Saturday, April 19, 2014

Luscious lemon risotto

A couple of years ago I read Italian chef and food writer Anna del Conte's memoir, Risotto with Nettles. Nigella Lawson says del Conte was her mentor, and you can read Lawson's review of the book here.
       I photocopied some recipes, including a very intriguing one for Lemon Risotto, which del Conte says is one of her most popular dishes. I've been meaning to make it ever since, and this week, with two close friends coming to dinner - the kind you can experiment on and they won't mind if it goes wrong - I finally managed it. I was spurred on partly by my sister giving me some lovely shallots and garlic from her garden when I was in Auckland the week before.

Anna del Conte's risotto al limone
(Serves 4-6, depending on appetites)

60g unsalted butter
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 shallots, chopped very finely
1 celery stick, chopped very finely
(you can chop these together by pulsing them carefully in the food processor)
300g risotto rice, such as Arborio or Carnaroli
1 litre light meat stock or vegetable stock
1 large lemon with unblemished skin
6 fresh sage leaves
small sprig of rosemary
1 free-range egg yolk
4 Tbsp freshly grated parmesan cheese, with more to serve if wished
4 Tbsp cream
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat 30g of the butter with the oil in a large heavy saucepan. Add the shallots and celery and cook gently until soft (about 7 minutes).
Mix in the rice and continue cooking gently, stirring, until the rice is well coated in the fats and partly translucent.

Heat the stock in a Pyrex measuring jug in the microwave or in another saucepan.
Pour about 150ml (roughly a sixth) into the rice. Stir thoroughly and cook, stirring regularly, until the rice has absorbed most of the stock.
Repeat, stopping halfway through to add the lemon rind and herbs (see below).

While the rice is cooking, zest the rind of the lemon, then squeeze out the juice and set it aside. Chop the herbs finely. Mix with the rind and stir into the rice when it has absorbed about half the stock..  
Continue adding stock and stirring until the rice is cooked but still a little al dente. (You may not need all the stock. Del Conte says good quality Italian rice takes about 20 minutes, but I find it takes a bit longer.) Take off the heat.
Call the eaters to the table and warm a dish or bowl for the risotto.
In a small bowl, combine the egg yolk, half the lemon juice, the parmesan, the cream, the remaining 30g of butter, and a very generous grinding of black pepper. Mix well with a fork. Stir this mixture into the risotto. Cover the pan and leave to rest for about 2 minutes. Taste for seasoning. (At this point I added the rest of the lemon juice, but suit yourself.)
Give it all an energetic stir, transfer to the hot dish or bowl and serve at once, with more grated parmesan alongside if you wish (I knew we would all wish, so it went on top).

This is a surprising and remarkably satisfying dish, because it combines subtlety and richness. I can't eat it as a first course, though - too filling. So I served it with a green salad and an artichoke-stuffed pork fillet from another Italian woman's book. But I'm writing in the intervals of making a great pot of minestrone for tonight, and it's getting to the stage where it needs my full attention, so I'll post that recipe next week.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

A cape gooseberry by any other name...

Last week was Local food Week in Wellington, and I had a great time as one of four bloggers/authors speaking at The Library Bar (I say it's my favourite bar, and it is - but it's really the only bar I happily go to on my own). The others were such a pleasure to see and hear: Sue Kerr (Five Course Garden), Laura Vincent (Hungry and Frozen) and Jared Gulian (Moon over Martinborough). 
         I told some local food stories of my own, including my pride in one of my very few genuine food-growing successes. As I've confessed before, unlike Harvey I'm just not a Real Gardener - everything in the garden seems to make me itch. But thanks to Ali, who gave me a plant, I have managed to produce quite a decent crop of cape gooseberries - or as we are being told to call them now, pichuberries. Here's the next lot coming on - they aren't ready to pick until they turn a very dry pale beige on the outside, and preferably fall off (only then you can lose them on the ground).

Renaming fruits and vegetables to win a bigger market for them is nothing new.  Tree tomatoes became tamarillos, Chinese gooseberries became kiwifruit. Ever since we've prided ourselves on the world instantly associating kiwifruit with New Zealand, but...maybe not. Here's what I found on a US foodie blog tonight:
In the 1960s, the Chinese gooseberry became the kiwifruit. The new name was taken on—after decades of trial and error—when it was discovered that Americans then associated the fruit with Australia, an exotic (but non-threatening) land, instead of China.
Yes, well. The latest fruit to be rebranded is the humble cape gooseberry (Physalis peruviana, closely related to the tomatillo and more distantly to tomatoes, potatoes and eggplants). I wrote about it in my book, remembering it from staying at my grandmother's in what was then the sleepy little country settlement of Greenhithe, on Auckland's North Shore:
At night we made charred smoky toast on a  toasting fork over the fire and spread it with the jam that Mum cooked up from teh golden cape gooseberries I collected on the vacant section next door, where they ran wild over the warm slab of concrete that had once supported a house.
I thought they got their name from the pretty fluted lantern-shaped cape that covered them, turning into a fine transparent lattice as it dried. In fact they're world travellers. The British carried them home from Peru, where they were known as aguaymanto or Inca berries, and took them on to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa; then they made their way down to Australia and New Zealand, where they acquired their new name.
          Now they've been transformed into pichuberries (after Macchu Picchu) thanks to a new company, Mojo Tree Farm. It was created in 2010 by a University of Arizona student, Michael Popescu,  as part of his master's thesis in entrepreneurship. The company's dietician,  Manuel Villacorta, has been effectively promoting them as the new superfruit (though sceptical people point out that other fruits such as blueberries have similar characteristics).  He claims they're "useful in fortifying the liver, supporting cardiovascular activity, strengthening lungs, and enhancing fertility and food absorption". Perhaps. In any case they look pretty, taste great, and will definitely be generally good for you, so what's not to like?
          Last week I collected a decent bowlful of them. But when I went looking for recipes there was very little under "pichuberry", whereas "cape gooseberry" came up with some interesting ideas. I liked this one best, though I haven't tried it yet -and the association with chocolate, from their homelands, is attractive:

Cape gooseberries still in their lanterns
Melted dark chocolate
Peel back the lanterns, folding them away from the berry into a star shape.
Carefully dip the golden berry into melted chocolate.
Place on grease proof paper to set. 
Use beside sweet desserts or cheese board. 

But I'll mostly just go on poaching them gently in a small amount of sugar syrup with some honey added, and eating them with icecream or good yoghurt, or on top of a slice of cake - they're very good with the hummingbird cake in my previous post.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Sweet hummingbird

I had heard of hummingbird cake, but until last week I'd never eaten it or made it. This cake is now associated with southern states in the USA, but it's a relatively recent import there, and it's known in other places by many different names: Cake That Won't Last, Jamaican Cake, Granny's Best Cake, Nothing Left Cake, Never Ending Cake. 
         Nobody seems to know exactly where the name comes from, but there are lots of suggestions: 
- It's as sweet as the nectar that  hummingbirds drink from flowers - or sweet enough to attract humming birds...
- When the cake is served, people hover around it the way hummingbirds hover around flowers - maybe humming with delight...
- Bananas and pineapples come from the tropics, and the national bird of Jamaica is a hummingbird...
          None of these sound very convincing - does anyone have a better idea? There definitely seems to be a Jamaican connection. The Jamaican hummingbird is called the Doctor-Bird, and a recipe for Doctor-Bird Cake, including bananas but not pineapple,  appeared in the Jamaican Daily Gleaner in 1969. 
          Southern Living Magazine published Mrs. L.H. Wiggin's Hummingbird Cake recipe in February 1978 (but she didn't explain the name). That year it won the Favorite Cake Award at the 1978 Kentucky State Fair. Hummingbird Cake quickly became the magazine's most requested recipe and was voted its favourite recipe ever in 1990. 
          The Southern US version has mashed banana, crushed pineapple and pecans, with layers and cream cheese icing. The simpler New Zealand version I used has no pecans, but it does have passionfruit. I found it (thanks to my neighbour) in the March issue of Cuisine. It comes from Alice Arndell's much-praised book, Alice in Bakingland, but she got it from The Village Cafe in Martinborough. It's extremely easy, and that's the only kind of cake I make, pretty much - mix it, bake it. And it's a beautifully moist dessert cake.
Hummingbird cake (Slightly adapted from recipe by The Village Cafe via Alice Arndell, reprinted in Cuisine, March 2014)
375g mashed banana (about 3 large bananas)
1/2 c passion fruit pulp (and more to decorate - see icing, below)
425g tin of crushed pineapple in juice
1 and 1/3 c sugar
1 c vegetable oil
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp salt
1 and 1/2 tsp cinnamon
3 c plain flour
1 and 1/4 tsps baking soda

Set the oven to 180C (if you have a fan, don't use it, just use "bake").
Grease and line the base of a 23cm round loose-bottomed cake tin or 2 smaller tins.
(You could make two layers and stick them together with icing, as they do in the USA, but this does seem like overkill.)
Put the three fruits into a large bowl and mix to combine.
Add the sugar, oil, eggs and vanilla and mix to combine.
Add the dry ingredients and mix until evenly combined. 
Pour into prepared tin and bake for 60 to 75 minutes until a thin skewer inserted in the middle comes out with just a few crumbs on it. (Two smaller cakes will bake more quickly.) Put tin or tins on a wire rack and leave cake/s to cool completely before removing. 

Cream cheese icing
80 g cream cheese, softened
45 g butter, softened
3 and 1/4 c icing sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 Tbsp lemon juice
Passionfruit pulp to decorate
Beat cream cheese and butter together. Add icing sugar, vanilla and lemon juice and beat till smooth. Spread over top of cake and decorate with passionfruit pulp.
(If you want to cover the whole cake, make half as much icing again - this looks very pretty but again, it could be overdoing it!)
        I forgot I shouldn't use the fan and had the oven a little too hot as a result, so the cake cooked quickly, cracked a bit on top and got a slightly crunchy outside. (I made a smaller loaf cake as well.) But this actually didn't matter at all, it was a nice contrast - when we cut into the cake it was really moist and tender, perfect for dessert.  I didn't use the icing - instead I mixed together a sachet of mascarpone, some icing sugar (taste as you go - it shouldn't be too sweet), the juice of half a lemon, and pulp from another passionfruit, to serve on the side. This went perfectly with the sweet cake. We were happy as hummingbirds.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Light and lovely lemon cheesecake

For really useful recipes, Annabelle White is always a good bet. Last weekend I wanted a light lemony dessert for dinner - for once I've got plenty of lemons, thanks to two kind friends. It had to be something I could make in the afternoon. That ruled out my fabulous lemon mousse recipe - you really need to make it the day before, or very early in the morning. It was going to be too warm an evening for lemon delicious, and a classic lemon tart would take too long.
      So of course I Googled "lemon dessert", and there were plenty. But as soon as I found AW's recipe for a lemon ricotta tart, I knew that was what I would make. It's incredibly simple and it's also relatively low-fat.
       I introduced two variations. AW uses sweet short pastry, but I thought that as it was really a kind of cheesecake, it would be nice with a biscuit-crumb-and-butter case made with gingernuts. And while she specified ricotta, I decided to try it with cottage cheese instead. It's less than half the price of ricotta, and if you beat it thoroughly and then drain it in a sieve, it usually makes a perfectly good substitute. In this case, I wouldn't even need to drain it.

Light lemon ricotta cheesecake 
(adapted from an online NZ Women's Weekly recipe by Annabelle White. I halved the recipe to make a smaller tart - double it for a larger one.)

For the crust:
1 packet gingernuts
100g butter

Spray the sides of a round loose-bottomed cake tin lightly with oil (or grease very lightly with butter). Line the tin with baking paper. It needs to be sticking up all round the base for about 5 cm.
Crush the gingernuts in a food processor, or put them in a plastic bag and bash them to fairly fine crumbs. Put them in a bowl. Melt the butter and stir it thoroughly into the crumbs.
Line the tin with the crumb mixture. Press down to ensure the bottom is even and form the excess crumbs into a nice upstanding rim all around - it will be about 3-4 cm high. Place tin in the fridge to set the base.

For the filling:
2 large eggs
250g ricotta cheese or plain cottage cheese
Zest of 1/2 a large lemon
Juice of 1 large lemon
1/4 cup caster sugar
icing sugar to dust
whipped cream or yoghurt (or a mixture of both) to serve, if desired

Preheat oven to 175C (or 165C on fan-bake).

Put ricotta in food processor. If using cottage cheese instead, beat it well in the food processor before adding the other ingredients.

Add eggs, lemon zest, juice and caster sugar. Process together, using the pulse button, until well mixed. Pour this mixture carefully into the chilled pastry case. Stand on a thin baking sheet with a little rim (in case of any leaks - if you've made the crumb crust carefully, it won't leak.)

Place in the middle of the oven. Bake for 30 minutes and check to see if filling is nicely set. If not, bake for another 5 minutes and check again. (I found this was long enough for the smaller tart. If you are doubling the recipe it will need to cook for about 40-45 minutes.)

Cool, then get the serving plate ready, remove cheesecake carefully from the tin, lift off the base and remove the baking paper. Dust with icing sugar before serving.

I served this with whipped cream, with a spoonful of yoghurt stirred in. It's a lovely light, lemony cheesecake with a restrained shallow filling, nicely offset by the ginger crust - perfect for dessert. And fantastic next day too.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

A tasty bronzed Italian

When it comes to food, you really do learn something every day. I wandered into Gamboni's Deli this week in search of some linguine, the nicely flattened pasta that I find much easier to manage than standard spaghetti. Most of the time I buy Barilla in the supermarket, but I go to Tony Gamboni for anything a little out of the ordinary.
           There were two packets of linguine. One was $4.95, the other was $6.95. That's quite a big percentage difference - but on the other hand, it's still not a large amount of money, especially as I don't have other hungry people to feed every day and a 500g packet makes me around six or seven dinners. 

So I asked Tony why they were different prices. He showed me that the more expensive packet said "bronze die".

The big commercial pasta companies, he said, extrude their pasta from machines using Teflon dies. This works really well, because nothing sticks to the Teflon. But that's the problem. The pasta comes out perfectly smooth. Using a bronze die gives it a slightly rough surface - as you can see in this photo. And that, of course, means the sauce sticks to the pasta much better. Magnifico.

So of course I bought it - who could resist a tasty bronzed Italian? I had a vacuum-sealed packet of New Zealand clams in the fridge. Like the mussels, they're cooked and come with their juice, so it doesn't take long to:
- get the pasta into boiling salted water for 7 minutes, then drain, keeping a couple of spoons of the water for the sauce and warming a pasta plate with the rest
- take the clams out of their opened shells (keeping a few in their shells to go in the sauce - it looks pretty but it also seems to add a bit of flavour)
 - soften some garlic and onion, reduce a bit of white wine or dry vermouth, add some thyme leaves, the clam liquid and 2 Tbsp pasta water
- reduce all that a bit, add the clams and taste for seasoning, adding a spoonful of cream if you feel really decadent
- tip the sauce over the pasta and mix it carefully
- chop some parsley and quarter a lemon
- serve strewn with parsley and with a hunk of bread, a wedge of lemon and a glass of white wine on the side.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

A few of my (new) favourite things

The only thing to do with proper cooking that I can think of to write about this week has migrated over to my other blog, Elsewoman. There you'll find a post on Central Otago and wild thyme.

Some other nice little discoveries these holidays:
Elderflower cordial - made with soda, it takes me straight back to a Salisbury pub beside a millpond. And it's wonderful splashed onto summer fruits before you cook them.
A dash of pomegranate syrup with the vinaigrette - they do this at the Marche Francais, it's delicious.
Heated up slices of leftover Christmas pudding with Puhoi butterscotch custard.
Slicing tender little leeks, cooking them in the microwave with a bit of lemon juice, piling them onto thin Vogel toast, and topping them with scrambled eggs made with some scraps of smoked salmon.
Ruth Pretty's fudge - I found the recipe in the DomPost but it's online here. I'm not posting it in full because I don't think I got it quite right. I did obey her and followed the instructions exactly, except that I didn't coat it with more chocolate - I thought that was gilding the lily.
     But mine looked darker, and it didn't really set very firmly, though I could cut it into squares. However, it was beautifully rich and unctuous. When I gave a test piece to my chocoholic American visitor, she immediately told me it was horrible and she didn't think I should give it to anyone else for a present, as I'd planned, we should just keep it and eat it all up ourselves, so as not to waste it. Of course I ignored her and did give some away, with instructions to keep it in the fridge, and was rewarded later by being told it was the best fudge ever. Meanwhile I'd put the last dozen pieces (it makes a lot) into the freezer, wrapped in foil. This week I discovered I could take it out, leave it briefly to dechill, and eat it straight away, because it didn't actually freeze at all  - it just got firmer. So that was another very satisfactory discovery.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Simple apricot galette

I'm something of a heretic when it comes to apricots. Unless they come perfectly ripe to the hand from the tree, I think these gorgeous glowing globes taste better when they're cooked. Cooking seems to bring out that wonderful contrasting sharp/sweet flavour.
    We managed to bring some apricots back from Central Otago, and I wanted to use them for dessert to serve a visitor from Britain. I remembered that the friend I consider to be the finest private cook I know uses a recipe that involves sprinkling ground almonds on a round of pastry, putting the cut fruit on top and folding in the overhang to make a rough tart or galette. So I went hunting online and came up with a recipe from Alice Waters. I could have made the pastry myself, using her recipe or one from Dean Brettschneider, but I didn't have time, so I bought sweet short pastry instead.
     I also adapted the almond mixture that goes on the pastry first - Waters had more flour. The point of this mixture isn't just to add the almond flavour, which goes so well with apricots, it's to absorb the juice from the fruit so there's no soggy bottom. As the pictures show, this really is quite a "rough" tart - that's part of its charm.

Apricot galette (Adapted from Alice Waters, Chez Panisse Fruit, Harpercollins)
Serves 4

Enough home-made or bought short sweet pastry to make a circle roughly the size of a medium dinner plate
2 Tbsps ground almonds
1 tsp plain flour
1 Tbsp plus 1/4 cup plus 1 Tbsp white sugar
6 - 8 ripe apricots (depending on size - they should not be the very biggest ones, and small ones are fine. It doesn't matter if they're just a little soft, but they shouldn't be really hard.)
1/2 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
Apricot jam (optional)
To serve: cream, icecream or yoghurt (optional)

Preheat oven to 200C. (If using a fan oven, set it to 190C, fan bake.)
Roll out the dough to a circle about 35cm across. It's a good idea to do this on a piece of baking paper large enough to fit the oven tray you are using. Put the pastry on the paper in the fridge and chill for at least 15 minutes.
Mix the ground almonds, flour, and 1 Tbsp of the sugar together.
Cut the apricots in half and remove the stones..
Remove the prerolled pastry on the paper from the fridge, and place carefully on the oven tray.
Very gently mark out a circle on it, leaving a border at least 5cm wide all round. (Don't cut into the pastry.)
Sprinkle the almond mixture evenly over the circle.

Arrange the fruit, skin-side-down, in concentric circles on the dough, making a single layer of snugly touching pieces, leaving the border bare. Sprinkle 1/4 cup of sugar evenly over the fruit.
While rotating the tart, fold the border of exposed pastry up and over the fruit to enclose it snugly round the edges. Make sure there are no breaks in the pastry so that no juice can leak out.

Brush the folded-over border with the melted butter, and sprinkle it with the last 1 Tbsp of sugar.Bake in the lower third of the oven for about 30 minutes, until the crust is well browned and its edges are crisp and slightly caramelized.
As soon as the galette is out of the oven, slide it on its paper onto a cooling rack, to keep it from getting soggy. Let cool for 15 minutes.
If you want to glaze the tart, brush the fruit lightly with a little warmed apricot jam. Serve warm, with a little whipped cream, vanilla ice cream or yoghurt if you like.

I didn't glaze mine (actually, I forgot) but I don't think it's necessary - the apricots look so beautiful on their own, with tiny brown bits around the edges. This is a slightly lurid photo - it was dark by the time I took it - but you get the idea. As you can see, I left it a little too long in the oven so it got a bit dark around the edges, but it really didn't matter - those crunchy bits tasted great.