Saturday, November 27, 2010

What is a waldorf anyway, a walnut that’s gone off?*

New York city: the Waldorf Hotel. Circa 1893-1896. Oscar Tschirky. Swiss. Not a chef.

Apple. Celery. Mayonnaise. Later addition: walnuts.

The Waldorf Salad.

Its genius lies in its simplicity. Like coleslaw, so very, very dependent on the quality of the ingredients. Like coleslaw, so easily and so frequently the victim of grave injustice.

The key is crunch and bite. The crisp clean taste of very, very fresh celery. Inner stalks only, with the tender pale green leaves retained for garnishing. Tart apples, preferably peeled. Granny Smiths are perfect, that hint of sourness to their juicy sweetness. And walnuts. Toasted. Some puritans insist that they are also peeled. I have never found this necessary.

Nothing is more important than using fresh walnuts. Or conversely, nothing is more rank than the taste of rancid nuts, the oils sour and foul. My preference is to purchase mine from a specialist nut-purveyor at the market. I know that they will be correctly stored and have frequent turn over. In a pinch I will buy them in vacuum sealed packets, sold in the supermarket next to the dried herbs and spices and sugars and salts (understandably my favourite aisle in the dreaded supermarket).

And then there is mayonnaise. At which point I give up. I am overly sensitive to what I consider a crime against both condiments and salad dressing: the mayonnaise jar. How a sauce so beautiful has become something so unredeemably fetid I cannot comprehend. I can usually find it in me to be at least a little understanding of food choices that differ from my own, but mayonnaise? Like the ungodly offspring of cream and industrial solvent, industrialised, commercialised, commodofied, squeezy-bottle mayonnaise has no place in the hallowed grounds of the waldorf salad.

I find homemade mayonnaise gentler and richer than any store bought jar (and I do grudgingly admit, some are better than others, and indeed almost edible). It is easier too, to tailor one’s dressing to the salad. A hint of mustard, a little walnut oil, thicker rather than pourable, the better to bind the ingredients without drowning them. A good discipline to learn: a basic emulsification, the miracle whipping of eggs yolks and oil. Less recipe and more technique.

And like every canonical recipe, the Waldorf Salad suffers from the non-canonical reinterpretation. So my secret: soak the apples in apple-cider vinegar for 15 minutes to enhance the sweet-and-sour qualities. A hint of cream cheese in the dressing. And slivers of shaved mouse-tailed pink radishes, hot and peppery and a pop of colour.

* Faulty Towers “Waldorf Salad”, 1979

Waldorf-ish Salad

Serves four as a side or light lunch

2 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1 cm dice.
1 ½ cup celery, cut into 1 cm dice
1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
¼ walnuts, toasted (roast in a moderate oven for about 6-8 minutes)
½ cup mayonnaise (approximately)
1 tsp cream cheese (optional)
6 breakfast radishes, thinly sliced or shaved.
1 tbsp small celery leaves
1 tbsp extra toasted walnuts

Mix the apple and celery with the apple cider vinegar in a non-reactive bowl (ie, not metal) and leave sit for about ten to fifteen minutes (meanwhile, make the mayonnaise).

Mix the cream cheese (if using) into a quarter cup of mayonnaise, then toss with the apples, celery shaved radishes and toasted walnuts. If necessary, add extra mayonnaise until the salad is coated but not drowning.

To serve, scatter with extra walnuts and celery leaves.

Great with chicken or turkey.

To make mayonnaise:

2 very fresh egg yolks (keep the eggwhites for macarons or meringue or soufflé or something equally delicious. They freeze well too).
1 tsp Dijon mustard
2 tsp vinegar (white wine vinegar or tarragon vinegar)
250 ml oil (any kind of oil is fine. I like olive oil, which can have a strong taste. Sunflower oil or canola oil also works just fine)
Sea salt and white pepper, to taste

Make sure all the ingredients are at room temperature.

In a large non reactive bowl (I use pyrex for just about everything) beat the egg yolks with the mustard and 1 teaspoon of vinegar. Beat until smooth and creamy looking.

Drizzle in 1 teaspoon of oil, and beat until fully incorporated. Drizzle other teaspoon, and beat until fully incorporated. Continue this process, drizzling and beating in tiny spoonfuls of oil until about half the oil is combined. Then, drizzle the remaining oil in a very thin steam, beat constantly until the mayonnaise is the desired consistency. Taste, and add salt and white pepper if needed.

Can be made with a wooden spoon or hand whisk or even electric beaters. The trick is the very slow incorporation of the oil into the egg yolks.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Tacos. Grown up finger painting for the mouth

Growing up, tacos were always a big deal in our house.

My parents owned a particularly lovely carved serving platter, made, I think, from the wood of a coconut palm, in the shape of a leaf. The smooth deep bowl of it was divided in to four smaller hollows, a perfect home for keeping the various taco fillings separate and yet all together. It was used almost exclusively for taco nights.

Tacos-for-dinner was a production, a matter of great ceremony and extra fuss. Tacos were purchased as ready-made corn-chip shells in a taco-kit box, to be crisped in oven for ten minutes prior to eating. It was a great test of skill and nerve to neatly stand each shell vertical, fold-up, balanced on the curved edges like little clog-clad feet. Important not to forget to remove from the oven, lest the shells overcook (or as I remember once, start to smoke).

The boy child and I did not eat tomatoes, capsicum, avocado or coriander. What we did eat was grated Kraft cheese, grated carrot, shredded ice-berg lettuce, sour-cream, sweet (store bought!) salsa and pan fried beef mince. Taco night embodied semi-rural Australia, which is a long, long way from Mexico.

And there was an art to preparing the taco: an intricate and personalised order in which the ingredients were added. My preference: meat, salsa, cheese, carrot, lettuce, sour cream. This, for me, was the only and most logical way to construct the meal: the salsa seasoned the meat, the warm meat melted the cheese, and the carrot (a vegetable able to consumed with equal enjoyment cooked or raw) acted as a thermal buffer, protecting the lettuce from wilting. Sometimes, towards the end of a taco eating contest (a contest between my brother and I, a contest between my present and previous consumption record), the final taco was snapped in half, with the messily discarded jumble of previous taco fillings scooped up and sandwiched in between the broken shell.

Tacos were fun, gluttonous, sweet and salty and crunchy and cheesy. It was hands on, messy, full of sharing and hording. It was impossible to finish the meal with anything other than mess smeared across our faces and dripping down our elbows. Tacos always preceded rather than followed a bath.

The gap between the taco-kits of my childhood and the Mexican tacos which pre-date European arrival is immense. Perhaps the only commonality is the yellow-corn-colour of the cardboard textured hard-shells.

Real tacos, homemade soft corn or flour tortillas, salsa fresh with coriander and lime, smoky marinated chicken or fish, are a revelation. If anything, the evil glee that making a mess while eating inspired is multiplied exponentially, as is the pleasure of a riot of flavours and delight of assembling it just so. I have flour in my hair. I have somehow managed to spill the juice of half a lime directly into my right hand pocket. I have dough stuck to my knuckles and finger nails. Coriander-chilli-ginger-garlic-lime-zest paste smeared along the inside of one forearm. And that was before I even started eating.

Soft corn-and-flour-tacos with lime and coriander chicken, salsa and roasted tomatoes.

Serves four

16 corn and flour tortillas (see below)
Lime and coriander chicken (see below)
Salsa (see below)
Roasted tomatoes (see below)
Sour cream

To serve: add a spoonful of each component to the warm soft taco in the order that makes the most sense to you. Fold in half and make a mess.

Corn and flour tortillas:

I realise that I am a novice when it comes to tortillas, and that usually you make either corn or flour tortillas, not a combination of both. I understand that in taco-profilic countries like America and Mexico there are things such as tortilla presses and more than one brand of maize flour. People have practice and opportunity there. Still, this beats the pants off buying taco-kits, and adding wheat flour to the maize flour helps the dough keep its elasticity.

1 cup maize flour (not corn flour, and not polenta. Maize flour).
1 cup wholemeal plain flour
½ tsp salt
1 ¼ warm water
1 tsp oil

Mix the flours and salt together. Make a well, and add 1 cup of the water and the oil. Mixed with a hand, and as the dough starts to come together, add the remaining water (as needed) – you should end up with a soft, warm slightly sticky dough. Knead lightly until just smooth (not more than 5 minutes). Break the dough into 16 ball shaped pieces (keep them covered with plastic wrap whilst working each ball).

Place a ball of dough between two sheets of baking paper and roll out with a rolling pin until about 20 cm in diameter. Peel one piece of paper away from the tortilla, leaving the other attached. Repeat for the remaining balls.

Heat a non stick frying pan to hot, brush with a little oil.

Place the tortilla paper side up in the pan – as the tortilla starts to cook, the dough will dry and the paper will peel away (this takes about 1 minute). When the paper is removed, turn the tortilla over, and cook the other side for about 30 seconds. Repeat with remaining dough. Set aside and wrap in a clean tea-towel to keep warm.

Spiced Chicken

In her book Fire, Christine Mansfield gives a beautiful recipe for Mexican chicken and lime soup. This recipe draws on the ingredients that make that soup so fresh and vibrant.

500 gm chicken breasts, sliced into thin stir fry strips
1 tbsp oil
¼ cup fresh coriander stems or leaves
1 tbsp finely grated ginger
2 cloves garlic
1 long red chilli (medium heat)
1 tbsp chopped red onion
1 tbsp chopped green onion
1 very ripe tomato
1 tsp finely grated lime zest

Puree the garlic, ginger, chilli, coriander, tomato onions and lime zest until a thick paste forms. Heat the oil in a large fry pan, add the chicken strips and paste. Cook over a high heat until the chicken is cooked through the paste is thickened. Set aside.

Corn and Capsicum Salsa

1 cob corn, kernels removed and blanched.
½ red capsicum, cut into 1 cm dice
½ yellow capsicum, cut into 1 cm dice
1 avocado, cut into 1 cm dice
½ cucumber, cut into 1 cm dice
¼ cup green spring onions, cut into 1 cm lengths
1 tbsp red onion, cut into 1 cm dice
1 tsp finely grated lime zest
Juice of 1 lime
1 cup torn coriander leaves
½ tsp sea salt

Toss all ingredients together.

Roasted tomatoes

1 punnet cherry tomatoes
½ tsp sea salt
½ tsp cracked black pepper
½ tsp smoked paprika
½ tsp castor sugar
1 tsp (approx) balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp olive oil

Heat the oven to 180ºc.

Cut the cherry tomatoes in half. Add all ingredient to a baking dish and toss to coat. Cook for about ½ hour or until the tomatoes are starting to caramelise but still retain their shape.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Artichoke, pimento, jamon and frozen pea salad. What junk food is not

Just around the corner from me is a fabulous Spanish / Latin grocery store. It is packed with all kinds of goodies imported from Spain, Portugal and South America. Tuna and sardines, anchovies, jars of artichokes in oil and tinned hearts-of-palm. Chorizo and legs of acorn-fed jamon hang from the ceiling. There are bags of arroz and sacks of gabanzo beans. Vats of olives and litres of olive oil. Paella tins and dozens of varieties of dried chillies and spices.

Dried and bottled and salted and cured and frozen and vinegared Iberican abundance. Making dinner a matter of throwing together a random selection of whatever catches the eye.

Is there a difference between my colourful Spanish salad and a Krispy Kreme doughnut or KFC?

When does the act of preparing a meal become home-cooking? When does food become processed? And when does food become junk food? And why junk? Why a word connoting such worthlessness?

‘Junk food’ continually appears as a culprit in public debate. From banning the sale of toys with Happy Meals to government mandated standards for the food in school canteens to lobby groups opposing the advertising of ‘junk food’ during prime-time children’s television to public health studies and nutritionalist advice: junk food is a core concept in the contemporary public debate about food.

Junk food is shorthand. It’s used to describe everything from production to consumption practices, method of processing, readiness of availability, caloric content and nutritional value (or valuelessness), (high) percentage fat/sugar, (un)naturalness, cheapness, and social context. All terms and concepts themselves that themselves are difficult to pin down and already laden with all kinds of assumptions about what is good and bad food.

Beyond this is a debate that too quickly seems to be shorthand for blaming someone. Blaming governments. Blaming the media. Blaming big corporations. Blaming society. Blaming parents. Blaming us. And then judging.

Rather than focusing on an item of food in terms of its health outcomes or nutritional inputs or even consumption context (all of which are important), I think junk food is perhaps something we can think about as our broad relationship to eating. Food does not, inherently, have a quality of junk or not-junk. But our broad approach to eating may turn our consumption practices in ones that are more or less valued by us and valuable to us. That is, the way we eat, the way we think about food, nutrition, sustenance, satisfaction, contentment, fulfilment, pleasure and flavour may position food as worthless and junk-ful or as valuable. So for me, junk food is thoughtless, mindless, directionless, irresponsible eating. It is eating that fails to take into account the singularity of eating this thing, here and now, as a unique and unrepeatable experience.

My salad may have too high a quantity of sodium or oil or fat. It may inhibit or replace my ability or willingness to ensure I have, that day, met my recommended daily intake of certain essential vitamins and minerals, fibres or proteins. It may be primarily pre-prepared.

But it makes me think of Spain. And I shared it with people I love. And I chose the items with a sense of wonder. The act of eating is also an act of ritual: the table was set and the time we ate was time set aside for eating together. It may not be healthy, but it is not junk.

Artichoke, pimento, jamon and frozen pea salad.

Serves 2 as a main meal

1 red onion, finely sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 cup frozen peas, blanched and refreshed (of course, you could blanch fresh ones)
1 jar of roasted pimento in oil, drained, finely sliced, oil reserved (or you could roast your own capsicum – you’ll need two)
1 jar artichoke hearts in oil, drained and quartered
100 gm thinly sliced jamon, torn into strips
1 tbsp Spanish sherry vinegar or lemon juice

Heat a tablespoon of reserved oil in a fry pan. Add garlic and onion and sauté over a medium heat until soft. Add peas and toss until warmed through.

Remove from heat, toss through the remaining ingredients and vinegar.

Serve with crusty bread.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Jack and the beanstalk (warm bean salad)

Beans and peas are so ubiquitous that it can be hard to think of them as anything special. That is in fact a driving narrative force in the whole Jack and the Beanstalk story. His mum dismissed those beans and tossed them out the window. The rest is history (or fairytale). Beans, I believe are valourised by this story.* Same goes for peas, cf: The Princess and the Pea.

Beans are magic.

Broadbeans, green beans, peas and sugar-snaps, butter beans. And purple-pink speckled borlotti beans.** All freshly podded or top-and-tailed or de-stringed, according to phylum-order-family-genus-species.

Sweet and crunchy and soft and earthy, fresh legumes are one of the luxuries of spring, a verdant and humble apology for a winter’s age of dried pulses.

* Yeah, ok, arguably the beans are only vindicated by virtue of the access they provided to the golden goose or whatever was at the top of the beanstalk. The moral of the story, to my rather myopic view, is: vegetables are really, really good.
** Tragically, they lose their spots when cooked. And they must be cooked, for at least ten minutes or they might kill you. See magic. Seriously - some beans contain quanities of a lectin called phytohaemagglutinin, which can be quite harmful to humans. Cooking reduces the harmfulfulness. See

Warm spring bean salad

Serves 2

300 gm (unshelled) fresh borlotti beans (you should be left with about 100 gm of shelled beans)
300 gm (unshelled) fresh broad beans (you should be left with about 100 gm of shelled beans)
200 gm (unshelled) fresh peas-in-the-pod
1 bunch asparagus, cut into 5 cm lengths
100 gm green beans, cut into 5 cm lengths (or use a mix of butter beans and green beans)
2 tbsp olive oil
½ Spanish onion, finely diced
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tbps finely chopped parsley
Celery salt (or plain sea salt)
100g Soft goats cheese or curd or a goat’s milk fetta cheese.

Shell the borlotti beans. Boil in salted water for about 15 to 20 minutes, until tender but not mushy. Drain and reserve.

Shell the broad beans. Blanch in boiling water for about two minutes. Strain and remove the pale skins to reveal the bright green beans. Set aside with the borlotti beans.

Blanch the peas and beans for about three minutes, until just cooked. Strain and set aside with the other beans.

In a large fry pan, heat the olive oil and sauté the onions and garlic on a medium heat until translucent. Add the asparagus and cook for about three minutes or until the asparagus is just cooked through (but still has a nice crunch). Add the reserved vegetables, the parsley and celery salt and toss until all the vegetable are combined and warm through.

Serve with crumbled goats cheese.