Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Cinderella moment: roast pumpkin and the pig

I am not all that fussed about pumpkin. I grew up relatively untouched by pumpkin. My father, a man who religiously grew choko vines for my entire childhood and expected me to eat them, boiled to a watery nothingness, was not all that fussed about pumpkin. If the stories are to be believed (and to be fair, few people remain available or willing to attest to their veracity) he grew up with an adamant refusal to eat pumpkin, boiled to a watery nothingness. And there is some indication that at some early stage he was most villainously deceived with ‘mashed yellow potato’.

We did not eat pumpkin in our house when I was a child. Lack of exposure led to lack of familiarity which in turn led to a benign neglect of pumpkin in my life.*

Halloween, harvest festivals and Cinderella also did not feature in my formative years, and so my lack of pumpkin exposure in the home was not challenged by a broader desensitisation via popular culture. A home-ec incident involving a Queensland blue pumpkin, a blunt knife and the tip of the middle finger on my left hand cemented my general impression that pumpkins and I moved in very different circles.

Had I , as a young child, seen the streets of Hoboken, New Jersey, in mid October, the steps of brown stone terraces artfully lined with bright orange spheres, here and there delicately and expertly carved into hobgoblin faces of glee and terror, I may have been more accommodating and more curious. I may even have been utterly charmed, as I was when well into adulthood I experienced the cultural grip of Halloween for the first time.

But as it was I came to pumpkin in a mechanical and mundane way. It was just another relatively common vegetable that is predicably very nutritious, cheap and colourful during the dreary winter months. It is good for you. Vitamin A and vitamin C. Potassium. Magnesium. Other technical sounding components. It’s a kind of melon, and like melons it has a ridiculously high water content (which makes it fabulous for soup, but certainly explains it’s tendency to become watery). It’s vaguely sweet, roasts nicely, purees well and looks a bit artistic in the middle of table. I made soup and curry and purees and even pies, sweet and savoury. And felt virtuous but never thrilled.

Then the inevitable occurred.

I wrapped it in bacon.

The home-cook’s fairy godmother.

* Which is utterly inconsistent with my near obsession with Brussels sprouts, another subject of childhood deprivation. I don’t get it either.

Prosciutto wrapped butternut pumpkin with thyme and honey

Serves 4-6 pumpkin eaters

1 whole butternut pumpkin, peeled, de-seeded and cut lengthways into wedges – between 10-12 wedges
1 tbsp melted butter
1 tbsp honey (use a good wild honey. It has more flavour)
1 tbsp boiling water
1 tsp thyme leaves, finely chopped
12 sprigs thyme,
12 slices prosciutto, each cut in half lengthways
Salt and pepper

Pre heat the oven to about 200ºc. Oil a baking tray.

Mix the honey with the butter and boiling water. Brush each pumpkin wedge with the honey mixture. Scatter with chopped thyme, salt and pepper. Wrap each wedge with strips of prosciutto, like a candy cane. Arrange on the baking tray.

Brush over any remaining honey. Arrange thyme sprigs over the pumpkin wedges.

Place in the oven and cook for about 30 minutes or until cooked (a tooth pick or skewer will insert easily when cooked). Cover with foil if the prosciutto starts to become too brown.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Moorish Stew (lamb tagine, by any other name)

Some years ago I jotted down my work-in-progress recipe for ‘Moroccan Stew’ (even then I hesitated to call it tagine). This recipe – a very loose term for a list of ingredients and questions regarding possible variations, without any indication as to method or cooking time – is accompanied by a note at the bottom of the page which states: ‘potato emporium. idea. Why not have a shop that sells nothing but potatoes and potato related items, ie, peelers, mashers et cetera’. This page is sandwiched between an idea for ‘asian flavoured’ chicken mince kebabs made with left over boiled rice, fish sauce and coriander and my thoughts regarding the perfect blueberry muffin (consisting again of a list of ingredient and the admonishment that ‘hot! hot! The oven must be hot’). There are oil stains, smears of chocolate and what looks like an old, dried onion ring on the page. My life is filled with notebooks, folders, randomly sized slips of paper and cuttings from newspapers and magazines. The creative process is, well, creative.

I have an odd soft spot for recipes that bear the name of the vessel in which they are cooked. I think this is part of a broader appreciation of dishes that have names for themselves, and not merely a description of what they contain. Modern recipes, modern restaurants, will list for you dishes such as ‘pan-seared butterflied quail, with smoked fig, and liquorish sorbet’. Such nomenclature certainly conveys meaning but it denies the meal any independence from its components. The sum, in such a naming convention, is not greater than its parts. Not so for beef wellington. Or my perennial favourite, bouillabaisse. Or fairy cakes. Or spotted dick. Or lamingtons. These names speak of an existence beyond the ingredients – these recipes have independent identity.

And so for those fabulous meals eponymously named for their containers. Casserole. Hoppers. Paella. Saganaki. And tagine. The tagine is a two piece earthen wear cooking vessel consisting of a rimmed flat-bottom shallow pan and topped by a lid in the shape of an inverted flower pot. The tagine is the cooking vessel of Morocco. Think Divo, but rocking the Kasbah.

The tagine is suited to certain methods of cooking. And certain kinds of foods and flavours are found and appreciated in Morocco. So it makes sense that there is an identifiable and unmistakable family of dishes known as ‘tagines’. Earthy and spicy and slow cooked. Studded with sweetness and balanced with bitterness. Dates and figs and preserved lemons. Enhanced with almonds or pistachios. Lamb or chicken or fish, but never pork. And when you can hold that perfect, ideal, image in your head, it is possible to lift the impression of the dish – the smoky, soft, spicy-sweet-ness – and create a meal that is, in every respect except the one that counts, a tagine.

And because it tastes so good you might describe it as more-ish (pun approaching).

Moorish stew then, not tagine.

Moroccan lamb and vegetable stew, tagine style, served with scorched almonds in burnt butter with sour yoghurt sauce

Serves 6
400 g lamb pieces, large dice
2 tbsp corn flour
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp cumin
1 tsp sumac
2 tsp paprika
1 cinnamon stick (or 1 heaped tsp ground cinnamon)
2 red onions, peeled and cut into thin wedges
4 cloves garlic, finely sliced
1 finely sliced red chilli (optional)
400 g tin of chickpeas
1 small red sweet potato, about 250 gm, cut into 1 inch cubes
400g tin of crushed tomatoes
1 Moroccan preserved lemon, finely sliced (otherwise, use the finely grated rind of a fresh lemon, lime or orange)
200 gm dried fruit (ie, pears, apricot, prunes, dates, figs or raisins – I like a mixtue of pears and prunes)
2 firm pears, peeled, cored and quartered
200 gm green beans,
1 red capsicum, cut into finger width strips
1 zucchini, cut into 1 cm rounds
(you could add cauliflower, eggplant, parsnip, spinach, carrot – pretty much anything)

Dust the lamb pieces with the corn flour.

Heat the oil in a very large heavy based saucepan. Add the spices and fry for about 1 minute. Add the lamb, and shake the pan occasionally until the lamb is brown on all sides.

Add the onion and garlic and chilli and cook until starting to soften (about 5 minutes), stirring to prevent the lamb or the onions from burning. Reduce the heat if necessary. Add the chickpeas and cook until starting to pop (you will hear them – sometimes they even jump out of the pan). Add the sweet potato and pear quarters and stir until coated in the oil and spices.

Add the tinned tomatoes and 2 cups of water. Bring to a gentle simmer. Add the dried fruit and preserved lemon and cook over a gentle heat for about40 minutes, or until the sweet potato is cooked and the lamb is soft.

Add the remaining vegetables and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the vegetables are cooked but still firm.

Serve with couscous and scorched almond and burnt butter and sour yoghurt sauce.

Scorched almonds and burnt butter and sour yoghurt sauce.

100 gm blanched almonds
50 gm butter
1 cup low fat natural yoghurt
Sea salt

In a small fry pan, toast the blanched almonds until they are starting to appear scorched (some parts will be very darkly toasted and some will appear raw). Add the butter and reduce the heat. Cook until the butter is foaming and starting to turn a rich golden colour. Don’t actually burn the butter – you want it to taste toasty but not smoky.

Pour over the yoghurt and sprinkle with sea salt.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Nothing in the world quite like home-made scones, straight from the oven

Flour. Butter. Milk. Jam. Cream.

No need to complicate things. No need to buy a packet of biscuits in which the packaging probably cost more than the contents, and probably has fewer unappetising additives. No need to fuss for hours, turning out the most delicately shaped and flavoured colourful tiny petits fours. No need to worry about whether the sponge cake will rise or if the cheesecake will set.

Nothing compares to sitting down at the kitchen table and enjoying a mug of tea (not a cup, not a pot, a mug, preferably with tea-bag still in) and having a good chat and a hot, slightly misshapen scone. No high-tea or trendy cafe can ever replace the gentle satisfaction of doughy steam and flour streaked hair. The comfort of not caring, and just enjoying.

The perfect scone is light and fluffy, without a golden blush on the top. Less than ten minutes to get it into the oven and less than ten minutes in the oven. Unpretentious.

Best served with what is generically known as ‘little-old-lady-church-jam’ which can be procured from any country market or church fete, usually sold in jars of varying sizes that used to contain tomato paste or pickles, topped with gingham-checked circles of cloth, with each different coloured mop-top indicated a different flavour of jam (flavours will include passionfruit and tomato jam, grapefruit marmalade, peach and walnut jam, carrot and lemon marmalade and cherry chutney). Cream, whipped, is not optional.

Simple scones, no fuss

This recipe is remembered from the now fallen-apart Commonsense Cookery Book. The Book is still in print, although updated. Mine was published in the 50s.

2 cups self raising flour
50 gm butter, cold, diced
1 cup milk (curdled with 1 tbsp lemon juice, optional)

Preheat oven to hot – about 220ºc. Line a baking slide with greaseproof paper.

Sift flour into a bowl. Toss in cubed butter. Rub through the butter. This mean very lightly with your finger tips crush the butter cubes into the flour. Do not use your whole palm – you want the butter to be crumbled into the flour but not melted. Rub in under the mixture resembles very fine bread crumbs. Alternatively, put the flour and butter into a food processor and pulse until fine crumbs form.

Make a well and pour in three quarters of the milk. Mix together with a butter knife until a loose ball of dough forms – adding more milk as required.

Turn out onto a board or bench lightly floured (with self raising flour) and knead lightly until a smoothish dough forms.

Roll with a rolling pin until about 2cm thick. Cut with a scone cutter (do not twist the cutter as you cut – this will seal the scone edges and they won’t rise as well). (re-knead any dough after you have cut and roll and cut again, until the scone dough is used up)

Place the scones on to the baking slide, brush the tops with a little milk.

Bake in the hot oven for about 10 minutes, until puffed up and springy.

Serve immediately with whipped cream and your favourite jam.

Friday, August 6, 2010

A Winter’s Tale: a pantomime of slow roasted garlic crusted lamb.

Act I

In which there are mistaken identities, long lost twins, virgin births, nativity celebrations, joyous nuptials, duels, mischief, tragic and mysterious deaths, feasting and nothing is explained.

Scene I: A kitchen, mid-winter.

Enter our heroine (me), carrying a quarter of a sheep. Or, as it were, a giant boned-out shoulder-leg-shank of lamb, weighing approximately 3.5 kilos. It is clear that some serious feasting will, at some time, in the not-too-distant-future, transpire. It is not clear, as this stage, whether the piece of meat will fit into the kitchen’s adequate and yet not giant oven.

The meat is set aside, and head after head of garlic are peeled and crushed. Soon a not-insignificantly sized bowl of garlic paste is amassed. Toasted cumin seeds and lemon rind and salt and sumac are added. The strong smelling paste is then applied to the surface and every crevice of the lamb. The lamb is then wrapped up and set aside.

Scene II: The same kitchen, several days later. Morning.

We observe our heroine placing the lamb into a very slow oven. Over the course of several hours she bastes the lamb with the juices spilling into the very crowed baking pan.

Much later, in the evening, she turns off the oven.

Scene III: The same kitchen, several days later. Evening.

Enter our heroine, carrying a large parcel wrapped in bright blue paper and tied with silver ribbon. Accompanying her are a Princess, a Vicar, an Officer and a Clerk of the Court. It is clear they have been at an ale house, and several of the party are carrying bottles of wine.

The heroine returns the lamb to the oven, along with potatoes. Various other items are set to cook including green beans in tomato and onion sauce and dried legumes and chard with garlic. The lack of olives is lamented, and wine is decanted.

As more wine is consumed the smell of cooking lamb wafts through the gathered party. Noses twitch and mouths water.

Finally the heroine presents the with a flourish the meltingly tender slow cooked marinaded lamb. The garlic crust is dark, dark brown and bitter and sweet from the long time in the oven. The meat is pink in the middle and so soft it falls apart at the touch of a spoon. The potatoes are golden and crunchy and nutty with oregano and thyme.

Later, pastries dripping with honey and filled with nuts are gluttonously consumed.

More than one birthday has been celebrated and all go to bed merry and sated.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Eats roots and leaves: nose-to-tail celery and celeriac soup*

Wastefulness. At one end of the input-output spectrum we throw away millions of tonnes of perfectly edible food every year.

At the other end of the spectrum, we limit, and therefore waste, the options available as food. Our environmental impact is such that species are become extinct at an alarmingly exponential rate (they ate dodos people. And don’t even get me started on the implications of bee extinction**). In terms of food production and consumption we are also voluntarily limiting the variety of species that we chose to eat***. And even more so, we are choosing only to consume a very small part of those species that we do choose to eat.

Homo sapiens, the smart men, need to eat smarter. Nose-to-tail eating is a brilliant slogan for us carnivores. ‘Eats roots and leaves’ captures this for the herbivores among us. It’s true that not every part of every plant is edible. Some are in fact harmful. But beetroot leaves, broccoli stalks, grape vine leaves, and pumpkin seeds – all edible. Orange rind and pineapple skins make beautiful marmalade. Watermelon rind can be turned into pickles.

And pretty much every part of celery can be devoured.

Most of us are familiar with the stalks – the crunchy light green part, great with hummus or peanut butter (that may be my particular fetish ...). Wash, cut, throw away the leaves, right?

Alternatively – eat it all. Young celery leaves are lovely in salad. Older leaves can be blanched like English spinach or oven dried as crunchy snacks or even powdered for a concentrated celery flavoured dust. Even the tiny seeds are edible. As is the root.

Celeriac is a knobbly, bulbous root of a variety of celery. It has a subtle celery flavour and can be eaten raw (for example, julienned in French remoulade, a kind of mustard mayonnaise salad), roasted or fried (a little like potato, but less starchy) or steamed and pureed (try: half potato, half celeriac, significant amounts of butter, delicious).

Which all leads to soup: with a light creamy texture and a fresh celery taste, it is all the comfort of winter with all the promise of spring. Using every part of the celery plant.

* For those with a one track mind, the incorrect insertion of a comma can make all the difference. See Lyn Truss’ excellent work on gramma, Eat, Roots and Leaves

** In a nutshell, bees fertilise flowers. Fertilised flowers grown into seed producing fruit. See producing fruit are a) edible, and b) the basis upon which other flower-producing plants grow. Fewer bees means reduced fertilisation, which impacts on crops. Bees are a big deal for the farming sector. And bees are very sensitive to environmental change.

*** This is more complicated, because on one level this is being limited for us by the agricultural and retail sectors, but en masse, we-the-human-race are limiting our choices.

Thick celery and celeriac soup

1 bunch celery
1 brown onion
1 garlic clove
100 gms finely chopped bacon (optional)
1 celeriac (about 500g), skin removed and roughly chopped
1 lt vegetable or chicken stock
2 small potatoes, peeled and cut into ½ cm dice
Salt and pepper to taste
Sour cream to serve

Celery powder (in advance)*

Preheat oven to 50ºc.

Remove celery leaves. Spread out on an oven tray, bake in oven for around 45 minutes, or until dehydrated. When completely dry, blend in a food processor until finely powdered. Remove any spiky bits of stalk. Store in an airtight container (as with other dried herbs and spices, usually good for about 6 months).

Celery and celeriac soup

Finely dice the onion and 3 celery stalks (eat remaining stalks as a snack with peanut butter or hummus or tzadziki) and mince the garlic.

Combine with bacon in a large heavy based saucepan, and cook over a low heat until the onion is starting to soften. The low heat will melt the bacon fat – if not using bacon, add a teaspoon of olive oil.

Meanwhile, in a separate pot, blanch the potato dice in boiling water until cooked through (about 5-10 minutes).

When the onion is soft, add the celeriac and half the stock. Bring to the boil. Once boiling, add half the remaining stock and continue to cook until the celeriac is soft enough to smash with the back of a spoon. This takes about 25 minutes.

Blend the soup in a food processor or with a bar mix until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Return to saucepan and add remaining stock. If the soup is too thick, add a little water. Stir in the cooked potato and heat through.

Serve with a dollop of sour cream and a generous sprinkling of celery powder.

* I started making celery salt and got side-tracked - and voila, celery powder.