasonal. Most varieties arrive at their peak during the autumn months – and some of the rarer varietals have very short season indeed. Hence the excitement about the Cox’s Orange Pippin – the most common ‘red’ apple in the UK, it is almost impossible to find in Australia (not at all suited to our growing conditions). When fresh, it is crisp and sweet and tangy and quintessentially the perfect eating apple. It does not store well, and is therefore to be jealously and joyously consumed for the few short weeks of its season.

Of course, we live in a world where everything is available all the time, and everything is grown for green-picking, bruise-free transportation, long-storage and slow ripening. Our fruit is harder and sweeter than nature intended. Stored apples tend to lose their crispness and tart edge-of-sourness. Yawn.

‘So’, whispers the snake (in a place where the supermarket is mysteriously also the garden of Eden) – ‘the autumnal apple is the tastiest, the crispest, simultaneously the sweetest and tartest apple you will find. The fruit at the other times of the year will not satisfy the same way this new-season apple will. The supermarket tricks you with the ever-present cold-storage apple. Eat the apple as God intended’. Possibly heresy, but the apple deserves to be made sexier, more mysterious, more desirable.

There is something honest, something wholesome, about home-made apple crumble. It’s rustic. It’s old-fashioned. It’s stupidly simple to make and won’t win awards for beauty. Apple crumble is about home and homeliness.

Don’t make a small amount – there’s no point. Fill a deep, deep pie dish and top with spiced crumble. Fill the whole street with the smell of cooking apples and brown sugar. Entice your neighbours in for a cup of tea and a bite of the apple.

Apple Crumble

Home-cooking classic, with a hint of exotic spiciness. Serves 6-8.

1.5 kg apples (use a hard and very tart green skinned cooking apple)
1 lemon – juice and rind
¼ cup castor sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ground cardamom
½ tsp nutmeg

100 gm unsalted butter
¼ cup mixed peel
1 cup flour
2/3 cup rolled oats
1/3 cup chopped blanched almonds
1/3 chopped pecans
1/3 cup almond meal
2/3 cup brown sugar
1 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp mixed spice
½ tsp nutmeg

Grease a large baking dish with a little butter.

For the filling: peel and quarter the apples, then slice thinly (about ½ cm). Toss with the sugar, spices, lemon rind and juice. Tip into baking dish.
For the crumble: with a bar mix or food processor, blend the butter with the mixed peel.
In a large bowl, mix the butter mixture with the dry ingredients (I use my hands) – be careful not to over-mix, the idea is to have a very crumbly mixture – hence the name apple crumble.

Sprinkle the crumble mixture over the apple filling.

Bake in a moderate oven for about 40 minutes, until the topping is crisp and the apples cooked through (some will retain it’s shape and the outer edges will go mushy, that’s part of its charm).

Serve with a cup of tea. And custard or ice-cream.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Crumbed milk-fed pink veal, white wine sauce and the ethical debate

Let me state upfront: veal comes from baby cows.

Lamb comes from baby sheep.* Most pork comes from baby pigs. Most chicken for sale is nine weeks old.

Those of us who choose to eat meat (and those who eat it without any thought at all) clearly choose to eat it young. The taste of veal is not at all like its older incarnation of beef, but lighter and more subtle. Veal is a unique flavour, sweet and slightly sour from being milk-fed. Soft, with hardly any fat. In short: delicious, but it comes with a seriously bad public image.

Horror stories abound. Calves deprived of sunlight, denied iron in their diets, kept in fully enclosed ‘veal crates’, unable to even turn around or even stand up**. All this to render ‘beautiful’ white muscle.

If there is an ethical dilemma beyond ‘should we eat meat’, it is not in the youthfulness of the calf, but in its treatment.

I firmly believe that if we make the extraordinary decision to take life, we must not be indifferent to that decision. To take away life is one thing. To cause unnecessary suffering as we do so, a step too far. It leaves far too nasty a taste in one’s mouth.

Veal crates are now unlawful in the United Kingdom, the European Union and several States in the USA.

In Australia we do not eat veal deprived of iron and sunlight, reared in tiny unlit boxes and partially starved. White veal is not available in Australia. Veal produced in Australia is pink, reared on whole milk and a small amount of grain. Pink veal (or rosé veal, as it is known is the UK) is sweet and soft and has a delicate flavour. Cooked well, not medium (unlike the beef it will become, it tends to be a little tough if under cooked), crumbed or in sauce, to protect it from the heat, it marries beautifully with acidity – a squeeze of lemon, tarragon vinegar, white wine sauce.***

* depending on your definition, usually less than a year old.
*** Try with a sauce made of white wine and capers-in-vinegar

Crumbed veal with white wine sauce

2 veal escalopes
¼ cup milk
Plain flour
1 egg
2 cups stale breadcrumbs, seasoned with a little salt and pepper
4 tbsp butter, and 1 extra tbsp
12 sage leaves
6-12 thyme sprigs
250 mls dry white wine (I used sauvignon blanc)
1 tsp corn flour
1 heaped tsp grain or Dijon mustard

Flatten the veal with a mallet (or ask your butcher to do this). Dip into milk, then dust with flour. Whisk the egg into the remaining milk, dip the escalopes into the egg mixture and then press firmly into the breadcrumbs to coat both sides.

In a large fry pan, melt two tablespoons of butter with the herbs. When the butter starts to foam, add the escalopes. If the sage leaves start to get crispy, remove and set aside.

When the escalopes are golden on one side, add two more tablespoon of butter and turn the veal over. When the veal is crispy and golden on that side, it is cooked. Remove and set aside.

Turn the heat to high, add the wine and mustard. Mix the corn flour with a little water to form a paste, and add to the pan. Cook until the alcohol is burnt off, and the flour is cooked (one to two minutes) – the sauce should have just started to thicken. Strain (it will probably have little bread crumbs and bits of thyme stalk in it!). Wipe the pan and return strained sauce, whisk in the remaining butter, strain again.

Spoon some sauce onto a plate, and serve the veal on top of steamed vegetables. Scatter over some crispy sage leaves. Eat with a contemplative conscience.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Myths about pasta

Myth 1: Marco Polo invented pasta / bought it back from China. Not true, according to Oretta Zanini De Vita, who cites records indicating that Italian pasta was adapted from wheat and semolina dumplings introduced to Italy by the Arabs in the ninth century*. Way before Signore Polo.

Myth 2: Fresh is always better than dried pasta. It depends. I have a beautiful recipe for drunken pasta, which is dried spaghettini, cooked by reduction method in a bottle of red wine flavoured with garlic and thyme. As the dried pasta cooks, it absorbs the red wine, turning purple and acquiring a rich tannin flavour. Fresh pasta would fall apart. Dried orrechette with crumbled pork and fennel sausages and fresh peas and grated parmesan. Homemade fresh gnocchi? Brilliant. Fresh paparadelle with olive oil and goats curd? Lovely. Fresh lasagne sheets any day (although that is pure personal preference). It depends.

Myth 3: pasta makes you fat. Nonsense.*

Myths 4, 5 and 6: Carbonara sauce has cream in it, marinara sauce has seafood in it, and pasta spaghetti alla puttenesca means ‘spaghetti in the manner of whores’. False, false and ok, kind of true.

Spaghetti carbonara, as eaten in Italy, is parmesan, pepper, egg yolks and guanciale (cured pig’s cheek). Was is named for the appearance of charcoal that pepper gives? From a black colour given by squid ink or soot? Because coal miners made it? In honour of the Carbonari, a Dan Brown-esque secret society? Who can say? Cream is a delicious American-Italian addition.

Apparently, marinara is Italian for mariner – and marinara describes your basic-est of basic sugo – tomatoes, garlic, onion. Italian seafarers bought tomatoes back from the new world, and the resulting sauce is hence named ‘sailor’s sauce’. And puttenesca was probably known to a few saucy sailors - its name is indeed derived from a derogatory Italian word for sex worker, puttana, which can also be used to describe un-valued or left-over things – like the tomatoes, black olives, anchovies and capers that make up the sauce. Plus quick for a working girl to throw together. I add chilli, for a bit of extra spice. Think of it as cheap and easy.

* Encyclopedia of Pasta, 2009, University of California Press

** Eating more energy than you expend makes you “fat”. And I put this in inverted commas because I think we make too much of “does this make me fat” and not enough of “am I healthy, happy, fulfilled, loved and excited by life”. A standard serve (about 150g) of dried plain pasta has about 225 calories. Which, with vegetables and fruit and protein and conscientious home-cooking and informed choices about food and fun and walking the dog, is part of a healthy life. Pasta does not make you fat.

Spaghetti al nero de seppia del Mare

AKA spaghetti pescatore AKA squid ink pasta with seafood sauce NOT AKA spaghetti marinara

For 2

300g good quality squid ink pasta (ie, spaghetti al nero de seppia)
Basic sauce from the chilli mussels recipe (ie, onion, fennel, tomatoes, capsicum, fennel seed chillies, white wine).
500 g mussels
200 g firm fleshed white fish fillets, cut into bite sized chunks
1 calamari hood, cleaned and cut into rings
Olive oil
Sea salt

Cook the pasta sauce (onions, garlic and fennel first until soft, then tomatoes, chillies, fennel seeds until softening, then wine). Set aside until ready to eat.

In a large pot, boil lots of water (I use a 5 litre pot), add a generous about of salt (about 1 tbsp) and bring to the boil. Add the pasta, bring back to the boil, stir and cook for about 10 minutes (most pasta packages indicate cooking times – just keep an eye on it, and take out a strand to check – I check by taking a bite). When cooked, strain and return to the pot and douse with olive oil – this stops it from sticking together, and buys you time to concentrate on the seafood.

Bring the sauce to a simmer. Add the mussels and cover. As the first ones start to peek open, throw in the fish. As the fish start to turn white at the edges, thrown in the calamari rings, cover and turn off the heat. (You could add scallops, prawns, clams or any seafood you like really – just note the difference cooking times and be careful to add in relative order, so that everything is nicely cooked, but not over cooked).

Place a spiral of black pasta into a shallow bowl, and top with spoonfuls of sauce and seafood. Scatter with torn basil leaves and fresh cracked pepper.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A good egg

I think there is pretty much nothing that can’t be improved by a poached egg. Mushroom risotto? Spaghetti carbonara? Creamy polenta? A bowl of steamed vegetables? Top with a soft poached egg, and break the yolk, letting the golden centre ooze through everything. Perfection.

Eggs for brunch is one of my all time favourite things – with pan fried prosciutto and served with rocquette and avocado or with sautéed chorizo and roma tomatoes or on potato rosti with smoked salmon.

Plus, more and more eggs are considered amazingly good for you.* Studies from the ‘80s suggested strong links between problematic high cholesterol and egg consumption (as cholesterol does occur naturally in eggs, each egg has about 200mg). However, the link between egg consumption and ‘bad’ cholesterol which causes, amongst other things, heart disease, may not be as strong as once thought**. I have a general theory (completely unfounded in any experience, training or professional qualification in medical science) that most whole foods are pretty much ok if eaten in moderation. Ie, a couple of eggs now and again won’t hurt***

Basically, I think we can just eat the damn eggs and enjoy them without feeling guilty.

Except, eat ethical eggs. If for no other reason than they just taste better, eat free range eggs. Organic if you can be bothered/can afford them. Cage eggs come from caged chickens. Caged chickens are essentially egg making factories that never see sunlight and look like old mangy dogs. Chickens should not be treated like this. No animal should be treated like this. Caged chickens are most emphatically not happy chickens, and as a result do not produce happy tasting eggs. Do not eat them. Eat delicious, golden-yolked eggs. Beg them off friends who raise chickens in their backyard. Pick them up at markets in the country. Visit a free range farm and collect them yourself, warm and nestled in straw under a brown hen.

On the weekend, during the rain, I made fava bean puree, filling the house the aroma of the warm oniony broth.

Later that night we snacked on the bean paste as a dip, with crunchy heirloom cucumber and radishes I had picked up at the farmers’ market.

But earlier in the day, as soon as the paste was smooth, I smeared it across thick wood-fired sourdough and topped it with poached eggs.

* “Eggs ‘should be considered a superfood’, say scientists” 9 March 2010 (Although note that this particular study was funded by the British Egg Council. Also note that there is a British Egg Council, which is very, very cool)
“Bad cholesterol: it’s not what you think” 14 February 2010
*** For goodness sake, consult your own health care professional if you have any concerns.

Perfect Poached Eggs

2 very fresh free range eggs. The fresher the eggs, the better the egg white holds together, making a firmer poached egg (the opposite is true for boiled eggs – eggs that are a little older have a little bubble of air between the white and the shell, making them easier to peel)

1 small saucepan, filled with about 3 inches of water (enough to cover the eggs)

1 teaspoon white vinegar. Vinegar helps the egg white to congeal - I sometimes like to use white wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar for taste.

Heat the water and vinegar until simmering (not boiling water – just simmering).

Crack the eggs into a saucer or ramekin, taking care not to break the yolks.

Using a slotted spoon, create a gentle whirlpool in the simmering water (this creates a centrifugal force, which I think helps keep the eggs round shape a little better).

Slide the two eggs from the saucer into the water. If the water starts to boil or froth, turn down the heat.

Nudge the water gently to continue the whirlpool effect.

Cook for 2-2 ½ minutes for runny yolks.

Remove with a slotted spoon.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Chicken cacciatore: food for when it rains

I live here because it doesn’t snow. I love summer, humid weather, cotton dresses and Pimms cup. And as my city was hit by devastating and spectacular hail storms over the past two days I started to dread the long steep decent into autumn and winter, and the all too short thawing of spring. It may not snow here, but for nine months it is pretty damn cold.

Weather is evocative of food: summer is stone fruit and mangoes and seafood and salad and pineapple sorbet. Autumn is always mushrooms. The last of the tomatoes and the start of slow cooking. Dried beans and chard, potatoes and apples and pears. This is the stuff that keeps me going as the weather turns nasty.

We had invited people around for dinner on Sunday night, but with flooded roads and predictions of more wild storms, we started calling around asking our friends not to travel. Ordinarily this might seem an over-reaction, but I had seen for myself how the storms ripped through from the north into Melbourne on Saturday. My train back from a short visit to the country had been stopped an hour out of town, and the replacement coach took nearly four hours to get back. The bus depot was flooded, ankle deep in water. Roads were closed. Piles of ice lay at the sides of the road. Under the circumstances, not everyone came round. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to have been far from home last night.

All I wanted as the rain and wind whipped our windows was old fashioned Italian comfort food, the kind that simmers all day on the stove, making the house smell like onions, then tomatoes, then wine, then herbs, then just warm and savoury as it bubbles away.

In fact between the chilli chocolate soufflé cake* I cooked in the morning (filling the house with the scent of melted chocolate) to the fava bean dip (slowly cooked on the stove in onions and celery and thyme)* and the aroma of chicken cacciatore, I could just about bear the onset of winter.

I realise that cacciatore is a dish that has significantly changed over the centuries, but at its base it is the dish cooked by hunters, out in the forest, bulked out by the ingredients to hand: wild mushrooms, wine, cured meat, rabbit or chicken, wild herbs.

It’s a dish perfect for the start of autumn: rich with pureed fresh tomatoes, just starting to be squishy and overripe (picked up at a country market stall), cultivated mushrooms made more rich with the addition of dried porcini, a generous dash of red wine and smoky rich bacon from the organic pig farm I visited on Saturday morning. Served with slow cooked polenta, rich with sheep’s milk percorino. Cosy, warm and safe.

And plenty of left-overs.

* see for the recipe. I added 1 teaspoon of ground chilli, ½ teaspoon cinnamon and ¼ ground ginger, and left out the vanilla. Tip: make sure you use very finely ground almond meal.

Chicken cacciatore

Generously serves six

12 chicken drumsticks, skin and knuckle removed
¼ cup corn flour
Salt and pepper
2 brown onions, diced
150 gm really good bacon
300 gm carrots, diced
300 celery, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 sprigs thyme
1 sprig rosemary
200 ml red wine
1 kg fresh tomatoes, peeled and pureed
1 kg mushrooms
5 gms dried porcini, soaked in ¼ cup water for about 20 minutes.

Coat the drumsticks in seasoned cornflour. Heat olive oil in very large saucepan, and cook the drumsticks until browned all over. Remove and set aside.

Add more olive oil to the pan, add the chopped onion and bacon and cook for a couple of minutes, until softening. Add the celery, carrot and garlic and cook until soft and starting to caramelise. Add the red wine and boil off the alcohol (the smell of alcohol will disappear). Add the pureed tomatoes and herbs, heat through. Return the chicken to the sauce, reduce heat to a slow simmer, and cook for an hour or so.

Half an hour before serving, add mushrooms and porcini (discard water).

Serve over slow cooked polenta or pasta or rice.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Comfort food: soft scrambled tofu

Some days are harder than other days.

There are days when you wake up tired and drag yourself through work and then home again. Days with headaches and not enough coffee and a vague feeling that a nice nap would be good.

Days when you can’t be bothered to cook much, despite the giant purple cabbage you were so excited about the day before and ideas for mustard roasted chicken and smashed potato with bacon.

For some, the appropriate balm for such trying times is cheese-on-toast, mash, macaroni-cheese, shepherd’s pie or chocolate ice-cream. The theme tends to be cream and carbohydrates.

All perfectly valid.

For me, I crave either one of two things: Indonesian chicken soup (sop ayam, the most blissful experience of chicken stock, vegetables, ginger, rice and chilli sauce) or scrambled tofu. I can’t explain why chilli features so prominently as comfort food for me.

Simply that the other night when I limped home, wrung out and ready to curl up in bed, it was soft tofu laced with fresh chilli, spring onions, garlic and ginger that I craved. The consistency of baked custard, salty with soy sauce and speckled with a sharp kick. Baby food for grown ups.

Scrambled tofu

300g silken tofu
2 medium hot chillies, thinly sliced
5 shallots, thinly sliced
½ inch ginger, very finely chopped
2 clove garlic, very finely chopped
Salt and soya sauce to taste

Heat a little oil in a non stick pan. Add chillies, ginger, garlic and shallots and fry off for about 1 minute. Add tofu in a single piece and break up gently by crushing with the back of a wooden spoon. Shake pan gently until tofu is hot all the way through. Add salt and soya sauce to taste. Serve as is, or with steamed rice. Go to bed early.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Green Tomato Sauce

Once again I have a have a pile of unripe green tomatoes. All different varieties, in various states of perfection.

Green tomato sauce.

The concept is simple, the same basic method and recipe as for an ordinary home-made tomato sauce (or any chutney really): fruit, vinegar, sugar, spices. Cook.

What I wanted, desperately, was an iridescent green sauce, vibrant and neon. A sauce that does justice to the fresh tartness of the tomatoes. That invokes green fruit on green vines. A green colour that is dripping with the adjective ‘piquant’.

The sauce tastes beautiful – spicy and tangy with a strong sweet flavour just off-set by the bitterness of the unripe capsicums and tomato. But to my surprise, as the sauce cooked down, it gradually changed colour from the bright and dark greens of the fresh fruit to a murky military greenish khaki.


I have a couple of theories.

1 – The toffee theory

This sauce basically relies on cooking fruit for a long time with added sugar – ie, a kind of chunky sophisticated caramel. In other caramel culinary adventures I have observed that when heated sugar tends to darken in colour, achieving a certain toffee-like colour.

I felt this theory had some persuasive elements, but not enough to explain the whole phenomenon... Back to the lab.

2 – The chlorophyll theory.

Basically, plants, particularly the leafy part of plants, produce chlorophyll.* Chlorophyll is what makes the green part of plants green. And it is present in green (ie, unripe) fruits – like tomatoes and capsicums, as well as in green leafy vegetables and herbs such as spinach and parsley.

When you cook leafy greens (peas or beans, for example) too long they go grey. This is because something in the heating process starts to leech the chlorophyll out of the plant (actually what happens is that the heating somehow removes magnesium from the cells and replaces it with hydrogen, and the chlorophyll changes into something called pheophytin, molecularly speaking). Interestingly, this process also occurs during exposure to acid – ie vinegar.

So – observe: simmering green tomatoes and capsicum in vinegar for 2 hours. A change in colour.

Could the combination of vinegar and heat be responsible? I think yes.

I understand that practitioners of the dark arts of molecular gastronomy and food technology play with chlorophyll, using extracted essence of green to both flavour and colour foods. Theoretically I could use a kind of chlorophyll extract to ‘restore’ the green colour to my sauce.

But I think I’ll leave it the way it is. I think a sleight of hand to give a semblance of the colour these tomatoes once were wouldn’t do justice to them. My sauce is an icky brown colour because that is what happens when you turn home-grown mismatched tomatoes into spicy sticky sauce.

* Amazingly, chlorophyll enables plants to convert sunlight into food – that is the plant is able to turn the energy present in waves of light into useful energy for growth. The extra cool part? Light is technically like a rainbow – all different colours. Plants only ‘eat’ a certain part of the rainbow – the green part (or it could be the blue and yellow parts ... it’s all a bit tricky ...).

Green Tomato Sauce

1.5 kg green tomatoes, chopped (for ordinary tomato sauce, use ripe red tomatoes)
200 g chillies, chopped
3 brown onions, finely chopped
3 green capsicum, finely chopped (use red ones if making red sauce!)
6 cloves garlic, chopped
2 cups sugar
2 cups white vinegar
½ tsp fennel seeds
½ tsp mustard seeds
½ caraway seeds
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon cloves, whole
Sea salt to taste
In a large pot, bring chopped tomatoes to the boil, simmer until starting to soften and collapse, about 10 minutes. Add the chopped chilli, capsicum and onion and simmer until soft.
Add ¾ of the sugar and all the vinegar and bring to a simmer for another 10 minutes. Taste – if too sharp or too powerfully vinegary, add remaining sugar.

Then add the spices and simmer gently for a couple of hours until it thickens.

Cool, puree with a bar mix and strain through a sieve.

Bottle and refrigerate (keeps about 1 month).

Eat with cheese, cured meats, barbequed sausages, hamburgers or poached eggs.