28 Aug 2012

My MONA roast vegie salad

Inspiration can come from the most unexpected places.
Recently, work held a team building day at MONA. It worked, because we bonded over a shared enthusiasm for the amazing food we were served. Morning tea saw mammoth towers of scones, jam and whipped-high cream. Afternoon tea delivered fudge-like chocolate and walnut brownies that were so out of this world I had to have two squares to confirm that they were indeed deliriously fabulous.
Lunch was delicious, fresh, colourful and satisfying. For days afterwards the team bonding continued as we remembered the various wraps, sandwiches and salads. Oh, the salads! The roast vegie salad was so good, in fact, that I actually studied my second plateful (these training days are hungry work) and noted down the ingredients on my training notepad. Oh, I’ve just realised some of my workmates may read this…
There was carrot, potato and beetroot, tumbled with pebble-like puy lentils, pepitas, baby spinach leaves and small crumbles of salty feta. It was a wonderful collection of textures and flavours, both light and filling at the same time. I’m always on the lookout for different ways to enjoy vegies, and this was spot on.
So I had a go at making my own version. I had no beetroot and forgot to buy feta (but will include both next time); but I included one of my favourite winter vegetables, parsnips, which are both sweet and earthy, and threw in some chickpeas as well.
My MONA roast vegie salad
No quantities given here – warm or cold, salads are pretty haphazard things. Just cook enough of everything for a couple of serves (or more for leftovers and other meals).
  • Cut your vegies into bite-sized pieces. I used carrot, parsnip and a grey-skinned pumpkin (all from dad – thanks dad!). Steam them until just done – this is Nigel Slater’s tip for keeping root vegies moist and creamy when roasting them.
  • Meanwhile cook some puy lentils according to the instructions on their packet (they take about 20 minutes).
  • Preheat your oven to 180 and once your vegies are just done, tip them onto a baking tray (or two), drizzle with a little oil and bake for about 20-30 minutes – until they just start to crisp around the edges. In the last few minutes, toast some pepitas until just crunchy (they won’t need long).
  • To assemble your bowl of MONA roast vegie salad, tip the vegies into your bowls, stir thru spoonfuls of lentils and chickpeas (tinned ones that you’ve rinsed and drained), gentle fold through some fancy lettuce or baby spinach leaves. Then squeeze over some lemon juice, sprinkle over the toasted pepitas, and shake on a little S&P. Enjoy!

23 Aug 2012

The best bread and butter pudding

Reading 'Recipes From My Mother's Kitchen' made me realise that not only had it been a long time between risottos, but that I had not made a bread and butter pudding this winter, either. Guy Grossi's recipe for making panettone, the fruity Italian bread for celebrating Easter, reminded me that last Christmas, when panettones were in the shops, I stocked up on these large buns and stashed them away in my deep chest freezer: for the sole purpose of making bread and butter pudding in the cold months.

Of course, it's called bread and butter pudding - invented, I believe, as a way of using up stale bread - but who makes it with plain bread these says? Usually it's fruit bread, spicy hot cross buns, even croissants. And I realised that I never actually spread my bread with butter, either. I think this comes from having such a pudding in London, many years ago, where the slices of bread were thickly smeared with rich, chunky apricot jam. It was a revelation. So now I use jam - usually one of mum's berry varieties. But let me tell you, Nutella and croissants is a magnificant combination.

This time, I didn't use anything, because the light, creamy-coloured panettone was studded with sultanas. Instead, I added a generous spoonful of Tia Maria to the eggy custard. 'Generous' means measure out a tablespoon, then think 'why not?' and add a slosh more. I have used Frangelico, I think with the Nutella (gild the lily? Moi?).

On other occasions, I have spiked the rich custard that soaks the bread with aromatic mixed spice (my favourite spice in the pantry); cinnamon or nutmeg would be just as wonderful.

So this is a sort of bread and butter pudding, made with neither bread not butter. You can infinitely tweak it to suit your own tastes.

Best bread and butter pudding
Adapted from a UK magazine, Ideal Home, dated Feb 2004. I used a 500 gram panettone, sliced up; basically you want enough of your chosen bread (sliced or roughly torn up) to fill a 1.5 l baking dish. Please experiment with your breads, butters and flavours.
  • Butter a 1.5 l baking dish.
  • Whisk 3 eggs, 3 egg yolks (freeze the whites for friands) and 125 grams sugar until pale. If you have a free-standing mixer, that's ideal for this recipe. Then add 1/2 tspn vanilla and if you like, that generous tblspn of Tia Maria or Frangelico. The recipe actually stated 1/2 tspn mixed spice.
  • Meanwhile, put 300ml each of milk and thickened cream in a saucepan and bring just to the simmer, then whisk this into your egg mixture (you'll appreciate that free-standing mixer at this point) to make your custard.
  • Spread your bread/croissants/panettone with your butter/jam/Nutella and pop into the baking dish. Pour over the custard and leave the bread to soak it up for about half an hour or so, pushing it down occasionally.
  • When you're ready to bake, sprinkle the top of the pudding with chunky 'coffee sugar' crystals. Preheat your oven to 180, then pop in and bake until the custard is just set. The recipe says 30 minutes but it always take me longer, so please check. Cover with foil if the top's browning too much.
  • This is wonderfully rich and custardy, but a dollop of cream is pretty good with this. And it's just as good fridge-cold.

18 Aug 2012

Butternut risotto

Butternut pumpkin-coloured fabric from Frangipani Fabrics

When was the last time you made a risotto? I don't think I've made one since last winter, as it's very much a cold-weather dish to me. It's like savoury pudding: full of comforting carbohydrates.

I have made great hulking pots of risotto - forgetting how much the little arborio grains swell and swell, I ended up with enough thick stodge to feed the whole street. For a couple of weeks. I have made risotto in the microwave, which seemed like cheating. Because I have stood at the stove and stirred and stirred (though it is honestly not as bad as stirring polenta). And I have used risotto as a kind of final resting place for any sad vege that needed using up. Not very respectful.

My desire to make a risotto again came from watching the risotto challenge on Masterchef. It was such a different style to the dense, glue-like risottos of my past - which I thought were normal - these were loose, fluid, silky. Consulting my Italian Food Safari DVD showed the chef with the inpenetrable accent thumping his plate on the bench to flatten out a thin arborio layer. And none of these meals were cooked in a deep casserole pot, but rather a flat wide frypan. So the challenge was on, to redefine how I looked at - and cooked - risotto.

Cue Guy Grossi's heartwarming book, 'Recipes From My Mother's Kitchen'. And as I had a butternut pumpkin (from Dad's garden), the Risotto di Zucca was the obvious choice. I followed Mr Grossi's guidance, and remembered the fluid dishes I'd watched on TV. The butternut melded beautifully into the arborio for a sweet, vibrantly orange risotto. And cooking a very small amount of rice (much, much less than specified) in a frypan certainly changed the game for me.

I said I considered risotto a heavy winter dish, but making this one made me look at it with fresh eyes. In fact, 'Recipes From My Mother's Kitchen' has Risi e Bisi, the classic rice and peas which calls for freshly-podded sweet green peas - one of summer's joys - so I shall definitely be getting out the jar of arborio in a few months' time for that one. But I'm sure I'll make another silkily elegant risotto again soon.

Butternut risotto
Based very loosely on the Risotto di Zucca in Guy Grossi's 'Recipes From My Mother's Kitchen'. His recipe serves 6-8 and uses a massive half a kilo of uncooked rice; I wanted much less - only two meals. So I used half a cup. However I still used a lot of butternut. You could make this bigger of course, by mainly adjusting your rice and stock quantities.
Update, 23 August: Last night I made this again, using a grey-skinned pumpkin and finely chopped sage. And half a cup of rice. But I ended up with three whopping bowls of risotto - so I'm wondering if originally (as noted below) I actually used 1/3 or even 1/4 cup of rice (but thought I used 1/2)? Um...
  • Bring equal parts stock and water to a simmer in a small saucepan. I used 1 and 1/2 cups of a store-bought chicken and the same amount of kettle-boiled water. Keep the kettle close by for any 'top ups'.
  • While that's going on, put a good glug of olive oil into a wide frypan and then saute one smallish onion and one big clove of garlic that you've chopped finely. Cook gently until trasnslucent - don't rush this stage (in fact, enjoy it!).
  • Meanwhile, peel and cut 300 grams of butternut or pumpkin into 2cm square dice; and finely chop half a tspn fresh rosemary. Put the butternut and the rosemary into the pan and stir for a few minutes. It won't really cook; I think you're just melding the flavours with the onion and garlic.
  • Add your arborio rice - I used half a cup (which doesn't look like much next to all that butternut). Stir around for a few minutes to make sure everything is well combined.
  • Now add your stock. Mr Grossi advises a bit at a time, and I started doing that; but then I just added the lot. Give it a stir, get it gently simmering, then leave it to cook. Check it now and then to see if you need to add a few more slurps of hot water from the kettle (remembering this is loose and fluid! Not stodgy and thick!) - and to make sure it's not sticking to the bottom of the pan. Cook until the rice is done and the pumpkin is disintegrating into the rice.
  • Once you're happy with your consistency, remove from the heat and stir thru a couple of spoonfuls of grated parmesan cheese and a few small dice of butter. This makes it beautifully creamy, and the sharpness of the parmesan contrasts perfectly with the sweetness of the butternut (so I didn't season with S&P).

13 Aug 2012

Garden audit: getting ready

I bet you were beginning to think the 'homegrown' part of Dig In was a fib, a fantasy?

And that's me in the corner!

But yesterday, for the first time in weeks - months - we were blessed with a sunny, warm weekend. Well, Sunday morning - Saturday was damp and miserable. After frosty starts this week, it was a joy to wake up to sunshine and blue skies.

My parents were coming for a visit, too, so I was really happy: we could be out in the garden, and indeed, we ended up eating lunch outside. I can't remember the last time we did that!

The sunshine motivated me to venture into the vegie garden for some proper work, to get the space ready for spring sowing action. I built two teepee-style trellises for climbing beans (above), inspired by ones in Hobart's botanic gardens. Their frames, of course, were mega-structures, welded strong and reaching for the skies; mine are tea-tree sticks rescued from a screen I demolished a few months ago, barely six feet tall. And trussed together with old pantyhose. In front of them, I lay out guarding to mark where I'll sow mixed mesclun salad greens.

Elsewhere I put up hip-high climbing frames (made last year) to support non-climbing peas and beans; Dad pounded them in for me to ensure they were secure in the ground. I also marked out a line ready for Tuscan Cavolo Nero kale, which I've never grown before. I'm looking forward to these - pictures I have seen are very impressive with their tall, blackish, plume-like leaves.

I also planned where I'll grow tomatoes, once Dad has gotten them going in a month or so. Last year I grew small cherry tomatoes in pots, and while I was  happy with my first-ever attempt, it was hellish keeping the plants moist in the unseasonal heat. So I'm growing them directly in the ground this year. I'm hoping for Black Krims, please Dad - one of my favourites.

And here is an update of my savoy cabbages: my, how they've grown! I love their dark crinkled leaves; such a fascinating texture.

What's growing in your garden?

12 Aug 2012

Coffee streusel cake

Enough of the navel gazing; let's bake a cake.

I love the rich, exotic aroma of a freshly made mug of coffee. Our office has one of those fancy pod coffee makers, so its heady darkness regularly wafts around the corridors. Invigorating on a bleak work day.

In the summertime, I love coffee ice cream: the contrast between icy temperatures, creamy smooth textures, and that kicky caffeine flavour.

And I love coffee cakes, mellow and warming. This one is a gorgeous example of the genre. It is a wonderfully easy cake to make, too. Brown sugar adds extra depth of flavour and a beautiful colour to the final cake (though it does look slightly curdled in the mixing bowl, when first creamed with the butter). Sour cream lends moistness and lightness - it's a joyously fluffy cake (especially after the failed soggy pie and the perfect-but-dense brownies of recent times). And of course, the coffee flavour - such a small amount, you wonder if it's enough, but it is, and produces a beautifully, perfectly mellow result.

Of course, this would be a lovely cake if that's all it was - cake - but this recipe has a crunchy streusel topping of buttery, sugary walnuts, which contrasts with yet complements the soft cake. Once in the oven, the toasting walnuts fragrantly fill the house. I love this part of cooking: I'm not doing anything - except waiting - but I still feel connected, pulled to what's happening in the kitchen.

The waiting is rewarded: I love this cake.

Oh, did I mention, I don't acually like drinking coffee?

Coffee streusel cake
Adapted from yet another Woman's Day magazine pinched from the work tea room. I think this is much nicer eaten warm, so eat straight out of the oven or zap in the microwave briefly each time.
  • Line a brownie tin with paper, leaving enough edges sticking up so you can lift the cake out once done. Preheat your oven to 180.
  • First, the cake: cream 125 grams soft butter with 1 cup brown sugar (I used half light brown and half dark brown), then add 2 eggs.
  • Then fold in 3/4 cup SR flour and 1/2 cup plain flour. Then add 1/2 cup sour cream. In a small bowl, combine 1 tbspn each of hot water and instant coffee, then add this to the cake batter. Stir thru, then spread the batter into your brownie tin.
  • For the streusel, get out your food processor and blitz up 1/4 cup plain flour, 1/4 cup brown sugar, 1 tspn cinnamon, and 60 grams butter (you could rub this in the old-fashioned way if you are so inclined. Me, I'm lazy). Then add 1/2 cup broken up walnuts and blitz just enough to combine - you want some small chunks still, some variation in texture.
  • Scatter this evenly across the cake batter and lightly press it in - I sort of tapped as if I was typing.
  • Pop in the oven and bake for 45 minutes or until done. Cool in tin for a few minutes before lifting out (using the papers) and cool on a rack.

9 Aug 2012

Lost: My cooking mojo; Found: spaghetti, greens and lemon

I recently wrote about my frittata failure; mainly because my lovely co-worker V thought I was an 'awesome cook', based on what she read here. Which was very flattering, but far from the truth.

Since Leftover Week, I seem to have fallen into a hole of ordinariness and, at times, plain awfulness. Last weekend, everything came to a head. A sort-of vegie casserole was dull - it wasn't even bad enough to be offensive, it was just bland and nothing. I battled thru because I hate waste, but with every mouthful I thought, life is too short to eat dull food, and last night I gave in and scrapped the lot into a container for mum's chooks to eat.

I made a carrot tart from one of the supermarket magazines; it looked elegant - but it too tasted bland. And the carrots were still crunchy. I made an apple and rhubarb pie that looked like it had chicken pox, and was insipid, and soggy - it's heading towards the same fate as the sort-of vegie casserole. The only good thing that came from that experience was these little jam drops, made from the pastry scraps and inspired by the Shady Baker:

These and other disappointments that I'm too low to share with you made me stop and take stock. What am I doing wrong? How could I do it better? And what am I good at cooking? These were the questions I mulled over every time I walked into the kitchen, flipped thru a Delicious or Good Food magazine, watched MasterChef, or clicked on a food website.

I realise I'm good at pasta; I like the simplicity of Italian food, the flavour that comes from lovely produce used in an uncomplicated manner. I like using lots of vegetables, preferably ones I've grown; I know at the moment I'm in that mid-winter malaise of not being able to wander out to my vegie patch and pick green beans and peas to cook immediately for my supper. And I'm good at anything when I take my time, enjoy the process, and don't rush to get it done.

So with this focus, I've come away from the local library with armfuls of books: a Woman's Weekly on pasta, the 'River Cottage Two Easy' (which I think I've had before),Guy Grossi's sumptuous but accessible 'Recipes from My Mother's Kitchen', a back-to-basics style one called 'Fresh and Easy', which will help me finetune my techniques and remember to enjoy the process (it has step-by-step pictures!). I reserved two favourite books, focussing on vegies, by Nigel Slater and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (maybe if I get a tax return this year I'll buy them, to always have them near). And to cheer myself up, I also got a cupcake book.

I also found a fabulous food website, Tastespotting, prompting a flurry of print-outs of delicious looking pastas, risottos, toasted sandwiches and easy suppers.

And last night, I actually sat at the dining table, surrounded by said printouts and books, and started to plan meals and write grocery lists. I surprised even myself.

Then, armed with this self-awareness, I stepped into the kitchen. I pulled out a pasta recipe I have made before (let me get my confidence back with an old friend). I donned my apron - this always signals that I am Going To Cook. I made a generous G&T, and then, at a relaxed pace, I sliced the onion, crushed the garlic, boiled the spaghetti and zested the lemon.

The resulting meal was not gourmet-fancy - but neither was it dull or disappointing. Progress.

Spaghetti with greens and lemon
Adapted from a Woman's Day magazine. I have made this with brussels sprouts, quartered; broccoli; grated or chunked zucchini; and curly kale. It would be delicious with finely shredded dark savoy cabbage. I also alternate between bacon and chorizo; the smoky kick of chorizo is especially suited to kale and brussels sprouts. Feel free to pour yourself a glass of wine or a G&T - it certainly helped me! Serves 2.
  • Start by boiling enough pasta for two (for me, this is 140 grams dried weight spaghetti).
  • Meanwhile, steam enough green vegies (I've listed my faves above). The vegie is the main part of the dish, so be generous, but it's hard to give quantities here - I just chop and prep until it looks about right. Don't overcook.
  • Meanwhile, saute a small quantity of diced bacon or sliced chorizo with some olive oil. Again, I can't give you precise quantities because I am pretty random here myself; and I'm sure you know what will look and taste right (sorry if you don't). Once that's going along nicely, finely slice half an onion and add that to the pan, and when it's on the way, add a couple of cloves of crushed garlic and a sprinkle of dried chilli flakes (to your taste). Saute until onion is done.
  • Then add the cooked vegies into the pan, then the drained cooked pasta, and fold thru.
  • Then take a nice juicy lemon and zest it in (I like fine ribbons of zest for this recipe, rather than anything microplaned), then squeeze in half to all of its juice - this is a nice and lemony dish.
  • Dish up, finish your drink, and enjoy.

5 Aug 2012

Frittata failure

Groovy background from Frangipani Fabrics.

Do you have a dish that is your nemesis - that you just cannot make? That you collect recipes for, confident that this will be the one that conquers your fears, overcomes the black hole of past botched attempts, and delivers success? The dish probably isn't difficult - no fancy-schmancy thing - and gosh-dammit, if you can roast a chook and bake a layered pudding and tease out pastry and simmer up a batch of pasta sauce, then why can't you do this?!

Hello, my name is E, and I am a Frittata Failure.

Yes, frittata, or vegie slice, or whatever you call that oh-so-simple thing that is basically eggs and vegies cooked into a slab or round. But if it's so simple, why can't I get it?

Previous attempts have been soggy, or have taken hours to cook (maybe a slight exaggeration, but definitely much longer than specified in the recipe).

But bravely, or foolishly, I keep coming back for another attempt at mastering the frittata - though I'd be happy just to get it 'right', let alone 'master' it. I'm determined - a slice of frittata should be a quick, tasty and healthy solution to getting dinner on the table.

Making a frittata is easy, I think; it's once it goes in the oven that it seems to go wrong for me. This time, scared of yet another soggy slow-cooking mess, I tried a recipe where you made individual frittatas in a texas muffin tin - I figured the smaller mass of each one would cook through better and quicker. However, the fear of sogginess runs deep, and I over-compensated - and overcooked these by about five minutes - and they stuck to the tin and became sort of spongy. Better than soggy, I guess. Not quite as dismal a failure as previous attempts - in fact, it gives me hope to try it again. Better luck next time perhaps; keep your fingers crossed.

So sometimes a meal comes together effortlessly, wonderfully; sometimes there is that ordinariness that comes from just wanting to getting food in the belly; and then there is another 'frittata failure'.

What are you hopeless at cooking?

Pumpkin and spinach frittatas
Adapted from a Woman's Day magazine.
  • Preheat oven to 200. Finely cube 500 grams of pumpkin (I instead used sweet potato), lightly spray or coat with oil, then roast until just soft (probably 20-30 minutes); once done reduce oven to 180.
  • Meanwhile, whisk together 4 eggs, 2 egg whites, 125 grams ricotta, 4 finely chopped green onions (I instead used 2 baby leeks, as they were all I had), some S&P.
  • Grease a 6-hole texas muffin tin. Divide the cooked pumpkin and 20-30 grams of torn-up baby spinach leaves into the holes (I also added about 4 small mushrooms that I'd cut to the same size of the sweet potato dice, because I'm on a bit of a mushroom-kick at the moment).
  • Then pour over egg mixture (I then also sprinkled over some grated parmesan and panko crumbs for some crunch).
  • Bake 15-20 minutes or until golden and set. Cool slightly before removing from tin (and before they weld themselves to the tin).

1 Aug 2012

Tomato pasta sauce

Right now, summer is a long way off. Hobart is in the middle of a cold, wet week: there was snow on the mountain on Monday; yesterday, it rained. And rained.

Right now, I have bright yellow jonquils nodding in my front garden, beneath the bare birches; freesias are starting to bud - a promise of a fragrant spring.

Right now, what I really miss about those distant summer months - beyond wearing sundresses and sandals, baring my limbs and toes - are tomatoes. Specifically, the juicy, flavoursome tomatoes grown by my father. I mean, it doesn't get any more 'summer' than this:
But that's a long way off, right Dad?

The only option at this time of year is tinned tomatoes, and what I need to make right now is a big batch of pasta sauce. A huge bubbling pot of red sauce, big enough to make lots and lots of portions for the freezer, to keep me going for the next month or two. A delicious tomato sauce that can be used for a hasty (but tasty!) bowl of spaghetti, or as the basis of a homemade pizza, or as the supporting sauce in a baked pasta dish like cannelloni. A sauce that can be jazzed up with some hot chilli or spicy chorizo, or enjoyed simply in all its rich tomatoey glory.

The adaptability of this simple sauce is what elevates it from being a reliable kitchen 'basic' to an essential pantry 'hero'.

Tomato pasta sauce
Extracted from my friend D, who is Italian and once worked as a chef in an Italian restaurant - so this must be pretty authentic. Be warned - you will never go back to store-bought sauce again.
You need a really big, heavy cooking pot as there is a lot of sauce and it's going to be on the stovetop for around 2 hours. I used my huge le Creuset pot.
  • Roughly chop one medium carrot and 1 or 2* brown onions and put in a food processor.
  • Peel 6 cloves of garlic and add them too. Then add in a good handful of parsley, and if it's summer time and it's growing, basil.
  • Whizz the whole lot up til it's very, very finely chopped.
  • In your cooking pot, add a very substantial amount of olive oil, heat then add the vegie mix. Cook it at a nice gentle sizzle for a good 15 minutes, stirring frequently. You want to still see some olive oil about the edges. 
  • Now take 5 or 6* 400 gram tins of the best quality (Italian, of course) peeled whole tomatoes. Put the tomatoes in the food processor (reserve the liquid) and whizz up til super smooth, then add to the cooking pot.
  • Add the tomato liquid to the pot, and rinse the tins out with a little water and add that too.
  • Add 400 grams tomato paste (I admit I only used half this, as it was already looking pretty rich to me).
  • Add 2 level tbspns white sugar, a really good grind of black pepper, 1/2 tspn salt, a small 1/2 cup of white wine, and a very small knob of butter (I translate this as about 20 grams).
  • Bring to the boil, then reduce to a simmer, part-cover, and cook for 2 hours, stirring occassionally. It will look separated or 'curdled'  perhaps, with the dark green of the olive oil - that is okay.

* I think D was being evasive so we wouldn't really know how to make his sauce!