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Sunday, 25 November 2012


  What are you thankful for? I’m thankful that I went to my first Thanksgiving dinner at the weekend!

 We’ve been trying to celebrate Thanksgiving dinner with our Friend-With-an-American-Husband for the last few years, but we’ve always been busy or they’ve been busy – which is probably related to is being celebrated a month before Christmas. But this year we got ourselves sorted and had the date booked out about 6 months in advance! Being celebrated on a Thursday (which is a public holiday in America), it didn’t really lend itself to a celebration on the day (people working makes it a bit tricky to roast a turkey and get there and celebrate before having to head home for work the next day), so we made it on the Saturday of that weekend.
 Naturally, I was very excited by this. Any time I get to celebrate something cultural and foodie is always good (New foods! New recipes!). But Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that has seeped into my (and probably most people’s) subconscious, through years and years of American TV watching. This is what I had gleaned: there was turkey. There were Yams (whatever they were). There was pumpkin pie. You got together with your family and there may or may not have been fights. You ate lots and then had a nap in the afternoon while the men watched football (refer to Thanksgiving episodes of “Friends” (I love the one where Joey tried to eat a whole turkey), “3rd Rock from the Sun”, “Mad About You” and a dozen other movies).  But I was also aware that with a lot of Traditions, each family will develop their own (like in the Friends episode where Monica has to make yams 3 different ways to keep everyone happy). So I was equally as interested to see what their traditions would be.
 I had stumbled across a “spiced pumpkin pie” recipe in Delicious magazine about 6 months ago and had kept it safe for such an occasion; and was happy to be given the OK to make such an important part of Dinner.
 Which gave me a good chance to think about Pumpkin Pie. Such a stalwart of American tradition (perhaps it should be “As American as Pumpkin Pie”), but still odd. There is a Sweet Potato Pie (which I’m sure is a song by Ray Charles) in my Jamie’s America Cookbook, and I have seen a lot of mentions of rhubarb pie with spring arriving, but pies are usually associated with fruit – apple, berry, peach etc. Pumpkin is a vegetable and one that doesn’t always lend itself to sweetness, though being an Australian child brought up in the 1980’s, I did partake of a few Flo Bjelke-Petersen inspired pumpkin scones. But I guess those Pilgrims just used whatever they had available, and pumpkin would have been something that would have grown and produced a crop in the first year (and is native to North America – thanks Wikipedia!) Good work.
 So Saturday morning, as I started out making my pastry and roasting the pumpkin I had an unnerving thought…

 What if I was making it wrong?
 What if this Spiced version was a “twist on an old tradition” that actually made it Not the Way it Should Be? Would it taste wrong and thereby Ruin Thanksgiving (as Bart did in the Thanksgiving Episode of The Simpsons?). I had no idea as 1) I had never made pumpkin pie before and 2) I had no idea what Real Pumpkin Pie tasted like.

 As I had already started, I vowed to go and Finish What I Had Started, holding onto the fact that these were dear friends who wouldn’t really mind if I bought the wrong pie. Bake on!
 Pretty straight forward as baking goes – blind bake a sweet pastry case; roast your pumpkin pieces (drizzled in honey – smelled delicious!). The spices were nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and cloves, which were added to warmed cream, along with treacle and brown sugar. Mix this with your cooled roast pumpkin puree and an egg or two, pour it into your pastry case and bake for half an hour or so.
 Looked good coming out of the oven….

  So we set off with our pie, and a batch of Peach Ice Cream, which I’m sure is NOT a traditional Thanksgiving dessert, but it IS from Jamie’s America, and as it was a 38 degree day in Melbourne, I was kinda glad I had decided to make it. (I had defrosted my freezer during the week, and so has room to put the ice cream machine bowl back in. Hubby heard this and was quite vocal in his requests for “Peach Peach Peach!” ice cream, so I did what all good wives would do and made it so he would be quiet).  We studied up on the origins and controversy of the holiday on the drive over so we could have meaningful and intelligent conversations with our fellow guests (well, at least until we finished the first bottle of wine).
 We had decorations…

 We had turkey (naturally), we had Yams (sweet potato – of course!!), we had mash (potato) and we had American Mum’s traditional bean casserole (complete with battered fried onion on top – so yummy!).

 I tried not to eat too much (I didn’t have seconds!) but was still rather full after main course, which gave us all a chance to chat about Thanksgiving traditions (in which it basically sounds like Christmas without the religion and presents) and talk about what each of us were Thankful for (a lovely touch I thought).
 And then dessert time. We handed out a (small) slice of pie with a side of peach ice cream (the recipe suggested serving it with whipped cream, but I got a bit enthusiastic with my whipping and managed to start making butter. Whoops!) and I held my breath while the American took a bite…..

  “This tastes just like the real thing”.
 Hooray!! And a little impromptu celebration dance from me. In fact the only complaint was that I had given him too small a slice (remedied easily with a second slice, and leaving him the leftovers), and that I had made it from scratch. Apparently in America, you buy a can of “pumpkin pie filling” and pour it into a bought pastry shell, and voila – “home cooked” pumpkin pie.

  I think I’ll stick with my version.
 But we all found it quiet tasty, except the Frenchman (who was also there), which his wife pointed out was probably because it didn’t have enough sugar (we had discussed earlier in the night his habit of having chocolate croissants dipped in hot chocolate for breakfast in France, so this was probably a good observation). It was savoury type of dessert, but still quite tasty – like a spicy pumpkin soup custard (which sounds worse than it tasted!).

 But more importantly, I didn’t ruin Thanksgiving.

 Which I was very thankful for.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Other Fish to Fry ... or Bake ... Or Grill...

  For the past few months I have been working on an area of my culinary repertoire that has been sorely under-represented; a Cooking Fear (if you will) that needed to be faced up to Like a Man (or like a Domestic Goddess at least)

  So simple, so complicated.
  Over the years, I have had many friends who raved about how simple and easy and tasty it was to cook Fish; especially those trying to lose weight  be healthy. But it was not a thing that I ever entertained the thought about cooking, or even ordering in a restaurant – I was always more of a chicken or pork or pasta girl. As with much of my cooking style, this lack of aquatic appreciation started in childhood. My mum doesn’t like Fish. Hence she never cooked it. I mean, we had Fish Fingers of course (topped with cheese and bacon pieces on special occasions) and graduated to the frozen I & J oven-bake Fish fillets in later years. But that was it.  The only other Fish that I was exposed to was the ubiquitous tuna or salmon casserole bake (with the nausea inducing white sauce and weird odour) seen at Pot Luck style dinners, which wasn’t  anything that was going to inspire a young girl to change allegiances. I liked prawns, but didn’t like shelling them myself (too many oozy slimy bits that made your fingers stinky); I couldn’t see the appeal of oysters (salty grey and disgusting), never liked smoked salmon and our budget didn’t stretch to lobster. Plus there was always that fear inducing aspect of swallowing one of the minuscule tiny bones that evaded your careful inspection and getting it caught in your throat and choking or getting a punctured lung (or something equally as dramatic); I don’t like my dinners with a Side order of Trepidation.

 Plus, the actual past-time of Fishing seemed like a HUGE waste of time. Why stand around on a river bank/pier or sit in a boat for hoooouuuuurrrrrrrs on end in the hope that you MIGHT catch something that MIGHT be big enough not to be thrown back and MIGHT feed you that night, when you could have guaranteed fun riding the four wheeled motorbike or making sandcastles or swimming and getting sand who knows where? Very inefficient.
 Slowly but surely, I have come around.

 In my younger casual-worker days, I worked across from a Fishmonger who would sell containers of crab meat and prawns (with a thoughtful container of Thousand Island dressing) which would get me through shifts without a meal break. Then when sushi became all the rage, I quite enjoyed the salmon and Fish pieces (sans wasabi!) before sliding back to the California rolls (you could eat them chopstick-free!). As a working girl, I was introduced to the famous fall-back lunch (“… but I thought YOU were going to get bread for sandwiches!!”) of canned tuna on crackers. But it was a work conference in Darwin that has had the most influence: I defy anyone who has tried a fresh Thai-influenced barramundi curry to not be convinced about the delicious versatility of Fish.
  All of this Fish knowledge was coming to the fore as all of the health benefits kept resurfacing;  it lowers cholesterol, it helps with arthritis, it’s good for avoiding depression etc etc.
 But where to start? There are SOOOOO many different types and cuts of Fish (blue rockling grenadier flathead flounder fillets steak tails boned skin on off – argh!!!) and ways to cook it  (pan fry, deep fry, bake and grill) that it was a bit daunting to work out what to cook First.

 Sticking with the Do-What-You-Know school of thinking, I decided on Fish Tacos (Mexican is So Hot Right Now).  I had two recipes and decided to pick the best bits from each in regards to the salsa and salad options, but both recipes called for Firm White Fish Fillets (500g or 4 x 180g). Me, a Fish Cooking Virgin so to speak,  having no idea of what to buy or ask for,  just went to the Fish section at my local Coles and looked in hope for some sort of Fish that I might recognise. I think I ended up with flathead fillets, which seemed to be quite expensive for the amount of Fish I took home. Which wasn’t very much.  Hmmmm, perhaps I should have bought by weight not number…..

 Never the less, I soldiered on. We were having a Mexican themed dinner, so while my friends sipped on watermelon margaritas and lageritas (a Corona with a shot of tequila and some lime juice – be careful, the tequila likes to sit on top of if the beer so that first mouthful can be a bit potent!) I warily approached my first Fish-cooking endeavour.
 Which was a bit of a disaster.

 In hindsight, I think had the pan too hot or not enough oil (or both) – the Fish pieces stuck to the frypan, the flour covering flaked off everywhere and it was a rather unappetising-looking mess. It tasted OK (as most things would when topped with sour cream and pico de gallo salsa), but I had rather under-catered with the amount of Fish I had bought, and so each of us had two tacos with about 2-3 small cubes of Fish. Nice, but not enough to soak up the beer and tequila. Thankfully the Tres Leches cake (meaning “Three Milks”, which are used in its cooking) brought by my girlfriend was a  delicious (and solid) and chased away the hunger pangs.
 So an inglorious start to my Fish-Cooking Crusade.
 And so it got quietly put to the Bottom of the Pile while I cooked and experimented (more successfully) with other things.

 Then I received Donna Hay’s Simple Dinners which had a Fish/Seafood section. I usually gloss over these sections, but the pictures made me stop and look, and even made me think – I could Eat That.  And it was around this time that Hubby’s cholesterol reading was a bit high, which then made me think – We should Eat That.
 And so I bravely waded back into The Deep.

 First up was ‘Miso Grilled Fish’. It seemed pretty straight forward (marinate and grill) and I got to buy some new ingredients from my cute local Asian grocery store. After the failure of the first Fish Purchase, I thought I’d try the local Fish shop, in the hope that Someone in the Know would advise and guide me.

 Me: “Hi, I’ve never cooked Fish before and I need firm white Fish fillets. What would you suggest?”
 She: “Ummm… I don’t know, what do you feel like trying??”

 Not helpful!! I also had a minor freak out at handing over $14 for two Fish fillets (I had better not leave half of this stuck on my frypan!) but I had heard that Fish was Expensive.  I had another minor freak out during cooking as I couldn’t tell when the fillets were cooked through (and I didn’t want to ruin and waste this precious Fish!) but I did the sneaky (and I’m sure big culinary no-no) of Cutting it To Check. And it was delicious.  And light. And healthy (served with a side salad). And a Success. Hooray!
 Next up was Salmon Teriyaki Noodles (from Delicious Magazine), which was a big step for me as I wasn’t even sure that I liked salmon! I figured that the sauce would help if I wasn’t a big fan of the taste, and I could always eat the noodles and veges. With a pep talk from my salmon-loving girlfriend (Don’t overcook it! Put a saucepan lid over your frypan to help it cook through!) combined with a bit of info I gleaned from Huey’s Cooking Adventures (which just happened to be on the TV in our waiting room when I was waiting for a fax) I felt I had the skills to make it work (or at least not totally destroy it).

 I purchased pre-packaged salmon from Coles so I knew I had the right weight and the right cut. I had enough oil in the pan this time and so only a few little pieces stuck, and it was only at the thickest part of the fillet that it wasn’t totally cooked through when I took it off the heat, which I remedied by popping those pieces back in the middle of the fry pan for a few minutes before mixing it in with the rest of the noodles. Sneaky!!
 Again – delicious. Again light and tasty (and healthy) – and I like salmon! Double Hooray!!

 To go in a different direction, I chose Crispy Fish Sliders (from Simple Dinners) next. This was more of your traditional batter-and-fry type of Fish dish, which I thought was a good skill to acquire, just in case anyone ever caught Something and expected me to cook it for them. It was a very simple batter, quite amenable to becoming a beer batter which is good to know.
 I had issues again with the oil/frypan combo, so a few of my fillets ended up in little pieces rather than whole fillets; I may not have had my oil hot enough when I started cooking (damn electric cooktop!). And still with the sticking to the pan thing! I might need to invest in another good quality non-stick frypan….

 Still, once the Fish was in a roll with some roasted garlic aioli and lettuce, it was yum and it didn’t matter whether there were Fish fillets or pieces.  So three from three (and one very pleased Hubby).
 Last on my To Try style of Fish cooking was a stew – Spanish Fish Stew (again from Delicious) to be precise…. which was quite nice and simple to cook (throw the Fish pieces in the flavoured liquid and simmer for 5 minutes) and no chance of it sticking to a tricky frypan! I think I might grow to like that cooking style…..

 So it now gives me great pride to state that I Can Cook Fish.

 And I will continue to Cook Fish! Like a sesame crusted salmon … or a Thai-style baked Fish … or a Fish Curry … or Popcorn Shrimp! (I know it’s not really “Fish” but it sound so yummy).

 Bring It On.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Oil is Thicker Than Water (or "Learning to Fry")

  Another First at the weekend – my first foray into deep-frying

 I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to jump into the frying pan (so to speak).  Growing up, a family barbeque was never complete without my dad’s deep fried roast potatoes, cooked in a wok of oil on a burner next to the hotplate (soooo good). Maybe it was that very effective ad from my childhood about Don’t Leave Fat Unattended (“oh my god! The Chips!!” **); or the yearly fire training I had to do through work which always talked about house fires in such vivid detail (which is why I bought a fire blanket for my kitchen). Plus, deep frying food is very bad for your health isn’t it?? The only person that I knew who had a deep fryer in their house (and used it to fry up chips as a snack) was not someone whose dietary advice I would generally take. And there are always horror stories about children being burned after pulling down saucepans from cooktops; didn’t they used to pour boiling oil from the ramparts of castles in the Middle Ages?? And what do you do with the oil afterwards?? Seems like such a waste to throw it out, and do you put it in the bin or down the sink or buried in the backyard – eeeek!!!
  You can kind of see what type of knot I was tying myself into.
 But it was beginning to restrict my culinary experimentation. It just started as the odd recipe here and there for, say salt and pepper calamari that I passed on. Then Delicious had a cover recipe for deep-fried ravioli that Hubby expressed a desire for me to cook (it did look amazing).  And of course Jamie’s America had a whole heap of Southern Fried food – chicken of course, but also hush puppies (little savoury donuts) and churros. Then this was compounded with the Lonely Planet Street Food cookbook which also has loads of fried Asian found as well as every culture's take on The Doughnut.

 So what was a scared little cook to do?
 Luckily, salvation was close at hand, even closer than I had realised. Having dinner with Brother 1 and Sister-in-Law, he cooked Turkish delight doughnuts for dessert – and did it all while I was watching.

 The kitchen didn’t catch on fire.
 He wasn’t hideously scarred.
 He was able to talk and chat while it was going on.
 And they tasted delicious. Nay, amazing.
 So this got me thinking that, really, how hard could it be??. Brother 1 used to work on the fryer during his days as a chef/cook type-person, so he did have a bit of experience when it came to the Oil and the Cooking. We chatted about the How To’s and such, before he dropped this pearl of wisdom: “…. and you’ve got an electric cooktop, so there’s no chance of the vapour catching on fire”.


Suddenly this was becoming something that was easily achievable, as well as a bit exciting. New foods to cook and experiment with – huzzar!!!

 First stop was the purchase of a liquid thermometer to check the oil temperature; I always found the “drop in a piece of bread/potato and if it browns in 30 seconds it’s the right temperature” a bit faffy to my scientific brain. Then a litre of (heart tick approved) canola oil. I already had a wok skimmer from my pretzel making, so I was set

 But what to cook? The First of anything should be memorable (if possible, and for good reasons not bad). As there was already the request for deep friend ravioli, I thought we would start with that. And then the main course came about through another story.

 During Hubby’s recent time-off-work, he took himself on an Adventure into the Queen Victoria Market. He had become a connoisseur of our local Farmer’s Markets, trying cheeses and other yummy bits and pieces. So the deli hall was a bit of a Mecca for him. Apart from some amazing French soft cheeses,   and an ultra-grainy multigrain bread, he also spent some time at one of the game meat sellers, who could have given him rabbit, goat and venison if he chose. He chose crocodile, which he has tried before, but not on the BBQ. He was only able to get some tail, which is apparently not the best part of the croc, but luckily it was exactly the cut suggested in Jamie Oliver’s Popcorn Gator (Jamie’s America).  Double prizes!

 So at the weekend, I barred the kitchen door (to stop little children running through the kitchen) and put my oil onto heat up. The deep friend ravioli was very simple; cheese ravioli dipped in buttermilk, dipped in panko breadcrumbs. I think I had the oil up a bit hot as they cooked fairly quickly, but I had it right for the last batch, where the ravioli puffed up just like if would in boiling water. (I learnt that if you have your electric cooktop up flat chat to heat up a pot of oil, it does take a while to stabilise at the right temperature once you drop the heat back).

 And then onto the popcorn croc/gator. Again, ridiculously easy to prepare – drop chunks of croc in some seasoned flour, into buttermilk, then back into the flour. I heated the oil up more slowly this time and they took the required 2-3 minutes to cook through. Then drained them on some paper towel,  sprinkled with some Murray river salt and served with a quinoa salad! (I thought we should balance out all the frying with a good helping of healthy greens).

 And the result? Delicious. Crocodile tastes like chicken (doesn’t everything) but a little bit tougher. But the covering was light and reminded me of mini chicken bites. (in fact, it reminded me of Popplers for any of you Futurama fans out there. Perhaps that’s not such a good thing…)

 So yum and so quick! No burnt cook, no burnt kitchens and one very happy Hubby. Bit if a mess to clean up where the oil had spattered, but nothing worse than a usual fry up with sausages or bacon. And I strained the oil through a tea strainer to use, maybe once or twice more before throwing out and buying more! Tick, tick, tick!

 So two big thumbs up for my first Fry Off.  I got over my fear as well as creating a great new summer dish with the Wow factor for barbecues.

The only problem now is which churro recipe to try next?? (I decided not to follow our meal with churros for dessert; too much fry can not always be a good thing). As I only tried churros and hot chocolate for the first time a few months back, I was enthused about creating them at home.  I have a Lonely Planet and a Jamie’s America recipe to choose from. Hmmm – maybe I’ll decide which hot chocolate will taste nicer and go from there (and then go forma  big run around the block) Fabuloso!

** In my quest for Blog Integrity, I had a look for the ad, and it was actually for an insurance company! For those who didn’t grow up in the 1980’s, this is probably a good reason and to why I was so hesitant to fry!

In other culinary adventures, I made bagels at the weekend.

 At one of my previous addresses, we lived near Glicks’ bakery, home of about 10 different types of bagels. I used to drop in there every few weeks and stock up on a bagful of sesame seed or poppy seed bagels for lunches, as well as the odd blueberry or cinnamon and raisin for breakfast. They were always super fresh and super yummy. But since moving away, the bagels have been few and far between. We found a baker at one of our Farmer’s Market who sold lovely small ones which were perfect for Son 1’s school lunch, but otherwise, we were lumped with the expensive intermittent supply from a deli at Chadstone.

 Until I popped into Thomas Dux the other week to get some spice supplies (to make Chai tea from scratch, but more about that when I’ve sourced all of the spices!). Sitting in a tub at the front were bags of Glick’s bagels, just waiting to take home and slather with cream cheese. O Joy! O Rapture! They were happily devoured by the Family, which got me thinking – I have made pretzels successfully, surely bagels can’t be that more difficult? In fact they are possibly easier due to their no-twist shape. So after a quick Google search I found a recipe ( and with a quiet Saturday in my hands, I gave them a go.

 And I was right – just as easy as making pretzels, but without the rolling-twisting. And she was right, they tasted Ah-mazing out of the oven.  So I very much look forward to putting together some of my own cinnamon and raisin bagels for those I Don’t Want Cereal But Can’t Be Bothered Cooking Something breakfasts. Exxxxcellent
Pre boil.....

  Straight out of the oven and ready to eat - yum!

Tuesday, 10 July 2012


 Hubby pointed out to me a few months back, that in our group of friends, we have three couples where one half is from overseas and now living in Australia. “We should get them together so they can chat about it” say he. Brilliant Idea thinks me who will use any excuse for a dinner party-catch-up, especially a themed one. And so the ExPats dinner was born.

 And after much planning and co-ordinating of schedules it finally happened at the weekend.

 So what do you cook when you have and Englishman, Frenchman and an American come over for dinner? A little bit of “home” for each of them. Which I thought would be super easy when I had that flash of inspiration, but it turned out to be a bit trickier than I thought.

 Some parts were a no-brainer; my Frenchman friends loves Madeleines as well as gougeres (which are these lovely cheese puffs made with gruyere cheese), so they were first onto the menu. As it was scheduled for a cold weekend in July, I though Boeuf Bourguignon would be lovely and hearty (and not require too much last minute fiddling once my guests had arrived), and what goes better with beef but Yorkshire puddings?!?! Two countries down, America to go. I scanned through my well-thumbed copy of Jamie's America, but was a bit short on Inspiration, apart from Would You Like Fries With That??  I was leaning towards a Waldorf salad to counter the heavy beef and pudding, but then a girlfriend suggested Mac N Cheese. Admittedly a bit carb heavier than I would have liked, but I had cooked it several times before (which was something I was trying to do with this dinner – usually I will use a dinner party to try new recipes. But with 8 to cook for I thought I would be a bit sensible and Stick with What I Know) AND it was a Cook Earlier and Leave dish; also one of my criteria (I do so like to chat and drink with my guests once they arrive and not be stuck in the kitchen if I can avoid it!). So that was locked in until my American’s Wife sent me a list of Thing to Cook (“… but we won't come without bringing a dish... So you have to choose one of the seven options!) – bless her, she knows that I like to do it all myself! And wouldn’t you know it, but number one was “Yam/Sweet Potato Casserole (Mom's Recipe)”.

 How could I resist? Something I had only heard of an American TV shows made to an authentic American recipe!  (and something that I didn’t have to cook). So main course was set.

 Dessert was tricky more for the overabundance of choices – did I go for an English pudding like sticky date or jam roly poly? Could I go all gourmet and do Crepe Suzette? Or go the Apple Pie route? Madeleines were already decided as part of the dessert/with coffee course, and I had planned to make a New York Cheesecake for an earlier dinner then hadn’t eventuated so I still had a bit of a craving for that. But what to cook that was English that wouldn’t be as filling as a pudding? I figured after three courses we might not want something too heavy. Luckily I took inspiration from Wimbledon and chose scones with jam and cream. Simple but effective.

 So we were looking pretty good with two courses sorted, with lots of “here’s one we prepared earlier” components. Only entrée was causing issues. Can you think of a traditional English entrée? I couldn’t either. I googled it, I emailed my english friends all to no avail. Prawn cocktail was the only thing I could find, and I had already earmarked that for my American entrée as “shrimp cocktail”. In desperation I was going to open a packet of crisps, when I changed tack and decided to make pretzels as the American entree. I had enjoyed making them a while ago and thought I may have solved the Turning Them Over in the Pot of Boiling Water dilemma (solution: a wok skimmer – brilliant!!). So I grabbed some traditional American Mustard (ironically called “French’s) to serve them with, as well as some Baconnaise, which I had picked up the last time I was at my USA Food store  (which really deserves its own heading. It is bacon-flavoured mayonnaise, which is crazy enough and falls nicely into the Only in America category; along with cinnamon or dark chocolate flavoured peanut butter. But when we got it home and read the blurb on the back, it is also kosher and safe for vegetarians. How they get it to taste so deliciously bacon-y is beyond me, but it a revelation with hot chips).

So I had confirmation from all 4 couples (except for our Frenchman who had a late-planned trip to Paris) and began the Expats Dinner Cooking Timetable (which I had mapped out earlier in the week – did someone say OCD???).

 Friday night saw the marinating of the beef for the bourguignon and cooking the NY Cheesecake (which conveniently needed to be refrigerated overnight). Saturday morning saw the making of the pretzels (with its long rising periods) interspersed with making madeleines, scones and gougeres. The pretzels need a super-hot oven, so I baked them before lowering the oven to 160’c for the bourguignon.

 Then cleaned up and set the table (appropriately themed in red white and blue) and waited or my guests to arrive.

 I had instructed each couple to bring alcoholic beverages from their country of origin, so we started off with some lovely  English ales (at room temperature of course!) followed by an earnest discussion of the differences between English, Australian and American beer. While they all chatted about the long involved process that is organising a Spousal Visa and munched on gougeres and (extra thick) pretzles (as they had fallen apart easily last time I tried to make them thicker, but they rose properly this time so were very thick! Still delicious and fluffy but still not that distinctive pretzel look. Third time will be the charm), I assembled the prawn cocktail. As it was one of three entrees which would be followed by two other large-ish courses, I opted for a smaller version and did them in shot glasses. Which looked very effective.

But a bit fiddly to eat. I did try and source some small forks or the like and had toothpicks on hand, but to make it a real finger food I’d probably remove the tails on the prawns (so you could eat it all in one large mouthful if you were feeling reckless) of have some eating tools on hand. But I think everyone’s appreciation of how cool they looked overshadowed any problems with the eating. Phew!

 Main course brought about the anxiety of cooking Yorkshire puddings for an Englishman. I hadn’t thought much of it until chatting with my girlfriend who  mentioned she had “finally perfected her Yorkies”.

 She had been in England for 8 years.

 This was a sobering thought as this was one component of dinner that I had not made previously. Plus when I tried to find a recipe online, I realised that there are Many, with lots of variations. The first one I tried turned out too crisp and almost biscuity with a hard shell; not at all suitable for soaking up roast beef juices. Luckily the next one I tried was from my trusty PWMU cookbook, which is my Go To for all Old recipes. They were soft and fluffy and perfect – hooray! And the Englishman gave his thumbs up too. Score!
 Main course was also the debut of the yam casserole!! I had by this stage worked out that Americans called sweet potatoes Yams so I thought it would be a variation on mashed or scalloped potato. Which it kind of was but with an American twist: mashed sweet potato with a pecan nut crumble topping. And marshmallows around the edge. Baked in the oven.

 Only in America.

 I found it quite yum but we all agreed that it was very sweet (especially when drinking  lovely French Burgundy) and would probably have been suited better as a dessert. But still a great cultural exchange, and a bit of an insight into why they have pumpkin pie for desert on thanksgiving.

 So all in all, a fantastic night with some fantastic people from all around the world. I managed to use every mixing bowl in my kitchen (some twice), 5 different cookbooks (Delicious Sweet, Lonely Planet Street Food, A Little Taste of...France, PWMU and my own personal recipe book) and about 4 loads through the dishwasher. But not lose my cool or have chaos rear its ugly head which has happened before in the arena of Dinner Party Cooking.

 And it was hopefully a little piece of home for our ExPats, and feeling of You’re Not Alone.

Next up? A cocktail party from around the world. I have been wanting to make a Sazerac for ages (one more ingredient to go), my girlfriend feel in love with Champagne Soup when she was in France, and our American friend spent time in Brazil and can make a mean caipirinha. And the other countries we will have fun researching.


Sunday, 27 May 2012

Left Over but not Left Behind

 In these Austere and Dire financial times, there has been the swing back to the good ol’ days of making like the Oldies did. From knitting circles to slow cookers (for those cheaper cuts of meat), everyone seems to be following the ol’ Waste No Want Not mantra.
I have always been a fan of this way of thinking. Whether it was being brought up in the We Are The World era (“eat your dinner – there are children starving in Africa!”), or grandparents who lived through the Depression (and would still buy the largest size of everything “because it’s better value” even when there was only the two of them that would take 5 years to get through a catering sized tin of coffee), I’ve always been one to look at the weekly supermarket specials before deciding what we’re going to eat that week. The Buy in Bulk and Save option also appeals, but I haven’t succumbed to the allure of Costco yet (not enough storage room for 50 rolls of toilet paper). But this Popping it Aside for Later can backfire a little; especially when you do a freezer clean out and find 8 chicken fillets and not the mince you were relying on for dinner.  Also, being a family with 2 grown-ups and two kiddies (of intermittent fickle eating habits), I rarely cook a full recipe’s worth as most feed 6-8. So I find my freezer accumulates things like half a can of chopped tomatoes, or 250g pkts of mince and 350mls stock. So I do try to periodically Cook From the Freezer; get rid of all these odds and ends before I buy another  “oooh, but that’s good value for ……”.

 One other frugal way of cooking I have embraced in the last few weeks is the area of Left Overs. By this I don’t mean using roast veges for Bubble and Squeak (whatever that is exactly – seems like such an old English dish. And then I saw that you could buy it from the freezer section of the supermarket, which (from what I understand) is the exact opposite of what it should be), or Christmas ham in a thousand different ways over the summer holidays; but the little bits and pieces that you buy specifically for a recipe but don’t always use it all. It can lead you in all sorts of weird and wonderful directions, and becomes almost like a family tree (Abraham begat Isaac. Isaac begat Jacob. Jacob begat Judah etc).
 Let me use last weeks’ menu to demonstrate.

 At the weekend we had a dozen eggs (the wonderful side benefit from having lovely chickens) so I made a Frittata (Vineyard Cookbook – Josef Chromy Vineyard inTas), which gave me left over….
  • Zucchini, which combined with some leftover mince from the freezer made Porcupine Meatballs (PMWU Cookbook, which I’m sure would have a Bubble and Squeak recipe)
  • Cream and mushrooms, which led to an amped up Chicken and Porcini papardelle (Donna Hay “Simple Dinners” – and I actually used penne as I had an open half packet in the pantry – score!)

  •   Pesto, which I will use at the weekend for Chicken and Pesto Risotto (called “Hulk-sotto” in our house because it’s all green)

  • Red capsicum, who joined the green capsicum already in the fridge to make Quesadillas (“Jamies Dinner” Jamie Oliver) – which gave me left over roast chicken for some delicious sandwiches, as well as spring onions (I always have left over spring onions – why can’t you buy them individually?? I even looked at planting some in my garden. Though I did read somewhere that you can plant store-bought ones in the garden and that keeps them fresh for longer. Thankfully my Tupperware keeps them slime-free for a good few weeks)

 I then cooked (from scratch, no leftovers were involed in the cooking of this dish) Beef in Guinness with Dumplings (Vineyard Cookbook, Skillogalee Winery in SA)) on Saturday night for some friends who came over for dinner.  The recipe made a mountain of savoury dumplings (which was my first use of Suet!), meaning I was on the lookout for a beef dish with gravy/sauce to make use of the 40 odd I had left over. I settled on Southern Sausage Stew (“Jamie’s America” Jamie Oliver) and used the dumplings instead of the boiled rice that the dish called for. Which went brilliantly well, but (you guessed it) gave me left over green, red, yellow capsicum and celery; which I am happily going to use to make Gumbo (again “Jamie’s America) this weekend, as it will also use chorizo and bacon and clear up more freezer space!

 Now the jury is probably out on whether all of this Using Left Overs is really saving money as I usually need to pick up and ingredient or two, which, like yesterday at the Farmer’s Market can lead to it being three or four or nine (The Smoked Bacon man was there- I had to pick some up!!). But is certainly gets your brain thinking in different ways and cooking meals you may not have. Which, is never a bad thing.

  And as I am not one of those cooks who can stand at the fridge/pantry and conjure up a meal from random bits and pieces, I must say how much I love the trend in cook books to list recipes by ingredients (thankyou Delicious, Donna Hay and Jamie Oliver). In fact I have taken this even further and have created my own “What to Do With Extra….” Notebook (nerd alert!), where I list ingredients and recipes that can use them. So I know that when I have left-over roast chicken from a lunch date, that I can look forward to Mulligatawny Soup, or an Asian Omelette.

 Or perhaps just pop it in the freezer for Next Time.

PS – made another “Street Food” recipe at the weekend: Zapiekanka, which is a Polish open baguette sandwich with sautéed mushrooms, ham and cheese which is then grilled. Needless to say, it was awesome, even before slathering on ketchup and mayonnaise.
 Na zdrowie!! (or not – if you ate them every day J)

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Fat is Phat!

 Another cooking “first” at the weekend, and this time it wasn’t an exotic Asian ingredient or a weird spice, but cooking with lard.
 Which brought up a few issues.
 Firstly – what exactly is it? I knew it belonged to the Olden Days Cooking Ingredients group, with things like dripping and suet. So I called my grandmother who, apart from being a fantastic cook in the CWA vein (she taught me how to make a fabulous lemon meringue pie, and her Yo Yo’s and apple slice are family get-together staples), always regaled me with stories of Sunday night supper of “bread and dripping”; very weird and exotic sounding to a 6 year old, and I could never shake off the image that they were eating candle wax drippings….

 However she was unsure, as she hadn’t cooked with it either. She knew that Dripping was animal fat but didn’t know what made it different from lard. So off to the other receptacle of culinary wisdom – Wikipedia. Apparently, dripping is traditionally beef fat, while lard is pork fat.
 Good to know.

 The second issue was getting my head around cooking with Lard. Brought up as I have been in a health and diet conscious time, the idea of using LARD!! did worry me a little. Wasn’t there a low-fat –low-cholesterol-healthier-alternative available? Was I going to end up looking like the Stay Pufft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters? Was I condemning us to early-age bypass surgery?

 However as I had cooked gnocchi carbonara the week before, with fried pancetta, a cup of cream and gnocchi fried in butter, I put it in the same “it’s not an everyday meal” category.

 Third was where to source it. I knew from the yearly articles on How to Make the Best Plum Pudding, that suet was the way to go and it usually had to be ordered specially from a butcher. Luckily for me, Lard can be found at your local Coles fridge section, right next to dripping and duck fat.
 Which did get me thinking about all of the different fats and oils that are around I n these health conscious times. Growing up, there was always a large bottle of Crisco vegetable oil in the cupboard which was used for everything (except roast potatoes, for which mum used a lard/dripping/meat fat combo that had been poured off from previous roast dinners and left t o solidify in a special crockery pot in the fridge). However as I went to put my packet of lard in the butter conditioner of the fridge, I had to move aside the copha (for chocolate crackles), the butter (for one of life’s simple pleasures;  fresh white bread sandwiches ) and put it in top of the ghee (for certain Asian dishes). Thankfully the duck fat sits on the top shelf or we would have been in real trouble.  And that’s without even looking at my Oils and Sauces shelf, which is comparatively simple at the moment with just olive oil (lite and spray versions), sesame oil (again with the asian cooking) and chilli oil (for dumplings). But it has been host in the recent past to macadamia and grapeseed oil (great for salad dressings) as well as peanut and sunflower oil (for frying). All this from a group that is technically not considered a Food. They sit up there at the top of the food pyramid thinking they’re important when actually its just because they don’t fit in anywhere else. They must have a great time in their therapy group.

 And speaking of therapy – what is with “Extra Virgin” olive oil, or EVOO as some (annoying) foodies call it. Isn’t being extra virgin like being extra pregnant – you either are or you aren’t? Sol was right – oils ain’t oils.

 But back to Lard. Why was I starting down this shadowy path which could end in deep fried Mars bars and Elvis style cooking?  Because of a new cookbook (why else?!?).
 Lonely Planet’s “The Best Street Food – where to find it and how to make it” had arrived in Husband’s store and make a very quick trip to my kitchen. It’s  great fun read with entries from all around the world: churros from Spain, Brik from Tunsia and breakfast burritos from USA (Australia’s contribution was  meat pie) as well as more exotic entries such as ‘walkie talkies” from Africa – which are boiled chicken heads and feet (geddit?)

 My first recipe tried was for choripans from Argentina, which were a chorizo sausage hot dog with a tabouleh-like topping. Delicious! But I had my eye on the Baozi from China, which are the steamed pork buns that were always my favourite at yum cha. So I took out my lard (“for perfect pastry and baking”) and set to it.

 It’s a weird substance; almost pure white, very soft and almost fluffy like. Not surprisingly, it reminded me of an episode of The Goodies where Tim ate scoops of this weird looking white stuff and subsequently got very fat. It had to be melted before mixing with the flour and yeast, and did take a bit of heating to melt. It didn’t seem to have any distinct flavour either way, and although my pastry wasn’t the “ fluffy white cumulus” that the book described, I think that was more due to there not being a step to activate the yeast (which I will try the next time I make them). However they still were delicious – the pork filling was sweet and savoury at the same time. Not exactly as I remember from the Tai Pan in Doncaster, but I think it is one of those recipes that the filling ingredients will vary from place to place and are passed on only to a Sacred Few. But I can add baozi to my praw and shitake dumplings and fresh spring rolls for the makings of a delightful asian banquet.
Pastry "circles" ready for their filling
Crimped and ready for rising

 And as I had the book out (and a public holiday with not much else to do), I thoughts I’d give pretzels a go!

 Growing up, pretzels were the small chip-style things that were always “making me thirsty!” A few years ago the large baked pretzel stands started popping up, giving us a whole new take on The Pretzel. These were what I was hoping to make with the entry from USA. Their fat of choice was Butter, which was rubbed into the flour to make the dough, and then followed the usual rise, shape, rise, cook process of many baked goods; so deceptively easy to perform but very difficult to master! Being my first time I experimented a bit with the thickness of the dough rolls to work out what would hold their shape the best through the double rise-boil-bake process. They didn’t seem to be as elastic as I liked (but then I probably didn’t knead them for long enough) and I tried a few ways to flip the risen bagels over in the pot of boiling water with limited success. I remember visiting a 24hr bagel baker y in London many years ago and I recalled massive vats of simmering liquid with long wooden staff like utensils; much like the wash women of old used. But I could be remembering something completely different….

 However I did manage to get a few out of the pot and onto the cooking tray all in one piece; the thicker pretzels seemed to fare better but they all were a bit weak at the ‘twist points’.  A smattering of parmesan or Murray River salt for variety, and then baked in a super-hot oven. As you can see, mine didn’t have the smooth sheen of the ones in the shops, but they still managed to have the “crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside “ quality that the book extolled. Taking their advice, I ate mine with mustard on the side for dipping, as well as aioli, which I’m discovering goes pretty well with everything savoury!
Thick versus thin
boiling ... and falling apart
Pretzel flipping utensils - none passed the test
Post-boil prezel pieces, glazed and ready to bake
Out of the oven, looking vaguely pretzel-ish

 So now I’m off to decide where in the world I will send my tastebuds travelling next…..