Sunday, June 26, 2016

Variations on a fishy theme

A while ago I posted a recipe for Mediterranean fish bake (best to have a look at that before you go on reading this).  I said then that the recipe was only approximate, and that the key ingredients were the fish, potatoes, peppers and olives.
         I proved to myself this week that it was indeed very flexible, and that the olives can be changed for other things. The local New World, whose fish counter has recently taken a leap forward, had very nice-looking trevally, the same fish as I used last time, for only $16 a kg. I already had some Agria potatoes (which have been turning up loose at very good prices recently) and I also had some similarly cheap kumara (yellow - I don't like the orange ones, they remind me too much of pumpkin, which I can eat only in the form of soup or pumpkin pie). I had a tin of artichokes, too, and one of sweetcorn kernels, as well as some nice little orange peppers and the usual onions and garlic.
          So I set about creating the bake again, only with variations. This time I didn't even bother to slice the potatoes thinly. Instead I cut them, and a couple of kumara, into smallish chunks, about 2 cm square, sort of. Then I put them into a wide, shallow baking tin, mixed them with the oil, miso stock and white wine (see original recipe) and cooked them for 30 minutes at 200C. The original recipe says 200C turned down to 180C, but this time I wasn't going to cook them as long overall, because I'd managed to eliminate a couple of steps.
           While the potatoes and kumara were cooking, I microwaved the onion and sliced pepper (using the "fresh veges" button) and set them aside, then cut the thick trevally into chunks, sliced up a few artichokes and drained the corn kernels. For extra greens, I cut up some broccoli and got that ready to microwave separately.
            Once the potatoes and kumara were almost done, I strewed (I like that word, it has a fine Elizabethan ring to it) the cooked peppers and onions and corn, which I'd mixed into them, over the top, then added the artichokes and fish and a little more seasoning. The colours looked really good together - trevally is a lovely deep rose-pink.


Then I put it all back in the oven for about 10 minutes. That was enough to heat all the veges through and cook the fish. So it took rather less time and fewer steps than the original recipe. I deliberately made enough to do two nights - while I really do like cooking, it's still very nice to have a tasty one-dish meal that needs only gentle heating, and in this case microwaving a bit more broccoli.


As Rosemary, who gave me this recipe, says, it's really more of a method than a recipe. I'm sure I'll be able to come up with equally delicious new variations in future.
         By the way, there was a little bit left over from the second night. I had it fried up for breakfast, with a poached egg on top - potato, fish and egg, always a brilliant breakfast combo.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Veering towards vegetables

Several things have combined lately to give me a push towards vegetables. I have no intention of becoming vegetarian - I really like well-cooked meat.
          Although I've always been a townie, I was brought up on the great Kiwi tradition that no matter what form it took, animal protein was the star of the evening meal, and quite often of breakfast and lunch as well.  Harvey grew up on a sheep farm where they often did have meat for breakfast, dinner (meaning lunch) and tea (both in his home and mine, it was never called dinner). He used to tell the story of a visiting correspondence school teacher who announced that she was a vegetarian, completely disconcerting and baffling his mother, who had no idea what to give her for lunch.
          The wonderful Gallery of Regrettable Food captures the iconic status of meat in the 1950s perfectly in the caption to this remarkably unappetising photo, from the Better Homes and Gardens Meat Cookbook.


When decorating your meal, make sure to arrange the onions in the shape of Peter Lorre's face. It's steak a la Ugarte! Garnish with small, inedible onions.
WARNING! The carrots here are not to be eaten. Your manly meat-a-rifficness will diminish if you eat the carrots. Vegetables are for commies.
For years I haven't eaten nearly as much meat as my parents did. But lately I seem to keep reading and hearing perfectly sensible, non-vegetarian people urging me to eat less of it, for a whole host of good reasons. Various kinds of damage are done by large-scale meat production, especially based on grain, and these will get exponentially worse as the newly prosperous want to eat  more of it. While eating red meat is the easiest (and tastiest) way to get iron and essential B vitamins, we don't need to eat much of it to get enough. Then there's the constantly repeated injunction to eat more vegetables, for our health's sake. Michael Pollen nailed it: "Eat food. Not too much. Mainly Plants."
          And of course there's the cost of buying it.  If we routinely ate less meat, it should be possible to ensure that it's sustainably and humanely and yes, affordably produced - and we would appreciate it more.
          For some months now I've had my son living here. The years he spent in China have inclined him to enjoy veges much more than he used to. Both of us have to be a bit more careful not to over-eat, because we just don't need large amounts of food now.  A few years ago, suddenly noticing the inevitable results of a good deal of comfort eating (and drinking) after Harvey died, I managed to lose a considerable amount of weight (which hasn't come back). It dawned on me then that for the most part (and provided they aren't slathered in butter and/or sugar), fruits and veges are generally low-calorie - so you can eat a lot of them without fretting.
           Anyway, all of this has made me think about how to shift the way I think about dinner, veering away from the meat and towards the veges, so they become, at the very least, the co-stars. But it's not easy to make this change. There's the problem, too, of keeping a good range of veges on hand for your clever creations without half of them going off.
            I'd love to hear from other people who've tackled this problem and successfully managed to cut down their meat consumption without giving it up altogether, while still producing delicious dinners that bear no resemblance whatsoever to the surreal horror of the vegetables featuring on the Gallery of Regrettable Food. Here's the fearsome Jello Creation.





Sunday, May 22, 2016

A gift of passionfruit




Growing up in Auckland, I took passionfruit for granted. My parents always had a luxuriant vine. Not so in Wellington - last time I looked, they were $34.95 a kilo. But I have a very clever and generous friend with her own four vines. Last year they produced 800 fruit, and they're doing very well this year too.
      For my birthday last week, I made Harvey's favourite: passionfruit jelly. He had discovered the recipe in Lois Daish's A Good Year, and always made it for his birthday. In his last year he asked me to make it for him. I'd seen passionfruit in Moore Wilson a few weeks earlier, but it seemed too soon to buy them. By the time I went back, there weren't any, and I've always felt guilty about disappointing him. So making it this year was a kind of expiation. It's a beautifully delicate dessert which needs no adornment at all.

Passionfruit jelly

Adapted very slightly from Lois Daish. Serves 4.

8 ripe passionfruit
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups water
1 tablespoon powered gelatine

- Halve the fruit and scoop out the pulp into a small saucepan. Add the sugar and water. Bring slowly to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes, until the sugar has dissolved and the passionfruit pulp has loosened from the seeds.
- Remove from the heat and sprinkle on the gelatine. Stir well until the gelatine has dissolved.
- Put a fine sieve over a bowl or, preferably, a small Pyrex measuring jug. Strain the mixture through the sieve to catch the seeds and any tough membranes.
- Either measure the liquid or see what it measures in the jug. If needed, add water to make the quantity up to 2 cups.
- Pour into a small crystal serving bowl, or individual small (preferably glass) bowls or parfait glasses. Leave to set overnight in a cool place. (If you're a bit pressed for time, cool it then set it in the fridge with a bit of clingwrap over it, so that no other fridge flavours intrude on it. If you do it in the fridge, remove a little before serving so it won't be too cold.) It will be a little cloudy, but that doesn't matter at all.




Sunday, May 1, 2016

Roast sirloin and Yorkshire pudding

For months my neighbour Frances has been talking nostalgically about the roast sirloin of her childhood.  So last week I finally got organised to cook her one. We ordered it at the excellent Gipps St butcher, and she came with me to pay for it and check that it was what she wanted. 
       I'd never cooked a rolled sirloin roast before, and I don't think I'd ever eaten one. As I wrote in The Colour of Food, in my childhood roast beef always meant "a round of chewy beef [probably brisket] criss-crossed with wooden skewers and tied up with string". Only in recent years did we start having roast fillet.  So I was a bit nervous about cooking this magnificent beast, aged for 18 days.


I took advice from the butcher and the internet, where I found very useful instructions from a London restaurant, and adapted them. To make sure it tasted as much as possible like Frances's childhood roast, I used salt only and seared the meat in dripping.

Rolled roast sirloin
1. Take roast out of fridge at least 2 hours before cooking, so that it's at room temperature when it goes into the oven.
2. Pre-heat oven to 180C, fan cook.
3. Season well with garlic, thyme and salt. 
4. Get a roasting pan smoking hot.
5. Sear in hot pan [with a little dripping to keep it old-school] until coloured all over. (2-3 mins approx).
6. Place on oven tray in pre-heated oven. Turn oven down to 170C fan cook for desired time (see below).
7. Rest, uncovered, on a warm plate (not too hot to touch) for at least 20 mins before serving.

Timing
The timing is always the trickiest bit. I usually like my beef rarish or medium rare, but in this case, I knew Frances would prefer medium, and of course sirloin is different from fillet. 
        Our sirloin weighed 2.1 kg. My meat thermometer gives an internal temperature of 71C for medium beef. It took about an hour and three-quarters to go a little over that, but the meat was still spurting reddish blood when I took the thermometer out. So I consulted with Frances's daughter, who came to dinner along with two other neighbours, and we agreed that it needed a little longer. I gave it 5 minutes more and that did the trick - it was about 77C by then. 


It rested for half an hour, loosely covered in foil, while I made the Yorkshire puddings (recipe below). When I carved it (so easy with a rolled roast) it was exactly what I wanted: the inner slices a very pale pink, the outer ones perfect for Frances and others who preferred it medium. 


She got the outside end, of course - as you can see, it was quite crusty and brown. When she took her first bite she said "Oh joy!" So I knew I'd got it right. 


With it, courtesy of my other neighbours, we drank two bottles of beautiful 2008 Trinity Hill syrah which they'd given me a few years ago, and I'd kept for just such a worthy occasion.
         Frances really appreciated the Yorkshire pudding, too. My first husband came from Yorkshire and his mother Marion taught me to make it properly, but I hadn't done it for years. 
          Again, I found the perfect recipe, matching everything I remembered, on the internet - and I did use dripping. (Yes, I know it's bad for you, but once a year is not going to matter.) As this requires a high oven temperature, I made it at the end, after I took out the meat and veges (all very trad - potatoes, onions, carrots, broccoli).

Yorkshire puddings

4 large eggs (200 g)
150 g all-purpose flour (about 1 cup plus 2 teaspoons)
200 ml trim milk
2 g salt (about 1/2 teaspoon)
100 ml beef dripping, lard, shortening, or vegetable oil (about 1/2 cup)


1. Combine eggs, flour, milk, water, and salt in a medium bowl and whisk until a smooth batter is formed. Let batter rest at room temperature for at least 30 minutes. Alternatively, for best results, transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate batter overnight or for up to 3 days. Remove from refrigerator while you preheat the oven.



I made the batter the day before and put it into an empty soda bottle, allowing me to pour it easily into the muffin wells. It doesn't look like much, but it did 8 puddings and would have been enough for 9 or 10 less exuberant ones.

2. Adjust oven rack to center position and preheat oven to 450°F (230°C). Divide drippings (or other fat) evenly between two 8-inch cast iron or oven-safe non-stick skillets, two 6-well popover tins, one 12-well standard muffin tin, or one 24-well mini muffin tin. Preheat tins in the oven until the fat is smoking hot, about 10 minutes.  (This is the crucial bit that I remember Marion teaching me.)

3. Transfer the pans or tins to a heat-proof surface (such as an aluminum baking sheet on your stovetop), and divide the batter evenly between every well (or between the two pans if using pans). The wells should be filled between 1/2 and 3/4 of the way up (if using large pans, they should be filled about 1/4 of the way up). 
I used a 12-well muffin tin - this amount of batter makes about 9 or 10 puddings, but I overfilled my tins a bit and made 8.

4. Immediately return tin to oven. Bake until the Yorkshire puddings have just about quadrupled in volume, are deep brown all over, crisp to the touch, and sound hollow when tapped. Smaller ones will take about 15 minutes (popover or skillet-sized ones around 20-25 minutes).

4. Serve immediately. (It says you can cool them completely, transfer to a zipper-lock freezer bag, freeze for up to 3 months, and reheat in a hot toaster oven before serving, but I really dont see the point of doing that!)

Mine came out enormous and properly brown, but they did collapse more or less straight away (in the photo some have done that already) and were a little difficult to get out of the wells. It might have helped if I'd brushed the fat up the sides as well as putting it in the bottom. But it didn't matter - they were the Real Thing, especially when covered in dark brown gravy.



Saturday, March 26, 2016

Little cakes from Toledo for Easter

I first made these little lemony almond cakes, called marquesas or marquesitas, when we had our Spanish long lunch on 2 August last year. I promised to put up the recipe - but I didn't.
      Needing a dessert contribution for a long lunch in the Wairarapa tomorrow, I decided these would do nicely. In The Food of Spain, Claudia Roden includes them in her section on "Dulces de Convento - pastries and confectionery from the hidden world of cloistered nuns", and says they are "most typical of Sonseca in the province of Toledo, where they are made at Christmas time".
       But I thought they would also be perfect for Easter. I've made them in small cupcake cases and packed them neatly into egg cartons to carry with me tomorrow on the bus (to Upper Hutt, because of line repairs) and then the train.


Almond Cupcakes (Marquesas)
Adapted slightly from The Food of Spain, Claudia Roden

5 large eggs
Zest and juice of 1 large lemon
200g caster sugar
50g cornflour
300g ground almonds
small paper cases to use in a baking tray with small cakecups
(or use medium cases in a medium-cup tray)
icing sugar for dusting

- Set the oven to 180C. (I used fan bake.)
- Separate the eggs. Put 2 egg whites into a medium-sized bowl; 1 white into a small bowl; and all 5 yolks into a large bowl. Set aside the remaining 2 whites for another use.
- With an electric beater, beat the 2 whites with 1/4 tsp lemon juice and 4 Tbspns of the sugar until stiff.
- Put the 1 egg white into the large bowl with the 5 yolks. Add the remaining sugar. Beat with the electric beater to make a pale cream.
- Beat in the grated lemon zest and the cornflour.
- Mix in the ground almonds thoroughly to make a thick paste.
(Roden says you can use a little water if it's too thick, but she didn't need to. I wanted a more lemony taste, so I mixed in 1 Tbsp of the remaining lemon juice at this point.)
- Gently fold in the egg whites.


- Using a teaspoon for the small cases, fill each case three-quarters full - or for higher cakes, to just below the case rim. (I think the height of each cake depends on the mixture and the oven as well as the size of the cases, so you may need to experiment.)
- Bake for approximately 9-10 minutes for the small cases.
They should colour only very slightly on top, but a thin knife or sewer inserted in the middle should come out clean. When they come out of the oven the cakes will be very soft when you press the top with your finger.
They will harden a little as they cool but will still be very soft and moist inside.
- Let them firm and cool a little in the tray after they come out of the oven. Dust them lightly with icing sugar and transfer them gently to a rack to cool.



Roden says this recipe makes 24-30 cakes, depending on the case size. I made 24 small cakes and 12 medium ones, following her instruction to fill the cases 3/4 full.  But to get the kind of well-risen, rounded top on each cake shown in her photo, I probably should have filled them up a bit more.
       I fancy a bit more lemon flavour, so I mixed together the leftover lemon juice, about a tablespoon of the leftover icing sugar and a splash of triple sec to make a light syrup that I can drizzle very sparingly on each cake tomorrow just before we eat them. I'll tell you how it goes.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

An old favourite: Nigella's pea and roast garlic soup

I had a delightful lunch at my friend Ali's place a couple of weeks ago. She's a brilliant cook, so I always look forward to her food.  This time she made one of my all-time lunch favourites: Nigella Lawson's pea and roast garlic soup. I think Ali herself passed the recipe on to me years ago, but it's a little while since I made it, so I greeted its appearance with a big grin - especially as it came with Ali's legendary home-made foccaccia.  AND she grows her own garlic.
    The soup itself isn't at all ahrd to make, but it does need a bit of forethought, because you roast a whole head of garlic first, and that takes 45-60 minutes. It's also a good idea to plan ahead because you don't usually want to heat up the whole oven just for one head of garlic - so it pays to put it in while you're cooking something else.

Pea and roast garlic soup
Nigella Lawson

one whole head of garlic
2 tsps olive oil
200g frozen peas
25g butter
2 tbsps freshly grated parmesan (and more to serve)
200ml warm stock
150ml double cream (max - you may well want to use less)

To roast the garlic:
Preheat the oven to 200C. 
Slice off the top of the garlic so that you can see the tops of the cloves revealed in a cross section.
Cut out a square of foil large enough to make a parcel with room to spare around the garlic. Put the garlic in the middle and cover it with olive oil.
Make a loose parcel around the garlic, twisting the edges of the foil together at the top.
Bake at 200C for 45-60 mins until soft.

To make the soup:
Cook the peas in boiling salted water until tender but not mushy.
Drain and blend until smooth.
Squeeze in the soft cooked cloves of garlic.
Add the butter, parmesan and half of the stock. Process to a creamy puree.
Pour into a saucepan and add the remaining stock. Add cream (or extra stock - if it's not too salty - or some of both) to get a soupy consistency.
Heat gently and check seasoning, adding salt and pepper if needed.
Serve with good bread and extra parmesan on the side.


This is a lovely fresh-tasting and yet rich soup. We followed it with cheese (including my contribution, a home-made herb boursin) and Nigel Slater's fresh plum cake - with more cream, of course.


Friday, February 26, 2016

Memo to the Whitby and others: If you're not going to listen - why ask?

[PLEASE SEE NOTE AT THE END ABOUT THE WHITBY'S (BELATED) RESPONSE]

Today I went over the road by myself for coffee and cake. I usually go to the very good but rather noisy Marsden Cafe. This time I fancied a bit of peace and quiet, so i went to the cake place opposite instead. And it was lovely and peaceful - when I went in I was the only one there (their real raison d'etre is making and selling cupcakes).
       I got my coffee and cake and sat down to read the paper. Then the pop music came on - loudly. After a few minutes a young woman who looked as if she was in charge came over to ask "How is everything?""Fine, thanks", I said - and then I added "But the music is a bit too loud."
      So she went back behind the counter and disappeared, and I waited for the music to be turned down. After all, I was still the only customer.
      Only it wasn't. So after a little while, when she was near the counter again, I called out, "Could you turn the music down a bit please?" She looked quite surprised, but she did turn it down.
      The thing is - why ask your customers what they think if you aren't going to bother to listen?

I had my worst experience of this back in December at the James Cook's Whitby restaurant.
       My sister, my brother-in-law and my niece were all coming down to Wellington for the day, the weekend before Christmas, to spend time with me and my son and go to Te Papa. They wanted to go out for a Christmas-themed lunch, and I decided I would shout them as my Christmas present.
       The only pre-Christmas lunch I could find was at the Whitby. I'd been there several times some years ago with Harvey, especially when he had out-of-town work colleagues staying. While it was a fairly standard buffet lunch or dinner, it was always nicely done, with a good range of fresh food and excellent joints of meat.
        Buffets are easy for a group, this Christmas lunch was affordable, and I knew the dining room had been moved upstairs, out of the slightly depressing basement. So I thought it would do nicely, and I booked for the five of us. The Whitby checked twice, by phone and email, to make sure we were coming.
        We weren't the only guests - the large room was about half full, with several large groups, and it had a great view. But the entree and main course buffet was remarkably disappointing. Most of the very conventional selection on offer looked dull and tired - more like an old-fashioned works canteen lunch than a hotel buffet.
       Still, I could see the promised turkey and a large hot ham, so I hoped they would make up for the rest.  I was wrong.
       When I went up, no one was carving. In front of each was a plate covered not with decent-sized slices, but with a meagre spread of small, chewed-looking morsels.
        Then the carver came out, and I realised what was happening. Instead of a carving knife and fork, he used an Asian-style cleaver to hack off more little morsels. My son, who has lived in China for over a decade, told me that was how the Chinese liked it.
         Obviously no one in charge had bothered to notice what was happening to their much-vaunted turkey and ham, let alone put it right.
         The dessert buffet was a bit better than the rest, and my family was much too kind and polite to complain. But I felt mortified that their nice Christmas treat had turned out to be such a disappointment. And I did complain at the end, discreetly, to the man taking my money at the cash register.
          A day later, I received an email from the Whitby:
Hello Anne Else,
Thank you for eating with us in Whitby's Restaurant & Bar on Saturday, 19 December 2015.
We really would like to get your feedback on your meal – if you have any comments you would like to make, please email us at whitbys@jamescookhotel.co.nz or call us on +64 4 499 9500.
Figuring it would be better to say what I thought in writing, I promptly replied:
Thank you for asking me for my feedback on the Christmas buffet lunch I had with my family on Saturday 19 December. My family had come down from Auckland especially to have pre-Christmas lunch with me. Remembering the high standard I had previously enjoyed at Whitby's buffet lunch, I booked for the five of us.
     What a disappointment. The entree and main course dishes on the socalled Christmas buffet were distinctly lacklustre. The overall impression was more like a cafeteria than a hotel buffet. I got the impression that the restaurant was simply not very concerned about what was served or how it was presented.
      Worst of all was the way the ham and turkey were served. I was very surprised to see that there were only little scraps of ham and turkey available, rather than slices.  I realised why when I later saw a chef with a cleaver, rather than a carving knife, hacking off scraps of both and piling them haphazardly on the serving plates.
       He clearly had no idea how to serve properly carved slices of ham and turkey breast. Even worse was the fact that no one working in the restaurant had noticed how badly the meat was being handled, let alone done anything about this.
       It was embarrassing to have brought my family to the Whitby, and I will not be returning.
And guess what? I have heard absolutely nothing from the Whitby since.
If you're not going to listen - why ask?
PS: Some time after this blog post appeared, I had a phone call from the bar manager at the Whitby. She apologised for the lack of any reply to my original emails, but she did also mention the blog post, so I'm guessing that their response was prompted by their media scan finding it. She offered me a free buffet lunch for two. Eventually I managed to find a time when my son and I could go in the weekend.
         From the time we arrived, we did receive excellent service. We were also offered what turned out to be not just one glass of house wine each, as I had understood earlier, but an unlimited number of glasses (though of course we drank only a perfectly sensible amount - and fortunately we had come on the bus).
         As for the food, I have to say it was of the same relatively low standard as on the first visit, only this time, of course, there was no Christmas ham or turkey or pudding. There were plenty of other people there, especially families, for whom the prospect of unlimited quantities of food for a reasonable set price was obviously appealing - perfectly understandable when they had hungry teenagers to feed. It did occur to me, though, that it must be fairly dispiriting for the cooks to be preparing the same buffet spread, with only a few minor variations such as different soups, day after day. We did our best to put together a passable lunch, but the best thing was the cheese.  And we certainly enjoyed the service.