Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Beetroot Caramel: a work in progress

Beetroot caramel – possibly as crazy as it sounds

It doesn’t take much to amuse me. For example,
this add* reduces me to fits of laughter. Every. Time. And the surprised kitty? I can watch that on a continuous loop and weep.

I like to laugh, and I like to make people laugh. I have a very good friend who is a boxer and personal trainer. He is probably one of the funniest people I know. It’s a bit of a challenge for me, to try to find something that will make him laugh. Because he’s not just funny, he’s really good at keeping a poker face. No matter how funny something is, he’ll rarely crack a smile. I think this is because he knows that people will laugh even harder, and joke around even more just to try to get him to give in.

One of the things I like to do is say outrageous things to him, just to try to shock him into giggling. Just a bit. Mostly though, he just laughs at me when I’m not trying to be funny. This is devastating, because he still wins. He’s still the funniest, because this isn’t about me being funny, but about him finding the funny in a situation.

A little while ago we were talking about beetroot. And the joke, finally, may be on him.

It started out serious: the merits of tinned versus fresh. I, as ever, the advocate for fresh. Sure, steam, boil and/or pickle if you feel the need, but start with the fresh b’root. I argued for raw-grated, whole-baked-in-foil, unpeel-steamed, juiced and borscht (yes, I even bought up the borscht). He, as ever, remained underwhelmed by my passionate defence. Refused to rise to the emotion of the debate. Refused to even concede there could be a difference (he wouldn’t even defend the primacy of the tin. Just that it made no difference!).

And then it popped out – beetroot caramel. Dessert beetroot. The ultimate in the absurd. Finally, he cracked, a little, a tiny, miniscule crack. And then, the poker face reasserted. He questioned the sanity of such a suggestion. Claimed it just wouldn’t work.

Challenge accepted. Less a case, now, of ‘can I make him laugh?’, and more a case of calling his bluff. What was a whimsical throwaway line was now a serious challenge.

I’ve played around in my head with different ideas for how this beetroot caramel could work. And it does make sense – beetroot is already sweet, and already a delicious dessert purple colour. We make pumpkin pie, and yam pastries. I have been known to consume sweet potato with condensed milk (don’t ask). It’s not so ridiculous after all.

Ideas have included: mandolin sliced beetroot, sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar and baked in the oven until crisp (with coffee); grated beetroot, air- (or oven-) dried, mixed with toasted pine-nuts and then drizzled with burnt sugar caramel (a little like a praline in my head – serve with yoghurt or ice-cream); whole roasted beetroot, cubed and then dipped in caramel like a toffee apple and sprinkled with sea salt (with dessert wine or port); beetroot crème-caramel, with pureed steamed beetroot blended with cream and eggs topped with a orange-chilli caramel sauce.

At some point I clearly forgot that I have no particular talent for making anything sweet.

My first attempt at beetroot praline looked fantastic (or at least better than I expected)– however, I burnt the caramel, which made everything far too bitter, and the sweetness and colour of the beetroot was lost in the dehydration. But I was not ready to give up on this idea yet.

Beetroot-toffee-apples: also a miserable failure. The beetroot went soggy. And the caramel wouldn’t stick.

Spicy beetroot custard pie with toffee crisps was the closest I’ve come yet. Chocolate and orange rind shortcrust pastry, custard spiced with copious amounts of cinnamon and cardamom, enriched with strained mashed roasted beetroot. Topped with sugar lace, just melted in the oven then hardened. The trouble was – not beetroot-y enough. Also, my pastry technique is pretty much non-existent.

I maintain however, that it’s not insane at all.** The key? Balancing the sweetness of the beetroot with that almost bitterness that a good caramel can impart, and balancing the texture of the beetroot – soft with hard, mushy with crispy. I just haven’t managed it yet.

* I don’t even watch the show. I don’t even eat this product. It’s just insanely funny to me.

** And imagine my surprise when I saw, on the menu of a fantastic restaurant recently ‘mango bavarois with caramel beetroot’. Of course I ordered it. Only to be informed that the chef had taken the beetroot off the dish – turns out, the caramel melts in their tropical heat. I ordered the dish anyway – the caramelised slice of lime and coconut and chilli sambal more than made up for the disappointment!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Taking stock, making stock

Sometimes the world moves too fast. Everything is instant, super-fast, last-minute, instant-success, immediate gratification, ready-made.

Some things simply take time. Dough rising. Wine aging in oak barrels. Cheese maturing. Figs ripening. Peppercorns drying in the sun. Even thinking about the necessary and inherent slowness in these processes slows me down. Waiting, waiting, then satisfaction.

We’re all familiar with the concept of food miles: that is, the distance food travels from production to plate. This is linked in which the concept of carbon footprint: the total amount of carbon-dioxide emitted during the production, storage, processing, transportation and preparation of a food-stuff.

Like good Einsteinians, we should perhaps turn our minds to the other element of the space-time continuum: the temporal aspect of what we eat. An appreciation that what arrives on our plates has travelled an enormous distance through time, from seed to plant to tomato-fruit to sugo. From egg to duck to confit. Grass to sheep to milk to curds-and-whey to cheese. That raw ingredients transform over a period of time as various arcane processes are applied: aging, salting, brining, curing, braising, marinading, peeling, chopping, sautéing. That the skills to apply such processes are a result of acquired skill, of knowledge developed over generations, of technique remembered and communicated, written down and distributed. Slow food.

And the time poured into a meal can make all the difference to how it tastes. There are lots of short cuts, even short cuts that don’t involve buying pre-made components: butter, cream, salt, sugar (msg!). And there are lots of things that are easy to throw together in a couple of minutes. But a sauce made from concentrated stock? Soaking and cooking dried beans rather than tinned? Resting a syrup cake over-night? Draining yoghurt to make labne? Curing your own gravlax? Simple, but time intensive. It can take a good meal to another level.

I love having stock on hand. For long grain rice and soaked borlotti beans cooked by reduction in chicken stock – a rich and savoury and slightly oily flavour. Sticky and more-ish on its own, or part of a more balanced meal with steamed vegetables or crispy pan-fried kale. As a base for polenta. For poaching hand made dumplings or vegetables, for a light soup. As a braising liquid for oven roasted chickens or duck or goose. For adding to casseroles or pasta sauces or mashed potatoes. As a sauce for homemade ravioli.

I know you can buy pretty good premade stocks – some butchers are even selling them now. But I had a whole day to myself at home, this don’t require a lot of supervision. And it cost me about $10 to make 5 litres (which much cheaper than buying it) - $6 for 2kg of chicken bones from my butcher, and $4 for 2 carrots, 2 onions and a leek. Good quality pre-made stocks can cost between $6-10 per 500ml.

Homemade stock is economical. A little time-intensive in the skimming and straining but really not difficult. It requires a gentle nonchalance, a vague watchfulness, and care that the liquids do not boil, just simmer ever so gently. Time passes and is marked with an increasing richness of wafting steam and deepening colour.

Simple stock:

Stock making can be as complicated or as simple as you want. The trick is mostly to use lots of bones and not to boil the liquid. I find that ox tails and a cow’s foot is an excellent addition to veal and beef stock. Chicken’s feet and necks are perfect for chicken stock. The more bones, the more gelatinous the stock will be – thicker and more flavourful.

Using left over cooked bones (like the remnants of a roast chicken, or ox tail bones left over from braised ox tail ravioli filling) or brown raw bones in oil for 20 minutes.

Cover cooked bones with wine and water. Add chopped vegetables and a bay leaf (I like leeks, carrots and onions, sometimes celery and sometimes I add mushrooms in the last half hour).

Simmer gently for two or three hours. Read a book. Strain several times. Stock will freeze for several months or last in the fridge for about a week.

To make a simple sauce, boil the strained stock until the desired thickness. Season with salt (you could also add tiny diced vegetables or porcini mushroom powder or vinegar or mustard for flavouring at this stage).

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Glazed and confused

I wanted to make salad. Chicken and spinach salad. Thrown together with whatever was available and not completely disastrous looking at the 24 hour supermarket on the way home. Sweet potato, orange and earthy. Giant mushrooms. With walnuts. And roast capsicum. And fetta cheese dressing. Maybe olives? Just something really quick, really simple. Week night: long day.

I am easily distracted at times.

Glass of wine. Maybe caramelise the walnuts? With orange rind? That would use up the orange that’s been sitting in the fruit bowl since I decided a few days ago that I needed more vitamin C (you have to eat them, not just buy them ...)

Then – balsamic vinegar. Something a bit sour to balance the caramel? With mushrooms? Roasted in the balsamic vinegar. I overcooked the sweet potato. So I pureed it. With olive oil.

Just pan fry the chicken. Easy. Then – why not add fennel seeds? Then – why not add the juice of the orange? Instant glaze.

Much like my expression.

This does not look like salad.

Orange and fennel glazed chicken with balsamic roast mushrooms and sweet potato puree.

Serves 2

For the puree sweet potato, cook the 300 gms sweet potato (I peeled, dice and blanch) until soft.

Mash with enough olive oil to make a smooth yet thick puree, and set aside.

Balsamic roast mushrooms

These mushrooms are great with salad, accompanying meat or as a killer vegetarian main served with white bean puree.

Olive oil
2 large flat field mushrooms
Balsamic vinegar

Pre heat oven to moderate (180ºc). Oil a baking dish. Place mushrooms stalk up in baking dish, drizzle ½ balsamic vinegar into each mushroom. Roast for about ½ hour until soft but not falling apart.

Orange and fennel glazed chicken

2 tsp olive oil
2 chicken breasts, skin off
1 ½ tsp fennel seeds
Juice of 1 orange

Heat olive oil in a non stick pan. Add chicken breasts and cook on one side for about 4 to 5 minutes. Turn breast over. Add fennel seeds. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Add orange juice. Move the chicken around in the juice to coat, then turn over and coat on the other side. The juice will turn sticky and make the chicken shiny. Turn off the heat and cover (this will keep the chicken warm until serving).

Caramelised walnuts

¾ cup walnuts
2 tsp icing sugar
Rind of 1 orange, finely grated
Pinch of salt + pepper
½ cup oil (I use olive oil, but vegetable or canola would also work)

Blanch walnuts in boiling water for 3-4 minutes (this softens them a little – makes them soft in the middle and crispy on the outside after you finish caramelising them).

Drain and shake off excess water. Toss through with icing sugar, rind and salt and pepper.

Heat about 1.5cm oil in a small pan until bubbly. Add coated walnuts and fry for about 1-2 minutes until browning and crispy. Drain off oil and cool. (this can be done in advance – the walnuts store in an air tight container for about a week. They make a pretty good snack too).

To serve – place a dollop of sweet potato puree on a plate, top with chicken and mushroom, scatter with caramelised walnuts. Serve alongside a green salad.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Brussels sprouts, bacon and boar taint

If there was ever a vegetable guaranteed to divide opinion, it is the Brussels sprout. Like all members of the cruciferous family, Brussels sprouts are naturally bitter. Not only bitter – but sulphurous. And not only naturally bitter and sulphurous, but more bitter and more sulphurous when cooked. Particularly when over-cooked.

Taste buds are fickle. Just ask the three bears about their porridge preferences. Taste is one of those profoundly philosophical problems: it is uniquely and specifically subjective. Are Brussels sprouts disgusting or do some people just experience them that way?*

On the other hand, there is an increasingly detailed body of scientific research about the chemical and physiological nature of taste (technical term: “gustation”). There are chemical markers that determine whether something is sweet or salty or sour or bitter. We have discovered “unami”, chemically distinguishable (ie, monosodium glutamate – the dreaded msg) and sensed as savoury –occurring naturally in some seaweeds and soya sauces and meat for example. Not all flavours can be physically tasted by all people.** Some –supertasters - are very sensitive, almost prohibitively drawn to bland food. Some – non-tasters – need ‘excessive’ seasoning and spices to taste food at all.

For example, Brussels sprouts are particularly unpalatable for children who have a much stronger sense of taste than adults.***

Like sprouts, pork is tricky. Setting aside the well articulated religious reasons for foregoing pigs, you run into a more amorphous minefield of personal preference and pernicketiness. Pigs have a pretty bad reputation for being dirty. For eating garbage and wallowing in it.
Not only this, but a significant percentage of pork is affected by something known as boar taint. Boar taint is an odour and associated flavour that affects some adolescent pigs. Boar taint results in that oily, sweaty, dirty taste that pork is sometimes known to have. Pork is now selectively reared to avoid this, and using immature and female pigs can help in minimising the risk. Still, pork is not universally loved, and it takes trust, love and care to put it on a plate and expect people to eat it.

An idea forms: pork and sprouts. Given their shared outcast status, pairing them makes sense. No. Bacon and sprouts. Crazy sense.

It's not really that extraordinary: bacon and cabbage is a reliable fail-safe recipe. And Brussels sprouts are really just tiny wee cabbages when it all boils down to it. Not so intimidating or icky after all.
Rather than boil or steam the sprouts – I slowly caramelise in a pan, develop what natural sugars they have, letting the sprouts draw in the smoky sweet bacon flavour. I tasted this, about half way through the cooking process: I was surprised at how sweet the bacon and caramelising made the dish. As the idea takes form, developing a meal that will appeal is a matter of balancing, tasting and re-balancing the flavours, like a mantra: salty (bacon); sweet (apple); bitter (sprouts); sour (mustard); savoury (pork).

These sprouts were not too salty, not too bitter, not too sweet and not too sour. In the words of Goldilocks, these sprouts were just right.

* To paraphrase Donald Davidson, the phrase ‘food is tasty’ is true if and only if food is indeed tasty.
Donald Davidson is a brilliant philosopher of language. See also the works of Tama Coutts on Davidson.
** Danielle R. Reed, Toshiko Tanaka, and Amanda H. McDaniel; ‘Diverse tastes: Genetics of sweet and bitter perception’ Physiol Behav. 2006 June 30; 88(3): 215–226.
*** Except me. I loved Brussels sprouts as a kid. Not so my mum: bought up on sprouts boiled until mush, she refused to cook them.

Caramelised and braised sprouts with bacon

Per person:

6-10 small sprouts, trimmed at stalk and cut in half
1 middle rasher of bacon, rind removed and diced into 1 cm dice
1 tsp grain mustard
40 ml white wine

Heat a tsp or so of olive oil in a heavy pan. Toss in bacon and sprouts. Cook at a high heat for a few minutes, shaking the pan occasionally, until the bacon and sprouts are starting to brown. Toss in half the wine, deglaze the pan (ie, stir around the pan to scrape off all the brown bits). When the alcohol cooks off, add the mustard and the rest of the wine, reduce the heat and simmer for about 5 minutes or until the smell of alcohol is gone and the sprouts are just cooked (they should be soft but not soggy).

(For the vegetarians out there: there are lots of non-meat related ways to make sprouts interesting. For example: Steamed, halved, smeared with blue cheese, drizzled with honey and under the grill is also sensational.)

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Feeling crabby

Crabs. Sweet, succulent, tender. There is not enough food-porn terminology to describe just how groin-grabbingly good fresh crab is*.

From crab and corn dumplings at yum cha to deep fried soft shell crab in Far North Queensland to chilli mud crab in Singapore: crab is irresistible on any menu. Why then, despite buying octopus and squid, mussels and sardines and Moreton Bay bugs, have I never purchase whole crab? Jewel coloured and art-like, I have always overlooked them. Not overlooked: avoided.

Little return for too much hard work. A disparity between effort and reward.

Cooking crabs is as simple as any other seafood. Despite the bad reputation, seafood is relatively easy and relatively forgiving. It is better to undercook than overcook. I have found that seafood never suffers from being returned to the heat. The theory behind cooking crab is just like any other shellfish: plunge into boiling water, return to the boil, cook for a ‘bit’ (that’s the part that is a little tricky**), refresh in cool water***.

There the simplicity ends.

It took me, with kitchen-helper assistance, 45 minutes to extract the flesh from the claws and body. Whole blue swimmer crab yields about a third of its weight in meat (this is pretty standard for all whole crab). So my three little crabs gave us merely a handful of crab meat. Paltry would be an accurate assessment.

And messy. Very messy. It is not exaggeration that we flicked crab all over each other, the bench and the floor. We missed the ceiling. Probably. I had to have a shower before I returned to the kitchen. “Crabby” would be an apt description.

After the harrowing 45 minutes flesh-extraction process, we wound up with a small pile of wobbly undercooked meat.

Luckily, I remembered that Thomas Keller deliberately does this with lobster, finishing off the cooking process by poaching the undercooked meat in beurre monte just prior to serving. Situation saved. This does make the meat a little richer, but the butter enhances the flavour and keeps the flesh soft.

Delicate and rich, I needed something to cut through the butter and yet not over-power the crab. Salad: a dressing made with the juice and rind of home grown limes. Peppery rocquette. Shaved fennel and cucumber. Avocado and green onions. But something extra. Experimenting with a Belinda Tuckwell recipe, I finished the salad with green-tea salt.

In all honesty, given the time, effort and resultant scrubbing of self and kitchen, crab is indeed more work than it is pleasure.

On the other hand, the kitchen-helper gave it seven thumbs up. Even after the industrial clean up.

* The Simpsons, “Guess who’s coming to criticize dinner”, 1999 (Season 11, Episode 3)
** Which is fine, once you have a good idea of how long it takes to cook a crab (this thing is, it differs from crab to crab depending on variety and size). Boil a 300 g crab about five minutes is a good rule of thumb. I got this wrong.
*** All things keep cooking with residual heat even after you take them away from the heat source. With shell fish this is even more pronounced as the shell retains the heat. Plunging into ice water stops the cooking process.

Crab and green-tea salt salad

Serves 2

1 tbsp sea salt flakes
1 tbsp green tea leaves
Finely grated rind of two limes
4 blue swimmer crabs
50 gm chilled butter, cut into 1 cm cubes
2 tbsp olive oil
Juice of two limes
2 long green onions, finely sliced
1 bulb fennel, quartered and shaved
1 cucumber, thinly sliced into rounds
1 avocado, diced
150 gm rocquette (three large handfuls)

For the salt: finely grind salt, tea and rind in a mortar and pestle until a fine powder. Spread on foil and place in a moderate oven for 5-10 minutes to dry. Remove and set aside.

For the crab: bring a large saucepan of water to the boil. Add 4 tbsp salt. Plunge crabs into the boiling water. Return to the boil. Cook crabs for 5 minutes, then plunge into iced water. To extract meat: press down on the ‘tail’ and peel the carapace from the crab (the hard shell of the body). This will strip away icky internal organs. Rinse under cold water. Extract the meat. Tricky, and messy. The body will have some meat, as will the large legs and claws. Crack the shell and gently pull the flesh from the shell. (Alternatively, use prawns or grilled fish or buy the meat already stripped).

If the crab is not fully cooked, or to enhance the flavour, make buerre monte. Heat 3 tbps water in a saucepan. With a whisk, incorporate the butter piece by piece until all melted and combined. Add the crab and heat through for three to four minutes, until opaque and cooked. Turn off the heat (the crab can rest in this mixture for around 15 minutes without losing heat or over cooking). Just before serving, strain the crab.

For the salad: Whisk the oil and lime juice together until emulsified. Add the spring onions, fennel, cucumber and avocado. Just before serving, toss through the rocquette.

To serve: Pile the salad onto a plate. Top with crab meat and sprinkle with green-tea salt.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Virginal tarts

I love the hidden depths of history and mystery that lie behind even the most simple of foods.

Last Thursday I left early for work. This resulted in me running behind schedule (there is a weird logic to this) and hence foregoing coffee on the way to the office. Later that morning, when I escaped to quieten my caffeine withdrawal symptoms I had the misfortune of arriving in the cafe at the precise moment a tray of Portuguese custard tarts were removed from the oven. Bubbly and patchy with caramelisation. Puffed up and buttery. Goopy.

In my weakened state I was powerless to resist. Like the selfish caffeine addict that I am, I purchased a single tart all for myself and practically inhaled it before the coffee was half empty.

Arguably, pretty much anything straight from the oven is guaranteed to smell and taste 10% better than anything else, ever. But I have a particular soft spot for the pastel de nata.* And I’m not the only one. I remember visiting no fewer than four cafes with a colleague one afternoon to satisfy her very specific and ultimately unsatisfiable craving.

Pastry. Egg custard. Done. Nothing could be more basic. But the Portuguese custard tart is a little like the Holy Grail. “We already got one” cry the custard tart makers of England (with their short-crust pastry and nutmeg sprinkling) and the French (with their egg enhanced crème pattisierie and glazed fruits).** Not so: this custard tart is truly divine. A heavenly blending of light puff pastry that cracks as your teeth hit each layer of air pocket followed by flaky crispness; and dense and sticky custard, skin blotched and blistered, custard smooth and thick. Somehow the custard remains un-curdled and yet the pastry achieves crispness: a miracle given the tendency of custard to split at high temperatures and pastry to remain sulkily chewy in anything less than a scorching hot oven.

No wonder, then, that this tart was born in a convent, bought to life, as the story would have it, by nuns (or possibly monks) of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos in Belém district of Lisbon. Exactly when they were first made it is not known. What is known is that the Monastery sold the tarts to the local people and travelers and developed a loyal – or possibly addicted - following. Following the 1820 revolution, like so many others, the monastery was closed (probably around 1837). The recipe, however, was a commodity: sold to the local bakery, who secretly guards the original recipe to this day.***

Fine: but what happened to the nuns? Having sold their recipe (for how much?), where did they go? Curiosity eats away at me, more maddening that chasing the caffeine dragon. Their recipe: fixed at a point in time, still sold by the same bakery, in the shadow of the Monastery. The buildings of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, world heritage listed. But the lives of these original bakers: puff, like the pastry they perfected.

I have never eaten Pasteis de Belém. I may constantly settle for the Portuguese custard tart of the cafe-near-work. But I will be unsettled by the idea that these black-habited pastry makers drifted out of history. Anyone who has seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade will know that the journey is more important than the destination: searching for the Holy Grail is about the things we find out about ourselves, not the cup itself. So it begins again: with a virgin tart maker.

* Apparently, this is the Portuguese term for the Portuguese custard tart. As such, it is possible the most important phrase I know in Portuguese. Also the only phrase.
** It is vitally important that you try to imitate the atrocious French accent affected by John Clease in Monty Python and the Holy Grail when saying “we already got one”.
*** Their tarts are known as Pasteis de Belém (ie, pastries of Belém). The rest of us survive, when we can score, on the wonderful imitation: pasteis de nata (pastries of cream).

Pasteis de Nata: Portuguese Custard Tarts

Makes 12


Egg custard.

I followed the recipe given at
Not Quite Nigella (originally a Bill Granger recipe), as adapted below. Note – I thought this a little sweet, so next time I will play around with less sugar. I would also be interested to up the egg count. Note that Ms Elliott quite sensibly suggests using good quality bought puff pastry. I attempted to make my own.

Pre-heat the oven to extremely hot. I had mine on fan forced at 240ºc.

For the custard

3 egg yolks (as suggested by Ms Elliott, I used 2 yolks and 1 whole egg)
115g caster sugar
2 tbsp cornflour
230ml cream (I used cream, Ms Elliott successfully substitutes additional milk)
170ml Milk
2 tsp vanilla extract
300g rolled puff pastry (or one sheet of puff pastry)
3 strands saffron (my addition)
¼ tsp grated lemon rind (my addition)

Whisk the eggs, sugar and cornflour with beaters until smooth. Whisk in the milk and cream. Pour into a heavy based saucepan, add saffron and lemon rind. Gently heat until it starts to thicken to the consistency of thickened cream (I don’t like to boil custard, as I am terrified of splitting it, even when stabilised with cornflour).

Strain through a sieve into a heat proof bowl, then continue to heat the custard over a saucepan of simmering watering (ie, your basic “baine marie” or double boiler set up) until thick like, well, store bought custard or cake batter.

Set aside to cool (cover the surface with plastic wrap to stop a skin forming).

When cool, fill the pastry shells.

If using a block of pastry, either store bought or home made, roll out so it is longish and narrowish. If using a square pastry sheet, cut in half and place one half on top of the other.

Roll the pastry into a cylinder along the long edge. Chill. Then slice into 1.5 cm rounds, then roll each of these rounds into a very thin flat circle, about 10-12 cm diameter . This gives the signature spiral pattern on the pastry shell. Line a muffin tin.

Fill the rounds to just below the rim with custard.

To cook

Place the tray in the top of the oven and cook for about 20-25 minutes. Do check – when the pastry is crispy and the tops have patches of brown they should be ready.

Important: leave to cool for a little while, so the custard can set.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Rough puff pastry

I have never before made pastry. I know there are chefs out there who laugh with derision at anyone who says this. There are home cooks who insist that you really must make real puff pastry, not (sneer) rough puff pastry. However I am humbly just a little bit pleased with myself for attempting even rough puff pastry (which was plenty challenging enough). It’s not difficult, just a little fiddly and quite time consuming. I tried a recipe from Maggie’s Harvest (by Maggie Beer) – paraphrased below.

450 g plain flour
450 g unsalted butter, chilled (cut into cubes, about 1.5cm)
250 ml chilled water
Pinch of salt (which I forgot)

Clean your kitchen bench. Then dump all the flour onto the bench (you will need to clean the bench again afterward).

Using a pastry scraper (which I don’t own, I used the blunt side of a butter knife, far from ideal) “cut” the butter into the flour. This essentially means, dump a few pieces of butter into the flour, mash/cut them into the flour with the “scraper”, then add a few more. Don’t be temped to use your fingers, this apparently melts the butter and opens a portal to the underworld. Repeat until all butter is used.

When all the butter is combined, add about 180 ml of water and quickly form into a dough. It should be quite firm. Do not “overwork” or let it get warm. Add a bit more water if you are really struggling to make it all come together.

Chill – ie wrap in plastic wrap and put in the fridge (or the freezer, if like me you are impatient. But this really isn’t a great recipe for the impatient. Unless you are trying to cultivate patience).

Cut the pastry into quarters or in half, depending on how much you need for your recipe. Working with one quarter (return the rest to the fridge/freezer) – roll out between two sheets of plastic wrap or baking paper into a longish strip (the length should be three times the width). This is easiest if you roll in one direction only. Fold in a ‘book fold’ – more pamphlet like (just look at the picture). Turn 90º, repeat. Turn again, repeat. If it starts getting soft, re-chill. After three turns(I may have gotton carried away and turned it four time) wrap up and chill.

(Then pour a drink or make a cup of tea and put your feet up).

To use, roll out the desired quantity of pastry to the desired thinness (again, between sheets of baking paper or plastic wrap - this also makes it easy to lift and drape over your pie tin or tarte tatin).

To cook, make sure you use a very hot oven (I crank mine to the hottest it will go, fan forced at 240ºc). A trick – pre-heat the oven (really, really pre-heat it) and also pre-heat a baking tray int he oven – sit the pie tin on top of the baking tray – it conducts the heat better to the bottom of the tin, helping to make it crispier. Cook pastry for about 20 minutes (maybe a little longer).

Friday, April 9, 2010


I don’t mean to alarm anyone, but there is a secret society, based in France, dedicated to the art and mystery of cassoulet.* As reported in no lesser a publication than Time Magazine, the Académie Universelle du Cassoulet is a group of chefs dedicated to cooking traditional cassoulet across Languedoc and beyond.

Named for the unique cooking vessel, the cassoulet is an alchemal combination of legumes, cured meats and herbs. Mysteriously transformed by a long cooking process, the resulting amalgamation of fats and salt and starches is astonishingly rich and luxurious without being at all pretentious.

Is it true that cassoulet was born during the siege of Castelnaudary during the Hundred Years' War? Did it fortify the soldiers to victory? Are rumours of coveted secret recipes and undying ever-replenished mixtures of beans and meat true? Is it true that the power of the cassoulet defies the chef and blesses the home kitchen? Is cassoulet the last bastion of the Knights Templar, and the subject of a forthcoming book by Dan Brown, in which cassoulet is revealed to be an anagram of osculates, which means both to have three or more points coincident and to kiss, which clearly refers to the marriage of Jesus (ie, the Trinity and kissing, silly); as well as an anagram for Sauce Lots, which refers to the ability to soak up the stock with rustic French bread? And before you think I made this up***: chef Prosper Montagné decreed in 1929 that "God the father is the cassoulet of Castelnaudary, God the Son that of Carcassonne, and the Holy Spirit that of Toulouse."**

It’s just a fancy way of saying baked beans. Now, of course, there are lots of different varieties of baked beans. Boston beans, for example, rich and sweet with molasses. Heinze Baked Beans, oddly metallic flavoured and weirdly sweet. The tomato and basil baked beans which are made by the coffee shop near work and then spread into a jaffle with haloumi and toasted (unbelievably delicious). The Greek style beans (technically braised) that my mum makes, with tomatoes and garlic and olive oil and green beans and dried beans.

All good.

But the Grand Master of the baked bean fraternity is the cassoulet. It may not be nobility, but it is a master artisan amongst good men. It must be made of the best ingredients: humble and honest ingredients; but the best quality. The nobility is one of the inner spirit: the best cured hams, the most carefully made sausages. Carefully dried and stored beans. Fresh and pungent herbs. Like the home grown garlic and organic thyme and locally reared heritage-breed hasselback-pig smoked bacon I managed to hoard for myself last weekend. Bless the generosity of home gardeners and the industry of artisan farmers. Admit only the best past the threshold of the cassoulet vessel. Submit those who pass to a test of silence and endurance and fire. Break the skin that forms a ritual seven times.**** Remove the candidate from the forge (ok, take the dish from the oven) and serve.

* Note that this isn’t the first secret culinary society that I have come across in the past year. The Cabonari, as alluded to here are not a figment of my imagination, and nor is the speculation connecting them to spaghetti carbonara.
** Reported at:,9171,1697005,00.html#ixzz0kVnaNkcU
*** which I did
**** seriously: this is superstition that actually exists in relation to cassoulet. With the cool head of reason I suspect is actually works: mixing back in the caramelised outer layers would enhance the flavour.

Very simple baked beans

Serves about 6.
This is an incredibly inexact recipe – cassoulet really is something to get a feel for, not scientifically produce. Use the very, very best cured quality cured meat you can.

500 gms dried white beans, soaked overnight (or 750g of tinned beans)
Lots of garlic (I used 3 heads), peeled and left whole
Lots of thyme. Or oregano. Or a little rosemary.
About 400 gm streaky bacon, cut into small pieces. I bake the rind as well and then remove on serving.
The grated rind of one lemon (or half a preserved lemon)
2 medium sized Spanish onions (or leeks or brown onions), roughly chopped
1 tbsp olive oil
350ml chicken stock (or water)
Sea salt

You can add in good sausages or duck confit or ham hocks or a leg of mutton or smoked game or chopped carrots and celery and fennel if you like. Some recipes include duck fat – which is particularly good if you are using confit of duck in the cassoulet. But I just like to keep it simple.

Mix everything in a large cassoulet (or oven proof dish). Cover with baking paper and cook slowly in a slow oven all day. At least four hours. Break the skin and stir seven times. Leave uncovered for the last hour of cooking, to develop a tasty crust. Serve with fresh chopped parsley and warm sourdough bread.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Salt cod

It’s all about preservation.

Salting has always been a way of extending the life of many food stuffs: olives, capers, ham, cheeses – in days before refrigeration, the introduction of salt allowed for the extended storage of food, particularly throughout winter.

The preservation of cod by drying is known to have occurred as early as the tenth century. This method of preservation, as practiced by the Vikings, was a combination of open air drying, where cod were hung to dry freeze in the arctic conditions, taking on salt in the atmosphere, and releasing moisture as they dried. Basques improved on the Vikings’ efforts: they introduced salting before drying, creating a product with an even longer shelf life. Records indicate that in the fourteenth significant amounts of salted cod were imported from famine struck Norway into Mediterranean countries, particularly Spain, in exchange for base commodities such as flour, salt and malt.

According to Kurlansky, Basque sailors made a fortune selling salt cod in the fifteenth century.* The edicts of the Catholic church forbade the consumption of meat on certain holy days (ironically known as ‘feast days’) – which accounted for over a third of the year. However, fish (along with frogs and snails) were not considered ‘flesh’ and therefore were able to be consumed. Basque sailors recognised their opportunity and capitalised by making increasing quantities of salt cod (bacalao in Spanish and bacallà in the Catalan language) available for sale. According to Kurlansky, some of these wily Basques travelled as far as the as yet undiscovered America to source their cod, which was ever-diminishing in the Atlantic and Mediterranean waters. In order to protect their secret supply, the Basques kept the new land a secret (only to have it discovered in 1492 by Christopher Columbus, who insisting on letting the whole world know).

In modern times, refrigeration and deep-freeze have all but eradicated the need to preserve by salting. The feast days proscribing meat have drastically shrunk: or at least, observance of the prohibition is less and less stringent. And modern production has slowly but surely embraced modern technology. Where cod was traditionally hung in open air to absorb salt and dry out, curing is now most likely to take place indoors, aided by electric heaters.

Cod, like ham and bacon, is now produced for preference rather than preservation. In the absence of traditional production methods, the consumption of salt cod is a tenuous link to the practices of the past: a truncated preservation of culture and practice. Good Friday represents perhaps the last widely observed day of salt cod, a ritual standing in for Religious observance in an increasing secularised post-industrial world.

And there is a third preservation at stake: that of the cod itself. Kurlansky quotes Alexander Dumas in 1873: "It has been calculated that if no accident prevented the hatching of the eggs and each egg reached maturity, it would take only three years to fill the sea so that you could walk across the Atlantic dryshod on the backs of cod." And yet: cod biomass is declining. This is fancy way of saying there is less and less cod.* A combination of ongoing overfishing and climate change has resulted reduced numbers. American, Canadian and British fisheries authorities have all expressed concerns regarding shrinking stocks. Various environmentalists have placed Atlantic cod on ‘best to avoid’ list.**

Which leaves me torn: preservation of the cultural tradition of salt cod may be at odds with preservation of the fish itself. There is no getting around diminishing numbers (climate change believer or sceptic, the data is as follows: the sea is warmer and the cod are fewer. Make of it what you will). The good news is: cod is indeed, as Dumas observed, prolific. Sustainable fishing practices and cod-farming are being pursued. The people of the world demand cod. We demand eternal cod, cod to last the ages. Cod for the now, and cod for the future. Cod must be preserved if we are to continue to preserve cod.

* The aptly named Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, Kurlansky, Walker and Company 1997
** Fishing, climate change and north-east Atlantic cod stock by Nova Mieszkowska, David Sims and Steve Hawkins May 2007; and Marine Biological Association of the UK, Plymouth; and US National Maritime Fisheries Service
*** For example:

Bacallà fritters

Serves six

750 gms salt cod
500 ml milk
2 red onions, finely chopped
4 cloved garlic, crushed
1 kg waxy potatoes, peeled, boiled and mashed
½ cup chopped spring onions
3 eggs, separated, whites whisked to stiff peaks
250 ml vegetable oil

Soak, soak, soak the cod. For up to 48 hours, but definitely no fewer than 24 hours. Change the water every four or five hours.

Mix the potatoes and spring onions in a large bowl.

In a medium sized saucepan sauté the onion and garlic until soft. Add to the potato mixture.

In the same saucepan, add the cod, milk and enough water to cover the water. If the cod doesn’t fit, just cut into two or three pieces. Bring to a simmer, and cook for about ½ hour or until soft.

Remove the cod and rinse. When cool enough to touch, remove the skin and bones and shred coarsely into the potato mixture. Stir through the egg yokes until combined. Gentle fold through half the whisked egg whites, and then fold through the remaining eggs whites. The cod is very salty. Do not add more salt. Seriously.

Heat vegetable oil to medium hot (it should sizzle gently when a piece of bread is added). Add heaped dessert spoons of the mixture to the oil, carefully spacing the fritters out (do not add too many to the pan at once, as the heat will reduce and they won’t cook evenly). Turn gently and cook on the other side. Remove and drain while the rest of the fritters cook. Repeat with remaining mixture.

Serve with steamed cabbage and fennel or salad, and garlic aioli or crème fraiche.

Put your muffin where your mouth is

I tend to dislike muffins. Too cakey. Too big. Too brick-like in the stomach. Stodgy. Too sweet. A generally unsatisfying snack.

I find it odd that people apparently like to eat them for breakfast.

But behind the pre-mix and bulk package monstrosities (I refer to both their hideousness and their size) hides the Platonic ideal-type muffin. This muffin has a softness and slight springy-ness about it. A crunch at the edges and a yielding denseness at the centre. It has a loose crumb, and a flavour that is more complex than simply refined sugar. It has a lightness that doesn’t taste like baking powder.

This muffin is lucky to last five minutes out of the oven.

I have discovered the secret of yoghurt.

There are lots of tricks and tips for making muffins. But addition of yoghurt (or buttermilk or sour cream) is genius. It acts as a leavening agent, particularly effective when combined with baking powder (or good, fresh self raising flour). The mixture tends to foam ever so slightly, like a yeast starter for bread, if you let it sit for twenty minutes or so before you put it in the oven. (A good thing to know, given that I forgot to preheat the oven, and had to wait anyway ...).

The result? Perfectly fluffy, slightly sticky-with-fruit, steaming soft muffins.

Impossible to resist, even for a harden muffin sceptic like me. Hot, and topped with a dollop of whipped ricotta or a generous smear of faintly sour butter.

For afternoon tea, not breakfast.

Yoghurt muffins (featuring chocolate chips and banana)

Makes 2 dozen.

4 mashed bananas (or about 3 ½ cups of chopped, mashed or grated fruit. Apple? Peaches? Plums? Mango? Berries? Probably not melon or citrus.)
2 cups natural yoghurt (no added sugar) – goat or sheep yoghurt gives a beautiful flavour (or use cows’ milk yoghurt)
1 ¼ cups oil (I use extra virgin olive oil)
2 eggs
3 ½ cups self raising flour
1 cup raw sugar
½ cup dark chocolate chips (optional)
½ cup chopped pecans or walnuts (optional – try difference nuts with different fruits. I love almonds with peaches)
½ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp cinnamon

Preheat oven to 180ºc. Grease muffin tins (I use silicon muffin trays, which don’t need greasing).

Mash bananas with yoghurt, oil and eggs (you could even put it all in a blender).

Roughly stir in the rest of the ingredients – do not over mix or beat. Just use a folding action to make sure there are no lumps of flour.

Spoon into muffin trays – fill to just below the top of the trays. Cook for about 25 minutes or until brown on top and firm when poked. Allow to cool for about 5-10 minutes, then turn out on a cake rack.

Eat at least 1 immediately, warm with whipped ricotta, honey and nutmeg. Or butter. Or a spoonful of sweetened yoghurt.